He taught a message that would soon become the cornerstone of chassidus: masochism and self-flagellation, behavior that had been considered the path of the pious at the time, were not the way to serve the Lord. The Almighty could only be served in a state of happiness, and song and dance are potent aids to achieving this goal.
There was nothing novel in what he preached, as all of these precepts can be found in Judaism. But the emphasis he placed upon them, and their combination, created a program that was revolutionary. The Baal Shem Tov was so imaginative and persuasive, possessed of such spirit and personality, that – virtually overnight – chassidus became the largest mass movement of Jews in the modern era.
It had been previously assumed that diligent Torah study and erudition in all of the minutiae of the law was essential for closeness to G-d, disenfranchising the common folk. The Baal Shem taught that there are different avenues open to the unlettered. Prayer is the key to G-d and the means of Israel’s spiritual elevation. It must be conducted with intense concentration preceded by daily immersion in a mikveh.
Joy is essential, nay critical, for Jewish life, and pessimism and depression cause sin and spiritual apathy. Repentance that causes depression and sadness, he preached, distances the Holy Presence.
Torah study and performance of commandments must be carried out enthusiastically, with only the purest intentions and without ulterior motive, all for the sole sake of fulfilling G-d’s will.
The tzaddik binds the Jewish people together and serves as a link between G-d and the masses who may require assistance in their spiritual quests.
The tragic events of Shabbetai Zvi and the Frankist debacle had forced the study of Kabbalah underground, and in 1756 the Vaad Arba Aratzos, or Council of Four Lands, adopted an edict restricting the general study of Kabbalah to men over the age of 40. Chassidus, at the behest of the Baal Shem Tov, reversed this and brought the study of Kabbalah to the forefront of daily activity.
Consequently the nusach of prayer was altered from Ashkenazic to Sephardic since it was more kabbalistically-oriented.
(To be continued)
Chodesh tov – have a pleasant month!
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