The Tisch: The Hassidic Study of Kabbala

Posted by Levi Cooper on December 19, 2010
Topics: Hasidut, Hasidic Lore Series, Early Hasidic Era

The hassidic world is steeped in ideas and practices whose roots are in the kabbalistic weltanschauung and particularly the canonical texts of the Zohar and the writings of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (Ari, 1534-1572).

Indeed, in many ways the hassidic movement was – as the great scholar Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) put it – “the latest phase” of Jewish mysticism. Yet even a cursory look at the hassidic world of today will reveal that Kabbala and the Zohar do not appear to be central. It is far from likely to find a copy of the Zohar in the private library of your average hassid. What happened? The early hassidic masters saw themselves as heirs to the kabbalistic tradition. This is reflected clearly in one of the few extant documents that can be authenticated as belonging to Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov (Besht, c.1700-1760), the person who inspired the movement. The Besht tells us of a mystical experience where he learns that the messiah will only come once all people are as proficient in kabbalistic practice as he was.

In the early 19th century, the hassidic movement gained currency; it appealed to a broader constituency and largely reflected the Eastern European mainstream. Concurrently, the focus on Kabbala receded. By the second half of the 19th century, we can identify three broad approaches to the study of Kabbala among hassidic groups.

The first class largely sidelined the study of Kabbala as a value.

Study of the Zohar was relegated to the province of a select few, while the masses were enjoined to focus on classic Jewish texts. In some cases, hassidic masters explicitly declared that Kabbala was not to be studied by the average hassid. The hassidic group of Gur might be included in this first class.

A second class continued to actively study and discuss kabbalistic ideas and theology, though only as they were distilled, and at times repackaged, by the hassidic master. Citations and references from the Zohar and other kabbalistic texts were commonplace, giving the impression that the Zohar was being studied, but the original texts were seldom opened. The hassidic groups of Lubavitch and Breslov might be included in this second class.

In both these classes, it is important to point out that kabbalistic ideas still infused the life of the hassid. Hassidim knew what the Zohar said, not because they studied it but because their texts mediated the ideas. Even the terminology of the Zohar would not be entirely foreign, as hassidic texts would often be peppered with choice phrases and key terms.

A third class continued to actively encourage the study of Kabbala as an ideal for all. This flag was waved with gusto by Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Safrin of Zidichov (1763-1831), who wrote a work arguing in favor of the widespread study of the Zohar. The work, entitled Sur Mei’ra Va’aseh Tov (Turn from Evil and Do Good), was published immediately after his demise. He also authored commentaries on various kabbalistic works. One of his nephews, Rabbi Yitzhak Eizek Yehuda Yehiel Safrin of Komarno (1806- 1874), also wrote an extensive commentary on the Zohar. Rabbi Zvi Hirsch of Zidichov sent the manuscript of Sur Mei’ra to Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Shapira of Dynow (1783-1841), who added lengthy annotations that were included in all subsequent printings. The tradition continued when Rabbi Zvi Elimelech’s great-grandson, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Shapira of Munkacs (1850-1913), authored a commentary on the kabbalistic work Tikkunei Zohar.

The Ziditchov, Komarno, Dynow and Munkacs hassidic traditions all emphasize an idea that appears in the classic works of Kabbala, namely that the study of Kabbala is a lone light in the darkness of the exile, and it is only the study of such texts that will eventually bring about redemption.

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