Shiur #17: The "New Mitzvot" of Hassidism

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

We have been following one of the principles of Hassidic practice – "worshipping God through engagement with the physical" (avoda be-gashmiyut) – which convinced the Gaon of Vilna that we are dealing here with a "new Torah." Let us now examine a source which illustrates how far the Hassidim could take this idea, which stems from their understanding of God's immanence.


Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk, a disciple of the Maggid of Mezeritch, was one of the principle Hassidic leaders of his generation. In his book, Noam Elimelekh, he discusses the Mishna in tractate Avot (3:13): "Tithes [form] a fence to wealth; vows a fence to self-restraint." On the face of it, this Mishna teaches that someone who wishes to become rich must properly fulfill the mitzva of setting aside the required tithes. Rabbi Elimelekh asks: Surely the goal of the author of Avot was to show us how to advance in one's service of God, as he does in the next clause of the Mishna which recommends that one who wishes to acquire the trait of self-restraint should use vows as a means to attain it. Why then does the Mishna offer us advice about how to achieve material success? This difficulty leads Rabbi Elimelekh to an alternative explanation of the Mishna:


And it seems that a person must sanctify himself with respect to food, drink and money, more so than with respect to Torah or prayer, because there the evil inclination does not enjoy such great control, because the person is engaged in a holy matter. But with respect to physical desires, where the evil inclination is very present, one needs excessive self-restraint not to come, God forbid, to overpowering desire. Also with respect to money one must greatly sanctify himself, so that his business dealings be conducted faithfully and for the sake of Heaven, so that, God forbid, the wealth should not be saved for its owner to his detriment. Regarding this the Tanna said: "Tithes form a fence for wealth." This means that you must sanctify yourself with your money to such an extent that the tithes will be merely a fence to your wealth, while your wealth is the primary holiness, greater than the holiness of the tithes. (Noam Elimelekh, end of Parashat Korach)


According to Rabbi Elimelekh, the "wealth" mentioned in the Mishna is not truly "material" wealth. It may look that way from the outside, but according to the doctrine of worshipping God while engaged in the physical, attainment of wealth, and similarly other actions which are driven by desires, can be transformed into the service of God. The Tanna asks of us that the "tithes," which are mitzvot recorded in the Torah, should waive their supremacy in favor of wealth. Physical activity performed for the sake of Heaven can become the most favored mode of worshipping God. We must strive to introduce intention for the sake of Heaven into our economic activity, to such an extent that in contrast to it, real mitzvot would be considered merely as a fence, that is, something secondary.


From this it may be concluded that a righteous man can indeed reach a state in which his worship of God while engaged in the physical is at a higher spiritual level than his observance of the mitzvot. From here Rabbi Elimelekh continues to explain the following verses: "And this your gift shall be reckoned to you, as though it were the corn of the threshing floor, and as the fullness of the winepress… for it is your reward for your service in the Tent of Meeting"(Bemidbar 18:27, 31)


This is the intention here in the verse: "And it shall be reckoned to you." The Holy One, blessed is He, says to the righteous man who sanctifies himself with holiness when he eats that he should similarly sanctify himself for Torah and prayer as for physical things. And "your gift" alludes to holy things, from the word hitromemut, uplifting. And this is "as though it were the corn of the threshing floor, and as the fullness of the winepress… for it is your reward." This means that by you there is no distinction between Torah, prayer, food and drink; for you they are all service of the Creator. It is merely switching from one service to another. This is the meaning of: "for [in place of] your service." This is easy to understand. (ibid.)


These verses are addressed to the righteous man; they ask that the same extreme sanctification, which he usually reserves for service while engaged in the physical, he should also invest in Torah study and prayer. After a high level of service while engaged in the physical is achieved, an upgrade in the performance of the mitzvot is also necessary, so that they should reach the same level. Then the mitzvot, represented here by the mitzva to set aside teruma, will be considered like eating in a state of holiness, and a situation of "in place of your service," will be created, in which there is no significant difference between Torah and mitzvot, on the one hand, and eating and drinking, on the other. The righteous man changes his external activity, and moves ostensibly back and forth from the observance of mitzvot to mundane actions, but the essential intention and sanctity that accompany all these actions are the same, and that is the main thing.


Are these guidelines relevant to the community of Hassidim at large? On the face of it, they seem to be appropriate only for the elite. On the other hand, setting them as the ideal influences the perception of the masses, and directs the spiritual aspirations of the general public. This should not surprise us, for the Sages of Israel have always acted in this manner. The Rambam, for example, describes in his books models of worship and knowledge of God that are only appropriate for the elite; he does this even in books that were meant to be distributed even among those who, practically speaking, were far from such achievements. As for the Hassidim, we already noted that the community at large often adopted the exceptional practices of their leaders. We also saw that this was liable to greatly puzzle outside observers, and even to provoke criticism.


Hassidic customs


It seems, however, that the idea of "serving God while engaged in the physical," influenced the broader Hassidic community in a striking way, for it contributed to the solidification of certain new customs. These practices began, perhaps, among the Hassidic masters and leaders as a form of spontaneous or original religious expression, in the spirit of worshipping God while engaged in the physical. However, the general public that followed in their footsteps did not see these customs as the personal service of the Admor, but rather as a model for imitation, which expresses solidarity and loyalty. Thus the customs themselves turned into obligatory codes from which one may not deviate, which confirmed the Gra's fears about a "new Torah."


I remember once attending a wedding, where some members of the family were Hassidim. A certain guest turned to one of the relatives, who was familiar with the sociology of the Hassidic courtyards represented among the guests. We see here "hats" of various types, he said to him. Can you tell me, based on the hats, to which Hassidic sect belongs that man with the streimal and that man with the spodik? Gladly, the other responded. But you should know that if you want to identify the various Hassidic sects based on dress, the hats are just one detail. You must consider also the coat, the number of buttons, the color of the socks, the way the socks are worn, and other factors. Trivial matters, like buttons and socks, have religious significance here. A Hassid is particular about these things as if they were the laws governing hand washing.


It should be remembered how the Gra opposed ancient customs that, in his opinion, lacked a valid source. We saw how he dismissed the practice, common to this very day in many synagogues, of reciting the Passover Haggada on Shabbat ha-Gadol. This is "something that is not," he argued. And he said this with respect to traditions that had existed for centuries. One can imagine how, while he was standing over the cradle of Hassidism, the Gra anxiously foresaw the new "Halakhot" that would multiply unchecked in the future. We are very familiar with this reality, and it does not elicit even a shrug on our part, but this was not the situation in the eighteenth century.


What is more, over and beyond the fundamental, halakhic basis for the Gra's opposition to such innovations, he also saw in them moral danger. According to the Gra's moral outlook, it is the way of the evil inclination to invent mitzvot. In his commentary to the book of Esther, "by way of allusion," the Gra explains the words "fastened with cords of fine linen" (Esther 1:6). He explains that fine linen is white, and therefore it alludes to sanctity, while the words "fastened with cords" are connected in the Midrash to falling into sin, based on the verse: "Woe to them who draw iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart rope" (Yeshaya 5:18). In the symbolic sense, what we have here is a combination of sanctity and sin. The Gra's explanation is that the evil inclination attaches itself to the cords of fine linen of imaginary sanctity, in order to cause innocent people to fall. He writes that "all the temptations of the seductive evil inclination involve its coming and showing commandments not in accordance with the way of the Torah."


Hassidic eating habits


Let us illustrate the evolution of this Hassidic tendency based on what was published in the collection, Minhagei Belz, which records with great precision many customs of the Belzer Admorim. One of the key issues is food - not only the halakhic concerns governing food and eating, but also the specific foods eaten at their meals:


During the seven days of the wedding feast of the righteous Rabbi of Tzinishov, son-in-law of Mahari, they celebrated on each day Sheva Berakhot, with many people and great pomp… On Friday it is the custom in Belz to eat roasted meat called "russel." But in the meal in which the two holy fathers-in-law sat down together with many other righteous men, among the congregation of Hassidim on Friday, they gave them roasted meat instead of gravy. The Rabbi of Shinovi asked our master: Why did they not give gravy as is the custom at every meal celebrating a mitzva? Our master answered him: This was the custom of my father, of blessed memory. And similarly I remember that at my own Sheva Berakhot meal, they gave such meat on Friday. And he said to the Rabbi of Shinovi, that Rabbeinu Bachye writes in his commentary to Parashat Toledot:[1] From the fact that the Torah writes that Yitzchak called the wells that were dug by his servants by the names that his father had given them, and he did this out of respect for his father, it seems that this was credited in his favor. And there is an awakening in this, and all the more so that a person should not deviate from the path of his fathers, for Yitzchak did not even want to change that names of the wells that his father gave them. And all the more so the ways of one's fathers and their customs and their morality. (Minhagei Belz, p. 21)


