ḤASIDIM (Heb. חֲסִידִים, "pietists"), term used in rabbinic literature to designate those who maintained a higher standard in observing the religious and moral commandments. The various definitions in rabbinic literature of the ḥasid, and the more numerous accounts given there of them and their actions, clearly indicate that the image of the ḥasid was not identical at all times and in all circles. The sources reflect a broad spectrum of religious types, each distinguished in its own way, but common to all is a divergence from what was regarded as conventional behavior and the normal standard that was deemed praiseworthy, as is evident from the appellation ḥasid.
The precise period of the ḥasidim ha-rishonim ("first ḥasidim") mentioned in rabbinic literature cannot be determined. Statements about them recount their virtues, which were utter devotion to fulfilling the mitzvot with a total disregard of any danger, extreme solicitude for human relations to the extent of transcending the strict requirements of the law, a fear of sin expressed by avoiding anything that might possibly lead astray or to the commission of sin, and by a constant readiness to undergo purification and to seek atonement for any doubtful sin by offering sacrifices. Before praying the early ḥasidim would meditate for an hour in order to direct their hearts to God (Ber. 5:1), nor did they interrupt their prayers even in the face of possible danger (Tosef., Ber. 3:20; tb, Ber. 32b). They refrained on a weekday from doing anything that involved the slightest apprehension of ultimately desecrating the Sabbath (Nid. 38a). They would bury thorns and broken glass deep in their fields, "placing them three handbreaths deep in the ground so that the plow might not displace them" and people stumble over them (Tosef., bk 2:6). The tanna R. Judah stated that "the early ḥasidim were eager to bring a sin offering," but since they did not inadvertently commit sins "they made a free-will vow of naziriteship that they might bring a sin offering" (Tosef., Ned. 1:1; tb, Ned. 10a). They were accustomed to making a free-will offering of a suspensive guilt offering (asham talui), and this type of sacrifice "became known as the guilt-offering of the ḥasidim" (Ker. 6:3; Tosef., Ker. 4:4).
Akin to the ḥasidim ha-rishonim are the "ḥasidim and men of action" (ḥasidim ve-anshei ma'aseh). This phrase does not indicate two distinct groups of people – the ḥasidim were so called on account of the special good deeds which they performed and the miracles vouchsafed them by virtue of these good deeds. The only extant tradition states that during the "Rejoicing of the Water-drawing" (simḥat bet ha-sho'evah) "they used to dance with lighted torches and sing songs and praises." Some of them used to say, "Happy my youth, that has not put to shame my old age"; others, "Happy my old age, that has atoned for my youth" (Suk. 5:4; Tosef., Suk. 4:2). Outstanding representatives of the "ḥasidim and men of action" were *Ḥoni ha-Me'aggel, his grandsons *Abba Hilkiah and Ḥanan ha-Neḥba (Ta'an. 23a), and *Ḥanina b. Dosa who lived at the end of the Second Temple period and whom the Mishnah regards as the last of the "men of action" (Sot. 9:15; the reading in tj is "ḥasidim"). These men did not belong to the class of the halakhists, and there was even certain opposition to them (cf. Ta'an. 23a; Ber. 34b). Expressive of their deep faith and implicit belief in God's omnipotence are the deeds of the "ḥasidim and men of action" and the remarks that accompanied them on various occasions. Thus Ḥanina b. Dosa entertained no doubts when he said, "He who commanded oil to burn will also command vinegar to burn" (Ta'an 25a), for to them the miraculous was regarded as quite natural. When a poisonous lizard bit Hanina b. Dosa and died, he brought it on his shoulder to the bet ha-midrash, commenting simply: "See, my sons, it is not the lizard that kills, it is sin that kills" (Ber. 33a). The contents, motifs, and form of several stories related in the sources about "a certain ḥasid" (e.g., Tosef., Pe'ah 3:8; tj, Shab. 15:3, 15a; bk 50b, 80a) indicate that the stories refer to these early ones (bk 103b). A difficulty is posed by the statement that "wherever the Talmud speaks of a certain ḥasid it refers either to Judah b. Bava or Judah b. Ilai" (Tem. 15b). However, this may mean no more than that these tannaim were the ones who reported such stories.
