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What Is Chassidut?

What Is Chassidut?

Teachings from the core essence

© Natalia Kadish
© Natalia Kadish

Everyone agrees that around the middle of the eighteenth century, a movement began in Eastern Europe that had a far-reaching, even revolutionary, impact on Jewish practice and thought. What exactly that movement was (and is) all about, remains rather fuzzy. That’s not hard to understand, since the movement itself is by nature enigmatic.

Perhaps the most common description of the Chassidic movement frames it as a kind of social upheaval. Until this time, there was a pecking order in the Jewish world—scholars on top, the simple Jew at the bottom, and the illiterate boor only nominally Jewish. In the minds of many, a great soul and a great mind were practically synonymous. Then the Baal Shem Tov came and uplifted the status of the common man and woman, celebrating the heartfelt earnestness of a simple Jew, declaring that this raised him higher than the cold, intellectual, and often self-infatuated scholar.

Certainly there is truth to this vignette—in fact, letters of the period demonstrate that the principal opposition to this movement was over just this issue: scholars felt their status was being diminished, and that the common people would no longer pay the respect due to the learned man of Torah.1 Yet it is far from sufficient, because the Baal Shem Tov and his students were themselves erudite scholars who greatly valued study of Torah, both its esoteric and legalistic aspects. Some of the greatest contributions of that era to Talmudic and halachic scholarship are from these men.

It is often said that Chassidut replaced fear and trembling with love and joy.

Another common description is that the Chassidic movement taught Jews to serve G‑d with love and joy rather than fear and trembling, to sing and dance rather than cry and fast. What concerns G‑d the most, the Baal Shem Tov would preach, is that you serve Him with your heart. Love G‑d, even if you don’t always understand His ways; love His Torah, even if you can barely read the words; and most of all, love one another, even if that “other” doesn’t measure up to the expectations of G‑d and His Torah. And celebrate all of the above.

Yet, taken alone, this is also misleading. For the chassidim were also known for their meticulousness in the details of Jewish ritual and practice, for extending themselves much further than the strict requirements of halachah, in consonance with the Talmudic dictum, “Who is a chassid? One who goes beyond the letter of the law.”

Still another narrative describes the Chassidic movement as an outcome of the esoteric teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, “the Arizal,” the great sixteenth-century Kabbalist of Tzfat, whose ideas captured the imagination of much of the scholarly Jewish world. The Arizal’s teachings provided a comprehensive theology of Jewish practice that felt far more native to the Jewish soul than the apologetics of the philosophers. The Baal Shem Tov and his students were all deeply immersed in these teachings.

Yet still insufficient. The teachings of the chassidic masters are not exclusively esoteric and kabbalistic. Kabbalah speaks in abstractions comprehensible only to the most elevated soul. Chassidut can do that as well, but it also speaks in down-to-earth, pragmatic terms for the everyman in his everyday world.

Chassidut is not a conglomeration of ideas, but one simple essence with many facets.

Obviously, the Chassidic movement as it embodies the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov is not a conglomeration of ideas, but one simple concept that shows itself in many facets. That idea is so deep, so essential, that we find ourselves incapable of iterating it directly with words. But perhaps, as the junction of two lines define a point, with some metaphor and explanation we can locate the essence-point of Chassidut.

Life at the core

Let’s start with a metaphor of the human psyche, which also has many facets. A person thinks, feels, speaks, does—and often all these things appear disparate, as though they come from multiple personalities within him. And they do, for a person is comprised of many conflicting forces battling within.

Yet, hiding behind all that a person does throughout his life, there is a common theme, a thrust in a certain direction, an essence struggling to emerge. If he would find that essence and recognize it, all his life could be brought into harmony. He would be recharged, filled with life. Every aspect of his life, his deeds, his words, his thoughts and his emotions would glow brightly, having been wired in to their core, an endless reservoir of energy, and harmonized with every other aspect of his psyche.

So too, the Jewish People—a people as diverse as one could imagine any people to be in temperaments, sentiments, and above all, opinions. And yet, we comprise together a single people, as a single body, with a single essence breathing within.

Torah, as well, has many layers and facets. There are the stories of the scriptures; the laws and rituals prescribed by them; the homiletical interpretations of the sages; the deeper, esoteric meanings known only to the initiated—yet all this is one Torah, single and united.

There is a tradition that lends significance to the Baal Shem Tov’s name. You see, the Baal Shem Tov wasn’t born with that name—it simply means “Master of a Good Name,” and was a common title for miracle-workers in those days. He was Israel, son of Eliezer and Sarah. We, too, are Israel, each one of us, at our very core. When a person falls into a coma, tradition tells us, you may whisper his name into his ear to wake him. Why? Because the name of a person touches his essence, and the essence is always awake. At the time when Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov arrived on the scene, it was time for the Jewish People to be revived. Israel Baal Shem Tov’s teaching was G‑d’s way of whispering the name of the Jewish people into their ear.

