Ashkenazic Hasidism

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ASHKENAZIC HASIDISM . In the late twelfth century, the Jewish communities of Mainz, Worms, and Speyer saw the emergence of a Jewish pietistic circle characterized by its own leadership and distinctive religious outlook. For almost a hundred years, the Jewish Pietists of medieval Germany (asidei Ashkenaz ) constituted a small elite of religious thinkers who, along with their followers, developed and sought to carry out novel responses to a variety of social and religious problems.

Pietistic texts were written by three members of the same circle who were also part of the Qalonimos family. Tracing their origins to northern Italy, the Qalonimides claimed to be descendants of the founding family of Mainz Jewry in Carolingian times and bearers of distinctive ancient mystical traditions. The three major figures in this group were Shemuʾel, son of Qalonimos the Elder of Speyer, known as "the pietist, the holy, and the prophet" (fl. mid-twelfth century); his younger son, Yehudah, known as "the pietist" (d. 1217); and Yehudah's disciple and cousin, Elʿazar, son of Yehudah of Worms, who called himself "the insignificant" (d. 1230?).

In their pietistic writings, Shemuʾel, Yehudah, and Elʿazar developed in detail the contours of a distinctive perception of the ideal Jewish way of life, which they thought must be followed for the individual Jew to attain salvation in the afterlife. This shared personal eschatology, or vision of the ideal way for the individual to behave, was attached to the ancient biblical and classical rabbinic term asid, which had denoted, at various times, those who are loyal or faithful to God (e.g., Ps. 31:24, 37:2829) or someone who is punctilious in observing the religious commandments of Judaism and who even forgoes that to which he is entitled (e.g., Avot 5.10).

The German-Jewish Pietists built their own understanding of asid, or "Pietist," upon the cumulative foundation of earlier meanings but moved in new directions as well. Their worldview was grounded in the idea that God's will is only partially revealed in the words of the Pentateuch, or the Torah, given to the prophet Moses at Mount Sinai. God's will requires of the truly faithful and punctilious Jew, that is, of the asid, a search for a hidden and infinitely demanding additional torah, which God encoded in the words of scripture. He did this, moreover, to enable the Pietist to earn additional reward in the afterlife by searching for it and fulfilling it as best he can.

The difficult task of discovering the hidden will of God is part of a central concept in Pietism. The Pietists maintained that life consists of a divinely ordained trial by which the pietist's loyalty to God is continually tested in all he does, thinks, and feels. The source of the trial is a person's passions, such as sexual attraction to persons other than a spouse or the drive for personal honor and adulation in this world. The pietistic authors refer to these urges as the "evil impulse" (yetser ha-raʿ ), a term from classical rabbinic theology. Sometimes associated with the tempter or the accuser (Satan) in the Book of Job (e.g., 1:612), the Pietist's trial by passions is part of God's plan to reward the successful Pietist who resists them. As Shemuʾel says, "Is not the evil impulse good for man? If it did not dominate him, what reward would he earn for acting virtuously?" (Sefer ha-yirʾah, or Book of the Fear of God, para. 2). God's reward for the Pietists derives not only from their struggle to search scripture for God's hidden commandments but also from their continuous resistance of the evil impulse. That effort, in turn, involves a constant self-examination of one's motives and feelings. As such, German Hasidism constitutes one of several contemporary developments in the spiritualization of ancient Judaism which led to new modes of piety. Along with Maimonidean religious philosophy, theosophical mysticism, or Qabbalah, and the scholastic legal achievement of the glossators of the Talmud, German-Jewish Pietism permanently reshaped classical Judaism into traditional Judaism, which lasted down to the modern period.

One result of the fact that the Pietist's life requires resistance to all kinds of temptations of the flesh and ego was the tendency toward asceticism. Grounded in the authors' focus on maximizing otherworldly reward by resisting temptations in this world, the Pietists are told to avoid all illicit physical or psychological pleasure during their life. For this reason, Pietists should not play with their children or benefit from any social honors. Yehudah the Pietist even goes so far as to prohibit authors from writing their own name in the introduction to books they have written. Their children might take pride in their parents' work, and this "enjoyment" in this world will deprive them of some of their reward in the next one.

