Restored polychromatic tombstone of Ya'akov Yitsḥak Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin, dating from 1815. He died on the Ninth of Av, the fast day that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temple. Photograph by Andrzej Trzciłski. (Courtesy of the photographer)

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Ya‘akov Yitsḥak Horowitz

(The Seer of Lublin; 1745–1815), the most influential Hasidic leader in Poland and Galicia at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Though he did not found a dynasty, the majority of tsadikim living at his time in that region considered themselves to be his disciples.

Ya‘akov Yitsḥak was descended from a distinguished rabbinical family that traced its ancestry to Yesha‘yahu ben Avraham Horowitz (1565?–1630), the author of the Shelah and one of the most important rabbinic figures of Central and Eastern Europe in the early seventeenth century. Although Ya‘akov Yitsḥak was a follower of Dov Ber (the Magid of Mezritsh; d. 1772) and Shemu’el Shmelke of Nikolsburg (1726–1787), his most important teacher was Elimelekh of Lizhensk (1717–1787). In 1785, Ya‘akov Yitsḥak began to serve as a Hasidic rebbe in his own right, first establishing a court in Lantset (Pol., Łańcut); then moving to Chekhov (Czechowka), a suburb of Lublin; and finally to Lublin itself. The name by which he is best known, “the Seer,” was applied to him only posthumously, based on the tradition that he could look at an individual’s forehead and see the source of that person’s soul.

The Seer’s concept of the tsadik was derived primarily from Elimelekh of Lizhensk. A tsadik was a charismatic leader with divine authority to lead a community and would also take responsibility for the spiritual and material welfare of his followers. According to the doctrine known as material tsadikism, a tsadik served as an intermediary between the community and heaven, enabling divine bounty to flow to his followers while at the same time representing their interests before the holy powers. Ya‘akov Yitsḥak maintained that people needed material abundance as a precursor to their spiritual progress. It was, in his view, a tsadik’s role to help followers in what he considered the three crucial areas of life: children, health, and livelihood. In return, followers were expected to support the tsadik financially and be loyal in spiritual and other matters. One of the implications of this theology was that it denied ordinary people personal responsibility; their only task was to cleave to the tsadik. This system led to the creation of a new social ethos in which wealth was seen as a sign of God’s blessing and poverty a sign of divine disfavor.

The Seer was more than just a popular tsadik. He was also a charismatic teacher and spiritual mentor who had many disciples, a significant number of whom also grew into spiritual leaders and tsadikim. He even attracted some individuals who were already tsadikim in their own right. The majority of Horowitz’s disciples, however, became tsadikim only after his death.

Some of Horowitz’s younger and more intellectual disciples rejected the doctrine of material tsadikism. They believed that a tsadik was not to be a miracle worker but a mentor to guide the spiritual growth of his disciples. They also emphasized the importance of Torah study and striving for personal self-perfection. These disciples increasingly became alienated from Ya‘akov Yitsḥak, and they also aroused the opposition of the Seer’s other disciples who were threatened by the new and radical ideas. In 1812, Horowitz’s closest disciple, Ya‘akov Yitsḥak Rabinowicz (“the Holy Jew”; 1766–1813), broke with him and left Lublin to establish a new school of Hasidism in Pshiskhe.

One Hasidic tradition ascribes the rupture within the movement to a disagreement over the significance of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Horowitz apparently interpreted the event as the war of Gog and Magog that was to usher in the Messianic era. During Simḥat Torah festivities in 1814, the Seer retired to his private room. He was later found injured and moaning beneath his window, having been severely injured in a fall. Horowitz did not recover and died nine months later on Tish‘ah be-Av. Though his disciples claimed he had been pushed out the window by the Sitra’ Aḥra’ (Evil One) as punishment for attempting to bring the Messiah prematurely, the opponents of Hasidism mocked these stories and said that Horowitz had been intoxicated. Other sources indicate that the Seer felt disgraced and that his fall may have resulted from a suicide attempt.

The teachings of Ya‘akov Yitsḥak are preserved in three volumes: Zot zikaron (1851), Zikaron zot (1869), and Divre emet (1830–1831). These volumes are unusual in that they were written by Horowitz himself, unlike most other works in this genre that were collected and edited by later disciples long after the deaths of their purported authors. Horowitz’s writings were probably composed in the early part of the Seer’s career and provide a window into the development of his thoughts on the central concept of the tsadik.

Suggested Reading

Yitsḥak Alfasi, Ha-Ḥozeh mi-Lublin: Rabi Ya‘akov Yitsḥak ha-Levi Horovits (Jerusalem, 1969); David Assaf, “One Event, Two Interpretations: The Fall of the Seer of Lublin in the Hasidic Memory and Maskilic Satire,” Polin 15 (2002): 187–202; Martin Buber, For the Sake of Heaven (Philadelphia, 1945); Rachel Elior, “Between Yesh and Ayin: The Doctrine of the Zaddik in the Works of Jacob Isaac, the Seer of Lublin,” in Jewish History: Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky, ed. Ada Rapoport-Albert and Steven J. Zipperstein, pp. 393–455 (London, 1988), in Hebrew as “Ben ha-‘Yesh’ le-‘Ayin’: ‘Iyun be-Torat ha-tsadik shel R. Ya‘akov Yitsḥak, ha-ḥozeh mi-Lublin,” in Tsadikim ve-anshe ma‘aseh: Meḥkarim ba-Ḥasidut Polin, ed. Rachel Elior, Israel Bartal, and Chone Shmeruk, pp. 167–218 (Jerusalem, 1994).