Hasidism: An Overview

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Hasidism is the common appellation of a Jewish pietistic movement that developed in eastern Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century, became, before the end of that century, a major force in modern Judaism, and has remained as such. Previous Hasidic movements in Jewish historymainly the Ashkenazic Hasidism of medieval Germany (twelfththirteenth centuries) and the early asidim of the tannaitic period (firstsecond centuries ce)will not be discussed here. Rather, the movement at hand is that called, in the writings of the opponents of Hasidism and some historians, "Beshtian Hasidism," a sobriquet that refers to the movement's founder, Yisraʾel ben Eliʿezer, known as the BeSHT (an acronym for Baʿal Shem Tov, "Master of the Good Name").

Roots of the Movement

Hasidism did not emerge, as most other Jewish religious movements did, from the schools of the higher social strata and leading intellectuals. Its first teachers belonged to a social group of popular preachers who used to wander from one community to the other, usually among the smaller and poorer Jewish communities in Podolia and the neighboring areas. Many of these preachers were suspected of Shabbatean tendencies, and they found their audience among the small merchants and the poor in peripherial areas. This fact influenced the later development of the Hasidic movement. Even after Hasidism grew dominant in larger communities, it remained faithful to the social groups that supported it in its early beginnings, and an awareness of the religious needs of the uneducated and the poor became one of the traits of the movement.

Attempts to describe Hasidism as a movement of social rebellion of the poor against the rich, the downtrodden masses against the leaders, have failed. There is no evidence that the Hasidic teachers intended to change the social structure of Jewish communities. But Hasidism did emphasize the ability of the lower social groups to actively participate and achieve a high position in Jewish religious practice.

The religious background for the appearance of the Hasidic movement is the Shabbatean crisis. While various historians differ in their descriptions of the main reasons for the emergence of Hasidism and in their evaluation of the social and cultural reasons for its success, there is little doubt that the movement served as an answer to the most profound religious crisis that affected Judaism from the late seventeenth through the eighteenth centuries. Gershom Scholem described Hasidism as the neutralization of the messianic element in Judaism after the Shabbatean crisis, and while some scholars insisted that there are messianic elements in Hasidism, none disputed the direct relationship between Hasidic theology and the Shabbatean sects that flourished in eastern Europe in the eighteenth century.

Jewish theologians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many of whom persisted in believing in the messianism of Shabbetai Tsevi, had to develop a theology that would explain the paradox of a messiah committing the worst possible transgression against orthodox JudaismShabbetai Tsevi's conversion to Islam in 1666. Various theologies were developed, some of which called upon the believers to follow the messiah and convert to Islam, thereby creating a "coalition" between Judaism and Islam against Christianity; others maintained that belief in Shabbetai Tsevi could be continued within Judaism provided the believer express his attachment to the new messianic, redemptive period that began with the appearance of Shabbetai Tsevi. These expressions eventually covered a whole range of possibilities, from the most anarchistic, antinomian ones of the Frankist movement in Poland in the middle of the eighteenth century to the mild celebrations of Tishʿah be-Av (the ninth day of the month of Av, the day of the destruction of the Temple and a day of fasting, which the Shabbateans turned into a celebration of Shabbetai Tsevi's birthday).

Among the various expressions of the continued belief in Shabbetai Tsevi as the Messiah, two are of interest in understanding the beginnings of Hasidism: the most radical one and the most orthodox one. The radical Frankist movement, which proclaimed that in the new messianic world the way to preserve the Torah was to destroy it, was regarded as a sign of a deep crisis in Jewish religion and education. The Frankists, before converting to Christianity, participated in a religious dispute (in Kamenets in 1757 and in Lvov in 1759) during which they were reported to have directed a blood libel (accusation of a murder for ritual purposes) against their Jewish coreligionists. This aberrational movement, which included some very tempting ideas that captured the hearts of many, signified the need for a reformulation of Jewish organized religious life as well as for the formulation of new answers to basic theological questions, especially the interpretation of qabbalistic symbols from the thirteenth century Zohar and from the teachings of Isaac Luria of Safad (15341572) that were used extensively by the Shabbateans.

The other side of the Shabbatean response to the conversion was a retreat to ultraorthodoxy or cryptoorthodoxy, often with some pietistic ("Hasidic") elements. Explaining that the crisis of the Shabbatean endeavor was caused by the insufficient spiritual support the messiah received from his followers, these Shabbateans adopted a way of life that emphasized continued practice of repentance, self-negation, and insistence on strict adherence to every detail of Jewish religious law. Groups of such asidim appeared in several Jewish communities in eastern Europe that were the centers for spiritual seeking. Not all of their members were Shabbateans, and the Shabbateans themselves were divided in many ways. But when the new Hasidic movement emerged, it did so against the background of several groups or sects of asidim that had already become a common phenomenon in the major centers of Jewish culture in eastern Europe.

