Sunday 26 August 2018


The word Smicha, referring to rabbinical ordination, literally means ‘authorization’.  To be somech means to ‘rely upon’. It also alludes to the process of the teacher ‘laying hands’ upon the student.
The common Smicha which rabbis have today is not the original ordination, nor does it carry with it the authority of that ordination. It is, instead, a ‘heter hora’ah’ or a dispensation to give halachic guidance on certain areas of Jewish law. In some circles, the Smicha ordination is even frowned upon.
The Torah first uses the term ‘SMiCHa’ to describe the process whereby Joshua was ordained by Moshe:
Moshe placed his hands – ‘vaYismoch’ - on Joshua, who was to lead the people after his death.[1]
Additionally, Moshe also ordained seventy elders, and the Torah says that G-d took some of the spirit of Moshe and gave it to the seventy elders[2]:

This original chain of Smicha transmission then continued till around the 4th or 5th centuries CE.
Originally, Smicha could only be given in the Land of Israel where the teacher was called Rabi (Rabbi). That is why the Babylonian sages who did not get formal Smicha were called Rav.
The original Smicha could only be granted in the presence of three judges, however only one of them had to have Smicha himself.
The ancient formula for conferring Smicha was ‘yoreh yoreh, yadin yadin’(Can the student decide a law? Yes he can decide! Can he adjudicate a case? Yes he can adjudicate!)
From about the 2nd century CE, the Smicha institution was beginning to weaken. This was just after the failed Bar Kochba revolutions against the Romans which took place between 132 to 135 CE. Emperor Hadrian decreed that anyone who gave Smicha would be killed - and the city in which the ceremony took place and all crops within a radius of a mile would be destroyed.
According to the Talmud, R. Yehuda ben Bava gave his life in order to perpetuate the Smicha institution. He took five students of R. Akiva (who had just been killed) to a desolate mountain pass and gave Smicha to all of them. When the Romans came after R. Yehuda ben Bava, he blocked the narrow pass and the five newly ordained rabbis[3] escaped but he himself was killed.[4]
Those five rabbis were thus able to continue the Smicha transmission process for some time, but already at that point in history, the majority of Jews were living in Babylonia where Smicha was invalid.  Thus matters continued until around 425 CE when Theodosius executed R. Gamliel VI, the last nasi or president of the Sanherdin.

Around that time, Hillel the Second apparently foresaw the imminent cessation of the classic rabbinic ordination - and since ordained rabbis were required to sanctify the new moon - he established the mathematical rules for the calendar calculation, that we still make use of today.

Some believe, however, that classical ordination continued for a number of centuries until the time of R. Tzemach Gaon (9th century) and Rabbi Chaninia Gaon (10th century) as there are letters which imply that punitive damages were still judged in the Land of Israel, something which only one with Smicha could do.[5]
There is also the view that it may even have continued two centuries later till R. Yehuda ben-Barzillai of Barcelona (11th-12th centuries) as, again, historical letters show that there was still Smicha in Israel at that time.[6]
After the Great Plague[7] of the mid-1300’s, where Europe’s population was reduced by about 60 percent, a ‘new’ Smicha tradition began to surface. This was to keep in line with European Christian universities who were using the conferral of ‘diplomas’ to their students in recognition of their qualifications in various academic disciplines.
Initially the Sefaradim were opposed to this new institution of Smicha as they said it was mimicking the ways of non-Jews, but eventually, they accepted it.
Spanish born R. Ya’akov Beirav[8] (1474-1546) attempted to reinstate the original Smicha in Safed, Israel, which at that time had the largest Jewish community in Ottoman Syria, with over 1000 families.
R. Beirav wanted to seize on that powerful moment in history and recreate the authoritative Smicha for the first time in a thousand years (if one follows the view that Smicha was dissolved around the time of Hillel II). Additionally, he also wanted to re-establish the Sanhedrin, as the two institutions often go hand in hand. He was a Kabbalist and had messianic aspirations which informed much of his decision to go ahead with these major innovations.
One of the contributing practical factors for R. Beirav’s grand plan was the question of how to deal with the many Marranos from the recent Spanish Inquisition of 1492, who were at that time beginning to return to Judaism. Only a Sanhedrin could administer certain procedures[9], which, according to some rabbis in Israel were the only remedy for the ‘apostasy’ of some Marranos.
Rambam (1135-1204) had already, theoretically laid the groundwork for the reinstitution of the Smicha, by writing that if the sages of Israel would ordain one deserving candidate, then he, in turn, could confer Smicha on others afterwards. He was more inclined to promote a human and natural evolution towards the redemptive process than wait for a miraculous event.
Rambam wrote:
“It appears to me that if all the sages of the Land of Israel consent to appoint dayanim (judges) and grant them Smicha (ordination), they have the law of musmachim and they can judge penalty cases and are authorized to grant Smicha to others [thus restoring Biblical ordination]...[10]
However, this matter requires a final decision.” [11]
According to some, the Rambam's final phrase that ‘the matter requires a final decision’, refers to a previous Halachic matter - and not to Smicha. Rabbi Yosef Caro is of the opinion that the view of the Rambam is indeed the definitive ruling.[12]
It must be pointed out that Ramban, as well as others, disagreed with Rambam’s view. However, the Safed rabbis (which included R. Yosef Caro), were prepared to rely on Rambam in this instant.
In 1538, twenty-five rabbis gathered in Safed and elected R. Beirav to be the first candidate to receive this Smicha. With his new authority, the first person he, in turn, conferred Smicha upon was his longtime opponent, R. Levi ibn Chaviv, also known as Ralbach, who was the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.[13]
His first conferral of Smicha upon Ralbach was regarded as a strategic move by some and an act of reconciliation by others. Ralbach himself, however, was not impressed by R. Beirav’s ‘magnanimity’ and was instead insulted that the Jerusalem rabbis had not been consulted. He wrote to the Safed rabbis and declared their actions illegal and dangerous (as he was worried that they would tamper with the calendar).[14] He was supported by R. David ben Zimra known as the Radbaz.[15]
R. Beirav responded with a personal attack against Ralbach, accusing him of living like a Christian in an attempt to save his life while in Portugal. Ralbach retorted that R. Beirav was not qualified to transmit the Smicha ordination in the first instance.
The Turkish authorities got wind of these dramatic developments and suspected the Jews were planning to resurrect a Jewish homeland right under their noses and R. Beirav began to fear for his life. He fled to Egypt, but not before conferring Smicha to a number of other rabbis, including R. Yosef Caro, author of Shulchan Aruch. Rabbi Caro later ordained R. Moshe Cordovero who ordained the Alshich, who ordained R. Chaim Vital. Thus it appears that this Smicha ordination lasted for four generations.
A more recent attempt at reinstituting the Smicha of old took place during the 1830’s. R. Yisrael of Shklov, one of the foremost students of the Vilna Gaon wanted to establish a Sanhedrin and reintroduce the Smicha. However, he agreed with R. Levi ibn Chaviv and R. David ibn Zimra that we cannot just appoint a candidate as they did in Safed in 1538 – but he found a ‘loophole’ in an opinion of R. David ibn Zimra!
According to that opinion, it was theoretically possible to reintroduce Smicha if one could locate either of the two of the Lost Tribes of Israel, Gad and Reuven, as they had allegedly kept the Smicha tradition alive.
This opinion created a fascinating Halachic conundrum: If Smicha could only be conferred in the Land of Israel – then how could Gad and Reuven have been the custodians of this institution if they were no longer living in the land?
R. David ibn Zimra had the answer: These tribes had separated from the rest of the Jewish People long before the ruling - that Smicha could only take place in the Land of Israel - was enacted. They, therefore, were not bound by that ruling!
It is interesting to note that R. Yisrael’s teacher, the Vilna Gaon, took the view that science had an important role to play in the general education of a Torah scholar.  [See here and here.] According to some secular scientific journals which were popular at that time, some of the Lost Tribes of Israel could be found in Yemen.
As it happened, at that point in history, Yemen was beginning to open up to the West, and R. Yisrael believed that those tribes might be located there. He dispatched an emissary, R. Pinchas Baruch to Yemen but unfortunately, he either died or was killed there and nothing became of the mission.
Around 1903[16] R. Aharon Mendel haCohen was the rabbi of the Ashkenazi community in Cairo. He had a close relationship with the Chief Rabbi of Cairo, R. Refael Aharon Ben Shimon who was a Sefaradi. This relationship was held up as an example of how Ashkenazim and Sefaradim can get on as apparently this was considered rather unusual at that time!
R. Aharon Mendel wanted to establish a Sanhedrin in order to create a sense of uniformity between Sefaradim and Ashkenazim. They would also renew the Smicha and the Sanhedrin would officially despatch rabbis all over the Diaspora. They collected five hundred signatures from leading rabbis who would rely upon the abovementioned view of Rambam.
However, his friend the Chief Rabbi, then sent him a very polite and respectful letter explaining that practically there were too many divisions between the Jews - and besides that, it would be impossible to get all the rabbis to agree on one uniform protocol and submit to a higher authority.
Evidently, the Chief Rabbi was correct because R. Aharon Mendel’s project never materialised.
In 1940, R. Tzvi Kovsker arrived in Israel from the Soviet Union. He had firsthand experience of the condition of Jews in pre-war Europe.  He consulted with many Rabbis in the Holy Land at the time and tried to renew the Smicha and re-establish a Sanhedrin as a recognised government for the Jewish People, eight years before the establishment of the State of Israel!
In 1949, R. Yehuda Leib Maimon, the first Minister of Religious Affairs in the new state wanted to convert the existing Israeli Rabbinate into a de facto Sanhedrin. This evoked strong opposition from elements from within the ultra-Orthodox community who would not cooperate with the secular state.
In 2004, a group of seven hundred rabbis from various segments of the Israeli population, met in Tiberius with the expressed intention of establishing a contemporary Sanhedrin. After due process, R. Ovadia Yosef (Iraqi born Sefaradi Chief Rabbi) and R. Yosef Shalom Eliashiv (who many regarded as the Ashkenazi  posek hador) ordained R. Moshe Halberstam (Eidah Charedis) who in turn ordained R. Dov Levanoni who again ordained other rabbis.

Within this system, many of the rabbis regard themselves as ‘placeholders’ until such time as ‘more worthy’ members are able to replace them as this new Sanhedrin is only a nascent (or developing) Sanhedrin.
According to TheSanhedrin.NET:
“Rabbi Tzvi Eidan, the author of Asot Mishpat (on the laws of reestablishing the Sanhedrin) was appointed as first interim Nasi. Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz, a noted Talmudic scholar and a well-known Jewish philosopher is the currently elected Nasi. The Sanhedrin's spokesmen said that due to concerns that external pressure would be brought to bear upon individuals not to take part in the establishment of a Sanhedrin, the names of most participants would not be made public.”
To illustrate just how delicate this matter of a modern Sanhedrim with reinstated Smicha is, the former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva of Merkaz HaRav Rabbi Avraham Shapira chose to abstain on the issue but also refused to discourage it.
This nascent Sanhedrin was not without controversy, considering their political reach and their perceived authority to decide on matters of war and peace:
“One area where the Sanhedrin has offered extensive opinions is in the area of war and military policy. Based on the Mishnah’s statement "they may not send forth (the people) to a Milchemet Reshut (non-mandatory war) except by order of the court of seventy-one", the new Sanhedrin has declared that it is "the authorized institution to decide in matters of military policy, issues definitive moral guidance to soldiers on active duty and in the reserves. It also comments on the current administration's defence policy...". They clearly state "The commandment to 'inherit and dwell' (Deut. 12:29) in the Land of Israel is obligatory upon every Israeli government. In this regard Israel is commanded by G-d to conquer the entire expanse of the Land of Israel within its Biblical boundaries, including the Gaza strip." ” (See here for the actual statement).

[1] Bamidbar 27:23.
[2] Bamidbar 11:25.
[3] Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yehudah (ben Ila’i), Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua.
[4] Sanherdin 14a.
[5] Kovets Sha’arei Tzedek p. 29-30.
[6] Sefer haShetarot p 132.
[7] Also known as the Black Death. It took about two hundred years for the world’s population to recover to its pre-plague level of 450 million.
[8] Beirav was an honorific. His real family name was Marmaran.
[9] Malkot could cancel out a decree of karet which some Marranos may have felt they were guilty of. (See Makkot 23a.)  The Mishnah (Makkot 3:15) states that all who are deserving of karet who receive lashes are absolved from karet. The Sages derived this from the verse (Devarim 25:3) "He shall flog him yet he shall not exceed [the prescribed number of lashes], lest . . . your brother be degraded before your eyes." As soon as the defendant receives lashes, he is considered our full-fledged brother.
[10] Full text continues “...If so, why did the sages bemoan [the loss of] Smicha? So that the judgment of penalty cases wouldn't disappear from among Israel because Jews are so spread out that it's not possible to get their consent [to authorize a dayan]. If someone were to receive Smicha from someone who already has Smicha, then he does not require their consent – he may judge penalty cases for everyone since he received Smicha from beit din (rabbinical court)....”
[11] Rambam, Hilchot Sanhedrin 4:11.
[12]Beit Yosef, Choshen Mishpat 295.
[13] He was the son of R. Ya’akov ibn Chaviv, the author of Ein Ya’akov.
[14] See his Kuntres haSmicha. R. Beirav responded to that with his counter letter Iggeret haSmicha.
[15] R. David ben Zimra (Radbaz) was a Spanish Kabbalist who had fled from Spain and settled in Cairo. He was the teacher of R. Betzalel Ashkenazi (author of Shita Mekubetzet) as well as the Ari Zal.
[16] Some accounts record the year as 1901.

Sunday 19 August 2018



R. Yitzchak Luria (1534-1572) known as the Ari (the ‘Lion’) is considered to be the father of modern Kabbalah.  He was born in Jerusalem to an Ashkenazi father, R. Shlomo Luria, and a Sefaradi mother. His father died when he was just eight years old and he was raised by his mother’s brother in Cairo.

During that time he studied under Radbaz (R. David ben Zimra, a Spanish Kabbalist who fled during the Expulsion from Spain) and his student R. Betzalel Ashkenazi, whom he helped compile the Shita Mekubetzet on some tractates of the Talmud.

At twenty-two, he began studying the Zohar, which had just recently been published, and for seven years he lived on the island of Roda in the Nile engrossed in his studies.

Until the appearance of the Ari, the popular Kabbalistic model that most followed was that of Ramak, or R. Moshe Cordovero of Safed. He advocated a rather intuitive perception of the Spiritual realms. However, during the mid-1500’s when the universal trend was leaning more towards science and industry a more systematic model was required. This need was filled by the Ari Zal and his very structured system was even endorsed by Ramak himself as the way forward.

The Ari Zal passed away when he was only 38 years old, and all he put down in writing were a few poems.  However, it was through his oral teachings (later recorded in writing by his students – particularly R. Chaim Vital) that the Zohar became comprehensible to us.

In this article we will explore some of his opinions as well as some speculation as to his views relating to nusach, or prayer rites:



Rabbi Eliezer Melamed explains in his Peninei Halacha[1] how each Jewish group thinks their rite is the most authentic. 

The Ashkenazim claim that their prayer rite is most accurate because its roots go back to all the way to Shimon haPekoli. He was a Tanna in Israel and his tradition remained in the Holy Land throughout the Talmudic and Gaonic periods.  As the Talmud records:

“Shimon haPekoli arranged the order of the Shemona Esrei under the supervision of Raban Gamliel at Yavneh.”[2]

 שמעון הפקולי הסדיר שמונה עשרה ברכות לפני רבן גמליאל על הסדר ביבנה

This was in contradistinction to Nusach Sefard which had its origins outside of Israel, in Babylonia. Nonetheless, the Sefaradim claim their nusach is a ‘higher’ one and one can, therefore, change from Ashkenaz to Sefard but not vice versa.[3]


Bearing in mind that nusach is a custom and not a law, the Peninei Halacha gives two sides of an interesting debate on the issue of changing one’s established nusach.

Assume a student from a Chassidic family, who prayed according to nusach Ari, goes to study at an Ashkenazi yeshiva and adopts the Ashkenazi nusach for the duration of his studies. After some time he returns home and now faces the dilemma of whether to revert back to nusach Ari or continue with nusach Ashkenaz?

The Ashkenazi rabbis would rule that he continue with nusach Ashkenaz because originally all Ashkenazim used that nusach, and it was only in the last two and a half centuries that the Chassidim innovated the change to nusach Ari. So while that period of two and a half centuries is sufficient to set a precedent for Chassidim, in general, to continue with their nusach, however, where someone had already changed ‘back’ to nusach Ashkenaz - as in our example - he should continue using nusach Ashkenaz as that still remains his ‘primary’ and ‘original’ nusach.

The Chassidic rabbis, on the other hand, would rule that he should certainly revert back to nusach Ari (or Sefarad-Chassidi) because we can still rely on the original Chassidic dispensation when the movement was born, to change from Ashkenazi to Ari in the first instance.

The Peninei Halacha suggests that, because of the deadlock, one should consult with one’s rabbi.[4]


The Chatam Sofer writes in his responsa, that all prayer rites are equally important. Then he adds:

“And the fact that the Ari composed his (mystical) kavanot (meditations) based on Nusach Sefard, was (simply) because he was accustomed to pray from (that rite). But, in truth, had someone like the Ari been (living in) Ashkenaz (Germany and Northern France), he would have composed all his kavanot based on Nusach Ashkenaz.” [5]


According to the very insightful  Keset Yehonatan (The Inkstand Yehonatan,[6] published in 1697):

“...R. Yitzchak Luria [the] Ashkenazi used to pray, throughout the year, in a Sefaradi community. It was only on the High Holy Days and Festivals that he would pray with Ashkenazim.

And when asked why he did not pray throughout the entire year with the Ashkenazim, he responded: ‘These and those are [equally] the words of the living G-d. Except that the Sefaradim have extra prayers and supplications and that is why I pray [more frequently] with them...’

According to this - essentially - the Ari Zal was expected to keep his original nusach which was nusach Ashkenaz! And this was apparently well known because the questioner asked why didn’t he always just pray in the Ashkenazi community? To this, he responded that he chose to pray with the Sefaradim more frequently simply because of their additional prayers which he also wanted to say.


The common perception, though, is that Ari Zal was a Sefaradi Jew, but the fact is he was an Ashkenazi Jew.

The acronym ‘ARI’ stands for ‘A’shkenazi ‘R’abbi ‘Y’itzchak. His surname was Luria, not Ashkenazi as some maintain. Ashkenazi was a description of his Ashkenazi heritage.

Some, however, insist that the ‘A’ stands instead for Elohi or G-dly, attesting to his extraordinary spirituality as no other sage is afforded such an honorific. They maintain that only later was Ashkenazi substituted for Elohi.

R. Binyomin Shlomo Hamburger in his Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz points out that the Ari Zal was indeed Ashkenazi and prayed on the high holidays in an Ashkenazi shul (as we saw in Keset Yehonatan).
However, his student, R. Chaim Vital was a Sefaradi Jew, and therefore his teacher gave over to him lessons according to the Sefaradi customs. 

But evidently, the Ari Zal himself adhered for the most part, to his Ashkenazi rites and customs.


According to the Pachad Yitzchak[7], by R. Yitzchak Lamparonti (1679-1756):

 “...The Holy Ari did not interfere with customs of [different] communities...and he admonished people not to change their customs, because he said that every custom has an angel appointed over it and a [special]opening in heaven to receive those prayers [and practices]...”

It is most likely, considering the evidence that the Ari was an Ashkenazi - that history has mistakenly only viewed him through the prism of R. Chaim Vital the Sefaradi.  That is why we associate his kavanot with nusach Sefard. But we don’t know which nusach he used for himself.

As the Chatam Sofer said that “had someone like the Ari been (living in) Ashkenaz, he would have composed all his kavanot based on Nusach Ashkenaz.”

He knew he was an Ashkenazi and indeed he may have used kavanot based on nusach Ashkenaz (particularly considering that he had only known R. Chaim Vital, his Sefaradi student, for the last two years of his life).


A similar case can be made regarding the question of wearing teffilin on Chol haMoed. As a rule, Safaradim do not wear them while Ashkenazim do. But which custom did the Ari Zal abide by himself?

It is highly probable that the Ari Zal personally did put on teffilin on Chol haMoed, as again, he believed that Ashkenazim should remain faithful to their customs.[8]

R. Hamburger supports this thesis by mentioning R. Nosson Adler - one of the teachers of the Chatam Sofer, and himself a kabbalist who followed the ways of the Ari Zal - who would wear teffilin on Chol haMoed, for the same reasons as outlined above (i.e. because he was an Ashkenazi).

A rather obvious observation (pointed out by my wife) is that since the Ari Zal prayed with Ashkenazim on the High Holy Days which include Chol haMoed, it is very likely that he followed their custom and wore teffilin as well.


If all this is correct, another interesting irony would be the persistence of Chassidim, in the era after the Baal Shem Tov, to pray from their new nusach Sefard-Chassidi or nusach Ari[9], even though they themselves were originally Ashkenazim.

Of course one could argue that for those who didn’t know their exact lineage, there was a ‘Thirteenth Gate’ which the Ari Zal is said to have established over and above the standard ‘Twelve Gates’ through which the prayers of each of the Twelve Tribes were to have passed.

As the Maggid of Mezeritch (1704-1772) writes:

Now that people do not know the tribe of their origin, and we also do not know which customs apply to which tribes, it is best to follow the order arranged by the Ari, which is universal.”[10]

The question remains, though, as to what the Ari Zal himself would have suggested (hypothetically, as he had lived two hundred years prior) to the new Chassidim whose ancestors had already been using the Ashkenazi nusach for generations?

Considering that the Pachad Yitzchak said: “The Holy Ari did not interfere with customs of [different] communities...”- one wonders whether he would have wanted an entire community to change to a new nusach?

The question becomes compounded when we remember that the Ari Zal, as an individual, had personally chosen to vacillate between the two relatively ancient rites of Ashkenaz and Sefard. And although he was rather blasé about it, remarking “these and those are (equally) the words of the living G-d” - we have no idea of his view regarding a ‘new’ nusach for an entire community.


These are just some of the interesting questions which arise from discovering that a great ‘Sefardi’ Kabbalist was, in fact, an Ashkenazi who probably kept Ashkenazi customs and didn’t want people to change their customs either.

And yet, although he is said to have ‘opened’ the Thirteenth Gate of Prayer, he himself appears - through his own practice and admission - to have downplayed the centrality of any particular nusach, by glibly moving from one to the other.

Although many are quick to place the Ari Zal into a ‘theological box’, it may be more difficult to categorise and define this ‘Ashkenazi Kabbalist’ than most would have imagined.

[For more on the conflicting legacies of the Ari Zal see: EMEK HAMELECH - THE BATTLE FOR THE SOUL OF THE ARI ZAL:]


Here is an opposing opinion by the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839) to that of the Maggid of Mezrich (quoted above) concerning the “Thirteenth Gate":

Teshuvot Chatam Sofer, Orach Chaim 16.

“What you quote from...[the Maggid about the Thirteenth gate][11] is that the Sefardic rite [of the Ari] is intended for those who do not know their tribe, I am not worthy of understanding. If this...were true, the Kohanim and Levites, who certainly know the tribe of their origin, should not use this rite, but a special liturgy for Levites. [We clearly see that this is not the case].

Furthermore, in the time of the Talmud, people were already ignorant of their tribes of origin...Would we, therefore, have to say that all the Talmudic sages also used the Sefardic rite, and if this were true, from what source have we derived other rites?...

We know that all the sages of France, Rashi, the Tosafists, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, Rabbi Asher...and many others, all made use of the Ashkenazic rite. Even though they did not know their tribe, their prayers certainly ascended to the heavens.

The Ari himself used the poems that Rabbi Shimon the Great composed...saying that they were composed by one who knew the way of Truth...but Rabbi Shimon used the Ashkenazic rite...

Shall we then say that the prayers of all these saints were cut off, may the Merciful One protect us?”[12]

[1] Peninei Halacha, haNusachim uMinhagei he Edot, 2, p.86 -7.
[2] Berachot 28b.
[3] The Chida wrote in the name of the Ari that the Sefaradi nusach is a universal rite that passes through all the Twelve Gates of prayer (see later in the article). (Yabia Omer 6:10)
[4] Peninei Halacha, Tefillah, 6:8, p.95.
[5] See: Shut Chatam Sofer 1, 15.
[6] It has been suggested that the title was taken from II Samuel 1:22, Keshet (with a shin), “The Bow of Yehonatan.” A Samech was substituted for the shin and it became Keset or inkstand. The author was R. Yonatan ben Ya’akov.
[7] Pachad Yitzchak: Vol. 13, p. 107.
[8] See Treasure of Ashkenaz - The Lion of Ashkenaz: The Arizal You Didn’t Know.
[9] Nusach Ari should not be confused for the actual nusach the historical Ari Zal used.  Nusach Ari is an ‘approximation’ based ‘al pi nusach haAri Zal’
[10] Maggid Devarav leYa’akov 141. (Translation by R. Aryeh Kaplan.)
[11] Parenthesis mine.
[12] See: A Call to the Infinite, by R. Aryeh Kaplan. Moznaim Publishing Company 1986. P. 87. 

Sunday 12 August 2018


Shemen laMaor by R. Shmaryahu Schneersohn, the last Rebbe of Kopust, proudly tracing his lineage - in his title-page - back to R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi.


We are all familiar with the story of Chabad-Lubavitch, one of the most popular and well-known Jewish movements in the world today. The movement had seven Rebbes and it is common knowledge that the last Rebbe was considered by many to either have been the Messiah-in-waiting, the potential Messiah, or actually the Messiah.

What is fascinating, though, is that the line of succession from Rebbe to Rebbe was not always a simple matter, nor was it without dispute. The rival groups which had coalesced around the various claimants, also considered themselves to be the true successors of the Chabad movement.

In this article, we will look at a number of claimants to the leadership of the movement over the past two centuries, since its founding in 1775.


After the passing of the founder of the Chabad system, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi[1] (1745-1813), there was a dispute as to who would take over the mantle of leadership and become the second Chabad Rebbe.

R. Shneur Zalman had three sons and three daughters. His youngest son, R. Moshe of Ule enjoyed the special fondness of his father. He was known for his ability to remember details and he was tasked with the duty of repeating his father’s talks to the Chassidim who had not been able to be present at the gatherings.[2]

In 1814, R. Moshe joined his two brothers in signing approbations for their father’s famous Tanya and Shulchan Aruch haRav. Interestingly, some later editions omitted R. Moshe’s signed approbations.  In some copies, the line referring to R. Moshe was deliberately erased and in others, the entire page was torn out.

One of the reasons for this attempt to obliterate all traces of R. Moshe was because it appears that he converted to Christianity.

However, before that, he enjoyed a substantial following and he expected to take over from his father and become the movement’s second Rebbe. According to one account, the Chabad movement actually split into two factions for a period of about two years.

According to another account, when he heard that his brother, R. Dov Ber had indeed succeeded his father, he said:  

“If a goy (Ber was considered to lack his scholarly ability) can become a rebbe, then the rebbe can become a goy.”[3]

[For more details and sources see WHAT HAPPENED TO MOSHE, SON OF THE BAAL HATANYA?]



It wasn’t just R. Moshe who felt he was eligible to take over the reins of leadership of the new movement. One of R. Shneur Zalman’s foremost students for a period of about thirty years, was the very charismatic R. Aaron haLevi Horowitz of Staroselye (or Strashelye, 1766-1828).

Initially, R. Aaron of Staroselye and R. Dov Ber (who won the succession battle in the end) got on well. R. Shneur Zalman selected the two to be study partners and in fact, it was R. Aaron who, being eight years his senior, taught R. Dov Ber his own father’s teachings. However, a dispute drove the two apart and R. Aaron went to settle in Staroselye.[4]

R. Aaron wrote two main books:

The first was Sha’arei haYichud ve’ha’Emunah, after the section in his teacher’s book, Tanya, which went by a similar title. He claimed that the section in Tanya as we have it, was incomplete and therefore his book was the key to the proper understanding of Tanya.

Sha'arei haYichud ve'haEmunah by R. Aaron of Staroselye
His second book was Sha’arei haAvodah in which he differs fundamentally with R. Dov Ber over the role of emotion in the service of G-d. He criticised R. Dov Ber’s insistence on not showing outward signs of spiritual ecstasy during prayer. R. Dov Ber was known to have prayed without movement, while R. Aaron infused his prayers with outward signs of emotion (just like, as he was quick to point out, his teacher - R. Dov Ber’s own father - had done).

In R. Dov Ber’s Kuntres haHitpalut, he writes rather tellingly:

“We observe the majority of the masses moved to ecstasy in their prayers with an external ecstasy, the result of vain delusion in soul and heart. In the category of an external cry, this comes into the fleshy heart with neither light nor life: it is in no way for the Lord...Even though people call the name of devekut or enthusiasm [hitpa’alut] it is, in fact an entirely false devekut...”[5]

One doesn’t need to read too much between the lines to understand the context and nuances of this teaching. This fundamental difference in theology between 'mind' and 'heart' appears to have been a significant cause of their dispute, which was then intensified when a monetary component compounded the issue:

“In a letter addressed to all of the Hasidim in White Russia, Dov Ber asked that they recognise him as his father’s successor by sending him the funds that they used to send to his father in Liady to his new court at Lubavitch.”[6]

R. Aaron passed the mantle of leadership on to his son, R. Chaim Refael (d. 1842). After those two generations, however, the movement was discontinued, and a substantial number of the Staroselye Chassidim returned to follow the official third Chabad Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn[7], the Tzemach Tzedek (1789-1866). It is probable that the Staroselye dynasty lacked the finance and infrastructure to perpetuate itself any longer.


After the passing of the third Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek[8] in 1866, another major succession dispute erupted. The Tzemach Tzedek had seven sons and two daughters. It was, however, his youngest son, R. Shmuel Schneersohn, who became the Rebbe of the town of Lubavitch.

“Shortly after the week of mourning [for the Tzemach Tzedek], a document purporting to be the late rebbe’s will surfaced. To the surprise of many, it tapped the youngest son, Shmuel, and not his older brother Yehuda Leib, as first among equals...Insiders who had watched what was happening at the court during the last years and months guessed that the ambitious young man[R. Shmuel]...would..."make a ‘revolution’ at the court."”[9]

R. Shmuel Schneersohn, as mentioned, was strategically situated in Lubavitch "...where he would call himself both a ChaBaD and Lubavitcher Rebbe. However, the other brothers who similarly established their own individual rebistves [Chassidic courts], took on the names of the towns in which they set up their headquarters.

To complicate matters, the brothers remained attached to and variously interpreted the ChaBad ways, texts, ideas, and traditions. This way R. Shmuel’s brand of ‘Lubavitch’ had lost its ChaBaD monopoly as the other brothers also claimed to represent Chabad.

At the age of thirty-two and in sole possession of the Lubavitcher succession, Shmuel had to come to terms with the fact that ChaBaD was no longer a unified rebistve and that all its various branches were growing in directions over which he had nothing like the control that his predecessors had.

In a number of ChaBaD communities during Shmuel’s reign, Hasidim were divided between Lubavitcher and other customs, and in some cases, fights broke out among the different groups."[10]

R. Shmuel, known also as the Maharash was prone to health problems - and his period as Rebbe was beset with pogroms and other distractions such as modernization, Zionism and emigration. He also did not have many followers, possibly due to the difficult times.

Samuel C. Heilman paints a rather negative picture of R. Shmuel:

“Little from his reign stands out even in Lubavitcher lore. Nor did he outshine his brothers, even though he controlled Lubavitch – indeed there is no official ChaBaD image left behind of how he looked.”[11]

Incidentally, according to a friend and colleague well respected within Chabad, a picture of  R. Shmuel does in fact exist, except it was never published as due to his ill health it would not have done justice to him. 

It was during R. Shmuel's tenure as Rebbe (which only lasted about sixteen years), that he introduced the notion of mashpia, or special mentors who would personally guide the followers through their religious journeys.

Heilman suggests that he may have ‘outsourced’ the leadership role somewhat to compensate for his 'inadequate leadership' and the difficult times. While his father, the Tzemach Tzedek did already introduce the notion of older Chassidim assuming prominent teaching positions (something usually done by the Rebbe himself):

“Shmuel’s appointment of a mashpi’a, however, seems to have been driven more by a desire to supplement his weaknesses, while his father’s strategy might be understood more as a way of controlling his court and keeping it unified...[as] the Hasidim, particularly those older than him [the Tzemach Tzedek], who had powerful links to the past, and later those who had their own charisma, ‘could easily command followers’ of their own. Better to allow them a higher profile, which they would have anyway, in return for their loyalty, then to create schisms.”[12]

Naftali Lowenthal, however, describes R. Shmuel rather more positively:

Besides his communal activism, he had wide intellectual interests. He spoke several languages, including Latin. He wrote widely on a range of religious and secular topics, and much of his writing has never been published and remains in manuscript form alone. His discourses began to be published for the first time under the title Likkutei Torat Shmuel in 1945 by Kehot and 12 volumes have so far been printed.”[13]

According to other historians though:

“Chabad historiography tends to paper over the impression that Shmuel was the least prominent Chabad leader in terms of political and literary activity. For example, the fact that his teachings are less sophisticated than those of other Chabad leaders is explained as his way of reaching lay people.”[14]

In fairness, though, it is possible that the vicissitudes of that period, as pointed out (pogroms, modernisation, Zionism and emigration), may have demanded less of a focus on theological technicalities and more of an outreach to ordinary folk who were grappling with those very real issues.

Whichever way one wishes to view R. Shmuel, the fact remains that after his passing in 1882, there remained a vacuum in the leadership position of Chabad which was only filled about ten years later in 1893 by R. Shmuel’s second son, the Rashab (probably after the elder son relocated from Lubavitch to Vitebsk).


At the same time as R. Shmuel was establishing himself at Lubavitch, his older brother, R. Yehuda Leib Schneersohn, became the Rebbe in the town of Kopys (present-day Belarus).

The Kopust Chabad Chassidim believed they were the rightful heirs to the movement and that they were the official representatives of the previous three Rebbes. The Kopust faction survived the longest of all the other offshoot groups, with a dynasty of four Rebbes and still boasts a number of adherents today, although most re-joined Chabad after the passing of the last Kopust Rebbe, Shmaryahu Noach Schneersohn in 1924. He had established a yeshiva in Babruysk in 1901 and authored the two-volume work ‘Shemen laMaor’.

As if mirroring the earlier debate of 'mind' vs 'heart' between R. Aaron Staroselye and R. Dov Ber, the Kopust Rebbes pointed to the neglect of ‘service of the heart’ in favour of ‘mental contemplations’ or ‘hitbonenut’. As we have seen, this debate seems to have plagued the movement over time and refused to go away.

The oldest Chabad synagogue in Israel is the Baal haTanya Shul, established in 1900 in Mea Shearim and affiliated to the Kopust school. Apparently, in the 1920’s, when the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe visited Israel, he was not welcomed at the synagogue. This gives some indication of conflicting politics between these movements, although the same sixth Rebbe referred respectfully to the Kopust leaders as ‘Admorim’ (Rebbes).


Another branch could be added to the list of parallel Chabad movements as one of the sons of R. Yehuda Leib of Kopust settled and held court in Retzitza. This group apparently only lasted one generation.


Simultaneously, while the Kopust movement was being established by R. Yehuda Leib, another of the Tzemach Tzedek’s sons, R. Chaim Schneur Zalman founded an additional branch, called Liadi. This branch only lasted two generations and was discontinued after the passing of his son, R. Yitzchak Dovber.


And yet another claimant to the leadership of Chabad was established by still another of the Tzemach Tzedek’s sons, R. Yisrael Noach of Niezhin. Niezhin was where Yisrael Noach’s grandfather, R. Dov Ber (the second Rebbe) was buried. It has been suggested that he set up his headquarters in Niezhin as a challenge to his youngest brother, R. Shmuel of Lubavitch, to show that he was indeed continuing with the authentic line. 

This movement of Niezhin, however, did not survive more than that one generation.
Interestingly, his son’s daughter, Nechama Dina later became the wife of R. Yosef Yitzchak, the sixth Rebbe of Chabad, so in a sense, both movements were reconciled.


A fourth son of the Tzemach Tzedek, R. Yosef Yitzchak of Ovrutch, also tried to create an authentic line with his Ovrutch dynasty. This group too did not outlive that first generation.


Hornisteipol is another group with strong ties to Chabad and consider themselves to be an extension of Chabad. It began with a marriage arranged by the first Rebbe, R. Shneur Zalman and the Chernobler Maggid (R. Mordechai Twerski) – whereby the former’s granddaughter married the latter’s son.

The groom, R. Yaakov Yisrael Twerski had lived and studied with R. Shneur Zalman and thereafter also spent some years residing with his father-in-law, the second Rebbe, R. Dov Ber.

R. Yaakov Yisrael Twerski later became a Rebbe in Hornisteipol where he taught much of the Chabad teachings he had acquired from his intimate connections with the first Rebbes.

[He was also later to become close to his brother-in-law the Tzemach Tzedek, whose son (R. Yosef Yitzchak of Ovrutch) went on to marry his (Yaakov Yisrael’s) daughter. They, in turn, had a daughter Shterna Sara Schneersohn who married the fifth rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab, and she was the mother of the sixth Rebbe, the Frierdiker Rebbe, R. Yaakov Yitzchak.]

This movement still exists today, and they place great emphasis on the teachings of the first three Chabad Rebbes (although they have also integrated some traditions from other Chassidic groups as well).



Another group emerged after the generation of succession battles between the sons of the Tzemach Tzedek. They were formed sometime after the passing of R. Shmuel Schneersohn - the fourth Rebbe - thus claiming their connection only to the first four ‘legitimate’ Rebbes of Chabad. This group was founded by R. Chaim Avraham Dov Ber Levine (1860-1938), known as the ‘Malach’ or ‘angel’. He was one of the closest followers of R. Shmuel. He also was the teacher of the sixth Rebbe R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn!

On his arrival in America in 1923, R. Levine headed the Nusach Ari Synagogue in the Bronx. During that time, the head of Mesivta Torah Vodaas[16], R. Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz would come to visit R. Levine in order to study Tanya.  R. Mendlowith would later encourage his own yeshiva students to also study with R. Levine, the ‘Malach’. Many students were thus influenced by R. Levine and the Malachim movement was born. They still exist today in small numbers.

The Malachim adopted a more overtly ‘Chassidic’ style of dressing than mainstream Chabad (who were more ‘modern’) and began to question the authority of their original Rosh Yeshiva, R. Mendlowitz. After some friction, they broke away (or by some accounts were expelled) from Torah Vodaas and established their own yeshiva.

Today the Malachim movement has ties with Satmar and adopt an anti-Zionist position.


No discussion on the issue of the direction of the contemporary Lubavitch movement would be complete without mention of the Meschichits who believe in a form of messianism relating to the last Rebbe. Much has been written about this phenomenon and there is much debate over just how widespread this new movement is.

I wish to share just one point: In the early 1980’s, I was a student at a flagship Chabad yeshiva. During one Thursday night gathering with the Mashpia, we started singing a song which proclaimed the Rebbe as Messiah. The Mashpia immediately stopped us in our tracks and told us never to sing that song ever again as ‘although it was true, it cannot get out to the wider community that that was our belief.’ I remember feeling very privileged thinking that I was now privy to a 'great secret'.


The battle over leadership succession was nothing new to the Chassidic movement. It went right back to the first candidate to succeed the Baal Shem Tov himself.

The Baal Shem Tov had two close students, R. Dov Ber known as the Maggid of Medzeritch, and R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye.  When the time came to hand over the mantle of leadership to the next generation, it was assumed that the more scholarly R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye would assume that vital role.

However, to everyone’s surprise, the following letter[17] from the Baal Shem Tov suddenly arrived at the home of R. Yaakov Yosef:

(My translation follows:)

“...I inform you very confidentially that my teacher, whose soul is in Eden, appeared to me – in (real) life and not in a dream nor in a perception, but in reality face to face.

(And he) revealed to me many matters concerning the mysteries of the world and the era preceding Messiah.

And he also revealed to me that my place will be filled by my (other) holy student, (and) officer of the Torah, Ber, may his light shine.

Therefore, know, my student (R. Yaakov Yosef), what lies before you.

And hand back to me (all) the writings from R. A(dam) Baal Shem Tov, of blessed memory (who had handed the ‘secret writings’ to me in the first place), and I will transfer them to him (my successor, R. Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch).

Enough said.

The matter is secret and sealed.

From your teacher and rabbi,

Yisrael, son of our teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Baal Shem.


Cherson Geniza.

The Seven Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbes, by Chaim Dalfin.

Hasidic People, by Jerome Mintz.

Hasidism: A New History by  David Biale, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, Marcin Wodziński.

[1] Known also as the Alter Rebbe, the Rav and the Baal haTanya.
[2] In more recent times the second last Chabad Rebbe, the Rayatz, wrote of R. Moshe: “The writings of Rabbi Moshe...are in my possession in his holy handwriting and they fill several volumes.” On one occasion, he showed eleven volumes of R. Moshe’s writings to the rabbi of Fastov, and told him that no one knew about these writings, but they were of a ‘lofty’ nature.
[3] See the link above for an in-depth analysis of the story from various angles, including sources.
[4] See Hasidism: A New History, by David Biale, David Assaf...p. 295.
[5] Dobh Baer of Lubavitch, Tract on Ecstasy, translation by Louis Jacobs, p. 67.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Not to be confused with the seventh (last) rebbe with the same name.
[8] The Tzemach Tzedek was the son of Devora Leah, daughter of R. Shneur Zalman.

[9] Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America, by Samuel C. Heilman, p. 216.

[10] Ibid. p. 218.

[11] Ibid. p. 219.

[12] Ibid. p. 220.
[13] Encyclopedia of Hasidism, entry: Schneersohn, Shmuel. Naftali Lowenthal. Aronson, London 1996.
[14] Hasidism: A New History, p. 302.
[15] Although not on the same scale and rather controversial - perhaps another attempt at some contemporary style of leadership is the ‘Liozna Chassidim’. After the passing of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneersohn in 1994, R. Shaul Shimon Deutsch (b. 1966) started a new movement with himself in the position of Liozna Rebbe (after the town where R. Shneur Zalman had resided). He is situated in Boro Park and the followers are called Anshei Liozna.[15] (For R. Deutsch’s unusual story, see here).
[16] Mesivat Torah Vodaas was originally established in 1918 and adopted a ‘Torah im Derech Eretz’ philosophy, which encouraged secular studies in addition to Torah learning. Today, though, it has moved over to more of a Chareidi or ultra-orthodox philosophy. However, it still allows its students to attend college while studying at the yeshiva. Many of its graduates go on to work in the secular workplace.
[17] From the Cherson Geniza. There is some controversy as to whether these letters are genuine or forgeries. Most scholars believe them to be forgeries but, interestingly in our context, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe (in whose library these letters are housed) was one of those who claimed the letters were in fact genuine.