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Ya‘akov Yosef of Polnoye

(d. 1783), rabbi and author of the first published Hasidic book. Ya‘akov Yosef of Polnoye (Pol., Połonne) served as rabbi of Shargorod, the second largest community in the Podolia region. In 1741, after coming under the influence of Aryeh Leib, the preacher of Polnoye, Ya‘akov Yosef began to adopt a pietistic, ascetic path of Hasidism, including seclusion for long periods and particular stringency with regard to the laws of Jewish ritual slaughter.

Ya‘akov Yosef’s comportment in this period of his life is described in the collection Shivḥe ha-Besht (In Praise of the Ba‘al Shem Tov; 1815). The fasting methods that he adopted were Jewish mysticism’s most drastic. It is reported further that after he opted for the pietistic path, he returned all fines that he had collected during his service of employment as a rabbi, and became impoverished. His tendency to isolate himself aroused the anger of his community, who drove him out of the city on the eve of a Sabbath. This eviction, which occurred around 1748, had an indelible impact on Ya‘akov Yosef and became a recurring theme in his later writings.

It appears that at the time of Ya‘akov Yosef’s eviction, he came into contact with Yisra’el Ba‘al Shem Tov (the Besht), and found himself drawn to the Besht’s version of Hasidism, which rejected asceticism. Subsequently, Ya‘akov Yosef was appointed rabbi of the small community of Rashkov, which he served until 1752. Around the years 1750–1751, in pursuit of a messianic or mystical agenda, he aspired to settle in Palestine, but his plans failed to materialize. Shivḥe ha-Besht mentions that the Besht dissuaded him from pursuing his plans, claiming that Ya‘akov Yosef was indispensable to the inhabitants of Rashkov. Between 1752 and 1770, Ya‘akov Yosef preached Hasidism and ministered to the Niemirów community, and in 1770 he was appointed rabbi of Polnoye, a position he held until his death.

Ya‘akov Yosef’s published writings include his magnum opus, Toldot Ya‘akov Yosef (1780), and three additional works, also compilations of sermons, relating to different books of the Pentateuch: Ben porat Yosef (1781), mainly on Genesis; Tsofnat pa‘neaḥ (1782), on Exodus; and Ketonet pasim, on Leviticus and Numbers, which was not published until 1866. He may have also compiled a commentary on Deuteronomy. Ya‘akov Yosef’s writings are exegetical and often arcane, encumbered and complicated by his citation of numerous quotations and traditions, but they reflect a broad command of homiletical and ethical literature, of halakhic works, and of the kabbalistic teachings of Yitsḥak Luria and Mosheh Cordovero. Ya‘akov Yosef enjoyed expressing himself in parables. At times he hinted at esoteric knowledge gained from the Besht, but he discussed such matters only broadly.

Ya‘akov Yosef’s major work, Toldot Ya‘akov Yosef, the first published Hasidic book, is in the main a compilation of sermons, arranged according to the Torah portion of the week throughout the year. There is a supplementary section titled “Words I Heard from My Master,” in which the Besht’s sayings (in addition to those mentioned in the body of the work) are recorded. Within its at times cumbersome sermons, the text contains the most basic paradigms of the Hasidic worldview—with respect to its view of the divinity of evil and its concept of the .

The publication of Toldot Ya‘akov Yosef in 1780 led to a rekindling of already acrimonious debates between Misnagdim and Hasidim. Even eight years before its publication, a manuscript of the text may have been partially responsible for the first outbreak of the dispute that led to Hasidism’s ban—and, purportedly, to the handwritten copy being burned together with another Hasidic text (Tsava’at ha-Ribash).

Ben Porat Yosef was the first book to contain “Igeret ‘aliyat ha-neshamah” (The Epistle of the Ascendance of the Soul; referred to as the “Holy Epistle”). This letter, written by the Ba‘al Shem Tov to his brother-in-law, Gershon of Kitev, in 1750–1751, was entrusted to Ya‘akov Yosef because the latter had intended to travel to Palestine (where Gershon had been living). However, the authenticity of the published text of the letter continues to be debated and has become the focus of a scholarly dispute over the place of messianism in early Hasidism.

