Sefer Hasidim Project

Date and Authorship

Sefer Hasidim ("Book of the Pious") is one of our most important sources for the religion, history, and culture of medieval German Jewry. This Hebrew book originated between the late 12th and early 13th centuries in the Rhineland, shortly after the Second Crusade. Thereafter, it circulated widely, influencing the distinctive religious practices and Hebrew literary style of Jews in Ashkenaz but also shaping the discourse about Jewish ethics in medieval Europe and beyond.

Tradition attributes the authorship of Sefer Hasidim to Judah the Pious (d. 1217), one of the major figures associated with a circle or movement of German-Jewish pietists (Haside Ashkenaz) characterized by their distinctive combination of ethical and mystical concerns. Although most scholars grant Judah some role in the composition of Sefer Hasidim, it is clear from the extant manuscript evidence that the book is not simply the product of a single author's creative endeavors. Not only do the manuscripts preserve different forms of the text, which vary widely in shape and scope, but some of the quotations from this book in medieval Jewish literature find no counterpart in any of the versions which have survived into modern times.

Insofar as Sefer Hasidim was shaped by a relatively prolonged process of composition, collection, and redaction, it reflects a stance of collective authorship more akin to classical rabbinic literature than to the straightforward authorship of those works composed by contemporaneous Jewish scholars like Rashi and Maimonides. It is likely, for instance, that Sefer Hasidim integrates earlier oral and written sources (e.g., from smaller notebooks), such as material by Judah's father, Samuel b. Kalonymus (12th century). As with many medieval Jewish texts, however, the literary activity that shaped this book does not seem to have stopped with the initial act of composition and compilation. Rather, the material in Sefer Hasidim continued to be edited, rearranged, and supplemented by medieval tradents and redactors, possibly including Judah's most famous student, Eleazar of Worms (d. 1230).

Importance of Sefer Hasidim 

For the historian, Sefer Hasidim offers a treasure trove of information about the daily lives of medieval Jews under Christian rule. This compendium of traditions includes ethical, halakhic, midrashic, mystical, and even philosophical material. Presented as a guidebook for the practice of Jewish piety, it consists mostly of parables, homilies, and exempla that appeal to the everyday experiences of its author(s) and audience. As a result, the text teems with realia about the religious and cultural landscape of Europe in the Middle Ages.

Not least significant are its detailed descriptions of the encounters between Jews and Christians. Although written in the wake of the Crusades, Sefer Hasidim attests to a surprising range of contacts between Jews and Christians, spanning the continuum from their common participation in a shared cultural context to their interpersonal interactions, both polemical and routine. In effect, this book preserves a poignant snapshot of a pivotal stage in the history of Jewish-Christian relations in Europe, before the progressive imposition of social and political isolation on the Jewish people that eventually culminated in the Holocaust.

In addition, Sefer Hasidim has had an enduring influence on Jewish culture, due to its articulation of a radically new approach to ethical theory and practice. Although the conceptualization of lived piety in Sefer Hasidim has deep roots in ancient and late antique Judaism, the requirements for righteousness are here conceived as transcending the bounds of the Written and Oral Torah; the pietist is enjoined to find and fulfil the will of God in innovative ways, self-consciously surpassing the requirements laid upon the righteous in the Bible and Talmud. The book is thus peppered with precepts not found in earlier tradition, and it served to introduce (or to reintroduce, as the case may be) a host of new concerns into the discourse about Jewish ethics, such as a renewed interest in ascetical practices, a system of penitence for sin, and a focus on the individual's quest for self-perfection, even in the face of conflicts with the community at large.

Goals and History of the Project

Despite the significance of this source for modern scholars and its popularity among medieval Jews, there is presently no edition that integrates all of the available Hebrew manuscripts. This task proves particularly crucial insofar as Sefer Hasidim circulated in multiple versions, which varied in shape, scope, and content. Insofar as a thorough analysis of the entirety of the known manuscript evidence is long overdue, the production of such an edition has the potential to answer many key questions about the authorship(s), redactional history, literary structure, and transmission of this important text. At the same time, Sefer Hasidim shall become accessible to a broader range of scholars, students, and other readers with interests in Jewish history, literature, and culture, as well as medieval European society and the history of Jewish-Christian relations.

Thus, in 2003, Peter Schäfer, the Project Director, initiated and organized his first  large-scale textual project to be pursued at Princeton University. After the images of Sefer Hasidim manuscripts were acquired, undergraduate students engaged in the process of transcribing the manuscripts from medieval Hebrew into a modern database. This was one of the most labor-intensive components of the project, and these are the students who carried most of it on their shoulders: Itamar Bar-Zakay, Reva Haselkorn, Rena Lauer, and Matthew Kandel. Kevin Osterloh, at that time a doctoral candidate at the Department of Religion, served for several years as the Project’s Coordinator who instructed the students and insured the fruitful cooperation between all members of the Sefer Hasidim team.

Soon after the start of the project, Michael Meerson, a Postdoctoral research fellow, joined the project team assuming the role of the Assistant Director and Editor.   Michael Meerson reviewed and corrected the transcriptions and made further preparations for the issue of the Sefer Hasidim database. Finally, Ben Johnston, the project's Tech Consultant, converted the Microsoft Word documents into a digitalized interactive web database. Princeton University Sefer Hasidim Database (PUSHD) became available on August 31, 2009.  Access is free and only requires an on-site registration..

The implementation of this project was made possible by generous grants from Princeton University (Provost’s Office, Program in Judaic Studies) and the Mellon Foundation. We are deeply grateful to both institutions for their support.

The Princeton University Sefer Hasidim Database (PUSHD) is part of a comprehensive Sefer Hasidim project, conducted at the Universities of Berlin, Jerusalem, Princeton, and Trier under the directorship of Alfred Haverkamp, Peter Schäfer, and Israel Yuval. The next step will be an edition with translation and commentary of selected topics of Sefer Hasidim (such as “Jews and Christians,” “Women,” etc.), published in book form by Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen.

Project Director:  Peter Schäfer
Assistant Director and Editor:  Michael Meerson