Sunday 27 August 2023

443) Mystical approaches of the early Chassidic movement


1772 was a year in which many bans against the Chassidim were issued. This one is from the Vilna Gaon in Vilna. Our article deals with the 1772 Brody bans.


The early Chassidic courts are often presented as inspiring centres of fellowship, prayer, dancing and learning. This article – based extensively on the research by Dr. Mor Altshuler[1] – explores some of the more ‘cosmic’ elements and inner mystical dynamics of the Chassidic court of R. Yechiel Michal, the Magid of Zlotchov (1726-1786), a major early leader of the movement [see previous post]. 

Meat prices in Koretz

The first recorded incident relating to the Magid of Zlotchov and his students concerns the slaughterhouse in the Ukrainian town of Koretz. R. Moshe Shapira, the son of the R. Pinchas of Koretz, was in charge of implementing a levy or tariff on local butchers and kosher meat. As a result of these taxes, the price of meat in Koretz became exorbitant and unaffordable. 

The Magid of Zlotchov and his students were the first to speak out against the injustice of this price hike. The protest against the meat price soon turned into a public debacle, pitting R. Pinchas of Koretz and his son R. Moshe Shapira, against the Magid of Zlotchov and his followers. This is an early example of inter-Chassidic conflict. 

Within a short time, however, they were not just arguing about meat but about whose prayers were the most effective. R. Pinchas of Koretz boldly claimed: 

“[T] the world says that the Magid [of Zlotchov] lifted up prayer, but I have lifted up prayer” (In Schatz-Uffenheimer 1993:230). 

A later version records the controversy over the efficacy of their prayers as follows: 

“The grudge that he [R. Michal of Zlotchov] holds against me [R. Pinchas of Koretz] because he doesn't see my prayers in Heaven is a baseless grudge, for not only does he not see my prayers, even the angels don't see them, for I have blazed myself a trail straight to the Holy One…” (Pinchas of Koretz, Imrei Pinchas haShalem, Bnei Brak 1988:2). 

The conflict over meat and prayers turned so bitter that R. Pinchas of Koretz and his son R. Moshe Shapira were driven out of Koretz and had to settle in Ostrog. 

Another version of the events, this time by R. David of Markov a great opponent of Chassidism, and author of the anti-Chassidic work Shever Poshim describes how he is concerned about the sudden rise of the Chassidc movement. He is alarmed that there are: 

“thousands and tens of thousands of the…[Chassidic] sect. One of the heads [of the sect] was called Mikcal of Zlotchov," who desecrated the Sabbath, "and the Rabbi of the above-mentioned town [i.e., R. Pinchas of Koretz] excommunicated him . . . Yet the Rabbi [of the town, instead,] was forced to flee because these ruthless informants joined forces with the above-mentioned wicked Hasidim, and the Rabbi almost forfeited his life, as he was a hair's-breadth away from death” (In Wilensky 1970, 2:176).[2] 

The term “sect” was often used a that time in reference to the nascent Chassidic movement as an allusion to the “sect of Shabbatai Tzvi,” the seventeenth-century false messiah who had thrown the Jewish world into turmoil (Altshuler 2004:160). 

Anti-Chassidic bans of Brody

With R. Pinchas of Koretz and his son being driven out of Koretz, the Magid of Zlotchov had emerged victorious. This victory, however, was short-lived because it only served to anger the rabbinic authorities in Brody, where the Magid of Zlotchov had relocated, and now conducted his private synagogue separate from the mainstream synagogues. On 21 June 1772, the rabbis of Brody issued an ex-communication order against the new Chassidim whose numbers had suddenly swelled in the time of the Magid of Zlotchov (more so than during the time of the Baal Shem Tov and R. Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezeritch). 

What started as a protest over meat prices in Koretz, had turned into one of the most significant polemics and religious conflicts in Jewish history centred in Brody – the banning and ex-communication of the entire early Chassidic movement by the mainstream rabbinic opponents known as Mitnagdim. 

Although the Magid of Zlotchov is not mentioned by name, three bans and prohibitions were certainly directed against him. Altshuler explains that the concern behind these bans was not so much the details of Chassidic practices and customs or even their innovations, but primarily their emphasis on mystical messianism (Altshuler 2004:141). 

The first prohibition

The first matter the anti-Chassidic bans addressed was the use of sharp slaughtering knives by followers of the Magid of Zlotchov. The rabbis of Brody outlawed the use of sharp slaughtering knives! And anyone who refused to eat meat slaughtered by the official slaughterers of Brody with their not-so-sharp knives was to be expelled from the town. Also, no one was allowed to ask the slaughterers to see, or inspect their knives. That was the proclivity of the official rabbinic body in Brody and no one was to question their authority or rulings. 

