From ‘Judaism’, I. Epstein, 1974

Safed Mysticism

Isaac Luria [1514-72], called the ‘Ari’ [the Lion], and the chief figure in the Safed school of mysticism, said that after the ‘breaking of the vessels’ — a kind of cosmic Fall – good and evil became mixed up in everybody; hence, there is no evil that does not contain an element of good, nor is there a good entirely free from evil.

This malaise of cosmic fragmentation and human confusion will not last, but will come to an end with the advent of the Messiah who will be sent by God to restore ‘the original harmony’, both to the souls of men and to the whole cosmos.

Concern for the redemption of self must be considered as only part of the greater concern for the redemption of the whole of the creation. Safed mystics, whilst seeking to attain self-perfection and to promote the salvation of their own individual souls, never lost sight of the great universal tasks set before them in relation to all humanity and all the creation; indeed, they saw individual progress in spirituality — brought on by asceticism, study, prayer, devotional practices [yogas] – as generating the greater spiritual power that would enable them to speed on the Messiah’s coming. The Messianic universal redemption was the goal of the Safed mystics.

Faith in the final redemption to come, coupled with their conviction that their contribution to it was effective, filled them with joy.

The delight of God’s splendor will heal the world; it will grow strong and rejoice everlastingly.

For the Safed mystics, the universe is a closely knit system in which all parts are interdependent upon each other. Thus, even a thought, and certainly a word, and most certainly a deed, affects the fabric in which all beings and things are joined together. Indeed, for the Hasids, human deeds of love and redemption affect the spiritual worlds, as well as the material plane of existence. Human beings have the power to kindle the sparks of divine flame hidden in everything.


Hasidism started in the middle of the 1700s, in the Ukraine, and spread to other parts of Eastern Europe, like Poland. Some see Hasidism – the name comes from the Hebrew term hasidut, meaning ‘allegiance’ – as a revolutionary break from the Rabbinical Judaism dominant since before the time of Christ. It built on Safed Mysticism and the Kabbala [which had such an impact on Christian mysticism from the Reformation onwards].

‘God requires the heart’ is the main Biblical teaching stressed by Hasidism. The founder was the Baal Shem Tov [1700-60], a legendary figure. Hasidism addressed the despair and degeneracy into which the ordinary Jewish people had sunk, by not putting the hope in redemption only in the future, but by stressing the redemptive power of God in the present, and in everyday life. Every moment is a moment of redemption. There is going on here and how a process of redemption, and no one needs any qualifications to participate in it. All you need is a heart willing to cleave to God and enter communion with him. Let each person follow these divine volitions of the heart and they will help bring about redemption, and via this, heal their own soul and their own body. Communion with God is prayer, but prayer recited in ecstatic fervour in which the person forgets self and concentrates all energies on God. Strong bodily movements, chanting, dancing, are used in ecstatic prayer. Hasidism rejected Luria’s asceticism= eat, drink, be merry, live joyfully. Hasidism feared sadness – though some of its most famous leaders struggled in melancholy – as a sign of having lost contact with the light of God that penetrates everywhere and through everything. There are sparks of God everywhere and in everything. Physical matter itself is therefore a thing of great worth and value, to be enjoyed. The pleasures of life are manifestations of the divine, and to enjoy them as such requires us to reconnect them to God, to release the hidden sparks to ascend.. Serve God by earthly things, including all kinds of work, not just by spiritual activities like prayer and study of the Bible. TAKE JOY IN LIFE!

Evil, in Hasidic teaching, is relative, not absolute. It is a lower grade of the good, and in fact, without the Divine Energy that is Light and Fire, evil could not even exist. God gives evil its vitality, in the ultimate, because all things, beings, processes, lean on God and draw from God. Thus, there is no harshness toward human sin. On the contrary, there are always extenuating reasons for man’s weakness in falling into sin. The sinner should never despair of transgression. This emphasis in Hassidism was in order to stress the nearness of God and God’s redemptive activity as an ongoing power in the affairs of humans; and it was also to uplift the spirit of the people, living in conditions of demoralisation, raise their self-esteem, and inspire them in struggling for virtue, as well as encouraging them to act redemptively. Respect for God – the meaning of the Biblical term ‘fear’ – had to be conjoined with love of God, trust in God, joy in God. Trust in God’s goodness– and do not fear God as the Satanic Accuser of mankind, but mankind’s Redeemer. “My redeemer liveth.” Surrender to God’s will– and do not expect to be let down, betrayed, fooled. Remain unshaken, firm, constant, amidst all the griefs and tragedies of life.

The message of Hasidism was as much social-ethical as ‘religious.’ Great stress is placed on the love of mankind. All human beings, irrespective of their merits and qualities, must be loved. Even sinners and evil-doers must be loved, for they too have in them sparks of divinity; so must a personal enemy be loved, like the dearest friend. Love can only fulfill itself through humility, for “only the truly humble person in heart will not feel it a hardship to love one of the wicked.” Other virtues flow from humble love– usefulness, charity in judgement, peaceableness, and especially truthfulness in word and deed, integrity, honesty, and sincerity in all dealings with fellow human beings.

The spiritual master was called ‘zaddik’, meaning ‘the tested’, the person fully ‘checked out’ by existence. The zaddik’s main task was to redeem evil. Unlike the ‘rabbi’ distinguished by huge reading, vast knowledge, immense intellectual attainments, the zaddik had charismatic gifts and supernatural power. They did strange and startling things, like the heyoka or sacred clown, or holy fool. The zaddik took on himself the whole weight of the people’s sorrows and anxieties; he would pray for them, strengthen them, fill them with new faith, courage, hope. Some of the prayers of the zaddiks manifest a daring intimacy with God. They told many teaching stories; this rich heritage of spiritual tales has been collected and commented upon by Martin Buber [1947, 1948], and has spread round the world [like the Zen stories, Sufi stories, Desert Stories, Indigenous stories, and so on]. Buber’s books on Hassidism [1948; 1965] are almost as well known.

Each zaddik makes a specialty of a particular quality, or activity. These include — fervent devotions; ecstatic visions; psychic powers; heavenly purity; miraculous works; intense humility; resolute trust in God; boundless charity; self-effacing love; compassion for sinners. Pinchas of Koritz [d. 1792] declared that we should love the evil-doer more in order to compensate for the lack of the power of love he himself has caused in his place in the world.

In worship this community expresses itself in fellow-feeling of common helpfulness and concern. The Hasids are like one family, ever ready to assist each other in their need, and sharing each other’s misery as well as joy.

“The heart is the life of the world” [Nachman of Bratzslav, 1772-1811; see his story about the mountain, the fountain, and the world’s heart.]

Some Hasids addressed God as ‘Tatenyu’– Darling Father.

The Jews were the Messianic people, and so on them was laid the task of working for social justice, human cooperation, universal brotherhood– this vision was shared by Jewish Mystics and Hasids alike.