Sunday 3 November 2019



Based on a letter[1] by Rav Sherira Gaon (906-1006) and other sources including the Meiri[2] (1249-1310) as well as manuscript evidence, the Talmud - although completed around 500 CE - remained essentially an oral tradition until centuries later towards the end of the period of the Gaonim (650-1038CE) when it was finally put into the written form we know today.[3]

This is why soon after committing the Talmud to writing, we see an explosion of commentaries. Rashi (1040-1105) and the Baalei haTosafot[4] began to produce copious written commentary on Talmud, and  Rambam produced his Mishneh Torah which was a summary of the entire Talmud, as it had relatively recently[5] ceased to be an oral tradition and was now available in a ‘hard copy’ format, easy to access and comment on without the need for oral expounders.

In this article, we are going to show how the Chasidei Ashkenaz - a German Pietist and extremely mystical and somewhat controversial if not superstitious movement (see here) that flourished during the 12th and 13th centuries - also responded to the newly textualized Talmud; but instead of embracing the new written format as did Rashi, the Tosafists and Rambam - the Chasidei Ashkenaz reacted to it in a most unusual way.

I have drawn from the research of Professor Talya Fishman who is highly regarded as an expert in the inscription of the Oral Tradition (Torah she’bealPeh) and its transmission.[6]


The movement’s seminal work was the Sefer Chasidim, ascribed to R. Yehuda heChasid (1150-1217)[7], but parts are attributed to his father R. Shmuel heChasid and also his[8] student R. Eleazar of Worms.

There are two volumes to the work. The first section appears to have borrowed some moralistic and ethical teachings from Rambam, while the second and more mystical section deals with gematria (numerology), demons, miracles, cures, folk beliefs (some apparently borrowed from the local Christian culture[9], and possibly even from Christian monks[10]). All in all, Sefer Chasidim contains over two thousand stories.[11]

The Chasidei Ashkenaz were overwhelmingly concerned with creating a mystical culture, particularly out of the prayers, leaving behind a legacy of some 73 volumes of commentaries on the prayers.[12] They counted and interpreted the individual letters within the prayer texts and were infatuated by their numerical values and meaning.


That some of the Chasidei Ashkenaz teachings reflected local Christian tradition, can be seen in the Christian story of the same period, about a conversation between a priest and the devil, called Tutivillus.

The priest asks Tutivillus why he was carrying such a large and bulging sack on his back - and the devil responds that it was full of the:

 “...syllables and slurred utterances and verses of Psalms which the clergy had stolen from God when they enunciated their prayers incorrectly.”

This was paralleled in the Jewish tradition where it was taught that if the prayers are recited hurriedly or incorrectly, then crippled and deformed angels emerged from them.


R. Yehuda heChasid and his students rebuked the Jews (especially the French and English Jews) for praying from inaccurate texts. This was not, according to him, just textually incorrect but it was spiritually damaging and destructive.

In a similar fashion, according to another work of that time, Arugat haBosem,[13] there could not be multiple versions of the prayers but only one correct version, or nusach.

Eventually, the prayer text of R. Yehuda heChasid became accepted as Nusach Ashkenaz (the German prayer-rite) [- although scholars like Ephrain Urbach point out that R. Yehudah heChasid, in fact, disregarded the nusach of his father, R. Shmuel heChasid, and also disregarded the nusach that had been used in Ashkenaz (Germany) for centuries dating back to Gaonic times!]


The Chasidei Ashkenaz maintained that the prayers not only represent and remind us of the sacrifices of old, but absolutely mimic and resemble them and are indeed their exact spiritual form and counterpart. Therefore those who deviate even one iota from the correct formula of the prayers:

“...invent from whole cloth [i.e., fabricate with no grounding][14] and add several words...which never arose in the hearts of early hasidim[15], who established the prayers
for us in place of sacrifices. 

And every prayer and blessing that they established
is like [the sacrifices][16] in measure, and meter, in letters and words...

For if this were not so, then our prayer, God forbid, would be like the melody [zemer] of the uncircumcised gentiles.”[17]


In keeping with its intense interest in numerology, the Sefer Chasidim writes about a certain sage who chose the smaller of the two synagogues in a town because they prayed at a slower pace, thus giving him time to get involved with:

“...enlarging the Holy One blessed be He [va-ani marviyah laKadosh
Barukh Hu] when I draw out, counting on my fingers how many alefs and
bets in that Psalm, how many of each and every letter. And afterwards, when
I return to my house, I come up with a reason why [there are] such and such

The extremely slow deliberation over the prayers of Chasidei Ashkenaz was obviously an issue because, in one instance, it prompted R. Baruch of Mainz to question R. Yehuda heChasid on this matter:
“For sometimes ‘keriat shema’...lasts three hours, and thus the proper time [for its recital][19]...passes.”[20]


As a general rule, R. Yehuda heChasid always maintained that numbers are...connected by clasps and loops, and they all have reasons and many mysteries [i. e., sodot][21] - however as Fishman points out “those connections are not spelled out.” 

