Founded in 1700s
The BeShT, as the Baal Shem Tov is known in religious circles, was born in
Poland in the 1700's, during a time when Eastern Europe was aggravated by war
and poverty. He quickly became a religious leader and developed a following,
which grew quickly. His religious philosophy, of great appeal to the masses,
was simple, according to the history books.
First, the Baal Shem Tov taught that since G-d was everywhere and in all
things, he could be served through all things, even through the pleasures of
life. The Baal Shem Tov taught that G-d should be served with joy; every
moment of life, even normal living, can be filled with joy, which itself is a
service to G-d.
Second, the Baal Shem Tov taught the principle of Dveikus, which
means communion with, or clinging to, G-d. In other words, deep, meditative
prayer. Chasidism placed a greater emphasis than before on movement during
prayer and song, (including Nigunnim, or wordless chants or tunes).
The Baal Shem Tov placed a strong emphasis on Jewish mysticism and drew
heavily from the Kaballah. The rabbis, the scholars of the movement, came to
be known as Tzaddikim, whose task it was to teach people to worship, to pass
on the knowledge contained in the Torah for nothing more than its own sake.
The Tzaddik, the Rebbe, was considered, and still is considered, to have
inherited a "great and holy" soul from his ancestors.
The Chasidic rabbi, or rebbe, in contrast to other scholars and rabbis who
tended to remain more aloof from their congregants, embraced his followers.
The approach was one of inclusion, not exclusion. The Tzaddik preached with
warmth and feeling, and storytelling was a major feature.
As the movement grew, the Baal Shem Tov's influence spread. Eventually, the
Baal Shem Tov became known as something of a healer, and he traveled
throughout Eastern Europe, in the words of one history book, "spreading
cures and his message."
The early descendants and disciples of the Baal Shem Tov moved from the
BeShT's home in Mezbuz to other areas of Russia, the Ukraine, and Poland,
becoming known as the Rebbe of that town (e.g., Tchernobl, Satmar, Lubavitch,
and others) and beginning the Chasidic family dynasties and courts, many of
which remain to this day. Some of these dynasties started with disciples of
the Baal Shem Tov who disseminated his teachings, while other Chasidic
dynasties originated with the actual descendants of the Baal Shem Tov who
carried on after his death.
But the Baal Shem Tov's teachings were not welcomed by all. Those who
apposed the movement were known as the Misnagdim (literally, opponents). The
Misnagdim opposed what they saw as laxity and innovation in the manner and
atmosphere of worship and ritual. They also looked askance at the
"ignorant" masses who blindly followed their rebbe, to whom they
looked for all guidance and advice.
The Baal Shem Tov died about 1760, but the Chasidic movement, because of
its appeal to the masses continued to grow. Why? Perhaps because the Chasidic
philosophy was significantly less ritualistic than other branches of Judaism.
There was a greater focus on feeling, warmth and inclusion.
For example, in reaction to formal religious practice where every detail of
the law might be fulfilled in action while thought was elsewhere, the Baal
Shem Tov taught that along with outward appearance, there was a necessity of
Kavonoh - concentration, intent or inner devotion - which must be a part of
every action and every Mitzvah.
In short, the Baal Shem Tov taught that a deep-seeded belief in G-d, and
deep feelings, should be as important as strict adherence to ritual.