Sunday 29 October 2017


PART 13.
Letters from the Cherson Geniza.


What follows is my English translation of some of the letters which were found in the Cherson Geniza in southern Ukraine around 1917. They are alleged to be copies of letters written by the Baal Shem Tov and his students dating back to the mid-1700’s.

Through this collection of what may be called the ‘Cairo Geniza’ of Chassidism, we are afforded an unprecedented window into the early Chassidic movement - its characters, its hopes, fears and aspirations. We see a very human component to what is usually characterised purely as an other-worldly and mystical society.

I am not aware of any other translations of these letters, and my intention here is solely to present their content in English, for those who are interested in a behind the scenes look at early Chasidism.

I have tried to present each of the individual translations of the documents as accurately as I can - but the footnotes are my personal interpretation (and sometimes speculation) of the events, based on research into the personalities and history of that time.

Many, outside of Chabad and Rudzhin believe these letters to be forgeries. They may be. But I have found them to be so incredibly intriguing that I hope they are not. See Why I Believe the Letters of the Cherson Geniza man not be Forgeries.

For an analysis of the fascinating history and controversy surrounding these letters, see KOTZK BLOG 123.

The translations which follow are my own and I take full responsibility for any inaccuracies.

This is Part 13 in my series of translations and the others can be viewed by scrolling down to the previous posts.


The following letters, dated 1741-1747, deal with some of the behind-the-scenes reality of the early Chassidic movement.

  • Amongst other issues, we read the little-known notion of how the Baal Shem Tov faced significant opposition from within his newly founded movement. This is a fascinating revelation because one generally only hears about the opposition from without.

  • It seems as if he was widely suspected of departing in some way from the ‘holy path’[1] from some of his closest followers including his brother-in-law, R. Gershon Kitover. See Documents 217 and 345.

  • We further read in Document 217, the suggestion that the Baal Shem Tov based his mysticism on the teachings of R. Moshe Cordovero. This, if correct, is quite significant as it is widely accepted that his teachings were primarily based on the teachings of the Ari Zal!

  • There is also intriguing correspondence from the Baal Shem Tov to, and about, his wife who refused to join her husband on his journey to Poland. See Documents 114, 238 and 103.

  • Then, once again there is the thorny issue of the ‘secret writings’ which is referenced to again in Document 139. For more on this see See KOTZK BLOG 129.

  • Finally, there is an interesting ‘psak’ or ruling from the Baal Shem Tov as to who qualifies for certain charity funds. See Document 223.



Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to his wife confirming he has sent money to her and informing her of how it is to be distributed:


Sunday (Parshat) Bereishit 5501 (1741). Brod.

To my wife[2], Mrs Rachel Leah[3], may you live.

Receive through the agency of this messenger, the amount of 25 New Rubles[4].
(Distribute them as follows:)

5 New Rubles shall remain with you for household expenditures.

The other (20 Rubles) shall be distributed among the poor on Thursday of this week because Thursday is the anniversary of the passing of my father, the rabbi who is resting (in peace), may his memory be a blessing.

And I too will also distribute whatever is left with me.

From your husband who is awaiting all good. Selah.

Yisrael, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer from Telusk.



Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to the rabbis and Chassidim of Yasi assuring them with an oath that he did not depart from the holy path in any way, nor did he succumb to heresy:


Tuesday (Parshat) Miketz 5501 (1741). Telusk.

To the exceptional Rabbis, who walk on the good path and who are truly (G-d) fearing, and to the Chassidim, all of whom dwell in the holy community of Yasi – may G-d be with you (and) may you live.

In order not to further any (more) defamation (of my character) concerning (untrue rumours) of my conduct which (has always been nothing but) the holy path, and for the sake of peace – I (hereby) write this letter to your honours.

And I swear on my life of my head that this path (which I have chosen) is not distorted nor does it contain any heresy, Heaven forefend.

Instead, it is simply a holy path which ascends to G-d.

(This new path) is based on the views and Kabbalah of the Ramak (R. Moshe Cordovero 1522-1570)[5] of blessed memory.

