Sunday 31 July 2022

393) The travel bans of R. Yehuda heChasid

Travel by ship in the 12th century


This article draws extensively on the research by Dr Ahuva Liberles[1] and explores a unique path within Jewish theology (and messianic eschatology) where personal redemption is emphasised, over the more common notion of national redemption. This path, it is suggested, was championed by R. Yehuda heChasid (1150-1217), a leader of the mystical group known as Chasidei Ashkenaz (or German Pietists) which flourished during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. R. Yehuda heChasid is one of the authors of Sefer Chasidim[2] containing almost two thousand brief teachings on mystical, pietist and ascetic practices interspersed with German folk traditions. R. Yehuda heChasid’s restriction of travel is an area of scholarship that has not achieved much attention and the lacuna is filled by Liberles’ enlightening research.

An era of travel

Liberles explains how travel became important during the time of R. Yehuda heChasid:

“The twelfth century in particular was one in which Europeans were on the move—both Christians and the Jewish minority that lived among them” (Liberles 2021:107).

In general, this interest in travel was inspired by the Crusades and by the establishment of universities in Italy and France. European Jews similarly began to travel in search of teachers and Talmudic academies, and often they ventured to the Holy Land as well, with messianic expectations.

Rabbis, as a rule, encouraged this travel:

“Rabbinic authorities held a generally positive view of long-distance travel, which enabled the dissemination and harmonization of traditions, laws, and rabbinical edicts” (Liberles 2021:108).

The Toasfists, active between the twelfth to mid-fifteenth centuries, also inspired students to travel with statements like:

“it is the way of he who goes to study to become a great man” (b. Ketuvot 63a).

They also spoke about the ‘merit of the exile’ of the student who travels away from home. The historical record shows much evidence of responsa literature (Sheilot uTeshuvot) where Halachic questions concerning travel were posed to, and answered by, leading rabbinic decisors. In one particular instance, Rabbeinu Tam (1100–1171) placed a cap on the duration of a family man’s absence from his home, and that was eighteen months. During that period, however, he was still responsible to take care of the financial burden of his wife and children back home.

Travel bans

Against such a backdrop of ‘travel fever,’ it would have been very unusual for R. Yehuda heChasid to go against the grain and restrict the freedom of travel. In fact, Liberles points out that much of Sefer Chasidim diverted from contemporary rabbinic views of that time:

“[T]he image of the ideal pietist, as presented in Sefer Hasidim, challenged many aspects of medieval Ashkenazi religious life” (Liberles 2021:110).

This is to such an extent that many scholars[3] have gone so far as to show the connections between the ideas in Sefer Chasidim and the then popular Christian views although there are divided opinions views on this matter (Liberles 2021:110).[4]

A breakdown of the  frequency of travel references in Sefer Chasidim follows:

·         Sefer Chasidim refers to travel over one hundred and twenty times (and the two versions of the work exhibit no significant differences in this regard).

·         Over one hundred paragraphs express opposition to, or at least disapproval of, journeys of any sort.

·         Fifty-six sections warn of the physical dangers inherent in travelling including the possibility of highway robbers, rapists and murderers. He also mentions the possibility of being captured and ransomed or converted to Christianity. Jewish female travellers were also to be warned of the dangers of being sexually assaulted by Jewish men. And women could report the sexual offender to the Christian authorities in such eventualities, even if those authorities might sentence the man to death.

·         Thirty-five passages show how travelling can be disruptive and even destructive to families.

·         There is also the injunction against abandoning elderly parents, even at the expense of the son or daughter not finding a spouse in a distant place.[5]

·         A traveller, whether by land or sea, is warned fifty-eight times that it is extremely difficult to observe all the commandments properly whilst on the way.

Sefer Chasidim thus frames travel as being dangerous not just for the individual Jewish traveller but risky for the entire Jewish community as well. Here is an extract from Sefer Chasidim in this regard:

"The sage said: If the road is a bad one, they will abduct you and the public will need to ransom you. He was not concerned, set off, was abducted, and they ransomed him. The sage said: The amount [the community] paid to ransom you would have provided for your needs for several years. And now you need them both to support you and to [pay] ransom."[6]

Thus, travelling is framed as a selfish activity that places the community under unnecessary financial pressure.

R. Yehud heChasid has sharp words for travellers who wear overt Jewish clothing on the road (sometimes doing so in an attempt at creating a safeguard against transgressing):

“A man goes in a convoy ... and if he dresses in Jewish garb he is liable to endanger the others and to bring about misfortune for everyone.”[7]

The fear is that he will be abducted, ransomed and again placing the community under financial pressure.

R. Yehuda heChasid also opposed travelling to collect funding for Jewish institutions, something that has always been a very key Jewish communal activity. He feared it was an intrusion on the hosting families (especially in his hometown) and could even have moral implications.

The edict of Emperor Friedrich in 1182, allowing the Jews of Regensburg to trade again in “gold, silver, and other metals,”[8] created concern for R. Yehuda heChasid as it would have encouraged Jews to travel, even more, this time for business. He responded by suggesting that Jews find different means of earning their livelihood which did not entail travelling:

“most travellers do not receive the Sabbath at its proper time.”[9]

And even a trader who works relatively close to home often has difficulty in bringing Shabbat in at its appropriate time.

R. Yehuda heChasid’s opposition to pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Liberles describes how popular the notion of travelling to the Holy Land was at that time:

“In the Jewish context…first in France and then in Germany, setting out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land as well as considering immigrating there became increasingly popular at the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth centuries” (Liberles 2021:117).

In a manuscript known as Teshuvat heChasid, R. Yehuda heChasid writes:

“It seems to me that one who goes to the land of Israel, to the contrary, he actually increases his sins…it is better that he remain home and study.”

Liberles cites Israel Ta-Shma who states that he “has not seen such a blunt choice of words by any of the other Rishonim” speaking like this against the Holy Land.

A context to the opposition to travel

Scholars have been perplexed by R. Yehuda heChasid’s unusually sharp opposition to travel in general and to ‘aliyah’ in particular. Some suggest this was a result of the opposition by  Chasidei Ashkenaz to the popular messianism and eschatology in general at that time. This is bolstered by the fact that Sefer Chasidim, although containing about fifty paragraphs referencing the Holy Land, does not do so in its contemporary context or period. The references are either its historical past or pertaining to the future. 

Liberles (2021:118-9) notes:

“Therefore, it seems that the land of Israel and Jerusalem play an extremely limited role in R. Judah’s program for pietistic life… The commandment to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem, however, was in effect only while the Temple still stood. Following the Temple’s destruction, Jerusalem was no more than an unpleasant reminder of the sins of the Jewish people that led to their exile… Until this future time arrives, in his view, Jerusalem is a den of corruption where it is improper to pray…”

R. Yehud heChasid asks:

“If it is forbidden to visit a place where transgressions such as sexual wantonness or idol worship have been committed, how can we ask in our prayers to once again pray in Jerusalem and the Temple, where we know many such sins were committed?”[10]

Liberles (2021:119) explains that for Chasidei Ashkenaz, the land of Israel symbolised Israel’s past and was only an option for the future, not the present.

However, Liberles suggests that there may be another layer of elucidation. R. Yehuda heChasid not only condemns travel, but he also emphasises staying at home. This seems to indicate that he is promoting an ideology where there is some merit in personal redemption over national redemption.

As part of this programme of personal redemption was the requirement of a connection, and confession of sins, to the Sage - the Sage of one’s city, not the Sage of another city. Staying at home and not travelling meant connecting to the local Sage.  Better still, connecting to R. Yehuda heChasid himself, as the Sage of choice - the leader of Chasidei Ashkenaz:

“To live as a pietist, according to R. Judah, required physical proximity to and direct contact with R. Judah himself and with his community of Hasidim. A pietistic life outside the orbit of the sage and his followers was not encouraged. Indeed, the members of the communal circle needed each other to fulfill their religious obligations. When one of them traveled, he hindered the religious operation of the entire group” (Liberles 2021:122).

In R. Yehuda heChasid’s worldview, the holy Sage - not the holy site of pilgrimage - granted penitence. This is supported by his notion that the Sage had to prescribe personalised penance that was specific to each of his individual followers. The followers had to be close to him so that he would know them intimately. Travelling to other holy Sages, holy sites or even the Holy land would upset this personalised system. The ‘chasid’ or pietist had to remain within the circle headed by the leading Sage, R. Yehuda heChasid.

Although subject to debate, there is evidence to show that the circle of Chasidei Ashkenaz may not have been a particularly successful, widespread or popular group:

“R. Judah’s opposition to his followers leaving his nest may have necessarily weakened the connection between them and himself, depleting the pietistic circle, which seemed to be numbered by its nature. Was this attitude driven by R. Judah’s fear that his group of disciples would dwindle once they were beyond his purview…?” (Liberles 2021:122).


R. Yehuda heChasid seems to have introduced a new theological system to Judaism, that although perhaps not particularly popular in his time, may have gone on to serve as an inspiration for later mystical movements where the Sage was seen as the epicentre of the world of the circle of his followers. Chasidei Ashkenaz was centuries before the Baal Shem Tov and the modern Chasidic movement, so the two movements should not be confused. However, one does hear echoes in modern Chasidism as we know it, of the teachings of this earlier form of the Chasidism of Chasidei Ashkenaz.

R. Nachman of Breslov, for example, was later to expand the concept of the Sage or Tzadik and similarly wrote about confessing to the Tzadik. He also had a system of penitence for his followers (most notably his Tikkun haKelali).

Chasidism in general similarly held as a major virtue, the idea of loyalty to one Rebbe, and did not look favourably upon those who travelled from Rebbe to Rebbe. Most Chasidic and mystical groups did adopt a model of national messianism where the Land of Israel played an important (albeit sometimes future) role.

The notion of personal messianism may have been exemplified in the Sabbatian movement, where (at least according to Moshe Idel and Yehuda Liebes),[11] Shabbatai Tzvi was more interested in personal redemption over national redemption.

These ideas may attest, in some ways, to the legacy of the views of R. Yehuda heChasid and the Chasidei Ashkenaz.

Although beyond the scope of this article, one wonders whether, based on how candidly R. Yehuda heChasid spoke about the Holy Land, he was not concerned about smaller Jewish exilic communities becoming subsumed within the larger community of new returnees to Israel where rabbinic care and guidance might not be of the same intensity as that of the hometown communities. Additionally, he may have feared that the unique characteristics and traditions that these various communities had developed over history and proven over time, would suddenly be lost forever. Reading R. Yehuda heChassid this way, removes the stigma of egotism and self-centeredness, and also softens his apparent anti-Holy Land stance (as he wasn't against the land as such, but against the challenges posed by the mass and unguided migration that was popular at that time).


Further reading


Kotzk Blog: 380) Appropriating penitence?

[1] Liberles, A., 2021, ‘Home and Away: The Opposition to Travel in Sefer Hasidim’, Jewish History 34, 107–123.

[2] Other contributing authors were his father, R. Shmuel of Speyer and R. Eleazar of Worms. Liberles draws our attention to the debate surrounding the influence of the movement of Chasidei Ashkenaz in general, and makes this comment: “In this artcle I will not enter into the heated scholarly debate about the influence of Hasidei Ashkenaz in general or R. Judah he-Hasid in particular, although current scholarship indicates a disparity between R. Judah he-Hasid’s aspiration to influence his generation and the number of disciples he in fact gathered around him” (Liberles 2021:109 note10).

[3] Shoham-Steiner, E., 2010, ‘Jews and Healing at Medieval Saints’ Shrines: Participation, Polemics, and Shared Cultures’, Harvard Theological Review, 103, no. 1, 111–29.

[4] For the view that Sefer Chasidim does not depart from rabbinic views, see Avraham (Rami) Reiner’s lecture “Halakhah and Practice in Sefer Hasidim,” delivered at the 2017 conference “Sefer Hasidim in Context.”

[5] “[I]t is even preferable [for a man] to serve his father and his mother than to take a wife, if he must follow her to a distant land” Sefer Chasidim: MS Parma H 3280; Facsimile Edition [Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1985), (hereafter SHP) § 1902.

[6] SHP § 773.

[7] SHP §§ 204–205.

[8] Die Urkunden Friedrichs 1, vol. 4, 1181–1190, ed. Heinrich Appelt (Hannover, 1990), 43, no. 833.

[9] SHP § 592.

[10] See § 543.

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