By Jacob S. Minkin

Copyright 1935







RABBI ISRAEL BAAL SHEM TOV [the founder of Hassidism] was not a philosopher; the truth that filled his heart did not come to him from books or learning.  He knew nothing of the speculations of the Jewish philosophers of the Spanish school whose very names he probably never heard.  The sublime suggestions of his teachings did not come to him by following any known method of thinking, but as an illumination of his whole being, almost like a communion from on high.  A man of feeling and emotion, he would have despised, even if he knew, any other rule than that of the heart.  He was an original thinker, if any such uprush of religious ecstasy as dominated his life can be called by such name.  A sunny faith in God inspired all his words and teachings; it was part of the legacy which he received from the religion of his childhood and his intimate association with nature.  God was the absorbing theme of all his thoughts, and to this theme he devoted all the years of his great life.

Judaism is held to be alien to mysticism and the Jews too practical a people for the mystical temperament.  Yet, in Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tob we have a man who was almost burning himself up with the mystic yearning for God, one who saw and felt His nearness as did few other men.  His deepest thoughts and profoundest emotions were dominated by the reality and presence of God.  There is nothing that stands outside of God, all things being the forms through which He reveals himself.

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tob was a pantheist without ever having heard of Spinoza.  It came to him simply and naturally from his profound love and knowledge of nature.  God did not create the world and then withdraw Himself from it, but creation is continuous, progressive, unending.  This may sound Bergsonian, but he preceded Bergson by almost two hundred years.


The basic principle of Rabbi Israel’s teachings is not that God is, but that whatever is, is in God.  There is nothing that is void of God; the Holy One sent his Divine Glory, called the Shekhinah, upon the earth, and its sparks are in all things.  God is to be found in the grand manifestations of nature—in the rolling thunder, in the flash of lightning, in the snow-clad mountains, in the mighty trees of the forests, as well as in the humblest flower or blade of grass.  He is in the simple and unaffected heart of the ignorant peasant as in the wisdom and learning of the scholar.  In one of his fine utterances, he says: “It is necessary for man always to bear in mind that God is with him always and everywhere; that He is, so to speak, the finest of matter, which is poured everywhere; that He is the master of all that happens in the Universe....  Let man realize that when he looks at things material, he beholds in reality the Divine Countenance, which is present everywhere.  Keeping this in mind, man will find it possible to serve the Lord in all things, even in trifles.”

Rabbi Israel did not deny the reality of matter, but he taught that matter is nothing but a limb of the Shekhinah.  It would seem at times as though God was secreting himself behind barriers and partitions, but the truly wise and pious man knows that these things are but appearances and illusions.  He illustrated this thought by the parable of the king who had built a glorious palace full of corridors and partitions, but himself lived in the innermost room.  When the palace was completed and his servants came to pay him homage, they found that they could not approach the king because of the devious mazes.  While they stood and wondered, the king’s son came and told them that those were not real partitions, but only magical illusions, and that the king, in truth, was easily accessible.  “Push forward bravely,” he said, “and you shall find no obstacle.”

From this flows as a natural consequence his exuberant faith and optimism.  Whereas the God of Rabbi Luria was a solemn and melancholy Deity, demanding tears and commanding penance and the mortification of the flesh, there is almost a touch of healthy and joyous paganism about the God of Rabbi Israel.  He broke through the fences of the Practical Kabbalah by insisting that man should approach his Creator not in tears and weeping, but with a happy and singing heart.  Gloom, he taught, is the devil’s safest method of tempting man to sin.  “No child,” said Rabbi Israel, “is born except through pleasure and joy.  By the same token, if one wishes his prayers to bear fruit, he must offer them with pleasure and joy.”

To the Jews of his time, this doctrine came with a sense of real relief; for, as a result of their experiences, Judaism became a melancholy and depressing religion.  Jews gathered in the synagogues to meditate upon defeat and death, and weeping became their natural habit of prayer.  Even the holiday hymns had a ring of tears in them.  By driving out fear and gloom from the hearts of the Jews Israel made Judaism a joyous and healthy experience.

In contrast to the Kabbalists of his time he taught that life is not to be shunned but enjoyed, that the pleasures and appetites of the senses are not to be rejected but refined and purified, for man may serve God with his body as well as with his soul.  To the truly pious man, he said, praying, eating, drinking and sleeping are all one; to bind all these things into living action and carry everlasting life into them is the true purpose of religion.  When he heard that one of his disciples was following ascetic practices, Rabbi Israel wrote to him: “I hear that you think yourself compelled from religious motives to enter upon a course of penance and fasts.  My soul is outraged by your determination.  By the counsel of God I order you to abandon such dangerous practices, which are but the outcome of a disordered mind.  It is written, ’Thou shalt not hide thyself from thine own flesh!’ Fast, then, no more than is prescribed; follow my command and God will be with you.”

Since God is in everything, it follows that there is good, actual or potential, in all things.  Sin and evil are, therefore, not positive conditions, but relative, which may be turned into goodness and virtue.  Even the Evil One himself is part of Universal Glory, and should be met with joy, for the descent is necessary to the rise; the fall is a stepping-stone to purity.  When, as a boy, he held the bewitching black heart of the Enemy in his hand and had the power to destroy it, he would do no harm to it, because he realized that it, too, had suffered and was therefore purified.

