Hasidim

HASIDIM hăs’ ə dĭm (חֲסִידִֽים, saints). 1. The masculine pl. of hasid, a pious, godly person. The term is used frequently in the Psalms, the usual rendering being “saints.”

2. A religious group in Judea in the early 2nd cent. b.c. (1 Macc 2:42; 7:13; 2 Macc 14:6; KJV ASSIDEANS; RSV HASIDEANS). It was opposed to the priestly party, which had come under the influence of Hellenism. Antiochus Epiphanes, king of Syria, had tried to compel the Jews to abandon Judaism and adopt the pagan religion, but the Hasidim refused to compromise in any way. Led by the Hasmoneans, they rebelled against the Syrians and succeeded in recapturing the Temple. They were not so much a political as a religious party, and were less interested in the political outcome of the struggle than in the right to worship Yahweh according to the Torah. Eventually they broke with the Maccabees because of their growing worldliness.

They may have been the forerunners of the Pharisees and Essenes. Some scholars think that “Essene” is a variant of hasid and that therefore “Essene” preserves their name.

3. The modern Hasidim constitute a Jewish sect, founded by Baal Shem Toy (1700-1760) in eastern Europe. He was famed as a miracle worker and healer, and was a pious character and mystic. His teaching developed in opposition to the unbending rationalism of the Talmud, and was characterized by a joyous worship of God, religious frenzy, emotional exaltation in prayer, and communion with God through ecstasy. Learning, he taught, is not necessary to gain favor with God, for God hears the joyous prayers of the unschooled just as much as those of the learned.

The leaders of the Hasidim are called Zaddikim. They were thought to have achieved so holy a state that they could serve as mediators between God and the common people.

The doctrines of Hasidism spread with great rapidity among the poor and uneducated masses, and aroused a great deal of opposition among the Talmudists, who in 1781 pronounced it a heresy. Evenutally the Hasidim separated from the rest of Judaism as a distinct sect.

During the first half of the 19th cent., Hasidism won over nearly half of all the Jews of the world, but with the rise of the Enlightenment in Europe its power waned. It continued, however, as a living force in eastern Europe until the Second World War. In attenuated form it still continues in Palestine, America, and other lands to which it was transplanted. In modern times it was popularized by Martin Buber.

Bibliography

1 and 2 Maccabees; G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941), chs. 3 and 9; M. L. Diamond, Martin Buber—Jewish Existentialist (1960), 110-137.