This article originally appeared in Destiny, Melbourne

Was He Pushed?

A Simḥat Torah Mystery*

Although Hasidism has long since come to be perceived as a branch of Jewish Orthodoxy—or even "Ultra-Orthodoxy"—this classification was hardly one that would have been agreed on during the movement’s early days. Their penetration into established communities was often an occasion for fierce conflicts as the unconventional teachings of the new sect offended the exponents of traditional talmudic values. Respectable Jews could feel threatened by Hasidism's appeal among the poor and the ignorant who might well regard this form of populism as a license to indulge in rowdiness, drunkenness and even mob violence.

Typical of the controversial figures who led early Hasidism was the charismatic Rabbi Jacob Isaac Horowitz (c. 1745-1815), known to posterity (but not apparently to his contemporaries) by the reverent title "the Seer (Ḥozeh) of Lublin."

On October 6 1814, on the night of Simḥat Torah, Rabbi Horowitz fell from his second-story window and sustained mortal injuries that led to his death nine months later, on the fast day the Ninth of Av. Beyond these bare facts, the circumstances of the episode were the subject of intense disagreements, and scholars have despaired at arriving at the objective truth.

Our task as historical detectives is to fill in the details and uncover the precise circumstances that brought about the fatal mishap. Unfortunately, the evidence is full of contradictions and the witnesses are not always quite credible.

The earliest surviving testimony of the "Seer"'s accident is an anti-Hasidic satire composed by one Samson Halevi Bloch, known as an associate of several prominent Jewish intellectuals of the time. Bloch's "Book of Purity and Self-Restraint" was composed very close to the time of the events, during the period between Rabbi Isaac's injury and his death.

After we have removed the substantial layers of acerbic parody, crude name-calling and polemical innuendo, the underlying factual foundation of Bloch's account is that in the course of the holiday festivities—which were lubricated in typical Hasidic fashion by liberal intake of alcohol—the rabbi had excused himself to go to his second-storey bedroom. There he stood up on the window-sill in order to relieve himself into the area overlooked by his room, a lot that routinely functioned as a public latrine. Unfortunately, he lost his balance and tumbled to the ground where his injured body lay in a pool of filth until he was discovered some time later by passers-by.

Needless to say, the opponents of Hasidism leapt eagerly at the opportunity to exploit this humiliating event for purposes of discrediting the revered "Seer" (they noted ironically how this seer could not see clearly enough to keep from plummeting from his window), as well as to pillory Hasidism in general, with its dubious reputation for drunkenness, uncleanness and blind faith in disreputable charlatans.

References to Rabbi Horowitz's fall turned up in several additional anti-Hasidic tracts, and from these we can learn something about the Hasidic responses to the mysterious event. For instance, a lampoon published in 1845 ascribes to the Hasidim the belief that their leader, while cloistered in his bedroom, had been involved in an epic celestial struggle against the demonic forces of evil in an attempt to hasten Israel's redemption, a struggle that took a fatal toll when he was hurled through that window. Indeed, one legend depicted him as leaping intentionally from the window in the expectation that the messiah would be flying by at that precise instant to carry him away

This fanciful theory might have some foundation in the known facts about the Seer's  spiritual life. He had reputedly been involved in a bitter controversy with other members of the Hasidic leadership over the religious significance of the Napoleonic campaign in Russia. Rabbi Jacob had taken the position that this war should be viewed as the cataclysmic battle prophesied by Ezekiel ("the war of Gog and Magog") that is supposed to usher in the imminent final redemption, in keeping with traditional Jewish eschatological teachings. That dispute about how to construe the Napoleonic war would later provide the background for the historical novel Gog und Magog[For the Sake of Heaven] by the young Martin Buber.

Well, my fellow detectives, what do the Hasidim themselves have to testify regarding the the death of the Seer of Lublin?

It was not until nearly a century after the Seer's fall that alternative interpretations of the episode, reflecting the Hasidic perspectives, began to appear in print, though several of these had been circulating in oral versions. The delay might have something to do with the fact that Rabbi Horowitz did not produce his own dynasty or sect of followers to defend his honour. Understandably, these legendary accounts do not inspire much trust among serious scholars—though if you consult Wikipedia, you will find that the entire entry about Rabbi Horowitz (like most of the entries related to Hasidism) consists of hagiographic legends and miracle tales, with no references to credible academic scholarship.

The most elaborate of these legends, published in 1907, portrays the Seer as one who did indeed foresee his doom and had explicitly asked his wife and followers to watch over him when he went up to his room on that fateful Simḥat Torah night. As is standard in such stories, other Hasidic rabbis were also shown portents foreshadowing the Seer's accident, and the fact that he was not killed immediately by the impact was ascribed to the intercession of a recently deceased Hasidic master. Rabbi Horowitz conveniently arranged to die on a fast day in order to deny his opponents the satisfaction of toasting his demise.

Additional elements were inserted into the story in order to transform the rabbi's fall into a full-scale miracle. The window was now elevated to a height where a person could not climb up to it by normal means, and the sill was populated with wine glasses that remained intact after the mishap. None of these remarkable details were mentioned in any of the earlier reports.

But we haven't yet consulted the psychiatric reports. Indeed, according to recent scholarship there is another factor that might well account for the Seer's strange behaviour. There are indications that he had been displaying symptoms associated with suicidal depression. These clues are discernible in some of the tales about his early career, and his self-destructive tendencies might have been exacerbated by his recent disappointments regarding the anticipated advent of the messiah.

And so, fellow detectives—it is now up to you to decide which is the true story of the Seer of Lublin's tragic accident. Did he stumble through his window in a spell of festive drunkenness? Was he hurled there by a demonic force as a result of his mystical struggle to hasten the redemption? Or was this the despondent behavior of a psychologically afflicted personality?

Whatever your verdict, this might be an object lesson for restraining your revelry on future Simḥat Torahs.

This article and many others are now included in the book

The Times of Our Life
The Times of Our Life: Some Brief Histories of Jewish Time

published by

Alberta Judaic Library
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  • First Publication:
    • Destiny: Quarterly Magazine of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, Melbourne, Australia, Issue 26 (Tishrei - Nisan 5777 / September 2016 - April 2017), p. 9.
  • For further reading:
    • Assaf, David. “One Event, Two Interpretations: The Fall of the Seer of Lublin in Hasidic Memory and Maskilic Satire.” Polin 15 (2002): 187–202.
    • ———. Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis & Discontent in the History of Hasidism. Waltham, Mass: Brandeis University Press, 2010.
    • Buber, Martin. For the Sake of Heaven. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1970.
    • Dynner, Glenn. Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
    • Elior, Rachel. “Between Yesh and Ayin: The Doctrine of the Zaddik in the Works of Jacob Isaac, the Seer of Lublin.” In Jewish History: Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky, edited by Ada Rapoport-Albert and Steven J. Zipperstein, 393–455. London: Peter Halban, 1988.
    • Kauffman, Tsippi. “Corporeal Worship in the Writings of R. Jacob Isaac, the Seer from Lublin.” Kabbalah 16 (2007): 259–98.
    • Mark, Zvi. “Madness, Melancholy and Suicide in Early Hasidism.” Kabbalah 12, no. 1 (2004): 27–44.