Hasidism is a religious movement of Judaism that spread among the Jewish population of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the neighbouring countries in the first half of the 18th century.
The word “Hasidism” in Hebrew means “doctrine of piety” or “pious”.
The emergence of Hasidism in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
Hasidism was founded by Besht, who was a kabbalist and a healer. In 1740, he settled in Medzhybizh (Podolia, Ukraine). Here Besht gathered like-minded individuals whose activities were unwelcome to Orthodox rabbis. His popularity was due to the crisis in the Jewish community of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, caused by the failure of the Messianic movement Sabbatai Zevi and riots of Bohdan Khmelnitsky.
After his death, the Hasidic movement was led by Dov Ber of Mezeritch.
After 1772, Hasidism split into several movements. Rabbi Elimelech spread the teaching in Leżajsk (Poland) and Menachem Mendel in Vitebsk (Belarus). The founder of Chabad came out of the community in Vitebsk (Lubavitch Hasidism). In 1785, Levi Yitzchok founded the Hasidic centre in Berditchev. Also, a centre of Hasidism was established in Chernobyl by the pupils of Besht Menachem Nachum.
Hasidism in Russia
When the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth took place, Hasidic centres appeared in the Russian Empire. Shneur Zalman was the first such centre in Russia. The history of Lubavitch Hasidism began with it.
The movement of Hasideans in the Russian Empire was limited by the terms of the settlement, however boundaries became more transparent under the rule of Alexander II.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, some Hasideans moved away from traditional Judaism and supported the revolution. However, in 1935, the persecution of Hasidic organizations started; these were considered counter-revolutionary. In 1938, Shmarya Yehuda Leib Medalia, the Hasidic rabbi of Moscow, was arrested and sentenced to be shot. After this event, Hasidism in the USSR was forced to go underground.
Lev Leviev was born in 1956 in Central Asia. After a short stay in Israel, he contributed to the revival of Lubavitch Hasidism in Russia during Perestroika.
The Chabad Hasideans pursue activities in the countries of Eastern Europe and the former USSR. As they claimed leadership, they elected their chief rabbis in Russia, Czech Republic, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. This provoked
resistance from various organizations, non-Hasidic Jewish communities, and other Hasideans.
Hasidic Present-day Branches
Different movements of Hasidism arose as groups of pupils of specific rabbis (religious advisors). They were named after the place of residence of the rabbi.
This is the largest modern movement of Chasidism. There are large communities in the US and Israel. The Chabad centre is in New York and was founded by Shneur Zalman of Liadi.
This movement originated in the middle of the 19th century in Góra Kalwaria, Poland. The Ger rabbi supported the idea of returning his Hasideans to Israel. Yaakov Aryeh Alter has been the leader since 1996. He lives in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Aaron from Karlin (now a district of Pinsk, Brest region, Belarus), the pupil of a Magid from Mezeritch, was the first rabbi. Around 1770, his son, Rabbi Yaakov, moved to Israel and founded the first Israeli Hasidic community. Now about 1,700 families of Karlin Hasideans live in Israel and the United States.
This movement was founded in Vyzhnytsia in the middle of the 19th century. Now there are about 7,000 families in Israel and the United States. Israel Ager is the leader of the community.
This is the most numerous of the Hasidic movements in the USA. It originated in Satmar (Satu Mare) in modern Romania. It was founded by rabbi Joel Teitelbaum in the early 20th century. Currently, the centre of the movement is in New York. Satmar Hasideans adhere to an anti-Zionist position: they believe that Israel is violating Jewish laws, and they also boycott the elections in Israel.
This movement was founded in the 18th century by rabbi Nachman from Breslov, who was the great-grandson of Baal Shem Tov. After his death, no one inherited the title of rabbi, so the teaching continued according to his systematic records. This movement has tens of thousands of adepts as of the end of the 20th – beginning of the 21st century.
This movement ranks second in the number of adepts in Israel. It originated at the beginning of the 19th century in Belz, Ukraine. Sholom Rokeach was the first rabbi. The centre of the movement is in Jerusalem.
Hasideans interpret Kabbalah from the point of view of moral improvement and the fate of the Jewish people. The stages of the moral improvement (sephiroth) are Chesed – mercy, Gvurah – valour, Tiferet – harmony. Only Jews, none of whom can completely fall away from God, are the Keepers of the divine principle (Shekinah) on Earth.
Devekut means merging with God. The achievement of joy is considered fundamentally important in spiritual practice since God is not punitive but kind. Hasideans believe that the emotional component and religious delight are higher than logic and ritual. Hence, there are many mystical elements showing the desire to reach a close connection with God through rapture, dance, and song.
Hasideans believe in a special mystical connection between them and the spiritual leader (tzadik or rabbi). This title is inherited through the male line. Hannah Rachel Verbermacher was the only female tzadik in history.
Rabbi Elimelech developed the principle of Tzadikism. It states that the tzadik or rabbi is a mediator between the people and God. Followers financially support the mediator through whom God sends them life, health, and children.
Many Hasideans do not support Zionism. They teach that there is a divine principle in every Jew. They consider their expulsion from Jerusalem to be a part of the great-predetermined meaning. Conversely, Zionists wish to recreate Israel assuming the role of the Messiah.
Hasideans also opposed the introduction of Hebrew as the state language. They considered it to be only the language of the Torah (scripture) and prayers.
Prayer is the most important religious practice in Hasidism and it helps meditation. Prayer is accompanied by wordless singing, body movements and melodies (nigun). It is mainly in Hebrew.
Hasidic prayers have a feature that causes resistance in non-Hasidic orthodox circles. This is an almost complete rejection of the traditional prayer schedule (zmanim), especially in the morning.
Many communities engage in political lobbying, which allows them to obtain means of subsistence.
There is a group of wealthy people who maintain a community – the Parnassians. Traditional Hasidic activities include real estate, mediation, construction, trade and financial marketeering.
Hasidic men do not work; they devote themselves to studying the Torah before marriage and the first years after. However, community members create a large network of mutual help. This includes interest-free loans, housing, free canteens, etc.
On the one hand, Hasidism appears as a closed community with its convictions, loyalty to traditions, and pragmatic activities. But on the other, we see songs during the sermon, noisy feasts, toasts, large families, and the care of the entire Hasidic society. We also observe the desire for a close connection with God through the expression of delight, joy, and dancing. The Hasidic teaching tries to convey that the essence of religion is not in the mind but in the emotions.