Hasidic Judaism (Hebrew: Chasidut חסידות, meaning "pious" from the Hebrew root word chesed חסד meaning "loving kindness") is a Haredi Jewish religious movement. It is also known as Hasidism, and the adjective Chasidic/Hasidic (or in Yiddish Chasidish חסידיש) is applied. It originated in Eastern Europe (Belarus and Ukraine) in the 18th century.
The movement was founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1700-1760), also known as the Baal Shem Tov (abbreviated as Besht). It was formed in a time of persecution of the Jewish people, when European Jews had turned inward to Talmud study; many felt that most expressions of Jewish life had become too "academic", and that they no longer had any emphasis on spirituality or joy. The Ba'al Shem Tov set out to improve the situation. In its initial stages, Hasidism received opposition from several contemporary leaders, most notably the Vilna Gaon of Lithuania, united as the mitnagdim (Hebrew: "opposers").
In Poland, where since the sixteenth century the bulk of the Jewry had established itself, the struggle between traditional rabbinic Judaism and radical Kabbalah influenced mysticism became particularly acute after the Messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi. Leanings toward mystical doctrines and sectarianism showed themselves prominently among the Jews of the southeastern provinces of Poland, while in the north-eastern provinces, in Lithuania, and in White Russia, rabbinical Orthodoxy held sway. Jews that follow this tradition are called Litvish (Lithuanian). This was due in part to the social difference between the northern Lithuanian Jews and the southern Jews of Ukraine. In Lithuania the Jewish masses were mainly gathered in densely populated towns where rabbinical academic culture (in the yeshibot) was in a flourishing state; while in Ukraine the Jews were more scattered in villages far removed from intellectual centers.
Pessimism in the south became more intense after the Cossacks' Uprising under Bohdan Chmielnicki and the turbulent times in Poland (1648-60), which completely ruined the Jewry of Ukraine, but left comparatively untouched that of Lithuania. The economic and spiritual decline of the South-Russian Jews created a favorable field for mystical movements and religious sectarianism, which spread there from the middle of the seventeenth to the middle of the eighteenth century.
Besides these influences there were deeply seated causes that produced among many Jews a discontent with rabbinism and a gravitation toward mysticism. Rabbinism, which in Poland had become transformed into a system of religious formalism, no longer provided satisfactory religious experience to many Jews. Although traditional Judaism had adopted some features of Kabbalah, it adapted them to fit its own system: it added to its own ritualism the asceticism of the "practical cabalists" of the East, who saw the essence of earthly existence only in fasting, in penance, and in spiritual sadness. Such a combination of religious practises, suitable for individuals and hermits, was not suitable to the bulk of the Jews.
Hasidism gave a ready response to the burning desire of the common people in its simple, stimulating, and comforting faith. In contradistinction to other sectarian teaching, early Hasidism aimed not at dogmatic or ritual reform, but at a deeper psychological one. Its aim was to change not the belief, but the believer. By means of psychological suggestion it created a new type of religious man, a type that placed emotion above reason and rites, and religious exaltation above knowledge.
Israel ben Eliezer
Israel ben Eliezer the founder of Hasidism
The founder of Hasidism was Israel ben Eliezer, the Ba'al Shem Tov, also known as the Besht. His fame as a healer spread not only among the Jews, but also among the non-Jewish peasants and the Polish nobles. He was said to at times successfully predict the future. To the common people, Besht was admirable. Characterized by an extraordinary sincerity and simplicity, he knew how to gain an insight into the spiritual needs of the masses. He taught them that true religion was not religious scholarship, but a sincere love of God combined with warm faith and belief in the efficacy of prayer; that the ordinary person filled with a sincere belief in God, and whose prayers come from the heart, is more acceptable to God than someone versed in and fully observant of Jewish law. This democratization of Judaism attracted to the teachings of Besht not only the common people, but also the scholars whom the rabbinical scholasticism and ascetic Kabbalah failed to satisfy.
About 1740 the Besht established himself in the Podolian town of Miedzyboz. He gathered about him numerous disciples and followers, whom he initiated into the secrets of his teachings not by systematic exposition, but by means of sayings and parables. These sayings were transmitted orally, and were later recorded in the works of his disciples, who developed the disjointed thoughts of their master into a system. Besht himself did not write anything. Being a mystic by nature, he regarded his teachings as a prophetic revelation.
