Tomb of Hasidic leader Simḥah Bunem of Pshishke, Przysucha, Poland, ca. 1928. Photograph by L. Dnedecki. (YIVO)

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Simḥah Bunem of Pshiskhe

(Przysucha; 1765–1827), important Hasidic leader in Poland. Simḥah Bunem was born in Wodzisław, where his father was a magid. Simḥah Bunem studied in the yeshivas of Mattersdorf (in Hungary; now Mattersberg, Austria) and Nikolsburg (Mikulov, Moravia), and his first Hasidic mentors were Mosheh Leib of Sasov (1745–1807) and Yisra’el the Magid of Kozhenits (Kozienice; ca. 1737–1814).

Active in the commercial world, Simḥah Bunem was hired by Berek Sonnenberg and his wife Temerl (Bergson) to manage some of their enterprises. He traveled widely, visiting the mercantile centers of Danzig (mod. Gdańsk) and Leipzig. He learned German and Polish, attended the theater, enjoyed playing cards, and dressed in modern European style. He qualified as a pharmacist and later opened a successful pharmacy in Pshiskhe. Simḥah Bunem was also involved in Jewish communal affairs, and in 1825 was elected as a representative to the Committee of Old Believers (Komitet Starozakonnyeh), a governmental committee seeking to modernize the economic and social life of the Jewish community. He was strongly opposed to its agenda and fought against it.

Simḥah Bunem’s continued interest in Hasidism led him to the court of Ya‘akov Yitsḥak Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin, where he became the closest friend and disciple of Ya‘akov Yitsḥak Rabinowicz (later the Holy Jew of Pshiskhe). Upon Rabinowicz’s death in 1813, other disciples convinced a reluctant Simḥah Bunem to become the leader of the Pshiskhe school. After he became the rebbe, some opponents of the Pshiskhe path taunted him with details from his earlier life. Yet the opposition to Simḥah Bunem had less to do with his biography than with his teachings, which were seen as a threat by many other tsadikim.

The Pshiskhe path, which amalgamated the theories of both Rabinowicz and Simḥah Bunem, was revolutionary in theory and practice. It rejected the central tenets of material tsadikism, taught by the Seer of Lublin and his disciples, and thus could not accept the concept of the tsadik as miracle worker and provider of material bounty from heaven. The tsadik’s role in Pshiskhe was that of a mentor who guided the spiritual and intellectual development of his disciples through Torah study. The curriculum was Talmud and commentaries with the addition of medieval philosophy, particularly the works of Maimonides (1135–1204) and Yehudah Leib (Maharal of Prague; 1525–1609). The religious practices of the Pshiskhe school also deviated from accepted Hasidic traditions. Following Rabinowicz, Simḥah Bunem encouraged an internalized, spiritual attitude to the commandments and their performance. One was to be faithful to God and the Jewish people, but dedication to personal principles was even more important.

Pshiskhe was also opposed to the external forms of the Hasidic lifestyle, and its students mocked many Hasidic values and practices for being mere superficialities without spiritual value. Material possessions were irrelevant to them and they publicly mocked those whom they thought behaved arrogantly. The most important task of the disciple was to search for personal integrity and authenticity, especially in religious practices. Personal responsibility was central, for a tsadik could not take responsibility for his followers (a direct contradiction to the doctrine of material tsadikism). One could not even imitate a tsadik, as each person’s spiritual path was unique.

The rabbis of Pshiskhe did not emphasize the importance of congregational prayer and were not punctilious in observing the expected times of prayer. Their perceived religious laxity aroused the opposition of Horowitz’s other disciples. At a wedding in Ustilug, they considered excommunicating Simḥah Bunem and his disciples. However, five of his major disciples and Rabinowicz’s son, Yeraḥmi’el Tsevi (1784–1839), spoke on Simḥah Bunem’s behalf and were able to sway the assembly in his favor.

Simḥah Bunem did not publish his writings because he felt that the static written word would fossilize his teachings and hinder the quest for personal authenticity. His teachings were published, however, by his disciples in a collection titled Kol Simḥah (1859).

Among Simḥah Bunem’s more important disciples were Menaḥem Mendel of Kotsk (Kock; 1787–1859), Yitsḥak Me’ir of Ger (Gur; 1789–1866), Ḥanokh of Aleksander (Aleksandrów; 1798–1870), Mordekhai Yosef of Izhbits (Iżbica; 1800–1854), Aleksander Zusya of Plotsk (1798–1837), Avraham of Chekhanov (Ciechanów; 1784–1875), and Yitsḥak of Vurke (Warka; 1779–1848). After Simḥah Bunem’s death, the majority of his disciples chose to follow Menaḥem Mendel of Kotsk. A few disciples, led by Yitsḥak of Vurke, remained loyal to Simḥah Bunem’s son, Avraham Mosheh (1800–1829). After his early death, he was succeeded by Yitsḥak of Vurke.

Suggested Reading

Aaron Ze’ev Aescoly, Ha-Ḥasidut be-Polin (Jerusalem, 1998); Yehudah Menahem ben Avraham Mosheh Boim, Ha-Rabi Rabi Bunem mi-Pshisḥah (Bnei Brak, 1997); Alan Brill, “Grandeur and Humility in the Writings of R. Simhah Bunim of Przysucha,” in Hazon Nahum: Studies in Jewish Law, Thought, and History Presented to Dr. Norman Lamm on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, eds. Yaakov Elman and Jeffrey Gurock (New York, 1997), pp. 419–448; Raphael Mahler, Hasidism and the Jewish Enlightenment: Their Confrontation in Galicia and Poland in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century (Philadelphia, 1985); Zvi Meir Rabinowitz, Rabi Simḥah Bunam mi-Pshisḥah:Ḥayav ve-torato (Tel Aviv, 1944); Zvi Meir Rabinowitz, Ben Pshisḥah le-Lublin: Ishim ve-shitot be-ḥasidut Polin (Jerusalem, 1997).