The Messianic Secret of Hasidism,

Published byBrill Academic Publishers, Leiden 2006.






Credits …VII

Preface …IX







Introduction: The Messianic Element in Hasidism…3

Chapter One: “Time Does Not Assent to It” - Messianic Strains in the Besht’s Holy Epistle…14

The Besht’s Holy Epistle (Iggeret Ha-Qodesh)

When Will The Master Come?

The Besht’s Era of Redemption

Chapter Two: The Annals of the Zolochev Dynasty   …29

The “Legacy” of the Besht and of R. Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezhirichi

R. Joseph Spravidliever and R. Isaac of Drogobych

R. Yehiel Mikhel, The Maggid of Zolochev

Chapter Three: The Beginningof R. Yehiel Mikhel’s Career In 5532 (1772)…51

The Korets Abattoir Affair

The Three Bans Imposed by the Brody Excommunication Decree of 5532 (1772)

The Ari and His Disciples as a Model for R. Yehiel Mikhel’s Circle

Chapter Four: Linkage   …67

The Establishment of an Elite Hasidic Circle on Shavuot 5537 (1777)

R. Yehiel Mikhel’s Doctrine of The Linkage of The Souls

Linkage in Prayer

Chapter five: A Tiqqun Leil Shavu`ot in R. Yehiel Mikhel’s Prayer House…81

“The Soul of Shaddai Gives Them Understanding”

Shavuot Night - The Night of Sacred Nuptials

The Shekhinah Speaks Through R. Yehiel Mikhel’s Mouth

Revelation of the Shekhinah in the Presence of the Disciples

Chapter Six: On the Character of the Group   …105

Kabbalistic Groups and Linkage Ceremonies

Identifying R. Yehiel Mikhel’s Kabbalistic Group

Hasidism and the Commandment to Love One’s Fellow

Chapter Seven: Iyyar 5541 (April-May 1781) - the Dissemination of the Torah’s Mysteries and the Death of R. Yehiel Mikhel   …130

The Campaign to Print and Publish Kabbalistic Texts

The Death of R. Yehiel Mikhel

The Death of the Redeemer and the Redemption of the World

Chapter Eight: The Sweet Fruit of Messianism   …152

The Redemption of the Land of Israel

The Messianic Immigrations (Aliyyot) to the Land of Israel

Redemption Begins in the Galilee

Chapter Nine: The Hasidic Immigration of 5537 (1777)   …165

The Fellowship of Immigrants

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

Nisan-Iyyar 5541 (March-May 1781)


Summary: From Esoteric Group to Mass Movement   …193

Hasidism’s Messianic Roots

From Herald of Redemption to Redeemer: R. Israel Ba`al Shem Tov and R. Yehiel Mikhel of Zolochev

R. Yehiel Mikhel’s Circle and the Question of Hasidic Messianism

Zaddik, Messiah, and the Neutralization of the Messianic Element



Anthology: Disciples and Writings   …215

Five Sons: “The Five Books of the Torah”


Joseph of Yampol

Isaac of Radvil, Light of Isaac (Or Yizhaq)

Zevi Ze’ev of Zbarazh, Glory of Zevi Ze’ev (Tif’eret Zevi Ze’ev)

Moses of Zvihil

Mordecai of Kremenets

Abraham Hayyim of Zolochev

Abraham Joshua Heschel of Opatow

Eliezer Horowitz, Pleasantness of Sweets and Honor of the Torah (No`am Megadim u-Khevod ha-Torah)

Benjamin of Zalozhtsy

Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir, The Light That Illuminates (Or ha-Me’ir)

Hayyim Tirrer of Chernovtsy

Jacob Isaac ha-Levi Horowitz, “the Visionary of Lublin”

Isaac Eisik ha-Kohen of Korets, his son Abraham, and his son’s father-in-law, R. Solomon Lutsker

Issakhar Ber of Zolochev, Herald of Righteousness (Mevasser Zedeq)

Isaiah ha-Levi of Dunayevtsy, Light of Torah (Or Torah); Testament of R. Israel Ba`al Shem (Zava’at ha-Ribash) (?)

