Originally published in Tzvi M. Rabinowicz (ed.), The encyclopedia of Hasidism (1996), pp. 188-92.
The followers of the Besht did not coin the term hasidim with which to describe themselves but found it ready to hand among the early eighteenth-century ascetics and pneumatics, groups of whom existed in Eastern Europe and some of whose forms together with the name itself the new hasidic movement adopted. Nevertheless, the use of the name hasidim was bound to suggest to the Besht’s followers and probably to the Besht himself that ideas associated with Hasidut (saintliness) in the rabbinic literature should provide guidelines for the new way that was being advocated. For instance, the Mishnah (Berakhot 5:1) states that the saints of old (Hasidim HaRishonim) would spend much time in attuning their heart to prayer so that prayer itself and the preparations (hakhanot) for it are high on the scale of hasidic values. Or when the Talmud (Baba Kamma 30a) quotes three different opinions as to what one must do in order to become a hasid—namely, to take care never to cause any harm to others, to engage in God’s praises, and to carry out the ethical precepts contained in “Ethics of the Fathers”—the hasidim took upon themselves the implications of all three opinions. Attributed in hasidic lore to the Besht is a definition of what it means to be a hasid based on the Talmudic definition. The Talmud (Mo’ed Katan 18a) observes that if a pregnant woman steps on fingernails, she may suffer a miscarriage. The wicked, it is said, having no care for others, simply throw their nail parings away. The righteous bury them. But the hasidim, anxious to avoid even the remotest possibility that anything of theirs might be a source of danger to others, are not content with burying the nail parings; they burn them in fire so as to destroy them completely.
In addition to their reliance on rabbinic descriptions of Hasidut, the hasidim made much use of accounts of saintly conduct in the standard moralistic works, especially those of a mystical nature such as the thirteenth-century Sefer Hasidim and the devotional works published as a result of the influence of the Safed circle of kabbalists in the sixteenth century, for example, Elijah de Vidas’s Reshit Hokhmah, Eliezer Azikri’s Sefer Haredim, and Isaiah Horowitz’s voluminous compendium the Shelah, popularly spoken of by the hasidim as “fat with holiness.” The ethical and religious ideals of the Zohar and the other kabbalistic works were familiar to the hasidim, even among those who did not study the works themselves (see KABBALAH).
The major concepts of Hasidism were thus based on earlier formulations in the classical Jewish sources. Even the hasidic doctrine of the tzaddik, the gurulike master, clearly a startling innovation so far as Judaism is concerned, was held by the hasidim to be based entirely on the traditional sources. Since the term hasid was now applied to the follower of a master, a different term was required for the master himself. The name “tzaddik’ was adopted with a consequent reversal of the rabbinic scheme in which the tzaddik is the ordinary good person and the hasid the person of extraordinary goodness and piety. Once, however, the name “tzaddik” was used for the saint, it was possible for Hasidism to adapt all the rabbinic sayings about the tzaddikim to their own situation. In hasidic works describing the role of the tzaddik there are frequent references, for instance, to the talmudic saying (Mo’ed Katan 16b) that even when God has issued a baneful decree, the tzaddik can render it null and void, with the radical corollary that when the tzaddik issues an order, God must obey it. The biblical heroes, particularly those who interceded for the people, performed miracles on their behalf and healed the sick. Moses, Elijah, and Elisha, together with the miracle-working saints mentioned in the Talmud—Hanina ben Dosa, Honi the Circle-Drawer, and Nahum Ish Gamzu— became the models for the hasidic tzaddikim, the prototype of the holy man as the channel through which the divine grace flows. The talmudic saying (Berakhot 17b) that the whole world is provided with sustenance because of (bishvil) Hanina ben Dosa is read as meaning that both material and spiritual well-being flow down into the world through the channel (bashevil) of the tzaddik (Toldot Yaakov Yosef, Naso, ed. Warsaw, 1881, p. 261b). Similarly, many of the references in the Talmud to die conduct of scholars (talmidei hakhamim) are interpreted as applying to the tzaddikim.
It follows that the hasidim did not see themselves as real innovators. The originality of hasidic thought lies mainly in the fresh emphasis it gave to conventional Jewish ideas and its selectivity among those ideas. Hasidism sees itself as a revivalist movement with no new ideas but with new ways (derakhim) and fresh techniques for the realization of the old ideas and their revitalization.
