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Shiur #12: Threatened Communities

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

As may be recalled, we raised three fundamental questions, and thus far we have related to two of them: the reason for the delay in the response of the Mitnagdim until after the death of the Baal Shem Tov, and a clarification of some of the reasons for their opposition to Chassidism (though we have by no means exhausted this weighty issue). At this point we wish to add the third question to the discussion: What are the roots of the sharpness and intensity of the Mitnagdim's response?


Let us go back to the starting point of our study, the ban drawn up by the community of Vilna in the year 5532 (1772), from which we learned about some of the issues that aroused their turbulent opposition, and see what else can be gleaned from it. That ban states as follows:


And owing to our many sins, the scab has spread and the leprous spot has broken out in each and every country, and in each and every city, in every family…


The Vilna community leaders describe here the rapid spread of Chassidism. Representatives of the movement are found in every place, country, community and family. To describe this expansion the Mitnagdim use images of invasive, malignant leprosy. One might perhaps argue that the authors had a vested interest in inflating the dimensions of the danger, in order to goad the readers to take vigorous action. In fact, however, the description faithfully captures the reality of the situation. The accelerated pace that characterized the spread of Chassidism raised fears and cast serious doubts as to the future of the time-honored ways of life of the Jewish communities. Confirmation of the power of the Chassidim may be found in the bibliographical history of this letter.


The letter of the leaders of the Vilna community was printed in a small booklet, called Zamir Aritzim ve-Charavot Tzurim" ("The Song of Tyrants and Flint Knives")[1] in the year 1772. The author does not identify himself by name, but he has one clear objective: to fight against the Chassidim. He collects for us accounts and inter-community correspondence regarding this issue, and it would appear that all of the materials that it includes were written in that same year. The editor of the work was in all likelihood a resident of Brody, Galicia, which was close to the Chassidism's base of operation and influence. The tract tries to ward off the influence of the Chassidim with the help of support from Vilna. The volume of activities reported therein, all of which burst out in one year, emphasizes the deep concern and panic that took hold of the Jewish communal establishment. Zamir Aritzim was clearly intended for distribution, and presumably the number of copies that were printed sufficed to achieve public resonance.


Not long afterwards, members of the Wissenschaft movement in Germany began to document and record the history of the Jewish people. In the middle of the nineteenth century (i.e., about eighty years after the events under discussion here), Isaac Marcus Jost, who is considered the pioneer of Jewish historiography, wrote about Jewish history in the modern period. In dealing with the Chassidim, he made use of Zamir Aritzim ve-Charavot Tzurim, but he was unable to get hold of the printed version, and so he used a hand-written copy. The original edition had become very rare, and apparently, those who wished to exploit the book for their war against Chassidism, had to copy it by hand. The historian, Simon Dubnow, who reissued the work (in a collection of writings connected to Chassidism), worked hard until he managed to find a single printed copy, because the library catalogs of his time hardly mentioned it, as if nobody knew of the work's existence.


How are we to understand the disappearance of Zamir Aritzim? Dubnov writes that the appearance of that work greatly terrified the Chassidim, who rightly feared the tendency to regard them as wicked people, and even heretics. The Chassidic leaders instructed their followers to locate all copies of the booklet and destroy them. The efficiency with which this instruction was carried out reveals just how great was their control of the street, at least in the area where the book had been printed (Galicia). For the sake of comparison, the Mitnagdim as well burned certain early Chassidic books, e.g., Toledot Yaakov Yosef, authored by a disciple of the Besht, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoa, but they never reached the same level of success. The reality was that some of the larger communities like Brody, where the communal established fought against the members of the Chassidic "cult," were surrounded by smaller towns and villages, where the influence of the Chassidim was absolute.


Let us remember that in 1772 it is still only twelve years after the death of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezeritch's rise to the leadership of the movement. The facts that we have cited demonstrate that during this short period the Maggid and his disciples succeeded in stirring up a real revolution among Eastern European Jews, which changed their spiritual and sociological world beyond recognition. It turns out that the speed at which these changes progressed, the end of which nobody could predict, created a sense of urgency that seized the leaders of the generation. This explains in part the aggressiveness and extremism of their response.


A Slippery Halakhic Slope


Another source of concern was what was perceived by the Mitnagdim as a weakened commitment not only to Torah study, but to the mitzvot in general. Thus, for example, the Mitnagdimwrite in their letter:


And they cancel Torah study altogether. And it is commonly heard on their lips to reduce their study, and not to be sorry about sins that come their way, and other such harsh and ugly things… All of their days are like holidays, they sanctify and purify themselves for pleasure-gardens[2], and they receive reward for separating themselves from the Torah…


According to this account, the Chassidim are "always happy," every day is a holiday, and their joy overcomes their distress over offenses that they may have committed. They are accused of a lack of fear of sin, because they do not express regret about their offenses. Such an outlook is, indeed, found in the circle of the Baal Shem Tov:


… Do not be overly punctilious in all you do. [To do so] is but a contrivance of the evil inclination to make you apprehensive that you may not have fulfilled your obligation, in order to make you feel depressed. Depression, in turn, is an immense obstacle to the service of the Creator, blessed be He. Even if you did commit a sin, do not be overly depressed lest this stop your worship. Just feel saddened by the sin, but then rejoice in the Creator, blessed be He, because you fully repented… Even if you are certain that you did not fulfill some obligation, because of a variety of obstacles, do not feel depressed. Bear in mind that the Creator, blessed be He, searches the hearts and minds. He knows that you wish to do the best. As it is written: "There is a time to act for God, they voided YourTorah" (Tehilim 119:126). This implies that the performance of amitzva may sometimes entail a taint of sin. In that case do not pay attention to the evil inclination who seeks to prevent you from performing thatmitzva… All that I have written are important principles, more desirable than much fine gold. Each item is an important principle.[3]


The accusation that the Chassidim "receive reward for separating themselves from the Torah" sounds to us like nothing more than a cynical barb, but the background to this charge is a matter of principle, for this is explicitly stated in the words of the Besht's disciple, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Permislan:


Another principle is that one should not engage in excessive study, for in the early generations, when their minds were strong and they taught with great and supernal holiness, they did not have to bother themselves with the fear [of God], for such fear was always before them, and they could engage in much study. But we, whose intelligence is diminished, were we to remove our thoughts from cleaving to God and learn a lot, God forbid, we would forget the fear of God, and fear is the main thing…. Therefore one must restrict study and constantly contemplate the greatness of the Creator, blessed be He, in order to love Him and to fear Him, and not to think many thoughts, but only one thought….[4]


It is clear from here that some Chassidim emphasized and appreciated the intent of the heart, joy and closeness to God even at the expense of punctilious observance of the mitzvot. They also recommended that one sacrifice Torah study for their sakes. The laxity in the acceptance of the yoke of Torah and mitzvot in their traditional sense was ominous in the eyes of the Mitnagdim. The popularity which these ideas enjoyed testifies to the fact that they answered a deep need or desire of many Jews. With such enthusiastic mass support, where would this all lead?


The Roots of Chassidism in the Resurrection of Kabbala


To understand the seriousness of the concern, we must remember that Chassidism was not the first spiritual movement to arouse expectations of a religious faith that attaches central importance to the experiential world. The influence of the Kabbala, which grew over the generations and was immensely driven forward in the sixteenth century through the work of the sages of Safed, contributed greatly to this phenomenon.


On the face of it, Kabbala would seem to be a preoccupation of the elite, intended for a small group of initiates in the secret lore. However, dating back to the earliest times, the secrecy of Kabbala confronted a counter attraction: appealing outwards. The Ramban, for example, wrote a commentary on the Torah directed at every educated Jew, but he made sure to include many passages that interpret Scripture according to kabbalistic teaching. He wrapped those passages in warning signs that ostensibly pushed them away from those who are not competent to understand them, but on the other hand, the mere inclusion of these passages in the commentary would draw the average reader to take an interest in them. Indeed, for two generations after the appearance of his commentary, we find works coming to explain the "mysteries of the Ramban," written by those who considered themselves as his followers. If we skip from here to the generation of the "Golden Age" in Safed, home of great Kabbalists such as Rabbi Moshe Cordovero and Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, we find there as well a tendency to open up the world of Kabbala and its values to wider audiences.