The teachings of Hasidism are founded on two theoretical conceptions: (1) religious panentheism, or the omnipresence of God, and (2) the idea of Devekut, communion between God and man. "Man," says Besht, "must always bear in mind that God is omnipresent and is always with him; that God is, so to speak, the most subtle matter everywhere diffused... Let man realize that when he is looking at material things he is in reality gazing at the image of the Deity which is present in all things. With this in mind man will always serve God even in small matters."
Devekut (communion) refers to the belief that between the world of God and the world of humanity there is an unbroken intercourse. It is true not only that the Deity influences the acts of man, but also that man exerts an influence on the will of the Deity. Every act and word of man produces a corresponding vibration in the upper spheres. From this conception is derived the chief practical principle of Hasidism - communion with God for the purpose of uniting with the source of life and of influencing it. This communion is achieved through the concentration of all thoughts on God, and consulting Him in all the affairs of life.
The righteous man is in constant communion with God, even in his worldly affairs, since here also he feels His presence. An especial form of communion with God is prayer. In order to render this communion complete the prayer must be full of fervor, ecstatic; and the soul of him who prays must during his devotions detach itself, so to speak, from its material dwelling. For the attainment of ecstasy recourse may be had to mechanical means, to violent bodily motions, to shouting and singing. According to Besht, the essence of religion is in sentiment and not in reason. Theological learning and halakhic lore are of secondary importance, and are useful only when they serve as a means of producing an exalted religious mood. It is better to read books of moral instruction than to engage in the study of the casuistic Talmud and the rabbinical literature. In the performance of rites the mood of the believer is of more importance than the externals; for this reason formalism and superfluous ceremonial details are injurious.
Liturgy and prayer
Most Hasidim pray according to the Nusach Sepharad (prayer style), a liturgy that is a blend of Ashkenazi and Sephardi liturgies, based on the innovations of Rabbi Isaac Luria (also know as the Arizal). The Hasidim, though, pray in very strong Ashkenazic Hebrew that contains many nuances that were picked up from Yiddish. Hasidim that are devotees of dynasties that originated in Galicia pray in a different type of Hebrew. This is because when seculars began to speak the modern Hebrew language the Galician Hasidic leaders madated that the words of the Liturgy be pronounced differently as to differentiate themselves from the seculars. This has come to be known as Galician Hebrew . Hasidic prayer is known for being accompanied by melodies called nigunim (or in America "nigguns") that represent the overall mood of the prayer; even many non-Hasidim attend Hasidic synagogues in order to hear this. Hasidic prayer is also known for taking a very long time (although some groups are known for praying quickly). Some very pious Hasidim will spend seven seconds of concentration of every single word of the prayer of Amidah. Hasidim are known for having a lot of Kavanah (mental concentration) during prayer. Overall Hasidim regard prayer as one of the most paramount activities during the day. In fact, one of the most controversial innovations of Hassidic practice is the near-abolition of the traditional specified times of day by which prayers must be conducted ("zemanim"), particularly the morning prayer; the preparations for prayer, including partaking of food (also proscribed by strict halachic literalism) take precedence and may extend into the alloted time.
The spread of Hasidism
Israel ben Eliezer's disciples attracted many followers; they themselves established numerous Hasidic sects across Europe. After the Besht's death, his cause was carried on by his followers, especially Dov Ber of Mezeritch. From his court students went forth; they in turn attracted many Jews to Hasidism, and many of them came to study in Mezhirech with Dov Ber personally. Hasidic Judaism eventually became the way of life of the majority of Jews in Ukraine, Galicia, and central Poland; the movement also had sizable groups of followers in Belorussia-Lithuania and Hungary. Hasidic Judaism came to Western Europe and then to the United States during the large waves of Jewish emigration in the 1880s.
