Hasidism

Doctrines Common to all forms of hasidism is the belief that the established institutions of orthodox rabbinic Judaism are not enough. It is significant, for example, that the Besht, founder of the Hasidic movement, was not himself a rabbi. His authority and that of his successors, known as tzaddikim ("Righteous ones") depended on charisma rather than learning. Through their special powers and gifts and their peculiar closeness to God (Hebrew devekut "cleaving") they inspired ordinary people to engage in zealous private prayer and meditation, both on their own and in their synagogues, in a way that went beyond and outside traditional Jewish practice. Aspects of hasidic prayer given special emphasis in addition to devekut, include simhah "joy", hitlahavut "enthusiasm" and shiflut "humility". Instead of the traditional orthodox prayer book, hasidic groups used their own more mystical, "Lurianic" prayer book, so-called because of its association with the famous kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) (see Kabbalah).
The most significant innovation of hasidism within Jewish doctrine was the doctrine of the Tzaddik. Known to his followers as Rebbe "Master" to distinguish him from orthodox Rabbis, the Tzaddik was revered by his followers, almost to the point of worship. Much of the hasidic literature, which is written in Hebrew and Yiddish, consists of collections of wise sayings and marvellous stories about these saints and miracle-workers. There are considerable variations as between what one Tzaddik taught and another, so that it is hard to generalize about hasidic doctrine. The Lubavitchers, for example, following the distinctive teaching of their founder Rabbi Schneur Zalman (1745-1812), stress the priority of a type of intellectual meditation over the emotions. They focus on the three highest kabbalistic sefirot or emanations of the divine mind, hokhmah "wisdom", binah "understanding" and da'at "knowledge", and believe that prayer, especially reciting the Shema, should involve reflection onthe kabbalistic scheme of divine sefirot to the point of self-annihilation. This form of hasidism is called Habad from the Hebrew initials of the three sefirot. Their belief that there is in every Jew a divine spark which can be awakened by prayer and contemplation, has prompted among Habad hasidim a distinctive attitude towards fellow Jews marked by a mixture of puritanical pietism and evangelical zeal.

History The first hasidim appear in accounts of the Maccabaean rebellion (167-163 BCE) where they are remembered as conspicuously pious Jews, willing to die as martyrs for their faith (see Pharisees). In 12th-13th century Europe, a unique group of Jewish ascetics, influenced perhaps by mediaeval Christian monasticism, were known as the haside ashkenaz or "Saints of Germany". But as an important aspect of modern Judaism, the origins of Hasidism are to be traced to 18th century Poland and in particular to Israel Ben Eliezer or, as he came to be known, the Besht, an abbreviation of Baal Shem Tov ("Master of the Divine Name") (c.1700-1760). He was a powerful religious personality, with little education, right outside the main rabbinical tradition, but so thoroughly surrounded by stories about his dreams, mystical experiences and miracle-working that he commanded a huge following both in his own lifetime and down to the present day. His radical teachings, the noisy, ecstatic singing and dancing that accompanied hasidic worship, and his appeal to ordinary uneducated Jews, at first drew fierce opposition from the orthodox, among whom the great talmudist Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, known as "the Gaon of Vilna" (1720-1797), requires special mention.
As the hasidic movement spread throughout Eastern Europe, influenced by kabbalistic mysticism (See Kabbalah), memories of the "Saints of Germany" and remnants of more recent Shabbatean and Frankist groups (see Shabbateans), they were eventually accepted by orthodoxy. With a new focus on the personality of its leaders, called "Rebbes" (Yiddish for rabbis), dynasties were established each with its own following, and several varieties of hasidism evolved, of which the Lubavitchers are the best known and most active today. Their founder was Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyady (1745-1812), author of the first systematic work of hasidic theology and inventor of the Habad movement within hasidism. His son set up a centre in Lubavitch in Byelorussia from which they received their name. Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson (1880-1950), sixth in the Schneur Zalman dynasty, was leader of Russia's orthodox Jews in 1917 and, after his expulsion from there in 1927, gave the Lubavitchers of Brooklyn, New York the high profile which they still retain. The seventh Habad Rebbe, Menahem Mendel Schneerson, was believed by many to be the Messiah but died in 1994 with such expectations unfulfilled. Other important varieties of hasidism include Bratslav Hasidism founded by the brilliant and influential Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1811), great-grandson of the Besht, and Gur (Hebrew Ger) Hasidism which originated in Poland in 1859 and of which Rabbi Mordecai Abraham Alter (1866-1948), leader of Europe's Orthodox Jews in Nazi Germany until he moved to Israel in 1940, is the best known exponent.

Symbols Hasidic groups, like some other ultraorthodox Jews, still wear the distinctive dress and hair-style of the18th century eastern European shtetl (Jewish town) communities where they originated. Men wear ankle-length black coats and wide-rimmed black hats, lavishly fur-trimmed on sabbaths and festivals. Men and boys traditionally leave their "side-curls" uncut. Women cover their hair in public with a headscarf or a wig (Yiddish Sheitel). The Lubavitchers brightly coloured mobile education units known as "Mitzvah tanks" marked with the Star of David and an appropriate Hebrew inscription, are conspicuous in many cities. See also under Kabbalah

Adherents There are no statistics available to give the number of adherents of Hasidism.

Headquarters/
Main Centre
 Lubavitcher Headquarters, 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY 11213