Simḥah Bunem of Przysucha

views updated


SIMḤAH BUNEM OF PRZYSUCHA (Pshiskha ; 1765–1827), ḥasidic ẓaddik in Poland. He was born in Wodzislaw, Poland. His father, R. Ẓevi, was an itinerant preacher (maggid) in Poland and central Europe. R. Simḥah Bunem traveled to central Europe to learn from R. Jeremiah of Mattersdorf, and then to Nikolsburg (Mikulov) to learn from R. Mordeḥai Benet.

Upon returning to Poland he married Rivka, who faithfully accompanied him all of his life. It was then that he was drawn to Ḥasidism by R. Moshe Leib of Sasov and R. Israel of Kozienice. He worked for the Bergson family, which was close to ḥasidic circles, as a supervisor in their timber firm. R. Simḥah Bunem traveled to Leipzig and Danzig for business and took part in their cultural and social life, visiting the theater, playing cards, and socializing with the local maskilim. Later he learned pharmacology in Danzig and opened a pharmacy in Pshiskha. He knew German, Polish, and Latin, and dressed in modern style. At the same time he became close to R. David of Lelov, who convinced him to travel to R. *Jacob Isaac Horovitz (ha-Ḥozeh) of Lublin. Jacob Isaac recognized his qualities, but R. Simḥah Bunem, though deeply impressed, did not come under his influence. Afterward he met R. Jacob Isaac (ha-Yehudi ha-Kadosh) of Przysucha and became his disciple.

After the death of R. Jacob Isaac of Przysucha (1814), his eminent disciples accepted R. Simḥah Bunem as their rebbe. Under his leadership the character of Pshiskha Ḥasidism was crystallized, drawing many prominent disciples as well as bitter criticism. At a wedding known as "the big wedding in Ostila," where many rebbes gathered, there was an attempt to convince R. Abraham Joshua of Apta to excommunicate R. Simḥah Bunem and his followers. However, a delegation led by R. Isaac Meir Alter successfully defended him.

He was involved in Poland's political life as a member of the Jewish council, established by the authorities of Congress Poland. In his testimony to the government he said that the government's role is not to interfere with internal Jewish matters, but rather to improve the material condition of the Jews who suffer poverty, expressing a modern concept of the duties of the state.

In his last years he became blind. As he was dying he told his wife: "Why are you crying, all of my life I learned how to die."

His Religious Path

Already in Lublin R. Simḥah Bunem was known as "the wise," a quality that well describes his character and portrays his leadership. Like Jacob Isaac of Przysucha, he set the search for truth as the focal point of his religiosity. He exposed people's self-deception, pretensions, and shallowness in order to purify their intentions. Like his teacher, he recognized humility as the quality of a sincere person who does not deceive himself. In his time, the critical attitude toward social and religious order, typical to Pshsikha, became more extreme. Pshsikha Ḥasidim, who left their families behind to live in poverty in a group intensively searching for self-improvement, ridiculed religious conventions and conventionalism, and used to mock people who were full of self-importance, including unworthy rebbes.

However, unlike Jacob Isaac of Przysucha, the innocent, mystical devotee, the core of R. Simḥah Bunem's religious life was his insightful view of the world, holding a positive attitude toward the world and the human role in it. A stranger to his teacher's ecstatic life, he was involved with worldly life. He taught that one's duty is to delve into the essence of this Godly world, which leads to a higher degree of religious knowledge. This knowledge involves happiness and brings a person to dvekut, different in its nature from that of Jacob Isaac of Przysucha. Accordingly, the literature that influenced his religious path was found less in the Kabbalah and more in the works of Maimonides, R. Judah Halevi's Kuzari, and the Maharal. But, above all, he was a talmudic scholar, and praying, though still important, became less central.

Among R. Simḥah Bunem's disciples were R. Menaḥem Mendel of Kotsk, R. Isaac of Warka, R. Isaac Meir Alter of Gur, R. Mordecai Joseph Leiner of Izbica, and R. Ḥanokh of Aleksandrow.

R. Simḥah Bunem did not write a book. His teachings and biographical stories about him were first published more then 30 years after his death, among them Kol Simḥah (1859, 1903 revised); Ramatayim Ẓofim (1881); Simḥat Yisrael (1910); and Si'aḥ Sarfei Kodesh (1913–1932).


A. Marcus, Ha-Ḥasidut (1980), index; Z.M. Rabinowitz, R. Simḥah Bunem mi-Pshikhah (1945); A.Z. Eshcoly, Ha-Ḥasidut be-Polin (2000), 73–89; R. Mahler, Ha-Ḥasidut ve-ha-Haskalah (1961), index; M. Buber, Or ha-Ganuz (1965), 54–6, 404–27; A. Brill, in: Ḥazon Naḥum (1998), 419–48.

[Yehuda ben Dor (2nd ed.)]