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Hasidism Beyond ModernityEssays in Habad Thought and History$

Naftali Loewenthal

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9781906764708

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: February 2021

DOI: 10.3828/liverpool/9781906764708.001.0001

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The Ba’al Shem Tov’s ‘Sacred Epistle’ and Contemporary Habad Outreach

The Ba’al Shem Tov’s ‘Sacred Epistle’ and Contemporary Habad Outreach

(p.53) Chapter Two The Ba’al Shem Tov’s ‘Sacred Epistle’ and Contemporary Habad Outreach
Hasidism Beyond Modernity

Naftali Loewenthal

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Historical processes often revolve around ideas, and ideas are formulated in texts. This chapter investigates the way a somewhat mysterious phrase in a letter of the Ba’al Shem Tov became the key to the development of the outreach ethos in twentieth-century Habad.

Keywords:   Jewish society, Hasidism, Hungarian ultra-Orthodoxy, Ba'al Shem Tov, talmudic, rabbinic, kabbalistic

HISTORICAL processes often revolve around ideas, and ideas are formulated in texts. This chapter investigates the way a somewhat mysterious phrase in a letter of the Ba’al Shem Tov became the key to the development of the outreach ethos in twentieth-century Habad.

THE POPULAR VERSION of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s ‘Sacred Epistle’ (‘Igeret hakodesh’)1 includes the famous passage in which, entering the heavenly palace of the messiah during a mystical ascent of the soul, the Ba’al Shem Tov asks, ‘When will you come?’ The answer given is, ‘At the time when your teaching is … revealed in the world, and your wellsprings gush outwards … and [others] too are able to make [mystical] unifications [yihudim] and [mystical] ascents [aliyot] like you.’ The text continues: ‘I was shocked at this; I was very upset that the time until this could be was so long.’

The passage in the manuscript version published by Yehoshua Mondshine, which Immanuel Etkes accepts as authentic in his important book on the Ba’al Shem Tov, is more or less the same.2 By contrast, in the manuscript version published by David Frankel and discussed by Mordechai Bauminger, the messiah’s reply is much shorter: ‘Once your Torah will have spread through the whole world, etc.’ The idea remains that the coming of the messiah depends on the (p.54) spread of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s teachings, but the crucial phrase ‘gush outwards’ is missing.

It is this phrase—present in all the other versions of the letter—that became the key element of the process discussed here. There has been much scholarly debate concerning the different versions of the letter, raising such questions as what the Ba’al Shem Tov’s exchange with the messiah might tell us about the Ba’al Shem Tov himself, how it might have been understood by the early hasidic followers, and how it related to the much-discussed issue of messianism in hasidism.3 However, my focus is on how a few words from this eighteenth-century text gradually became a central motto for followers of the Habad-Lubavitch school in the twentieth century, generating a major change in the direction of the movement.

Habad Hasidic Teachings and the Ba’al Shem Tov

In early Habad, the study of mystical teachings in the form of Habad texts was strongly encouraged for all followers. As Rachel Elior has shown, Hayim Vital had already given a forceful impetus to the communication of kabbalistic ideas, and Habad was committed to this from the outset, distinguishing itself from most other hasidic schools by the emphasis it placed on the personal study of mystical teachings, which its followers were expected to utilize in contemplative prayer.4 This was a point of serious conflict with other hasidic leaders, such as R. Abraham of Kalisk, who thought that ‘too much oil [i.e. mystical teachings] will extinguish the lamp’.5 The Habad approach was certainly influenced by the general tenor of this passage in the Ba’al Shem Tov’s letter, but the key phrase was not actually quoted in the main published writings of early Habad, such as Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s Tanya, although there is a tradition that one of the approbations to this work hints at the goal of spreading the wellsprings.6 Surprisingly, the phrase is also not cited in the polemical letters between Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi and R. Abraham of Kalisk around the beginning of the nineteenth century, which debate the issue of the communication of esoteric hasidic teachings.7 However, there is an allusion to it in a letter by the senior Habad hasidic figure Rabbi Pinhas Reizes (p.55) Shick of Shklov (d. c.1825), which he wrote in 1813 to raise support for Rabbi Dov Ber as successor to his father Rabbi Shneur Zalman, rather than the rival candidate, Rabbi Aaron Halevi Horowitz (1766–1828).8 R. Pinhas stated that ‘Basic to the nature of his son [i.e. Rabbi Dov Ber] is the concern to spread the wellsprings to the outside through the hasidic teachings.’ This seems a clear reference to the Ba’al Shem Tov’s letter, and an affirmation that the endeavour to spread hasidic teachings ‘to the outside’ is a desired attribute in whoever might be chosen as leader.9 The first discussion of it that I have found is in the covenantal talk to the temimim, the students of the Lubavitch yeshiva, given by Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneersohn, the fifth Rebbe (1860–1920), on the festival of Simhat Torah in 1900.10 It is also the central theme of a talk given in Lubavitch on 19 Kislev 1907 by Rabbi Shalom Dovber.11 It is noteworthy that this Habad leader is said to have kept in the drawer of his desk a volume of Keter shem tov, a collection of teachings ascribed to the Ba’al Shem Tov, in which the letter appears on the first page, together with two other volumes of hasidic teachings which he would frequently peruse.12

Rabbi Shalom Dovber’s talk can be seen as the first stage in the process of transforming a brief passage from the Ba’al Shem Tov’s letter into a powerful Habad motto. The key word in the text is hutsah (outwards). Rabbi Shalom Dovber, known as Rashab, explains that hutsah refers to the person who does not have an exalted soul, or who has not achieved inner purity. In the first generations of hasidism, the intense spirituality it espoused was accessible only to the spiritually gifted. The Ba’al Shem Tov’s wellsprings could not reach ordinary people ‘outside’. However, states Rabbi Shalom Dovber, after Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s arrest and release from prison his style of teaching changed. His hasidic discourses became more accessible to the ordinary, rational mind, as a result of (p.56) which the spiritual ideas could be appreciated even by people who had neither exalted souls nor inner purity.13 Rabbi Shalom Dovber added that this was a matter of some concern in hasidic circles beyond Habad, and that they claimed that the Ba’al Shem Tov ‘wept’ at the idea that the sacred teachings should be transmitted to those who were ‘outside’.14

Information imparted to me many years ago by an elderly hasid, Shemuel Grossman, who had studied in the yeshiva in Lubavitch around 1910 in the time of Rabbi Shalom Dovber, shows the extent to which hasidic teachings were regarded as holy in the Habad circles around the Rebbe. Grossman described how the teacher who taught Tanya in the yeshiva ‘read the words and translated them into Yiddish but did not give any explanations: they were too holy. However, as he read, his eyes were streaming with tears.’15

Earlier, in the month of Kislev towards the end of 1901, Rabbi Shalom Dovber had announced in a letter originally addressed to his son Rabbi Joseph Isaac that the 19 Kislev celebration was ‘the Rosh Hashanah of hasidic teachings … which are bequeathed to us by our [Habad] rebbes and which are indeed the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov’.16

The idea that the Habad teachings are, in some way, those of the Ba’al Shem Tov, despite their difference in style and content, had been expressed several decades earlier by Rabbi Shelomoh Zalman, the rebbe of Kopys (d.1900), a grandson of the third-generation Habad leader Rabbi Menahem Mendel, the Tsemah Tsedek (1789–1866), in a letter he wrote shortly after the passing of his father, Rabbi Judah Leib, who had died in October 1866, a few months after the death of the Tsemakh Tsedek in the same year.17 The letter is phrased as a discussion of a passage in the Zohar, which he interprets as concerning the relationship of the individual with the tsadik, especially after the tsadik has passed away.18 The Zohar speaks of a river flowing into a garden, tended by a gardener. However, in a time of exile, the river ceases and the gardener no longer tends the garden. Rabbi (p.57) Shelomoh Zalman presents the tsadik as the gardener, and the hasidic followers as the garden. The death of the tsadik leads to the cessation of the flow of the river, and the lack of the physical presence of the gardener in the garden. He then broadens the metaphor, citing the common zoharic theme of the river flowing from Eden, and depicts the flow of Torah teaching from the Ba’al Shem Tov through the generations to the time of his grandfather and father as a river from Eden which has been flowing for 150 years but which has now dried up.19 It is interesting that the image he chooses is of a river of Torah teaching, rather than the wellsprings mentioned in the Ba’al Shem Tov’s letter. According to Rabbi Shelomoh Zalman’s son Judah Leib, in a letter of 1901 which he included as a preface to his collection of his father’s teachings, Rabbi Shelomoh Zalman ‘would often say that he was meticulous in not altering the exact turn of phrase of his grandfather [Rabbi Menahem Mendel], and the latter would preserve the exact turn of phrase of [Rabbi Shneur Zalman], as he received [the teaching] from the Rav, the Magid [of Mezhirech], and the Rav, the Magid [in turn, had received it] from the Ba’al Shem Tov’. In this letter Judah Leib implicitly adds Rabbi Shelomoh Zalman’s voluminous Habad-style teachings to the flow continuing the Ba’al Shem Tov’s ‘river’.20

