Shiur #18: The Contribution of the Chassidim to the World of Halakha

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

In the Aftermath of the Struggle


I wish to raise here a new motif in the evolution of the great controversy between the Chassidim and the Mitnagdim. Thus far our entire examination of the issue was conducted in the light of the "explosion" in the year 5532 (1772). The wrangling did not die down in any significant manner for decades, but quieter times eventually arrived. Over the course of time, a certain reconciliation between the two camps took place. Without crossing the lines that separated between them, each side began to acknowledge the contribution made by its opponent.


The renowned halakhic authority, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, author of the Arukh ha-Shulchan, visited the town of Lubavitch, where he met the third Admor of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, who later became known as the Tzemach Tzedek, the title of the halakhic text that he authored.


In one of their meetings, the Admor shared certain thoughts with Rabbi Epstein, thoughts that he shared with only a few people, including his predecessors in the leadership of Chabad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman and his son Rabbi Dov Ber. Rabbi Menachem Mendel claimed that his two predecessors agreed with what he had to say.


Rabbi Menachem Mendel expressed his gratitude toward the Gaon of Vilna. According to him, had it not been for the fierce controversy –


There would truly have been a place and a foundation to worry and be concerned that the new approach… would lead us slowly, step by step, over the border encompassing the tradition of the Torah and its commandments… For by virtue of the intensity of the enthusiasm, and the spiritual elevation, and the uplifted spirit of the new approach… the talmudic Torah would eventually be burnt by the heat of the fire of the Kabbala… And the practical mitzvot would diminish in value before the excitement over the mysteries of the intentions… Thus the controversy served us as a barrier before the calamity and as an iron barrier against an inundating current.


These words are cited by the Arukh ha-Shulchan's son, Rabbi Baruch Epstein, in his memoir, Mekor Barukh.[1]


This surprising admission has a continuation that is no less surprising. The Tzemach Tzedek added on that occasion that Rabbi Shneur Zalman's halakhic work, Shulchan Arukh ha-Rav, which is counted among the most important halakhic codes, came into being "only in the wake of the controversy… in order to bring the hearts of the people faithful to our cause closer to a way of life in accordance with Halakha… And had the dispute erupted only so that we should merit these books, it would have been enough."


We learn here about a new perspective that arose after the rage of the original battle subsided, when a leading Lithuanian halakhic scholar and a Chassidic master could already meet together, converse calmly, consult with each other and exchange views. In this atmosphere the Admor admits that the protest of the Mitnagdim was not unfounded, and it is a good thing that such protest took place. The struggle was essentially a gift to Chassidism. It forced it to grit its teeth and preserve the boundaries that otherwise would have been breached. Such a breach was liable to bring disaster upon Chassidism, and perhaps even upon all of Judaism.


From here we turn to the other side of the fence, and see how the passage of time also affected the perception of the matter from the perspective of the Mitnagdim. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik relates an amazing story. The quote is taken from a summary of a speech delivered by Rabbi Soloveitchik in 5729 (1969) on the occasion of the 19th of Kislev, the day on which the first Admor of Chabad was released from the Russian jail, and which is celebrated among his followers as "the New Year of Chassidism." Rabbi Soloveitchik reports as follows:


In the house of Volozhin, the following incident is related: When the controversy regarding Chassidism began, the Alter Rebbe and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchov went to Vilna to talk with the Gaon of Vilna… The Alter Rebbe and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak began to go up the stairs to the Vilna Gaon's room, but as soon as the Gra sensed that someone wished to enter, he shut the door and did not allow them to come in. The reason for this was that when the Gra saw the face of the Alter Rebbe, how attractive it was, and how much appeal it had, he feared that if the Alter Rebbe would come in to him and speak with him, he would overpower him and turn him into a Hassid until in the end they would go off together to spread Chassidism. Therefore he escaped by way of the window….[2]


