Following on the heels of Sabbatianism with its Messianic fervor came a revitalization movement of Hasidism. Like Sabbatianism, 18th century Hasidism developed religious following grouped around a central figure. The central figure of Sabbatianism, Sabbatai Zevi, was believed to be the Messiah. The central figure of Hasidism, beginning with the Besht followed by a succession of other charismatic figures, appears to be a Messianic figure as well. The Zaddik, however, is more aptly a saint or highly developed religious personage rather than a Messiah.
Hasidism attempted to present elements of Kabbalism which offered popular appeal while at the same time trying to reject the taint of Messianism that had become attached to Kabbalah via Sabbatianism (Scholem 329). The Zaddik was not an original element of Hasidism. At the outset a group of people were drawn to ideas of a charismatic individual. At first this individual was the Besht, but he was succeeded by other individuals. This charismatic individual who drew a following later became known as the Zaddik. Zaddikism developed after Hasidism had become a religious organization with a strong following (Scholem 337).
The Zaddik was an individual believed to have superhuman religious abilities (Dan 22). It was this aura which the Zaddik radiated that proved so attractive to followers of the Hasidic community. The personality of the Zaddik became important within the context of religious value. As a religiously superhuman individual, the Zaddik was perceived as the living incarnation of the Torah and his life rather than his knowledge was viewed as having particular religious value (Scholem 344). In any Hasidic community, the Zaddik became its center (Scholem 347) to the extent that one could not be an authentic Hasid unless attached to a Zaddik (Dan 30).
This central role of the Zaddik went to the core of what it meant to be a Hasidic Jew. The Hasid could approach a relationship with God only by mediation of the Zaddik (Dan 31). The Zaddik was thought to exist in a dynamic relationship between imperfect communion in smallness and perfect communion in greatness (Dan 25). He could move between the higher and lower worlds, the world of God and the world of humans, thereby displaying his ability to serve as the intermediary between the two worlds. In this central role, members of the Hasidic community became dependent on the Zaddik's spiritual power (Dan 29) to gain access to relationship with God.
The Zaddik was not only expected to mediate between the Hasidic community and God, but also to transform the sins of the members of his community. It was the duty of the Zaddik to confront evil, overcome it, and lift it to a higher form (Dan 22). The sins of the community were transferred to the Zaddik, whether the sin was in thought or deed. These sins became sinful thought within the Zaddik who then took it upon himself to transform the thought to original good. If the Hasid repented for his sin, due to the Zaddik's transformation of the sin to good, the Hasid's repentence was accepted (Dan 29).
Many different courts and communities developed around the central figure of the Zaddik (Dan 29). Each court and community had its own Zaddik. Each Hasidic group developed different conceptions of the characteristics a Zaddik should have (Scholem 344). The work of the Zaddik was then defined by the needs of his own community as well as by his own personal situation within the community (Dan 27). In these communities the Zaddikim were provided all material needs by their followers (Dan 28).
It is obvious that the Zaddikim were believed to be religiously superior to the ordinary Hasidim. Scholem tends to use the term "saint" to describe the Zaddik. The Zaddik as a saint is a more probable description than the Zaddik as a Messianic figure. The Zaddik does fulfill divine needs for followers. He does transform evil into good. Yet the attraction the Zaddik has on his followers seems to be more from his charismatic personality. Another reason to contend the Zaddik was more a saint than a Messiah was the plurality of the Zaddikim. Each Zaddik was related to his own community, functioning in connection to the particular needs and conceptions of that community. Then when a Zaddik's time in this world was up, he died like all men to be replaced by a successor. The Zaddik may serve some functions similar to the Messiah, however, the Zaddikim should not be confused for the Messiah. The Zaddikim had supreme spiritual abilities, but they were men best described as saints.
Return to top