These ideas were fully alive at the time when Rabbi Shalom Dovber was writing, and it is understandable that he should have made the claim that the chain of expositions of the Habad teachings, including those of his own father, R. Samuel (known as Maharash, d.1882), uncle of Rabbi Shelomoh Zalman and rival rebbe in Lubavitch, had similar status, or were on an even higher level: they were not just the flowing river, but the veritable wellsprings of the Ba’al Shem Tov.21

Rabbi Shalom Dovber stated in his talk of 1907: ‘I maintain that the wellsprings began to gush outwards only after “Peterburg”.’22 He explained that the liberation of Rabbi Shneur Zalman vindicated, in his own eyes, his method of communicating hasidic thought, and through his newly intellectualist, rational-style discourses, ideas conveying intense spirituality became available to everyone, namely, to all the hasidic followers of Habad, despite their awareness that (p.58) they were neither ‘exalted’ nor ‘purified’. Thus, in his view, following Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s release on 19 Kislev 1798, the wellsprings began to spread outwards.

We see that, at the start of the twentieth century, the word hutsah in the Ba’al Shem Tov’s letter was taken to mean the communication of spirituality to the hasidic followers themselves, including, and perhaps especially, the students in Rabbi Shalom Dovber’s yeshiva, who were studying hasidic teachings and sometimes engaging in contemplative prayer. They were considered to be outside because they did not claim to have the exalted soul of a tsadik, and had not succeeded in achieving inner purity.

Rabbi Joseph Isaac and the Letter of the Ba’al Shem Tov

We now turn to the use of this theme by Rabbi Shalom Dovber’s son, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn (1880–1920), and the latter’s successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel (1902–94). Their understanding and exposition of the image of the wellsprings generated major changes in Lubavitch thought and practice.

Rabbi Joseph Isaac’s key presentation of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s letter was in a hasidic gathering on Simhat Torah 1929.23 After several years of struggle to preserve traditional Judaism in the Soviet Union in the face of communist oppression,24 he had been imprisoned and then released in 1927. Following a sojourn in Riga, he embarked on a journey which included the Holy Land and then the United States. The fact that his talk on Simhat Torah took place in the secular West was a crucial factor in his presentation of the letter’s significance.

Another important factor was Rabbi Joseph Isaac’s view of the coming of the messiah. In his letter, the Ba’al Shem Tov asks the messiah when he will come. As explained by Rabbi Joseph Isaac, this should be seen in the context of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi’s identical question to the messiah in the Talmud (San. 98a): ‘“When are you coming?” “Today,” says the messiah.’ As the talmudic story unfolds, it transpires that ‘today’ means, in the words of Psalms 95: 7, ‘Today, if you listen to [G-d’s] voice.’ According to Rabbi Joseph Isaac, the Ba’al Shem Tov saw the self-sacrifice of the Jewish people in the darkness of exile, and as far as he was concerned, they were listening to G-d’s voice. In that case, he asked, why had the messiah not yet come?25

Then follows a key statement which, I suggest, can be seen as defining Rabbi Joseph Isaac’s goal and programme for the future. Since the Jewish people had indeed ‘listened to G-d’s voice’, he says, the Ba’al Shem Tov ‘wanted to decide that (p.59) he, with his sacred company [havraya kadisha], the hidden tsadikim, would bring the messiah’.26

One wonders whether Rabbi Joseph Isaac saw himself, together with the temimim,27 who had fought to keep Judaism alive in the Soviet Union, as constituting a similar ‘sacred company’, who would themselves be able to hasten the coming of the messiah. A year earlier, in Riga, he had declared that the Jews of the Soviet Union, on account of their strenuous, self-sacrificing efforts to maintain a vestige of Jewish life under the communists, now ‘only have to polish the buttons of the garments with which they will greet the messiah’.28

Returning once more to the Ba’al Shem Tov’s question as presented by Rabbi Joseph Isaac, which was also, clearly, his own question in 1929: If the Jewish people, or many of them, had shown such dedication, why was the messiah delayed?

The answer is that the messiah will indeed come, ‘when your—the Ba’al Shem Tov’s—wellsprings spread outwards’. For Rabbi Joseph Isaac, as for his father Rabbi Shalom Dovber, this meant that the wellsprings of Habad hasidism, expressing the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov, have to spread to the ‘outside’.

Where is this ‘outside’? As Rabbi Joseph Isaac’s talk unfolds, it becomes apparent that the scattered Habad followers were themselves the ‘outside’ that the fountains needed to reach, and also that this outside was, in some way, ‘not fit’.29 In 1929, from the viewpoint of the hasidic and other Orthodox communities of eastern Europe, America was indeed not fit for the traditional observance and Jewish spirituality of the past. It was the goldene medine (the Golden Country) as regards material goals, but not in terms of the quest for holiness. The Habad followers who had made their way there could be seen as being outside, on many counts, despite Rabbi Joseph Isaac’s own earlier attempts to strengthen their hasidic identity by founding the Agudas Chassidei Chabad of the United States and Canada in 1924. Members of this group no doubt formed the inner circle accompanying the Rebbe in the 1929 Simhat Torah celebrations. Yet it is likely that others were present, too, with a lesser level of Habad affiliation. As Rabbi Joseph Isaac clearly says, when considering the erstwhile hasid in America, one is not speaking merely of a lack of study of hasidic teachings and customs, but of being torn away from basic halakhic observances such as women’s ritual purity (taharat hamishpahah), tefilin, the sabbath, and kosher food.30

In his Simhat Torah talk, addressed to the probably somewhat mixed group who had come to partake of the festive meal with him, Rabbi Joseph Isaac delineates (p.60) the goal for the individual who is imbibing the Habad hasidic teachings as the acquisition of what he calls ‘divine intellect’:

Divine intellect is godliness which is contracted in such a way that a created being should be able to understand it … Despite the fact that [understanding] is limited … and godliness is without limit and simultaneously combines opposites, nonetheless divine intellect is something finite which understands, which grasps aspects of that which is unlimited. …

The understanding of divine intellect differs from human intellect. Human intellect can only understand something finite … first it limits the topic, then it understands it. In the case of divine intellect, not only does it not begin by limiting the thing it is trying to understand; even when the thing is understood it remains infinite.31

This passage represents, in my view, the attempt to convey the luminous state of consciousness which, according to Rabbi Joseph Isaac, can be achieved through the study of hasidic teachings and their application in contemplative prayer. The text continues with a common contemplative theme, the idea that all existence is sustained by the divine life force, and explains how it is to be utilized in the morning prayer, leading to an ecstatic state:

This understanding brings the person to a beautiful and wise world where he encounters himself, his own soul, and at the same time there are awakened in him inner powers, there open within him key wellsprings of understanding permeated with feelings of delight.

It is a kind of World to Come form of life … a life of light and clarity. Everything is seen in its true form. One sees the true delight in good, and the true suffering of bad. The divine intellect illuminates and reveals the dual face which G-d has given the person: on the one hand, the wild animal which is within him, on the other hand the perfectly righteous man [tsadik] which he could be. It reveals his freedom of choice, to choose as he likes.32

According to Rabbi Joseph Isaac, the revelation of this divine intellect is the legacy of the Ba’al Shem Tov, which comprises his own teaching and the teachings of the Habad line of leaders, and it is these teachings that provide the clue to the coming of the messiah:33

In the messiah’s answer to the question of the Ba’al Shem Tov—‘When are you coming?’ ‘When your wellsprings gush outwards’—it is clearly understood that the teaching of the Ba’al Shem Tov [torat haba’al shem tov] is the vessel for the radiance of the revelation of the messiah.34

(p.61) Between the lines of Rabbi Joseph Isaac’s talk is the suggestion that in this American realm of the ‘outside’, the ability to achieve divine intellect through study of hasidic teachings and contemplation in prayer will open the door to the coming of the messiah. In the Soviet Union the messiah’s advent had been earned by self-sacrifice for the preservation of Judaism. In the West it will be gained through the spreading of the wellsprings outwards, meaning the rediscovery of hasidic spirituality in a materialist and secular environment.

