Sunday 2 June 2019


Sefer Chasidim, a seminal work of the Chasidei Ashkenaz.


The Chasidei Ashkenaz, or German Pietists, were a mystical and ascetic sect which flourished in the German Rhineland during the 12th and 13th centuries. Chasidei Ashkenaz revived an older form of mystical literature known as the Heichalot literature which was popular during post-Talmudic times.

Although described by some as an ‘insignificant’ movement, it can be argued that aspects of their influence are still strongly evident to this day.


The movement can trace its roots back to the Gaonic period beginning with Abu Aharon, and blossomed under the leadership of the Tosafist R. Yehudah heChasid (1150-1217), his father R. Shmuel heChasid and his student, R. Eleazar of Worms (author of Sefer haRokeach).

Many are familiar with the hymn Anim Zemirot which was composed by R. Yehudah heChasid.
R. Eleazar predicted the arrival of Mashiach in 1240.



The movement’s seminal work was the Sefer Chasidim, ascribed to R. Yehudah heChasid[1], but parts are attributed to his father R. Shmuel heChasid and also his student R. Eleazar of Worms.

Two very distinct themes appear in various sections of the work with some sections emphasizing numerology, for example, while other sections make absolutely no reference to it at all. This is what led scholars to assume that there were multiple authors.[2]

Two versions of Sefer Chasidim exist, the Bologna and Parma Editions and there is some debate as to which is the older one.


There are two volumes to the work and the first section appears to have borrowed some moralistic and ethical teachings from Rambam, while the second and more mystical section deals more with gematria (numerology), demons, miracles, cures which were effective for specific families, folk beliefs (some apparently borrowed from the local Christian culture[3], and specifically possibly even from Christian monks[4]). All in all, Sefer Chasidim contains over two thousand stories.

Interestingly, Sefer Chasidim also extracted a degree of mysticism from Rav Saadia Gaon (d. 942) who, like Rambam, is usually more associated with rationalism[5]. The Chasidei Ashkenaz, who couldn’t understand Rav Saadia’s original Arabic, used an inaccurate Hebrew translation of his Emunot veDeot and thus his views were distorted. They did not have access to the more accurate Hebrew translation by Ibn Tabon. The alternative translation was only recently discovered by Ronald C. Kiener.


The first section contained the tzavah, or ethical will, of R. Yehuda heChasid which imposed some 78 demands on his son and possibly on his students as well.

Some of these instructions turned out to be rather dangerous and R. Ari Shwat, who heads Michlelet Tal Orot, investigated certain tragic events which occurred upon the adherence to the instructions of R. Yehuda HeChasid.

Also, the Nodah beYehudah writes in a responsum that there are many things in this ethical will which conflict with Halacha and therefore should not be followed.[6]


There are sections in Sefer Chasidim that seem to define Jewish converts to Christianity as a type of intermediate category somewhere between Jews and Christians. Such an individual, for example, may contribute to the costs of producing a new Torah scroll for the synagogue, since the family could save face by saying “Although he is an apostate, deep in his heart he is still a Jew”. [7]

Sefer Chasidim also had some interesting things to say about converts to Judaism:

 “When talking with a convert, a Jew should not mention the converts former religion, nor speak contemptuously of it.”

Surprisingly, and most controversially, this is what it says about mixed marriages:

“The offspring of a Jew who marries a wife not of the Jewish race,  but who is of a good heart, modesty and charity, must be preferred to the children of a Jewess by birth who is, however, destitute of the same qualities.”[8]



Elements of the belief system of Chasidei Ashkenaz were borrowed from the local German folk-culture while some practices were considered to be of Jewish mystical origin. Rabbi Professor Kanarfogel describes some of their practices as being ‘white magic’.


Amongst other phenomena, Chassidei Ashkenaz displayed a strong belief in the existence and the role of Satan. Evil featured as an entity and not just a whitewashed notion of ‘absence of good’ as is commonly defined today.


They practised a form of sorcery, witchcraft and believed in vampires, dragons and werewolves.[9]


Self-mortification and even self-flagellation were not uncommon. According to Harry Gersh:

“Some of the Chasidei Ashkenaz added a Christian concept: mortification of the flesh. They supported their argument for asceticism with various esoteric and theosophical ideas, but they were essentially merely imitating their Christian neighbours.”[10]


In R. Yehudah heChasid’s ‘Book of Angels’ he wrote that an individual will be punished by G-d, not only for his own sins but even for the sins caused by ideas implanted in his mind by the angels. This was because the angels do no more than simply fulfil the basic morality of the individual.


