Courtesy: Anthony Kerstein
A brief resume of Lurianic Kabbalah, that inspired the Chasidic revolution.
Isaac ben Solomon Luria (Ashkenazi – Abr. Ha Ari-the Lion)(1534 – 1572) was born in Jerusalem, educated in Egypt and lived in Safed, trading in pepper, from 1570, for only two years. Yet the Kabbalistic system that he devised, reinterpreting and adding to the Zohar during this short time, is the one practised by Sephardim and Chasidim to this day. His teachings were written down posthumously by his pupils, Chaim Vital (1543- 1620) and Joseph ibn Tabu, and what made the rapid spread of these ideas possible was the invention of printing.
Lurianic Kabbalah is based on three concepts 1) Tzimtzum– Restriction: God restricting Himself to make room for His creation. 2) Shevirat HaKailim.- the breaking of the vessels – as God’s spirit descended through the vessels, or sephirot, his power was so great the vessels could not contain Him and broke, the divine sparks (Heb. tikkim) then mixed with the gross/profane material world (husks Heb. Clippot). 3) Tikkun. Orthodox Kabbalistic Jews believe that by doing mitzvot and good deeds we are able to repair the world by releasing the sparks from their husks. In modern times, one sect of the Chasidim, the Lubavitch have interpreted this also as bringing Jews back to Orthodox Judaism, their version of Orthodox Judaism. The Chasidim have not only adopted the Sephardi style prayer book, but also, via the Kabbalah, their concept of reincarnation- Gilgul.THE RISE OF CHASIDISM
Chasidism was founded by Israel Baal Shem Tov, lit. Master of the Good Name (1699 -1761), who became known by the acronyms Ribash or more commonly, Besht,. He was born Israel ben Eliezer, in Podolia in the Ukraine. After the Chmielniki massacres of 1648-9, the Jewish community in this city revived when it came under Turkish rule from 1672 -1699 and was a centre for the false messianic movements of Shabbetaism and Frankism, as well as a popular Christian pietist movement. The term, Baal Shem (Master of the Name) itself, referred to folk healers, who in addition to herbs and potions etc. were believed to be able to effect cures by means of vows, prayers and amulets (Kameas).
Chasidism was a reaction against the dry and intricate legalism of Talmudic argument practised in the Yeshivot (known as ‘pilpul’). It was seen as increasingly irrelevant to the harsh and difficult lives of most Jews, as was the remote and practically hereditary oligarchy of rich rabbinical and mercantile families who ruled the community. Added to this, was the despair and disillusionment caused by and the aftermath of the Chmielniki massacres. This was a rebellion by Ukrainian Cossacks and other Ukrainians against the Poles for an independent Ukraine led by Bogdan Chmielniki (Khmelnitski) (1593-1657) in which an unknown number of Jews were killed and 744 communities destroyed. Estimates of those killed vary between 40,000, or 100,000 even to 400,000, but Paul Johnson and others believe that most Jews did manage to survive, either by fleeing, fighting back or surrendering to the Tartars, to be later ransomed. Later there were blood libels and the Haidemak (roving Cossack bands) raids from the 1730’s to the 1770’s and the failure of Shabbetai Tzevi’s (1626-76) messianic mission and his subsequent apostasy. The Besht was early on attracted to the Kabbalah. He was first an assistant in cheder (Jewish primary school), after his marriage, a clay and lime digger in the Carpethian Mountains, then a shochet (ritual slaughterer) and then the couple became inn-keepers. About 1736 he became known as a healer, a master of practical Kabbalah (i.e. in the use of prayers, potions and amulets mentioned) a charismatic leader, story teller and miracle worker. At this time acquired the title Baal Shem Tov, or the acronym, Besht, and began to travel round the country preaching his new populist version of Judaism. Coincidentally, just two years later, in 1738, John Wesley began to spread his populist version of Anglicanism, called Methodism, amongst Christians in England. It seems that there was something in the air since the parallels, (if not the doctrines) with the spread of Methodism are quite uncanny.
The Besht moved from Podolia to Medzibozh in 1740 where his disciples, who at his death numbered 10,000, came to study his doctrines. His teachings were written down 20 years after his death by one of his pupils, Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye. The Besht popularised the doctrines of Lurianic Kabbalah, but with one difference. Instead of asceticism practised by many religious Jews, especially Kabbalists, he taught that all permissible pleasures in the world were there to be enjoyed, especially prayer and the holy ‘sparks’ that resided in food, drink and these ordinary permitted pleasures could be reclaimed. The Chasidim had their own synagogues or shtiebles (lit. rooms), attended at odd times in ordinary clothes and broad fur hats, praying noisily, swaying, clapping and singing joyful tunes called niggunim, eating and drinking, perhaps like Christian revivalist meetings. They adopted a Sephardi influenced prayer book (Nusach Sepharad, or Nusach Ari as opposed to the normal Nusach Ashkenaz) but of course, kept the Askenazi pronunciation. He and his followers taught that one should concentrate on the words of the prayers until all distracting thoughts had vanished and a mental vacuum is created, where God can enter. Emotion or desire to commune with God (Kavanah) was considered as important, if not more so, than knowledge of the Talmud and the codes. Robert M. Seltzer in Jewish People Jewish Thought makes another important point (page 492) concerning Devekut (cleaving to God) which could be achieved by doing ordinary things and “strange thoughts and sinful impulses” could be sublimated. “Thus Chasidism shifted the centre of gravity in the Kabbalah from metaphysical speculation to mystical psychology, from a theory about the origin and repair of the cosmos to a method for attaining inner bliss”. The Besht revived the institution of the Tzaddik, (similar to a Hindu or Sikh guru).These Tzadikkim or Rebbes, were able to spread the movement throughout Poland and the Ukraine.
THE MITNAGGEDIM (The opponents)
The rapid spread of Chassidism provoked a backlash amongst the more traditional elements, especially the entrenched establishment, the Kehilot, who feared their loss of power and influence. However they also had real fears that it was a form Shabbetaism and Frankism which sought to supplant traditional Judaism. For a while it split Judaism, dividing villages and families, a bloodless (or almost bloodless civil war). The two groups would issue Cherems (excommunications) against each-other, committing acts of violence, even invoking, or trying to invoke the Tzarist police against each-other. Chassidism failed to make headway in Lithuania and Belarus (former Byelorussia), where there were large Yeshivot, and where the spiritual leader of Mitnagdim was Chassidism’s most formidable opponent, the revered Vilna Gaon. The term gaon now means a genius or brilliant scholar, but was formerly applied to the heads of the Babylonian academies and meant ‘excellency’.
