Ḥasidism is a religious movement which arose among the Polish Jews in the eighteenth century, and which won over nearly half of the Jewish masses. In its literal meaning the word "Ḥasidism" is identical with "pietism" ("Ḥasid" = "the pious"), and the Ḥasidic teachings resemble the synonymous Protestant teachings in so far as they both assign the first place in religion not to religious dogma and ritual, but to the sentiment and the emotion of faith. Presenting in its inner motives one of the most peculiar phenomena of religious psychology in general, Ḥasidismshould in Jewish history be classed among the most momentous spiritual revolutions that have influenced the social life of the Jews, particularly those of eastern Europe.

There has been apparent from time immemorial a struggle for supremacy between two principles in Judaism: the formalism of dogmatic ritual and the direct religious sentiment. The discipline of the Law was in continual conflict with mystical meditation, which gave considerable latitude to individual inclinations in the domain of religion. Such was the nature of the struggle between Pharisaism and Essenism in ancient times, between Talmudism and the Cabala in the Middle Ages, and between rabbinism and the mystic-Messianic movements from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.

Origin in the Ukraine.

In Poland, where since the sixteenth century the great bulk of the Jewry had firmly established itself, the struggle between rabbinism and mysticism became particularly acute after the Messianic movement called into being by Shabbethai Ẓebi. Leanings toward mystical doctrines and sectarianism showed themselves prominently among the Jews of the southwestern or Ukraine provinces of Poland (Volhynia, Podolia, and Galicia); while in the north-western provinces, in Lithuania, and in White Russia, rabbinical Orthodoxy held undisputed sway. This was due to the pronounced social difference between the northern or Lithuanian Jews and the southern Jews of the Ukraine. In Lithuania the Jewish masses were mainly gathered in densely populated towns where rabbinical academic culture (in the yeshibot) was in a flourishing state; while in the Ukraine the Jews were more scattered in villages far removed from intellectual centers, and were frequently steeped in ignorance.

The social decay in the south became more intense after the Cossacks' Uprising under Chmielnicki and the turbulent times in Poland (1648-60), which completely ruined the Jewry of the Ukraine, but left comparatively untouched that of Lithuania. The economic and spiritual decline of the South-Russian Jews created a favorable field for mystical movements and religious sectarianism, which spread there from the middle of the seventeenth to the middle of the eighteenth century, and brought about, among other things, the appearance of the Christianizing sect of the Frankists. (See Frank, Jacob.)

Besides these external influences there were deeply seated causes that produced among the greater portion of the Jewish people a discontent with rabbinism and a gravitation toward mysticism. Rabbinism, which in Poland had become transformed into a system of book-lore and dry religious formalism, satisfied neither the unlearned common people nor the learned men who sought in religion an agreeable source of consolation and of forgetfulness of worldly cares. Although rabbinism itself had adopted some features of the Cabala, it had adapted them to fit into its own religious system: it added to the stern discipline of ritualism the gloomy asceticism of the "practical cabalists" of the East, who saw the essence of earthly existence only in fasting, in penance, in self-torture, and in spiritual sadness. Such a combination of religious practises, suitable for individuals and hermits, was not suitable to the bulk of the Jews. Ḥasidism gave a ready response to the burning desire of the common people in its simple, stimulating, and comforting faith. In contradistinction to other sectarian teaching, Ḥasidism aimed not at dogmatic or ritual reform, but at a deeper psychological one. Its aim was to change not the belief, but the believer. By means of psychological suggestion it created a new type of religious man, a type that placed emotion above reason and rites, and religious exaltation above knowledge.

The Ba'al Shem.

The founder of Ḥasidism was a man of the obscure Podolian Jewry, Israel b. Eliezer Ba'al Shem-Ṭob (BeShT). His personal fame as a healer spread not only among the Jews, but also among the non-Jewish peasants and the Polish nobles. He often cured the Jews by fervent prayer, profound ecstasies, and gesticulations. He also at times successfully prognosticated the future, and revealed secrets. Soon acquiring among the masses the reputation of a miracle-worker, he came to be known as "the kind Ba'al Shem" ("Ba'al Shem-Ṭob").

