Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Menaḥem Mendel of Kotsk

(1787–1859), original and controversial Hasidic thinker and leader. Menaḥem Mendel (originally surnamed Morgenstern) studied in the yeshiva of Zamość, where his academic talents impressed his teachers and fellow students. He was attracted to Hasidism and found his way to the court of Ya‘akov Yitsḥak Horowitz (the Seer of Lublin; 1745–1815). There he also discovered a kindred spirit and mentor in Ya‘akov Yitsḥak Rabinowitz (the Holy Jew; 1766–1813) of Pshiskhe (Przysucha), and after the latter’s death he became a disciple of Simḥah Bunem of Pshiskhe (1765–1827).

When Simḥah Bunem died, the issue of succession became clouded. The majority of followers accepted Menaḥem Mendel as their leader; however, Simḥah Bunem had hoped that his own son Avraham Mosheh (1800–1829) would succeed him, and the more conservative disciples, concerned about Menaḥem Mendel’s radicalism, accepted Avraham Mosheh as their tsadik. When Avraham Mosheh died at a young age, this minority then followed Yitsḥak of Vurke (Warka; 1779–1848), one of Simḥah Bunem’s senior disciples.

Menaḥem Mendel first established his court in Tomaszów, but was harassed by opponents and moved two years later to Kotsk (Kock). He functioned as a Hasidic tsadik for 12 years, though he was never comfortable in the role. He was neither interested in the destitute people who came to him for material blessings nor in the wealthy who expected to receive honors for their donations. His goal was instead to nurture a small group of elite disciples to follow his teachings. He stated that he dreamed of having 50 disciples who would stand on rooftops to attain the spiritual level of the prophets.

Menaḥem Mendel probably suffered from severe depression. He experienced a nervous breakdown in the spring of 1839 and was ill for several months. While he seems to have been functioning at the time of the High Holy Days of that year, a simmering dispute with his close disciple Mordekhai Yosef of Izhbits (Iżbica) reached a climax on Simḥat Torah. The details of the altercation are not known, but after this incident Menaḥem Mendel secluded himself for the last 20 years of his life. While he still saw family members and a few close disciples regularly, he refused to function as a tsadik. Despite his seclusion, Hasidim still flocked to Kotsk, hoping to hear his teachings. Periodically he would come out of his room and chase his followers away.

Unlike Simḥah Bunem, who had been warm and open, Menaḥem Mendel was dour and uncompromising. His teachings were based on the traditions of Pshiskhe, but he strove for absolute perfection and allowed no room for half measures, holding that it was better to be completely wicked than to be partially good and partially wicked. He was also an unapologetic elitist who required his disciples to meet his exacting intellectual and spiritual standards. The goal of the spiritual quest in Kotsk was complete truth and authenticity, with falsehood, complacency, and dissimulation considered to be inimical to religious life.

The Hasidim of Kotsk were famous for disregarding social conventions and for seeming to lack piety; they believed that conformity and external trappings were hindrances in the search for truth and had to be abandoned. Their strange behavior aroused the hostility of other Hasidic groups. Where Pshiskhe Hasidim had been accused of not praying at the correct time, Kotsker Hasidim were accused of not even bothering to don tallit and tefillin or to pray at all. Menaḥem Mendel maintained that praying merely out of habit made one a sinner, as true worship comes from an unending conscious quest for the truth.

None of Menaḥem Mendel’s writings survives. According to a Hasidic tradition, he burned his manuscripts on the eve of Passover along with the ḥamets. Although his brief aphorisms, sayings, and stories were compiled into anthologies and published more than a half century after his death, his closest disciples did not preserve his more radical teachings; indeed, the authenticity of many of the statements attributed to him is in question. The reluctance of his followers to preserve his more extreme ideas is consistent with their own abandonment of the more extreme practices of Kotsk.

Menaḥem Mendel left a son, David of Kotsk (1809–1873), who became a rebbe upon his death. However many of Menaḥem Mendel’s senior disciples established their own dynasties as they did not consider David to be a worthy successor. David himself did not follow his father’s spiritual path, but adopted the tradition of material tsadikism. His descendants founded the dynasties of Pilov and Sokolov.

During the period of Menaḥem Mendel’s seclusion, Yitsḥak Me’ir of Ger (Gur; 1789–1866) assumed a leadership role. He later founded the Ger dynasty, which became the dominant Hasidic group in central Poland. He was a prolific and influential author who combined the teachings of Pshiskhe and Kotsk. Hasidim said that Menaḥem Mendel led through awe, while Yitsḥak Me’ir stressed the intellectual teachings of the Torah. Other tsadikim followed a spiritual path similar to that of Yitsḥak Me’ir. Among the most important were Avraham Bornstein of Sokhachev (Sochaczew; 1839–1910), who was Menaḥem Mendel’s son-in-law and a distinguished scholar and author. Ḥanokh of Aleksander (Aleksandrów; 1798–1870) also founded an important dynasty. Each of these schools emphasized the centrality of study and interior forms of piety. A final heritage came through Mordekhai Yosef of Izhbits (1800–1854), who after his argument with Menaḥem Mendel in 1839 left Kotsk and founded his own dynasty (Izhbits-Radzin); despite the split between the two men, his teachings reflect the influence of Kotsk.

Suggested Reading

Aaron Ze’ev Aescoli, Ha-Ḥasidut be-Polin (Jerusalem, 1998); Morris M. Faierstein, “The Friday Night Incident in Kotsk: History of a Legend,” Journal of Jewish Studies 34 (1983): 179–189; Pinhas Zelig Gliksman, Der Kotsker rebbe (Piotrikov, 1938); Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth (New York, 1973); Abraham Joshua Heschel, Kotsk: In gerangl far emesdikeyt (Tel Aviv, 1973); Ya‘akov Levinger, “Imrot otentiot shel ha-Rabi mi-Kotsk,” Tarbits 55 (1986): 109–135; Raphael Mahler, Hasidism and the Jewish Enlightenment: Their Confrontation in Galicia and Poland in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century (Philadelphia, 1985), chap. 9.