Ya‘akov Yosef’s writings set forth the religious and social message of Hasidism. He expressed the movement’s fundamental beliefs in the eternity of the Torah and its applicability to all at all times, a concept that forms the basis of Hasidic exegesis. Accordingly, Ya‘akov Yosef wrote of the omnipresent immanence of divinity, frequently expressed in the phrases “Let atar panui mineh” (There is no place devoid of Him) and “Melo’ kol ha-arets kevodo” (The whole earth is full of His glory [Is. 6:3]), which to a great extent encapsulate the Hasidic worldview. This intuitive feeling that the divine presence is manifest in everything is used as a basis for relating to evil and impure thoughts, as is reliance upon the Lurianic kabbalistic idea that every experience contains within it divine sparks, and that evil, impure thoughts and materiality are potential reservoirs of holiness, from which holiness must be liberated and activated. (This principle was also applied to a social plane, providing the ideological underpinning for the tsadik’s having to descend to the level of ordinary Jews in order to elevate them.) Ya‘akov Yosef, like the Besht before him, stressed the value of meditating upon Hebrew letters when praying, affirming that this action created spiritual forces—equal to, and even greater than, the force of ascetic practice—to cleanse and purge the worshiper of sin.

Ya‘akov Yosef’s writings also explain and develop the (Aristotelian) distinction between people of matter (anshe ha-ḥomer) and of form (tsurah), and the principle of mutual responsibility between these groups. The masses, who are unable to study Torah and cleave to God (achieve devekut) during prayer, must cleave to their tsadik (who is an ish ha-tsurah), and must provide for his financial well-being. The tsadik, on the other hand, is obligated to elevate his flock through his spiritual activities, and at times must even be prepared to stumble and fall from his lofty place for their sake. Another extensive theme in these letters is the Besht’s understanding of worship through corporeality—‘avodah ba-gashmiyut—according to which divine worship is possible even when the tsadik speaks to the masses about concrete matters, and when he performs a physical act.

Ya‘akov Yosef’s writings are the primary source for various sayings of the Ba‘al Shem Tov and of members of the Besht’s inner circle, including Menaḥem Mendel of Bar, Naḥman of Kosov, Naḥman of Horodenka, Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Pistin, and Menaḥem Mendel of Premishlan (Pol., Przemyślany). When these personalities relayed anecdotes about the Besht’s life, Ya‘akov Yosef took care to mention the sources of their stories. On the other hand, when narrating a teaching of the Besht that he had heard firsthand, he would generally preface his account with the words “I heard this from my master.” While admittedly there were times when Ya‘akov Yosef erred in identifying the author of a quoted saying, his writings are still the most important repository for the oral canon of embryonic Hasidism.

The history of the Hasidic movement following the death of the Besht is inextricably linked to the dynamics of the relationship between Ya‘akov Yosef and Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezritsh. The Magid taught a select group of disciples and in his own lifetime was witness to these followers becoming tsadikim in their own right; it was he who was responsible for the idea of the tsadik staying in one locale while recruiting followers who would come to pay their respects. In this way, the Hasidic path was no longer confined to a select group. Ya‘akov Yosef, as was true of a number of others among the original circle of followers of the Besht (such as Pinḥas of Korets), had only a small number of followers, a situation reminiscent of the classic circle of ascetic, pietistic Hasidism; he never tried to attract the local masses. Nevertheless, Ya‘akov Yosef was the main formulator of the social–religious typology that defines the relationship between the tsadik and his flock. Although the framework of economic relationships in the Hasidic community was established in the structure of the Hasidic court of the Magid of Mezritsh, Ya‘akov Yosef’s ideas on reciprocal obligations between people of form and people of matter were adopted by the Magid’s disciples. It was the combination of these two leaders’ ideologies that shaped the nature of Hasidism and enabled it to develop into a mass movement.

The absence of personal revelations in Ya‘akov Yosef’s writings does not necessarily mean that Ya‘akov Yosef was himself not a mystic. Although the contrast with the extensive descriptions of this kind in connection with the Magid has led to this opinion among scholars, the matter awaits reassessment.

Suggested Reading

Ben Zion Dinur, Be-Mifneh ha-dorot (Jerusalem, 1955), pp. 55–147; Samuel H. Dresner, The Zaddik (London and New York, 1960); Simon Dubnow, Toldot ha-ḥasidut: ‘Al yesod mekorot ri’shonim (Tel Aviv, 1959/60), pp. 93–101; Immanuel Etkes, The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader, trans. Saadya Sternberg (Waltham, Mass., and Hanover, N.H., 2005); Gershon Hundert, ed., Essential Papers on Hasidism (New York, 1991); Gedalyah Nigal, Manhig ve-‘edah (Jerusalem, 1962); Haviva Pedaya, “Ha-Ba‘al Shem Tov, R. Ya‘akov Yosef mi-Polona’h, veha-magid mi-Mezerits´,” Da‘at 45 (2000): 25–73, see esp. pp. 34–35, 54–71; Haviva Pedaya, “Le-Hitpatḥuto shel ha-degem ha-ḥevrati-dati-kalkali ba-ḥasidut: Ha-Pidyon ha-ḥavurah vehe-‘aliyah la-regel,” in Tsadik ve-‘edah, ed. David Assaf, pp. 343–397 (Jerusalem, 2001).



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler