Sunday 26 May 2024

473) ‘Der Pintele Yid’ − the evolution of the term and concept


This article based extensively on the research by Professor Yehuda Liebes[1] examines the theological development of the term ‘Der Pintele Yid.’ We trace the evolution of conceptualisations of ‘energy points’ from emtza (center), to nekuda (point), to Pintele Yud and finally to Pintele Yid. 

Der Pintele Yid is the Yiddish equivalent of haNekuda Yehudi or haNekuda haYehudit, which, in its common usage today, simply refers to an essential ‘point’ of Jewishness that lies dormant within every Jew even the most assimilated and emerges at unexpected times. 

Sefer Yetzira

The first reference to an ‘energy point’ of sorts although not yet referred to as a נקודה, nekuda (point) is the early mystical writings of Sefer Yetzira (Book of Formation).[2] Sefer Yetzira understands an אמצע, emtza (centre) to be the vital centre of harmony and unity amidst the disunity of the universe. It is the essence from which all else manifests, and it finds expression in the three parallel and corresponding dimensions of עולם שנה ונפש (space, time and human). 

The centre of space is the היכל הקודש or Temple, the centre of time is Shabbat, and the centre of the human is מילת המעור ומלת הלשון, the reproductive organs and the tongue (both representing the creative potential of the human, in terms of progeny and wisdom, respectively). 


The Talmud expresses similar conceptualisations of the three centres to that of Sefer Yetzira, also without referring to the term, nekuda (point). The creation of the world is described as unfolding from within the emtza (centre) of the world, which is the אבן השתיה, or Foundation Stone of the world, situated in the Sanctuary of the Temple. According to the Talmud: 

וּשְׁתִיָּה הָיְתָה נִקְרֵאת. תָּנָא: שֶׁמִּמֶּנָּה הוּשְׁתַּת הָעוֹלָם. תְּנַן כְּמַאן דְּאָמַר מִצִּיּוֹן נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם, דְּתַנְיָא, רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר: עוֹלָם מֵאֶמְצָעִיתוֹ נִבְרָא

“[There was a stone in the Holy of Holies] and it was called the foundation [shetiya] rock…. Why was it called shetiya? - Because the world was created [hushtat] from it…. The world was created from Zion… Rabbi Eliezer says: The world was created from its centre [meEmtza’ito]” (b. Yuma 54b). 

Note the use of the word, emtza’ito, stemming from emtza (centre), rather than the word nekuda (point). 

Midrash Tanchuma (500-800CE)

Midrash Tanchuma lays out some of these ‘centres’ very specifically: 

אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל יוֹשֶׁבֶת בְּאֶמְצָעִיתוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם, וִירוּשָׁלַיִם בְּאֶמְצָעִיתָהּ שֶׁל אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וּבֵית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ בְּאֶמְצַע יְרוּשָׁלַיִם, וְהַהֵיכָל בְּאֶמְצַע בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ, וְהָאֲרוֹן בְּאֶמְצַע הַהֵיכָל 

“The Land of Israel is at the centre [beEmtza’ito] of the world; Jerusalem is in the centre [beEmtza’ita] of the Land of Israel; the Temple is in the centre [beEmtza] of the Jerusalem; the sanctuary is in the centre [beEmtza] of the Temple; the ark is in the centre [beEmtza] of the sanctuary” (Midrash Tanchuma, Kedoshim, 10:1). 

According to these sources, the harmonious functioning of the universe is dependent on treating these centres appropriately. The Sefer Yetzira, as well as the Talmud and Midrashim, refer to an emtza (centre). The term nekuda (point), however, is not yet used to describe the notion of spiritual centricities within the various dimensions of the universe (Liebes 2003:19). 

As we begin to move towards the period of the publication of the Zohar, around 1270, we encounter a very different cosmological definition of a centre. 

