Sunday 19 February 2023

418) Sefer Chassidim: A little-known, unpublished and anonymous anti-Chassidic manuscript from 1818


The anonymous anti-Chassidic polemic, Sefer Chassidim, 1818


If you are interested in texts and manuscripts with their varying Hashkafot (worldviews), then you may find the anonymous 1818 work, entitled Sefer Chassidim[1] to be of interest. This little-known work, a polemic (theological argument) against Chassidism, is a challenge to some of the then-new principles of the Chassidic movement. The manuscript was never published. In this article, based extensively on a review[2] by Professor Jonatan Meir, we look at some of the content of this manuscript, without necessarily taking any one particular side. 

First official condemnations of Chassidism

The first stirrings of official criticism against the Chassidic movement emerged from around 1772 in a series of ex-communication orders against the new movement, under the direction of the Vilna Gaon. These orders were further supported by waves of anti-Chassidic literature emanating from within the camp of the Mitnagdim. 

This ‘first phase’ of Mitnagdic opposition to Chassidism which lasted up to around the end of the eighteenth century, is well-covered by historians. However, very little research exists on the opposition to Chassidism from the early part of the nineteenth century. This may have led to the false assumption that the opposition had waned from the nineteenth century onwards and that the Mitnagdim had eventually come to accept their opponent’s rightful place alongside them. And, as common knowledge asserts, the polemic against Chassidim had moved from the Mitnagdim to the Maskilm (members of the Enlightenment movement). 

According to this common perception, the ‘first phase’ essentially involved tensions between Mitnagdim and Chassidim, and the ‘second phase,’ from the nineteenth century onwards, involved Maskilim and Chassidim. However, the emergence of this largely unknown manuscript, Sefer Chassidim, shows at least one example of fierce Mitnagdic opposition to Chassidism continuing its rivalry well into the ‘second phase.’ In fact, it was more than just rivalry, because the harsh tones of Sefer Chassidim called for not just condemnation of Chassidim, but for them to be completely severed from the body of Judaism, just like the earlier Sabbatians and Frankists (Meir 2010:139-140). 

The discovery of Sefer Chassidim

The first scholar to notice the existence of Sefer Chassidim was Isaiah Tishby.[3] He examined parts of the manuscript and determined it was written around 1808 by R. Yisrael ben Shmuel of Shklov. Although it was clear that the writer was influenced by the camp of the Vilna Gaon, Tishby, however, did not manage to access the entire manuscript in its complete form. 

Professor Uriel Gellman, on the other hand, later discovered a complete version of the manuscript in an archive from the library of Josef Perl (1773-1839) in Tarnopol. Perl was initially attracted to the Chassidic movement but later joined the Haskala (Enlightenment) and, under influence of the Vilna Gaon, became an active opponent of Chassidism.[4] Perl himself wrote much anti-Chassidc literature so it is not surprising that he would have housed such a manuscript as Sefer Chassidim. The manuscript is now held at the Yeshiva University Library in New York.[5] Gellman, based on the examination of the complete manuscript, shows that it was produced in 1818 (not 1808 as previously thought) and that the author remains unknown. 

The larger picture

Sefer Chassidim is not an isolated work because it is part of a larger genre of similarly unpublished polemical writings against Chassidism from the same ‘second phase’ era. An example of a similar unpublished manuscript is Sefer Milchamot haShem,[6] written in the 1830s by R. Meir ben Eliyahu of Vilna, the grandson of the Vilna Gaon’s brother, R. Avraham. Another such manuscript is Reishit Chochma.[7] 

Many of these unpublished manuscripts ended up in Josef Perl’s library. He used these works as a basis for his own anti-Chassidic writings. Thus it appears that at some point there was an unlikely fusion and literary (as well as ideological) crossover between Mitnagdic and Maskilic (Enlightenment) writings. These two camps united, in a sense, in opposition to their ‘common enemy’ the Chassidic movement. This became so prevalent that a point was reached where it become difficult to distinguish between Mitnagdic and Maskilic polemical writings against Chassidism as many of their authors remained anonymous but their content was identical (Meir 2010:141). 