Besht was the idol of the common people. Characterized by an extraordinary sincerity and simplicity, he knew how to gain an insight into the spiritual needs of the masses. He taught them that true religion was not Talmudic scholarship, but a sincere love of God combined with warm faith and belief in the efficacy of prayer; that a plain man filled with a sincere belief in God, and whose prayers come from the heart, is more acceptable to God than the rabbi versed in the Law, and who throughout his life is absorbed in the study of the Talmud and in the observance of petty ceremonials. This democratization of Judaism attracted to the teachings of Besht not only the common people, but also the scholars whom the rabbinical scholasticism and ascetic Cabala failed to satisfy.

About 1740 Besht established himself in the Podolian town of Miedzyboz. He gathered about him numerous disciples and followers, whom he initiated into the secrets of his teachings not by systematic exposition, but by means of sayings and parables. These sayings were transmitted orally, and were later written down by his disciples, who developed the disjointed thoughts of their master into a system. Besht himself did not write anything. Being a mystic by nature, he regarded his teachings as a prophetic revelation. Toward the end of his life he witnessed the spread in Podolia of the teachings of the Frankists, which, like Ḥasidism, were the outcome of popular dissatisfaction with the existing order of religious matters, but led to negative results.

Fundamental Conceptions.

The teachings of Ḥasidism, as laid down in the sayings of Besht and his first disciples, are founded on two theoretical conceptions: (1) religious pantheism, or the omnipresence of God, and (2) the idea of communion between God and man. "Man," says Besht, "must always bear in mind that God is omnipresent and is always with him; that He is, so to speak, the most subtle matter everywhere diffused. . . . Let man realize that when he is looking at material things he is in reality gazing at the image of the Deity which ispresent in all things. With this in mind man will always serve God even in small matters."

The second of the above-named conceptions, one which was adopted from the Cabala, consists in the belief that between the world of the Deity and the world of humanity there is an unbroken intercourse. It is true not only that the Deity influences the acts of man, but also that man exerts an influence on the will and mood of the Deity. Every act and word of man produces a corresponding vibration in the upper spheres. From this conception is derived the chief practical principle of Ḥasidism—communion with God for the purpose of uniting with the source of life and of influencing it. This communion is achieved through the concentration of all thoughts on God, and consulting Him in all the affairs of life. The righteous man is in constant communion with God, even in his worldly affairs, since here also he feels His presence. An especial form of communion with God is prayer. In order to render this communion complete the prayer must be full of fervor, ecstatic; and the soul of him who prays must during his devotions detach itself, so to speak, from its material dwelling. For the attainment of ecstasy recourse may be had to mechanical means, to violent bodily motions, to shouting and singing. According to Besht, the essence of religion is in sentiment and not in reason. Theological learning and halakic lore are of secondary importance, and are useful only when they serve as a means of producing an exalted religious mood. It is better to read books of moral instruction than to engage in the study of the casuistic Talmud and the rabbinical literature. In the performance of rites the mood of the believer is of more importance than the externals; for this reason formalism and superfluous ceremonial details are injurious.

Communion the Essence.

It is necessary to live and to serve God in a cheerful and happy frame of mind: sadness and sorrow darken the soul and interfere with communion; hence the injuriousness of asceticism. By means of constant spiritual communion with God it is possible to secure clear mental vision, the gift of prophecy, and to work miracles. The righteous man, or "ẓaddiḳ," is one who has reached the ideal of communion in the highest degree, and therefore appears before God as "one of His own." The rôle of the ẓaddiḳ is that of mediator between God and ordinary people. Through the ẓaddiḳ salvation of the soul is achieved, and earthly blessings are obtained: it is merely necessary to believe in the power of this mediator and favorite of God, who has more or less influence in the "higher spheres."

