Tag Archives: Hasidism

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov

Founder of the Hasidic Movement

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 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.

Jew of the Week: Rebbe Nachman of Breslov

The Tomb of Rebbe Nachman in Uman, Ukraine

The Tomb of Rebbe Nachman in Uman, Ukraine

Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) was born in Ukraine, and was the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism. From a very young age, Nachman was drawn to spirituality and the study of Jewish wisdom. By the time he was just six years old, he made it a habit to visit his great-grandfather’s grave every night, and immerse himself in a mikveh. By 13, he was already married, and attracted his first disciples. He was soon known simply as Rebbe Nachman. A few years after a pilgrimage to Israel, Rebbe Nachman moved to Breslov and officially founded a new movement of Hasidic Judaism. There he met his most famous disciple, Nathan Sternhartz, known as Reb Noson. Over the following eight years, Reb Noson recorded and published the bulk of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings, which revolutionized the Hasidic world, and the religious Jewish world at large, enlightening thousands with novel interpretations and practical wisdom for living a better life. Rebbe Nachman also produced a number of hymns and songs, including the popular “All the World is a Very Narrow Bridge” (kol ha’olam kulu, gesher tzar me’od) and “It Is A Great Mitzvah To Always be Happy” (mitzvah gedolah li’yot b’simcha tamid). His teachings emphasized simple living permeated with constant joy, and he encouraged people to sing and dance, even during prayers. A major part of his system involves meditation (hitbodedut) and for each person to have a personal dialogue with God, as they would with their best friend. Rebbe Nachman is also famous for his storytelling, and to this day many read his tales, which are full of deep lessons and morals. In 1810, a fire destroyed Rebbe Nachman’s home (along with most of the town of Breslov), and he moved to the town of Uman. Shortly after, he passed away from tuberculosis, aged just 38 years. Since then, countless Jews have been making yearly pilgrimages to his grave in Uman, particularly during the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. In recent years, the Ukrainian town of Uman (with a population of under 90,000) has built an entire industry around these travelers, which number over 25,000 every Rosh Hashanah alone. Rebbe Nachman passed away on the 4th day of Sukkot, which this year falls on the coming Sunday.

Sukkot Begins Tonight! Click Here to Learn More

Words of the Week

Gems from Rebbe Nachman:

“Wherever I go, I’m always going to Israel.”

“All the world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is to have no fear at all.”

“You are never given an obstacle you cannot overcome.”

“The essence of wisdom is to realize how far from wisdom you are.”

“If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can fix.”

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Dr. Immanuel Schochet

Rabbi Dr. Immanuel Schochet

Rabbi Dr. Immanuel Schochet

Jacob Immanuel Schochet (1935-2013) was born in Switzerland to Jewish-Lithuanian parents. In 1951, the family moved to Toronto, and shortly after Schochet went to study at the Chabad Yeshiva in New York. There he became close with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who encouraged him to pursue academic subjects. Schochet went on to earn a Master’s in religious studies and a Ph.D in philosophy, studying at the Universities of Toronto, Waterloo, Windsor and McMaster. He became an internationally renowned scholar of philosophy, mysticism and Hasidism, writing 35 books, translating many others, and penning countless articles (click here to read a selection of these). While serving as a community rabbi for over 45 years, he was also professor of philosophy at Humber College and professor of bioethics at the University of Toronto Medical School. Schochet lectured around the world, including at Yale and Oxford. He was a champion of the Jewish cause, successfully combating Christian missionaries, particularly ‘Jews for Jesus’, and openly challenged any missionary to debate him in public. A staunch defender of traditional Jewish beliefs, he was also critical of the Kabbalah Centre, as well as messianic movements within Chabad. His piety, wisdom, and love for Israel were recognized by all who met him. Sadly, Rabbi Schochet passed away on July 27th.

 

Words of the Week

Do not scorn any man, and do not discount any thing, for there is no man who does not have his hour, and no thing that does not have its place.
– Pirkei Avot 4:3