Israel of Kozienice, Holy Writings (Kitvei Qodesh)

Levi Isaac of Berdichev

Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk and Israel Yaffee (“The Printer of Kapost”)

Mordecai of Nesukhoyezhe

Moses Shoham of Dolina

Meshullam Feibush Heller, Precious Gleanings (Liqqutim Yeqarim);Honest Words of Truth and Faith (Yosher Divrei Emet)

Uziel Meizlish, Glory of Uziel, Called the Good Tree of Knowledge (Tif’eret Uziel Ha-Niqra be-Shem Ez ha-Da`at Tov)

Zevi Hirsch of Nodvorno

Zevi Hasid, Light of Truth (Or ha-Emet)

Samuel of Amdur, Ms. Jerusalem 8 3282

Solomon Zalman ha-Kohen Vilner

Shneur Zalman of Lyady



Appendix I: The Besht’s Holy Epistle, Editions and Versions   …299

The Besht’s First and Second Epistles

The First Epistle—the Ms. Jerusalem 8 5979 Version and the Kahana Version

The Differences Between the First Epistle and the Second Epistle

Appendix II: Hasidic Conduct Literature   …307

Introduction   …307


The Association’s Codex

Printing the Conduct Literature

The Mysterious Source of the Hasidic Conduct Literature

The Conduct Literature and R. Yehiel Mikhel, the Maggid of Zolochev

Chapter One: Descent For The Sake Of The Ascent   …321

Descent of the Zaddik


The Practices of “Descent for the Sake of the Ascent”

The Descent of the Zaddik and the Midrash of the Red Heifer

Two Interpretations of the Red Heifer

The Descent of the Zaddik and the Doctrine of the Sparks in Lurianic Kabbalah

Chapter Two: Equanimity   …338

The Pious One’s Equanimity

Two Interpretations of the Homily on “I Set Before Me”          

A Tale of R. Yehiel Mikhel and Two Opponents 

Equanimity, Reversal, and Concealment

Chapter Three: Torah Study   …354

Torah Study and Communion

Torah Study in R. Yehiel Mikhel’s Scheme

Torah Study for Proper and Improper Purposes

The Practices of R. Yehiel Mikhel and the Safed Kabbalists

The Covenant of The Tongue and the Covenant of Ma`or

Chapter Four:  Prayer   …373

The Uniqueness of Hasidic Prayer


Swaying During Prayer

Tardy Prayer

Appendix III: Family Tree   …385

The Family of R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk


R. Hayyim David “the Younger” (ha-Qatan)

R. Jacob b. Aaron, the Son-in-Law of the Rabbi


Bibliography   …399

Index   …421


The publishers of the original edition in Hebrew: Haifa University Press and Zmora-Bitan Publishing House Ltd.











This study began in 1991 with a rather casual choice to dedicate my doctoral research to a lesser known Hasidic master, Meshullam Feibush ha-Levi Heller, whose two epistles to an anonymous friend were ‘not thoroughly investigated yet,’ as described by my instructor, Joseph Dan. As a matter of fact, Prof. Dan, the Gershom Scholem Chair of Kabbalah in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem at that time, suggested an alternative subject: the writings of another Hasidic master, Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir. But Heller’s Yosher Divrei Emet (“Honest Words of Truth and Faith”) was a small, thin volume while Ze’ev Wolf’s Or ha-Meir (“The Light that Illuminates”) was a large, heavy one. Naturally, I chose the smaller book.

Sixteen years later, after thoroughly investigating the compositions of both Meshullam Feibush ha-Levi Heller and Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir as well as dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other Hasidic epistles, stories, tractates and compositions with fascinating titles, I now understand that the somewhat arbitrary choice of the young woman to go into the depth of Hasidic texts shaped the mature scholar. The restlessness thatIfelt whenever the immediate, literal meaning of Hasidic texts contradicted the dominant generalization of Hasidism as ‘The Neutralization of the Messianic Element’ as it was phrased so clearly by Gershom Scholem, led me to call into question the validity of old truths. My curiosity directed me towards the ‘subversive’ works of Ben-Zion Dinur and Isaiah Tishby that had observed a messianic core in the early days of the movement. Step by step I encountered a vivid, energetic Hasidism that revealed and revived its messianic secrets.

Yet, as critical as my conclusions were toward some of my predecessors’ assertions, I neither underestimated their intellectual efforts nor ignored their textual achievements and historical contribution. Hence, this book contains their wisdom even though some of its conclusions are not in accordance with theirs.          

The progress of Hasidism research would not have been possible without the ongoing efforts of the best of historians and scholars of Kabbalah. Having their own doubts, they have reevaluated the old conventions, discovered new primary materials and expounded the vocabulary with which Hasidism was understood. I am indebted to many scholars that write nowadays about the various aspects of Hasidic messianism, whose new findings and refreshing observations have been integrated into this study.                 

