Friday, April 28, 2006

Guest Posting From Chabakuk Elisha - Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk

This Shabbos, the second day of Rosh Chodesh Iyar, we remember the passing of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk. Interestingly, R’ Mendel seems to be somewhat overlooked among the great early Chassidic Rebbes; as a student of the Baal Shem Tov and his successor the Maggid, as well as being the appointed Rebbe for White Russian/Lithuanian Chassidim (by the Maggid), and according to many, the Maggid’s subsequent successor until his ultimate departure for the Holy Land, one would think that R’ Mendel would be spoken of as often, if not more often, than many of his contemporaries or later Chassidic leaders.

There are a number of reasons why this is not the case, but we can leave that for another time. For some reason, R’ Mendel has always been different for me. As a young ice-cream-and-apple-pie-eating American boy growing up in New England, Eastern Europe was not a place that I easily felt connected to. My parents & grandparents were American, and almost everything I knew was American. However, my great-grandparents were immigrants - and one city that I had heard mentioned on various occasions was my grandmother’s mother’s hometown of Vitebsk. Therefore (yes, I realize this is a somewhat weak connection), when I heard of Reb Mendel Vitebsker, I instantly felt connected.

Admittedly, this is an oversimplification, and I’ve left out all the details and ancillary bits of information that go with it, but as the years of my youth flew by, I was exposed to a number of - often quite different - lifestyles, groups and denominations, each with their own variant claims and beliefs. I was never sure how a simple human being was supposed to be capable of sorting it all out, and concluding which path was the "right path." After a while I concluded I didn’t have to do so at all; instead, I just had to decide which path was right for me, and leave the decision of right vs. wrong to the ideologues.

That’s not to say that this is always easy, but generally it seems that the "right path" is either the path that we inherit, or that feel most attracted to - and since I felt a inherited connection to Reb Mendel, and was attracted to him, I found Reb Mendel to be the most qualified for the job, which incidentally solidified my already preexistent exposure to Chabad Chassidus: Although there is no "Vitebsker" Chassidic dynasty, with Rebbes descending from Reb Mendel, he was not without spiritual heirs. His influence among the Maggid’s students was quite significant, and for Chassidim of White Russia, especially so. More than any other specific group (as the Baal HaTanya was devoted to Reb Mendel) Chabad Chassidus has carried on Reb Mendel’s path (albeit, with many subsequent developments).

Perhaps a lot of it is in my head, but Reb Mendel has had a significant influence on my life. As his Yahrzeit approaches (not to mention that my son’s birthday (Menachem Mendel, of course) is this Sunday) I hope that his light will continue to shine for me, and for an ever growing number of people. Although at various time I have attempted to learn (at least something) from R’ Mendel every week, I hope that I will understand R’ Mendel better this year. But since the idea of this posting was not supposed to be about me, I guess the real post begins here:

Reb Mendel was born in Turchin (outside of Cherson) to R’ Moshe and his wife Esther. His father was a student and chossid of the Baal Shem Tov, and R’ Mendel’s childhood teacher was none other than the Baal Shem Tov’s successor, R’ Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch. Therefore, he grew up with and among Chassidim, even visiting the Baal Shem Tov on two occasions (stories of their own). Many years later, while living in Vitebsk, he was appointed by the Maggid as Rebbe for all Chassidim in White Russia, due to the danger and hardship that the journey to the Maggid in Mezritch entailed.

He was incredibly humble; in fact, it is this trait that he is best known for. As Rebbe, he was the image of nobility. He wore fine clothing and had a stately presence; yet, he was the most humble and modest of men. Regardless of the external opulence, his heart was torn, his ego non-existent, and his humility unparalleled; he considered himself the lowest of all beings. Once, he was questioned about his custom of signing his name followed by the words, "hashafal b’emes (the truly lowly)," to which he replied, "One cannot call himself ‘truly lowly’ if he is even slightly impressed by the entourage that accompanies him."

He is credited as the source of Chabad Chassidus, as many of the concepts elaborated on by the Baal HaTanya can be found in short in Reb Mendel’s seforim. He tried unsuccessfully to make peace with the early opponents of Chassidus, and even led and directed various attempts to sit down with opposition leaders to bring about peace - famously, the Vilna Gaon refused to meet with him (and the Baal HaTanya), dooming any hopes of acceptance in their lifetime.

