The Messianic Secret of Hasidism,

Published byBrill Academic Publishers, Leiden 2006.




The Fellowship of Immigrants

            An important chapter in the story of messianic immigrations between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries is that of the Hasidic immigration of 5537 (1777).   The writer Benjamin Redler-Feldman (R. Benjamin), a participant in the Second immigration,[1] compared the Hasidic immigrantsto the pilgrims who came to America aboard the Mayflower.  That comparison is certainly exaggerated, but it provides historical perspective on the importance of this immigration:

Hundreds of years ago, on 5 August 1620, a ship called the “Mayflower” reached the shores of America and a band of English Puritans disembarked.  They had left their native land, where they were targets of religious persecution, and came to America to live there in freedom.  To this day, Americans revere the memory of that ship, and descendants of that band are regarded as having the highest pedigree.Had we a profound sense of history, we would relate in the same manner to the Hasidic aliyyah of 5537 (1777), for the ship that brought them to the Land of Israel was our “Mayflower.”[2]

            The group of immigrantscomprised disciples and colleagues of R. Yehiel Mikhel, coming both from White Russia and from Volhynia and Eastern Galicia.  Some researchers, emphasizing the White Russian origin of the group’s leaders—R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk and R. Abraham of Kolyshki—infer that all of the immigrantscame from that region.  But there is in fact strong evidence that the group comprised Hasidim from both regions: the band embarked from Brody; fund raising efforts on its behalf were centralized in that city from the outset; and a schism later developed between immigrantsfrom the two regions.  The continual contacts between the immigrantsand the Hasidic-messianist group led by R. Yehiel Mikhel evidence a single group with a shared goal.  These ties can be inferred from the actions of the two bands, the familial and social connections between them, and their common concealment of the mystical underpinnings of their enterprise.

            The two epistles of R. Meshullam Feibush Heller, a close disciple of R. Yehiel Mikhel, are an important source of information about the immigration, for they are the only surviving letters sent from the Diaspora to the immigrants.  But R. Meshullam Feibush’s comments have been misinterpreted as the remarks of a casual observer of the enterprise.  In fact, his use of the third person to refer to the immigrantsdoes not indicate distance from them; rather, it reflects the constraints imposed by the group’s commitment to writing cryptically.  R. Meshullam Feibush Heller was the brother-in-law of one of the immigrants, R. Joel b. Moses (also a disciple of R. Yehiel Mikhel),[3] and the letters sent to him were intended for all the group’s members in the Land of Israel.

            In contrast, we possess many of letters sent by the leaders of the immigrantsto the group’s members in the Diaspora, and their higher survival rate may be connected to the manner in which they were distributed.  Some of the letters were sent via rabbinic emissaries, passing merchants, or pilgrims, while others were sent “by post”[4]—extremely expensive postal services.  In order to save money and ensure that the letters would reach their destination, they would often send multiple copies and would even request the addressees to make copies and send them on to additional recipients.  It that way, the circle of readers was broadened, and many of the letters made their way into print.  Unfortunately, many of the letters underwent censorship or had invented passages inserted in them, so that their authors’ full accounts became distorted beyond recognition.[5]  Still, the letters were written in the code used by all members of the group, and when they are read together with the epistles of R. Meshullam Feibush Heller, their concealed content becomes clear.  The available information shows the existence of a fully formed group with a messianic program whose implementation was to be accelerated by the immigrationto the Land of Israel.

            The messianic program was based on the holy place, the holy man, and the proper time; only their commingling could prepare the ground for the Messiah’s advent and open the gates of redemption.[6]  According to the plan, the members of the group who immigrated to the Land of Israel represented the group as a whole.  Their task was to sanctify themselves with the sanctity of the Land and prepare themselves to herald the redemption, which would begin in the Land of Israel in the month of Iyyar 5541 (April-May 1781).  In other words, the immigrantswere emissaries.  Their immigrationto the Land of Israel was to serve as the “an arousal below” which had the potential to bring about “the arousal above” and stimulate the coupling in the supernal worlds.

            The group of immigrantswas headed, as already noted, by R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk, then about thirty-nine years of age.  R. Menahem Mendel was believed to be endowed with meta-rational knowledge grounded in higher inspiration, a sort of “prophetic mind” as defined by Moshe Halamish.[7]  That sort of consciousness precedes the existence of the mind and rational thought and differs fundamentally from them.  It is sometimes referred to in Hasidic writings as “the mind’s primordial condition (qadmut ha-sekhel),” and Gershom Scholem identified it with unconscious region of the soul or the “primordial soul,” which “is not passive and inert but active and creative.”[8] It is the region that comes into contact with divine inspiration and is nourished by it, and it therefore mediates between divine wisdom and human cognition.  One way in which the unconscious mediates is by translating divine knowledge into images that are received by rational consciousness and processed by it into simple, understandable truths expressed in words.  Having that ability made it possible for R. Menahem Mendel to see in the form of a vision what the future concealed, as if foreseeing what was to be, and to infer the outcome of a matter from its origin: “Thus I will know the end of every object, its description, appearance, and size, and, with God’s help, I will not err in what I see.”[9]  R. Menahem Mendel denied he had the attribute of prophecy, writing that “I am not a prophet or a seer”; but he did not deny having been endowed with supernatural knowledge, grounded in “the Torah of truth and God’s counsel to know all the people He created.”  His quality of seeing in a vision what human eyes normally cannot see, combined with his connection to his colleagues through strong bonds of love, enabled him to know them—“I know each of them from A to Z”—and to see them “as if their images stood before me, recognizing their appearances in the uncovering of their hearts, their essences, and their qualities.”[10]

            Thus, the two leaders of the Hasidic-messianist group—R. Yehiel Mikhel, who remained in the Diaspora, and R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk, who immigrated to the Land of Israel—were believed to attain the Holy Spirit in different but complementary manners:  the one “heard” the divine voice through the entry of “understanding” into words of Torah or prayer,[11] while the other “saw” the truth in a vision.  Both qualities were essential to the success of their program.  According to the doctrine of linkage of souls, developed in R. Yehiel Mikhel’s study house, R. Yehiel Mikhel elevated the prayers of the group’s members and purified them of extraneous thoughts, while the members’ prayers elevated his image, the image of the zaddik, and perfected it.  Meanwhile, R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk was ready to portray the images of the members in his heart, to gather their prayers, and to send them on, via “the Gate of Heaven,” to the supernal sanctuaries.  Using other imagery, they can be described as a human embodiment of Yakhin and Boaz, the two pillars of the Temple.

            The members of the group thus translated into practical terms the advice of R. Isaiah Horowitz (the Shelah) to dispatch prayers to “the Gate of Heaven.”  That translation gained expression in the linkage formulation preserved in the writings of R. Abraham of Zolochev, in which the route taken by the members’ prayers is sketched:  “I hereby dispatch my prayer from here to the Land of Israel, from the Land of Israel to Jerusalem; from Jerusalem to the Temple Mount; from the Temple Mount to the courtyard; from the courtyard to the hall; from the hall to the sanctuary; from the sanctuary to the holy of holies; and from the holy of holies to the sanctuary of the sapphire pavement, to the very place where my patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob prayed.”[12]  And this was no mere symbolic path; it is an actual path that the group of immigrantsplanned to follow at the proper time, with the opening of the Gates of Heaven in the month of Iyyar 5541 (April-May 1781).

            Following R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk in the leadership ranks of the immigrantswas R. Abraham Katz (כ"ץ, an acronym for kohen zedeq, priest of righteousness) of Kolyshki.  His position appears to have been no mere happenstance, for service in the Temple requires a priest, and that explains the frequent pairing of prophet and priest—after the model of Moses and Aaron—within messianist groups of kabbalists.  R. Joseph Karo saw himself in the image of Moses, and his colleague R. Solomon ha-Levi Elqabetz was in the image of Aaron the priest.  R. Yehiel Mikhel also identified with the image of Moses, and it may not be a coincidence that of all his colleagues it was a Levite—R. Meshullam Feibush ha-Levi Heller—who was selected to write the epistles that were dispatched to the Land of Israel.