One of the books that spread kabbalistic thinking among the general public is Sefer Charedim, authored by Rabbi Elazar Azikri, disciple of Rabbis Cordovero and Luria. Sefer Charedim is an ethical tract directed at the public at large, written in the form of a book of the commandments. One of the commandments described there demonstrates how classical Kabbala served as the background of the conceptual foundations of the Besht's Chassidism.


The Commandment, “To Him You Shall Cleave”


The mitzvaof cleaving to God and seeking His closeness is spelled out explicitly in the Torah: "To Him you shall cleave" (Devarim 6:13). Rabbi Elazar Azikri defines it as follows:


This is the intensity of the love, that one not separate from Him even for a moment… And the author of Chovot ha-Levavot writes that the idea of cleaving is faithful love with one's whole heart, as it is written: "And there is a true friend who is closer (davek) than a brother" (Mishlei 18:24). This is the wording of the Ramban in his commentary to the Torah: "And to Him you shall cleave," that you should remember God, blessed be He, at all times, your thoughts should not separate from Him when [you sit] in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and you rise up, to the point that[5] he speaks to other people with his mouth and his tongue, but his heart is not with them, but rather before God…."


The author of Sefer Charedim defines the duty of cleaving to God as the Chassidic masters would define it – constant thinking about one's love for God, with concentration that is not interrupted even for a moment. This is his interpretation and formulation of one of the six hundred and thirteen commandments, which is binding upon each and every individual. But this interpretation is revolutionary.


Even though Sefer Charedim cites precedents for his understanding from the words of earlier authorities, it is important that we not be led astray. The citation from Chovot Ha-levavot is taken from "the Gate of Love," the tenth and final section of the book, and it represents the pinnacle of perfection and piety. While it is a noble goal, it is clear that the author of the book does not see this as an obligation suitable for the average person. The Ramban's words in his commentary to the Torah are also different from the way that Rabbi Elazar Azikri uses them. The Ramban does not claim there that constant and conscious devotion is the Torah's absolute demand when it commands: "To Him you shall cleave." The Ramban's words relate to the verse: "For if you shall diligently keep all these commandments which I command you, to do them, to love the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, and to cleave to Him" (Devarim 11:22). The verse promises reward for cleaving to God, but it is not at all clear that it requires it. More importantly, Rabbi Elazar Azikri omits the Ramban's opening words: "And it is possible that cleaving includes that you should always remember God and His love, that your thoughts should not separate…." That is to say, this interpretation is possible in the eyes of the Ramban, and even if it is correct, it is only one of the things "included" in the idea of cleaving, and not its exclusive content, and probably not even its primary content.


When the Rishonim present their halakhic understanding of the obligation of cleaving to God, they say things that are entirely different from what Sefer Charedim argues. Regarding the verse, "To Him shall you cleave," the Ramban cites the words of Chazal:


Is it possible for a person to cleave to the Shekhina? Surely it already says: "For the Lord your God is a devouring fire"! Rather this comes to teach you that whoever marries off his daughter to a Torah scholar, or whoever does business with a Torah scholar, or who brings benefit to him from his assets – about him it is stated: "To Him shall you cleave."


This is also the way the mitzvais understood by the Rambam in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot (positive commandment, no. 6), and the Sefer Ha-chinukh (434). In his strictures to Sefer Ha-mitzvot the Ramban proposes a different explanation: The mitzvais that a person should cleave to God's commandments, and goad himself to fulfill them in various ways (no. 7). The author of the Yere'im, Rabbi Eliezer of Metz, maintains that the mitzvais to cleave to God's ways – just as He is merciful, so too you be merciful (commandment 407). Rabbi Elazar Azikri does not totally ignore the traditional interpretations. He cites the words of the Rambam regarding the duty to cleave to Torah scholars, and even expands upon them; only that all this he defines as a "branch" of the mitzva. The primary mitzvais spiritual cleaving to God. As stated, this interpretation is unprecedented, and even raises the problem already noted by the Sages: "Is it possible for a person to cleave to the Shekhina?" Sefer Charedim's predecessors suggested this understanding only as a secondary or marginal possibility, whereas Rabbi Elazar Azikri turned it into the primary interpretation.