Yet, he harbored no ill-will towards those who opposed and persecuted him (he was forced from his position as Rav in Minsk among many other tribulations at the hands of his enemies), and although he preached a path of Chassidus, he didn’t attack the (harsher) path of his opponents, cautioning: "Do not belittle those preachers who speak harshly. They are legitimate, and come from the spirit of the Prophet Yirmiyahu who spoke words of rebuke and punishment. It is only that now, at this time, our generation suffers so greatly and lives amid such hardship that they need to hear words of consolation and encouragement instead."

Once it was clear that the opposition against Reb Mendel and Chassidim was not to weaken any time soon, he and 300 fellow Chassidim set out to live in the Holy Land in the year 1777, ultimately settling in Tiveria until his passing on the second day of Rosh Chodesh Iyar in 1788.

I have always found the directives left in Reb Mendel’s will to be fascinating, so I include them here:

R’ Mendel’s first Last Will & Testament (Tzefat, 5 Elul 1777, upon arrival from Europe):

1. Upon my passing I beseech of the burial society not to allow my body to remain unburied for more than one hour, no matter what.

2. The clothing that I am to be dressed in should specifically be my clothing that I brought from Europe.

3. I should not be placed in a coffin.

4. Those who carry me to burial should not speak at all - even words of Torah. They should only think thoughts of true repentance, and I will be in a place where even the perfectly righteous cannot stand, and therefore there are no evil forces (G-d forbid).

5. At the burial site do not place me in the ground while on the cot as is customary; rather, carry me on the cot by hand and remove my body from it, placing me in the burial plot. There should be no wooden planks (G-d forbid), only my body against the holy earth.

6. When my eyes are closed by means of a pottery shard, as is customary, and when forks are placed in my hand, as is customary, mention the holy names of our master the Baal Shem Tov, and the holy name of the Maggid of Mezritch, OB"M.

7. Immerse in a kosher Mikva, and it should specifically be a fresh Mikva.

8. Don’t perform hakafos with my body (carrying the body in circles around the gravesite) for this will lengthen the time and exceed the hour that I requested (see item#1) not to remain unburied.

9. All of my clothing, both Shabbos finery and weekday clothing, including my Zupitze with silver buttons, should be used to help the poor.

Signed, and witnessed by:

R’ Avrhom son of Alexander Katz of Kalisk
R’ Yisroel of Polotzk

The second Last Will & Testament, left for his son R’ Moshe prior to his passing:

1. Never accept any appointed positions.

2. Never quarrel with the Sephardic (local) Jews - for whatever reason - or criticize their actions, whatever they may be.

3. Never take part in any feast, such as a wedding feast or circumcision - neither with the Sephardim or the Ashkenazim (Europeans) - except for once a year, with very close friends. And even then, only if all those close friends and seekers of truth agree.

4. Never drink during the week, neither spirits nor wine, whatsoever - only do so when you have a guest or if there is a specific reason, then you should only drink one cup. On Shabbos it is permitted to drink an ounce of Arak, and two or three ounces of wine - not more.

5. Never become intoxicated, even on Purim or Simchas Torah - drink only two or three cups of wine.

6. Don’t waste money inviting many guests - rather, invite one guest and treat him properly, and Hashem will bless you.

7. Do not dress up in fine clothing - wear average clothing.

8. Keep away from honor.

9. Keep away from frivolity - take pleasure in Hashem and in serving Him.

10. Study ethical works every day (Musar - obviously this refers to what was considered Musar at that time, not be confused with the later ‘Musar movement").

11. Befriend those who seek truth.

12. Love even the lowest of Jews.

13. Keep away from falsehood with all your might - even for the sake of Heaven.

14. Don’t sign you name with the title Rabbi - rather use the common usage of, "Son of our master and teacher."

15. Do not repeat words of Torah in my name.

16. Sell all my valuables, i.e. all vessels of silver or gold, all ornaments of silver or gold, all watches, tables, beds, benches, valuable kilmesh (?), bedding, Shabbos clothing, including my Shabbos Talis, earthenware containers, glass containers, extra wine, oil & wheat - all for 1000 grush to sustain my widow, my son’s mother. It is up to her to take …(unclear) if she so desires.

17. Lend the entire 1000 grush to the Ashkenazic Kollel for the members to invest, and they should in-turn give my widow three grush a week.

18. If the entire amount comes out to be less than 1000 grush, let the difference be made up with the amount of funds that are to come in my name the following year.

19. All additional funds and extra profit from my son’s business (estimated by average expectations) should be lent to the Ashkenazic Kollel to invest.

20. My son should not reside in one home together with his mother even for a single hour; rather, she should be given her own apartment below.

