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Yisra’el of Ruzhin

(1796–1850), Hasidic leader and tsadik. Famed for his eccentric personality, Yisra’el Friedman of Ruzhin (Yid., more properly Rizhin) presided over a Hasidic court whose opulence and wealth rivaled that of Polish nobility. The dramatic events in which he was involved—imprisonment on suspicion of aiding and abetting the violent murder of informers, flight from Russia to Austria—made him a legend in his own lifetime, revered by his followers but despised and ridiculed by his opponents, mainly maskilim. Descended from a distinguished Hasidic family (his great-grandfather was Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezritsh) that claimed descent from King David, and possessing exceptional religious charisma, sharp natural intelligence, and organizational talents, he was not only one of the most prominent and impressive Hasidic leaders in the period of the greatest growth of Hasidism, but also the founder of a new style of Hasidism known as the “regal way.”

Yisra’el’s father, Shalom Shakhnah (1769–1802), was the son of Avraham “the Angel” (ca. 1740–1776), the only son of the Magid of Mezritsh. Avraham had been famed for extreme asceticism but never became a Hasidic leader. Shalom Shakhnah, orphaned at a young age, grew up in Pohorbishch in the home of the Hasidic leader Menaḥem Naḥum Twersky, whose daughter he married. After his father-in-law moved to Chernobil (around 1790), Shalom Shakhnah headed a small group of Hasidim in Pohorbishch, where his son Yisra’el was born. Little is known of Shalom; it appears that during his lifetime, contemporary tsadikim had already begun to adopt an opulent style of leadership with an emphasis on material possessions, in contrast to the ascetic heritage of the previous generation of Hasidic leaders. Shalom was one of them.

Yisra’el’s elder brother, Avraham of Pohorbishch (ca. 1787–1813), succeeded his father after the latter’s death and, at the age of 15, became the first yenuka (child officiating as a tsadik) in Hasidic history. After Avraham’s death 10 years later, Yisra’el, himself then only 16, was called upon to take his place. In 1815, he moved his court to nearby Ruzhin, and his fame spread quickly. From the very beginning of his “reign” he stood out for his sharp wit, his organizing abilities, and his original religious approach. Rejecting asceticism and self-imposed poverty as religious ideals, he adopted a maximalist interpretation of the idea of “worship through corporeality” (i.e., the positive religious value hidden in trivial, earthly life, such as eating or drinking, sexual relations, making a living) as equivalent—even preferable—to Torah study or prayer.

Inspired by this philosophy, considered the exclusive privilege of the tsadik, Yisra’el’s Hasidic court was based on an ostentatious display of the material wealth and luxury in which the tsadik and his family lived. His palace at Ruzhin—a mecca for admirers of all social ranks, including Russian aristocrats—was famed not only for its splendor, but also for its carriages, the thoroughbred horses in its stables, and the klezmer bands that entertained visitors and accompanied the tsadik on his travels. During these journeys, which were much admired by his adherents but deplored for their flamboyance by his opponents, Yisra’el amassed a tremendous fortune, mainly from donations from his admirers. He became wealthy enough to be registered in the Second Merchants Guild—an official standing that earned him various privileges and stood him in good stead later, when he fled Russia.

Yisra’el had no real Torah education and was not considered a scholar. He did not deliver “words of Torah” in public, as did other tsadikim, but preferred “simple things”—stories, short homilies, improvisations, and pithy remarks. His enemies ridiculed his ignorance, even claiming that he was a near illiterate who could barely sign his own name (a fact documented even in Hasidic sources, and possibly evidence of dyslexia). Nevertheless, he successfully drew thousands of Hasidim from all parts of Eastern Europe and attracted the attention of almost all contemporary tsadikim, who could not remain indifferent to his new ideology and reacted with either admiration or censure. Particularly harsh criticism was voiced by maskilim such as Yosef Perl, who despised him but feared his influence on the masses.

Yisra’el’s life was disrupted in 1836 by what became known as the Ushits case. Accused of agreeing to the murder of two Jewish informers, Yisra’el was exiled from his Hasidic court and interrogated by the tsarist police for almost four years, almost half of which he spent in a Kiev prison. At the beginning of 1840 he was acquitted for lack of proof and allowed to return to Ruzhin, but was forbidden to operate as a tsadik and was put under constant surveillance. 

