Sunday 4 February 2024

459) Chassidic literature – beyond the Hebrew texts


Emet veEmunah, an anthology of teachings from Kotzk


This article based extensively on the research by Professors Evan Mayse and Daniel Reiser[1] examines a fascinating anomaly within Chassidic literature: Most of the formal Chassidic texts used today are in Hebrew, but Hebrew was not the medium through which the discourses were generally transmitted. The original teachings were mainly presented orally and in Yiddish. 

The question is whether or not this is a significant distinction, and can it have some bearing on how we read the popular Chassidic texts today? 

Original settings

The way we read Chassidic texts today is either in a modern Beit Midrash setting or a shiur, and usually in Hebrew. But originally, barring some exceptions, Chassidic discourses were delivered in the Yiddish vernacular and to a live (and participatory) audience: 

“[T]he original moment, transformed only later into a text, was a dramatic oral event” (Mayse and Reiser 2018:127). 

The Baal Shem Tov

This form of oral transmission was not by accident. The founder of Chassidism, the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760), was fervently opposed to any of the Chassidic teachings being committed to writing. This is how Shivchei haBesht (published in 1814) describes his opposition to using written (and how much more, translated) texts: 

“There was a man who wrote down the Torah [the homilies] that he heard from the Besht [i.e., the Baal Shem Tov]. Once the Besht saw a demon walking and holding a book in his hand. He said to him: ‘What is the book that you hold in your hand?’ He answered him: ‘This is the book that you have written.’ 

The Besht then understood that there was a person who was writing down his Torah. He gathered all his followers and asked them: ‘Who among you is writing down my Torah?’ The man admitted it and he brought the manuscript to the Besht. The Besht examined it and said: ‘There is not even a single word here that I have said.’” (Shivchei haBesht #159). 

Moving beyond the hagiographical style of Shivchei haBesht, we see that a tradition existed recording that: 

1) The Baal Shem Tov was opposed to his teachings being written down;

2) He knew that even well-intended written words were liable to distort the original nuanced oral presentation; and

3) The introduction of a ‘demon’ figure in the story represents the ‘evil’ act of transferring Chassidic teachings from a pure oral mode to a distorted written mode of transmission. 

What the story does not convey, however, is a fourth observation that during the typical historical process of transmission of Chassidic teachings, the language would also have changed from informal Yiddish to a more technical Hebrew. One must add a fifth factor as well. Once a text is translated and committed to writing, of necessity, it undergoes some degree of editorial process by the disciples who need to ‘check’ the ‘accuracy’ of the new medium. 

Moshe Rosman describes the act of translation as follows: 

“The more translating, piecing together, and correcting that was done, the farther removed the finished product was from what the original tsadik taught.”[2] 

Chassidism eventually adopts the printed medium

The Baal Shem Tov’s successor, the Magid of Mezerich (R. Dov Ber Friedman 1704-1772), also did not publish his teachings. Slowly, however, things began to change as Chassidim adopted and then embraced the printed medium. Two decades after the passing of the Baal Shem Tov, the first Chassidic book emerged in printed form. It was called Toledot Yakov Yosef (by R. Yakov Yosef of Pollonye, 1710–1784) and published in 1780. 

It is interesting to note that it was only after the fierce struggle against the opposition of the Mitnagedim to the Chassidic movement, which officially began in 1772, that it became necessary to formulate Chassidic ideas in written form. And this entailed, as mentioned, the translation from Yiddish to Hebrew. 

Chassidism developed wherever Yiddish was spoken

Chassidism was birthed in the Yiddish language. A fascinating observation by Mayse and Reiser is the fact that Chassidism developed predominantly in areas where Yiddish was spoken: 

“[Chassidism] never took hold in regions where Yiddish was no longer the vernacular [or in places where]  Yiddish was derided as a backward and corrupt ‘jargon’… The geographical boundaries of the spread of Hasidism were the same as those of the Yiddish language” (Mayse and Reiser 2018:130). 

This is why Chassidism never spread to Western Europe or Central Europe where German was spoken. It never spread to Italy either where the Jews had stopped speaking Yiddish already during the seventeenth century. In Hungary, Chassidism only spread to the northeastern regions where Yiddish was spoken. It did not impact the Balkans either, where Ladina and Ottoman Turkish were spoken. 

“It is our contention that cognizance of the fact that Hasidic society was, at its inception, an oral culture grounded in the Yiddish language allows for a better understanding of Hasidic culture, thought, and literature” (Mayse and Reiser 2018:130). 

