Note: The Hebrew word Hasid means "pious" and is
employed in classical Jewish sources to designate one whose spiritual
devotion extends beyond the technical requirements of Jewish
religious law. The term came to denote an adherent of the popular
East European Jewish religious movement whose history and doctrines
are outlined below.
Background to the Rise of Hasidism
17th- Century Massacres and Pogroms
- 1648--Cossack massacres led by Bogdan Chmielnicki murdered
thousands of Jews in Ukraine and Poland--about one half of the
population--utterly devastating hundreds of Jewish communities.
In addition to the death tolls, the impoverished Jewish communities
had to cope with excessive taxation, support for widows, orphans and
disabled; and extortion from bandits and Christian clergy
- After 1654--Poles massacred more Jews, who were accused of collusion with the
Swedes during the Swedish invasion of Poland.
These events were followed by church-instigated pogroms.
- 1668--Russian peasant revolts produced further riots that killed
thousands more Polish Jews.
- The above catastrophes brought about a decline in Jewish learning
in Poland. The intellectual of the community centre now moved to Lithuania. Polish
Jewry fell into ignorance and superstition, with a preference for the
eschatological speculations of the Kabbalah.
- Like other communities, Polish Jews were caught up in the
enthusiasm for Shabbetai Zvi, the Turkish Jew who was widely believed
to be a mystical Messiah. Shabbetai's subsequent apostasy to Islam,
and his death in 1676, deepened the demoralization.
- Jacob Frank (1726-1791), a Polish messianic pretender, encouraged
an orgiastic cult. After he was rejected by the Rabbinic leadership,
he converted to Christianity. Frank's slanders of his former
correligionists led to further persecutions.
Class divisions in the Polish Jewish communities:
Jews and the Talmudic scholars who led the communities often did not
distribute the tax burdens fairly, imposing the heaviest obligations upon
the poor. The Rabbinic leadership was not vocal in protesting this
situation, leading to their being discredited them among the common people.
- Rabbinic learning continued to focus on casuistic Talmud study
(pilpul), providing little spiritual nourishment or
- The educated classes looked down on the ignorant Jewish masses.
- Popularity of magic and wonder-workers who could perform miracles
through magical manipulations of the names of God ("Masters of the
Name"--Hebrew: Ba'alei Shem). Widespread faith in demons,
incantations, amulets, etc.
Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov (c. 1700-1760)
His name: Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, Ba'al Shem Tov. The
epithet means: Master of the good name; to distinguish him
from the other "Masters of the [divine] name," i.e., common magicians
or "practical Kabbalists."
He is frequently designated by the Hebrew acronym: BeshT.
Note: Much of the biographical information about him must be
extrapolated from the immense quantities of legendary traditions that
were woven around him.
Priority of emotion over intellect:
Simple, sincere, intuitive
devotion is preferable to the ideal of Talmudic erudition that was
commonly regarded as the hallmark of religious authority.
Overwhelming consciousness of God's presence ("sparks of
holiness," to use the Kabbalistic imagery) in all things, even in
outwardly simple objects and actions. Appreciation of God in nature.
The experience of the Divine is thus accessible to all.
The consciousness of a loving, ever-present Creator should
lead to a feeling of profound joy. Therefore the appropriate mood for
worship is one of good cheer; whereas suffering impedes a proper
relationship with God.
The Ba'al Shem Tov was providing an effective antidote to the
overwhelming demoralizing forces that beset Polish and Russian Jewry
when he taught his followers to feel good about themselves and their
relationships with God.
He encouraged the cultivation of joy through activities of singing,
dancing, story-telling, drinking, etc.
Hasidic doctrine explained
that peasant love songs and fairy tales were in reality profoundly
allegorical religious texts (e.g., the songs that the Levites had
sung in the Holy Temple, expressing the love of God and Israel) that
were now being "restored" to their proper purpose.
Hasidism, true to the longstanding traditions of Central and Eastern
European ("Ashkenazic") Jewry, attached much importance to popular customs.
However it replaced the established Ashkenazic liturgical rite with a version
of the Spanish ("Sepharadic") liturgy that had been sanctified by its use among
the Kabbalists, especially in the school of Rabbi Isaac Luria in 16th-century
Unlike the "fire-and-brimstone" preaching that was so common in his
time, the Ba'al Shem Tov eschewed asceticism and self-imposed
deprivations as expressions of lack of faith in a loving Father.