And I trust that G-d, blessed be He, will enlighten the eyes of those who rise up against me so that they will see the truth and sincerity within my heart.

From your beloved who seeks your welfare and hopes only for peace,

Yisrael, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Baal Shem from Telusk.



Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to his brother-in-law, R. Gershon Kitover, asking for the manuscripts which he (R. Kitover) had confiscated from him while he was in hiding:


Sunday (Parshat) Shemot 5501 (1741). Lvov.

To my brother-in-law, the brilliant and holy rabbi, the truthful one, holy and awesome, beyond all praise etc., our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi  A(vraham) Gershon, n”y.

Surely you remember, honourable rabbi, that when I was still in hiding, you took many handwritten manuscripts (away from me) saying, and I quote: “What are you doing with these?”

However, right now it is important for me (to have them back): firstly because honourable matters are written in them, and secondly (they reference the idea of) a lottery, one for G-d the other (for Azazel).

Therefore, please be willing, honourable one, to please, please, send back (to me) the original writings, or at least copy them (for me) and send them (back) to me.

I trust (you will honour my request).

From your brother-in-law who requests your well being with love,

Yisrael, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Baal Shem from Telusk.

(P.s.) For G-d’ s sake watch over my son, my precious Tzvi, may he live, with open eyes.



Letter of assurance from the Baal Shem Tov to his brother-in-law R. Gershon Kitover, that while the former was in hiding, he never strayed from the path[6]:


Sunday (Parshat) Vayelech 5502 (1742).

To my dear brother-in-law, the brilliant rabbi, the holy one, the light that shines to the earth and to those who dwell thereon, etc. etc. etc. Mr A(vraham) Gershon, n”y.

I was shocked (to hear) the voices of many thousands (who all accused me) of G-d forbid, departing from the (Torah) path I was raised on (as a child), while I was in hiding.

Heaven forefend to say such a thing.

I never departed from the path, nor did I turn aside right or left, Heaven forefend.

For just is the path of G-d, the righteous will walk in it. Amen, so may it be Your will.

From your brother-in-law who loves you,

Yisrael, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Baal Shem from Telusk.


Receipt from R. David Lakis for charity funds:


I received in cash, from R. Greshon Kitover, may he live, 100 Adumim (which is) money (for the poor of) Eretz Yisrael - on this day of Hoshana Rabba 5502 (1742) in Ladmir.

These are words of the insignificant,

David Lakis.



Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to R. Moshe of Dalin informing him that those visiting from the Land of Israel do not qualify for charity designated for the poor of Israel, even if they plan to return to Israel:


Sunday (Parshat) Vayeishev 5502 (1742).

To my student and friend, the holy rabbi and gaon etc., our teacher the rabbi, Moshe, n”y, speaker of truth from the holy community of Dalin.

After inquiring after your wellbeing, (I wish to inform you that) I looked into all the sources which you, holy and honourable one, pointed out to me – but (I cannot agree with you) because according to my weak mind one should not redirect the monies of R. Meir Baal Hanes, may his memory be a blessing, (which is only intended for the poor of Eretz Yisrael) even to distribute them to those from Israel who are currently living (visiting) here, even if they intend to return (to Israel).

You are (therefore) obliged, honourable one[7], to send the money (directly) to Eretz Yisrael, may it be rebuilt and re-established[8].

There it will be distributed by the (charity) coordinator – (or, if you choose instead) send it (directly) to a specific (needy) individual.

From your rabbi and friend, who seeks your wellbeing with love,

Yisrael Baal Shem of Telusk.


Document 53:

Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to R. Shlomo stating that he was waiting for latter’s arrival even though he didn’t really need him:


Thursday (Parshat) Vaetchanan. Yasi, Moldavia[9] 5502 (1742).
To the rabbi, the holy Maggid, Mr Shlomo, n”y.

Today I arrived here in the holy community (of Yasi), thank G-d, and I am waiting for you, honourable and pure Torah personality[10], for two, are better than one.

And even though it was revealed to me from Heaven that I do not require your help in holy matters, because, thank G-d, my assistance will come from Heaven – however, because of your great honour, I shall await your arrival. Enough said.