It appears that Chassidism, in its original setting, was saying something very appealing to those who understood the nuances of Yiddish something we may have lost to some degree when the official language of Chassidic transmission changed to a more formal and technical Hebrew. 

Yehuda Leib of Linits – beware of the pitfalls of translation

In an early collection of Chassidic teachings translated from Yiddish to Hebrew, R. Yehuda Leib of Linits expresses his concern that much might be lost even in an accurate translation into Hebrew: 

“If something seems amiss after reading it closely, [the reader] should judge the author favorably and attribute the deficiency to me. Perhaps my effort was insufficient, incapable of capturing the words as he intended them….

Or perhaps the [speaker’s] intent was changed because of the translation from one language to another, for my language is quite inarticulate. It is known that the craft of translation from one tongue to another is extremely difficult” (Yehudah Leib, introduction to Gedalya of Linits, Teshu‘ot Chen, Jerusalem, 1965, 7). 

‘Chassidic’ Yiddish

If this is true of translations in general, it is even more the case for translations from a nuanced ‘Chassidic Yiddish’ to Hebrew. When the early Chassidic leaders expounded in Yiddish on their new ideology, it was a dramatic religious event. It usually took place during a major gathering of fervent followers: 

“the contours and significance of which cannot be fully understood in textual witnesses… Contemporary scholars cannot hope to restore this dramatic event, but our treatment of the resultant texts must take into account that the Hasidic sermon was often accompanied by theatrical (bodily) and musical elements (songs, wordless melodies, as well as the intonation and resonance of oral language), as well as displays of mystical rapture” (Mayse and Reiser 2018:133). 

A further challenge was that most early Chassidic teachings were recorded, not by the teacher himself, but by the later followers. The early Chassidic Rebbes themselves were unconcerned with recording their teachings in writing because they focussed on the intense experience of the moment of delivery as they bonded with their disciples. 

R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi – an exception?

A notable exception to the trend described above may have been R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi who committed his own teachings to writing, in Hebrew. However, the last Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson is convinced that even R. Shneur Zalman delivered his original discourses in Yiddish: 

“This makes it clear that although the Alter Rebbe [Shneur Zalman] wrote Tanya in the Holy Tongue, the initial “revelation” [hisgalus], the speaking [amireh] of Tanya—which was [originally] given as ‘answers to many questions’ through which the Alter Rebbe responded to his faithful followers in private audiences—took place in Yiddish, the language the Alter Rebbe would have spoken. (This is particularly true of the first three chapters of Tanya, which the Alter Rebbe delivered earlier as a Hasidic discourse in Yiddish [when our master the Tsemah Tsedek was born])” (Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Likutei Sihot, 36 vols, Brooklyn, 1999, 21: 449). 

Notwithstanding the words of the last Rebbe that at least the first three chapters of Tanya were delivered originally in Yiddish, there are no indications from R. Shneur Zalman himself that translated from Yiddish to Hebrew. 

From these comments, we see that even within the Chassidic movement itself, it is very difficult to envisage an authentic Chassidic movement developing out of anything other than a strong tradition of transmission, through Yiddish, of early Chassidic teachings. There is the conceptualisation that there was something uniquely Chassidic about teaching Chassidut in Yiddish. Mayse and Reiser then make a very interesting observation: 

“There is reason to doubt the historical veracity of Menachem Mendel’s claim that Shneur Zalman initially delivered the first three chapters of Tanya as a Hasidic discourse in Yiddish. The idea may be rooted in one of the many invented traditions of Menachem Mendel’s father-in-law and predecessor, Yosef Yitshak Schneersohn (1880-1950), whose extensive writings on the development of Chabad represent an attempt to construct a sacred history of the community’s leadership and evolution” (Mayse and Reiser 2018:137).[3] 

It was very important for the texts of R. Shneur Zalman to be essentially rooted (or considered to be rooted) in the original medium of transmission of Chassidic ideas, to maintain the hegemony and authenticity of the movement. The medium of Yiddish, not Hebrew, was and had to be, the incubator of Chassidic thought. 

Gershom Scholem made the same ‘mistake’

The language issue also impacted academic scholars, but for different reasons. Mendel Piekarz disagreed entirely with the ‘literal’ way scholars like Gershom Scholem and his students interpreted some of the concepts of Chassidism. He suggested that they fell into the same trap of translating ideas from Hebrew that were originally discussed in Yiddish. Take the word “Deveikut” (to cling to G-d) for example. According to Scholem, working from the Hebrew, Deveikut means an intimate connection with God, requiring total effacement of the self.[4] 

However, in the Eastern European context, as expressed through the Yiddish language, Deveikut is not easy to define at all. Piekarz explains: 

“In some cases, devekut is generally identified with intense concentration, and in others it refers to cleaving to God as a spiritual state devoid of any specific content. In some instances, devekut is a personal, living experience of God…and sometimes devekut is just a synonym for ‘fear of heaven’ [yirat shamayim] or faithful devotion.”[5] 

Again we see that it is difficult to understand and interpret what are today considered clearly-understood and well-known Chassidic concepts even when rendered in what appears to be authoritative Hebrew but taken out of their original (and more authoritative) Yiddish context. This opens up new potential and expansive areas of exploration of Chassidic texts and concepts. Yiddish is not only the source language of Chassidism but the final arbiter of the definitions of its concepts: 

“Even Hebrew words used as a part of Yiddish often have a special meaning that is similar, but not identical, to their conventional use in Hebrew” (Mayse and Reiser 2018:145). 

Abraham Joshua Heschel confirms the definitive role of Yiddish

Abraham Joshua Heschel confirms the importance of the role Yiddish played in the formation of Chassidic culture: 

“One who studies Hasidism only by relying upon literary sources, without drawing upon the oral traditions, depends upon artificial material… The ideas that were written down were translated into the holy tongue and rarely preserved in the original language [i.e., Yiddish] in which the idea had once lived upon the lips of the rebbes and their Hasidim.”[6] 

Heschel was raised among the Kotzker Chasidim in prewar Warsaw and he personally knew people who had journeyed to the Kotzker Rebbe. Yet he was surprised to find that later on, so many of the Kotzker Rebbe’s teachings were committed to writing in Hebrew by later followers. He was convinced that they had sometimes completely missed the nuances and the essence of the movement. Heschel writes: 

“The tragedy is that those who communicated Reb Mendel’s [ie, the Kotzker Rebbe’s] words in their books, for the most part translated them into Hebrew… Therefore, many of the teachings included in Emet ve-emunah [Truth and Faith]…are totally incomprehensible. In my youth I heard a great many of the teachings orally in Yiddish, and for this reason it is often possible for me to understand their unclear formulation.” 

Kotzk through a Yiddish lens

The Kotzker Rebbe is known for his search for Truth (Emet). Astoundingly, however, by basing ourselves on the Hebrew word Emet, we actually have a very limited understanding of what he was really looking for. 

“Heschel cites an oral Hasidic tradition maintaining that the Kotsker rebbe never uttered the word emet (or emes in Yiddish), the term often rendered as ‘truth.’ Rather than this standard Yiddish term, Menahem Mendel used the less common vorhayt, a word related to the German Wahrheit (truth, verity)” (Mayse and Reiser 2018:146). 

To be accurate, Heschel informs us that, the Kotzker Rebbe used the word Emes, only once but he quickly corrected himself by replacing the word with “oyf der vorhayt.” Language is so important because in this case, Vorhayt means something that neither the Hebrew word Emet nor the Yiddish word Emes, can capture: 

Vorhayt gestures not toward an abstract or philosophical conception of truth but rather to a concept of verity that is totally grounded in reality. This tradition suggests that the Kotsker rebbe was uninterested in philosophical emes, which can be proven and cut down…Menahem Mendel of Kotsk was seeking an entirely different level of existential reality. 

The Kotzker Rebbe was not so much searching for technical ‘truth.’ In Yiddish, ‘vorhayt does not mean ‘truth it means ‘realness,’ ‘genuineness,’ or ‘authenticity.’ Perhaps the English expression ‘salt of the earth’ conveys its meaning well. There is a vast, philosophical and existential difference between these two concepts which can only be comprehended by understanding the language of transmission. 

Sefat Emet 

R. Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905) was the third Rebbe of the Ger Chassidic dynasty. He committed his teachings to writing, himself, and in Hebrew. The writings encompassed about six thousand of his teachings which he transmitted, in Yiddish, to his followers at Shabbat and festival gatherings over thirty-five years. After his passing, his family published his writing in what became known as Sefat Emet. 

One would imagine that since this appears to be an autographic work in which he translated, edited and polished his own writing himself, the final product would be unlike the works we have discussed thus far. After all, this appears entirely to be an original work and there were no students who later translated and edited his writings. But this was not the case: 

“It seems, however, that Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter was not the only one who wrote down his teachings. A number of his disciples must have transcribed his homilies as well, for recent scholarship has unearthed a significant number of ignored manuscripts. Written down and reworked by anonymous disciples, these range from texts spanning a few very short pages to entire notebooks…in Yiddish. These manuscripts are found in private and university collections across the world” (Mayse and Reiser 2018:148). 

Mayse and Reiser have compared many of the original Yiddish writings to the published Hebrew texts: 

“The Yiddish sermons are generally simpler and clearer than the Hebrew versions, and for this reason they clarify many textual issues and shed light on the Hebrew…we have located a significant number of previously unknown sermons that have no parallels in the printed edition of Sefat emet. These sermons bear witness to teachings that are otherwise lost to the margins of history…[The] Hebrew homilies [are] significantly more difficult to understand than the Yiddish parallels…[The Hebrew texts] are often accompanied by the shorthand instruction to “see there” (‘ayen sham) for greater detail, and it is nearly impossible to grasp Yehudah Aryeh Leib’s point without examining the literary sources. The Yiddish sermons, by contrast, were directed toward a variety of listeners. They enumerate and explain each of the sources in a manner that is inviting and easy to follow.” (Mayse and Reiser 2018:148).[7] 

An interesting observation that emerges from the comparison of the original Yiddish writing to the edited Hebrew texts is the frequent references to the nekuda hapenimit (the essential spiritual point) of the divine that infuses with the human. R. Yehuda Aryeh Leib seems to imply that this is something available to all humans, Jews and non-Jews alike (although there is some debate over this matter). 

In the Yiddish manuscripts, the term used is “alle Yidden” (all Jews), but in the Hebrew version, we find “kol adam” (all people). It seems that when he addressed his followers in a relatively intimate environment, he did not want to come across as too universalistic. But when he (or others) translated the writing into Hebrew for a wider audience he/they chose to include, not just Jews, but all humanity. 

Mayse and Reiser found these and other discrepancies, constantly, throughout the entire work: 

“These divergences exist, without fail, in every sermon explored thus far. The Yiddish accounts illuminate the Hebrew versions by granting a new perspective on everything…” (Mayse and Reiser 2018:148). 


In this fascinating research, it emerges that the serious student of Chassidic literature must at least be cognisant of the fact that the polished Hebrew editions in which most of Chassidic literature is produced, generally represent a later, ‘authorised’ and ‘improved’ version of the original Yiddish teachings with its lost nuances. Sometimes these nuances are lost incidentally in translation,[8] and other times (whether limiting or expanding) these are intentional.

[1] Mayse, A.E, and Reiser, D., 2018, ‘Territories and Textures: The Hasidic Sermon as the Crossroads of Language and Culture,’ Jewish Social Studies, vol, 24, No. 1, Indiana University Press, 127-160.

[2] “Moshe Rosman, M. 2023, ‘Hebrew Sources on the Baal Shem Tov: Usability vs. Reliability’, Jewish History, 27, nos. 2–4, 153–69, 140. 

[3] This rather controversial statement may be supported by the notion that R. Yosef Yitzchak also contributed to the authentication of the Kherson Letters, while his own Secretary R. Chaim Lieberman, acknowledged that he had met the forger – all this in an attempt, perhaps, to build the movement and establish its historicity through the letters. [See Kotzk Blog: 453) Kherson Geniza - the greatest Chassidic find / or forgery?] (I will be posting an updated version of the Kherson Geniza soon, on the same site).

[4] Scholem, G., 1955, ‘Devekut, or Communion with God’, in The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality, New York, 203–27.

[5] Mendel Piekarz, M., 1994, Bein ideologiyah le-metsiyut: ‘Anavah, ‘ayin, bitul mi-metsiyut u-devekut be-mahshavtam shel rashei ha-hasidut, Jerusalem, 154.

[6] (Abraham Joshua Heschel, Kotsk: In Gerangl far Emesdikayt, 2 vols. (Tel Aviv, 1973), 1: 8. 

[7] Square brackets are mine.

[8] Mr. Simeon Khazin makes an interesting observation: He suggests that any language could translate and explain any concept, even complicated and nuanced ideas, if it took the time. Therefore the concept of ‘lost in translation’ is often an indication of the inadequacy of translators, not the act of translation itself.

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