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In my high school Jewish history class, we learnt of the idea that the Ba'al Shem Tov might have not even existed. I have also heard this "dispute" from another rabbi recently.

Is there any available articles or information that talks about this subject? Also, if you have any additional information, please post.

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I think the Ba'al Shem Tov had to have existed in some way (even if it's not the way we've been taught), as I doubt an entire branch of Orthodox Judaism would base itself off the teachings of a ficticious figure. Let me ask you this - if the Besht didn't exist, who made him up?

From a historical standpoint, saying he didn't exist is futile. We have books which belonged to him (such as his siddur), the shul where he taught (which was sadly destroyed by the Nazis, y.s. and has been replaced with a replica), and his grave. Also he is recorded in the 1758 Polish census.

I think with the above evidence, it's pretty clear he existed. I think the question is not "did he actually exist" but rather "did he exist the same way he's presented in all the stories". And now here's where the following quote comes in handy:

"If you don't believe any of the stories of the Besht, you're a heretic, and if you believe all of the them, you're a fool." - Rabbi Shlomo Rabinowicz, the first Radomsker Rebbe

The variation between each of the stories is where the problem arises. In some stories his entire backstory changes. I think we ought to look for which stories come from authentic sources, and throw out the rest. I think a lot has been embellished throughout the years.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – msh210 Apr 11 '18 at 19:02
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Aside from the fact there are countless prominent Rabbis from his time who state clearly that they met and learned with him face to face, such a the Maggid of Mezerich, any student of history is aware of the collections of his actual letters (correspondence to his brother and others) which have been reprinted faithfully.

One such example is the collection of letters from Sefer Ginzei Nistarot which is a collection of letters from the Ba'al Shem Tov, the Maggid of Mezerich and the Alter Rebbe.

In looking at letter number 8 from the Ba'al Shem Tov's son-in-law to him, it gives a very interesting date and place which is signifigant with another prominent personality in Jewish history. It was written from the city of Tzfat in Israel on Sunday, Yom Rishon of parshat Chukat in the year 5502, which corresponds with 1742. The Ba'al Shem Tov had sent a special package to a Rabbi who was passing through Tzfat at that time, namely Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar, the Ohr HaChaim. The Ba'al Shem Tov had requested of the Ohr HaChaim to meet him "face to face" via some kabbalistic practice mentioned in his letter. The Ohr HaChaim replied that he no longer did such things because he was only immersing in a mikvah once (per week). But he said they could meet face to face via the kabbalistic practice referred to from Kiddush Levanah when done on Shabbat Kodesh. It adds that the Ohr HaChaim sent gifts to the Ba'al Shem Tov, in return for his package, of two sets of Tefillin boxes made from olive wood from Israel and five gazelle skins all manufactured by G-d fearing people. The importance of this letter is that it corresponds to the exact time when the Ohr HaChaim was on his way to Yerushalayim from Livorno, Italy in the year 1742. Parshat Chukat, when the letter was written, falls out at the beginning of Tammuz which is between the end of June and beginning of July usually.

In his letters, he mentions his father being from the town of Tluste in Ukraine. You may find this link from the town talking about it's connection with the Ba'al Shem Tov. There is a photo of his mother's headstone from before World War II on the page.

He was born in 1698 in the village of Okopy in Ukraine as is mentioned at the Okopy web page.

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