It is no coincidence that the reevaluation of Hasidism began in the last decade of the 20th century. In the third day of Tamuz 5754 (June 12, 1994), in the midst of a campaign to inaugurate him as the King Messiah, the 92 years old Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Menahem Mendel Shneerson, passed away in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Although expected, his death shocked his devotees of the Hasidic court of Habad. A few of them went so far as to deny his physical death or develop expectations to his rapid return or ‘reappearance.’ This public affair demonstrated the durability of messianic hopes, and supplied scholars of religious studies with a rare opportunity to closely examine history in the making. No longer was it possible either to ignore the authenticity of the messianic atmosphere that surrounds certain Hasidic leaders or to attempt to undermine it by attributing this messianic drive to pre-Hasidic roots. The messianic burst of these Habad followers seemed like a spontaneous revival of a forgotten or denied authentic belief in the Zaddiq, the Hasidic leader, as a semi-Massiah that would be easily revealed as a complete Messiah, should the historical circumstances and the individual greatness of the person allowed it. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the current revision of Hasidism started with a reflection on the theological meaning of the Kabbalistic oriented title Zaddiq, both a noun and an attribute that expresses the Hasidic leader’s status as a vivid and tangible divine mediator. 

What has been missing from the literature is a comprehensive study that integrates the theoretical observations and the historical events and retells the beginning of Hasidism as a story of a messianic movement. I hope to have achieved this goal in this study. The first steps were made in my doctoral thesis, which I submitted to the HebrewUniversity, Jerusalem in 1995. My instructor and mentor, Prof. Joseph Dan, has inspired me with his wisdom and I am forever indebted to him. With Prof. Peter Schäfer, Dr. Klaus Hermman and Dr. Leora Batnizky, Dan was the editor of Jewish Studies Quarterly that hosted my first articles, and I thank them all for the opportunity to publicize my first findings in this prestigious international arena.

A most important milestone was the publication of the Hebrew edition in 2002. It happened thanks to the determination of Prof. Niza Ben Dov, the editor-in-chief of Haifa University Press. A brave, courageous soul and a free spirit, Niza gave me the precious gift of her friendship, which I will cherish forever. I am profoundly thankful to Prof. Aaron Ben Ze’ev, Prof. Fannia Oz, Dr. Shulamit Almog, Miriam Zaidan, the editor Gabriella Avigur-Rotem and book designer Hava Mordochoveich. As I leaf through the book, I remember the late publisher Ohad Zmora, may his memory be of blessing, and the late Captain Immanuel Klamperer of the Israeli Navy, whose expertise in marine navigation allowed me to reconstruct the 1777 journey from Eastern Europe to the Land of Israel.

At that time I was a senior fellow at the ShalemCenter, Jerusalem. It is my duty and pleasure to thank Shalem’s management and colleagues for supporting the research and sponsoring its English translation. I am thankful to Yad ha-Nadiv Foundation for their generous support as well. 

As I continued my research I came to realize that the study of Hasidism was ‘a cumulative project’ as Hasidism itself was defined. Every conclusion I have reached raised new questions and motivated me to further investigations. Many friends and collogues contributed to the broadening and deepening of this volume. I am grateful to Prof. Yehuda Liebes for the enriching dialogue and the consistent support; Dr. Esther (Etti) Liebes turned the Library of Gershom Scholem on Jewish Mysticism in Jerusalem into a Pard”es (Paradise) that welcomes scholars of Kabbalah and messianism; Prof. Moshe Idel shared his unique perspective with me; Prof. Jacob Barnai went into the trouble of rereading the work and adding useful insights; I enjoyed the support and the assistance of Prof. Dan Ben Amos, Dr. Annelies Kuyt, and Prof. Joseph Tubbi and his wife Zvia; Sally and Dr. Michael Oren have been devoted friends and have always found the time and the energy to encourage me in this tiresome voyage;

All these years I have the privilege of being assisted by Maya Levi, a young accomplished student of Bible and theology. Although she never attended my classes, I regard her as a student of mine, and I am confidant that her achievements will overshadow those of her teacher’s.

The publication of this updated English edition was made possible thanks to Prof. David Katz that believed in the value of the work and saved no efforts to introduce it to the English speaking audience; Prof. Matt Goldish, a dear friend andcolleague, contributed his professional advice and I am profoundly thankful to him. Joel Linsider was more than a mere translator with his informative footnotes as well as his graceful and fluent work. Brill’s acquisitions editor, Michael Klein Swormink, Mr. Igor Nemirovsky and the professional staff of Brill Academic Publishers have done their best to insure that the work will be published in the highest academic standards that have always characterized Brill’s publications.

As my study came to a close, I finally grasped the depth of time. Behind the historical tale hid the story of my grandmother’s ancestors, members of the small Hasidic group that was carried by its messianic hopes to the Land of Israel in 1777. I share their story with my beloved family: my father, Gideon, whose love and devotion turned this journey into a quest for the roots of my soul; my mother, Heiruth, whose intellectual legacy will always inspire me. My daughter Hemdat (‘beloved’), who's singing opens the gates of Heaven for me; my son Avshalom, whose sculptures and paintings bring peace and harmony to my world, and his lovely bride Anat; My husband Zion, whose generous heart has healed all wounds and revived my soul.

The End