Good and Evil:
Evil differs from Good only by degree in the hierarchy of
holiness. Therefore the sinner is not completely rejected by the
compassionate God, but always has the potential for self-improvement.
Strong emphasis on the importance of sincere prayer, which can
elevate the soul of the worshippers towards their Creator, as well
as invoking divine blessings.
The Ba'al Shem Tov's doctrine of prayer imbued it with two important
Hasidic prayer was known for its disregard for the technical
regulations and ritual formalities imposed by Jewish law, especially
the fixed times for prayer. It celebrated the sincere devotion of the
unlettered--through simple whistling or recitation of the Hebrew
alphabet, etc.--over precise but mechanical recitation of the
- Devekus ("clinging"; constant devotion): The unceasing
consciousness of God's presence.
- Hislahavus ("bursting into flame"; ecstatic enthusiasm):
The experience of spiritual exultation as the soul is elevated
Hasidism also encouraged the participation of all limbs and forms of
expression in worship: through gesticulation, dance, song, etc.
Messianism and Eschatology:
Scholars disagree over the importance
of Messianic aspirations in the doctrines of the Ba'al Shem Tov. In a
surviving letter of his he expresses the belief that the spread of
his teachings will serve as a prelude to the final redemption. However
G. Scholem has argued that he intentionally tried to neutralize the
eschatological themes that had caused so much disappointment to
previous generations, reinterpreting them as allegorical expressions
of processes that take place internally within the soul of the
"Ahavas Yisro'el" (Love of Israel):
an ideal of
indiscriminate solidarity and love for all fellow Jews.
Subsequent Development of Hasidism
The Ba'al Shem Tov himself does not appear to have defined a
framework for leadership of his movement following his death. After
some disagreement among the circles of his disciples, one leadership
model did emerge as the characteristic one of the movement: that of
the Tzaddik ("righteous one").
Rooted in Kabbalistic doctrines, the Tzaddik was a charismatic
figure of extraordinary spiritual calibre. Since the common folk who
made up the majority of the Hasidic movement did not possess the
material or spiritual means to achieve full religious perfection, the
Tzaddik would provide a vicarious fulfillment. By devoting
oneself to a worthy Tzaddik, the individual could benefit from
the latter's spiritual guidance and achievements.
The first generation of Tzaddikim consisted of the actual
disciples of the Ba'al Shem Tov, and included individuals of
remarkable stature. The cultivation of personal charisma resulted in
an immense variety among the individual Hasidic communities, as each
was stamped with the imprint of its leaders, emphasizing different
aspects of religious piety.
Some of the better known leaders
Subsequent generations of Hasidic leadership would be handed down to
the principal disciples of the reigning Tzaddik, which in many
cases were their own sons. This situation evolved into a system of
dynastic succession, in which the heirs to the title of
Tzaddik did not necessarily share the qualifications of their
predecessors. Abuses of authority became widespread, as
Tzaddikim established "courts" with trappings of royalty, to
which their followers were expected to furnish generous gifts and
Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid (Preacher) of Meseritz:
most prominent of the Besht's original disciples, largely responsible
for the organization of the movement after its founder's death.
Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polnoye:
who formulated the Hasidic
doctrine of the Tzaddik.
Rabbi Shneiur Zalman of Ladi:
founder of the "Chabad" school in Lithuania that integrated a
profound Hasidic theology with the traditional Lithuanian emphasis on
Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav:
a troubled, controversial and
contentious figure with Messianic aspirations, known for his
collection of allegorical "fairy tales." His followers, who never
acknowledge a successor to Rabbi Nahman, are referred to as "the Dead
Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berditshev:
the renowned "advocate of Israel"
who found virtue even among the sinners of Israel, boldly arguing in
the Jews' defense even against the Almighty Himself.
Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk:
an "anti-Tzaddik" who lost
patience with his followers' reliance on him, and withdrew completely
from public contact.
Nevertheless, the movement continued to produce several remarkable
leaders and religious models, as well as inspiring instances of
devotion among the followers.
Although they suffered gravely from the devastation of the European
Holocaust, many Hasidic groups continue to exist and thrive on the
contemporary Jewish scene, especially in the United States and in
Israel. Hasidic factions play prominent roles in both the Naturei Karta anti-Zionist movement, and in
the Aguddat Israel.
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