Sunday 12 February 2023

417) The shift from experiential Chassidism to an expansion of Chassidic literature.


Toledot Yakov Yosef (1817 edition) by R. Yakov Yosef of Polonnoye.


This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Zeev Gries, deals with the often-overlooked role of the editor in producing Chassidic texts and in communicating Chassidic doctrines.[1] Many are familiar with the impressive stories of the great Rebbes but very little is known about the: 

“scribes, copyists, editors, and printers who, for better or for worse, have determined the shape in which hasidic tradition has come down to us and dictated the course and pace of its transmission” (Gries 1996:141). 

We shall also examine how these editors helped shift Chassidism from what started out as an experiential movement with little concern for an authoritative literature, to one that is today defined by this very literature. 

The problem

These often anonymous but always side-lined editors ironically formed the essential link between an original oral tradition and its later concretisation into the official written forms of Chassidic literature with which we are all familiar. These editorial managers also often had to change from the original language medium of Yiddish to the more formal style of rabbinic Hebrew. 

The matter is further complicated in that the original discourse was often delivered on Shabbat when writing is forbidden, and had to be memorised and translated afterwards (I once met a modern ‘recorder’ who of whom it was said that he never missed a word). Gries, more pragmatically, writes about such memorisers in general: 

“However good his memory, though, the scribe was unlikely to produce a verbatim record of the oral discourse” (Gries 1996:141). 

Historically, Gies points out that most of the time, the speaker would not check or even see the written version, and often the texts were produced sometime after the passing of the originator of the discourse. Also, in its original setting and context the world of the Chassidic court oral transmission was paramount. It was only the later generations that had to rely heavily on written records. 

Since today, most of our access to the teachings is through book form, it is important to try to understand the indispensable role of the editors who were relatively “minor figures” and who used “often obscure processes of…recension, publication, and dissemination” (Gries 1996:142). 

“Scribal incompetence”

The arduous task of producing an accurate depiction of the original teachings is sometimes openly acknowledged by the editors. In one example, R. Yehudah Leib of Luniets, who acted as the managing editor for the work Teshuot Chen by R. Gedalia of Luniets, apologises to his readers: 

“If the reader should come across errors or find the text difficult to understand, this is the result of scribal incompetence and the problems which are often associated with translation from one language [Yiddish] into another [Hebrew].”[2] 

In other cases, there are issues with the quality of the original manuscripts, with some words difficult to decipher. But then the sometimes-ugly world of commerce collides with sifrei kodesh (holy books). Gries does not try to sugarcoat this reality: 

“This is particularly true of the publication of second or third editions of well-known hasidic books. The managing editor of such an edition would either claim to possess a better manuscript than was available to his predecessors, presumably one written by a more competent scribe, or else promote the superiority of his own editorial skills to those of rival editors. His reasons for doing so would be purely commercial to capture a market for his new edition of the work” (Gries 1996:142). 

It must be mentioned that sometimes the appearance of a new revised and more authoritative edition is indeed an improvement of the earlier versions, but this is not always the case. Clues to this apparent disingenuousness are often found in the Introductions to the “new” and “better” editions: 

1) Torat Emet to Ohev Yisrael

The famous teachings of R. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta were first recorded in a work entitled Torat Emet (Lemberg 1854). Seven years later, his grandson R. Meshulam Zusya published a new edition, under a new title, Ohev Yisrael (1861). Since R. Meshulam Zusya obviously knew of the earlier edition, he had to justify why there was a need for his new edition. This is how he explained it in his Introduction to the second edition: 

“In Kolbishov…there was only one person who wrote down [the teachings] with my grandfather's knowledge…and in the Holy Community of Jassy there was another man who wrote down a little. Towards the end of his [the Zaddik of Apta's] life his son, my father ... Isaac Meir, of blessed memory, realized that there were too many copyists and that each one was acting on his own understanding. He was afraid that if they were to produce a false record [of the teachings] through error, people would attribute absurd statements to the great zaddik. For this reason he chose one man who was an erudite and sharp witted scholar and an excellent scribe. He appointed him to record the holy utterances of the zaddik. At the end of each sabbath or festival day he [the scribe] would show [his transcripts] to my holy grandfather, of blessed memory, and my grandfather would occasionally correct them as necessary or select from them what he saw fit.” 

Eventually, the Apter Rebbe passed away and was succeeded by his son R. Yitzchak Meir (R. Meshulam Zusya’s father) and just before he too passed away, he entrusted the publishing of the teachings to his son, R. Meshulam Zusya who produced the second edition. He again explains with great rhetoric how he, because of his family’s connections, was privy to the authentic teachings of his grandfather, the Apter Rebbe: 

“My father ordered that I should take into my house a certain man who was extremely learned and God-fearing, of sufficient maturity and literary skill to put the manuscripts in order, each in its appropriate position. I assisted him in this work, and we consulted my father whenever we encountered a difficulty. My father would put it right from memory, since it is well known that he had been very close to his father and had spent most of his time by his side, day and night. 

This is all fine and good but the fact remains that in reality there was no significant material difference between the first and second editions, to warrant a reprint: 

“and one can only conclude that he was prompted to describe the process of their transmission and recension in such detail simply in order to enhance the commercial value of his enterprise” (Gries 1996:143). 

2) The Berdichev edition of R. Zevi Hirsch of Nadworna's Alfa Beta

In a similar vein, the Berdichev edition of R. Zevi Hirsch of Nadworna's Alfa beta published in 1818 by the author’s son, R. David Aryeh, also claimed in his Introduction that his edition was the only reliable edition compared to earlier publications. And once again: 

“On close inspection…the text of his Berdichev edition has proved to offer no significant improvements on any of the earlier editions” (Gries 1996:143 n.6). 

3) Noam Elimelech 

Another example of similar exaggerated and illustrious claims to the enhancement and improvement of a new edition by an author’s son, is found in the Introduction to the 1790 Shklov edition of Noam Elimelech. It recorded the teachings of R. Elimelech of Lyzhansk and was produced by his son, R. Eleazar, who criticised the inferior earlier editions. 

Toledot Yakov Yosef – the first Chassidic book to be published and the problem of false attribution

Another problem was the false attribution of sayings and teachings of famous Rebbes. Sometimes: 

“[a]uthors and works were matched together arbitrarily… Presumably, in the initial stages[,] the 'authorship' of any body of hasidic teachings was common knowledge within the court from which it had originated. But by the time the manuscript copies of the teachings were being edited for publication often many years or even decades later no one could be sure of the identity of the original 'author'.” 

An interesting example of this attribution problem can be seen as early as the 1780s, when a scribe mixed up the sayings of Magid of Mezerich (the successor to the Baal Shem Tov) with the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. This then was perpetuated over to the next generation when the work Darchei Tzedek[3] similarly combined the teachings of the Magid of Mezerich with the next in line, R. Yakov Yosef of Polonnoye. 

The son of R. Yakov Yosef of Polonnoye (1710-1784) wanted to publish his father’s teachings, and produce the first published Chassidic work in Korets in 1780. His father was either too old or perhaps disinterested in checking the work himself. The editor was R. Alexander Ziskind of Zhytomyr and he attached a disclaimer that he had not seen the original autograph[4] version of R. Yakov Yosef of Polonnoye’s manuscript. Instead, he relied on various copies by different scribes. This would account for the same statement attributed to different rabbis in different parts of the book as well as other inconsistencies. 

Identifying the managing editors

Historically, going back centuries to early Jewish books in general, we also know very little about the individuals who filled the role of the editor (known as the “magiha” or proofreader). However, they set certain standards, were skillful editors, and were scholars who had mastered rabbinic literature. Unfortunately, we know even less about the editors of later Chassidic literature. 

There are some exceptions to this rule and they include R. Shlomo of Lutsk, who was a student of the Magid of Mezhirech, and  R. Natan Sternhartz of Nemirov, the dedicated disciple of R. Nachman of Bratslav (known colloquially by Chassidim as Breslov). 