May G-d, blessed be He, judge us favourably. Amen, so may it be His will.

From the one who loves you and requests your wellbeing at all times,

Yisrael, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Baal Shem from Telusk.



Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to his brother-in-law, R. Gershon Kitover requesting his help in convincing his sister, the Baal Shem Tov’s wife, to go with her husband to Poland:


Tuesday (Parshat) Eikev 5502. Akop.

To my brother-in-law, the holy and awesome rabbi, famous gaon etc., our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi A(vraham) Gershon, n”y.

Heaven is, in no uncertain terms, putting pressure on me to leave the city of my birth and the place where my ancestors dwelled, may their memories be a blessing – and to travel to the land of Poland.
(However) my wife, your sister, may she live, refuses (to agree to) this.

Therefore, I request from you, honourable and holy one, y”n, to assist me by writing a letter (encouraging) her to acquiesce to my will which is certainly the will of G-d, blessed be He.

From your brother-in-law,

Yisrael Baal Shem of Telusk.


Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to his wife requesting she pack everything up and join him in Brod (Poland):


Tuesday evening (Parshat) Eikev 5503 (1743). Brod.

To my wife, Mrs Leah Rachel, may you live.

Take all the vessels of the house and come here because it was revealed to me from Heaven (that I must) travel from here.

And this will be the 39th of the 42 journeys which I have to rectify and elevate.

Greet your brother, my brother-in-law, the holy rabbi, n”y, if he (happens to be) in your home and let him also read this letter.

From your husband,

Yisrael Baal Shem.



Letter from R. Zev Wolf Kitzes to the Baal Shem Tov asking him to help him do teshuvah (repentance):


The Fast of Gedalya 5504. Ostroa.

To our teacher and rabbi, the holy one, may you live forever.

The (holy) days have arrived[11] and I haven’t yet even began to do teshuvah (repentance).
(I know of the teaching) that the one who comes (tries) to be purified is helped by Above, and that this is a great principle but I do not have the strength (to even try).

Help me, honourable and holy one, our master, teacher and rabbi – and I will become pure.
(From) the despised one,

Zev Wolf son of Kitzes.

(Enclosed) is a pan[12] of (the amount of) twice Chai (18).



Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to his colleague R. Mordechai the Tzadik telling him that his teacher appeared to him in a dream and told of a lofty soul about to descend to this world. Did R. Mordecai know who this soul might be?


Erev Sukkot 5507 (1747).

To the honourable and holy one, beloved of G-d and beloved of my soul, the hidden rabbi, Mr Mordechai the Tzadik, n”y.

Tonight I saw my teacher and rabbi in a dream and he told me that that this year the land was to be illuminated when an extremely lofty soul would descend (to this world).

He also informed me that he was going to tell you as well (about this soul).

So I request of you to inform me immediately if you do know who this holy soul is who will descend this year from Above, and in which country (will he be born).

This is very important to me. Enough said.

From your colleague who loves you,

Yisroelik of Akop.

Send your letter (of reply) through an exceptionally trustworthy messenger.
(From) the abovementioned.



Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to R. Chaim Rappoport telling him not to worry about the Baal Shem Tov taking a very dangerous path because he already took the most dangerous path of all during the time he was hiding:

Tuesday (Parshat) Lech (Lecha) 5507 (1747). Sudilkov.

To the holy rabbi, the famous gaon, who is proficient in (both) the revealed and hidden (Torah). The holy lamp[13] etc. Our teacher the rabbi Chaim haCohen Rappoport, Head of the Court of the holy community of Lvov.

After inquiring after your wellbeing as if fitting for your stature[14], I wish to inform you, honourable Torah personality, that I received the writings of your holy hand.

And I was very happy when I saw explicitly[15] how (as you informed me) my words had made an impression.[16]

However, regarding that which you, elevated one[17], have written that this path (I have chosen) is a dangerous one, Heaven forefend – I would retort to you, honourable Torah personality[18], that in my winter years (when in hiding) I really did walk a dangerous paths upon which no man had ever walked.

And, thank G-d, I paved a straight path upon which even a yeshiva student of only one day could tread without stumbling, Heaven forefend.