The centrality in the pietistic ideal of viewing life as a continuous divine trial probably was a reaction, at least in part, to the traumatic memory of acts of suicidal Jewish martyrdom which took place in the same Rhineland towns in the spring of 1096. In the wake of the First Crusade hundreds of Jews, including many of the intellectual elite of Mainz and Worms, were either killed for not converting to Christianity on the spot or else martyred themselves in acts of ritualized socioreligious polemic. Rather than be defiled by the "impurity" of Christians, whom the Jews at that time regarded as idolators, many men and women created a boundary between themselves and their enemy by taking their own lives. In so doing, they acted as though they were Temple sacrifices or holy things which only the holy, or other Jews, could touch. By killing their own families and then themselves, they sought to keep ritual pollution in check. The Hebrew chronicles that describe these events indicate that the crusader mob never reached Jerusalem. By picturing the Jewish martyrs as Temple sacrifices, the chroniclers indicate that the Jews of Mainz in effect erected their own symbolic version of the Temple of Jerusalem and by so doing affirmed their absolute loyalty and faithfulness to God and Judaism through the ultimate sacrifice of having to give their lives.

In the pietistic writings of the Qalonimides are found echoes of the trauma of 1096. Not only is the life of the Pietist a trial, as were the events of that year, but the need to resist the evil impulse is compared to the willingness to be martyred if necessary. In fact, the authors assume that their readers would willingly sacrifice their lives if Christians were to threaten them with the penalty of death for not converting: "If you were living at a time of religious persecution, you would endure tortures or death for the sake of the Holy One, blessed be He. You certainly should endure this [trial] which is not as severe but is only [resisting] your evil impulse which strongly urges you to sin" (Sefer ha-yirʾah, para. 2).

The conception that the Pietist's life was a trial that should be resisted might have led to the conclusion that temptations were to be sought out and fought off. This possibility was discussed but was considered very risky. The struggle between the Pietist who tries to live on the boundary, nearly sinning while resisting temptation, is illustrated in Yehudah the Pietist's major work about Pietism, Sefer hasidim (Book of the Pietists). There Yehudah illustrates the pietistic ideal in hundreds of exempla, or moralistic tales, about Pietists and the Jewish communities in which they lived among Christians and other Jews who were not Pietists. In one of his most celebrated tales, he describes a Pietist who comes close to sinning by risking his own life in order to affirm his loyalty to God.

Yehudah tells of a Pietist who used to torture himself in the summer by lying down on the ground among fleas and in the winter by placing his feet in a container filled with water until they froze. A friend challenged his extremes of self-punishment by quoting a classic proof-text against suicide (Gn. 9:5). The Pietist answered that he was only atoning for his sins.

After the Pietist died, one of his students sought to find out if his teacher was being rewarded or punished for undergoing such extreme penances. In a dream, the Pietist takes the student to Paradise and tells him that his place is high up and that the student will only attain such a high place if he continues to perform acts of virtue. This vision convinced the student that his master was not being punished for flirting with the prohibition of committing suicide (Sefer asidim, ed. Wistinetzki, para. 1556).

The Socioreligious Program

While all three Qalonimides shared a common vision regarding a personal eschatology, there were major ways in which Yehudah differed with Shemuʾel and other ways in which Elʿazar disagreed with Yehudah. Since only one tract by Shemuʾel has survived, Sefer ha-yirʾah, it is impossible to know many of his religious ideas, but from a comparison of that work with Yehudah's Sefer asidim, Yehudah emerges as an important innovator in several respects. Above all, he developed a social, as well as a personal, program for the Pietist. In the process of defining his socioreligious understanding of the demands of Pietism, Yehudah focuses on Jews who were not Pietists and criticized communal leaders or rabbis who permitted or condoned social abuses. He accuses them of ignoring justice and of taking advantage of the poor.

In addition to presenting Pietism as having a social as well as a personal dimension, Yehudah defines a new social context for the Pietists themselves. While Shemuʾel's work is addressed to the individual Pietist, Yehudah takes for granted that Pietists are organized as a fellowship distinct from other Jews who are not Pietists. Moreover, he views this sectarian fellowship as a subcommunity of Jews who are led not by non-Pietist communal elders but by their own religious leaders, charismatic figures called sages (akhamim ). Thus the social world presupposed in Yehudah's Sefer asidim consists of three groups: pietistic Jews, nonpietistic Jews, and Christians. For Yehudah, unlike Shemuʾel, a Jew may be rich or poor, scholarly or ignorant, powerful or common, but the only distinction that matters is between being a Pietist and not.

The exclusivistic character of Yehudah's Pietists was not absolute: a non-Pietist could become a Pietist by undergoing an initiation ceremony of atonement. For this purpose, Yehudah's Sefer asidim includes a penitential manual that he designed for the sage who now functions as a confessor and dispenser of penances. This elaborate penitential ritual serves the sectarian functions of disciplining Pietists who temporarily lapse and enabling non-Pietists to "enter," or be initiated into pietism by means of a penitential rite of passage. A Pietist or would-be Pietist approaches a sage, confesses his sins to him, and receives from the sage an appropriate penance to perform.

Although the door to Pietism was open for others, the Pietists generally appeared to other Jews as a self-righteous elite. It is not surprising, then, that they experienced a great deal of antagonism from other Jews. By insisting that only Pietists should serve as cantors in the synagogue, or be scribes, or be considered proper spouses for themselves or their children, or be eligible to receive charity, they made themselves extremely unpopular. And so to be a Pietist was to be the butt of jokes, the target of ridicule, and the victim of intemperate hostility.

In view of their high regard for themselves, one might have expected the Pietists to try to take over the Jewish communities in which they lived. In fact, in Yehudah's writings there are signs of three political strategies by which they sought to implement their programmatic vision of the perfect Jewish society. Two of these strategies failed: They could not take over the leadership of the communities for long, and they failed to maintain at least one attempt to create a utopian commune of Pietists living in splendid isolation apart from other Jews. A third approach, however, is characteristic of the Pietists who are described in Sefer asidim. Groups tried to live in, but not with, the rest of the Jewish community while struggling to retain their fellowship and resist being absorbed or even influenced by the nonpietistic majority. Not surprisingly, even this compromise form of sectarianism was short-lived, so much so that it left barely any trace outside of Yehudah's own writings.

Although Jews resisted Yehudah's radical program of forming a sectarian fellowship, they were able to remain Pietists as individuals thanks to Elʿazar of Worm's translation of Pietism back into a personalist idiom. In marked contrast to the sectarian and political orientation of Sefer asidim, Elʿazar's writings, like Shemuʾel's, are addressed to the individual Pietist or Jew, not to organized subgroups of Pietists and their sages. There is not even a hint in Elʿazar's writings that he thought of sages except as a failure. Thus unlike the penitential in Sefer asidim, which was designed for the use of the sage as confessor, Elʿazar's private penitentials enable sinners to learn by themselves which penances to undergo simply by reading the manual. He even tells his readers that his manuals were necessary because Jews were too embarrassed to approach another Jew and confess their sins to him.

By articulating a nonsectarian, personalist formulation of Pietism in the wake of Yehudah's failed attempt to effect a social as well as personal religious revival, Elʿazar was a conservative spokesman for a preSefer asidim form of German-Jewish Pietism. But Elʿazar was himself resourceful in adapting and salvaging the shared vision and values of the pietistic ideal. He institutionalized it by incorporating it into his book of German-Jewish customary law, Sefer ha-roqea. In so doing, Elʿazar "normalized" an innovative expression of Judaism by bringing it into the mainstream of rabbinic legal precedents. Ironically, the penances which Yehudah, a critic of the nonpietistic rabbinic and communal elite, devised for new members of the pietistic fellowship, were later implemented by rabbinic leaders themselves, thanks to Elʿazar's including them in his book of religious law. Elʿazar thus transformed and preserved the values and many of the customs first advanced by the Pietists and blended them into his compendium of earlier German-Jewish tradition. This enabled pietism to become a critical part of "ordinary" European Jewish piety throughout the succeeding centuries.

Theological and Mystical Works

Thanks to Yehudah's stricture that authors should not mention their own names in the books they write, there is no explicit internal evidence about Yehudah's own writings. Nevertheless, it is reasonably clear from early attributions and quotations that he wrote not only the major collection of pietistic thought, Sefer asidim, but also several books of esoteric lore. Thus Joseph Dan has posited, with good reason, that Yehudah probably is the author of several still unpublished esoteric works found, for example, in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hebrew Manuscript Oppenheim 540 (Neubauer no. 1567). In these writings, many of which Elʿazar edited under the title Sodei razayyaʾ (Esoteric secrets), Yehudah deals with the problem of anthropomorphism in an original way. Although unaware of most of the medieval Jewish philosophical tradition, which was being translated then from Arabic into Hebrew, Yehudah did have a "paraphrased" version of the tenth-century Jewish philosophical work by Saʿadyah Gaon, Emunot ve-deʿot (The book of beliefs and opinions). There Saʿadyah posits that God is one and that all concrete imagery in the Bible and rabbinic lore which seems to refer to God himself actually refers to a created aspect of God, the divine glory, or kavod.