The first Cherem against the Chasidim was in 1772 when their books were publicly burned. There was another in 1781, when non-Chasidim were told to banish them from their communities and have nothing to do with them. The Chasidim replied with their own excommunications. As noted below, the founder of Chabad, Shneur Zalman, was imprisoned twice by the Russians, after being accused of subversion by the Mitnaggedim.
Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (The Vilna Gaon) (1720-97) He was a child prodigy who gave his first public discourse at the age of seven. At ten he no longer needed a teacher and was married at the age of 18. As a young man (between 1720-45) he became a wandering beggar among Polish and German communities, before returning to his birthplace, Vilna, the Lithuanian capital, known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. There he founded his own academy. Vilna not only had a large Yeshivot, but also the famous Romm printing house, which published the now highly prized versions of the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. He studied day and night, (his sons claimed that he only slept two hours a night), and although not occupying any official rabbinic position, was regarded as the jewel in the crown of Lithuanian Jewry and was supported generously by the community.
Vilna also had a reputation for intolerance and had a pillory for heretics. Elijah himself had an early Maskil (follower of the enlightenment) placed in the pillory for criticising the Mishna and Rashi’s commentaries. Although a Kabbalist himself, he opposed the Chasidism, believing it to be pantheistic (the belief that everything is in God) and because of its near worship of the Tzadikim, idolatrous. He therefore exhorted all Jews to persecute its followers. He also opposed Jewish philosophy, criticising Maimonides (Rambam-Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon – 1135-1204) in a note to the Shulchan Aruch, for rejecting the belief in practical Kabbalah, i.e. demons, incantations and amulets. He believed that it was important for Jews to study secular science, subjects such as mathematics, astronomy, zoology and botany in order to understand the Talmud properly. However, what he meant by the secular science was mostly the medieval science derived from Aristotle (often via Maimonides), not the modern science of the Enlightenment, of Isaac Newton etc. Most of his works are critical notes on, for example, the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch and are now are printed together with most modern editions of them.
At the age of 60 he set out alone for Palestine, but mysteriously turned back before reaching there.The End of the conflict
Harry Rabinowicz writes ” The ‘civil war’ was finally settled by State intervention after two decades of strife. The Jewish Statute, issued by Czar Alexander 1 on 9 December 1804, granted every Jewish community the right to worship and let others worship as they saw fit. The Chassidim had won the right to exist”. In any event, the fears of the Mitnaggedim proved groundless. The two groups soon joined together to face their common enemy, the Maskilim of the Haskallah (the Enlightenment). Despite his persecution of them, many Chasidic leaders revered the Vilna Gaon and regarded his opposition as trimming the wilder excesses of Chasidism.The Haskalah, (Enlightenment) Opponents
The Haskalah came late to Russia and coincided with the Wissenschaft (Science of Judaism ) Movement. The Russian Maskilim wrote satires on the Chasidim and regarded it as “a conglomeration of semi magical base superstitions and blind fanaticism. In 1819, a Galician Maskil, Joseph Perl wrote an anti –Chasidic pamphlet in Vienna to alert the Austrian authorities to their supposed anti- government attitudes. The leading Wissenschaft historian, Heinrich Graetz, called the Chasidic movement “… the daughter of darkness…born in gloom”.
The Chasidic movement itself soon lost its radical and innovative impetus, becoming amongst the most conservative and strictest parts of the establishment. With the exception of Chabad, the different dynasties turned in on themselves and their backs on the outside world and also lost their missionary impetus, although some groups, e.g. Belz, do run Yeshivot in Israel for so-called Ba’alei Teshvah, ex-non-Orthodox Jews returning to Orthodox Judaism, especially from Russia. Chasidim study Torah, Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch as much, if not more than other groups, as well as their own works. Also the Tzaddikim, with the possible exception of Nahman of Bratislav and the last Lubavitch rabbi, Menachem Mendal Shneerson, did and do not, for now, appear not to have any messianic pretensions. However with the number of right wing religious nutters loose in Israel at present, (to be fair, mostly non-Chasidic) anything is possible.
Chasidic literature consists of doctrine, commentary and tales told by their disciples the often miraculous and saintly deeds of their tzadikim or rebbes. Their often fanciful and creative commentaries on biblical passages can be compared to a jazz musician’s improvisations on the chord sequence of popular tunes.The Besht’s Successors
Louis Jacob’s book ‘Hasidic Thought’ (part of his Chain of Tradition series) gives an excellent and clear introduction to the ideas, methodologies and personalities of the founders and the earlier successors of the various Chasidic dynasties, with examples of their writings and his own interpretations. At the back of this book is a comprehensive chart and timeline of these dynasties, from the Besht to Abraham Mordecai Alter of Ger (1866-1948),Aaron Rokeach of Belz (1880-1957) and Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the Satmarrer Rebbe(1888-1979).The following brief selections of the early masters are based on this book which also serve to highlight specific aspects of Chassidic thought and methods of biblical interpretation. The more modern Chasidic leaders and dynasties, especially in the UK are covered by Harry Rabinowcz’s A World Apart.
Jacob Joseph Katz of Pulnoyye (d.c. 1784. Katz is an acronym for Kohen HaTzaddik-righteous priest).
This disciple of the Besht is described by Jacobs as the great theoretician of Chassidism.
When Jacob Joseph became a disciple of the Besht, he was forced to give up his position as Rabbi of Shargorod, but when another disciple of the Besht, Aryeh Leib, the Molchiah (Preacher or Rebuker) of Pulnoyye died in 1770, he succeeded him. His angry attacks on the rabbinic establishment for their lack of spirituality also alienated the Mittnagedim.
His book Toledot Yaacov Yosef (Toldos in Ashkenazi pron.) (The Generations of Jacob- from Gen.37.2) known as the Toldos amongst Chasidim, was the first Chasidic book to be published, in 1781, in Koretz, and was the main target of the Mitnagdim. It is a verse by verse commentary on the Pentateuch. His other commentaries Ben Porat Yosef (Joseph is a Fruitful Bough- from Gen.49.22), Zafenat Paneah, Joseph’s Egyptian name- Gen.41.45-pub. Koretz 1782 and Ketonet Passim (Joseph’s) Striped or Coloured Coat-Gen.37.3- pub. Lemberg 1866, are commentaries on Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers respectively. His commentary on Deuteronomy has been lost. Most of his commentaries start with the words ” I heard or received from my teacher”. These books became the pattern for most of the subsequent Chasidic books.
Examples of his teachings:
An example, in Toledot, of his Kabbalistic style is the lessons he draws from the phrase in Gen. 28.11 in which Jacob lays down (VaYishkav) putting a stone at his head. Yish is made up of Yod and Shin, with numerical values of 10 + 300. Kav is formed from the letters Kav and Bet, 20+2. In the Mishna (Uktzin 3:12) promises that God will give every saint 310 worlds. Jacob Joseph adds, if they study the Torah written in the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In the same passage he states the Chasidic belief that everything has a purpose and a Chassid can learn a moral lesson from it. He also quotes the Rambam’s (Maimonides) Mishneh Torah idea that although moderation, or the middle way, is the ideal to strive for, if one has strayed to far on one side, one has to go further toward the other side, in order to compensate and end up back in the middle.
