The First Chassidim

The Gemara speaks of a chassidic movement:

ת”ר: חסידים הראשונים היו מצניעין קוצותיהן וזכוכיותיהן בתוך שדותיהן ומעמיקין להן ג’ טפחים, כדי שלא תעלם המחרישה. רב ששת שדי להו בנורא, רבא שדי להו בדגלת. אמר רב יהודה האי מאן דבעי למהוי חסידא ליקיים מילי דנזיקין רבינא אמר מילי דאבות ואמרי לה מילי דברכות:

Our sages repeated [in a beraisa]: The early Chassidim would hide their thorns and broken pieces of glass in the middle of their fields 3 tefachim [roughly one foot] deep, so that it would not [even] stop the plowing. Rav Sheishes would put them to the fire, Ravan would place them in the Tigres [the large river alongside which his home city of Pumbedisa was built]. Rav Yehudah said: The person who wants to be a chassid [he should take care] to follow the words of [the tractates on] damages. Ravina said: The words of [Pirqei] Avos. Others say in response [that Ravina said]: the words of [the tractate] Berakhos [blessings].

- Bava Qama 30a

The Chassidic movement of the second Temple period are noted for their avoidance of damage to others, which was how Rabbi Yehudah defines chassidus in general. The first take on Ravina’s approach is more holistic, an attention to first principles in general — as discussed in Avot. Looking for the overlap between these concepts, we have Avos 2:12:

רבי יוסי אומר: יהי ממון חברך חביב עליך כשלך; התקן עצמך ללמוד תורה, שאינה ירושה לך; וכל מעשיך יהיו לשם שמיים.

Rabbi Yosi would say:

  • Your friend’s money should be as dear to you as your own;
  • prepare yourself to learn Torah, for it is not inherited to you; and
  • all your actions should be for the sake of [the One in] heaven.

The Chassidim haRishonim made others’ money as dear to them as their own.

The second version of Ravina’s approach, that a chassid is someone who is cautious in blessings, most closely resembles a more famous description of the Chassidim haRishonim, also focusing on prayer:

אין עומדין להתפלל אלא מתוך כובד ראש חסידים הראשונים היו שוהין שעה אחת ומתפללין כדי שיכוונו לבם לאביהם שבשמים אפי’ המלך שואל בשלומו לא ישיבנו ואפי’ נחש כרוך על עקבו לא יפסיק:

We do not stand to pray unless from a position of a respectful/serious mind. The early Chassidim would wait one hour and pray so that they could aim their hearts to [have intent for] their Father who is in heaven. Even if a king would ask for his peace [ie: greet them], he would not answer and even if a snake would be wound on his ankle, he would not stop.

- Mishnah Berakhos 5:1

חסידים הראשונים היו שוהין שעה אחת: מנא הני מילי? א”ר יהושע ב”ל: אמר קרא (תהילים פד) “אשרי יושבי ביתך.” ואמר ר’ יהושע ב”ל” המתפלל צריך לשהות שעה אחת אחר תפלתו, שנא’ (תהילים קמ) “אך צדיקים יודו לשמך ישבו ישרים את פניך.”
תניא נמי הכי: המתפלל צריך שישהא שעה אחת קודם תפלתו ושעה אחת אחר תפלתו. קודם תפלתו מנין? שנא’ “אשרי יושבי ביתך.” לאחר תפלתו מנין? דכתיב “אך צדיקים יודו לשמך ישבו ישרים את פניך.”
תנו רבנן: חסידים הראשונים היו שוהין שעה אחת ומתפללין שעה אחת וחוזרין ושוהין שעה אחת. וכי מאחר ששוהין תשע שעות ביום בתפלה, תורתן היאך משתמרת, ומלאכתן היאך נעשית? אלא מתוך שחסידים הם תורתם משתמרת ומלאכתן מתברכת.

“The early Chassidim would wait one hour”: From where are these ideas? R’ Yehoshua ben Levi said: the stripture says “Enriched are those who dwell in Your house.” (Tehillim 84:5) And R’ Yehoshua ben Levi said: Someone who prays must wait one hour after his prayer, as it says, “But the righteous give thanks to Your name, the idealists dwell with Your ‘Face’.” (Tehillim 140:14) There is also a beraisa like this: Someone who prays must wait one hour before his prayer, and one hour after his prayer. Before his prayer — from where? For it says “Enrich are those who dwell in Your house.” After his prayer — from where? For it says, “But the righteous give thanks to Your name, the idealists dwell with Your ‘Face’.” Our rabbis repeated [in a bereisa]: The early Chassidim would wait one hour, and pray for one hour, and then return and wait for one hour. But once they rest for nine hours per day in prayer, their Torah, how was it preserved, and their work, how was it done? Only, since they were chassidim [pious], their Torah was guarded and their work blessed.

- Berakhos 30b

The Chassidim haRishonim thus focused on doing everything after mental preparation and for the sake of heaven, the other two legs of Rabbi Yosi’s aphorism, and thus even though they had less time to spend on their Torah and other activities themselves, they were blessed with success.

Who were these people historically?

They are mentioned in seifer haMakkabiim I, which was written in the 1st century BCE or so in Hebrew, during the tail of Hasmonian Reign. (The Hebrew was since lost, and all we have are Christian translations via Greek.) I restored “Assideans” and “pious” to their Hebrew original.

2:39 And Mathathias and his friends heard of it, and they mourned for them exceedingly. 40 And every man said to his neighbour: If we shall all do as our brethren have done, and not fight against the heathens for our lives, and our justifications: they will now quickly root us out of the earth. 41 And they determined in that day, saying: Whosoever shall come up against us to fight on the sabbath day, we will fight against him: and we will not all die, as our brethren that were slain in the secret places. 42 Then was assembled to them the congregation of the [Chassidim], the stoutest of Israel, every one that had a good will for the law. 43 And all they that fled from the evils, joined themselves to them, and were a support to them.

7:12 Then there assembled to Alcimus [Elyaqum, in Hebrew] and Bacchides a company of the scribes to require things that are just: 13 And first the [Chassidim] that were among the children of Israel, and they sought peace of them. 14 For they said: One that is a priest of the seed of Aaron is come, he will not deceive us. 15 And he spoke to them peaceably: and he swore to them, saying: We will do you no harm nor your friends. 16 And they believed him. And he took threescore of them, and slew them in one day, according to the word that is written: 17 “The flesh of Thy [Chassidim], and the blood of them they have shed round about Jerusalem, and there was none to bury them.”

Despite all our stereotypes about people who spend all day in meditation and prayer, the Chassidim are noted not only for being “a good will for the law” but they also were “the stoutest of Israel” (2:42). As the beraisa in Berakhos says, their work was blessed.

In the end, sixty of the leaders of the Chassidim are killed through treachery by Elyaqum, the Saleucid appointed high priest, and the general Bacchides. The Yevanim offered a peace treaty, and murder them.

Yosi ben Yoezer of Tzereidah[1] , one of the first pair of zugot was quite possibly killed as part of the Saleucid destruction of the Chassidim haRishonim. He lived during the period of the Maccabean Wars. And in the mishnah (Chagiga 2:7) describes him as “chassid shebikehunah — chassid of the priesthood”.  According to Bereishis Rabba 65:22, Yosi ben Yoezer was taunted by his nephew Alcimus on the way to his crucifixion:

ויקום איש צרורות היה בן אחותו של ר’ יוסי בן יועזר איש צרידה והוה רכיב סוסיא בשבתא אזל קומי שריתא למצטבלא, א”ל חמי סוסי דארכבי מרי וחמי סוסך דארכבך מרך, א”ל אם כך למכעיסיו ק”ו לעושי רצונו, א”ל עשה אדם רצונו יותר ממך, אמר לו ואם כך לעושי רצונו קל וחומר למכעיסיו, נכנס בו הדבר כארס של עכנא הלך וקיים בעצמו ארבע מיתות בית דין סקילה שריפה הרג וחנק, מה עשה הביא קורה נעצה בארץ וקשר בה נימא וערך העצים והקיפן גדר של אבנים ועשה מדורה לפניה ונעץ את החרב באמצע והצית האור תחת העצים מתחת האבנים ונתלה בקורה ונחנק קדמתו האש נפסקה הנימה נפל לאש קדמתו חרב ונפל עליו גדר ונשרף, נתנמנם יוסי בן יועזר איש צרידה וראה מטתו פרחה באויר אמר בשעה קלה קדמני זה לגן עדן.

Yaqum [Elyaqum/Elcimus, but with reference to G-d's name removed] of Tzeroros [of the enemy?] was the son of the sister of Yosi ben Yoezer of Tzereidah. [Once] he was riding a horse on Shabbos, when he came upon his uncle who was being carried on a horse on his way to the cross. [Yaqum] said to him, “Look at the horse that my master rides me upon and look at the horse that your Master rides you upon!” [Yosi] said to him, “If this is the lot of those who anger Him, how much more the reward for those who do His Will?” [Yakum] said to him, “Has anyone done His Will more than you?” [Yosi] said to him, “If this how [Hashem] acts towards those who do His will, how much more with those who anger Him!” The impact of this reply entered into his heart like a serpent’s venom. He went and subjected himself to the four methods [of execution]… Yosi fell asleep and saw Yaqum’s bed flying in the air. He said, “In a brief moment he has precede me into the Garden of Eden.”

Yosi ben Yoezer’s death, however, had to be later than the sixty killed in seifer haMakkabiim ch. 7, before the sacking of Yerushalayim, as Alcimus outlives that incident. Here is the description of Elyaqum’s death two chapters later, after the attack:

9:54 Now in the year one hundred and fifty-three, the second month, Alcimus commanded the walls of the inner court of the sanctuary to be thrown down, and the works of the prophets to be destroyed: and he began to be destroyed: and he began to destroy. 55 At that time Alcimus was struck: and his works were hindered, and his mouth was stopped, and he was taken with a palsy, so that he could no more speak a word, nor give order concerning his house. 56 And Alcimus died at that time in great torment. 57 And Bacchides saw that Alcimus was dead: and he returned to the king, and the land was quiet for two years.

Still, we see from chapter 2 that the Chassidim haRishonim were considered among the more effective soldiers among the Jews, and thus it is unsurprising that the Hellenists waged a campaign against them. Also, the Chassidic ideal stood in stark and perhaps irritating contrast to the organized military — these were people who spent their days in prayer, in character refinement, and were meticulous in avoiding damage to others. For them to succeed at their endeavors — including military campaigns, would goad the professional soldier.

Yosi ben Yo’ezer was contemporary to Tzadoq, founder of the Sadducees. Tzadoq was a student of Antignos ish Sokho, and Yosi ben Yoezer was his successor as head of the Sanhedrin. Meaning that if all of the above is correct, the rise of the Sadducees was around the same time as the heyday the Chassidim haRishonim.One embracing Hellenistic thought alongside scriptural law, the other pursuing purity of thought on Jewish terms.

To put it another way….

אנטיגנוס איש סוכו קיבל משמעון הצדיק.  הוא היה אומר, אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב, על מנת לקבל פרס, אלא הוו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב, על מנת שלא לקבל פרס; ויהי מורא שמיים עליכם.

Antignos of Sokho received [the tradition] from Shim’on haTzadiq. He would say: do not be like the servants who serve the master in order to get reward, but be like servants who serve the master in order not to get reward — and let the fear of [the One in] heaven be upon you.

- Avos 1:2

Two of his students, Boethius and Tzadoq read this to mean there was no afterlife and no reward, and founded heterodox movements on that basis (Avos deRabbi Nasan ch. 5). To his successor, Yosi ben Yoezer, and Yosi ben Yoezer’s peers among the Chassidim haRishonim, it was a call to work for purity in yir’as Shamayim.


[1] Not to be confused with Rabbi Yosi ben Chalafta, quoted earlier.  Rabbi Yosi, a student of Rabbi Aqiva was a tanna who lived centuries later, in the 2nd century CE. (Return to main text.)

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