Hasidic Movement: A History

The founding and flourishing of a Hasidism.

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The spread of the movement was assisted by anther disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye, author of the first Hasidic book to be published. Jacob Joseph's Toledot Yaakov Yosef was published in the town of Koretz in 1780 and this was followed by a spate of works by the masters in which new doctrines were expounded.

Through these works and through the missionary activities of Dov Baer's disciples, Hasidism spread rapidly to Volhynia, Poland, Russia, and Lithuania, despite, or perhaps because of the opposition of Mitnagdim, the rabbinic and communal leaders who tended to see the new ideas as rank heresy. It has been estimated that by the beginning of the nineteenth century, Hasidism had won over to its ranks almost half the communities of Eastern Europe.

Leadership and Succession

The movement developed a variety of groups, each owing allegiance to a particular Zaddik. In the early days, when a Zaddik died he was succeeded by his most outstanding disciple, acknowledged as such by his companions. But, towards the end of the eighteenth century, the idea of dynastic succession took root. The Zaddik was called a "king" with his own "court." And when he died, he was succeeded by his son, the "crown prince", or, where he had left no son suitable to succeed him, by his son-in-law, brother, or other close relative.

Each Zaddik (or Rebbe, as he was called, to distinguish him from the traditional Rav, the town rabbi) had his own court to which his devoted followers journeyed periodically, especially to be with the Zaddik on the great festive occasions of the year. There were often fierce rivalries between the different dynasties, and occasionally, struggle for the succession in the dynasty itself. When Mordecai of Chernobil died in 1837, each of his eight sons founded a new dynasty, as did his son-in-law. It was far from unusual for a Hasid to ask another Hasid: "To whom do you journey?" meaning to which Zaddik do you owe allegiance?

While some Hasidim settled in the land of Israel in 1777 and a very few settled in western Europe, the vast majority remained in Eastern Europe, where, before World War II, hundreds of Hasidic dynasties flourished. The pattern was for the Rebbe to reside in a small town with his followers meeting for prayer, study, and companionship in a small conventicle, the stiebel. These small meetinghouses were found everywhere in the villages and in the larger towns. The dynasties were known by the name of the town in which the Rebbe resided.

After the Holocaust and the resulting destruction of the great European communities, the Rebbes who survived created a new home for themselves in the state of Israel and the USA, taking care to preserve the name of the European centers at which they and their ancestors held court. The Hasidic master who held court in Boston was the exception in that he became known as the Bostoner Rebbe. The best-known and most influential Hasidic dynasties on the contemporary scene are those of Belz, Ger, Satmar, and Lubavitch.

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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.