21. Give 100 grush for my orphans.

22. Pay 30 grush every year towards the upkeep of the Ashkenazic synagogue in my name, for as long as possible.

23. Do not engrave any praise on my tombstone; simply write "MOH"R (our master and teacher) Menachem Mendel"

Witnessed by:
R’ Avrohom son of Alexander Katz of Kalisk
(The second witness did not sign for he was afraid to include himself with R’ Avrohom of Kalisk)


At April 28, 2006 at 10:08:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Zechuso yagein aleino

At April 28, 2006 at 2:12:00 PM EDT, Blogger Mottel said...

It looks like numbers 4 and 5 of the second Will were not inherited by Chabad.

It's funny, when I heard that R' Mendel Vitebsker and the Alter Rebbe stopped in Mogeliv Podolsk during R' Mendel's trip to Eretz Yisroel (it is there that the AR was convinced to return to Belarus) I also felt an odd connection . . .

At April 28, 2006 at 2:56:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks - at least I'm not alone :-)

(I also had the same thought about 4 & 5, and I am with R' Mendel there)

At April 30, 2006 at 4:21:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

CE, what's your take on the reticence of almost all Lubavitchers to learn other types of Chassidus? BTW, great post!

At April 30, 2006 at 10:25:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Boruch: Such reticence is very unhealthy. Many Chasidic groups (for example Breslov, Pyasetchno and others) emphasize the importance of learning all talmidey Baal Shem Tov and Maggid, because they contain the yesoydoys of Chasidus. There is no "policy" in Breslov, for example, against learning any sifrey Chasidus, on the contrary it is greatly encouraged. It is practically very hard to understand deeply Breslover sforim without some bekius in talmidey Baal Shem Tov and talmidey hoMaggid.

Chabad system on the other hand may appear self sufficient, and this can lead people to avoid learning other sifrey chasidus altogether. However it is wrong, and narrows understanding of Baal Shem Tov's teachings for people with such attitude greatly, even though they mey be well versed in Chabad sforim. I saw a number of such people who consider other chasidic sforim as somethnig of low value and non significant at all. Such approach is defenitely incorrect.

At April 30, 2006 at 10:36:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Teachings of Rabbi Menachem Mendel miVitebsk zy"o were in particularly loved and really used by the tzaddik of the previous generation who lived not so long ago – Reb Osher Froynd ztz”l, known as the “Ner haMaarovi”. You can get his biography from Reb Dovid Sears, it really worth reading.

At April 30, 2006 at 10:43:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you speak about Rabbi Menachem Mendel z"yo you should at least mention his sforim - “Pri Hooretz”, and “Pri Eytz”. Comparing to other sforim of talmidey hoMaggid they were published much later, not during his lifetime.

Recently they were reprinted nicely and combined in one seyfer Pri Hooretz (on parshiyoys, but the original sources are mentioned). It also contains his letters, and letters of Rabbi Avrohom Kalisker zy"o.

There is also seyfer "Likutey Amorim", which was printed from manuscripts of Rabbi Menachem Mendel zy"o, but these are really maymorim of the Mezhiritcher Maggid zy"o, and they are parallel to several other sforim with Maggid's teachings.

At May 1, 2006 at 11:54:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Boruch!

Indeed there is somewhat of a reticence of most Lubavitchers to learn other types of Chassidus, but I don't know if it's "almost all"...
Nevertheless, I agree with you. I would like it to be otherwise - I think it's unfortunate, and I don't subscribe to that view - but, as they say, "Whatchya gonna do..."
Here are a couple resons that I have been given for this phenomenon:
1. "Chassidus has to do with hiskashrus, and I am afraid that my hiskashrus will be damaged."
2. "Unfortunately, I am not able to understand other Chassidus, since I wasn't trined that way; and since I have plenty of chassidus to learn, I don't see the need to try to understand Chassidus from other sources"

But I think that there are many bigger reasons for this, starting with the common old-fashioned feeling among most chassidim that they belong to the "the one true way." I dare say that this was quite normal in Europe, even if Chabad is one of the last few to maintain that feeling. Not to mention that Chabad is a bit isolationist in many more ways than this... I'll leave this issue for another time.

(The wills are printed in the back of sefer Pri Haaretz)

(And the obit on R' Asher Freund Z"L is indeed a classic)

All the best!

At May 1, 2006 at 6:52:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

> But I think that there are many bigger reasons for
> this, starting with the common old-fashioned feeling
> among most chassidim that they belong to the "the one
> true way." I dare say that this was quite normal in
> Europe

Even though that is correct in some degree, it didn't not always lead chasidim not to learn other chasidic sources.

