Simcha Bunim of Peshischa

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Simcha Bunim of Peshischa
Portrait of Simcha Bunim of Peshischa from the Bergson Collection.jpg
Woodcut picture of Simcha Bunim ca. 1824 at the approximate age of 59, commissioned by Temerl Bergson as part of the Bergson Warsaw collection. The image was confirmed by elderly Hasidim who had known Simcha Bunim.
TitleRebbe Reb Binum (רבי ר׳בונם)
Simcha Bunim Bonhardt

c. 1765
Died4 September 1827
SpouseRebeccah Auvergir-Kogov
ChildrenAvraham Moshe of Peshischa, Liba Bonhardt, Beyla Bonhardt.
SignatureSimcha Bunim of Peshischa signature (transparent).png
Jewish leader
PredecessorYaakov Yitzchak Rabinowicz
SuccessorAvraham Moshe of Peshischa and Menachem Mendel of Kotzk
Yahrtzeit12 Elul
BuriedPrzysucha, Poland

Simcha Bunim Bonhardt of Peshischa[a] (Yiddish: שמחה בונם באנהאַרד פון פשיסחה, [ˈsɪmχə ˈbʊnɪm ˈbʊnhaʁd ˈfʊn ˈpʒɪ'sχə]; c. 1765 – September 4, 1827) also known as the Rebbe Reb Bunim was the Second Grand Rabbi of Peshischa (Przysucha, Poland) as well as one of the key leaders of Hasidic Judaism in Poland. From 1813 to 1827, he led the Peshischa movement of Hasidic thought, in which he revolutionized 19th-century Hasidic philosophy by juxtaposing the rationalistic thought of the German-Jewish Misnagdim with the intimate nature of God defined by the Hasidic movement. He was instrumental in challenging the Hasidic status quo, in which he paired secular European sciences and enlightenment philosophy with traditional Orthodox Judaism while controversially emphasizing the importance of the individual in regards to one's personal relationship with God. He outwardly challenged the dynastic nature of Hasidic rebbes, which led to several unsuccessful attempts by contemporary Hasidic leadership to excommunicate him. Above all else, he believed that authenticity and self-honesty were the foundation of true piety, and that the pursuance of authenticity should always usurp the status quo. His teachings are the foundation for Kotzk Hasidism, Ger Hasidism, Amshinov Hasidism, Zychlin Hasidism, Aleksander Hasidism, Vurka Hasidism, Sochatchov Hasidim, Porisov Hasidim and Izhbitza-Radzin Hasidism. Because his followers were among the most influential figures in Hasidism, some consider Simcha Bunim to be the father of modern Hasidism, commonly calling him "the Rebbe of Rebbes".[1][2][3]

Early life and family[edit]

Born in Vodislav, Poland in either 1765 or 1767 to a wealthy German Orthodox Jewish family. His father Tzvi Hersh Bonhardt was a German merchant and rabbi, who, in his early years moved to Poland, where he became a well-known maggid and intellectual, authoring several rabbinic works and studying medieval Jewish philosophy.[4] Thus many of Simcha Bunim's rationalistic ideals were greatly influenced by his father, and grandfather, Judah Leib Bonhardt who could both be considered traditional rational pietists. His mother, Sarah Sirkin was the scion of a highly distinguished Polish-Ukrainian rabbinic family and was known to be very familiar with Talmudic law. Her father, Betzalel HaLevi of Zhovkva was a prominent Ukrainian rabbi, known for his relatively progressive halakhic views. Betzalel himself was a direct paternal descendant of the early 17th-century halakhist, Joel Sirkis who was also known for his progressive views on Halakha, thus Simcha Bunim was greatly influenced by his mother's family of prolific liberal Judaists, who originally descended from the Biblical commentator, Rashi.[5][6]

Simcha Bunim's childhood was defined by traditional Jewish values juxtaposed with the secular German cultural orbit. He is considered by some to have been an Illui (child prodigy). At age five, a group of important guests came to his father's home and despite his age, his father asked him to give a speech on the commandment of Hospitality. The young Simcha Bunim, went out to prepare bedding and cups for the ritualistic handwashing, he then brought the guests to the room he prepared and stated "this is the best way to expound on the commandment of Hospitality".[7] At age ten, he began studying at his local cheder, and in his teenage years, he was sent to Mattersburg, Austria, to learn at the Yeshiva of Jeremiah Mattersdorf. He later moved to Nikolsburg, Czechia, where he learnt under Mordecai Benet. After his studies, he returned to Poland, and his father arranged for him to marry Rebeccah Auvergir-Kogov, the daughter of Moshe Auvergir-Kogov of Będzin, a wealthy rabbi and merchant who introduced Simcha Bunim to Hasidism.[b] Over the course of several years, Simcha Bunim stayed in the home of his father-in-law, where he studied Hasidic philosophy and became close with Yisroel Hopstein, who connected Simcha Bunim with the businesswomen Temerl Bergson. She employed Simcha Bunim, to represent her timber firm at the annual trading fairs in Danzig and Leipzig. During his weeks spent travelling, Simcha Bunim became fully engaged with the Haskalah and attempted to connect with assimilated German Jews. He became fully immersed in the contemporary culture of the time, attending German plays and operas, and studying pharmacology, enlightenment philosophy, European languages and natural science. He eventually received his apothecary diploma after passing an exam before a board of doctors in Lviv.[8][9]

It was during this time that he became close with David of Lelov who convinced Simcha Bunim to travel to Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz (the Seer of Lublin). When he arrived in Lublin, he was soon taken under the wing of the Seer who was deeply impressed with Simcha Bunim's remarkable intellect and vast Talmudic knowledge. However, while spending time at the Seer's Hasidic court, Simcha Bunim began to develop great disdain with the mannerisms and behaviour which had recently defined the culture of Hasidism. Particularly the role in which the rebbe played in his follower's lives. In Lublin and other Hasidic courts of his time, the rebbe had absolute control and say over his congregants and played the role of the impetus of God. This immeasurably disturbed Simcha Bunim who was a fervent exponent of religious individualism, believing that no rebbe, however holy, could ever usurp the role of the individual. Around 1793, he and his wife moved to Przysucha,[c] where he briefly worked as a bookkeeper,[d] later opening up an apothecary shop. He soon became well known for his medical ability and several Polish nobles came to Simcha Bunim for their pharmaceutical needs. It was also around this time, that he became the main disciple of the Yaakov Yitzchak Rabinowicz (the Holy Jew of Peshischa) and his newly formed Hasidic school of thought. Unlike his Hasidic contemporaries, the Holy Jew preached individuality and authenticity, which attracted Simcha Bunim to his movement. Before his death, the Holy Jew appointed Simcha Bunim to succeed him as the Peshischa Rebbe, which he did in 1813.[e][8]

Rabbinical position[edit]

Simcha Bunim was an atypical Hasidic leader, after succeeding the Holy Jew, Simcha Bunim brought Peshischa to its highest point and kickstarted a counter-revolutionary movement which challenged the Hasidic norm. While under the Holy Jew, Peshischa was closer to a philosophy whereas, under Simcha Bunim it was transformed into a religious movement. Under Simcha Bunim's leadership, centers were created across Poland that held ideologically alliance to Peshischa.[10] These centers preached Simcha Bunim's ideals of rationalism, radical personhood, independence and the constant quest for authenticity, which challenged contemporary Hasidic leadership. Simcha Bunim was adamantly against the autocratic nature which had defined Hasidic leadership of his time and he encouraged his students, to think critically and to be independent of him. He believed the role of the rabbi was that of a teacher who helped his disciples develop their own sense of autonomy and not of an enforcer or impetus of God. Those students who are unable to accept responsibility for themselves were considered unfit to be part of Peshischa.[11] This sentiment spread throughout Poland, leading to several attempts by Hasidic leadership of his time to excommunicate Simcha Bunim.

In 1822, at the wedding of Avraham Yehoshua Heshel's grandson in Ustyluh, Ukraine, an attempt was made by the majority of the Hasidic leaders of Poland and Galicia to excommunicate Simcha Bunim. Several dignitaries such as Tzvi Hirsh of Zidichov and Naftali Zvi of Ropshitz, came to the wedding to publicly speak out against Simcha Bunim, in hopes that Avraham Heshel along with other leading rabbis, would agree to excommunicate Simcha Bunim and the Peshischa movement. Knowing that he would be slandered, Simcha Bunim sent his top students, mainly Menachem Mendel of Kotzk and Yitzchak Meir Alter, to go to the wedding and defend the Peshischa method. Originally, he wished to go himself to defend his movement, however, his students advised him, that his appearance would be too controversial. During the course of the festivities, a public debate was held in which combatants of Peshischa appealed to Avraham Heshel to decide whether to ban Peshischa or not. They described Peshischa as a movement of radical intellectual pietists (misnagdim) and non-conformists who endangered the Hasidic establishment. They also criticized Simcha Bunim for dressing in contemporary German fashion as opposed to the traditional Hasidic garb, claiming that his German pedigree debarred him from being an adequate Hassidic leader. His critics mockingly called him "der deutschle" (lit. 'the little German"'), which he is still sometimes referred to in communities like Bobov and Satmar who often bind works relating to Simcha Bunim. Nearing the end of the debate, Avraham Heshel turned towards Yerachmiel Rabinowicz, the son of the Holy Jew, and asked him what he thought of Simcha Bunim. Yerachmiel responded in approbation towards Simcha Bunim, and thus Avraham Heshel ended the debate. Ultimately no negative came out of this event, but quite the opposite accrued, following the intense debates at the wedding, hundreds of young Hasids flocked to Peshischa, after hearing of the enlightened and unconventional approach of Simcha Bunim, seeing it as reminiscent of the unique ideals of the Baal Shem Tov.[12]

Another aspect of Simcha Bunim's life which challenged Hasidic leadership was his belief in the importance of self authenticity. He adamantly believed that one could not stand with any sense of integrity before God unless one first had some clarity of who one really was. Contemporary Hasidic leaders saw his emphasis on individualism as a form of Hedonism, while Simcha Bunim insisted that, for one to fulfill the Mitzvot, they must first work on themselves, and that by working to better one's self, one fulfills a major mitzvah, in his own right.[13] He believed that the pursuance of authenticity should usurp the status quo, and only those who have developed an understanding of themselves can begin to pursue personal authenticity. He taught that all actions have to be done with sincerity in a state of personal truthfulness and that performing a mitzvah for the sake of personal interest or for the sake of conformity, results in the mitzvah having less weight. He believed that emotional and physical preparation for prayer is crucial for one to be able to fulfill the mitzvoth authentically and that personal analysis and self-honesty are integral for this process, which should be prioritized over halakhic restrictions of time.[14]

Simcha Bunim saw that the ultimate purpose of the Torah and the mitzvoth is to draw a person close to God, though an approach that can only be achieved with humility and joy, and that a critical and intellectual interpretation of the Torah is crucial for enlightenment. He thus concluded that the service of God demanded both passion and analytical study. During his time, there was little to no study of Kabbalah and the emphasis was not on trying to understand God, but on trying to understand the human being. He also encouraged his students to study the secular sciences and the writings of the Rambam, which were unprecedented for a Hasidic community.[15] Simcha Bunim believed that Religion was not simply an act of adopting a system of beliefs, but that test and trial were needed, and one had to ascertain through introspection whether one's beliefs were genuine or not and whether one acted out the truth or lived a life of pretense. He encouraged questioning and reflection and was he was not afraid of doubts of deliberations that might lead one astray.[16] Simcha Bunim believed that a person must not search for the truth by imitating another, however pious, but rather by going inside his inner being. He believed that those whose piety was motivated by what others think or say were unable to develop a real connection to God. Yet it was those who first were able to recognize their weakness and frailty that were able to be authentic.[17] Nearing the end of his life, Simcha Bunim became involved in the politics of Polish Jewry, being elected in 1825 as a representative of the Sandomierz Province as a member of the government commission on Jewish affairs. He was strongly opposed to the committees agenda and fought against it.[18]


Gravesite of Simcha Bunim in Przysucha, Poland.

After Simcha Bunim's death in 1827, Peshischa split into two factions, those who supported Menachem Mendel of Kotzk as Simcha Bunim's successor and those who supported Simcha Bunim's son, Avraham Moshe Bonhardt. Generally speaking, those who supported Menachem Mendel of Kotzk such as Yitzchak Meir Alter, were the more radical of Simcha Bunim's followers who argued that Simcha Bunim was adamantly against Hasidic dynasties and never wanted his son to succeeded him. On the other hand, those who supported Simcha Bunim's son, such as Israel Yitzhak Kalish, were the less radical of Simcha Bunim's followers who were turned off by the intense and fierce demeanour of Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. Originally Simcha Bunim's son never wanted to succeeded his father, however after much pressure from the community he took over as the leader of the divided Peshischa community, only dying a year later in 1828. After his death, Israel Yitzhak Kalish took Avraham Moshe's fraction of the community and gradually incorporated them into his own Hasidic dynasty based in Warka. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk did the same, incorporating his fraction of the community into his own Hasidic dynasty based in Kock. Even though Peshischa ceased to exist as a separate movement, its ideals still exist as the foundation for a large percentage of modern Hasidic groups. Amongst Simcha Bunim's devout followers were:[18][19]

Simcha Bunim's son, Avraham Moshe Bonhardt married Braindel Faiga Reapholis, the maternal granddaughter of the Holy Jew. The couple had two children, Sarah Hadas Bonhardt who married Fishel Samuel Heller, a disciple of Simcha Bunim and great-grandson of Shmuel of Kurów, and Tzvi Hersh Mordechai Bonhardt, who married the daughter of Israel Yitzhak Kalish and headed his own Hasidic court in Przysucha under the supervision of his father-in-law. Simcha Bunim also had a pair of twins, Liba and Beyla. Liba married Levi Yitzchak Dancyger the son of Shraga Fayvel Dancyger, however Levi Yitzchak died at a young age, before the couple had any children. Beyla married Melech Austricher a disciple of Simcha Bunim originally from Radom. The couple had one son, Yitzhak Simcha Bunim Austricher whose son Tzvi Hersh Austricher was the Av Beit Din of Lipsko. Beyla died only two years after her brother, and her husband Melech married Avraham Moshe's window, Braindel Faiga.[20]


Front page of the 1859, Breslau edition of Kol Simcha.

During his life, Simcha Bunim wrote no works of his own, but many of his teachings were transmitted orally and published, much later on after his death. The following are collections of Simcha Bunim's oral teachings:

  • Kol Simcha (קול שמחה) – Published by Simcha Bunim's disciple, Rabbi Alexander Zusha in 1859 in Breslau. Later being published again in 1877 in Przemysl. The work is a collection of Simcha Bunim's oral commentaries on the Torah and Talmud. However, the work was severely criticized by his contemporaries as being totally inadequate.
  • Ramataim Zofim (רמתיים צופים) – Published by Samuel of Sieniawa in 1882 in Warsaw. The work is a general collection of oral teachings from Hasidic masters, with Simcha Bunim being mentioned several times.
  • Simchat Yisrael (שמחת ישראל) – Published in 1910 in Piotrkow, the work recalls oral commentaries of Simcha Bunim.
  • Midrash Simcha I and Midrash Simcha II (מדרש שמחה) – Published in 1975 in Jerusalem, the work recounts oral Midrashim given by Simcha Bunim.

Stories and oral teachings[edit]

One of the more famous oral teachings attributed to Simcha Bunim is:

Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: "For my sake was the world created." But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: "I am but dust and ashes."

A story attributed to Simcha Bunim is:

A man once complained to Simcha Bunim, saying "The sages of the Talmud say that, 'One who runs away from greatness, greatness pursues him.' Well, I've been running away from greatness all my life, yet greatness has not pursued me!" Simcha Bunim replied: "I'm sure that greatness is indeed pursuing you, as our sages promise. The problem is that when you turn around to check if it is running after you, you frighten it away."

Simcha Bunim used to tell this story to his followers the first time they visited him:

There was once an impoverished man by the name of Isaac ben Yakil of Krakow. He lived in poverty for many years, not knowing where his next crust of bread would come from. Still, Isaac had implicit faith that God would not let him starve, and that one day his suffering would end. One night, he dreamed that there was highly valuable buried treasure under a specific bridge in Prague. At first, he paid the dream no attention, assuming it was mere wishful thinking. After all, who doesn’t dream of riches? But when the dream repeated itself night after night after night, he began to reconsider. Perhaps there was something to it? Could it possibly be true? So, he set off to Prague—a long and tiring journey, only to discover that the bridge was right near the royal palace and thus heavily guarded at all hours. Soldiers marched up and down, alert and ready, looking for any signs of danger or unusual activity. Digging under the bridge was clearly out of the question. But Isaac was not going to give up that easily. He returned to the bridge day after day until the guards began to recognize him. Soon they became curious. “Why do you come to the bridge every day?” one of the guards asked him. “Are you waiting for someone?” Isaac knew they wouldn’t believe some half-hearted excuse, so he told them about his dream. The guard listened, threw back his head, and laughed heartily. “You can all this way because of a silly dream? You fool! I had a dream that a certain Jew, Isaac Ben Yakil, has buried treasure under his stove, but do you see me going on a wild good choose? Of course not!” and he laughed uproariously. Meanwhile, Isaac hurried off to buy a ticket for the first train back to Krakow. Now he knew where to look. Sure enough, when he arrived he immediately shoved the iron stove out of the way and began digging at the hard dirt floor. And, to his great joy and astonishment, after some effort he uncovered a chest of gold coins! He used the money to build a magnificent synagogue which bore his name, known as the Izaak Synagogue.

