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Religious movement which began in the 18th century. At that time, life for the masses of Jews in the Ukraine and southern Europe was bitter and difficult. Jewish communities were destroyed or annihilated by the Cossack and peasant uprisings, and most Jews lived in stark poverty. Economically helpless, they were unable to acquire much learning. The scholarly rabbis and community leaders looked down upon the illiterate and semi-literate masses who spent their lives in poverty and ignorance.

To the common people who craved spiritual uplift, the personality and teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tov offered hope and dignity. The “Baal Shem” (ca. 1700-1760), founder of the Hasidic movement, placed prayer and faith on an equal level with scholarship and knowledge of the Law. Hasidism, therefore, appealed greatly to these “forgotten” Jews, for they no longer had to feel inferior to the scholar. Even the ignorant person, the Baal Shem taught, could find grace in the eyes of God if he prayed with purity of heart, devotion, and enthusiasm. Hasidism also introduced the idea of serving God with joy and happiness. It was opposed to excessive mourning and fasting as weakening to both the body and the soul.

The Hasidic movement encouraged a close bond among its followers. Mutual trust and companionship fostered a spirit of brotherhood. In the center of the closely knit group stood the tzaddik, or righteous man, the spiritual leader of the community who had reached a close union with God. He served as an intermediary between the Heavenly Power and man. His disciples’ admiration for the tzaddik and the faith in his powers were boundless. The Hasidism believed that through prayers the tzaddik could alter the decrees of God and even perform miracles. The position and ability of the tzaddik were believed to be hereditary. This trust and loyalty in the leader was at times carried to excess, and obscured the true meaning of Hasidism.

The Hasidic movement spread rapidly through the Ukraine, Poland, Galicia, and penetrated even the fortress of Jewish scholarship, Lithuania. The stress on prayer by the new popular movement; its lesser emphasis on Talmudic study; the creation of separate houses of prayer with some changes in liturgy; the extreme reliance on the tzaddik; and the inspired singing and dancing which was new to traditional services of the time: all of these deviations aroused bitter opposition from the Mitnagdim, the opponents of Hasidism. The opposition to the movement spread to many communities. Rabbis and leaders were alarmed at the rapid growth of Hasidism. The memory of the tragic Sabbatai Zevi affair contributed to the rabbis’ fear that Hasidism might cause a rift in Judaism. The greatest rabbinical authority of the 18th century, the Gaon Elijah of Vilna, shared this distrust of Hasidism. In a letter to all Jewish communities in Lithuania, he urged an all-out campaign against the Hasidic movement. This internal conflict at times took on ugly forms; false accusations were made to the governmental authorities, opponents were excommunicated, and physical violence was not uncommon.

Yet all these persecutions did not stop the advance of Hasidism. Opposing rabbis and leaders finally realized that the new movement did not represent a threat to Jewish unity. Hasidism, on the other hand, recognized the value of the study of the law, while retaining its own character and appeal to the Jewish masses. In fact, Hasidism today is associated with extreme Orthodoxy, and its followers often wear distinct garb and oppose secular studies.

After the death of the Baal Shem Tov, the movement was led by his disciple, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezhirich (1710-1772), also known as the great Maggid, or preacher. His “court” at the small town of Mezhirich became the center for the movement. Thousands of Jews flocked there to benefit from his wisdom and learning. His position as a scholar, preacher, and mystic contributed greatly toward the popular spread of Hasidism: eventually, it came to influence scholars as well.

Numerous disciples of Ber of Mezhirich established themselves as tzaddikim in their own right. They settled in various towns where they gained followers and influenced large numbers. Each one of them left an individual mark on Hasidism. Prominent among the famous Hasidic rabbis was Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1809). His love for the individual was the predominant facet in his personality. In moving prayers, he appealed to God to put an end to the suffering of the Jewish people. His devotion to simple people and his kindness and understanding for the weaknesses of human nature became the subjects of numerous legends.

Another great disciple of Dov Ber of Mezhirich was Shneour Zalman (1748-1812), known as the Rabbi of Ladi. He introduced to Hasidism a more rational concept of Judaism, based on a profound knowledge of the Talmud and the Kabbalah, or teachings of Jewish mysticism. In the Tanya, Shneour Zalman formulated the three bases of his form of Hasidism: Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge (Chabad). Shneour Zalman emphasized scholarship as one of the pillars of Hasidism. He was among those falsely denounced for plotting against the Russian government. He was imprisoned and not released until his innocence had been clearly established. The branch of Hasidism begun by Shneour Zalman eventually became known as the Chabad or Lubavitch movement. (See Shneerson.)

One of the most original and creative Hasidic teachers was Nachman of Bratzlav, the grandson of the Baal Shem. Close to nature and poetic, he preached the doctrine of simple and direct faith. For a short time he lived in Palestine and for the remainder of his life cherished a burning love for Zion. Nachman was a master of parable and fairytales in which he displayed a rich imagination and a deep morality.

Hasidism branched out in different directions and assumed various forms. The movement produced great teachers who enriched Jewish values and exerted great influence on the spiritual life of Jews for 200 years. Pinkhas of Koretz, Elimelekh of Lizhensk, Jacob Yitzhak of Lublin (“The Seer”), Mendel of Kotzk, and many others were leaders who extended the influence and scope of Hasidism. To this day, Hasidism remains a vital force among Jews around the world. Many Hasidic rebbes who survived the Holocaust resettled in the U.S. and Israel and established new communities. In modern times, Hasidism has served as a source of inspiration for such non-Hasidic literary masters as Peretz, Berditchevsky, Asch, and Agnon. Jewish culture as a whole owes a great debt to the movement. Almost every form of artistic expression

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