Written by Dr Israel M. Sandman, The British Library, Asian and African Studies:
Hasidism; Ḥabad Hasidism
Hasidism is a revivalist trend that began in 18th-century Eastern European Jewry, inspired by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760). His disciple Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch (Velyki Mezhyrichi, Rivne Oblast, Ukraine) (d. 1772) diversified Hasidism, sending his disciple Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady (Vitebsk Oblast) (1745-1812) to found an intellectualist-contemplative branch of Hasidism in the vicinity of Russia that is close to Lithuania (present day northern Belarus and adjacent Russia). This branch is known as ḤaBaD (acrostic of Ḥokhma, Bina, Daʿat = Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge; alt. Chabad), which today is a worldwide movement.
Words of the Living God
An important function of a Hasidic leader, known as a ‘Rebbe’ or ‘Admur’, is to deliver theological discourses, considered to be inspired ‘words of the living God’ (Hebrew דברי אלהים חיים, abbreviated דא”ח / DAHK); and the transcripts of these discourses are thus called ‘holy writings’. Particularly in ḤaBaD, the Admur further provides his disciples, known as Hasidim, with guidance on ‘the methods of receiving “DAHK” in the light of Torah and inner work in one’s brain and heart’ (see the image below). After the passing of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, two competing ḤaBaD courts emerged, the leader of each promulgating a different methodological approach to internalizing DAHK. Of the two, Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s son Rabbi Dov Ber (1773-1827) established his centre in the town of Lubavitch (Liubavichi, Smolensk Oblast, Russia), thus establishing the ḤaBaD-Lubavitch Hasidic dynasty. In the text imaged below, from the beginning of his ‘Tract on Ecstasy’, Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch addresses perplexities and various errors that Hasidim had been having in developing their methods of internalizing DAHK.
History with a Soul
We now depart from the usual focus on Hasidic manuscripts only as bearers of Hasidic texts (unless scribed by a famous individual), instead holistically looking at the manuscripts as dynamic pieces of history. Of the 18 ḤaBaD Hasidic manuscripts in the Rylands Gaster Hebrew collection (Gaster Hebrew MSS 1342 – 1359), the above-mentioned Gaster Hebrew MS 1355 is a highly personal compilation, copied not by a professional scribe or famous person, but in part apparently by the anonymous user himself. This manuscript opens by breathing a soul into a short teaching known from printed sources, illustrating the personal way in which the teaching was transmitted through the early generations of Hasidism:
“From the exalted rabbi and famous Hasid, our master Rabbi Yitshak Isaac of Homiel (or: Gomel, Belarus) (whose repose is in Eden) (1770-1857). These are his words:
Now, I heard these words from mouth to mouth from the Old Admur [Rabbi Shneur Zalman] (whose repose is in Eden). [Rabbi Shneur Zalman said:] This is what I heard from the Rabbi, the Maggid of Mezritch [Rabbi Dov Ber]; and thus did he receive from the Baal Shem Tov (of blessed memory): that the commandment ‘You shall love [the Lord, your God]’ (Deuteronomy 6:5) is [fulfilled] by concentrating one’s thought and focus (in Judeo-German he said these words: me zol zikh areyn-ton) in matters that arouse love; and what results from this is not essential to the [fulfilment of] the commandment.
The person who heard [this] from the above-mentioned rabbi and Hasid Rabbi Yitshak Isaac (of blessed memory) recounted that when the Admur [Rabbi Shneur Zalman] (whose repose is in Eden) told this to [Rabbi Isaac], [Rabbi Shneur Zalman] stood up on his feet. That is because his holiness the Admur [Rabbi Shneur Zalman] stated what he had heard from the Rabbi, the Maggid [Rabbi Dov Ber] (whose repose is in Eden); and [when repeating someone’s teaching] one must feel as if the tradent is standing across from him (Jerusalem Talmud Shabbat 1:2).”
[מהרה”ג הח’ המפורסם מו”ה יצחק אייזיק נ”ע מהאמייע[ל] וז”ל:
הנה שמעתי פה אל פה מאדמו”ר הזקן נ”ע בזה”ל כך שמעתי מהה”מ דמעזריטש וכך קיבל הוא מהבעש”ט ז”ל. שמצות ואהבת היא לתקוע מחשבתו ודעתו (ובל”א אמר זה”ל מע זאל זיך אראיין טאן.) בדברים המעוררים את האה’. ומה שיבוא מזה אי”ז מעיקר המצוה. סיפר מי ששמע מהרה”ח רי”א ז”ל הנ”ל שכשאמר אדמו”ר נ”ע לו זה עמד על רגליו והיותו לפי שאמר כ”ק מששמע מהה”מ נ”ע וצריך שיהי’ כאלו בעל השמוע עומד כנגדו.]
Taking great pride in his Rebbe, the anonymous compiler of Gaster Hebrew MS 1355 included a letter by Rabbi Dov Ber, containing a precis of the latter’s Torah discussion with Rabbi Mordechai Banet (or: Benet; Marcus Benedict) of Nikolsburg (= Mikulov, Czeck Republic) (1753-1829) in the Summer of 1825, through which the latter became greatly interested in ḤaBaD thought and literature and asked for ḤaBaD books. Our scribe’s desire to broadcast this development is evidenced not only in his exuberant scribal flourishes but also in his drawing of a bird accompanied by Ecclesiastes 10:20b, ‘The bird of heaven shall carry the voice, and the winged creature will tell the matter’.
In a second part of this blog I will discuss the evidence from the manuscripts about how, given the precarious way the teachings of the Rebbes were transmitted, attempts were made to secure accuracy.
You can find all eighteen ḤaBaD Hasidic manuscripts online on Manchester Digital Collection together with detailed catalogue descriptions created by Dr Israel Sandman:
Watch the author of this post, Dr Israel Sandman’s presentation on the manuscripts here.