Ẓaddiḳism, which in time became a complete system, had a far-reaching influence on the later destiny of Ḥasidism. From among the numerous disciples of Besht, two—the preachers Baer of Meseritz and Jacob Joseph Cohen of Polonnoye—more than any others contributed to the spread of his teachings. In Meseritz (Mezhirechye) and Rovno the future great leaders of Ḥasidism were trained. Here also originated what may be termed the ẓaddiḳ dynasties of Poland and Russia. Jacob Joseph Cohen, on his part, spread the Ḥasidic teachings by sermons and books. He laid the foundations of Ḥasidic literature, which in the last three decades of the eighteenth century spread with extraordinary rapidity among the Jewish masses in Poland and Russia.

The Ẓaddiḳim.

This development was favored by the decline in the economic condition of the Jews and by the political disturbances of the period owing to the partition of Poland. The renewed Haidamack movement in the Ukraine, which reached its height in 1768, reminded the Jews of the bloody epoch of Chmielnicki; and the disruption of Poland, which soon followed (1772-95), brought about the division of the entire Polish Jewry among three foreign governments, Russia, Austria, and Prussia, which paid little heed to the old patriarchal organization and communal autonomy of the Polish Jews. During this turbulent time the Jews listened eagerly to teachings which distracted their attention from the existing disturbances, and which lured them into the region of the mysterious and the supernatural. In Podolia, Volhynia, and in a portion of Galicia, Ḥasidism attracted entire communities. There arose everywhere Ḥasidic prayer-houses where service was held according to the system of Besht, with its ecstasies of prayer, its shoutings, and its bodily motions. The Ḥasidim introduced the prayer-book of the Palestinian cabalists ("Nusaḥ Ari"), which differed from the commonly accepted forms by various modifications in the text and in the arrangement of the prayers. They did not observe the hours for morning prayer, but held their service at a late hour; they made some changes in the mode of killing cattle; and dressed on Sabbath in white as symbolic of the purification of the soul. The Ḥasidim were, however, particularly noted for the exalted worship of their "holy" ẓaddiḳim. The logical result of Ḥasidism, Ẓaddiḳism in many places actually prepared the soil for it. The appearance of some miracle-working ẓaddiḳ very often led to the general conversion of the local inhabitants to Ḥasidism. Crowds of credulous men and women gathered around the ẓaddiḳ with requests for the healing of bodily ills, for blessings, for prognostications, or for advice in worldly matters. When the ẓaddiḳ succeeded in affording relief in one of the many cases, or gave fortunate advice, his fame as a miracle-worker was established, and the population of the district remained faithful to the cause of Ḥasidism.

Such were the conditions in South Russia. In the north, however, in Lithuania and in White Russia, Ḥasidism did not sweep entire communities one after another, but spread sporadically; and its adherents remained long in the condition of exclusive sectarians. Fearing the persecution of the powerful rabbis, the Lithuanian Ḥasidim often organized secret meetings where they prayed in their own way, held conversations, and read of the truth of Besht's teachings. Here the fundamental principles of Ḥasidism were acquired in a more conscious way, and less significance was attached to the cult of the Ẓaddiḳim.

The Two Schools.

In this way Ḥasidism gradually branched out into two main divisions: (1) in the Ukraine and in Galicia and (2) in Lithuania. The first of these divisions was directed by three disciples of Bär of Meseritz,Elimelech of Lizianka, Levi Isaac of Berdychev, and Nahum of Chernobyl, besides the grandson of Besnt, Baruch of Tulchin. Elimelech of Lizianka affirmed that belief in Ẓaddiḳism is a fundamental doctrine of Ḥasidism. In his book "No'am Elimelek" he conveys the idea that the ẓaddiḳ is the mediator between God and the common people, and that through him God sends to the faithful three earthly blessings, life, a livelihood, and children, on the condition, however, that the Ḥasidim support the ẓaddiḳ by pecuniary contributions ("pidyonim"), in order to enable the holy man to become completely absorbed in the contemplation of God.

