Against the Modern World: The Mystical Patriarchs of Later Hasidism

ONE fascinating chapter in the gradual evolution of Jewish spirituality during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was the mystical classification known as Baalei Shem (‘Masters of the Name’). In order to be included within such a rare and esteemed category, the prospective Baal Shem had to excel in the field of practical Kabbalah and, most notably, be a practitioner of exorcism, healing and miraculous acts. It should not be confused with the term ‘Tzadik,’ meaning ‘righteous one,’ as this relates to those Hasidic individuals who spend a good deal of their time involved in charity work. The Tzadik is thus different to the Baal Shem in that his status represents the first real attempt to combine Jewish mysticism with social action.

In some ways, the assessment of who may be considered to be a Baal Shem is rather similar to the Christian interpretation of sainthood and the singular term ‘Master of the Name’ implies that the candidate in question must be aware of the secret pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton, not to mention suitably familiar with the creation of Jewish amulets. Isaac Luria had forbidden this esoteric practice, but through the careful rendering of a magical talisman that is worn on one’s clothes a Baal Shem can wield great spiritual powers.

Among the first to attain this hallowed status were Elijah Ba’al Shem of Chełm (1550-1583), a Polish rabbi said to have created a golem; Yhitzak Ayhiz Halpern, who prevented a ship from capsizing; Hirsch Fraenkel, a Jewish sorcerer with the uncanny ability to converse with the deceased; Elijah ben Moses Ashkenazi Loans (1555-1636), who appears to have been included on the basis of his great Kabbalistic scholarship and musical expertise; Naftali Katz (1645-1719) of Posnan, who once raised a man from the dead; Dr Hayyim Samuel Jacob Falk (1708-1782), a London Jew and suspected Sabbatean who was able to magically transport objects from one place to another; Yoel Baal Shem, who commanded a host of demons; Sekl Loeb Wormser (1768-1846), a fanatical vegetarian with extraordinary powers of healing; and the mysterious Adam Baal Shem, a visionary and revealer of ancient manuscripts about whom we know very little. By far the most famous of them all was a mystic called Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), better known as the Baal Shem Tov.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Germany had a thriving community of Ashkenazi Hasidim and its members were thought to be descended from the Kalonymos family of northern Italy, which had relocated to the Rhineland in the tenth century, and the Abun family of France. Whilst it is debatable whether the influence of the Ashkenazi Hasidim extended beyond the Early Middle Ages, the Baal Shem Tov is said to be the patriarch of an entirely separate and later branch of Judaism called Hasidism. The fact that the story of the Baal Shem Tov has been infused with so much legend, much of it wildly speculative, means that to acknowledge the existence of a form of Hasidism prior to his birth is to undermine the beliefs of those who describe themselves as Hasidic Jews today. Nonetheless, as uncomfortable as it may sound for Hasidic purists the German Ashkenazi sect clearly existed several centuries before the founding of its eighteenth-century equivalent.

Israel ben Eliezer, the man who came to be known as the Baal Shem Tov, was born into poverty in the vicinity of the Okopy Świętej Trójcy fortress in western Ukraine:

At that moment Heaven revealed the noble soul of the Baal Shem Tov. The rays of his brilliant sun were to soon send the warmth and fire of a new spirit into all of Jewry. Both the scholars and the simple folk were to find new meaning in life from his sacred teachings. [1]

In 1703, when he was just five years old, Eliezer – who, retrospectively, and perhaps crucially, is said to have been descended from King David – lost both his parents and was raised by the other members of his extended family. In 1712 he had been made warden (shammash) of the village synagogue and become a school teacher, much loved by the local children.

Eliezer was married at just eighteen but his wife died soon afterwards, something that no doubt contributed to him subsequently experiencing a multitude of profound mystical visions. Travelling throughout Eastern Galicia, he finally settled in the small town of Tluste and studied Kabbalah under the direction of Adam Baal Shem. It is not insignificant, of course, that Rabbi Adam’s own teacher had been based at Worms, the spiritual nerve-centre of the Ashkenazi Hasidim. Caring for the poor and setting up agrarian resettlement programmes for Jews who wished to move out of the cities, Eliezer also introduced the local people to the medicinal qualities of plants and regularly mediated between estranged neighbours who found themselves at legal loggerheads. Elsewhere, he turned his hand to managing a village tavern and, for a short period, worked as a ritual butcher (shohet).

