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Menaḥem Mendel of Vitebsk

(1730?–1788), Hasidic leader and prominent disciple of Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezritsh. Considered an outstanding mystical figure in the world of Hasidism, he served as a spiritual leader in Lithuania and Belorussia and founded the Hasidic community in Safed and Tiberias. The writings of the Misnagdim associate him with Minsk, and Ḥabad sources call him Menaḥem Mendel of Horodok, but he is known primarily as Menaḥem Mendel of Vitebsk.

Many of the Magid’s disciples, including rabbis Avraham of Kalisk and Shneur Zalman of Liady, became devotees of Menaḥem Mendel after Dov Ber died in 1772. When opposition to Hasidism arose, Menaḥem Mendel traveled to Vilna to attempt reconciliation with the leader of this opposition, Rabbi Eliyahu, the Vilna Gaon, but the Gaon refused to see him. In 1777 Menaḥem Mendel led a group of Hasidim to the Land of Israel. His deputy in this enterprise was Avraham of Kalisk. At first the group settled in Safed, but they encountered opposition there and after three years moved to Tiberias. While some scholars believe messianism was among the motives for the choice of the Hasidim to leave Europe, Menaḥem Mendel’s decision to move does not seem to have been prompted by this idea. As a zealous mystic, he longed for communion with God, and believed that the Land of Israel was a more propitious site for that communion.

From his new home, Menaḥem Mendel maintained links with his Hasidim, continuing to guide them through his epistles. He may even have found new adherents in Europe after leaving. Although scholarly opinion is divided, it seems that he did not recommend that his followers in Eastern Europe find themselves another leader: he believed that only he was capable of directing them, even from afar. Menaḥem Mendel’s move to the Land of Israel laid the foundation for a core of Hasidic settlements, supported by a structured fund-raising apparatus and a network of emissaries (shadarim) to Europe who delivered the leader’s epistles of religious instruction and brought back letters, requests, and donations from his followers. In his last correspondence, unsigned, he speaks of the illness that would claim his life. Living in the harsh land that “devours its inhabitants,” he nonetheless believed that he dwelt in a kingly palace. His son Mosheh married the daughter of a prominent Jerusalem Sephardic family but died young (1799).

Menaḥem Mendel’s principal work, Peri ha-arets, consisting of mystical Hasidic homilies on the Pentateuch and the holy days, appeared first in 1814. In 1874, his book Peri ‘ets was published in Zhitomir. His letters have been published many times. Igeret ha-kodesh (1794) includes epistles composed by him and by Avraham of Kalisk.

Suggested Reading

Moshe Halamish, “The Teachings of R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk,” in Hasidism Reappraised, ed. Ada Rapoport-Albert, pp. 268–287 (London and Portland, Ore., 1996); Raya Haran, “Shivḥe ha-Rav: Li-She’eylat aminutan shel igrot ha-ḥasidim me-Erets-Yisra’el,” Katedrah 55 (1990): 22–58; Raya Haran, “Mah heni‘a et talmide ha-Magid la‘alot le-Erets-Yisra’el,” Katedrah 76 (1995): 77–95; Naḥum Karlinski, Historiyah sheke-neged: “Igrot ha-ḥasidim me-Erets-Yisra’el” (Jerusalem, 1998); Yehoshu‘a Mondshine, “Aminutan shel igrot ha-Ḥasidim,” Katedrah 63 (1992): 65–97, 64 (1992): 79–97; Mordecai Wilensky, Ha-Yishuv ha-ḥasidi bi-Teveriya: ‘Ad petirato shel Rabi Avraham mi-Kalisk, 570 (Jerusalem, 1988).



Translated from Hebrew by Anna Barber