Sunday 22 January 2023

414) Did the first three Rebbes of Chabad credit the Vilna Gaon for saving Chassidism?

Mekor Baruch R. Baruch Halevi Epstein (1860-1941)


In a most interesting source found in Mekor Baruch, the first three Rebbes of Chabad are said to have acknowledged the Vilna Gaon for his role in keeping Chassidism within the framework of traditional Judaism. Considering that the Vilna Gaon was Chassidism’s most ardent opponent, this seems like quite an outlandish and unlikely claim.

Mekor Baruch

Mekor Baruch was written by R. Baruch Halevi Epstein (1860-1941) and is a four-volume collection of memoirs and recollections from leading personalities of previous generations. His father, R. Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829–1908), the author of Aruch haShulchan, is said to have studied together with R. Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866) the third Chabad Rebbe, known as the Tzemach Tzedek.

In terms of historicity, Professor Rabbi Marc B. Shapiro, questions the accuracy of some of the material in Mekor Baruch.[1] On the other hand, Chabad sources describe how the Tzemach Tzedek did have strong relationships with rabbis outside of his movement:

“[The Tzemach Tzedek] fostered warm relations with other Torah giants of his time…His contribution to hassidic thought was marked by innovative contextualization and synthesis…During his leadership, Chabad flourished, swelling to hundreds of thousands of chassidim.”[2]

In Mekor Baruch, the Tzemach Tzedek, is recorded (in quotation marks) by R. Baruch Halevi Epstein as telling hid father, R. Yechiel Michel Epstein (the Aruch haShulchan)  that Chassidim owe a debt of gratitude to the head of the opposition, the Vilna Gaon:

והוא זה, כי אנ״ש...אינם יודעים ואינם יכולים להעריך את ערך הטובה הרבה וההסד הגדול אשר עשה עמנו הגר״א בחלקו עלינו...כי לולא המחלוקת הי׳ באמת יסוד ומקום לדאוג ולחוש, כי השיטה החדשה שסללנו לנו, או יותר נכון - שאבותינו סללו לנו בהמולה ושאון, תוליך אותנו לאת לאת צעד אחר צעד, הלאה מעבר הגבול הנועד להמסורה התורנית והצוויית׃ ולא בלי יסוד הי׳ חשש גדול

“The Anash [=Chassidim] do not know, and cannot comprehend the depth of great goodness and immense grace the Gra [=Vilna Gaon] bestowed upon us [Chassidim]. For were it not for his polemic [against Chassidism], there would, in truth, be a foundation and space for concern and consternation, because the new approach [of Chassidism]…which our forebears paved for us with great tumult and disruption, would have led us, slowly, step by step, beyond the parameters of Tradition and Torah law....It was not without a [valid] foundation that there was [such] great concern…" (Mekor Baruch 619a).[3]

The Tzemach Tzedek is alleged to have told R. Yechiel Michal Epstein, that he had never mentioned this to anyone before other than to his grandfather-in-law, R. Shneur Zalman, and the latter’s son and successor the Mitteler Rebbe.[4] Both previous Rebbes concurred with this appraisal and:

 ונענעו לי בראשם, לומר, כי יפה כונתי ואמת שערתי

“nodded at me with their heads as if to say that my point was correct and my postulation truthful” (Mekor Baruch 619a).[5]

Assuming that the Mekor Baruch source is accurate,[6] one wonders what context the Tzemach Tzedek actually had in mind when he referred to early Chassidism as having the heretical potential to go “step by step, beyond the parameters of Tradition”? This, in light of the fact that the charge of Sabbatianism was one of the main concerns of the Vilna Gaon’s polemic! Mekor Baruch continues quoting the Tzemach Tzedek that had early Chassidism remained unchecked:

סוף סוף  תהי׳ התורה התלמודי נכוית מלהט אשה של קבלה, וזאת התורה הנסתרת תמעט רוב דמותה של התורה הנגלית

“in the end, the Talmudic Torah would have been extinguished by the burning fires of Kabbalah, and this hidden Torah would have reduced the very fabric of the revealed Torah” (Mekor Baruch 619a).[7]

The Tzemach Tzedek continues:

וגם כי ספרי ״השלחן ערוך״ של חותי זקני נ״ע  ־ הוסיף הרב לומר ־ ידעתי נאמנה כי רק לרגלי המחלוקת נבראו, כדי לקרב ביותר את לבות אנ״ש לאורח חיים עפ״י תורת ההלכה...ואלמלי באה המחלוקת רק בשביל שנזכה באלה הספרים ־ דינו

“I also know that the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Law) composed by my grandfather-in-law [R. Shneur Zalman] was only produced in the aftermath of the Dispute [between the Vilna Gaon and the Chassidim, and it was written], with the intention of keeping the Anash [=Chassidim] within the confines of the Law…And if this dispute only arose for the merit of these books [of the Shulchan Aruch], it would have been worth it.”

In other words, there appears to be a tacit admission to some sort of antinomianism, prevalent during the early stages of the Chassidic movement, which (in this conceptualisation) was only assuaged by the unlikely dual inputs of the Vilna Gaon from without and R. Shneur Zalman from within.


The “burning fires of Kabbalah” and “hidden Torah,” of course, could be normal metaphors for general Jewish mysticism. However, the fact that they are used here in the context of a fundamentally threatening and dangerous literature, may indicate a reference to a particular brand of “hidden Torah,” namely, Sabbatian Kabbalah. Sabbatian Kabalah was antinomian and anti-Halachic, and that is why, in my view, it had to be countered by the Code of Law, the Shulchan Aruch of the Alter Rebbe to keep them “within the confines of the Law.”

Although historically, there has often been opposition to mysticism, I am not aware of any other form of mysticism being regarded so vehemently as an existential threat to Torah Judaism. Even Lurianic Kabbalah is considered more extreme than its softer counterpart in the form of the Chassidut which later emerged from the school of the Baal Shem Tov. It, therefore, seems unlikely that Chassidut (in its developed form) was considered such a major threat. The threat which the Vilna Gaon is said to have averted must have been perceived to come from a “hidden Torah” somewhere between Sabbatianism and Chassidism.

One might even be able to read this interpretation into the actual text of Mekor Baruch which seems, by its phraseology (although this may be an over-reading on my part) to refer to a specific hidden Torah that was considered the existential threat:

וזאת התורה הנסתרת תמעט רוב דמותה של התורה הנגלית

This hidden Torah [and not mainstream mysticism] would have reduced the very fabric of the revealed Torah.”

On this reading, the existential threat was not general Jewish mysticism. It was the mysticism prevalent at around the time of the birth of the Chassidic movement – the highly charged mysticism of Sabbatian Kabbalah and its admixtures that threatened the very fabric of Halachic Judaism.

[1] Online source: Retrieved on 26 December 2022.

[3] Baruch HaLevi Epstein, Mekor Baruch, New York, 1954, vol. 3, p. 1237 (Hebrew 619a). Translation is mine.

[4] The Mitteler (Yiddish for ‘middle’) Rebbe, R. Dov Ber was the son and successor of his father R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi (also known as the Baal HaTanya and Alter Rebbe), and uncle and father-in-law of R. Menachem Mendel (Tzemach Tzedek).

[5] Translation is mine.

[6] Online source: Retrieved on 26 December 2022.

[7] Translation is mine.


  1. I don’t see how you went from “ MAY indicate a reference to a particular brand of “hidden Torah,” namely, Sabbatian Kabbalah” to what you seem to think is more than just a plausible theory. The most obvious explanation for צמח צדק comments is just that there would be less focus on talmud Torah and dikduk in Halacha than chasidism espoused in its maturity. The differences between yeshiva Judaism and chassadism today is mainly a difference of emphasis. That divide could have been much wider. As for the gr”a opposition why not examine the text of the charamim which are extant today. They don’t allege anything like sanbathianism and they didn’t pull any punches if they felt that was the danger they certainly would have said it. After all the point was to separate the fledgling movement from the main stream.

  2. Scholars like Yehuda Liebes have shown that Sabbatianism had deeply penetrated what had previously always been regarded as the untouched bastion of Lithuanian opposition even reaching the heart of Vilna. The great student of the Gra, R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov had been tremendously influenced by the writings of the Sabbatian R. Heshil Tzoref, and Liebes points to undeniable Sabbatian content in R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov's writings.

  3. I’m confused aren’t we discussing the possibility of sabbathian thought in early chassidic movement and its potential to go further down the road of antinomianism. Your thesis is that this was what the צמח צדק comment to Epstein really meant. That’s what I dispute. If r’ Mendel shklover had sabbathian tendencies seems adjacent to the issue. Certainly the gr”a had strong and vocal opposition to some elements of chassidic Kabbalah notably on the issue of tzimtzum as is well known. I’m not kabbalist but from what I understand that’s not the same thing as sabbathianism. Which brings me to the basic problem in Liebes and for that matter Scholem and many other scholars that think they can distinguish sabbathian tendencies from main line traditional kabbala and determine post facto from hundreds of years later who is and isn’t a sabbathian. Are they themselves accomplished Kabbalists. Many have very little background in niglah. Why would anyone who accepts Orthodox Judaism which necessarily concedes an expertise on halachik practice to rabbis and particularly to rabbis of previous generations then turn around and give significant credence to the scholarship of scholem and his disciples on nistar.

  4. One of the reasons, from a purely historical and pragmatic point of view, is that the rabbis and communal leaders - soon after the apostacy of Shabbatai Tzvi - gave orders to destroy all records of association with Sabbatianism. The only way to access this information is from scholars who investigate and uncover these details. It was no small movement. At one stage Sabbatianism was the accepted norm of the majority of seventeenth century Judaism and this must not be forgotten otherwise we can make the same mistake again. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the only ones prepared to deal with this matter are these scholars (some of whom were and are observant Jews - not that that makes any difference to reporting on reality).

    Incidentally, I did not go as you write from “MAY," "to what you seem to think is more than just a plausible theory." If you read what I wrote I say "although this may be an over-reading on my part" and "On this reading" and "One might even be able to read this," when suggesting a possible Sabbatian component, which, considering the facts of history, is not an outlandish hypothesis.

  5. “Outlandish” I don’t know but certainly lacking any real evidence and the fact that in this case the goal was to marginalize chasidism and the charge was never leveled indicates that even it’s fiercest opponents didn’t believe whatsoever this charge. On the other issue I concede that research that doesn’t entail deciphering Kabbalistic texts can be reliable. I’m not at all sure we’re doomed to repeat this history because we’re ignorant of it. Nevertheless getting an accurate picture of history overall has so much benefit that I understand the interest in finding out the “rest of the story” beyond just plain old curiosity. But the problem I’m pointing out and I don’t see you disagreeing with is, much of this work is not “reporting facts”. It necessarily requires proficiency in kabbala (in the case of scholem it is mostly kabbala or his version of it). The fact that no one else will do this work doesn’t change that.

  6. But the charge was levelled. The Vilna Gaon excommunicated the Chassidim in 1772 and accused them of being Sabbatians. Shever Poshim quotes the Gra: "The sect of Chassidim" contained "many heretics from the sect of Shabbatai Tzvi."