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Yehudah Ḥasid ha-Levi

(ca. 1650–1700), popular mystical preacher. Yehudah Ḥasid ha-Levi was born in Dubno (according to other sources, in Siedlce), and went to Italy to study Kabbalah around 1678. Returning to Poland, he became the rabbi of Szydłów. In 1696, he and Ḥayim Malakh became leaders of a group of ascetics who intended to immigrate to the Land of Israel in order to await the messiah’s coming in Jerusalem.

The initial ḥavurah kedoshah (“holy society”) was formed by 31 families in Poland and Lithuania (among its members was Gedalyah of Siemiatycze, who later chronicled its story in his Sha’alu shelom Yerushalayim [1716]). The ascetics bathed in ice-cold water, did not sleep in beds, abstained from all foods of animal origin, slept only one or two days a week, and devoted all their remaining time to studying the Torah. Their piety made a great impression, and both leaders were reported to be firebrand preachers. The group started to grow and received substantial moral and material support from prominent rabbis, wealthy individuals, and the general public.

Although Yehudah Ḥasid never publicly avowed Sabbatianism, rumors about the Sabbatian background and beliefs of many of the group’s members circulated from the very outset and culminated in the condemnation of the holy society by the rabbi and halakhist Tsevi Ashkenazi (known as Ḥakham Tsevi) in 1698. Many prominent rabbis of Poland, Germany, and the Czech lands ignored the condemnation, however, while others—including the chief rabbi of Moravia, David Oppenheim—openly supported the group. Oppenheim’s backing was crucial for the success of the enterprise, and Oppenheim’s town of residence, Nikolsburg (Mikulov), became a kind of headquarters for the movement. A secret council took place there in late 1698 or early 1699; it was attended by the 10 most prominent Sabbatian leaders of Europe, including Yehudah Ḥasid.

The decision was made to send emissaries to major Jewish communities in Poland and the Holy Roman Empire in order to raise funds for the project and to encourage others to join the group. The exact number of envoys and their destinations is unknown, but it is certain that among these messengers was Yehudah Ḥasid himself. The emissaries conducted themselves with ostentatious splendor, wore white satin garments, and traveled with numerous servants and an entourage.

In 1700 on Shabat ha-Gadol, Yehudah Ḥasid delivered a sermon in the Frankfurt am Main synagogue. In it, he foretold the imminent coming of the messiah and predicted that within a year there would be neither Jews nor Christians in Frankfurt. He also entered the women’s section of the synagogue carrying a Torah scroll, which brought upon him the wrath of the Frankfurt rabbis and of Ḥakham Tsevi.

In the end, approximately 1,500–1,700 people undertook the journey to the Land of Israel. They followed two main routes—via Constantinople and via Venice—and aroused waves of religious enthusiasm as they passed through Jewish communities in Poland, Bohemia, and Germany. Their journey lasted from two to six months, and many died during the journey. Some 1,000 people arrived in Jerusalem in October 1700, almost doubling the Jewish population of the city.

Even though some preparations for the absorption of the group had been made before its arrival—a synagogue and a compound of 40 houses had been purchased in advance—the sudden influx of a relatively large group of newcomers triggered a crisis within the Jerusalem community, which could not support itself. The crisis was amplified by the fact that Yehudah Ḥasid died suddenly (on 20 October 1700), six days after the group’s arrival. Ḥayim Malakh—who had initially been accepted as Yehudah Ḥasid’s successor—became involved in the internal struggles of different factions within the community; suspected of Sabbatianism, he was expelled from Jerusalem.

Despite these difficulties, the group initially seemed to maintain their belief in the imminent advent of the messiah and merged with the small Ashkenazic settlement (of approximately 200 people) that had existed in Jerusalem. However, the city’s Sephardim were openly hostile and constantly attacked the society for its alleged (or real) Sabbatian convictions. Moreover, the group suffered serious financial difficulties. Emissaries to European Jewish communities were dispatched; but little, if any, aid arrived. As the prophecies of the messiah’s coming failed to materialize, most of the erstwhile members of the group returned to their home countries. Some embraced Islam or Christianity and severed all their links to Judaism.

The Sabbatian character of Yehudah Ḥasid’s enterprise is a matter of debate. Although some of the group’s members (especially Ḥayim Malakh) were openly Sabbatian believers, others seemed to have little to do with the movement. It is certain that the failed aliyah of the holy society led to great disappointment among the European Sabbatians. One consequence of the failure of the project was the abandonment of the idea of migration to the Land of Israel by most Sabbatian leaders for the remainder of the eighteenth century. The idea goes unmentioned in virtually all Sabbatian texts of the period, and some of the most important personalities (notably Yehoshu‘a Heshel Tsoref and Jakub Frank) openly rejected the concept of aliyah and claimed that the redemption would take place in the Diaspora—more specifically, in Poland.

Suggested Reading

Me’ir Benayahu, “‘Ha-Ḥavurah ha-kedoshah’ shel Rabi Yehudah Ḥasid ve-‘aliyatah le-Erets Yisra’el,” Sefunot 3–4 (1960): 131–179; Gedaliah of Siemiatycze, Sha’alu shelom Yerushalayim, ed. Zalman Rubashov (Shazar) (Jerusalem, 1963); Samuel Krauss, “Die Palästinasiedlung der polnishen Hasidim und die Wiener Kreise im Jahre 1700,” in Abhandlungen zur Erinnerung an Hirsch Perez Chajes, pp. 51–94 (1933; rpt., New York, 1980); Alexandr Putik, “Prague Jews and Judah Hasid: A Study on the Social, Political and Religious History of the Late Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries,” Judaica Bohemiae 38 (2003): 72–105; 39 (2004): 53–92.