Letter from Rabbi Shelomoh Bentsiyon ben Yesh`ayah Meshullam Twersky of Chernobil, 1930. From Shelomoh Bentsiyon ben Yesh`ayah Meshullam Twersky of Chernobil in Kiev to his follower Pesaḥ Katzman in Palestine, August 1930. He acknowledges Katzman's contribution of two dollars, and complains that he has not heard in detail about the situation of his follower, Avraham Gershon. Twersky assures Katzman that he is in the rebbe’s prayers and that the rebbe prays for his spiritual and material well-being. Hebrew. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)

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Chernobil Hasidic Dynasty

(Ukr., Chernobyl; later, Twersky Hasidic Dynasty), one of the leading Hasidic communities in nineteenth-century Ukraine. The Chernobil dynasty was founded by Rabbi Menaḥem Naḥum of Chernobil (1730?–1797), a student of Yisra’el Ba‘al Shem Tov and Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezritsh. In addition to serving as the magid (preacher) of Chernobil, Reb Naḥum apparently traveled around Ukraine, mediating, advising, and spreading his teachings.

Naḥum was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Mordekhai (Motele; 1770?–1837) who adopted the surname Twersky (according to one hagiographical source he took the name Twersky [Rus., Tverskii, meaning a native of the city of Tver] because he identified with the Hasidic community of Tiberias [Heb., Teveryah] and based it on the consonantal similarity between Tver and Tiveriah) and, in keeping with the roles of Hasidic leaders of his era, transformed the faction into a mass movement. Whereas Naḥum had lived a life of modesty and poverty, Hasidic anecdotes relate how Motele requisitioned money or other valuables from his followers. As did his father, Motele traveled through Ukraine, but gradually the purpose of these visits was less to act as a circuit judge and increasingly to supervise the growing communities of his followers, as well as to increase their numbers. Hasidic territories, called magidut, were important features of Ukrainian Hasidism until at least the 1860s.

By the 1840s, seven of Motele’s eight sons had established themselves as Hasidic leaders. Motele was succeeded in Chernobil by his eldest son, Aharon (1787–1871), while his other sons each moved to a different town in Ukraine, probably encouraged by communities who had been devoted to Motele. Upon the flight from the Russian Empire in 1842 of their chief competition, Rabbi Yisra’el Friedman of Ruzhin (the father-in-law of Motele’s seventh son, Yitsḥak, the dynasty grew in popularity and influence. Motele’s second son, Mosheh (1789–1866), settled in Korostyshev and probably did not lead his own court; however, his third son, Ya‘akov Yisra’el (1794–1876), competed with his older brother and settled first in Hornostaipol and subsequently in Cherkassy. A fourth son, Naḥum (1804– 1851), established a court in Makarov. Motele’s eighth son, Yoḥanan (1816–1895) made his home in the small village of Rotmistrivka (Yid., Rakhmistrivke).

The leading tsadikim of the Twersky family were Motele’s fifth, sixth, and seventh sons, Avraham, David, and Yitsḥak. Avraham (known as the Trisker Magid; 1806–1889) settled in Turiysk (Yid., Trisk) and attracted thousands of followers to his court. David (known as Duvidl, the Talner Rebbe; 1808–1882) was arguably the best-known rebbe of his generation in Ukraine. He began his career in Vasilkov, but moved in 1852 to Tal’noye, a smaller town where he was renowned for his sharp wit, healing abilities, and powerful sermons, and where he amassed a large and devoted following. Yitsḥak (1812–1885), moved to Skvira, most probably after his father-in-law had fled. Yitsḥak was known for his wisdom, rationality, and for encouraging his followers to read rabbinic rather than Hasidic works.

By the 1860s, competition among Hasidic groups in Ukraine had intensified. Although the rebbes of the Chernobil dynasty were not hostile toward one another (with the exception of Ya‘akov Yisra’el Cherkassy), their Hasidim reacted with violence against rebbes of other dynasties. During the first half of the 1860s, riots against the Bratslav Hasidim by David’s followers and others were common. In 1864, David’s devotees forcefully attempted to unseat the rebbe of Rezhishtshev. The campaign was unsuccessful, but the scandal caught the attention of the Russian government, which imposed house arrest upon the rebbes of the Twersky family. This decree, known as gzeyres zadikov, made it impossible for the rebbes to travel to visit their faithful and to collect money; consequently, the influence of the rebbes of the Chernobil dynasty was reduced. This led David, probably Avraham, and perhaps the others to refashion their homes and synagogues into “courts” or pilgrimage centers. A visitor to David in the 1870s would arrive at a large compound in the center of Tal’noye, complete with residential, communal, and service buildings. Cantors, choirs, and klezmer musicians were frequent visitors. The messianic verse “David melekh Yisra’el ḥai ve-kayam” (“David, King of Israel, lives and endures”) was apparently inscribed on his chair.

The flourishing of the Talner and other Ukrainian courts was short-lived. Pogroms in the 1880s brought uncertainty and economic ruin to Ukrainian Jews and to the rebbes they supported. Moreover, by the 1890s all of Motele’s sons had died without leaving strong successors. Still, a number of rebbes of the Chernobil dynasty stayed active during the interwar years. Rabbi Shelomoh Bentsiyon of Chernobil continued, against many odds, to lead his Hasidim in Kiev (with Stalin’s approval) until his death in 1939. Three of David’s great-grandsons came to the United States before World War I to function as rebbes in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Rabbi Ya‘akov Yosef of Skvira fled Ukraine after the Bolshevik Revolution, spent the interwar years in Bessarabia, and survived the war in Bucharest. He later settled in Spring Valley, New York, where he and his followers created the new Hasidic town of New Square. Other members of the Twersky family settled in the United States and Israel. The Hasidism that began in Chernobil thus continues to thrive two centuries later.

Suggested Reading

David Assaf, The Regal Way: The Life and Times of Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin (Stanford, Calif., 2002); Menaḥem Naḥum of Chernobil, Upright Practices, the Light of the Eyes, trans. Arthur Green (New York, 1982); Paul Radensky, “Hasidism in the Age of Reform: A Biography of Rabbi Duvid ben Mordkhe Twersky of Tal’noye” (Ph.D. diss., Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, 2001).