Hasidism was and remains a popular, pietistic religious revival movement premised upon Lurianic kabbalah. Founded in the second quarter of the 18th century in Ukraine, it rapidly disseminated to neighboring Poland, Russia, Belarus, Romania, Moldova, Hungary, and Lithuania, and to the Land of Israel. Although initially it was not universally accepted even among orthodox circles, it soon became an enriching and influential stream within Judaism.
The great leaders of Hasidism were righteous saints (tzadikim), also known as Rebbes. Some were more ascetic, others more charismatic, but each was magnetic and venerated as a lofty spiritual paragon through whom adherents might draw closer to God. What follows is a synoptic glance at some of the most seminal and enduring lessons to be gleaned from their remarkable lives.
- Sorrow Is the Root of All Evil
As the founder of Hasidism, Israel ben Eliezer (Ba’al Shem Tov/Besht) originally inspired this teaching and instructed his followers to be joyous and exuberant in their religious worship.
According to his senior disciple, Jacob Joseph ben Tzvi HaKohen/Katz of Polonnoye, sorrow is the root of all evil, and joyous adhesion (deveikut) to the divine is humankind’s highest purpose. Jacob knew something of sorrow, having become bitterly disappointed after not having been selected to succeed his master as the leader of Hasidism, a role assumed by his rival Dov Bär (The Maggid) of Mezhirech.
The Ba’al Shem Tov’s grandson, Barukh ben Yehiel of Mezhbizh, controversial for having exploited his pedigree and position, was also reputed to be haughty, quarrelsome, and depressive. To relieve his dark moods, he employed in his ostentatious Hasidic court a jester (badkhn)—a former ritual slaughterer (shohet) with an irreverent and irrepressible sense of humor, Hershel of Ostropol—who countered melancholy with merriment by means of his witticisms and jokes, some even at the expense of the Rebbe and his cronies (to the delight of the common folk).
In addition to his pious and scholarly preoccupations, Moses Judah Leib Erblich of Sasov (Remal/Admor of Sasov/Sasover Rebbe) lifted spirits by composing numerous Hasidic melodies and dances.
Nahman ben Simhah of Breslov’s famous sayings include: “If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can mend”, and “It’s a great mitzvah to always be happy”.
Renowned for his insightful dicta, Menahem Mendel Morgenstern of Kotzk (Kotzker Rebbe) professed: “Joy is wonderful. Through it, one can escape the worst of circumstances.”
- Those Who Forsake Risk Being Forsaken
Late in life, Elimelekh Weissblum of Lizhensk (No’am Elimelekh) retreated from his leadership role and withdrew from his Hasidim. In 1785, his apprentice Ya’akov Yitzhak HaLevi Horowitz broke away and moved to Lantzut (Łańcut, Poland), taking with him many Hasidim and engendering tension between master and disciple.
A leading disciple of Ya’akov Yitzhak HaLevi Horowitz, Ya’akov Yitzhak ben Asher Rabinowicz (HaYehudi HaKadosh/Yid HaKodosh), developed his own independent thought and leadership, which engendered tension between master and disciple, and the younger Ya’akov Yitzhak broke away and moved to Pshiskha (Przysucha, Poland), taking with him many Hasidim. There he assumed the role of a tzadik, and as the first Pshiskha Rebbe he held court in the Grand Synagogue.
In 1827, Mordekhai Yosef Leiner of Izhbitza (Izhbitzer Rebbe) moved to Kotzk (Kock, Poland), where he studied under his older childhood friend Menahem Mendel Morgenstern of Kotzk. His independent thought and original ideas, and his dissatisfaction with the increasingly distant leadership of Menahem Mendel, engendered tension between master and disciple. In 1839, following Simhat Torah celebrations, he broke away and returned to his neighboring hometown of Tomashov (Tomaszów Lubelski), taking with him many Hasidim. There he initially assumed the role of a tzadik. Thereafter he transferred his Hasidic court to neighboring Izhbitza (Izbica) and became the first Izhbitzer Rebbe. Despite his individualistic thinking, he was constantly in the company of his followers.
- Honesty Is Like a Breath of Fresh Air
Pinhas ben Avraham Abba Shapira of Koretz (Koretzer Rebbe) accented simple faith, intent (khavanah), inner devotion, ethical conduct, and truth. His disdain for falsehood was so pronounced that he claimed to prefer praying at dawn each morning before the air filled with the lies people tell all day long.
Menahem Mendel Torim of Rimanov was closely involved in Jewish communal affairs and instituted regulations regarding inspections of the weights and measures of market vendors to ensure honest dealings.
Simhah Bunim Bonhart of Pshiskha accented the quest for truth and humility, disdaining self-delusion, pretension, and superficiality. He taught: “Everyone must have two pockets, so that he can reach into the one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are the words: ‘For my sake was the world created’, and in his left: ‘I am earth and ashes.’”
- Strive for Unity without Uniformity or Unanimity
Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk earned a reputation for his love for the Jewish people (ahavat Yisrael), and taught: “Do not mock others, lest you be struck by hardships, heaven forbid; more specifically, do not mock those who have abandoned the Torah…for it is quite obvious and clear to me that mocking those who have abandoned the way of the Torah is the cause of decline and destruction. Do not the Sages teach that Jews are considered God’s children no matter what? And if so, one who derides the irreligious, in effect, separates himself from the collective community of Israel.”
In 1774, Shneur Zalman ben Barukh of Lyady (Alter Rebbe/Admor HaZaken) and his master Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk journeyed to Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania) to conciliate Hasidism’s foremost opponent, the leading sage Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (Vilna Gaon), who repeatedly refused to receive his visitors; twice he shut his door to them, and the meeting never occurred. Nevertheless, Shneur Zalman went on to found Habad (Lubavitch) Hasidism, and Hasidim and traditional Talmudists (Mitnagdim) went on to forge a respectful reconciliation.
In the early 19th century, at the grand wedding in Ostila (Ustylúh, Ukraine) that drew more than 200 sages in white robes, Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt (Apter Rebbe/Oheiv Yisrael) presided over a trial between Hasidim of neighboring Breslov (Bratslav) and those of Pshiskha (Przysucha, Poland), and decided in favor of the supporters (led by Yitzhak Meir Rothenburg Alter, the future Gerrer Rebbe) of Simhah Bunim Bonhart of Pshiskha, the second Pshiskha Rebbe, whose vociferous critics had sought the imposition of a ban of excommunication (herem) upon him.
In 1977, the revered Menahem Mendel ben Levi Isaac Schneerson (Lubavitcher Rebbe) asserted that “the division of Judaism into Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, etc. is a purely artificial one, for all Jews have one and the same Torah, given by the one and same God, though there are more observant Jews and less observant Jews. To tag on a label does not, of course, change the reality.”
- Decency and Compassion Matter
Israel ben Eliezer (Ba’al Shem Tov/Besht) earned a reputation as a charismatic thaumaturge, expert in applying plants’ healing properties and prescribing cures. He roamed in order to heal the sick and exorcise spirits, and demonstrated the importance of charity by giving generously and ransoming captives and prisoners.
Pinhas ben Avraham Abba Shapira of Koretz (Koretzer Rebbe) earned a reputation for his wisdom, but averred that “I prefer fear of heaven to wisdom, and care more for a good heart than either of those.”
Israel ben Shabbtai Hapstein (Maggid of Kozhnitz) attracted from near and far suppliants seeking his blessing and counsel, including Christians such as the Polish nobleman and statesman Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski. His approach to reproach was tactful and tactical; he would rebuke “with pleasing and sweet persuasion and not with hard words”. He taught: “He who reproves people and teaches them the Law and the word of God must have insight into the heart of every single one of them, even of the very wicked.” Aside from spiritual guidance, he concerned himself with the health, children, and livelihood of his followers and even distributed remedies to the ailing.