Hasidism gradually branched out into two main divisions: (1) in Ukraine and in Galicia and (2) in Lithuania. The first of these divisions was directed by three disciples of Dov Ber of Mezeritch: Elimelech of Lezhinsk, Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, and Menachem Nahum of Chernobyl, besides the grandson of Besht, Baruch of Tulchin. Elimelech of Lezhinsk affirmed that belief in Tzaddikism is a fundamental doctrine of Hasidism. In his book "No'am Elimelekh" he conveys the idea that the Tzaddik ("saint") is the mediator between God and the common people, and that through him God sends to the faithful three earthly blessings, life, a livelihood, and children, on the condition, however, that the Hasidim support the Tzaddik by pecuniary contributions ("pidyonim"), in order to enable the holy man to become completely absorbed in the contemplation of God. Lithuanian Hasidim followed Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who founded Chabad Hassidism.
This teaching practically led to the contribution by the people of their last pennies toward the support of their tzaddik ("rebbe"), and the tzaddik untiringly "poured forth blessings on the earth, healed the sick, cured women of sterility," etc. The vocation of tzaddik was made hereditary. There was a multiplication of Hasidic dynasties contesting for supremacy.
Early on, a serious schism evolved between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic Jews. European Jews who rejected the Hasidic movement were dubbed by the Hasidim as "mitnagdim", (lit. opponents). Some of the reasons for the rejection of Hasidic Judaism was a novel emphasis on different aspects of Jewish laws; even more problematic was the overwhelming exuberance of Hasidic worship; their untraditional ascriptions of infallibility and Miracle-working to their leaders, and the concern that it might become a messianic sect, which in fact had occurred among the followers of both Shabbatai Zvi and Jacob Frank.
The Vilna Gaon
, the head of the Mitnagdim and the most famous opponent of Hasidism
Some of other important differences between Hasidim and Mitnagdim included:
- Hasidism believed in miracle workers; they believed that the Ba'al Shem Tov and some of his disciples literally performed miracles. Stories of their miracles became a part of Hasidic literature. In opposition many Jewish religious rationalists held such views as heretical, based on classical rabbinic works such as Saadia Gaon's Emunoth ve-Deoth.
- The Hasidic way of dress was seen as a way to outwardly appear pious; this was opposed as improper.
- Chassidic philosophy (Chassidus) holds as a core belief that God permeates all physical objects in nature, including all living beings. Depending on how such a teaching is stated, this could constitute either pantheism or panentheism. In opposition many Jewish religious rationalists held such views as being a violation against the Maimonidean principle of faith that God is not physical, and thus was seen as heretical.
- Chassidus teaches that there are sparks of goodness in all things, which can be redeemed to perfect the world. Many held such a view to be false and dangerous.
On a more prosaic level, other Mitnagdim argued that Jews should follow a more scholarly approach to Judaism. At one point Hasidic Jews were put in cherem (a Jewish form of communal excommunication); after years of bitter acrimony, there was a rapprochement between Hasidic Jews and those who would soon become known as Orthodox Jews. The reconciliation was brought on by the even greater threat of the Haskala, or Jewish Enlightenment. Since then all the sects of Hasidic Judaism have been subsumed into Orthodox Judaism, particularly Haredi Judaism.
Hasidim are known for their distinctive attire. Within the Hasidic world, different groups can be distinguished by subtle differences in appearance.
Hasidim most commonly wear a long black robe called a bekishe with which they use a gartel (a type of prayer belt). A Hasidic Rebbe on Shabbat traditionally wears a white or gold bekishe rather than a black one, but this practice is not universal today. Hasidim customarily wear a black hat during the weekdays. On Shabbat many married Hasidim wear a shtreimel while the Gerer Hasidim wear a spodik, since the 1950s members of Chabad have worn fedoras, even on Shabbat. It is also common to see Hasidim wearing white socks and or buckeled shoes. The reasoning is threefold. Firstly the clothing is very pious looking which is commended among Hasidim. Secondly, this style of clothing was worn by many Jews in Ukraine two hundred and fifty years ago. Hasidim believe it is better to wear the clothing style of ones forefathers and have therefore not changed their styles in over two hundred and fifty years. Thirdly, Hasidim wear distinctive clothing out a desire to simply be different from the general population. The belief is that to be Jewish, and to feel Jewish, one must look Jewish.
The actual styles Hasidic styles themselves are not different from the attire of Eastern European noblemen centuries ago. Hasidim, and other Jews, believe that one has to look his or her best before God in synagogue.