The Zohar (published 1270) and the appearance of the term ‘nekuda’ (point)

From the thirteenth century, a dramatic shift occurs in the understanding of a spiritual centre. We notice a move from universal and grandiose centres, to the human Tzadik (righteous man). The Zohar accomplishes this by introducing another notion of a centre, which now becomes a בוצינא, Butzina (Lamp or Emanator). 

The Butzina is described as disseminating into another nine lights, making a total of ten lights. But the nine disseminating lights have no independent existence and are completely beholden to the Butztina. The Butzina is further depicted as the ‘teacher’ and the nine lights are the ‘students.’ 

The Zohar is not an easy work to define because it does not comprise one single and unified book. There are about twenty-five works that are usually associated with the Zohar. Two important sections are the Idra Rabba (The Great Assembly) and the Idra Zuta (The Lesser Assembly). Idra, literally, means a threshing field, which was the location where R. Shimon bar Yochai (traditionally regarded as the author of the Zohar)[3] and his students gathered to discuss mystical teachings. 

In Idra Rabba (The Great Assembly), R. Shimon bar Yochai is said to have gathered with nine of his students. This would relate to the Butzina and the nine emanating lights. It’s called the Great Assembly because there were ten participants.  However, three of the students passed away as a result of excessive ecstatic experiences during their engagement with the mystical teachings. 

In Idra Zuta (The Lesser Assembly), which occurred later at R. Shimon bar Yochai’s deathbed, only the surviving students attended. The teachings in Idra Zuta are considered more accurate because there was less discussion and less ‘threshing out’ of ideas compared to the greater gathering of Idra Rabba. R. Shimon bar Yochai was the dominant speaker and therefore the work is considered to be of a higher level (Liebes 2003:20). 

In the Zohar the students are bound to their teacher just like the spiritual lights are bound to the Butzina (Eminator). The Butzina now the Tzadik assumes a central role in the order of the cosmos. In Zoharic thought, the Butzina begins to replace the earlier depictions of the emtza (centre), which were the multi-dimensional ‘centres’ of the Temple (in space), Shabbat (in time), and the elements representing reproductive potential and wisdom (in humankind). Now, the Zohar understands the Tzadik as beginning to displace the classical versions of the emtza (centre), and it introduces a new and parallel, nekuda (point) to supplement the classical centres of the universe. 

Liebes (2003:20) suggests that a basis for this sudden change in terminology may have been the interest in geometry during the Middle Ages − where a centre could be viewed as a point, transcending the dimensional space of the interior of a circle. 

Thus, in the Zohar, the classical concepts of spiritual centres taken from Sefer Yetzira, the Talmud and Midrashim, and including the Foundation Stone, Shabbat, the reproductive system and the tongue (wisdom) all combine together with the human Tzadik who also represents the nekuda (point), as part of the Foundation of the world (yesod olam). 

The story of the evolution from the emtza (centre) to the nekuda (point), however, takes a dramatic and unexpected turn with the seventeenth-century advent of Sabbatianism. 

Sabbatian Kabbalah and the emergence of Dos Pintele Yud 

The followers of the false Messiah, Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676) were known as Sabbatians. While history has, understandably, relegated Sabbatianism to the footnotes of Jewish history, in its day it was the largest and most popular Jewish religious movement. Most Jews, most rabbis and most Kabbalists subscribed to Sabbatianism and there were very few vocal opponents. Shabbatai Tzvi was assisted by his ‘prophet,’ R. Natan of Gaza, who was regarded by many as the next in line of the great Kabbalists after R. Yitzchak Luria, the Arizal. The Kabbalah produced by this movement during its peak at around 1666, was substantial, well-developed and considered authoritative. Its subtle, and sometimes overt influence on future modern Jewish movements arising during the eighteenth century, must not be underestimated. 

בקבלה השבתאית קיבלה נקודה זו משמעות נוספת וזוהתה עם שבתי צבי 

“In Sabbatian Kabbalah this [concept of] nekuda (point) received additional significance and became associated with Shabbatai Tzvi” (Liebes 2003:20). 

