Stories from the Kabbalistic Ethical Writings
By Aryeh Wineman
The Jewish Publication Society, 1988, 174 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - August 17, 2010
Many people are familiar with the charming people-friendly, moral, and spiritual Chasidic tales written after the formation of the modern Chassidic movement in the 1700s. These stories describe mystical and magical events that generally focus on the founder of Chasidism, Israel Baal Shem Tov (around 1698-1760) or subsequent rabbis, how these leaders taught their lessons through stories, parables, and paradoxical statements.
But the modern Chasidic movement had its predecessors. There were, among others, the Essenes. Many scholars believe the name Essene is derived from Chasidim, a word meaning "pious ones." These Jews existed between about 150 BCE and 70 CE. We have their writings in the Qumran Documents, which were found in the mid-1940s near the Dead Sea in Israel. There were also the Chasidim who fought beside the Hasmoneans in ancient Israel against the Syrian-Greeks who sought to limit Judaism, producing the victory celebrated today as Chanukah. There were as well the Chassidim of Germany in the middle ages who wrote books about piety that affected their coreligionists. Many of them left Germany and settled in Israel. Some of their books are still read today. And there were the mystics who fled to the city of Safed in Israel after Spain expelled Jews in 1492. Their impact upon Judaism is vast. Many of the prayers they produced, prayers filled with mysticism, are still in the Jewish prayer book today.
Wineman tells 54 tales about these mystics, these proto Chassidim, whose central figure in Safed was Ari, Rabbi Luria (1534-1572). Ari taught the concept of Tikkun, repairing, both the Tikkun of self and Tikkun Haolam, the repair of the world. It is said of Ari that he was able to miraculously help many people, but, in a sense, he failed, because he did not extend his help to society and the world. But was this his fault?
Like the modern Chassidic movement, the Jews of Safed stressed mysticism. One of the group, Joseph Caro (1488-1575), the author of the Shulchan Arukh, the Code of Jewish Law, for example, claimed to receive visitations from a Maggid, a kind of angelic figure that instructed him. They also, like modern Chassidim, emphasized the polarity between the Torah and Talmud student, the wise man, and the pious, frequently unlearned individual, and they preferred the later. They accentuated the importance of deeds rather than study and said that we do not know the importance of deeds, what appears to be an insignificant deed may be of supreme importance to the survival of the world.
The stories are frequently unnatural and impossible, yet as parables very interesting and thought-provoking, certainly something that should be read.