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What is Chassidism?

by Rabbi Mendy Hecht

  

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A. Chassidism is the Judaism-revolutionizing, Moshiach-bringing movement that swept across and overtook classical Judaism in the early-to-mid 1700s. It was founded by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov

B. Chassidism is to Judaism what a second kidney is to the man who only has one, or what color is to black-and-white photography—an enhancement. An improvement. A dramatic betterment of the status quo.

C. Chassidism came to Jewry when Jewry couldn’t have possibly needed it more. Like a doctor whispering a fainted man’s name in his ears, the Nation of Israel, devastated by the Cossacks and the false messianism of Shabbatai Tzvi, received a wake-up call when G-d whispered “Israel Baal Shem Tov” into its collective ear. During his lifetime, the Baal Shem Tov recorded an out-of-body experience in which he returned to Heaven to ask Moshiach when he would come. Moshiach responded: “When your wellsprings will spread out,” meaning: when your teachings change the Jewish world. Chassidism is thus a cataclysmic, cosmic development, laying the groundwork for the arrival of Moshiach itself.

What defines Chassidism?

1. The Movement

Chassidism began in 1698 with a soul named Israel descending from Heaven into the body of the yet-to-be-born son of Eliezer and Sarah, a kindly couple of the little village of Okup, Ukraine. Little Israel’s father died young, charging his only child to “fear nothing but G-d.” His mother died a short while later.

To the Chassidim, it wasn’t what you did as much as how you did it—with true happiness, positivity and good cheer
Having little formal education, the lad joined a small school as a teacher’s apprentice, spending much free time wandering the fields and forests pondering G-d’s greatness. As a teenager, Israel joined a wandering group of mystics, becoming well versed in Kabbalistic traditions of Torah and acquiring the title “Baal Shem Tov,” or “Master of the Good Name.”1

At age 36, after years of traipsing about, the Baal Shem Tov was informed from On High that the time had come to change the world. He began addressing the illiterate peasant masses among the greater Jewish community, attracting a huge following among the learned and laymen alike with his inspirational tales, warmth, love and miracles. He taught that every Jew is beloved to G-d like an only son to his parents, and that innocence born of ignorance counts. He sweetened Judaism, counteracting the severity and elitism that the scholars and preachers had stratified the Jewish community with.

Eventually settling in Mezhibuzh, the Baal Shem gathered about him a hardcore inner circle of devoted students, all world-class Torah scholars in their own right. Upon his passing on the holiday of Shavuot, 1760, Rabbi Dov Ber, his finest disciple, a.k.a. the Maggid (Preacher) of Mezritch, assumed leadership of Chassidism. Under the Maggid, the third generation of Chassidic leadership, numbering several dozen brilliant students, studied, learned and developed individual interpretations of The Chassidic Idea. Upon the Maggid’s passing, leadership of the movement split evenly among these several dozen students, ultimately branching into several hundred schools of thought by the mid-1900s.

2. The Chassid 

When Chassidism was born, it wasn’t called Chassidism. The title came later. What it means and what it came to mean are two different things. What it means is “piety.” What is means today is the same thing it meant when the early adherents of Chassidism adopted it for themselves: a spiritual, emotional devotion to the study of Torah and performance of mitzvahs above and beyond the letter of law. To the Chassidim, it wasn’t what you did as much as how you did it—with true happiness, positivity and good cheer. Today, a “Chassid” is a Jew who is born into a Chassidic family of any of the hundreds of existing Chassidic groups, and/or who follows or subscribes to that lifestyle. 

Footnotes

  • 1. The title Baal Shem describes the practical application of Kabbalah, particularly the spiritual energies filling the Hebrew Name(s) of G-d. Although he was the most popular Baal Shem in history, he was not the first.

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chassidus

Posted by: Anonymous on Dec 01, 2004

Wow. I'm not chassidish or anything, but I connect to HaShem in a very "chassidish" way and I LOVE this explanation you have on here. It is absolutely beautiful. yashar cochachem keep up the good work.

A tad biased

Posted by: Corey, Toronto, Ontario, Canada on Apr 06, 2005

While the history in this article is factually correct, it's extremely biased.