The relationship of Hasidism to Shabbateanism and the Frankist movement is complicated. On the one hand, an early Hasidic legend tells how in the BeSHT's participation in the Lvov disputation of 1759, he defended Judaism from the accusations of the Frankists. On the other hand, another Hasidic tradition quotes the BeSHT as lamenting the conversion of the Frankists following that disputation, claiming that as long as a limb is connected to the divine body of the Shekhinah it can be cured, but once severed it is lost forever. In a similar vein, there are found motifs of understanding and closeness to the Shabbatean experience coupled with fierce negation and rejection of the Shabbatean message. The BeSHT is described as trying to save the soul of Shabbetai Tsevi from Hell, where he saw him stretched out on a table with Jesus Christ; Shabbetai Tsevi then tried to pull the Besht down, and only by a great effort did the BeSHT succeed in extricating himself. It seems that though the condemnation of Shabbateanism by the asidim was absolute, the idea that the Shabbateans could and should be saved also persisted in Hasidic circles. Members of the Bratslav sect of Hasidism believed that their leader, Naman of Bratslav, was destined to correct the religious damage done by the Shabbatean movement.


The history of the early Hasidic movement can be divided into four main periods, each a major step in its development.

1. The circle of the BeSHT (c. 17401760)

The BeSHT seems to have been in contact with a group of wandering preachers, like himself, who in their homiletics preached a new kind of worship and presented a new conception of the role of the elect in Jewish religion. They were qabbalists, following the main mystical symbols of the Lurianic school but emphasizing the achievements of the individual and his ability to assist his brethren in religious matters. Devequt (communion with God) was one of the main subjects they preached, stressing humankind's ability to attain constant communion with God. It is possible that parallel to the BeSHT's circle of adherents there were other pietistic groups in some of the major centers of Jewish culture in eastern Europe. Some of these circles were influenced by various Shabbatean ideas; all were aware of the Shabbatean crisis.

2. The first Hasidic center in Mezhirich (17601772)

After the BeSHT's death, the leadership of the Hasidic movement was assumed by his disciple, Dov Ber of Mezhirich (now Mie̜dzyrzecz, Poland). He held "court" in his home, where many young Jewish intellectuals as well as common people gathered to listen to his sermons. These were transcribed by his disciples and later published in several versions. The court of Dov Ber (called the maggid, i.e., "preacher") was described, among others, in the autobiography of Salomon Maimon, who had visited it in his youth. In this period begins the history of Hasidism as an organized movement, led by an accepted authority.

3. The disciples of Dov Ber (17731812)

This is the most important period, in which Hasidism became a major force within Judaism. Several of Dov Ber's disciples created "courts" like that of their teacher, and led ʿedot ("communities"), around which thousands, and then tens of thousands, of adherents gathered, accepting the leadership of that disciple and making their community an alternative social and religious organization of Jews, distinct from the hegemony of the traditional rabbinate. Elimelekh of Lizhensk (now Lezajsk, Poland), Shneʾur Zalman of Lyady (Belarus), Menaem Mendel of Vitebsk, and, to some extent, Naman of Bratslav belong to this category. In this period of Hasidic theory of the tsaddiq was developed and began to shape both Hasidic thought and social organization. At this same time the asidim became a distinct group, not only because of the internal development of Hasidism, but also because of the growing opposition to it from the school of Eliyyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman, the "Gaon of Vilna," which published several pamphlets against Hasidic ideology and practice, denouncing them as heretics and excommunicating them, even trying to enlist the help of the Russian government against their leaders (especially Shneʾur Zalman of Lyady, founder of the Habad sect). This fierce opposition was motivated both by fears that the asidim were going to undermine the traditional Jewish social structure, which was based on the prestige of the scholars and Talmudists, and by the fear of another Shabbatean movement. There is no doubt that the growing opposition to Hasidism contributed significantly to the internal cohesion of the Hasidic communities and created clear lines of demarcation between areas in which the asidim became dominant and areas governed by their opponents.

