Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov whose name means “master of the good name,” was the Eastern-European 18th century founder of a Jewish movement known as Chassidut. The philosophy of Chabad is rooted in the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov is famous for employing a new approach and infusing new energy into Jewish thought after the bloody pogroms of the 17th century left the Jewish communities in Europe in devastation, despair and poverty. In the aftermath of the pogroms, a rift emerged between the educated and the simple Jews to the extent that the two groups stopped affiliating with each other and even prayed in different synagogues.
During this tumultuous time, Yisrael Baal Shem was born in a small Polish town to righteous parents. As he grew up, he became known within his circles as a scholar, teacher and healer who taught that the Torah demands that Jews serve God with optimism and joy. The Hebrew word “tov” which means good, was added to his name because of the love and kindness he expressed towards his fellow Jews.
It was not until 1734 that the Baal Shem Tov’s became widely regarded for his teachings. When he began openly disseminating his teachings, Jewish thought was revolutionized. The Baal Shem Tov’s point of view was that even the simplest Jew was created in the image of God and therefore was inherently holy, and that every Jew could serve God with joy. Jews from far and wide travelled to hear the Baal Shem Tov’s rejuvenating and groundbreaking words and to be in his holy presence.
Many of the finest Jewish minds of that time studied under the Baal Shem Tov and after his passing in 1760, they continued to spread his teachings throughout Europe. Yet, the Baal Shem Tov’s innovative teachings and approach were rejected by much of the traditional Jewish Talmudist movement who felt that his lessons and affections for simple and unlearned Jews were misguided. The discord between the two movements continued for many years, but eventually even many of the opponents of the Baal Shem Tov’s Chassidic thought began to value and respect his teachings.