Rabbi Israel had an unalterable faith in all men and under all conditions and circumstances.  He who loves God, he said, loves all his creatures, and exemplified his doctrine by his own life and conduct.  There was no criticism that was levelled against him with greater sharpness than that he was indiscriminate in his choice of friends.  He mingled with all sorts of men.  Among his associates were innkeepers, publicans, social outcasts, and men and women who enjoyed an unsavory reputation in the community.  He refused to despair of any man, or consider sinners as irredeemable.  Sin, he taught, is not to be despised but purified, not to be fled from, but subordinated.  Love and tolerance will restore the most hardened sinner to the path of virtue and goodness.  To a father who came to Israel to consult him as to what to do with his son who had strayed from God and the Torah, his reply was, “Love him all the more.”

The story is told of a woman who was accused of adultery, and whom to save the family from disgrace, her brothers determined to slay.  They lured her to a lonely place, where they would have carried out their design, had it not been for the Holy Spirit which revealed the plot to Israel at the right moment.  He instantly repaired to the place and succeeded in dissuading the men from their dark purpose and thus saved the sinner from death and her brothers from a crime that was worse than incest.  This woman, says Dr.  Solomon Schechter, afterwards became a sort of Magdalen in the Hassidic sect.


All of Israel’s teachings may be considered as merely introductory to his doctrine of Prayer.  It is on this point that the founder of Hassidism was most original.  Horodezky interpreted the Hassidic attitude to prayer correctly when he said, “Hassidism was the first to catch the romance and poetry of prayer.”  With prophetic insight Rabbi Israel taught the spiritual inwardness of prayer.  To be effective, prayer must be the result of inner, spiritual growth.  It is by means of such prayer that man not only approaches God, but becomes godlike.  What man is and ever hopes to be, he attains by praying; all that he had himself achieved, he testified, came to him not from books or learning, but through prayer.  Prayer is that sense of inner unity with God which is the basis and substance of all true religion.  It makes man lose his sense of separation from God and establishes divine harmonies in his soul which are not otherwise attainable.  Said he: “The first time a thing occurs in nature it is called a miracle; later it becomes natural, and no attention is paid to it.  Let your worship and your service be a fresh miracle every day to you.  Only such worship performed from the heart, with enthusiasm, is acceptable.”

But, in order that prayer shall accomplish all this, it must not be mechanical and perfunctory, not mere lip-service, or an idle repetition of words, which is worse than useless, but devout, enthusiastic, rapturous.  It is only after such prayer that the great realization may come.  In accordance with the law of nature, Rabbi Israel says, man should die after such a spiritual exercise, and it is an act of divine mercy that he survives it.  Such prayer asks for no gifts, no grants, no favors, no petitions, but merely to be admitted into His presence.  He tells the parable of the king who invited his servants to come to see him.  There were treasures of gold and silver heaped in the halls; most of the people were content to go no farther, thinking of the rich gifts they were to carry away with them.  But there was one wise and loyal servant whose heart was set on no earthly prize, but only on the permission to see the king and to glory in his presence.

There was nothing that provoked Rabbi Israel’s anger more than mechanical and lifeless prayers, those that are without feeling or warmth, and, therefore, useless and ineffective.  His strictures against such prayers were often severe.  He called them dead and wooden prayers, unable to lift themselves to God.  Worse than no prayer at all, he said, are those that are recited with a cold and unfeeling heart.  When he passed through a house of worship and saw men huddled over their books, reading in a hasty mumble, reading faster and faster, hour after hour, he said, “I cannot pray here.  Those prayers are dead prayers.  They have no strength to fly to Heaven.  They are crushed; they lie one on top of the other; the house is filled with them.”

His own prayers were deep and stirring, aglow with unsuppressed emotion.  When his opponents laughed at his way of praying, and poked fun at the swaying of his body and grimaces, Rabbi Israel told his disciples the story of the “Deaf Man and the Mad Dancers.”  Once in a house there was a wedding feast.  The musicians sat in a corner and played upon their instruments.  The guests danced to their music and made merry; they swayed this way and that way, and the house was filled with noise and joy.  But a deaf man passed outside the house; he looked in through the window and saw the people whirling about the room, leaping and throwing about their arms.  “See how they fling themselves about,” he cried out, “it is a house filled with madmen,” for he could not hear the music to which they were dancing.  [Soon after, this book says, “In order to escape the ridicule of their opponents, who laughed and poked fun at their strange motions and shoutings during the prayers, the Hassidism established for themselves separate houses of worship...”]

Since prayer is inward, its external forms do not matter.  Time and place play no important part for one can pray in the open spaces of nature, amidst the wealth and fragrance of grass and flowers as in a house dedicated to worship.  When Israel was reproached for praying long after the limited time for worship had passed, his answer was, “Can a child be told when he may approach his father?” In order that man might experience the fullest rapture of prayer, he must divest himself of all the external trappings of life and he emphasized this thought by means of an erotic example.  “When a bride is led to the altar, she adorns and decorates herself, but when the time for the union is come, she divests herself of her clothing, in order that her body may approach nearer to that of her lover, as it is written, ‘I shall behold God from out of my flesh.’”