            The immigrantswere the elite of the group.  R. Meshullam Feibush Heller referred to them as “the heads of the Israelites”—the term used for the twelve spies, representatives of the tribes, who had been dispatched to scout the Land of Canaan (Num. 13:3).  Moreover, he explicitly noted that they were endowed with the Holy Spirit: “And the whole ones who went were very renowned, possessors of the Holy Spirit, great ones of the revealed and hidden Torah, and with them the heads of the Israelites,[13] from the poor of the holy flock, the lamb of Israel’s dispersion.”[14]

            The expression “poor of the flock” that R. Meshullam Feibush uses to refer to the immigrantsis borrowed from the prophet Zechariah: “And the poor of the flock that heed me will know that it was the word of the Lord” (Zech. 11:11).  Rashi interprets the poor of the flock as “the righteous ones among them, who observe my rules,” while the author of David's Fortress, relying on the shared verbal stem (ענה - `-n-h) of “poor” and “humble,” explains that the poor of the flock are “the humble and subjugated of Israel, who observe my word.”[15]  The reference, accordingly, is to the spiritually humble, the righteous who serve God with devotion and submission, and not to the literally poor, as some investigators have incorrectly understood it.[16]  Moreover, “poor” is the description applied to the Messiah by the prophet Zechariah (Zech. 9:9), and “the poor and the destitute” is a term applied to the Israelites returning from the lands of their exile.[17]

            The messianic aspect of R. Meshullam Feibush Heller’s description of the immigrantsis expressed as well in his application to them of the term “whole ones.”  This implies they are perfect—flawless and lacking nothing.  “Whole ones” are also those who, as Rashi interprets it, accepted the shared decision “that all would be equally committed to a single agreement.”[18]  That sobriquet shows that the decision to immigrate was a shared one, intended to fulfill a special, defined assignment.  But the adjectives “whole” (shalem) and “perfect” (tamim) refer as well to sexual purity, and Scripture, as understood by various midrashim assigns them to one who has been circumcised.[19]  These designations show the importance assigned to the high ethical caliber and sexual purity of the immigrants, without which they would be unable to carry out the task for whose sake they had immigrated.

            The connection between sexual purity and entry into the land goes back to the Bible.  God promises Abraham that the Land of Canaan will be bequeathed to his descendants but sets as a precondition the covenant of circumcision, that is, removal of the foreskin:

And I will give to you and to your seed after you, the land in which you sojourn, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God. And God said to Abraham, “But you shall keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for all their generations.  This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you: circumcise every male among you.  And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. (Gen. 17:8-11.)

Similarly, Joshua circumcises the nation before they cross the Jordan to enter the Land of Israel,[20] and rabbinic midrash has him say to them, “Do you think you will enter the Land uncircumcised?”[21]  In kabbalistic tradition, removal of the foreskin symbolizes elimination of the forces of evil.  In fulfilling the commandment of circumcision, a man is sanctified and transformed into a righteous person, fit to approach the shekhinah and enter the Land of Israel.[22]  Estori ha-Parhi likewise wrote: “one who comes and enters the Holy Land to dwell in it should enter holy in his wealth and holy in his body; he should be pure of hands, clean of palms, and a person of feeling…And if so, one who is a perfect offering will find the Land of Israel suited to him.”[23]

            The sexual purity ascribed to the immigrantswas attributed in Hasidic tradition to R. Yehiel Mikhel himself.  It is possible that his obligation and that of his son, R. Joseph of Yampol, to immigrate to the Land of Israel may form the background for the plan to send some members of the group as a vanguard, as hinted at in the epistle of R. Menahem Mendel of Peremyshlyany.[24]  It is not known why they failed to join the immigrantsbut, in any event, the immigrantsdid include the third person mentioned in the epistle, R. Yehiel Mikhel’s relative R. Solomon Zalman Vilner.[25]  Upon his arrival, he became one of the group’s most active rabbinic emissaries.  (Rabbinic emissaries were individuals dispatched to the Diaspora to raise funds and organize the support of the various communities for the residents of the Land of Israel.)  R. Solomon Vilner was involved not only in monetary matters; he delivered letters and messages as well and served as a personal emissary from the leader of the immigrants, R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk, to the leaders of the Brody community.  It is fair to assume that he also was the liaison between R. Yehiel Mikhel and R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk.  Evidence to that effect can be found in the comments of R. Meshullam Feibush Heller, whose letter of Tishri 5542 (1781) suggests that he met with R. Solomon Vilner.[26]  It appears the meeting took place in Brody in 5541 (1781), before R. Solomon Vilner returned to the Land of Israel, and R. Yehiel Mikhel presumably was present as well.






The Journey to the Land of Israel and the Settlement in Safed and Tiberius

            The immigrantsand their families set out at the height of winter, in the month of Adar 5537 (1777), a few months before the tiqqun leil shavu`ot conducted in R. Yehiel Mikhel’s prayer house in Brody.[27]  The timing was deliberate, for in that year, “a rumor went out that the King Messiah was coming.”[28]  David Assaf has associated the rumor with the victories at that time of Russia against the Ottoman Empire that created rumors of a nearby Jewish redemption among Christian millenarian circles, as well as the year’s status as the centenary (two jubilee periods) of Shabbetai Zevi’s death.[29]  The rumor spread not only in Eastern Europe but through all quarters of the Jewish world, and it may have been the impetus for the immigration of a group from North Africa—“Sephardic people” from the community of “Tukhos”, apparently Tunis, whom the immigrantsencountered in the Land of Israel.  R. Israel of Polotsk reports in a letter that the North African group numbered thirty, while R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk tells of 130 souls.[30]  The Hasidim saw the gathering of Jews from different parts of the Diaspora as a sign that the Messiah was coming.  They wrote to their colleagues that the North Africans included “rich and poor alike, Sages and servants of God,”[31] and they suggested the North Africans’ motive for coming resembled their own: “they all entered into a pact last Purim to go to the Holy Land, and so they did.  And they were able to do so.”[32]  In effect, they depicted the immigrantsfrom North Africa as a mirror image of themselves.[33]

            At that time, the usual route for immigration to the Land of Israel comprised four segments: southward, overland, via Ukraine and Podolia to the River Dneister, beyond which lay Wallachia, under Ottoman rule, and on to the city of Galati (now in Romania); from Galati, down the River Danube to the Black Sea estuary, a distance of about 150 kilometers; by ship on the Black Sea to Istanbul, a distance of about 450 kilometers; and from Istanbul, by ship on the Mediterranean to the shores of the Land of Israel, usually to the port of Acco, a distance of about 1,700 kilometers.  The pilgrims’ ships left Istanbul twice a year: in the month of Nisan, in anticipation of Passover, and at the start of the month of Elul, in anticipation of Rosh Ha-Shanah and the other holidays of Tishri.  The entire journey, from the Polish border to the Land of Israel, took thirty or forty days, excluding delays and necessarily longer stays in one of the ports—in Galati, at the Black Sea estuary (apparently in the port of Solena), or in Istanbul—because of adverse weather conditions.[34]

            Istanbul was the center of Ottoman rule, and the Jewish community there excelled in the help and organized support it provided to pilgrims, immigrants and the inhabitants of the Land of Israel.  On the first of Elul, the leaders of the community would hire a special ship called “the fund’s ship,” for the rabbinic emissaries, who would transport large sums of money to the Jews of the Land of Israel, and its time of departure would be announced in all the city’s synagogues.[35]  Most of the pilgrims and immigrantspreferred to depart in advance of the Tishri holidays, generally awaited the organized departure in the month of Elul[36]; on a ship leased by the Jewish community they felt more secure vis a vis both the ship owners and the sailors, and they also were less fearful of being robbed by pirates or kidnapped into slavery—common occurrences in the Ottoman empire until the nineteenth century.

