Sunday 18 June 2023

433) How the Ethical Will of R. Yehuda heChasid became integrated into Halacha.


Professor Maoz Kahana.

This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Maoz Kahana, examines the long and windy road followed by the various interpreters of the Ethical Will left by R. Yehuda heChasid (1150-1217), the founder of the group of German pietists known as Chassidei Ashkenaz.[1] An Ethical Will is usually a document of moral and ethical teachings a person leaves behind for their children, to encourage them to follow on in the same ways.


R. Yehuda heChasid, to whom the work Sefer Chassidim is ascribed, left his Ethical Will, known as Tzava’at R. Yehuda heChasid, to future generations. It was more of a mystical-ethical work than a usual ethical will, containing roughly seventy “terse admonitions composed in a firm and pointed style” (Kahana 2021:235). However, not all the representations of the Will are the same and there was some vagueness in the way the content was reproduced and published, because only about twenty of these seventy teachings are preserved consistently throughout all its versions. This means that we can not be entirely sure of the authenticity of all these writings. The “admonitions” sometimes came in the form of severe warnings to those who chose to ignore them, but were not referenced or cited as being based on any Talmudic or other traditional sources. The Will was first produced in manuscript form and one Italian fourteenth-century manuscript elevates the “admonitions” to the status of “prophecies.” The first printing of the Will was in 1551 in Sabbionetta. From 1685, but when the Sefer Chassidim was printed in Sulzbach, the Will, which was now incorporated into the printed versions of this mystical book, received a place of prominence and it continued to be reproduced in print in subsequent publications, making it almost synonymous with Sefer Chassidim

Content of the Will

The Will deals with practical topics like childbirth, death, residence, marriage and names. Some examples of its stipulations follow: 

“A man should not marry a woman if she has the same name as his mother…Do not dig a grave and leave it open … and if one leaves it open until morning, one of the townspeople will die within a few days[2]…No man from Swabia will raise young boys who will have success in yeshiva study…A rabbi should not live in Heidelberg, for he will not have a long life; a kohen should not live in Regensburg, nor [a man whose name is] Eleazar.[3]” 

The Will refers to “the ways of demons” and warns its readers of inherent “dangers” lurking for those who were not careful to uphold these teachings. 

Conceptualisations of the Will

The Will was presented as being framed either Halachically; morally; as a record of local Minhag, or custom; as a means of Magic; and as a path to attaining Teshuva or penance.

1) Halachically: The Will is reproduced in early manuscripts at the end of Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (originally written in 1247) and appears to read like a list of rabbinic prohibitions. This is significant because it indicates that the Will was soon elevated to attain a certain legal status, which does not seem to have been its original intention.

2) Morally and Universally: The Will appeared in the popular Rothschild Machzor alongside other great ethical wills, including interestingly, the will of Alexander the Great.

3) Practically from the perspective of Minhag or customs: The Will was presented as a record of the accepted local custom and it appeared in a work essentially dealing with customs, entitled Minhagei Maharil.

4) Magically: The Will was reproduced in the work Shimush Tehillim, where the Psalms are read as alluding to means of magic.

5) Repentance: The Will was reproduced in Krakow in 1583, in a work entitled Yesod Teshuva

Incorporation in Yesod Teshuva

The Will’s use as a means of attaining penance is interesting because Yesod Teshuva frames the Will as a mechanism to sidestep the rabbis if one was embarrassed to confess one’s sin to him.[4] Yesod Teshuva writes on its title page: 

“For many people are ashamed to come before the sage, who is the teacher of righteousness, to ask for penance…For that reason, I authored this book, so that everyone could have it in lieu of a teacher of righteousness, so that it can easily be found in everyone’s hands for little money.”[5] 

The book incorporates the Will of R. Yehuda heChasid among its other topics that deal with matters like Chibut haKever or tribulations of the grave, from the moment the Angel of Death takes the soul until its judgment in the next world.  However, Yesod Teshuva places a premium on the Will, referring to the teachings as “commandments”, where the notion of Tzava’ah, or Will, becomes conflated with Mitzvah, or commandment: 

“These are the commandments that R. Judah Chasid, of blessed memory, son of the holy R. Samuel, commanded … some of them to his descendants, some to all Israel, and some to the nations of the world.” 

Some editions, like the Venice edition of Yesod Teshuva, omit the phrase “to the nations of the world” probably as it comes across as too universal for a Jewish religious readership. 

The power of the printing houses

Kahana points to the significant role the sixteenth-century Krakow printing houses played in reviving and reframing the Ethical Will of R. Yehudah heChasid. He writes: 

“Between 1583 and 1589, Yesod Teshuvah was reprinted four times under different names, and subsequently in dozens of editions, including literary forgeries. This small booklet seems to emerge as an early modern Jewish bestseller” (Kahana 2021:239). 

