Originally published in Tzvi M. Rabinowicz (ed.), The encyclopedia of Hasidism (1996), pp. 121-3.
The principle behind hasidic exegesis of the Bible, as evidenced in the classical hasidic works, is that of the Zohar (III, 152a), according to which, in addition to the plain meaning, Scripture has an esoteric meaning, the “soul of the Torah.” Once this is accepted it follows, according to the hasidic teachers, that the Torah (and this includes the rabbinic literature) seeks to inculcate the hasidic ideals—devekut (attachment to God), the role of the tzaddik, the life of holiness, joy in God’s service, humility and self-annihilation—and these can legitimately be read out of the biblical verses and sayings of the rabbis.
For its method, hasidic exegesis owes much to the Midrash. Like the midrashic preachers, the hasidic exegetes consciously rely on novel and startling reinterpretations of familiar verses, giving them a new turn and applying them to the contemporary situation. The sometimes very far-fetched nature of these interpretations is acknowledged by the hasidic masters themselves when they speak of the Torah “hinting” at this or that, though it is obvious that normally they really believed that the hasidic understanding of the texts was perfectly authentic.
Very revealing in this connection is the comment of R. Barukh of Medziborz, grandson of Besht, on the verse “And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). The waters referred to are the waters of the Torah. The tzaddikm often derive valid teachings from biblical verses, but these have only a tenuous association with the verses. Yet although the spirit of God only “hovers” over the text, barely touching its essence, it is the holy spirit that is at work and is close to the truth (Botzina DeNehora, Lemberg, 1930, p. 27a).
The torot of the hasidic masters were delivered at the third meal of the Sabbath and on the festivals and so naturally drew chiefly on the weekly sidrot, the five Megillot, the Haggadah of Passover, Ethics of the Fathers, and the weekly haftarot. Because of hasidic familiarity with the Book of Psalms this, too, became a popular hunting ground for hasidic ideas. The other biblical books are almost totally neglected, except for the rare instances when an oft-quoted verse can be made to yield a typical hasidic doctrine.
A good example of hasidic exegesis is the famous comment of the Maggid of Mezhirech reported by Solomon Maimon (Lebensgeschichte, ed. J. Fromer [Munich, 1911], p. 200) and found, too, in early hasidic books (see J. G. Weiss in Zion 20 : 107-108). The comment is on the verse: “And it came to pass, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him” (2 Kings 3:15). The Maggid reads this as “And it came to pass that when the minstrel was like his instrument (ke-naggen hamenaggen) the hand of the Lord came upon him,” that is, that when the tzaddik is devoid of selfhood and is a purely passive instrument, the spirit of God rests upon him.
As in the Midrash, punning on words is resorted to by the hasidim in their exposition of the Bible. On the verse “A light shalt thou make to the ark” (Genesis 6:16), a comment, attributed to the Besht, takes tevah (ark) as meaning a “word.” When man utters the word, of prayer and devotion, he must illumine that word by the intensity of his contemplation, dwelling on its spiritual significance in all its details. And the word for light (tzohar) has the same letters as the word for sorrow (tzarah), only in a different order. . By the power of his prayers with holy concentration, it is possible for the saint to avert the evil decree, converting darkness and sorrow into brilliant light. Thus an otherwise unpromising text, dealing with the remote past, becomes a vehicle for hasidic teachings on the value of prayer. The Sefer Baal Shem Tov (Lodz, 1938, vol. I, pp. 118-195) contains, as a comment on this verse, a whole treatise on prayer culled from the writings of the tzaddikim.
The biblical heroes are seen in hasidic exegesis as paradigms for the conduct of the tzaddik and of hasidic life in general. Abraham is ordered to leave his land, his birthplace, and his father’s house (Genesis 12:1). In our pursuit of holy living, we must first relinquish our natural desire for worldly, material pleasures (our “land”); then we have to conquer the evil traits with which we were born (our “birthplace”); and, finally, we have to rise above the shallow pride of belonging to a good family (our “father’s house”) to take pride only in being a servant of God (Noam Elimelekh, lekh lekha). Jacob prayed to be delivered from the hand of his brother Esau (Genesis 32:12).
The evil inclination seeks to get the better of us by persuading us that an evil act we contemplate is not really evil at all but good. It is when Esau poses as Jacob’s “brother,” as pursuing the same aims as he, that the danger is particularly acute (Kedushat Levi, vayishlah). The angels of God whom Jacob saw in his dream ascending and descending on the ladder reaching to heaven (Genesis 28:12) are the tzaddikim, who have their periods of spiritual darkness and descent but who, as a result, encourage themselves to rise even higher toward God (Degel Mahanei Efraim, vayetzei).
Frequently, in hasidic exegesis, biblical verses are taken completely out of their context to be laid under tribute for the ideas that can be read out of the Hebrew words, even if the latter are taken without regard to form or syntax. For example, R. Uziel Meizels, disciple of the Maggid of Mezhirech, comments (Tiferet Uziel [Jerusalem, 1952], VaYakel) on the verse “the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe (lematteh) of Judah (yehudah)” (Exodus 38:30). Uri is from or, “light”; hur means a “crevice”; lematteh is read as lemattah, “downward”; and Yehudah is read as hodaah, “praise.” If one who was once a “son of light,” of high spiritual elevation, illuminating the world, falls into the depths of degradation, all the praises of God one uttered while in the state of grace are rejected by heaven and cast downward. The mitnaggedim seized on this kind of fanciful exegesis as a target for their ridicule.
Meir of Peremyshlyany (d. 1850) was especially noted for his playful treatment of scriptural verses (S. A. Horodezky, HaHasidut VeHaHasidim [Tel Aviv, 1951], vol. IV, pp. 113-115). In his comment to Exodus 14:14—”The Lord will fight (yillahem) for you, but ye shall hold your peace” (taharishun)—this master takes yillahem as if it were connected with lehem, “bread,” and taharishun as if it were from harash, “to plough,” yielding the thought that God helps those who help themselves: “God will give you bread, but you must do your share by ploughing the field.”
Mention should be made of the Habad school, in which there is a return to the classical kabbalistic methods of scriptural exegesis, the biblical narratives seen as referring chiefly to the mystery of the divine nature and the complex relationships between the forces on high. Reference must also be made to the remarkable approach, for which he was severely criticized, of R. Mordecai Joseph of Izbica (d. 1854) in his Mei HaShiloah (New York, 1975), who see not only the biblical heroes but also its villains as great men with the noblest ideals.
L. Jacobs, Jewish Teachings of the Hasidic Masters.