Zaddik

A Hasidic spiritual leader believed to maintain a channel to God.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

The Zaddik is the charismatic leader in Hasidism, also known as the Rebbe in order to distinguish him from the Rabbi in the conventional sense. This spelling of the word in English is now the usual form but a more correct transliteration would be tzaddik, meaning "righteous man." This type of spiritual guide, renowned not for his learning but for his saintliness and ability as a religious mentor, is not entirely unknown in traditional Judaism. The model for the Zaddik was found in Hasidism in the miracle-working prophets Elisha and Elijah, in some of the holy men of prayer in Talmudic times, and in various saintly figures in the Middle Ages. But only in Hasidism, from the earliest days of the movement, did the figure of the Zaddik come to occupy a supreme role, with total submission to him being demanded of his followers. Later in the history of Hasidism, the Zaddik's son was believed to have acquired something of his charisma, based on the idea that the Zaddik's holy thoughts when he made love to his wife could succeed in bringing down an elevated soul into the child conceived at the time, so that the notion of dynasties of Zaddikim developed, each with its own loyal followers.

Spiritual Power

In the writings of Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye and in other early Hasidic works the Zaddik is the "channel" or "conduit" through which the divine grace flows to bring blessings to his followers in particular but also to others. The prayers of the Zaddik can produce results that the prayers of his followers could never have produced unaided. Even the food which the Zaddik has tasted is charged with spiritual power, hence the Hasidic practice of snatching pieces of the food over which the Zaddik had recited grace before meals. There even developed a system of relics in which such things as the tefillin of the Zaddik or even his pipe and the clothes he had worn were capable of bringing blessings into the home of the persons who had purchased them.

The Mitnagdim seized on the doctrine of the Zaddik to attack Hasidism as a kind of idolatry, although it is only fair to note that, while the Zaddik is venerated, he is never an object of worship and the more refined Hasidim turn to the Zaddik for spiritual guidance rather than for him to work miracles on their behalf. Some of the Hasidic Zaddikim were especially known for the miracles they were believed to be able to perform. Others were seen more as spiritual mentors than as miracle-workers. But in every branch of the movement the two roles of the Zaddik are accepted as beyond question. A false picture is presented when the occult aspects of Zaddikism are played down in such modem works as Buber's Tales of the Hasidim.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.