This spiritual focus is complemented by a more practical demand, expressed in a lengthy exposition on Isaiah 11 describing the qualities of the messiah and explaining how to hasten his advent. The aura of the messiah is defined in terms of a spiritual intimation which becomes the fulcrum for practical action:

The messiah is a radiance of the Essence. We created beings, dwelling in houses of clay … are too small to grasp what radiance is in general, and the radiance of the Essence in particular. It is understood how far we are from understanding what the messiah is. However, by considering his behaviour and activities, we can gain a tiny fragment of knowledge.35

The behaviour and activities of the messiah are explained with reference to Isaiah 11: 2–4: ‘and there will rest on him … a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and might … his scent will be with fear of G-d, and he will not judge [merely] by the sight of his eyes … he will judge the poor with righteousness’36

Rabbi Joseph Isaac explores the theme of the messiah’s unusual mode of judgement as an example to be followed. Rather than judging another person by appearances, one should put oneself in that person’s place, and live through the experiences which led him to behave as he does37 Through his discussion of errors into which a person might fall, he leads his audience to a sense of their own spiritual inadequacy. The participant in that Simhat Torah gathering may be a wealthy American, but, as he listens to Rabbi Joseph Isaac, he discovers that inwardly he is poor.38 Now he must battle with his own desires (ta’avot), including the desire for permitted things, his total immersion in the pleasures of eating meat and drinking wine39

In this context Rabbi Joseph Isaac gives a practical and organizational instruction:

It should be the duty of Agudas Chassidei Chabad in the United States and Canada to organize at certain times, as convenient for the members, hasidic talks and explanations, and to discuss carefully various topics concerning strengthening observance of the commandments and love of Torah, which will provide spiritual food for many who are of hasidic [i.e. Habad] stock40

(p.62) It thus seems that the spreading of the wellsprings outwards means that the descendants of Habad families should live as hasidim in America. However, Rabbi Joseph Isaac adds another important twist to this concept. What is the direction of Habad spirituality? Is it inward, or for that matter heavenward, or is it outward, towards the world?

‘People make a mistake’, says Rabbi Joseph Isaac. They think that spiritual service means ‘that one goes to the mikveh before prayer,41 one prays for five or six hours with vitality [hayut], one fasts,42 one learns a lot of Torah’. But all this is not enough. Habad divine service means an outward direction, having an effect on one’s surroundings, somehow improving the world, so that ‘when a Jew walks in the street, the stone has to know that a Jew is treading on it, the air has to become more pure, the world has to become more radiant’. In order to achieve this, says Rabbi Joseph Isaac, one must indeed study hasidic teachings and pray at length and with enthusiasm; one must uproot all bad traits and instil positive ones. ‘Then’, he says, ‘the world will be illuminated.’ The difference appears to be one of intention and direction: if one’s goal is to purify the air and to light up the world, the outside, this indeed will be the effect of one’s personal spiritual service.43

The idea of ‘purifying the air’ was to be developed by Rabbi Joseph Isaac in the early 1940s, when once again back in the United States after spending some ten years in Poland. One of the activities of his Machne Israel society was learning by heart chapters of the Mishnah, in order to recite them at every free opportunity, including especially while walking in the street. This was described as having the effect of ‘purifying the air’, a way of preparing for the messiah’s coming, as has been described by Gershon Greenberg.44

In the Rebbe’s earlier talk on Simhat Torah 1929 we see the germ of the notion of the wellsprings reaching outwards in the context of the discussion of the messiah’s reply to the Ba’al Shem Tov. One aspect of this idea is to live as a hasid in America: one contemplates hasidic teachings, gaining some intimation of the divine intellect; one prays at length, with vitality, specifically in an environment which is perceived as being outside, beyond the realm of traditional Judaism. Another aspect is that one’s spirituality is turned outwards: it is not just for oneself; it is intended to have an effect on the world, or, as Rabbi Joseph Isaac puts it, to purify the air and illuminate the world, as mentioned above.

Another section of Rabbi Joseph Isaac’s talk speaks not of hasidic spirituality but of simple traditional Jewish observance. During his years in the Soviet Union, (p.63) promoting the observance of basic Judaism in the face of oppression had been the focus of his activities. Now visiting America, this simple level of demand remained:

For the sake of the education of one’s children, the conduct in one’s home must be ‘Jewish’. When the father goes to the synagogue to pray, and attends the classes which are taught there, and the mother observes yidishkayt [ Jewish tradition] and the sabbath is sabbath, then the air in the home is good, and this has an effect on the children. It implants yidishkayt in them.45

This is the most basic level of Rabbi Joseph Isaac’s teaching to his audience in Brooklyn, the scions of Habad families whom ‘the torrent of exile has scattered around the world’.46 On this he built the higher levels, whereby the home and the parents should not only represent Orthodox observance but also Habad hasidic warmth, vitality, and spirituality, leading even to the intensity of intimations of the divine intellect, not just for oneself but with the intention of illuminating the world. This higher level is the spreading of the wellsprings outwards.

Rabbi Joseph Isaac’s talk on Simhat Torah in Brooklyn during his visit to the United States in 1929–30 can be seen as laying the groundwork for future developments in Habad-Lubavitch, linked to the interpretation of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s letter. There is the attempt to communicate spirituality, the wellsprings; and there is also the concern for basic Jewish observance.

Spreading the Wellsprings in Poland

Rabbi Joseph Isaac left the United States in the summer of 1930 and returned to Europe. Until 1933 he was based in Riga, although during this period he made a number of visits to communities in Lithuania, Volhynia, Poland, and Germany.47 In August 1933 he moved to Warsaw, which became his new centre until the summer of 1935, when he moved to Otwock, a rural suburb of Warsaw. This became the location for his Tomkhei Temimim yeshiva and the base for all his activities until the outbreak of war in September 1939. During this period a key aspect of his work was the attempt to spread Habad hasidic teachings, including his own historiographical perspectives, as has been explored by Ada Rapoport-Albert.48 The journal Hatamim, published in Otwock from 1935 to 1937, was a major vehicle for this, together with the publication of talks and discourses in Hebrew and Yiddish, and many personal letters. It was also during this period that Rabbi Joseph Isaac (p.64) began the serious endeavour to communicate hasidic teachings to women.49 The anonymous editorial of the fourth issue of Hatamim, published in the summer of 1936 and celebrating the beginning of its second year, focuses on the theme of the encounter of the Ba’al Shem Tov with the messiah.

The hasidic story [agadat haḥasidim] is well known whereby in the year [4]507 [1746], at the time of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s ascent of the soul [aliyat haneshamah], in which he reached the heavenly palace of the messiah, the Ba’al Shem Tov asked: ‘When are you coming?’ and the answer from the messiah was, ‘When your wellsprings gush outwards.’ A broad and deep explanation of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s question, and of the answer of the messiah, is given in [R. Joseph Isaac’s] Simhat Torah talk of the year [5]690 [1929] in New York (which will soon be printed50), and from what is said there we learn, in brief, that there are places and kinds of people which are called ‘outside’, because they are still outside the fortified wall of Torah and religion [dat] infused with the flames of hasidic fire. Thus the messiah answered: ‘When your wellsprings gush outwards’, that is, when the wellsprings of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s hasidic teachings reach also the ‘outside’, the distant places which are still outside the border of hasidism.51

The delicate point being made here is that the Orthodox, Torah-studying Jews of Poland can still be considered ‘outside’ if their Judaism is not inspired by the fire of hasidism—in particular, Habad hasidism. It was this sentiment that prompted the establishment of Hatamim, a journal in Hebrew addressed to the Orthodox, as a medium for the ‘spreading of the wellsprings’. The perspective it promoted is underscored by the following passage in the editorial, which cited a saying that it attributed to Rabbi Shneur Zalman: ‘before the coming of the messiah even the newspapers will publicize his advent’, meaning that before the messiah’s advent, hasidic teachings, which reveal the radiance of the messiah, will be publicized in newspapers.52 It seems that the editors were claiming that Hatamim was fulfilling this role.