Practically this teaching led to the contribution by the people of their last pennies toward the support of the ẓaddiḳ ("rebbe"), and the ẓaddiḳ untiringly "poured forth blessings on the earth, healed the sick, cured women of sterility," etc. The profitable vocation of ẓaddiḳ was made hereditary. There was a multiplication of ẓaddiḳ dynasties contesting for supremacy. The "cult of the righteous" as defined by Besht degenerated into a system of exploitation of the credulous. Baruch, the grandson of Besht, deriving an immense income from his adherents, led the life of a Polish lord. He had his own court and a numerous suite, including a court jester.

Ḥabad, or Rational Ḥasidism.

The Ḥasidic organization in Lithuania and in White Russia shaped itself along different lines. The teachings of Besht, brought thither from the south, adopted many features of the prevailing tendencies in contemporary rabbinism. The leading apostle of the northern Ḥasidim, Rabbi Zalman of Liozna (1747-1812), created the remarkable system of the so-called Rational Ḥasidism, or "Ḥabad" (the word "ḤaBaD" being formed of the first letters of the words "Ḥokmah," "Binah," "De'ah" = "wisdom," "understanding," "knowledge"). In his "Tanya" (Slavuta, 1796) and in his sermons he advocates an intelligent and not a blind faith, requiring from the Ḥasidim a certain mental preparation, and he assigns the cult of the Ẓaddiḳim a very modest place. In the system of Ḥabad the ẓaddiḳ appears more as a teacher than a miracle-worker. The teachings of Zalman were adapted to the comparatively advanced mental level of the Jewish masses of the northwestern region; and the inevitable process of degeneration which mystical doctrines ultimately underwent apappeared here less prominently than in the south.

Opposition to Ḥasidism.

The rapid spread of Ḥasidism in the second half of the eighteenth century greatly troubled the Orthodox rabbis. Rabbinism from the very beginning recognized in it a dangerous enemy. The doctrine of Besht, claiming that man is saved through faith and not through mere religious knowledge, was strongly opposed to the principal dogma of rabbinism, which measures man's religious value by the extent of his Talmudic learning. The ritual formalism of Orthodoxy could not reconcile itself to modifications in the customary arrangement of the prayers and in the performance of some of the rites. Moreover, the Ḥasidic dogma of the necessity of maintaining a cheerful disposition, and the peculiar manner of awakening religious exaltation at the meetings of the sectarians—as, for instance, by the excessive use of spirituous liquors—inspired the ascetic rabbis with the belief that the new teachings induced moral laxity or coarse epicureanism. Still under the fear of the Shabbethaians and the Frankists, the rabbis suspected Ḥasidism of an intimate connection with these movements so dangerous to Judaism. An important factor in connection with this was the professional antagonism of the rabbis: they saw in the ẓaddiḳ a threatening competitor, a new type of the popular priest, who was fed by the superstition of the masses, and who acquired his popularity quickly.

In consequence of these facts a bitter struggle soon arose between rabbinical Orthodoxy and the Ḥasidim. At the head of the Orthodox party stood Elijah ben Solomon, the stern guardian of learned and ritualistic Judaism. In 1772, when the first secret circles of Ḥasidim appeared in Lithuania, the rabbinic "ḳahal" (council) of Wilna, with the approval of Elijah, arrested the local leaders of the sect, and excommunicated its adherents. Circulars were sent from Wilna to the rabbis of other communities calling upon them to make war upon the "godless sect." In many places cruel persecutions were instituted against the Ḥasidim. The appearance in 1780 of the first works of Ḥasidic literature (e.g., the above-named book of Jacob Joseph Cohen, which was filled with attacks on rabbinism) created alarm among the Orthodox. At the council of rabbis held in the village of Zelva, government of Grodno, in 1781, it was resolved to uproot the destructive teachings of Besht. In the circulars issued by the council the faithful were ordered to expel the Ḥasidim from every Jewish community, to regard them as members of another faith, to hold no intercourse with them, not to intermarry with them, and not to bury their dead. The antagonists of Ḥasidism called themselves "Mitnaggedim" (Opponents); and to the present day this appellation still clings to those who have not joined the ranks of the Ḥasidim.

