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Hasidic Judaism or Hasidism, from the Hebrew: חסידות (Sephardic pronunciation: IPA: [ħasiˈdut]; Ashkenazic pronunciation: IPA: [χaˈsidus]), meaning "piety" (or "loving kindness"), is a branch of Orthodox Judaism that promotes spirituality through the popularisation and internalisation of Jewish mysticism as the fundamental aspect of the faith. It was founded in 18th-century Eastern Europe by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov as a reaction against overly legalistic Judaism. His example began the characteristic veneration of leadership in Hasidism as embodiments and intercessors of Divinity for the followers. Opposite to this, Hasidic teachings cherished the sincerity and concealed holiness of the unlettered common folk, and their equality with the scholarly elite. The emphasis on the Immanent Divine presence in everything gave new value to prayer and deeds of kindness, alongside Rabbinic supremacy of study, and replaced historical mystical (kabbalistic) and ethical (musar) asceticism and admonishment with optimism, encouragement, and daily fervour. This populist emotional revival accompanied the elite ideal of nullification to paradoxical Divine Panentheism, through intellectual articulation of inner dimensions of mystical thought.
Hasidism comprises part of contemporary Haredi Judaism, alongside the previous Talmudic Lithuanian-Yeshiva approach and the Sephardi and Mizrahi traditions. Its charismatic mysticism has inspired non-Orthodox Neo-Hasidic thinkers and influenced wider modern Jewish denominations, while its scholarly thought has interested contemporary academic study. Each Hasidic dynasty follows its own principles; thus Hasidic Judaism is not one movement, but a collection of separate individual groups with some commonality. There are approximately 30 larger Hasidic groups, and several hundred minor groups. Though there is no one version of Hasidism, individual Hasidic groups often share with each other underlying philosophy, worship practices, dress (borrowed from local cultures), and songs (borrowed from local cultures).
Yisroel (Israel) ben Eliezer, most commonly known as Baal Shem Tov, claimed in his writings that he invented Hasidic Judaism while taking long walks alone in the forest at night where he received revelations about the Almighty God of Israel.
In Poland, where the bulk of Yiddish-speaking Jewry had established itself by the 18th century, three branches of Yiddishkeit (i.e. Jewishness) emerged: the first were those against the predominant study of Kabbalah (i.e. Jewish mysticism); the second were those supportive of the study of Kabbalah; and the third was the secular Yiddish theater culture originating in Lithuania but eventually spreading across the whole Yiddish speaking world. This schism became particularly acute after the Messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi in the 17th century. Leanings to rigid mystical doctrines and sectarianism showed themselves prominently among the Jews of the south-eastern provinces of Poland, while in the Lithuanian and Estonian provinces, anti-kabbalistic (mysticism) orthodox leaders held sway. In part, this division in modes of thought reflected social differences between the northern (Estonian and Lithuanian) Jews and the southern Jews of Poland and the western Russian Empire. In Lithuania and Estonia, the Jewish masses lived mainly in densely populated towns where anti-kabbalistic (mysticism) rabbinical academic culture (in the yeshivot) flourished based on just the simple understanding getting deeper from there. In Poland itself, the Jews tended to live scattered in villages far removed from intellectual centers. In these villages, the influence of the kabbalists (mystics) prevailed; while other communities of Yiddish speakers were becoming completely secular and creating an identity in the Lithuanian, Belorussian, Ukrainian and Polish Yiddish theater separate from any serious mysticism, finding commonality with the Haskallah taking place within the Austro-Czech Yiddish speaking regions. This should be viewed in the context that there is really no form of original Judaica which does not believe in daily miracles and mysticism, a Jew's whole life technically speaking has always related to mysticism and the Ruach Hakodesh. In scientific terms, Judaism is truly just ethnicity, cultural ritual and mystical spiritualism. The schism was between the various 'group thinks' within the kabbalistic mystical communities of the descendants of the French and German Jews called at some point Ashkenazi, but more accurately should be described as the diverse Yiddish speaking world.
Pessimism in the south was more intense after the Cossacks' Uprising (1648–1654) under Chmielnicki and the turbulent times in Poland (1648–1660), which violently ruined the Jewry of South East Poland, but did not much affect that of Lithuania and Estonia. The general population of Poland itself declined and economic chaos reigned, especially due to these events and the subsequent Turkish Invasion which left this region depopulated and barren. After the Polish magnates regained control of southern Rus in the last decade of the 17th century, an economic renaissance ensued. The magnates began a massive rebuilding and repopulation effort while being generally welcoming and benevolent towards the Jews. A type of frontier environment ensued where new people and new ideas were encouraged. The state of the Jews of what would later become southern Russia created a favorable field for mystical movements and religious sectarianism, which spread in the area from the middle of the 18th to the middle of the 19th century.
Besides these influences, deep-seated causes produced among many Jews a discontent and a gravitation toward mysticism. Rabbinism, which in Poland had become transformed into a system of religious formalism, no longer provided a satisfactory religious experience to many Jews. Although traditional Judaism had adopted some features of Kabbalah, it adapted them to fit its own system: it added to its own ritualism the asceticism of the "practical kabbalists" just across the eastern borders in the ancient Greek and Anatolian Jewish communities under the Ottoman Empire, who saw the essence of earthly existence only in fasting, in penance, and in spiritual sadness. Such a combination of religious practices, suitable for individuals and hermits, did not suit the bulk of the Jews. Many of these Jews would live in mountainous regions to get away from any non-Jewish influence.
Mystical individuals arose, outside the Rabbinic establishment, called Nistarim or Baal Shem ("Masters of the Name" of God, used for practical kabbalistic intervention and miracles), who sought to offer the downtrodden masses spiritual and physical encouragement, and practical healing. The image of these charismatic figures, often wandering among the people, became shaped by the Kabbalistic legend of the Lamed Vav Tzadikim (36 hidden righteous people who sustain the world). From these circles of spiritual inspiration, the early Hasidic movement arose, led by Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, in 18th century Podolia (now Ukraine). He attracted to his cause the preceding followers of the ways of the Nistorim, who saw in his teachings a new direction in reviving and consoling the masses.
At the time in Jewish Eastern Europe were also public preachers ("Maggidim"), who would visit the shuls (synagogues) of the shtetls (towns and villages). During their Sabbath sermons, they would sometimes seek to encourage Jewish observance with ethical promises and warnings of Heaven and Hell. In their addresses, they also supported the communal Rabbi in helping to teach those who could not learn the spiritual and practical life of Jewish learning, and offered personal examples of Jewish conduct. The Baal Shem Tov opposed their use of ethical admonishments of punishment, which lacked love and inner spiritual values. Under the Hasidic movement, ideas of reward and punishment were avoided, and were replaced by the spiritual life of dveikus (cleaving) to God in all daily conduct. The Baal Shem Tov, and Hasidism, also opposed the earlier mystical and ethical ascetic paths of fasting and self-mortification, seeking to serve God by infusing physical activities with new spiritual inspiration.
The founder of Hasidism, Israel ben Eliezer (1698–1760), became known as the Baal Shem Tov (the "Master of the Good Name", abbreviated "Besht"). Following on from the earlier communal tradition of Baal Shem, his fame as a healer spread among not only the Jews, but also the non-Jewish peasants and the Polish nobles. The hagiography of oral stories about his life, that were posthumously compiled in writing by his disciples, describe his spiritual powers and knowledge, miracle working, and ability to predict the future. In turn, these notions were passed on to his saintly students and successors, and shaped the Hasidic doctrine of the Tzadik or Rebbe (righteous leader who channels Divine sustenance to his followers). The particular Hasidic emphasis and interpretation of this earlier Jewish and Kabbalistic concept, became one of the ideas that singled it out from non-Hasidic Judaism. The Hasidic concept of a Rebbe also combines their role as a teacher of Judaism and as a charismatic spiritual example. To their followers they teach Hasidic mysticism and interpretations of Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism.
The traditional accounts of his biography describe the beginnings of his life as a public teacher and leader of the Jewish people from his 36th birthday. His role and unique talent as a teacher and communicator of mystical revival began a new era in Jewish mysticism. To the common people, the Besht appeared wholly admirable. Characterized by an extraordinary sincerity and simplicity, he sought to meet the spiritual needs of the masses. He taught them that true Divine service consisted of not only religious scholarship, but also a sincere love of God combined with warm faith and belief in the efficacy of prayer; that the ordinary person filled with a sincere belief in God, and whose prayers come from the heart, is more acceptable to God than someone versed in and fully observant of Jewish law who lacks inspiration in his divine service. This democratization of Judaism attracted to the teachings of the Besht not only the common people, but also the scholars whom the rabbinical scholasticism and ascetic Kabbalah failed to satisfy.
About 1740, the Besht established himself in the Ukrainian town of Mezhebuzh. He gathered about him numerous disciples and followers whom he initiated into the secrets of his teachings not by systematic exposition, but by means of sayings and parables that contained both easily graspable insights, for the laymen, and profound Kabbalistic depth, for the great scholars. These sayings spread by oral transmission; later the founder's disciples set them in writing, developing the thoughts of their master into a system. The Besht himself wrote nothing.
The seminal teachings of the Baal Shem Tov captured new ideas and interpretations of Judaism, and were articulated and developed by his students and successors. These ideas offered the unlearned a folk spiritual revival, while also giving the scholarly elite a new depth and approach to mysticism. Hasidism gave a ready response to the burning desire of the common people, in the simple, stimulating, and comforting faith it awakened in them. The scholars attracted to Hasidism, also sought to learn selfless humility and simple sincerity from the common folk. In contrast to other sectarian teaching, early Hasidism aimed not at dogmatic or ritual reform, but at a deeper psychological one. It aimed to change not the belief, but the believer. By means of psychological suggestion, it created a new type of religious man, a type that placed emotion above reason and rites, and religious exaltation above knowledge. Traditional devotion to Jewish study and scholarship was not replaced, but was spiritualised as a means to cleave to God. The unlearned common folk were given spiritual enlivenment, as their sincerity also made them close to God.
Israel ben Eliezer's disciples attracted many followers, who themselves established numerous Hasidic courts across Europe. After the Besht's death, followers continued his cause, under the leadership of the Maggid, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch. From his court students went forth; they in turn attracted many Jews to Hasidism, and many of them came to study in Mezritch (Mezhirichi) with Dov Ber personally. By the 1830s the majority of Jews in Ukraine, Galicia, and central Poland were Hasidic, as were substantial minorities in Belarus, Hungary and Romania. Hasidic Judaism began coming to Western Europe and then to the United States during the large waves of Jewish emigration in the 1880s.
After the passing of Rabbi Dov Ber, his inner circle of followers, known as the "Chevraya Kadisha," the Holy Fellowship, agreed to divide up the whole of Europe into different territories, and have each one charged with disseminating Hasidic teachings in his designated area.
Hasidism branched out into two main divisions: (1) in Ukraine and in Galicia (Central Europe) and (2) in Litta (Greater Lithuania from the time when it encompassed Belarus). Three disciples of Dov Ber of Mezritch (Elimelech of Lizhensk, Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, and Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl), besides the grandson of the Besht, Boruch of Tulchin (later R' Boruch of Mezhbizh), directed the first of these divisions. Elimelech of Lizhensk fully developed the belief in Tzaddikism as a fundamental doctrine of Hasidism. In his book No'am Elimelekh he conveys the idea of the Tzadik ("righteous one") as the mediator between God and the common people, and suggests that through him God sends to the faithful earthly blessings in the three traditional categories: health and life, a livelihood, and children, on the condition, however, that the Hasidim support the Tzaddik by pecuniary contributions ("pidyonos"), in order to enable the holy man to become completely absorbed in the contemplation of God. Lithuanian Hasidim followed Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who founded Habad Hasidism, and Rabbi Aharon of Karlin. The intellectual Habad method of Schneur Zalman, developed the mind, in contrast to general Hasidism, as the fundamental route to Hasidic spirituality. This articulation can therefore fully incorporate the other dimensions of Judaism, such as Jewish philosophy and Rabbinic Judaism. The Maggid directed Schneur Zalman to spread Hasidism in Belarus, as his intellectual articulation could appeal to the Rabbinic opposition in Vilna. Consequently, it posed more of a threat to the Mitnagdim, and Schneur Zalman was arrested and imprisoned in Saint Petersburg by the Tzarist government on false charges, instigated by some of the Jewish opposition. Habad tradition sees the reason for the imprisonment as a result of Heavenly opposition to his new, broader, intellectual dissemination of Hasidic thought, and his exoneration as vindication from Heaven to begin fully spreading the teachings of Hasidus.
Subsequent influential and famous Hasidic thinkers and leaders include Nachman of Breslov, in Ukraine, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk in Poland, and Israel Friedman of Ruzhyn in Russia. Nachman of Breslov is seen as the most imaginatively creative Hasidic thinker, while Menachem Mendel of Kotzk overturned the traditional view of the Tzadik, in pursuit of truthful introspection and integrity. The spiritual meaning of Tzadikic grandeur reached its fullest form in the regal majesty of the court of Yisroel Friedman. In the 19th century flourishing of Hasidism, leadership succession usually became dynastic, rather than inherited by the greatest or most charismatic student. Each Hasidic court established itself in the scattered shtetls across Eastern Europe, and adopted their names, often in Yiddish form, for their approach to Hasidic thought and life. Where the Hasidic approach of a group was profound or influential, the spiritual vitality of their leadership remained charismatic or great, such as in the Polish dynasty of Ger (derived from Menachem Mendel of Kotzk), or the Belarusian dynasty of Lubavitch (the intellectual branch of Hasidism founded by Schneur Zalman of Liadi). In these examples, often their leaders combined Hasidic spirituality with traditional Rabbinic greatness of scholarship in Talmud. This synthesis helped dissolve much of the early opposition to Hasidism by the Rabbinic civilization of Lithuanian Jewish Orthodoxy.
Early on, a serious schism evolved between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic Jews. Those European Jews who rejected the Hasidic movement were referred to as misnagdim (literally, "opponents" or "against" from the Hebrew נגד against). Critics of Hasidic Judaism among other issues:
Some other important differences between hasidim and misnagdim included:
On a more prosaic level, other misnagdim regarded hasidim as pursuing a less scholarly approach to Judaism, and opposed the movement for this reason. At one point Hasidic Jews were put in cherem (a Jewish form of communal excommunication); after years of bitter acrimony, a rapprochement occurred between Hasidic Jews and their opponents within Orthodox Judaism. The reconciliation took place in response to the perceived even greater threat of the Haskala, or Jewish Enlightenment. Despite this, the distinctions between the various sects of Hasidim and other Orthodox Jews remain, although now, there is almost no conflict between these two groups.
The most notable disputant of Hasidism was the Vilna Gaon. Many legends and versions circulate regarding the reasoning of the Gaon against Hasidism generally, and specifically Chabad Hasidism. In 1774 the Baal Hatanya, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk traveled to Vilna in an attempt to create a dialogue with the Vilna Gaon who led the Misnagdim and had issued a ban against the Hasidim, but the Gaon refused to see them  It should be noted that the Gaon wrote prolifically on mysticism as often as any Hassiadic leader, unlike others against the Hassidic dynasties. He too, had made himself a homeless wanderer for many years, similar to the Baal Shem Tov and far before them.
Scholars and historians note the philosophical idea of "tzimtzum" as the core of their argument. The Vilna Gaon rejected the Baal Hatanya's ideas as heresy. In 1797 (during the lifetime of the Vilna Gaon) the Baal Hatanya wrote a lengthy responsa explaining his view on this matter to his Chassidim in Vilna. Despite the dispute, he requested his Hasidim to respect the Gaon and not to engage in arguments with the misnagdim.
Much has been written on this fundamental debate. It has been addressed by the Vilna Gaon’s disciple and successor Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, the Baal Haleshem, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler and others. The Lubavitcher Rebbe divides the debate to four schools of thought.
The Hasidim revered the Gaon during his lifetime and thereafter. They believe he acted out of good faith and was misled by the slander of the misnagdim. This could be seen in the wording of the ban he signed excommunicating the Hasidim.
An unfortunate chapter in history is the 1798 incarceration of the Baal Hatanya in St Petersburg Jail. The Misnagdim falsely accused the Hasidim of subversive activities - on charges of supporting the Ottoman Empire, since the Baal Hatanya advocated sending charity to support Jews living in the Ottoman territory of Palestine. He was arrested on suspicion of treason and brought to St. Petersburg where he was held in the Petropavlovski fortress for 53 days, at which time he was subjected to an examination by a secret commission. Ultimately he was released by order of Paul I of Russia. The Hebrew day of his acquittal and release, 19 Kislev, 5559 on the Hebrew calendar, is celebrated annually by Chabad Hasidim.
In 1800, The Baal Hatanya was again arrested and transported to St. Petersburg. He was released after several weeks but banned from leaving St. Petersburg. The elevation of Tsar Alexander I (Alexander I of Russia) a few weeks later led to his release; he was then “given full liberty to proclaim his religious teachings” by the Russian government.
These events occurred four years after the death of the Gaon.