Therefore, do not fear (for me) because G-d, blessed be His name, will help and save us from the fowler’s[19] snare etc. Enough said.

By this,

I remain your beloved who requests your wellbeing forever, with faithful and eternal love,

Yisrael, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Baal Shem from Telusk.


[1] There is no reference at all to exactly what these suspicions were. It is highly likely, as we have pointed out previously, that it may have involved allegations of Sabbateanism.
[2] Literally; the most important (person) in my home.
[3] In Document 236 the Baal Shem Tov’s wife is recorded as being Leah Rachel.
[4] My assumption is that Ru”ch is an abbreviation for Ruble Chadash. The Ruble has been the currency in Russia for the past five hundred years.
[5] One would have imagined that the concepts the Baal Shem Tov espoused were more rooted in the Kabbalah of the Ari Zal?
[6] See Document 217 for a similar assurance from the Baal Shem Tov that he did not stray.
[7] C t”r is an abbreviation for Kevod Torato, which means honourable Torah personality.
[8] T”v is an abbreviation for Tibaneh veTikonen, which means may it be rebuilt and re-established.
[9] Moldavia was the historical principality between the Eastern Carpathian Mountains and the Dniester River. It was founded in 1346 and lasted until 1859.
[10] Ctr”h is an abbreviation for kavod Torato haTehorah, which means honourable and pure Torah personality.
[11] This letter was written on the Fast of Gedalya which is the day after Rosh haShana.
[12] Rectification appeal.
[13] Bu”k is an abbreviation for butzina kaddisha, which means holy lamp.
[14] Literally: those who sit on chairs, i.e.: office bearers.
[15] I believe the expression b ch”sh could be a printing error and should read bechush, explicitly.
[16] Literall: yielded fruit.
[17] Roma”l is an abbreviation for rom maalato, which means elevated one.
[18]I would assume that the bet in this abbreviation is a printing error and should a caf.
[19] I.e.: a hunter of fowl.

Sunday 22 October 2017


The pipe of the Yid haKadosh for sale for about $1000000

The story that follows is one of the saddest, harshest and least known of all the Chassidic stories:
R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1789-1859) was born in the village of Guray - not far from Lublin, Poland - to an impoverished glazier by the name of Leibush.

Already from an early age, he showed signs of being somewhat unmanageable, a loner and certainly did not suffer fools. He earned the nickname ‘Black Mendel’.

He studied in the yeshivah of R. Yosef Hohgelerenter and developed a reputation for being a very deep thinker.

He had three Chassidic teachers; The Chozeh of Lublin[1] (1745-1815), the Yid haKadosh[2] (1766-1814) and R. Simcha Bumin of Pesishcha (1767-1827):


At the tender age of sixteen, the young (future) Kotzker joined the court of the Chozeh of Lublin, who was a student of the Maggid of Mezrich. The Chozeh had thousands of followers and became known as a wondrous miracle worker with the uncanny ability to allegedly see ‘up to 400 miles’. 

According to some accounts, he clothed and fed his followers so that they could dedicate themselves exclusively to holiness and spirituality. He became the epitome of the archetypical ‘Tzadik’ who was able to affect ‘tikkunim’ (spiritual soul rectifications) for his followers who simply had to submit themselves to him and were taken care of. It was believed that by attachment to the Tzadik, the followers were attached to G-d Himself. 

There was no room for individual personality or autonomous thinking. But the followers were rewarded with much good food, singing and drinking.

The Chozeh taught that wealth was a sign of blessing and this led to somewhat of a bias towards the rich at the expense of the poor. This was to become a contentious issue.

The Chozeh died from injuries sustained by falling out of a double storey window one Simchat Torah evening[3]

It is said that on his deathbed, he predicted that in a hundred years from that day, the Russians would no longer control Poland. And one hundred years later, the secular Polish newspapers recorded his prediction, when the Austrians conquered Lublin.


The Chozeh of Lublin was so busy performing his extraordinary ministry to his many followers that he appointed the scholarly Yid haKadosh (of Pesishcha) as the main teacher for the group.

