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Yisra’el ben Shabetai of Kozhenits

(ca. 1737–1814), rabbinic scholar and Hasidic leader. Known as the Magid of Kozhenits (Pol., Kozienice), Yisra’el ben Shabetai was one of the founders of Hasidism in central Poland. Born in Opatów, the son of a poor bookbinder, he studied with Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezritsh, and later with Elimelekh of Lizhensk.

As a rabbinic scholar, Yisra’el wrote Talmudic novellae and responsa, including a controversial lenient decision permitting an `agunah (a “chained woman” abandoned by her husband) to remarry. He was active in the dissemination of rabbinic literature, encouraging the publication of ancient manuscripts along with new editions of rare works, including the writings of Maharal of Prague. Yisra’el wrote dozens of approbations for other authors, often together with his close friend Levi Yitsḥak of Barditshev, from whom he received an important collection of early Hasidic teachings.

Despite involvement in publishing the works of others, Yisra’el was apparently unconcerned about publishing his own voluminous writings, which appeared only posthumously. His ‘Avodat Yisra’el (1842), a classic of Hasidic homiletic literature, is characterized by stylistic elegance, clarity, and creative exegetical insight, reflecting generosity of spirit, compassion, and concern for the community. One can discern in it traces of Yisra’el’s intense inner life, including ecstatic prayer and mystical attachment to the divine. At one point he recounts a teaching he received from the Ba‘al Shem Tov in a dream.

Yisra’el was renowned not only for his knowledge of rabbinics and theoretical Kabbalah, but also for being a practical kabbalist and thaumaturge. His blessings and amulets were said to be efficacious for healing, and he was particularly reputed to have the power to bless barren couples with fertility. Legend has it that many Christians, including prominent figures such as Prince Adam Czartoryski, came to seek his counsel. Yisra’el used his influence and prestige to mitigate the effect of prejudicial regulations on the Jewish community and to protect his people from outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence. He had scores of disciples, many of whom became leading figures of the Hasidic movement in Poland and Galicia during the nineteenth century—including Yitsḥak Me’ir Alter, the founder of the Ger Hasidic dynasty.

Yisra’el was survived by a son and two daughters. Kozhenits Hasidim were initially dubious about the ability of his son, Mosheh Elyakim Beriyah Hapstein (ca. 1777–1828), to lead the community after his father’s death, but Mosheh’s stature grew over time and he was eventually accepted as his father’s successor. Mosheh wrote many Hasidic works (among them Be’er Mosheh; 1858), which enjoyed wide popularity and contain valuable information about his father and other early Hasidic masters; they also provide an explanatory framework for the shamanistic powers of tsadikim.

Yisra’el’s older daughter, Perele Shapiro (known as Perele der Magids), was also a pivotal figure in the family; stories about her spiritual practices and paranormal powers abound. Her father is reported to have sent Hasidim to her for talismanic oil; she dispensed blessings and was said to have communicated with the spirits of departed tsadikim. Perl’s son Ḥayim Me’ir Yeḥi’el Shapiro of Mogelnits (Mogielnica; known as the Seraph of Mogelnits [ca. 1789–1849]) was a popular tsadik known for fiery prayer and ecstatic spirituality. The Seraph’s son, Elimelekh Shapiro (ca. 1816–1892), followed his father as a major figure in Polish Hasidism; his works include Imre Elimelekh (1876) and Divre Elimelekh (1890).

Both the Shapiro and Hapstein branches of the family of Yisra’el of Kozhenits produced Hasidic leaders through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, up to the Holocaust. On the Shapiro side, notable figures include Kalonymus Kalmish Shapiro (1889–1943), an educational theorist who rose to special prominence as a result of his teaching in the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust; and Kalonymus’s brother Yesha‘yah Shapiro (1891–1945), a passionate Zionist who immigrated to Palestine against the wishes of many members of his family. He became a leader in the Mizraḥi movement and worked to encourage aliyah from Poland.

On the Hapstein side, there is Yeraḥmi’el Mosheh Hapstein (1860–1909), who brought many Karlin-Stolin traditions to Kozhenits Hasidism; his son Yisra’el El‘azar Hapstein (1898–1966), a cofounder of Kefar Hasidism; and his daughter, the writer and memoirist Malkah Hapstein Shapiro (1894–1971).

Suggested Reading

Aaron Zeev Aescoly (Eshkoli), Ha-Ḥasidut be-Polin (Jerusalem, 1998); Abraham Isaac Bromberg, Mi-Gedole ha-torah veha-ḥasidut, vol. 18, Bet Koz´nits (Jerusalem, 1961); Ze’ev Gries, “R. Yisra’el ben Shabetai mi-Koz´enits u-ferushav le-Masekhet avot,” in Tsadikim ve-anshe ma‘aseh: Meḥkarim be-ḥasidut Polin, ed. Israel Bartal, Rachel Elior, and Chone Shmeruk, pp. 127–165 (Jerusalem, 1994); Moshe Idel, Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic (Albany, N.Y., 1995); Zvi Meir Rabinowitz, Ha-Magid mi-Koz´nits: Ḥayav ve-torato (Tel Aviv, 1946/47); Malkah Shapiro, The Rebbe’s Daughter: Memoir of a Hasidic Childhood, trans. Nehemia Polen (Philadelphia, 2002).