Ḥasidim, Sefer

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ḤASIDIM, SEFER (Heb. סֵפֶר חֲסִידִים, "Book of the Pious"), major work in the field of ethics, produced by the Jews of medieval Germany. It comprises the ethical teachings of the *Ḥasidei Ashkenaz movement in the 12th and early 13th centuries. Two versions of the book have survived, one printed in Bologna and the other found in manuscript in Parma.

Tradition attributes the entire Sefer Ḥasidim to R. *Judahhe-Ḥasid (the Pious) of Regensburg (d. 1217), the great teacher of Ashkenazi Ḥasidism. There is some proof, however, that the first two "maḥbarot" (groups into which the book is divided) of the Parma version were written by Judah's father, R. Samuel b. Kalonymus he-Ḥasid. This is substantiated by a study of their style. These two "maḥbarot" discuss the fear of God and repentance. Some of the passages in Sefer Ḥasidim bear close similarity, in language and ideas, to the ethical introductions to the Roke'aḥ, the halakhic work by R. Eleazar of Worms. A number of scholars, therefore, conclude that R. Eleazar, R. Judah's most prominent disciple, was the author of some of the passages in Sefer Ḥasidim, and probably its editor. It is equally possible, however, that R. Eleazar used portions of the Sefer Ḥasidim in his writings, as he did with other mystical works of his teacher. No conclusive proof is to be found as to what extent R. Eleazar participated in the authorship of the work; whereas there is a clear statement by R. Judah's son, Moses, describing how R. Judah wrote two pages of Sefer Ḥasidim (Ms. Guenzburg 82, 64b) in the last week of his life. It can be concluded that Sefer Ḥasidim was written by R. Judah he-Ḥasid, and that some material was added to it from the writings of his father R. Samuel. A problem nevertheless exists regarding the origin and development of the work. Some of the earliest quotations from the Sefer Ḥasidim found in the Ashkenazi hasidic writings of the first half of the 13th century are in neither of the two known versions. It is possible that parts of the original Sefer Ḥasidim were lost early in the development of the two versions that survived.

Many of the passages in Sefer Ḥasidim are homiletic and exegetic in nature, explaining the ethical, and sometimes the philosophical or mystical, meanings of biblical verses or talmudic sayings. Most of the passages, however, discuss only ethics, and do so in direct connection with everyday life. Sefer Ḥasidim is the prime example of pragmatic and realistic ethical teachings in Jewish ethical literature; it takes into account the special characteristic of every case, the psychology of the person discussed, the historical and economic situation, and the person's special relationship to other people. This approach renders Sefer Ḥasidim the most important historical source for the study of everyday Jewish life in medieval Germany; it throws light especially on economic and religious relations of Jews with gentiles. The book has some descriptions of actual incidents, clarifying the situation in Germany during and after the disasters brought by the crusaders on Jews in Germany and France. Later Jewish ethical works influenced by Sefer Ḥasidim retained its strict and uncompromising adherence not only to the commandments, but to the entire body of religious ethics. The book instructs the pious man how to resist temptation and avoid any situation which may lead to sin. It teaches how to dress, to speak, to pray, to work, and to sleep; how to choose a wife and to select friends; how to harmonize between the necessities of existence and the requirements of religious life; which city is suitable for a pious person to live in and which is not; the right relationship between teacher and pupil; how to choose a righteous teacher; in what fields one may have commercial contact with gentiles and how to treat them, and many other subjects. No other Hebrew work in ethics covers so much ground and devotes such close attention to realistic detail. All later writers in the field of ethics in Ashkenazi literature used Sefer Ḥasidim as a basis; many of them added very little to what they had taken from it. After the 15th century, writers of halakhah used the work as an authority, sometimes the final authority, on the Jewish way of life.

The Bologna version was printed in 1538 and later in numerous other places (including Jerusalem 1957, edited by R. Margaliot). The Parma manuscript was published by J. Wistinetzky (Berlin, 1891–94) and in 1924 at Frankfurt, with an introduction by J. Freimann. The manuscripts found in a number of libraries are incomplete, each containing only a tenth of the whole work. Scholars who have compared the two versions reached the conclusion that the Parma one was the earlier and more reliable. It comprises more than 1,900 passages, whereas the Bologna version has less than 1,200. The Parma version has many duplications and inconsistencies, which were either omitted or harmonized in the Bologna edition. There the passages are better arranged and a system is apparent, whereas the Parma manuscript seems, in places, unedited and chaotic. The Bologna edition was probably edited and changed later by an editor who may have lived in France, probably before 1300. In the Parma version the transliterated vernacular words are in "German," whereas in the Bologna edition they are in "French."

The book is compiled from independent passages (simanim), arranged in groups (maḥbarot), sometimes under titles describing the subject of the single group (maḥberet), e.g., "witchcraft," "books," "prayer," etc. Titles such as "This is the Book of the Just" (Sefer Ḥasidim), "Sefer Ḥasidim on the Book of Proverbs," or "This also is Sefer Ḥasidim" are to be found in the Parma version as well. It is evident that the book was compiled from smaller collections which themselves were compiled from independent passages.


J. Wistinetzki and J. Freimann (eds.), Sefer Ḥasidim (19242), 1–73; Simhoni, in: Ha-Ẓefirah (1917), passim; Scholem, Mysticism, 80–99; Harris, in: jqr, 50 (1959), 13–44; idem, in:paajr, 31 (1963), 51–80; Cronbach, in: huca, 22 (1949), 1–147; Baer, in: Zion, 3 (1938), 1–50; S.G. Kramer, God and Man in the Sefer Ḥasidim (1966).

[Joseph Dan]