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The Hasidic practice of petitionary note writing.

A kvitl (Yiddish for note or slip of paper) is a written request presented to a representative of God. The best-known example is the kvitlech (the plural of kvitl) placed into the cracks of the Western Wall, which is seen as an intermediary between a person and God. But the practice of composing and presenting kvitlech has its roots in early Hasidism and continues to be a central Hasidic custom today. 

While the exact origins of the practice are unclear, we know that kvitlech were presented to charismatic holy men, or tzaddikim, as early as the mid-18th century. (Most of these tzaddikim coalesced into what would become the Hasidic movement and became known as rebbes, though some operated outside of it.) The request may have been for advice in worldly matters, like business or an interpersonal dispute, or in spiritual matters such as guidance in serving God. Most often, the kvitl was a way of asking the tzaddik to pray for one’s needs, most commonly health, livelihood and children (especially sons). Ancient rabbinic tradition claims that these three essential needs are not dependent on individual merit but on God’s providence. Much like the Western Wall, the tzaddikim have been seen as “God’s address.” 

Not all tzaddikim embraced the practice. Some forbade any petitions regarding material needs and only responded to requests for guidance in spiritual matters. Shneur Zalman of Liady, the founder of the Chabad Hasidic sect and the destination for thousands of pilgrims each year, was famous for proclaiming such a ban. Over time, certain Hasidic dynasties developed reputations for particular specialties. A collection of Hasidic lore from the early 20th century advises that “for financial advice, you go to Rimanov, for a cure to Kozhnits, and for piety, to Bełz.”

In the early years of the Hasidic movement, writing and presenting a kvitl was a very personal act. The writer may have been a disciple of the tzaddik and presenting the kvitl was often an initiatory ritual bonding the devotee to his master. Or he may have come solely for the purpose of making the request written in the kvitl. He (and occasionally she) could write up anything he wished; the only requirement seems to have been that the kvitl include the name of the writer along with his mother’s name so that the tzaddik could pray for him. It was also customary for the petitioner to include a monetary donation known as a pidyon, which would have been used by the tzaddik to support other petitioners, the needy, or his own household. The petitioner could also offer in his kvitl to donate a certain sum to other charitable causes.

As the Hasidic movement became more institutionalized, so did the custom of the kvitl, with the text becoming shorter and more formulaic. Where earlier kvitlech may have included a description of the petitioner’s situation, from the 19th century on they generally only included the petitioner’s Hebrew name and his request. A major catalyst in this change was the dramatic increase in the number of petitioners. By the mid-19th century, thousands of pilgrims might visit a popular Hasidic court for a holiday. By the early 20th century, it might be tens of thousands. This increase also led to changes in the procedure for presenting the kvitl, known as the praven. Especially in the larger Hasidic courts, the tzaddik’s attendant (gabbai) would have overseen this procedure, taking the kvitlech from most petitioners to deliver himself and only letting the closer disciples of the tzaddik present them personally. 

A visitor to the home of the tzaddik Moshe Gutterman of Chechelnik in the 19th century described his visit in his memoirs:

The gabbai wrote our kvitlech to the tzaddik for us, asking that he beg for divine mercy for children, health, and livelihood, for both material and spiritual needs. Everyone in the extended family […] contributed money to the pidyon […] The rebbe accepted our petitions from us, almost ignoring the money, which he pushed to the edge of the table where the gabbai was waiting to organize it. The rebbe read everyone’s request, lifting his eyes to heaven and blessing each one that God should help him. He also gave out gifts — a coin as a protective charm, an amulet, medicinal charms […] Everyone left full of hope and faith.

Kvitlech became such an essential part of Hasidic practice that even after the death of a tzaddik, people would continue to bring kvitlech to his grave. This was especially common on the anniversary of their death, when it was believed that the departed tzaddik returns to his grave and returns to heaven with all the kvitlech, where they are presented to God. 

Kvitlech are a fascinating record of Hasidic spirituality and, more broadly, popular Jewish spirituality from the 18th century to today. Indeed, in a tradition in which the focus is on the words and deeds of the tzaddikim, kvitlech are one of the few remaining testaments to the spiritual lives of ordinary Jews.

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