The Tisch: A ‘hassid’ among the mitnagdim

Generally, we think of nascent Hassidism as a clear division between two warring camps: the hassidim and their opponents, the mitnagdim.

Hassidim praying 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
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 the mitnagdim.
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 mitnagdim.”
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.