But all this miraculous activity was too much, though, for the Yid haKadosh[4]. He became unimpressed with the emphasis on the supernatural and wanted a more intellectual form of Chassidism. 

So he broke away from the Chozeh and from what has been called 'Tzadikism' - taking with him R. Simcha Bunim (also of Pesishcha) and the young Menachem Mendel (of Kotzk)[5]. According to Dr Fox: “They were repelled by the masses’ belief in the miracle-working tzaddik and his claims to supernatural powers.”[6]

Thus began an internal revolt within the Chassidic movement, towards a more rational approach.[7] The elaborate ritual within the Chassidic court was also too overbearing[8]. This breakaway was characterised by “Opposition to the superficiality of chasidik folkways and the substitution of tzadik-worship for Torah study.[9] 

It was during this time that the importance of independence of thought and of empirical truth (which was soon to become the hallmark of Pesishcha-Kotzk) was spawned.

According to Michael Rosen: ”Przysucha (Peshishcha) had declared an internal war upon the Hasidic leadership...”[10]

This breakaway was not without cost. It brought with it charges of heresy from the popular Chassidic courts who wanted to excommunicate the Yid haKadosh. (This is notable because it was very unusual to find Chassidim attempting to excommunicate other Chassidim. Normally the excommunication orders came from the Mitnagdim or non-Chassidim). 

One of the alleged reasons for this was the notion that in Pesishcha, prayer and particularly prayer times could be left up to the individual and not be governed strictly by set times.

But the school of Pesishcha remained steadfast to deepen rather than widen the now very popular Chassidic movement which was intent on overtaking the Jewish world. To deepen the movement meant to focus on smaller numbers instead of mass outreach, or to put it more crudely - to focus on quality rather than quantity.


First edition of Kol Simcha published in 1859

When the Yid haKadosh died in 1814, the school of Pesishcha was headed by the Yid’s main student, R. Simcha Bunim also of Pesishcha.

R. Simcha Bunim was very different from any other Chassidic Rebbe, ever. He had studied secular studies and could speak many languages. He attended the theatre. He was a dealer in exotic woods. He acted as a business agent for the well known Bergson family. 

He played cards and was licensed pharmacist with the Polish nobility as his main patrons. His ways were to very different from all the other rebbes and he refused to wear traditional Chassidic garb, opting for an ordinary suit instead of a long caftan.

He once said; “Nowadays the (Jewish) world runs after rebbes, and that is a punishment.”[11]

The Pesishcha Rebbe placed particular emphasis on personal hygiene and clean clothes. It is even said that their gait was different from the other Chassidim in that they adopted an upright posture and walked tall. 

R. Simcha Bunim disregarded his teacher’s position that the body was the enemy of the soul. It was generally fun to be around his followers who were at times even mischievous. They were also encouraged to spend much time in nature.

He further differed somewhat from his teacher, the Yid haKadosh, in that he seemed even less interested in mysticism and more interested in philosophy and intellectual and moral perfection. 

He encouraged his followers, much to the chagrin of his Chassidic peers, to study the teachings of the Medieval Spanish philosophers, including Rav Saadia Gaon, Yedaiah Hapnimi and particularly the philosophical works of Rambam. He even started a programme to reprint some of Rambam’s books.
And, very controversially, he also encouraged the study of Ibn Ezra who questioned the authorship of some sections of the Torah!

Additionally, he was very much a believer in allowing nature and logic to take its normal course and he deprecated those who always sought to find the miraculous in the mundane.[12]
According to Michael Rosen: “R. Bunim felt that ’miracles’ would not work for anybody intelligent.[13]

On Rosh HaShana, the Pesishcha Chassidim prayed early and by the time everyone else was getting ready to go to synagogue, they were already studying their philosophical texts.

In Pesishcha they weren't fond of fasting. They taught: “All the fasts have lost their importance except for Yom Kippur. Tisha beAv is debatable.”[14] In fact the Pesishcha Chassidim had the custom to eat hot bagels on the Fast of Gedalya while everyone else was reciting Selichot.

It is said that R. Simcha Bunim succeeded in attracting the brightest and the best students from all over Poland and that his following was quite considerable.