Chasidei Ashkenaz emerged just after the persecution of the Crusades, and it was felt that perhaps they had deserved the Crusader’s torment as a punishment for their sins.


Believing that they deserved punishment, they turned to an extreme form of repentance which included the concept of Teshuvat haMishkal which was a ‘repayment in measure’ or ‘wages of sin’ which usually involved some intense form of self-denial, akin to giving G-d His pound of flesh.


Some other interesting and strange customs were to emerge from the movement. These include some practices which are still adhered to today.

They would not allow a man to marry a wife whose father had the same name as him. And a woman could not marry a husband whose mother had the same name as her.[11]


They would not allow haircuts or the cutting of nails on Rosh Chodesh.


One was not permitted to write directly in a book that it belonged to him, but the ownership of the book had to be hinted at instead. Many keep this custom today and write that while all the world belongs to G-d, this book is merely shayach, or associated with the owner.


According to Sefer Chasidim, if one wants to see if he will live out the year, one should light a candle during Ten Day of Penitence, if it does not go out, one will survive the year.[12] 


Some practised various extreme acts of atonement to be performed even after death, such as the dragging of the coffin through the streets or even the dropping of the body.


They discouraged the burying of two enemies in graves which were close together.


R. Yehudah heChasid explained that the reason why we bang and make a noise when we read the name Haman on Purim is because they similarly bang and make a noise in gehinom (hell) when they hear his name mentioned.[13]


They discouraged a traveller from sitting inside a wagon when it was transported on a ferry over water. And, for some unknown reason, they would not allow slaughtering of geese during the month of  Shevat (and some said Tevet).


In another work of R. Yehuda heChasid, entitled Amarot Tehorot Chitzoniyot uPeniniyot, he recommends walking around one’s bed with a sword as protection against demons.


The Chasidei Ashkenaz were clearly aware that some of their teachings would be regarded, by their more rational readers, as being superstitious. In one extract from Sefer Chasidim it states: 

“Though one should not believe in superstitions, it is better to be heedful of them...
Do not be sceptical and say ‘These are not lessons in piety; this smacks of superstition’...
This book is called Book of the Pious and it is exactly what the name implies.”


According to Arnold Rosenberg:

“The Chasidei Ashkenaz developed what one commentator called a ‘cult of the prayer book, which fondled its every phrase, counted every word, played kabbalistic games with the letters, and left a library of some seventy-three volumes of commentaries [on the prayer book].’

The Chasidei Ashkenaz found that the congregation’s response in the middle of the Kaddish contained the same number of words and letters as the first verse of the Torah. They developed the superstitious belief that the one who responded Kaddish with these words would become God’s partner in the creation of the world, and, hence, empowered to change the fate of the departed. For some, then, the Mourner’s Kaddish was an attempt to change the fate of the deceased through participation in an act of creation.”[14]


The adherents of  Chasidei Ashkenaz were filled with righteous indignation in that they labelled anyone who did follow their extreme ascetic lifestyle as Reshaim or wicked ones, and they were not to be called up to the Torah.


The movement of Chasidei Ashkenaz was regarded as so controversial that modern scholars debate the efficacy and extent of its influence.

So, for example, according to Joseph Dan, Sefer Chasidim was not a national work but rather a single individual’s blueprint for a movement which never really existed. He motivates his position by the fact that no contemporary Ashkenazic literature references the Chasidei Ashkenaz as a movement with communities.

Isaiah Tishby, on the other hand, refers to Sefer Chasidim as “an enormous anthology, reflecting the work of generations of Ashkenazi leaders.”[15]

And for a view somewhere in the middle, according to The Practical Tanya:

“While the Chasidei Ashkenaz were a relatively fringe group, their approach to teshuvah proved to be extremely influential after being adopted extensively by the mainstream Halachic responsa in the 12th-15th centuries. As a result teshuvah came to mean, in the eyes of many people, a mental process that had to be accompanied by a Rabbinically advised penitential schedule, (which usually included fasting).”[16]

In this last view, the movement was on the ‘fringes’ but still influential insofar as the practical effect it had on subsequent Halachic Responsa which informed future religious development.

