Tag Archives: Rabbi

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov

The Baal Shem Tov’s gravestone in the Jewish cemetery of Medzhybizh, Ukraine.

Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760) was born to very poor parents in what is today Western Ukraine. He was orphaned at just 5 years of age, and adopted by the Jewish community. Even as a child, Israel would go out into the forests by himself after school and spend hours meditating. It is said that he started receiving visions from Biblical prophets while still a teenager. He married young, too, and when his wife tragically passed away, Israel left his village and embarked on a long journey. During his travels, he met a mystical sage named Rabbi Adam Baal Shem (the title baal shem, “Master of the Name”, was given to spiritual healers and great mystics). Israel soon started his own kabbalistic circle, and the group became active in assisting Jewish communities across Eastern Europe. Rabbi Israel remarried and had two children, sustaining the family by working as a clay and lime digger. He also worked as a school teacher and a gabbai (synagogue warden), and later became a shochet and managed his brother-in-law’s tavern. During this time, he became very proficient in healing herbs and his reputation as a baal shem grew rapidly. By 1740, Israel was known as the “Baal Shem Tov”, and countless people journeyed to Medzhybizh to learn from him. There, the Baal Shem Tov started a new philosophical movement that would be known as Hasidism, which strove to integrate mystical teachings into the daily lives of Jews, while focusing on serving God with utmost joy and happiness. The movement spread very rapidly, invigorating poor Eastern European Jews with a fresh breath of life. (Ironically, Hasidic Judaism took off among poor Jewish peasants who knew little Torah and ritual observance, while today Hasidic Judaism is associated with rigorous Torah study and strict ritual observance!) Meanwhile, the Baal Shem Tov battled passionately against various false messianic movements sweeping European Jewry, particularly the Frankists. He inspired a whole generation of great rabbis and is considered the founder of Hasidic Judaism. Many legends surround the Baal Shem Tov, including a purported ability to read people’s minds, exorcise demons, and even fly! Rabbi Israel passed away on the holiday of Shavuot.

Shavuot Starts Tonight!

Words of the Week

I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.
– Richard Feynman

Incredibly, the Chabad Library in New York has the Baal Shem Tov’s personal siddur, with his handwritten notes in the margins.

Jews of the Week: Rabbi Shlomo & Shlomo Moussaieff

Shlomo ben Yakov Moussaieff (1852-1922) was born in the emirate of Bukhara (present-day Uzbekistan). Both a renowned rabbi and a wealthy businessman, he made aliyah to the Holy Land in 1888 – bringing with him forty cases of gold – and was one of the founders of Jerusalem’s famous Bukharian Quarter. Moussaieff built four synagogues, and homes for 25 poor families. Meanwhile, he published a prayer book and disseminated it widely, making it his mission to inspire more Jews to pray regularly. He also continued his business ventures, particularly in real estate, tea, silk, and gemstones. Moussaieff was an avid collector of rare manuscripts, and amassed an impressive library with 225 ancient texts, including prized manuscripts of Maimonides and the mystical teachings of the Arizal. Until his last days, Moussaieff was committed to the development of Israel, and stated in his will that only those of his seven children that remain in Israel would receive any inheritance.

His grandson, also Shlomo Moussaieff (1923-2015), though better known as Sam, would become even more famous. One of twelve children raised in Jerusalem, Sam Moussaieff ran away from home as a teen to avoid his strict father. Living in a synagogue, he worked for a carpenter and sold ancient coins he would find in Jerusalem’s caves and tombs. Once arrested by Arab policemen, he ended up in a Muslim school for nearly a year, becoming proficient in Arabic and the Koran. At 17, Moussaieff enlisted in the British Army to fight the Nazis. After World War II, he fought for Israel’s independence and was captured by the Jordanians, who imprisoned him for a year. Moussaieff returned to Jerusalem and joined the family jewellery business. He soon opened his own antiquities shop in Jaffa, at times getting in trouble for smuggling goods. In 1963, Moussaieff was offered to have his record cleared of legal issues, as well as the rights to an exclusive shop in London’s Hilton Hotel, in exchange for handwritten letters from Maimonides which he owned. Moussaieff accepted and moved to London. His shop soon specialized in jewellery, and he became the dealer of choice for wealthy barons from Arab oil states thanks to his pristine Arabic. Moussaieff became world-renowned for his extremely rare and special gems. He owned the most precious stone in the world: a red diamond valued at $20 million. In 2011, he was ranked among the richest Londoners, with an estimated worth of some $350 million. Moussaieff amassed a personal collection of over 60,000 ancient artifacts, including millennia-old seals from Jerusalem’s First Temple, and reportedly even items associated with the forefather Abraham! His stated goal was to collect indisputable evidence proving the accuracy of the Torah. Moussaieff was given an honourary degree by Bar Ilan University (to whom he donated many artifacts, including his grandfather’s ancient manuscripts) which established the Dr. Shlomo Moussaieff Center for Kabbala Research. Interestingly, Moussaieff once purchased an ancient Torah scroll for $1 million from the Allenby family – who had the Torah because the elder Shlomo Moussaieff gave it as a gift to General Allenby during World War I!

Words of the Week

My spirit moved me to leave the land of my birth, in which I grew up, and to ascend to the Holy Land, the land in which our ancestors dwelled in happiness, the land whose memory passes before us ten times each day in our prayers…
Rabbi Shlomo Moussaieff, in the introduction to his prayer book, Hukat Olam


Make your Shavuot night-learning meaningful with the Arizal’s ‘Tikkun Leil Shavuot’, a mystical Torah-study guide, now in English and Hebrew, with commentary.