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The Hasidic Rabbinate, Part I

by Yehuda Klausner


Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, Baal Shem Tov (Besht), 1700-1760, founder of Hasidism. 

The Church's incitement against the Jews in the Middle Ages led to anti-Jewish treachery that was accompanied by expulsions and murder throughout Western and Central Europe between the 13th and 17th centuries (see Klausner, Sharsheret Hadorot 15/3). Out of this despair of the Jews false messiahs appeared: David Alroi (1160), David HaReuveni (1542), Shlomo Molcho (1500-1532), Shabbtai Zvi (1626-1676), Jacob Frank (1726-1791), and others. During this time, the hub of Jewish life moved from Western and Central Europe eastward. There the Jews lived under relatively better conditions, at least from the standpoint of the rights granted to them. There were ups and downs, with severe poverty and crowded living conditions, especially in the isolated towns and outlying villages, along with periodic pogroms. Into this background Hasidism and its founder Israel ben Eliezer Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) was born. As with the False Messiahs, Hasidism spread rapidly, and not only among the simple people, as everyone anticipated some type of tidings. The flames of Hasidism engulfed rabbis and scholars and it soon became a viable worldwide movement.

In this article's first part, we will give a short overview of Hasidism and of the movement that opposed it. In the second part, which will appear separately, we will study the Hasidic dynasties and sub-dynasties that have developed to our own day.

Background to the Growth of Hasidism

One result of the mortal danger they faced was a turning to religion and the quest for a remedy specifically in those areas shrouded in mysticism - Kabbalah and Messianism.

Conditions that pervaded after the Chmielnicki pogroms of 1648-1649, along with the disturbances that occurred in southwest Poland caused the Jews of the region to fear for the continued existence of their communities, their very lives and their future. As in the past, one result of the mortal danger they faced was a turning to religion and the quest for a remedy specifically in those areas shrouded in mysticism - Kabbalah and Messianism. The longing for the anticipated redemption overwhelmed the people and the atmosphere that it created provided fertile ground for the development of Messianism. Even before these events, the city of Safed had a community numbering more than fifteen thousand Jews firmly grounded in religion and economically secure. Active were R. Jacob Berab, head of the Safed scholars, R. Joseph Karo (1488-1575), the author of the Shulhan Arukh, R. Moses Cordovero (1522-1570) known by the acronym HaRamak, and his disciple, R. Isaac Luria Ashkenazi (1534-1574) known as the Holy Ari. They authored the systematic commentaries of the Kabbalah. Their teachings spread rapidly in Italy, Turkey, and Poland, where they fell on fertile ground. Along with the failure of the messianic movements, the diffusion of their teachings contributed to the rapid spread of Hasidism from the area of its birth, Podolia, to the Ukraine, Moldavia, Romania, Galicia, the Habsburg territories, Poland, Lithuania, and White Russia. Over time and through immigration it spread to other Jewish centers like Eretz Yisrael and the United States.

The great success of Hasidism, in contrast to the messianic movements all of which failed, was due to the fact that in Hasidism one could find spiritual salvation, while the movements of the false prophets promised physical salvation, mass aliyah to Eretz Yisrael and safety from attack, none of which they could deliver.

When one speaks of the Hasidic movement, one must immediately mention the movement that rose in opposition to it, the Mitnagdim. Each of the two movements had a leader whose name became synonymous with the movement itself. Both leaders were strong willed and forceful, charismatic, with keenly forged mental powers and perseverance - factors that subsequently gave rise to legends and stories told in their names. On one side was the Baal Shem Tov (the Besht) while on the other side was the Gaon of Vilna (the Gra).

The Baal Shem Tov (Besht) - The Founder of the Hasidic Movement

Only when he won the heart of R. Dov Ber, the Magid of Miedzyrzec, did his movement, Hasidism, begin to succeed and Medzibozh became its center.