Moses Judah Leib Erblich of Sasov (Remal/Admor of Sasov/Sasover Rebbe) earned a reputation for his humility, modesty, charity, and love for the Jewish people (ahavat Yisrael), and the epithet “father of widows and orphans”. As a dedicated communal leader, he helped support the indigent and ransomed captives. Due to his devotion to and concern for common folk, he is remembered today as an ethical exemplar and as a paradigm of popular Hasidism.
Ya’akov Yitzhak HaLevi Horowitz (HaHozeh MiLublin/The Seer of Lublin) believed that material abundance preceded spiritual affluence and saw fit to attend to both the spiritual and physical needs of his flock, which comprised followers from all social strata. He taught that “when the body enjoys plentitude the soul too enjoys spiritual richness”. He felt it his duty to assist his devotees especially with regards to their health, children, and livelihood.
- Storytelling Facilitates Learning
Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt (Apter Rebbe/Oheiv Yisrael) earned a reputation for his active imagination and for telling tall tales. He claimed that he had undergone metempsychosis (gilgul) repeatedly, having previously been a high priest, a king of Israel, a patriarch/president (nasi), and an exilarch (reish galuta); these revelations were regarded by his Hasidim as akin to the famed aggadot of the amora Rabbah bar Bar Hana. He was also known for his hearty appetite and for his sense of humor.
Famed narrator Nahman ben Simhah of Breslov’s numerous teachings and 13 tales were transcribed in Likutei Moharan, Likutei Moharan Tinyana, Seifer HaMidot, Alpha Beta, Ma’aglei Tzedek, Likutei Tfilot, and Sipurei Ma’asiyot.
- The Innovative Must Brace for Backlash
Israel ben Eliezer’s wisdom was not derived from conventional scholarship, but from his soulful character and meditations; he disdained anyone “who through sheer study of the Torah has no time to think about God.” His magnetic persona inspired legends that stimulated the contempt of traditional Talmudists (Mitnagdim) and Enlightenment secularists (maskilim) alike.
The Pshiskha Hasidism of Ya’akov Yitzhak ben Asher Rabinowicz (HaYehudi HaKadosh/Yid HaKodosh) was elitist, rationalistic, and Talmud-based, serving as a counterpoint to the popular, mystical, and miracle-based Lublin Hasidism. He adopted a critical attitude toward conventions, and taught that “all the rules that a person makes for himself to worship God are not rules, and this rule is not a rule either”. Determining that he required adequate time to achieve the prerequisite mental preparedness for ecstatic prayer, he disregarded prescribed prayer times, thereby contravening halakhah—a controversial flouting of communal norms that elicited opposition. In time, however, Pshiskha Hasidism ramified through the Hasidic dynasties and schools of thought in various Polish locales, including: Kotzk (Kock), Gur (Gora Kalwaria), Aleksander (Aleksandrów Łódzki), Izhbitza (Izbica), Warka, and Biała (Biała Prudnicka).
In 1800, Nahman ben Simhah of Breslov moved to Zlatopil (Novomyrhorod, Ukraine), where in time he was accused by Aryeh Leib of Shpola of promoting Shabbatean and Frankist teachings, a controversy that precipitated his departure. In 1802, he moved to neighboring Breslov (Bratslav), where he lived for eight years.
- The Holy Are as Fallible and Vulnerable as Everyone Else
It wasn’t easy for Pinhas ben Avraham Abba Shapira of Koretz (Koretzer Rebbe) to overcome his temperament issues. Concerning anger management, he taught: “I struggled with anger for many years until I subdued it and placed it in my pocket. Whenever I need it I will take it out. But I am angry at it and never want to take it out of my pocket ever!”
