The most famous master of Kaballah and Jewish mysticism is Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer. Rabbi Yisrael lived from 1698 to 1760, and is known as the Baal Shem Tov. More stories are told about the Baal Shem Tov than about any other person in Jewish history. These stories have been passed down, primarily through an oral tradition, for over 250 years. More recently, books — and even more recently the internet — have been added as a means to continue the time-honored tradition of transmitting Baal Shem Tov stories from parent to child and from chassid to chassid. The Baal Shem Tov stories are indeed glimpses of the life and culture of downtrodden, 18th century, Eastern European Jewry. However, to see the stories as only that is to miss their central role. In chassidic life, Baal Shem Tov stories have formed the foundation of one of the most fundamental and important of chassidic spiritual practices: telling stories about the Tzaddikim — the Jewish saints, as it were; literally, the “righteous ones”—the great Spiritual Masters. These Tzaddikim led and guided the various Chassidic dynasties through the dark exile of European Jewry, from the time of the Baal Shem Tov. All Chassidim, irrespective of their particular allegiance — whether to Chabad, Bretslov, Aleksander, Belz, Satmar, Gerrer, Vishnitz, to name a few — share one common belief: that the basic facts of the Baal Shem Tov stories are just that, facts. There is an old Chassidic saying: “If you believe all of the Baal Shem Tov stories you’re a fool; if you don’t believe any of them you are a bigger fool.” Today, the stories and teachings of the Baal Shem Tov are as relevant as they were in the past. They inspire and guide us. They nudge us towards intensifying our service to G•d. The stories teach through example how to live our life with a joyful attitude. They enable us to experience the flow of love that emanates from G•d.
Tzvi Meir Cohn
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