The messianic theme, linked directly with the Ba’al Shem Tov’s letter, continues in the next paragraph:

The present period in which we find ourselves is without doubt the time of the ‘heels of the messiah’, as in the sacred words of [Rabbi Joseph Isaac] in one of his talks at a hasidic gathering: ‘We are now on Friday, the eve of the sabbath, after midday, and the sacred sabbath will soon commence.’ The severe suffering and terrible persecution which our brothers the Jewish people are undergoing in various countries, together with the unrest and revolutions which have shaken the entire world, fully testify to this. There is (p.65) not a shadow of a doubt that now has come the time for fulfilment of the promise ‘when your wellsprings gush outwards’.53

These unsigned editorial statements, which were without doubt inspired and authorized by Rabbi Joseph Isaac and possibly by his son-in-law Rabbi Menachem Mendel,54 characterize the atmosphere of his sojourn in Poland. They repeat and intensify some of the themes we first encountered in his Simhat Torah talk of 1929, and provide a background to his publishing activities from his yeshiva and headquarters in Otwock. While the 1929 talk was addressed primarily to the descendants of Habad families in America, the activities in Poland—particularly the publication of Hatamim—took into consideration the Orthodox, Hebrew-reading public, the yeshiva world, and the numerous hasidic communities who were as yet outside the circle of Habad. The next step, widening the circle yet further, was to be taken again in America, which Rabbi Joseph Isaac reached via Warsaw, Riga, Stockholm, and Gothenburg in the spring of 1940.55

Outreach in Montreal

At the end of 1941, Rabbi Joseph Isaac succeeded in bringing a group of nine advanced yeshiva students from the Lubavitch yeshiva in Otwock to safety in Canada via Shanghai (where forty others remained). They were denied visas to the United States and had to remain in Montreal, where there was a Lubavitch community large enough to maintain two synagogues.

At the behest of Rabbi Joseph Isaac, a Lubavitch yeshiva was founded in Montreal with these nine advanced students as its nucleus, and they were at once joined by twenty-four others from the city.56 This is not in itself remarkable: by this date Rabbi Joseph Isaac had succeeded in founding the central Lubavitch yeshiva in Brooklyn and further branches in Pittsburgh, Newark, and Worcester. However, what is interesting for our investigation is that a letter from him to the students, outlining their programme of studies (which was intended to engender the hasidic spirituality of Otwock), included the demand that they should spend considerable time with members of the Lubavitch community, ‘to arouse them from their fainting spell, to awaken them from their slumber’, and that they should (p.66) regularly recite hasidic discourses by heart in the two Lubavitch synagogues in the city. One could imagine that the feat of the recital of a relatively lengthy discourse by heart, rather than teaching a text from a book, may have created a unique atmosphere, providing a new level of spiritual experience for the participants. Rabbi Joseph Isaac instructed further that the nine students should also provide Torah study sessions for others and do their best to attract into the yeshiva young men and teenage boys from the Lubavitch community and from outside it, in order to study with them.

Do not look at the ‘new vessel’, the beardless face, and sometimes also the lack of tsitsit. [Look] only at that which is good and straight in him, judge him in the scale of merit, have mercy on him, encourage him, and draw him near.57

To place these communal and outreach duties on yeshiva students was clearly seen by the students themselves as unusual. They wrote back to Rabbi Joseph Isaac complaining that the public study sessions took time away from their own advanced studies.

Rabbi Joseph Isaac responded with an enthusiastic depiction of the spiritual advantages gained through teaching others—that ‘one’s own mind and heart become a thousand times more clear’58—and with the interesting statement that

Abraham was a wondrous intellectual [maskil], and it is the nature of scholars, lovers of wisdom, to regard time as precious, using it to further their own study. Nonetheless Abraham, through his generosity of heart, would forsake his longing for increasing his own intellectual understanding in order to publicize [knowledge of] godliness in the world, explaining to the coarse and simple Arabs the concept of the Creator of the world and His unity.59

Here, unlike in our previous examples, there is no mention of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s letter, although it seems likely that its message was understood to underlie this initiative, especially since hasidic teachings and inspiration were the major focus of Rabbi Joseph Isaac’s demand. An important advance was being made in defining (p.67) the self-image of a student of a Lubavitch yeshiva, called a tamim.60 He was not only studying for his own religious and intellectual benefit; he had a duty to spread spiritual awareness to others, following the example of the Habad midrashic depiction of the patriarch Abraham that we saw above.

Immediate Repentance—Immediate Redemption

In the background to these developments was the horror of what was happening to European Jewry. Rabbi Joseph Isaac, who was engaged in practical attempts to rescue students in his yeshivas and his followers,61 was convinced that these were the travails preceding the advent of the messiah, as we see from repeated articles in the monthly newspaper he published, Hakeriyah vehakedushah. Consequently, he generated a number of spiritual responses to the situation, as described by Gershon Greenberg.62 One was the founding of Machne Israel at the end of 1940. According to Rabbi Joseph Isaac, its focus was ‘positive activities in strengthening Judaism, putting on tefilin, keeping the sabbath, [observing] family purity, [Jewish] education, and love of one’s fellow Jew … One has to go out into the street and demand of Jews: “Repent! Do teshuvah! Have mercy on yourselves! The situation is very bad.”’63 The slogan of Machne Israel was ‘Le’altar liteshuvah, le’altar lige’ulah’—‘immediate repentance, immediate redemption’. As mentioned above, another aspect of its activities concerned ‘purifying the air’ by reciting psalms, chapters of the Mishnah, and the Tanya by heart in the streets, wherever this was halakhically permitted.64 A further outreach institution founded at this time was Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch Inc. (Center for Jewish Education), which in 1943 was printing educational material in Yiddish and English, organizing hadarim (part-time religious schools) for young boys and girls—at least some of whom were from non-observant families—and organizing educational sabbath groups for children.65 Another activity was the ‘religion hour’, in which Jewish pupils from public schools would be brought to a nearby location and given some form of religious instruction for an hour each week.66 All of these were placed under (p.68) the directorship of Rabbi Joseph Isaac’s son-in-law Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who had reached New York with his wife Chaya Mussia in the spring of 1941.67

Another response of Rabbi Joseph Isaac in 1941–2 to the war in Europe was his initiative to write a Torah scroll to welcome the messiah (sefer torah lekabalat penei mashiah). The Torah scroll provided a way of preparing to greet the messiah, but it was also intended to protect the Jewish people from the suffering entailed in the so-called ‘birth pangs of the messiah’, the period of crisis traditionally said to precede the messianic redemption.68 The theme of protection is also suggested in a story told by Rabbi Joseph Isaac on the day on which the writing of the scroll began, concerning a Torah scroll written at the behest of the Ba’al Shem Tov in order to stop a plague in Międzybóż.69 From the end of 1942, Rabbi Joseph Isaac and his son-in-law Rabbi Menachem Mendel began signing off many of their letters with the slogan ‘Le’altar liteshuvah, le’altar lige’ulah’.

Did this outreach activism, spiritual intensity, and messianic expectation link overtly with the letter of the Ba’al Shem Tov? Would it all have taken place anyway, if the letter had not been known? Quite possibly. In the Soviet Union, Rabbi Joseph Isaac had been distinguished as a religious activist par excellence, and the themes of national suffering, pangs of the messiah, repentance, and intensification of religious observance are all linked and firmly implanted in rabbinic literature. Moreover, the idea that love of one’s fellow Jew leads one to try to draw others closer to Jewish practice is clearly expressed in the Tanya, the central text of Habad, together with the assurance that even if one’s attempt to draw another person closer to Jewish observance is not successful, one has still fulfilled the commandment to love one’s fellow.70 In addition, outside the hasidic movement, R. Israel Meir Kagan of Radin, known as Hafets Hayim (1838–1933), was noted both for his intense messianic expectancy and for his outreach activities in Jewish society. On American soil, other Jewish groups were involved in outreach, particularly the Young Israel organization, with which Lubavitch had cordial relations.71 It was thus perfectly natural for Lubavitch in America during the 1940s to be similarly concerned with outreach, quite apart from the Ba’al Shem Tov’s letter. (p.69) Despite the seminal talk on Simhat Torah of 1929, Rabbi Joseph Isaac’s references to the theme of the letter are very few.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel and Spreading the Wellsprings

This is not so in the case of his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel. Many of his letters from the early 1940s mention the theme, especially in connection with appeals for activism. The link is particularly apparent in a series of letters from 1942–3, sent by Rabbi Menachem Mendel to a number of temimim, alumni of the Lubavitch yeshivas who now found themselves in various parts of the globe, such as the following, which was sent to a person in Mexico. After describing the activities of Machne Israel and Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel writes:

‘G-d directs a person’s footsteps’ [Ps. 37: 23]—all the temimim, wherever they are, have a special task to introduce ‘light [i.e. Jewish teachings] into the dwellings’72 of the local Jews, to achieve all they can, and with total dedication, as regards ‘spreading the wellsprings outwards’, and especially in these times of the footsteps of the messiah [ikvetadimeshiḥa], when it is a double and redoubled duty of every one of the temimim and members of Lubavitch [anash] to fulfil the commandment of ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ and to be one of those who bring merit to the many. I am sure that you will make the effort to be active in all the above, and to participate in our sacred work, which unifies all the temimim in all the four corners of the world.73