As a young man, Dov Bär (The Maggid) of Mezhirech was an adherent of Lurianic kabbalah and engaged in ascetic practices that rendered him bedridden with a leg ailment. He sought a remedy from the famed healer Israel ben Eliezer, under whose influence he renounced asceticism and recovered, and subsequently became his foremost student.
In 1793, Levi Isaac ben Meir of Berdichev became seriously ill and experienced a spiritual decline, from which he recovered only with the aid of his devoted disciple Israel ben Shabbtai Hapstein (Maggid of Kozhnitz).
In 1814, during Simhat Torah celebrations, Ya’akov Yitzhak HaLevi Horowitz (HaHozeh MiLublin/The Seer of Lublin) retired to his private chamber but was later discovered defenestrated and severely injured beneath his window, the cause of which was variously ascribed to an evil spirit (sitra ahra), inebriation, or attempted suicide; in any event, he never recovered and died nine months later on Tisha B’Av.
In 1839, Menahem Mendel Morgenstern of Kotzk (Kotzker Rebbe) suffered a nervous breakdown, perhaps related to the departure of his younger childhood friend and disciple, Mordekhai Yosef Leiner of Izhbitza (Izhbitzer Rebbe), and thereafter secluded himself for the last 20 years of his life.
- Never Let Your Fate Get in the Way of Your Destiny
Like her male counterparts, Hannah Rahel Verbermacher (Maiden of Ludmir/Ludmirer Moid) received audiences, hosted on the Sabbath gatherings of Hasidim (tishen), bestowed blessings, and accepted paper slips listing problems (kvitlakh). Unsurprisingly, her unconventional activities as a pious woman elicited opposition from the broader Hasidic community, and she was even accused of being possessed by a malevolent spirit (dybbuk). The scandal prompted the intervention of the region’s most prominent tzadik, Mordekhai Twersky (Chernobyler Rebbe), who exhorted Hannah to desist from her conduct and to marry instead. Consequently, she abnegated her role, abstained from her activities, and eventually immigrated to Jerusalem. There she yearned to renew her vocation. Although a childless divorcée, she retained her piety and charisma and once again attracted adherents, Hasidic and Sephardic, who came on Sabbath afternoons to hear her preach and who accompanied her on the first of every month to Rachel’s Tomb for prayer. She was buried on the Mount of Olives, and her grave became a pilgrimage site. She is remembered today as the only female Hasidic Rebbe.
- A Movement’s Growth Is the Hallmark of Great Leaders
In 1760, after the decease of his master Israel ben Eliezer, Dov Bär (The Maggid) of Mezhirech became the second leader of Hasidism. He developed Hasidism as a movement, dispatching disciples to proliferate its teachings throughout Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania. His principal disciples included Elimelekh of Lizhensk, Meshulam Zusha of Hannopil, Samuel (Shmelke) Horowitz, Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk, Menahem Nahum Twersky of Chernobyl, Pinhas HaLevi Horowitz, Israel Hapstein, Aaron of Karlin, Levi Isaac of Berdichev, Moses of Sasov, Ya’akov Yitzhak HaLevi Horowitz, Shneur Zalman of Lyady, Solomon of Lutzk, and Aryeh Leib Sarahs.
In 1941, Menahem Mendel ben Levi Isaac Schneerson (Lubavitcher Rebbe) managed to escape the Holocaust and migrated to America, where he settled in New York City. He oversaw three institutions vital to Habad (Lubavitch) Hasidism: Merkaz L’Inyanei Hinukh (Center for Jewish Education), Kehot Publication Society, and Machaneh Yisrael (Camp of Israel, a social services agency). In 1951, a year after his father-in-law died, he assumed the leadership of Habad Hasidism. Under his aegis, a corps of emissaries (shluhim) was founded and welcoming Habad houses were established in scores of cities and on post-secondary campuses worldwide. Today there are over 3,000 Habad educational and social centers in 70 countries.