Reb Nachman miTcherin (Tcheriner Rov) ztz"l, one of the leading talmidim of Reb Noson miNemirov ztz"l (successor of Reb Nachman miBreslov ztz"l as a leader of Breslover chasidus) compiled two classical collections - "Loshn Chasidim" and "Derech Chasidim" with teachings of Baal Shem Tov's and Maggid's talmidim.

According to Breslover oral mesoyro and what is known from older chasidim he did it for several reasons. First was to show how Breslover teachings are greatly rooted in those of Baal Shem Tov and his talmidim (as an answer to some misnagdim who might say otherwise). And second - to show to Breslover chasidim themselves the importance of learining these sforim in order to understand better sifrey Breslov.

In Chayes Moharan there are sichoys were Rebe zy"o himself praises and encourages to learn sforim of Talmidey Baal Shem Tov and Maggid.

This is as well in present the feeling amongst Breslover chasidim towards these sforim.

At May 1, 2006 at 9:11:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...


"The second witness did not sign for he was afraid to include himself with R’ Avrohom of Kalisk"

What was that all about?

At May 2, 2006 at 7:14:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

Rebbe Avraham of Kalisk was a great person, but also full of controversy. I would suspect that there were some who didn't want to be associated with him at some point...

More on this post [from me] a bit later...stay tuned!

At May 2, 2006 at 8:09:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

A Yid:

You wrote, "In Chayes Moharan there are sichoys were Rebe zy"o himself praises and encourages to learn sforim of Talmidey Baal Shem Tov and Maggid."

I am interested to find these references, could you tell me where in this sefer they can be found? I appreciate your help.

At May 2, 2006 at 11:32:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Kalisker was an interesting & controversial person. He was somewhat responsible for at least some of the outrage against Chassidim, and was chastised buy the Maggid for it (Reb Mendele Vitebsker and the Baal HaTanya successfully interceded on his behalf with the Maggid).
He also (later) had an epic feud with the Baal HaTanya, and opposed the sefer Tanya; he even accused the Baal HaTanya of skimming money…really unbelievable. On the other hand, Reb Nachman said that he never saw a Tzaddik with shleimos (completeness) like he saw by the Kalisker, and the Kalisker did succeed Reb Mendele Vitebsker as leader of the Chassidc community in Israel.

(And BTW, Chayei MoHaraN was translated into English, under the title "Tzaddik." See what you find in the index there.)

At May 2, 2006 at 3:42:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My guess is that Breslov is more open to learning a variety of s'farim because Rebbe Nachman encourages one to explore the whole of Jewish sacred books and writings (Sichos HaRan 28), and later mentions that this includes Talmud, law codes, Tanach, Midrash, zohar, kabbalah, the works of the Ari, and so on (Sichos HaRan 76). So it seems that little is off limits, other than philosophy (including, it seems, the philosophical works of the Rambam).

It would seem that other Chassidim are also "open" to learning from outside sources. For example, I have been read that the study of Lukkutei Moharan is not unknown among the Satmars, and that there is even a Satmar minyan at Uman.

I agree that Chabad, while much more open that other Chassidim (even than many other Orthodox Jews for that matter), sees their Chassidus as complete and indeed the only true Chassidus, and as such need little "input" from the outside, so much so, that I have yet to meet a Chabad Chassid who has studied Zohar or the Ari in the original.

An interesting debate on this from the chabad point of view can be found here:

At May 2, 2006 at 11:26:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really such relation to Kobolo sforim amongst some Lubavitchers is strange. To such extent, that even the father of Lubavitcher Rebbe ztz"l who wrote a pirush on the Zohar was considered strange amongst other Lubavitchers, even though Baal HaTania himself advocated the study of Kobolo and Zohar in particular.

I’ve heared from one chabadnik, that in Chabad some people would rather learn Rama"k, but not the Ariza"l (I don’t quite understand this though).

Satmar on the other hand is in general against learning almost any nistar, and those in Satmar who go to Breslov are sort of rebels, unhappy with such position. Even though there are also exceptions there, but few.

Amongst other early chasidim Kobolo was a regular part of the limud for advanced loymdim. However as early as in the next generation after Talmidey hoMaggid, Reb Tzvi Hirsh Zhiditchoyver zy"o stated, that in our time even regular balabos has an obligation to learn Kobolo.

In general Russian and Ukranian chasidim (Breslov, some Chabad at least, Slonim, original Karlin, Monistrich/Korezt, Bershad, Skolye, original Chernobyl and others) are more positive about nistar and Kobolo (even original Chernobyl, which is not like this anymore today in large). Amongst Galitziane chasidim - Zhiditchoyv and Komarno are the biggest advocates of limud haNistar. Amongst Poylishe chasidim it is so and so. (For example Kozhnitz, Izhbitz and Radzin are very original. Pyasetchno is a beautiful example as well). However amongst Hungarishe chasidim in general nistar is not so popular historically, with some interesting exceptions like Munkatch (which is really rooted in Dinov).

At May 2, 2006 at 11:27:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Concerning learning sifrey chasidus and especially of talmidey Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid in Breslov, look the introduction to “Loshn Chasidim” and to “Derech Chasidim”.

In Chayey Moharan look:
Section “Lehisracheyk michakoroys” (To avoid philosophy), oys Dalet (4).
Section “Avoydas Hashem” oys Kuf-Yud (110).
(in English translation of Chayey Moharan known as Tzadik these are numbers 410 and 553).

At May 3, 2006 at 4:00:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

Back to the original post, I was a bit surprised & disappointed that CE did not include the preface to each of the wills.

For example, the first will was written in Tzfas, on 5 Elul 5537 [1777], upon the arrival of the Vitebsker to Eretz Yisrael.

He writes: "I have decided to list some things, how things should be done after my length of days & years in our Holy Land. My thoughts & will is to live here in this Holy City as it says, 'And you shall live by them,' but lest, G-d forbid, it is decreed upon me that 'the Land should atone for His Nation' at that moment, lest I be, G-d forbid, amongst those that the mind does not tolerate, as our Sages say in Baba Batra 158b: 'the air of Eretz Yisrael makes one wise, and wisdom enlivens its owners, but lest I be, G-d forbid, one who is not tolerated; therefore, I list these nine items."

I humbly request & challenge CE to revise his post, to inlcude this introduction, as well as the introduction to the second will, which I haven't translated.

[This includes the fact that the Vitebsker was of sound mind when the second will was written].

best to ASJ and CE...
from Yerushalayim Ir HaKodesh

At May 3, 2006 at 6:38:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

A Yid: Thank you for providing the references. I will look them up tonight when I get home.

Let me also state that I always appreciate your informative comments.

Please e-mail me when you get a chance. Thanks again!

At May 3, 2006 at 11:04:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comment! I was personally fascinated by the specific directives (as I wrote), which is why I listed only them. I'm sorry to disappoint though - I should have mentioned that it was not a translation of the complete will; I also felt that the posting was a bit long already, so I didn’t want to make it longer still...

- - - -
As to learning other Chassidus/ Kabballa, it would take a while to cover the issue here, and I wish I had more time to do it here. But I will touch some points briefly in the hope that it will be helpful:

Since the Shabbtai Zvi disaster, Ashkenazic Jewry was wary of the common man learning Kabbala. Chassidim were more open to Kabbalistic ideas being taught to the common man (although not all agreed that they should be in written form). Some actually encouraged study of Ari, Rama”k, Zohar, etc., and others – Chabad for example – felt that it should not be studied generally, rather, Kabbala should be studied by the Rabbeim, and then given over to the masses packaged for us. (The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s father was considered a maverick, and experienced some opposition due to his study of Kabbala)
This issue needs to be elaborated on, but I will have to leave it for another time…And the Ari / Ramak distinction is a not all that simple either…

Also, there was no specific opposition to Breslov by Chabad Rabbeim. To the contrary, there are many positive quotes and R’ Nachman’s daughter married the Alter Rebbe’s grandson. In fact the Alter Rebbe and R’ Nachman seem to have been quite friendly. Additionally, when the Rebbe Rayatz passed way, it is said that he had a Likktei Halochos (probably among other seforim) on his desk.

Gotta run for now,
Be well all!

At May 3, 2006 at 3:11:00 PM EDT, Blogger yitz said...


Perhaps no one means this, but let's not give others the impression that the only Chassidus is Chabad or Breslov. There's a lot more out there, & what I can say of most "other" Chassidic groups, such as Belz, Vishnitz, Ger, Modzitz, Bluzhov, Chernobyl, etc etc etc -- they do indeed learn from "other" groups.
Just about "everyone" learns Noam Elimelech, Kedushas Levi, and Ohev Yisrael, for example. Many learn Tiferes Shlomo [Radomsk]. Many Polishers learn from other Polish Rebbes, such as Ger-Modzitz-Alexander-Lublin, etc. Ditto the Galitzianer Chassidim, and the Ukranians. Just thought I'd add that proviso so that we don't become too sectarian here.
thanks, yitz


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