It was in this period that Hasidic literature was initially published. The first works were those of Yaʿaqov Yosef of Polonnoye, the BeSHT's greatest disciple, whose voluminous collections of sermons include most of the existing material concerning the teachings of the BeSHT (the first Hasidic work published was Yaʿaqov Yosef's Toledot Yaʿaqov Yosef, Korets, 1780). These were followed by the sermons of Dov Ber, published by his disciples, and then many other collections of sermons by his followers. The only work published in this period in the form of an ethical work and not the usual collection of sermons was Shneʾur Zalman's Tanyaʾ (see below). By the beginning of the nineteenth century the Hasidic movement had an organized leadership, prolific literature, well-defined communities and areas of influence, and an established standing in the general framework of Jewish life.

4. The development of Hasidic "houses" or "lines of succession" (shoshalot )

To a very large extent this process has continued to the present. Many of Dov Ber's disciples served as founders of several Hasidic communities when their disciples scattered and each established his own "house" and community. The custom of passing Hasidic leadership from father to son or, in some cases, son-in-law, became more and more frequent, until it was universally accepted that the new leader had to be from the family of the previous leader. These "houses" usually bore the names of the towns in which they were established, even after the center was moved to another countryPoland, for instance, where many centers were located in Warsaw before the Second World Waror to another continent such as to the United States or Israel, where many of the centers are today. The history of Hasidism has since fragmented into the separate histories of various houses or schools. Only two of the communities have preserved their specific ideological and organizational profile, remaining distinct from all others, throughout this periodHabad Hasidism, founded by Shneʾur Zalman of Lyady, and Bratslav Hasidism, the followers of Naman of Bratslav, the BeSHT's great-grandson. The rift between asidim and their opponents has obtained until this day; most Jews of east European descent belong to family lines of either asidim or mitnaggedim ("op-ponents").

Spread of the Movement

The spread of Hasidism after the death of Dov Ber in 1772 occurred at the same time that the opposition to the emerging Hasidic movement was growing. After that year, for a period of nearly fifty years, their opponents orchestrated repeated declarations excommunicating the Hasidic leaders and several times enlisted the help of the Russian government in their efforts, claiming that the asidim, as heretics, were undermining the foundations of the state. The documents concerning this organized opposition have been collected by Mordecai Wilensky and analyzed in a detailed, two-volume study.

The persecution by their opponents did not halt the spread of the movement, which gathered momentum and gained new communities and adherents in the end of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century. The disciples of Dov Ber and their disciples established the great Hasidic houses. Levi Yitshaq established an important Hasidic community in Berdichev, while Menaem Nahum built the house of Chernobyl, which was continued by his son, Mordechai Twersky, and went on for many generations. Yisraʾel of Rizhyn (now Ruzhin, Ukraine), a descendant of Dov Ber, built the Rizhyn-Sadigora house; his four sons who followed him made it into one of the most important and eminent Hasidic communities in Russia. Mosheh Hayyim Efrayim of Sedlikov (now Sudylkow, Poland), a grandson of the BeSHT, did not lead a community, but his book, Degel maaneh Efrayim, a work of Hasidic sermons that often relies on direct traditions of the BeSHT, was influential. In Poland and Lithuania Hasidism became a major force through the work of Shelomoh ben Meʾir of Karlin and ayyim aiqel of Amdur (Indura). Hasidic communities in the Land of Israel were established in Safad and Tiberias by Manaem Mendel of Vitebsk and Avraham ben Aleksander Kats of Kalisz who migrated to the Land of Israel in 1777. In the beginning of the nineteenth century a group of great leaders gave renewed impetus to the spread of Hasidism, among them Yaʿaqov Yitsaq ("the Seer of Lublin"), Yaʿaqov Yitsaq ben Asher of Pshischa (now Przysucha, Poland), and Avraham Yehoshuʿa Heschel of Apt in Moldavia (now Opatow, Poland). Manaem Morgenstern established the great house of Pshischa-Kozk, and Shalom Rokeah the Belz asidim. Mosheh Teitelbaum, a disciple of Yaʿaqov Yitsaq of Lublin, created the powerful and influential Satmar Hasidism in Hungary. By the middle of the nineteenth century Hasidism was the dominant force in most Jewish communities in eastern Europe, and most Hasidic houses continued their existence and development until the Holocaust.

Theology and Ethics

It is nearly impossible to describe Hasidic theology and ethics as being distinct from previous Jewish ideologies because Hasidic teachers preached their ideas in the form of sermons, which included all layers of earlier Jewish thought. Almost all the main ideas and trends found in early-eighteenth-century Hebrew homiletical literature also appear in Hasidic thought, and attempts to define specifically Hasidic ideas, or even emphases, usually fail because similar examples can easily be produced from earlier homiletical literature. A second difficulty is that every Hasidic teacher developed his own theology and ethics and his own list of priorities that may distinguish him or his group but never characterize all the hundreds of teachers and writers who created Hasidic literature. It is unfeasible to generalize from one or a group of Hasidic teachers to the movement as a whole. Every definition is therefore a necessarily subjective one. Thus only a few general outlines, qualified by the preceding statements, can be presented concerning Hasidic theology.

Relationship to Lurianic Qabbalah

Hasidism relies on qabbalistic terminology and is largely based on Lurianic Qabbalah. In many specific formulations, however, the asidim seem to have preferred the simpler symbolism of the Zohar (the main qabbalistic work written in northern Spain in the late thirteenth century) to that of ayyim Vital (15431620), the disciple of Luria who wrote the main body of Lurianic teachings.

Hasidic theology, like other qabbalistic schools of the eighteenth century, downplayed the most dramatic mythical symbols of Lurianic mysticism, especially that of shevirat ha-kelim ("the breaking of the divine vessels"), the description of the catastrophe within the divine world that is the origin of evil, according to Luria. The idea of tsimtsum (divine self-contraction) was elaborated by the asidim (especially by Dov Ber), but in a completely different manner than in Luria's original thought. According to Luria, this was the drastic process of divine contraction away from the world, which vacated the space in which the cosmos was going to be created from the divine light of the godhead, the first exile of God. According to Hasidism, however, this was a necessary process, for the world could not absorb the full power of the undiluted divine light. The act of tsimtsum, the contraction of that light, was intended to facilitate the acceptance of divine light, in a less concentrated form, by the righteous in the created world. Instead of the original Lurianic idea of a mythological catastrophe, the asidim presented a theology in which this process was the result of divine benevolence toward the faithful.

The asidim also deemphasized the Lurianic concept of tiqqun (restoration), the process by which messianic redemption is enhanced by the collective efforts of the Jewish people as a whole; they preferred instead the concept of devequt (communion with God), a process of individual redemption by which a person uplifts his own soul into contact with the divine powers. The description of the ten qabbalistic sefirot, the ten divine hypostases, is closer in Hasidic works to the thirteenth-century system of the Zohar than to the much more complicated system of Luria.

Extent of messianism in Hasidism

There is an emphasis in Hasidic literature on personal religious achievement rather than on the general, national, and cosmic impact of religious life. The redemptive element, while still strong in Hasidism, often emphasizes the redemption of the individual's soul rather than that of the nation or of the cosmos as a whole. This is a slight departure from Lurianic Qabbalah, but not all Hasidic teachers shared this view, and some non-Hasidic writers, who either predated Hasidism or belonged to the opponents of Hasidism, also often stressed the emphasis on the individual in qabbalistic symbolism.

The place of the messianic element in Hasidic thought has been a subject of controversy among contemporary scholars. In a detailed study in 1955, Ben Zion Dinur tried to prove that the asidim, following the BeSHT himself, developed an esoteric messianic system that was hidden in most of their works but served as the main purpose and drive behind Hasidic preaching and the expansion of its influence. This approach was severely criticized by Gershom Scholem, who saw in Hasidism the neutralization of the Lurianic and Shabbatean acute messianism and a new emphasis on individual redemption through the process of communion with God. Isaiah Tishby recently analyzed early Hasidic texts and found that many of them include more messianic elements than Scholem suggested. There is no doubt that, on the whole, early Hasidism rejected the more extreme messianic tendencies; the works of Dov Ber can be characterized as neutralizing the messianic drive. But Hasidic teachers in their various works reveal differing attitudes, and some of them may have had stronger messianic inclinations than the Maggid and even the BeSHT.

In the early nineteenth century there was a renewed messianic enthusiasm with Hasidism. Naman of Bratslav developed a messianic system (see below), and under the impact of Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 are found several Hasidic leaders engaged in messianic activity. In contemporary Hasidism the Habad sect seems to be deeply motivated by an acute belief in an imminent messianic redemption, concentrating its activities on enhancing this process by strict adherence to religious commandments.

Hasidic approach to God

In early Hasidic literature there is an emphasis on direct, emotional worship of God and a deemphasis on contact with God through constant study of the Torah and Talmud and diligent observance of the particulars concerning the performance of the mitsvot. This does not mean that the asidim did not study the Torah or that they disregarded the mitsvot, as their opponents often claimed; rather, the asidim stressed the importance of mystical contact with God through devequt, usually attained while praying but also achieved when a person is working for his livelihood or engaged in any other physical activity.