A view indicating that Chasisei Ashkenaz was not an insignificant movement can be found in a comment of the Kotzker Rebbe, who was the only rebbe who didn’t really believe in mysticism [see The Rebbe who Didn’t Like Mysticism]. Noticing that people took the practices from Sefer Chasidim so seriously, he remarked with his usual sharp wit, that he wished the book would have also included the Ten Commandments!


What is perhaps more interesting than some of the unusual practices and beliefs outlined above, is how later scholars both religious and secular, have viewed the degree of acceptance of these beliefs by the general Jewish community.

We know, surprisingly, that the Chasidei Ashkenaz movement was inextricably bound to many within the Tosafist movement of the same period. And we know that many of their practices were later reflected in some Halachic writings, and we see that many of their beliefs are still adhered to today.

Yet there are some who have gone so far as to claim that there were only two members of the Chasidei Ashkenaz movement: R. Yehudah heChasid and R. Eleazar of Worms. And if there were more, it never reflected the popular culture of the people and the movement never really got off the ground.

But the movement of Shabbatai Tzvi has also been described as a ‘footnote’ to Jewish history, as was the movement of the Karaites  - yet in both cases, it is possible the nearly half of the Jewish population at those times, followed them.

So, was Chasidei Ashkenaz a mere insignificant footnote to history - or was it a powerful and influential movement representing the work of generations of Ashkenazi leaders, leaving an indelible impression on, and perhaps even shaping much of future Judaism?asidic leadrs”. llll

[1] This is the view of the Chida. However the Vilna Gaon claimed it was written by his student R. Eleazar of Worms (Yeshurun vol. 4, p. 250.)
[2] Professor Haym Soloveitchik shows that besides having different authors, the text sometimes completely contradicts itself. (JQR XCII no. 3-4 pp. 455-493).
[3] Based on a lecture by Dr Henry Abramson: R. Yehudah he-Hasid.
[4] Cross-dressing among Medieval Ashkenazi Jews, by Lena Roos.

[5] Saadia Gaon wrote that G-d is essentially unknowable, yet He created a kind of projection or manifestation which humans could perceive. This was called Kavod, or “Glory”.  The Chasidei Ashkenaz did not consider Saadiah Gaon to be a rationalist but rather a ‘ Master of Secret Traditions’. This was because they did not have accurate translations of Saadia Gaon’s Arabic writings. (Jewish Mysticism: The Middle Ages, by Joseph Dan, p. 187.)

[6] Nodah beYehudah Even haEzer Tinyanah no. 79.
[7] Jehuda Wistinetzki 1924: Sefer Chasidim §687.

[8] See: Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation, by Paul Kriwaczek.

[9] Sefer Chasidim no. 464.
[10] Kabbalah by Harry Gersh.
[11] This custom still persists and there is a song by Mordechai Gebirtig (d. 1942) with the following lyrics:
“The matchmaker brings me a bridegroom,
An exception from all the others,
His name is Vladek. But there is a problem –
Vladek’s mother is also called Sore’,
Exactly like me, his bride –
So she won't have me as her daughter-in-law.”
[12] Sefer Chasidim, Siman 548.
[13] Meorot Rishonim, p. 171.

[14] Jewish Liturgy as a Spiritual System: A Prayer-by-Prayer Explanation of the Nature and Meaning of Jewish Worship, by Arnold Rosenberg.

[15] Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 50 Years After, edited by Peter Schafer and Joseph Dan.
[16] The Practical Tanya,  Volume Three, Letter on Repentance, Translator’s Introduction.

1 comment:

  1. I think, these scholars ignore the influence of Hasidei Ashkenaz on the liturgy followed in Ashkenaz, which was one of their main influence on Ahskenaz Jewry, as well as the emphasis on preserving minhagim. I think this is most noticeable in communities that still adhere to minhag Frankfurt. In a lot of sections, the nusach of R. Elazar of Worms in his commentary on the Siddur is almost identical to the nusach that was preservered in FF. I think you can find remenants of their influence throughout the generations, from Maharam Rotenburg, the Rosh, Rabbi Hirz's siddur, Rabbi Emden's siddur, and even the Ari (see what Rabbi Hamburger wrote in Shorshei Minhag Ahskenaz vol. 5 about the Ari and some of his Minhagim, e.g. wearing white on Shabbos)