Hasidic Prayer. By Louis Jacobs. Routledge. £3.
In the mid-eighteenth century Eastern Europe gave birth to Hasidism, the greatest revival movement in Jewish history. Hasidic philosophy has added a new dimension to daily life and some three thousand works of Hasidic literature have enriched the minds of men.
Like all new religious sects throughout the ages Hasidim were at first persecuted, their principles distorted and their practices maligned. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century that Hasidism received a realistic evaluation.
Historians and writers have entered the “Pardes,” the garden of Hasidism, and have assigned to the movement an honourable position in the chronicles of religious revivals.
Prayer was the pivotal point of Hasidism. Total involvement generally characterised Hasidic worship. Kavanah (devotion), Hitlahavut (fervour) and devekut (attachment to God) were essential and the intimate atmosphere of the shtibl encouraged uninhibited outpouring of the soul. Yet very little has been written so far on this fascinating subject.
Dr Jacobs has ably filled the vacuum and for the first time we are given a systematic and objective study of the methods of prayer of Hasidism. He portrays vividly the major trends in Hasidic prayer from the earliest period to the present.
He discusses contemplative and ecstatic prayer, the prayer book, the prayer house, preparation for prayer (hakhanah), gestures and melodies. Chapters are devoted to the prayer of the Zaddik, the elevation of “Strange Thoughts,” the polemic on the recital of haShem Yihud and the hasidic prayer in response.
Dr Jacobs quotes copiously from the hasidic writings, from Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov till Rabbi Aaron Roth, who died in Jerusalem in 1947. Though much space is given to Lubavitch concepts, the other Hasidic dynasties are to some extent recognised de facto if not de jure.
Dr. Jacobs states that he is no Hasid. Yet his erudite selection of passages, his reverent and unusual blend of scholarly accuracy combined with an imaginative and penetrating analysis has earned for him the gratitude of Mithnagid and Hasid alike.
The book is immensely readable and will prove to be a rewarding and informative experience. The notes are as genuinely helpful as they are economical. “Hasidic Prayer” is not only a valuable addition to the Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation, but is a notable contribution to Hasidic literature.