The "Mitnaggedim."

Ḥasidism in the south had established itself so firmly in the various communities that it had no fear of persecution. The main sufferers were the northern Ḥasidim. Their leader, Rabbi Zalman, attempted, but unsuccessfully, to allay the anger of the Mitnaggedim and of Elijah Gaon. On the death of the latter in 1797 the exasperation of the Mitnaggedim became so great that they resolved to denounce the leaders of the Ḥasidim to the Russian government as dangerous agitators and teachers of heresy. In consequence twenty-two representatives of the sect were arrested in Wilna and other places. Zalman himself was arrested at his court in Liozna and brought to St. Petersburg (1798). There he was kept in the fortress and was examined by a secret commission, but he and the other leaders were soon released by order of Paul I. The Ḥasidim remained, however, under "strong suspicion." Two years later Zalman was again transported to St. Petersburg, through the further denunciation of his antagonists, particularly of Abigdor, formerly rabbi of Pinsk. Immediately after the accession to the throne of Alexander I., however, the leader of the Ḥasidim wasreleased, and was given full liberty to proclaim his religious teachings, which from the standpoint of the government were found to be utterly harmless (1801). Thereafter Zalman openly led the White-Russian or Ḥabad Ḥasidim until his death, toward the end of 1812. He had fled from the government of Moghilef to that of Poltava, in consequence of the French invasion.

The struggle of rabbinism with Ḥasidism in Lithuania and White Russia led only to the formation of the latter sect in those regions into separate religious organizations; these existing in many towns alongside of those of the Mitnaggedim. In the south-western region, on the other hand, the Ḥasidim almost completely crowded out the Mitnaggedim, and the Ẓaddiḳim possessed themselves of that spiritual power over the people which formerly belonged to the rabbis.


In the first half of the nineteenth century Ḥasidism spread unmolested, and reached its maximum development. About half of the Jewish population of Russia, as well as of Poland, Galicia, Rumania, and Hungary, professes Ḥasidic teachings and acknowledges the power of the Ẓaddiḳim. In Russia the existence of the Ḥasidim as a separate religious organization was legalized by the "Enactment Concerning the Jews" of 1804 (See Russia).

The Ḥasidim had no central spiritual government. With the multiplication of the ẓaddiḳim their dioceses constantly diminished. Some ẓaddiḳim, however, gained a wide reputation, and attracted people from distant places. To the most important dynasties belonged that of Chernobyl (consisting of the descendants of Nahum of Chernobyl) in Little Russia; that of Ruzhin-Sadagura (including the descendants of Bär of Meseritz) in Podolia, Volhynia, and Galicia; that of Lyubavich (composed of the descendants of Zalman, bearing the family name Schneersohn") in White Russia; and that of Lublin and Kotzk in the kingdom of Poland. There were also individual ẓaddiḳim not associated with the dynasties. In the first half of the nineteenth century there were well known among them: Motel of Chernobyl, Nachman of Bratzlav, Jacob Isaac of Lublin, Mendel of Lyubavich, and Israel of Luzhin. The last-named had such unlimited power over the Ḥasidim of the southwestern region that the government found it necessary to send him out of Russia (1850). He established himself in the Galician village of Sadagura on the Austrian frontier, whither the Ḥasidim continued to make pilgrimages to him and his successors.

Rabbinical Orthodoxy at this time had discontinued its struggle with Ḥasidism and had reconciled itself to the establishment of the latter as an accomplished fact. Gradually the Mitnaggedim and the Ḥasidim began to intermarry, which practise had formerly been strictly forbidden.

Attacked by the Haskalah.

