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.


  1. Thank you for these fascinating articles. Migraines can be severely debilitating. It's also not clear that migraines could be reliably distinguished from other brain maladies (e.g., encephalitis, benign brain tumors) back then. In the 19th and 20th centuries, smoking was often advertised as a preventative or cure for many ills. Today of course, we know that smoking can precipitate migraines.

    It sounds like the Kotzker was suffering terribly. Has anyone suggested that the Kotzker may have been given medical advice to smoke or that a darkened room might have alleviated his migraine symptoms? Also, what was in that pipe? Opium, maybe?

  2. Given his desire to know the Truth, he may have achieved it. Thank you for posting this.

  3. Dear Gavin, you say you never met anyone from Kotzk because the movement died. I daresay you’re not very much mistaken. But I tried being a Kotzker Chassid for ten years and what ended up happening to me is eerily reminiscent of what happened to the Kotzker Rebbe himself, after those first ten years. The movement, as you say, died out. I hung out in Ger for five years in my youth. After the untimely death of Reb Pinches Menachem, I switched to Amshinov. I was there for another five years. I was in close contact with the Amshinover Rebbe and even taught his sons at the Heider, but wherever I went, I could not and would not confirm. My search for the objective truth was obsessive and all-consuming. I actually named my dear only son after the Kotzker Rebbe. I ended up coming to the conclusion that everything was all just lies upon lies and I sacrificed literally everything important to “normal” people to follow my quest through. Twenty years later I can only say that Kotzk still has very much to teach humanity, perhaps now even more than before.

  4. Your words resonate with me...

    I do not believe that any of the movements which claim to have continued the Kotzker teachings succeeded in doing so - because "Kotzk"and "Movement" cannot go hand in hand. Independence of thought and relentless searching for truth go against all populist endeavors.
    Personally I believe that Kotzker teachings can make one either very depressed or very confident, depending on one's prior disposition.

    I agree absolutely that the world has still to discover the Kotzker ethos - especially the Torah world which to a large extent often gravitates towards their particular societal constructs disguised as religious imperatives.

    For me personally, I would not sacrifice normal living for Kotzker truths - its enough that one person already 'fell from the window'- I would rather just know them deep in my heart (as in the Kotzker take on Aseh LECHA Rav).

  5. Interesting post...
    I felt it very personal.

    Also, in my case... I came from secular intelectual, to mitnagdim (but not opposing chassidut) many years to chabad chasiddut many others, and then to Breslov. Science and Torah, Rambam approach to life. I was in Uman not long ago, met in Jerusalem Dr Gerald Shroeder like ten years ago, etc. I find likutei moharan amazing. Now Its clear that one has to be balanced. I would had definitely be among (or try to be accepted ) in the intelectual few, thats my shoresh, but also torah wihtout pnimiut hatorah... its very limited understanding of the bria. Shalom. Jon Hakohen
    Regarding the Yid Hakadosh I think he was in the right balance.