A Hasidic boy's first Hebrew lesson, Brooklyn 1995. (Zion Ozeri/Jewish Lens)

Hasidic Movement: A History

The founding and flourishing of Hasidism.

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.

Hasidism Took Hold

Dov Baer of Mezirech, the foremost disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, sent out his own chosen disciples to spread his understanding of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings abroad, and those men became Zaddikim in their own right in different Eastern European centers. Personalities such as Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, Shneur Zalman of Liady, the “Seer” of Lublin and other disciples of Dov Baer are the spiritual heroes of Hasidism.

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.

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

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