Hassidism’s Mother Hanah the Tzadekit

The spiritual importance of Hanah the Tzadekit, the wife of the Baal Sham Tov is evident in the words he said after his wife died, “I thought I could rise to heaven in a whirlwind like Elijah, but now that I am only half a body; this is no longer possible.”

How did the Baal Shem Tov experience God’s presence through his marriage to Hanah the Tzadekit?

The Jewish mystics taught that the Shekinah- ‘the female presence of God’ rests upon a husband when he makes love to his wife with a sense of reverence, tenderness, adoration and love.

The Shabbat adds holiness and chosenness to these feelings. The key attitude is a sense of wonder and gratefulness that your wife is God’s gift, the chosen source of your blessings, and the most wonderful manifestation of God’s presence, as the Bible says, “Who can find a capable wife? Her value is far above jewels. Her husband can trust her completely.” (Proverbs 31:10)

It is time the spiritual importance of Hannah the Tzadekit for the Besht, and Hanah’s daughter Hodl the Tzadeket’s spiritual importance for her children and grandchildren, is recognized by all Jews, and especially Hassidic Jews.

A woman once asked Rabbi Israel of Rizhin what it means to say someone has a holy spirit and he replied, “Every person starts with a spiritual soul and those who keep it from becoming impure, have a holy spirit”, as Isaiah [60:21] stated; “Your people are all [both males and females] Tzadikim”

Hanah the Tzadekit, was first married to a young man who was highly recommended by her brother Rabbi Avraham Gershon, because he was very pious, and the best Talmud student of a very famous yeshivah.

Yet this illui (a young Talmud prodigy) turned out to be a harsh, narrow minded, self righteous, overly judgmental person, who did not listen to or respect his wife.

It soon became evident that the illui was a failure as a husband; and Reb Ephraim, Hanah’s father, paid him some money to divorce his daughter Hanah and leave town.

Now, Ephraim of Brody told his daughter, he was determined to find for her an open minded, kind, positive and flexible mentch; who enjoyed encouraging people to worship God through joy; and most important, who respected a woman.

Unfortunately, long time study in a yeshivah did not usually stress these ‘mentch’ qualities; and Ephraim was determined to avoid making another mistake like his first one.

One day Ephraim met a young man, newly arrived in Brody from a near by village, praying with great joy and enthusiasm.

Ephraim talked for a long time to the young man, Israel ben Eliezer, who he had encountered in the synagogue, and learned that Israel ben Eliezer was truly an open minded, kind, positive and flexible mentch; one who enjoyed helping and encouraging people, and who respected women.

This was the kind of man Reb Ephraim wanted for his daughter Hanah the Tzadekit.

As a young man, Yisra’el ben Eliezer (born c.1700) apparently worked at a variety of jobs, including ritual slaughterer, elementary school teacher, and circumciser. He had learned rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic and, though not a Talmudist, had become conversant with rabbinic literature.

He also set himself to learning both practical and contemplative Kabbalah from such mystical, ascetic types as Mosheh of Kitev. At the same time he started learning about herbal remedies, even from non-Jews.

His wife, Hanah the Tzadekit, as I have already pointed out, was a divorcée (this fact is rarely mentioned in Hassidic accounts of the Besht’s early activities) and the sister of the prominent scholar Gershon of Kitev (almost always mentioned).

Rabbi Yisra’el and his wife Hanah the Tzadekit had two children: a son, Tsevi Hirsh, who never became prominent, and a daughter, Odl (Hodl), whose descendants, including Barukh ben Yeḥi’el of Mezhbizh, Mosheh Hayim Efraim of Sudilkov, and the very well known Naḥman of Bratslav, all of whom played significant roles in the later Hasidic movement.

Sometime in the 1730s, Hanah the Tzadekit urged her husband, Yisra’el ben Eliezer, to began calling himself a Ba’al Shem or a Ba’al Shem Tov; interchangeable terms meaning that he was a “master of God’s name,” which he could use for healing and other purposes.

Ba’al Shem Tov, in its abbreviated form, Besht, soon became the title, and even the name, used by most people who knew of him. The Besht was at first best known for his skills as a healer; one Polish source even refers to him as a Ba’al Shem doctor.

Soon the Besht was known as a figure who could mediate between this world and the divine spheres in an effort to help people solve not only their health, but also their financial, and social problems. The Besht always had a warm personality, a sense of humor, and a clever intellect.

The Besht’s wife Hanah the Tzadekit, constantly increased his self-confidence, and the conviction that he had a key role to play as a leader of the people of Israel, working for their redemption and that of the Shekhinah (the divine presence).

The Besht began to attract disciples in the 1740’s. Many of these men were Rabbis or Yeshivah students who were discontented with the cold, arid, ridged atmosphere of most Yeshivot.

The Besht’s attraction to disgruntled Yeshivah Jews, and even to those already studying Kabbalah theory, was that he had instituted many innovations within traditional, mystical, ascetic Hasidism.

These reforms paved the way for its transformation, primarily following his death, from an elitist asceticism to a popular spiritualism, and even more important, from a collection of small religious fellowships to a mass movement that would revitalize Orthodox Jewish life.

Perhaps most important among these innovations was his insistence that the path to communion with God lay not in acts of asceticism or studying Talmud all day; but in the joy of emotional prayer.

If prayer was the key element of sacred activity, then intellectual study was not required. Learning and wisdom could better be achieved through listening to Midrash Aggadah and tales of miraculous events.

It was from Hanah the Tzadekit that the Besht learned the lesson that was also taught later by Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol, who said, “My mother Mirl did not pray from a book because she [unlike Hanah the Tzadekit] could not read. All she knew was how to say the various blessings. But wherever she was when she said the morning blessings, that place radiated God’s presence the whole day.”

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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