In the 18th century, the Baal Shem Tov (lit. “Master of the Good Name”) founded the Chassidic movement, which was characterized by a mystical, joyful approach to Judaism that was revolutionary in a time when many Jews felt downtrodden and inferior.

Learn more about the Baal Shem Tov and the Chassidic movement here.

A follower of this movement is called a “chassid” (or hassid), which is loosely translated as “pious one” or “one who goes beyond the letter of law.”

However, the term itself predates the Chassidic movement and can even be found in the Tanach.1

In the Talmudic era, a number of sages are referred to as chassidim, “pious ones.” Later, in 12th-century Rhineland, or Ashkenaz in Jewish parlance, there was a prominent school of ascetics who were referred to as chassidim, or chasidei Ashkenaz.Thus we find that one of the leading rabbis of the 12th century—centuries before the Chassidic movement—author of the classic work Sefer Chassidim, is commonly referred to as Rabbi Yehuda Hachassid (1150-1217).2

So why were followers of the Baal Shem Tov termed chassidim? To call yourself or your movement chassidim would seem to be a bit pretentious and presumptuous, to say the least. How did chassidim come to be called by this name?

In the Detractor’s House

This very question was put to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, known as the Alter Rebbe, during a rather unfortunate incident.

In the year 1798, Rabbi Shneur Zalman was falsely informed upon by his detractors and accused of treason. When he was finally exonerated and released from prison toward the evening of the 19th of Kislev, the authorities asked him where they should bring him. He replied that they should bring him to the home of Reb Mordechai Liepler, one of his followers. In the same building, there also lived one of the leading mitnagdim (opponents of the chassidim), by the name of R’ Nota Notkin, and unfortunately, Rabbi Shneur Zalman was mistakenly taken to his home instead.

For three hours, until the chassidim realized what happened, he berated, complained and argued against the chassidim, to the extent that Rabbi Schneur Zalman later remarked that he suffered more during those three hours than the entire time he was imprisoned.

One of his complaints was this very question: how could the chassidim take such a lofty title as “chassid” for themselves?!

Rabbi Schneur Zalman replied that in actuality it was the early opponents of chassidim who called the new movement by that name and referred to themselves as “the mitnagdim” (“those who are opposed or against”). In truth, it would logically have made more sense for the detractors to refer to themselves as chassidim and call the new movement “mitnagdim,” since this new movement was seemingly (at least according to the opposition) going against the mainstream. Clearly, the fact that the followers of the new movement merited to be called chassidim by their very detractors was an act of Divine Providence.

The reason they merited this name was that one of the central tenets of Chassidic teachings is that one should be ready to put himself or herself to the side for the betterment of others. This is based on a teaching of the Talmud regarding nail clippings, which can cause spiritual injury: “The righteous bury their nails, the pious chassid burns them, and the wicked carelessly discard them.”3

So one who is pious, the chassid, is one who goes beyond the letter of the law and doesn’t just bury the clippings; he burns them, ensuring that there is no chance that they will be unearthed and cause injury. He does this despite the fact that burning the nails, something that was once part of him, can be spiritually damaging to himself. Yet, in order to make sure that he isn’t even inadvertently the cause of someone else’s injury, the chassid is ready to burn his nails. (For more about the cutting and disposing of nail clippings, see here).4

Thus, being called a chassid serves as a reminder that one should be ready to put him or herself on the line for the betterment of others.