Rabbi Israel the son of Eliezer (1700-1760), popularly known as the Baal Shem Tov (Besht), was born in Okup, Ukraine. His father, an honest and God fearing man, died when he was very young. The community considered itself obligated to provide him with an education and entrusted him to a teacher. With time, he became the shamash (sexton) of the synagogue where he spent the nighttime hours studying Kabbalah. He married when he was eighteen years old, but his wife died a short time after their marriage. He wandered from place to place and settled in the area of Brody where he became the teacher of young children. With his honesty and wisdom, he also attracted the Jews of the region who utilized him to arbitrate their disputes. His personality impressed one of the local people, Efraim of Kuty. He became close to him and he even promised his daughter Hannah's hand in marriage. R. Efraim died a short time later and his son, R. Abraham Gershon tried to convince Hannah not to marry him but she chose to marry him despite her brother's objection. Israel wanted to spare his brother-in-law R. Abraham Gershon (1761), who was a noted scholar, any embarrassment, so he left Kuty with his wife and settled in the Carpathian Mountains. There, the couple lived in isolation and earned a meager living. Israel spent his time in prayer and meditation. While learning the healing powers of the various wild herbs, he tried his hand in assorted activities. He was a shohet, an innkeeper, wrote prescriptions and amulets, and spoke to the masses of people about the fear of God and the love of Torah. The family eventually moved to Medzhibozh. He not only attracted the simple people, but also over time both the educated and scholars drew towards him. However, only when he won the heart of R. Dov Ber (the family later used the surname Friedman), the Magid of Miedzyrzec [Mezritsh] (1704-1773), did his movement, Hasidism, begin to succeed and Medzhibozh became its center. The Baal Shem Tov brought to the Hasidic movement his experience of many years in the knowledge of nature in the wild and especially human nature.

It should be stated that with the development of a new movement, before it adopts standards of behavior and norms of practice, its fringes invariably attract those who toss aside any restraint, a mixed bag of people hitching a ride on the movement's wagon. We learn of this through a letter sent by R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady to R. Abraham of Kalisk in 1805 (Gross 1984) in which he reviews the poor rapport between them that began in 1772 when they went to meet with the Magid of Miedzyrzec. Among others he states:

"I went with him [R. Abraham, Y.K.] together to the room of our esteemed rabbi, may he rest in peace, and my eyes saw and my ears heard that he [the Magid of Miedzyrzec, Y.K.] spoke harshly about his poor leadership of our followers in Russia...where their conversation of the entire day was characterized by foolishness and clowning, mocking and scornful of all those who learn and making fun of them in all kinds of unrestrained ways. They are constantly leaping with their heads down and their feet up in the city markets and streets, and the name of Heaven is profaned in the eyes of the gentiles. They also engage in all other kinds of inanities in the streets of Kalisk. In the winter of 5532/1772, after the debate that took place in Shklov, he found no solution to this. The sages of the holy community of Shklov wrote to inform the late Gaon of Vilna, influencing him to, God forbid, consider them as rebellious [against God] applying the law of heresy for contemptuousness to scholars [B.T. Sanhedrin 99b, Y.K.], and concerning the tumbling with the feet in the air, he said that it was like Pe'or [B.T. Sanhedrin 70b, meaning the ritual of idolatry at Baal Pe'or, Y. K.]. They then wrote from Vilna to Brody and published there a vicious pamphlet that summer. This caused incredible distress for all the Hasidic leaders in Volhyn who could then no longer return to their homes. They all gathered in the holy community of Rovno at that time to consult with our holy rabbi of blessed memory..."

The Gaon of Vilna (Gra) - Initiator of the Opposition Movement

Twenty years after the birth of the Baal Shem Tov, R. Elijah the son of Shlomo Zalman Hasid (1720-1797) later known as the Gaon of Vilna (Gra) was born. This modest man, who came out in public only on rare occasions, was highly regarded by all the scholars of his day without exception, including R. Jonathan Eybeschutz (1690-1764) who requested him to mediate in the conflict he had with other rabbis, R. Jacob Emden (1697-1776), R. Ezekiel Landau (1713-1793) and R. Joshua Falk (1680-1756), who constituted the outstanding group of scholars of the day. R. Elijah was recognized as a genius in every field while still a youth and when he was 35, they all sought his advice, referring matters of Jewish law to him for his determination. He was the only one since the Gaonic period who was granted the title Gaon. He was interested in mathematics, astronomy, anatomy, and history and sought to translate books in these sciences, including the books of Josephus Flavius, into Hebrew for the benefit of the public. He also wanted to use music for educational purposes. He never occupied an official public position; he wrote more than seventy books, comments on the Torah, the Tanakh, the Mishnah, both Talmuds, the Shulhan Arukh, Haggadah, Midrashim, and others.

Findings and written testimonies known today testify to the fact that it was indeed the Gaon of Vilna himself who initiated and conducted all the steps in opposition to Hasidism.

The second title connected with his name, Hasid, relates to his spiritual world and his ascetic lifestyle, and has no connection to the Hasidic movement. However, his asceticism gave rise to an inaccurate picture and to the widely accepted yet incorrect belief that it was the people who surrounded him together with the leaders of the Vilna community who were responsible for what happened and for the battle against Hasidism. Findings and written testimonies known today testify to the fact that it was indeed the Gaon of Vilna himself who initiated and conducted all the steps in opposition to Hasidism.

Principles of Hasidism

In 1736, the Baal Shem Tov was discovered to have supernatural powers after years of healing people through amulets and especially with natural herbs and curative plants whose benefits he learned in his years of solitude in the Carpathian Mountains. He was then 36 years old. He moved to Medzhibozh where he established himself. His good name and his reputation as a healer of the sick, supplier of help to the oppressed, provider of support and tzedakah to the poor, more and more individuals, especially from among the simple people but not only them, began to gather to be in his presence. Stories and legends about his miraculous powers and his righteousness became widespread and the number of his disciples and those who came to hear his teachings increased. Among them were first-rate rabbis and scholars such as R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk and Shneur Zalman of Lyady, but all of this was only after he won over R. Dov Ber the Magid of Miedzyrzec.

The Disciples of the Baal Shem Tov

The Magid of Miedzyrzec worked hand in hand with the Besht in educating the second and third generations of Hasidic leaders.

The Baal Shem Tov was an expert in the Kabbalah and the commentaries of R. Isaac Luria on the Zohar were his guiding light. He was more interested in the practical aspects rather than the esoteric or speculative side of Kabbalah. He studied philosophical works, especially those from the Middle Ages, and was influenced by them.

The Magid of Miedzyrzec worked hand in hand with the Besht in educating the second and third generations of Hasidic leaders, who joined them, accepted their teachings and established dynasties. These disciples of the Besht (the second generation) and of the Magid of Miedzyrzec (the third generation) are (Alfasi, 1977 & Klausner 1999):

  • R. Pinhas ben Abraham Abba Shapira of Korets (1728-1790)
  • R. Shabbtai of Rashkov (1655-1745)
  • R. Meir ben Jacob of Przemyslan (1711-1773)
  • R. Zvi Hirsh ben David of Kaminka (-1780)
  • R. Yechiel Mechl ben Yitzhak Sprodliver of Drogobycz [Drubitsh] (1721-1786)
  • R. Nahum Menahem ben Zvi Twersky of Chernobyl (1730-1778)
  • R. Aaron ben Jacob Perlow the Great of Karlin (1736-1772)
  • R. Jacob Joseph ben Judah Arye Leib of Ostrog (-1791)
  • R. Elimelekh ben Eliezer Lipman Weissblum (-1786)
  • R. Meshulam Zusya ben Eliezer Lipman Lifshutz of Hanipoli (-1800)
  • R. Shneur Zalman ben Barukh of Lyady (his children adopted the surname Schneurson) (1745-1813)
  • R. Levi Yitzhak ben Meir of Berditchev (1740-1809)
  • R. Simon Solomon Wertheim of Savaran (-1790)
  • R. Chayim of Indura [Amdur] -1787
  • R. Arye Leib ben Shalom of Waltshisok (-1817)
  • R. Zvi Hirsh ben Shalom Zelig Magid of Nadvorna (-1802)
  • R. Solomon ben Abraham Lutzker of Sokal (1740-1812)
  • R. Abraham Abba Weingarten of Soroka
  • R. Meshulam Feivish ben Aaron Moses Heller Halevi of Zbarazh (1740-1794)
  • R. Gedaliah ben Yitzhak Rabinowitz of Linitz (-1803)
  • R. Hayim ben Solomon Tirer of Chernovitz (1817-1760)
  • R. Solomon Gottlieb Halevi of Karlin (1738-1792)

The courts established by the above rabbis and the courts that were established in the following generations will be described in Part II of this essay.

The list of the disciples of the Besht and the Magid of Miedzyrzec are given in the tables in Appendix 1 and in Appendix 2.

The Struggle of the Mitnagdim against the Hasidim

The organized struggle against the Hasidim by the Vilna community started during Hol Hamoed Pesah (the intermediate days of Passover) in 5532/1772, 26 years after the Baal Shem Tov came to the public attention and 12 years after his death. The disciples of the Magid of Miedzyrzec from the second and third generations were already the leadership of Hasidism.

The Hasidim were the objects of denunciation, censure and attack, and even excommunication by communities and their rabbis.

According to Dubnow (Dubnow, 1960) the organizational power of the Jewish communities was greatly weakened by the disbanding of the Council of the Four Lands in 1764. Hasidism, which challenged what had been the scholastic basis of rabbinic Judaism up to that time, replaced it with prayer and fervor. In turn, Hasidism began to spread from the Ukraine to White Russia and Lithuania. Since the rabbis' dread of the Frankist heresy had not yet diminished, the rabbis united against those "who destroy and demolish." Previously, and even afterwards the Hasidim were the objects of denunciation, censure and attack, and even excommunication by communities and their rabbis. From reliable written accounts (R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady 1980, Etkes 1998), in the winter preceding Pesah of that year R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady and R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk repeatedly attempted to meet with The Gaon of Vilna. He refused their attempts to get together, and in the words of Shneur Zalman:

"We went to the house of the righteous Gaon, may his light continually shine, to make a case before him to remove his grievances against us. When I was there with the righteous Rabbi our late teacher R. Mendel Harisner, may his righteousness bless us with life in the world to come, he [the Gaon of Vilna Y.K.] twice closed the door in our faces. When prominent people of the city said to him, 'Rabbi, their leading rabbi has come to debate with [you the] great honor of the Torah, and when you prevail, certainly this will bring peace to Israel. He dismissed their appeal. When they continued to plead with him, he vanished and absented himself from the city until we in turn, as the elders of the city knew, departed [Vilna].

After this, in our country, we went to the holy city of Shklov, to plead our cause but we were not able to. They did inappropriate things to us, departing from their initial promises that nothing would happen to us. Only when they came to the realization that they could not answer us, did they act in a hostile way, and based their words on the great authority [lit. suspended themselves from a tall tree, Y.K.], the Gaon, the Hasid, may God watch over him and save him."