In the well-known early anthology of hasidic ideas known as Leshon Hasidim (Lemberg, 1876), the hasidic compiler remarks in his Introduction concerning the Besht:
God sent us a savior, a holy and tremendous teacher, a holy angel who came down from Heaven to illumine the eyes of all the holy people of Israel who desire to fear God’s name and take upon themselves the yoke of the Torah and the mitzvot and the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven in love and true fear from the depths of the heart, and with powerful attachment (devekut) to God, and with the great burning enthusiasm (hitlahavut) of holiness.
Hasidism chose to emphasize those ideas in the classical sources hospitable to the hasidic immanentist philosophy (see PANTHEISM). Prominent among the hasidic virtues is simhah, (joy, cheerfulness). To serve the Lord with gladness is no new idea in Judaism, but the hasidic understanding of simhah is based on hasidic views regarding the essential unreality of the finite world and its sorrows, the hasid being expected to gaze always beyond the veils of ignorance, imperfection, and evil to see only the divine energy sustaining all, the only true reality. Very revealing is the comment by R. Nahum of Chernobyl (Yismahhev, end of Meor Enayyim, Jerusalem, 1968, pp. 300-301) that although the Talmud (Berakhot 31a) forbids us to fill our mouth with laughter in this world, the tzaddikim do frequently fill their mouth with laughter, because, in their constant attachment to God, the tzaddikim do not really inhabit this world at all. For the same reason, atzvut (melancholia) is, for Hasidism, one of the worst vices. A popular hasidic saying has it that this is not because melancholia is a technical sin but because it detaches one from the appreciation of the divine as all-pervading and is thus the main cause of all sin. The hasid is not unaware of life’s tragic dimension but is confident that ultimately all is for the best and that one can assist in the task of sweetening the judgments (see KABBALAH) by acknowledging that these severities also come from God and are really the divine mercy in disguise.
Since God is always so near and His goodness ever present, as Hasidism teaches, the mystical love of God is seen not as a remote ideal to be attained only by the greatest of saints but as a normal emotion for the ordinary hasid. Yet as an antidote to religious sentimentalism, self-delusion, and sheer wallowing in naive religiosity, the love of God requires to be tempered by the fear of God. That fear rarely means for the hasidic masters the fear of punishment for transgression. Hell-fire preaching is conspicuously absent from hasidic sermonizing. Fear is usually conceived of in terms of the numinous, the awe one experiences when confronted by the mysterium tremendum. R. Hayyim of Czernowitz (Shaar HaTefillah, Sudylkov, 1813, p. 7b) writes:
And how much more so the dread and fear, the terror and trembling, which fall upon such a man when he performs a mitzvah, knowing as he does with certainty that he stands before the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, the great and terrible King before whom “all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; and He doeth according to His will in the host of Heaven” (Daniel 4:32), who stands over him always, seeing his deeds, for His glory fills the earth. Such a man is ever in a state of shame and lowliness so intense that the world cannot contain it, especially when he carries out the mitzvot. Such a man’s mitzvot are those which fly upward in joy and satisfaction to draw down from there every kind of blessing and the flow of grace into all worlds.
This fear of God, without which the love of God has no permanence, is far from easy to attain. The hasid requires the inspiration provided by the example of the tzaddik. Those close to the tzaddik are alone capable of catching, as it were, the tremendous sense of awe that is the fruit of the tzaddik’s sustained reflection on the majesty of the Creator. Adapting a talmudic saying (Berakhot 33b), the hasidic maxim is, “Yes, for those close to Moses the fear of God is a small thing” (Toldot, end, p. 208c).
The love and fear of God are to be given expression in the practice of the mitzvot and the study of the Torah. But for the hasidim, Torah lishmah—the study of the Torah for its own sake—means for the sake of God, meaning, as a devotional exercise of the highest magnitude. Although the Talmud (Pesahim 50b) permits Torah study even when the motive is impure, the tendency in Hasidism is to decry such self-seeking as, at best, a very inadequate means to an end, hence the general hasidic preference for the ignorant but sincere worshiper to the learned but arrogant scholar who studies in order to acquire wealth or fame.
