The town of Medzhybizh is situated between the rivers Buh (old name — Boh) and Buzhok, hence the name (medzh – between, bizh or bozh – from the name of the rivers). The exact date of its foundation is not known but there is enough evidence to suggest that the fortress of Medzhybizh dates back to the early mediaeval times.
In the 15th-16th centuries, it grew to be a major fortress of the Grand Principality of Lithuania. In the mid-16th century the Polish noble family of Zaslavskys, which ruled the area, began building new fortifications turning Medzhybizh into an impregnable fortress. The Zaslavkys defended the then southern borders of Ukraine from the incursions of the Turks and Crimean Tartars.
Medzhybizh, standing two kilometers away from the highway connecting the towns of Vinnytsya and Kmelnytsky, is a nice example of fruitful coexistence and beneficial mutual influences of different cultures.
The stronghold appeared in the 13th century when it was first built of wood and on a much smaller scale. The stone outpost is first mentioned in chronicles from 1516. Tartar troops then came across Ukraine through Medzhybizh, and it would have been impossible to survive without the castle. As of 1540, the town and the fortress belonged to the Sieniawski magnates for almost two centuries. One of these, Adam Sieniawski, granted Medzhybizh the Magdeburg rights (a set of town laws regulating the degree of its internal autonomy) in 1593 and the town became richer and richer from its fairs and famous for its craftsmen. The magnates restored the castle and built the grand palace in its yard. Their white stone doorways and frames, as well as the Renaissance attics remain today.
Jewish culture has left a greater impact. The Jews made up a considerable part of the local population already in the 17th century and at the end of the 19th century out of 8,164 people living in Medzhybizh 6,040 were Jewish. There were several reasons why Jews settled down in areas similar to the one where Medzhybizh is situated. One of them was an outflow of the indigenous local population harassed by centuries of foreign invasions. The Jews were encouraged to settle down in the areas vacated by the local population for which they were granted certain privileges. It was in Medzhybizh that the founder of Hasidism lived and died. Modern Hasidism, a Jewish spiritual movement characterized by mysticism and opposition to secular studies and Jewish rationalism, may be regarded as a mass movement, having a minimum of organization, using the methods of propaganda and preaching, and forming groups of acknowledged members.
The most important rabbi from Medzyhbizh was Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer Baal Shem Tov “Besht” (1698–1760), the founder of Hasidism. He lived in Medzhybizh from about 1742 until his death in 1760. His grave can be viewed today in the Medzhybizh old Jewish cemetery. He aroused controversy by mixing with ordinary people, renouncing mortification of the flesh, and insisting on the holiness of ordinary bodily existence. He was also responsible for I divesting Kabbalah (esoteric Jewish mysticism) of the rigid asceticism imposed on it by Isaac ben Solomon Luria in the 16th century. The BESHT’s life has been so adorned with fables and legends that a biography in the ordinary historical sense is not possible.