The debacle over meat prices in Koretz, about 150 km away from Brody, had made the Chassidim of the Magid of Zlotchov move away from official regulating rabbinic bodies and decide to establish their own regulating authorities. The mainstream rabbinate in Brody responded by prohibiting sharp slaughtering knives, even though sharp knives were clearly not prohibited under Jewish law. 

Besides the obvious fear of loss of revenue that would follow multiple slaughtering authorities as the consumers would now be split into different camps each separately paying their slaughterers the Brody rabbinate seemed more concerned about messianism and mysticism than finances because the Chassidim had developed an elaborate mystical reason for slaughtering with sharp knives. 

The Magid of Zlotchov taught that slaughtering meat was not a simple matter of butchery but rather an intricate and delicate matter of redeeming souls. He drew from the anonymous work Sefer haKanah, which at that stage only existed in manuscript form. Sefer haKanah soon became popular as it was subsequently printed in 1782. According to Sefer haKanah, the souls of sinners are reincarnated into animals as a form of punishment. The less sinful souls are fortunate enough to be reincarnated into pure, or kosher animals, while the others do not enjoy that privilege. The kosher animals have a chance at salvation because an expert slaughterer, with the correct spiritual intentions, can elevate the soul back to a position of grace. The slaughterer can only do this, however, if his knives are sharp so that he causes no pain to the animals. This way, the redemption of souls depends on the sharpness of the slaughtering knives. Furthermore, not only do slaughters have this important mission to accomplish, but even when a righteous person later eats the meat, he can similarly elevate the reincarnated soul trapped within. Framed this way, the anti-Chassidic bans against sharp knives would place future Jewish souls in jeopardy as no one would be able to redeem those souls. 

The rabbis of Brody were not only worried about the new customs of the Chassidim dividing the community and its financial structures. They seemed most concerned about this new wave of theurgic and magical mysticism that needed to redeem souls from animals as preparation for the imminent messianic redemption which could only take place when all lost souls are returned. 

On a historical note, the slaughtering bans proved ineffective as the Chassidim of the Magid of Zlotchov continued to maintain their slaughtering practices. 

The second prohibition

The second of the Brody prohibitions concerned praying in private synagogues instead of the designated and official houses of prayer. It prohibited: 

“separating oneself from the community in any Kleizel or new Beit Midrash that is not open to all…” (In Wilensky 1970, 1:176). 

The expression “Kleisel” is an intended derogatory reference to a tiny “Kloise.” The main “Kloise” was the larger and official synagogue for the recognised Kabbalists of Brody whom the mainstream rabbinate was more prepared to accept and endorse. 

The third prohibition

The third prohibition issued by the mainstream Brody rabbinate concerned the adoption by the Chassidim of the Magid of Zlotchov in their “Kleisel of Lurianic prayer rites and practices stemming from the Kabbalist known as the Ari Zal (R. Yitzchak Luria, 1534-1572). There were two categories of bans against the study of Kabbalah: 1) ‘normative’ Kabbalah could only be studied by those over the age of 30, and then, only from printed ‘normative’ Kabalistic books not handwritten manuscripts; and 2) Lurianic Kabbalah, specifically, could only be studied by those over 40. And anyway, this mystical study was only to take place in the official “Kloise,” not the “Kleisel” of the Chassidim. 

This ban also expresses the fear of messianism and mysticism more than the fear of sectarianism, because the Chassidim of the Magid of Zlotchov were prone to try and use Lurianic prayer and practices as theurgic (magical or cause-and-effect) means to bring messianic redemption as we shall demonstrate below. 

The joining of soul to soul

A few years later, another issue that concerned the mainstream rabbinate of Brody was the Chassidim of the Magid of Zlotchov developing an intricate ‘chain’ of one soul elevating another until an entire transformation and elevation of ‘lower souls’ occurs. And this all centres around the leading figure of the “Tzadik.” This is one of the reasons why R. Yechiel Michal of Zlotchov was known as the “first Tzadik of Chassidism” [see previous post]. This all began around 1777 which was believed to be the year of the Messiah. In that year people even believed that “the King Messiah has come” (Assaf 1996:328).[3] 1777 was the one-hundredth anniversary of the passing of Shabbatai Tzvi. 

In April 1777, a group of Chassidim of the Magid of Zlotchov went on aliya under the direction of the R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk together with R. Abraham of Kalisk. Meanwhile, the other Chassidm remained behind in the “Kleisel” of the Magid of Zlotchov in Brody. On the festival of Shavuot that year, 1777, the Magid of Zlotchov tried to reveal the messianic redemption by ‘connecting’ to the souls of his other Chassidim who were in the Holy Land. He was going to connect his prayers, which contained the prayers of his Chassidim in Brody that he had already ‘elevated,’ to the more auspicious prayers of his Chassidim in the Holy Land. This event was recorded by his student, R. Meshullam Feibush Heller in a letter. 

But the Magid of Zlotchov was not just a link in that chain, he remained the pivot around which it all revolved (reminiscent of what was later to become the popular teaching of R. Nachman of Breslov): 

“The person praying connects himself to ‘the holy soul of the Tzaddikim of the Generation,’ and through it his soul connects with the souls of the people of Israel, who are represented in the Tzaddik's soul” (Altshuler 2004:145). 

This way the Maggid of Zlotchov saw himself as the essential ‘holder’ of other Jewish souls which, in this formulation, were beholden to him for their elevation and redemption. This teaching found expression in an addition sometimes appended to the morning prayers, and is still relevant today in some prayer rites: 

“[A person's] words of prayer ascend by his connecting himself in saying, 'I hereby take upon myself the commandment of Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.' And he [who prays] unites himself with love with the holy soul of the Tzaddikim of the Generation, whose likeness he knows, and he traces this likeness at that moment in his thoughts . . . And truthfully I have heard from the Holy Mouth, the Divine Rabbi our teacher R. Yehiel Mikhal…who said: 'before every prayer I connect myself with all Israel, both with those who are greater than I, through whom my thoughts will ascend, and for the benefit of the lesser ones, who will be raised by me.' Thus I heard from his holy mouth” (R. Meshullam Feibush Heller). [4] 

Then in an astounding mystical twist, we discover a crucial component shrouded in this formulation of taking upon oneself the seemingly benign mitzvah of ‘ahavat Yisrael’ (loving your neighbour). The “likeness” and ‘image’ of the Tzadik was to be none other than R. Yechiel Michal, the Magid of Zlotchov! The tracing of the ‘portrait’ of the Tzaddik by the Chassid during prayer would enable the Tzadik to “pray on behalf of the Hasid” (Altshuler 2004:149): 

“And you will undertake an activity in the course of this prayer. When you mention me, at that moment your likeness will arise in my thoughts and I will pray for you” (Or haEmet, Hussiatin, 1899, 102a). 

This idea was not a new one. The notion of connecting two souls that love each other and the technique of connecting the student's soul to the Rabbi by tracing the figure of the Rabbi are mentioned in the Zohar as well as by the Kabbalists of Safed. This is known as “ Sod haIbur” (the secret of conception).[5] 

The practice of accepting upon oneself the mitzvah  "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" before prayer, was adopted by at least sixteen founding fathers of the Chassidic movement (Halamish 1978:534-556).[6] 

The reference to the actual name of the Magid of Zlotchov in relation to this practice, however, was kept private as he demanded “an oath of secrecy taken upon themselves by his disciples” (Altshuler 2004:150). 

The reasons for this “oath of secrecy” are even more intriguing and may help us understand why the mainstream rabbinate of Brody had issued these bans in the first instance. 

Nishmat Sha-dai (The soul of Sha-dai) 

The Magid of Zlotchov taught that every Jew must recognize the fact that his soul has no independent existence. The soul is just a component of the larger soul of the People of Israel as a whole which is part of the Divine Being.  Based on this, he developed the notion that these souls must, therefore, connect with the soul of a Tzadik or "righteous man" (which was him, Magid of Zlotchov) so that he can cleanse them and return them to their Divine source. 

This special Tzadik was not just righteous but, to accomplish this cosmic mission, he had to possess a unique soul the special Nishmat Sha-dai,  the soul of Sha-dai.” This title is taken from the Book of Job: 

"The Soul of Sha-dai [the Almighty] that gives them understanding" (Job 32:8).” 