The story is, of course, based on a real event - the Gra's refusal to negotiate with the Chassidic leaders that arrived in Vilna. However, it is not historically accurate,[3] and in my opinion, it was never meant to be understood as such. The assumptions on which it is based – that the Gra was liable to be influenced by the Alter Rebbe's external appearance and personal charisma to the point that he would change his entire worldview – cannot be reconciled, to say the least, with anything that we know about the Vilna Gaon. I assume that Rabbi Soloveitchik as well meant to relate a story, popular in the Volozhin circles with which he was familiar, that reflects the changes in the atmosphere that occurred in the bastion of the Gra's heritage. After the initial period of shock had passed, the Torah authorities of Volozhin were willing to recognize the power of Chassidism and the greatness of its leaders. The Gra's refusal to meet with the movement's leaders would be described from now on, not as an insult, but as a sort of compliment.


However, attention paid to the sub-text of the story may reveal a hidden, critical message, one that was apparently intended by the members of the "house of Volozhin" (even if Rabbi Soloveitchik himself ignores it here). The influence of Chassidism passes through external appearances and charismatic leadership, values ​​which are entirely foreign to the Lithuanian ethos.[4] Those who told the story compliment the Chassidim for their ability to take advantage of these means, thanks to which they were occasionally able to penetrate the thickest armor of their opponents. In any event, the very willingness to praise the Chassidic figures at the expense of the Gra's honor, testifies to the fact that the Lithuanian position softened significantly over time.


It may be added as a footnote: This fantastic story is totally uncharacteristic of the world of the Lithuanians. Recourse to a style reminiscent of the genre of the Chassidic tale, which conveys a message without any real commitment to the facts, can itself be regarded as a gesture made to the opposing camp.


This convergence has various expressions and various shades, some of which will be discussed later in this series. Let us open with several implications and influences of the Chassidic "deviations," which contributed to the framework of Halakha and Torah study. Even though their deviant actions were depicted by the Gra as a breach in the fences of Halakha, it is clear that at least some of the Chassidic innovations could be interpreted not as a breach, but as an extension of those very fences. Indeed, it is possible that the Gra would have opposed these as well; it seems, however, that even Mitnagdim can appreciate these innovations as an enrichment of the Torah and halakhic discourse.


The Tefillin ofRabbeinu Tam


Let us consider first an example from the world of halakhic decision-making. The Chassidic masters frequently issued novel Halakhic decisions under the influence of the Kabbala. For example, there is a famous disagreement among the Rishonim as to the order of the biblical passages in tefillin. The common practice in all Jewish communities was in accordance with the position of Rashi and the Rambam, that the passages must be arranged as they are ordered in the Torah: 1) Kadesh; 2) Ve-haya ki yeviakha; 3) Shema; 4) Ve-haya im shamoa. According to Rabbeinu Tam, the order of Shema and Ve-haya im shamoa is reversed, so that the two middle passages begin with the word Ve-haya. The common practice is in accordance with the view of Rashi, and thus the law is codified in the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayyim 34:1).


The Shulchan Arukh adds a recommendation to "the God-fearing person" to take both positions into account and don two sets of Tefillin (ibid. 34:2). In the next paragraph, however, he qualifies this ruling, and says that "only one who is well known for his piety should do this." The Acharonim explain that since the universal practice is in accordance with Rashi, one who is stringent is suspected of arrogance, unless he is ordinarily stringent in all matters. As for the Halakha, the concern about moral corruption overpowers the desire to be stringent and to try and fulfill a Torah mitzva in such a way that it satisfies all opinions.


The Chassidim changed this situation. The Zohar highlights the advantages of tefillin in the order of Rabbeinu Tam: "In the [ideal reality of] the world-to-come, the passages beginning with the word Ve-haya are in the middle" (Tikkunei Zohar Chadash, II, 69b). Since following the instructions of kabbalistic literature became for the Chassidim a general value fit for every God-fearing person, the directive that one should don also the tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam became widespread. In effect, Rabbi Yosef Karo's ruling in paragraph 2 was accepted, while his ruling in paragraph 3 was pushed aside.


