(Courtesy: Rabbi Louis Jacobs)

The spirit of enthusiasm in which prayer is to be offered is known in hasidic teaching as hitlahavut, from lahav, « a flame », i.e. the soul of the worshipper is to be on fire for God. It is said that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (d. 1809), after leading the congregation in prayer during the Day of Atonement, would cry out: « My heart is on fire! » Of his disciple Rabbi Israel of Koznitz it is said that he had such a sick and emaciated body that he had to be carried in a chair from his house to the synagogue, but as soon as he entered the portals of the house of God he would cry out: « How full of awe is this place! » (Gen. 28: 17), and he would then leap to the prayer-desk « as if he were flying through the air ». In spite of his ill health, when he recited the verse « sing unto the Lord a new song » (Ps. 149:1) his weakness would leave him and he would sing in joy « like a little girl ». This teacher used to say that in all the world there is no greater delight than a prayer recited as it should be.

Although the hasidic teachings on prayer were generally intended to apply even to the ordinary hasidim, there is a realistic thrust in hasidic thought which recognizes that the higher reaches of prayer are only possible for holy men who are masters of prayer. It is for this reason that special significance is attached to the prayers of the tsaddik. He is capable of offering prayer as it should ideally be offered, and his followers can raise themselves by associating themselves with him as he prays. It was this particular doctrine of the tsaddik as an intermediary between God and man that was a source of offence to the opponents of Hasidism who held strongly that it belongs to the essence of the Jewish approach that a man approaches his Maker directly and requires no others to intercede for him. At times the vehement accusation was hurled at the hasidim that their reverence for the tsaddik and their reliance on his prayers bordered on the idolatrous, though it should be noted that the has-id never prays to the tsaddik, and would consider such a notion blasphemous in the extreme.

In a remarkable defence of the tsaddik’s prayers, the late hasidic master Rabbi Solomon of Radomsk (d. 1866) writes:

Behold, there are two types of tsaddikim called « great lights », each of them great in his generation. It is true that in the generation that preceded ours there were great tsaddikim who illumined the world with their righteousness, such as the tsaddikim and the prophets of ancient times. To them was dominion given and the power in heaven and earth to issue decrees, and it came to pass, light being shed on all their ways. Nowadays, in these generations, although the tsaddikim are not comparable to the earlier ones, yet a man must not despair to declare, God forbid, that we must now grope about like a blind man in the dark … This is why Scripture says: « And God made the two great lights » (Gen. 1:16), hinting at the two types of tsaddikim, those of earlier times and those of later. « The greater light to rule the day ». These are the tsaddikim of former generations who had the power to nullify all decrees against the children of Israel. « And the lesser light », referring to the tsaddik of this generation, « to rule the night », in the bitter exile which is like night. He, too, has the power of prayer as in former ages. God speaks well both of the early ones and the later ones, for he has eternal paths reaching from heaven by means of which he can be seen on earth.

Mechanical prayer was particularly offensive to the hasidim. The sincere prayer of the simple man is preferable to the prayer of the sage if feeling and inwardness is lacking. Adapting a saying of the Kabbalah, the hasidim taught that prayer needs wings, the wings of the love and fear of God, otherwise it could never ascend heavenwards. The Ba’al Shem Tov, hasidic legend has it, once refused to enter a synagogue because, he said, there was no room there so full was the building of prayers. When asked to explain, he said that true and sincere prayer does not remain below in the synagogue but flies upwards. In a well-known tale the Ba’al Shem Tov praises a poor, ignorant shepherd boy who knew no Hebrew and was therefore unable to recite the prayers but who, in his love, played his flute in praise of God. By fear in this context the hasidim do not mean the fear of punishment. Hell-fire preaching, for instance, is singularly absent from hasidic sermonizing. By fear the hasidim understood the tremendous sense of awe man should experience when he realizes that he is in God’s presence, Rudolf Otto’s experience of the numinous. The hasidim teach that both love and fear are essential; love because where there is fear alone there is no joy though there may be fascination, and fear because where is love alone prayer can degenerate into pure sentimentality and is in any event too superficial, too familiar, too easy-going for the devout. Love causes the fierce outpouring of prayer with intense joy. Fear is required to remind the hasid that however near he is he is still far away or, paradoxically, that he can only be near when he knows how far away he really is. One of the most renowned hasidic teachers, Rabbi Hayyim of Tchernowitz (d. 1813), describes on the basis of this thought why, in the traditional liturgy, the afternoon prayer, recited as the Sabbath reaches its culmination, is shorter by far than the other prayers of the Sabbath. The other prayers of the holy day express man’s love for God, but as the Sabbath reaches its highest point, as man makes himself ready in the words of Rabbi Hayyim to place the crown on the head of the king, he is so stricken with holy dread that he cannot utter a word. He would be unable to pray at all at that awesome moment but God endows him with the power to speak, and then in the midst of his fear he can utter a few words, at least, in perfect joy and delight.Rabbi Jacobs, formerly rabbi in Manchester and now in London, is the author of Hasidic Prayer (Lon don, 1973) and A Jewish Theology (London, 1975).