This means two things: firstly, Rabbi Menachem Mendel saw the outreach activities in which he was involved as examples of ‘spreading the wellsprings’, linked also with the messianic tension of the time; secondly, he viewed the temimim, whom history had scattered around the world, as a pool of potential activists: marshal the force of the person who is already on the spot, for, after all, G-d has directed his footsteps, he is already ‘outside’. This can be seen as an early form of the concept of mission (shelihut), which later was to characterize his leadership of Habad: the emissary (shaliaḥ) and his wife are sent ‘outside’ in order to do their work of what was later termed ‘spreading abroad’ (hafatsah)—a term obviously relating to the Ba’al Shem Tov’s letter.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel saw a direct connection between the ‘spreading of the wellsprings’ and the work of strengthening Jewish practice. In a lengthy letter written in 1944 to R. Moses Pinhas Katz, who had studied in the Lubavitch yeshiva in Europe, was now living in Newark, NJ, and had financed the printing of hasidic teachings, he emphasizes the importance of the publication of hasidic texts in the (p.70) light of the epistle of the Ba’al Shem Tov.74 The letter also discusses two contrasting modes of drawing a person closer to observance of laws of the Torah. One is by underlining the loathsomeness of evil and the idea of punishment in Gehinom (purgatory), while the other is ‘the path of hasidism’. This means:

to explain to him the greatness of the Creator, how manifold are [His] works, the infinite greatness of Torah and the commandments … [and] knowledge of the [kabbalistic] down-chaining of the worlds … [and] of the unity of G-d.75

Through hasidic teachings, says Rabbi Menachem Mendel, one can reach both the divine soul and the animal soul of the person:

The [hasidic] discourses76 speak more to the divine soul, the mind, an effect which takes place from above to below (within the person), whereas talks [siḥot],77 which include stories, explanations of the intellectualist aspects of hasidic teachings, arousal to [spiritual] divine service, and so on have an effect on both aspects [i.e. both the divine soul and the animal soul].78

This describes what was later to become the typical Lubavitch mode of communication and outreach, in which spiritual ideas—the ‘wellsprings’—fuel attempts to increase the level of simple practical observance of the laws of the Torah.

The Motto of 19 Kislev

Another aspect of Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s use of the theme of spreading the wellsprings, as different from that of his father-in-law, is that he connected it to the Habad festival of 19 Kislev, which had been declared by Rabbi Shalom Dovber to be the ‘Rosh Hashanah of hasidic teachings’. For Rabbi Joseph Isaac, the solemn theme of Rosh Hashanah was the main focus of the 19 Kislev festival. It was a time to reflect on the spiritual values of Habad, with all the earnestness of Rosh Hashanah in hasidic life. In the published transcripts of his 19 Kislev talks as hasidic leader, from 1920 to 1949, he never mentions the theme of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s letter.79

(p.71) By contrast, from 1950 onwards Rabbi Menachem Mendel made a close connection between the two themes of the Rosh Hashanah of hasidism and the goal of spreading the wellsprings to the outside. For this he employed the passage from Rabbi Shalom Dovber cited earlier,80 claiming that the liberation of Rabbi Shneur Zalman on 19 Kislev (in 1798) celebrates the beginning of the spreading of the wellsprings to the outside. Yet there was an important shift of meaning. By the term ‘outside’, as we saw, Rabbi Shalom Dovber meant Habad followers and yeshiva students studying hasidic teachings and contemplating in prayer, despite their lack of inner purification. For Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the term patently includes the Jew who is outside the circle of traditional observance.

Rabbi Joseph Isaac passed away on 28 January 1950. In December that year Rabbi Menachem Mendel issued a public letter in order to prepare the Lubavitch community for the forthcoming celebration of 19 Kislev.81 Addressed to ‘anash [members of our fellowship] and lovers of Torah everywhere’, this letter presents the theme of spreading the wellsprings to the outside as central to hasidism in general and as essential for all members of Lubavitch in particular. The focus of the letter is on the spreading of hasidic teachings not only in the synagogue or study house, but also ‘when sitting in a shop’ and similar. Moreover, ‘one should not limit oneself to particular groups or types of person … one has to spread the wellsprings … also to those who are outside all “camps”’.82 On the 19 Kislev festival Rabbi Menachem Mendel led a hasidic gathering, and in his talk he expounded the idea that 19 Kislev celebrates the implementation of the spreading of the wellsprings to every Jew:

Previously it was accepted that study of the secrets of Torah relates only to special people, or at least to those who had already put right all those aspects which needed correction [tikun]. [Rabbi Shneur Zalman] taught the new idea that the study of hasidic teachings is relevant to every Jew, even to the lowest souls in the times of the footsteps of the messiah, even to those who have not yet fulfilled their task as regards [positive commandments], and even to those who are not yet whole as regards [negative commandments]—they too should study hasidic teachings. …

This is the preparation for the coming of the messiah, as stated by the messiah in reply to the Ba’al Shem Tov’s question, ‘When are you coming?’ ‘When your wellsprings gush outwards.’83

(p.72) In November 1951, now officially recognized as Lubavitcher Rebbe,84 Rabbi Menachem Mendel made a special appeal to ‘rabbis, Jewish leaders, heads of yeshivas’ before 19 Kislev, asking them to make a special effort to study the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov and spread them to the outside, as well as emphasizing meticulous observance of the commandments, love of one’s fellow, and refinement of one’s personality traits (zikukh hamidot) in the spirit of hasidic teachings.85 The overt messianic tension of the 1940s had receded to the background, but the theme of spreading the wellsprings continued.

A Halakhic Exposition about Wellsprings

Throughout his leadership the theme of spreading the wellsprings was central in Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s thought. A letter of 1951 to his emissary to Morocco adds an interesting twist to the interpretation of the wording. Here the focus is on the term ma’ayanot, which I have been translating as ‘wellsprings’. In the laws of a ritual immersion pool, a mikveh, there is a complicated procedure for imparting the required purificatory power to the ordinary water of the pool. This entails connecting the water to a large quantity—forty se’ah (about 332 litres)—of natural rainwater. However, if the pool is continuously connected to a natural spring, a ma’ayan, then even the smallest amount of spring water invests the ordinary water in the mikveh with the power to purify. A further point, which Maimonides regards as essential, is that the spring should continue its course after entering the pool.86

Rabbi Menachem Mendel explains these halakhic details in terms which imply that the ordinary water is the ordinary power of the emissary. The spring water is the teaching of the rebbe—as Rabbi Menachem Mendel puts it, of the previous rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Isaac, ‘who is the Ba’al Shem Tov of our generation’. By spiritual connection to the inspirational wellspring of the rebbe, the emissary is granted the power to inspire others using his own ‘water’—his own imagination and energy. However, adds Rabbi Menachem Mendel, this should follow the view of Maimonides, that the spring has to continue further, meaning that those with whom the emissary comes in contact should also become sources of inspiration for others.87 With this homily on the laws of the mikveh, Rabbi Menachem Mendel expresses the theme of personal empowerment central to his activist stance by linking it to the letter of the Ba’al Shem Tov.

The Rebbe’s interpretation of the messiah’s reply to the Ba’al Shem Tov, together with other themes—in particular, that of being the leader of the seventh (p.73) generation of Habad starting with Rabbi Shneur Zalman, which parallels Moses’ position as the seventh generation from Abraham—contributed to the messianic fervour of the Lubavitch movement.88 This reached a climax in 1970, when Rabbi Joseph Isaac’s Torah scroll, intended to greet the messiah, was finally completed,89 and again—much more overtly in the public domain—in the early 1990s.

Spreading the Wellsprings of Hasidic Teachings and of Judaism

As mentioned in Chapter 1, in 1952 Rabbi Menachem Mendel introduced the theme of the four sons described in the Passover Haggadah as an expression of what he often called the ‘need of the time’—the work of reaching out to nonobservant Jews, seeking to encourage them to fulfil the practical commandments of Judaism.

