The Chassidic (or Hasidic) movement was created by Rabbi Yisrael Ba'al Shem Tov (“Master of the Good Name”) in the early eighteenth century. Two great disasters had come and gone in the preceding century: the Chmielnicki Massacres of 1648–1649 and the end of the episode of Shabtai Tzvi, the false Messiah, in 1666. Many believed that Shabtai Tzvi was the promised Moshiach who would end the exile, rendering pogroms and persecution nothing more than a memory until the end of time.
When the believers learned that he was an imposter, and, worse, converted to Islam when threatened by the local Sultan, many despaired. Were it not for the Chassidic movement and its emphasis upon joy and excitement in the service of God, many more would undoubtedly have abandoned Jewish practices when the Enlightenment swept across Europe.
Rabbi Yisrael Ba'al Shem Tov
Little is known about the early years of Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer. He was born in 1698 in Okopy, Poland, to an elderly father and was orphaned at a young age. He wandered from village to village, taking odd jobs and—as we know now—studying Torah and Kabbalah in seclusion. Rabbi Gershon Kitover, a renowned scholar, was embarrassed when his sister married a common day laborer like Yisrael.
At the age of thirty-six, however, Reb Yisrael turned to the public and began to teach, rapidly gaining a large following. He taught that attachment to God was attained not through fasting and asceticism, but through rejoicing in the Mitzvos, in prayer, even in singing and dancing. He taught that you should never consider yourself unimportant or a condemned sinner; on the contrary, every person is important in God's eyes, and can always begin anew.
This was the seed of the Chassidic movement. Chassidism teaches that even a commoner, one who is not a scholar, can attain great spiritual heights through sincere and joyful prayer and performance of Mitzvos. Serving God with joy is the key—sadness and despair prevent a person from serving Him properly.
These teachings found a ready audience in the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe, who were both unlearned and depressed by the recent tragedies. The teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov, or the Besht, brought them renewed faith and an infusion of joy—because if you are told that being happy is a priority, and work on being happy every day, you will certainly be happier as a result.
Many of the teachings of Chassidus were drawn from Kabbalistic sources, and Lurianic Kabbalah in particular. Chassidus teaches that God is everywhere, and hidden sparks of holiness are waiting to be freed. Even in evil, there is hidden goodness. Once all of these holy sparks are released, the world will be ready for its ultimate restoration—or tikkun, fixing—with the coming of Moshiach.
Role of the Rebbe
Chassidus also elevated the role of the Tzaddik, or Holy Man. The Tzaddik, one whose days (and nights) are spent in study and prayer, divests himself of earthly attachments and reaches great spiritual heights. He is able to advise others on how to grow in their service of God, and to guide them in responses to practical issues as well.
Even more than this, the Rebbe binds the Jewish people together, and serves as a link between God and the masses, who cannot achieve such exalted spiritual levels on their own. They all turn to him for blessings, because “the will of those who fear Him, He will do” (Ps. 145:19).