In his Pirushe haTefilah, R. Eleazar of Worms presents a “dizzying array of associations, all linked only by number,” - a sample of this style of literature is included in the Appendix below.

The reason why these ‘connections’ (intentionally) remained shrouded in mystery will become clearer in due course.


Why were the Chasidei Ashkenaz so overly and technically obsessed, seemingly more than most other movements, with such mysterious if not magical tangential correlations?

Fishman believes that it was a reaction to the then most important and relatively recent event in Jewish history - the final committing to writing, or textualization and inscription, of the Talmud; and the transformation, finally, from a largely oral to a formalized written tradition.

The textualization of the Talmud was a theologically cataclysmic event. The oral means of Torah transmission which always required a master teacher, gave way to an easily accessible and new written format which everyone suddenly had access to without the need for an intermediary or a master.

It is fascinating to note that Fishman regards this major disruptive historical event - the textualization of the Talmud - as something which is ‘largely-unexamined’ and often  overlooked:

“Many of the perceived novelties of hasidut Ashkenaz, I suggest, can be explained as reactions to a particular historical development that has gone largely-unexamined: the textualization of rabbinic culture that transformed every aspect of Jewish society in medieval northern Europe.”


Fishman explains:

“The Pietist’s weave of disparate strands of thought...reveals the...tradition in ways never seen before, making him, in effect, a living bearer of revelation.”

In other words the Chasidei Ashkenaz created such complicated and even random associations in their literature that the student would always be forced to turn to the teacher/rabbi for ‘guidance’ and ‘explanations’: 

“[R. Yehuda heChasid] preserved and transmitted these mysteries in a most elusive manner, so that they remained enigmas to anyone not privy to face-to-face explication [i.e., explanation][22] from a master.”

This way, at least in Chasidei Ashkenaz circles, the newly written and now textual Tradition would never override or sideline the teacher/rabbi, because in their system the teacher would always be required to unravel the mystery. This alleviated the danger of written texts, now available to all, supplanting the primacy and importance, if not supremacy, of the teacher/rabbi.

They shrouded their ideas in such mystery that without a personal relationship with a master who could crack the code, the ideas would remain essentially incomprehensible. If one wanted to understand, one needed a rabbi, not a book.


Although Fishman does not touch on this point, it’s interesting to note that a similar threat was perceived against the primacy of the teacher/rabbi after Rambam presented his Mishneh Torah which was essentially a summary of the Talmud. Much of the opposition to Rambam was not only his controversial philosophical views, but also the fact that by facilitating easy access to the Law, the dominant role of the teacher was again considered under threat as the student could simply consult Rambam’s written code which even came with an index. 

Now, it was feared, no teachers would be required to explain the intricacies of Talmud study, which Rambam claimed in his Introduction to Mishneh Torah, was no longer necessary, anyway, because he had summarised all its salient points. In fact, in a letter to a student, he stated: “If one spends time studying commentaries [of the Talmud] and the disputes in the Talmud … then one is wasting one’s time.” [Igrot haRambam, Isaac Shalit edition, vol1, 312.]

Therefore, many felt that the role of the teacher/rabbi, would be diminished with the Rambam’s democratization of the Law.


During the height of the period of the previous Oral Tradition, there were indeed some texts that were used. These were known as megilot setarim or secret scrolls. They were kept private and used by individual teachers as their personal notes, having no specific authoritative status whatsoever:

“...the only authorized version of Oral Torah was one that was truly oral, learned by heart, in a living encounter with a Geonic master. Jews of early Ashkenaz clearly considered themselves disciples of the Geonim...”

Accordingly, although not averse to putting their thoughts down in writing, the Chasidei Ashkenaz, saw themselves as continuing with that tradition of maintaining the old master-student association and relationship that had been so crucial during the previous centuries of Oral Torah transmission.


It was precisely because the Book had begun to replace the Teacher that:

“[The Chasidei Ashkenaz] pointedly perpetuated older modes and patterns of social hierarchy, pedagogy and cultural transmission.”

Where other students of rabbinic culture frequented academies named for the famous glossators at their helm, Pietists [i.e., Chasidei Ashkenaz][23] criticized “gentile dialectic” [dialektika shel goyyim], attacked the pride of authorship, and turned for guidance to sages [hakhamim] whose authority was not a function of their scholastic prowess.”


The democratization of Judaism which occurred with the writing down of the Talmud, also occurred with the prayer-books which were also textualized around the same time. Most well-known of these is the Machzor Vitry written around 1130 by a student of Rashi.[24]

Again, the most outspoken critics of these written prayer-books were the Chasidei Ashkenaz who nostalgically longed for the days of old when authority was vested in a chosen shaliach tzibur or prayer leader.

