Chapter 4
A Stronghold in Mezritch

The Challenge of Leadership

With the passing of the Baal Shem Tov in 1760, opponents of the movement were confident that, deprived of his strong and centralized leadership, Chassidism would collapse and disintegrate. They had attributed the movement's growth and success to the personal powers and charisma of the Baal Shem Tov. Certainly the movement had grown enormously during the years of the Baal Shem Tov's leadership. Even its detractors admitted that it could boast over 40,000 adherents.But with the death of its founder, the movement had come to a crossroads. That the Baal Shem's talmidim and followers would remain faithful to the tenets of Chassidus was certain, but what of the future? Would Chassidism grow moribund and eventually peter out, an interesting footnote to Jewish history, or would it grow, advance, develop further? This was the challenge faced by the Maggid. bookcover

The Move to Mezritch

On erev Shabbos HaGadol, 1760, the Baal Shem Tov wrote his will, addressing it to his followers. It consisted of four basic behests:
"Whoever succeeds me should not dwell in Medzibozh; honor my successor even more than me, for I know who will succeed me, and 'he will be praised among the holy ones'; don't get involved with disrespectful people; and maintain peace and harmony with one another."

Following these instructions, the Maggid established himself in Mezritch, some 175 miles north of Medzibozh, and accessible form Lithuania, Russia, Poland, and the Ukraine, as well as the nearby regions of Volhynia, Podolia, and Galicia.

The Threat of Assimilation

To further appreciate the accomplishments of the Maggid, some historical background is necessary. The pogroms of 1648 and 1649, coupled with the "Great Northern War" (Russia, Poland, and Denmark versus Sweden) of 1700 - 1721, had devastated the East European Jewish communities. Turning their attention westward towards Germany, Holland, and England, the Eastern communities sensed the stirrings of emancipation and assimilation, upon the advent of the industrial revolution in England and the political revolution brewing in France.

In Germany, the increasing demands of earning a livelihood did not allow Jews to learn Torah for its own sake or to cling to Jewish values. Influenced by the decadence of French culture, wealthy families trained their daughters in the French style, rejecting their own rich Jewish heritage. In describing the times, R. Yaakov Emden (1695 - 1776), son of the famous Chacham Tzvi, R. Tzvi Ashkenazi (1658 - 1718), spoke of "the evil that came from France to Germany, which the Jews lusted after - the non-Jewish styles of clothing, the shaving of the beard and peyos to look like women...and the wasting of money to teach their sons and daughters the French language...." In fact, the Chacham Tzvi himself had refused an unusually well-paying position in London, lest he endanger his children by educating them in the way of life and outlook of Western Jews.

These assimilationist forces began to undermine the obedience to Torah and unswerving allegiance to its scholars that had been the strength of the Jewish people throughout the centuries. In further erosion of rabbinic power in Poland and Lithuania, the Council of the Four Lands, which had worked on Jewry's behalf since the 1500s, was dissolved in 1762. Without the power to enact measures for the benefit of Jewry, the rabbis' hold on the masses weakened. No longer subordinate to its Sages, the nation didn't respond to their discipline - and everyone did as he pleased. Rabbinic influence waned, and some people perceived the rabbi as little more than a technical expert in the synagogue.

An Ambitious Plan

This, then, was the challenge that faced the Maggid. But he had another problem as well. While the Baal Shem could travel about freely to attract the masses to Chassidus, R. Dov Ber needed crutches to walk. Undaunted by the difficulties of the task ahead, R. Dov Ber soon developed a twofold plan: He would attract Torah scholars to Chassidus, and they, in turn, would reach out to Jews everywhere.

Creating the Disciples

The plan was a striking success. Soon, the elite of the generation were coming to Mezritch, meeting and learning from the Maggid and then setting forth, hearts aflame to spread the teachings of Chassidus to every remote village, each forgotten town and hamlet.

The list of the Maggid's disciples is long and most impressive, a chronicle of towering Chassidic greatness. His disciples included R. Elimelech of Lizensk and his brother, R. Zusia of Onipol; R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk; R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev; R. Aharon of Karlin; R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi; R. Shmuel Shmelke of Nikolsburg and his brother, R. Pinchas Horowitz of Frankfurt. Indeed, the Maggid had as many as three hundred disciples, about forty of whom became prominent Chassidic leaders.

