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In the early 1700s there existed in Eastern Europe groups of people called Penitents, pious who went from city to city in the hopes of spreading their piety. They were people who felt they had to do public penance for sins they had committed. Often their behavior included whipping themselves and drawing themselves into a frenzy until they drew blood. They tended to attract a great deal of riffraff. Instead of being a pious group, they became synonymous with immorality, theft, murder and illicit behavior. Finally, they were banned by the government.
In the world of Eastern European Jewry, there also were groups who traveled from town to town to inspire the masses. They did not self-flagellate, but as penance for their sins they never slept twice in the same bed. They subjected themselves to suffering, hunger and pain – often leading to early death. Nevertheless, they were viewed as holy people.
Most of these people delved into practical Kabbalah. They wrote and distributed amulets to people who had problems and who had waited for them to come to town. These holy people served especially in the smaller Jewish communities where there were no great scholars, and where visitors rarely came. When a band of holy people appeared – or one holy person – it left an impression that could last a lifetime.
Even though one can find veiled criticisms of them from many of the rabbis of the time, they gained great popularity. Few were willing to criticize them openly and they were given a wide berth.
Rabbi Yaakov Emden records an event at the time involving someone named Rabbi Judah HeHasid (“Judah the Pious”), who came from the city of Siedlce (Shedlitz in Yiddish). He organized a group consisting of hundreds of Jews to walk from Poland to Jerusalem. The group marched throughout Jewish Poland wearing white burial shrouds, encouraging others to join them. Most of them died on the road. Yet, on October 17, 1700, the remnants arrived in Jerusalem. click here to read more