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Epstein, Kalonimos Kalman of Kraków

(1754–1823), Hasidic master. Kalonimos Kalman Epstein of Kraków was born in Neustadt (now Prudnik), Poland, to a prestigious rabbinic family. He is considered one of the most influential masters of the third generation of Hasidism. Epstein settled in Kraków early in his life and was primarily a disciple of Elimelekh of Lizhensk (1717–1786/87), who, as a student of Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezritsh (1704–1772), had been sent to Kraków to spread the teachings of the Ba‘al Shem Tov. When Epstein met Dov Ber, Kraków had no discernible Hasidic presence, and Epstein is considered to have been the first major Hasidic master in that city.

Epstein also considered himself to be a disciple of the Seer of Lublin, Ya‘akov Yitsḥak Horowitz (1745–1815); Levi Yitsḥak of Barditshev (1740–1809); and Yeḥi’el Mikhl of Zlotshev (1726–1781) and is viewed as a major representative of the lineage of Polish and Galician Hasidism in what was to become Congress Poland in the nineteenth century.

Epstein’s collected teachings appear in one book, Ma’or va-shemesh, first published in Breslau in 1842. This work was reprinted many times and, unusual for Hasidic writings, was also included in various editions of Mikra’ot gedolot (editions of the Bible featuring multiple commentaries). It comprises the author’s original interpretations coupled with many citations from previous masters of the first two generations of Hasidism.

One of the dominant themes in Ma’or va-shemesh is the concept of the tsadik (righteous one) and the obligation of the Hasid to attach himself to a master. Epstein adopted this doctrine from his teacher Elimelekh of Lizhensk. However, whereas Elimelekh largely viewed the tsadik in talismanic terms, Epstein offers a more rational assessment of the need for such a leader. In particular, he suggests that the tsadik serves an important pedagogical role as a behavioral model for the Hasid to emulate. “When one attaches oneself to the righteous of the generation, one’s heart is aroused by means of their words of Torah. Then one will understand how to serve God fully (be-emet [in truth, truthfully]).” Likewise, “binding oneself to the tsadik will enable one to repent completely,” because the Hasid can witness the behavior and manner of his master. For Epstein, the tsadik serves as a spiritual guide more than as an intermediary to God—a notion that became an alternative model in later Hasidic religious philosophies.

Another important motif in Epstein’s writings is the anti-asceticism that was introduced by the Ba‘al Shem Tov but not reflected in the teachings of his disciple Dov Ber. Commenting on fasting as a devotional practice, that is, at times that are not obligatory, Epstein states in no uncertain terms that “this is no longer a way to serve God.”

Epstein’s writings are replete with kabbalistic references, and he seems familiar with the intricacies of the thinking of the Lurianic school. As was true of many masters of the second and third generations of Hasidism, Epstein did not initiate, nor was he a part of, a particular Hasidic dynasty. His book remains popular in traditional circles and is studied by Hasidic acolytes of all schools, although his approach is closest to that of the Polish masters.

Epstein was survived by two sons—Yosef Barukh of Neustadt, known as der guter yid (The Good Jew; d. 1867) and Aharon of Kraków (d. 1882), who opened the first Hasidic synagogue in Kraków—and by two daughters. Epstein is buried in that city, and his grave remains a pilgrimage site.

Suggested Reading

Nig’al Gedalyah, “Mishnat ha-ḥasidut be-sefer Ma’or ve-shemesh,Sinai 75.3 (1974): 144–168; Aharon Sorski (Surasky), “Toldot Rabenu,” in Ma’or va-shemesh ha-shalem, vol. 2, pp. 63–84 (Jerusalem, 1993).