With the advent of Sabbatianism, the classical emtza (centre) was not only transferred to the Zoharic nekuda (point) relating to the Tzadik as Yesod (foundation) Olam, but it was specifically identified as the Mashiach, in the person of Shabbatai Tzvi. Similarly, Sabbatian Kabbalah immediately linked Shabbatai Tzvi to the sefirot of Yesod (Foundation) and Chochma (Wisdom) (reminiscent of Sefer Yetzira’s emtza’ of progeny and wisdom in the human dimension), and now referred to the Messiah as the essential and universal nekudah (point). 

The Sabbatians then found biblical ‘proof texts’ to support the universal nature of Shabbatai Tzvi as the Messiah and the universal nekudah (point). In his Igeret Magen Avraham, R. Natan of Gaza’s student, R. Avraham Perez, read Messianic references into the texts of the Psalms (Scholem 1941:419, note 48). 

He also interpreted the opening word of the Torah,  בראשית (In the beginning) to read ר׳ שבתאי (R. Shabbatai), as the letters are the same, just their order is rearranged (Liebes 2003:21). 

A similar reference was found in the second verse of Genesis, “And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” The phrase, אלקים מרחפת (God hovered), has the same numerical value as שבתי צבי, which is 814. The Sabbatians found support for this interpretation, from the Midrash which states: 

רוח אלקים זה רוחו של מלך משיח

“‘The spirit of God [hovered]’ this refers to the spirit of the King Messiah” (Bereishit Rabba, 2:4). 

The Sabbatians believed that they had finally identified “the spirit of the King Messiah,” as that of Shabbatai Tzvi. 

To further bolster the Sabbatian position that Shabbatai Tzvi was the universal nekudah (point), they turned to Sefer Yetzira (1:9), which (although it never referred to nekuda, only emtza, as mentioned earlier) uses the expression רוח אלקים (spirit of God) to refer to the ‘first sefira,’ also alluding to some cosmic centrality (Liebes 2003:21, footnote 145). In this sense, Shabbatai Tzvi takes on an important role in the process of creation! 

These interpretations demonstrate how deeply the Sabbatians maintained that their Messiah was indeed the universal nekudah (point). 

However, the Sabbatians expanded even further on their emphasis on the notion of the singularity of the nekudah (point). R. Natan of Gaza sent a letter to R. Refael Yosef, the head of the Egyptian Jews, explaining how the belief in the Messiah is really the only nekuda (point) that Judaism requires. All the other commandments fade into insignificance in the face of the universal nekuda (point) because, he explained, messianism is the essence (nekuda) of Judaism. The belief in the Messiah now becomes the הנקודה היהודית, the essential “point of Jewishness,” or in its Yiddish translation דאס פינטעלע יוד (Dos Pintele Yud) (Liebes 2003:22). 

Note the reference to Dos Pintele Yud, and not Dos Pintele Yid. The Sabbatians, as we have seen, were focused on messianic readings of Genesis.  The Zohar (Bereishit) explains that the world was created with one nekuda (point) and that was the smallest Hebrew letter yud, which looks like a dot/point. The Zohar refers to this as האי נקודה יוד (this nekuda, yud) (Zohar 1, 16b). In Yiddish, this was expressed as Dos Pintele Yud, or ‘this yud-point,’ which was used for the process of creation. 

Historically, Yiddish translations of the Zohar emerged specifically during the Sabbatian period and by Sabbatians such as R. Tvi Chotch. His Yiddish translation of the Zohar, entitled Nachalat Tzvi, was also known as the Taitch Zohar (Yiddish Zohar) and was so popular that it had been reprinted fifty times by the twentieth century (Huss 2001:66).[4] 

When the Sabbatians, who used Yiddish as a medium to spread Sabbatian teachings, turned the Mashiah into the primary essence of Judaism, this phrase transformed into Dos Pintele Yid. This was easy to do because, in Yiddish, both Yud and Yid were used interchangeably as references to Jews. Dos Pintele Yid would also refer to Shabbatai Tzvi. 

