Hassidim praying 521.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Generally, we think of nascent Hassidism as a clear division between two warring
camps: the hassidim and their opponents, the mitnagdim. This narrative of
hassidic history goes on to tell of a measure of rapprochement between the
factions in the 19th century, particularly as a new player entered the scene –
the Haskala movement.
The picture of a clear-cut division in the late
18th century does not, however, reflect the full story. One example of the hazy
middle ground between the hassidim and the mitnagdim is Rabbi Alexander Ziskind
of Grodno (d. 1794).
Ziskind did not serve in an official rabbinic post;
he engaged in business for a livelihood. He bequeathed three works to posterity,
the first and most influential being Yesod Veshoresh Ha’avoda (The Foundation
and Root of the Service [of God]).
The second work was a detailed will
that was published soon after Ziskind’s demise. The will was a popular work that
was even reprinted in 1905 far from Lithuania – in Aleppo. In addition, the
rabbi left a shorter private will, where he directed that he should be buried
with his most influential book under his head.
Ziskind’s third work was a
short commentary on the Zohar, titled Karnei Or (Rays of Light), which was
printed in 1883.
The fame of Ziskind rests on his first work. In Yesod
Veshoresh Ha’avoda, he constantly exhorts his readers to meditate on the
importance and centrality of sanctifying the Almighty’s name in every action.
This theme is played out both in the interpersonal realm and in matters between
a person and God. Thus, Ziskind warned against dishonest business dealings with
Jews or gentiles, criticized unfair work practices that took advantage of
employees and encouraged people to be wary of wearing sha’atnez, a garment made
from wool and linen. These types of contemptible conduct, he wrote, are a
desecration of God’s name.
While Ziskind did not belong to the nascent
hassidic movement, in his work we find many ideas and ideals that were
emphasized by the hassidim and later identified as hassidic values: the
centrality of Kabbala, the supreme value of prayer, serving God with joy and
cultivating a relationship of love with the Almighty. But in the late 18th
century, it was possible to be a hassid – a pietist who championed values that
would later be associated with the legacy of the Ba’al Shem Tov – without being
a hassid, or someone who belonged to the nascent movement that was vehemently
critiqued by the mitnagdim.
Yesod Veshoresh Ha’avoda was first published
in 1782, at a time when the tension between the hassidim and the mitnagdim was
high. One of the centers of the dispute was Grodno, Ziskind’s hometown. Despite
the popular use of Kabbala in his seminal work, Ziskind was never targeted by
Surprisingly, there are parallels between Yesod Veshoresh
Ha’avoda and a work known as Tzava’at Harivash, that is, the will of Rabbi
Yisrael Baal Shem Tov. Tzava’at Harivash was one of the books despised and
condemned by the mitnagdim. Despite the parallel passages, Yesod Veshoresh
Ha’avoda did not come under the mitnagdic blowtorch. In their eyes, the iniquity
of Tzava’at Harivash was its title, not its content! In 1953, the historian
Joseph Klausner (1874-1958) – a descendant of Ziskind – published a Hebrew
article recounting his ancestor’s life and works. Klausner was one of the
founders of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and served as professor of Hebrew
literature. He was also the editor of the first eight volumes of the monumental
Encyclopedia Hebraica (Entziklopedia Haivrit). Klausner titled his biographical
article “Rabbi Alexander Ziskind of Grodno: The hassid among the
Indeed, in hassidic tradition, it is reported that Rabbi
Nahman of Breslov (1772-1810) said Ziskind was a hassid before Hassidism. The
writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in
Tzur Hadassah. He is currently a post-doctoral fellow at Bar-Ilan University’s
Faculty of Law.