The ecstatic prayer of the early Hasidim reflects the rediscovery of God's presence in the world.
In the early period of Hasidism-- the movement of religious revival that brought new spirit to the lives of Jews in Poland and the Ukraine toward in the 18th century--prayer played a primary role. These observations on Hasidic prayer are excerpted with permission from the editors' introduction to Your Word is Fire: The Hasidic Masters on Contemplative Prayer (Jewish Lights; originally published by the Paulist Press, 1977).
In early Hasidism, worship, particularly in the form of contemplative prayer, came to be clearly identified as the central focus of the Jew's religious life. Both the ecstatic outpourings of ordinary people and the highly sophisticated treatments of devotional psychology in the works of the Hasidic masters bear witness to this new and unique emphasis upon the inner life of prayer.
Hasidism views all of Jewish life as "the way of service." Man's only task in life is the service of God; prayer, study, and all of the commandments are seen instrumentally: They are the means by which the Jew may fulfill his sacred task. Hasidic authors tirelessly warn their readers against the dangers of robot-like performance of the commandments. Each ritual act must have its way lighted by the glow of inner devotion, else it "has no wings" and cannot ascend to God. Even acts of human kindness, the "Deeds of Love" of which the rabbis had spoken, are here seen in devotional terms: There is no higher sacred act than that of helping another to discover the presence of God within his soul.
The core of "service" as seen in Hasidism is the fulfillment of that desire, deeply implanted within each human soul, to return to its original state of oneness with God. Prayer, by its very nature pointing to the intimate relationship between God and soul, becomes the focal point of Hasidic religiosity. The Ba'al Shem Tov (1700-1760), the first great master of the movement, was told by heaven that all his spiritual attainments derives not from any claim to scholarship (as was commonly to be expected in non-Hasidic circles of the time), but rather from the great devotion with which he prayed.
The ecstatic quality of prayer-life in early Hasidism has been described in many ways. The Ba'al Shem Tov was said to tremble so greatly in his prayer that bits of grain in a nearby barrel were seen to join him in his trembling. A disciple who touched the master's prayer-garment was so seized with tremors that he had to pray for release. One of the followers was so overcome by ecstasy while preparing for prayer in the ritual bath that he ran from the bathhouse to the adjoining synagogue and danced on the tables without realizing that he as not fully dressed.
Strange and seemingly inhuman noises, violent movements of the body, even the turning of cartwheels before the Torah, all characterized the devotional climate of some early Hasidic groups. The masters themselves sometimes felt called upon to restore the values of inwardness and silence to a world where unbridled mystical ecstasy was coming to be the order of the day.