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Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk

MENAHEM MENDEL OF VITEBSK

MENAHEM MENDEL OF VITEBSK (1730–1788), ḥasidic leader active in Belorussia, Lithuania, and Ereẓ Israel. He was a disciple of *Dov Baer the Maggid of Mezhirech, and headed a congregation in Minsk during the lifetime of his teacher; in Zemir Ariẓim ve-Ḥarvot Ẓurim (Warsaw, Bialystok, 1798), a pamphlet written by one of the *Mitnaggedim, he is mentioned by the name of Mendel of Minsk. When the first wave of opposition to *Ḥasidism erupted (1772), he visited Vilna on two occasions – on the second occasion, accompanied by his disciple *Shneur Zalman of Lyady and attempted to meet *Elijah b. Solomon the Gaon of Vilna in order to point out to him the merits of Ḥasidism, but the Gaon refused to receive him and "he closed the door upon us twice." Ḥasidic tradition also regards him as one of the leading spokesmen at the meeting which was convened in Rovno in the house of Dov Baer after the imposition of the ḥerem on the Ḥasidim in 1772. The persecutions of the Mitnaggedim made him leave Minsk, and in 1773 he settled in Gorodok, from where he spread Ḥasidism in the Vitebsk and Mogilev provinces (assisted by *Israel of Polotsk, *Abraham b. Alexander Katz of Kalisk, and *Shneur Zalman of Lyady).

In 1777 Menahem Mendel went to Ereẓ Israel, accompanied by Abraham of Kalisk and Israel of Polotsk, at the head of a group of 300 persons, of whom only some were Ḥasidim. He became the leader of the ḥasidic yishuv, and sent emissaries to Russia in order to raise funds for its support. In Ereẓ Israel Ḥasidic immigrants also encountered hostility among the Jewish community, as a result of the initiative of some Mitnaggedim, who addressed special letters on the subject to Ereẓ Israel. In the wake of the disputes which broke out, Menahem Mendel moved to Tiberias, where he erected a ḥasidic synagogue. He became related by marriage to one of the prominent Sephardim of Jerusalem. After his arrival in Ereẓ Israel Menahem Mendel remained the spiritual leader of the Ḥasidim of Belorussia, who maintained a correspondence with him. He continued to guide them in their conduct and interpreted the principles of Ḥasidism to them. Menahem Mendel did not consider himself to be a ẓaddik who could bless his Ḥasidim with the bounties of Heaven. He regarded his function of ẓaddik as being restricted to teaching and guidance in divine worship and not as that of a "practical" ẓaddik.

Teachings

In his teachings, Menahem Mendel remained faithful to those of the Maggid. Following him, he regarded the ẓimẓum (contraction) of divine emanation and its restriction as a condition for revelation, because that which is not limited cannot be conceived, just as thought is conceived by restriction and contraction into letters. The worlds were created by divine will as an act of mercy, by the contraction of the divine emanation, because of the deficiency of the recipients. "When one teaches a small child, he must be instructed in accordance with his young intelligence … in accordance with the ability of reception of his mind" (Likkutei Amarim (1911), 17a). Divinity is restricted in every place (the world is not His abode, but He is the abode of the world). It is the duty of man to adhere to the Divinity in the material creation and to redeem the Divine Presence from its exile in the material world. This can be achieved by various methods:

(1) By widening the conception of man as the wisest and most capable of understanding, "when he has attained wisdom and studies the Torah, he then creates new heavens and a new earth" (ibid.).

(2) By devekut (devotion) to God. Man is a part of the Celestial Divinity. The root of his soul is to be found in the world of *Aẓilut (emanation) and he is therefore able to commune with God without the obstruction of any interruption or barrier. Menahem Mendel emphasizes prayer with devotion and kavvanah (intention). "With his prayer, he is a groomsman who brings the Divine Presence before God" (ibid., 31b). In order to attain the virtue of devekut: (a) "He must consecrate his person and his meditation to wisdom to the extent that he, so to say, has no further existence," i.e., spiritual self-denial. (b) By self-abnegation in the moral aspect and by the cultivation of other ethical values, such as humility, compassion, etc. With the consciousness of his own worthlessness, he is to regard himself as naught so that he become enwrapped with awe (as a result of which he will rise to speculative contemplation), which is the gateway to love. This degree of love will attach him to all men and his spiritual elevation will be followed by the uplifting of all of them in perfect contact and devekut. His occupation in secular affairs is to resemble the coming and goings of a man who immediately returns to his home (i.e., to his condition of devekut).

(3) By the observation of the precepts it is within the power of man to knit together the whole of the world, to control it and exert his influence in the heavenly spheres; he should therefore accustom all his limbs to the precepts. When observing a precept, he must realize that the reward of the precept is the actual observance of the precept itself (the observance of the precept for its own sake). Similarly, he emphasizes that there must be fear of sin and not fear of punishment. The perfect fear is a sublime degree which surpasses ẓimẓum; it is the fear of God's majesty, a constant fear before which all the other fears are contracted and "happy is the man that feareth always" (Prov. 28:14). He stresses the importance of faith even beyond logic and rational reason.

On worship through corporeality, he argues that one must not follow "the heretics who say that a man must be at a lower degree so that he may ascend from there, a drop which must needs precede a rise; may there not be such a thought in Israel" (Likkutei Amarim, 25b–26a).

His main works were Peri ha-Areẓ (Kopys, 1814); Periha-Eẓ (Zhitomir, 1874); Eẓ Peri (Lvov, 1880); Likkutei Amarim (Lvov, 1911). His letters appeared in Nefesh Menaḥem (Lvov, 1930).

bibliography:

A.S. Heilman, Beit Rabbi, 1 (1903), 11–22; A. Yaari, Iggerot Ereẓ Yisrael (1943), 308–24; W. Rabinowitsch, Lithuanian Ẓasidism (1970), index; R. Mahler, Divrei Yemei Yisrael, vol. 1, book 3 (1955), 246–8; Dubnow, Ḥasidut, index; Horodezky, Ḥasidut, vol. 2, 13–35; H. Liberman, in: ks, 36 (1960), 127–8; L.I. Newman, The Hasidic Anthology (1934), index; M. Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, 1 (19684), 175–81; B.D. Kahana, Ḥibbat ha-Areẓ (1968); M. Wilensky, Ḥasidim u-Mitnaggedim (1970), index.

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