The Primacy of Speech Over Writing in Hasidic Society

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This chapter examines the status of writing in the Hasidic, mystically oriented sector of Eastern European Jewish society in the nineteenth century. The chapter shows that Hasidism maintained a conspicuously oral literacy culture and explores the sources of this culture. It contends that in Hasidic society, writing was treated with reservation because it threatened to detract from the oral charisma of the tzaddik [lit. righteous man, Hasidic rabbi and spiritual leader]. Furthermore, writing aroused worries that esoteric knowledge might come into the possession of unworthy people, as well as fears of the sin of pride, which was believed to be inherent in writing that is not solely for the sake of Heaven. The chapter traces the manifestations of these attitudes in Hasidic literacy practices, Hasidic teachings, and Hasidic tales. It concludes with a discussion of the Hasidic response to the rise of print. It shows that the struggle with modernization, secularization, and the Haskalah pushed Hasidic society to loosen the restrictions on writing and publication, and to use the book as an instrument for disseminating Hasidism in the face of modernity. Yet despite this attenuation of the principle of the primacy of speech over writing, Hasidism remained a fundamentally oral culture.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNew Directions in Book History
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages45
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2022

Publication series

NameNew Directions in Book History
ISSN (Print)2634-6117
ISSN (Electronic)2634-6125

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Linguistics and Language
  • Literature and Literary Theory
  • Library and Information Sciences


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