Although Rabbi Israel ascribed miraculous powers to the words and the very letters of the prayers, he had reference to their inner meaning rather than their external form, for the outwardness of prayer meant as nothing to him.  Thus, he said, one may pray as fervently when he does not know the characters of the Hebrew alphabet, as one who had mastered all the written prayers by heart.

A poor village Jew was in the habit of worshipping during the Holy Days in Rabbi Israel’s synagogue.  He had a slow-witted boy who did not master the letters of the Aleph Beth, hence his father would not take him to the synagogue.  But when the boy became thirteen he was allowed to accompany his father to the House of God on the Day of Atonement.  The boy took a reed and made himself a flute.  When the congregation chanted the prayers, he asked his father to allow him to play upon it but he was forbidden to do so.  When the Neilah service came, the atmosphere in the synagogue grew tense and warm and the hearts of the worshipers melted like the candles in their clay sockets, the boy could no longer contain himself, and, taking out the flute, he sang and played upon it.  The whole congregation stood terrified by this desecration of the service, but Rabbi Israel was happy and called out, “The cloud is pierced and broken, and the power of the Evil One is shattered.”


It is not always easy to make out the fine shadings which differentiate between Kavanah, Debekuth, and Hithlahabuth, the three attributes of piety, or service of God, which one meets often in the Hassidic writings.  Although they merge into one another, they nevertheless spring from different spiritually emotional states of mind.  Kavanah may be described as that intensity of feeling and complete absorption in any pious or religious act which makes one oblivious to his physical surroundings.  It is the gift of concentration without which the performance of any religious ordinance becomes mechanical and useless.  The highest state of Kavanah leads to complete abandonment of the Self and to a degree of ecstasy which is the highest form of religion.  Rabbi Israel was capable of such Kavanah and became utterly forgetful of himself when he recited his prayers.

Although Kavanah in its highest form is a gift which comes by the grace of God rather than by personal effort, one may nevertheless stimulate its coming by certain exercises, and Rabbi Israel prescribed the ways and methods by which it may be attained.  Thus, he said, Kavanah may be achieved by letting the meaning of the prayers flow into one’s soul before pronouncing their words.  The reading of appropriate psalms will help to establish the spiritual harmony needed for the attainment of Kavanah.  But under no circumstances can the gift of concentration be achieved, unless one approaches his Creator with a cheerful and joyous heart, for there is nothing that shuts the gates of Heaven as does the brooding and melancholy mind.  Singing and chanting became, therefore, an important part of prayer, not those sad, plaintive and melancholy songs of the synagogue or the Beth Hamidrash, but the joyous and jubilant songs that the Psalmist must have had in mind when he said, “Thy statutes have become songs unto me.”

Kavanah is a quality not only of prayer but of almost everything else.  The truly pious man may vitalize the most commonplace things till they receive the dignity and fervor of Kavanah.  Of a truth, nothing without the warming and vitalizing touch of Concentration is worth doing.  The study of the Torah is only of value when it is pursued with utter forgetfulness of Self, of the rewards it brings or the flattery and reputation it holds out.  To the Zaddik more than to any other man, it is given so to clothe all his actions with Kavanah that even his most ordinary deeds become shining as the stars.

Debekuth is that cleaving unto God in which the sense of separation from Him is lost.  It is the flowing of oneself into the Infinite in which the soul of man becomes part of the Universal Soul.  By means of Debekuth man perfects his inner unity with God, which is the basis of true religion.  Prayer is the promise of which Debekuth is the fulfillment; the former is the flower of which the latter is the ripened fruit.  It is the kindling flame which sets the dead words aglow with life and meaning.  Without its revivifying touch our prayers are cold and powerless, unable to lift themselves to God.  By the help of Debekuth, prayer ceases to be routine and becomes a refreshing and ennobling exercise.  God cannot be served without Debekuth.

Yet, while Debekuth, like Kavanah, is a gift which is not of human making, one may help to bring it on by artificial means.  It is the essence of Debekuth that it is dynamic and not static.  It is mobile, agile, a flowing together of all the senses and faculties, like the whirling of a stream, or the passing wind which makes the leaves and branches tremble.  The highest sort of prayer is the one that not only moves the soul but sets all the limbs of the body astir, as it is written, “All my bones shall say, Lord, who is like unto thee.”  Swaying of the body and other such strong physical and mental agitations were, therefore, employed in Beshtian Hassidism as aids to bring on the state of Debekuth.  Israel believed in this method of accelerating his state of rapture, and often worked so hard to bring it on that he felt a deathly weakness coming over him.  As a result of his bodily agitations and intense devotion he claimed to have caught glimpses of the En-Sof, his soul soaring upward to the world of light, hearing secrets and revelations which were not divulged to ordinary human beings.  By means of Debekuth he is said to have effected a union (Zivug) with the Shekhinah.  Prayer became to Israel a way of attracting to himself the attention of God when he was in a state of spiritual despair.  When he was one day reproached for his unseemly contortions and gesticulations, his reply was that when a man is drowning he cannot be blamed for trying to attract attention by every means possible.

Hithlahabuth is the kindling and purifying fire which saves religion from stagnating into cold formality.  It is the uninterrupted thought and communion with God which raises and ennobles life and causes the roots of sin to wither.  Kavanah and Debekuth are its parents, but Hithlahabuth is their glorious consummation.  Prayer without Hithlahabuth is like the wood upon the altar before it is touched by the fire from heaven.  It is only when the spark has descended that the sacrifice is accepted.  Hithlahabuth is the impregnation of the things of this earth with the Living Glory, the spiritualizing process which carries everlasting life into the mundane affairs of man.  By making all things flow into God and unite with the Universal Soul Hithlahabuth will hasten the end of the Galuth and the coming of the Messiah.  Hithlahabuth melts away the dualism of the corporeal and incorporeal, of spirit and matter.  Time and space vanish in its presence, and the very Evil One as though he never were.  Life and Death become as nothing; good and evil as though they did not exist.  Ecstasy spans a bridge over heaven and earth; body and soul lose their significance, for man becomes one with the Living Soul.  The senses die, the passions cool, the vices disappear—Hithlahabuth spreads out a kingdom in which all these things fade away into the En-Sof.






Since nothing can be conceived without God, there is something of His essence also in the apparent evil of life.  Whenever, therefore, anything appears to us absurd, ridiculous or bad, as though it were without God and, therefore, without good, it is because of our incomplete knowledge; for, were we able to penetrate into the inwardness of things, we should discover that there is nothing in the world without its element of God and goodness.  What we, hence, call evil, is nothing but the limited number of “sparks” of the Living Glory.  Man attains to perfections when he succeeds in enlarging the number of “sparks” within him so as to make him godlike.  The flowing together of all the “sparks” in the universe, and their union with God, will usher in the Messianic kingdom.  Baer was so thorough and consistent in his pantheism that he would not deny the possibility of divine “sparks” even to idols, without which their very imaginary existence would have been unthinkable.

He taught men to regard everything under the aspect of the spiritual.  Things are to be avoided or coveted not for the physical pain or pleasure they give us, but for the measure in which they help to further or retard the spiritual essence of our being.  But since there is nothing, however bad, which is without an element of goodness, there are few things which may not be made to serve the higher purpose.  Eating and drinking may thus become a holy act, and the sight of a beautiful woman awaken in us reflections of the most ecstatic nature.

Rabbi Baer spoke of Prayer almost in a sensuous way.  The miracle of prayer is only then consummated when man joins his soul with that of God, as lovers join their bodies.  Prayer to be effective must be inward, not outward; spiritual, not mechanical; for worse than no prayer at all are the prayers of the hypocrites, who “wrap themselves in prayer shawls and adorn themselves with phylacteries, but their hearts are not with them.”

Such prayers are dead and powerless; they cannot raise themselves to Heaven.  True prayer is only possible when it is performed with ecstasy.  Ecstasy transforms the lifeless letters of our prayers into living and burning souls.  Baer’s own prayers were fervent, convulsive, and full of rapture.  By means of such prayers we are able to break through the corroding and corrupting influences of life and overrule the laws of nature.  Ecstasy may be attained not only by physical means, such as swinging the body, but by meditation.

There is matter and spirit in all things, even the words of the Torah.  There are men, he said, who huddle over their books in the study of the Torah, but because their hearts are cold, it is the body and not the spirit of the Torah that they feel.  It is not good for man to study overmuch, for thereby he may neglect the exercise of piety, which is the greater of the two.  Nor shall a man be overpunctilious in the carrying out of the divine commands, for it may be the design of the Evil One to cast him into depression in order to hinder his service of God.




Prayer, ecstatic, rapturous and self-forgetful prayer, was the chief weapon in the armory of Rabbi Levi Yitzhok with which he went out to meet the Adversary.  No other Zaddik’s prayers were quite as spirited as his.  Like live coals the words issued from his mouth, and those who stood near him were carried away by the fire of his enthusiasm.  It is the only way, he taught, a man can make himself heard of his God, and nothing aroused his ire so much as the listless and indifferent prayer.  Thus, when a company of Hassidim were one day engaged in the silent prayer of the Eighteen Benedictions without betraying the emotions which their words imply, Levi Yitzhok came over, shook hands with them, and greeted them with the words, “Shalom Alekhem,” the customary greeting accorded to strangers, or to those who had returned from a distant journey.  The Hassidim were surprised at the unexpected salute, inasmuch as they had not left the city, and were not guests to be thus treated.

Levi Yitzhok noticed their surprise and explained himself in the following manner: “The reason for this salutation is that I could read in your faces that when you were reciting the Silent Prayer, you did not feel the meaning of the words, but were thinking of the grain market in Odessa or the woolen market in Lodz.  Now that you have returned from so long a voyage, it is appropriate for me to extend to you a welcome home.”





The outward life and habits of the Hassidim, as they had been reported to the Gaon, were uncouth, gross and repellent, not comporting with the quiet and modest habits of the true “disciple of the wise.”  The sanctity and dignity of the synagogue worship were disturbed by boisterous songs and dances and every manner of body contortions.  Particularly offensive in this respect were the followers of Abraham of Kalisk, who were in the habit of dancing in the streets, thereby making themselves ridiculous in the eyes of the Gentiles.  These practices made Hassidism appear in the eyes of Elijah of Wilna as a sort of heathenish superstition, falsely masquerading in the guise of Judaism.




From his grandsire Nahman [great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov] inherited not only his glowing faith, but many of his other characteristics as well.  Like Baal Shem Tob he was endowed with a sensitive and poetic temperament.  He loved nature with that deep and passionate love which made him regard every flower and blade of grass as though they possessed living souls.  He attributed sensations of joy and pain to them as though they were human beings and personally felt their hurt.  Thus, when he spent one night in a log hut which was made of freshly hewn trees, he complained that he could not sleep, for he thought that he heard the meanings of the trees that had been cut down in their prime.

He loved the natural scenery of the town in which he was born—its brooks and meadows, its wooded hills, and spent many of the most refreshing hours of his childhood in their midst.  Their beauty bewitched him; it filled his heart; it captivated his soul; it entranced his whole being.  As often as he could he would steal away from his youthful companions and wander alone amid the rustic scenes of the village.  He would ride out on a horse, or navigate by boat the stream that flowed by the town.  Trees and flowers were to him living objects; he talked to them as though they were human beings and understood his words.  They were also shrines and temples to him at whose altar he poured out his most fervent prayers.  They were not the ritual prayers of the synagogue, but free and spontaneous ejaculations which poured out of his overflowing heart.  Coming not from books but from his ecstatic nature, they were phrased in whatever words happened to come to his lips.  Loving hands afterwards collected these prayer utterances, and they are among the gems of devotional literature.

...Whatever time he could spare from his books, he shared with the wooded haunts of the village where he was now living, for the love of nature, cultivated in his youth, grew with the advancing years.  He had a keen and observant eye, an imagination which related everything with God.  Rabbi Israel discovered God in nature, but it was Rabbi Nahman who made it the foundation of his whole faith.

Looking at life through the prism of nature, everything assumed for him a different form.  He saw the current of life flowing through all things.  He saw the Living Glory encompassing all creation, concealed, yet present.  Everything in nature bore the stamp of divine life.  Things may change and stagnate, but they cannot lose their vital force.  “Everything,” he said, “lives, grows, rises and praises God.”  When passing, one winter’s day, a field that was covered with snow and ice, he stopped and fell into a reverie.  “All grasses and plants are dead now, but at the approach of the summer they shall live again, and each blade of grass will hymn a song unto God.  How pleasant it is to listen to their song.”  There were poets who rhapsodized nature, and philosophers who contemplated it to the point of deification, but there are few hearts that responded to it with the ecstatic and unaffected joy of Nahman Bratzlav.





The man who did not shrink from declaring that “the mind is the soul,” was unblushing in preaching the reactionary faith which was preached by the very men he had attacked.  “A pure and simple faith without any intellectual varnish or sophistries” was the foundation upon which he reared his own religion.  In one of his revealing prayers he addresses God: “Make me worthy to serve thee with a pure and unaffected faith.  Guard me and save me, as well as all thy people Israel, from the probing and searching intellect.”  Poet and mystic as he was, God and the Torah were to him realities which did not need proof or confirmation from science or philosophy.  The reality of God shone up to him from everything he saw in the world; he found it in and around nature.  Traces of this Reality are detected in the animate and inanimate world.  In fact, there was nothing inanimate for the poet who felt the throb of rhythmic motion running through the whole cosmos.  Everything appeared to Rabbi Nahman as a “limb of the Shekhinah” whose presence encompasses all nature.

Nahman Bratzlav may be said to have been a poet of nature.  Nature was to him both a passion and an ideal.  To this he devoted himself really and truly with the creative imagination of an artist who gives to everything he sees dramatic expression.  It was the organic side of nature that interested him, its living and creative substance.  He spoke and wrote of it as though it had the sensations and emotions of a human being.  He felt the throb of life running through its humblest creation.  “Nature,” he said, “is full of melody; heaven and earth are full of song.  Every limb of the body contains within itself a melody that corresponds to the rhythm of song.”  Every blade of grass contains a melody, and “it is beautiful to listen to their song.”  Echoes of that melody are even in our food and drink, in our pleasures and raiment; in our enjoying them we are fulfilling the function and purpose of their being.

Prayer itself is a melody which transports man to the realms of eternity.  This is the reason why it must be joyous, ecstatic, rapturous, without the taint of sadness or melancholy.  That the melody of prayer should rise heavenward, and not fall to earth crushed and helpless, it should be recited amidst surroundings that would help it in its flight.  He, therefore, urged that prayers should be recited in the open, amid the scented marvels of nature, for “the flowers and grasses of the field enter the prayers and give them power to rise to heaven.”

The melody of the world must not be disturbed by its contrary dissonances of lying and falsehood, which is the reason why he made the practical application of Judaism the burden of many of his teachings.  He found the Hassidim of his time ignorant of the most rudimentary principles of the Jewish religion.  Judaism as an ethical way of life had never been taught by any of the Zaddikim who preceded him, and the results were often deplorable.  He loved truth passionately and taught that it were better for a man to die than to lie.  His prayers abound in sentiments that implore God to shield him against the evils of falsehood, double-dealing and drunkenness, not uncommon weaknesses of the time.



Under the influence of Hassidism, however, the kingdom of song was restored to the Jew.  What study is to the Mithnagid, song is to the Hassid.  Melody creates for him a mood of pious ecstasy.  It exalts him; it uplifts him; it fills him with a sort of unearthliness which loses itself in the infinite En-Sof.  Melody stood at the cradle of the Kabbalah.  It witnessed its birth and rise.  It surrounded it with that mystic yearning that touches the hearts of its devotees to this day.  As the Kabbalah was born in Palestine, so were also its first melodies.  Rabbi Isaac Luria was the author and composer of few Kabbalistic tunes which are sung by the Zaddikim and their followers to this day.  They are fantastic, they are mystical, full of the languor and longing of the East where they were born.

When the Kabbalah moved westward, its songs took on the color and character of their environment, becoming even sadder and gloomier than before.  The life of the Jew was hard and his songs reflected the extent and nature of his suffering.  Under Christian influence Jewish melody rested its wings.  There was no longer the liberal and tolerant Mohammedan rule under which the Kabbalah reached its highest development, to quicken the lyre to song.  The old hymns of Safed were repeated without making new additions to the repertory.  They were mostly synagogue hymns reflecting the fervor and passion of the new faith.  These were sharpened and deepened with greater feeling and intensity to voice the new spiritual experiences of the singers.  It was not, however, until the coming of Hassidism, the legitimate heir of the Kabbalah, that a new type of Jewish music was born.

Hassidism may be defined as the religion of song and melody.  The ecstasy of melody is the key with which it strives to unlock the gates of heaven.  Music was the native, inborn gift of almost all its early teachers.  Baal Shem was known to have composed his own melodies; Levi Isaac of Berditchev was a prolific author of tunes; the Rabbi of Ladi was the composer of the famous “The Rebbe’s Song,” and Nahman Bratzlav was perhaps the greatest poet of the Hassidic sect.  He loved music with that passion and earnestness which made him sense the accents of melody in every object of nature.  Trees, grass, flowers, the very limbs of the human body, were to him vocal with song.  “Every science,” he said, “every religion, every philosophy, even atheism, has its own pattern of song.  The higher the religion or the science, the more exalted its music.”  There are mansions in heaven, says the Zohar, that can be approached only by song.  Some Zaddikim believed that they could attain more by music than by prayer.  Phinehas of Koretz declared that melody precedes repentance, and the Gerer Zaddik observed regretfully to his Hassidim, “Were I blessed with a sweet and beautiful voice, I could sing for you new hymns every day, for with the daily rejuvenation of the world new songs are being created.”

Although some of the Hassidic melodies had words wedded to their tunes, many of them were songs without words.  It was the mood and state of mind created by a song that was prized high, not its words.  The hymns and melodies, sung or hummed all over the world, have never been clothed in words.  Indeed, the Hassidim seem to be skeptical of words when applied to melody.  They believe that words interrupt the smooth and even flow of a tune and prevent it from reaching a state of rapture.


The Hassidim were not particular about the source or origin whence their melodies were derived.  They took them wherever they could find them.  They believed that the motive and purpose to which the songs were put, sanctified their humble birth.  While many of the Hassidic tunes have come from the synagogue, many others had a less distinguished source.  The place and circumstances under which the Hassidim lived play an important part in the history of their songs.  Thus, Wallachian peasants, Cossack herdsmen, military marches and love songs gave theme and inspiration to many Hassidic melodies.  These, of course, were reworked and reshaped; sacred tunes were put into secular motifs till they were made into songs fit for heaven.

Melody was the torch that lighted up every Hassidic gathering.  Whether at the court of the Zaddik or in the synagogue, whether meeting privately or at a sacred ceremony, music was the regular feature of every Hassidic entertainment.  It livened up the meeting and spread an atmosphere of festivity over the most commonplace occasion.  As already stated, many of the Zaddikim were excellent musicians and composed songs and created their own melodies.  Such men stood in the highest regard of their followers.  To possess a good and pleasing voice was as great an asset to a Zaddik as learning was to the Mithnagdic rabbi.  But when this gift could not be claimed by him, the custom was to employ a court-singer, whose duty it was, besides leading the faithful ones in singing at the ceremonial Sabbath meal, to study the mood and temper of his superior and translate them into songs.  Such function required a musical talent of the highest sort.  Such a court-singer was not only director and choir leader, but a composer and psychologist as well.  The tunes he composed or acquired were carefully studied, rehearsed and repeated with great gusto and fervor on the Sabbath and holidays.  It is thus that, while there are some Hassidic melodies that are universal, it was customary for every court to have its own style of singing, so that Hassidic affiliations could often be gauged by the melodies.  Not all the Zaddikim liked the same kind of music.  Some had a preference for emotional and ecstatic music, and others delighted in lyrical and sentimental style, while still others thrilled to the tunes of military marches.

Professor A. Z. Idelsohn, an authority on Jewish music, makes the interesting observation that, just as there are two different schools of Hassidism, the emotional and the philosophical, Baal Shem having been the founder of the one and Sheneir Zalman of the other, so there are also two distinct types of Hassidic melodies: the ecstatic and the reflective, the joyous and the mystical.  A strong, rhythmic melody luring one to dance, is characteristic of the first; a more subdued, pensive, rapturous and yearning tone is the theme of the second group.  Simha, “Joy,” is the feature of the Beshtian school, Debekuth, “Submergence into the Divinity,” is the characteristic of the Habad Hassidim.

