Why would a rich and learned man like Reb Ephraim of Brody, a leader of the Jewish community, whose son Rabbi Avraham Gershon of Kitov, was head of a rabbinical court in Brody and a recognized authority in Talmud and Kabbalah, want his daughter Hanah to marry a synagogue janitor and ritual slaughter who had never graduated from a yeshivah?
Because the first husband Ephraim had selected for his daughter, a young man highly recommended by his own son Rabbi Avraham Gershon, was very pious, and the best student of a very famous yeshivah.
Yet this illui (a young Talmud prodigy or genius) turned out to be a harsh, narrow minded, self righteous, overly judgmental person, who did not listen to or respect his wife.
It soon became evident that the illui was a failure as a husband, and Reb Ephraim paid him some money to divorce his daughter Hanah and leave town.
Now, Ephraim of Brody told his daughter, he was determined to find for her an open minded, kind, positive and flexible mentch; who enjoyed encouraging people to worship God through joy, and who respected woman.
Unfortunately, long time study in a yeshivah did not usually stress these mentchlictite qualities and Ephraim was determined to avoid making another mistake like his first one.
One day Ephraim met a young man, newly arrived in Brody from a near by village, praying with great joy and enthusiasm.
Ephraim talked for a long time to the young man, Israel ben Eliezer, and learned that Israel ben Eliezer was truly an open minded, kind, positive and flexible mentch; one who enjoyed helping and encouraging people, and who respected woman. This was the kind of man Reb Ephraim wanted for his daughter Hanah.
As a young man, Yisra’el ben Eliezer (born c.1700) apparently worked at a variety of jobs, including ritual slaughterer, elementary school teacher, and circumciser. He had learned rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic and, though not a Talmudist, had become conversant with rabbinic literature.
He also set himself to learning both practical and contemplative Kabbalah from such mystical, ascetic types as Mosheh of Kitev. At the same time he started learning about herbal remedies, even from non-Jews.
His wife, Hanah, as I have already pointed out, was a divorcée (this fact is rarely mentioned in Hassidic accounts of his early activities) and sister of the prominent scholar Gershon of Kitev.
Yisra’el had two children: a son, Tsevi Hirsh, who never became prominent, and a daughter, Odl (Hodl), whose descendants, including Barukh ben Yeḥi’el of Mezhbizh, Mosheh Hayim Efraim of Sudilkov, and especially Naḥman of Bratslav, all of whom played significant roles in the later Hasidic movement.
Sometime in the 1730s, Yisra’el ben Eliezer began calling himself a Ba’al Shem or Ba’al Shem Tov; interchangeable terms meaning that he was a “master of God’s name,” which he could use for healing and theurgic purposes.
Ba’al Shem Tov, in its abbreviated form, Besht, became the title, and even the name, used by most people who knew of him.
The Besht was best known denoting his skills as a healer—one Polish source refers to him as a Ba’al Shem doctor—and his general qualifications as a figure who could mediate between this world and the divine spheres in an effort to help people solve their health, financial, and social problems.
The Besht had a charismatic personality, great self-confidence, a sense of humor, a clever intellect, and the conviction that he had a key role to play as a leader of the people of Israel, working for their redemption and that of the Shekhinah (the divine presence).
The Besht began to attract disciples in the 1740’s. Many of these men were Rabbis or Yeshivah students
who were discontented with the cold, arid, ridged atmosphere of most Yeshivot.
The Besht’s attraction to disgruntled Yeshivah Jews, and even to those already studying Kabbalah theory, was that he had instituted many innovations within traditional, mystical, ascetic Hassidism.
These reforms paved the way for its transformation, primarily after his death, from an elitist asceticism to a popular spiritualism, and even more important, from a collection of small religious fellowships to a mass movement that would revitalize Orthodox Jewish life.
Perhaps most important among these innovations was his insistence that the path to communion with God lay not in the suffering acts of asceticism, but in the joy of emotional prayer.
If prayer was the key element of sacred activity, then intellectual study was not required. Learning and wisdom could better be achieved through listening to Midrash Aggadah and tales of miraculous events.
In addition, the example of the Besht’s taking both material and spiritual responsibility for his extended family, disciples and household set an important precedent for the development of the later Hassidic court centered on the figure of the Tsadik. The following Hassidic story illustrates both of these themes.
On the holiday of Simhat Torah the disciples of Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov were at his home dancing and drinking. After several hours the Baal Shem Tov’s wife Hanah, said she was worried they would drink up all the wine in the cellar and there would be none left for Shabbat.
Rabbi Israel told her she was correct. Go tell them to stop. She went to the room where they were dancing and saw a ring of blue light around the dancing men. Then she herself went to the cellar and returned with a jug of wine in each hand.
One of the most important teachings of Hassidic Rabbis was not to worry about the future, or sacrifice present joy because you fear it will not last very long. After all, most things people worry about never occur.
As Rabbi Mordecai of Lekhovitz taught, “We must not worry. Only one worry is O.K. We should worry about being (always) worried.”
The Baal Shem Tov’s great grandson Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav added another guideline, “Always remember that joy is not merely incidental to your spiritual quest. It is vital.”
And Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav also taught, “Get into the habit of dancing. It will displace depression and dispel hardship.”
I conclude with a saying of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk who replied to a hassid who reported that a man who had recently come to town who was a miracle worker, by saying that producing miracles was not that difficult.
The real challenge to to produce people who can see and believe in miracles.