A story about Simcha Bunim and his followers is:

During the period when Israel Yitzhak Kalish was a disciple of Simcha Bunim, he once set out on a journey in order to meet with Mordechai Twersky of Chernobyl. On his return to Przysucha, his colleague Menachem Mendel of Kotzk asked him: "Well, what did you see over there in Chernobyl?"

"Why, I saw the Baal Shem Tov's table" said Rabbi Kalish.

"You saw a table that is about a hundred years old," countered his friend, "while our Rebbe Simcha Bunim, constantly shows us things that are six thousand years old: he shows us the creation of heaven and earth.

Lastly, Simcha Bunim is also known for a story recalling his travels:

Hearing that Rabbi Simcha Bunim was about to visit a certain town, his Hasidim at once arranged for him to be the guest of a family who lived in an impressive stone mansion. On his arrival he sat on a bench in the lobby while his belongings were being unloaded from his carriage. Then quite unexpectedly he asked his attendant to accompany him: he was going to leave this house. Taken quite by surprise the Hasidim did the best they could, and all they could find for their rebbe at this stage was a lean room in the home of the local butcher. To make things worse, it was midsummer and it was unpleasant to stay in the confines of that crowded room. When Simcha Bunim returned to his home in Przysucha he realized that the Hasidim had assumed that he left the first house because he had seen something unsavoury. Not wishing them to remain with this mistaken impression, he decided to explain to them what had happened. "I left the mansion" he said, "in order not to transgress the prohibition against coveting. And it is to precisely such a case that the commandment chiefly refers to. For it is inconceivable that a person should out right covet his neighbour's house. As far as lodgings are concerned, though, this could be a practical question for since the accommodation, is only temporary, one needs to be especially on one's guard.


  1. ^ Simcha Bunim is also commonly referred as the "Tzadik of Peshischa" and the "Admor of Peshischa". In Galitzianer Yiddish his name is spelt and pronounced "שמחה בנים" (Simcha Binem).
  2. ^ According to Hasidic tradition, when Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Bonhardt (Simcha Bunim's father) was visiting Będzin during his travels, he was a guest in the home of the Moshe Auvergir-Kogov. As Moshe and Tzvi conversed, the host complained that he could not find a good match for his daughter Rebeccah, who was excellent, beautiful, smart, kind, and righteous. Tzvi Hersh replied, “call Rebeccah so I can see her. I think I have a match for her, a boy who is excellent, righteous, kind and scholarly. He is also from a great lineage, a descendant of the Joel Sirkis.” Tzvi Hersh saw the girl and she found favour with him. He then told Moshe, “instead of hiring a matchmaker let us agree for my son Simcha Bunim is to become engaged to your daughter Rebeccah.” And thus the engagement was arranged.
  3. ^ We have testimony that Simcha Bunim was in Przysucha in 1793, however Zederbaum states he came in his old age.
  4. ^ Siah Sarfei Kodesh he-Hadash, 4.170, n. 21, states that he was a bookkeeper for R. Yekil Fachter of Przysucha.
  5. ^ An early biographical sketch of Simcha Bunim appears in the form of the work "Keter Kehunnah" by Aleksander Zederbaum published in 1866, some forty years after Simcha Bunim's death. Zederbaum was a Maskil and thus his work has a clear agenda which he projects onto Simcha Bunim. Zederbaum says the following about Simcha Bunim: "A great man, erudite in Talmud, in religious literature and in Jewish science. An expert chemist who knew something about medicine but more about natural science... he also knew German, Polish, Latin; a diligent man. R. Bunim had seen a lot in his youth; he had mixed amongst different groups as a result of his contractual dealings with the government and the army commanders during the Polish wars." – Keter Kehunnah, 127



  1. ^ Rosen 2008.
  2. ^ Rabinowitz 1997.
  3. ^ Zevin 1981.
  4. ^ Rabinowitz 1997, p. 294.
  5. ^ Rosenstein 2017, p. 491.
  6. ^ Grossman 1943.
  7. ^ Hellinger 2012.
  8. ^ a b Rosen 2008, p. 47-56.
  9. ^ Pinto 2015.
  10. ^ Rosen 2008, p. 55.
  11. ^ Rosen 2008, p. 40.
  12. ^ Rosen 2008, p. 14, 23.
  13. ^ Dynner 2005, p. 53.
  14. ^ Rosen 2008, p. 289-290.
  15. ^ Brill 1997.
  16. ^ Heschel 1995, p. 94.
  17. ^ Rosen 2008, p. 23.
  18. ^ a b Faierstein 2010.
  19. ^ Rosen 2008, p. 26,56.
  20. ^ Grossman 1943, p. 80-81.