“But nowadays … it is an everyday occurrence that Reuben prays [leads] shaharit [i. e., the morning prayer], Shimon reads Torah, and Levi prays [i. e., leads] musaf [i. e., the additional prayer for Sabbaths or Festivals].”[25]

The role of the teacher had been diminished and in a sense both the approach to studying and praying had become so democratized that it was described as a free for all.

To counter this, the Chasidei Ashkenaz again felt compelled to say that if just anyone leads the services, his prayers could be damaging to both the community and himself.[26] This resonates with the need to fix the nusach or prayer-rites according to the version of R. Yehuda heChasid (as mentioned earlier) while all other versions were deemed inaccurate (and therefore potentially dangerous as well).

Again Chasidei Ashkenaz had to emphasise (or create a construct) squarely placing the authentic power and tradition, the secret knowledge, and the purity of soul, only within the hands of a select few. 

And they did this by fostering a culture of mystery, obscurity and opaqueness through which only the teacher could help navigate.


In some sense, the fears of Chasidei Ashkenaz were indeed justified because as recorded by the Tosafist academy of R. Moshe and his brother R. Shmuel Shneur of Evreux:

“...the ruling that ’awe of your teacher should/must resemble awe of heaven’ is no longer said [i. e., upheld].

So too, the rulings that obligate a disciple to his teacher have been nullified. For books and compositions and commentaries – they are [now] those that teach us.

And everything depends upon one’s mental acuity, and on reasoning...”[27]

On the other hand, it does appear that some, like R. David Abudraham, a century later, took a different position. He wrote very poignantly about how he absolutely disregarded the teachings of Chasidei Ashkenaz which he had learned while at an Ashkenazi yeshiva in Toledo, and which he now regarded as disingenuous:

 “There are people who counted the words in each and every blessing of the Eighteen [Benedictions] and, for each blessing therein, they brought verses whose words add up to the number of words in the blessing.

I, too, made a computation like this at first, and then I saw that it had no foundation or root.

For you will not find any place in the world in which they all say the same thing regarding each and every word of the Amidah. Rather, there are those who add words or delete.

Therefore, this count doesn’t help anybody but the one who made it, and nobody else. So why should we burden the scribes by having them write it?”[28]


The old fears of Chasidei Ashkenaz were legitimate fears, although probably more prevalent in mystical circles than in rationalist ones, and they clearly did not disappear with the demise of the movement. They continue to this day, certainly after the printing revolution of the mid-1400s, and especially after the advent of the new format of cyberspace – each of which further challenged the authority of the Teacher.  

Have the old tactics largely remained the same today or have new ones emerged to protect the authority of the Teacher and to prevent the student from (as Moshe and Shmuel Shneur of Evreux wrote) relying on “mental acuity, and on reasoning”?

Amazingly, a modern-day piece of writing reflects this very idea of negating the mind and relying solely on teachers known as the gedolim whom we are told to consult:

“...not only in Torah matters, but in all matters...”

This, once more, ensures the master’s supreme role, because:

“One of the biggest missteps a man can make is to use his own judgement to make decisions...”[29]

[1]This refers to the more accurate French version (as opposed to the Spanish version) of Rav Sherira’s letter to the Jews of Kairouan, now Tunisia.
[2] See Becoming the People of the Talmud, by Talya Fishman p. 165.
[3] Of course there are many who steadfastly claim the Talmud was completed and written down in around 500CE.
[4] The Tosafist period - spawned by Rashi - lasted about two hundred years, encompassing the 12th and 13th centuries, and ending with R. Meir of Rothenburg (d. 1293). 
[5] Estimates regarding just when the Talmud was finally written down vary from around the late 700s till around 900s CE. See: HEBREW CODICOLOGY Historical and Comparative Typology of Hebrew Medieval Codices based on the Documentation of the Extant Dated Manuscripts Using a Quantitative Approach, by Malachi Beit-Arié.
[6] Rhineland Pietist Approaches to Prayer and the Textualization of Rabbinic Culture in Medieval Northern Europe, by Talya Fishman. 
[7] 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.)
[8] I.e., R Yehuda heChasid’s student.
[9] Based on a lecture by Dr Henry Abramson: R. Yehudah he-Hasid.
[10]  Cross-dressing among Medieval Ashkenazi Jews, by Lena Roos.
[11] Interestingly, Sefer Chasidim also extracted a degree of mysticism from Rav Saadia Gaon (d. 942) who, like Rambam, is usually more associated with rationalism. 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.
[12] Jewish Liturgy as a Spiritual System: A Prayer-by-Prayer Explanation of the Nature and Meaning of Jewish Worship, by Arnold Rosenberg.
[13] Arugat HaBosem laRav Avraham ben Azriel (Jerusalem, 1963) vol. 4, p. 97. This work was authored around 1230. R. Avraham was a student of R. Eleazar of Worms, who in turn was a student of R. Yehuda heChasid.
[14] Parenthesis mine.
[15] ‘Hasidim’ in this context would be referring to the Ezra and his court (the Anshe Keneset haGedolah).
[16] Parenthesis mine.
[17] Sefer Hasidim, (Wistinetzki ed.), p. 154.
[18] Sefer Hasidim no. 1575.
[19] Parenthesis mine.
[20] Recorded in Tashbetz no. 219.
[21]See  Perushei Sidur Hatefila laRokeah, p. 312.
[22] Parenthesis mine.
[23] Parenthesis mine.
[24] R. Yaakov ben Shimshon.
[25] Sefer Or Zarua 1, no. 115. This book was written by R. Yitzchak ben Moshe in the mid-1200s. He was one of the teachers of the last of the Tosafists, R. Meir of Rothenburg.
[26] Sefer Chasidim no. 785.
[27] Ba’alei HaTosfaot, E. E. Urbach, (2nd edition 1980), p. 479.
[28] Cited in Beit Yosef, on Tur, Orach Chaim, 113.
[29] Torat Avigdor, based on the writings and teachings of R. Avigdor Miller, Sefer Bamidbar, p. 13.
[30] Cited by Professor Fishman.


A sample of the mystical computations of Chasidei Ashkenaz:[30]

I will now write for you the correspondences [that explain] why they [i. e., the rabbis of antiquity] established the Eighteen Benedictions: [The word] ‘voices’ [i. e., kolot] appears [in Scripture] eighteen times: thirteen [mentions of] ‘voice’ in [the account of ] Revelation, and five [mentions of] ‘voices’ which makes [sic] seventeen and one [mention of] ‘with the voice, ’which makes eighteen. And once in conjunction with the Tabernacle [Nu. 7:82], ‘and he heard the voice speaking to him’ – which corresponds to the nineteenth benediction, ‘And for the apostates.’

There are eighteen vocalization marks which appear underneath [the letters]. (There follows a listing of all the vowels, linked to the letter alef, in which each unconnected stroke, whether a point or a line, counts as one
mark – T. F.). This makes eighteen [marks below the letter] below, and one above, which corresponds to nineteen.

There are eighteen festive days: seven [days of] Matzot, one ‘ Atzeret, one Rosh HaShanah, one Yom Kippur, seven Sukkot, one Shemini [Atzeret], which makes eighteen from the Torah, and one received from tradition,
Purim. It is written [Gen. 28:17], ‘ and this is the gate to heaven’: the Upper Temple is eighteen miles taller than the Lower [Temple]. The verse [Deut. 3:23], ‘ And I pleaded’ has eighteen letters, not counting the [Divine] Name.

There are eighteen years in the cycle of Aries. It is written [Nu. 8:4] ‘This is the work of the menorah,’ teaching that [BTMen. 29b] the menorah was eighteen spans high. For this reason, three [scriptural appearances of the word] ‘the menorah’ are [written] in plene Spelling [with the optional letter vav, whose numerical equivalent is six]. And six vav’s make eighteen.

The spine has [BT, Ber. 28b] eighteen links, and one tiny one called luz.
There are eighteen [mentions of] ‘teachings’ in Psalms between [Ps. 25:4] ‘teach me’ and [Ps. 94:10] ‘He that teaches,’ referring to the Shekhina. And corresponding to [the nineteenth benediction] ‘and for the Apostates,’
[Ps. 132:12] ‘and I will teach them my testimony.’

Eighteen Benedictions correspond to the Redemption from Egypt; therefore [BT, Berakhot 28b] the [prayer discussing] Redemption must be proximate to the Amidah prayer ‘…Who redeems Israel. Lord, open my lips.’
There are eighteen [scriptural mentions of] strengthening Pharaoh’s heart and of making it heavy, and one [Ex. 7:3], ‘And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart,’ or [Ex. 14:17] ‘strengthening the heart of Egypt.”

[Perushei Sidur Hatefila laRokeah, vol. 1, pp. 365–366.]

R. Eleazar of Worms is also known as the Rokeach. The numerical value of Rokeach (perfumer) is equal to Eleazar.


  1. Where does Ephraim Urbach point out the different nusach of R. Yehudah Hachasid in comparison with the preceding nusach in Ashkenaz?

  2. E. E. Urbach, Sefer Arugat HaBosem laRav Avraham ben Azriel, (Jerusalem,
    1963), vol. 4 pp. 86–87; 92; 96.

  3. Professor Chaim Soloveitchik in his Essays is very critical of the "Sefer Chassidim" sources, wondering if they do not stem from Christian teachings.