As well as addressing his own followers, Rabbi Menachem Mendel also appealed to the Orthodox world in general to take part in this activity. His appeal was conveyed in an open letter issued before Passover 1952. Addressed to the ‘students of the yeshivas’, meaning all yeshivas, not only those of Lubavitch, the letter begins: ‘With the permission of the learned rabbis … the heads of the yeshivas, I turn to you with this, my dear ones, students of the yeshivas.’ Rabbi Menachem Mendel comments on the four sons at the Seder, of whom ‘one is wise and one is wicked’. Why, he asks, is the wise son placed next to the wicked son? It is in order that they should talk together, so that the wise son will have a positive influence on the wicked son:

This means that (a) there is hope even for the wicked son, because G-d provides him with a wise son to influence him, and to help him improve … (b) the wise son should not say, ‘What do I have to do with the wicked son?’ For all Israel are pledges for each other and are intermingled, and each one has to help the other improve. However, he should always remember that … he should be influencing the wicked son, not the other way round; (c) the wise son should always remember that ‘sin crouches at the door’ (p.74) [Gen. 4: 7] and that ‘one who is greater than others has a greater evil desire’90 … so he himself should be very careful.91

Rabbi Menachem Mendel adds that if this demand applies even in the case of the wicked son, how much more does it apply in the case of the simple son—whom he terms also ‘foolish’ on the basis of a comment in the Jerusalem Talmud92—and the son ‘who does not know how to ask’? This sentence could be seen as simplifying the appeal and reducing it to a request to become involved with those who are less knowledgeable, possibly other students in the yeshiva. However, the initial outreach appeal is not withdrawn. If the outreach demand of a decade earlier, addressed to the Habad yeshiva students of Montreal, took the temimim by surprise, one wonders how this letter was regarded by other yeshiva students, who were being asked to engage with those who were not the ‘wise son’, and even with those who might be termed the ‘wicked son’. Notably, however, there is no allusion to the Ba’al Shem Tov’s letter here, and the proof texts on which Rabbi Menachem Mendel bases his position are talmudic and aggadic rather than mystical.

As mentioned in Chapter 1, just before the start of the Six Day War, on 3 June 1967, in what was understood as a spiritual step aimed to help protect the Jewish people, Rabbi Menachem Mendel launched his Tefilin Campaign. On weekdays his followers would stop Jewish men or boys over barmitzvah age in the street and ask them if they had ‘put on tefilin today’, and if they had not, they would invite them to do so. This provoked sharp criticism from a number of haredi figures, most particularly Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Rebbe of Satmar. The halakhah states that tefilin demand a ‘pure body’, which means also a pure mind. Surely, claimed Rabbi Teitelbaum, the irreligious men who put on tefilin would be thinking impure thoughts.93

In a hasidic gathering in October 1967, Rabbi Menachem Mendel replied to this and a number of further points of criticism of the Tefilin Campaign which had been raised in Orthodox and haredi circles.94 On the question of impure thoughts, he pointed out, reasonably, that when someone sees something new, or has a new experience, such as donning tefilin in the case of a man who does not usually do so, at that moment his thoughts will be focused on the new experience.95 In reply to those haredi critics who argued that ‘it is forbidden to ask secular Jews to put on tefilin’, he cited the halakhic imperative of reproof96 and R. Moses of Coucy (p.75) (author of the Semag), who himself had been active in persuading the Jews of thirteenth-century Spain to put on tefilin and keep other commandments. Rabbi Moses of Coucy defends the right of the ‘evildoer’ to put on tefilin,97 and Rabbi Menachem Mendel cites this point. However, he also states that one cannot consider most people today wicked in a halakhic sense: ‘I did not want to quote the Semag at all … for in our time, most of those who are as yet distant from the Torah and commandments are in the category of “a child who is taken captive”.’98 The Jewish child taken captive among the gentiles cannot be blamed for his or her non-observant behaviour. Thus began a series of ‘mitsvah campaigns’, which became a central preoccupation of many members of the Habad movement.

While Maimonides sought to define thirteen principles of faith as the basis of Judaism in cerebral terms, Rabbi Menachem Mendel developed a list of ten mitsvah campaigns as a guide to practical action for each individual in his or her personal life and also as a focus for outreach activity. The list developed over the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s.99 As presented by Rabbi Menachem Mendel at a hasidic gathering in the autumn of 1982, it comprised Torah study, education of others and of oneself, love of one’s fellow, tefilin, mezuzah, giving charity, having a home full of books, kashrut, family purity, and lighting candles for the sabbath and festivals.100

This was complemented by the specific role of the emissaries (sheluḥim). Rabbi Joseph Isaac had sent sheluḥim to a number of American locations, including Chicago in the Midwest and California. In addition, first steps were made in sending Lubavitch representatives to visit campuses.101 Under the leadership of Rabbi Menachem Mendel the number of emissaries increased many times over. They became a global phenomenon, with the new Habad Houses generally providing their base.102 Their mission was to promulgate Jewish observance in the framework of the ten mitsvah campaigns but ultimately extending to every aspect of traditional Jewish life. How does this relate to the letter of the Ba’al Shem Tov, which encourages the spread of esoteric, mystical teachings rather than the (p.76) affixing of mezuzot to one’s doorposts and the lighting of candles for the sabbath? To answer this question, let us take a closer look at the Rebbe’s carefully chosen terminology.

Although, as we have seen, Rabbi Menachem Mendel viewed hasidic teachings as promoting the task of strengthening simple Jewish observance, he generally referred to this endeavour as hafatsat hayahadut,103 the spreading of Judaism, as distinct from hafatsat hama’ayanot, the spreading of the wellsprings of hasidism. Nonetheless, it is important to note that the trigger word hafatsah, from yafutsu in the Ba’al Shem Tov’s letter, is still employed.

In a letter written in 1954, Rabbi Menachem Mendel gives a halakhic basis for the spreading of the mystical teachings of Habad, the ‘wellsprings’, and links it to the strengthening of all Jewish observance. In answer to the question whether the Tanya should be taught to high-school girls, he refers to the idea in the Shulḥanarukh that girls and women should study those aspects of Torah that enable them to keep the commandments which apply to them.104 Now, there are six ‘continuous’ commandments listed in the introduction to the anonymous but authoritative thirteenth-century Sefer hahinukh which apply equally and constantly to all Jews: to believe in G-d, not to believe in any other power, to love G-d, to fear G-d, to recognize the unity of G-d, and not to stray after one’s eyes and heart. Rabbi Menachem Mendel claims that the study of hasidic teachings helps one observe these. By this logic it is halakhically permitted, indeed a duty, for both men and women to study them.105 Thus our passage in the Ba’al Shem Tov’s letter, as well as the controversial issue of imparting mystical teachings to those who are not at all observant, are provided with a halakhic underpinning. In 1957 Rabbi Menachem Mendel wrote encouragingly to a follower who had organized a Tanya study group for secular youth in Tel Aviv.106 At the same time, one notes that the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, the mid-nineteenth-century Rabbi Menahem Mendel, the Tsemah Tsedek, saw Habad teachings as quite distinct from kabbalah, and so did his namesake, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the seventh Rebbe.107 Hence the members of the Lubavitch movement understand the Habad discourses, despite their Lurianic (p.77) terminology, as being the exoteric teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov rather than kabbalistic ideas drawn straight from the deliberately esoteric Lurianic texts.


One question which we have not yet touched upon concerns an important detail in the text of the messiah’s answer to the Ba’al Shem Tov in his letter. It does not speak only of spreading the Ba’al Shem Tov’s teachings but also of making yihudim (mystical unifications) and aliyot (mystical ascents).108 These words are generally omitted from the Habad public expositions of the theme of spreading the wellsprings. At no time, even in early hasidism, were hasidic followers invited to achieve mystical yihudim and ascents of the soul. How is this point viewed by the leaders of twentieth-century Habad? Is it just conveniently forgotten?

One answer may be that the hasidic leader understood the fulfilment of his own role as rebbe, with its mystical overtones, as the implementation of this part of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s letter. Rabbi Joseph Isaac, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, and their predecessors were seen by their followers, and probably regarded themselves, as clairvoyants who underwent intense mystical experiences.109 They themselves would embark on the mystical unifications and ascents, yihudim and aliyot, and also spread the wellsprings of hasidic teaching, while their followers would continue the latter task if not the former.110

It is said that Rabbi Menachem Mendel was once asked in a private audience about this aspect of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s letter. His reply was in two parts: (a) one cannot tell what other people are experiencing; (b) lack of ability to fulfil one part of the instruction does not take away from one’s duty to fulfil the other part.111

There is a possible clue as to how this point was understood by the two hasidic leaders in a letter written by Rabbi Menachem Mendel in 1949, in the lifetime of Rabbi Joseph Isaac. Addressed to a leading hasid, one of the early and most prominent emissaries—he is addressed with the rare title sheluḥa derabanan—the letter is a reprimand: he is in the wrong country. According to Rabbi Joseph Isaac, (p.78) he should be in England, ‘to be his shaliaḥ and representative there’, but he is ‘still staying in Paris’, seemingly in order to raise funds. Rabbi Menachem Mendel writes:

Perhaps one could say that this is as is told of the Magid [of Mezhirech], that he would give each of his disciples the yiḥudim relevant to the different regions [where they were sent]. But back then one spoke openly and everyone saw that these were truly yiḥudim, whereas now all is concealed by veil upon veil, so one can make a mistake as to the intention.112

In this moment of concern the veil was lifted: according to Rabbi Menachem Mendel, when Rabbi Joseph Isaac sends an emissary to a specific place, he has in mind some kind of mystical transaction relating to the concept of yiḥudim. However, this is heavily concealed, and the emissary himself does not realize the true nature of his mission; he can therefore make an error as to where he should be.