This short text shows how much esteem R. Shneur Zalman, and apparently, also R. Menahem Mendel, had for the Gaon of Vilna, even though he opposed them and in spite of the contempt he showed towards them. We also see that the leaders of the community assisted them in approaching the Gaon of Vilna and that the hostility came from the Gaon himself. In addition, we observe how the attitude of the community of Shklov changed towards these two esteemed rabbis, after the Gaon of Vilna slammed the door in their faces. R. Shneur Zalman's description of the last point is very restrained. For many years, R. Shneur Zalman acted as the representative of Hasidism in Shklov, Minsk, and Vilna, strongholds of the opposition to Hasidism. In the historical writings of R. Joseph Yitzhak ben Shalom Schneurson (1880-1950), the leader of Habad Hasidim (R. Joseph Yitzhak 1964), it is related how R. Shneur Zalman, who was a first rate scholar, maneuvered the Mitnagdim into a public dispute in Minsk at the end of 1781 that the Gaon of Vilna could not oppose and in which he [R. Shneur Zalman] had the upper hand. According to this version, R. Shneur Zalman impressed everyone with the depth and sharpness of his answers, and many of the opponents of Hasidism who were there, switched sides and joined the Hasidim. However, the dispute in Shklov ended in failure for the Hasidim and there is no other evidence of a dispute having taken place in Minsk. Among researchers, there is disagreement over the disputes and their outcome.

The Haskalah Movement

The Haskalah Movement (Enlightenment Movement) was created and developed almost along side of Hasidism. While it is not the subject of this essay and is only tangential to it, we will look at their points of contact.

The rabbis saw in the development of Haskalah the threat that those who were drawn to it would be alienated from religion and from traditional Jewish study. The wide-ranging knowledge of the Gaon of Vilna and his interest in the sciences served as a cover for the Haskalah supporters. His image as the author of books on grammar, geometry, astronomy and other subjects, served the Maskilim as a banner to wave; in reality, the Gaon of Vilna did not consider this movement to be of any consequence and certainly of less importance than his fight against Hasidism.

Ironically, it turns out that the Hasidim preserved the honor of the Torah and its study.

When Moses Mendelsohn published his German translation of the bible, the Gaon of Vilna sent a delegation of his students to Germany to investigate the nature of the translation. They returned with a positive report and the Gaon of Vilna endorsed the translation. All this led to undesirable results when Yeshiva students traveled to Berlin and other places to learn German and the sciences and the Haskalah infiltrated the Mitnagdim. The Hasidim, in contrast, with R. Shneur Zalman at the head, were strongly opposed to this. Ironically, it turns out that the Hasidim preserved the honor of the Torah and its study.

After the death of the Gaon of Vilna, the leadership of the Mitnagdim passed to his devoted disciple, R. Hayim ben Yitzhak Berlin of Volozhin (1749-1821). R. Hayim attempted to combat the Haskalah with the founding of the Volozhin Yeshiva, and a call to revitalize the institutions of Torah and redefine the concept of the rabbinate. It was not to be regarded as a means for making a living, but as an intellectual accomplishment, that one would have to strive to achieve. With time, at Volozhin they ceased to concentrate on the Poskim (halakhic literature). The innovation at Volozhin was that it was not a local institution but a regional Yeshiva whose students came from all parts of the country to study Torah for its own sake. The high level of its graduates and their reputation spread far and wide, and offers and invitations to serve as rabbis were even sent to those who had no intention of teaching and therefore did not have rabbinic ordination. The reluctance to serve in the rabbinate in order not to use the Torah as means to make a living was so prevalent in Lithuania that there were occasions where R. Hayim himself had to intervene in order that a candidate would retract his refusal to serve. The salary paid to rabbis was meager and there were cases where the rabbi's family continued to have to depend on being supported by his wife's family for many years. With all of its drawbacks, rabbinic positions continued to be looked upon as prestigious and occasionally there was competition among the candidates.

We see, to a certain extent, a confluence of the positions of both Hasidim and Mitnagdim on issues dealing with the rabbinate, even if it was only an intellectual mutuality. The Hasidim emphasized the enthusiasm in the service of God as the Tzadik or Admor (head of Hasidic dynasty) was the spiritual leader serving as a 'technician' with Jewish law, while the others brought about a purposeful lessening in the status of the rabbinate.


