In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Kalonymus Kalman Shapira

  • Introduction
  • Biographies and Overviews
  • Historical and Cultural Background
  • Multimedia Resources

Jewish Studies Kalonymus Kalman Shapira
Ariel Evan Mayse, Daniel Reiser, Don Seeman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0202


Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (b. 1889–d. 1943), otherwise known as the Piaseczner Rebbe, was a creative mystical thinker and an important Hasidic leader. The scion of a minor Hasidic dynasty, he went on to found one of the most important Hasidic educational institutions in interwar Poland. He is best known for his sermons in the Warsaw Ghetto, but his many writings, most of which were published posthumously, offer rich depictions of the inner life, the nature of spiritual fellowship, and the revitalization of religion in the wake of secularism. Study of Shapira’s writings mediate against any claim that later Polish Hasidism as a whole had stagnated, was uninterested in the project of spiritual self-renewal, or had essentially given up on the potential for ecstasy and mystical experience. Shapira’s works have engendered a significant and growing body of scholarly research on 20th-century Hasidism, and of course, the history of the Holocaust and religious responses thereto. Though few scholars have analyzed his writings and communal leadership from broader social or cultural perspectives, Shapira’s innovative teachings on pedagogy, spiritual instruction, and the master-disciple relationship are of interest to educational philosophers and practitioners.

Biographies and Overviews

Kalonymus Shapira was born on 13 July 1889, to Rabbi Elimelekh Shapira (known as the Grodzisker Rebbe, b. 1824–d. 1892) and Hannah Berakhah, the daughter of Rabbi Hayyim Shemuel Horowicz of Chęciny. He married the daughter of Kozhenitser Rebbe, and Shapira was appointed rabbi of the city of Piaseczno in 1913, at the age of twenty-four. He moved to Warsaw after World War I, though he continued to visit Piaseczno frequently, and there he founded a yeshivah and was the leader of a Hasidic community. Shapira was an active member of the rabbinic community as well as the Orthodox Jewish political alliance Agudath Israel. It should be noted that Shapira favored a section of the movement that was more positively disposed toward settlement in the land of Israel than most and even purchased property there. His brother Rabbi Yeshayahu Shapira, popularly known as “the Pioneer Rabbi,” joined the religious Zionist movement Mizrachi and moved to an agricultural settlement in the Land of Israel before the war. Most of Shapira’s family, including his wife, son, mother, and daughter-in-law and sister-in law, died before the Germans conquered Warsaw and the ghetto was established. It is believed that Shapira was among a group that was marched into the forest and shot in early November 1943. Polen 1994, based on the author’s dissertation written with Elie Wiesel, ushered in a wave of English-language scholarship and is a foundational text. The testimony in Bein 1967 represents the reflections of someone who knew Shapira for many decades and was sensitive to his unique qualities. Frankel and Zilbershlag 1994 is an important collection of documents. Polen 2010 is an excellent overview and accessible resource on Shapira’s life and intellectual project, and Wacks 2010 is a good introduction for the Hebrew reader. The interdisciplinary volume Seeman, et al. 2021, seeks to the move the study of Shapira’s corpus in new directions branching forth from the new critical edition of one of his books.

  • Bein, Leib. From the Notebook of a Hasidic Reporter. Jerusalem, 1967.

    Firsthand description of Shapira by an individual who knew him for over three decades, noting that, in the eyes of the young author, he surpassed his rabbinical colleagues in grace, presence, and personal kindness. See pp. 27–35. In Hebrew.

  • Frankel, Hayim, and David Hayim Zilbershlag, ed. Zikhron Kodesh le-Ba‘al Esh Kodesh: Yovel le-Aliyato al mokad shel Morrenu ha-rav Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira. Jerusalem: Va’ad Hasidei Piaseczno, 1994.

    An important resource with four sections: (1) a biography, following that of Sorasky with some additions and photographs; (2) a collection of articles about Shapira; (3) a reprinting of Kerem 1 (1931), a Torah journal published by Shapira’s yeshivah Da’at Moshe; (4) seventeen letters, with both copies of the manuscript and transcription though with unfortunate errata. In Hebrew.

  • Polen, Nehemia. The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymos Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1994.

    Pathbreaking spiritual biography that introduced Shapira to the English world and ushered in the field of scholarship on Shapira. Pays close attention to his Holocaust theology and Shapira’s reflections on the life of the spirit in times of trauma.

  • Polen, Nehemia. “Shapiro, Kalonymus Kalmish ben Elimelekh of Piaseczno.” In YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. Edited by Gershon D. Hundert. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.

    Excellent and accessible overview of Shapira’s life and literary works, as well as his place in the world of Polish Hasidism.

  • Seeman, Don, Daniel Reiser, and Ariel Evan Mayse, eds. Hasidism, Suffering, and Renewal: The Prewar and Holocaust Legacy of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2021.

    Interdisciplinary reassessing of Shapira’s entire written corpus examining his literary and educational goals, the link between his prewar mysticism and his Holocaust era sermons, and the question of faith—or its collapse—in the Warsaw Ghetto. Special attention is paid to the importance of Reiser’s 2017 critical edition (Reiser 2017, cited under Printed Books) of Shapira’s wartime homilies.

  • Sorosky, Aharon. “The Life and Times of the Holy Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira of Piaseczno.” In Esh Kodesh. By Aharon Sorosky, i–xxvii. Jerusalem: Va’ad Hasidei Piasetzna, 1960.

    An in-depth biography informed by the author’s interviews with the Shapira family in Israel and with the students that survived the Holocaust. In Hebrew.

  • Wacks, Ron. The Flame of the Holy Fire: Perspectives on the Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymous Kalmish Shapiro of Piaczena. Alon Shvut, Israel: Tvunot, 2010.

    Explores many dimensions of Shapira’s thought and philosophy, including his approach to prayer and worship, emotional development, contemplative education, and the cultivation of prophecy. Includes biographical sketches and analysis of Shapira’s writings and appendices on his contemplative techniques. In Hebrew.

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