There are many precedents for this attitude in pre-Hasidic Jewish thought, and there are many exceptions to it among Hasidic teachers. Still, it seems that on the whole, asidim perceived a wider range of modes of worship as acceptable and commendable than did their detractors, and that the mystical aspect of everyday religious life is more prominent among the asidim. This attitude led to the prevailing conception of Hasidism as oriented toward the needs of the simple believers, the uneducated, and even the ignoranta conception based primarily on very late (end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) collections of stories and one that is considerably exaggerated.

Good and evil

Hasidic teachers, more than non-asidim, contributed to the development of a conception of the way to fight evil within one's soul that is different from the prevailing Lurianic one. On the one hand, Lurianic theology described a common source for good and evil, claiming that both emanate from the godhead; but, according to Luria, evil cannot exist unless it is in close contact with the good and derives sustenance from it. In order to overcome evil, the righteous must separate good from evil, thus making the latter's existence impossible. Shabbatean thinkers, on the other hand, emphasized that evil can be overcome from within by correcting it. Dov Ber of Mezhirich and other Hasidic teachers insisted that evil can and should be overcome by absorbing it, uplifting and making it again a part of goodness, believing that the spiritual stature of the "corrected" or "repentant" evil is higher than that of the elements that were always good. In early Hasidic works this theory is presented as teachings accessible to everybody and offered to all righteous Jews; later it was merged with the doctrine of the tsaddiq.

Hasidism as revival of traditional spirituality

The spiritual side of religious life holds a central place in Hasidic teachings, following the traditions of medieval Hebrew ethical and homiletical literature. Great emphasis is placed on the correct qabbalistic intentions in prayers (kavvanot ), on spiritual repentance, on the love and fear of God, and on social justice and love for fellow people. While very few new ideas on these subjects are to be found in the vast Hasidic literature, the movement undoubtedly represents a revival of these spiritual values within the framework of everyday religious life. In this respect, then, there is no basis to the frequent descriptions of Hasidism as an original phenomenon that changed the face of traditional Judaism; but it can be claimed that the asidim collected many spiritualistic ideas and practices from previous Jewish sources and brought them to the foreground of their teachings and Jewish worship in a more central way than before. In this sense their endeavor can be described as "revivalistic."

The Doctrine of the Tsaddiq

While these ideas characterize Hasidism, they do not distinguish the Hasidic movement from previous Jewish religious movements or from the other religious movements of that time, even that of the mitnaggedim. Many of these ideas are found, and emphasized, in late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century non-Hasidic Jewish works of ethics and homiletics. Hasidism, however, can be defined as a separate movement, different from all others preceding or contemporary to it, because of its doctrine of the tsaddiq ("righteous man"), which sets clear boundaries, in theory and in practice, between asidim and non-asidim.

The theory of the tsaddiq presented Judaism with a new concept of religious leadership that was both charismatic and mystically motivated. According to this theory, in every generation there are some righteous persons who can and should, by their outstanding mystical worship, correct the sins and transgressions of lesser-endowed people. The asid (follower) has only limited ability to approach the godhead and to carry out difficult religious tasks, especially the correction of evil, including that in his own thoughts and deeds. The leader, the righteous tsaddiq, whose soul emanated from a very high place in the divine realm, is the one to carry out these tasks for his generation and especially for his followers, the members of the Hasidic community that he leads. Thus the tsaddiq is an intermediary between the Hasid and God, bringing before the heavenly powers (the qabbalistic sefirot ) the prayers and religious achievements of his community. He receives forgiveness for the sins of his followers and effects the elevation of the evil within them, transmuting it into good at the common source of both in the divine realm.

The tsaddiq himself does not contain any evil; the sins he uplifts and corrects are those of his community. One description of this transactionfound in the works of the great formulator of this theory, Elimelekh of Lizhensk, a disciple of Dov Beris that the sins of the community appear to the tsaddiq as evil thoughts that he then uplifts and rehabilitates into good thoughts. This theory demands that the tsaddiq be in constant movement between good and evil, heaven and earth (ratsoʾ va-shov, "ran and returned," after Ezekiel 1:14). He has to be close to the evil that he is to correct, subjecting himself to the process of a "fall" (yeridah ) or "smallness" (qatnut, a term used in Lurianic theology only to refer to the divine powers when they descend from their high dominion). When he uplifts evil and turns it into goodness, he is united with the divine powers in a state of "greatness" (gadlut ). This dynamism is the most characteristic aspect of the tsaddiq concept, and there is no difficulty in ascertaining the source from which the asidim, probably unwittingly, derived it.

Even before Shabbetai Tsevi's conversion to Islam, his "prophet," Natan of Gaza, described his messianic role as an intermediary between the godhead and evil on earth. The changing moods of Shabbetai Tsevi, probably caused by a manic-depressive state, were explained as resulting from his constant movement between his source and origin among the sefirot and the realm of the devil on earth. After his conversion, Shabbatean theologians explained that in order to overcome evil the Messiah had to merge with it and destroy or correct it from within. There are close parallels between the Shabbatean concept of the Messiah and the Hasidic concept of the tsaddiq, and there can be little doubt that the asidim created their system on the heels of Shabbatean theology.

Nevertheless, the Hasidic concept of the tsaddiq is not messianic in the same sense as its Shabbatean precursor. The tsaddiq is undoubtedly a quasi-messianic figure, but his influence is limited in time and placehe "redeems" only his own community in his own lifetime. The redemption that the tsaddiq accomplishes is not the general, national, and cosmic redemption of Shabbateanism. Rather, he effects individual redemption of the souls in his communitythose of his followersonly while he is alive; after his death his successor (his son or relative) will continue in this task, while at the same time dozens of other tsaddiqim are performing the same task for other communities in other places. It may be stated that Hasidism broke down the Shabbatean concept of the messiah into small fragments, each of which is the tsaddiq for his own time and place. Instead of one messianic figure who inaugurates the historical redemption, Hasidism provides a process of constant redemption of the souls of the believers, a process carried out by every tsaddiq within the boundaries of his time and place. When viewed in terms of a messianic movement, Hasidism destroyed the basis for any large, messianic upsurge, replacing it with the small, everyday process of individual redemption. It is possible that the vehement opposition of the Hasidic movement as a whole, with very few exceptions, to modern Jewish nationalism and Zionism should be understood in this light. If individual redemption is assured by faithfulness to the tsaddiq, the importance of national redemption is diminished.

The theory of the tsaddiq was the focal point of Hasidic theology, shaping to a very large extent Hasidic social organizations and ways of worship as well. According to this theory, the tsaddiq not only provides the asidim with spiritual redemption for their souls but also promises them the basic earthly needstheir livelihood, delivery from illness, and assurances that they will have children (banei, ayyei, mezonei; literally, "my sons, my life, my food"). The asidim, for their part, have to give the tsaddiq spiritual support; their belief in his superhuman role enables him to achieve his spiritual tasks. They are also obligated to supply the tsaddiq 's everyday needs so that he may support himself and his family.

The tsaddiq became the center of the Hasidic community. His court was their meeting place several times each year; his room became the place where they brought their complaints and requests; his blessing was believed to ensure both earthly and heavenly success. The asidim congregated to listen to the tsaddiq 's prayers and sermons, worshiped with him with great qabbalistic "intentions" (kavvanot ), and practiced the religious commandments, often with joy and happiness. The task of uplifting evil was thus taken from the shoulders of the individual Jew and consigned to the tsaddiq as the representative of the community and the intermediary power between heaven and earth.

Not all the tsaddiqim accepted this role. There were several leaders who were uncomfortable with this mode of worship; they left their communities and secluded themselves. Notwithstanding these exceptions, the basic Hasidic attitudes to social organization and everyday worship were developed according to the lines drawn by the doctrine of the tsaddiq.

The most important variant to this doctrine grew out of Bratslav Hasidism, founded by Naman of Bratslav (17721810), the grandson of the BeSHT's daughter. Naman's life passed in conflict with other tsaddiqim; he refused to accept their authority even over their own communities. When he died his followers chose not to nominate another tsaddiq but continue, to this very day, to believe that Naman was the "true tsaddiq " (tsaddiq ha-emet ) and that the Messiah, who will redeem Israel, will be his reincarnation. In the Bratslav doctrine of the tsaddiq there is, to a very large extent, a return to the Shabbatean concept of one redeemer for all; the redemption therefore assumes historical dimensions.

Another important variant is that of the Habad Hasidism, founded by Shneʾur Zalman of Lyady (17451813), a disciple of Dov Ber. From this school is obtained the most detailed information concerning the organization of a tsaddiq 's court. At the same time, Habad Hasidic works seem to minimize the redemptive role of the tsaddiq, especially as outlined in the works offered to the public as a whole, such as Shneʾur Zalman's Tanyaʾ. Habad developed a highly centralized global organization headed by the tsaddiq, with an emphasis on the teaching of Jewish ethics and practice of the mitsvot and basic qabbalistic theology, relegating the more developed messianic and redemptive elements in their theology to esoteric groups among the Habad adherents. Habad is reputed to insist on a more intellectual version of Hasidism, but many other communities share this same trend.

The doctrine of the tsaddiq also contributed to the emergence of a special kind of hagiographic literature, for the tsaddiq could easily serve as a religious hero to stories of this kind. A body of legends in which the BeSHT was a central hero was collected early in the nineteenth century under the title Shivei ha-Besh (In praise of the BeSHT), following the earlier example of Shivei ha-Ari, which was about Isaac Luria. The tales told by Naman of Bratslav in his last years were published as Sippurei ha-maʿasiot le-rabbi Naman, stories describing in a veiled manner the spiritual conflicts and messianic drives of Naman. Many stories were told by the asidim about their leaders, but these began to be published only in the last third of the nineteenth century, mostly by non-Hasidic authors, editors, and publishers, and later by some Hasidic publishers. Many of these stories are nothing but adaptations of ancient Jewish folktales in which the specific tsaddiqim are inserted as heroes. Hasidism throughout its history, including contemporary Hasidism, chose the sermon to be its basic literary genre and mode of expression. This vast body of homiletical literature is the basic and often the only source for Hasidic theology and practice. Some tsaddiqim prepared, or their disciples collected, brief anthologies of the sayings of the leaders, and a few tsaddiqim wrote ethical works, such as Tanyaʾ, but the dominance of homiletical literature in authentic Hasidic literature is uncontested.

Misconceptions about Hasidism

In popular works about Hasidism that focus on material derived from late Hasidic hagiography and collections of sayings of Hasidic teachers culled from their homiletical works and sermons, Hasidism is often described as a popular movement concentrated around charismatic leaders who impress their believers by various miracles and exemplary ethical behavior, without any theological or mystical basis. In some accounts even the strict adherence of asidim to the commandments of Judaism is missing, and Hasidism appears as a kind of "ethical Judaism" based on enthusiastic celebration of festivals and social ethics.

This erroneous image of Hasidism is the product of the literature written by Jewish writers in Hebrew and Yiddish in the early twentieth century, such as Shalom Asch, Yitshaq Loeb Perez, and Yehudah Steinberg, who portrayed Hasidism in nostalgic terms after having left traditional Judaism and embraced Western ways of life. Some scholars and writers, from Martin Buber to Elie Wiesel, followed them to an extent, perpetuating the image of Hasidism as pure, spiritual Judaism that expresses love of Israel, love of God, and love toward every human being. In their descriptions, modern writers have tended to emphasize public behavior in the Hasidic courts and to neglect the mystical, quabbalistic theology and the theoretical basis of the worship of the tsaddiq in Hasidism.

The studies of scholars such as Gershom Scholem, Joseph G. Weiss, Isaiah Tishby, Mendel Pierkaz, and others in the last generation restored the serious study of Hasidism and based it on philological, historical, and ideological scrutiny of the Hasidic texts themselves. Hasidism is the latest chapter in the history of Jewish mysticism, in which qabbalistic symbols became central to a wide, popular movement that produced a new type of religious leadership and introduced religious-mystical values to modern Orthodox Judaism.

See Also

Judaism, article on Judaism in Northern and Eastern Europe to 1500.


Several important book-length studies of Hasidism are to be found in English. Simon Dubnow's classic Geschichte des Chassidismus, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1931), is still the best factual description of the development of early Hasidism. A brief but profound description of Hasidic mysticism is to be found in "Hasidism: The Last Phase," the last chapter in Gershom Scholem's Major Trends in Jewish Mysticsm, 2d ed. (New York, 1954), pp. 325350; the reader may use previous chapters in this book to study main qabbalistic terminology and symbols. Scholem's studies of Hasidic concepts of communion with God and messianism can be found in his collection of essays, The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (New York 1971), pp. 176250.

The Hasidic idea of the intermediary between God and humanity is studied in Samuel H. Dresner's book The Zaddik (London, 1960), and the biography of one of the creators of this idea, Naman of Bratslav, is presented in a profound book by Arthur Green, Tormented Master (University, Ala., 1980). An anthology of early Hasidic texts in English translation is to be found in my book The Teachings of Hasidism (New York, 1983). A selection from the works of an early Hasidic master has been translated and edited by Arthur Green in Upright Practices: The Light of the Eyes, by Manaem Naum of Chernobyl (New York, 1982). The most important collection of Hasidic stories about the BeSHT is In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov, translated and edited by Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome R. Mintz (Bloomington, Ind., 1970).

