Originally published in Tzvi M. Rabinowicz (ed.), The encyclopedia of Hasidism (1996), pp. 316-18.
In every version of Hasidism it is believed that the tzaddik, as the channel through which the divine grace flows, has the power to perform miracles, the miracle (mofet) being conceived of as a supernatural intervention by means of which the laws of nature are suspended. Hasidic tales without number tell of miracles, chiefly in the realm of healing, wrought by the tzaddikim. Whether through his profound contemplation on the divine mysteries or by the force of his prayers, the tzaddik effects a cure for a person declared incurable by the doctors or enables barren women to conceive or brings about the sudden death of a brutal tyrant bent on destroying the innocent. Occasionally the tales make even more staggering claims such as the resurrection of the dead, levitation, or the capacity for the tzaddik to be in two places at once or to be surrounded by a miraculous light not of this world. The paradigms for all this are the biblical stories of Elijah and Elisha as well as Moses performing his wonders in Pharaoh’s court and the miracle-working saints of talmudic times such as R, Haninah ben Dose and Honi the Circle-Drawer. In hasidic thought the demarcation line between the natural and the supernatural is very finely drawn. Nature is only the garment that conceals the operations of the divine vitality through which all things are sustained. The tzaddik, through his attachment to God, can succeed in removing all barriers between God and His creation and so inhabits a world in which anything can happen. A favorite quote in this connection in hasidic literature is from the talmudic account of how R. Haninah ben Dose reassured his daughter, who had inadvertently used vinegar instead of oil for the Sabbath lamp; “He who said that oil should burn will say that vinegar will burn” (Taanit 25a). Opinions about the techniques by which miracles are wrought differ among the hasidic teachers. The early master R. Pinhas of Koretz (Midrash Pinhas [Jerusalem, 1971], no. 16, p. 5a) remarks that when a tzaddik sees a new idea during his study of the Torah, he releases the power of spiritual renewal inherent in the Torah and by so doing creates around him an aura of change, which produces miracles in the physical world.
In the thought of the Maggid of Mezhirech, the tzaddik can perform miracles through his severe contemplation whereby all things are reduced to their prior state of nonexistence only to reemerge having suffered a total change.
The tzaddik may bring about change whenever he wishes and the High Priest could only do this on the Day of Atonement. The difference between Israel and the nations of the world is that they cannot bring about change but merely move objects from place to place, which does not apply to Israel, for they cleave to Him, blessed be His name, and they are thus able to return things to the Source of sources whence all things are formed. And He, blessed be He, on account of His love, alters things at all times from evil unto good even without prayer being offered. (Or HaEmet [Zhkomer, 1900], p. 55b)
But after the Maggid there can be discerned a move away from the idea of the inevitability of the miracle, through the semi-magical art of contemplation, to the notion of the divine freedom influenced, as it were, but not coerced by the tzaddik’s prayers. Thus Reuben HaLevi Hurwitz, a disciple of R. Elimelekh of Lejask, writes:
Though we may find several tzaddikim who perform miracles and wonders (nisim veniflaot) nevertheless one should not err, heaven forbid, since truly there is none like unto our God . . . and if it puzzles you how it comes about that the tzaddikim perform miracles and marvels (nisim umofetim), indeed the truth is that the tzaddikim do nothing but pray to God the Creator, blessed be He, and He performs miracles for them, but the real action is done by the Creator, blessed be He. (Dudaim BaSadeh, [Israel, n.d.] p. 27a)
The possibility of the tzaddik’s performing miracles was accepted unquestioningly by the hasidim, but not all of them were either content to see this as the chief function of the tzaddik or pleased with the emphasis on miracle-working instead of on the tzaddik’s role as spiritual guide and mentor. The school of Prezysucha in particular tended to look upon the miracles of the tzaddikim as a kind of spiritual vulgarization. A maxim in this school was “signs and wonders in the land of the children of Ham” (i.e., only the spiritually unrefined, dwelling in the darkness of Egypt, are impressed by the performance of miracles).
The Kotzker rebbe interpreted the verse “Our fathers in Egypt gave no heed unto Thy wonders” (Psalms 106:7) not as a reproach but as high praise of our ancestors, who did not rely on miracles in order to have faith in God.
The Ruzhyner is reported to have said, “The more miracles are attributed to the tzaddikim, the more the ground is prepared for deception by clairvoyants, fortune-tellers and charlatan doctors. A tzaddik should merely offer prayer unto the Lord, and if he is a true tzaddik, his prayer will be heard.”
Solomon of Karlin is reported as saying, “The greatest of all miracles is to bring into the heart of a Jew the holy influence whereby he may be enabled to pray properly unto his Creator.”
Nevertheless a number of tzaddikim became especially renowned as baalei mofet (masters of marvels), that is, for their ability to perform miracles. It was in large measure the reputation of these men that made Hasidism attractive on the popular level and contributed to the spread of Hasidism among the masses, whereas the hasidic intellectuals set far greater store on their rebbe’s degree of holiness and his spiritual attainments than on the claims made for him as a wonder worker.
J. G. Weiss, “The Great Maggid’s Theory of Contemplative Magic,” HUCA, vol. 31 (1960), pp, 137-147.
S. Y. Zevin, Sippurei Hasidim.