The greatness of the Maggid was that he forged these luminaries into a cohesive entity. Many roads led to Mezritch, the Chassidic center, and at its center was the Maggid, weak and sickly, his body deteriorating even as his soul strove for greater and greater heights. Impoverished and frail, the Maggid nevertheless formed many of the great men of the generation into an eidah, a group marked by shared ideals and goals. Capping this achievement, the Maggid at the same time unified the simple folk with those lofty spirits, consolidating them into a unique fraternity bonded together in spirit and soul.

"When we traveled to our holy Rebbe, merely upon reaching the Mezritch city limits our requests were already fulfilled," related R. Zev of Zhitomir (d. 1798). "If any other desire remained in one's heart, it was satisfied as soon as he set foot in the Maggid's home. If, nonetheless, a person still had any yearning left in his heart, the moment he gazed upon the Maggid he would be calmed."

Reaching Out to the Masses

Within three months of the Maggid's succession, large numbers of chassidim had taken to the roads, spreading the Baal Shem's words to cities and villages in Volhynia, Podolia, Lithuania, and Poland. Well-versed in Torah, they would meet in the Beis Medrash, speak with the town's b'nei Torah, and perform their holy work: the dissemination of the Baal Shem Tov's teachings. They would take a young Torah scholar, work with him, learn with him, never resting until they had brought him to the Maggid himself. There, in Mezritch, the Maggid would complete their task - and it was taken for granted that a young man who arrived in Mezritch would remain faithful to the tenets of Chassidus.

The Maggid saw the spreading of the teachings of Chassidus into every distant corner, and the bringing of each Jew, regardless of his spiritual state, to the "path of truth," as the "duty of the hour." Bound to Mezritch because of ill health, his house became the beacon to which Jews everywhere turned, while his students ignited the torch of Chassidus throughout the Jewish world.

His emissaries contributed to the exponential growth of Chassidus. In tavern and Beis Medrash, on street corners and in homes, they reached out to their impoverished, sometimes embittered brethren, comforting, teaching, and bringing them sorely needed hope.

Uniting the People

Confronting the breakdown of the authority of the Torah and its Sages, the Maggid's emissaries restored the discipline that was lost with the dissolution of the Council of the Four Lands, harnessing the unifying power of Chassidus.

Throughout the generations, leaders of the Jewish people have always provided both physical and spiritual sustenance. So states the Talmud: "Three great benefactors arose for the Jews - Moshe Rabbenu, Aharon, and Miriam, and three precious gifts were given through them: the well, because of Miriam; the clouds of glory, due to Aharon; and the manna, by Moshe's merit" (Taanis 9a).

As long as the Council of the Four Lands was capable of materially aiding the masses through its public service, its spiritual leadership was effective. With its dissolution, the masses no longer looked to its rabbis for guidance. Recognizing this, the Baal Shem healed the sick, settled disputes, and generally involved himself in the people's lives and problems. R. Dov Ber, following his example, came up with innovations such as the tish - a meal shared by Rebbe and adherents - as a means of building unity. (Some, however, attribute the tish to the Baal Shem Tov himself.)

The Maggid's Tish

Approached by one of the Maggid's emissaries, Solomon Maimon (1753 - 1800), a young enlightened philosopher, found himself attracted to Chassidus. He writes in his autobiography: "What the man told me about the chassidim sparked my imagination, and I had a burning desire to join the new group. With bated breath I waited until my work was finished...[and] then I made my way to distant Mezritch, dwelling place of the Rebbe, R. Dov Ber.

"On Shabbos I came to a magnificent feast. In the tzaddik's house was a group of distinguished people from various regions. Later, the Tzaddik himself appeared in all his glory. A distinguished-looking man, he aroused awesome respect in the hearts of all who beheld him. He was dressed in white satin, with white shoes; even his snuffbox was white. After he greeted his guests, we sat at the table. Throughout the meal, a holy silence pervaded. Afterwards, the Tzaddik began to sing an uplifting melody. He placed his hand on his brow in contemplation. Then he identified each guest by name and hometown. We were amazed. The Tzaddik asked each one of us to say a verse from the Bible. He proceeded to expound, skillfully combining the various verses. Even more astounding, in the part of the discourse related to our respective verses, we each discovered specific allusions to our private life and thoughts. This amazed our hearts very much."