In the early eighteenth century in the Ukraine, a Rabbi called Israel ben Eliezar started to preach a more accessible and joyful path to God.
Traditionally, Jews had viewed studying the Talmud as the main channel through which to communicate with God, essentially disenfranchising all those Jews who did not have the academic background, or the time required to understand and study these religious texts (Imhoff, 2010).
Rabbi ben Eliezer – the the Ba’al Shem Tov
Rabbi ben Eliezer believed that God could be found in every aspect of the world around us. He highly valued mystical kabbalistic tradition and it has been claimed that he carried with him at all times a copy of the Zohar, the classical text of the Kabbalah (De Lange 2010).
The Rabbi used simple stories to explain religious ideals and told his followers that praising God by singing and dancing and other joyful activities such as storytelling, led to Devekut (attachment to God) as effectively as the intense study of the Rabbinic texts (Imhoff, 2010).
This “populist” and accessible version of Judaism appealed to Jewish peasants and to those who felt that studying the religious texts had not brought them the spiritual connection that they craved. Jews in need of a miracle or spiritual guidance travelled long distances to the Ukraine to hear Rabbi ben Eliezar and pray with him (Imhoff, 2010).
Rabbi ben Eliezer became known as the Ba’al Shem Tov (“master of the good name” in Hebrew – sometimes abbreviated to “BESHT”), a title that was given to pious, charismatic healers who performed miracles by writing or pronouncing letters of the divine names (Solomon 2000).
Although news had spread about his teachings, it was never ben Eliezer’s aim to gain masses of followers.
In fact, when he passed away in 1760, he only had “a few dozen initiates” (Teller 2006). It was after his death, when he was succeeded by Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch, a well-known scholar of the Talmud who crystallized and recorded Hasidic thought (Imhoff, 2010), that the movement’s growth gained momentum, spreading through Eastern Europe so fast that it became the dominant strain of Judaism in the region by 1820 (Teller 2006).
The rapid expansion of the Hasidic movement
To understand the rapid expansion of the Hasidic movement, one must take a sociological perspective of Jewish society in the region at that point in time.
Up to the time of the Ba’al Shem Tov many kabbalistic rituals were only performed by the highly educated upper classes and had become status symbols indicating the superiority of those who practiced them. Rituals such as the Sefardi liturgical rite (nusah sefarad), the prayer belt (gartl) or the daily ablution in a ritual bath (mikveh) were off limits for simple people.
The teachings of ben Eliezer democratised access to these rites, in essence launching a religious class revolution within Jewish society. In fact, when one maps the regions where Hasidism took root it becomes clear that there is a strong correlation with societies where the upper classes of Jewry of the time identified strongly with Kabbalistic practices. Becoming a Hasidim in these regions became a way of improving one’s social status by mirroring the behaviour of the higher classes (Stampfer 2013).
This element of class strife is illustrated by the case of the rebellious Hasidic craftsmen in Kiejdany, in Lithuania, in 1815. Traditionally, craftsmen could only wear simple caps in the synagogue. The higher classes, on the other hand, displayed their superiority and wealth by wearing beautiful felt skullcaps (yarmulkes) or ostentatious fur hats (shtraymlekh).
Then one day a tailor turned up at the Synagogue wearing a yarmulke. This was considered unacceptable, so the Jewish leaders issued the tailor a fine. The following week many craftsmen turned up at the synagogue wearing yarmulkes and shtraymlekh. At that point, the matter was escalated to the non-Jewish courts, who ruled in favour of the craftsmen, and thus thanks to the Hasidim the bastions and symbols of class distinction started to fall (Stampfer 2013).
When Rabbi Dov Ber (also known as the Maggid of Mezhirech) took the reins after Rabbi ben Eliezer passed away, he immediately set about expanding the reach of Hasidism.
Initially he did this by sending out his disciples (known as Tsaddik, or “righteous ones” (De Lange 2010)) to spread the word and then receiving prospective Hasidim in his court in Wolyn. However, it became clear that this was not a very efficient strategy, and growth did not happen as fast as he would have liked.