            The group safely completed the overland portion of the journey as well as the trip down the Danube to the Black Sea estuary.  There, apparently at the port of Solena, they made camp and waited until conditions permitted a comfortable and secure crossing of the Black Sea.  But the original plan may have been to reach the Land of Israel in time for Shavuot in the year 5537 (1777), and some of them therefore hastened to depart at winter’s end or the beginning of the spring.  They encountered a storm on the Black Sea, and their ship was wrecked and went down near the CrimeanPeninsula.  Of the eighty-three passengers, including women, children, and elderly, only thirty were rescued; the remaining fifty-three travelers drowned.  Their bodies washed ashore the following week, and they were identified and buried.  Some of the survivors saw the event as a test of their determination, and they decided to continue on to the Land of Israel.  Others returned penniless to their places of origin.  And so, for example, the Brody court in 5538 (1778) took the testimony of one of the survivors in order to confirm that one of the surviving women had in fact been widowed in the wreck and was free to remarry.  The witness recounted how the woman’s husband had bound himself with ropes to the mast and was probably thrown into the sea by the Ishmaelite (Muslim) sailors.  The family’s two daughters also drowned, though it is not clear which of the family members drowned first.  The witness himself had managed to rescue a baby, whom he carried the entire time on his shoulders, and when he reached dry land, he sought out a campfire at which he could warm the infant.[37]

            The account of the wrecked ship, which cast a dark shadow over the entire journey, is wrapped in mystery.  Climatic conditions in the Black Sea make it impossible for a ship setting out southward to Istanbul to be swept 270 kilometers eastward to the shores of Crimea; the prevailing winds and currents simply do not go in that direction.[38]  Had the ship encountered a storm while sailing southward from the Black Sea estuary (Solena) toward Istanbul, it likely would have been swept southward or northward and wrecked on the coast of Rumania.  We may infer, therefore, that it sailed not southward but eastward, toward the CrimeanPeninsula.  When it neared the rocky coast of Crimea, its sailors lost control of its rudder, the ship encountered a storm, and it broke up on the rocks near shore.

            Why the ship sailed eastward rather than southward remains unknown.  It is possible that the group of Hasidim unwittingly hired a pirate ship, whose masters sailed toward the CrimeanPeninsula intending to rob their naïve passengers in mid-ocean or to sell them into slavery.  At that time, the CrimeanPeninsula was under the rule of the Tatars, who traded in slaves taken in that way.[39]  If so, the Hasidim and their families set sail without understanding their actual situation; they did not speak the sailors’ language—apparently, Turkish—and were unaware that they had been kidnapped and were sailing eastward rather than southward.

            The remainder of the immigrantsstayed behind on the shores of the Black Sea and did not set sail for Istanbul until the approach of the month of Elul.  From Istanbul, they sailed in two ships, one taking seven days and the other nine.  R. Israel of Polotsk wrote to his colleagues, “Blessed is God, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to the Holy Land in peace on this fifth day of Elul 5537 (1777), not one of us lost.”[40]  The size of the group is unknown; R. Israel of Polotsk said it numbered “more than three hundred souls,”[41] but that is certainly an overstatement, and he may have included in it those who were lost in the shipwreck as well as those who were rescued and returned home.  HayaStiman-Katz estimated that about twenty-five Hasidim arrived; with their wives and children, they numbered more than one hundred people.[42]

            Upon their arrival, the group headed to the Galilee, which was ruled by the Pasha Ahmed Jazzar.  Some settled in Pequi`in and in Kefar Yasif, where a few families of Jewish farmers lived, but most settled in Safed.  In the late 1720s, few hundred Jews resided in Safed.  But an epidemic broke out in 5502 (1742), and several earthquakes in 5520 (1760) led to the abandonment of many houses; overall, the number of Jews dwindled to about two hundred.  Ahmed Jazzar, who generally taxed the populace heavily, was gracious to the residents of Safed and eased their tax burden, aiming to repopulate it.  R. Israel of Polotsk observes, “And we found in [Safed] many good, large, empty houses.  We now worship in Beit Yosef.  There are three intact synagogues here and many in ruins.  And we are building a new synagogue for ourselves.”[43]  And so the immigrantsresettled the abandoned houses, made the synagogue of R. Joseph Karo, Beit Yosef, their regular place of worship, and began to build an additional synagogue.  They explored Safed and its surroundings, worshipping at the Ari’s grave and at the graves of talmudic Sages and visiting the cave of R. Simeon b. Yohai in Meron.  They also went down to Tiberias to immerse in its hot springs and visit its ancient sites.  They wrote to their colleagues that the Sages of Jerusalem invited them to live amongst them and that the Sages of Tiberias likewise urged them to settle there.[44]

            The enthusiastic tone of the group’s letters to the Diaspora could scarcely conceal the shock of their encounter with the Land of Israel.  It was a backward land subject to a corrupt, arbitrary government whose tyranny produced a perpetual state of instability.  The immigrantswere subjected not only to the provocations of their Muslim neighbors and the insecurity of highways plagued by brigands, but also to the natural hardships of the Land—malaria, especially in the marshy areas surrounding the Sea of Galilee, plague, constantly short supplies of potable water, and locusts that would consume grain and cause severe famine.  City dwellers were few, and earthquakes frequently claimed victims and emptied settlements overnight.  Sources of income were very limited—primitive agriculture, light crafts, shepherding.  The Ashkenazi Jews, unacquainted with the Arabic and Turkish vernaculars, suffered particular hardship.  Years later, R. Abraham of Kolyshki described the reaction of one newly arrived in the Land of Israel, who is at first “driven literally insane, rendered mad with no respite, ascending heavenward and descending to the depths like a ship wrecked at sea.”[45]  But the immigrantsdid not at the outset disclose these feelings, and R. Abraham of Kolyshki, writing in 5538 (1778), struck a hopeful tone: “Over time, people will learn one another’s languages, and it will be possible to engage in many ways of making a living.”[46]  Meanwhile, they lived off the funds they had brought with them and off loans that they did not know how to repay.

            These external difficulties of the immigrantswere compounded by power struggles and internal conflicts with the long-established Jewish residents of the Land of Israel.  The small Jewish community, divided between Ashkenazim and Sefardim, was concentrated in the four holy cities—Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias—as well as in Gaza, Acco, Shekhem, Jaffa and in the Galilee villages such as Shefaram and Peqi`in. According to Jacob Barnai’s estimations, 3000 Jews lived in Jerusalem out of a total population of 15,000 people. In the other three holy cities – Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias – there were smaller communities, numbering hundreds each, altogether about 1500-2000 people. Several hundred Jews lived in the Galilee villages while in the other cities there were a few dozen Jews. During the eighteenth century there were thus some 6000-8000 Jews in the Land of Israel.[47]  Most of the Jews lived off light labor, commerce, and allotments of the funds raised in the Diaspora.  The dependence on charity generated conflict over how to distribute the funds among the various communities in a non-discriminatory fashion.  Particularly intense was the conflict between the established residents and the new immigrants, whose arrival expanded the circle of recipients, thereby reducing the per-capita allocation.  To make matters worse, the established residents would regularly bring into the conflicts the leaders of the donor communities, such as “the Istanbul Committee of Officials for the Land of Israel,” whose representatives in the Land of Israel doubled as the community’s representatives vis a vis the Ottoman government.[48]  As one would expect, the Jewish community was weakened by the involvement of the Diaspora leaders, whether in Istanbul, Eastern Europe, or Amsterdam, and by the tendency to involve Ottoman government officials and attempt to sway them one way or the other. Against this background, R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk and his colleagues found themselves in a power struggle with the established leadership of the Ashkenazi community in Safed and with the heads of the Sephardic community.  The battles were accompanied by mutual attacks and by complaints to the communities in the Diaspora, such as R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk’s charge that the Sefardim in Safed were “completely wicked, believers in Shabbetai Zevi, may his name be erased.”[49]  The rivalries distressed and enervated him, and he ultimately decided to leave Safed and settle in Tiberias, where only a few Ashkenazim had previously lived.

