This Day in Jewish History / Founder of Medieval Hasidism Dies

The school of mystical thought flourished in western Germany, though it's not entirely clear Judah the Pious wrote the books attributed to him.

Karsten Dörre / Wikimedia Commons

February 22, 1217, is the date associated with the death of the Jewish scholar Rabbi Judah ben Samuel of Regensburg, also known as Judah the Pious (Judah Hehasid). Judah is remembered as the founder of Ashkenazi Hasidism, a school of mystical thought that flourished in the Rhineland in the 13th century — not to be confused with the Hasidism that developed in the 18th century around the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples.

Most everything one can say about Judah the Pious is speculative; very few hard facts are known and much of the lore is clearly legend. And because he preached against authors assigning their names to their works — out of fear of being prideful — it’s not even possible to say definitively whether he wrote the books attributed to him.

It is believed that Judah was born in Speyer in 1150, and that he had a brother named Abraham. Their father, Samuel the Pious, was a scion of the Kalonymos family, which is thought to have migrated from Italy to Germany in the 10th century. Samuel is said to have headed a beit midrash, a school of Jewish study, in Speyer.

According to the mythology, Judah only began to study Jewish law when he was 18; before that he was known for his acumen as an archer. Other legends have Judah being a miracle maker who could, for example, make barren women fertile, and a seer who knew the exact year the Jewish people would be redeemed.

Judah is believed to have left Speyer for Regensburg (formerly Ratisbon) in or around 1195, after an “accident,” according to the 15th-century talmudic scholar Moses Minz. Whether that accident was connected to bad blood between Judah and Speyer’s Jewish community, or was a response to persecution of Jews in general — or something else — is not known.

Once in Regensburg, Judah established a yeshiva of his own. From the books that are associated with him, we know a lot about the religious philosophy of German Hasidism, or Pietism; what isn’t clear is how large a community of disciples adhered to its guidelines.

The two books most closely associated with Judah are Sefer Hakavod (The Book of Divine Glory) and Sefer Hasidim (The Book of Piety). According to the Hasidim, the divine glory is the part of God’s realm that can be experienced by human beings.

The other part of God, called “the Creator,” is said to be hidden. To a certain extent, Judah’s school of thought places a greater emphasis on fathoming the nature of the divine than studying halakha, Jewish religious law.

Until recently, Sefer Hakavod was believed to be extant only in quotations from it in the works of near contemporaries of Judah’s. But Israeli scholar Joseph Dan says a manuscript at Oxford’s Bodleian Library is almost certainly the full text of Sefer Hasidim. (So strict was Judah about not signing his writing that, says Dan, if one ever found an original manuscript attributed to him by name, “that would itself be proof that is not authentic.”)

Meanwhile, it appears Sefer Hasidim collects material written not only by Judah, but also from his father, Samuel, and from Judah’s principal disciple, Eleazar Rokeah of Worms. It serves as a guide on the beliefs and customs of the ascetic Hasidic community.

Several other works, in particular books of liturgy, have been attributed to Judah the Hasid, but there is no agreement on whether he was actually the author.

Judah had a son, Moses Zaltman, who wrote a Bible commentary, but his greatest student was Eleazar of Worms (circa 1176-1238). He was important not only for preserving much of the body of thought of his teacher, but also for his own works of mysticism, ethics and liturgy.