The Origins of Hasidic Judaism: The Ba’al Shem Tov

In the midst of a century of murderous pogroms and crushing poverty, a wise mystic sought to rescue the downtrodden and revitalize Judaism. Known as the Baal Shem Tov, master of the Good Name, his joyous spirituality revolutionized Judaism, and nearly tore it in half.

  1. What was the Baal Shem Tov’s belief about God’s presence on Earth?
    • That God intervenes on global matters but not on personal matters
    • That God is only present during prayer services, which is why he emphasized that method of communication
    • That God is present in every aspect of life, from the Torah scroll to a single leaf
    • That everything is God
  2. Which group was the Vilna Gaon talking about when he said that its followers “be uprooted from all places, never to be mentioned again?”
    • Chassidim
    • Mitnagdim
    • Sabbateans
    • People studying at the Volozhin yeshiva
  3. Who was viewed as the leader of the Mitnagdim?
    • The Baal Shem Tov
    • The Maggid
    • Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin
    • The Vilna Gaon
  4. What was the Mitnagdim’s opposition to the Chassidic belief about the prioritization of prayer?
    • They agreed that prayer should be prioritized over Torah study.
    • They believed prayer is very important, but Torah study is the preeminent path to divinity.
    • They argued that Torah study and prayer should be treated equally.
    • They were upset that Chassidim removed times on prayer but not upset about their attitude towards Torah study.
  5. What was the Baal Shem Tov’s message which helped inspire people during the harshest times?
    • God can be found even in the harshest conditions.
    • The introduction of jubilant prayer services allows people to feel momentarily at peace.
    • Torah study is the best way to reach God.
    • One should try to connect through Torah of the Heart, in addition to Torah of the Mind.
  1. At the height of the debates between the Chassidim and the Mitnagdim, the Mitnagdim were so concerned about the influence of Chassidic leaders that they had them turned into the Russian authorities and arrested. Did the Mitnagdim’s fears of Chassidic influence justify this choice, or were the Mitnagdim’s actions an indefensible and divisive move?
  2. There are many stories detailing the Baal Shem Tov’s miraculous ability to heal the sick and to offer blessings to people. One famous story is that he cured a Duke’s daughter from having psychotic episodes in exchange for his promise that he would never hurt the Jewish people in his community. Another story describes how the Baal Shem Tov wrote a letter that a wealthy man, Avigdor, was supposed to deliver to the charity in his town. Sixteen years later, Avigdor had lost all of his wealth, was desperate, and realized he never delivered the letter. He rushed to find the recipient. When they opened the letter, the Baal Shem Tov had written how Avigdor was now poor and needed charity to be given to him – a prediction sixteen years earlier which would have seemed unfounded. Either way, Rabbi Berel Wein says, regardless of whether or not these stories factually happened, they don’t say them about you and me. Do you believe that incidents like these truly happened, or are you skeptical of the veracity of these stories? How does Rabbi Berel Wein’s interpretation influence how you might think about these stories and why?
  3. One of the Baal Shem Tov’s controversial teachings was his belief that “the greatest Torah genius and scholar and the most simple Jew are loved equally by God.” Do you think an implication of this belief is to lower the prestige of the Torah scholar, or do you think that this is a misrepresentation of the Baal Shem Tov’s message? Do you agree with the Baal Shem Tov’s overall assertion, or do you think God loves certain people more than others?
  4. One of the impacts of the debates between the Chassidim and Mitnagdim was that the first yeshiva started by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin strived to make Jewish learning more accessible. As we think about Jewish education in the 21st century and reaching as many people as possible, where should resources and time be allocated? For example, should Jewish educators be most focused on day schools, camps, Hebrew schools, or online resources?
  5. The Jewish division between the Chassidim and Mitnagdim is a widely studied topic. The word Chassidim means “saintliness,” while the word Mitnagdim means “opponents.” Do these terms influence the perception of people who study the topic, or are the names of the two groups irrelevant in influencing the discussion?
  1. Use our ready-made lesson plan on the origins of Hasidic Judaism HERE.
  2. Learners should be divided into two groups: Chassidim and Mitnagdim. The activity should be a role-playing debate, in which learners are assigned to a side in which they may not personally agree. This will allow them to consider opposing viewpoints and have a deeper understanding of the arguments. They should prepare to debate each other on: the role of Tzadikim; the importance of traditional rituals like the times of prayer; fears of another Sabbatean movement; and the centrality of yeshivot. Information should be drawn from the video and this article and this article. At the end of the debate, learners should discuss if they feel strongly towards one side or the other.
  3. It was once said that Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a six word story; he wrote, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The six word novel classroom strategy challenges students to summarize a lot of information and think about the overarching message being conveyed. After watching the video and reading this article about the Baal Shem Tov, learners should write a “six word novel” to describe his life and impact and share their answers with the group.
  4. The Chabad movement also grew out of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid’s influence. Learners should read this article, a biography of the first Chabad rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi and then use a 3-2-1 strategy to record their takeaways. They should write down 3 things they learned from this text, 2 questions they now have, and the 1 aspect of the text they most enjoyed.
  5. Play our Kahoot about the origins of Hasidic Judaism!
  1. The Baal Shem Tov observed how many Jews were very poor and could therefore not have the time or money to practice Judaism or study Torah. He looked for alternative ways for people to feel connected. Today, while there are many free resources available to students now, including videos and materials created by Unpacked Education, many claim that being involved in a Jewish community or following Jewish practices requires significant money. One oft-cited example is how the cost of kosher meat is more expensive than the cost of non-kosher meat. In addition, the demands of everyday life (like school or other extracurricular activities) sometimes make it difficult to find time to learn and connect. Do you feel it is difficult to find the time and resources to learn Torah and engage with Judaism? If so, how do you navigate this challenge?
  2. The Baal Shem Tov believed in the importance of “Torah of the Mind,” or traditional intellectual study, but he emphasized “Torah of the Heart,” or the ability of all people to emotionally engage with God and religion, especially through prayer. How do you best connect to God and religion? Do you feel best connected when learning Torah, in prayer services, or participating in a mixture of both?
  3. One of the legacies of the Baal Shem Tov was his impact on prayer services and the introduction of jubilant songs. Today, synagogues across all Jewish denominations have introduced Carlebach prayer services, a neo-Hasidic effort to make prayer more lively and emotionally-charged. Listen to this video of a Carlebach service. What is your experience in prayer services? Have they mirrored a more traditional style or a lively style as shown in the video? Which type of service do you prefer?
  4. The Baal Shem Tov is one of the most quoted Jewish leaders of all time. Read these 25 quotes from the Baal Shem Tov. Pick 3 which inspire you the most. How can you adopt the Baal Shem Tov’s words into your life?
  5. The video describes how people found solace in the Baal Shem Tov’s call to find God even in the harshest conditions. Think of something that is challenging right now in your life. It can be something bigger like a family circumstance or something smaller like feeling stressed about an upcoming test. How can the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings provide you a bit of comfort?

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