This novel understanding grew in the flowerbeds of the Kabbala of Safed, which the Besht and his disciples adopted. This type of devotion which was once the lot of the perfect saint described in Chovot Ha-levavot, is from now on the center of the religious life of every Jew. The Kabbalists themselves could perhaps prepare themselves for this level with the help of their mystical knowledge. But with the passing of this concept to the general public, it was no longer necessary nor was there room for special knowledge. According to this theory, dedicating oneself to the ideal of constant cleaving to God suffices to bring a person to an elevated level of service of God, regardless of the level of his adherence to the minutiae of the practical mitzvot. In the words of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Permislan: "One thought" rather than "many thoughts."[6]


This example shows how the spirit of Kabbala passed its special power and charismatic force upon the novel ideas of the Hassidim. This power, in the opinion of the Gra and his followers, was liable to go out of control and wreak havoc on the world of Halakha. In historical terms, the precedent for such a danger was still fresh in the collective memory; the Gra had good reason to fear that the husks of the wild growth of Kabbala, Sabbateanism, had adhered to those groups which were solidifying under the banner of Chassidism. Without a doubt this fear gnawed at the heart of the Vilna Gaon. This is what it says in the continuation of the letter:


How long will this be for us a snare, lest God forbid their enemies misconstrue, for owing to our many sins, those who have left have already left. Therefore it falls upon all the leaders of the nation to don jealousy as a cloak… to destroy and eradicate and sound a ban upon them.


As was noted by the editor (the historian Dubnow) it is clear that the words, "lest their enemies misconstrue," allude to Jacob Frank and his followers, who had converted to Christianity fifteen years earlier. Frank saw himself as an incarnation of Shabbetai Tzvi, and brought down many troubles upon the Jews of Poland.


Therefore, in order to fully understand the Gra and the other signatories to the ban, we must become more familiar with the Sabbatean movement. In particular, we will try to understand the strange phenomenon of a movement that utterly failed, and whose leader betrayed it in the most shameful manner, and yet it continued to demonstrate creative vitality, to develop and grow. All this in order to understand how a movement that had been such a disappointment a hundred years earlier was still able to cast a threatening shadow, and to move the Gra to react so intensely; and so too to relate to the ultimate question (though it is highly doubtful that an absolute answer can be found): Was the Gra's fear justified?




We began to explore the urgency with which the Gra and the communal establishment responded to the appearance of Chassidism. The huge growth that the movement achieved in such a short time, the fear of cracks in their commitment to Torah and mitzvot, and the spiritual power of the Kabbala upon which the Chassidic leaders were nurtured – each of these could shock and create a sense of threat. In the next shiur we will continue to examine the dangers that the Mitnagdim set before their eyes, when they saw the secrets of the Torah turning from an elitist tradition to a banner around which the general public had begun to assemble.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] It is important to distinguish between this work and another work also called Zamir Aritzim, which was published in Warsaw about twenty years later. The later book as well was a polemic against Chassidism.

[2] Allusion to Isaiah 66, verse 17, which continues "…eaters of pig meat", i.e. they profess sanctity but are defiled inwardly (see commentators).

[3] Tzava'at ha-Besht, 46 (ed. Kehat, 5758). Tzava'at ha-Besht is not the Besht's testament, but rather teachings that circulated in his school or in that of his disciple, the Maggid of Mezeritch. See the editor's introduction who notes the difficulty of determining the precise source of each paragraph. The passage cited here is also found in Hanhagot Yesharot (see next note), p. 4.

[4] Hanhagot Yesharot, p. 2. It should be noted that not all the leading figures of the Chassidic movement advocated restricted Torah study. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi would certainly not have supported Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Permislan. Rabbi Schneur Zalman is considered one of the leading Halakhic authorities in modern times. He also wrote an original halakhic work called Hilkhot Talmud Torah, which analyzes the halakhic parameters of the mitzvaof Torah study, and casts rigid study demands on each and every individual.

[5] This is the reading of the Chavel edition of the Ramban. The printed edition of Sefer Chareidim read: "to the point that he not speak." There are several differences between the words of the Ramban and what is cited in Sefer Chareidim, most of which are insignificant. One important change will be discussed below.

[6] Of course, we ought not attribute to Sefer Chareidim tolerance of a lack of punctiliousness regarding the minutiae of Halakha, but it is difficult not to see how his position was likely to lead to such a result.