            R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk’s decision to move to Tiberias was made easier by the fact that, soon after arriving in the Land of Israel, he married off his son Moses to “SeñoraYokheved,” daughter of a prominent Sephardic family, “of the worthy and elite of Jerusalem and of the Sefardim who are there,”[50] and related to the Sephardic rabbinic leader in Tiberius.  These factors suggest a degree of substance to the nevertheless unproven tradition that the bride belonged to the Abulafia family.  Behind the match lay practical considerations—the desire of R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk to forge familial ties with the Sefardim and, especially, to gain a foothold in Tiberias.

            In the month of Shevat 5539 (1779), R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk along with several members of the group, apparently including R. Abraham of Kolyshki, left Safed for Tiberias.  Shortly before that, R. Solomon Chelmo, formerly rabbi of Lvov, had left Tiberias.  The hostility between him and R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk can readily be seen in one of the latter’s letters;[51] and when R. Solomon Chelmo left Tiberias, R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk settled in his vacated residence.

            R. Menahem Mendel was pleased at the warm reception he was afforded in Tiberias—which contrasted with the hostility that had been shown by the residents of Safed—but it did nothing to alleviate his deepening depression, for the Land of Israel had been afflicted by famine since his group’s arrival.  The price of wheat soared, and the immigrants’ economic situation went from bad to worse.  They consumed all their assets and carried a growing burden of interest on the loans they were forced to take.  The bitter fights with the established Ashkenazi community and the leaders of the Sefardi community in Safed over the allocation of charitable funds to the immigrantswere played out against that background.  The conflicts led R. Menahem Mendel to decide that he had to organize a separate levy for the members of his group and give up dependence on the existing sources of charitable funds, administered by the established residents of the Land.  To that end, three rabbinic emissaries were dispatched in 5538 (1778) or 5539 (1779).  R. Israel of Polotsk and R. Elazar (Eliezer) Zussman were sent to Istanbul and thence to Holland, to the Ashkenazi communities of The Hague and Amsterdam, which were a regular source of support for the residents of the Land of Israel.  R. Solomon Zalman Vilner was sent to Vilnius and to Brody.[52]  His mission, however, was not only to raise funds and organize a system of regular support; evidently, he was sent as well to meet face-to-face with R. Yehiel Mikhel and the rest of the group to coordinate with them the actions to be taken upon the appearance of the signs expected to be revealed in the Galilee in the month of Iyyar 5541 (April-May 1781).

Nisan-Iyyar 5541 (March-May 1781)





            R. Solomon Zalman Vilner’s mission met with success.  Shortly before the month of Nisan 5541 (March-April 1781), he returned to Tiberias ““bearing letters and legal decisions from Your Honors, with the approbation of the gaon (lit. “genius”; an honorific for a very prominent rabbi), the venerable rabbi; and the approbations of the collectors of funds for the Land of Israel in Brody to remedy the past by canceling the obligations of individuals and the congregation… But even that will be a small matter in the eyes of God and man, and they spoke to the house of their distant servant to provide me my appropriate allotment of food from year to year.”[53]  Under the influence of the group’s members in Brody, R. Hayyim Segal Landau, the fundraiser for the Land of Israel and head of the Brody kloyz, agreed to discharge all the debts accumulated by the immigrantssince their arrival in the Land of Israel and to grant R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk an annual allocation.  It is noteworthy that R. Hayyim Segal Landau was not the only kabbalist of the Brody kloyz to support the messianic program of R. Yehiel Mikhel and his colleagues; other prominent kabbalists in the kloyz provided approbations for the books of Lurianic kabbalah printed by R. Yehiel Mikhel’s disciples in Korets around that time.[54]  The fundraisers for the Land of Israel in the Vilnius community also joined in support; one of them—R. Samuel b. R. Hayyim Shabtels, a relative of R. Elijah, the Gaon of Vilnius—was R. Hayyim Segal Landau’s son-in-law.[55]

            The encouraging news restored R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk’s spirits; three and one-half years after arriving in the Land of Israel, he finally saw the enterprise bearing fruit.  He expressed his heartfelt hopes for redemption in two coded letters that he wrote in the months of Nisan and Iyyar 5541 (March-May 1781).  The first was headed “Epistles of Good Tidings from Our Holy Rabbis Who Are in the Land of Israel”[56]; in it, R. Menahem Mendel emphasizes that he was a herald of good tidings: “The praises of God I call out…I herald and say…the words of this epistle of good tidings.”  One can discern in the letter’s opening the writer’s special relationship with the addressees, whom he speaks of in terms of affection and intimacy, such as “men of quality, men of renown, our dear friends.  My beloved, my soul-friends engraved on my heart.”  His words suggest that the great distance separating them physically does not vitiate their intimacy, which is built on a spiritual linkage that transcends space and time.

            The letter exudes an air of readiness and anticipation, beginning with its poetic opening: “The praises of God I call out; I declare his name to my brethren.  In the midst of a great assemblage I praise God with song and magnify with gratitude the house of God.  Those who desire righteousness sing and rejoice; the pious ones exult in the glory of the Name that is magnified, sanctified and exalted by them.”[57]  Immediately thereafter, R. Menahem Mendel turns to a detailed account of the group’s experiences since arriving in the Land of Israel: “Until now, I did not want to distress my lovers and friends, but now it is my obligation to tell.”  He emphasizes the miracles that took place: the departure of R. Solomon Chelmo, “who was expelled [from Tiberias] by Heaven, not by human intervention”; his becoming established in Tiberias where “God be blessed, all the Sefardim surrendered to me”; and the success of R. Solomon Zalman Vilner in Vilnius and Brody, which R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk saw as “a miracle within a miracle” and “the beginning of redemption.”  In passing, R. Menahem Mendel extols the commandment to go on immigration to the Land of Israel and describes the torments suffered by the immigrantsas “the torments of the Land of Israel,” noting that “for one with true intentions, the Sages of blessed memory compared the Land of Israel to Torah and to the World to Come, which are impossible [to achieve] except through ordeals.”  He was referring to the statement of R. Simeon b. Yohai: “The Holy One blessed be He gave Israel three good gifts, but they were given only through torments, and they are the Torah, the Land of Israel, and the World to Come.”[58]

            The immigration to the Land of Israel is thus depicted as the start of the redemption.  Its torments are the ordeals that purify the immigrantsand wipe away their sins, making them ready to greet the Messiah.  R. Menahem Mendel sees these tribulations as atonement for the sins of all Israel, for “we suffered such torments that all who serve God were exempted through our torments.”[59]  As for R. Menahem Mendel himself, the torments were intended to free him from his bodily chains and prepare him to receive the special “Message” about to be revealed in the Land of Israel:

And I am confident that, God willing, we will have a message about it this year.  And therefore, everyone one of those who love me who has it in mind to approach the inner sanctum and settle in the Holy Land should write to me. And, God willing, I will inform you clearly next year, God willing.  And were it not for the ordeals, how I would long for my friends, colleagues, brethren, and fellows to come to the Holy Land.  We would assemble together in happiness and joy, trembling in His service, may He be blessed.  But at the outset, one cannot be assured of withstanding the trials…though I will stand on my watch.  For I have confidence in God that we have already spent the time needed to gain possession of the Holy Land.  And the tribulations we have endured are sufficient for all those who wish to partake of God’s patrimony in truth.  And, God willing, after [gaining] the message, I will inform you.