Deconstructing Boundaries

I have attempted to examine the activity of people who are both leaders in the conventional sense and also mystical personalities, and for whom spiritual matters—such as the messianic idea—loom with immense prominence. We see that they consider themselves to be mediating between the spiritual realm and this world, following the pattern of the Ba’al Shem Tov, particularly as described by Immanuel Etkes.113 This is also how they are viewed by their followers. In this process of mediation, texts such as the Torah, the Mishnah, the Tanya, and the Ba’al Shem Tov’s letter, which are all understood as bearing spiritual illumination yet also as generating directives and practices for the physical, daily world, are crucial elements. So are special days, such as 19 Kislev, termed by another mystical figure, the fourth Habad Rebbe, Shalom Dovber, the Rosh Hashanah of hasidism. With the combination of these elements, a few words reported of a visionary experience become a psychological as well as a spiritual key to the release of remarkable human forces, with considerable impact on hasidic society and also further afield.

The quest to spread the wellsprings of spirituality to the outside can be seen as an imperative to deconstruct religious boundaries. As the conception of the accessible ‘outside’ gradually expanded, so the emphasis on and affirmation of this passage in the Ba’al Shem Tov’s letter increased. In 1746 the phrase was puzzling, even to the Ba’al Shem Tov himself. In the second half of the twentieth century and into our own time, it has become the motto of Habad hasidism.


(1) The ‘Sacred Epistle’ appears in Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye’s Ben porat yosef, first printed in Korets in 1781 and reproduced in part at the beginning of Keter shem tov (Żółkiew, 1794). A variant manuscript was published by David Frankel in his Letters of the Besht, another by Y. Mondshine, and yet another by H. D. A. Tiefenbrun (see below). For a discussion of the manuscript versions of the letter, especially Frankel’s, see Bauminger, ‘Letters of Our Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov’ (Heb.); Rubinstein, ‘The Letter of the Besht’ (Heb.); Mondshine, Migdal oz, 119–26; Rosman, Founder of Hasidism, 97–113; Etkes, The Besht, 79–80, 282–8; Pedaya, ‘The Holy Epistle of the Besht’; Tiefenbrun, ‘The Baal Shem Tov’s Letter about his Ascent of the Soul’, 6–19 (with a response by Y. Mondshine).

(2) Etkes agrees with Mondshine that both the Mondshine and the Bauminger versions are authentic and are, respectively, the first (before 1750) and second (1752) letters which the Ba’al Shem Tov sent to his brother-in-law. The text printed in Ben porat yosef would seem to be an amalgam of the two (Etkes, The Besht, 80, 288).

(6) This is the approbation of Rabbi Judah Leib Hakohen, which reads, ‘And now ISRAEL will rejoice with the revelation of his sacred words.’ The word ‘Israel’, printed in a larger font, is understood as referring to R. Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, who rejoices at the revelation of his teachings in Tanya, which is in accordance with the directive of the messiah in his visionary experience. See H. M. Heilman, Beit rebi, 156, particularly n. 5. Heilman writes that he heard this explanation of the wording of the approbation from the descendants of Rabbi Menahem Mendel, the Tsemah Tsedek. I am grateful to my former student Dr Wojciech Tworek for drawing this passage in Beit rebi to my attention.

(10) The talk began with the quote from the Talmud (BT Shab. 56a), ‘Anyone who was a soldier in the army of King David wrote a bill of divorce to his wife’, thus expressing the ideal of total dedication to the cause of Habad. It continued with an account of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s ascent of the soul, and of the messiah’s statement that the spreading of the wellsprings was the route to redemption. See J. I. Schneersohn, Sefer hasiḥot 5702, 141–53. Concerning this talk see Brawer, ‘Resistance and Response to Change’, 211–12; Menachem Friedman, ‘Habad as Messianic Fundamentalism’, 335; and Lurie, ‘Lubavitch and Its Wars’, 77.

(11) This festive day in the Habad community celebrates the release of R. Shneur Zalman from his first imprisonment in 1798. See below for R. Shalom Dovber’s declaration in 1901 that it is the ‘New Year of hasidism’.

(12) See R. Joseph Isaac’s description of this custom of his father in Sefer hama’amarim … admur yosefyitsḥak 5710, 265. The other volumes were the Magid’s Or torah and R. Shneur Zalman’s Tanya.

(13) Torat shalom, 112–17. Note that the editors of the book, writing in 1946, felt it necessary to explain that the phrase ‘when your wellsprings gush outwards’ was from the Ba’al Shem Tov’s letter (p. 112 n. 1). This suggests that the concept had not yet been popularized.

(14) Ibid. 113.

(15) Oral communication c.1975 from Shmuel Grossman (d.1979), son of R. Asher Grossman of Nikolayev, the editor of the Vilna 1900 edition of the Tanya. The teacher thus described was the mashpia (spiritual guide) Gronem Osterman. Concerning him, see Sassonkin, Zikhronotai, 69–70.

(17) Rabbi Judah Leib (1810–66), second son of the Tsemah Tsedek, moved to Kopys shortly after his father’s death in March 1866 in order to act there as rebbe, but died a few months later. His son, Rabbi Shelomoh Zalman, was therefore suddenly bereft of both his father and his grandfather, and this adds poignancy to his image of the ‘river’ of teachings which has now stopped flowing.

(18) See Zohar ii. 167b–168a. He also cites a discussion of this passage by his grandfather, the Tsemah Tsedek, now printed in the latter’s Biurei hazohar, ii. 818–20, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s letter on the same theme printed in Tanya, pt. IV, sect. 27.

(19) See Zohar i. 32b as one example among many of the Zohar’s use of the image of the river from Eden. Rabbi Shelomoh Zalman dates the beginning of the flow of teachings from the Ba’al Shem Tov to 1717–18, and its cessation to 1866–7, the year he was writing.

(20) From the introductory letter of R. Judah Leib to the first volume of his edition of his father’s Magen avot.

(21) Subsequently R. Shalom Dovber’s own voluminous and remarkable teachings were probably seen by him (and certainly by his followers, especially his son and successor, R. Joseph Isaac) as also embodying the wellsprings of the Ba’al Shem Tov.

(22) Torat shalom, 112. ‘Peterburg’ signifies the arrest of R. Shneur Zalman, his incarceration in the Peter-Paul fortress in St Petersburg, and his subsequent release on 19 Kislev 5559 (27 November 1798).

(23) See J. I. Schneersohn, Sefer hasiḥot 5688–5691, 110–30. Concerning the circumstances of this gathering, which took place in a private apartment, see the introduction (pp. 44, 46).

(27) Since its foundation in 1897 the Lubavitch yeshiva had been called Tomkhei Temimim and the students and later the alumni were called temimim. See Hatamim, i. 25, 27, quoted in M. M. Schneerson, From Day to Day (Heb.), entry for 15 Elul. See Brawer, ‘The Establishment of Yeshivat Tomkhei Temimim’, 361.

(29) Ibid. 112.

(30) Ibid. 130.

(32) Ibid. 109.

(33) Ibid. 113.

(34) Ibid. 118. Rabbi Joseph Isaac quotes Hillel’s ‘do not judge your fellow until you stand in his place’ (Mishnah Avot 2: 4) and elaborates it, with the subtext that this is what he himself, as a hasidic rebbe, is endeavouring to do at that moment.

(35) Ibid. 114.

(36) Ibid. 115.

(37) Ibid. 117.

(38) Ibid. 122.

(39) Ibid. 121.

(40) Ibid. 122.

(41) Lit. ‘one goes into water’.

(42) Although ascetic fasting (other than the statutory fasts) is generally rejected in the hasidic movement, Tanya, pt. III, ch. 3, following R. Isaac Luria, does recommend undertaking certain fasts as a penitential practice.

(46) Ibid. 130.

(47) See the editor S. B. Levin’s introduction to Igerot kodesh … admur yosef yitsḥak, ii. 25.

(48) Regarding Joseph Isaac’s presentations of the history of hasidism, see Rapoport-Albert, ‘Hagiography with Footnotes’.