Yehudah the Pietist maintained the distinction between God's oneness and a kavod, but he argued that the Kavod was itself a twofold emanation of God and not a created being. In separate tracts, Yehudah discussed the implications for the practical religious life of this theological distinction. Particularly at stake was the question as to which aspect of God the Pietist should concentrate on when he prays. Yehudah insisted that the Pietist must think only of the upper, hidden "face" of the glory, not of the lower "face," which is revealed in images to the prophets. To think of the latter would be idolatry. Moreover, Yehudah wrote that the Pietists should pray slowly, in a drawn out or deliberate style (be-meshekh ), in order to permit time to think about elaborately worked out word and number associations attached to the words of the liturgy. Several versions of these mystical prayer commentaries exist, although none has been published. Other parts of Elʿazar's Sodei razayyaʾ deal with manipulations of the Hebrew alphabet and of the divine names to achieve mystical results, including the fabrication of a homunculus or gōlem.

One genre which expressed the Qalonimides' theology about anthropomorphism did find its way not only into print but even into the standard prayerbook. The Songs of Divine Oneness (shirei yiud) extol God himself as being beyond any attributes. Complementing these prayers is the equally mystical Song of Divine Glory (shir ha-kavod), an intensely evocative expression of the Pietist's yearning to see God's glory, based on Exodus 33:18ff., Song of Songs 5:11ff., and the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 7a.

Apart from the library of esoteric, theological, and mystical texts which can be ascribed with varying degrees of probability to Shemuʾel, Yehudah, and Elʿazar, other works contain some divergent ideas and themes and have been ascribed to mainly anonymous subgroups. Of these writings, mention should be made of Sefer ha-ayyim (The book of life) and Sefer ha-navon (The book of the discerning). Of the few known authors outside the Qalonimide circle and their descendants, the most fascinating is Elanan, son of Yaqar, who atypically knew Latin and made use of Christian works in his esoteric commentaries and text in the late thirteenth century.

Although some of the esoteric writings associated with German-Jewish thinkers consist of exegetical speculations about God, many others deal with mystical experience and practice and are derived from ancient Jewish mystical traditions. It is significant that the Qalonimides preserved, studied, and elaborated much of the late ancient and early medieval Palestinian and Babylonian mystical texts about the divine chariot (merkavah ), based on Ezekiel, chapters 1 and 10, and on the ascent through the heavenly palaces (heikhalot ). Their writings about manipulating the divine name in the form of permutations of the Hebrew alphabet to achieve mystical and magical goals, decidedly influenced later Jewish mysticism in Spain. Thus, their mystical and esoteric writings and their expression of ascetic Pietism contributed to the Jewish mystical tradition and, more generally, to the distinctive fabric of traditional Jewish piety.


The most comprehensive treatment of the pietistic movement and its worldview is my book Piety and Society: The Jewish Pietists of Medieval Germany (Leiden, 1981). Important, stimulating, and profound earlier studies are Yitzhak F. Baer's "Ha-megamah ha-datit ha-ervratt shel 'Sefer asidim,'" Zion 3 (1937): 150 and Haym Soloveitchik's "Three Themes in the Sefer asidim, " AJS Review 1 (1976): 311357.

Concerning the Pietists' esoteric doctrines, the best study is Joseph Dan's Torat ha-sod shel asidut Ashkenaz (Jerusalem, 1968). Gershom Scholem expressed his views on this subject in the chapter "Hasidism in Medieval Germany" in his book Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941; reprint, New York, 1961), pp. 79118. An important essay on the Pietists' innovative prayer commentary is Joseph Dan's "The Emergence of Mystical Prayer," in Studies in Jewish Mysticism, edited by Joseph Dan and Frank Talmage (Cambridge, Mass., 1982), pp. 85120.

New Sources

Alexander, Tamar. "Dream Narratives in 'Sefer Hasidim.'" Trumah 12 (2002): 6578.

Chazan, Robert. "The Early Development of Hasidut Ashkenaz." JQR 75 (1985): 199211.

Dan, Joseph. Hasidut ashkenaz be-toldot ha-mahashavah ha-yehudit (Ashkenazi Hasidism in the History of the Jewish Thought). Tel-Aviv, 1991.

Dan, Joseph. Jewish Mysticism and Jewish Ethics. 2d ed. Seattle, 1986; Northvale, N.J., 1996.

Fishman, Talya."The Penitential System of Hasidei Ashkenaz and the Problem of Cultural Boundaries." JJTP 8 (1999): 201229.

Kanarfogel, Ephraim. Jewish Education and Society in the High Middle Ages. Detroit, 1992.

Soloveitchik, Haym. "Piety, Pietism and German Pietism: 'Sefer Hasidim I' and the Influence of 'Hasidei Ashkenaz.'" Jewish Quarterly Review 92 (2002): 455493.

Ivan G. Marcus (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Ashkenazic Hasidism

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