Misnagdim and Hasidim

Differences between Misnagdim and Hasidim.

We have been guiding groups from all over the world and have collected a lot of questions. The most popular item is the difference between Misnagdim and Hasidim. Further, we will explain the main conceptions, the significant historical facts, must-know personalities, and the story of conflicts.

Denominations in Jewdaism

In a Jewish tradition, it is a bit complicated. There is a division between Rabbinical and Non-Rabbinical Jews. In this article, we will speak about the first group. The sub-groups or denominations are next:

  • Hasidim 
  • Litvak
  • Sephardic
  • Israeli Traditional
  • Modern orthodox
  • Religious Zionist

The current section will narrow down to Hasidic and Litvak sub-groups. But I felt necessary to give the broader perspective of the subject.

Please tell us what the Geography of these two groups is?

This is an excellent and relevant question. Litvaks were Jews who settled on the territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which today includes Lithuania, Belarus, parts of Poland, and Latvia.

The Hasidic territory has a border with the Litvakish one. Basically, it is from Pinsk to the south, down to the very Black sea. Including Ukraine, Russian territories, Hungary, Romania, and a significant part of Poland. Please note that in numbers and in area, Hasidic communities are much larger than the Litvak ones.

When did the devision happen?

It is essential to mention that the events that lead to this partition began in the 17th century. Rabbi Shabbatai Zevi announced himself as a Messiah. This happened in the background of pogroms of Bogdan Khmelnitsky. People thought the apocalypse is coming, and this is the right time for the Messiah to come.  Although he had a lot of followers, he ended up converting to Islam. As a result, Judaism receives another sect called Sabbatians. Even after Sabbatai’s death, in different places in the world, his followers still propagate misleading and false studies. 

The moment of the evolution of Hasidic ideas is connected to Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer, who lived in Medzhibuzh, Podolia. His most active period is in the early 17th hundreds; he passed away in 1760.

 Let us approach the very question. In Ukraine, the Volhynian area in the spring of 18th century lived, worked, and studied the great founder of Hasidic stream of Judaism Rabbi Baal Shem Tov “Master of the Good Name.” Rabbi was very gifted, and he focused on studies of Kabbalah. He spent some time in the Carpathian mountains as a hermit. When he returned to community life, his spiritual and mystic approach to studies became well known. I would say that his arrival at Medzhubuzh in 1740 can be considered the starting point of the Hasidic era.

Could you please explain simply the features of the Besht approach?

The Besht emphasized the immanence of God and his presence in the material world. That, physical acts, as eating, have an actual influence on the spiritual sphere and may help to achieve a communion with G-d. 

He was praying ecstatically and with high intention, to allow the divine light flowing into the earthly reality. The Besht propagated the importance of joy and contentment in the worship of God. He was against the abstinence and self-mortification.  

Master of the Good Name laid the foundation for a popular movement, offering masses to gain significant religious experience and self-importance. He remained the leader of a small society of elitists, in the tradition of former kabbalists. 

Interestingly, Baal Shem Tov himself did not practice Hasidic doctrine in his lifetime. Though it was vigorously implemented by his students and successors. 

Hasidic concept

One of the Rabbi ideas is: “Jews, you work so hard to feed your families, you have no time to spend many hours to discuss Talmud tractates, G-d is everywhere, in every breath, under every stone, in every song. You can worship the G-d with your soul and heart. Sing, dance, and feel the G-d, do not spend too much time on studies.

Besht taught his students that letters and gematria have a special meaning, which brings people closer to God.

Another message was not to deny Foreign Thoughts – Mahshavot Zarot. He stated that it is absolutely normal and natural to have parallel thoughts during worshiping and praying. While Litvakish Mitnagdim met this approach with harsh opposition.

Furthermore, Besht propagated disconnection from asceticism, which was actively reproduced in Judaism of that period and place.

He also outlined the importance of bringing the carefulness for one’s physical body as part of worship. As part of it was exaggerated using a ritual bath.

 There are many teachings of Besht, and we are not going to tell about all of them. The last legacy to mention in this dialog is that according to Hasidic approach, individual salvation should come first, and only then general salvation would follow.

Who was the first to oppose Besht's ideas?

Not all Rabbis were ready to accept this new way of worship. The center of the Litvak world – Vilna was known for a long time as a place of great scholars and Rabbis. At the same time with Besht, in Vilna, lived one of the greatest Rabbis of the 18th century in the entire Jewish world. His name was Eliyahu Ben Shlomo Zalman, known as the Gaon of Vilna. 

Many Rabbis had a Tzadik title in the Hasidic world, and in Misnagdim world Gaon means Genius. Vilner Gaon (Eliyahu Ben Solomon) got his title being quite a young man. Knowing Talmud by hart and able to tractate it like no one else, he gained recognition in the eyes of many people and great Rabbis of his time. 

Litvak focus on Studies

The Vilna Gaon focuses on the study of Talmud. In his opinion, there was nothing more important than learning. He slept only 4 hours a day in order not to waste time from studies. 

He considered that every possible knowledge helps to understand the Torah better. He was very ascetic and very self mortifying. He hardly spoke and communicated with people when he was young. All the possible time was to study religious texts. He knew both Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds by heart. A lot of his energy turned against the Hasidic approach one day.

In what Misnagdim disagrees with Hasidim?