(50) It appeared in the second volume of Likutei diburim (Otwock, 1937). An earlier version of it was published in New York in 1930.

(51) Hatamim, 4/2 (repr. Kfar Habad, 1971), 330.

(53) Hatamim, 4/3 (repr. Kfar Habad, 1971), 331.

(54) In the 1987 trial in New York concerning the Lubavitch Library, the librarian, R. Shalom Ber Levin, presented evidence—manuscripts of articles with editorial comments in R. Menachem Mendel’s distinctive handwriting—which indicated that the Rebbe was closely involved in editing Hatamim, although his name does not appear as an editor (personal communication from R. Levin, 19 Feb. 2008). See Igerot kodesh … admur yosef yitsḥak, xv. 208.

(58) See R. Shneur Zalman’s Likutei torah, ‘Bemidbar’, 37a.

(59) Igerot kodesh … admur yosef yitsḥak, vi. 90–1 (see Bereshit rabah 39: 16). The students were later sent in pairs to visit other communities in Canada, with the overt role of speaking about the plight of the Jews of Poland, but with the real aim of strengthening Torah study, and—one assumes—particularly the study of Habad teachings. See Igerot kodesh … yosef yitsḥak, vi. 89. In the summer the students organized a camp for the youth of the city (see the editor’s introductions to Igerot kodesh, vols. vi and xix). Some of the nine students became well-known figures in wider Lubavitch society and the rabbinic world, such as R. Yitshak Hendel (head of the rabbinic court of Montreal, d.2007), R. Menachem Zev Greenglass, and R. Yosef Wineberg (author of Lessons in Tanya).

(60) See above, n. 27.

(61) See S. B. Levin’s introduction to Igerot kodesh … admur yosef yitsḥak, v. 27–41. At one point R. Joseph Isaac managed to obtain several hundred American visas for Jews in occupied Europe, but these were then cancelled by the US government since the intended recipients of the visas had relatives in the area under Nazi occupation. See ibid. 35.

(64) Torah may not be studied in an impure environment. See Shulḥan arukh, ‘Oraḥh.ayim’, 85: 1.

(66) See Levin’s introduction, ibid. 14–15. By 1944 nearly 2,000 pupils had taken part in this. For a recent extensive collection of sources, see Naparstek (ed.), A Historical Review of the Released Time Program of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education (Heb.).

(67) See Miller, Turning Judaism Outward, 129–36, for an account of how the Schneerson couple managed to escape from Europe.

(71) See the introduction to Igerot kodesh … admur yosefyitsḥak, vi. 21–4, providing minutes of a meeting between representatives of Young Israel and senior Lubavitch figures, including R. Menachem Mendel. The Lubavitchers sought to encourage Young Israel in its activities but also to ask them to move somewhat to the ‘right’ in their religious approach, for example, to hold separate activities for boys and girls, and to try to prevent mixed dancing among their members.

(72) See Exod. 10: 23.

(73) Igerot kodesh … admurmenaḥemmendel, i. 57. The letter is addressed to a Moshe Dulchin.

(75) Ibid. 259.

(76) The term ma’amarim is used, which in contemporary Habad means overtly kabbalistic expositions.

(77) The Hebrew term siḥot signifies the more conversational and narrative style of public communication by the later Habad rebbes.

(79) See R. Joseph Isaac’s talks on 19 Kislev in the Sefer hasiḥot series for the years 1920–7 (Brooklyn, 1992), 1927–31 (Brooklyn, 1995), 1935–40 (Brooklyn, 1989), 1940–5 in two volumes (Brooklyn, 1986), and 1945–50 (Brooklyn, 2001). Regarding his talks on 19 and 20 Kislev in December 1932, see his Likuteidiburim, i. 22–92. This speaks of the Ba’al Shem Tov (see fos. 31ab, 41a) but not explicitly about the ascent of the soul and the ‘Sacred Epistle’. The talk for 19 Kislev in December 1933, printed in the same volume of Likutei diburim, i. 162–222, does not mention the Ba’al Shem Tov at all.

(81) At this stage, R. Menachem Mendel had not accepted formal leadership of the Lubavitch movement. This would take place in January 1951, on the first yahrzeit, the anniversary of the passing, of his predecessor.

(83) Ibid. 114–15.

(84) See the chapter on his succession to leadership in Ehrlich, The Messiah of Brooklyn, 43–8.

(86) See Mishneh torah, ‘Laws of Immersion Pools’, 9: 9.

(87) See Igerot kodesh … admurmenaḥemmendel, iv. 64–5.

(88) This point was mentioned in R. Joseph Isaac’s final discourse ‘Bati legani’, and was repeatedly stressed by R. Menachem Mendel in his annual discussions of his predecessor’s discourse. See his Seferhama’amarim batilegani. See also the next note below.

(89) That year also marked the completion of the first cycle of R. Menachem Mendel’s ‘Bati legani’ discourses. R. Joseph Isaac’s original discourse of that title—which contained twenty chapters—represented his legacy to R. Menachem Mendel, the seventh Rebbe. It was by delivering his first discourse in the cycle on R. Joseph Isaac’s first yahrzeit, expounding the first chapter of the original, that R. Menachem Mendel formally accepted the position of rebbe in January 1951 (10 Shevat 5711). Each year, on the yahrzeit, he would present another discourse in the cycle, expounding another chapter of R. Joseph Isaac’s original. The theme of spreading the wellsprings is prominent in the climax of R. Menachem Mendel’s discourse of 1970, completing the cycle with strong messianic overtones. See his Sefer hama’amarim bati legani, i. 232–3.

(90) See BT Suk. 52a.

(91) Igerot kodesh … admur menaḥem mendel, v. 308–9, a letter dated 11 Nisan 5712 (1952).

(92) JT Pes. 10: 4.

(94) The Rebbe’s response was printed in his Likutei siḥot, vi. 271–5.

(96) Ibid. 274–5. Cf. Lev. 19: 17; Shulḥan arukh, ‘Oraḥ ḥayim’, 608: 2; R. Moses Isserles’s gloss ad loc.

(98) Likutei siḥot, vi. 273. See BT Shab. 68b; Shulḥan arukh, ‘Yoreh de’ah’, 159: 3; R. Moses Isserles’s gloss ad loc. For discussion of this theme in contemporary Israeli haredi society, see El-Or, Educated and Ignorant, 158–79.

(100) See M. M. Schneerson, Torat menaḥem—hitva’aduyot 5743, i. 430, a talk on the sabbath of parashat ‘No’aḥ’, sect. 14. R. Menachem Mendel prefaced the list of the Ten Campaigns with the initiative that every Jew should have a letter in a Torah scroll assigned to him or her.

(101) See Heilman and Friedman, The Rebbe, 168–9, describing Zalman Schachter and Shlomo Carlebach being sent by R. Joseph Isaac to visit Brandeis University, based partly on Coopersmith, Holy Beggars, 6–9.

(103) The terms hafatsat hayahadut or hafatsat hatorah vehayahadut occur in R. Menachem Mendel’s talks and letters of 1950. See Torat menaḥem—hitva’aduyot, i. 77; Igerot kodesh admur menaḥem mendel, iv. 55.

(104) Shulḥan arukh, ‘Yoreh de’ah’, 246: 6, and R. Moses Isserles’s gloss ad loc.

(106) Ibid. xiv. 401. Menachem Mendel wrote: ‘We trust the power of our sacred Torah, that … its study leads to action, even though people differ as to the time in between the study and the action.’ The Rebbe also asked the teacher to encourage practical observance of the commandments among the participants in the group, suggesting that this would add to the power of Tanya study to achieve the required effect.

(107) See the Tsemah Tsedek’s Derekh mitsvoteikha, ‘Shoresh mitsvat hatefilah’, end of ch. 2, fo. 115b. See also Igerot kodesh … menaḥem mendel, viii. 223.

(108) ‘Ascents’ mean ascents of the soul to higher realms, the general theme of ancient merkavah mysticism, which has an afterlife in hasidism. See Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, 88–96. As for yiḥudim, according to Rabbi Hayim Vital, they are a technique for effecting ‘bonds’, unions, between the individual and the soul of a departed tsadik, or even a living tsadik, and also bonds between spiritual worlds. See his Sha’ar ruaḥ hakodesh, 74. For an extensive discussion of yiḥudim see Fine, Physician of the Soul, 259–99.

(111) Information from R. Shmuel Lew, July 2001. The person who asked Rabbi Menachem Mendel the question was a London Jew, Shimon Hirschler.

(112) Igerot kodesh … admur menaḥem mendel, iii. 89. The hasid in question was R. Bentzion Shemtov (d.1975).