How Did the Ba’al Shem Tov Observe the Days of Awe?

David Biale Hasidism A New History book coverIsrael Ba’al Shem Tov, also called the Besht, is known as the legendary founder of the Jewish movement of Hasidism. During his lifetime, in the first half of the eighteenth century, the Besht and his followers practiced a mystical, pietistic Judaism. Hasidism: A New History, by David Biale, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, and Marcin Wodziński, pieces together what is known about the Besht’s life and spiritual practices in order to examine his role in the development of what became Hasidism.

Like other holy men known as ba’alei shem, or masters of the name, the Besht was a shaman who used practical applications of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, to communicate with the divine, perform healing acts on earth. He tried to use his ability to communicate with heavenly powers to avert disaster for his community—not just the Jews in his own area, but the Jewish people everywhere. On rare occasions, he visited heaven in what was called an aliyat neshamah, or “ascent of the soul.” These events tended to occur during the High Holidays, also known as the Days of Awe: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

The Besht claimed that on Rosh Hashanah in two different years he ascended to heaven. During each ascent, he learned of an impending catastrophe that would befall the Jewish community, and attempted to avert it.

    For on Rosh Hashanah 5507 [1746] I performed an adjuration for the ascent of the soul, as you know, and I saw wondrous things in a vision, for the evil side ascended to accuse with great, unparalleled joy and performed his acts—persecutions entailing forced conversion—on several souls so they would meet violent deaths. I was horrified and I literally put my life in jeopardy and asked my teacher and rabbi [Ahiah the Shilonite (I Kings 14:2)] to go with me because it is very dangerous to go and ascend to the upper worlds. For from the day I attained my position I did not ascend such lofty ascents. I went up step by step until I entered the palace of the Messiah where the Messiah studies Torah with all of the Tannaim [the rabbis of the Mishna] and the righteous and also with the seven shepherds. . . .

—cited in Moshe Rosman, Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov, 2nd ed. (Oxford and Portland, OR, 2013), 106-107

    And on Rosh Hashanah 5510 [1749] I performed an ascent of the soul, as is known, and I saw a great accusation until the evil side almost received permission to completely destroy regions and communities. I put my life in jeopardy and I prayed: “Let us fall into the hand of God and not fall into the hands of man.”

—ibid., 107

These mystical experiences were sometimes precipitated by his entering a self-induced trance. One of these trances, which occurred on Yom Kippur, is described in the Shivhei ha-Besht, a book of hagiographical stories about the Besht published over fifty years after his death:

    Before Ne’ilah [the final prayer of the Yom Kippur liturgy] he began to preach in harsh words and he cried. He put his head backward on the ark and he sighed and he wept. Afterward [when] he began to pray the silent eighteen benedictions, and then the voiced eighteen benedictions … the Besht began to make terrible gestures, and he bent back- ward until his head came close to his knees, and everyone feared that he would fall down. They wanted to support him but they were afraid to. They told it to Rabbi Ze’ev Kutses, God bless his memory, who came and looked at the Besht’s face and signaled that they were not to touch him. His eyes bulged and he sounded like a bull being slaughtered. He kept this up for about two hours. Suddenly he stirred and straightened up. He prayed in a great hurry and finished the prayer.

—Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome Mintz, In Praise of the Ba’al Shem Tov, The Earliest Collection of Legends about the Founder of Hasidism, (Lanham, MD, 2004), 55. Translation slightly modified.

Are you observing the Days of Awe this year? The gates of heaven are open, just as they were to the Ba’al Shem Tov two hundred and fifty years ago. You can learn more about how eighteenth-century Jewish mysticism developed into modern Hasidism in Hasidism: A New History. A sweet new year!

The Historical Atlas of Hasidism as Seen by a Cartographer

Historical Atlas of Hasidism book coverby Waldemar Spallek

The Historical Atlas of Hasidism, its title notwithstanding, is not a typical historical atlas. It does not illustrate the past glory of any state or nation by means of historical maps showing former borders, conquests, trade routes, or the strategies of great battles. It presents, unusually, the birth, development, and current status of an extraordinary mystical religious movement. This movement, Hasidism, originated in the eighteenth century in the lands of the erstwhile Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, from whence it was almost entirely erased due to a series of historical events.

