Tag Archives: Ukraine

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 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.

Jew of the Week: Waldemar Haffkine

“Saviour of Humanity”Haffkine

Vladimir Mordechai Aaronovich Chavkin (1860-1930) was born to a Jewish-Russian family in what is now Ukraine. As a young man, he was a member of the Jewish League for Self-Defense, a group that protected Jews during pogroms. In one such event, he was injured and arrested. His teacher Elie Metchnikoff, the “father of immunology” (and former Jew of the Week), helped to have him freed from prison. Metchnikoff was soon forced to flee to Paris, and Chavkin joined him there some time later. For a time, the two worked together with Louis Pasteur. Chavkin (by this point going by Waldemar Wolff Haffkine) initially focused on the study of protist species before moving over to bacteria. Following major outbreaks of cholera, he was determined to find a vaccine, and experimented on himself to do so. Although he was succesful, his work was not accepted in Europe, so Haffkine went to India. There, he vaccinated 55,000 people while surviving both malaria and an assanitation attempt by Muslim extremists. India then suffered a deadly outbreak of bubonic plague, so the government asked Haffkine for help. He worked tirelessly for three months (during which time all of his assistants quit), again experimenting on himself, and developed a working vaccine. By the end of the century, Haffkine’s vaccines were given to over four million people in India. Europeans finally took notice. When Russia had a cholera outbreak shortly after, Haffkine’s vaccine saved thousands of lives. By this point, he had been knighted by the Queen of England, and described by Lord Joseph Lister as a “saviour of humanity”. Throughout his career, Haffkine had to battle anti-Semitism, and persistent attempts at converting him to Christianity. In the last decades of his life, he became deeply religious and committed to Orthodox Judaism, even writing a treatise called A Plea for Orthodoxy, and establishing the Haffkine Foundation to spread traditional Jewish teachings, especially among so-called “enlightened” Jews. Haffkine was also a staunch Zionist, formulating his own plan to establish a Jewish state in the Holy Land, and negotiating with the Ottoman Empire to do so. Unfortunately, his plans were rejected. Nonetheless, Haffkine is immortalized in history as the inventor of the cholera and bubonic plague vaccines, and a man who saved countless lives around the world.

Words of the Week

Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.
– Robert F. Kennedy