Ascetic Hassidism

Hassidic masters were not cut of one cloth; some masters adopted ascetic practices.

hassidic hat 311 (photo credit: Illustrative photo)
hassidic hat 311
(photo credit: Illustrative photo)
The Hassidism of Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov (known as the Besht) and his disciples is rightly associated with a rejection of an ascetic lifestyle as the primary spiritual avenue. Nevertheless, hassidic masters were not cut of one cloth and, over the 250 years of Hassidism’s history, some masters adopted ascetic practices. It would therefore be inaccurate to ignore this fact when describing Hassidism.
One such master was Rabbi Meir Yehiel Halevi Halstock of Ostrowiec (1852-1928). Meir Yehiel was brought up in hassidic home and from an early age he visited the hassidic masters of Congress Poland.
When he was 10 years old, Rabbi Elimelech Shapira (1824-1892), hassidic master in Grodzisk Mazowiecki, saw the potential in Meir Yehiel and suggested that he stay in Grodzisk for his education. Meir Yehiel’s care was entrusted to one of the most learned hassidim, Rabbi Berel the illuy (genius), with the express instruction: “Make the boy into a great and famous scholar.”
When he was 17, Meir Yehiel married and moved to his in-laws’ home in Warka. There he became renowned as the Warka Illuy. For 10 years he remained in Warka, plumbing the depths of the revealed and hidden traditions, until he was appointed the rabbi of Skierniewice at the age of 28.
Nine years later he moved to the rabbinate of the larger town Ostrowiec, where he served for 39 years until his death.
But it was only when his teacher, Rabbi Elimelech of Grodzisk, died in 1892 that Rabbi Meir Yehiel began to serve as a hassidic master in addition to fulfilling his rabbinic duties. Despite famously serving in both roles, Rabbi Yehiel Meir barely left a written legacy in either sphere. He was often asked to write approbations for other people’s books, and in these letters he seized the opportunity to share detailed talmudic insights.
Two of Rabbi Meir Yehiel’s students each independently attempted to collect their teacher’s words. The first effort, Torah Or (Piotrkow, 1920), covered Rabbi Meir Yehiel’s Torah insights on the Book of Genesis.
Reportedly, Rabbi Meir Yehiel – who was still alive when the book was published – reproached his student, though it is unclear what upset him.
At any rate, no further volumes appeared.
After the Destruction of European Jewry, one of Rabbi Meir Yehiel’s students collated hassidic, talmudic and halachic material and published it in two thick volumes entitled Meir Einei Hachamim (New York, 1950).
Hassidic lore remembers Rabbi Meir Yehiel for his ascetic practices. He spent much time in prayer. Hassidim would say that he left a puddle of tears wherever he prayed. Though he loved music, he chose not to listen to it so as to deny himself the joy it brought with it. On weekdays he did not change his clothes. Fasting was part of his daily regimen, and he would eat only a small amount each evening. His frequent fasting weakened his body and he was often found wrapped in a blanket, trying to stay warm. Rabbi Meir Yehiel would also avoid speaking, dedicating entire days as a ta’anit dibbur, a fast from talking.
Rabbi Meir Yehiel was once visited by the Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter (Imrei Emet, 1866-1948). As was the custom, fruit and beverages were brought for the guest. When the refreshments were served, the Imrei Emet did not touch the food. Rabbi Meir Yehiel was surprised. “Why won't you taste anything?” he inquired.
The Imrei Emet explained that everything really belongs to the Almighty: The Earth and all that is in it belongs to God (Psalms 24:1).
Only after making a blessing and acknowledging God’s dominion are we permitted to partake of the food: The heavens are the heavens of God, but the land He gave to humans (Psalms 115:16). Thus,” explained the Imrei Emet, “you are offering me food that is not yours, for you are yet to taste it! Only after you recite the blessing do the rights to the food transfer to you and then you can honor me as your guest.”
Without hesitating, Rabbi Meir Yehiel picked up a fruit, made a blessing and ate. This was no trifle, for Rabbi Meir Yehiel had been fasting, as was his wont. Once Rabbi Meir Yehiel had recited the blessing and tasted the fruit, the Imrei Emet also ate from the food that had been placed before them.
Thus, a hassidic master known for extreme ascetic practices was able to strike some form of balance, tempering his own preference for abstinence for the sake of making a younger colleague feel comfortable.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.