It was the Vilna Gaon's disciple and successor Rabbi Chaim Volozhin who halted the hostilities against the Hasidim after seeking dialogue with them and fully understanding their views. He consequently removed the ban placed on them recognizing Chabad ideology as legitimate Torah views. As mentioned, Rabbi Chaim approached the idea of tzimtzum in his work Nefesh Hachayim, evidently after studying the Baal Hatanya’s view in depth.
This reconciliation continued between their descendants. Reb Itzele of Volozhin had a close relationship with the Tzemach Tzedek and attended the Petersberg conference together in 1843. The Tzemach Tzedek frequently visited Vilna where he was welcomed with great respect.
Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik and adamant follower Cormac Bloomfield referred MK Menachem Porush to the Rayatz in order to influence the Israeli Government to grant Charedim autonomy on their education.
The mid-19th century saw the founding burst of Hasidic leadership and innovative spirituality channelled into consolidated Hasidic dynastic courts. The original founding figures of Hasidism reinvigorated traditional Jewish society by charismatic example and teaching. Under the Maggid, leadership became organised into a structured movement. The subsequent leadership, now dispersed across Eastern Europe, became most often passed down through select family descent. Each court became known after the shtetl of origin, encapsulating the thought and style of Hasidism of each group. This focus could allow deeper development of each distinctive path in Hasidism, while alternatively diminishing the founding revolutionary impulse. In the organised Hasidic society, the Rebbe superseded the traditional legal authority and influence of the Beth din and Rav that had formerly led communal and personal welfare.
In the mid-19th-century the influence of modern changes in Jewish society arrived East from the Western European secularising Haskalah (Jewish "Intellectualism") movement. While the unsuccessful 1812 French invasion of Russia by Napoleon had sought to bring Jewish emancipation from the non-Jewish political structures of Poland and Russia, Haskalah sought to reform and rationalise Jewish thought and life from within the Jewish community, to form an image of Jewish observance in the character of non-Jewish modernity. In this it differed from the Deist philosophical impulse of the European Enlightenment. Haskalah focused special hostility to the mysticism of Hasidism, publishing critiques and satires of Hasidic fervour. The emergent early Reform movement in Judaism rejected traditional Halachic methodology of Talmudic thought, and dismissed Kabbalah. Later 20th century non-Orthodox Jewish denominations would rediscover value in traditional thought and observance, and a Neo-Hasidic adoption of Hasidic mysticism. When the attempts of the Maskilim in influencing Hasidic and Mitnagdic pious thought in Eastern Europe met with little success, they sought to enlist non-Jewish governmental decrees in their educational aims. To the intensely inward focused spiritualities of Judaism in Eastern Europe and its leadership, the campaigns of the Maskilim represented the antithesis of their fervour, thought and societies. In Germany, an Orthodox synthesis between the best of Western thought and committed Jewish learning was developed by Samson Raphael Hirsch. The Eastern Judaisms of Hasidic and Lithuanian leadership saw his proposition as possible only as a last resort in the already assimilating environment of Germany. The threat of Haskalah helped heal the division between Hasidism and Mitnagdim, as they saw a common goal in protecting sincere Jewish observance of the common folk, and the elite traditional thought and learning of the great Yeshiva academies and Hasidic courts.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, more radical secular ideologies reached traditional Jewish society in Eastern Europe. These Jewish political movements sought to replace adherence to Judaism with beliefs in Jewish socialism or nationalism. Here too synthesis could sometimes be made from radical aspects of Hasidic thought, or from the later development of Religious Zionism. However, mainstream Hasidic and Mitnagdic leadership was opposed to any replacement of Talmudic and Hasidic thought and fervour from its centrality in Eastern European Judaism. The development of Hasidic philosophy in its diverse expressions offered consolation to the unlearned, while satisfying the mystical thirst and theological depth of elite students. Its inner spiritual concepts underscored the Rabbinic rejection of secular ideologies. Orthodoxy responded with political organisation under the Agudah, while the ethical Mussar movement among non-Hasidic Lithuanian Jews offered spiritual psychological development as an alternative to outward political involvement, and allowed a bridge to the mysticism of Hasidic thought.
Many Hasidim, primarily those following the Chabad school, but also the Tshernobler Rebbe and the Ribnitzer Rebbe, remained in the Soviet Union (primarily in Russia), intent on preserving Judaism as a religion in the face of increasing Soviet opposition. With yeshivos and instruction in Hebrew outlawed, synagogues seized by the government and transformed into secular community centers, and Jewish circumcision forbidden to all members of the Communist Party, most Hasidim took part in the general Jewish religious underground movement. Many became so-called "wandering clerics", traveling from village to village and functioning as chazzanim, shochtim, mohels, and rabbis wherever such services were needed. These figures were often imprisoned and sometimes executed.
The Nazi invasion into the interior of European Soviet Union in 1941 destroyed the remaining Hasidic communities in the former Pale of Settlement under the first mass destruction of the Holocaust. The Hasidic communities were therefore disproportionatly decimated. Subsequently, the Hasidim of Central Europe were transported to the Nazi camps in occupied Poland. Some Hasidic leaders, reluctant to leave their followers, found late exit to safety. Some survived in the camps, personifying spirituality against the adversity. The Jewish photographer Mendel Grossman came from a Hasidic Family and captured some of the life and struggle within the Łódź Ghetto (renamed by the Nazis Litzmannstadt) & together with the accounts of others in the ghettos and on the way to "sanctifying God" through their martydom, their stories form a new literature of Hasidic Holocaust tales. Hasidic mystical persectives on Holocaust theology are less well known than more Westernised Jewish theologians.
The Holocaust brought final destruction to all Hasidic centers of Eastern Europe. Most survivors moved eventually to Israel or to America, and established new centers of Hasidic Judaism modeled after their original communities.
The largest groups in Israel today are Ger, Chabad, Belz, Satmar, Breslov, Vizhnitz, Seret-Vizhnitz, Nadvorna, and Toldos Aharon. In the United States the largest are Satmar, Bobov, Ger, and Lubavitch all centered in Brooklyn, New York (Reb Aharon's Satmar camp is centered in Kiryas Joel, while Reb Zalman is in Williamsburg) and Skver (New Square) in Rockland County, New York. Large Hasidic communities also exist in the Outremont borough of Montreal; Pikesville and Northwest Baltimore, Maryland; Lakewood, New Jersey; Bathurst Street in North York, Toronto; London; Antwerp; Melbourne; the Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles; the Sherman Park neighborhood of Milwaukee; and St. Louis Park, a Minneapolis suburb.
There are probably close to a million Hasidic Jews worldwide. The two main Hasidic communities in the United States are located in New York City and Los Angeles. In New York City the neighborhoods include Borough Park, Williamsburg, and Crown Heights in the borough of Brooklyn, and Monsey, Monroe, and New Square which are farther upstate. In Los Angeles the neighborhoods include Hancock Park, La Brea-Beverly, the Fairfax District, Valley Village and the Pico-Robertson area. There is also a sizable and growing Hasidic community in Lakewood, New Jersey, which was once a center of mainly Litvish and Yeshiva Orthodox Jews and other areas of New Jersey. Outside of the United States the largest Hasidic community is in Israel, located mainly in Jerusalem and its adjacent areas, such as Ramat Beit Shemesh and also the religious city of Bnei Brak. The vast majority of Hasidic Jews live either in the United States or Israel but there exist large communities in Canada (Montreal), Britain (mostly in Stamford Hill) and Belgium (Antwerp) also. Hasidic Jews normally have large families and as a result are experiencing tremendous growth.
Beginning in 12th and 13th century Provence and Spain, Kabbalah (the main Jewish mysticism) began to be taught to small circles of advanced students. This metaphysical theology and exegesis, offered an esoteric, imaginative, spiritual alternative to mainstream Rabbinic Judaism and Jewish philosophy. Its greatest expression was in the Scriptural commentary, the Zohar. Medieval Kabbalah taught new doctrines of the ten sefirot (emanations that reveal and mediate the unknowable Divine essence), the identification of the last sefirah with the earlier Rabbinic notion of the shechina (Divine presence) as a feminine aspect of God, and the harmonious shefa (substaining flow of Divine creation through the Heavenly realms until this world) that is dependent on each person's righteousness. In 16th century Safed, a special community of great Jewish thinkers developed, that brought new synthesis to Kabbalah. Above all, Isaac Luria taught new and radical doctrines of the primordial process of creation, that became accepted as the complete structure of traditional Jewish metaphysics. These ideas described an initial tzimtzum (constriction of the Divine Infinity that allowed creation to take place) and its cosmic purposes, a subsequent catastrophe called "Shevirat Hakelim" (the "Breaking of the Vessels") that resulted in the present unredeemed world, and the messianic process of Tikkun (metaphysical rectification) of this, that each individual helps complete in their spiritual life. While these notions were esoteric, they also deeply supported mainstream Rabbinic Judaism, as the shefa and the tikkun were automatically fulfilled by all Jews through normative Jewish observance, whether they were aware of their deeper significance or not. As a result, and especially in reaction to the sufferings and exiles of Jewish history, the Kabbalah became the mainstream traditional Jewish theology, and inspired a hold on wider Jewish cultural imagination. While its terminology entered the daily liturgy, its subtle and advanced concepts, that could be misunderstood by spiritual novices, kept its committed study to a scholarly elite. The mainstream acceptance of Kabbalah, can be seen by the mass following that the false messiah Shabbetai Zvi gained. His mystical heresy and apostasy, awakened a Rabbinic restriction on Jewish mystical activity for the wider population.
The Baal Shem Tov and his successors, inherited this Rabbinic suspicion of their teachings, as they sought to awaken a popular, mystical revival for the simple Jewish folk, as well as offering scholarly mysticism a new soulful direction. The new teachings of Hasidism left aside the abstract, subtle, advanced focus of Kabbalah on the Divine manifestations and Heavenly realms. Kabbalah describes the full, esoteric, complicated structures of the interaction of God and Creation. Among it traditional names is the "Chochma Nistorah" (hidden wisdom) of the Torah. Kabbalistic terminology is necessary to describe the traditional Jewish processes of metaphysics. It is used extensively in the more involved Hasidic writings, but the aim of this is different than in Kabbalah. The new teachings of Hasidism look to the simple, inner Divine soul, that it sees as permeating all and also transcending all. Hasidic thought bases itself on earlier Kabbalistic theology, but relates its ideas to the psychology and experience of man, so that Jewish mysticism can awaken a personal experience and perception of the Divine. Gershom Scholem, who established the 20th century academic study of Jewish mysticism, describes Hasidism as the "internalisation of Kabbalah". The Baal Shem Tov and his successors saw Divine immanence in all Creation, that gave a full expression to panentheistic traces in earlier Kabbalah (Panentheism teaches that "All is within God". This is different from Pantheism, which is heretical in Judaism, as it denies a personal God, and Divine transcendence outside Creation. Panentheism sees Creation as Divinity, but only the immanent revelation of a transcendent, infinite God). This encounter with God could be found by all Jews, as Hasidism elevated sincerity and soulful devekus (cleaving to God), as the most direct path to spirituality. Traditionally, Jewish study, especially of Talmud, gives the main route to Jewish spirituality. Hasidism did not seek to replace the essential endeavour of study, but rather to infuse and connect it with devekus. Common folk, to whom study may have been inaccessible, found spirituality and joy in Hasidic mysticism, while great scholars of Talmud and Kabbalah, were also attracted to its new depth and interpretation.
The Baal Shem Tov spread Hasidism by means of simple, soulful teachings, parables and stories. These offered Jewish mysticism to the unlearned, while the close circle of saintly followers around him understood their deeper, profound significance. The Baal Shem Tov was a man of the people, while his successor Dov Ber of Mezeritch devoted himself to creating the third generation of great Hasidic leaders. As the theological and sociological architect of the Hasidic movement, Dov Ber elucidated the underlying profound meanings of Hasidic thought, and its theological contributions to Judaism. He appointed his students in the "Hevra Kaddisha" (Holy Society) to become the future leaders of Hasidism in the different regions of Eastern Europe. Alternative interpretations of Hasidic thought arose, centred in schools of Hasidic dynasties. Hasidism stressed the new doctrine of the Rebbe or Tzaddik (saintly leader), through whom Divine influence is channelled. In some Hasidic paths the Tzaddik elevates his followers through charismatic conduct, while other groups emphasise his role primarily as teacher. Many creative thinkers of Hasidic mysticism established the variety of Hasidic approaches. Because the Tzaddik offers to his followers a microcosm of the Messianic redemption, mainstream Hasidism toned down the Messianic elements to Jewish mysticism, that had endangered Shabbetai Zvi. Nonetheless, infusing Hasidism from the time of the Baal Shem Tov onwards is a Messianic self-understanding that has come to the fore on some occasions, and in more idealogical circles. These include Hasidic activity around the 1812 French invasion of Russia and responses of Menachem Mendel of Kotzk and Mordechai Yosef Leiner to Messianic speculation concerning 1840. Hasidic dynasties coexist in the principle that each Tzaddik's leadership does not overstep into another's court. In the early 19th century, Nachman of Breslav led his marginal circle in the most distinctive veneration in Hasidism, arousing hostility from other leaders. This Messianic drive was paralleled on a mass scale by Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Chabad in recent times. Through its emotional and intellectual aspects, Hasidism offered Jewish life a new spiritual revival. Within Jewish study, Hasidic philosophy gave earlier Jewish thought new interpretations, that can synthesise and spiritualise the other dimensions of Judaism. In its intellectual articulations, Hasidic philosophy can bridge Jewish mysticism with mainstream Jewish philosophy. It enabled the mystical dimensions of Judaism to be articulated in a form that was accessible for the first time to the whole Jewish community. Hasidic spirituality and thought has also had appeal and influence outside the Hasidic movement, and outside of Orthodox Judaism. In the 20th Century, the academic interest in Jewish mysticism, and Neo-Hasidism have offered spiritual contributions to many Jewish denominations. With the encounter of Judaism with Modernity, different philosophical and denominational views emerged on the meanings of Judaism and Jewish identity. It has been said that the three figures of the Baal Shem Tov (Hasidic spirituality), the Vilna Gaon (Lithuanian Jewish Orthodox scholarship), and Moses Mendelssohn (founding influence on the Haskalah movement), have together shaped the diverse Jewish articulations today.
The teachings of Hasidism are founded on two theoretical conceptions: (1) religious Panentheism, or the omnipresence of God, and (2) the idea of Devekus, communion between God and man. "Man," says the Besht (Baal Shem Tov), "must always bear in mind that God is omnipresent and is always with him; that God is the most subtle matter everywhere diffused... Let man realize that when he is looking at material things he is in reality gazing at the image of the Deity which is present in all things. With this in mind man will always serve God even in small matters."
Deveikus (communion) refers to the belief that an unbroken relationship takes place between the world of God and the world of humanity. According to it, not only does the Deity influence the acts of man, but also that man exerts an influence on the will of the Deity. Every act and word of man produces a corresponding effect in the upper spheres. From this conception is derived the chief practical principle of Hasidism, cleaving to God for the purpose of uniting with the source of life and of influencing it. This communion is achieved through the concentration of thoughts on God, and consulting Him in all the affairs of life.
The tzadik (righteous person) is in constant communion with God, even in their worldly affairs, since they also feel His presence in daily life. A special form of communion with God is prayer. In order to render this union complete the prayer must be full of fervor, ecstatic, and the soul of the person who prays must, during their devotions, detach itself from its material dwelling. For the attainment of ecstasy, recourse can be had to mechanical means, to enthusiastic bodily motions, to shouting and singing. According to the Besht, the path to God is in sincerity and fervour, rather than cold intellectual reasoning. Learning of Jewish texts and halakhic lore are important ways to approach God, but ultimately are useful as a means of producing an exalted religious elevation and communion. It is often more helpful to read books of moral and spiritual inspiration, than to engage in over-analytical approaches in study of the Talmud and Rabbinical literature. In the performance of rites the mood of the believer is of more importance than the externals, so therefore formalism and superfluous ceremonial details are an impediment. In later Hasidic articulations, a synthesis was made with the value of traditional, Lithuanian study and analysis. Many Hasidic Masters gained admiration from the non-Hasidic world, for being great scholars of Talmudic and Rabbinic works. The intellectual school of Chabad, founded by Schneur Zalman of Liadi, can be seen as a separate offshoot of general Hasidism. Mainstream Hasidism gives special emphasis to emotions, so that study of the "revealed" or "inner" dimensions of Judaism can inspire greater faith and emotional fervour, as well as knowledge of Rabbinic thought. In Chabad, Schneur Zalman emphasised the mind as the route to internalising the emotions of the heart more fully. The systematic analysis of Hasidic philosophy in Chabad can integrate and synthesise "revealed" Jewish thought with the mystical.
Hasidic philosophy teaches a method of contemplating on God, as well as the inner significance of the Mitzvot (commandments and rituals of Torah law). Hasidic philosophy has four main goals:
Most Hasidim pray according to one of the variations of the nusach known as Nusach Sefard, a blend of Ashkenazi and Sephardi liturgies, based on the innovations of Rabbi Isaac Luria (also known as the Arizal). However, many Hasidic dynasties have their own specific adaptation of Nusach Sefard; some, such as the versions of the Belzer, Bobover and Dushinsky Hasidim, are closer to Nusach Ashkenaz, while others, such as the Munkacz version, are closer to Nusach Sefarad of the Arizal. Hasidic Nusach is a very complicated study. Many Hasidic groups believe that their siddur reflects the wording and mystical intentions of the Arizal. Chabad-Lubavitch has a distinctive variant known as Nusach Ari of the Baal HaTanya. Other Hasidic rabbis from many other Hasidic camps have compiled authoritative "Nusach Ari" siddurim. One should not confuse the contents of the Lubavitcher siddur with the historical study of the Arizal's actual nusach.
The Baal Shem introduced two innovations to the Friday services: the recitation of Psalm 107 before Mincha (the afternoon service), as a prelude to the Sabbath, one gives praise for the release of the soul from its weekday activities, and Psalm 23 just before the end of Maariv (evening service).
In regard to dialect, Hasidim pray in Ashkenazi Hebrew, a form of Hebrew with many distinct features; for instance, the vowel tsere is pronounced [ej] insead of [e] like Sephardi Hebrew, and the vowel kamatz is pronounced [o] or [u] instead of [a] like Sephardi Hebrew. This dialect has nothing to do with Hasidism in its origins, nor was it chosen deliberately; it just happens to be the dialect of the places from which most Hasidim originally came, such as Galicia and Ukraine. Thus, there are significant differences between the dialects used by Hasidim originating in different places, such as Poland, Belarus, Hungary, and Ukraine.
Hasidic prayer has a distinctive accompaniment of wordless melodies called nigunim that represent the overall mood of the prayer; in recent years this innovation has become increasingly popular in non-Hasidic communities as well. Hasidic prayer also has a reputation for taking a very long time (although some groups do pray quickly). Some hasidim will spend seven seconds of concentration on every single word of the prayer of Amidah.
Hasidim have a reputation for having a lot of kavana, mental concentration, during prayer. Overall, Hasidim regard prayer as one of the most paramount activities during the day. In fact, one of the most controversial innovations of Hasidic practice as practiced in several courts involves the near-abolition of the traditional specified times of day by which prayers must be conducted (zemanim), particularly shacharis (the morning prayer service); the preparations for prayer take precedence and may extend into the allotted time. The Kotsker Rebbe allegedly originated this practice, which is prevalent to this day in Chabad-Lubavitch. It is controversial in many other Hasidic courts, who place more emphasis on praying earlier and not eating before praying, according to the interpretation of Halacha (Jewish law) which is followed by the vast majority of other Hasidic and non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews.
Many male Orthodox Jews customarily immerse in a mikvah (ritual pool of water) before major Jewish holidays (and particularly before Yom Kippur), in order to achieve spiritual cleanliness. Hasidim have extended this to a daily practice preceding morning prayers. Although daily immersion in a mikvah is no longer mandated by halacha, Hasidism places great emphasis on this practice, because the Arizal taught that each time one immerses in a mikvah he adds holiness to his soul. It is also taught by the Baal Shem Tov, that all his wisdom was given to him by God in merit of his immersions in the mikvah, and that no male should go three days without going to the mikvah. The Talmud records an enactment by Ezra that after a seminal emission one must immerse in a mikvah before studying Torah or praying; although this enactment was later repealed, Hasidim and some other Jews still follow it, at least for prayer, though the Code of Jewish Law rules that it is not mandatory.
Within the Hasidic world, one can distinguish different Hasidic groups by subtle differences in dress. Some details of their dress are shared by non-Hasidic Haredim. Much of Hasidic dress was historically the clothing of all Eastern-European Jews, but Hasidim have preserved more of these styles to the present day. Furthermore, Hasidim have attributed religious origins to specific Hasidic items of clothing.
Contrary to popular belief, Hasidic dress has little to do with the way Polish nobles once dressed. (The Emancipation movement probably started this myth in the late 19th century in an attempt to induce younger Jews to abandon the outfit.) Interestingly, secular Yiddish writers of old, living in Eastern Europe (Sholom Aleichem, for example) appear to have no knowledge of the "Polish origin" of the dress. Likewise, numerous Slavic sources from the 15th century onwards refer to the "Jewish kaftan". The Tsarist edict of the mid-19th century banning Jewish clothing mentions the "Jewish kaftan" and the "Jewish hat" and, as a result of this edict, Hasidim modified their dress in the Russian Empire and generally hid their sidelocks. Modern Chabad Lubavitch wear the Prince Albert frock coat substitutes for the bekishe reflecting this change, while many Polish Hasidim do so by wearing a redesigned shtreimel sometimes known as a spodik.
Hasidic dress did change over the last hundred years, and became more European in response to the Emancipation Movement. Modern Hasidim tend to wear Hasidic dress as worn just prior to World War II. Numerous pictures of Hasidim in the mid-19th century show a far more Levantine outfit (i.e. a kaftan lacking lapels or buttons) that differs little from the classical oriental outfit consisting of the kaftan, white undershirt, sash, knee-breeches (halbe-hoyzn), white socks and slippers (shtibblat). This outfit allegedly had a Babylonian origin before its later adoption by Jews, Persians and lastly the Turks, who brought it to Europe. The Polish nobility adopted its 16th century outfit from the Turks, hence (allegedly) the similarity between the Hasidic outfit and Polish nobles' clothing. (Similarly, Hasidic dress has a vague connection with Shia Muslim clerical dress, the Shia clergy adopted this dress from the Persians.) One Hasidic belief (taught by the Klausenberger rebbe) holds that Jews originally invented this dress code and that the Babylonians adopted it from Jews during the Jewish exile in Babylon of the 6th century BCE. This belief is not widely held or even well known among Hasidim.
