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Meshullam Feivush Heller of Zbarazh

MESHULLAM FEIVUSH HELLER OF ZBARAZH

MESHULLAM FEIVUSH HELLER OF ZBARAZH (d. c. 1795), Galician ḥasidic author, descendant of Yom Tov Lippmann Heller, disciple of Jehiel Michel of Zloczow. Though there are numerous ḥasidic legends about Heller, few authentic biographical details are available. In his youth he ministered to the early ḥasidic masters Menahem Mendel of Peremyshlany and Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezhirech, to both of whom he refers in his writings. A fellow disciple of Jehiel Michel, Ḥayyim of Czernowitz, records teachings in his name. Heller's importance in the history of ḥasidic thought is due to his little booklet Yosher Divrei Emet, first published as part of the anthology of ḥasidic teachings entitled Likkutei Yekarim (1792, 1974; published separately 1905, by Samson Heller of Kolymyja, Heller's descendant). It is possible that Heller is to be identified, in fact, with the anonymous editor of the Likkutei Yekarim. Yosher Divrei Emet is in the form of two epistles to a friend, describing in detail the ḥasidic way as taught by the Ba'al Shem Tov and his disciples.

In Heller's view, the main thrust of Ḥasidism focuses on the need for complete attachment to God (devekut) as the aim of the religious life, to which all else must be subordinated. This involves the "stripping off of corporeality" (hitpashtut hagashmiyyut), which means not so much the living of an ascetic life, but a thorough detachment from worldly delights, even when engaging in the things of the world. Eating, drinking, earning a living, the marital act, should all be engaged in, but as a duty, under compulsion, as it were, with the mind not on the physical enjoyment but on God as the source of all. In Heller's bold illustration, the man in love with a woman, when he sees her dress, has no thoughts for the dress itself but only of the reminder which it provides of his passion for his beloved. A fortiori, when a man studies the Torah and offers his prayers, there should be no trace of self-interest. Hence Scripture says: "Say unto wisdom: 'Thou art my sister'" (Prov. 7:4). Man's attitude to the Torah should be one of pure disinterested love, like that of brother and sister, not like that of man and wife. Heller's novel interpretation of Torah li-Shmah ("Torah for its own sake") is: "Torah as its name implies," i.e., Torah means "that which shows forth"; the aim of all Torah study is for man to come near to God, who is shown forth through the Torah. Consequently, the distinction between nigleh ("the revealed things") and nistar ("the secrets") must not be understood in the conventional sense as referring, respectively, to the Talmud and Codes and the Kabbalah. A "secret" for Heller is that which cannot be communicated. It is a religious experience. Therefore one who studies the Kabbalah merely as an intellectual endeavor has to his credit only the nigleh aspect of study, whereas one who studies the Talmud and Codes as a means of experiencing the Divine attains to the far higher stage of nistar. The distinction between nigleh and nistar is not between two different types of subject matter but between different approaches to the study of the same material. Heller is severely critical of the rabbinic scholars of his day, whom he accuses of being immersed in worldly lusts and ambitions. They fondly imagine that the study of the Torah constitutes in itself the love of God and fail to appreciate that without loss of selfhood and complete detachment from the world there can be no love of God, the true aim of Torah study.

On the other hand, the ḥasidic ẓaddik can, for Heller, do no wrong. The ḥasidic master, Ẓevi Elimelech of Dynow (Igra De-Pirka, No. 15) reports that Heller's disciples told him of their master's saying that one who scrutinizes too closely the deeds of a ẓaddik is like one who gazes too closely at the sun, and he will suffer the same fate in that his eyes will become dim.

With Heller there begins the rejection of the early ḥasidic doctrine of the elevation of extraneous thoughts, i.e., the idea that when a wayward or sinful thought enters the mind during prayer, it should not be pushed away but raised to its source in God. Heller considers this to be a dangerous doctrine, but is unable to deny it completely, since it was taught by the early masters; he consequently adopts the rationalization that the practice was never intended for ordinary folk but only for the greatest of saints. By a similar rationalization, Heller urges the abandonment of the Lurianic kavvanot in prayer, except in rare instances. Luria was thinking of himself and his great contemporaries; for the modern man, the kavvanot would frustrate the aim of devekut.

bibliography:

M. Bodek, Seder ha-Dorot, Ch. 3, 56; A. Walden, Shem ha-Gedolim he-Ḥadash (1879), 114; S.A. Horodezky, Ha-Ḥasidut ve-ha-Ḥasidim (1951), ii, 123–45; S. Dubnow, Toledot ha-Ḥasidut (1967), No. 45, 323–4; J.G. Weiss, in: jjs, ix (1958), 163–92.

[Louis Jacobs]

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