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Przysucha (Pshishkha), Jacob Isaac ben Asher

PRZYSUCHA (Pshishkha), JACOB ISAAC BEN ASHER (ha-Yehudi ha-Kadosh, "the holy Jew"; 1766(?)–1814), ḥasidic rebbe, the founder of Pshiskha Ḥasidism, in Poland. R. Jacob Isaac was born in *Przedborz, Poland, to a rabbinic family. In his youth he was a student of R. David Tevele b. Nathan of Lissa and R. Aryeh Leib Halperin, whom he followed to Apta. His first wife was his confidant until her early death. His second marriage, to her sister Sheindel, the mother of his children, was bitter. He started teaching in the local yeshivah, after which he wandered in poverty, teaching children. It was in Apta that he joined Ḥasidism after becoming acquainted with R. *Moses Leib of Sasov and R. David of *Lelov. The latter became a life-long friend and their children married. It was David of Lelov who influenced him to travel to see to R. *Jacob Isaac Horowitz – "Ha-Ḥozeh" (the Seer) of Lublin – in what would be a decisive event in both of their lives. The Ḥozeh recognized him as his great disciple, and Ha-Yehudi ha-Kadosh accepted the Ḥozeh as his rebbe. It was probably then that he began to be called Ha-Yehudi ha-Kadosh, so that he would not be called by his rebbe's name. The mutual admiration continued throughout their lives, nevertheless their relationship was tangled and complex.

Ha-Yehudi ha-Kadosh arrived in Lublin at a relatively young age but as a fully developed personality. The Ḥozeh asked him to become a mentor to the young elite students that arrived in Lublin. Soon brilliant youngsters along with older Ḥasidim were looking to him to guide them in their religious life. The very presence of a new charismatic teacher in the Ḥozeh's inner circle attracted hostility from some of the older disciples who were overshadowed by him, and from the Ḥozeh's family. A major cause of the opposition was his original religious teaching and leadership, which was in conflict with the Ḥozeh's.

Under the influence of his surroundings the Ḥozeh's dealings with him vacillated between intimacy and bitter hostility and even persecution. The schism was inevitable. Ha-Yehudi ha-Kadosh moved to Przysucha to become a rebbe and to found his own school. Some of the most distinguished Ḥasidim of Lublin joined him, among them R. *Simḥah Bunem of Przysucha and R. Menahem Mendel of *Kotsk. Ha-Yehudi ha-Kadosh died in Przysucha as he was in the midst of his ecstatic daily prayers. After his death, R. Simhah Bunem of Przysucha was recognized by most of his disciples as his successor.


The first expressions of Ha-Yehudi ha-Kadosh's religious orientation can be traced back to his childhood and youth, when he concealed his acts of charity and engaged in diligent Torah learning and fervent praying which led him to give up praying in a minyan as a child. Hiding his deeds should be understood as part of his emphasis on purifying one's motives and eliminating socially influenced behavior from one's actions so that they will express the inner-self. An individual should reexamine his intentions to cleanse them, so that they will be truthful. "God's seal is 'truth,' it can not be forged, since if it is forged it is true no more" (Tiferet ha-Yehudi, 50). This inner process is the route that leads to repair (tikkun). It was in this respect that the religious dispute with the Ḥozeh manifested itself strongly. The Ḥozeh recognized the Napoleonic wars as the "War of Gog and Magog" and understood his religious duty to use kabbalistic means to bring about the redemption. Although the Ḥozeh put all of his weight on Ha-Yehudi ha-Kadosh to join this spiritual endeavor, the latter refused, believing that the road to redemption passes, rather, through personal struggle for perfection.

Humility is the characteristic virtue of a person who truly knows himself, recognizing his own imperfection. At the same time one should not be influenced by social conventions and public opinion: "Each person should have two figs (Yid. feigen), after showing one to himself he will not be troubled by others and will be able to show the other to the rest of the world" (Tiferet ha-Yehudi, 76). The search for a true path to God's worship involves critical judgment of religious routine. In this spirit Ha-Yehudi ha-Kadosh understood that there are many routes in the search for God and taught that "all the rules that a person makes for himself to worship God are not rules, and this rule is not a rule either" (Tiferet ha-Yehudi, 93). Behaving in this unconventional way, he broke the halakhic rules, delaying the time of his ecstatic prayer, finding that he needed time to prepare for it. This conduct provoked great antagonism and fueled his opponents. His religiosity was both ecstatic and ascetic. He had outstanding physical strength but his intensive, ascetic life exhausted him. He removed himself from earthly desires, in particular eating, sex, and money, aiming at what he viewed as the end of all the mitzvot – devekut.

The Ḥozeh and other Polish rebbes of his time emphasized their duty to provide the masses with materialistic and spiritual comfort, by conventional means and through miracles. Though Ha-Yehudi ha-Kadosh did not oppose this altogether, he changed the emphasis dramatically, criticizing the ḥasidic leadership of his time. He understood their way as leading Ḥasidism to degeneration and mediocrity – subverting it under its very own principles. He taught that the main role of the rebbe was to guide his disciples in their struggle for spiritual depth, while responsibility lies primarily with the disciple. This teaching suited his followers, an elite group with outstanding mental and spiritual qualities who were willing to sacrifice their material well-being as well as their inner peace for a demanding religious quest.

R. Uri of Sterlisk described Ha-Yehudi ha-Kadosh's innovation as "worshiping God by unifying Torah learning and praying" (Imrei Kadosh, 68). Learning Talmud became central to the worship of God, as Ha-Yehudi ha-Kadosh taught that "learning Talmud and Tosafot purifies the mind and makes one ready for praying" (Tiferet ha-Yehudi, 29), stating that "through the learning of Torah one can attain all spiritual levels" (Nifla'ot ha-Yehudi, 1992, p. 60).

While his innocent mystical religiosity did not spawn successors in Pshishkha Ḥasidism, other aspects of his legacy marked the routes of the diverse branches of Pshishkha Ḥasidism, creating a new ethos in Polish Ḥasidism. This ethos is characterized by: (a) the critical search for truth; (b) a critical attitude to conventions; (c) understanding the rebbe's main role as challenging his elite followers rather than comforting the masses with miracles; (d) the centrality of studying Talmud for religious growth.

Some of his teachings were collected and published, the earliest almost a hundred years after his death, in Nifla'ot ha-Yehudi (1909), Tiferet ha-Yehudi (1912), Kitvei Kodesh (1906), and Torat ha-Yehudi (1911). His figure stands in the center of Martin Buber's novel Gog u-Magog (1941).


A. Marcus, Ha-Ḥasidut (1980), index; W.Z.Rabinowitsch, R. Ya'akov Yiẓḥak mi-Pshishkhah (1932); A.Z. Eshcoly, Ha-Ḥasidut be-Polin (2000), 50–72; M. Buber, Or ha-Ganuz (1965), 52–53, 395–403.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.