During the nineteenth century, partly in response to criticisms of alleged hasidic denigration of Torah studies, many of the hasidic masters adopted a more lenient attitude, stressing that the question of motive should not be allowed to discourage study. Typical is the observation by R. Yitzhak Eisik of Kormarno (Notzer Hesed, commentary to the Mishnah, Avot 1:13):
The fools try to grasp at once the inner light but since they have not as yet reached such a stage they leave aside entirely the study of the Torah. Since they are hasidim they feel it to be wrong to study with an unworthy motive and, on the other hand, they have not yet reached the stage of study for its own sake. The main thing is to study the Torah (i.e., and not be deterred by inadequacy of motive), for nothing in the whole world is more precious than the Torah.
The worship of God is not confined to purely spiritual pursuits. All created things are aglow with the divine; in all there are holy sparks (see KABBALAH) waiting to be rescued for the holy. Normally, therefore, Hasidism is opposed to asceticism. Numerous hasidic tales tell of masters warning their disciples against leading a too self-denying life. Those who reject worldly things overlook the opportunities those things can provide for elevating the creation to its Creator. Yet, obliged though the hasidim may be to use the things of the world, they must not dwell on the physical pleasure they afford but beyond that to the spiritual source of all delight. The hasid who sees a thing of beauty should be led on by it to reflect on the source of all beauty on high. Those who experience pride should remind themselves that God alone is to be exalted, for all pride comes from Him.
Pride (gaavah), precisely because it calls attention to the self, acts as the greatest barrier to awareness of God. The hasidic ideal is that of shiflut (lowliness), a somewhat different ideal from that of conventional humility. Although Hasidism, naturally, knows of the need of the good person to mink little of self in relation to other human beings, shiflut represents much more a religious than a social or ethical value. It involves the realization that all creatures are as naught before the tremendous majesty of the Creator, so that the more of selfhood there is in us, the more remote are we from any true apprehension of the divine (see BITTUL HAYESH).
Among tzaddikim themselves we find distinctions. Abraham said, “I am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). David said, “I am a worm, not a man” (Psalms 22:7). These things enjoy some existence. But Moses our Teacher, on whom be peace, said, “What are we?” (Exodus 16:7), and he was as nothing, as Scripture says: “But the man Moses was exceedingly humble” (Numbers 12:3). That is why he was able to apprehend God’s essence, but it was otherwise with regard to the other prophets who came before him and after him. (Maggid Devarav LeYaakov, ed. Jerusalem, 1962, p. 88)
Hasidism does not believe that the ideals it seeks to foster can be realized by the individual who seeks salvation unaided by the tzaddik or by companions who follow the same path. From its beginnings the movement stressed the social aspects of the religious life. From the days of the “holy brotherhood” of the Baal Shem Tov there were companies of hasidim whose members assisted one another materially and spiritually, meeting together in a convivial atmosphere, telling and retelling the marvelous tales of the tzaddikim. Arele Roth, a latter-day tzaddik, writes in this connection:
“See, my brother, that which I have explained in some small measure of the important idea that associates convene in order to discuss topics which have to do with the fear of Heaven, provided their intention is for the sake of Heaven.” This was virtually the main technique introduced by the disciples of the Besht. I refer to the simple technique, not to the more secret techniques they had. I have seen it recorded from one of the great tzaddikim that before the coming of the Messiah all the energies of the wicked Amelek and all his strategy will be directed toward preventing the holy people of Israel from having meetings of this kind and to see, even when they do manage to meet, that their conversation is mingled with stupidities, vanities and gossip. (Shomer Emunim, Jerusalem, 1964, vol. II, p. 376)
Once the various dynasties of the tzaddikim had begun to proliferate, this spirit of fraternity began to be expressed in a more limited way and confined to the members of a particular group, often with intense rivalry between the various groups. The hasidim tend to think of their own rebbe as superior to all the others, and they feel intensely proud of belonging to their own particular fellowship.
The Karliner hasidim used to sing: “Happy are we, for we are Jews, not gentiles; how goodly is our portion, for we are hasidim, not mitnaggedim; and how beautiful is our lot, for we are Karliner hasidim, and not hasidim of other dynasties.”
There are hasidic stories of disciples going from master to master until they found the teacher to whom they belonged by virtue of their “soul-root”; having found such a master, they would rarely forsake him for another. There are, nonetheless, a few instances of controversy not alone among the hasidim of rival groups but also between a master and his disciples.
I. Tishby and J. Dan, Torat HaHasidut VeSifrutah, pp. 769-822.