Most of Eliezer’s activities concerned other spiritual pursuits, such as preaching in the synagogue, making charms and amulets, exorcising evil spirits, and curing ailments and afflictions with his remarkable powers of healing. Eliezer is also said to have achieved a state of devekut (‘adhesion’), meaning that he had the ability to communicate with God, and dismissed the more rigorous and ascetic aspects of Judaism in favour of practical works. This liberation of holy ‘sparks’ from the ‘shells’ that contained them was perfectly in line with the Lurianic concept of Tikkun ha-Olam. By creating a link between the earthly and the divine, Eliezer and his followers believed that God would show far more mercy to his creatures and that it would result in a more harmonious relationship between the two spheres. He also sided with the Talmudists against the influence of the Frankists, becoming so deeply moved by the movement’s attempts to lure fellow Jews away from the traditional fold that when he died in 1760 it was said to be due to a broken heart.

The legends that followed hot on the heels of his death include stories about his having been seized from his home in Wallachia and sold into slavery. Once his captor, a powerful king, had discovered how wise he was, Eliezer was appointed royal minister and went on to secure an important victory on the battlefield. Consequently, the Baal Shem Tov became a general and then a prime minister. When he refused the hand of the viceroy’s daughter, however, explaining that he was a Jew and already had a wife, he was forced to return to his own country.

Eliezer was also thought to have ascended into Heaven to ask the Messiah when he would appear, to which the Lord replied that he would only come to earth when the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov had been disseminated throughout the entire world. Another story concerns his claim that the prophet Elijah appeared before him and predicted that he and his second wife, Sarah, would have a son. Although, by this time, the couple were almost one hundred years old, the son was miraculously born.

The first anthology of such tales, 230 of them all told, was published as Shivchei ha-Beshtin in 1814 by Dov ben Samuel Baer (d. 1815). The nineteenth century eventually saw an entire litany of such volumes and they were published in both Hebrew and Yiddish. Although the Baal Shem Tov left no books of his own, what we do know about him comes from the modern-day descendants of the eighteenth-century movement that he inspired: Hasidic Judaism.

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As previously discussed, the fact that Hasidic Jewry begins with the story of Israel ben Eliezer makes it difficult to trace a line between that and their Ashkenazi Hasidim counterparts:

The identity of name is no proof of real continuity. After all, the two are separated by two or three great epochs in the development of Kabbalistic thought. The later Hasidism was the inheritor of a rich tradition from which its followers could draw new inspiration, new modes of thought and, last but not least, new modes of expression. And yet it cannot be denied that a certain similarity between the two movements exists. In both cases the problem was that of the education of large Jewish groups in a spirit of mystical moralism. The true Hasid and the Zaddik of later Hasidism are related figures; the one and the other are prototypes of a mystical way of life which tends towards social activity even where its representatives are conceived as the guardians of all the mysteries of divinity. [2]

In many ways, Hasidism was a response to the more rationalist approach of the Haskalah (‘wisdom’) movement, which is alternatively described as Jewish Enlightenment. Beginning in the 1770s, this development sought to bring religious Jews kicking and screaming into the modern world. In line with the wider Enlightenment period itself, and at a time when support for Jewish emancipation in Europe was increasing, the Haskalah promoted liberal attitudes that would lead many Jews out of their closeted societies and into secular professions. Using language as a weapon, the Haskalah encouraged the use of Hebrew as a means of building a new Jewish counter-culture. Inevitably, its advocates came into conflict with both the traditionalists who were concerned about the decline of spirituality and the assimilationists who were attempting to end the portrayal of Jewry as a distinct religious and ethnic group. By 1871 the Heskalah movement had its own newspaper, Ha-Melitz, which evolved into a daily publication some fifteen years later. Operating out of the Ukrainian city of Odessa, the literary circle became known as the Maskilim and among its chief protagonists were men such as the famous philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786); the linguist and educationalist, Naphtali Herz Wessely (1725-1805); the poet and scholar, Isaac Satanow (1733-1805); and Haskalah founder, Isaac Abraham Euchel (1756-1804). Despite their liberal pretensions, it seems pretty clear that the group was part of a wider economic drive to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world.

