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Elimelekh of Lizhensk


ELIMELEKH OF LIZHENSK (1717?1787), Hasidic teacher and leading theoretician of the tsaddiq concept. Elimelekh and his brother, Zusya of Hanipol, who lived for some time as wandering ascetics, were both attracted to the teachings of Dov Ber of Mezhirich (Międzyrzecz, Poland) and became his disciples. After his master's death, Elimelekh settled in Lizhensk (Lesajsk, Poland) and became the major disseminator of Hasidic teachings in Galicia. Most of the later schools of Polish and Galician Hasidism, including Prsyzucha, Kotsk (Kock), Ger (Góra), Sandz (Halberstadt), and Belz (Beltsy, Moldova), are ultimately derived from Elimelekh's influence, especially through his disciple and successor Yaʿaqov Yitsaq, the "Seer" of Lublin (1744/451815). The collection of Elimelekh's homilies, published as Noʿam Elimelekh (1787), was one of the most popular and widely reprinted volumes of Hasidic teaching.

These homilies are primarily concerned with the promulgation of a single concept, that of the tsaddiq. No matter what the weekly scripture reading, Elimelekh ingeniously leads his discussion back to this theme. The tsaddiq, or holy man, is the necessary link between heaven and earth; the community around him is dependent upon his blessing for both spiritual and material well-being. Using strands of tradition that had a venerable history in Judaism, Elimelekh wove a picture of a universe wholly sustained by the special divine grace called forth by these few charismatic individuals. Even prayer was to be directed heavenward by means of the tsaddiq, because only to him were the "pathways of heaven" familiar.

An important part of the tsaddiq idea was the notion of his descent, usually depicted as a voluntary movement, from the heights of contemplation and absorption in God in order to raise up those more ordinary mortals who awaited his aid. Sometimes, however, this descent was also viewed as a "fall," in which the sins of the world were of such overbearing power that they caused even the tsaddiq to fall from his rung. In either case, this was a "descent for the sake of ascent": As he returned to his elevated state, the tsaddiq would carry with him those souls and sparks of holiness that had turned to him in search of redemption.

This notion of repeated descents and ascents in the life of the tsaddiq was adapted by Hasidism from the earlier Shabbatean movement (seventeenth century), where the "fall" or "descent" of the tsaddiq /messiah was used to explain Shabbetai Tsevi's bouts with depression and ultimately also to justify his seemingly treasonous act of conversion to Islam. In Hasidism the notion has been "purified" of its element of intentional sin, which was particularly prominent in the Frankist version of Shabbateanism, also current in eastern Europe. The BeSHT (Yisraʾel ben Eliʿezer, c. 17001760) had spoken chiefly of the "uplifting of wayward thoughts ", portraying even the entry of a stray thought during prayer as sufficient taste of sin for the tsaddiq. In Elimelekh's work the rhythm of ascent and descent is also frequently used to assert the supremacy of the "revealed" tsaddiq, serving as communal leader, over the hidden one, who cultivates only his own mystical life. It is the tsaddiq serving as a public figure who "descends" in order to meet the people and can thus ascend to greater heights.

Elimelekh was known as a saintly and humble man who did not use his extreme views of the tsaddiq' s powers for personal gain. Abuses of this notion by later generations have often been unfairly attributed to him. During the last years of his life he withdrew from public leadership, and his disciple Yaʿaqov Yitsaq began conducting himself as a Hasidic master, causing some conflict between them. Others of his disciples include Yisraʾel of Kozienice, Mendel of Rymanów, and Naftali of Ropczyce.


Noʿam Elimelekh has been published in an annotated edition by Gedalyah Nigal (Jerusalem, 1978). The introduction to that work deals at length with major themes in Elimelekh's writings. The most complete legendary biography is the Ohel Elimelekh by A. H. Michelson (1910; reprint, Jerusalem, 1967).

New Sources

Elimelekh of Lizhensk. Sidur tefilah ʿAvodat Elimelekh: seder ha-tefilot le-khol yeme ha-shanah u-meʿu·tar be-likutim. Jerusalem, 1988 or 1989.

Elimelekh of Lizhensk. Ha-Shabat noʿam ha-neshamot: ʿimrot ve-ʿuvdot be-ʿinyene Shabat kodesh. Jerusalem, 2001.

Elimelekh of Lizhensk. Shivhe ha-Rabi Elimelekh: Likut nifla mitoldot hayav ufeʿalav shel Elimelekh mi-Lizensk. Edited by Menasheh Yitshak Meʾir Shif. Ashdod, Israel, 2002.

Arthur Green (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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