Of great interest, though, is how the Will was perceived in some Halachic circles. 

The Halachic conceptualisation of the Will

The same Krakow printing house that published the Yesod Teshuva, which acted as a  slingshot to elevate the Will to a place of some authority, had just three years prior, published the famous Shulchan Aruch of R. Yosef Karo, together with the glosses (notes) of R. Moshe Isserles, known as the Rama. Remember, R. Yosef Karo wrote the Shulchan Aruch for a Sefaradic readership, and later the notes of the Rama were added to include Ashkenazic customs. Kahana explains the significance and consequence of the printing of the foundational work of the Shulchan Aruch as follows: 

“Through a process of selection and reworking, the various strains of Ashkenazic custom embedded in Rema’s glosses, along with additional elements, such as rulings from the Zohar, combined into a new, uniform ‘Ashkenazic’ legal presentation that blurred the boundaries imposed by local law and custom. ‘Ashkenaz’ was redefined in these years in Krakow’s printing houses as an expanding territory whose character was literary” (Kahana 2021:240). 

According to Kahana, Ashkenazic customs were thus reframed somewhat in the Rema’s printed glosses which now appeared as notes incorporated into the text of the Shulchan Aruch. Ashkenaz was being “redefined” based on these printed versions. This was happening at the same time and in exactly the same printing houses of Krakow as the printing and elevation of the Ethical Will of R. Yehuda haNasi. This means that significantly: 

“Penitential practices were also absorbed into the legal canon” (Kahana 2021:240 n.25).[6] 

During this process, parts of the Will also became incorporated into the Shulchan Aruch

“The publication of Shulhan Arukh together with Rema’s glosses was a foundational moment in the incorporation of the content of the popular ethical will…within a formal legal codex” (Kahana 2021:240). 

It did not stop at that because several other Ashkenazic and Provençal rabbis had also included material from the Will in their Halachic writings. With the prestige and authority afforded by the Shulchan Aruch

“[T]his process intensified, so that more sections of the will were quoted and became part of the halakhic canon… Accordingly, articles in the will—such as ‘do not slaughter a goose during [the months of] Tevet or Sheva’ lest the ritual slaughterer die, or ‘two people who despise each other should not be buried together’[7]—appear in the sixteenth century legal canon as settled law, as though taken from the Mishna or Talmud… Thus, in this sixteenth century moment, which became definitive for early modern Jewish legal culture, and under these particular circumstances, the Hasid’s ethical will was absorbed into the heart of halakhic literature: the Shulhan Arukh and Rema’s glosses” (Kahana 2021:241-2). 

The integration of ideas from the Will did not stop at being reflected in the printed codes of Halacha, but also penetrated the heart of the Lurianic Kabbalah of the Ari Zal which began to flourish soon after the Shulchan Aruch was published. 

The Lurianic conceptualisation of the Will

The influence of the Ethical Will of R. Yehuda heChasid spread even further once it had been given authority through the printing of the Shulchan Aruch, and it began to enter into the stream of Lurianic Kabbalah. The terse statements of the Will were now transplanted from legal codes and “infused with mythical kabbalistic language” (Kahana 2021:242) in various books that formed the larger corpus of Lurianic Kabbalah. 

The surprising influence of Chassidei AshkenazThe tremendous influence we have noted concerning the Ethical Will emanating from the founder of Chassidei Ashkenaz − often known for their incorporation of ‘folklore’ from surrounding non-Jewish German culture − is rather surprising. The extent of the influence of Chassidei Askenaz is often debated by rabbis and historians. This research by Kahana, however, indicates that Chassidei Ahkenaz had a powerful influence on later Jewish thought and, more importantly, law. 

Ironically, the fifteenth-century rabbi, R. Moses Mintz (d. c.1480) did not believe that there was any way for the teachings of Chassidei Ashkenaz to gain a foothold and to make an imprint upon future Judaism. He wrote: 

“the articles of R. Judah he-Hasid…will did not spread, and most of it is void” (Responsum Maharam Mintz, no. 79). 

Yet, the folk teachings of Chassidei Ashkenaz did indeed spread and even became integrated within Halacha. This raised the ire of some later rabbis and in 1906, Sefer Taamei aMinhagim sarcastically records: 

“Had the Ten Commandments been written in the ethical will of R. Judah he-Hasid, they [people] would be exceedingly cautious about them.”[8] 

Adoption of the Will in responsa literature

Once aspects of the Will were included in the authoritative body of the Shulchan Aruch, it was a short time before these ideas began to appear in the secondary strata of legal writings known as responsa or Sheilot uTeshuvot literature, where Halachic experts expound upon specific questions of Jewish law as they arise in practical situations. Sometimes these writers drew from other articles of the Will that were not included in the Shulchan Aruch. This way more of the Will became binding as “detailed halakhic responses abound in the responsa literature” (Kahana 2021:243): 

“Clauses such as ‘A tree that bears fruit twice a year should be cut down immediately,’ or ‘One should not completely seal a window or door lest the demons damage it, for it is their manner to leave through it; rather, he should make a hole in it,’[9] are absorbed into the language and become an integral part of halakhah” (Kahana 2021:243)…Hundreds of such responsa are documented and discussed in modern encyclopedic editions of the will” (Kahana 2021:243,n. 36). 

R. David Oppenheim invalidates a divorce based on the Will

During the early eighteenth century, R. David Oppenheim was the Chief Rabbi of Moravia (today the Czech Republic). During the same period, R. Zvi Hirsch Frankel-Hanau was the rabbi of Heidelberg and he had prepared a bill of divorce for someone from his community. However, R. David Oppenheim flatly refused to recognise the validity of the divorce. The reason was simply that his rabbinical colleague who prepared the document, resided in Heidelberg, and the Will of R. Yehuda heChasid states that a rabbi should never live in Heidelberg![10] 

R. Zvi Hirsch Frankel-Hanau, in turn, responded that he had a different version of the Will that stated that only a rabbi by the name of Shmuel may not be a rabbi in Heidelberg. But R. David Oppenheim refused to accept that because he maintained that an argument based on variant texts was not strong enough to counter the severe “dangers” inherent in a rabbi residing in Heidelberg as attested by R. Yehuda heChasid. He claimed that such “dangers” were more severe than biblical prohibitions! R. David Oppenheim brought support for his position from the Talmud, which says: “Danger is stricter than prohibition.”[11] This way, R. Oppenheim viewed the Will as an undisputed legal authority, strong enough to invalidate a legal document like a get

R. Yonatan Eibeschuetz on slaughtering a goose during Tevet and Shvat

R. David Oppenheim was succeeded by R. Yehonatan Eibeschuetz (1690–1764) who had written a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch entitled Kereti uFeleti. He quoted the ruling of the Rama in the Shulchan Aruch which was based on the Will: 

“Some ritual slaughterers take care not to slaughter any goose during [the months of] Tevet and Shevat unless they eat from its heart, because there is a tradition that there is a single hour during those months during which, if one slaughters a goose, the slaughterer will die unless he eats from it; and the custom is to eat from the heart” (Rama to Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 11:4). 

R. Eibescheutz comments that this was a practice he was familiar with. To counter the “danger” of slaughtering a goose during those two months, he added that besides the heart, some ate the feet or liver of the goose. He also noted that he had observed that the slaughterers eat the melted fat from the goose, thereby immunisng themselves from the “danger.” 

However, in this instance, R. Eibescheutz stood up to the prevailing trend and growing tide declaring these practices to be superstitions if not idolatry falling under category of “the ways of the Emorites” who were known for such occultic practices. The gravitas of this statement by R. Eibescheutz must be understood in its rabbinic context: 

“With a wave of his pen, R. Jonathan [Eibescheutz][12] rendered illegitimate a custom that had been internalized and codified by Rema and transformed an observance that was perceived as a command into a prohibition…This rationalization…seeks to banish the demons of the past from the halakhic canon…the halakhic paragraph in Shulchan Arukh is actually part of medieval natural magic. And now, it should be simply erased” (Kahana 2021:248-9). 

R. Yechezkel Landau (Noda beYehuda) challenges the Will

R. Yechezkel Landau (1713–1793), who also served as the rabbi of Prague, was not happy with the way mysticism had infiltrated the very fabric of Judaism. He was profoundly ruthless in his criticism: 

“In a lengthy series of responsa, R. Landau sought to purify the halakhic method from the admixture of various extra-Talmudic sources. The Zohar is sharply negated and condemned, its historical credibility undermined. Popular kabbalistic literature and kabbalistic liturgy, which he deems suspect and heretical, meet the same fate. R. Ezekiel described the use of the Lurianic doctrine of kavanot as heresy” (Kahana 2021:250). 