Chabad’s historiographical concerns

Of interest is Chabad’s historiographical concerns which were evident even from its early days. What’s even more interesting is Gries’ explanation as to why that was the case: 

“It had adopted certain elements of Haskalah [Enlightenment][5] ideology and techniques for the purpose of recording its own history and the history of the hasidic movement as a whole… Both movements [of Chabad and the Enlightenment][6] were engaged in intensive literary activity as a means of constructing community spirit” (Gries 1996:147). 

This is not to say that Chabad embraced the Haskala but rather to suggest it may have adopted some of its methodologies and sensitivities towards history. 

Why Chassidim tolerated a less-than-professional approach

Bar some exceptions, Chassidim, as we have seen, adopted a less-than-professional approach to the editorial process of their published literature. The reason for this is intriguing: 

“[E]arly hasidism did not consider the book an important tool for the dissemination of hasidic ideas or the construction of a distinctive community ethos; both of these functions were performed primarily by the circulation of oral traditions” (Gries 1996:148). 

Griess does not address this matter, but I wonder whether Chassidism's early focus on an oral tradition over a written record might not in some way be related to the saturation of Sabbatian ideology inextricably connected to mainstream mystical theology at that time? By keeping its thought primarily within the realms of orality, it would sidestep any such allegations, like those levelled against it by opponents like the Vilna Gaon. 

Either way, this disregard for the medium of the printed word persevered for the first eight generations of the Chassidic movement. Even the Magid of Kozienice (Kosnitz), who paid great attention to the reprinting of earlier non-Chassidic works (like the writings of the Maharal of Prague, which had been out of circulation for the past two hundred years) was not interested in using the same print medium as a vehicle to perpetuate his own movement’s teachings. 

This became a recurrent theme throughout the history of published Chassidic texts where the editors expressed their frustration over their inability to obtain accurate working material: 

“They shared with the readers the difficulties they encountered in the preparation for publication of corrupt manuscript versions of teachings whose 'authors' the hasidic masters in whose verbal addresses the written versions of the teachings had originated were not themselves concerned to preserve them in a coherent and reliable form” (Gries 1996:150). 

This should alert us to the possibility of some degree of inaccuracy in the transmission of certain teachings found in Chassidic literature as a result of the disinterest of many Rebbes as well as the non-professional approaches of these sometimes-unknown editors: 

“Since hasidic lore was transmitted orally long before it was committed to writing and since the oral traditions have come down to us largely through the mediation of such…managing editors, it is important to study their modes of operation in order to assess their reliability as transmitters of tradition, to gauge the extent to which they might have shaped the tradition themselves, and altogether to reconstruct the historical context…”  

By simply reading the work of these editors, we may get the mistaken impression that the Chassidic approach was one involving a literary tradition, whereas, in fact, it was instead: 

“a direct, immediate, personal experience of relationship with the hasidic leader and his community of followers” (Gries 1996:154). 

Unlike the Chassidic experience today, where the study of Chassidic texts is an integral component of its expression, the original model was very different: 

“[H]asidic literature, whether in manuscript versions or in print, never became an indispensable part of the hasidic experience, either as an object of personal study at home or through any programme of instruction or study within the hasidic beit midrash” (Gries 1996:155). 

This theological shift of approach, or evolution, can also be detected in “typographical advances” where the first Chassidic works produced by the editors were small editions and presented in a relatively rough format. However, from the second half of the nineteenth century this drastically changed as the printing of Chassidic books became an elaborate enterprise and larger, more voluminous tomes and finer printed editions were presented. This was abetted by the appearance of Jewish peddlers, also from the second half of the nineteenth century, who sold, distributed and popularised this new medium, lending it a new place of prominence that it continues to enjoy today.


Further Reading




[1] Gries, Z., 1996, ‘The Hasidic Managing Editor as an Agent of Culture’, in Hasidism Reappraised, Edited by Ada Rapaport-Albert, Littman Library, London, 141-155. 

[2] Gedaliah of Luniets, Teshu'ot Chen, Berdichev 1816 (Brooklyn, 1982), Introduction.

[3] Lvov 1796.

[4] This does not mean it was “autographed” by the author but refers to the original copy by his own hand.

[5] Square brackets are mine.

[6] Square brackets are mine.

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