Most interesting for a rebbe is that he banned his students from studying mysticism lest they revert back to the type of theology and practices he had witnessed in Lublin.

Fascinatingly, taking this one step further, R. Simcha Bunim’s student, the Kotzker Rebbe, distanced himself not just from Kabbalah but even from the study of Chassidut.[15] See The Rebbe who Didn’t Like Mysticism. According to Heschel; “No Kabbalists emerged from among the Hasidim of Psishcha and Kotzk.[16]

Michael Rosen puts it slightly differently; “There was little or no study of kabbalah in Przysucha, and the emphasis was not on trying to understand G-d, but on trying to understand the human being.”[17]

R. Simcha Bunim attracted a fair amount of opposition from mainstream Chasidic leaders, with rebbes like the Apta ridiculing him by asking “Did he reach his level of spirituality at the fair in Danzig, in German theatres, or among his jar of chemicals?

There was even an attempt to excommunicate R. Simcha Bunim and his entire group. This was on at least one occasion when about two hundred rabbis were gathered at a huge wedding in Ostila. The attempt though was thwarted.

This was the atmosphere in which R. Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, the soon to be Kotzker Rebbe, was nurtured and influenced.


When R. Simcha Bunim died in 1827, his student Menachem Mendel became the next leader of Pesishcha. It was at this time that the path of Pesishcha, which may be defined as rationalist Chassidism, reached its peak, and became known as Kotzker Chassidut.

At first, Menachem Mendel settled in Tomashov where he remained for two years. Then, after a dispute with the local rabbi, he decided to move his school. 

One account has it that while they were travelling from city to city, they arrived in Kotzk and were greeted with rocks being thrown at them because they did not want Pesishcha on the doorstep. They decided to stay there because, as their teacher said: “At least the people here have passion.” 

Thus was birthed Kotzker-Pesishcha theology. At one time there were seven thousand visitors who had flocked to Kotzk to be with their Rebbe. But he said that he did not want ‘sheep’, only a few Chassidim.

Truth became the most prized commodity in Kotzk. The Kotzker became, arguably, one of the most fervent truth seekers in history. Truth was truth no matter the personal cost. Truth became the essence of spirituality. Liars and mediocre people could not be tolerated no matter the inevitable and resultant controversies.

Ironically, the Kotzker became the most popular Rebbe in Poland with thousands flocking to him – only to be turned away, sometimes rather harshly. Again all he wanted was a few good men.

Some Chassidim were opposed to work and believed a Jew had to spend his time only with Torah and prayer. The Kotzker believed that: “Men who are busy making a living should not be condemned, because that is the way the world has been structured.”[19] But he insisted that even the busiest people set aside an hour a day for Torah study.

Because of some of the radical teachings of Kotzk, there were some who tried to excommunicate him as well, but he was spared this fate only because of the intervention of R. Akiva Eiger.[20]

It can be said that the Kotzker ideals (Kotzk was too intense to ever become a mass movement) flourished in Kotzk only for about ten years. After ten ‘golden years’ an enigmatic event took place that surprised and shocked the religious populace:

Apparently, the Kotzker Rebbe began to suffer from very severe headaches. The only one who could help him was a doctor in Lvov, so he travelled there for a consultation. In Lvov, he took up residence in a hotel and what happened next is shrouded in mystery and even denial.

One Friday evening after the Sabbath had set in, the Kotzker Rebbe was seen flagrantly desecrating Shabbat. There are at least four versions of what transpired:

Some say he threw the Kiddush cup to the ground (as if not being prepared to recite the sanctification of the Shabbat).

Others say he blew out the Shabbat candles.

Even others say he rose and cried out ‘there is no justice and there is no Judge’!

Most controversial of all is probably the most accurate tradition, held by the Belzer community, which tells that the Kotzker was seen through the window taking off his yarmulke and lighting up a pipe which he proceeded to smoke![21]

After this event, he returned home to Kotzk and was never again seen in public for the next nineteen years until his death in 1859. 

