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Avraham ben Aleksander ha-Kohen of Kalisk

(1741–1810), Hasidic rabbi and leader. Avraham was a disciple of Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezritsh, and a follower and colleague of Rabbi Menaḥem Mendel of Vitebsk. It is said that before his attachment to Hasidism he had apparently studied with the Gaon of Vilna. Avraham assisted Menaḥem Mendel in leading a group of Hasidim to the Land of Israel in 1777 and then moved with him from Safed to Tiberias. Letters to their followers in Belorussia–Lithuania are signed by both rabbis, with Avraham occasionally adding his own words. When Menaḥem Mendel died in 1788, the Hasidim of Tiberias, as well as a portion of followers in Eastern Europe, deemed Avraham to be their leader.

When Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady published his Tanya in 1796, Avraham, who considered himself to be Shneur Zalman’s senior, denounced the publication of the book. He was particularly critical of the Tanya’s exposition of mystical ideas. A bitter dispute erupted between the two friends, both disciples of the Magid and of Menaḥem Mendel and therefore, one might have thought, exponents of the same Hasidic teachings. The two men never reconciled. In one letter, Shneur Zalman blamed Avraham’s followers for behavior that had precipitated the Bans of Excommunication of Hasidim issued in 1772.

Although Avraham’s position within the hierarchy of the Magid’s disciples was higher than that of Shneur Zalman, Avraham’s community depended on donations from East European Hasidim, and Shneur Zalman was responsible for collecting these funds. Their ideological–theological dispute affected this practical matter as well. Avraham accused Shneur Zalman of blocking contributions intended for the Galilee community and in 1805 appointed Mordekhai of Lakhovits in his place to oversee the collections.

Avraham’s form of mysticism was esoteric and extremely demanding. Aimed at a select few, it focused on intimacy and contemplation and called for a state of perpetual devekut, or communion with God. For those who could not maintain this devotion continually, Avraham suggested the alternative method of dibuk ḥaverim, adhering to other persons in the state of devekut. According to this principle, the contemplative believer would not suffer interruption in communing with God.

Some of Avraham’s teachings appear in Ḥesed le-Avraham (1851). Igeret ha-kodesh (1794) includes teachings from both Menaḥem Mendel of Vitebsk and Avraham of Kalisk.

Suggested Reading

Ze’ev Gries, “Mi-Mitos le-etos: Kavim le-demuto shel R. Avraham mi-Kalisk,” in Umah ve-toldoteha, pt. 2, ed. Samuel Ettinger, pp. 117–146 (Jerusalem, 1983/84); Raya Haran, “R. Avraham mi-Kalisk ve-R. Shne’ur Zalman mi-Ladi: Yedidut ha-nifsekah,” in Kolot rabim: Sefer ha-zikaron le-Rivkah Shats-Ufenhaimer, ed. Rachel Elior and Joseph Dan, vol. 2, pp. 399–428 (Jerusalem, 1996); Raya Haran, “Mishnato shel R. Avraham mi-Kalisk: Ha-Derekh le-devekut ke-naḥalatam shel bene ha-‘aliyah,” Tarbiz 66.4 (1996/97): 517–541; Joseph Weiss, “R. Abraham Kalisker’s Concept of Communion with God and Man,” in Studies in East European Jewish Mysticism, ed. David Goldstein, pp. 155–169 (Oxford and New York, 1985).



Translated from Hebrew by Anna Barber