In January 1842, when his Hasidim were informed that the authorities intended to deport him from the Pale of Settlement, he fled Russia for Galicia, then under Austrian rule. The Russian authorities demanded his extradition, and the local government and maskilim in Galicia resented his presence there, but efforts made on his behalf in Vienna, involving also non-Hasidic well-wishers (such as Baron Salomon Rothschild and Moses Montefiore), averted the danger. He settled in Bucovina, in the small township of Sadagora (near Czernowitz), where he reestablished his court. In 1844, his wife and children were allowed to leave Russia and join him, but the danger of expulsion hung over him for a long time. Only late in 1845 did Emperor Ferdinand grant him official permission to reside in Sadagora.

Surprisingly, Yisra’el was able to reconstitute his Hasidic court in Sadagora, making it one of the most influential in Galicia. Hasidim and other admirers flocked there—including Hasidim from Russia, to which he could no longer return. Many tsadikim from Galicia, Hungary, Poland, and Lithuania made the journey to Sadagora, intrigued by Yisra’el’s reputation and his unique approach to Hasidism; some of them became his adherents.

After the 1848 revolution, Yisra’el strengthened his position in Austria by purchasing the estate of Potok Złoty (near Buczacz). The purchase of the land and the production of liquor by gentiles, who continued to work on the Sabbath, aroused harsh criticism, and Rabbi Shelomoh Kluger of Brody considered the purchase of the estate an “act of the devil” that would further delay the Redemption.

Around this time, Yisra’el became increasingly involved in public affairs. In 1845 he was approached by the leading Polish tsadikim, Yitsḥak of Vurke and Yitsḥak Me’ir of Ger, to help avert an imperial decree requiring Polish Jews to modernize their clothing. Despite his own moderate attitude toward the issue (he himself wore modern clothes and disapproved of growing long sidelocks), he lent his support, trying to influence Moses Montefiore, who was then preparing a visit to the tsar in Russia. Remarkably, Yisra’el gave financial aid to the maskil Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon (Ribal), who was his relative, to help him publish books, while at the same time supporting the Hasidic community in the Land of Israel. Under Yisra’el’s leadership, the Volhynia kolel fund became the largest and wealthiest Hasidic organization in the Holy Land, giving him considerable influence on the life of the Jewish community there, particularly that of the Hasidic communities in Safed and Jerusalem.

Despite the time Yisra’el devoted to his Hasidim and to other people appealing to him, he rejected the popular belief in the tsadik as a kind of witch doctor capable of working miracles. He saw himself as the leading tsadik of his generation, capable, by virtue of his unique spiritual standing and relationship with God, of effecting far-reaching changes in Jewish life. He would be able to do so, he believed, thanks to his unique proximity to God, attained through his “regal” behavior. His path also included certain moderately messianic elements associated with the regal way, and his Hasidim did in fact consider him a direct descendant of King David and so worthy of being the messiah.

Yisra’el and his Hasidim rejected criticism of his materialistic ways. He and his followers denied accusations that his style contradicted the original, ascetic Hasidic ideal, explaining that the outward trappings led to a hidden “inner point.” The regal way was not suitable for everybody. It was the tsadik’s broken spirit that, his followers claimed, enabled him to adhere to the regal way without enjoying its material benefits or succumbing to its physical temptations.

Yisra’el’s 10 children (six sons and four daughters) all married into families of other Hasidic dynasties (such as Zlotshev, Karlin, Chernobil, Vizhnits, and Apt), or into the moneyed Jewish nobility of Berdichev (the families of the bankers Monzohn, Heilperin, and Kablansky).

Yisra’el wrote nothing, but dozens of original letters, sent in his name and with his autograph, have survived; they provide a picture of a strong personality and a leader deeply involved in public affairs. Numerous homilies and teachings attributed to him were compiled in anthologies, such as ‘Irin kadishin (1885) and Keneset Yisra’el (1906). His sayings and stories of his life and actions are scattered throughout Hasidic literature.

Suggested Reading

David Assaf, The Regal Way: The Life and Times of Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin, trans. David Louvish (Stanford, Calif., 2002); Dov Ber Rabinovits, ed., Igrot ha-rav ha-kadosh mi-Ruzhin u-vanav, 3 vols. (Jerusalem, 2003).



Translated from Hebrew by David Louvish