"A dramatic betterment of the status quo."

While yes, the Chasidic movement has had an ENORMOUS impact on Jewish society as a whole, I would hardly say that a service that is supposed to dispense information should be making judgements which obviously are not universally accepted.

While I personally have no problem with Chasidism, in fact I think its an interesting concept that I'd like to learn about more, this article contains sweeping statements that make it seem like the majority of Jews are Chasidim and that it is only through the Chasidim that the Messiah will come.

I expect a little more objectivity from a site of askmoses.com's renown.

nature of Chassidism

Posted by: Gedaliah Rabinowitz, Hillcrest, NY on Aug 20, 2005

In "part 4-Methods" to the question of "What is Chassidism?", it's been suggested that the difference between Chassidism and other streams of Torah Judaism is the following:

Chassidism sees Torah study as part of Avoda, while the other streams see Avoda as part of Torah study.

I have a problem with this latter point, that non-Chassidic streams of Judaism sees Avoda as PART of Torah study.

Doesn't non-Chassidic Torah Judaism fully believe in the statement in Pirkei Avot?: (Chapter 1, Mishnah 2)---- "the world rests on 3 pillars - (1) study of Torah (Talmud Torah); (2) Avodah (service of G-d) via prayer (Tefilla) & (3) acts of Chesed (loving kindness)"

If so, doesn't non-Chassidic Torah Judaism see Avoda (pillar #2) as SEPARATE from, rather than a PART of, Torah study (pillar #1)

Editor's Comment

The Avodah which Rabbi Hecht is talking about is not necessarily praying, rather he is using the word avodah to refer to any and all forms of serving G-d.

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Chassidism » Chassidic Perspective

Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Moshiach
The Messiah. Moshiach is the person who will usher in an era of peace and tranquility for all of humanity when there will be no jealousy or hate, wars or famine. This is a fundamental Jewish belief.
Chassid
(Pl.: Chassidim; Adj.: Chassidic) A follower of the teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of "Chassidut." Chassidut emphasizes serving G-d with sincerity and joy, and the importance of connecting to a Rebbe (saintly mentor).
Chassidim
(Pl.: Chassidim; Adj.: Chassidic) Following the teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of "Chassidut." Chassidut emphasizes serving G-d with sincerity and joy, and the importance of connecting to a Rebbe (saintly mentor).
Chassidic
(Pl.: Chassidim; Adj.: Chassidic) A follower of the teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of "Chassidut." Chassidut emphasizes serving G-d with sincerity and joy, and the importance of connecting to a Rebbe (saintly mentor).
Rebbe
A Chassidic master. A saintly person who inspires followers to increase their spiritual awareness.
Lubavitcher
One who follows the teachings of the Chassidic group which was formerly based in the Belarus village of Lubavitch. Today, the movement is based in Brooklyn, New York with branches worldwide. The Lubavitch movement is also widely known as "Chabad."
Kabbalistic
(adj.) Pertaining to Kabbalah—Jewish mysticism.
Shavuot
Early summer festival marking the day when the Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai in the year 2448 (1312 BCE).
Baal Shem Tov
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), Polish mystic and founder of the Chassidic movement.
Sarah
First Jewess, first of the four Jewish Matriarchs, wife of Abraham--the first Jew. Lived in Mesopotamia, and then Canaan, in the 19th century BCE.
Lubavitcher Rebbe
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, spiritual leader of the worldwide Chabad movement.
Tefillah
Prayer. The Jewish Sages instituted three daily prayers, and an additional prayer on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.
Joseph
Firstborn son of Rachel and Jacob. Because he was Jacob's favorite son, his brothers conspired against him and sold him into slavery He ended up in Egypt where he became viceroy of the land, and eventually brought his entire family to Egypt. Died in 1451 BCE.
Rebbes
Plural form of Rebbe. A Rebbe is a Chassidic master. A saintly person who inspires followers to increase their spiritual awareness.
Niggunim
Plural form of Niggun. Jewish Melodies.
Tzadik
(fem. Tzidkanit; pl. Tzadikim). A saint, or righteous person.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.