To put it another way: When we were given a gift of the Torah at Mount Sinai, we were handed a big backpack to take on our hike through history. Over the centuries, we did just that, discovering within this Torah all the guidance and resources we needed for our many sojournings. But then there came a time when the journey had become too wearisome, when the Torah appeared to be weighing us down rather than carrying us through.

It was a time when we stood at a threshold. The violent pillaging of the Cossack revolt had disrupted the infrastructure of the major Jewish settlements. Already, the Jews of Western Europe had begun to assimilate, and the winds of secularization were blowing eastward. It was only a matter of time before Jewish practice and belief would come face to face with its most inexorable challenge, the skeptical, free-thinking, socially mobile world of modernity.

There came a time when we had to reach to the essence-core.

At this point, we needed not just another strategy, not just another secret of the Torah revealed to us. We needed a charge of light from its very core. Our souls had to make contact and bond with the very soul of this Torah that we carried.


This explains what I would say is the signature motif of chassidic teachings. If it is an authentic teaching, and it has been presented in a lucid form, then it resonates as no other teaching does. You absorb it not as “received tradition,” but as one who hears the song singing within his own soul. Through Chassidut, no longer are the Torah and the Jew two separate beings, one instructing and one being instructed, one commanding and the other commanded. Chassidut is life; as the body and soul fuse to become a single living being, so the Jew bonds with these teachings as though they were his own soul—and is carried by them through the most stalwart challenges, as an indefatigable soul carries the body through fire and ice.

Here, too, a significant detail of the Baal Shem Tov’s life comes into play: He was born on the eighteenth day of the final month of the year, the month of Elul. Elul is the month when the Jewish soul begins to shine, in preparation for the “Days of Awe” at the beginning of the coming year. Eighteen, in Jewish numerology, stands for life.

Light from the future

There is yet one more reason why the teachings of Chassidut had to be revealed at that time.

The history of our world, the Talmud tells us, has six millennia, corresponding to the six days of the Creation. The seventh day transcends time, and must be preceded by the days of Moshiach, when “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as water covers the ocean floor.”

The Baal Shem Tov moved to Medzhibuzh, where he began spreading his teachings, in the year 1740. On the Jewish calendar, that is the year 5500. Lining up the millennia with the days of Creation, that would be high noon on the eve of Shabbat. At that time, the light of the Moshiach already began to shine.

In the last quarter of the sixth millennium, the light of the Moshiach began to shine.

Today, the teachings of Chassidut have embedded themselves inextricably within most of religious Jewish thought. Not a single major religious thinker since that time has not been deeply influenced by them. At, we attempt to present these teachings both in the form in which they were taught by their original masters, as well as in the language of the contemporary mind. The bonding, the living, the application into real life—that we leave up to you.

“On Rosh Hashanah of the year 5507 (1747),” wrote the Baal Shem Tov in a letter to his brother-in-law, “I ascended higher and higher . . . until I entered the chamber of the Moshiach. I asked of him, ‘When, master, will you come?’

“He replied, ‘In the time when your teaching will become public and revealed in the world, and your wellsprings will burst forth to the farthest extremes.’”

See Mordecai Wilensky, Hasidim and Mitnagdim, Bialik Press.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Anonymous March 11, 2014

Smiles. Hi Rabbi, I read this article; I am sorry, but I didn't perceive any put-downs to "other" type Jews, or even to scholars. The parts that stood out to me, that opened a gate of transport in my mind, was paragraph 4, that G-d wants us to love Him with our heart, to love Him, His Torah, and one another. Also, the paragraph second to last, and last describing the Baal Shem Tov's ascent to the Mashiach. I could visualize Baal Shem Tov, his kind, smiling, very happy personage. This also tells me that Chassidus is going to be successful, vastly so; and the Mashiach will come. Happy Purim! Reply

Anonymous January 6, 2014

not too impressed I have to say there was a subtle bias portrayed throughout this article. Honestly, if you want to promote your stream of Judaism, there is no need to put down others. Often I read articles that compare Jews to non-Jews and this article sounded exactly like that; as though the 'opponents' of chassidus weren't your brothers and sisters who you are commanded to love. It is ironic then how you talk about the vision of chassidus as being welcoming to everyone... Reply

merry June 6, 2013

This is what is happening right now. I and many many others are being directly taught and guided by God right now, whether we know our lineage or not. Whether we believe we are Jewish or not. It is regardless of `scholarly reading` it has no respect for worldly knowledge, other than to use it at times to guide us. The teachings, come directly and then perhaps reading comes later just to `prove` to us that we can trust what comes directly. We are changing. We feel the heart, we understand energy, we understand where we came from, what we are, where we're going and why. I believe it is a worldwide transition. We are about to see some beautiful changes in the world. No one is your enemy. With a lack of fear, and the deepest understanding, we look towards the light and know that we are one. We don't need to read it anywhere. We have the highest source of guidance, which is the human function. From all corners of the Earth, from all backgrounds, we are remembering truth. Those with autism are the closest to God of all. Reply

