The Tzaddik, or Rebbe

A Hasidic spiritual leader believed to maintain a channel to God.

The Zaddik is the charismatic leader in Hasidism, also known as the Rebbe in order to distinguish him from the Rabbi in the conventional sense. This spelling of the word in English is now the usual form but a more correct transliteration would be tzaddik, meaning “righteous man.” This type of spiritual guide, renowned not for his learning but for his saintliness and ability as a religious mentor, is not entirely unknown in traditional Judaism. The model for the Zaddik was found in Hasidism in the miracle-working prophets Elisha and Elijah, in some of the holy men of prayer in Talmudic times, and in various saintly figures in the Middle Ages. But only in Hasidism, from the earliest days of the movement, did the figure of the Zaddik come to occupy a supreme role, with total submission to him being demanded of his followers. Later in the history of Hasidism, the Zaddik’s son was believed to have acquired something of his charisma, based on the idea that the Zaddik’s holy thoughts when he made love to his wife could succeed in bringing down an elevated soul into the child conceived at the time, so that the notion of dynasties of Zaddikim developed, each with its own loyal followers.

Spiritual Power

In the writings of Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye and in other early Hasidic works the Zaddik is the “channel” or “conduit” through which the divine grace flows to bring blessings to his followers in particular but also to others. The prayers of the Zaddik can produce results that the prayers of his followers could never have produced unaided. Even the food which the Zaddik has tasted is charged with spiritual power, hence the Hasidic practice of snatching pieces of the food over which the Zaddik had recited grace before meals. There even developed a system of relics in which such things as the tefillin of the Zaddik or even his pipe and the clothes he had worn were capable of bringing blessings into the home of the persons who had purchased them.

The Mitnagdim seized on the doctrine of the Zaddik to attack Hasidism as a kind of idolatry, although it is only fair to note that, while the Zaddik is venerated, he is never an object of worship and the more refined Hasidim turn to the Zaddik for spiritual guidance rather than for him to work miracles on their behalf. Some of the Hasidic Zaddikim were especially known for the miracles they were believed to be able to perform. Others were seen more as spiritual mentors than as miracle-workers. But in every branch of the movement the two roles of the Zaddik are accepted as beyond question. A false picture is presented when the occult aspects of Zaddikism are played down in such modem works as Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim.

Sustaining the Zaddik

Whenever Hasidim pay a visit to the “court” of the Zaddik (the royal metaphor is applied throughout) they present him, through his gabbai (“retainer” or “overseer”) a kvittel (“scrap of paper”) and a pidyon nefesh (“redemption of soul”). The kvittel is a written statement by the Hasid, containing his name and that of his mother, of his more pressing needs, material or spiritual. The pidyon nefeshis a sum of money which goes to the upkeep of the Zaddik. The usual rationale for the latter is that, while the Zaddik really needs nothing for himself, his Hasidim can only have real contact with him by contributing to his upkeep. In some versions of Hasidism the Zaddik must live in regal splendor in order for the channel of blessing which he represents to be broad and wide. Much of the money, it has also to be said, is distributed for charitable purposes. A basis for the whole practice was found in the biblical passage (I Samuel 9: 8):

“And he said to him, ‘Behold now, there is in the city a man of God, and he is a man that is held in honor; all that he saith cometh surely to pass; now let us go thither peradventure he can tell us concerning our journey whereon we go.’ Then said Saul to his servant, ‘But behold, if we go, what shall we bring the man? For the bread is spent in our vessels, and there is not a present to bring to the man of God; what have we?’ And the servant answered, and said: ‘Behold, I have in my hand the fourth part of a shekel of silver, that will I give to the man of God, to tell us our way.'”

Man of God or False Prophet?

In many Hasidic circles it is the practice for a Hasid to place a kvittel on the grave of his Zaddik so that the Zaddik in the upper worlds should pray there on his behalf. The Mitnagdim poured scorn on the whole institution, maintaining that a Hasid is wasting money that could be better spent on alleviating his sufferings and those of his family. True, the Mitnageddim argued, there are biblical parallels like the one quoted but the “man of God” in the Bible is a true prophet while, for the Mitnagdim, every Hasidic Zaddik is a false prophet. They defended his daring comparison of the Zaddik to the prophet or the holy men of earlier times on various grounds, one of the most popular being that in the generations before the advent of the Messiah an abundance of new spiritual illumination has been released in anticipation of the tremendous event. As Solomon of Radomsk (d.1866) puts it:

“This is why scripture says: ‘And God made the two great lights’ [Genesis 1:16], hinting at the two types of Zaddikim, those of earlier times and those of later. ‘The greater light to rule the day,’ this refers to the Zaddikim of former generations who had the power to nullify all decrees against the children of Israel. ‘And the lesser light,’ referring to the Zaddik of this generation, ‘to rule the night,’ in the bitter exile which is like night. He, too, has the power of prayer as in former ages. God speaks well both of the early ones and the later ones, for He has eternal paths reaching from heaven by means of which He can be seen on earth.”

The Zaddik’s Prayer

The famous prayer of Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev is, in reality, an adaptation by this Zaddik of an old Yiddish prayer. This prayer, rendered here in an English translation, is recited by many Hasidim at the departure of the Sabbath, when the Zaddik is said to have recited it, and it is thus typical of Zaddikim in relation to prayer:

“God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Jacob! Guard Thy people Israel from all evil for the sake of Thy praise. As the beloved, holy Sabbath departs, we pray that in the coming week we should attain to perfect faith, to faith in the sages, to love of our fellows, to attachment [devekut] to the Creator, blessed be He. May we believe in Thy thirteen principles of the faith and in the redemption, may it come speedily in our day, and in the resurrection of the dead and in the prophecy of Moses our teacher, on whom be peace. Sovereign of the universe! Thou art He who gives the weary strength! Give, then, also to Thy dear Jewish children [Kinderlech, lit. “toddlers,” “little children”] the strength to love Thee alone. And may the week bring with it good health, good fortune, happiness, blessing, mercy, and children, life and sustenance, for us and for all of Israel, and let us say, Amen.”

The prayer of the Zaddik for his followers to be blessed with “children, life and sustenance” is found in many a Hasidic text. The basis in the Talmud is saying (Moed Katan 28a): “Life, children and sustenance depend not on merit but on mazal.” In the context mazal means “luck”–it is not by a person’s merits that he has good health, sustenance, and children but by sheer chance. But Hasidim, treating the word mazal as if it came from a root meaning to flow, use the Talmudic passage for the doctrine of Zaddikim. Even if a man does not deserve to have good health, sustenance, and children on his own merits, he may be given them as a result of the special “flow” of divine blessing through the “channel” that is the Zaddik.

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.


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