When someone wants to embark on the study of hasidic texts, invariably the question arises: Where to begin? Which hasidic works might be considered foundational, introductory, or perhaps required reading for initiates?
A faithful hasid or scion to a great hasidic dynasty would surely recommend a work from his own school. Thus a Lubavitcher hasid would undoubtedly plug Tanya, the seminal work penned by the founder of Chabad Hasidism, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady (ca.1745-1812). A Karliner hasid would direct beginners to Beit Aharon, the most important work from that hasidic court written by Rabbi Aharon Perlow of Karlin-Stolin (1802-1872), the grandson of the founder of the dynasty. Gerrer hasidim would probably promote Sefar Emet, the posthumously published collection of teachings of Rabbi Yehuda Arye Leib Alter (1847-1905). Recommendations like these might well be on the mark, but there is no denying that there is a risk of partisan loyalty colouring the endorsement.
Thus it is of particular interest to find suggestions to study works that are not tainted by devotee allegiance. For example, the hasidic master Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Rabinowicz of Parysow (d. 1888) reportedly recommended that each week, young people should study two hasidic works on the weekly portion of the Torah: Be’er Mayim Hayim and Maor Vashamesh.
Be’er Mayim Hayim was penned by Rabbi Hayim Tirrer of Czernowitz (ca.1760-1817), who settled in Safed in 1813. Maor Vashamesh is the work of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein of Krakow (1751-1823). There are many classic hasidic works, and while there is no questioning the significance of these two works, it is not clear why they are singled out.
The choice to highlight Be’er Mayim Hayim and Maor Vashamesh could possibly be connected to the publishing history of these works.
Be’er Mayim Hayim was first published in Sudilkow in 1820 together with the text of the Five Books of Moses. Most hasidic works that were published before 1820 followed the sequence of the Bible, yet Be’er Mayim Hayim was the first hasidic work to be published as a commentary together with the base text. Subsequent editions, beginning with the 1849 Czernowitz edition, also offered the work as a stand-alone volume.
Maor Vashamesh was first published in Breslau in 1842, mysteriously using a fake title page that backdated the work to 1784/5. In 1858, Pinchas Moshe Balaban of Lemberg purchased the rights to Maor Vashamesh from the author’s son, and soon after he published the work in his Lemberg printing press. In 1863, Pinchas Moshe and his wife Pessil published Maor Vashamesh together with the Pentateuch and a host of other commentaries. The edition must have been popular because Pessil reissued the five-volume set a number of times in the following years.
In 1872, another Lemberg publisher, Avraham Yosef Madfes, published a five-volume set that included both Be’er Mayim Hayim and Maor Vashamesh. Could it be that the Hasidic master from Parysow was not just recommending a text? Perhaps R. Yaakov Zvi of Parysow was endorsing a specific edition.
Another hasidic master offered a similar study recommendation: Rabbi Yosef Kalish of Amshinov (1878-1936) counselled those close to him to study Maor Vashamesh and Or Hahayim. According to the Amshinover Rebbe, these two works were “close to peshat”; that is, they both approximate the most accessible meaning of the biblical text.
Amshinov tradition certainly recognised the importance of other works. R. Yosef always had a copy of the Zohar on his table and often delved into the hasidic work Benei Yissaskhar by Rabbi Zvi Elimelekh Shapira of Dynow (1783-1841). R. Yosef’s father and predecessor, Rabbi Yehuda Kalish of Amshinov (1860-1917) was known to favour the study of a work that predated Hasidism: Shenei Luhot Haberit – penned by Rabbi Yeshayahu Horowitz’s (1558-1630) and widely known by the acronym Shelah.
An alternative Amshinov tradition records R. Yosef’s advice in slightly different terms: The Amshinover Rebbe encouraged people to study Talmud with Rashi’s commentary and the discussions of Tosafot. He did not instruct people to study hasidic works. When his disciples pressed him, R. Yosef told the older young men (“eltere yungeleit”) that they should study Or Hahayim because it was close to peshat and to study Maor Vashamesh. The reporter added that R. Yosef’s son and successor in America, Rabbi Yitzchak Kalish (d. 1993) he did not know the reason for the Maor Vashamesh recommendation. As a postscript, R. Yitzchak added: Talmud and Tosafot are the best ‘hasidic work’!
Pondering the Amshinov recommendation, we might wonder whether there a connection between Maor Vashamesh and Or Hahayim? Once again, publishing history may hold the key.
Or Hahayim was written by Rabbi Hayim ibn Atar (1696-1743), who was born in Morocco and moved to Jerusalem at the end of his life. Clearly Or Hahayim was not a product of the hasidic milieu; the author even predated the notion of a hasidic movement. Notwithstanding the work was revered by the hasidic faithful. Pertinently, the 1863 Pentateuch that included Maor Vashamesh also included Or Hahayim!
These publishing notes point to a possible link between printing trends and popularity, though the direction of influence is unclear: Either the works were released with the text of the Pentateuch because they were widely read, or they achieved widespread recognition and acclaim after being printed as commentaries to the foundational biblical text. Most likely, it was a cyclical process with popularity resulting in publishing, which resulted in increased popularity.
The Maggid of Melbourne is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassa. He is a teaching fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law. His column appears in The Jerusalem Post Magazine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.