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Dov Ber of Mezritsh

(1704–1772), Hasidic leader. Dov Ber, the Magid (preacher) of Mezritsh (Pol., Międzyrzecz; mod. Ukr., Mezhyrichi), sometimes known as the “great Magid,” was the foremost leader within Hasidic circles after the death of the Ba‘al Shem Tov (Besht) in 1760. It was under Dov Ber’s leadership that the followers of Hasidism first came to see themselves as constituting a new religious movement and set out to preach and spread their teachings throughout East European Jewry. It is not known to what degree Dov Ber actually organized this process, but his leadership and teaching certainly provided the inspiration for it, both during his lifetime and afterward.

Dov Ber was well trained in both Talmudic Judaism (he was a student of Ya‘akov Yehoshu‘a Falk, author of Pene Yehoshu‘a) and Kabbalah before he encountered Hasidism. Like many would-be kabbalists in his day, he undertook strict regimens of ascetic practice, including fasting. Perhaps as a result of this extreme behavior, an illness affected his legs, and he turned to Yisra’el Ba‘al Shem Tov, well known as a healer, for counsel. His meeting with the Besht, recalled in various versions in Hasidic tales, changed his life, and he came to see himself as a disciple of one who clearly had less conventional learning than he did. His new master urged him to turn away from the ascetic path and to serve God with joy and wholeness. Dov Ber took to this new path with the passionate commitment of a convert.

Dov Ber brought to Hasidism a theoretical and metaphysical turn of mind. The Ba‘al Shem Tov was primarily a practical religious teacher, offering advice to his disciples for developing their own spiritual lives. Dov Ber took these fragments of counsel and expanded them into full-blown doctrines, derived from simplified and psychologized readings of kabbalistic teachings. Thus, whereas the Ba‘al Shem Tov taught the value of uplifting rather than banishing distracting thoughts during prayer, Dov Ber taught that all thought comes from a single deep reservoir within the self (kadmut ha-sekhel), differentiating only in the course of its emergence. This elaboration of thought within the person was seen as a microcosmic human parallel to the emergence of the sefirot (inner aspects of God’s cosmic self) from within the hidden-most levels of the godhead. The Besht counseled his followers to seek self-negation (bitul) as a goal of prayer; the Magid offered a doctrine of contemplation in which all things could be raised to their root in the divine nihil (ayin).

The Ba‘al Shem Tov’s ecstatic and visionary religious life was apprehended by the Magid through the prism of a mostly contemplative mystical temperament and was thereby transformed. Devekut is posited as the ultimate religious value, and it is understood as detachment from this-worldly concerns, enabling the soul to return to its source within God. The divine commandments are special vehicles by means of which this transformative inner journey may take place—gifts of love from God to the Jewish people through which divine and human spirits can be joined. Dov Ber also taught, however, that because God is to be found throughout the universe and His word underlies all that exists, all things physical as well as spiritual could become channels through which God’s creative energy might be uplifted and returned to its source. Dov Ber’s doctrine has been described as monistic and panentheistic, meaning that it asserts that all things exist within God, who is yet transcendent to the sum of their parts.

The devotee who comprehends this system becomes a living bridge between the oneness of all existence and the pulsing energy that flows from within the divine unity outward, sustaining each creature, soul, and moment of time. Such a person is known by the ancient term tsadik, loaded with a long history of supernatural and kabbalistic significance. Based on the paradigm of the Ba‘al Shem Tov’s ability to “descend” in order to redeem souls or allay tragedy (a paradigm perhaps historically related to the Sabbatian notion of the messiah’s “descent”), the Magid views the tsadik as constantly engaged in a life of ascent and descent, turning toward the world in order to return it to its divine source, and calling forth energy from within that source to enable the world’s ongoing renewal.

Dov Ber was interested in cultivating a community of such tsadikim and through them transforming the quality of Jewish spiritual life. He gathered around himself a remarkable and diverse circle of disciples; they, in turn, took a leading role in the future shaping of the Hasidic movement. While not all the Ba‘al Shem Tov’s followers supported Dov Ber’s leadership (both Ya‘akov Yosef of Polnoye and Pinḥas of Korets seem to have demurred), the influence of the Mezritsh circle was dominant in the later shaping of the movement. This includes Hasidism within its original Ukrainian heartland, in which such figures as Levi Yitsḥak of Barditshev, Menaḥem Naḥum and his son Mordekhai Twersky of Chernobil, and the Magid’s own family (Friedman) took a central role. In Belorussia and Lithuania, the Mezritsh-trained Aharon of Karlin, Menaḥem Mendel of Vitebsk, Ḥayim Ḥaykl of Amdur, and Shneur Zalman of Liady were its most important representatives. In Galicia and Poland, Elimelekh of Lizhensk, Ya‘akov Yitsḥak of Lublin, and Yisra’el of Kozhenits were the major figures. As the dynastic pattern of succession began to emerge within Hasidism around 1780, the Mezritsh circle saw to it that their children married into all the key families within the movement and thus maintained their leading role.

There is much confusion with respect to the editing and publication of Dov Ber’s teachings. First to appear in print were Magid devarav le-Ya‘akov (1781; modern edition by Rivka-Schatz-Uffenheimer; 1990) and Or Torah (1804). Some portions of the same corpus, however, were included in Likutim yekarim (1792), combined with other fragments of early Hasidic teaching; and the same is true of Kitve kodesh (1862) and Shemu‘ah tovah (1938). Another version of the Magid’s teaching alone is Or ha-emet (1899). These writings belong mostly to the “theoretical” literature of Hasidism, consisting of homiletical comments on various biblical verses and Talmudic teachings. They are often fairly obscure, especially by comparison with teachings that were more accessibly written or edited by several of the Magid’s disciples. A smaller portion of the written record belongs to the genre of hanhagot or “practices,” brief compendia of counsel for religious life. One early collection of such practical advice, Tsava’at ha-Ribash, allegedly the testament of the Ba‘al Shem Tov (1793), offers an accurate reflection of the spiritual life of the Magid’s circle and was certainly written under his influence.

An interesting account of a visit to what was most likely Dov Ber’s court is included in the Lebensgeschichte (Autobiography) of Salomon Maimon (1792–1793). Before arriving in Berlin, where he became distinguished as a philosopher, young Maimon had spent a Sabbath among a circle of disciples at the home of one “Rabbi B. of M.” While some aspects of the description are quite interesting, Maimon’s disappointment in Hasidism is reflected in the caustic tone in which he tells the tale.

Suggested Reading

Dov Ber of Mezhirech, Torat ha-magid, ed. Israel Jacob Klapholz (Tel Aviv, 1968/69); Israel Jacob Klapholz, Ha-Magid mi-Mezeritsh (Bene Berak, Isr., 1971/72); Ada Rapoport-Albert, “God and the Zaddik as the Two Focal Points of Hasidic Worship,” History of Religions 18.4 (1979) 296–325; Joseph G. Weiss, Studies in East European Jewish Mysticism, ed. David Goldstein (Oxford, 1985).