Thea Lorraine , New York September 30, 2011

Lessons i just want to say thank you . Reply

Jewgirl September 20, 2011

Great Article Rabbi Freeman! I read the biography from the Alter Rebbe and the start of Chassidut, it took a great deal of sacrifice, determination and faith in HaShem that Chassidut continued to thrive and survived. I am not going into the hardship that has been afflicted by our own people during this time. I am just happy that we have Chabad. The teaching of Chassidut has guided me for over 30 years and still has an impact in my live today. I wish you Rabbi and to all in a good and sweet Shana Tova and may all be inscribed in the book of life. Thank you for being here for us. Reply

Anonymous w September 16, 2011

scholars Scholars deserve respect. Antisemitic, anti-Zionist scholars like Noam Chomsky, the self loathing Jew exist and are brilliant. Respect him, okay. Respect his views, no way.

We must remain independent thinkers, or source out those who can be trusted to best teach us.

Who do you trust ? It's up to you. But still be respectful. Reply

john trenton, Ont. September 15, 2011

thank you A very enlightening article on a modern movement, and school of thought. I enjoyed reading and learning about this movement, and many thoughts went through my head as I finished. I feel like I am having a jewish mind! Reply

Karin Berryman Vic, Australia September 14, 2011

The Baal Shem Tov His message is 'Everybody!, Serve the Lord G-d, serve Him with your heart, Love Him, Love His Torah and Love the others'. This is what I take from this piece. Thanks G-d for the Baal Shem Tov and his clarity! Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman September 14, 2011

Re: scholars Dear Dovid, I appreciate your remarks and concerns, however, I do feel my words have been taken out of context. "Infatuated scholar" was used as a contrast to the simple, humble Jew who was nonetheless unlearned.

As for the opposition to Chassidut, I don't believe we are at all in disagreement. You may wish to read the collection of letters and declarations from the period by Prof. Mordehai Wilenksy, published by Bialik Press. He notes that the status of the scholar is the common concern repeated again and again.

Yet this was not purely a matter of personal pride. For many, it was a concern that the character of Jewish society was being upset. If the scholar was not respected, it was feared, his opinion in halacha may be also ignored.

As I noted, the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples were in fact themselves brilliant Talmudists. It is very difficult to believe that an objective observer at the time would not have noted this. Reply

Dovid September 14, 2011

scholars The truth is that the Chasiddishe movement did save great sectors of Jews and we cannot begin to fathom the greatness of what the Baal Shem Tov did for Judaism. Though I myself am a Llitvishe, I love Chasidut and feel very grateful for the Chasidishe influence on my life.
But to say "scholars felt that their status was being diminished"" and "self infatuated scholars" is not so. You make it sound as if their opposition to Chassidut was a matter of personal pride, and that is abolutely not true. Their ooposition was based upon the realization of the importance and holiness of Torah study and a fear that it would dissappear altogether.
I think that we can teach about a subject, as you did so beautifully, but without slandering the Jews who do not agree with us.
May you and yours and all of the Jewish nation be inscribed
and sealed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet year.


Anonymous September 14, 2011

To pick up on Mago Sept 13, 2011 Every branch of Judaism stakes out a niche and markets it. It's political. Opponents can either spin their brand or insult others.

Perkei Avot Chapter 1 - verse 14 - Hillel -
If I am not for myself, who is for me ? And if I am only for myself, what am I ? And if not now, when ?
Doesn't it mean ? > i must be responsible for myself, refrain from blaming others. i am reliant on others, no man is an island. Now means this moment, no procrastination.

During the pogroms, did the cossacks ask " What kind of Jew are you ? Is your belief the authentic one ? "
No, a Jew is a Jew.

The article is a wonderful treatise on Chassidus. It only falls short of one of its own tenets, as in love your fellow Jew and do not be judgmental. Some Chosids fail time and again on the principles of Chassidus. It is not a complaint. The bar is high. Everybody trips up.

With the present situation facing Israel, the time to get ourselves together is right now.


Mago Amiga Mexico, Mexico September 13, 2011

I think it´s not a nice way to write about a jew. "than the cold, intellectual, and often self-infatuated scholar"
It´s sounds not so tolerant to me even if you are speaking about just one Jew, and you are speaking about to love and respect to every Jew, don´t you? or just to respect the boor??? Reply

Anonymous toronto, canada September 13, 2011

Chassidut Beautiful, thank you Rabbi Reply

zeynep istanbul September 12, 2011

Chassidut Such a beautiful rendering...Thank you for sharing the best of best in you, Rabbi Freeman. Reply

The landscape of classic Jewish thought is painted with a finite set of themes and motifs...
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