A crowd of Hasidic men greeting the Spinker rebbe, Vişeu…

Hasidism is a collective term that has been used to describe the beliefs of a great many groups over the centuries. The differences between each group center on their particular ideologies. However, Since the nineteenth century, however, all Hasidic groups have been identified by their dynasties of inherited authority and by the fact that each group has its own charismatic leader. Each Hasidic group is further distinguished by its continuing identification with the town or village where its dynasty first put down stakes.

Hasidism’s basic tenets are associated with the teachings of the eighteenth-century figure Yisra’el ben Eli`ezer, known as the Ba’al Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name, abbreviated to Besht). The Besht—seen as a healer, miracle worker, and mystic — is accepted as the founder of the modern Hasidic movement. He emphasized the power of each individual’s soul and, especially, serving God with joy (the Hasidim are known for almost raucous celebrations during which their singing and dancing spills out into the streets). The Besht’s disciples included community rabbis and Torah scholars such as Ya’akov Yosef of Polnoye, one of Hasidism’s most colorful leaders.

To underscore his beliefs—and, some would say, to cleanse himself spiritually—Yosef adopted drastic fasting methods and returned all contributions he collected during his employment as a rabbi, preferring to live in poverty. His major work, Toldot Ya`akov Yosef, published in 1780, rekindled the acrimonious debates between Hasidim and the Misnagdim, a group of rabbis who opposed the tenets of Hasidim.

Read more about Hasidism.

Scholars & Scholarship

This timeline chronicles the course of traditional—chiefly rabbinic—religious thought and scholarship in Eastern Europe from the thirteenth to the twentieth century.

TIMELINE: Scholars & Scholarship

Timeline: Traditional Scholars and Scholarship

The Gaon of Vilna

The shulhoyf (synagogue courtyard) of the Great Synagogu…

Eliyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna, was an eighteenth-century Torah scholar, kabbalist, and community leader. Ga’on is an honorific title bestowed on outstanding scholars deemed to have authority based on their erudition. Also known by the acronym Gra, the Gaon was a spiritual giant and central cultural figure of Jewry in Lithuania.

Read more about the Gaon of Vilna.