Originally published in Judaism Today 1 (1995), 19-24.
It is not generally appreciated that the hasidic movement in the 18th century, the period of its founder, the Ba’al Shem Tov, and his followers, was largely an elitist movement. It catered to small numbers of God-seekers who were anxious to pursue the ideal of devekut, a cleaving to God, in the sense of constant attachment to Him in the mind, not only during prayer but also when engaged in the things of the world.
It is true, nonetheless, that even in the earliest period, and especially as the movement developed, its appeal was widened to embrace the masses for whom the hasidic zaddik was, in the language of Hasidism, the ‘conduit’ through which the divine grace can flow to God’s creatures. The zaddik thus has a dual role. For the masses his chief function is that of miracle-worker whose prayers could bring health, sustenance and children to the sick, the poor and the childless. For the totally dedicated few, the zaddik is the wise mentor who maps out for them the spiritual path they seek to follow. Too neat a distinction cannot be made but generally speaking, the hasidic tales, popularized by Martin Buber and Louis I. Newman, were directed towards the hasidic masses, while the hasidic ‘Torah’, contained in the classical hasidic works of commentary on the Torah, was aimed at the true devotees.
Even a casual glance at these hasidic works demonstrates that the teachings which they contain can in no way be construed or have been intended as biblical exegesis. Scripture was rather laid in tribute to convey a message for the conduct of the Hasid’s personal life. In this respect, hasidic ‘Torah’ resembles the rabbinic midrashic method and, in fact, quotations from the midrashic literature abound in the hasidic works.
Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the treatment of the Exodus in hasidic thought. It is almost as if the hasidic masters were saying that the past per se has no relevance to hasidic life in the here and now. Everything in the scriptural accounts of the Exodus is interiorized – to use Scholem’s felicitous expression for hasidic adaptation of the kabbalah – so as to refer to the psychic life of the Hasid. And yet the Torah does dwell at length on the Exodus, and the Pesach rituals are designed as reminders of the tremendous historical event. Two devices were adopted by the masters in order to make the experiences of the group in the past relevant to the personal religious strivings of the contemporary Hasid.
The first of these was to draw on the kabbalistic idea that the original divine illuminations at the time of the Exodus shine forth again whenever Pesach comes round, so that on the spiritual level, there is a new Exodus each Pesach, a new freedom of the spirit, open to those able and willing to draw on it. In one version, there is a spark of Moses and the generation of the Exodus present in the soul of the Hasid who relives Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh. But the more far-reaching device was to interpret the details recorded in the Torah as referring directly to the spiritual struggle between good and evil in the soul of the Hasid as he proceeds on his mystical quest. The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is connected with the word metzar, meaning ‘a narrow strait’. There is an Exodus from Miztrayim, from constriction and confinement whenever the soul is moved to transcend its finitude as it soars towards the infinite.
The following illustrations of how the process works are taken from two hasidic classics, one early, the other late, with regard to the interpretation of the Exodus and the biblical injunctions to avoid leaven (chametz) on Pesach and to eat unleavened bread, matzah. It goes without saying that the hasidic authors who used chametz and matzah as symbols for their particular ideas never saw these as substitutes for the actual observances of Pesach. In point of fact, the Hasidim, to this day, are exceptionally scrupulous in avoiding the slightest trace of leaven during the festival. The hasidic masters regularly quote the saying of the 16th-century kabbalist, R. Isaac Luria, the Ari, that whoever is careful to avoid the smallest amount of chametz on Pesach will be spared from any offence against the dietary laws during the whole of the coming year. What the masters appear to be doing is to read the Torah at two different levels. As Orthodox Jews they understand the laws of leavened and unleavened in their plain meaning. Yet, at the same time, relying on the kabbalistic idea of a secret meaning of the Torah, they interpret the Pesach rituals in accordance with their own mystical stance.
A theme which appears again and again in the hasidic writings is the identification of chametz with the evil inclination and matzah with the good inclination. This identification is found in the talmudic prayer : ‘Sovereign of the Universe, it is known full well to Thee that our will is to perform Thy will, and what prevents us? The yeast in the dough and the subjection to foreign Powers. May it be Thy will to deliver us from their hand, so that we may return to perform the statutes of Thy will with a perfect heart.’ This identification is obviously quite old since it is also found in the New Testament , although in this context it is in association with Christian dogma.