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During his 1799 siege of Acre the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), released a proclamation to the Jews of Africa and Asia in which he called for them to unite under his banner to restore the ancient capital of Jerusalem. Napoleon himself, therefore, may well be regarded as one of the first proto-Zionists and it was only defeat at the hands of the British which ended his imperialist dreams of a Franco-Jewish conquest of the Middle East. Not only did Napoleon go on to liberate and empower those Jews living in the ghettoes of every land he conquered in the name of France, in 1806 he also helped to create a Jewish representative body known as the Grand Sanhedrin. By 1808, he had established a national Israelite Consistory that had sub-committees for each French region. Napoleon ensured that all laws and resolutions approved by the National Assembly were enforced by the leaders of the Jewish community itself, and made attempts to encourage Jews to join the French Army and turn away from money-lending by learning mechanics. These social changes were eventually taken up by the new Jewish Reform Movement of Germany and Hungary, who internalised the values of liberalism and equality. Needless to say, this completely transformed the status of the Jewish Diaspora. Napoleon even boasted that he had the Sanhedrin itself to thank for the fact that his armies were so heavily comprised of Jews during the French invasion of Prussia. The following year, along with Catholicism and selected forms of Protestantism, Napoleon made Judaism one of the country’s three official religions.

On the other hand, Jewish religion in France eventually underwent a programme of forced secularisation and, in 1831, when King Louis Philippe I (1773-1850) had ratified a bill that had already been passed in the Chamber of Peers by 89 votes to 57, the final barriers to Jewish equality in the eyes of the law had been removed. However, that which was greeted by some as a form of progress, was interpreted by others to be a direct attack on Jewish cultural identity. The rabbinical college at Metz, for example, was made into a state institution and provided with generous funding, whilst those debts incurred by members of the country’s Jewish community prior to the Revolution were systematically erased. In 1833, the so-called Guizot Law destroyed traditional Jewish education by outlawing forms of education provided by ‘unlicensed instructors’ and Jewish children were forced to attend public primary schools alongside their young French counterparts. As a result, those Jewish pupils who had studied little more than the Talmud now began learning Maths, Geography, French History and French Language for the very first time. It was no accident, therefore, that so many ‘enlightened’ Jews – detached from their roots – went on to become so directly involved in the insurrectionist uprisings of both France and Germany later that century, as well as in the Russian Revolution of 1917.

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Whilst these important developments were hardly conducive to the facilitation of Jewish mysticism, there was an inevitable backlash. In defiance of the radical socio-economic changes taking place in the western half of the Continent, the Hasidim of eastern and central Europe began to reinvigorate the displaced souls of their people. Basing their theological principles on the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and placing a guiding Tzadik at the heart of each Jewish community, their blend of Kabbalah dialectics and communion (devekut) with God led to a great explosion of religious literature. Among their more important outpourings was the Hanhagot, a collection of booklets and pamphlets that focussed on the combination of deep mysticism and daily ritual, As Rachel Elior tells us:

This clarified the nature of the hasidic innovation: the increased mystical spirituality associated with the new consciousness of the presence of the divine in all things, and the new way of life thus engendered. [3]

As a way of containing the contaminating influence of its opponents, Hasidic Judaism also produced a wealth of polemical documents that made an attempt to contrast these outsider viewpoints with their own spiritual tenets. The community was also able to rely on a series of ‘Letters’ that (a) presented the Hasidic lifestyle as it was during the 1770s and 1780s, (b) outlined the importance of mystical leadership and its progression from generation to generation, and (c) engaged with fellow Jews abroad, particularly those living in the more important Hasidic centres such as Safed.

