The early life of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov is surrounded by mystery. As
founder of what is possibly the single most important religious movement in
Jewish history, Chassidus, many legends have grown around him and it is
difficult for us to know what is historical fact. Even the year of his birth is
a matter of controversy, some sources say it was 1700.|
Rabbi Yisrael was born in Okop, a small village in the Ukraine on the Polish
Russian border (Podolia). His parents,Eliezer and Sarah, were quite old when he
was born and they passed away when he was a still a very young child. Many
legends are told about Eliezer, the father of the Baal Shem Tov. We are told
that his last words to his son were "Fear nothing other than God."
The young orphan was cared for by the community and presumably received the
same education most children received. Nevertheless, he was different from most
children. He would wander in the fields and forests surrounding his home and
seclude himself, pouring out his heart to God. Young Yisrael had an unusually
strong emotional relationship with God. This relationship was perhaps the
defining characteristic of the religious approach he would ultimately develop
and which came to be known as Chassidus.
When he entered his teens the community's responsibility to support him ended
and he was given a job as a teacher's assistant (bahelfer). One of his tasks
was to escort the children to and from school, a task which he performed in his
own unique way, leading the children in song and praise to God.
His next job was as a caretaker in the local synagogue. This provided the young
Yisrael with the opportunity to study and develop. During this period he
attained an outstanding level of knowledge in the entire body of Jewish
knowledge, including eventually, the mysteries of Kabbalah. Nevertheless, he
publicly he maintained an image of simplicity, and the townspeople were pletely
ignorant of his stature.
According to legend, during this period Yisrael developed a relationship with
other hidden tzadikim (righteous men). Most significant was a tzadik named
Rabbi Adam Baal Shem, who bequeathed his writings to Yisrael.
He also apparently married during this period, but his wife passed away. At
some point after the death of his first wife he moved to a town near Brody
where he was hired as a teacher for young children. He became acquainted with
Rabbi Ephraim of Brody, who somehow discovered that Yisrael was not the simple
fellow he appeared to be. He was so impressed with Yisrael that he offered his
daughter, Leah Rochel, to Yisrael for a wife. However, Rabbi Ephraim passed
away a short time later, so when Yisrael went to Brody to marry his wife, he
met the bride's brother,Rabbi Gershon Kitover, also a major scholar. When
Yisrael presented himself as the groom, Rabbi Gershon was shocked, since
Yisrael was dressed in the manner of an ignorant peasant. However, Yisrael
produced a letter of engagement and Rabbi Gershon begrudgingly agreed. Leah
Rochel however, was apparently more perceptive and saw that there was more to
Yisrael than appeared on the surface. After their marriage,Rabbi Yisrael and
his wife moved to a small town in the Carpathian Mountains. Supported by his
wife, he spent this period in study and worship.
Finally, when he was thirty-six years old in the year 1734, Rabbi Yisrael
revealed himself to the world. He settled in Talust and rapidly gained a
reputation as a holy man. He became known as the Baal Shem Tov