Despite the differences in time and conditions, the conduct and deeds of the ḥasidim and men of action bear a certain resemblance to the stories in the Bible about the earlier prophets, in that their influence derived not from the power of their exhortations but from the force of their deeds, courage, and sense of dedication. The rabbis gave expression to this in their homiletical interpretation of Genesis 2:5, "And there was not man to till the ground," on which they commented: "There was no man to cultivate people's allegiance to God, such as Elijah and Ḥoni ha-Me'aggel" (Gen. R. 7; and see Theodor-Albeck, 117, n. 5).
The early ḥasidim created no organization or sect but were active as individuals, each in his own vicinity and time. Nor can they be identified with the *Essenes, as various scholars from the 19th century onward (Frankel, Geiger, Derenboug, Kohler) have sought to do, for what is known about them does not accord with the descriptions of the Essenes in Philo, Josephus, Pliny, and others. Y. Baer has assigned to the "early ḥasidim" a central place in the history of Second Temple times, identifying them with the sages who flourished in the pre-Hasmonean period. Thus he contends that the Great Synagogue was a development of ḥasidim and sages, that its continuity was preserved by the *zugot, and that these ḥasidim are to be identified with the Essenes and with Philo's *Therapeutae. He believes that they were the first exponents of the halakhah as embedded in the earliest layers of the Mishnah, and that they laid the foundations of the entire structure of faith as reflected in the ascetic-spiritual-martyrological aspects of statements in the aggadah, Midrash, and Philo's writings. This account of them does not, however, accord with what is reported in rabbinic sources about the early ḥasidim and their activities. They were not the creators of the ancient halakhah, nor the initiators of a philosophic and mystical teaching. The fact that they lived a simple and modest life with a minimum of material needs – "Ḥanina my son is satisfied with a kav of carobs from one Sabbath eve to another" (Ta'an. 24b) – does not constitute asceticism. Manifestations of abstinence among talmudic scholars are not remnants of outworn ancient ascetic teaching of the early ḥasidim, but are connected with the circumstances of a much later period. Moreover, the tannaitic period preserved a memory of them as being specifically distinguished and separated from the sages as a whole. Furthermore, the type of ḥasid of that period differed in outlook from the early ḥasidim. Thus *Hillel, who in his teachings incorporated ideas inherited from the early ḥasidim, is the author of the aphorism that "an ignorant person cannot be a ḥasid" (Avot 2:5). Nor could there be any piety without the study and knowledge of the Torah (see arn1 12, 56; arn2 27, 56). When Hillel died, they said of him: "Alas, the humble man, alas the ḥasid [is no more]" (Tosef., Sot. 13:4), his eminence in the Torah having been combined with humility (Lev. R. 1:5), and with implicit trust in the Almighty (Ber. 60a), and "all his actions were for the sake of Heaven." But Hillel, whose personality comprised many other aspects as well, was not regarded as one of the early ḥasidim, and yet precisely he and those who followed in his footsteps represent the ḥasid-sage.
Generally the term ḥasid came later to refer to ideal and exemplary behavior in some sphere of life. A ḥasid is one who declares "what is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours" (Avot 5:10) and "he whom it is hard to provoke and easy to pacify" (ibid. 5:11). This and other definitions are far removed from the ways of the early ḥasidim. There was moreover a definite line of abstinence and of extreme asceticism which reached full maturity and became a characteristic feature of the ḥasid only in the amoraic period. This trend started after the destruction of the Second Temple "when the abstinent ones increased in Israel" (Tosef., Sot. 14:11), seeking in fasts a substitute for atonement, now denied to them with the cessation of sacrifices. At the beginning of the second century these expressions of abstinence vanished but reappeared to spread with greater force during the persecutions following the Bar Kokhba revolt. Ben Azzai, of whom it was said that "whoever sees Ben Azzai in a dream can hope to attain piety" (Ber. 57b), proclaimed extreme abstinence from all earthly pursuits, declaring, "Let the world be sustained by others" (Tosef., Yev. 8:4; Yev. 63b). A similar circumstance is reflected in R. Meir's homiletical interpretation that "Adam was a great ḥasid" (see Er. 18b; Gen. R. 20, ed. Theodor-Albeck, 195). At the end of the tannaitic period there once again appear sages who, in their extreme demands, spontaneous reactions, and miraculous deeds, are reminiscent of the early ḥasidim and the men of action. Of such a type was *Phinehas b. Jair who defined and enumerated the steps leading to ḥasidut regarded by him as a stage in the attainment of the holy spirit (Sot. 9:15).