Later in that same work we read about the Shabbat eating habits of a particular Tzaddik:


On Friday night he would eat three side dishes: 1) farfel; 2) carrots; 3) fruit. From after Sukkot until the festival of Shavuot they ate dried plums. From the second day of Shavuot they ate apples… He said that all eating on Shabbat corresponds to the modes of service in the Temple. The farfel corresponds to the shewbread; therefore he was particular that the farfel should be warm, just as the shewbread was warm when it was removed. And therefore it is not customary to eat farfel on a festival day, but only on Shabbat. He was particular about eating meat with horseradish or a cucumber,[2] and he said that this custom has an important source, because all eating on Shabbat alludes to modes of service in the Temple, and the priests ate the sacrificial meat with mustard, because they were anointed for greatness, and it is the way of kings to eat in that manner. When there was no horseradish they ate cucumbers. (ibid., p. 28)


Meat with gravy or without gravy, a desert of plums or apples – all of these things become for the Hassidim subjects of interest and religious meticulousness. The Shabbat meals, over and beyond their being a fulfillment of the mitzva of enjoying Shabbat, require careful attention as to the precise menu. Eating farfel on Shabbat and not eating it on a festival day is not an insignificant matter, because these meals correspond to the modes of service in the Temple. This comparison, the origin of which is unclear, is for the Hassidim an "important source" for precision in the preparation of meals.


The Gra on Eating


While the Hassidim see the holiness erupting from the gastronomic field (like from all places), the Gra in general approaches eating with caution and suspicion. This is because the evil inclination lurks wherever physical desire is found, and paradoxically, in the context of a mitzva, the danger is especially great.


The book of Mishlei describes the seductive words of a prostitute:


Now is she outside, now in the streets, and she lies in wait at every corner. So she caught hold of him, and kissed him, and with an impudent face said to him, I have had to sacrifice peace-offerings; this day have I paid my vows. So I came out to meet you, diligently to your face, and I have found you. (Mishlei 7:12-15).


What is the place of "peace-offerings" in this oration? The Gra explains the matter in keeping with his approach:


For the evil inclination does not approach a person to tempt him to commit a sin, for who will listen to him? Rather he comes to him with mitzvot, and with these he will allure him. This is "peace-offerings," for peace-offerings are a great mitzva to eat and rejoice. From this the evil inclination will draw him, for the evil inclination only comes from eating and rejoicing… And it says: "This day have I paid my vows," that is, there is a mitzva to eat [the sacrifices], so that they not be left overnight… All the temptations of the evil inclination are like this, in things that are good and evil, for it cannot tempt with absolute evil. And no good thing can tempt as can eating which is a mitzva or rejoicing with a mitzva, and this can very attractive… Therefore it says this, so that a person will contemplate that no eating in the world constitutes a greater mitzva than peace-offerings, for even on Shabbat one can fulfill his obligation with a cup of fish-hash, if he prepares them for sake of Shabbat. But eating peace-offerings is a mitzva,and one must be careful with them so as not to leave anything over. Rejoicing is also a positive commandment, as it is written: "And you shall eat there and rejoice." It seems that all the temptations of the evil inclination come from this or from what comes from this, and all the more so with other eating and rejoicing of mitzvot, regarding which a person must be exceedingly careful and cautious so that the evil inclination not take hold of him there.


According to the Vilna Gaon, even heavenly providence is invoked by the evil inclination in his smooth deception:


"So I came out to meet you" - because there is such a mitzva in my hand, and I know that you love the commandments, and I love you very much – therefore, I came out to ask you to do the mitzva, and it was with the help of Heaven that I found you immediately.