R. Menahem Mendel saw himself as a messenger—“one dispatched by the provincial officers to the palace of the king”—standing watch in the Land of Israel, and he overlooked nothing related to “the repair (tiqqun) of the province, in all respects, physical and spiritual.”  He tied the “Message” that would be revealed to the desire of some colleagues in the Diaspora to go on immigration: “My beloved, brethren, and fellows, I have heard, with the help of God, may He be blessed, that R. Hayyim of Krasnow and several more God-fearing men wish to come.  God forbid they should be compelled, but let them come in joy.”  Though encouraging his colleagues to join him, he requested them to be patient until the matter of the tiqqun—“the repair of the province” in matters of “the body” and “the soul,” that is, tiqqun of the nation and its redemption in the Land of Israel—was revealed and clarified.  In the course of doing so, he pledged that “I will stand on my watch,” particularly with respect to all matters related to “my dear ones who love me, who in reality are with me always, engraved on my heart, both in my prayers and in my withdrawal in my house, in all their affairs.”

            Aryeh Morgenstern observed that the expression “I will stand on my watch” is borrowed from the words of the prophet Habakkuk, which were used by Immanuel Hai Ricchi in his End-reckonings: “I will stand on my watch…And God answered me, saying ‘…for there is yet a vision for the appointed time, a witness to the end that will not lie.  Though it tarry, await it; for it will surely come, it will not delay.’” (Hab. 2:1-3.)  Morgenstern inferred from this that the unique “Message” anticipated by R. Menahem Mendel was notice of the revelation of the Messiah in the month of Iyyar 5541 (April-May 1781), in accordance with Immanuel Hai Ricchi’s reckonings.[60]  But the expression “a vision for the appointed time” suggests that R. Menahem Mendel assured his colleagues that the vision—as distinct from the event itself—would come at the appointed time, that is, in Iyyar 5541 (April-May 1781).  The epistle, accordingly, provided tidings of the tidings.

            The vision indeed appeared on time.  Evidence to that effect is provided by the ensuing letter, sent from Tiberias in Iyyar 5541 (April-May 1781), during the week of Lag be-Omer.[61]  This letter, too, was written in code, interchanging singular and plural.  For example, the letter was addressed to R. Isaiah of Dunayevtsy, even though it was written to the entire group.  Conversely, the rabbinic emissary who transported the letter is alternately referred to in singular and plural: “Our friends and associates, rabbinic emissaries from the Land of Israel, Sages, [God-] fearing and perfect men, who delivers this writing.”[62]

            As for substance, the letter is very short and its content obscure, but the occasion on which it was written affords it special meaning.  On Lag be-Omer, the Ari had the practice of gathering with his disciples at the grave of R. Simeon b. Yohai in the Village of Meron and conducting the “nuptials(hillula) of R. Simeon b. Yohai,” a symbolic ritual representing the heavenly ascent of R. Simeon b. Yohai for a nuptial ceremony with the shekhinah.  It is no coincidence that in the month of Iyyar 5541 (April-May 1781)—the appointed time of redemption according to Immanuel Hai Ricchi’s calculations—and during the week of Lag be-Omer, R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk received the “Message,” and a tone of fulfilled expectations emerges from between the lines of his letter:

My very essence and nature and the causes of God’s redeeming us will emerge explicitly from the mouth of our friends and associates, rabbinic emissaries from the Land of Israel, Sages, [God-] fearing and perfect men, who delivers this writing, to interpret and recount miracles and wonders.  And God’s kindnesses are with us always, such that the mouth wearies of recounting them, but we have placed in their mouths all our needs and requests…and we must stand on the sacred watch to pray for him at the holy places; we are fortunate, praise be to the blessed God.

Despite the deliberate obscurity, it can be understood that R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk sent tidings to his colleagues that within himself—“my very essence and nature (mahuti ve-eikhuti[63]—conditions were ripe for receiving the Message.  He did not detail how it had come about, but chose his words carefully: “the causes of God’s redeeming us will emerge explicitly from the mouth of our friends,” that is, the rabbinic emissary sent to meet face to face with the members of the group.  The emissary, R. Joseph b. Jacob,[64] was to detail the special instructions that had to be precisely followed.

            Reading the two letters together, one can understand that the content of “the Message” is tied to completion of the tiqqun now assigned jointly to the group’s members both in the Land of Israel and in the Diaspora.  In the earlier letter, R. Menahem Mendel advised his colleagues that the tribulations of the Land of Israel were ordeals that had purified him and made him fit to receive “the Message”—to gather the images of the group’s members in the Diaspora as if they were standing before him and to serve as a conduit for the transmission of their prayers.  And now he is telling them that he has received “the information” and that he is equipped to gather their prayers and transmit them via “the Gate of Heaven.”  In effect, these matters were already hinted at between the lines of R. Abraham of Kolyshki’s supplement to the earlier letter: “And I requested [that you] pray to and entreat God on my behalf.  And I will do the same.  And the Master of Peace will bless them with the three-fold blessing.  And he will give us the privilege of arising and going up to Beth-El and there we shall find him.”[65]

            Another way to understand what is encoded in the letter is to assume that “the information” deals with one step of the redemption, perhaps the resurrection of the dead.  R. Menahem Mendel may have interpreted Estori ha-Parhi’s comment that “resurrection of the dead will be advanced by forty years in Tiberias” not in its simple sense but as referring to forty days, rather than forty years.[66]  For that reason, he and his colleagues frequented the graves of the righteous and prayed near them, and at the start of the month of Nisan, forty days before Lag be-Omer, they began to await signs of resurrection.  It is possible as well that he read Estori ha-Parhi’s comment together with a tradition in the Zohar that the ingathering of the exiles will begin forty years before the resurrection of the dead.  Blending the two traditions permits one to conclude that at Tiberias, the ingathering of the exiles and resurrection of the dead would occur at about the same time—according to R. Menahem Mendel’s belief, the month of Iyyar 5541 (April-May 1781).  Either way, R. Menahem Mendel evidently saw in a vision that the resurrection of the dead was about to begin, and his letter heralded the event.

            Alas, it was in vain.  The dead were not resurrected, and the Messiah did not come.  In the months of Av and Elul 5541 (July-September 1781), there began a series decrees banning R. Yehiel Mikhel and his disciples.  Near his house in Brody, his opponents burned the book Joseph is a Fruitful Son, including the Besht’s Epistle, and on 25 Elul 5541 (September 15, 1781), R. Yehiel Mikhel died.  In the month of Tishri 5542 (1781), R. Meshullam Feibush Heller wrote to R. Joel and the other colleagues “who heed my voice[67] who are there that they should make great efforts in the worship of God, may He be blessed, each and every one in accordance with his strength.”  He reported that the planned journey to the Land of Israel had not been cancelled, for the members of the group in the Diaspora believed that what had happened had been for the best, and that these were the tribulations that were to precede the coming of the Messiah:

But now, according to what appears and what is heard of the journey, many good people are journeying to the Holy Land…and it is certainly a great inquiry about Zion, of which none inquire, and it is inquire, inquire, return, come.[68] And now, this great awakening is certainly from God, and the Messiah’s arrival is certainly imminent, its time may He hasten, and God, may He be blessed, will hurry it speedily in our days, Amen Selah. Of this, who knows what a day maybring and why should you be troubled by tomorrow’s troubles and especially about the troubles of this world…for you already know according to what is written in the writings of the Ari of blessed memory regarding clarifying the sanctity that becomes clearer each day, until it becomes completely clear with the advent of the Messiah, speedily and in our days.

To all appearances, the letter encompasses as well a question posed to R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk with respect to prayer: should one pray as usual in the synagogue, or should the prayers be modified to conform to the Messianic era?





            R. Meshullam Feibush Heller’s letter was not enthusiastically received; the exalted, supremely confident tone so emphatically adopted in R. Menahem Mendel’s earlier letters does not appear in the response he wrote in 5542 (1781).  Instead, he struck a tone of disappointment and hopelessness, pleading with his colleagues not to “fold [their] tents and rush to come to the Holy Land.  [In doing so], they actually try to extinguish fire with straw, for the burden of making a living here is very great.”  The few who can survive in the Land of Israel are independently wealthy, able to leave their assets “in some [other] community” and live off the return on their investments.  He urged the other members of the group “for their own good to abandon this idea and to decide to remain where they are.  And God, may He be blessed, will assist them.”  As an alternative, and as a source of spiritual support, he suggested concentration on learning, prayer, and communion with God.  And he added: “In considering your question about how to act at this time in the synagogue, which is very pressing, it is impossible to extend [the discussion].  God willing, if some traveler happens to go from here to there, I will respond at length.  But for now, I will be brief.”  Immediately thereafter, he detailed the spiritual response that is desirable “at this time”—“a set time each day for the study of ethical writings,” and so forth.[69]

            We do not know why R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk responded so bitterly to the hope expressed in R. Meshullam Feibush Heller’s letter.  It may be that the death of R. Yehiel Mikhel and the absence of any change in circumstances had led him to the simple conclusion that the time for redemption had been missed, and that he therefore responded in a thoroughly negative manner.  Nevertheless, his ensuing letter shows that his despair was not absolute, and that he chose to leave a glimmer of hope.   The letter begins by reiterating the meaning of the group’s linkage via interchanging the image of the zaddik with that of the members:

They should have steadfast knowledge that love for them is rooted in our heart; and their souls, one and all, are tied to our soul.  It is as if their image is perpetually before us, to recall them favorably whenever we turn to the Lord God, [and] with great and eternal love to call forth for them an overflow of blessing and success.  And so, we stand on this high ground, here in the Holy Land, [striving] to draw toward Him, may He blessed, all who have the appetite and desire to go after the Lord our God.[70]

In the body of the letter, R. Menahem Mendel urged his colleagues to maintain their community as a united group under common leadership.  His reiteration of the linkage formula, with its interchanging of the image of the zaddik with that of the members, may have been intended to remind them that their common oath survived the death of R. Yehiel Mikhel.  And so he added at the end of his letter:

And it is known to be a credit to your Torah that I have not despaired of the kindness to us of the Creator, may He be blessed, in bringing glory to the Holy Land.  But I await and expect a time of grace, when it will be clear in my mind, with God’s help, that the will of the Creator, may He be blessed, approves your coming [here], and I will let you know…and it will be when the time and season arrive.  It will rise with wings like a dove, flying and running to arrive, God willing, to join in the portion of God in the land of the living.[71]


            In the year 5544 (1784), R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk and the members of his group in Tiberias leased a large court with spacious houses and established a synagogue in one of them.[72]  That temporary respite did not relieve their continuing hardship, however, and they seemed to have reached a dead end.  To feed their families, they had to borrow against the charitable distribution funds, and if there were a delay in the rabbinic emissary’s return, or if he returned with less funding than had been anticipated, their allocation would have to be used to pay the debt and once again they would be left with no means of support.  Even the personal allotment of R. Menahem Mendel, which was not used by his family but was dedicated to communal needs, was of no avail.  R. Solomon Zalman Vilner reported that “in the house of the rabbi, they live penuriously…and our lord, teacher, and rabbi, the gaon, may his lamp illuminate, finds it difficult to make any extra expenditure, for his eyes and actions [consider] only matters that affect Israel as a whole and the service of God.”[73]

            Winter 5546 (1786) saw an outbreak of plague in Safed.  The Hasidim who lived there abandoned their property and fled to Tiberias.  When the epidemic reached Peqi`in, its Hasidic residents retreated to a cave, and their homes were plundered.  By Purim 5546 (1786), the plague was rampant in Tiberias, and the members of the group withdrew to their court for about four months, with no one entering or leaving.  Each Saturday toward evening, at the third meal of the Sabbath, they gathered and recounted the praises of the zaddikim.  The stories crystallized into the kernel of In Praise of the Besht, stories that include traditions from the earliest days of Hasidism about the both the Besht himself and the Zolochev dynasty.  The circumstances—isolation in the face of plague—recall the circumstances in which the stories in Boccaccio’s Decameron were created.[74]

            With the onset of the plague, R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk began to go into decline.  In 5547 (1787), he acknowledged to his colleagues how difficult it had become for him to write and explained why he had stopped writing himself:

My sons, it is as if I have fathered you…be with me in my situation; never will I forget your kind attentions, for with them you have preserved my life.  Even in old age, no height or breadth or horse and chariot shall separate us, but my strength now is not like my strength then with respect to detailed letters, and confining my thought to [focus on] the act of writing is something I cannot bear.[75]

Thereafter, he wrote no more, and the letters sent in his name were written by R. Abraham of Kolyshki.  In the month of Av 5547 (1787), he took ill; the symptoms—attacks of shivering and fever—suggest he contracted malaria.  On Yom Kippur of 5548 (September 22, 1787), he rose from his sickbed and managed to come to the synagogue.  At the closing (Ne`ilah) prayer, his colleagues heard him “cry out in a bitter voice”[76] the verse “Return, return from your evil ways; why should you die, O house of Israel” (Ezek. 33:11), and they understood that R. Menahem Mendel “recognizes himself marked for death.”  Their sense was consistent with the tradition, cited by the printer of In Praise of the Besht, R. Israel Yaffee, that R. Menahem Mendel was punished for something that had occurred during the plague epidemic, when the members of the group had withdrawn to the court in Tiberias: “A certain elder was with him, a disciple of the Besht, and he would recite the Besht’s praises.  Once, on the Sabbath, the rabbi, the Maggid, may the memory of the righteous and holy one be for a blessing, appeared in a dream to the foregoing rabbi [that is, to R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk] and said to him, ‘Are you not my disciple; why do you not recite my praises as well?’”[77]  R. Menahem Mendel agreed, but when he attempted, at the conclusion of the Sabbath, to recite the praises of “the Maggid,” the elder began to recite the praises of the Besht, and R. Menahem Mendel fell silent. “Immediately, the rabbi [R. Menahem Mendel] recognized that he would certainly be punished.”

            The key to these two traditions lies concealed in chapter 33 of Ezekiel, a verse from which, incorporated into the closing prayer, was shouted out by R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk on Yom Kippur.  The chapter deals with the sins of the generation and portrays the prophet as a watchman assigned to alert the House of Israel to the punishments in store for them—death by sword or by plague.  If the watchman becomes careless and fails to issue the alert, the sinner will die for his sin, “but I will hold the watchman to account for his blood” (Ezek. 33:6).  R. Menahem Mendel saw himself as the watchman who had failed to carry out his assignment: he had stood watch in the Land of Israel but his letters to the Diaspora instilled in his associates a vain sense of hope instead of warning them that the time was not one of grace and that they were not on the threshold of redemption.  His crying out reflected his sense that his prophecy had led the members of the group astray and brought about the death of R. Yehiel Mikhel, as well as his recognition that the sins of the generation had impeded the redemption.

            On the festival of Purim, R. Menahem Mendel briefly regained his strength and came to the synagogue to hear the reading of the Book of Esther.  But that was the last time he rose from his sick-bed, and his body “was so thin and his flesh so emaciated as to almost be inhuman.”[78]  Before dying, he made his colleagues swear to extend true kindness to him and see to the support of his family, so that his son would not have to leave the Land of Israel in pursuit of a living.  He explicitly stated that if his son Moses were required to leave the Land of Israel, he would cease “advocating for them in the afterworld.”[79]

            On the second day of the New Moon (the first day of the month) of Iyyar 5548 (May 6, 1788), R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk died.  He had lived eleven years in the Land of Israel and died at the age of fifty.  With his departure from the scene, disputes over R. Yehiel Mikhel’s legacy broke out among his disciples, the members of the original court—among others, between R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady and Rabbi Abraham of Kolyshki, who wanted to exercise leadership from Tiberias over the group.  The conflicts led to a schism within the branch of the group in the Land of Israel, between those originating from Reisen and those native to Volhynia -Galicia.  After a lengthy period of disagreement, the two groups established separate fund-raising efforts in 5556-5557 (1796-1797).  R. Yehiel Mikhel’s eldest son, R. Joseph of Yampol,[80] together with R. Mordecai of Nesukhoyezhe,[81] a prominent disciple of R. Yehiel Mikhel, took on the task of raising funds in the Diaspora for the Volynhia-Galicia group.  After R. Joseph’s death, the role of fundraisers for the Land of Israel was assumed by R. Abraham Joshua Heschel of Opatow and R. Yehiel Mikhel’s fifth son, R. Mordecai of Kremenets.[82]

            R. Abraham of Kolyshki died in 5570 (1810).  During his twenty-two-year leadership of the Hasidim in Tiberias and Safed, only a few immigrants had joined the community, apparently members of R. Yehiel Mikhel’s original group.[83]

            The year 5574 (1814) saw the first printing of Fruit of the Land, R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk’s book.  The publisher was R. Israel Yaffee, known by the sobriquet “the Printer of Kapost.”[84]  A year later, he printed In Praise of the Besht for the first time.  Around 5579 (1819), he immigrated to the Land of Israel with his wife Shprinza and their children.  The Yaffees settled in Hebron and were among the founders of the Habad charitable organization that operated there until the community was ended by the riots of 5689 (1929).[85]  They were joined in their immigration by the print shop workers and their families, who brought their printing machinery as well.  When they disembarked at Acco, however, they were set upon by bandits who looted their property and destroyed the machines.  R. Israel Yaffee’s plan to establish a modern printing house in the Land of Israel was thus shattered, but family tradition tells that he was the first Jew to plant a vineyard in Hebron.



 [1] Historians of Zionism speak of five waves of resettlement of the Land of Israel (aliyyot) preceding World War II.  The Second immigration, 1904-1914, comprised primarily pioneers from Eastern Europe, many of whom had socialist and even communist tendencies.—translator's note.

[2] Benjamin Redler, in Ha-Aretz, 22 May 1927, p. 3; Hailperin 1947, pp. 22-23.

[3] By R. Meshullam Feibush’s own account.  See Precious Gleanings (Zolkow 5560 [1800]) 22b, (Jerusalem 5734 [1974]) 117a: “And I know that you appreciate the words of the rabbi, the Maggid, may his light shine, and I appreciate them greatly…so I determined to write down for you the words he spoke on this matter.”

[4] Barnai 1980, letter 33, p. 149.

[5] See Haran 1990; Haran 1991. Cf. Mondschein 1992/1. For a detailed research, see Karlinsky 1998.

[6] This contrasts with the Sabbatean movement, which gradually came to disregard the holy place and concentrate on the holy man—Shabbetai Zevi.  See Elqayam 1998.

[7] See Halamish 1998, p. 228.  On the messianic element in the doctrines and actions of R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk, see Hailperin 1947, pp. 38-49, Halamish 1998, pp. 225-240; Morgenstern 1999, pp. 199-204.

[8] Scholem 1976/1, vol. 2, p. 358.

[9] Barnai 1980, letter 39, p. 167.

[10]Id., pp. 166-167.

[11] See above.

[12] Tractate Avot with the commentary Fruit of Life 39a.  See also above.

[13] Precious Gleanings (Lemberg 5552 [1792]), 26a; (Mezirov 5554 [1794]), 27b—here use an acronym meaning the “heads of the Israelites” (רבי, r-b-y=roshei benei yisra’el).  The third edition, Zolkow 5560 (1800), 27a, misreads it as an abbreviation for “many” ( - רביםrabbim).

[14] Precious Gleanings (Lemberg 5552 [1792]) 26a, (Jerusalem 5734 [1974]) 131a.

[15] See R. David Altshuler, David's Fortress, on Zech. 11:11.  The connection between poor and humble gained expression in the idea of voluntary poverty, which developed among the Ebionites, a Jewish-Christian sect that existed until the end of the fourth century.  The Ebionites stood for an ascetic way of life, circumcised their sons, and observed the Sabbath.  They rejected the divinity of Jesus but believed in him as a spiritual redeemer.  See The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 523.

[16] Cf. Assaf 1996, p. 334.  The connection between poverty and humbleness is expressed in the discourses of R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk on self-abnegation and is described in the discourse on Shabbat Nahamu, the Sabbath of Consolation that follows the Fast of the Ninth of Av.  In it, R. Menahem Mendel explains that the shekhinah is called “poor” because of her humbleness, for she has nothing of her own except the belief in truth.  See Fruit of the Land (Peri ha-Aretz), (Vaethanan), 23b.

[17] See the commentary of Radaq on Isa. 41:17—“The poor and the indigent—those who were exiled, when they leave exile to return to their Land.”

[18] See Rashi on Nah. 1:12—“Thus says the Lord: If they are complete and many, they will likewise be cut down and pass away, and I will afflict you no more.”

[19] See Genesis Rabbah, vol. 2 (Lekh-Lekha), 43:6—“The king of Shalem—R. Isaac of Babylonian said: He was born circumcised.” (The comment takes “shalem” as an adjective describing the king rather than as the name of the city over which he reigned.—translator's note) See also Midrash Tanhuma (Noah) 6:48—“‘Noah was a righteous man, he was tamim’ (Gen. 6:9)—He was born circumcised.”

[20] Josh. 5:4.

[21] Genesis Rabbah, vol. 2 (Lekh-Lekha), 46:9.

[22] See Jacobson 1996, p. 340.

[23] Bud and Flower, chap. 42, 92a.  See also Rashi on Gen. 26:2—“‘Do not go down to Egypt’—for you are a perfect offering, and the world outside the Land of Israel is not suited to you.”

[24] See above.

[25] On R. Solomon Zalman ha-Kohen Vilner, see below.

[26] See Precious Gleanings (Lemberg 5552 [1792]) 25b, (Jerusalem 5734 [1974]) 129b. 





[27] On the tiqqun leil shavu`ot conducted in Brody, see aboveIt should be noted that 5537 (1777) was a leap year, and it is not known if the immigrantsset out in First or Second Adar.  In any event, the time in question was February to April 5537 (1777).

[28] Assaf 1996, p. 328.

[29] Id., pp. 329, 340.

[30] See Barnai 1980, letter 13, p. 75; cf. letter 12, p. 72.

[31] Id., letter 12, p. 72.

[32] Id., letter 13, p. 75.  Similarly, Morgenstern 1999, pp. 183-184.

[33] So far, scholars did not trace the Tunisian group in any other testimonies but this Hasidic letter. Nevertheless, it is known that one of the Hasidic emigrants, the owner of Ms. Jerusalem 8 5979, traveled in later years to Tunis and visited the Jewish community of Nabel, where he stayed in the inn of a family by the name of Hadad. These Jews could have been relatives of the 1777 Tunisian emigrants. Another interesting detail that may be connected with the arrival of the group is the desire to learn Kabbalah among Tunisian scholars. R. Hayyim Joseph David Azulai visited Tunis in 5533-5534 (1773-1774) and met a group of Kabbalists that owned manuscripts of practical Kabbalah and Lurianic Kabbalah. Their leader, R. Avraham ha-Kohen Tanugi, “said that he was a prophet and the spark of Jermiah and Ezekiel.” Although repeatedly asked, Azulai refused to share his esoteric knowledge with them in fear of R. Avraham’s brother, R. Joshua ha-Kohen Tanugi, the chief Rabbi of Tunis that resented the group’s activities and claimed that they were acting out of “vanity”. See Azulai’s diary Good Circle (Ma’agal Tov), pp.58, 63. It should be noted that R. Joshua ha-Kohen Tanugi immigrated in 5556 (1796) to the Land of Israel and died in Safed. I thank Yaron Zur for this information.  