Hasidic women wear clothing that is less distinctive than their male counterparts, but answers to the principles of tzeniut (modest dress in the sense of Jewish law). Long, conservative skirts and sleeves past the elbow are the rules, but other than that, Hasidic women wear clothing like other women in the non-Jewish societies in which they live. In some Hasidic groups, such as Satmar, many married women shave their heads, and many wear wigs. Other Hasidic groups consider it hypocritical to wear false hair, so they simply put their hair into nets or kerchiefs (called "snoods"). Before marriage, the hair is allowed to be uncovered by all Hasidic groups.
Following a Biblical commandment not to shave the sides of one's face, male members of some Hasidic groups wear long, uncut sideburns called payot (Ashkenazic Hebrew payos). Not every Hasidic group requires long payot, but all groups forbid the cutting of the beard. All Hasidic boys receive their first haircuts ceremoniously when they are three years old. Until then, Hasidic boys have long hair. The custom has been adopted by many non-Hassidic (and even non-Orthodox) Jews.
The white threads that are seen at the waists of Hasidim and other Orthodox Jews are called tzitzit. The requirement to wear fringes comes from Numbers. "Speak to the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes on the borders of their garments throughout their generations." (Numbers 15:38) By tradition, a Hasidic boy will receive his first fringed garment on his third birthday, the same day as his first haircut.
Hasidic men and women usually meet through matchmakers in a process called a shidduch, but marriages are made by mutual consent of the couple and the parents. A bride and groom are expected to be about the same age. There is no custom of an older man marrying a young woman.
It is a myth that Hasidic couples have intercourse through a sheet. In fact, this is forbidden by Jewish law.
Most Hasidim speak the vernaculars of the lands in which they live, but try to use Yiddish amongst themselves as a way of keeping distinct and keeping tradition. Thus, contrary to popular assumption, Yiddish is still being taught to children and is not a dying language. There are Yiddish newspapers that are still published and there is a relatively healthy production of Yiddish fiction within the Hasidic world, primarily for women.
Some Hasidic groups actively oppose the everyday use of Hebrew as in Israel, holding that Hebrew is a holy language that is profaned by being used for anything other than prayer.
Hasidic Judaism in the 20th century
During the Holocaust the Hasidic centers of Eastern Europe were destroyed. Survivors moved to Israel or America, notably Brooklyn, and established new centers of Hasidic Judaism. Some of the larger and more well-known Hasidic sects still extant include Breslov, Lubavitch (Chabad), Satmar, Ger, and Bobov Hasidim.
For years, the two "superpowers" of the Brooklyn Hasidic world were Satmar and Chabad -- based, respectively, in Williamsburg and Crown Heights. Despite being so similar in the eyes of other Jews, the two groups had a hostile relationship. Satmar was militantly anti-Zionist, while Chabad was supportive of Israel, though the Lubavitcher rebbe never visited Israel. Satmar also disdained Chabad's tendency to do outreach among non-observant Jews. Satmars were especially offended by Chabad's sending of "mitzvah tank" caravans into their neighborhood, as if they needed prodding to be observant. In recent years the tension has cooled.
There has been significant revival of interest in Hasidic Judaism on the part of non-Orthodox Jews due to the writings of non-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish authors like Martin Buber, Arthur Green and Abraham Joshua Heschel. As such, one now finds some minor Hasidic influences in the siddurim (prayer books) of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism.
- Boteach, Shmuel Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge: Basic Concepts of Hasidic Thought Jason Aronson, 1995, ISBN 0876685572
- Buber, Martin and Fetterman, Bonny V. (ed.) Tales of the Hasidim: Book One: The Early Masters and Book Two: The Later Masters (Two books in one) Schocken Books; 1961, 1991, ISBN 0805209956
- Finkel, Avraham Yaakov Contemporary Sages: The Great Chasidic Masters of the Twentieth Century Jason Aronson, 1994, ISBN 1568211554.
- Nadler, Allan The Faith of the Mithnagdim: Rabbinic Responses to Hasidic Rapture John Hopkins Univ Press, 1998, 1997 ISBN 0801855608
- Schochet, Elijah Judah The Hasidic Movement and the Gaon of Vilna, Jason Aaronson, 1994, ISBN 1568211252
- Encyclopedia Judaica, Hasidic Judaism, Keter Publishing
Last updated: 10-24-2005 01:21:59