Under the impulse of Hassidism a new type of Jewish music came into being.  While the music of the Mithnagdim runs into Hazanuth, “cantorial,” the ritual style of the synagogue, with little change or variation, the music of the Hassidim is original, creative and spontaneous.  One is crude and antiquated, little departing from the original Torah cantillation; the other is full of rhythm and color, a style of music that sprang from the very hearts of the people, possessing all the elements of musical composition.  Whatever there may be in store for the future development of Jewish music, it is the opinion of many authorities on the subject that it will be cradled in the melodies of the Hassidic songs.  Great musical composers have already responded to it.  In the hands of men like Saminsky, Ernst Bloch and Joseph Achron, Hassidic music has already given the impulse to great musical compositions and it is predicted that it will hold out still greater promise in the future.


Dancing is religion conceived rhythmically.  It is the coordination of the physical faculties with the feeling of ecstasy.  It is that self-forgetful union with the not-self which is the highest form of religion.  A dim vision of its rapturous and intoxicating effect must have already been present in the mind of the Hebrew poet-king when he exclaimed, “All my bones shall say, Lord, who is like unto thee?”

In olden times dancing was as much part of religion as prayer.  In fact, among the primitive tribes it is prayer.  As an anthropologist has put it, “The savage does not preach his religion; he dances it.”  Dancing is to the savage the magical operation for the attainment of whatever favors he wishes to receive from his gods.  Says H. Havelock Ellis: “To dance was at once to worship and to pray.  Just as we find in our Prayer-Books that there are divine services for all the great fundamental acts of life, for birth, for marriage, for death,” so “for all the solemn occasions of life, for bridals, for funerals, or seed-time and for harvest, for war and for peace, for all these things there were fitting dances.”

The drama is action fitted to words.  The Greek drama was a ritualistic dance that preceded the sacrifice.  It is in fact what all dancing was in the early days of the race before the dance as a social and dramatic expression grew out from the ceremonial and religious.  During the Middle Ages the dance passed over into the mystery play which stood in high esteem in the Christian Church.  The dances were sometimes ecstatic, sometimes pantomimic, but were always executed with high religious fervor.  Religion lost much of its freshness and spontaneity when dancing was discontinued as part of its exercises.

Although dancing among the early Hebrews has never attained to the dignity of a ritualistic exercise as among other nations, it was nevertheless one of their popular pastimes.  From the very beginning it seems to have played an important and intimate part in the life of the people.  Frequent reference is made to it in the earliest narratives of the Jews.  It was one of the compensations for their lack of invention and ability in the other fine arts.  Common tasks were made lighter by a chant; a popular celebration was rendered more joyous by the rhythmic movements of a dance.  The Israelites of that period were a light-hearted people, quick, impetuous, pleasure-loving, an instrument easy to play upon, and the dance gave them an opportunity for the expression of their intensity of feeling.

Every important public event, a victory in war, a great national deliverance, the returning of a hero, the observance of a festival, a general rejoicing, furnished the occasion for inviting the people to dance.  The exodus from Egypt was celebrated by timbrels and dancing; the Bible preserved the memory of religious dances in connection with the golden calf; Jephtha’s daughter went out to meet her triumphant father with “timbrels and dancing”; the women of the cities of Israel came out to welcome Saul after his victory over the Philistines with singing and dancing; King David set aside his royal dignity and danced and made merry before the Ark of the Lord.  In almost all these instances it was the women who took the initiative, bounding forth with their gaily trimmed tambourines to tread the measures of their dance in which the men joined, clapping their hands and stamping their feet.

The records of their dances have unfortunately been lost and we do not know whether the Jews of Palestine had ever succeeded in developing a dance that was as characteristically Hebraic as their style of literature.  It is, therefore, impossible to reconstruct the ancient Jewish dance, if there ever was one that was typically Jewish.  But its character may be derived from the Hebrew terms for dancing which signify leaping, circling, turning and making merry.  Tradition preserved the record of public celebrations being made happier by the files of gay, tripping maidens, striking their timbrels and inviting their male companions to join them in their dances.  The fifteenth day of Ab and the Day of Atonement were particularly striking for the gay enchantresses of Palestine, who, without blush or shame, lured on the men to behold their attractive loveliness.  The “marriage dance” was regarded with great favor by the Jews, and it survived the destruction of the Temple.  To dance before the bride was held a pious act, and great rabbis frequently indulged in it.  It was only in the days when the Greek immoralities menaced the very existence of Judaism that dancing, especially by professional and probably lewd women, lost its high standing and was looked upon with disfavor.


There was little temptation to dancing in the Middle Ages, when joy was a stranger in the Jewish habitations.  Whatever dancing there was, was probably limited to weddings and the holiday known as “Rejoicing with the Torah.”  The Jews, not having developed a style of dancing of their own, borrowed their dances, as they did their music, from the peoples among whom they lived.  They were peasant dances and, on the whole, without grace or color.  The synagogue became an austere and solemn place where people gathered to pray and to contemplate the serious and solemn thoughts of life and death.  Its brooding atmosphere was never disturbed by any such gay and “frivolous” exercise as dancing.  As a ritualistic exercise, dancing was thus banished from the synagogue with little hope of its ever returning to it again.