He used a quote from the Song of Songs 2:6 to emphasise the Chasidic principle of Avodah Ha Gashmiyut, worship through the physical, i.e. cleaving to God (Devakut) through ordinary, everyday activities.
Moses Chayyim Ephraim of Sudlikov (d.1800)
Although the later Chasidic masters founded their own dynasties, the Besht’s only son, Zevi is not mentioned in Chasidic lore. This was not however true of his two grandsons from his daughter, Odel. The younger became the Chasidic master, Baruch of Meziboz (see below), and Moses Chayyim Ephraim. The latter never became a Chasidic master, but wrote one of the most popular Chasidic books, and as the Besht was his teacher, is also the major source of the Besht’s actual teachings. It is called Degel Machaney Efrayim (the Flag of the Camp of Ephraim –Num. 10.22), and was published by his son, Jacob Yehiel, in Koretz, in 1810. The word Machaney represented Moses Chayyim’s name and he became known as the Degel after the book.
Examples of his teachings:
An example of its style is the following commentary on Gen. 28: 10-12,in which Jacob goes out of Beesheba toward Haran ..and his dream of the angels ascending and descending a ladder reaching to heaven, and of living creatures running to and fro in Ezekiel 1:4 he deals with the concepts of Katnut –Smallness (of soul) and its enlargement- Gadlut. The idea of Katnut seems to be the equivalent of the mystics ‘dark night of the soul’ or as we would say, a nervous breakdown. Tzaddikim and angels cannot be close to God, or in a state of inspiration all the time. They need to withdraw, or sink, in order to raise even higher the next time, roughly meaning (to paraphrase Lenin) taking one step back to take two steps forward.
Baruch of Medziboz (1757-1810) Although he was respected as a Tzaddik by later Chasidim, he is actually famous for all the wrong reasons. He is the first Tzaddik to receive enough large sums of money from his followers to run an opulent court and live in luxury. He employed a ‘court jester’- Hershel Ostropoler (fl.c.1800). He appeared to be cleverer and more learned than Baruch, and his moralistic jokes and escapades were often involved in extracting money or a meal from reluctant donors and especially in extracting his ‘wages’ from Baruch himself, who was reputed to be notoriously mean. Baruch wrote nothing himself, but a book regarded as his teachings by the Chasidim themselves, supposedly by an unknown follower, was published in Lemburg in 1880, called Botzina di-Nahora- Candelabrum of Light.THE EXISTENTIALIST TZADDIK AND THE DEAD (TOYT) CHASIDIM
Nachman of Bratslav (Braclaw-in the Ukraine) (1772-1810) was a great grandson of the Besht, was married at 14 and spent most of his life in Medziboz. He founded his own school of Chasidism, which included Nachman of Tcherin and his scribe, (his Boswell), Nathan Sternhertz, who wrote and rewrote his ideas and stories. He journeyed to Israel in 1778-1800. After he returned in 1802, after becoming embroiled in controversies with other Chasidic masters he went to the Ukrainian town of Bratslav (Braclaw) in 1802, where he lived until 1810. In the last year of his life he went to Uman in the Ukraine, where he died of TB at 39. His Chasidim, (known as the Bratslaver or Breslover), because he promised to be with them after his death, decided that he was the Messiah, did not elect a new leader. For this reason they are known by the other Chasidim as the ‘Dead Chasidim’. Every year they leave Jerusalem, where most of them live, and go on a pilgrimage to his grave in Uman, in the Ukraine. His throne-like chair, dismantled and smuggled out of Europe during World War II, stands beside the ark in the Bratslaver or Breslover synagogue in Mear Shearim (the ultra-Orthodox area of Jerusalem).
His teachings are collected in Nathan’s anthologies, the first called Likkutey Moharan (The Collected Teachings of Our Master Rabbi Nachman), first published Ostrog, in 1806, and the second Likkutey Moharan Tinyana, published after his death in 1811 in Mohilev. Louis Jacobs writes “ His thought, in Jewish garb, bears some resemblance to his contemporary, the Danish thinker Kierkegaard. Indeed, Nachman is the most” existentialist of Chassidic masters in his emphasis on personal commitment and the complete subordination of reason to faith”.
His stories were first published by Sternhartz in 1815/6 as Sichot HaRan-R(ebe) (N)achman’s Stories- in Hebrew. They are regarded as fairy tales by many, e.g. The King Who Fought Major Wars, The Loss of the Princess, The King’s Son and the Maidservants Son Who Were Switched etc., but his followers give them mystical interpretations. Apart from this, they have a fine literary merit
He has some uncanny parallels with his fellow Czech Jew who flourished over a century later, the great writer, Franz Kafka (1883-1924). They both had their ‘Boswells’ (Kafka’s was Max Brod), they both died at a similar, relatively young age, of TB, and both had an original and quirky way of looking at the world. They both also ordered their ‘Boswells’ to destroy much of their writings before they died. Steinharz obeyed, but Max Brod fortunately didn’t.
Examples of his teachings:
Although critical of secular learning he became friendly with some Maskilim in Uman, which was a centre of the Haskalah, which he was secretly attracted to and partly influenced by. His Chasidim believe that he underwent a secret struggle against them, but perhaps he began to agree with them, which was the reason, perhaps, he wanted his writings destroyed and did not choose a successor.
He believed that the full presence of God is missing from the world, (to allow the physical world to exist), so religious doubts are inevitable, as is the failure of any attempt to prove God’s existence. He said that God gives a man the desire to journey to the one true Tzaddik, but puts obstacles in his way to strengthen his desire and make him more committed. The many references to the ‘one true Tzaddik’ are believed to refer to himself and his own messianic pretensions. He encouraged his followers to spend at least an hour a day communing with God alone and in their own languages.
THE GREAT ORGANIZER AND PROMOTER OF CHASSIDISM.
Dov Baer, the Maggid (Preacher) of Mezerich (1710-1772) only knew the Besht for two years, and never refers to him as my master, showing that the were colleagues and equals. He became head of the movement in 1760, on the death of the Besht. He moved to Mezerich, where he attracted scholars, rabbis, kabbalists and ordinary people. He was a brilliant organiser who institutionalised Chasidism and was responsible for its spread by sending preachers to the Ukraine, Lithuania and Galicia. Most of the next generation of Hasidic leaders were his disciples. His teachings were collected, written up and published by one of his disciples, Rabbi Solomon of Lutsk. Dov Baer was responsible for the central role of the Taddik as a mediator between God and man and clarifying Chassidic thought, bringing it in line with Lurianic Kaballah.
Examples of his teachings:
He did not publish anything himself, but his teachings were published by his disciples, especially Solomon of Lutzk. His book, Maggid Devarav Le-Yaakov is an anthology of the Maggid’s sayings and interpretations with an introduction summarising the Maggid’s ideas. E.g. that God fills and surrounds all worlds, and the Chasid should try to visualise this divine energy in all things and, through everything he does, return the trapped divine sparks to their original source. A typical example of his interpretations is found in Solomon Maimon’s (1753- 1800) (from Joseph Weiss in Louis Jacob’s the Jewish Religion) autobiography describing his visit to the Maggid’s ’court’. A passage in 2 Kings 3: 5 ‘And when the minstrel became like the instrument he played then the hand of God rested on him’. This was taken to mean that the ‘annihilation selfhood (or ego)’ (bittul HaYesh) was the mystical ideal, and the Tzaddik should regard himself as the passive instrument for God to play on. Solomon also described the practical jokes that the Chasidim played on one another in order to awaken the ‘joy in worship’. After the death of Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezzerich, the Chasidim began split into many different, often hereditary sects, many of which still exist today.
THE CHERNOBYL DYNASTY
Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (1730-87) was first a disciple of the Besht, and then the Maggid of Mezzarich, who he refers to as his teacher. Although he was officially the Maggid of Chernobyl, he was forced to become a wandering preacher to earn a living. He is known as Rebbe Nahumke Chernobyler or after his commentary on the Torah, Meor Eynayim (Enlightening the Eyes), which along with his other work Yismach Lev (Let the Heart Rejoice) was published in Slavita in 1798.
He was succeeded by his son, Mordechai of Chernobyl (1770-1837) who became a wealthy (from his followers’ gifts) and famous Chasidic master. Mordechai’s eight sons followed their father into the family business and became Chasidic masters in various Ukrainian towns, David of Talnoye (1808-82) being the best known.
Examples of Menachem’s teachings:
In a commentary on Pinchas and the Ethics of the Fathers 5:1. he equates the 10 sayings from which the world was created with the 10 Sefirot. In another commentary he reconciles God’s mercy and justice by referring to the Lurianic Kabbalah doctrine of Tzimtzum, i.e. God deliberately diminishing, or restricting himself to make room for his creation.
SOME OF THE MAGGID’S OTHER DISCIPLES
Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (1730-88) was a disciple of Dov Baer whose first following was in Minsk, and then in Vitebsk, propagating Chasidism throughout Belorussia (Belarus). After being involved in the struggle with the Mitnaggedim he settled in Palestine with some of his followers, becoming a leader of the Chasidim there. His book, Peri HaAretz (Fruit of the Land) first published in Kopys in 1814. It contains his teachings and letters from Palestine.
Examples of his teachings:
He emphasised the importance of devekut (cleaving to God). The punishment of Karet (being cut off ) in the Pentateuch is seen by Menachem Mendel as a natural result of the souls powers becoming atrophied due to attachment to material things. He also wrote to a follower in Russia who demanded that he pray for him to have a child, that he, unlike the Besht, could not intercede with God on someone else’s behalf, but was more a spiritual mentor. This was not, unfortunately, an attitude adopted by other Tzaddikim, which was a further source of conflict with the Mitnaggedim.
Zeev Wolf of Zhitomer (d.1800)
Note, some of the names repeat the Hebrew word in Yiddish, e.g. Dov Baer literally means Bear Bear, whilst Zeev Wolf, means, Wolf Wolf.
He was a disciple of the Maggid of Mezzerich His book, Or HaMeir (The Shining Light), was first published in Koretz in 1798. Louis Jacobs describes it as a major source of the ideas of early Chasidism and written in “…unusually attractive Hebrew style…disfigured by none of the awkward formulations and half-Yiddish expressions that seem to have affected the majority of Chasidic works”.
Examples of his teachings:
He criticised the abuses of Chasidim that had already begun to appear less than 40 years after the Besht’s death using “many scriptural allusions and clever puns, which cannot be reproduced in translation”. For example, he uses a passage from Lev. 6:8 concerning the fit of the priests linen garment to criticise Tzaddikim who were always dashing around preaching to acquire more food and clothes etc., thus having no time to practice the spiritual virtue of solitude (or meditation?). Also a priest’s shirt should fit him and not be too big. In other words, a Tzaddik should be content with the basic necessities of life and not chase after luxuries. He uses quotes from 1 Samuel 7:17 (about Samuel’s return to his house in Ramah), and Psalms 37:23, concerning a mans travels being part of God’s purpose to criticise Tzaddikim who imagine that their travels for the sake of gain are planned by themselves. If they find themselves in a strange place, it is because God led them there to redeem ‘holy sparks’. Merchants couldn’t be expected to understand that all events are part of God’s vast plan, but Tzaddikim should. These Tzaddikim should not pretend that, when travelling for gain or begging, they are “on some sublime task of cosmic restoration”.
Note: Up until now I have indicated the biblical passages which the Tzaddikim used as a hook for their ideas in order to show the Chasidic method of interpretation. From now on, for the sake of brevity, I am just listing a brief outline of their main ideas.
Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (d.1810) (The Berditchever or Berditchever Rov) was one of the few Tzaddikim to serve as a town rabbi. He is known and loved beyond the Chasidic world for his daring pleadings with God on behalf of all Jews, his kindness, generosity and perhaps eccentricity.
A notable talmudic scholar, he became a disciple of the Maggid of Mezzerich in 1766. He became a leading exponent of Chasidism, reputedly travelling from town to town with a band of followers preaching its message. He was forced out of rabbinic posts in Zelechov and Pinsk because of his Chasidism, before becoming the rabbi of Berditchev in 1785. At one low point in his life he suffered from what Chasidim call ‘smallness of soul’ mystics call the ‘dark night of the soul’ but what we would call a nervous breakdown. He recovered and continued to preach, teach and pray with what the Chasidim call Hitlahavut, from lahav, a flame, i.e. with enthusiasm. lit. with fiery passion, or perhaps more , compassion.
His book , Chasidic interpretations of the weekly Torah sidrot, the festivals and talmudic Aggadah (legends or stories), called Kedushat Levi (The Holiness of Levi) was published in two parts, the first in Slavita in 1798 and the second in Berditchev in 1816, before being combined in later editions.
Examples of his teachings:
On seeing a Jew saying the Shema while greasing the axle of his cart, he said “you see what a great people You have, even when doing humble jobs they think of you”
On seeing the overworked and bad conditions of girls making matzot for Pesach, he said “We are accused of using Christian blood for making matzot, but really it is with the blood of Jews”
He refused to let the Jewish Council stop the poor begging at the door of the synagogue, planning instead to give the well off the option of putting money into a ‘poor box’, and not be pressured into giving.
When a man lost his wife and home in a fire before Yom Kippur, leaving him with six children. Before asking God to forgive his sins, he replaced his prayer book, which was also lost, and asked the man if he would now forgive God.
My favourite is the one where he asked a smuggler if he could acquire some silk. The smuggler said that he could have as much as he wanted. He then asked a Jew for bread during Pesach and was indignantly rebuffed. Levi Yitzchak then said, “ You see Lord, what a great people we are. The Tzar has a host of soldiers and policemen to stop people smuggling silk, but the smuggler says I can have as much as I want, but on Mount Sinai, thousands of years ago, You told us not to eat leven on Pesach, and with no police or army to enforce your commandments, we still obey You”.
There are many other tales of his kindness and generosity.
He believed that we should serve God without thought of reward. His view of the virtue of humility was not that a man should regard himself as unworthy, but should not think of himself at all, the classic Chassidic idea of Bittul HaYesh, annihilation of the ego. He also emphasised the idea that man was a co-partner in redeeming mankind.
Elimelech of Lizensk (Lezajsk)(1717-87) and his brother, Susya of Anipol were leading disciples of the Maggid of Mezzarich (but knew and referred to him as the Maggid of Rovno). When he became the Maggid of Lizensk, in Galicia, on the death of the previous Maggid, he made it an important Chasidic centre and is regarded as the father of Chassidism in Galicia. An ascetic before coming under Dov Baer’s influence, he still retained some of these practices. It was believed that he continued with such practices as prolonged and regular fasts and whipping himself with stinging nettles. His book Noam Elimelech (the Pleasantness of Elimelech) is one of the major and most important Chassidic works. It is in four parts 1) Commentaries on the Sidrot of the Torah: 2) Likkutey Shoshanim (Bunches of Roses), brief comments on other biblical and Talmudic passages: 3) His letters to his son and his disciple: 4) Two lists of religious exercises. It was first published by his son in Lemberg, in 1788. He emphasised and developed, more than his predecessors, the role of the Tzaddik as an intermediary between God and man, boosting his role to such a degree that the Mitnaggedim thought it blasphemous. It is almost a training manual for Tzaddikim in this role. He insisted that the special status of the Tzaddik was inborn and hereditary. This was the beginning of the Chasidic dynasties.
Examples of his teachings:
He used a quotation from Micah 6:8- and to walk humbly with your God to show how to avoid false modesty by looking upon your own good deeds as if they were performed by someone else, detaching yourself from them.
In Noam Elimelech he believed it was easier for the Tzaddikim of his time to receive the Holy Spirit than it was for the prophets, because in exile, God had become less choosy.Whereas the Maggid of Mezzarich deliberately created and ordained new Tzaddikim, Elimelech refused to allow his disciples to lead their own congregations in his lifetime. When Jacob Isaac, who later became known as the ‘Seer’ of Lublin (see below) left Elimelech to lead his own congregation, it led to permanent and bitter estrangement between them. There is even a legend that Elimelech’s curse was fatal to some of those who left to follow his former student.
Jacob Isaac, the “Seer” of Lublin (The Lubliner Chozeh-Seer)(1745-1815) was a disciple of the Maggid of Mezzerich, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and Elimelech of Lizensk. He acquired the title ‘Seer’ or ‘Chozeh’ after his death, because he was believed to be a clairvoyant who could tell a man’s character and previous incarnations by looking at his face.
Three works of unknown compilation, contain his teachings. These are Zot Zicharon (This is the Remembrance) (Warsaw, 1883) Zicharon Zot (The Remembrance is This) (Warsaw, 1883), Divrey Emet (Words of Truth)(Lemberg, 1884) which were subsequently published as one book, Sheloshah Sefarim Niftachim (The Three Books are Opened). He was believed to have quarrelled with his master, Elimelech of Lizensk, setting himself up as an independent master, first in Lancut and then Lublin, both in Poland. Many of the later Tzaddikim were his disciples.
Examples of his teachings:
He criticised Tzaddikim (Zot Zicharon p.15) whose claims were based on their ancestry rather than their own merit, using a quotation from Num. 16:1, and Korach took, son of Izhar (‘men’ is missing but assumed). Chassidim often use the Yiddish word eynikel (grandson) to refer to them in a derogatory way. In Divrey Emet he used a quote from Deut. 12:13 about not making burnt offerings in every place to explain that he too would limit how he used his clairvoyant gifts.
The Seer reacted even more strongly to what he wrongly believed was HaYehudi’s attempt to compete with him then Elimelech did to the Seer’s break away, driving HaYehudi to his early death (see below).
In 1814 he fell out of his window and died on Erev Tisha B’Av 1815.
Chasidism was becoming less of a meritocracy, so able and talented Chasidim, in order to progress, were often forced to create new dynasties.
THE PRYZYSUCHA/GER GROUP OF CHASSIDIM.
Jacob Isaac, the Holy Jew of Pryzysucha (Known as HaYehudi-The Jew)(d.1814) was a disciple of the Seer of Lublin. He broke away from the Seer’s group to form his own, emphasising intellectual ability, inwardness and sincerity. This was a more elitist version of Chasidism.
Simchah Bunem of Pryzysucha (d.1827) was a disciple of the Seer of Lublin who joined Jacob Isaac when he broke from the Seer. When he was young, he was a timber merchant, then in Pryzysucha a pharmacist and was known as ‘the Merchant of Danzig’. He often played chess or cards with non-religious and lapsed Jews. Many of the stories about him in Martin Buber’s book which tell how he brought many of them back to Judaism take place in this Polish port.
Examples of his teachings:
His approach is summed up in the following story concerning an insult by one of his Chasidic rivals, of which there were many. Simcha Bunem said that “Meir (the rabbi in question) has been a man of God from his youth on and does not know how to sin, so how can he know what is wrong with those who seek him out? I was in Danzig and in the theatres, and I know what sinning is like- and ever since then I have known how to straighten out a young tree that is growing crooked”.
Later he became blind. When offered a cure by Rabbi Fishel, a miracle worker, he said “that is not necessary, I see what I need to see”.
Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (The Kotzker)(1787-1859) was a disciple of the Seer of Lublin. When Jacob Isaac broke away, Menachem Mendel followed him and Simchah Bunem. When Simchah Bunem died, he became the leader of this group.
Examples of his teachings:
He explained the reason for the outburst of scientific achievement in the 19th cent. in a comment on Gen. 7:11. “The bursting forth of the fountains of wisdom should have produced a tremendous outpouring of the spirit of Torah wisdom, of spiritual truth. As it was, Gods purpose was still fulfilled, but the outburst of wisdom was applied to the secular sphere”. He insisted that the idea of God helping those who help themselves applied also to spiritual efforts. We are obliged to help others, but they also must make an effort too. The other Chasidim regarded the Kotzker Chasidim as ruffians, but they regarded this as flattery. For the last twenty or so years of his life he went into solitude from his followers and the world. He wrote nothing himself, but Professor Abraham Hershel wrote his biography, published in New York in 1973. His ideas and sayings have been published in various collections, Louis Jacob’s quotes being from Amud HaEmet (The Pillar of Trust pub. Tel Aviv). THE GER DYNASTY
(According to Louis Jacobs) Yitchak Meir Alter of Ger (1789-1866)(According to Harry Rabinowicz) R. Isaac Meir Rothenberg (1799-1866) (Ger=Heb. Gur, after Gura-Kawaria, nr. Warsaw) was the brother-in-law and disciple of the Kotzker (see above). He was known as Chiddushei HaRim (The Holy works of the Rim i.e. (R)abbi (I)saac (M)eir), after his book. He combined the traditions of Simcha Bunem of Przysucha and Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. (see above).
He was succeeded by his grandson, Judah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905) called after his book, Sefat Emet (Lips of Truth).He was succeeded by, Abraham Mordechai Alter of Ger (1866-1948) the son of Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin (1823-1900) , a disciple of Mordechai Joseph Leiner of Izbica and the Kotzka.
At the Homburg Conference in 1909 he was the moving force behind the creation of Agudat Yisroel, attending three more conferences in 1923,29 and 37.Examples of Yitchak Meir’s teachings:He was responsible for one of Chasidism’s more profound and perhaps prophetic sayings “When a man becomes a leader, all things necessary must be at hand: a House of Study, tables and chairs. One man is made a manager, one a servant etc. Then Satan comes and wrests out the innermost point, but everything remains just as it was and the wheel keeps on turning, only the innermost point is missing. Help us God, we must not let it happen”.
He used a text from Lev. 23:42 and Num. 29:12-34 to reconcile Jewish particularism with universalism. The rabbis said that on Sukkot, 70 bullocks were sacrificed in the Temple on behalf of the 70 nations of the world, but the sukkah was the special home of the Israelite. THE BEGINNINGS OF SATMAR Moses Teitelbaum of Ujhely (in Hungary)(1759-1841) was a disciple of Jacob Isaac, the ’Seer’ of Lublin. He was the leading representative of Hungarian Chassidism and official rabbi of Ujhely. He was also a leading talmud scholar who wrote a collection of rabbinic responsa and a popular book of Chasidic homilies called Yismach Moshe (Let Moses Rejoice). This book was published in Lemberg (1848-61) and gave him his Chassidic nickname, the ‘Yismach Moshe’. Many Chassidic rabbis were descended from him. The line that led to the modern Satmar dynasty was continued by his grandson, Jekuthiel Judah Teitelbaum of Sighet (Hungary) (1808-83) who was the author of Yitav Lev, and his son Hananiah Yom Tov Lipa of Sighet (d.1904), the author of Kedushat Yom Tov. His son, Yoel Teitelbaum, became the famous Satmarrer Rebbe of New York (see below-Post War Chasidsm).
Examples of his teachings:He quoted Isaac Luria’s comment that a man can be reincarnated several times, even a non-human creature. Tzaddikim were often reincarnated as fish in order to correct error in previous lives, which enabled them to attain perfection when eaten by another Tzaddik. He claimed that Isaac Luria died at the age of 34 (in fact he died at 38) to correct the evils that Balaam did before he died at 34. He also gave explanations of how God, who is beyond time, can be involved in time, so that ‘Holy Days’ have special religious meaning. THE RADZHYNER DYNASTY Mordechai Joseph Leiner of Izbica (d.1854) was a pupil of Menechem Mendel of Kotsk, but parted from him for unknown reasons. He became the founder of the Radzhyner dynasty, and was succeeded by his son Jacob Leiner of Radzhyn (1814-78) who was succeeded by his son, Gershon Henich of Radzhyn (1839-91). Mordechai is also know by the name of his teachings, published by his grandson, Gershon in 1862 in Vienna, Mey HaShiloah (The Waters of Shiloah). The book was compiled by Mordechai’s closest disciples and Gershon himself.
Examples of his teachings:In Mey HaShiloah Heaven and Hell are interpreted, not as places, but psychological states. In the first, man is certain of God’s existence, but even in the second, although faith is weak, he prays to be worthy of acknowledging God. He believes that each person has their own unique task in life and points to the spiritual dangers of religion, i.e. the commands of God and institutions of religion that must be obeyed, but not worshipped. THE BELZ DYNASTY
The Belz dynasty was dominant in Galicia and one of the most conservative of the Chasidic groups, even to the extent of using candles, rather than electricity for lighting, because the current was also used by the Catholic church. Belz was a very poor town whose Jewish inhabitants depended for their livelihoods on visiting Chasidim. Their Tzaddikim, including the first five masters did not publish their teachings.
Shalom Rokeach of Belz (1803-55) was a disciple of Solomon of Lutzk, Israel Hapstein, the Maggid of Koznitz and Jacob Isaac, the Seer of Lublin. He was succeeded by his son Joshua Rokeach of Belz (1825-1904). He was the first Tzaddik to become politically active, founding Machzikei Hadat, an organisation and bi-monthly newspaper in Galicia in 1879, as a pressure group to protect the Chassidic culture. The journal appeared in Yiddish and Hebrew. His son, Issachar Dov of Belz (1854-1924) succeeded him in 1925, enabling Sara Scheniera to open her girls’ school. He was succeeded by his son, Aaron Rokeach of Belz (1880-1957). Although Aaron refused to support the Aguda, he joined with the rebbes of Ger and Alexander to thwart the Polish Education Ministry’s attempts to undermine, or secularise, Jewish religious schools in 1930 (see Chasidim in the inter-war years below). His wife, seven married children and 26 grandchildren, as well as all the residential members of his court (Yoshvim) died in the Holocaust. He managed to escape to Israel in 1944, staying first in Haifa, before settling in Tel-Aviv. He was succeeded by his nephew, Issachar Dov (b.1948) (see below). Belz itself was a very poor town, with a Jewish majority who depended on visiting Chasidim for a living. The three Belz buildings used candles, not electricity, because that was used by the Catholic church. Examples of Aaron Rokeach’s teachings:
Although non of the five Belz rebbes published any of their works, Louis Jacobs took several quotes from a biography of the previous rebbe, Issachar Dov by B. Landau and N. Urtner called HaRav HaKodesh MiBelza (The Holy Rabbi of Belz).
Aaron quotes a piece by a 16th cent. kabbalist, Elijah de Vidas, the Reshit Chochmah showing that a sin produces a cosmic flaw (pegam) which needs to be ‘repaired’ (Tikkun). He believed in kindness to animals, e.g. always making sure that his horses were fed and refusing to ride in a cart pulled by only one horse. He also taught that one should put as much effort into converting a ‘difficult’ Jew as on resolving a difficult passage in the works of the Rambam (Maimonides).
THE RUZHYN/SADAGORA DYNASTY (the Friedmanns).
Abraham ben Dov Baer (1741-76) was the son of the Maggid of Mezzarich and was known as the Angel because of his extreme asceticism and remoteness from the world, in opposition to both the Besht and his own father. His son, Shachna of Probishtch (d.1803) became a conventional Tzaddik and was succeeded by his son, Israel of Ruzhyn, the founder of the Ruzhyn dynasty.Israel Friedman of Ruzhyn (1797-1851). In addition to the son of the above he was also a grandson of Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (see above) whom he succeeded at the age of 16. His six sons all became Tzaddikim. The dynasties that they founded included the following: Sadagora, Husiyatan, Boyan, Buhush and Vasloi. He lived in great luxury in a Moorish style castle, had his own horse drawn carriage, his own orchestra and was believed to have a silver throne. Thousands venerated him as a saint and excused his luxurious lifestyle by claiming that he and his dynasty was an earthly representation of the divine principle or sphere of Malchut (Kingship). He justified it by insisting that to represent his people and influence the authoritie, he had to appear as a man of wealth. He was imprisoned by the Russians for 22 months, after which he left Ruzhyn and settled in Sadagora in Bukovina (Poland). which on his death became the main seat of the Friedmans.
Examples of the Ruzhyner’s teachings:
He taught that even a sinner can pray, because no man is really worthy to pray, but when he prays, it is as if he is reborn., that a man can pray at any time , During a bad period for Jews, when R. Joshua Hershel of Apt instituted fasts on Monday and Thursday, the Ruzhyner listened to his orchestra, believing that joy was an antidote to evil. R. Joshua Hershel accepted this as being justified by the Bible.
Another time he warned that it would be well for spiritually and materially coarse people, but bad for ‘refined’ even in a religious sense in that they will not even be able to recite any of the psalms, concluding that if it is, so it must be (one of his sons became a Maskil for a while).
THE BEGINNING OF THE ZANZ/BOBOW (pron. BOBOV) DYNASTY.Chaim Halberstam of Zanz (or Sanz, known as the Zanzer, after the name of the )(1793-1876) was the founder of Zanz dynasty. He was a disciple of the ‘Seer’ of Lublin, Israel Friedman of Ruzhyn and Shalom Rokeach of Belz. He broke from Israel Friedman in 1869 because he disagreed strongly, almost to the point of a Cherem, with the latter’s luxurious lifestyle. Most of the important rabbis sided with him, the Polish town of Zanz becoming his new centre. All his eight sons became Tzaddikim, the most famous being Ezekiel Shraga Halberstam of Sieniawa (1811-99), both were distinguished talmudic scholars and their respective town’s official rabbis. He became known by the name of the several books that he wrote, all called Divrei Chaim (Words of Life). Examples of Chaim Halberstam’s teachings:
He made the point that ordinary latter day scholars could be divinely inspired. To prove this, he stated that the work of an 18th cent, kabbalist, Chaim ibn Attar, whose work, Or HaChaim (Light of Life) was popular amongst Chassidim, was divinely inspired. He quotes Moses Maimonides ‘Guide to the Perplexed and the Talmud to show that although we no longer have the gift of prophecy, sages can still be inspired by what he calls ‘the Holy Spirit’. In another example he quotes the Tumin, the name and major work of 18th cent. talmudist, R. Jonathan Eybushutz which states that Joseph Karo’s (the 16th cent. kabbalist) code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch is an infallible work because it was divinely inspired.
Shlomo Halberstam (1847-1905) the founder of the Bobov (after the Western Galician town of Bobowa) dynasty and grandson of Chaim Halberstam.Benzion Halberstam (d.1942) succeeded him in 1905. He was a beautiful singer, and Bobov is known to this day for their music, often simple folk melodies. Benzion almost immediately established a yeshiva and after World War ll a further 40, with 900 students throughout Galicia, resourced by an organisation called Tomchei Oraisa (Supporters of Learning). He was very charitable, amongst other things, paying the medical bills of his poorer students and arranging their marriages. He urged his followers to avoid conflict and forbade the reading of secular and heretical literature. He was murdered by the Nazis on 4th Av 1942 along with his youngest son, three sons-in-law and 12,000 other Jews. THE FOUNDER OF CHABAD AND ITS PREWAR MASTERS
Chabad is an acronym for three of the Sephirot:- Chochmah (wisdom), Binah (understanding) and Deah or Da’at (knowledge).
Shneour Zalman of Lyady (1747-1813) was born in Liozna, in Russia and was one of the Maggid of Mezzarich’s pupils. He joined the Chasidic movement at 20, becoming its ideologist and became its leader when R. Menachim Mendel of Vitebsk, Dov Baer’s successor, died in 1777. As a result of the prominent part he played in the controversy with the Mitnaggedim , he was arrested, at their instigation, by the Russian authorities and imprisoned in St. Petersburg in 1798. He was released, but briefly imprisoned again at the instigation of another Mitnagged. His final acquittal on December 1798, the 19th of Kislev (Yat (19) Kislev) is celebrated as a major festival by Chabad Chasidim. In 1804 he settled in Lyady to teach and write. In 1813 he died, fleeing into Russia, from Napoleon’s army. He wrote books on liturgy, a book on law, a mystical commentary on the Chumash, and an interpretation of the Kaballah, which has since became the standard work of the Chabad called Likkute Amarim or the TANYA.
Examples of his teachings:
He opposed Chassidim’s more extreme emotionalism and much of the superstition, or wonder working. Called the Maimonides of Chasidism, according to Harry Rabinowicz, he “synthesised Lithuanian scholarship with Chassidic fervour”. He wrote that the ten Kabbalistic Sephirot are mirrored in man’s souls and are the potential means of all mans expressions: i.e. pure thoughts and emotions. When he was released from prison, he exhorted his followers not to hit back at the Mitnaggedim, but repay hatred with love. Perhaps he realised that they would soon face their common internal enemy in the form of the Haskalah.
The more open outlook of Chabad, which distinguishes Chabad from other Chasidic sects is apparent from Shneour Zalman and his successors’ actions and attitudes.
He was succeeded by Dov Baer of Lubavitch (1773-1827), his son who settled in Lubavitcz , White Russia, in 1814. He was known as the ‘Mitteler Rebbe (the middle rabbi). During the ‘liberal’, early part of the reign of Czar Alexander l (1801-25), he supported the idea of Jewish farming settlements. He, like his father, was imprisoned by the Russians, accused of taking bribes (300 roubles) from the Turkish sultan.
