As the Catholic Church canonizes a pair of new saints today, it is a good time to consider the Jewish equivalent of saints – the hasidim, as they were called. In contrast to Christian beliefs, no miracles are attributed to them or to their remains. But they too were held in high esteem and their lives were seen as exemplary and worthy of imitation.
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Jews do not ask hasidim to intercede on their behalf in prayer; nor do hasidim acquire the level of veneration that Christian saints do. Their relics do not become objects of veneration.
This said, in recent decades, an industry has arisen of praying at the graves of great rabbis, some of whom were supposedly hasidim. People who practice this form of pilgrimage believe that by doing so, their prayers receive a more positive consideration.
We first meet them in the rabbinic writings, the Mishnah and Talmud, where a class of pious individuals are referred to as hasid. Though there is some discrepancy in the sources regarding exactly what makes a man a hasid, generally speaking he is one who follows Jewish law more rigorously than is required.
Meditating before prayer
The Rabbinic literature abounds with descriptions of hasidim. For example, we learn in the Mishnah that a hasid meditates for an hour before he begins to pray, so his mind will be in the right place during the prayer itself. We are also told that a hasid will not stop praying even if approached by a king, or if a snake wraps itself around his leg (Brachot 5:1).
Elsewhere (Keritot 6:3), the Mishnah tells us that hasidim give sin offerings at the Temple even when they haven't sinned. A hasid buries broken glass and thorns three handbreadths deep so no one will injure himself on them (Bava Kamma 30:1). For similar considerations, a hasid burns his fingernail cuttings, and doesn’t take oaths, even when he is certain he is telling the truth.
Unlike, the saints of the Church that are canonized by the Holy See, Judaism never had a central authority that would designate people as hasid. One would be designated a hasid by his fellow rabbis, based on his exemplary behavior.
The first hasid thus designated by name was Hillel the Elder (c. 110 B.C.E.-7 C.E.), head of the famous House of Hillel. His disciple Shmuel Hakatan was also considered a hasid. Possibly the most famous hasid of all is Honi Hama’agel, known for the efficacy of his prayers for rain. A late example of a hasid is Mar Zutra, who headed the Pumbedita Yeshiva in Babylon during the 4th century.
But the Talmud warns us that there can also be too much saintliness. Living near a hasid that is an idiot is dangerous, it says. What is an idiot hasid? It gives an example: a hasid who will not save a drowning woman because it is not permitted to look at women.
After the Talmud was redacted, around 500 C.E., rabbis were no longer designated hasidim. Centuries passed – and then, in 13th century Germany, a new school of Jewish thought building on the rabbinic literature on the hasidim began to take shape.
Their doctrine appeared in Judah ben Samuel of Regensburg’s Sefer Hasidim, which called for its followers, who called themselves Hasidim, to lead exemplary lives. Among the precepts he espoused were that one should forgive all those asking for forgiveness, greet all who one meets on the street, and follow the laws of Judaism - not for fear of punishment but for the pure love of God.
In the 18th century a new branch of Judaism took form in Eastern Europe. Led by the Baal Shem Tov, this group called itself Hasidim. It opposed the overly legalistic form of rabbinic Judaism and stressed instead embracing God’s omnipresence and doing good deeds. Nowadays, when one speaks of a Hasid, one isn't referring to Judaism's “saints” of old, but rather of adherents to this branch of Judaism.