Originally published in Tzvi M. Rabinowicz (ed.), The encyclopedia of Hasidism (1996), p. 100.
The term generally used in Hasidism for burning enthusiasm in prayer and worship is hitlahavut, from lahav, a flame. The term used for the raptures that result from the nearness of God in prayer and worship is hitpaalut, from paal, to do, to be effected, or to be in a state of ecstasy. From the beginnings of the hasidic movement appears the idea of ecstatic prayer during which the worshiper’s corporeal nature is stripped off, as the hasidic masters put it—hitpashtut hagashmiyut. A number of the tzaddikim were especially noted for their ecstatic prayers. Of Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev it was said that after he had led the congregation in prayer on the Day of Atonement, he would cry out aloud, “My heart is on fire.” Of the Maggid of Kozienice it is reported that, sick though he was, he would leap to the prayer desk “as if he were flying through the air” and that when he recited the verse “Sing unto the Lord a new song” (Psalm 149:1), his weakness would leave him and he would sing in joy “like a little girl.” Of the grandson of the Besht, R. Barukh of Medziborz, it was told by Tzvi Hirsch of Zhydaczov that when he recited the Song of Songs on the eve of the Sabbath, those who heard him singing “For love is as strong as death . . . the flashes thereof are flashes of fire, a very flame of the Lord” (Song of Songs 8:6) and who had secreted themselves in the room were obliged to run from the room in terror, having almost lost their reason “because of the great attachment and longing.” The Habad movement in particular considers at length the role of ecstasy (hitpaalut) in prayer. The basic contention of R. Shneur Zalman, the founder of the Habad movement, is that religious emotion is suspect unless it is the fruit of profound contemplation—hitbonanut. After the death of R. Shneur Zalman, his son, R. Dov Baer, and his favorite disciple, R. Aaron of Starosselje, were divided on the question of how far the master had rejected ecstasy in prayer that was not entirely spontaneous and uncontrived, R. Dov Baer taking the stricter view that every type of ecstasy is spurious unless it comes without any awareness whatsoever and is solely the result of the divine’s confronting human beings through the latter’s deep contemplation on the kabbalistic mysteries. R. Dov Baer is the author of two tracts—one on contemplation (Kunteros HaHitbonanut) and one, on ecstasy (Kunteros HaHitpaalut). The latter is an acute analysis of the stages in ecstatic prayer.
Habad tradition describes the difference between R. Dov Baer and R. Aaron in their personal religious life, reflecting their differing views on ecstasy. On one hand, R. Aaron used to pray with a great shouting so that all who observed him at prayer were themselves moved to ecstasy. Of R. Dov Baer, on the other hand, it was said that he would stand immobile in prayer for as long as three hours at a time and that at the end of his prayer his hat and shirt would be soaked in perspiration.
This whole debate is peculiar to Habad. There is surprisingly little reference to hitpaalut among the other hasidic groups among which ecstasy is always considered under the heading of hitlahavut.