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Baal Shem Tov

Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, or BeSHT (Hebrew, "Possessor of the Good Name"), (b. Okopy sw. Trojcy, 1700 - d. Miedzyborz, 1760)

A mystic and miracle-worker. He regarded himself as the tzaddik ha-dor (Hebrew, "the righteous man of the generation") who would appear as the Messiah when the world was ready for salvation.

In the beginning, he worked in the synagogue in Jazłowiec near Buczacz. He was a follower of Sabbatai Tsvi. He believed that Sabbatai possessed grace, but that he betrayed his calling by converting to Islam. When he was twenty years old, he went to the Carpathians to prepare himself spiritually for the revelation that he expected when he would be 36, but not much is known about this. Baal Shem Tov became famous as a physician and a miracle-worker.

He did not leave any writings, and did not want his pupils to write down his esoteric teachings. The only texts that have survived are several hundred prayers and homilies that were published by one of his pupils-Jakub of Polonne. Toldot Yaakov Yosef (in Korets, 1780) also included several passages from the teachings of his master with an explanation that he was afraid to write down everything, but that he had decided to write something down because he was also afraid he would forget them otherwise. The legends and stories in his honor, Shevachim, are an interesting and valuable source of information about Baal, particularly the oldest collection titled Shichvey ha Besht (In Praise of the Besht). The most complete anthology of his teachings was published by Szymon Menachem Mendel Wodnik in Sefer Shem Tov (Lodz, 1938).

A collection by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer titled Baal Shem Tov is the Master of the Good Name includes teachings about God compiled from fragments by M. Buber, published in Polish in Warsaw (1993).

In Baal's doctrine, ecstatic prayer occupied a central position, engaging not only the mind, but the entire body, whose violent movements were supposed to help one enter a trance, called hitlahavut (lit., "being aflame"). At that time, as Baal taught, one's soul was supposed to enter heaven in order to attain divine knowledge and be able to intervene in pressing matters. Another key aspect of his teachings was the practice of devekut, or the mystical adherence to God, which was supposed to take place even during one's daily activities. The foundation, however, was faith in Baal as the real mediator between heaven and Earth. Later, tzaddikim tried to assume this function. From this understanding of the role of the spiritual leader followed a conviction that Baal could exculpate anyone, but that he could also crush anyone. Abandoning his teachings were enough to make someone worthy of condemnation.
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