The style of Sefer Chassidim

The anonymous author of the Sefer Chassidim manuscript adopts a (quite common) style framing the polemic as a debate between a Chassidicbeliever[8] and a MitnagdicTalmudic scholar.’ Meir points out that this work is one of the lengthiest examples of this type of polemical debate. 

“The book is phrased almost entirely as a halachic discussion” (Meir 2010:141). 

Although it is called Sefer Chassidim, it is very clear that this work was not meant for Chassidim. It was written for those perhaps teetering between the two movements of Mitnagdism and Chassidism, and certainly meant for those who were looking for confirmation of their own opposition to Chassidism. Interesting, considering that this manuscript was of a rather late provenance (as 1818 was already 142 years after the passing of Shabbatai Tzvi): 

“[t]hroughout the book, hasidism is viewed as a deviant cult similar to Sabbateanism and Frankism” (Meir 2010:142). 

In at least five places, the manuscript compares Chassidim to the Sabbatian followers of Shabbatai Tzvi and Jacob Frank (Sefer Chassidim: 60, 80, 81, 148, 149). There are at least three references to Chassidim being worse than the Christians (Sefer Chassidim: 78, 80, 108). 

The Chassidic movement is depicted as a “new religion” because they dismiss “central values such as prayer, Torah study and the status of the scholars” (Meir 2010:142). The Chassidim, it claims, have opened up a: 

“new path which has just now been forged’ (Sefer Chassidim:66). 

And this “new path”: 

“which having been formed only recently will, to its detriment, separate itself from the people of Israel” (Sefer Chassidim:59). 

The governmental and Church authorities at that time did not technically oppose ‘official religions’ and this theoretically included Judaism. (Decades earlier, R. Yakov Emden had advised the Polish rabbis to seek the assistance of the Catholic Church against the Sabbatians, because Sabbatianism was technically a new religion, something that was not permitted by canon law). Sefer Chassidim seems to use this expediency as the only reason Chassidim retained a necessary bond to Judaism, otherwise, they would have been outlawed by the authorities. Sefer Chassidim writes: 

“The light of the Torah does not illuminate them [the Chassidim], and they are not summoned in the name of the nations [i.e., they are not regarded as an ‘official religion’][9] for they believe only in new innovations. Yet they alone are afraid of initiating a religion for fear that the ire of the nations among whom we live will rise against them, for they do not permit anyone to form a new religion” (Sefer Chassidim:102). 

The manuscript continues with its charges that Chassidim have innovated more than any previous movement in Judaism and have created a new category of the “supreme status of the tsadik.” They indulge in “excessive…ritual bathing.” Most notable is the depiction of their leaders (the Rebbes or Tzadikim) as “cunning” because not only do they spread “stories filled with foolishness and falsehoods” (Meir 2010:142) but they commit: 

“wholesale fraud upon the public (mostly women and young men). They performed bogus miracles, drank heavily, and caused the breakdown of the family unit, so that it seemed that all their deeds conflicted completely with the Jewish tradition” (Meir 2010:142). 

There is also the observation that money passes from hand to hand and that men and women approach the Tzadik with a bundle of money in their hand” (Sefer Chassidim:67). This refers to the Chassidic custom of bringing a pidyon nefesh or redemption money to the Rebbe. 

One reference in the manuscript alleges that Chassidim are not only out of the bounds of Judaism, but that they interface with the side of evil and call upon demons. It claims they are devil worshippers and fake doctors masquerading as prophets (Sefer Chassidim:66, 72). 

[See Kotzk Blog: 403) Hillel Baal Shem Ra: the Master of the Evil Name.]

For this reason, the manuscript suggests that all Chassidic writings be destroyed and burned: 

“Every noble soul shall place them [the books of hasidism] on the hearth so that they burn, and the entire Jewish congregation will be thankful for and bless the fire that consumes these books of sorcery and heresy, reciting the blessing against heretics” (Sefer Chassidim: 80). 

