Printing compilations of hassidic tales began in 1814 with the publication of Shivhei Habesht. This work ostensibly recounted the escapades of the famed Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov (ca. 1700-1760), the person who inspired the hassidic movement. The publication of Shivhei Habesht signaled the beginning of new literary genre that flourished in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, hassidic tales continue to capture our attention.
Compilers of hassidic tales often included an introduction to their work. While at first blush such introductions might not appear to interest the reader, the truth is that they are paramount when it comes to understanding the genre. It is from these introductions that we are able to glean much information about those involved in the printing process (authors, editors, publishers, etc.), their goals, their intended readership and more.
In 1925, Matityahu Tsevi Slodovnik published his Ma’aseh Hagedolim Hehadash.
On the title page, he declares that the tales he is presenting were related by the founder of the Aleksander hassidic dynasty, Rabbi Yehiel Dancyger (1828-1894), and by his son, Rabbi Yerahmiel Yisrael Yitshak Dancyger (1853-1910).
The title page also announces that stories championing hachnasat orhim (welcoming guests) will be a particular focus of the volume. In his introduction, Slodovnik explains that throughout his life he was forced to travel in order to make a living, and he was well aware of how guests were mistreated: “And I have seen the great pain that visitors suffer in that they have nowhere to rest, and no one takes them home, and they sleep in the beit midrash. And out of great mercy for them, I have gathered together many stories from the righteous people of old, that talk of welcoming guests.”
The first pages of the slim volume (pp. 3-17) appear to include original material that was not previously published. The remainder of the volume – a collection of another 54 stories (pp. 17-88) – includes material taken from earlier works, something Slodovnik readily acknowledges in his introduction.
Ma’aseh Hagedolim Hehadash is generally considered to belong to the genre of hassidic tales, though Slodovnik included stories about personalities far removed from hassidism. In some cases, the inclusion is not surprising, like the tale of the birth of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (the Ari, 1534-1572); given that hassidism draws heavily from Lurianic mysticism, this inclusion is understandable. Other cases are more surprising, such as stories about King David and King Solomon, or legends of the birth of Rashi (1040-1105) and of Maimonides (1138-1204).
True, the status of King David, King Solomon, Rashi and Maimonides transcends party lines, but the inclusion of these stories is still unexpected. Slodovnik’s selection of tales suggests that at least in his eyes, hassidic tales were not limited to the hassidic masters from the second half of the 18th century onward. His objectives in printing Ma’aseh Hagedolim Hehadash could be achieved equally with tales of hassidic masters and with tales of biblical characters and medieval rabbinic figures.
Some inclusions, however, are entirely unexpected. This is the case with the three tales about Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (the Gra, 1720-1797) – the arch opponent of nascent hassidism and the recognized leader of the Mitnagdim. The inclusion of these stories suggests that in the early 20th century, hassidic-mitnagdic partisan lines were not so clearly demarcated.
The final section of the book includes a collection of birth stories – including the aforementioned stories about the Ari, Rashi and Maimonides, as well as tales of the births of hassidic masters. Slodovnik may have been aware that he was adding unexpected material, since before these tales he writes: “And now my dear reader, I will present before you some of the history of our holy rabbis.” This section is particularly significant when we consider Slodovnik’s motivation for compiling and publishing Ma’aseh Hagedolim Hehadash.
In his four-page introduction, Slodovnik tells us that he was a scribe by profession.
When he wrote the introduction, he was 65 years old, and he tells us that it was only at this stage of his life that he had decided to collect and publish hassidic tales. His decision was driven by a desire to leave behind a legacy. While he does not say so explicitly, he indicates that this volume is all he will leave behind after his death – suggesting that he was childless. If this is the correct reading, we can understand why birth stories were of particular interest to him. We can also look back and say that he succeeded in his quest to be remembered: Thanks to Ma’aseh Hagedolim Hehadash – the lone volume that he bequeathed to posterity – we have the fruits of Matityahu Tsevi Slodovnik.