Vilner Gaon got a frightening message that in Ukraine, Rabbi Bal Shem Tom focuses mostly on the spiritual side of faith and religion and not on studies in a conventional way. After the events of Sabbatians and Frankeests, he was sure that this is another false way and reform of pure Judaism. Very soon, Gaon put an ex-communicational ban – “Herem” on Hasidic Judaism. Since that time, followers of Rabbi Bal Shem Tov, we call Hasidim and the followers of Vilner Gaon we call Misnagdim (opposers from Hebrew).

Why did the Vilna Gaon saw a danger in a Hasidic approach?

I would say that the first and most important is that the role of Rabbi-Tzadik in the Hasidic world becomes as intermediation between followers and G-d. This brings us close to the evolvement of the cult of personality. It happened later on in the early 19th century – the development of Hasidic courtyards.

The Tzadik decided for followers where to go, live, and study, where to work, and so on. While the Vilna Gaon’s approach was much more conventional. A rabbi is a teacher who can help understanding holly scripts, a friend who can direct you in the right way, a mentor who can deliver you the wisdom of our nation. But the actual decisions are only yours.

Another difference is that in the Hasidic way, the position of a Tzadik is inherited. Birthright became more important than personal achievement and knowledge. Dynasties started dominating the Hasidic world. 

In the Misnagdim world, one had to prove that he can be a reliable and charismatic Rabbi. This example gives you understanding that from the Misnagdim point of view, Hasidim are a kind of sect with a cult of personality of a Tzadik. 

There are many Chasid Dynasties: Chabad, Slonim, Karlin, Gur, and others, and only one group of the opponents Misnagdim. 

By the way, one of the good examples I can give about Hasidim of Chabad. I am sure you once visited Chabad house because they are everywhere around the world. What is the first thing you see by the entrance? Yes, you wright this is a picture of Lubavitcher Rabbi. Doesn’t this contradict the second commandment that bans us to make an image for worship? Of course, this was a rhetorical question.

 Some Hasidic rabbis were not considered “gdolei beTora” by the leaders of the Jewish world. Vilna Gaon even thought that the Hasidic approach degrades the “wise students.”

Mitnagdim saw in Hasidism the threat to the conventional way of running and ruling Jewish communities.

Disputes and ex-communications 

The first dangerous confrontation happened when the Vilna Gaon initiated the ex-communication letter in 1772. It was sanctioned by the rabbis and judges of Lithuanian and Belorussian communities. The first accusation was unorthodoxy and mysticism of Hasidic Jews. Their synagogues and religious habits were banned, and people were excommunicated.

Between 1772 and 1791, other Misnagdic letters and statements followed. The severest of these disputes came in the late 18th century. Including petitioning to the Russian government to outlaw the Hasidim on the grounds of their being spies, and traitors.

However, this would not be actualized. 

After the death of Vilna Gaon, partitions of Poland, the regions of Poland came under the control of the Russian government. In this territory were the most vivid disputes between Misnagdim and Hasidim. Russians did not want to take sides in Jewish conflicts. In 1804 Hasidism was legalized by the Imperial Russian government.

What is the situation nowadays?

Differences between Orthodox Jews become less relevant since in 1795-star Haskalah ( enlightenment ) movement. Today Orthodox can cooperate to avoid assimilation of not orthodox Jewfromin their point of view. They can forget their difference because – “Enemy of my Enemy is my friend.” 

One more point is the relation of Hasidim to Vilner Gaon – Father of Litvak’s stream. So, in general terms today, Gaon is Authority rabbi for Hadids as well, a specially for the Hassid Dynasties born in Litvak land such us Chabad and Slonim. One of the reasons for that is the fact that Gaon wrote comments to Talmud, and this is true for all orthodox Jews.

Another reason that Eliyahu flowers wrote works that made an impact in Tractates of the holy script, that valid for all Orthodox. One of such rabies was Israel Meir Hacohen or better known by the name of his book Hafetz Haim. 

Hasidic story 

One more example of the warm approach of Hasidic to the Vilna Gaon can be found in a Hasidic story (Mayse). One of these stories tells us about an attempt by the Vilna Gaon to emigrate to the Holy Land. 

Keep in mind that Gaon was kind of a first Zionist, and I am not talking about modern Zionism of Teodor Hercel, I refer to the true love for the holy land. Eliyahu declared that blesses will occur to the Jews in Holy land. 

Eliyahu went to Kenigsberg to take a boat to the Holy land. While he was waiting for the ship, he sent one of his students to one small village with a request. Gaons student came to the town and asked in the first shop:

“Where is Rabbi Itzchak”? 

The answer was that there is no Rabbi with such a name in the village. 

 

The student stated that it is not possible. If the Vilna Gaon sent him here, it means that there is such a rabbi. Then the Shop keeper said, that the only man by this name is in the court of a local nobleman, Itzkele waterman. 

So the student went to a Nobleman and asked – “Is there a worker Itzkale waterman”? The nobleman was very surprised that someone looked for Itzkele but directed him to the place where he could find Itzkele. 

When the student came to the right person, he asked: “Are you Rabbi Itzchak?” Itzkele inquired – “who ask this?” The student answered and gave Itzkele a letter from The Vilna Gaon. 

Itzkele was not surprised, he said he expected this letter. After reading the letter, he said – “My answer is NO.”  

With this answer, the messenger went back to The Vilna Gaon, and Gaon said, this is not a time for me to go to Holy land.

Epilog 

One of the distinctive characteristics of Hasidim is that they like to deliver wisdom and a message through the stories. This Hasidic story demonstrates that there was contact between the two groups. We are Litvaks, and many times we pull the blanket to the Litvak position. At the same time, speaking of the purely humanistic approach, we want to believe that Misnagdim and Hasidim today can live in peace.