So he sent out the tsadikim to set up their own courts in different regions of the Ukraine and Poland. With time the disciples themselves developed their own following of disciples, who in turn travelled to different cities and set up new courts, and so on and so forth, enabling the Hasidic movement to create an interconnected network covering a vast geographical area and attracting a large following of Hasidim (Teller 2006).
The new courts were named after the cities they were set up in, so for example, the court in Ger was called the Gerer Hasidim (Imhoff, 2010). The charismatic tsadikim, who also came to be known as rebbes, introduced Hasidic theology to the Jewish elites, thus recruiting followers from the upper classes (Stampfer 2013).
The new Hasidic courts reached the elites, but they were not effective when trying to recruit the common man, who did not have the time or the means to visit the courts and debate the finer points of Hasidic theology with the tsadikim (Stampfer 2013).
The Hasidic shtibl
This brings us to an important innovation, the Hasidic shtibl, which was crucial for the recruitment and retention of common Jews as Hasidim. It also explains why the Hasidic movement took root in some regions and not in others, since setting up a shtibl required private investment from a rich convert.
The shtibl was a room were Hasidic men congregated, separate to the synagogue or the study hall (beit midrash). The synagogue was formal and exclusively dedicated to praying. The beit midrash was a smaller space and less formal, but the main purpose was prayer and study. In both cases there were strict rules about what could and could not be done. The shtibl, on the other hand, was used by Hasidic men for prayer and to study, but also for festive meals, drinking, chatting, sleeping, singing, dancing, shouting and other ways of joyfully praising and communing with God. In essence, it attracted common Jewish men by acting as a social club (Stampfer 2013).
There was also another, religious, reason for the creation of the shtibl. Kabbalistic or Hasidic Sefardi rites could only be performed in a place of prayer. In places where the established Jewish elite refused to allow these rites to be performed in the local synagogue or beit midrash, Hasidic leaders used the shtibl, once again breaking down the barriers between the social classes.
Thus, once a shtibl was established in a region, it attracted the local Jewry, both through the creation of a sociable community that met regularly and through the democratisation of access to religious rites (Stampfer 2013).
Opposing forces to Hasidism
The growth of Hasidism was a threat to traditional rabbinic Jews, known as Misnagdim (“opponents”) (De Lange 2010). The music, dancing and shouting of Hasidic worship was verging on the blasphemous in their eyes, so they tried to issue decrees against them, including a writ of excommunication in 1772 (Imhoff, 2010), but they were not successful in suppressing the movement.
This clash led to a schism in Jewish societies, and Hasidic Jews started to live in separate communities where they could live and worship according to Hasidic theology (Imhoff, 2010).
Over time, as Hasidic scholars became less radical and once again started to emphasize the importance of the study of the religious texts, the Misnagdim and the Hasidic Jews became more aligned. Their alliance was cemented by their joint opposition to the Jewish Enlightenment, particularly the Haskalah movement, that rebelled against the rabbis and advocated for secular education, the Hebrew language and Zionism (De Lange 2010).
Somewhat ironically, given the revolutionary circumstances of the birth of Hasidic thought, the Hasidim became fiercely traditionalist, living in enclaves and dressing in a distinctive manner that clearly marked them out as Jews (Imhoff, 2010).
The persecution of Hasidic Jews
The distinctive appearance of Hasidic Jews became dangerous as violence against the Jews escalated towards the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century.
Violent pogroms led to death and destruction of property for Jews living in Russia and Eastern Europe. Seeing as the Hasidic movement was the dominant practice in the region, the violence impacted many Hasidic families, some of which emigrated to other towns or countries in the region, while others emigrated to America. In 1875 Rabbi Joshua Segal became the first Hasidic Rabbi to arrive in America (Imhoff, 2010).
However, the violence the Jews suffered in those years paled into insignificance when compared to the utter devastation of the Shoah. It is estimated that up to 80% of the total population of Hasidic Jewry was exterminated by the Nazis.
The casualties were so high for two reasons. The first was that Hasidic Jews were easy to spot given their clothing and general appearance, marking them out for persecution. The second was that Rebbes actively encouraged Hasidim to stay put and not emigrate, describing America as an “unclean land” that would imperil their souls. The result was a tragedy of unfathomable proportions (Imhoff, 2010).
The Great Migration – Hasidic Jews leave Europe
After World War Two, survivors of the Shoah had nothing to go back home to. They had lost family, friends and all their belongings. This led to a mass exodus from Europe, with Jews emigrating to America or Palestine.
The well-known Satmarer Rebbe and the Bobover Rebbe arrived in America in 1946, while the Klausenburger Rebbe arrived in 1947.
The Rebbes were determined to rebuild their devastated Hasidic communities in the countries they now called home, with each Rebbe reconstituting courts bearing the same name as that of their village of origin. Instead of trying to integrate, they actively worked to set themselves apart from American culture and other non-Hasidic Jews, seeing this as a way of honouring their murdered Hasidic brethren.
The Rebbes dictated strict rules regarding clothing and grooming that were specific to their court, enabling the differentiation between Hasidic followers of different courts who previously were separated by geographic distance but now found themselves living on the same streets in the same cities.
Men were to grow their sidelocks and wear white shirts, coats and hats similar to the clothing worn by the first Hasidim hundreds of years earlier, with details such as the colour of socks specific to their court.
Women had to shave their heads or cut their hair short, wear wigs, and wear modest clothing that covered all their body, including their knees, elbows and collarbone (Imhoff 2010).
The Rebbes founded a network of Hasidic schools, which covers the bare minimum of secular curricula, but instead focuses on religious education (for boys) and home economics (for girls).
Furthermore, in an attempt to protect pious Hasidim from the evils of the world, different courts issued edicts relating to the prohibition of a number of “dangerous” things from secular culture. This included prohibitions on watching television, reading secular newspapers, borrowing or reading books from secular libraries and speaking in anything by Yiddish in the home and the community. All this has achieved the desired aim of totally isolating Hasidic followers from their surrounding non-Hasidic community (Imhoff 2010).
Zionism and the State of Israel
The Rebbes of each court also set the political beliefs of their community. After the Shoah different Rebbes took opposing stances when it came to Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel.
The Gerer Rebbe, for example, who emigrated to Jerusalem and set up a new court, declared that support of Zionism was a commandment for his followers. The Satmar court, on the other hand, is stridently anti-Zionist (Imhoff 2010).
Nowadays, particularly in Israel, the anti-Zionist Hasidim and Misnagdim are known collectively as Haredi Jews (“fearful”) or ultra-Orthodox (Bergman, Horenczyk et al. 2017). Just like their brethren in the US, they dress distinctively and are becoming increasingly aggressive when it comes to preserving traditions and combating Zionism (De Lange 2010).
Viewed from a secular and Zionist perspective, the Haredi ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel, which are concentrated mainly in Jerusalem and Bnei-Brak, are parasites who live off welfare and who shirk their civic obligations such as mandatory military duty.
On this basis, Zionist political parties such as Meretz or Tzomet usually include the removal of the Haredi exemption from mandatory service in the Israel Defence Force as part of their political programme.
The Haredim, on the other hand, are represented by political parties such as Agudat Israel and Shas, who wield their considerable collective voting power to influence policy in Israel by backing politicians who further their aims for the Haredi communities. Their agenda ranges from obtaining further privileges for their followers, to rejecting the power of secular institutions such as the courts and militating against the adoption of a formal constitution for the State of Israel (Kook, Harris et al. 1998).
In conclusion, it is worth noting that it has now been over 250 years since the Ba’al Shem Tov sowed the seeds of what has become today a vibrant Hasidic community. What began in a small, impoverished village in the Ukraine has now become an integral part of the ultra-Orthodox community, numbering 1.175M members, together forming 13% of the total population in Israel (Jewish Virtual Library).
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Stampfer, S., 2013. How and Why Did Hasidism Spread? Jewish history, 27(2), pp. 201-219.
Teller, A., 2006. Hasidism and the Challenge of Geography: The Polish Background to the Spread of the Hasidic Movement. AJS review; AJS Rev, 30(1), pp. 1-29.
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