Thus, the Sabbatians took the Zoharic concept of the essential ‘yud-point that brought about the creation, and they transformed it into the idea that the only point a Yid or Jew needs to be concerned about, is messianism. The Sabbatians were known for their antinomianism as they abolished many Halachic practices, but they held fast to the essential nekuda (point), the Pintele Yud/Yid, which was Shabbatai Tzvi as the Messiah. Soon, the expression simply became ‘Der Pintele Yid,’ and, as we have seen, it served strategically on many levels to reflect their messianic interests. 

Essentially, the Sabbatians had replaced the classical and universal portals to God with portals to the human Messiah, Shabbatai Tzvi. 

Chassidic use of ‘Der Pintele Yid

a) Apter Rebbe (1748-1825)

With the Chassidic movement following on the heels of the Sabbatian movement, the phrase, ‘Der Pintele Yid,’ found further expression. R. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt, beginning with the abovementioned teaching of the Zohar, writes (my paraphrase): 

The world was created with the letter yud. Exile is a state where the letter yud has been removed. But even in exile, after the yud has been withdrawn, a residue or נקודה א׳ (a nekuda point) still remains. Every descent is for the sake of ascent, and the means through which to ascend from exile is through the residual or lower yud (יוד תתאה). This is the secret of the name יעקב (Jacob/Israel) because, without the letter yud, Yakov would just be a lowly ekev (heel).

והכל הוא ע״י הנקודה שהוא היו״ד שנשארה אצלו, [This redemption]is all [achieved] through the nekuda which is the yud, that remains within the person.’ 

Then the Apter Rebbe emphasises a strong messianic nuance to this teaching: 

Everyone comes with their נקודה הפנימית (internal ‘point’) that has remained with them, and this is their means to יזכו להגאולה (merit to experience the [messianic] Redemption), especially in these times of עקבות משיחה, the heels of the Messiah (R. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, Ohev Yisrael, Shemot, Zhytomyr, 24a). 

This is a significant teaching because it, too, turns the Zohariccreation yud’ into a ‘messianic yud’ through the נקודה הפנימית (internal point’) although not to the extent of the Sabbatians who had made the ‘messianic yud’ the singular essence of Judaism. 

b) R. Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810)

R. Nachman of Breslov also builds on the nuances of the individual nekuda and he introduces the concept of the Tzadik (i.e., R. Nachman, himself) being the נקודה כלליות של כל ישראל, “the ‘collective nekuda’ for all Jews” (R. Nachman, Likuttei Moharan 1:34). 

There is a tradition amongst Breslover Chassidim that whenever R. Nachman spoke about the Tzadik, everyone knew he was referring to himself. R. Nachman wrote that one must bind oneself: 

להיוד היינו נקודה, שהיא בחי׳ צדיק

“to the yud, which is the nekudah, which is the aspect of the Tzadik” (R. Nachman, Likuttei Moharan, 1:34). 

In this way, R. Nachman becomes the essential nekuda (point). Everyone can bind themselves to him, through their own nekudot, because he is נקודה כלליות של כל ישראל (“the ‘collective nekuda’ for all Jews”). In keeping with this interpretation, there is an important messianic aspect to this binding of nekudot. R. Nachman’s student. R. Natan explains that gathering all these נקודות טובות (good nekudot) which everyone has, even evil people is in itself a messianic act (R. Natan, Likuttei Halachot, Hilchot haShkamat haBoker, Halacha 1). 

Many Chassidic Rebbes were also referred to as the גוטער יוד (Gutter, or Good Yud) which relates to this notion as well. 