The general opinion of the latter day researchers of this period is that both sides benefited from the dispute.

As time went on, the leadership on both sides passed from the scene. The Hasidic movement gained in power, increased the number of its adherents and a calm developed between both sides of the struggle. There is a wide scope of opinions among students of the conflict, ranging from those who consider the quarrel as not worth investigating (Landau 1965) to those who validate it (Epstein 1928, Wolfberg-Aviad 1954) and attempt to plead the cause of the Gaon of Vilna by saying that all he wanted to accomplish was to draw the Hasidim closer to the mainstream of Judaism. The general opinion of the latter day researchers of this period is that both sides benefited from the dispute; a quarrel that in the end was for the sake of Heaven. The Hasidim influenced the Mitnagdim to include feeling and enthusiasm in their performance of mitzvot, while on the other hand, the Mitnagdim prevented the Hasidim from upsetting the balance between the revealed and the hidden, a disruption that would have had dire consequences. It is appropriate to quote R. Barukh Epstein's testimony as stated by R. Menahem Mendel ben Shalom Sachna Schneurson (1789-1866), the third Admor of Habad known as the Tzemah Tzedek, who was the son-in-law of Dov Ber ben Shneur Zalman Schneurson (1773-1827) .

"I will reveal to you a subject that I have kept hidden in my heart all my days...and have not confessed it to anyone...except to my father-in-law and his father, may they rest in peace...and the secret is that our supporters cannot begin to estimate the great good deed and act of kindness that the Gaon of Vilna did by challenging us...for without this controversy, there would certainly have been ample reason to worry and be concerned that the new pattern that we developed...would have brought us slowly but surely, step by step, beyond the limits of the Torah and commandments...because of the power of enthusiasm, the uplifting of the soul and exultation of the spirit in the progression of the new system that swept with it the hearts of its initiators and creators. In the end, die spirit of the Talmud would have been burned by the intensity of the flame of the Kabbalah, and the hidden Torah would have diminished the image of the revealed Torah, and the performance of the mitzvot would have faded in importance in wake of the burning passion of the secrets of enthusiasm..."

Thus, the struggle faded and was forgotten with time. The two movements drew closer in face of the challenges that threatened them both: Haskalah, assimilation and Reform.


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Dubnow, S. Toldot HaHasidut. Tel Aviv, 1960. (Hebrew)

Epstein, B. Makor Baruch. Zichronot mehayei hador hakodem. Vilna, 1928. (Hebrew)

Etkes, Yahid Bedoro. HaGaon miVilna - dmut vedimui. The Zalman Shazar
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Graz, Z. "Mimitos leetos. Kavim lidmuto shel R'Avraham m'Kalisk." In Uma
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Klausner, Y. Bal-Shem-Tov: Genealogical List of Disciples. Compiled
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Klausner, Y. "European Rabbis Throughout the Generations." Sharsheret
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Shochet, D. B. Shivhei HaBesht (including the Last Will of the Besht). Lvov,
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Shneour Zalman miLyady (R.). Igrot kodesh. New York, 1980. (Hebrew)

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Continue to The Hasidic Rabbinate, Part II >>

Dr. Yehuda Klausner is a Civil Engineer with BSc, CE, MA from the Technion IIT Haifa and PhD from Princeton University. He served as Professor of Civil Engineering at Wayne State University Detroit and The Negev Institute of Arid Zone Research, Beer-Sheva, and since 1970 is a practicing Civil Engineer specializing in industrial structures and foundation engineering. He published many professional papers and a book on Continuum Mechanics of Soils. In 1982 he became interested in genealogical studies and now his database comprises several families that he is researching. E-mail:

This article was originally published in Sharsheret Hadorot (Journal of Jewish Genealogy of the Israel Genealogical Society), October 2001, Vol. 16, No. 1, and is reproduced with kind permission of the editor, Yocheved Klausner.