Some 300 years ago in a small village in West Ukraine, an anonymous Jewish healer, orphaned at a young age would change the Jewish world forever. His name — Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer (aka the Baal Shem Tov), the founder of Hasidic Judaism.
What were the historical circumstances in which this movement came to be? What is so special about this movement? and what are it’s principals?
Hasidic Movement Overview
Since bibical times, the term, hasid was used to describe pious individuals. Today, the terms hasidut and hasid will usually refer to Hasidic philosophy and to the followers of the Hasidic movement.
The Hasidic movement began through the teachings of the baal shem tov. For the first part of his life, baal shem tov was an anonymous healer. At the age of 36 he began to publicly teach his unique ideas, which drew heavily on kabbalic thoughts. Many students joined him and became his followers. This was the foundation of the Hasidic movement.
Following his death in 1760, his teachings were further developed by his disciples, chief among them Dov Ber of Mezritch, also known as the Maggid of Mezritch. The Maggid of Mezritch was the movement’s important architect by cultivating a group of top disciples who would later go to different areas of Eastern Europe and teach Hasidism.
Many of these students and students of students went on to create their own unique courts. Each of these courts developed different schools of thought, with particular accentuation of various themes in the movement’s general teachings. While these courts share basic convictions, they operate separately and have their own unique traits and customs.
By the mid 19th century, Hasidism became a mass movement, with roughly half of Eastern European Jews being Hasids. Unfortunately, many Hasidic courts were decimated by the holocaust, and we know very little of them and their unique teachings. Dozens of Hasidic courts survived and exist today. They are mainly centered in Israel and the New York metropolitan area.
Although it is estimated that today only about 5% of the global Jewish population are of hasidic housholds, the hasidic ideas have become extremely widespread in the Jewish world. They have also infiltrated into mainstream orthodox Judaism and are taught in most orthodox schools.
During the 17th century the Jews of eastern Europe underwent one of the most difficult times in Jewish history. These events are to lead to the birth of the Hassidic movement.
- Cossak riots (1648–1649) — During the 1648 Cossack uprising led by Khmelnitsky against the polish-lithuanian kingdom, horrific pogroms and massacres were carried out against the Jews in the areas of Poland and the surrounding lands. Tens of thousands were slaughtered, sold into slavery, or converted. Men, women and children were brutally murdered. Entire Jewish communities were decimated.
Leading up to the riots, Many of the Jews were employed by the nobility as estate managers, lease holders and money collectors. They earned money from the collections they made by receiving a percentage of an estate’s revenue. As middlemen, they became objects of hatred of the oppressed peasants. Khmelnitsky told the people that the Poles had sold them as slaves “into the hands of the accursed Jews.”
“Wherever they found the szlachta, royal officials or Jews, they [Cossacks] killed them all, sparing neither women nor children. They pillaged the estates of the Jews and nobles, burned churches and killed their priests, leaving nothing whole.” ~Hannover, Eyewitness Chronicle
“Between 1648 and 1656, tens of thousands of Jews — given the lack of reliable data, it is impossible to establish more accurate figures — were killed by the rebels, and to this day the Khmelnytsky uprising is considered by Jews to be one of the most traumatic events in their history” ~Subtelny, Ukraine: A History
2. Shabtaut — The Sabbateans were followers of Sabbatai Zevi (1626–1676), a Jewish kabbalist rabbi who proclaimed to be the long awaited Jewish Messiah, later to be determined as a false messiah.
In 1665, when he was announced as the messiah, a vast numbers of Jews accepted his claims. Many sold their homes and belongings, and prepared to journey to Israel. Others awaited to be flown there via clouds. Belief in the false messiah spread throughout the Jewish world, sweeping up entire communities.
Why the Jewish world was so receptive to the false messianism, can be explained by the desperate state of European Jewry following the horrific riots. They longed to be relieved of oppression and for the ultimate redemption. The prophets in the bible described a Messianic leader who would lead the Jewish people to redemption. They Believed Sabbatai Zvi was the one chosen to do this.
In 1666 Sabbatai Zvi was imprisoned by the Ottoman Empire for making messianic claims. He was given the choice of either facing death, or of converting to Islam. Sabbatai chose the latter. After realizing they fell under the wings of a false messiah, there was a tremendous crisis of faith unprecedented in Jewish history.
Opposition to Hasidic Judaism
In the 18th century as Hasidism continued spreading rapidly, it evoked significant opposition from the ‘mitnagdim’(=opposers). They regarded Hasidic practices as heretical, inconsistent with the rationalist Talmudic tradition. It reminded them too much of the of the Sabbateans, the movement of the false messiah Shabbetai Zvi, with similar mystical lingo and customs. They were fearful it would cause similar damaging effects on the Jewish people.
Among the most prominent early opponents of Hasidism was the Vilna Gaon (=genius from vilna), the revered leader of Lithuanian Jewry. While he himself was a big kabbalist (as well as talmudist and halakhist), he opposed it for the masses. He was very rational and believed that greatness in Torah and observance must come through natural human efforts at Torah study without relying on any external "miracles". He believed that the claims of miracles and visions made by Hasidic Jews were false delusions.
My mom is descended from the Vilna gaon and my dad is from Hasidic roots, so I like to think I have the best of both worlds :)
The 17th century was one of the toughest for Jews in history. Tremendous suffering was needed to be somehow be explained in a deeper realm. Understanding of why this is happening to us?
Hasidism filled that void by explaining deep ideas about the soul, universe and spiritual realms. By understanding these concepts, they shared a “secret” world that brought meaning to deep suffering. It Gave their life and sufferings renewed meaning and purpose.
In every historical situation there are the facts/circumstances (political, financial) that are leading up to the events. Jews, especially mystical Jews, while well familiar with the ‘circumstances’, always chose to look in, to the inner message. What message is god sending us? What have we done wrong? Hasidism and its philosophy provided them with the answers they sought.
What are this movements key principals?
Key Elements in Hasidic Philosophy
1) Mysticism to the masses, not only reserved for the scholarly elite
Hasidism brought Jewish mystical tradition, concepts and knowledge to the masses, something that had traditionally been kept somewhat secret and restricted to a pious and learned few.
These spiritual concepts include topics such as G-d, the universe and the human soul. Hassidism made these concepts understandable to the masses.
Kabala also impacted halachic decisions for the entire Chassidic community. In the traditional halachic system, kabbalist traditions are applied only to distinguished spiritual figures. An example of a practical expression — Tefillin during Chol HaMoed. (written in the Zohar).
2) The presence of God, even in the seemingly mundane and banal
The Baal Shem Tov taught of the individual’s duty to serve God in every aspect of his or her daily life. Worshiping god is not only when practicing religious acts and holy deeds but also in your daily affairs. Even the most daily mundane actions are sanctified with the right intent.
He urged his disciples to develop a personal relationship with God. A connection with God could be achieved by unifying the spiritual and material realms.
3) The primacy of spirituality and Intent over Torah Study
Leading up to the Baal Shem tov there was a great emphasis on torah study. That was the ultimate goal. According to the Baal Shem Tov “God desires the heart”(=רחמנא לבא בעי). The intention of the heart is an utmost importance when worshiping god and performing his mitzvot(commandments).
In this way, even a simple Jew and even a child can reach a very high level to God, no less than that of a great torah scholar. The ultimate goal is the connection with god. (=דבקות)
4) Personal Redemption Before Worldwide
Perhaps traumatized by the false messiah Sabbtai Zvi, Chassidism focused on one’s private redemption as an individual and not on an external savior. Redeeming one’s self from his own fears, troubles and dark times in your life.
The salvation of the soul of the individual is a requirement for the redemption of the world.
For before one prays for general redemption one must pray for the personal salvation of one’s own soul” ~Toledot Ya’akov Yosef
5) Importance of Joy and Happiness
Even prior to Chasidism, the importance of joy and happiness was a fundamental principal in Jewish thought. However, this sect emphasized this aspect and brought it back into attention.
At the time, many Jews were practicing Asceticism and fasts. Baal Shem Tov vigorously apposed these. Worshiping god can actually be done through worldly means including eating and drink, when done with the right intention. Happiness is preferred to self inflicted suffering as a means to connect to god.
6) The tzaddik, Connects Between Israel and Their God Above
The Tzaddik/Rebbe in Hasidic communities isn't just a rabbinical halachic authority, but also a figure you turn to regarding your spiritual, health and even financial troubles. His advice on various personal matters, is sometimes even perceived as the word from god by his followers.
This concept underlying belief is the existence of superior individuals whose spiritual qualities are greater than those of other human beings and who are at a higher level of connection to god. They help the people connect to god.
Every Hasidic sect has such a figure, and their succession over time is usually dynastic. When a rebbe passes away, his successor is usually a son or another close relative. Occasionally, succession can be contested and even cause a sect to split into separate sects.