Sunday 20 August 2023

442) The early Chassidic movement in historicity and hagiography


The resting place of R. Yechiel Michal, the Magid of Zlotchov, in Yampol, Central Ukraine


There is an important, albeit sometimes uncomfortable, difference between historicity and hagiography. Hagiography is the way adherents of any movement tell their stories of origin, while historicity is how the same events are viewed in light of evidence and historical records. Hagiography is often embellished, biased and tendentious, while historiography is, hopefully, a neutral depiction of the events. 

This article based extensively on the research by Dr Mor Altshuler[1] takes a new look at one aspect of the origin story of the Chassidic movement, and explores when the first significant Chassidic courts are to have emerged. 

Why is the Baal Shem Tov not referred to as a “Tzadik”

Surprisingly, Gershom Scholem points out that in early Chassidic literature, the Baal Shem Tov is not called “Tzadik.” The term "Tzadik" usually means a “righteous one,” - but in this context "Tzadik" refers to a “leader” or “rebbe” of a Chassidic court). The Baal Shem Tov is not described as a "Tzadik" overseeing a large Chassidic court, neither during his lifetime nor after his passing.[2] The first Chassidic leader to be referred to as “Tzadik” in the sense of establishing a large court, is R. Yechiel Michal, known as the Magid of Zlotchov (1726-1786). He, and not the Baal Shem Tov, is considered “the first Tzaddik of Hasidism” (Altshuler 2004:129). How is this anomaly explained? 

Scholars like Mor Altshuler and Ada Rapaport-Albert claim that large Chassidic courts, as we understand them, only began to emerge from the time of R. Yechiel Michal, the Magid of Zlotchov. According to these and other scholars, the Baal Shem Tov and his apparent successor, R. Dov Ber, known as the Magid of Mezerich (1704-1772), did not have huge courts. Both the Magid of Mezerich and the Magid of Zlotchov were students of the Baal Shem Tov. Altshuler and Rapaport-Albert maintain that the depiction of the Magid of Mezerich as the ‘successor’ to the Baal Shem Tov and leader of the second generation of Chassidim is not factful and is only to be found in: 

“hagiographic sources…and in any event, there was no court for R. Dov Ber of Mezeritch to inherit” (Altshuler 2004:128). 

Although this is clearly not the way many Chassidim (including Chabad) understand their history, nevertheless, Altshuler and other scholars conclude that R. Yechiel Michal, the Magid of Zlotchov the first to be called “Tzadik was instead the first Chassidic leader with a court. This was not the case, they claim, with the Baal Shem Tov nor his 'successor' R. Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezerich, neither of whom presided over courts of any significance. 

The delay in issuing banning orders

Both Altshuler and the hagiographic accounts seem to grapple in very different ways with a ‘missing link,’ or gap of 12 years, between the passing of the Baal Shem Tov in 1760 and the first ban of ex-communication issued against the Chassidim in 1772. If Chassidism was already a well-established movement from the time of the Baal Shem Tov, with huge courts filled with large numbers of followers, why did it take so long for ex-communication orders to be issued against them? 

The fact that the first bans were only issued so 12 years later seems to indicate that the new Chassidic movement was only considered a threat a little later on when the movement began to swell with the addition of courts and large numbers of adherents. 

A reawakening of messianism

The reason why the Chassidic movement ‘peaked’ slightly later than usually depicted is that this later period was seen as a time ripe for messianic redemption: 

“The establishment of the first Hasidic court was closely linked with the season of redemption, which was expected to transpire between 1740 and 1781” (Altshuler 2004:130). 

More so than in the time of the Baal Shem Tov, the later generation of Chassidim was expecting imminent redemption. At that later stage, there were many predictions that the Messiah was about to appear. R. Immanuel Hai Ricchi, in his Yosher Levav wrote that while the redemption would begin in 1740, the final redemption would be in 1781. This was 21 years after the passing of the Baal Shem Tov. Another messianic proclaimer was R. Shmuel ben Eliezer of Klavira, who, in his Darchei Noam, promised and confirmed that “it will be in the year 1781…for our righteous Messiah will not delay his coming then." Other predictions were for the year 1777 which was exactly one hundred years after the passing of Shabbatai Tzvi. 