The Magid of Zlotchov claimed he had such a soul. According to Likutim Yekarim (this section was censored in the early editions): 

“And I heard [it] from the mouth of the Holy Rabbi, the Maggid, on the festival of Shavuoth, when he preached a great sermon. Concerning the verse The Soul of Shaddai gives them understanding, he explained it to mean that God is called "Shaddai" …He [Shin] said to his world ‘Enough!’ [dai]…In other words, the world emanated from spirituality to materiality, all so that it could be restored by the Tzaddik's pure thought to be a great pleasure. God said ‘Enough’ because he understood that ... if, Heaven forefend, [the world] became more material, it would no longer be possible to restore man to communion [with God], and without this of what use is the world?” (Likutim Yekarim, Zolkva 1800, 22a; Jerusalem 1974, 1). 

In other words, creation was allowed to materialise up to a point, beyond which it would be impossible to retrieve any spirit. At that point, G-d said, “Enough” (Sha-dai) and the Tzadik possessing the very lofty Nishmat Sha-dai or Soul of Sha-dai, would restore all the souls and redeem them in a messianic redemption. 

“[T]he Zlotchover Maggid was not preaching a theoretical homily, but…he called his own soul ‘The Soul of Shaddai’ and had designated it for this role…

The kabbalist R. Abraham Abulafia took on the additional name "Shaddai" as part of his messianic pretension…The name was also accorded a key place in the Sabbatean tradition as one of the Divine names of Shabbatai Tzvi, who even wore a ring on his finger on which the letters Shaddai were engraved. Numerous Sabbatean hymns include the numerical value of Shaddai and speak of the correction of the world in the realm of Shaddai, an allusion to his future messianic kingship. One can assume that the Zlotchover Maggid chose deliberately to preach in markedly messianic language and that he was aware of the Sabbatean tone of his words” (Altshuler 2004:152). 

Although this event took place during the ‘Tikun’ of Shavuot in 1777, it illustrates the general messianic ethos of this group of Chassidim in Brody that instilled fear into the hearts of the mainstream rabbinate. They would have had wind of such activities, or the potential thereof, five years earlier when in 1772 they initiated their campaign of anti-Chassidic bans. It seems that, as Altshuler points out, the main concern of the rabbis of Brody was this type of mystical messianism and they were afraid of a repetition of similar patterns of messianic fervour that had emerged a century before.






[1] Altshuler, M., 2004, ‘The First Tzaddik of Hasidism: The Zlotchover Magid and His Circle’, Jewish Studies Quarterly, vol. 11, no. 1/2, Mohr Siebeck GmbH & Co. KG, 127-193.

[2] Wilensky, M., 1970, Hasidim u-Mitnagdim, le-Toldot ha-Pulmos she-Beineihem ba-Sha- nim 5532-5575, Volume 1 [Hasidim and Mitnagdim, A Chronicle of the Polemic Conducted Between Them During 1772-1815], Jerusalem.

[3] Assaf, D., 1996, "She-Yatz'ah Shmuah sheba Mashiach ben David: Or Hadash al Aliyat haChasidim biShnat 5537" ["The Rumor Spread that the Messiah of Davidic Descent Had Arrived: A New Light on the Chasidic immigration in 1777"], Zion 61, 328.

[4] Likutim Yekarim, Lemberg 1792, 25b; Jerusalem 1974, 129a.

[5] Liebes, Y., 1994, "Zohar ve-Eros" ["Zohar and Eros"], Alpayim 9, 79-80.

[6] Halamish, M., 1978, ‘Gilgulav shel Minhag Kabbali, “Hareini Mekabel Alai Le- kayem Mitzvat Asseh shel ve-Ahavta le-Re'echa Kamocha”’ [‘The Permutations of a Kabbalistic Custom, “I Hereby Take It Upon Myself to Keep the Positive Commandment of And Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself"], Kiryat Sefer, 53, 534-556.


  1. Hello, I am not actually commenting on this article, but I figured I should try and reach out to you via the most recent article. I just want to know the source for for number 11 on this article:
    where is this responsum? Is at all related to that famous Raavid teshuvah we he discusses Rambam banning the silent amidah? Thank you.

  2. Hi R. Moshe
    If my referencing is correct, I think you will find it in the four-volume set of: "R. Moses b. Maimon: Responsa," Edited by J. Blau. 1957–61 and 1986 (# 256, 473–76, and # 291, 548).

  3. I must say, a shudder runs through me when I read these posts. How did we survive this and move past it? Some of these claims sound utterly deranged and heretical.

  4. There were very distinguished men who stood athwart unnaturally & gave of themselves firm decades in opposition .
    They could have avoided the difficulties choosing to escape to ivory towers (or blogs that satisfy their dabbling whim) but nobly sacrificed instead though they were aware they would be condemned far more than appreciated