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Mosheh Ḥayim Efrayim of Sudilkov

(1737/48–ca.1800), Hasidic author. Mosheh Ḥayim Efrayim was born in Międzyboż (Yid., Mezhbizh; mod. Ukr., Medzhibizh); his mother, Edel, was the daughter of Yisra’el Ba‘al Shem Tov (the Besht); his father was Yeḥi’el Mikhl Ashkenazi of Mezhbizh; and his younger brother was Barukh of Mezhbizh. Mosheh Ḥayim was a preacher in Sudylków (Yid., Sudilkov), Volhynia, where he lived until shortly before his death. He is remembered chiefly as the author of Degel maḥaneh Efrayim, which was printed by his son, Ya‘akov Yeḥi’el, in Korets in 1810. The book includes traditions and stories about the Besht, with whom Mosheh Ḥayim lived until the age of 12.

Degel maḥaneh Efrayim is organized in the form of commentaries on the Torah. It frequently quotes teachings of the Besht, along with those of Ya‘akov Yosef of Polnoye, Naḥman of Horodenka, Pinḥas Shapira of Korets, Ze’ev Volf Kitses, and the Mokhiaḥ (rebuker) of Polnoye. The author is very precise in citing his oral and written sources, and in addition to his memories and the teachings of his grandfather’s disciples, he includes a collection of his own dreams and mystical visions from the years 1780–1785.

Mosheh Ḥayim’s book was published a few years before Shivḥe ha-Besht, and it made a decisive contribution to forming the image of his grandfather and to the spread of hagiography surrounding him. Mosheh Ḥayim’s words are presented as the modest testimony of a witness who personally saw and heard the Besht. He passes on traditions that he received, rather than his own original ideas, and describes the charismatic personality of the Besht as formed by the power of the exceptional self-awareness with which the Besht was endowed.

Degel maḥaneh Efrayim was an important contribution both to the spread of the doctrine of the tsadik and to setting forth its boundaries and the qualifications necessary for those aspiring to such a role. Although Mosheh Ḥayim wrote at a time of vehement attacks by Misnagdim against Hasidism, he was nevertheless not deterred from leveling harsh criticism regarding the gap between the ideal of Hasidic leadership and its implementation on the part of those whom he regards as “liars . . . who pretend to be tsadikim.” Even more vividly, he condemns a motley crew dressed in white clothing who disguise themselves as tsadikim. He describes the true tsadik as living his life in the presence of and constantly cleaving to God; the tsadik lives between ascents and descents that are called running and returning, after Ezekiel 1:14. This movement is connected to the tension between spiritual exaltation, necessarily involving asceticism, and the social responsibility involved in descent to the people, when the tsadik deals with the members of his household and the needs of this world. Indeed, the tsadik is responsible for his community, obliged to bind himself to all souls and creatures.

Mosheh Ḥayim was endowed with a distinct talent for presenting Hasidic doctrine clearly and simply. He did not, however, have skills for public leadership, and neither he nor his sons founded Hasidic dynasties. He did not regard himself as an authoritative innovator but rather as someone who transmitted the teachings of his grandfather; all of Mosheh’s writings rely on those teachings, which he heard directly or learned from the Besht’s disciples. His book is thus a primary and essential source for understanding the founder of Hasidism and his teachings. Mosheh’s younger brother, Barukh, who did not share his talent for writing but was endowed with courage and a combative personality, assumed the crown of leadership, becoming the heir of the Besht’s dynasty and leading the Hasidim of Podolia for 30 years.

Degel maḥaneh Efrayim, of which 12 editions were printed, influenced the broad dissemination of Hasidism. It did so by contributing to the clarification of the Besht’s mystical concepts and to the consolidation of his decisive position in the renewed social and religious life of Hasidism.

Suggested Reading

Alan Brill, “The Spiritual World of a Master of Awe: Divine Vitality, Theosis and Healing in the Degel Mahaneh Ephraim,Jewish Studies Quarterly 8.1 (2001): 27–65; Simon Dubnow, Toldot ha-ḥasidut, vol. 2 (3 vols. in 1), Tekufat ha-gidol veha-hitpashtut, pp. 204–208 (Tel Aviv, 1930); Roland Goetschel, “Torah lishmah as a Central Concept in the Degel mahaneh Efrayim,” in Hasidism Reappraised, ed. Ada Rapoport-Albert, pp. 258–267 (London, 1996); Samuel A. Horodezky, Ha-Ḥasidut veha-ḥasidim, vol. 3 (Berlin, 1922), pp. 7–11.



Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green