Baal-Shem-Tov (bäl-shĕm-tôv) [key], c.1698–1760, Jewish founder of modern Hasidism, b. Ukraine. His life is the subject of many tales that circulated even before his death. Originally named Israel ben Eliezer, he is said to have been born of elderly, poor parents and to have been orphaned at an early age. He supported himself as an assistant in a heder (Hebrew religious school), as a synagogue watchman, as a quarry worker, and as an innkeeper. He gained a reputation as a miracle healer; hence the name Baal-Shem-Tov [Heb., = master of the good name, i.e., the Name of God]. Central to his teachings is the idea that one must worship and adhere to God in all activities, not only in acts of prescribed religious observance but in the affairs of daily life. He held that not in sorrow but in joy must one worship God, and that repentance is always possible. His reputation as a miracle healer and his all-encompassing view of religious life, which allowed the unschooled as well as the scholar to experience a sense of redemption, gained him a large circle of followers, which later developed into the several communities of contemporary Hasidim.
See M. Buber, Legend of the Ba'al Shem (tr. 1955, repr. 1969) and Tales of the Hasidim (tr., 2 vol., 1947–48, repr. 1961); D. Ben Amos and J. R. Mintz, ed., In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov (tr. 1970).
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