We see then that even full-fledged Torah commandments can be spiritually dangerous, a fact which can be the downfall of the imprudent. The Gra has an interesting comment, that eating for the joy of Shabbat is at a lower level than eating peace-offerings, because one can fulfill his obligation regarding Shabbat with a cup of fish-hash. That is to say, the mitzva of enjoying Shabbat can be fulfilled with a small amount of food, and therefore whatever one adds to that doe not actually belong to the main body of the mitzva. This stands in contrast to a peace-offering, which must be eaten in its entirety. Unlike the Belzer customs cited above, it is evident that the Gra prefers to cut back on enjoying Shabbat, so as not to get caught in desirous eating. This possibility does not exist in the case of peace-offerings, where the entire animal must be eaten, and the matter requires extreme caution. Wrapping oneself in a mitzva, in goodness and fear of Heaven, and even enlisting God Himself, who bestowed joy and pleasure specifically on "those who love His commandments" – all of these things effectively hide the trap inherent in such commandments. In fact, the occasion involves a mixture of "good and evil," which renders the evil fit and invites in the evil inclination, much more so than outright sins.


All this, it should be remembered, applies to a mitzva the validity and obligation of which is not cast in doubt. All the more so does this apply to "service of God while engaged in the physical," in the style of Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk. We have already mentioned the Gra's statement that all the temptations of the evil inclination stem from the fact that it "shows commandments not in accordance with the way of the Torah." He who follows in the path of the Hassidim deceives himself and invites the evil inclination into his home. The road to spiritual uplifting lies in Torah study.


In contrast, as in a mirror image, the following is brought in the name of the Baal Shem Tov:


"The words of his mouth are evil and deceit; he has ceased to be wise, to do good" (Tehilim 36:4). That is, because of "the words of his mouth," i.e., of the evil inclination, "he has ceased to be wise, to do good." This means: The evil inclination will surely not entice you not to study Torah at all. He knows that you would not listen to that. For if you do not study at all, people will not esteem you and you will not be called a scholar. The evil inclination thus entices you not to study whatever would bring you to fear of Heaven, such as works of mussar, or Shulchan Arukh, from which you would know the law properly. He entices you to study constantly nothing but the Talmud with all the commentaries. This, then, is the meaning of "he ceases," i.e., the evil inclination seeks to make man cease "to be wise, to do good." He prevents man from occupying himself also with that kind of study that will have a good effect upon him, i.e., fear of Heaven. (Tzava'at ha-Rivash, 117)


Well, my dear Mitnagdim, says the Baal Shem Tov, according to you the evil inclination lurks in the "new" commandments, and even in the actual commandments that demand eating and other physical activities. And therefore you imagine that you will find refuge from it in Torah study. But I say that there, too, in the Torah, does that same evil inclination conceal itself, only that everything depends on the intention of the heart. If there is inner devotion, it all becomes sanctified. It does not really matter whether we are dealing with Torah study, a mitzva, a "new" mitzva, or even smoking a pipe.[3] 


Hassidic customs and Torah creativity


During the time of the Vilna Gaon, the accusation of "innovation" was considered a particularly deadly attack. In this matter the Hassidim were at a disadvantage, and as we have seen in the past, they were forced to fight back on this front. According to the accounts of the Mitnagdim, the Vilna Gaon was the heroic protector of tradition, while the Hassidim attempted to breach its walls, blur Jewish practice, and reshape Judaism as they saw fit.


Today, however, such an accusation does not raise such a great tempest of feelings. Perhaps today we are more realistic, and we are aware of the fact that even the most conservative tradition was created, and continues to be created, through a developmental process of change. In addition, the very idea of change and innovation is received by us favorably, because it redeems life from something which casts a shadow of fear on modern man - boredom. Even if we limit the discussion to Torah study, the ultimate goal of many students in the most conservative modern yeshivot is to propose quality Torah novellae.


When we consider the Mitnagdim who branded Hassidism with the derogatory term, "new Torah," a complex issue arises. Are creativity and innovation in the realm of Torah not good things? And did the Gra really completely renounce Torah creativity, and aspire to the idea that "what has been will always be"? Did the Hassidim not make a positive contribution that even the Mitnagdim should rightfully concede? We will address these questions in the next shiur.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Bereishit 26:15.

[2] The reference appears to be to pickles.

[3] The early Admorim saw smoking as a spiritual activity, reminiscent of the burning of incense in the Temple. It is reported that smoking was accompanied by special kabbalistic intentions and unifications.