Literature of and on Hasidism

The Hasidim wrote and told stories about their leaders.

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

It has been estimated that some 3,000 Hasidic works have been published since the appearance of Jacob Joseph of Polonoyye’s Toledot Yaakov Yosef (Koretz, 1780) and Dov Baer of Mezhirech’s Maggid Devarav Le‑Yaakov (Koretz, 1781). This corpus consists in the main of works by the masters, early and late. The language of these works is rabbinic Hebrew but with numerous terms adopted from the Kabbalah. Generally speaking, while Kabbalistic vocabulary is maintained in these classical works, they cannot really be considered to be in the older Kabbalistic tradition since the masters interpret the Kabbalah, as they do the Bible and the Talmud, in the spirit of Hasidism.

[Scholar of mysticism] Gershom Scholem speaks of Hasidism as the “interiorization of the Kabbalah.” That is to say, the Hasidic teachers are far less interested in the relationships among the Sefirot on high than in the human psychological processes on earth. In fact, many of the masters, but not all, tend to see too much concentration on the older, extremely complex Kabbalistic system as frustrating the Hasidic ideal of dvekut. The mind of the worshipper cannot realistically be on the details of the Sefirotic map and at the same time on God.

The major works of the masters have gone into numerous editions and are studied assiduously by the Hasidim, whatever particular dynasty they happen to belong to. These works are called “holy books,” taking their place, for the Hasidim, beside the Bible, the Talmud, and the Zohar, as sacred literature the study of which counts as the study of the Torah. Some of the masters were accomplished Talmudists and Halakhists, producing works in this genre. But in this activity they function as traditional Talmudists and Halakhists, making hardly any reference to specifically Hasidic themes.

Hasidism from the beginning saw great value in the stories told by the Hasidim of the mighty deeds of the Rebbes. The older Hasidim would tell these tales to the younger men, who would sit around the teller with bated breath. While the tales are full of ethical and religious sayings of the Zaddikim [the Hasidic leaders], they are chiefly intended to demonstrate the power of the saints to work miracles. Both the Mitnagdim [those who opposed Hasidism] and the Maskilim [proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment] poured scorn on the exaggerations in Hasidic hagiography, considering the telling of the tales as nothing but a frivolous waste of time. At first, these tales circulated by word of mouth but, in the nineteenth century, numerous collections of Hasidic tales were published, some more sophisticated and religiously significant than others.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.