The hasidic masters were able to use the idea of personal struggle against the blandishments of the evil inclination, utilizing the symbolism of chametz and matzah on Pesach. R. Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye (d. c.1782), disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov, writes in his Toledot Ya’akov Yosef, the first hasidic work to be published: ‘Just as the exile in Egypt and the deliverance therefrom took place for the people as a whole, so are these present in each individual. As I have heard the exposition of the verse: “Draw nigh unto my soul and redeem it”,  that before a man prays for the general redemption he must pray for the redemption of his individual soul.’  Elsewhere in the same book,  the author writes: ‘I have heard from my teacher [the Ba’al Shem Tov], that a man must pray over the exile of his self, spirit and soul [nefesh, ruach, neshamah] in [bondage to] the evil inclination’.
In his Ben Porat Yosef  R. Jacob Joseph understands ‘the new Pharaoh who knew not Joseph’  to be the evil inclination and the Joseph he knew not to be the intellect – Joseph is described in the narrative as ‘wise’- which exercises control over the passions. This kind of allegorical interpretation of biblical figures and events goes back, of course, to Philo, is found among the medieval philosophers, and came to acquire significance among the hasidic masters. On these lines, R. Jacob Joseph  applies the talmudic rules regarding chametz and matzah. The search for chametz at night by the light of a candle denotes man’s investigation into his inner self when spiritual darkness prevails. The investigation is assisted by the insights provided by the Torah, which enables him to get the better of the evil inclination.
According to the Talmud, matzah made with honey cannot be used to fulfil the precept of eating matzah and, obviously, when yeast is present in the dough it is no longer matzah but chametz. Yeast, which causes the dough to rise, represents pride, which puffs up a man with an exaggerated sense of his own importance, whereas honey represents the sweet enticement of lust. The good inclination, represented by matzah, containing neither yeast nor honey, has to struggle with worldly temptations if man is to cleave to God. But such a state can only be attained through the purgation of sufferings, represented by the bitter herbs eaten together with the matzah on Pesach. Thus the rituals of matzah and the bitter herbs have relevance not only as reminders of the bitterness of the Egyptian bondage and the glorious redemption God wrought for His people, they also represent the bitterness of suffering which brings about personal redemption to each individual.
The symbolism of chametz and matzah is also applied by R. Jacob Joseph in a rather different fashion.  Matzah represents the virtue of humility while the rising chametz represents pride. Now the letters of the word matzah – mem, tzaddi, he – are the same as those of chametz, except for the he in matzah and the chet in chametz. These two letters only differ in the small space at the top left-hand side of the he. Humility is a great virtue when it is the result of a man seeing himself as nothing in the presence of God. Such a state is known in hasidic thought as bittul ha-yesh (annihilation of selfhood). When a man is guilty of false modesty by being consciously humble, he draws attention to the self in the very attempt at self-transcendence. Such false modesty, differing by a fine hair-breadth from true humility, turns the matzah of the religious and ethical life into chametz.
According to the talmudic Rabbis ‘you must not see your own leaven but you may see leaven belonging to others and to the sacred’.  In this context, ‘others’ refers to Gentiles and the ‘sacred’ to the Temple. But R. Jacob Joseph uses the saying as a warning against being soft on oneself and judgmental with regard to others. It is ‘your’ leaven that poses a danger to the spiritual life. A man is all too ready to find fault with other human beings and with the zaddikim, the sacred teachers, while ignoring his own character defects. Thus the Torah urges: ‘Do not see your own leaven’, i.e. remove it from your heart but do not seek to expose the sins of others or the alleged sins of the zaddikim – an obvious counterblast to the opponents of Hasidism, the Mitnaggedim, who saw zaddikism as tomfoolery, charlatanism or worse.
The majority of the hasidic masters, in their commentaries to the Torah and the Pesach Haggadah, generally follow the kind of interpretation found in R. Jacob Joseph. Many of their ideas are found in the great compendium on the festivals, Benei Yissakhar, by the later hasidic master, R. Zevi Elimelech of Dynov (1785-1841), and in the same author’s commentary to the precepts of the Torah, entitled Derekh Pikkudekha. In the first of these works, the author follows more or less in the footsteps of R. Jacob Joseph, albeit with nuances of his own. In the second work, he is rather more legalistic and closer to conventional orthodoxy. R. Zevi Elimelech was a fierce opponent of the Haskalah and he often directs his comments to an attack on the total insufficiency of human reasoning in grasping the meaning of the Torah. Hence in the second work his thrust is more social and communal than personal, even though here, too, his thoughts are directed to the individual.
On the precept of destroying all leaven before Pesach, R. Zevi Elimelech first remarks that since the Torah states no reason for the precept, there is really no need to attempt to discover the reason. The precept should be carried out in simple obedience to the divine command. Nevertheless, since the precepts were given in order to refine the soul, it is worthwhile exploring how they achieve this, that is, to interpret them in psychological terms, as do the other masters. A human being is incapable, observes our author, of any love and fear unless he can grasp the object of these in his mind. This is why a little child is only frightened by trivial things and has no fear, for example, of a drawn sword – the danger of which he cannot fathom. The child will be puzzled if his father orders him not to play with a piece of broken glass since it appears attractive to him and he is totally unaware of the risk he is taking. It is only as the infant’s intellect develops that he comes to appreciate that this object is threatening, whilst another offers no threat, or that this object is likeable and the other unlikeable.
Before the Fall – in the kabbalah the Fall occupies a prominent place – Adam had no knowledge of any other love or fear than the love and fear of God. After Adam had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, his love and fear were no longer pure, and his descendants are now engaged in the struggle to prevent their worldly love and fear distracting them from serving God. From Adam onwards there began the cosmic drama in which man struggles against the evil in his own nature, an evil caused largely by man’s pursuit of forbidden knowledge.
At the Exodus God was revealed in all His power, the false knowledge of Egypt and its gods was seen to be sheer stupidity, and the souls of the people of Israel were purified from their dross. But when the people worshipped the golden calf, the spirit of impurity descended once again and they are now required to rectify Adam’s sin by removing all leaven, the symbol of human arrogance, before Pesach, the anniversary of the Exodus. This is the basic difference between chametz and matzah. The former rises of its own accord, whereas the latter is baked in the form in which it has left the baker. Leaven represents man’s attempt to gain unlawful autonomy, to be independent of his Creator. Unleavened bread denotes his total dependence on the Creator. R. Zevi Elimelech notes in passing that the numerical value of chametz and matzah is the same as that of etz ha-da’at (Tree of Knowledge). But the task of self-discipline is far from easy, hence the need for the bitter herbs, representing the obstacles man has to overcome when reaching out to God.
R. Zevi Elimelech’s exposition is very different from that of R. Jacob Joseph and most of the other hasidic masters; yet, essentially, the thrust towards interiorization is still there. It is only that, by the time of R. Zevi Elimelech, the Haskalah presented a real danger to Hasidism, one that, he evidently felt, required a hasidic master to emerge from his isolation to wage the battles of the Lord.
In his battle against the Haskalah, R. Zevi Elimelech concludes: ‘He who is intelligent [ha-maskil!], when he reflects on this precept, will search out in his innermost heart and his actions to see whether he retains, Heaven forbid, any slight trace of chametz, and then remove it from his house and his domain. Even if it be some custom [the maskilim attacked many Jewish customs as superstition] or some linguistic expression [probably referring to the contempt of the maskilim for Yiddish] or some garment adopted by the proud who speak arrogantly. And he should investigate whether, Heaven forfend, there is found among the members of his household any trace of this and if so, he should keep them far from it and train them in accordance with the way of the Torah. And he should take upon himself and the members of his household to be of the servants of the Lord, and servants of the Torah, and servants of Israel. Reflect long on this!’ Evidently, R. Zevi Elimelech saw no harm, only good, in observing the leaven of others, provided these ‘others’ were the maskilim.
In modern Jewish thought, especially after the Holocaust, the message of the Exodus is understood almost entirely in terms of Jewish peoplehood. It is the need for the Jews to rediscover their identity as a people that is stressed nowadays. Often, too, the more universalistic aspects of freedom are said to be implied in the celebration of Pesach. At many a Seder today, the song ‘Let My People Go’ is sung, with ‘my people’ denoting other minorities striving to be free in countries where there is suppression of minority rights. No one would decry this swing of the pendulum towards what is essentially the biblical message of the Exodus. The approach of the hasidic masters, world-losers to a man, seems to have had its day. Or has it? Is there not still a salutary lesson to be learned from the hasidic emphasis on Judaism as the means by which the individual can discover his or her own soul? The hasidic masters, even if many Jews today cannot embrace their philosophy in totality, do well to remind us that for all the social, group and universalistic elements in Judaism, the Jewish religion also caters to the need of the individual to find his or her God.
- Berakhot 17a. It is also found in the Zohar, II, 40b.
- 1 Corinthians 5: 6-7
- Psalms 69: 19
- Toledot ‘Shemini’ 79b
- Toledot ‘Va-Yechi’ 35d
- Ben Porat Yosef 83b
- Exodus 1: 8
- Toledot ‘Bo’, 44b and 45b
- Toledot 46a-b
- Pesachim 5b