After the demise of Israel ben Eliezer, in 1760, the Hasidic movement came under the direction of Rabbi Dov Baer ben Avraham (d. 1772), or the Maggid of Mezritch. Having been a close disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, Dov Baer later moved the headquarters of Hasidism two hundred kilometres south-east from Medzhybizh to Mezhirichi. Now based in the district of Wołyń and straddling the borders of south-eastern Poland, south-western Belarus and western Ukraine, Dov Baer was able to create a formidable geographical hub for the propagation of Jewish mysticism. Although, like Eliezer, he left no literary corpus of his own, his inspired utterances were later published as the Likkutei Amarim in 1780; Likkutim Yekarim in 1792; Or Torah in 1804; Or Ha’emet in 1899; Kitvei Kodesh in 1862; and Shemu’ah Tovah in 1938. Believing that the entirety of nature is a manifestation of God, the Maggid of Mezritch endorsed the Lurianic doctrine that it is necessary to free the divine ‘sparks’ from entrapment. The only Jew capable of living a completely spiritual existence, he said, is the Tzadik. One modern scholar has described this role as

the tangible expression of the divine duality, of the ebb and flow, of emanation and withdrawal, expansion and contraction, nothingness and being, lights and vessels, creation and annihilation. He links the higher world to the earthly world by assuming comprehensive responsibility for the material and spiritual needs of his followers, expressed in terms such as love, abundance, grace and sustenance. [4]

One very pivotal figure in the growth of early Hasidism was Yaakov Yosef (1710–1784) of Polonne. Another western Ukrainian Jew, Yosef was an intimate of the Baal Shem and outspoken Chief Rabbi of Shargorod. Once he began criticising the methods of the Jewish authorities, he was expelled from the city. That, however, was not the end of the matter and Dr. Harry Rabinowicz notes that

Patience and forbearance were not characteristics of Rabbi Jacob Joseph. He believed that attack was the best form of defence, and to defend Hasidism it was necessary “to defend the citadel of the rabbinate.” Severely he censured the rabbis, calling them the “little foxes who despoil the vineyard,” for their sophistry, materialism and inaccessibility. [5]

Yosef’s main contention was that, unlike the scholars of the past, those in the elitist hierarchy maintained a conscious distance between themselves and the less-educated Jews who nonetheless relied on them for spiritual guidance.

A capable theoretician, one of Yosef’s theological mainstays was that the elevation of the soul could result in the fusion of both love and fear of God merging into one and becoming co-dependant. His 1780 work, Toldot Yaʿaqov Yosef, is considered to be the first Hasidic text and other books – mainly focussed on the Hebrew Bible – include Ben Porat Yosef (1781); Zefenat Pa’ne’ah (1782); and, posthumously, Ketonet Passim (1866). Yosef’s other teachings involve the nature of prayer and spiritual solitude.

Levi Yitzchok (1740-1809) of Berditchev is also considered to be one of the more prominent founders of Hasidism – especially in Poland – and was a student of the Maggid of Mezritch. A specialist in Jewish law, Yitzchok became an important intermediary between God and the community he served. Whilst producing a series of commentaries, he also composed Jewish folk songs with mystical themes and these included A Dude’le and A din Toyre mit Gott.

Another disciple of the Maggid of Mezeritch, Elimelech Weisblum (1717-1787) of Lizhensk was born in the Galician region of the Kingdom of Poland and was one of the more ascetic Hasidim. In the presence of his younger brother, the well-known Rebbe Meshulam Zusha (1718-1800) of Hanipol, Elimelech was known to enter states of mystical ecstasy during which other students became so overcome with the supernatural experience taking place before their eyes that they either fainted or were forced to leave the room. Together, the brothers travelled extensively and their adventures have been recounted in various Hasidic legends. After the famous Maggid of Mezeritch passed away, Elimelech took over the leadership of the movement in Poland and trained a number of highly capable students who went on to spread the message throughout Eastern Europe. The best of Elimelech’s works is the Tzetl Koton, which includes a detailed set of instructions pertaining to the correct manner in which to live in accordance with the Jewish religion.