In the first quarter of the nineteenth century Ḥasidism met new opposition from the younger generation of intelligent Jews, who had received a modern education. The crusade against Ḥasidism was started by the Mendelssohnian school in Austria. The Galician writer Joseph Perl published in 1819 a bitter satire against the sect in the form of "Epistolæ Obscurorum Virorum" ("Megalleh Temirin"). He was followed in Russia by Isaac Bär Levinsohn of Kremenetz with his "Dibre Ẓaddiḳim" (1830). At times the embittered foes of Ḥasidism went so far as to urge the government (in Austria and Russia) to adopt repressive measures against the Ẓaddiḳim and the Ḥasidic literature. But at first none of these attacks could weaken the power of the Ḥasidim. They showed everywhere a more stubborn opposition to European culture than did rabbinical Orthodoxy; for they felt instinctively that free criticism was more dangerous to the mysticism of the Ẓaddiḳim than to Talmudic casuistry and ritualistic formalism.

It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the educational movement among the Russian Jews became stronger, that a period of stagnation and decline for Ḥasidism began. A considerable portion of the younger generation, under the influence of the new movement for enlightenment, repudiated Ḥasidism and began to struggle against the power of the Ẓaddiḳim. The enlightening literature of the Haskalah attacked Ḥasidism with bitter satire, and the periodicals exposed the adventures of the miracle-working Ẓaddiḳim. Moreover, early in the second half of the century the Russian government instituted a police super-vision over the numerous ẓaddiḳim within the Pale of Settlement, and limited their freedom of movement in order to counteract their propaganda. All of these blows, external and internal, together with the general decline of piety among certain classes of the Russian Jews, weakened the growth of Ḥasidism and Ẓaddiḳism. The decay of ẓaddiḳ dynasties and the impoverishment of the Ḥasidic literature became apparent.

Decline of the Movement.

Nevertheless Ḥasidism is so deeply grounded in Russo-Polish Judaism that it has proved impossible to uproot it. It still has its hundreds of thousands of adherents; and, although its development has been temporarily arrested, its vitality can not be doubted. Started as a counterpoise to rabbinical and ritual formalism, it still satisfies the religious requirements of the uneducated masses. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, owing to a general social reaction in the life of the Russian Jews, a measure of revival was noticed in Ḥasidic circles. In the past ten years the administrative surveillance of the Ẓaddiḳim and the limitation of their movements have been abolished. The result has been a reenforcement of Ẓaddiḳism in some places, where it had been almost superseded. Though not producing at present any prominent personalities in literature or in communal life, Ḥasidism nourishes itself by its stored-up reserves of spiritual power. In the eighteenth century it was a great creative force which brought into stagnant rabbinical Judaism a fervent stream of religious enthusiasm. Under the influence of Ḥasidism the Russo-Polish Jew became brighter at heart but darker in intellect. In the nineteenth century, in its contact with European culture, it was more reactionary than rabbinism. The period of stagnation which it has lately passed through must, however, result in its gradualdecay. After having been the object of apology or of vituperation in literature, Ḥasidism has become an object of scientific investigation.

  • Orshanski, Mysli o Khasidizmye, in Yevreiskaya Biblioteka, i., St. Petersburg, 1871;
  • S. Dubnow, Vvedeniye v Istoriyu Khasidizma;
  • idem, Vozniknoveniye Khasidizma;
  • idem, Istoriya Khasidskavo Raskola;
  • idem, Religioznaya Borba in Voskhod, 1888-93;
  • J. Gessen, K Istorii Religioznoi Borby, etc., in Voskhod, 1902, Nos. 1-2;
  • Jost, Gesch. des Judenthums und Seiner Sekten, iii. 184;
  • Löw, Vergangenheit und Gegenwart der Chasidäer, 1859;
  • Grätz, Gesch. xi., ch. iii. and note 2;
  • Schechter, Studies in Judaism, p. 1, Philadelphia, 1896;
  • O. Rabinovich, Sochineniya, iii. 207;
  • Ehrlich, Der Weg Meines Lebens, Vienna, 1874;
  • Sternhartz, 'Alim li-Terufah, Berdychev, 1896;
  • Gottlober, in Ha-Boḳer Or, passim;
  • Entziklopedicheski Slovar, xxxvii., St. Petersburg, 1903.
H. R. S. M. D.