Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov (literally Master of the Good Name, often referred to as the BESHT), was born in 1698, in Okop (Ukraine). While there is little record of his early life, it is known that he was orphaned at a young age and raised by the community.
In his teens, Israel ben Eliezer was given a job as a teacher’s assistant. This was followed by a position as the caretaker of a synagogue, which offered him the opportunity to further his Torah studies and to delve into kabbalistic studies as well.
While anyone who studied Torah with him realized his greatness, Rabbi Israel maintained the outward appearance of a simple Jew. The renowned scholar Rabbi Ephraim of Brody was so impressed with the young man’s incredible spirituality and depth of knowledge that he offered him his daughter Chana’s hand in marriage.
By the time he settled in Medzeboz (c. 1740), his fame had spread, and he acquired many disciples. The Baal Shem Tov emphasized spontaneity in worship, particularly though song and joy, and love of one’s fellow Jews. He maintained that even if one was not a great intellectual, one could come close to a righteous person (a “Rebbe”) and, through the rebbe, connect to God. (Until the time of the Besht, only the best students had the opportunity to draw close to the great rabbis. Those who were not outstanding students, were often kept away. The Besht introduced the idea that anyone could be close to and emulate a righteous person.) He also popularized many mystical and Kabbalistic ideas.
The Besht passed away in 1760, on Shavuot. He left behind a son and daughter and a movement that came to be known as Chassidut.