It was, however, impossible that the atmosphere Hassidism had breathed into Judaism, finding expression in music, should neglect its natural companion, dancing.  The same impulse that relaxed the muscles of the vocal cords, set also the limbs in motion.  Although Hassidism has not been as original in the art of dancing as it was in music, it nevertheless created a rhythmic swaying of the body that expresses the ecstatic Hassidic temperament.  While the Hassidim did not dance their prayers, they made dancing an indispensable part of the synagogue ritual.  Intriguing tunes led to mass exaltation that almost always expressed itself in gesticulating dancing.  And their dance, like their music, is more of a mood than a rhythm, more of a prayer than an art.  It is the expression of their unsuppressed spiritual exaltation that is too intimate, too deep, too overflowing to be restrained.

Hassidim dance as they sing whenever and wherever they meet, at the Rebbe’s court, at social gatherings and on festive occasions.  Music and brandy relax the feet for dancing.  But it is especially in the synagogue where the dance assumes the character of a religious ritual.  Writes I. Wassilevsky: “It often occurs that a party of Chassidim are seated round a table on a Sabbath or on the occasion of a festival.  Their faces are glum and long, and their cheeks sunken, and their eyes full of sadness.  Their lips are slightly twitching, their backs are bent, and their legs seem barely strong enough to support them.  Each is overshadowed by his anxieties, personal and national; and these seem to pervade the atmosphere.  Then, as if from nowhere, in the midst of conversation on everyday matters, a slight humming may be heard.  Soon the melody which arises seems to permeate everybody.  There is, indeed, the echo of a sob in it at first, but this is soon transformed to a hopeful chant, lamentation is turned to joy, despair to hope, which becomes faith, then trust, and then enthusiasm.  Feet are raised, normal attitude assumed, bodies grow erect, hands are joined and a dance begins....  Their hearts seem to bask in the sun of love, everything is holy, good and beautiful, and they seem to be new men in body and in soul.”

It is thus that Hassidism has established its claim to the attention, even love, of the Jews.  There is much in Hassidism that can revitalize the life of the Jews to-day, much that can be utilized for the artistic and spiritual creativeness of the Jewish people.  It has given new wings to the poet and fresh impulse to the writer, thinker and dramatist.  It has uncovered cultural vistas that were hitherto closed to them.  It has spread a glamour of romance and poetry over a life that was cold and prosaic.  When all this can be claimed for a movement the best that can be stated for it has been said.




















The following is a Hassidic folktale as told by Martin Buber, from his book Tales of the Hasidim.


Shaul and Ivan

It is told:

Once when Rabbi Meir Margaliot, the author of the book “Illuminator of the Paths,” was visiting the Baal Shem with his seven-year-old son, his host asked him to leave the boy for a time.  Little Shaul remained in the house of the Baal Shem Tov.  Soon after, the Baal Shem took him and his disciples on a journey.  He had the carriage stop in front of a village inn and entered with his companions and the boy.  Inside they were playing the fiddle and peasant men and women were dancing.  “Your fiddler is no good,” the Baal Shem said to the peasants.  “Let my boy sing you a dance song, and then you will be able to dance much better.”

The peasants were willing.  The boy stood on a table and in his silvery voice sang a Hasidic dance song without words, that went straight to the feet of the villagers.  In a reel of wild happiness they danced around the table.  Then one of them, a young fellow, stepped forward from among them and asked the boy: “What is your name?”  “Shaul,” he said.  “Go on singing,” the peasant cried.  The boy started another song and the peasant faced him and danced in time to the tune.  But in the midst of his wild leaps and bounds, he repeated over and over in charmed tones, “You Shaul and I Ivan, You Shaul and I Ivan!”  After the dance, the peasants treated the Baal Shem and his disciples to vodka, and they drank together.

About thirty years later, Rabbi Shaul, who had become both a wealthy merchant and a Talmud scholar of sorts, was traveling through the country on business.  Suddenly robbers attacked him, took his money, and wanted to kill him.  When he begged them to have pity on him, they took him to their chieftain.  He gave Rabbi Shaul a long penetrating look.  Finally he asked: “What is your name?”  “Shaul,” said the other.  “You Shaul and I Ivan,” said the robber chief.  He told his men to return Shaul’s money and take him back to his carriage.



The following is from Meyer Levin’s collection of Hassidic folktales The Golden Mountain, from 1932, along with the story of the “Deaf Man and the Mad Dancers”:


Rabbi Israel’s Daughter

THE Baal Shem’s daughter Udel was a grown girl.  She said to him, “Father, when shall I know my husband?”  Rabbi Israel loved his daughter; he stroked her hair.  She said, “Father, shall I be a mother of children?”

Rabbi Israel told her, “Your husband is hidden among the scholars who come here to me.  You must wait until a sign points him out to you.”

On Simchas Torah, the feast of the Law, there was joyous dancing in the house of the Baal Shem Tov.  The students danced, and Israel danced with them, they danced with wildest ecstasy for love of the holy Torah.  And in the midst of their mad whirling, one of the students lost his shoe.  It flew right off his foot.

Then he sang out a popular verse:

“A maiden will put
The shoe on my foot,
A mother will rock
The babe in her cradle!”

Just then Rabbi Israel cried to his daughter, “Udel!”

Then the girl became so confused she didn’t know where to find the student’s slipper.  So she sat down and took off both of her own slippers and gave them to the young man.

And she married that man.  And from their union two sons and a daughter were born.  One son grew up to be the Tsadik of Sadilikov, and the other was Rabbi Baruch of Medzibuz.  The daughter was named Feige [grandmother of Nahman Bratzlav].