Although the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) certainly hoped for the Messiah, it was from around 1740 after his failed attempt to reach the Holy Land; and particularly after his ‘ascent to heaven’ on Rosh haShana in 1746 where he met the Messiah;[3] and after his attempt to ‘fix’ the soul of Shabbatai Tzvi[4] [See Appendix below] that the Baal Shem Tov began to realise that the Messiah may not come in his lifetime as there was still work that needed to be done (Altshuler 2004:132). In this sense, the Baal Shem Tov's messianic dream began to wane somewhat from 1740.

However, powerful messianic aspirations were once again kindled around 1772 by the Baal Shem Tov’s student, R. Yechiel Michal, the Magid of Zlotchov. 1772 was the 200th anniversary of the passing of the Ari, R. Yitzchak Luria. R. Yechiel Michal of Zoltchov was now seen as the person around whom the messianic events would coalesce. 

Significantly, and in keeping with this messianic revival, R. Yechiel Michal, the Magid of Zlatchov attracted some of the most important future leaders of the Chassidic movement. These included R. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Afta (or Apt), R Ze'ev Wolf of Zhitomir, R. Chaim Tirrer of Chernovitch, R. Yacov Yitzchak haLevi Horowitz, known as the Chozeh of Lublin, R. Yitzchak Izik haKohen of Koretz, the Magid Yisrael of Koznitz, R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, and R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi.[5] 

The prominent names of the Magid of Zlatchov’s students demonstrate that he was a major early leader of the nascent Chassidic movement. His rise and ascendency, therefore, may have been one of the reasons that the opposition took notice of him and began to issue anti-Chassidic bans only from 1772, and not earlier as one might have expected, during the lifetime of the Baal Shem Tov. 

Anti-Sabbatian bans of 1670

Altshuler does not compare the anti-Chassidic bans to the anti-Sabbatian (as the followers of false Messiah Shabbatai Tzvi were known) bans which were issued almost immediately when the perceived spiritual threat was detected. These earlier bans of ex-communication orders against the followers of Shabbatai Tzvi were issued by the Vaad Arba Aratzot, or Council of Four Lands from 1670. It announced: 

“a great herem [ex-communication] with sounding of the ram’s horn…[upon]  the criminals and reckless people belonging to the sect of Sabbatai Tsevi…[on pain of][6] infamy, fines, jail, and even to deliver them to the justice of the Gentiles” (cited in Maciejko 2011:36).[7] 

The bans were to be read out aloud in all synagogues and required the Sabbatians to be expelled from “every community and every province. 

For purposes of comparison, 1670 was just four years after Shabbatai Tzvi converted to Islam and six years before his passing. Significantly, the same community of conservative mainstream rabbis who had fought to ex-communicate the Sabbatians were now excommunicating the Chassidim − and for what they feared were the same reasons. On the other hand, the bans against Chassidism were only initiated in 1772, twelve years after the passing of the Baal Shem Tov, and in the same year as the Magid of Mezeritch is believed to have passed away. 

This seems to indicate that the perceived threat of Chassidism was only really felt after the passing of both the Baal Shem Tov and the Magid of Mezeritch during the time of the Magid of Zlotchov. 

The question of Chassidic hagiography

A number of Chassidic sources contradict much of the discussion thus far. For example, Chassidic literature describes intricate details of the apparent court of the Magid of Mezeritch, even recording that it moved from Mezeritch to Rovna. Historians would take note of these sources but draw different conclusions as they would be weary of the trustworthiness of hagiographical representations. Even Chassidim themselves sometimes question the reliability of their own Chassidic stories because often the same story is told over and over again as occurring to different Rebbes in different times and different places. On the other hand, other Chassidim consider every written and oral word of their literature to be the ultimate repository of historical fact. 

Alshuler acknowledges that not enough historical research has been done on this second Chassidic court  of Mezeritch/Rovna, but remains unconvinced of the accuracy of its depictions in Chassidic literature. 

However, a letter exists that refers to a Chassidic court in Rovna (after it had 'moved' from Mezeritch. This document would seem to be more reliable than the general literature which can more easily be defined as hagiographical. This letter seems to offer proof of the existence of the ‘second Chassidic court  of the Magid of Mezeritch and contradicts the notion that the first major Chassidic court was in Zlotchov. This letter impedes the scholarly theory that the Chassidic courts only began later with the Magid of Zlotchov. 

The letter of R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi

The letter, written by the first Rebbe of Chabad, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) is addressed to R. Avraham of Kalisk describing a meeting that took place at the court of the Magid of Mezeritch (now situated in Rovna). This letter seems to indicate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that R. Dov Ber, the successor to the Baal Shem Tov, headed a Chassidic court in Rovna, as described in Chassidic writings. It seems, in this case at least, that hagiography is supported by a document and emerges victorious over the 'historiography.' 

However, the letter is from 1806, which places it 34 years after 1772 when the first bans against the Chassidim were issued. And if the Magid of Mezeritch passed away in that same year, the events described in the letter would have taken place even earlier. 

The letter contains an interesting, if not strained, reference to both the author, R. Shneur Zalman and R. Avraham of Kalisk being supposedly present at a gathering at the Chassidic court of their common teacher, R. Dov Ber the Magid of Mezeritch, in Rovna (after it had 'moved' from Mezeritch). R. Shneur Zalman reminds R. Avraham of Kalisk of how their teacher rebuked the latter for his: 

“licentious behaviour which had excited the wrath of the opponents of Hasidism against the entire movement” (Altshuler 2004:128). 

In other words, in the letter, R. Shneur Zalman essentially places the blame squarely on the shoulders of R. Avraham of Kalisk for all the problems that befell the Chassidic movement from the opposition of the emerging Mitnagdic movement. And this was all because of his “licentious behaviour.” Because of R. Avraham of Kalisk, the bans against Chassidism were issued, and he was already forewarned of this decades earlier by the Magid of Mezeritch, in Rovna.

It must be noted that at the time the letter was written, the two rabbis were not on friendly terms, and it seems that there may have been some textual tampering with the letter: 

“Historian Raya Haran has proven that the letters the two exchanged were rewritten by R. Shneur Zalman's supporters, with paragraphs denigrating R. Abraham being interpolated into them” (Altshuler 2004:128).[8] 

If this was the case, then the section referring to a meeting at the court of R. Dov Ber in Rovna (where it had allegedly relocated after Mezeritch) may have been an ‘interpolation’ (or forgery) designed specifically to discredit R. Avraham of Kalisk, by later enthusiastic followers. 

“Otherwise it is hard to understand how no reference to such a major conference [in Rovna][9] would be found in the writings of other disciples who were allegedly present.” 

[There is, however, another account of the Court of the Maggid of Mezeritch, in the autobiography of Solomon Maimon, written around 1792, although some of the details are considered questionable. Nevertheless, this source needs to be noted. [12]  

For a different interpretation of Maimon and the 'second Chassidic court in Mezeritch, see Kotzk Blog: 420) Alleged recruiting methodologies of the early Chassidic movement.]

The genre of Chassidic letters

Tampering with letters to make them conform to Chassidic hagiography is not unusual. An entire genre of hundreds of fraudulent letters that make up the Kherson Geniza, according to scholars like Yonatan Meir, was forged to support the 'historiography' of the stories presented in Shivchei haBesht, a hagiographic Chassidic biography of the Baal Shem Tov. I have translated three hundred of these letters into English for the first time and while I do not dispute the scholarly view that the letters are fraudulent although the Lubavitcher Rebbe maintains they are genuine it seems to me that some of the letters are subversive and even self-incriminating to the Chassidic movement itself. It is hard to imagine a forger would have intended to sell these letters to a Chassidic court while they depict the Baal Shem Tov, for example, as not being capable of studying Talmud.  [See Kotzk Blog: 156) LETTERS FROM THE BAAL SHEM TOV - IN ENGLISH FOR THE FIRST TIME:] 

Some other Kherson Letters are considered ‘classified’ and are held at the Chabad Library in New York. I have twice requested access to them but to no avail. Either way, the Kherson letters emphasise the point that text-tampering and even letter-tampering involving hundreds of document, were not unusual.


