Elimelech of Lyzhansk

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ELIMELECH OF LYZHANSK (1717–1787), popular ẓaddik of the third generation of Ḥasidim and one of the founders of *Ḥasidism in Galicia. Elimelech was a disciple of *Dov Baer the Maggid of Mezhirech and is considered the theoretician and creator of "practical ẓaddikism." Elimelech and his brother Zusya of Hanipol traveled from village to village, according to the principle of nedudei galut ("wanderings of exile"), i.e., their travels, symbolically expressing their identification with the wanderings of the shekhinah (Divine Presence). According to a later interpretation, the purpose of their wanderings was the promotion of repentance. After the death of Dov Baer (1772), Elimelech settled in Lyzhansk, Galicia, which as a result became an important ḥasidic center. He headed a court financed by pidyonot (lit. ransoms), i.e., a system of internal taxes paid to the ẓaddik usually accompanied by kvitlakh (lit. "receipt"), slips on which the Ḥasidim wrote their spiritual and material problems for the ẓaddik to solve. Letters published under his name show his attitude toward the quarrels between the Hasidim and the Mitnaggedim. Elimelech is also mentioned in the indictments against the Hasidim in Sefer ha-Vikku'ah and in Zemir Arizim. In his letters, he defends himself against the objections of the Mitnaggedim to Hasidim praying according to the Sephardi ritual (following the rite of Isaac *Luria). Elimelech cited as proof Joseph *Caro and even Moses *Isserles, who according to him established the Ashkenazi ritual for the general community, but not for the pious who had attained a higher plane of faith. Elimelech was ascetic, but he did not regard asceticism as the way of life for all. According to him, asceticism corresponds to the "breaking of the vessels" in Lurianic Kabbalah, whose purpose is tikkun ("restitution of the world"). However, it is not the only path to tikkun; for "one ẓaddik reaches tikkun through eating and another, through asceticism" (No'am Elimelekh, "Va-Yikra").

The Doctrine of the Ẓaddik

Elimelech formulated the mores of ḥasidic society in the doctrine of the ẓaddik. In contrast with the view that the ẓaddik was solely a spiritual leader, Elimelech maintained that the ẓaddik possessed the task of leadership in all spheres of life. The ẓaddik had to live in the dialectical tension between the spiritual life of devekut (devotion) and the pragmatic, materialistic requirements of society. Apparently, Elimelech himself could not withstand the pressure of the life of a ẓaddik, and toward the end of his life concentrated on selffulfillment. He withdrew from his disciples and even neglected the spiritual leadership of his community. According to Elimelech, the ẓaddik possesses a higher spiritual status than the seraphim and is the foundation of the world. He has power to influence the higher spheres, i.e., "the ẓaddik decrees and God fulfills" (Shab. 59b, cf. No'am Elimelekh, "Shelaḥ"). The authority of a ḥasidic leader comes from his direct connections with higher powers whose assistance he receives for his concerns for the individual and the community. "Every utterance of the ẓaddik creates an angel, and influences higher spheres" (ibid.). By means of reflection and contemplation, the ẓaddik wages a war whose ultimate purpose is devekut and the ascent to the absolute. He "lives below" (i.e., on earth) "but in reality he dwells in higher worlds" (ibid., "Va-Yera"). The ẓaddik faces the danger of death from an excess of enthusiasm. Therefore, God calms him in the height of his devekut in order that he not die from the ecstasy of the mystical experience. The condition of devekut is not static, but varies in its intensity, having ascents and descents.

Nefillat ha-Ẓaddik ("The Fall of the Ẓaddik")

Elimelech recognizes two types of falls (Heb., nefillot) in the status of the ẓaddik: descent for the purposes of tikkun and descent because of Satan. Descent for the purpose of tikkun is conceived of as a voluntary process. The ẓaddik knows that he is obligated to improve his community and, therefore, descends to its level in order to uplift it. Elimelech regarded the sublimation in this doctrine of descent as the inner identification and conscious comparison of the ẓaddik with the ordinary individual. As a result there takes place the process of the elevation or sublimation of evil thoughts (ha'ala'at maḥashavot zarot), the abolition of sin, and the transformation of the profane into the holy. Tikkun by the elevation of niẓoẓot ("sparks") in the Lurianic Kabbalah is transferred to the sphere of the soul in Elimelech's teachings and is interpreted as the elevation of evil thoughts, leading to personal redemption. The "fall" of the ẓaddik is essential, and his capacity to sin is a condition of his charismatic mission. Practical application of this doctrine, which apparently stemmed from the Shabbatean idea of sin as a source for performance of a mitzvah, contains a serious religious danger. Inability of the ẓaddik to "fall," however, interferes with the spiritual elevation of the community. The ascent of the ẓaddik which follows the "fall" is higher than the level he attained in his previous ascents. From this point of view, evil strengthens holiness. Elimelech's solution to the problem of evil is the sanctification of material things and the overcoming of temptation. The ẓaddik must abolish the dualism of coexistent good and evil by transforming evil into good, a process which will bring the advent of the messiah when all will return to their original unity. The innovations of this doctrine are the spiritual renewal of man and the revelation of the inner aspects of the Torah not revealed on Mount Sinai. These ideas appear in No'am Elimelekh (Lvov, 1787) arranged in the form of sermons on the weekly readings of the Torah, mostly describing how the ẓaddik worships God. It includes his letters, his religious testament on matters of leadership, and a treatise, Likkutei Shoshanim. Elimelech's disciples were Abraham Joshua Heshel of *Apta, Jacob Isaac *Horowitz, the Seer ("Ha-Ḥozeh") of Lublin, Kalonymus Kalman *Epstein of Cracow (author of Ma'or va-Shemesh), Menaḥem Mendel of *Rymanow, and *Moses Leib of Sasov.


Schatz, in: Molad, 18 (1960), 365–78; M. Buber, Tales of the ḥasidim, 1 (19684), 253–64; Dubnow, ḥasidut, 178–88; Horodezky, ḥasidut, 2 (19534), 149–273; A.H.S.B. Michaelson, Ohel Elimelekh (1914); B. Landau, R. Elimelekh mi-Lyzhansk (1963); Y. Berger, Eser Ẓahẓaḥot (1900), 17–41.

[Esther (Zweig) Liebes]

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Elimelech of Lyzhansk

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