He was followed by his son, Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866), named Tzemach Tzedek after the title of his works. He set up a council to help the ‘Cantonists’ (see below), sending delegates to give them moral support. He also fought against the Haskalah, the Enlightenment movement, which had reached Russia by this time, and expanded the Lubavitch yeshivot. His son, R. Shmuel (1834-81) followed him. He was placed under house arrest due to his efforts to help his fellow Jews during discussions at St. Petersburg. His son R. Shalom Dov Baer (1860-1920) continued the fight for Jewish rights. He spent World War l in Rostov-on-the-Don where he died. His successor, his son, R. Joseph Isaac Schneerson (1880-1950) was imprisoned four times by the Czarist secret police, the Cheka, between 1902 and 1911 because of his missionising activities amongst Jews. He was pressured by the Yevsektzia, the Jewish section of the Russian Communist Party and eventually arrested again in 1927 and sentenced to death, accused of counter- revolutionary activities. World wide protests saved him, getting him banished to Kostroma in the Urals. In 1928 he was allowed to leave Russia, first settling in Riga, Latvia, then in 1934 Warsaw. He escaped from the Nazi invasion in 1939, arriving in New York in 1940. From 1940 to 50 he began to rebuild Chabad educational institutions (see Part II). OVERVIEW OF THE CHASIDIC WORLD FROM 1800 TO WORLD WAR 1 (1914-18) From here, much of the information on Chasidism is based on A World Apart, by Harry Rabinowicz. (This was published in 1997, so some of the information may be out of date). Much of the historical information is also based on The New Jewish Standard Encyclopedia (Eds. Cecil Roth and Geoffrey Wigoder) Czar Alexander l (1801-25) started liberalising policy towards Jews, allowing Jewish farming colonies in S. Russia, but later became reactionary, imposing restrictions on them and expelling them from many areas. He also introduced the Jewish Statute, on 9 December 1804, which by granting every Jewish community the right to worship and let others worship as they saw fit, was the beginning of the end of the persecution by the Mitnaggedim (see above). Czar, Nicholas l (1825-55) He tried to forcibly assimilate Jews by the ‘Cantonist’ army recruitment system. The Cantonists were Jewish army conscripts, press-ganged, often while still children as young as eight, by the recruiters, (known as Chappers). Conscripts had to do 25 years, but the Jewish ‘Cantonists’ had to do an extra six years in special Military Schools, the Cantons. Under the ‘Liberator’ Czar, Alexander ll, (1855-81) much of the previous anti-Jewish laws were alleviated. He also freed the serfs in Russia and tried to modernise the country. After his assassination of the on 1st March 1881, life became much harder for Jews in the Pale of Settlement (the small area of Russian occupied Poland where most of the Jews lived. Because one of the five involved in the assassination was Jewish, Jews were blamed. Pogroms in the Ukraine, White Russia and Bessarabia devastated 215 communities, leaving hundreds dead and 20,000 homeless and 100,000 financially ruined. Further, the May Laws of 1882 enacted by Czar, Alexander lll, (1881-94) prohibited Jews from settling outside the Pale of Settlement. Altogether 140 discriminatory laws were enacted against them, limiting their entry into universities, forbidding the acquiring of land etc., as well demanding a totally disproportionate number of army recruits. Czar Nicholas ll (1894-1917), the last Czar, continued his father’s policies. From 1881-1914 about 2.75 million Jews left Eastern Europe, some to Palestine (65,000) and Western Europe (350,000, 200,000 in the UK), Canada (100,000), Argentina (115,000), South Africa (45,000), Australia (15,000), but most, 2,040,000 to the USA. Between 1915 to 1939 a further million left. The Chasidic leaders however dissuaded most of their followers from going because they feared that the secular, open nature of these societies would weaken and perhaps even destroy the religious culture which they had so painstakingly evolved. This in effect condemned most of them to death in the Holocaust. All the great Yeshivot were located here, including the new trend of Chasidic Yeshivot. These were often in very small towns and were the main source of livelihood of their Jewish inhabitants. Chasidim would visit their Tzaddikim at least three times a year, with a generous gift (a pidyon) or more if they needed advice. A Tzaddik’s Chasidim almost worship him and fight to snatch the crumbs that fall on his table, believing them to have acquired holy sparks. OVERVIEW OF CHASIDISM DURING THE INTER-WAR YEARS.
During this period the Chasidim became politically active. One third to one half of the three million Jews of the newly independent Poland, as well the adjacent territories of Hungary, Rumania and White Russia etc. were Chasidim. Most belonged to an Orthodox organisation called the Aguda or Agudat Yisroel. Unlike the Zionists, who were concentrating on settling in Palestine, the Aguda poured their resources into the Jewish communities of Poland and Eastern Europe. They maintained and created their own schools, including 250 Beis Yaakov girls’ schools, with 38,000 pupils, founded by an ex-dressmaker, Sara Schenierer (1883-1935). They also ran youth and women’s organisations, a daily newspaper and a publishing house. Chasidic representatives sat on the parliamentary councils of the newly created post World War l states of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary and Rumania. Chassidic rabbis (with the exception of the ultra- conservative and inward looking Belz and Alexander dynasties) represented the Aguda in communal, local and national elections. Warsaw, Poland’s capital, became the centre of many Chasidic dynasties, Rabbi Abraham Mordechai Alter of Ger being the acknowledged leader of Polish Chasidism. The large Chasidic communities in Hungary, Rumania and Czechoslovakia were dominated by the dynasties of Sadagora, Boyan, Satmar and Munkacz.
During World War II, between 1939-45, all these communities were virtually wiped out in the Holocaust. The Chasidim suffered proportionately more than any other group. One third of world Jewry was killed, but probably over 90 per cent of the Chasidim were. One third to one half of the three million Jews murdered in Poland and adjacent territories were Chasidim.
Sources: The Jewish Virtual Library and the New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia eds Ceil Roth and Geoffrey Wigoder, A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson, Hasidic Thought and the Jewish Religion by Louis Jacobs, The Encyclopedia of Jewish History, eds. Ilana Shamir and Shlomo Shavit. A World Apart by Harry Rabinowicz. The Jews and On the Other Hand by Chaim Bermant, Tales of Hasidim, Early Masters, Tales of Hasidim, Later Masters both by Martin Buber, Souls on Fire by Gershon Scholem, Jewish People Jewish Thought by Robert M. Seltzer, Vallentine’s Jewish Encyclopaedia, eds. Albert M. Hyamson and Dr. A.M. Silbermann, A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, ed. Eli Barnarvi