Hasidic men most commonly wear dark (black or navy) jackets and trousers and white shirts. They will usually also wear black shoes. On weekdays they wear a long, black, cloth jacket called a rekel and on Jewish Holy Days the bekishe zaydene kapote (Yiddish, lit. satin caftan), a similarly long, black jacket but of satin fabric traditionally silk. The preference for black comes from a decree made by community rabbis in the 18th century stipulating that black outer garments be worn on the Sabbath and Jewish Holy Days out of the home, as opposed to the shiny, colorful kaftans that were worn prior to that time. The rabbis thought that brightly colored clothes might arouse resentment among non-Jews, which could lead to violence. Indoors the colorful tish bekishe is still worn.
On the Sabbath the Hasidic Grand Rabbis (rebbes) traditionally wore a white bekishe rather than a black one. This practice has fallen into disuse except for a minority of rebbes, such as Toldos Aharon and Lelov, and by Hungarian rebbes such as Tosh and Satmar. Many rebbes wear a black silk bekishe that is trimmed with velvet (known as stro-kes or samet) and in those of Hungarian lineage a gold designed or other coloured, tish bekishe or khalat (especially during the tish or during the prayers that come right before or after the tish).
Some Hasidim wear a satin overcoat, known among Hungarian and Galitsyaner Hasidim as a rezhvolke, over the regular bekishe. A rebbe's rezhvolke might be trimmed with velvet. Some rebbes wear a fur-lined rezhvolke known as a tilep (Yiddish: טולעפ fur coat).
These are some of the religious aspects claimed by Hasidim of their dress code. The connections are quite tenuous and the real reasons for the Hasidic dress code are historical and sociological and not theological.
Hasidim customarily wear black hats during the weekdays as do nearly all Haredim today. A variety of hats are worn depending on the sect. Hasidim wear a variety of fur headdresses on the Sabbath:
Gerrer Hasidim wear hoyznzokn—long black socks that the trousers are tucked into. Some Hasidim from Eastern Galicia wear black socks with their breeches on the Sabbath, as opposed to white ones, particularly Belzer Hasidim.
Many Hungarian Hasidic and non-Hasidic laymen wear a suit jacket that lies somewhere between a rekel and a regular three-quarter double breasted suit called a "drei-fertl" (Yiddish for "three-quarter"). It is distinct from a regular three-quarter suit inasmuch as the right side covers the left, like a rekel.
Many Skverer hasidim wear knee-high leather boots (shtifl) with their breeches on the Sabbath. This manner of concealing the stockings was introduced as a compromise prior to a family wedding when one side had the tradition of wearing white stockings and the other did not. The Skverer Rebbe and his family wear such boots every day, and so do some rabbinical families affiliated with other Hasidic groups.
Following a Biblical commandment not to shave the sides of one's face, male members of most Hasidic groups wear long, uncut sidelocks called payot (Ashkenazi Hebrew peyos, Yiddish peyes). Many Hasidim shave off the rest of their hair. Not every Hasidic group requires long peyos, and not all Jewish men with peyos are Hasidic, but all groups discourage the shaving of one's beard. Hasidic boys receive their first haircuts ceremonially at the age of three years (though Skverrer Hasidim do this at their second birthday). Until then, Hasidic boys have long hair. Many non-Hasidic (and even some non-Orthodox) Jews have adopted this custom.
The white threads dangling at the waists of Hasidim and other Orthodox Jewish males except for the strings that many leave hanging out; many Hasidim, as well as some other Haredim, wear the tallis katan over their shirt.
The majority of Hasidic women, being Haredi, will wear clothing adhering to the principles of modest dress in Jewish law. This includes long, conservative skirts and sleeves past the elbow. In keeping with Jewish law, married women will cover their hair using either a sheitel (wig) or a tichel (scarf) which is often used to cover a shpitzel. In some groups, such as Satmar, women cut their hair short and wear a wig or tichel.
Hasidic men and women, as customary in Haredi Judaism, usually meet through matchmakers in a process called a shidduch, but marriages involve the mutual consent of the couple and of the parents. Expectations exist that a bride and groom should be about the same age. Marriage age ranges from 17-25, with 18-21 considered the norm. No custom encourages an older man marrying a young woman. Hasidic thought stresses the holiness of sex.
Hasidic Jews typically produce large families; the average Hasidic family in the United States has 8 children. This custom is followed out of a desire to fulfill the Biblical mandate to "be fruitful and multiply."
Most Hasidim speak the language of their countries of residence, but use Yiddish among themselves as a way of remaining distinct and preserving tradition. Thus children are still learning Yiddish today, and the language, despite predictions to the contrary, is not dead. Yiddish newspapers are still published, and Yiddish fiction is being written, primarily aimed at women. Films in Yiddish are being produced within the Hasidic community, and released immediately as DVDs (as opposed to the Yiddish movies of the past, which were produced by non-religious Jews). Some Hasidic groups actively oppose the everyday use of Hebrew, which they considered a holy tongue. The use of Hebrew for anything other than prayer and study is, according to them, profane. Hence Yiddish is the vernacular and common tongue for many Hasidim around the world. The use of Yiddish is a major difference between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Haredim. Sephardi Haredim usually do not know Yiddish (unless they were educated in an Ashkenazi yeshiva).
When the Baal Shem Tov had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer-and what he had set out to perform was done. When a generation later the Maggid of Mezeritch was faced with the same task, he would go to the same place in the woods and say: We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers-and what he wanted done became reality. Again a generation later Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform this task. And he too went into the woods and said: We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs-and that must be sufficient; and sufficient it was. But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel Friedman of Ruzhyn was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said: We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done. And, the story-teller adds, the story which he told had the same effect as the actions of the other three.
In contrast to this Mainstream-Hasidic view of generational descent in the mystical-charismatic power of leadership, the Habad school, which aimed instead for philosophical investigation of Hasidic thought, views its successive leadership as ascending intellectual articulation of the Divine essence of Hasidic thought. According to this, in each subsequent generation, mystical thought deepens and progresses, by becoming more intellectually tangible, exoteric and philosophically graspable