Baal Shem Tov

Dr. Gerhard Falk

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Master of the Good Name - A Master for All Times and All Jews


    In 1700, 32 years before the birth of George Washington, a remarkable Jew was born in Eastern Europe. The place of his birth is in doubt. He may have been born in the Ukraine (Russian for frontier), he may have been born in Galicia in southern Poland or in Romania.  Wherever he was born, he was one of those few great Jewish souls who have rescued our people from despair at a time when our situation looked hopeless and our future bleak.

    His name was Israel ben Eliezer.  Like other great Jews, including Moshe Rabenu, Israel came from circumstances that would hardly have given cause to believe that he could lead  anyone, let along the Jewish people. He was terribly poor. As a young boy he became an orphan and was raised as a community charge. Because life expectancy was short in the 18th century there were orphan homes in every community, as parents died young.

    Israel began his career as a Beihilfer, a German or Yiddish word for assistant. He was assigned the job of teacher’s assistant, a job even lower in the esteem of the community than teacher. This didn’t work out for him and so he was assigned the job of assistant to the shammes, or sexton, of a congregation. He married young and became an innkeeper but that failed also. Finally he became a teacher - melamed in Hebrew. This was the usual profession for those who could not otherwise make a living. Then, suddenly, and for unknown reasons, Israel ben Eliezer traveled throughout the Yiddish speaking world and proclaimed a new Judaism. These travels and the teachings he promoted led to his being given the popular title Master of the Good Name or Baal Shem Tov. This title has sometimes been abbreviated to the phrase BESHT.

    The Baal Shem Tov taught that G’d is everywhere, not only in synagogues. He taught that G’d wants us to approach Him and his Torah with joy and gladness. He taught melocho haaretz kevoda, that the earth is full of His glory. The poor and ignorant Jews of Russia, my ancestors and yours, were astonished to hear this message. The Baal Shem Tov was happy in his poverty.  He rejected the formalities of his opponents (Misnagdim) and emphasized Jewish optimism and joy. Like Moshe Rabenu at the Red Sea, like Theodore Herzl after him, he was an optimist when others saw only pain and destruction. The Baal Shem Tov was said to have gained an understanding of the Shem Hamphorash (the hidden name), the true name of G’d. That name cannot be pronounced today because it was used only by the Kohen Gadol once a year on Yom Kippur  The name is found in the Torah (guidance or doctrine, not law) in the book of Shemoth (Exodus) 15:18 [Adonay Yimloch L’olam Vaed], Bamidbor (Numbers) 23:21 [….B’Yisrael Adonay Elohav Imau…] and Devarim (Deuteronomy) in Chapter 33 and 34.

    Believing that the highest form of prayer was an attitude of joy and happiness, of singing and dancing, he taught his followers that a good deed was worth more than all the adherence to the 613 Mitzvoth. He also taught that the humble and the ignorant have a better chance of enjoying the World to Come than the arrogant and the learned. 

    These lectures created great excitement among the miserable masses of Slavic Jews. Treated worse than the blacks in Mississippi before the civil rights movement, the Jews of Europe had no joy. Yet, the Besht taught them optimism and laughter amidst pogroms and hatred. He literally rose above the content of daily life and became an enormous inspiration to his people. His movement was called Hasidism or Piety. Nearly one half of all Jews subscribed to his message despite the opposition of the formalists in Lithuania and elsewhere. 

    Subsequent to his death, Hasidism was continued by rabbis who were called Tzaddikim or saints. These rabbis generally became known by the city in which they lived and taught. Hence the Lubavitcher lived in Lubavitch in Russia, the Belzer rav lived in Belz, and the Sadagora rebbe lived in Sadagora. Each rebbe or Tzaddik had a following of men who hung on his every word and who visited him as often as they could to learn his wisdom.

    These groups came to the United States before and after the Holocaust. Many were murdered by the Nazi killers. Yet, even now, Hasidism survives right here in Buffalo. I also met Hasidim in Alaska and in every place I have ever traveled. Their great virtue lies not only in their joyous observance of the Torah but also in their public display of Judaism. Hasidim are willing to speak to anyone without fear or hesitancy. They truly live according to that wonderful phrase with which we, at Shaarey Zedek, end our Shabbat service each week: “Adonay Lee, v’lo eero.”   "G’d is with me, I shall not fear.”

    It is an honor and a pleasure to know that such Jews exist among us. We may not ourselves be able to live according to the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. But we cannot deny that he was a great and lasting leader of our people.

    Why not go to the library and read about Hasidism some more or attend a service at a Hasidic “shul”?  Do it; you’ll learn a lot and gain more than even a whole evening in front of the idiot box. Love each other.

Shalom u’vracha.


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