One of the more visionary members of the Hasidic expansion was Yaakov Yitzchak (1745-1815), also known as the Seer of Lublin. Hailing from the town of Łańcut, in south-eastern Poland, after Yitzchak had moved to the large city of Lublin on the Vistula River he became an important Rebbe with thousands of followers. When he began performing miracles, it was thought that he was engaging in the practice of Tikkun ha-Olam and helping to send lost souls to Heaven. These practices did not appeal to everyone, however, and Yitzchak found himself in a war of words with another leading Hasidim. Although he was to die almost one year after falling out of a window, Yitzchak left behind a quartet of notable works: Divrei Emet, Zot Zikaron, Zikaron Zot and Zikaron Tov.

Among the most influential of all Hasidic Jews was Shneur Zalman (1745-1812) of Liadi, not least for exporting his teachings to the Russian Empire. Whilst he had been born at Liozna, in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Zalman was to become a leading Hasidic emissary and the fact that he was the great-grandson of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague, a consort of the legendary golem, certainly imbued him with a sense of prestige. Zalman had written a commentary on the Torah at just eight years of age and, four years later, had become proficient enough to run his own classes on the Talmud. In fact everything about Zalman just seems so incredibly precocious and at fifteen he married the daughter of a wealthy Jewish resident from Vitebsk. Zalman’s main areas of study were mathematics, geometry and astronomy, although he took a special interest in Kabbalah and studied under Dov Baer. By 1767, he had been appointed Maggid of Liozna and continued in that role for thirty-four years. His own particular sense of religious destiny rests on the idea that the

Jew is a creature of heaven and earth, and of a heavenly Divine soul which is truly a part of godliness clothed in an earthly vessel […] whose purpose is to realise the transcendence and unity of his nature and of the world in which he lives within the absolute unity of God. The realisation of this purpose entails a two-way correlation, one in the direction from above downward to earth; the other, from the earth upward. [6]

At this point we enter another phase. Zalman is considered to be the first Rebbe of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, an ‘intellectual’ variation of Hasidism which takes its name from a shortened version of a Kabbalistic acronym for Chochmah-Binah-Da’at (‘Wisdom-Understanding-Knowledge’). The main differences between the two varieties is that (i) the Rebbe is viewed not merely as a spiritual leader but also as a veritable ‘messiah’, (ii) the emphasis is on the systematic theology of Zalman’s 1797 work, The Tanya, or ‘collection of statements,’ (iii) Chabad is considered to be a quintessentially Judeo-Russian development, and (iv) the group specialises in seeking converts from other Jewish congregations and setting up new centres around the world. Indeed, today the Chabad is head-quartered in the Crown Heights district of New York.

One of Zalman’s keenest students was Aaron HaLevi ben Moses (1766-1828), who came from the small Russian town of Staroselye. When his master was imprisoned under the dictates of a Royal decree, Moses managed to raise the funds needed to bribe the prison authorities and secure a visit for both himself and his fellow students. Forming a Kabbalistic school called the Hasidim of Staroselye, Moses wrote his 1821 Sha’are Abodah, or Avodat HaBenonim. The text deals with the unifying features of God and human souls, as well as the way to repentance through Jewish law.

A further transmogrification of Hasidism came with the so-called ‘imaginative’ strain that emanated from the Ukrainian city of Breslov. Its leading figurehead was Rebbe Nachman (1772-1810) of Breslov who, like many other important personages before him, was born in the Podolia region that was once under the control of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov and thus highly-regarded by his peers, Nachman’s movement was slightly different to that of his Hasidic counterparts elsewhere in that he sought to unite mysticism and scholarship. Kabbalah, in other works, with a deep and penetrating study of the Torah.

Married at just 13, Nachman already had a small circle of disciples and soon began teaching at the north-west Russian town of Medvedevka. By 1798 he had visited Palestine and met Hasidic leaders in Haifa, Tiberias and Safed, reconciling theological differences between different groups and bringing them under his guidance. When he returned to the fringes of Eastern Europe, greatly encouraged by what he had seen, Nachman travelled through the Ukrainian towns of Moheilov, Ossatin, Zlatopol, Odessa and, finally, Breslov, announcing that his form of Hasidism would take the name of Breslov itself. In 1802, Nachman and his followers settled in the town and he raised six daughters and two sons with his wife, Sashia.

Included among Nachman’s teachings is the idea that hereditary succession among the Hasidim must be rejected in favour of actually finding the righteous ones who are best suited to the task of guidance and leadership. This, he argued, was in the capability of all Jews. In order to cultivate and develop these qualities, it is not necessary to become too ascetic but one must question what lies behind one’s own personal deeds. The cerebral activity this demands is related to the more intellectual and scholarly dimension of ‘imaginative’ Hasidism and such introspection must also involve engaging in direct conversation with God. Nachman also believed that music could help to facilitate the higher states of mysticism necessary to achieve this communion. In addition, the recitation of the Psalms in a particular order could lead to the atonement of one’s sins.

Opposed to these teaching were the rabbinical Misnagdim from Lithuiania, who focussed strongly on the Talmud and believed that Kabbalistic practices should be confined to a Jewish elite and that to over-intellectualise like Nachman and his circle was to risk the dilution of the teachings themselves. Coupled with the growing presence of the Jewish Enlightenment these were very trying times and there were often angry disagreements between them.

Nachman of Breslov went on to experience several personal setbacks in his life, however, and whilst his wife contracted tuberculosis in 1807 he managed to survive it. After a fire destroyed his home in 1810, Nachman was contacted by a group of Haskalah Jews and invited to move to Uman, in central Ukraine. The fact that a group of ‘enlightened’ secularists had given support to a renowned Hasidic scholar is perhaps a little puzzling, but soon after settling in Uman he died. He is buried in the cemetery beside the victims of the 1768 Haidamak Massacre and it is thought that up to 20,000 people attended his funeral. It is now the site of an annual pilgrimage. Although Rebbe Nachman always stressed that anyone is capable of attaining righteousness, the Breslov Hasidim continue to insist that only he was the ‘true Tzadik‘.

Several posthumous works followed, mainly centred on interpretations of the Talmud, the Midrashim and the Psalms: Ostrog Volume I (1808), Ostrog Volume II (1811), Ostrog Volume III (1815), Sippurei Ma’asiyot (1816) and Tikkun HaKlali (1821). Other texts were lost after Nachman asked his followers to destroy them on account of possessing complex mystical insights that few would ever be able to comprehend:

As soon as I am dead, while my body is still lying here on the floor, you are to take all the writings you find in the chest and burn them. And be sure to fulfill my request. [7]

These included the Sefer HaGanuz (‘The Hidden Book’) and the Sefer HaNisraf (‘The Burned Book’).

Nachman’s official scribe was a man who came to be known as Nathan of Breslov (1780-1844). Born Nathan Sternhartz, his father was a wealthy businessman and strongly opposed to Hasidism. This view was shared by Nathan’s eventual brother-in-law and thus in a theological sense he was forced to prove his theological credentials at a very young age. Once he had been introduced to Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, however, he began to gravitate towards Hasidism but it was only when he moved to Breslov and met Rebbe Nachman that he found what he had been looking for.

Nathan soon began collecting the teachings and stories of his spiritual mentor, eventually investing in a printing press to make them more widely available. Prior to his death, he also raised enough money to construct a Breslov-Hadisic synagogue in Uman and this became a focus for the many pilgrims who visited Nachman’s grave. Nathan left behind a number of books on Jewish law and personal conduct, as well as letters, prayers and details of the Rebbe’s life and travels.

Another version of Hasidism arrived in the shape of the more ‘introspective’ Peshischa-Kotzk movement. Founded in southern Poland by Yaakov Yitzchak Rabinowicz (1766-1813), or the Yid Hakudosh, this particular sect has been described as

an elitist, rationalistic Hasidism that centered on Talmudic study and formed a counterpoint to the miracle-centered Hasidism of Lublin. [8]

Rabinowicz was originally a disciple of the Seer of Lublin, with whom he shares a very similar name, although he eventually came to reject his counterpart’s ideas in favour of those formulated by the slightly older Rabbi Simcha Bunim (1765-1827) of Peshischa. A skilled pharmacist, Bunim had received enormous funding from the wealthy Jewish businesswoman, Temerl Bergson (d. 1830). Together, the men demanded strict adherence to a rigorous Talmudic curriculum that went beyond the miracle-work of the Seer of Lublin. This also included a process of mental preparation before attempting to pray. Ironically, Bunim later became a follower of the Yid Hakudosh himself and continued to promulgate his teachings in the wake of his death in 1813.

