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Chai Elul – Birth of a Movement

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“Chai Elul” – the 18th day of the month of Elul – is the birthday, in 1698, of the founder of Chassidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. It is also the day on which his “spiritual grandson,” the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, was born, in 1745


“Chai Elul” — the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Elul — is a most significant date on the Chassidic calendar. The founder of Chassidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, was born on this date, in 1698. It is also the day, 36 years later, on which the Baal Shem Tov began to publicly disseminate his teachings, after many years as a member of the society of “hidden tzaddikim” during which he lived disguised as a simple innkeeper and clay-digger, his greatness known only to a very small circle of fellow mystics and disciples.

Elul 18 is also the birthday — in 1745 — of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who often referred to himself as the Baal Shem Tov’s “spiritual grandson” (Rabbi Schneur Zalman was the disciple of Rabbi Israel’s disciple, Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch). After gaining fame as a child prodigy and young Talmudic genius, Rabbi Schneur Zalman journeyed to Mezeritch to study under the tutelage of the Baal Shem Tov’s successor—as he later explained, “to study I knew somewhat, but I needed to learn how to pray”–and was soon accepted into the intimate circle of Rabbi DovBer’s leading disciples. Rabbi Schneur Zalman established the “Chabad” branch of Chassidism, which emphasizes in-depth study and intense contemplation as the key to vitalizing the entire person, from sublime mind to practical deed.

Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov (literally: “master of the good name,” also known by the acronym “Besht”) was the Eastern-European 18th century founder of the chassidic movement. The Baal Shem Tov was a leader who revolutionized Jewish thought and breathed new life into a fainting nation. The effects of his teachings continue to be felt today—both by his direct followers, known as chassidim, and by followers of all other streams of Jewish thought, who’ve been deeply impacted by his teachings and philosophy. The following is a brief biography of this legendary figure.1

During the late 17th century, European Jewry was still reeling from the devastation wrought by the Khmelnitsky pogroms of 5408 and 5409 (1648-1649 CE). The massacres had left tens of thousands of Jews dead, and the grief-stricken survivors struggled to rebuild their broken lives and communities.

In the wake of the pogroms, the infamous Shabtai Zvi led thousands of despairing Jews to believe that he was the long-awaited Messiah destined to redeem them from exile. Many Jews were inspired with the hope that their suffering would soon end, but after Shabtai Zvi turned out to be a fraud – he converted to Islam under pressure from the Ottoman Turks – they were plunged back into the bitter reality of shtetl life.

After the pogroms, many families were left without a livelihood and the vast majority of children were forced to abandon their Torah study at a very young age, sometimes as young as five or six years old, to help provide for their families. Only the wealthy – far and few in between – could afford a proper Torah education for their children. This resulted in a generation of largely ignorant, yet pious and devoted Jews who were, for the most part, neglected and scorned by the learned elite—the Talmudists. A rift developed between the learned and unlearned Jews, to the point that in many towns the two groups prayed at separate synagogues.

Against this troubling backdrop, in the small Polish town of Tloste,2 Eliezer and his wife Sarah lived a life of simple piety, serving G‑d with a pure heart.


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