Women praying on Tishah b’Av, a day of fasting in commemoration of the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, Kraków, 1926. (Archiwum Dokumentacji Mechanicznej, courtesy Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw)

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The complex of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors usually comprehended in the Hebrew phrase yir’at shamayim (lit., “awe [or reverence] of Heaven”) or the Yiddish word frumkayt, piety in Judaism is marked by a constant striving to live in God’s presence and to fulfill His will, both by conforming to the norms of strict Jewish practice and in terms of the inner direction of the heart. While there have been significant differences in the religious attitudes of Jews ranging across seven or eight centuries, across diverse subregions, and especially along the fault line of Hasidism and its opponents, some general characteristics of Jewish piety in Eastern Europe can still be described.

East European Jews often perceived their lives in society at large as chaotic, unpredictable, and out of (their) control, to an extent perhaps greater than in Jewish communities elsewhere. Understanding themselves as living in exile—that is, in a place and time wherein the power and potential wickedness of the nations went unchecked—they created a contrasting inner life, one reflecting a highly ordered universe in which God’s law reigned supreme, and in which the maintenance of the universal scales of justice was God’s greatest concern. The assertion of such a reality provided the individual and the Jewish community with an ability to absorb great pain while continuing to live out a daily life of studying God’s Torah and fulfilling the divine will. In practical terms, it was both the warmth of community and the faith in God’s ongoing love that ensured the long-suffering and patient character of East European Jewry’s inner life.

The relationship with God was a deeply personal one, largely unhampered by philosophical attempts to question or limit anthropomorphism. Erotic and other metaphors of relationship favored by the kabbalists were little to be found. God’s love, in East European Jewish thinking, is essentially understood as that of a parent doting on a uniquely favored child. The creator is referred to in Yiddish popular prayers as tate in himl (“daddy” in heaven). “The greatest yetser hore [Heb., yetser ha-ra‘; temptation],” said Hasidic master Aharon of Karlin, “is that the King’s son forget that he is the son of a King.”

The intimacy of this relationship allowed for openhearted emotional expression, which was particularly welcomed in Hasidic circles. It also permitted outcry and complaint before the divine throne, culminating in Levi Yitsḥak of Barditshev’s famous Dintoyre mit got (Court Case against God), in which the creator is accused of abandoning His beloved children. This tradition of outcry is widely reflected in Yiddish and Hebrew poetry of the post-Holocaust era.

Before the modern era, many Jews in Slavic lands lived in a high degree of cultural and linguistic isolation from the surrounding populace. They were thus able to create a separate Jewish civilization—more fully so than in most other Diaspora communities. The model for this was their image of Babylonian Jewish society in Talmudic times, which they sought to reestablish in Eastern Europe: Derekh ha-Shas—“the Talmudic path”—was the way of life in Ashkenazic communities. Learning, the most highly valued activity for capable Jewish males, was almost exclusively Talmudic in character. Eastern Europe brought forth rather little creativity with respect to Hebrew poetry, biblical exegesis, or other traditional areas of Jewish literary activity; but it produced a vast and until then unequaled volume of Talmudic commentaries, legal digests, responsa, and other writings relating to rabbinic law.

The ability to study Talmud was the single marker of the educated Jew in Eastern Europe, and the forms and rubrics of piety were often taken directly from pages of the Talmudic text. Gemore lernen—study of Talmud—was itself considered a supreme act of piety, and the text was intoned aloud in a gemore nign (Talmud melody). It was understood that personal refinement (eydlkayt) went hand in hand with learning. East European Jewish society cultivated a highly unworldly class of pious scholars who dwelt as fully as possible within the world of the Talmudic sages. Revered and idealized for their learned piety, such scholars were depicted as the ideal type of Jewish male and as proper leaders of the Jewish community. Hasidism in part represented a rebellion against this ideal; the Hasidic rebbe, devoted both to God and to the personal needs of his disciples, stood in contrast to the unaware bentoyre, whose only concern was with the fine points of Jewish law.