Although Chassidic hagiography depicts both the Baal Shem Tov and the Magid of Mezeritch presiding over great courts, it seems that the historical record only provides evidence of Chassidic courts beginning with the Magid of Zlotchov. The fact that the Magid of Zlotchov is the first Chassidic leader to receive the honorific “Tzadik,” and the fact that the anti-Chassidic bans only began to be issued from 1772 when both the Baal Shem Tov and the Magid of Mezeritch had already passed away support this hypothesis. Accordingly, there was no need to ban the movement before 1772 as the rise of courts and the expansion of the movement had not yet entered enough of a critical phase for them to be considered a threat. With the emergence of Chassidic courts during the time of the Magid of Zoltchov, the movement entered a new phase. 


The tensions that exist between scholarship and historicity, hagiography and even pseudepigrapha (where a false author is presented) are fascinating.  Each in their own way and in tension with correspondingly opposite approaches and when viewed as a whole contribute to a better and fuller picture of the events as they either unfolded, were conceptualised as unfolding, or were intentionally framed as unfolding.



Text-tampering relating to the ‘fixing’ of the soul of Shabbatai Tzvi

Yehuda Liebes points out that in the recording of the episode dealing with the ‘fixing’ of the soul of the false Messiah Shabbatai Tzvi by the Baal Shem Tov, a serious example of censorship can be found in the printed version of Shivchei haBesht,[10] the Chassidic hagiographical biography of the Baal Shem Tov. It records that the Baal Shem Tov once said that Shabbatai Tzvi had a ניצוץ קדוש (spark of holiness) in him. That is already quite an admission for a new movement intent on entering the mainstream so soon after the calamitous Shabbatai Tzvi period. 

However, according to the original hand-written manuscript of Shivchei haBesht, the claim was far more dramatic: Shabbatai Tzvi had a ניצוץ משיח (spark of the Messiah)! The printed version, in its attempt at toning down this overt messianic reference to a false Messiah, provides no editorial notification of this fundamental discrepancy. The editors and printers were obviously very aware of the original manuscript version with its blatant messianic innuendo – but they did not indicate that they had changed the text to reflect a less provocative position.  We would never have known of this very controversial messianic reference to Shabbatai Tzvi, in the name of the founder of the Chassidic movement, were we not able to compare it to the original version in the manuscript (Liebes 2007:14 footnote 79).[11]

[1] Altshuler, M., 2004, ‘The First Tzaddik of Hasidism: The Zlotchover Magid and His Circle’, Jewish Studies Quarterly, vol. 11, no. 1/2, Mohr Siebeck GmbH & Co. KG, 127-193.

[2] Scholem, G.,1976, Pirkei Yesod be-Havanat ha-Kabbalah u-Smaleiah [The Fundamentals of Understanding the Kabbalah and its Symbols], Jerusalem, 241.

[3] See ‘The Letter of the Baal Shem Tov,’ in Yakov Yosef of Polonnoye, Ben Porat Yosef, Koretz, 1781, 100b.

[4] Shivchei haBesht no. 66.

[5] The Chabad tradtion, however, depicts R. Shneur Zalman maintaining a closer connection to the Magid of Mezeritch, than to the Magid of Zlotchov.

[6] Square brackets are mine.

[7] Maciejko, P., 2011, The mixed multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist movement, 1755-1816, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. I thank Professor Maciejko for directing me to this important source.

[8] Haran, R., 1990, ‘Shivchei ha-Rav, li-She'elat Aminutan shel Igrot ha-Hasidim me-Eretz Israel [‘In Praise of the Rebbe, Regarding the Question of the Reliability of Hasidic Letters from the Land of Israel’], Katedra, 55, 22-58.

[9] Square brackets are mine.

[10] Ben-Amos, D. and Mintz, J.R., 1994, In praise of the Baal Shem Tov, Jason Aronson, New Jersey/London, 86.

1 comment:

  1. For more information on this topic, see the (relatively) recent article by Professor Benjamin Brown "The Rise of the Maggid of Mezeritch to the Helm of the Hasidic Movement" (Hebrew). The article can be accessed online at: