3 Heshvan 5778
23 October 2017
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London School of Jewish Studies

Sefer Hasidim by Rabbi Yehuda HeHasid

By Erla Zimmels

Rabbi Yehudah ben Shmu’el of Regensburg (Germany), popularly known as Rabbi Yehudah HeHasid, was born in Speyer (ca 1150) about 50 years after the Jews of that town were massacred in the first Crusade (1096) and three years after thousands of Jews were killed during the second Crusade in 1147. His father Rabbi Shmuel ben Kalonymous headed a Yeshivah in Speyer. He died when Yehudah was still a young boy.

Rabbi Yehudah Hehasid was one of the Rishonim, the early Talmudic sages, who decided Halachah from the 10th till the 15th century. As a Kabbalist and Tosafist Rabbi Yehudah received his knowledge from his father. He also studied under Rabbi Yizhak of Dampierre (1120-1200) a prominent Tosafist. Rabbi Yehudah was one of the most authoritative and influential Hasidei Ashkenaz, the pious men of Germany, a movement that emphasizes strong and simple faith.

Rabbi Yehudah moved from Speyer to Regensburg where he was admired by Jews and gentiles alike for his saintly personality and his great wisdom. It was in Regensburg that he wrote his Sefer Hasidim (first printed in Bologna in 1538). It is generally accepted that he is the author of this book although some ascribe the book to his father Rabbi Shmuel.

He had many disciples, the most famous amongst them were: Rabbi Elazar of Worms, author of the Roke’ah, a famous ethical and halachic work; Rabbi Yizhak of Vienna, author of Or Zaru’a and Rabbi Moshe of Coucy, author of Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (Sma”g).

Rabbi Yehudah wrote several other kabbalistic  and Halachic works: Sefer Gematriot ( a book on astrology) , Ta’amei Hamizvot,  Sefer Hakavod (book of Glory), Sefer Hahochmah  on the laws of writing Torah Scrolls and Tefillin and  a commentary on Sefer Yezirah, which  has  been attributed to Rabbi Yehudah. His Ethical Will has been published many times since the first publication in 1599 in Venice by his famous disciple Rabbi Elazar Roke’ah. The well-known liturgical poem Anim Zemirot (also known as Shir Hakavod), which we recite on Shabbat and Yom Tov, is attributed to Rabbi Yehudah HeHasid.

However most famous of all his writings is Sefer Hasidim. In the opening chapter he states that it is his aim that his book stimulates asefer chasidimll those who fear G’d with sincerity so that they may see, know and understand what they should do and what they should avoid. He advocates strict standards of honesty, fairness and tolerance and offers guidance on a wide variety of subjects. He applies a new approach to teaching ethics. He uses case histories to get his point across. Scattered throughout the sections of the book are more than 200 examples of actual life experiences to illustrate his moral lessons. This has made his Sefer Hasidim a favourite with scholars and laymen alike. Thus it comes as no surprise that since its first printing, in 1538 in Bologna, that Sefer Hasidim has been published many times in different countries. The LSJS library has several editions of which the oldest edition is printed in Frankfurt a Maine in 1713.

The story goes that in Regensburg whenever a funeral procession had to pass through the gate in the city wall on its way to the cemetery a large church bell was sounded. This also happened for Jewish funerals , which caused the Jews of Regensburg much chagrin. Feeling his end approaching Rabbi Yehudah said: If I indeed merit to enter the World to Come, the city gate will collapse after my death. When the gate keeper saw Rabbi Yehudah’s funeral procession approach, he hurried to sound the church bell. Only this time the gate and the bell came crashing down on him. The gentiles regarded this as a miracle and declared: now we see that Rabbi Yehudah Hehasid was a holy man in life and in death!

On the 22nd of February exactly 800 years ago, in 1217, Rabbi Yehudah ben Shmu’el Hehasid returned his holy soul to his Creator.