The piety of East European Jews was of diverse origins, however, and not all of them were Talmudic. Halakhic practice was augmented by countless folk customs, some local and others widespread throughout the Ashkenazic cultural realm. Many of these had to do with events in the life cycle, with occasions in the sacred calendar, and with the warding off of evil spirits. Some can be traced to pietist circles in the medieval Rhineland (Ḥaside Ashkenaz); others have been shown to reflect the influence of Christian practice in Central or Eastern Europe. Beginning in the seventeenth century, Kabbalah, particularly as exemplified by the pious tales of Safed and its sages, played a major role in the spiritual life of East European communities. Asceticism, including fasting and various self-mortifying penances, were signs of special piety.

If the shul (synagogue) and the besmedresh (bet ha-midrash) were the centers of religious life for Jewish men, it may be said that the kitchen, the bedroom, and the cemetery were the centers of women’s piety. Although women were less obligated than men to engage in study and to fulfill certain religious commandments, in many families it was women who were the bearers and transmitters of pious attitudes and behavior. Women’s piety was highly emotional, often tearful, and made a powerful impression that went far beyond the seemingly circumscribed realm of female authority. Kashrut was an area wherein piety demanded extreme caution, and much of rabbis’ time was taken up by women bringing them unusual-looking chickens, or utensils that had possibly been rendered nonkosher, for a psak halokhe (Heb., pesak halakhah; legal decision) that would allow order to be restored to the kitchen. Questions relating to menstrual abstinence and monthly immersion in the mikveh likewise often required rabbinic decision and point to another area of piety relevant to women.

A literature of popular piety, composed in Yiddish and directed mostly toward women, became widespread from the seventeenth century. This included tkhines (supplications; prayers for special occasions), various editions of the taytsh-khumesh (Yiddish versions of the Pentateuch, especially the popular Tsene-rene), and adapted translations of medieval devotional classics. Tkhines reflect the special place that death, mourning, and memorialization (yizker, yortsayt) had in the religious lives of women. Visits to the cemetery before the Days of Awe, on the anniversary of a death, before weddings (presumably to invite the deceased to the ceremony), and on other occasions played a major role in the lives of pious women.

Hasidim in town to visit the grave of Rabbi Naḥman, Uman, Ukraine, 1995. Photograph © Gueorgui Pinkhassov. (Magnum Photos)

Belief in the afterlife, including the possibility of both reward and punishment, surely had a hand in maintaining piety. The living and the dead were seen to be of help to one another. Extra repetitions of the Kaddish prayer were said to be helpful to deceased relatives in their struggle to escape punishment or to rise through the many rungs of paradise, while the pious dead were thought capable of intervening for the living. Such intercession was sought at the graves of ancestors, and in Hasidic areas at the burial places of tsadikim, which became highly visited pilgrimage sites.

At the same time, more refined spokesmen for Jewish piety, in both Hasidic and Misnagdic circles, considered concerns of reward and punishment to be low-level or even improper motivations for religious life. Faithfulness to the Torah and love of God’s commandments were assumed to be their own reward. A Hasidic tale describes the Magid of Mezritsh dancing in ecstasy after hearing in a dream that he had forced the hand of heaven and therefore would have no place in the world to come. “Why are you dancing?” his wife asked. “Because until now I never trusted myself,” was his reply. “I always thought, whenever I did a mitsvah, ‘You want the reward; you’re doing it so God will give you eternal life.’ Now that I know I have no place in the world to come, I can begin serving my Creator.”

Suggested Reading

Arthur Green, ed., Jewish Spirituality, vol. 2, From the Sixteenth-Century Revival to the Present (New York, 1989), pp. 7–275; Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Earth Is the Lord’s: The Inner World of the Jew in East Europe (New York, 1950); Joseph George Weiss, Studies in East European Mysticism and Hasidism (London and Portland, Ore., 1997); Chava Weissler, Voices of the Matriarchs (Boston, 1998).