Another dynasty of Hasidic Rebbes, the Izhbitza-Radzin, was led by Mordechai Yosef Leiner (1801-1854) of the eastern Polish city of Izbica. Best known for his Mei HaShilo’ach (‘Living Waters’), Rabbi Leiner developed the idea that absolutely everything in the world is under the direct control of God. Given that sin also exists in the world, this doctrine is highly controversial and infers that such actions are committed with God’s own blessing. Much of Leiner’s work, therefore, concerns the justification of past sins, particularly in Jewish history. Even figures such as Judas were vindicated and this led to the burning of Leiner’s work.

Regardless of the particular Hasidic sect under discussion, it seems fair to conclude that the phenomenon in general

offers a mystical approach to the great conundrums of the relationship between God and man, between the religious plane and the social plane. In its awareness of constant divine presence and the ever-renewed word of God, it takes upon itself the task of reading anew what is inscribed upon the tablets and of redefining God, humanity, and the world in a profound spirit of freedom. [9]

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Whilst the bulk of this article has been taken up with the origins of modern Hasidism, one must not make the error of assuming that all forms of either Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism in general were operating under that particular umbrella. One example of what one may refer to as ‘freestyle’ Kabbalah is that of Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (1720-1797), better known as the Vilna Gaon. Having memorised the teachings of the Tanakh by the age of four, three years later he had also learnt whole swathes of the Talmud and by the time he was eleven able to recite it in its entirety. When the child prodigy became a young man he travelled throughout Europe and had become an expert on mathematics and astronomy.

Returning home to Sialiec in 1748, in what is now part of modern-day Belarus, the Gaon chose to reject Hasidic teachings on account of interpreting mysticism through the means of both Minhag prayer and the religious laws of Halakha. He even refused to become a rabbi, as he believed the religious authority of some of his contemporaries was being abused. After forty years of isolated study the Gaon decided to live in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, and clashed with the city’s Hasidic leaders. In 1777 he was responsible for excommunicating some of their chief followers and, four years later, expelled Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi himself for refusing to minimise the movement’s increasing activities.

The Gaon’s legacy survives in that he produced some outstanding Kabbalistic commentaries. Some even argue that he was among the first to create a fusion between the emerging scientific discoveries of the Renaissance period, especially physics, and Kabbalah itself.

Another non-Hasidic mystic was Chaim (1749-1821) of Volozhin, a student of the Vilna Goan who later founded his own Lithuanian-style yeshiva in what was then part of the Russian Empire. Born at Volozhin in the Minsk region of Belarus, Chaim is remembered for his Nefesh Ha-Chaim (‘Living Soul’). It is a deeply mystical text and remains very much part of the Kabbalistic canon. Its complex format is alluded to by Norman Lamm:

The Nefesh ha-Hayyim consists of five parts, four of which are numbered and are called ‘gates.’ The fifth part, which appears between the third and fourth gates, is unnumbered. The first three gates, which are primarily metaphysical-mystical, number, respectively, twenty-two, eighteen, and fourteen chapters. The fourth gate, or final part, which is more popular and exoteric and extols the study of Torah, contains thirty-four chapters. The unnumbered part, containing eight chapters, is in the nature of a preface to gate 4 (and henceforth will be termed ‘pre-4’) and deals primarily with ethical material, such as the suppression of pride and other undesirable character traits, especially as it relates to the study of Torah and the performance of the commandments. […] The fact that it is unnumbered indicates that it was written after the rest of the book had been composed and was already in completed manuscript form. Evidence for this may also be found from the glosses and cross-references that are found throughout the book. [10]

