The Ba’al Shem Tov: His Hassidic and Mystic Ways
by Allison Feld
Kabbalah and Hasidism were both two profoundly large movements that swept Europe and redefined what it meant to be Jewish at that time period. The word Hasidism means “devout piety”, and those who followed Hasidism zealously took on an intense religious and spiritual interpretation of the Jewish texts and practices. Hasidism was originated in the southeastern Polish province of Podolia in the 1750s and spread out to other regions of Europe. It took the area by storm and remained a strong and noticeable presence up until the Holocaust and attack by the Nazis in 1939. Hassidism’s goal was to reach out to the masses, and bring Jews into the fold that may have become disheartened due to their difficult lives living in Eastern and Central Europe.
The practice of Kabbalah is one that is intensely spiritual and is based on mystical teachings and practices. The study and interpretations of Kabbalah have been going on since Biblical times, but in the late 18th century, a prominent religious man named the Ba’al Shem Tov rose to prominence and provided Jews with the hope and strength that they needed in order to survive. The Ba’al Shem Tov was a spiritual healer and miracle worker who is said to have had the ability to connect with God to a higher degree than that of the average person at the time. While he did not write or record any of his findings, it was his followers that carried his ideologies and fashioned Hassidism as a way of living the Ba’al Shem Tov’s ideals. He is seen today as the founder of Hassidism, and his approach and spiritual connections show that Kabbalah and other mystical teachings had a major influence on how he expressed his ideas, and how he became so popular.
How the Ba’al Shem Tov became popular and why the Jews so readily excepted Hassidism is an important note of change in religious identity and observance. The compilations of works written about him, and the numerous interpretations of those works are what has kept his legacy so strong, even until today!
Abelson, J. Jewish mysticism,. London: G. Bell and sons, ltd., 1913.
Abelson tries to correct the notion that Judaism and mysticism are two separate things. Rather, by writing this book he proves how there is a lot of evidence proving the strength of the union of these two practices. He goes through the effort to dispel rumors and provide background to the origins of Kabbalah and Hassidism
Amos, Dan, and Jerome R. Mintz. In praise of the Baal Shem Tov [Shivḥei ha-Besht]: the earliest collection of legends about the founder of Hasidism.. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.
This is a compilation of documents regarding the origins of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s journey, and how he came to gain his fame and notoriety. Many of the documents contain re-occuring themes that demonstrate his all-knowing powers and connections with God, and being at a higher level than the average mortal. While these documents have been questioned as to whether they are real accounts of the Baal Shem Tov’s life, it is a helpful tool to understand the powers and capabilities that he had, and all that he did to reach out to his fellow Jews.
Bokser, Ben Zion. Readings in Jewish mysticism. New York: Queens College of the City University of New York, 1974.
The book is a collection of major Jewish mystics and contributors to Hassidism and Jewish mysticism, the Ba’al Shem Tov included. The Ba’al Shem Tov’s biography is mainly a shortened simple version of his life and achievements, but also stresses the main point that much of the current literature of the Ba’al Shem Tov was written and organized by his followers.
Efron, John M.. “Modern Transformations .” In The Jews: a history. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009. 261.
The textbook reading gives a short bit of background information regarding the context of where the Jews lived at that time, and how Hassidism was able to emerge in that situation. It also provides maps of exactly where the Jews emigrated to, and how that influenced the spread of Hassidism and the communication between Jews
Etkes , I. The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and His Image . Berkeley : University of California Press , 2002.
Unlike the Baal Shem Tov, the Vilna Gaon was not a proponent of Hasidism, but rather supported mitnagdism. Mitnagdism was a more grounded, literal interpretation, whereas Hasidism and kabbalah were more strongly spiritual and existential. Hassidism was seen as a threat to the traditional, established view of Judaism with the political system already in place with the Rabbis and kehillot they oversaw.
Hundert, Gershon David. Essential papers on Hasidism: origins to present. New York: New York University Press, 1991.
This compilation of documents focused on the late 18th century and how Hassidism has taken such a strong following as it has today. It takes the reader through the history of Hassidism; how the Ba’al Shem Tov rose in prominence, how Hassidism followed after his death, and what the main themes of the movement are, as well as how it reappears later in history, for example during the nineteenth century.
Klapholz, Israel Jacob. Tales of the Baal Shem Tov. New York: Feldheim Publishers, 1970.
This book provides legitimate bibliographical information, but also describes how the Baal Shem Tov rose in prominence, and how his name was spread all over Europe. Analyzing these descriptions of the Ba’al Shem Tov can shed light on how his followers interpreted his teachings and the values he imparted.
Vitae, Fons . The pillar of prayer: teachings of contemplative guidance in prayer, sacred study, and the spiritual life from the Ba’al Shem Tov and his circle. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2011.
This book goes into depth and analyzes the practices and prayers of the Hassidim like the Ba’al Shem Tov, and his followers. It provides a good context for the purpose of these prayers, and their intensely spiritual nature. It breaks down a lot of the fundamental ideas of Hassidism and the evidence that explains why the Ba’al Shem Tov was such a revered figure in Hassidism.
Jones , Rufus M.. “Jewish Mysticism.” The Harvard Theological Review Volume (36) No.2 (1943): 155-163.
Jones mentions that while there have been a lot of books published on mysticism in general from 1911 until the present day (1943), the field of Jewish mysticism has been heavily neglected. J. Abelson had written a book on Jewish mysticism, and Jacob Minkin wrote a book on the romance of Hasidism, but other than that, the topic remained relatively untouched. He proposed that while authors and researchers of mysticism did not neglect Jewish mysticism, he felt that most people could not do the research justice, and that he and his peers were unequipped to carry out said research. Jones flatters Gershom Scholem, a professor of Jewish mysticism who Jones believes is immensely qualified in his contributions to research on Jewish mysticism, and Jones was incredibly satisfied by his work. He proposed that mysticism between all people and religions is inherently the same, it’s just that different religions have different ways of communicating its importance.
Minkin , Jacob S. “Jewish Mysticism.” The Journal of Religion Volume (24) No.3 (1944): 188-200.
In this article, Minkin addresses the theory as to whether or not Judaism can be considered to be a spiritual religion. He cites examples of cases where Judaism is strongly “arithmetical” and is more focused on the laws than on tending to the mind and spirit. He proposes that for this critique to hold its own, all of the foundation behind the largest monotheistic religions would be held in the balance, because he claims that these faiths came from Judaism as its base. That Christianity and Islam borrowed spiritual aspects of Judaism and took them for themselves.
Moshe Idel. “Multiple Forms of Redemption in Kabbalah and Hasidism.” Jewish Quarterly Review101, no. 1 (2011): 27-70. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed November 12, 2013).
This article proposes the idea that there were multiple forms of redemption introduced, in addition to individual redemption, the idea of national redemption is introduced.
Segal, Eliezer, and James Davila . “The Origins of Jewish Mysticism.(Book review).” Shofar, March 22, 2011.
this article is a review of Peter Schafer’s book, which explains how Schafer approaches writing the book, and his opinions regarding mysticism and the spiritual texts associated with them. His thesis is that these accounts are fictional and are used to elaborate on religious texts. He is also unconvinced that one who analyzes these texts needs to approach it through the lens of mysticism.