The Vilna Gaon in his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh clearly rules in accordance with the opinion of Rashi, and he himself used to wear only one pair of tefillin. His disciple, Rabbi Chayyim Volozhiner, asked him why he does not don the tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam? In his reply the Gra points out that apart from the disagreement between Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam, there are numerous areas of doubt regarding tefillin about which the halakhic authorities disagree. In order to ensure that we fulfill the mitzvaof tefillin according to all opinions, it does not suffice to lay the tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam, but rather we must put on sixty-four pairs. The Gra continues with a list of all the issues and all the opinions among the halakhic authorities that one who is concerned would have to take into account, or else there would always be some authority according to whom one has not fulfilled his obligation.[5] But the Chassidim rejected this argument. Rabbi Shalom Perlov of Koidanov writes that we cannot fulfill the obligation according to all authorities, but tefillin with the two passages beginning with the word Ve-haya in the middle are recommended by the Zohar and the Kabbalists, and therefore they should be put on (Mishmeret Shalom, p. 21).[6]


What stands behind this change instituted by the Chassidim? It is clear that in this matter the practice is knowingly influenced by the kabbalistic position. But it seems that the ability to be flexible and vary the act of the mitzva is in no small measure connected to the expansive approach regarding the world of Divine service in general. In the eyes of the Chassidim, the strict Halakha is just one channel in the service of God, while proper worship at its best requires also other planes of existence. In their view, this requirement sometimes demands relaxation of strict adherence to Halakha and the accepted mechanisms for halakhic decision-making. In this case, for example, the Admor of Koidanov writes (ibid.) that in fact the Halakha is in accordance with the opinion of Rashi, and putting on the tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam is recommended as an embellishment of the mitzva. This is an entirely new perspective on a halakhic dispute. According to Rashi, laying tefillin the passages of which are not arranged in correct order is devoid of all value. On the other hand, according to Rabbeinu Tam, "the passages beginning with the word Ve-haya in the middle" is not an embellishment of the mitzva, but rather the only way to fulfill the mitzva. The Chassidic perspective sees the rationale and the positive aspect of the rejected position, it is interested in the conceptual and spiritual gain that it provides, and therefore it refuses to give it up. Even if we have already donned the tefillin of Rashi, we can also gain the benefit provided by the tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam.


In any case, the result is that a halakhic position of prominent Rishonim that might have completely disappeared from the practical horizon, received renewed life by virtue of the Chassidim who were prepared to "redeem" this position from the books and the sources, to rescue it from the theoretical ivory tower, and to recommend it as a practical guideline for everybody.


Kabbala as the "Soul" of Halakha


 Regarding the tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam, the Kabbala functioned in practice as an independent channel. All agree that the Halakha is in accordance with the opinion of Rashi, but nevertheless one should fulfill one's obligation according to Kabbala, which changes the order of the passages. The Chassidim demonstrated similar reliance on Kabbala with their insistence of ritual immersion in a mikveh for the sake of prayer. This practice goes back to the Ari,[7] while all of the halakhic authorities agree that such immersion is not a halakhic obligation. The ancient enactment regarding this matter was cancelled when the community at large was unable to comply with it.[8]


There is, however, another Chassidic perception that developed later. The kabbalistic influence does not stand alone, but rather it is woven into the fabric of Halakha. Such a perception arises in the words of one of the most important Admorim pf the late nineteenth century, Rabbi Avraham Borenstein of Sochatshov, author of the Avnei Nezer. His words were written in the context of a discussion about laying tefillin on Chol Ha-moed. The Zohar prohibits this, but the Ashkenazi custom was to wear them, and so too ruled the Rema.[9] Rabbi Avraham, who was a prominent halakhic authority and an especially prolific scholar, writes as follows:


It is also known that Kabbala is called the soul of the Torah which spreads out within the laws of the Oral Law which is the body of the Torah. Just as the forces of the soul are evident in the organs of the body, so too the inner reasons of the mitzvot that are found in the Zohar are evident in the revealed Torah. Perforce, then, since the Zohar ruled that Chol Ha-moed is not a time for tefillin, this must be evident [also] from the passages of the Talmud. (Responsa Avnei Nezer, Orach Chayyim 2)


From here the Admor turns to a halakhic clarification, in order to prove from the Gemara that the law is in accordance with what is stated in the Zohar. In this case the position of the kabbalists spurred the development of a position on the basis of clear halakhic sources.


An examination of the laws of the Chassidim demonstrates that what the Avnei Nezer says in this specific case can be generalized. There is a transition from taking Kabbala into account to the creation of a new halakhic style.  The external influence of Kabbala led in the end to a special kind of halakhic innovation, one that encourages taking an independent path. These independent paths are explained by way of recognized halakhic tools.


Here Chassidism actually adopts an approach that was dear to the Gra. He too was highly opinionated, and did not recoil from taking independent halakhic positions that contradicted accepted custom. He even implanted this trait in his disciples. This is what Rabbi Chayim Volozhiner writes to a certain Rabbi, who in his opinion refrained from establishing the law in accordance with his view, in order to protect the honor of another Rabbi:


Regarding the Torah about which it is written "Truth," our eyes are directed solely at the truth. And the verse also put truth first, as it is written: "Love the truth and peace" (Zekharya 8:19)… I was already admonished by my teacher, the holy of Israel, our great master, the genius and pious man, Rabbeinu Eliyahu of Vilna, not to show partiality in halakhic decision-making…. (Chut ha-Meshulash 1, 9)


The Scholarship of the Avnei Nezer


We will demonstrate the phenomenon of Chassidic scholarly diversity through the work of the aforementioned authority, Rabbi Avraham of Sochatshov. One of the most prominent scholars of our generation, Rabbi Shabbtai Rappoport, who was deeply influenced by the approach of the Avnei Nezer, summarized the scholarly principle espoused by the Admor: "The idea of Torah study is to demonstrate the unity and abstraction of the Torah, such that the truth does not belong to one realm of discussion, but rather it connects all realms of discussion and observation from one end to the other.[10]


An example of this principle can be found in the Avnei Nezer's position regarding living in Eretz Israel. According to him, in order to fulfill this mitzva, one must support oneself from the land and its economy, and not be supported by donations from abroad.[11] The source of this principle is found in the laws governing the Paschal offering!


The Mishna in Pesachim (87a) asserts that a slave master can prevent his slave from eating of the Paschal offering of another person. What is the foundation of this right? The Admor assumes that the purpose of the Paschal offering is to establish that the people of Israel are the servants of God, as it is stated: "And you shall perform this service" (Shemot 13:5):


But the idea is that a slave receives his maintenance from his master… And when they were slaves in Egypt, they received their maintenance from the Egyptians. And when they left and became servants of God they ate the Paschal offering from the table of the Most High, and this is service. For eating the Paschal offering from the table of the Most High demonstrates that they are servants of God. Therefore it suffices that they be fit to eat at the time of the sprinkling of the blood, so that they may be invited to eat from the table of the Most High. This is what the Zohar says: "For he purified himself to eat from his father's table."


The Avnei Nezer asserts here that a person's being God's slave is determined by the fact that he eats at His table, and that this result is achieved by the Paschal offering. In his opinion, this explains the law that states that a person who was fit to eat of the Paschal offering when it was being offered, but owing to certain circumstances, he did not actually eat of it, has nevertheless fulfilled his obligation. The Zohar explains this idea: "For he purified himself to eat from his father's table," even if he did not actually eat anything.