In the amoraic period extreme conclusions were drawn from Akiva's principle that suffering is to be lovingly acceptedas the ultimate goal of anyone who serves God, the same interpretation being applied to man's normal suffering – and not only to times of persecution – as a punishment for sins. But while a ḥasid therefore prays that he may suffer, not everyone is privileged to have such prayers answered, and accordingly some pious amoraim, instead of awaiting suffering, deliberately afflicted and mortified themselves. This was done by Ḥiyya b. Ashi (Kid. 81b), Zera (bm 85a), Mar b. Ravina (Pes. 68b). Not that all the amoraim agreed that self-denial entitled one to be called a ḥasid (Ta'an. 11b), Simeon b. Lakish declaring that "a scholar may not afflict himself by fasting because thereby he lessens his heavenly work" (ibid). There were also amoraim called "ḥasid," such as Ameram the Ḥasid (Kid. 81a; Git. 67b), Simeon the Ḥasid (Ber. 43b) and Mar Zutra (Ned. 7b), who acquired this title not on account of acts of mortification but of other virtues and deeds. The Ḥasid Huna declared anyone who has a fixed place for prayer to be a ḥasid (Ber. 6b), R. Alexandri that "whoever hears someone curse him and keeps silent is called a ḥasid" (Mid. Ps. to 16:11). A certain criticism was leveled against "the ḥasidim of Babylonia" – the amoraim Huna, Ḥisda, and Naḥman – in the Babylonian Talmud itself, which disparagingly contrasted their humility and courtesy with those of the Ereẓ Israel sages, although the latter were known for their hardness (Meg. 28b; and see Ḥul. 122a). In principle, the ḥasid is one who does more than is required of him by the letter of the law, and halakhot which go beyond the strict legal requirements are termed by the amoraim "the Mishnah of the ḥasidim" (tj, Ter. 8:10, 46b; or "the measure of the ḥasidim" (bm 52b). The popular test of a ḥasid was if his prayer for rain was answered (Ta'an. 23b). In the days of both the tannaim and the amoraim the sages were displeased with ignorant people who adopted the standards of the ḥasid (Shab. 121b; and see tj, Av. Zar 2:3, 41a). Simeon b. Lakish even maintained that "if an ignorant man is a ḥasid, do not dwell in his vicinity" (Shab. 63a). On R. Joshua's statement in the Mishnah that a foolish ḥasid is to be included among those who bring destruction upon the world, the two Talmuds quote instances of the ḥasid who, on account of his rigid observance of the mitzvot and of his abstinence, refrains from saving his fellow from death (tj, Sot. 3:4, 19a; tb Sot., 21b).
Colloquially, the term "ḥasid" was used to designate a just, upright, and good person, this inexact usage being sometimes found also in literary sources: "it fits him to become just, ḥasid, upright, and faithful" (Avot 6:1); "even as the earlier righteous men were ḥasidim" (arn1 8, 38; and see tj, Sanh. 6:9, 23c, where *Simeon b. Shetaḥ and someone who flourished in the days of King David are referred to as ḥasidim). Inscriptions on Jewish epitaphs at Bet She'arim and in Italy contain, alongside δίκαιος ("righteous"), the term ὄσιος which is found in the Septuagint both for ḥasid and for yashar, an upright man.
Frankel, Mishnah (19232), 14, 42; idem, in: Zeitschrift fuer die religioesen Interessen des Judenthums, 3 (1846), 441–61; idem, in: mgwj, 2 (1853), 30–40, 61–73; A. Buechler, Types of Jewish-Palestinian Piety (1922); L. Gulkowitsch, Die Bildung des BegriffesḤasid (1935); S. Lieberman, Greek in Jewish Palestine (1942), 69–78; Y.F. Baer, in: Zion, 18 (1953), 91–108; idem, Yisrael ba-Ammim (1955); Sarfatti, in: Tarbiẓ, 26 (1957), 126–48; Avigad, in: Eretz Israel, 5 (1959), 182; E. Urbach, in: Sefer Yovel le-Y. Baer, 48–68; idem, Ḥazal, Pirkei Emunot re-De'ot (1969), index; Jacobs, in: jjs, 8 (1957), 143–54; Safrai, ibid., 16 (1965), 15–33; Falk, in: Sefer Zikkaron… B. De Vries (1969), 62–69. add. bibliography: S.A. Singer, The Hasid in Qumran and in the Talmud (1974).
"Ḥasidim." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hasidim
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