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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
The Hebrew for Hasidism, hasidut, denotes piety or saintliness, an extraordinary devotion to the spiritual aspects of Jewish life. The term itself did not originate with the 18th-century movement.
Groups of Hasidim were found in talmudic times and even earlier. The Saints of Germany in the Middle Ages were called the Hasidim of Ashkenaz. In the early 18th century, the group surrounding the Baal Shem Tov [“Master of the Good Name”, known as the Besht] was, at first, only one of a number of such groups of pneumatics. But eventually the Beshtian group became the dominant one; the others either vanished from the scene or became absorbed in the Beshtian group.
From the beginning, Hasidism centered on a charismatic personality, the tzaddik. (Zaddik in the usual English transliteration) This term has an interesting history of its own. In the Bible and the talmudic literature, the tzaddik (“righteous man”) is the ordinary good man to whom the Hasid is superior. But since the members of the group were themselves termed Hasidim, a different term had to be found for the spiritual leader and for this the old term tzaddik was adopted. In this way the older roles were reversed. The Hasid is the follower of the Zaddik, with the latter being the superior pietist.
Mysticism for the Masses?
Hasidism was, at first, an elitist movement, consisting of a small company of pietists seeking proximity to the Baal Shem Tov in order to be guided by him in the spiritual path. But since the idea of loving every Jew was stressed by the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples as a highly significant religious ideal, it is not surprising that, as the movement spread, it attracted to itself Jews with no pretension to excessive piety who believed in the power of the Zaddik’s prayers to help them in their distress.
The Zaddik then came to function both as a spiritual guide to the few thirsting for a closer relationship with God and as a man of prayer and a miracle-worker for the masses. Not to be overlooked, however, is that the masses, too, had mystical yearnings, which they believed the Zaddik could satisfy. The description of Hasidism as “mysticism for the masses” ignores the elitist aspects of the movement, but is nonetheless a fair representation of the appeal of Hasidism as it came to be.
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