Many articles about specific problems in Hasidic history and thought were written in English. The most important ones are those of Joseph G. Weiss, especially "Via Passiva in Early Hasidism," Journal of Jewish Studies 11 (1960): 137155, and "The Kavvanoth of Prayer in Early Hasidism," Journal of Jewish Studies 9 (1958): 163192. A recent study of the theory of Hasidic leadership is to be found in Arthur Green's "The Zaddiq as Axis Mundi in Later Judaism," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 45 (September 1977): 327347.

Most of the scholarly work concerning the history and theology of Hasidism was written in Hebrew. Among the most important books are Rivka Schatz Uffenheimer's Hasidism as Mysticism (in Hebrew with English summary; Jerusalem, 1968) and her Maggid devarav le-Yaʿaqov (Jerusalem, 1976), a critical edition of Dov Ber's collection of sermons. A general survey of the works of the main Hasidic teachers is presented in Samuel A. Horodetzky's He-asidut veha-asidim, 4 vols. in 2 (Tel Aviv, 1951). The history of the controversies around the Hasidic movement, and scholarly edition of the relevant texts, is included in Mordecai Wilensky's asidim ve-mitnaggedim, 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 1970). The relationship between Hasidism and its sources in earlier Hebrew ethical and homiletical literature is studied in detail in Mendel Piekarz's Bi-yemei tsemihat he-asidut (Jerusalem, 1978). A study of Naman of Bratslav's life, works, and main ideas is to be found in Joseph G. Weiss's Meqarim be-asidut Breslav (Jerusalem, 1970) and Mendel Piekarz's asidut Breslav (Jerusalem, 1972). A theological discussion of the theology of Habad Hasidism in the second generation is presented in Rachel Elior's Torat ha-elohut ba-dor ha-sheni shel asidut abad (Jerusalem, 1982). A detailed study of Hasidic narrative literature is to be found in my book Ha-sippur he-asidi (Jerusalem, 1975).

A selection of articles on Hasidic history and thought in Hebrew (some with English summaries) is listed below.

Elior, Rachel. "The Controversy over the Leadership of the aBad Movement." Tarbiz 49 (19791980): 166186.

Etkes, Emanuel. "Shiato u-faʿalo shel R. ayyim mi-Volozhin Ki-teguvat ha-evah ha-mitnaggdit he-asidut." Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 38/39 (19701971): 145.

Gries, Z. "The Hassidic Conduct (Hanhagot ) Literature from the Mid-Eighteenth Century to the 1830s." Zion 46 (1981): 199236, 278305.

Scholem, Gershom G. "New Material on Israel Loebel and His Anti-Hassidic Polemics." Zion 20 (1955): 153162.

Shmeruk, Chone. "Tales about RʾAdam Baal Shem in the Versions of Shivei ha-Besh. " Zion 28 (1963): 86105.

Tishby, Isaiah. "The Messianic Idea and Messianic Trends in the Growth of Hassidism." Zion 32 (1967): 145.

Weiss, Joseph G. "Beginnings of Hassidism." Zion 16 (1951): 46105.

Weiss, Joseph G. "Some Aspects of Rabbi Naman of Bratzlav's Allegorical Self-Interpretation." Tarbiz 27 (1958): 358371.

New Sources

Altshuler, Mor. The Messianic Secret of Hasidism (in Hebrew). Haifa, Israel, 2002.

Assaf, David. The Regal Way: The Life and Times of Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin. Translated by David Louvish. Stanford Series in Jewish History and Culture. Stanford, 2002.

Brill, Alan. Thinking God: The Mysticism of Rabbi Zadok of Lublin. New York, 2002.

Fishkoff, Sue. The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch. New York, 2003.

Kanarfogel, Ephraim. Peering through the Lattices: Mystical, Magical, and Pietistic Dimensions in the Tosafist Period. Detroit, 2000.

Magid, Shaul, ed. God's Voice from the Void: Old and New Studies in Bratslav Hasidism. Albany, 2002.

Schachter-Shalomi, Zalman. Wrapped in a Holy Flame: Teachings and Tales of the Hasidic Masters. Edited by Nataniel M. Miles-Yepez. San Francisco, 2003.

Steinsaltz, Adin. Opening the Tanya: Discovering the Moral and Mystical Teachings of a Classic Work of Kabbalah. Translated by Yaacov Tauber. San Francisco, 2003.

Joseph Dan (1987)

Revised Bibliography