[34] See Ya`ari 1946, esp. p. 388; Hailperin 1947, p. 21.

[35] See Ya`ari 1946, p. 391. The support of the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire was institutionalized with the establishment of “The Istanbul Committee of Officials for the Land of Israel” for the purpose of collecting money in the Diaspora and transporting it safely to the Land of Israel. See Hacker 1988; Barnai 1992, pp. 53-105.   

[36] See Barnai 1980, letter 42, p. 174.

[37] See, more broadly, Assaf 1996, pp. 322-331.

[38] Sixty percent of the time, the winds blow from north to south, and forty percent of the time from south to north.  Similarly, the direction of the currents is usually from north to south along the entire western coast of the Black Sea, and sometimes from east to west.  My thanks to Captain Immanuel Klemperer of Haifa for the nautical conditions and the analysis of the possible route of the ship.

[39] It should be noted that the port of Sebastopol on the CrimeanPeninsula, which included a Russian fortress and military base, was built only in 5544 (1784), seven years after the Hasidic immigration.

[40] Barnai 1980, letter 13, p. 76.

[41] Id. p. 74.

[42] See Stiman-Katz 1986, p. 29; cf. Assaf 1996, p. 320.

[43] Barnai 1980, letter 13, p. 74.

[44] See id., letter 11, pp. 67-68.

[45] Hailperin 1947, pp. 26-27; Ya`ari 1971, p. 323.

[46] Barnai 1980, letter 11, p. 67.

[47] See Barnai 1992, pp. 109-160, 170-177. For detailed studies about the Jewish community under the Ottoman Empire, see above.  

[48] “The Istanbul Committee of Officials” was established after a long and severe economical crisis that befallen the Jewish communities of the Land of Israel. See Barnai 1992, pp. 71-73.  Barnai points out that the same poor conditions led the Christian minorities in Palestine – the Catholics, the Greeks and the Armenians – to develop similar patterns of economical and political dependency on their communities abroad, which weakened the authority of local leaders.    

[49] Id., letter 15, pp. 84-85.

[50] Id., letter 11, p. 68.

[51] See id., letter 15, p. 87.

[52] See Stiman-Katz 1986, p. 98; Morgenstern 1999, pp. 241-252, 351-360.

[53] Barnai 1980, letter 15, p. 85.

[54] See above.

[55] See Morgenstern 1999, pp. 241-252.  In a letter written in 5547 (1787), the Hasidim in Tiberias thank R. Hayyim Landau of Brody and R. Samuel of Vilnius for their support.  See Barnai 1980, letter 40, p. 171.

[56] Barnai 1980, letter 15, p. 84.

[57] Id.

[58] Berakhot 5a.  See also Fruit of the Land by R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk, Portion Shelah Lekha 18a—“Even a fully righteous man cannot ascend except by means of renunciation [of the physical] and devotion and his entire body must certainly be wiped away, and this applies equally to Torah, the Land of Israel, and the World to Come, for there may not be the least bit of corporeality, even the size of a mustard seed, for all three are beyond [physical] attributes.”  See also Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, p. 227; Bud and Flower, chap. 10, 36b; Sursky 2000, vol. 1, p. 455.

[59] Barnai 1980, letter 15, p. 86. 

[60] See Morgenstern 1999, pp. 199-204.

[61] The letter was first published by Abraham Joshua Heschel.  See Heschel 1952, p. 123: “With the help of God, here in the holy city of Tiberias, may it be built and established speedily in our day, [the week of] Be-Har-Be-Huqqotai…in the year 541 (omitting the thousands figure).”  The Torah portions of Be-Har and Be-Huqqotai were read the week of Lag be-Omer, 18 Iyyar, which fell on Sunday in 5541 (1781).

[62] Id., id.; Barnai 1980, letter 16, p. 89.

[63] On the meaning of the term “mahuti ve-eikhuti,” see also Barnai 1980, letter 39, p. 166: “As if their image stands before me to recognize their appearance through the revelation of their heart, their very essence and nature (mahutam ve-eikhutam).”

[64] The rabbinic emissary R. Joseph b. Jacob died during his mission and was buried in Ostrog in Sivan 5542 (1782).  See Biber 1907, p. 186; Ya`ari 1951, p. 612.

[65] Barnai 1980, letter 15, p. 88.

[66] See Rosh Ha-Shanah 2b—“For we say that one day in a year counts as the [entire] year.”

[67] Precious Gleanings (Lemberg 5552 [1792]) 26a, (Jerusalem 5734 [1974]) 131a.  The Zolkow 5560 (1800) edition, 27a, reads “your voice.”

[68] Cf. Isa. 21:12—“If you inquire, inquire; return, come.”  Rashi interpreted it to mean “If you seek your request to hasten the End, ‘return, come’—in repentance.”

[69] Barnai 1980, letter 17, p. 90.  Some versions of the letter underwent censorship and the words “in the synagogue” were deleted.  It should be noted that the letter is undated, but in a letter written in 5543 (1783), R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk and R. Abraham of Kolyshki reiterated their pleas.  See Barnai 1980, letter 19, p. 96:  “And this, too, as we wrote last year—no man should leave his place.  Instead, brethren should help one another and say ‘Be strong.’”  They are referring here to immigration to the Land of Israel and not, as some have erroneously suggested, to journeys to visit various zaddikim.  This letter shows that the directive was first given in 5542 (1782).

[70] Id., letter 18, p. 92.

[71] Id., p. 94.

[72] See id., letter 20, p. 99.

[73] Id., letter 28, p. 136.

[74] See In Praise of the Besht (ed. Rubenstein), “Publisher’s Introduction,” pp. 23-26; Gries 1992, p. 105.  On a related phenomenon, the similarity between the tales of the Decameron and a story told by the Besht, see Dan 1975/2, pp. 40-46.

[75] Barnai 1980, letter 39, p. 167.  Cf. Ps. 2:7—“I will tell of the decree: the Lord said to me you are My son, this day have I fathered you.”  (With respect to “never will I forget your attentions,” cf. Ps. 119:93, where “piqudekha,” here rendered “kind attentions,” refers to God’s precepts.—translator's note).

[76] Id., letter 45, p. 182.

[77] In Praise of the Besht (ed. Rubenstein), “Publisher’s Introduction,” p. 24.

[78] Barnai 1980, letter 43, p. 177.

[79]Id., letter 45, p. 182.

[80] See Heschel 1952, pp. 128, 130.

[81] See Stiman-Katz 1986, pp. 109-110.

[82] See Heschel 1952, pp. 130-131; Tanenbaum 1986, pp. 296-298.

[83] In 5555 (1795), R. Issakhar Ber of Zolochev, R. Issakhar Ber of Zaslov, and R. Jacob Samson of Shipitovka, together with his son and with his son-in-law, R. Israel Judah b. R. Hayyim of Krasnow, all immigrated.  In doing so, R. Israel Judah carried out the wishes of his father.  R. Ze’ev Wolf of ChernyyOstrov, apparently related to R. Meshullam Feibush Heller by the marriage of their children, immigrated in 5558 (1798), and R. Hayyim Tirrer, another prominent disciple of R. Yehiel Mikhel, immigrated in 5574 (1814).  See Barnai 1980, letter 60, pp. 229-230; Stiman-Katz 1986, p. 47.

[84] See In Praise of the Besht (ed. Rubenstein), “Introduction,” pp. 9-16.

[85] See Avishar 1970, p. 215.