The Atlas is, in part, an attempt to recreate this lost world. The maps are complemented by numerous illustrations and tables as well as commentary, which is an excellent introduction to the content presented on the maps. Unlike typical atlases of the world’s great religions, the Historical Atlas of Hasidism does not focus on the non-religious history of religion. It pinpoints political limits and demographic centers, but it discloses above all the spatial dimension of a religious experience.

The maps in the atlas were designed in GIS, or Geographic Information System (ArcGIS from ESRI), due to the massive amount of spatial data sets that needed to be processed and visualized. The largest of the databases used contains almost 130,000 records obtained from difficult-to-access sources. The map created on the basis of this database (using Dorling’s cartograms) clearly shows where contemporary Hasidic centers are located, but it also reveals how the place where Hasidism originated became an area bereft of Hasidim.

The Atlas is unique also because the co-author, Marcin Wodziński, reached for the impossible. As a person without a cartography background, he posed questions that cartography does not generally deal with. In order to meet his expectations, we plotted maps that are innovative not only because of the size of the source database used and the questions asked, but also because of the new forms of cartographic visualization that we perforce had to develop.

In preparing the Atlas, I had to recreate the historical space of places that no longer exist, and information regarding their historical appearance is scant. I reconstructed, for example, visualizations of Hasidic courts and Jewish towns in Eastern Europe primarily on the basis of recollections by former residents. Unlike many historical atlases, our atlas does not use a single anachronistic background map.

What did we achieve?

Maps as spatial perspectives allowed us to embed Hasidic history in a geographical context. This in turn allowed us to illuminate and understand a great variety of events and processes from the past.

Map 4.2. Petitions submitted to R. Eliyahu Guttmacher, c. 1874. Cartography by Waldemar Spallek.

One such example is map 4.2, which illustrates the relationship between the number and distribution of requests sent to a given rabbi (the map was based on an extant set of approximately 7,000 petitions sent to one tsadik alone) and various spatial factors: the distance between the tsadik’s court and the place from which supplicants traveled, the railway network utilized, the extent of the local renown of the tsadik, and so on.

Historical Atlas of Hasidism map 3.1.2

Map 3.1.2. Major dynasties. Cartography by Waldemar Spallek.

 

Historical Atlas of Hasidism Map 5.3.1

Map 5.3.1. Dominant Hasidic groups c. 1900-1939. Cartography by Waldemar Spallek.

In turn, map 3.1.2 demonstrates more clearly than any previous research the regionalization of the main Hasidic groups’ areas of influence. Marking the Hasidic leaders’ place with different colors precisely demarcates the borders of the areas into which individual Hasidic dynasties expanded. Map 5.3.1, created on the basis of spatial analysis of data from nearly 3,000 Hasidic prayer halls, delineates the areas in which various Hasidic groups were dominant before World War II.

Historical Atlas of Hasidism map 7.4

Map 7.4. The Holocaust, 1939-1945. Cartography by Waldemar Spallek.

The map of the Holocaust is the most moving, as it tracks the destruction of Eastern European Jews on the basis of the tragic fate of 80 Hasidic leaders. Fortunately, the atlas does not end with this bleak image. Successive maps reveal that Hasidism has since been reborn in America, Israel, and Western Europe, and it thrives today. With the maps extending from the earliest Hasidic leaders in the mid-eighteenth century to the cultural geography of Hasidism today, the atlas covers the whole history of Hasidism and surprisingly many of its aspects. I feel I was privileged to work on such an unusual, comprehensive, and innovative project.

Waldemar Spallek is assistant professor of geographic information systems and cartography at the University of Wrocław in Poland.

Browse Our 2018 Jewish Studies Catalog

Our new Jewish Studies catalog includes an in-depth history of Judaism from its beginnings to the present day, a comprehensive look at how Hasidism helped shape modern Judaism (and how modernity has shaped Hasidism), and an examination of the development of a right-wing strain within modern Zionism which continues to exert influence today.

If you’ll be at AJS 2017 in DC this weekend, please join us at Booth 116, or stop by any time to see our full range of Jewish Studies titles and more.

We’ll also be holding a reception with the University of California Press to celebrate the new books by David Biale and Samuel Heilman. Join us in the Archives Room, on the 4th floor of the Marriot Marquis in DC, on Monday, December 18th to take part in the festivities. The reception will run from from noon until 1:15 p.m.

In this magisterial and elegantly written book, Martin Goodman takes readers from Judaism’s origins in the polytheistic world of the second and first millennia BCE to the temple cult at the time of Jesus. He tells the stories of the rabbis, mystics, and messiahs of the medieval and early modern periods and guides us through the many varieties of Judaism today. Goodman’s compelling narrative spans the globe, from the Middle East, Europe, and America to North Africa, China, and India. He explains the institutions and ideas on which all forms of Judaism are based, and masterfully weaves together the different threads of doctrinal and philosophical debate that run throughout its history.

A History of Judaism is a spellbinding chronicle of a vibrant and multifaceted religious tradition that has shaped the spiritual heritage of humankind like no other.

This is the first comprehensive history of the pietistic movement that shaped modern Judaism. The book’s unique blend of intellectual, religious, and social history offers perspectives on the movement’s leaders as well as its followers, and demonstrates that, far from being a throwback to the Middle Ages, Hasidism is a product of modernity that forged its identity as a radical alternative to the secular world.

Written by an international team of scholars, Hasidism is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand this vibrant and influential modern Jewish movement.

 

By the late 1930s, as many as fifty thousand Polish Jews belonged to Betar, a youth movement known for its support of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of right-wing Zionism. Poland was not only home to Jabotinsky’s largest following. The country also served as an inspiration and incubator for the development of right-wing Zionist ideas.

Recovering the voices of ordinary Betar members through their letters, diaries, and autobiographies, Jabotinsky’s Children paints a vivid portrait of young Polish Jews and their turbulent lives on the eve of the Holocaust. Rather than define Jabotinsky as a firebrand fascist or steadfast democrat, the book instead reveals how he deliberately delivered multiple and contradictory messages to his young followers, leaving it to them to interpret him as they saw fit. Tracing Betar’s surprising relationship with interwar Poland’s authoritarian government, Jabotinsky’s Children overturns popular misconceptions about Polish-Jewish relations between the two world wars and captures the fervent efforts of Poland’s Jewish youth to determine, on their own terms, who they were, where they belonged, and what their future held in store.

David Biale on Hasidism

Hasidism is the first comprehensive history of the pietistic movement that shaped modern Judaism. The book’s unique blend of intellectual, religious, and social history offers perspectives on the movement’s leaders as well as its followers, and demonstrates that, far from being a throwback to the Middle Ages, Hasidism is a product of modernity that forged its identity as a radical alternative to the secular world. Recently David Biale took the time to answer questions about his new book, co-authored with David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, and Marcin Wodziński.

What is Hasidism and why is it important?

DB: Hasidism is a movement of Jewish religious orthodoxy that originated in the southeastern corner of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the middle of the eighteenth century. From very modest beginnings, it grew by the nineteenth century into perhaps the most dynamic and influential religious movement among Eastern European Jews. Hasidism developed some striking theological ideas, including the value of joy in the worship of God and ecstatic union with the divine. But it also created a social innovation: communities of Hasidim (pious followers) of a tsaddik or rebbe, a wonder-working, charismatic leader whose court became the center of a network beyond the traditional Jewish communities.

While secularization, the Bolshevik Revolution and, finally, the Holocaust decimated the Hasidic communities of Eastern Europe, after World War II, the movement enjoyed an extraordinary renaissance in North America, the State of Israel and (to a lesser degree) elsewhere in the world. We estimate that today there are roughly 700,000 Hasidim throughout the world. They continue to be divided, as they have for most of their history, into groups affiliated with their characteristic leaders. Many of these groups have outposts in different parts of the world such that the movement, which was originally limited to a certain area of Eastern Europe, has now become truly global.  Hasidism is, without question, one of the most important movements in modern Jewish history and in Jewish life today.

What is new about Hasidism: A New History?

DB: The title of our book conceals something surprising. There really isn’t an old history of Hasidism, so our book is really the first history of this highly influential religious movement. We try to tell a sweeping story that encompasses Hasidism’s full history from its origins to the present day. Most of the earlier literature on Hasidism focused on the movement’s eighteenth-century origins, with less attention paid to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This literature often argued that Hasidism’s golden age was in the eighteenth century and that the movement declined afterwards. We argue, on the contrary, that the movement only really became a mass movement in the nineteenth century and that it was in that century that one can find its golden age.  A second golden age was after World War II when Hasidic communities rebuilt themselves in the wake of the Holocaust. What is new, then, about our book, besides many specific arguments, is its comprehensive nature.

Can you describe some of these new arguments?

One very important claim in the book is that the putative “founder” of Hasidism, Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, in fact never set out to found a movement. He was a part of the communal establishment in his town and he gathered around him a circle of pietists.  It was only two generations later, after the death of one of his main disciple, Dov Ber of Mezritsh, that a movement began to form by disciples of Dov Ber. The process by which Hasidism started as a small conventicle and later became a mass movement has certain resemblances to early Christianity. It seems unlikely that Jesus intended to found a new religion, but later Christians turned him into their movement’s founder. So, too, with Israel Ba’al Shem Tov.

Another set of arguments focuses on how Hasidism functioned on the local level in the nineteenth century. Although many of the Hasidic courts in this period were opulent and resembled royal or noble courts, most Hasidim visited the courts only once or twice a year. At other times, they operated in their home towns.  Recent research by one member of our team demonstrates how Hasidism struggled for power in these towns. The local Hasidim were often relatively well-off merchants, such that the movement was anything but a marginal phenomenon.

You argue that Hasidism is modern movement, but isn’t its ideology expressly anti-modern?

We understand modernity as something more complicated than just movements of secularization. The resistance to secularization is itself modern and Hasidism has to be understood in that context. It is a traditionalist movement, meaning that it constructs a certain image of tradition to use in its war against modern secularism. In fact, Hasidism is highly innovative, no less than modern movements of reform: its social structure and its charismatic leadership have never been seen before in Jewish history. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Hasidism embraced modern politics in order to advance its agenda. In all these ways, Hasidism is a part of Jewish modernity.

Your book is unusual in that it has eight co-authors.  Why is that and what was the process with which you produced the project?

Because Hasidism consists of dozens (perhaps even hundreds) of “courts” located in many different places (and even continents), its history is too complex to be written by one person. It requires the expertise of a team. We decided very early on that instead of producing an edited volume, we wanted to write a seamless narrative.  We resolved to write collaboratively. In order to do so, we arranged to spend four summer residencies at the Simon Dubnow Institute in Leipzig, Germany. The institute provided wonderful accommodations for us to work together free from the distractions of our home environments. We were fortunate to receive grants from the Thyssen Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities to support these residencies.

In Leipzig, we devoted the first summer to producing a highly detailed table of contents. The next two summers were involved with the actual writing (of course, we all worked on the project individually during the academic year). The final summer involved collective editing of the manuscript. So, even though each member of the team wrote their own chapters, other team members provided intensive feedback throughout the writing and editing process. In this way, the book reflects the input of the whole team, a kind of peer review even before the manuscript went out to readers. We hope that in addition to the content of our book, this kind of collaborative authorship can offer a model to other scholars in the humanities.

Do you think that the Hasidim themselves will read your book and what do you think their reactions will be?

Several years ago, the Israel Museum staged a fascinating exhibition on Hasidism. What was most striking was how many Hasidim came to see the exhibition. They were evidently intrigued by how they are portrayed by the outside word. We anticipate a similar response to our book. They will no doubt take issue with some of our arguments, which go against the grain of their own conception of their history. But they will certainly buy the book.

BialeDavid Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis.