Jewish Spiritual Growth


Jewish Spiritual Growth:
The Step-by-Step Guide 
of a Hasidic Master
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira
Yaacov David Shulman, translator

(translation) © 2016 by Yaacov David Shulman
ISBN-10: 1536982261

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Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (or: Klonimus Kalmish Szapiro; May 20, 1889 –-  Nov. 3, 1943), was descended from one of the most important and influential of the earlyRabbi K.K. Shapira Hasidic rebbes — Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk (author of Noam Elimelech and other fundamental Hasidic texts). Rabbi Elimelech’s brother, Rabbi Zushye of Hanipol, was also a prominent early Hasidic rebbe. Both were disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch (the Hasidic leader directly after the Baal Shem Tov). 

Rabbi Shapira was the Hasidic rebbe of the town of Piaseczno, Poland. Following Hasidic custom, he was known as “the Piaseczner Rebbe.”  

This post being a book review, I’ll limit how much biographical information I provide. It can’t be omitted, however, that Rabbi Shapira was living in/around Warsaw during the Holocaust.

His wife died in 1937. Afterwards, “…[his] only son, his daughter-in-law and his sister-in-law were killed during the Nazi aerial bombing of Warsaw in September, 1939. After the invasion of Poland, Rabbi Shapira was interred with a few of his hasidim in the Warsaw Ghetto…[He] was able to survive in the ghetto until its liquidation…on November 3, 1943, all the remaining Jews in Trawniki [a concentration camp], including Rabbi Shapira, were shot to death [by the Nazis].” [1]

While in the Warsaw ghetto, foreseeing its ultimate destruction, Rabbi Shapira put manuscripts of his teachings in a metal canister, together with a note (in Yiddish) to whomever should find it, indicating to where the teachings should be forwarded. He then buried the canister in the ground of the ghetto. The canister was discovered after the war by a Polish construction worker. Its contents were forwarded as requested. 

This is recounted in greater detail in the introduction by Rav Dr. Zvi Leshem that opens the current translation/edition. The introduction further contains the Rebbe’s letter from the canister and a dedication, commemorating those of his family who had already died in the Nazi onslaught of Warsaw. 

The pathos of this cannot and should not be minimized when reading this and other of the Rebbe’s writings. 

On the other hand, the Rebbe would not have wanted such pathos to overshadow his message of uninterrupted ahavat Ha-Shem (love for God) and joyous faith.

Rabbi Shapira’s purpose is to show how Hasidic methods, teaching and inspiration can be applied in the daily lives of his students (and ours). Even before the Sho’ah, the Rebbe saw that “modern” students were beset by waves of secular ideas and influences which they were not well-prepared to face. He felt that Hasidut held the key to meeting the demands of the modern world:

“The holy prophets of the Bible, the masters of the Zohar, the Ari, the Baal Shem Tov, and their students are angels of God beyond our comprehension. Their holy, heavenly path is hidden from us [i.e. by the early 20th century], and we do not purport to rise to the eminence and greatness of such people, who are fiery angels. But there is one thing for which we yearn, and which we are obligated to achieve: to serve Hashem — the God of our forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob — to serve Him with all our heart, completely, with all the limbs of our body and soul, so that not a single strand of our physical being nor a single spark of our spirit will emerge beyond Hashem’s holiness that fills us and surrounds us.” [2]

“…Throughout the day, we have to be close to God…Everything we do should be with our spirit until even our thoughts are clear, strong and connected to God’s holiness.” [3]

“You may already be scrupulous regarding all of the details and fine points of the laws of the written and oral Torah, and all the customs of the holy Jewish leaders.
And you may desire to be even more of a Hasid. In that case, you must go beyond the basic obligations…You must add spirit to your service…” [4]

“Learning Torah alone does not suffice. One must also be pious — a Hasid — and that is the main thing.” [5]

If we must “add spirit” (or “soul,” in a more American idiom) to our service, how might we do this? 

In addition to being himself a Hasidic leader and the scion of a prominent Hasidic lineage, the Rebbe was an experienced pedagogue. This becomes clear in his attention to Rabbi K.K. Shapira IIthe progressive steps of mastering the techniques he offers. Such concern for students’ progressive steps is what every teacher must possess (or acquire by experience), in order to succeed in his/her chosen role.

This book is obviously written with a heartfelt fervor so characteristic of Hasidut. It speaks through our minds to our hearts. Such inspiration can only be conveyed by an author who is him/ herself moved and inspired. Scholarship alone will not grant this. It must be lived. 

What further distinguishes this book: It’s not an abstract compilation of Hasidic ideas, which must first be understood and only after which guidance to application must be sought.

The focus of this book is the application itself. 

It reminds me of Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein’s statement about his “Jewish Science” teaching (so Hasidic in character in its own right):

“Jewish Science is the application of the Jewish Faith to the practices of life.” [6]

He meant: Jewish Science emphasizes and encourages actively applying what Judaism teaches to the everyday problems of our lives, rather than simply collecting information or “knowledge” without using or “applying” those teachings. Properly understood, “application” is not an alternative to Torah-learning. It’s the necessary next step.

One of the major practices that Rabbi Shapira advocates he calls “Visualization.” Without access to the original text, I don’t know what Hebrew word he used for this. But his discussion of it shows that “visualization” is a well-chosen translation.

The term “Visualization” itself can have several meanings. Rabbi and Mrs. Lichtenstein write of it. Colette Aboulker-Muscat taught a “Visualization” practice that had its own characteristics. Dr. Martin Rossman has developed a more or less contemporary “Visualization” program. Others have taught it, too. Common to them all is the use of mental images to produce physical/emotional/spiritual effects. Rabbi Shapira’s teaching is within this paradigm.

For Rabbi and Mrs. Lichtenstein, “Visualization” is a form of prayer. For Rabbi Shapira, “Visualization” is a major method for raising within ourselves the “fervor” needed for prayer to achieve its desired spiritual purpose of bringing us closer to God: 

“A person cannot inspire himself with holy actions and raise himself in a Hasidic manner if he lacks the holy mental strength and imagery…mental strength is itself the ability to create [mental] imagery.” [7]

I won’t here go into Rabbi Shapira’s further directions about the consistent repetition and depth needed for the images to have the impact on us that we seek. He does not ask of us anything of which we are not capable; anything that is not available to us.  

The topic of “kavannah” in praying is something I have always heard discussed, but almost never heard taught in a systematic way. Rabbi Shapira addresses that here. He did so over 80 years ago in a culture that is largely gone, yet he speaks to the needs we have even now.

The value of this for Jewish education — of children or adults; even of clergy — is inestimable. I even believe that this crosses the borders of all denominations.  

The discussion of “Visualization” takes up the greater part of the book. The Rebbe also refers back to it several times afterward.

But he also mentions other aides to spiritual growth. For example:

Reading from aggadic literature like “Ein Yaakov” every weekday between Minchah (afternoon service) and Ma’ariv (evening service);

Using melody;

Absorbing and internalizing basic Hasidic ideas, such as — 

“…we must believe and even actually perceive [that] there is no such thing as physical essence [i.e. existence] in itself [i.e. separate from God]. Rather, the essence of everything is a portion of Divinity.”  [8]

This list gives only a brief taste of what the Rebbe discusses, and the breadth with which he discusses his topics.

Aside from the purpose of the text itself, it contains many quotations from Hasidic and Kabbalistic sources which are themselves worthy of serious thought and attention. It is yet one more way in which this book is an almost essential text for Jews of all ages, denominations and preferences.

The translation by Yaacov David Shulman avoids the inelegant syntax that can be the result of translating from one language to another. The book “reads” easily. Ideally, I would have liked to see a Hebrew/English edition — English on the left page, Hebrew on the right side. It would have allowed a greater chance to see the Rebbe’s choice of vocabulary in his own language. Not everyone, however, feels this to the same extent that I do, but there could be room for a “teachers’ edition” that contains both. 

I strongly recommend that people avail themselves of the spirituality that this book so generously and selflessly offers.



[2] Shapira, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman and Y.D. Shulman, trans.; Jewish Spiritual Growth; © 2016 (translation); p. 15

[3] ibid., p. 16

[4] ibid., p. 17

[5] ibid., p. 63

[6] Lichtenstein, Rabbi Morris; Jewish Science and Health; © 1925; p. 113

[7] Jewish Spiritual Growth; p. 78

[8] ibid. p. 143