R. Nachman taught that one “binds oneself to the nekuda that is appropriate to them.” The path R. Nachman suggested was to bind oneself to the human Tzadik. This is how Liebes describes the process: 

התיקון המומלץ אפוא הוא שוב התקשרות ואמונה באיש בשר ודם, אף שאצלו אין הכוונה לשבתי צבי אלא לצדיק החסידי (כלומר לו אצמו)

“The Tikun [rectification] he [R. Nachman] advised was to return to communion with, and faith in, a person of flesh and blood, except that he did not intend that person to be Shabbatai Tzvi, but instead it was to be the Chassidic Rebbe (i.e., he, himself)” (Liebes 2003:24). 

The Pintele Yid thus combines with the נקודה כלליות של כל ישראל (“the ‘collective nekuda’ for all Jews”) and this leads to individual as well as universal Redemption. This, outside of Sabbatianism,  is probably one of the most dramatic constructions we find along the evolutionary path of reformulations of the classical concepts of the original emtza (centre) as described in Sefer Yetzira, the Talmud and Midrashim. 


The Sefer Yetzira, the Talmud and Midrashim had spoken about the emtza (centre) as portals to God, within the dimensions of space, time and the human being. The human being remained a regular human being with a portal to God. 

The Zohar expanded on those universal forms of the emtza (centres) and introduced the nekuda (point) which now included a new portal, the Tzadik as the foundation of the world. At this stage, the Tzadik was added to, and included, among the other classical portals of space, time and the human being. 

The Sabbatians then replaced the classical symbols of the emtza as multiple portals to God. They rejected the earlier depictions from Sefer Yetzira, the Talmud and Midrashim, as well as the Zoharic depiction which included the nekuda of the Tzadik and substituted them with a new and singular portal. This was the human Messiah, Shabbatai Tzvi. They introduced the concept of the Dos Pintele Yud (from the Yiddish translation of the Zoharic האי נקודה יוד) and associated it directly with Shabbatai Tzvi. Sabbatian messianism became the only worthwhile expression, the very ‘pintele,’ or essence point, of Judaism. 

The Chassidim followed but neutralised the radical Sabbatian approach. They still maintained a significant degree of messianism through their understanding of the Chassidic Tzadik. The Chassidic conceptualisations of the nekuda (to a greater or lesser degree depending on the sect), had opened a new portal in the form of the human Tzadik, because he could bring everyone, collectively, back to God and closer to the Messiah. 

Something else also occurred during the Chassidic period. The Sabbatian 'Pintele Yud' was reinterpreted as the Chassidic 'Pintele Yid,' representing the irreducible minimum of Jewishness that all Jews carry in their souls. The Pintele Yid is always redeemable. The core Jewish spirit remains untainted and pure. It signifies a conceptualisation of a new democratised portal to spirituality, accessible to all Jews, regardless of who they are or what they do. (Perhaps this was a return to the classical notion of a corresponding universal portal within all humans.)

The great irony, though, is that even the ‘softer’ expressions of Chassidism arrived at this lofty formulation of Der Pintele Yid the idea of a great and latent spirituality inherent within each and every Jew only after it had passed through the mill of the Dos Pintele Yud with its Sabbatian connotations.

[1] Liebes, Y., 2003, ‘Talmidei haGra, Shabtaut vehaNekuda haYehudid [The Students of the Vilna Gaon, Sabbatianism and the Jewish Essence]’ (Hebrew), in Daat: A Journal of Jewish Philosophy & Kabbalah, No. 5052, Bar Ilan University Press, 255-290 (1-41).

[2] Although Sefer Yetzira is traditionally said to have been authored by either Abraham, or Rabbi Akiva, most historians date the work from Talmudic times (70-650 CE). According to Scholem the work contains post-Talmudic additions, but the main body was compiled in Palestine, between the third and sixth centuries. He writes: “The author…attempted to ‘Judaize’ non-Jewish speculations which suited his spirit…” (Scholem 1987:27-8). 

[4] Huss, B., 2001, השבתאות ותולדות התקבלות ספר הזוהר, החלום ושברו: התנועה השבתאית ושלוחותיה, 86.


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