R. Yechezkel Landau wrote: 

“Know, my beloved student, and let these words be engraved on the tablet of your heart as a reminder: The major principle is that no sage after the Talmud has license to say something against the Talmud. One who says something to contradict an iota of the Talmud’s words is not considered one of the sages of Israel... Similarly, we find in R. Judah he-Hasid’s ethical will words that are all but forbidden for us to hear. For he says that one should not marry his sister’s daughter, yet the Talmud states that it is a mitzvah. He says that a father and son should not marry sisters, yet R. Papa and his son married two daughters of Abba Sura’ah” (Responsa Noda beYehuda, vol. 2, Even haEzer 79). 

Chatam Sofer on the Will

R. Moses Sofer or Shreiber (1762–1839), known as Chatam Sofer expressed his opposition to the Will. He claimed that the Will was pseudepigraphic and therefore not even written by R. Yehuda heChasid. This way, R. Yehuda heChasid can still be venerated and the Will loses all its authority. 

R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi on the Will

According to the first rebbe of Chabad, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812) the fact that only part of the Will was mentioned in the writings of the Ari, indicates to him that the rest of the Will, which is most of it, is therefore not binding:[13] 

“The metaphysical reading of the will, inspired by Lurianic doctrine in the early modern period, was turned on its head in one breath” (Kahana 2021:254). 

R. Pinchas of Koretz on the Will

R. Pinchas of Koretz (1726-1791) one of the early Chassidic Rebbes ignored most of the teachings of the Will. He simply claimed: 

“[F]rom the day they began walking on the path of the Baal Shem Tov, much of the will of R. Judah heChasid was nullified.”[14] 

Sefaradim on the Will

While many later-day Ashkenazim and Chassidim were adopting critical positions relating to the Will, some of the Sefaradim were allowing for a resurgence of its teachings: 

“When a mass epidemic devastated the city of Izmir in the 1830s, for example, R. Hayim Palache (1788–1869) linked the catastrophe to the prescriptions of the old German pietist, writing: ‘Do not be lax about any aspect of the will of R. Judah he-Hasid, for most of the deaths of 1832 and 1834 were due to violations of the will.’[15] The will combined with the re-enchantment of the Eastern landscape with demons and spirits, was adopted by preachers and absorbed into halakhic literature, and was even translated into Arabic” (Kahana 2021:256). 

In more recent times, R. Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013), the Iraqi-born Sefaradi Chief Rabbi of Israel between 1973-1983, expressed his disapproval of ascribing any Halachic authority to the Will. [16] (I thank Dr. Avi Harel for pointing this source out to me.)


Kahana has thus traced the various receptions and perceptions of the Ethical Will of R. Yehuda heChasid touching on the important matter of its foray into Halacha, and has shown some of the rabbinic reaction to this. I think a profound lesson to be gleaned is that besides the importance of proficiency in this case the study even of Halacha in Shulchan Aruch every text must be read within its broader historic and Halachic context. Perhaps this is why we are cautioned not to rule solely from the texts we happen to encounter, but rather from competent Posekim or Decisors who, we trust, are aware of both content and context.

[1] Kahana, M., 2021, ‘Old Prophesies, Multiple Modernities: The Stormy Afterlife of a Medieval Pietist in Early Modern Ashkenaz’, in Jewish History, 34, 233–258.

[2] Reuven Margaliot, ed., Sefer Chassidim [Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1957), “The Will of R. Judah the Pious,” nos. 2, 16.

[3] Ibid., nos. 56, 51.

[4] Surprisingly, the concept of confession does exist in Jewish religious literature and even R. Nachman of Breslov, in more recent times, spoke about “confessing to the Tzadik.”

[5] Translations by Kahana.

[6] See Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 185:4.

[7] See Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 11:4, 362:6.

[8] Sefer Ta’amei haMinhagim uMekorei haDinim (Lvov, 1906), 402. 

[9] Sefer Chassidim, nos. 20, 44.

[10] Yitzchok Dov Feld, ed., Responsa Nishal David (Jerusalem, 1982), vol. 3, Even haEzer 35.

[11] b. Chulin 10a. 

[12] Square brackets are mine.

[13] See Responsa Tzemach Tzedek, Even haEzer 144.

[14] Sefer Imrei Pinchas haShalem (Bnei Brak, 1993), Sha’ar Torat haAdam, no 49, p. 427.

[15] Sefer Teshuvat Hayim, Tochachat Hayim (Jerusalem, 2011), Bamidbar, p. 100 sec. 5.

[16] Shu"t Yabia Omer, vol 2, Even haEzer, siman 7.


  1. Fascinating. Also interesting that so many later kabbalists (and a likely Shabbatean) were opposed to the will or minimised it.

  2. Its so true. I've come to realise how difficult it is to place rabbinic characters we think we know, into the box we think they should go.

  3. Unfortunately, an apologetic end to good article.