||Famed and popular collection of wondrous tales and novellae about the Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, R. Dov Baer of Mezhirech, R. Levi Isaac of Berdichev, Pinhas of Koretz, and may others. There is a forward on the verso of the title page by R. Isaac Meir ben Gershon who brought the book to press, and then the text, set in two columns in rabbinic type.
The tales are about the founders and early leaders of the Hasidic movement, a popular religious movement giving rise to a pattern of communal life and leadership as well as a particular social outlook which emerged in Judaism and Jewry in the second half of the 18th century. Ecstasy, mass enthusiasm, close-knit group cohesion, and charismatic leadership of one kind or another are the distinguishing socioreligious marks of Hasidism. The founder was R. Israel ben Eliezer, known as the "Master of the Good Name" (the Ba'al Shem Tov, abbreviated as the Besht). His fame as a healer spread not only among the Jews, but also among the non-Jewish peasants and the Polish nobles. He allegedly could successfully predict the future. To the common people, the Besht appeared wholly admirable. Characterized by an extraordinary sincerity and simplicity, he knew how to gain an insight into the spiritual needs of the masses. He taught them that true religion consisted not only of religious scholarship, but also of a sincere love of God combined with warm faith and belief in the efficacy of prayer; that the ordinary person filled with a sincere belief in God, and whose prayers come from the heart, is more acceptable to God than someone versed in and fully observant of Jewish law who lacks inspiration in his divine service. This democratization of Judaism attracted to the teachings of the Besht not only the common people, but also the scholars whom the rabbinical scholasticism and ascetic Kabbalah failed to satisfy. About 1740 the Besht established himself in the Ukrainian town of Mezhbizh. He gathered about him numerous disciples and followers, whom he initiated into the secrets of his teachings not by systematic exposition, but by means of sayings and parables that contained both easily graspable insights, for the laymen, and profound Kabbalistic depth, for the great scholars. These sayings spread by oral transmission; later the founder's disciples set them in writing, developing the thoughts of their master into a system. The Besht himself did not write anything. R. Israel ben Eliezer's disciples attracted many followers; they themselves established numerous Hasidic courts across Europe. After the Besht's death, followers continued his cause, under the leadership of the Magid, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch. From his court students went forth; they in turn attracted many Jews to Hasidism, and many of them came to study in Mezritch with Dov Ber personally. Hasidic Judaism eventually became the way of life of the majority of Jews in Ukraine, Galicia, Belarus and central Poland; the movement also had sizable groups of followers in Hungary. Hasidic Judaism began coming to Western Europe and then to the United States during the large waves of Jewish emigration in the 1880s. After the passing of Rabbi Dov Ber, his inner circle of followers, known as the "Chevraya Kadisha," the Holy Fellowship, agreed to divide up the whole of Europe into different territories, and have each one charged with disseminating hasidic teachings in his designated area. Hasidism gradually branched out into two main divisions: (1) in Ukraine and in Galicia and (2) in Litta (Greater Lithuania). Three disciples, Dov Ber of Mezritch (Elimelech of Lizhensk, Levi Yitzchak of Berdychev, and Menachem Nahum of Chernobyl), besides the grandson of the Besht, Boruch of Tulchin, later R' Boruch of Mezhbizh, directed the first of these divisions. Elimelech of Lizhensk affirmed belief in Tzaddikism as a fundamental doctrine of Hasidism. In his book No'am Elimelekh he conveys the idea of the Tzadik ("righteous one") as the mediator between God and the common people, and suggests that through him God sends to the faithful three earthly blessings: life, a livelihood, and children, on the condition, however, that the Hasidim support the Tzaddik by pecuniary contributions ("pidyonos"), in order to enable the holy man to become completely absorbed in the contemplation of God. Lithuanian Hasidim followed Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who founded Chabad Hasidism, and Rabbi Aharon of Karlin.