Jewish Life in Eastern Europe
From the beginning of the 18th century up to the 2nd world war, Hasidim was a major force in Eastern Europe. Under charismatic leaders, known as rebbes, it gave renewed hope to the Jewish masses. One of its main teachings was the joy with which the Jew was to infuse everything he did, and the assurance that God had not deserted His people. Divine worship amongst the Hasidim thus came to include singing and dancing. Hasidic leaders also stressed the idea of group responsibility, and valued the piety even of the unschooled.
The opponents of Hasidim, known as Mitnaggedim (Hebrew for opponents), attacked it with the claim that it diminished the importance of Torah study and formal religious observance. On several occasions bans were proclaimed against the Hasidim which forbade other Jews to have anything to do with them. Hasidim continued to grow, each geographical area developing its own variations on the main theme. The fears of the Mitnaggedim proved unfounded.
The language mainly spoken by Jews of Eastern Europe was Yiddish, a language largely based on Middle High German, interlaced with Hebrew and certain Slavic elements. The literature in this language, grew to major proportions in the 19th and 20th centuries, stated with prayers for women and epic sagas based on stories from the Bible. A linguistic landmark was the publication of the 13 parables of the hassidic rebbe, Nahman of Bratslav (1722 - 1811) in which Yiddish became an independent literary language.
A large proportion of the Jews of Eastern Europe lived in small towns (Yiddish: shtetl) where Jews made up the majority of the population. In these towns a distinctive pattern of Jewish life evolved. In the social and political developments of the 19/20th centuries, these townships disappeared.
During the 19th century the study of the Talmud reached great heights. Throughout Poland, Lithuania and Russia there were hundreds of yeshivot (rabbinical academies) with tens of thousands of students. Each sizeable Jewish community would employ a rabbi, who usually established an academy. Students, who travelled far and wide to sit at the feet of a renowned rabbit, would study with him in his synagogue and eat at the homes of charitable householders. By the end of the 19th century the yeshivot had developed into fully-fledged institutions with dining facilities, supported by endowments and fund raising campaigns. Many of them reestablished themselves in Eretz Israel in the 20th century.
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