Some believe that this seclusion was more of a forced confinement by his family and close disciples for fear of what he might say in public. Particularly it was feared that he might express some of his views on some the minutiae of religious ritual which he felt should not be overemphasised. 

He remained secluded and only came out of his room once a year to perform the search for the Chametz just before Passover.

During these nineteen years, he wrote copiously but none of those manuscripts survived because he burned them just prior to his death.

I heard an account that he may have mysteriously slipped from his widow and died – an event which became known as hanefila hagedolah keyadua, or the Great Fall as is well known. (Often the expression ‘as is well known’ means exactly the opposite – alluding to that which is shrouded in uncertainty.)

I do not know whether this is accurate or perhaps a blurring with the story of the death of the Chozeh who also fell out of a window. There are, however, accounts that he used to occasionally break windows and rebuke those outside.

The Kotzker is succinctly described by Dr Fox as having “...challenged many of the accepted manners of belief and behaviour hallowed by the very same people who admired him.”[22]


The intensity in Kotzk was too severe. The Kotzker’s main student, R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner broke away from him and started his own movement known as Izbiztcha (or Radziner)[23] Chassidut. He was so disturbed by what had occurred on what became known as ‘that Friday Night’ that he had to leave Kotzk. 

Apparently, the Kotzker took this breakaway very seriously and suspected almost everyone of being unfaithful and treasonous. 

Other groups also broke away, such as Vorki, Alexander and Gur (Ger) but although they claim theological ancestry in Kotzk it can be said that they clearly morphed into very different approaches.


What strikes one immediately about Pesishcha-Kotzk is that unlike most other Chassidic stories, there is a total lack of allegation of miracles and wonders. Neither heaven or earth moved to save the heroes in this Chassidic story. On the contrary, this story is real. 

Maybe even too real.

The Kotzk ideology basically died after only ten intense years. The Kotzker never wanted a mass movement of sheep-like followers and it is even debatable whether he was Rebbe in the traditional sense or whether his followers could even be called Chassidim. 

He spoke disparagingly against the other rebbes and their institutionalised followers, even mocking the way they all dressed uniformly[24]. If they really were Chassidim they certainly broke all the moulds.

For me, this story begs for further exploration of aspects of Judaism and Chassidism that may resonate with many contemporary Jews. It could become a source of inspiration - and even confirmation - for those grappling with the struggle of tradition versus modernity, of heart versus mind.

By this I refer to the essence of some of the core values which the Pesishcha-Kotzk schools were espousing; particularly those of R. Simcha Bunim of Pesishcha, who had a surprisingly practical, centrist, balanced and rationalist philosophy. It could be said that he founded the School of Rationalist Chassidism.[25]

In many ways, it is actually the Kotzker's teacher, Reb Simcha Bunim - placed centrally both in terms of leadership hierarchy and thought – who turns out to be the hero of this story for me personally.

(This Pesishcha-Kotzk 'thought revival’ is actually the motivation for many of the articles in KOTZK BLOG.)

If you’ll permit another very personal note - I have spent some decades in Chabad and met many wonderful people. I spent a decade in (mainstream) Breslov and met some amazing people (including R. Chaim Kramer who in many ways became a mentor to me).

But I have always been a closet Pesishcher-Kotzker yet I never met anyone from Kotzk because the movement (if one can use that word) died. There was no miraculous intervention to save it against all odds. Instead, I met the individual the Kotzker wanted us all to meet and be faithful to - the person you really are.

As for Kotzk, the fact remains that if one is going to go on the hardest journey of all – the journey of truth and self-discovery - one has to be prepared to accept the findings and live with the person one discovers at the end of that journey, no matter the consequences.

...Otherwise, it is best to just accept the advice of the Yid haKadosh, that this path is not for everyone and to remain in 'Lublin' where everything is taken care of for you...

Chasidic Masters, by R. Aryeh Kaplan.
Passion for Truth, by Abraham Joshua Heschel.
...and nothing but the Truth, by R. Ephraim Oratz.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, by Dr Joseph Fox.
Crash Course in Jewish History, by R. Berel Wein.
Emet veEmunah (Hebrew).
Amud haEmet (Hebrew).
Kochav haShachar (Hebrew).
Sneh Bo’er beKotzk (Hebrew), by Meir Orion.
The Quest for Authenticity. The Thought of Reb Simcha Bunim, by Michael Rosen.

[1] R. Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz.
[2] R. Yaakov Yitzchak of Psishcha.
[3] He physically died sometime later on Tisha beAv.
[4] There are four theories as to why he was called the Yid haKadosh: 1) To differentiate between him and his teacher the Chozeh who both had the same name, Yaakov Yitzchak. 2) Some say he was a reincarnation of Mordechai haYehudi. 3) He was so humble that he never wanted to say anything in his own name, choosing instead to say that ’I heard it from a Yid.’ 4) He was so dedicated to living like a Jew who observes all the commandments that he just wanted to be a ‘Jew’.
[5] Just before the young Menachem Mendel left the Chozeh, they had words and the young man said that he did not come to the Chozeh to see the Divine or the miraculous. The Chozeh responded: “Did you then just come here to buy a pocket knife?
[6]Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, by Dr Joseph Fox, p. 45
[7] The Yid haKadosh, however, still maintained his yearly pilgrimage to his old teacher the Chozeh, although he had broken away from him. He still felt that the path of the Chozeh was beneficial for the masses but he wanted something for the intellectual few.  (This is very reminiscent of the thinking of Rambam who also believed in these two ‘stratas’ within Judaism, the ‘yechidei segulah’ or intellectual few, and the ‘hamon am’ ordinary masses.)
[8] The Yid haKadosh also disagreed with the messianic emphasis which was prevalent at the court of the Chozeh. He one disrupted a gathering where a ‘messianic unification’ was about to take place. This did not go down well in Lublin.
[9]Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, by Dr Joseph Fox, p. 51
[10] The Quest for Authenticity, by Michael Rosen, blurb.
[11] Siach Sarfei Kodesh 5:22 #9
[12] See KOTZK BLOG 146 for a possible Maimonidean source for this notion.  
[13] The Quest for Authenticity, p 95.
[14] Or Simcha 36.
[15] According to R. Aryeh Kaplan there were only two exceptions – the teachings of the Chozeh and the teachings of R. Nachman of Breslov.
[16] Passion for Truth, by Abrahan Joshua Heschel. P. 78
[17] The Quest for Authenticity, by Michael Rosen, blurb.
[18] Originally his surname was Halperin but he had to change his identity after overtly supporting the failed Polish rebellion of 1831.
[19] Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, by Dr Joseph Fox, p. 105
[20] Amazingly the ‘Pesishcha-Kotzker threesome’, comprising the Yid haKadosh, R. Simcha Bunim and Menachem Mendel, were all threatened with excommunication.
[21] It is interesting to note that R. Aryeh Kaplan was quite comfortable recording all these four theories in his book Chasidic Masters, but Dr Fox writes; ‘While some among the “enlightened” claim that Rabbi Menachem Mendel approached blasphemy, all the Chasidic writers assure us that nothing extraordinary took place, and that all the rumours were a reprehensible vilification of the saintly rabbi’s memory.’  (What about the Belzer tradition about the pipe which we mentioned?) Dr Fox, however, does continue by admitting that “...the fact that so many defected from the cause of Kotzk...should be enough to convince us that something profoundly shocking must have occurred.” ( Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, by Dr Joseph Fox, p. X)
[22] See Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, A Biographical Study of the Chassidic Master, by Dr Joseph Fox, p.IX
[23] After the town Izbiztcha-Radzin.                   
[24] The Kotzker spoke about the famous Biblical story of the Spies returning with a false report about the land. The Torah recorded that the rest of the people ‘tore their clothes’. This is generally interpreted as being a sign of mourning. But the Kotzker Rebbe said that it instead referred to the people tearing the clothes of the spies! Then he colourfully added that they tore the (what today would have corresponded to the) ‘Shtreimals, long coats and white socks’ which the leaders wore.  Because if one is going to stick out visually one had better be careful behave exceptionally and exemplarily.
[25] Besides the counterintuitive notion of Rationalist Chassidim, there also exists the well documented Rationalist Yemenites.