The Avnei Nezer learns several laws from this principle, included the law at hand:


[The people of] Israel's living in Eretz Israel is because Israel is God's portion, and they were not handed over to any other guardian angel… So too Eretz Israel was not handed over to an angel, as it is written: "The eyes of God are upon it"… And the Holy One, blessed is He, commanded that [the people of] Israel should live in Eretz Israel, for were they to live outside Eretz Israel, their maintenance would be by way of the guardian angel of that country. And therefore Chazal said: One who lives outside Eretz Israel is considered as if he worships an idol. And this is known… Now if a person lives in Eretz Israel, but he has no source of maintenance, except for that which is sent to him from outside Eretz Israel, and the bounty of his maintenance is still by way of a guardian angel outside Eretz Israel, how is this living in Eretz Israel? This appears to me to be the reason why the great Torah authorities did not move to Eretz Israel.


According to the Avnei Nezer, the great Torah authorities of Israel refrained from moving to Eretz Israel because in their days the only way to live there was off of donations from outside Eretz Israel. Such a situation would have cancelled the whole essence of the mitzva.


Rabbi Avraham's underlying assumption is a unique understanding of the idea of the unity of the entire Torah. The Tosafists, as we know, operated in accordance with the same assumption at the revealed and textual level. The Avnei Nezer understands this unity as an abstract and theoretical matter, an inexhaustible source of Torah innovations. Not only are the various realms of Halakha included in this unity, but even the realms of Jewish thought and Kabbala. We are not dealing here with fitting correspondences that constitute material for homiletical preaching, but rather "a solid spinal column upon which the foundations of Halakha are based."[12]


The teachings of the Avnei Nezer constitute a landmark in the Chassidic approach to the connection between the revealed Torah and Jewish mysticism. The relationship between them generates conceptual cross-fertilization, which in turn gives rise to a new halakhic perspective which finds expression in a unique style of Torah scholarship.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Vol. III, p. 519.

[2] The summary of Rabbi Soloveitchik's speech was published in Ha-Tzofeh, 13th of Kislev, 5768, p. 11.

[3] One detail that is certainly not factual: As we know from contemporary sources, Rabbi Shneur Zalman's partner in this mission was Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, and not Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. 

[4] This was true about the Lithuanians at least until the last generation.

[5] Rabbi Israel of Shklov heard this from Rabbi Chayyim Volozhiner himself. It is cited in Keter Rosh, a collection of traditions recorded by Rabbi Asher HaKohen, a disciple of Rabbi Chayyim Volozhiner.

[6] Rabbi Perlov was a well-known and important figure in the Torah and Hassidic world at the beginning of the twentieth century. His book, Mishmeret Shalom, contains halakhic rulings that follow the order of the Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim. Beyond its scholarly value, the book is unique in its collection and rationalization of the practices of the Hassidim and the directives of its Admorim. It should be noted that this work received approbations from several important Lithuanian authorities: Rabbi Chayyim Brisker, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, author of the Arukh ha-Shulchan, and Rabbi Eliyahu Chayyim Meisel.

[7] "Nothing is more necessary and essential for a person than ritual immersion, for one must be ritually pure at all times" – the words of the Ari as they were conveyed by his disciple Rabbi Sagis (Rabbi Chayyim Vital, Shaar Ruach ha-Kodesh, 11b).

[8] See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Tefilla 4:4-5.

[9] In the halakhic chapter of this series, I brought the Gra's position on this matter, that tefillin should not be donned on Chol Hamoed. In light of the Gra's view, this issue did not become a bone of contention between the Hassidim and the Mitnagdim.

[10] "Chiddush Torah Mahu," Kovetz Siftei Kohen, 5760, p. 14. The example that we bring here is also taken from Rabbi Rappoport's discussion.

[11] Responsa Avnei Nezer, Yoreh De'a 454.

[12] Kovetz Siftei Kohen, p. 24.