In an interesting section of the manuscript, the author expresses alarm at the fact that the number of followers of the Vilna Gaon is dwindling (Sefer Chassidim:82) while the number of Chassidim is growing exponentially: 

“And year after year they add to their numbers so that one can no longer count” (Sefer Chassidim:79). 

Accusations of Chassidim against Mitnagdim

While these are certainly very harsh words against Chassidim, the Mitnagdim felt equally aggrieved by Chassidm who claimed that the souls of their opponents, the Mitnagdim, would “transmigrate to horses, dogs, and other unclean animals” (Meir 2010:143). Sefer Chassidim accuses Chassidim of saying that the fate of the “Vilna Gaon and his followers is to suffer eternal punishment in the afterworld for their objection to hasidism (Meir 2010:143). 

Sefer Chassidim notes that Chassidim claim to understand the heavenly realms very well and are intimately familiar with their inner workings. They can see who is judged and how they are judged in heaven. The Chassidm claim that they know what happened to the Vilna Gaon after his passing: 

“And they [the Chassidim] said: this great rabbi [the Vilna Gaon][10] who filled the world with Torah has now been sentenced to hell, and he comes to us to plead for his life to rescue him from ruin and ransom him from eternal death” (Sefer Chassidim:67-68). 

The author of the manuscript was very much affected by this Chassidic claim, and he responds to it: 

“If there were any truth to what you have said, so what was in the minds of our forefathers who devoted their lives to the study of the Talmud and the halachah, and according to your words hell is filled with them. I too want to be counted in their company…even if they walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will not fear to be among them” (Sefer Chassidim 75-76). 


This manuscript of Sefer Chassidm offers an uncomfortable but important window into a world that history seems to have very much downplayed. The version of history generally given over is that, yes, there was a period when vitriolic exchanges were the order of the day but that did not last long. The Mitnagdim quickly realised they had been overly suspicious of the Chassidim, and soon everyone was content to embrace their differences and live happily together. 

Sefer Chassidm, however, shows that the suspicions, accusations and sharp animosity persisted well into the nineteenth century. This need to sweeten the sometimes bitter reality and harsh factionalism of Jewish history is nothing new. There are Talmudic references to Beith Shammai literally murdering (hariga mamash) the students from the house of Hillel. And yet, later history recorded that event as a “tranquil period of scholarly debate” and the “killing” as a metaphor for “robust debate.”  See Kotzk Blog: 165) DID BEIT SHAMAI MURDER SOME OF THE STUDENTS OF HILLEL?

[1] Not to be confused with the classical thirteenth-century work of Chassidei Ashkenaz by the same name.

[2] On: Gellman, U., 2007, Sefer Hasidim: A Lost Anti-Hasidic Polemic, Jerusalem: Dinur Center for Research in Jewish History, Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History (Hebrew).

[3] Isaiah Tishby, I., 1993, ‘Kitrugo shel R. Yisra’el miShklov al haChassidim,’ in Chikrei Kabalah uSheluchoteiha: Mechkarim uMasot, vol. 2, Jerusalem, 520-23.

[4] For more on Perl, see online source: Retrieved on 17 Ferbruary 2023.

[5] Yeshiva University Library in New York, 1254; A a photocopy of the manuscript can also be found in the National Library of Israel, Jerusalem, Manuscripts Department, F51912.

[6] National Library of Israel, Jerusalem, Archives Department, 8˚171. See also: Allan Nadler, A., 1992, ‘Meir ben Elijah’s Milhamot Ado-nai: A Late Anti-Hasidic Polemic,’ Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, 1, 247-80.

[7] National Library of Israel, Jerusalem, Archives Department, Perl Archive, 4˚1153, files 140/140a. See also: Werses, S., 1988, Haskalah veShabeta’ut: Toledotav shel ma’avak, Jerusalem, 108-11.

[8] One wonders whether this might not be a veiled derogatory reference to Sabbatians who also called themselves Maaminim, or ‘believers.’

[9] Square brackets are mine.

[10] Square brackets are mine.


  1. The Sefer Chasidim has been published by Uriel Gelman...

    1. Thank you for that. Do you have the date of publication?