Although several of Chaim’s other works were destroyed in a house fire he has left us with a curious passage about the golem. Discussing a conversation with his mentor, Elijah of Vilna (1720-1797), Chaim mentions in his Sifra di-Tzeniuta (‘The Book of Concealment’) that

it should not be too great and wonderful a thing to create a Golem. He replied: ‘Indeed at one time I began to create a Golem, and while I was in my middle of making it a certain ghostly form passed over my head, so I stopped making it any further. I said to myself that most probably they were preventing me from heaven, because I was so young then.’ I asked him how old he was then, and he replied that he was less than thirteen. [11]

Interestingly, there were also several ‘Oriental’ versions of Kabbalah that remained outside of the Hasidic sphere of influence and the first of these appeared in Yemen during the eighteenth century, under the direction of Shalom Sharabi (1720-1777). Having travelled through Palestine and India, even exploring the cities of Baghdad and Damascus along the way, Sharabi had acquired a wealth of mystical knowledge and devoted himself to the teachings of Isaac Luria. In one surviving document, Sharabi discusses the Sephardi mystics of Beth-El that he had encountered in Jerusalem:

Practical Kabbalah was completely prohibited. In its place came the insistence of a pure and holy life underlying was a joy as sincere as it was silent; a silence which was helpful and productive; a brotherly love. There was no pilgrimage to graves, no use of amulets. [12]

Working in Yemen as a mere servant he had tried to conceal his interest in Kabbalah from his neighbours, but when a wealthy Muslim woman made an attempt to seduce him it is said that she was eventually deterred by a miracle. Sharabi joined a Kabbalistic circle soon afterwards and was visited by the prophet Elijah. Among his writings are the Kabbalistic prayer book, Siddur Ha-Kavvanot, as well as extensive commentaries on Jewish custom such as Emet va-Shalom, Rehovot Hanahar, Derech Shalom and Nahar Shalom. One particular collection of volumes, dealing with the devotional character of Yemenite Jews, is called the Minhagei Rashash.

One slightly later example of ‘Oriental’ Kabbalah that has no relation to Hasidism is that of Yosef Hayim (1835-1909), who founded the Shoshanim LeDavid yeshiva in Jerusalem. When his father died in Iraq, Hayim was asked by the Jews of Baghdad to head the city’s group of scholars and he eventually clashed with the reformist Bavarian Jew, Jacob Obermeyer (1845-1938), over the exact manner in which the Sefer ha-Zohar should be taught. Hayim’s main speciality, on the other hand, was the Torah and his Ben Ish Hai remains a crucial part of the mystical understanding of the Torah itself. In total, he published around thirty books and the majority of these works deal with Jewish law, the Talmud and a large number of stories and parables. His Qânûn-un-Nisâ, written in Arabic and exploring the art of self-improvement, is aimed at women.


1. Klapholz, Yisroel Yaakov; Tales of the Baal Shem Tov (Feldheim Publishers, 1970), pp.5-6.

2. Scholem, Gershom; Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, op.cit., p.118.

3. Elior, Rachel; The Mystical Origins of Hasidism (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2008), pp.15-6.

4. Ibid., pp.128-9.

5. Rabinowicz, Rabbi Dr. Harry; The World of Hasidism (Vallentine Mitchell, 1970), p.45.

6. Schneur, Zalman; Tanya (Kehot Publication Society, 1962), p.vii.

7. Nathan, Rabbi & Greenbaum, Avraham (Trans.); Tzaddik: Portrait of Rabbi Nahman (Breslov Research Institute, 1987), p.77.

8. Shapiro, Rami M.; Hasidic Tales: Annotated & Explained (Skylight Paths Publishing, 2003), p.xxxix.

9. Elior, Rachel; The Mystical Origins of Hasidism, op.cit., p.210.

10. Lamm, Norman; Torah Lishmah – Torah for Torah’s Sake: In the Works of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin and His Contemporaries (Ktav Publishing House, 1999).

11. Volozhin, Chaim of; “Introduction” in Sifra di-Tzeniuta, quoted in Alan Unterman’s The Kabbalistic Tradition (Penguin Classics, 2008), p.138.

12. Jacobs, Louis; Jewish Mystical Testimonies, op.cit., p.157.

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