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Founder of Hasidism. The life of the pious Baal Shem (literally, “master of the name,” or “miracle worker”) has been the subject of so many legends and stories that it is often difficult to separate fact from myth. He left no written works, but his sayings were collected by disciples, especially Rabbi Baer of Mezhirich. Israel was orphaned at an early age and raised by the community. Though deeply religious, he was not an eager student, preferring solitary prayer and meditation. In his early life his occupations were varied: he was an assistant teacher in charge of Heder children, a synagogue helper, a ritual slaughterer, and even a charcoal burner. Upon his marriage to Anna Kuty, whose brother was the well-known scholar Rabbi Gershon Kutower, the Baal Shem moved to an isolated town in the Carpathian mountains. There he spent long hours with God and nature. Rabbi Gershon had given the couple a horse and wagon, and they made a bare livelihood by selling one wagonload of lime to the villagers every week. On his wedding day, Israel revealed to his bride that he was a divinely chosen tzaddik, or righteous man, but swore her to secrecy until the time was ripe for him to make himself known. He lived in obscurity until he was 36 years old. Then he began to travel through towns and villages, healing the sick and performing miracles.

Israel’s personality, piety, and imaginative expression gradually brought him fame. He became known as a man of deep religious feeling and enthusiasm, with a gift for communicating these emotions to the simplest and most ignorant person. His consideration and love for lowly people are illustrated by his comment to a disciple: “The lowliest person you can think of is dearer to me than your only son is to you.” His followers’ awe of him is apparent in legends. Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezhirich once asked Heaven to show him a man who was completely holy, and he was shown a fiery vision of the Baal Shem Tov. The image had no shred of matter; it was nothing but flame.

The Baal Shem yearned to go to the Holy Land, a longing which was never satisfied. In 1740, he settled in Podolia, a province in the Ukraine, where many scholars, rabbis, as well as common folk to form the nucleus of the Hasidic movement. Israel stressed devotion to God and dedicated prayer. He taught that joyful and enthusiastic worship, even that of an ignorant man, finds more favor in the eyes of the Maker than cold scholarship and dry knowledge of the Law. These teachings had great popular appeal and this new Hasidism which the Baal Shem had initiated spread like wildfire through East European Jewry.

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