At the cradle of Galician Hasidism

Leżajsk, at the tomb of Rabbi Elimelech. Photo by Adam Krzykwa


This post was written for the monthly news of the Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association.
The pious maysele says that when Rabbi Elimelech of Leżajsk, the greatest tsaddik of his age, was asked by his Hasidic followers whether the Messiah to come would be Hasidic or mitnaged, the opponent of Hasidism, the Rabbi, after a brief hesitation, said that he would be an opponent. But Rabbi, how can the Eternal One afford this? asked the startled believers. Well,  said the Rabbi, if he were a Hasid, the opponents would not believe in him. But the faith of the Hasids is so infinitely large, that they will believe in him anyway, whoever he may be.

Leżajsk, at the tomb of Rabbi Elimelech. Photo by Adam Krzykwa

The Hasidim have long since disappeared from Poland. But the memory of their infinitely large faith is still kept alive in two places, by two small neighboring towns, which we will visit as the cradle of Galician Hasidism during our tour next year: Leżajsk and Łańcut.

Leżajsk, at the tomb of Rabbi Elimelech. Photo by Adam Krzykwa

When Baal Shem Tov, may his memory be blessed, returned his soul to his Creator in the Podolian Mezhibozh, where his tomb is still revered, the heir of his teachings, Maggid Dov Ber transferred his seat to Mezerich, in the northern part of present-day Ukraine. Here he founded the “holy company” of his disciples, whose task it was to establish the teachings of Hasidism in the western part of Poland, later Galicia, also.

Leżajsk, tomb of Rabbi Elimelech

The greatest of the disciples, Elimelech, after the death of his master, settled in the little town of Leżajsk – in Yiddish, Lizhensk –, to the south of Lublin, with the result being that this shtetl became the first major center of Hasidism in Poland. A number of institutions, which are today inextricably linked to Hasidism, have their origin here. Here, the Rabbi wrote his Torah commentary entitled Noam Elimelech, which was the first to explain the task of the tsaddik as a spiritual leader who elevates his community to God and guides it in this world. Here he founded the first “tsaddik court”, maintained by the gifts of his followers. Here emerged the custom of the kvitli enclosed with the donations, the slip of paper listing the physical and spiritual problems of the believers, who awaited their resolution from the rabbi. These slips are still today placed by the Hasidim, full of hope, on the tombs of the great tsaddiks. And here is still revered the grave of Elimelech, to which thousands of people make pilgrimage from all over the world, not just on the anniversary of his death, on the 21th day of the month Adar, but every day of the year, offering their kvitlis with “infinitely large faith” to the benevolence of the tsaddik.

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Photos by Adam Krzykwa

The disciple of Elimelech, Rabbi Jacob, the other major early tsaddik, the future “Seer of Lublin”, started his activity next to his master, in the neighboring town of Łańcut. In the late 18th century, the Hasidic community of Łańcut lived its heyday under the protection of the Lubomirski Princes, with whose permission and support they built, right next to the Ducal Palace, one of the most beautiful synagogues of Poland. The synagogue belongs to that Baroque building type often called the “Polish synagogue”, whose examples also exist outside of Poland – e.g. in the Slovakian Bártfa/Bardejov, the Hungarian Mád, or the Moravian Nikolsburg/Mikulov –, and whose ceiling is divided by the four massive stone colums of the central bima into nine vaulted sections, thus giving a spacious and majestic impression even in a relatively small space.


But the specialty and stunning effect of the synagogue of Łańcut comes not only from this, but primarily from the fact, that the images of the naive and folkloric world of the medieval Jewish manuscripts and Baroque Hasidic tombstones move into the building and take possession of the entire interior of the synagogue. The walls, the façade of the bima, and the ceiling are entwined with a lavish, lush vitality by the stucco ornamentation, painted in vivid colors, in whose open fields deers, lions, birds, wonderful fish-bodied and deer-headed creatures, biblical scenes and symbols, stars and the signs of the zodiac make the building mystic and broaden its universal dimensions, fascinating the simple Hasid with the impression of such richness, that he had never met in his life.


It is said, that when Rabbi Elimelech stood before the Heavenly Judge, he said with humbly bowed head: “I did not pray and did not study the Torah”. So the judgment said: “Well, then to hell with you.” But the angels raised Elimelech, and took him to heaven, according to his merits. When Elimelech lifted his eyes, he exclaimed: “How merciful is the Eternal One, and how beautiful heaven can be, if already hell is like this!” This is what the simple Hasid might have felt, when upon entering into the synagogue of Łańcut, lifting his eyes.


In the first edition of Rabbi Elimelech’s main work Noam Elimelech, small stars can be seen above certain words, which, according to the commentators, suggest some hidden meaning. But according to the Rebbe of Klausenburg, Yekutiel Yehudah, the situation is reversed, and “the stars of the sky are the comments to the stars of Noam Elimelech”. And you can see this in the synagogue of Łańcut.

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