Sunday 16 June 2024

475) Messianic Mitnagdim


Autograph manuscript by the Vilna Gaon published in 1963 under the title Likutei haGra.


This article based extensively on the research by Dr Arie Morgenstern[1] examines the little-known messianic fervour apparent in the teachings and activities of the students of the Vilna Gaon during the early nineteenth century. 

According to Morgenstern, the Vilna Gaon sent some of his most important students, known the Perushim (Separatists), on Aliya to the Land of Israel from around 1808. Their purpose was to re-establish and settle the Land as a final preparation for the arrival of the Messiah. Morgenstern makes extensive use of recently discovered documents to support this position. 

The ‘awakening from below’

Although the Mitnagdic school of the Vilna Gaon is regarded as the polar opposite of the mystical schools of the Chassidim, there is evidence that the Mitnagdim were also extremely mystical: 

“In their writings, the Ga’on’s disciples often grounded themselves in the kabbalistic concept of ‘the awakening below is a precondition to the awakening on high’ [Zohar, vaEira 196b]. In other words, they did not rest content simply with the belief that ‘the time of divine visitation’ had arrived…they also held, as the Lurianic Kabbalah had taught, that the divine act must be preceded by multifaceted human activity” (Morgenstern 2006:88). 

This means that it was not enough just to wait for the Messiah to be sent by G-d at the appropriate time but redemption can be induced by human agency. However, the Perushim differed from the Lurianic Kabbalah of the Ari Zal in that, according to the Ari the gathering of sparks or Tikun (fixing) in preparation for the Messiah, had to be performed in the Diaspora while the students of the Vilna Gaon maintained it had to be done in the Holy Land.  Morgenstern (2006:88) explains that breaking a traditional Kabbalistic doctrine like this of the Ari’s notion of Tikun in the Diaspora could only have been possible if it had been “expressed through the person of the Vilna Ga’on.” Otherwise, it would never have received the traction it attained.  

One of the Vilna Gaon’s important students sent to the Land of Israel was R. Yisrael of Shklov. He believed that part of his mission was also to bring back the Ten Lost Tribes in preparation for Mashiach. In an ‘open letter’ addressed to the Ten Tribes he writes: 

“The awakening below is a precondition to the awakening on high to rebuild the ruins” (R. Yisrael of Shklov, Letter to the Ten Tribes, in Yaari, Igrot Eretz Yisrael, 348). 

Another close associate of the Vilna Gaon was R. Yehuda Edel. He emphasised that the way to rebuild the third Temple and hasten the final redemption was through natural means and not to rely on miracles or “an awakening from Above.” R. Edel writes: 

“If in Second Temple times we did not find God manifesting His might to the congregation of Israel through patent and public miracles, even though [subtler miracles did take place… how very much more so will [such miracles] not be manifest in the third redemption; rather, in the future, the event will be conducted in accord with the natural order, not a miracle” (R. Yehuda Edel, Afikei Yehuda, 109a). 

R. Yehuda Edel therefore encourages all to return to the Land and rebuild it: 

“If there be found among you then a family or clan whose heart turns away from the Lord our God so as not to follow Him in going up to Zion as saviors, they will send letters to the remaining exiles telling them ‘O house of Jacob, come, let us go’ [cf. Isa. 2:5] . . . and fill the Land and take it. Let not laziness keep you from going…to the…hill of Jerusalem. Let there not remain in our Land any empty space; and by this, they will awaken and stir up the love” (R. Yehuda Edel, ibid.). 

In his commentary on the Hagadah, the Vilna Gaon writes about the necessity to first rebuild the Land as precursor to the redemption: 

“First, Zion will be redeemed, and only later, the righteous [people] who return [shall be redeemed]. And that is why [the Hagadah’s editor] first said ‘next year in Jerusalem,’ referring to the redemption of Jerusalem, and only then said ‘next year we shall be free,’ referring to the redemption of [the nation of] Israel” (Vilna Gaon, Seder Eliyahu, 5b). 

Procuring land

Before the students of the Vilna Gaon moved to Jerusalem they settled in Safed and its surrounds where they attempted to buy land. R. Chaim Katz was one of the heads of the Perushim’s Kollel in Safed and he writes: 

“Concerning contributions sent for the purpose of fulfilling commandments contingent on the Land: we have already purchased real property in accordance with the view of…Rabbi Hayyim…of Volozhin…And it appears we will purchase other properties that may come along, if the time and place are proper” (R. Chaim Katz in Yaari, Igrot Eretz Yisrael, 341). 

Opposition from the Sefaradim and Chassidim

Settling in the Land was not easy on any levels. Not only were the local Arabs concerned about the swelling of European Jewish immigrants to Jerusalem, but so were the local Sefaradim, although for a different reason: 

“They were concerned that an Ashkenazi community might request a share of the funds raised on behalf of Jerusalem and might even undertake independent collection efforts, particularly in western Europe, thereby reducing the income of the Sefardic community” (Morgenstern 2006:96). 

Although perhaps unrelated to this large Aliya by hundreds of followers of the Vilna Gaon, an earlier but much smaller Aliya of a few Ashkenazi students of the Chatam Sofer in 1803, illustrates the Sefaradi-Ashkenazi tensions in Jerusalem. The Chatam Sofer writes: 

“I received a letter from one of my students living in Jerusalem, the holy city. The letter had been written on...3 August 1803 and told of the great hardships suffered there by the Ashkenazim and of the great and palpable hatred of the Sefardim toward them. It told as well that the rabbi with whom we are involved was scorned there…He concludes that it is proper to declare that one should not journey there without a purse filled with money” (Sefer Chatam Sofer, Even haEzer, part 1, Responsum 132, 84b). 

The local Chassidim also objected to the arrival en masse of the Perushim. In one letter, the Chassidim complain that: 

“their [i.e., the Perushim’s] settlement in Jerusalem is not pleasing to us, for several confidential reasons” (Rivlin and Rivlin, Letters of the Clerks, vol. 1, 219). 

Internal disputes among the students of the Vilna Gaon

Besides opposition from the Sefaradim and Chassidim, there were also internal disputes amongst the Perushim themselves. The two important students of the Vilna Gaon, R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov (representing the Kabalistic teachings of the Vilna Gaon) and R. Yisrael of Shklov (representing the Halachic teachings of the Vilna Gaon) argued over whether they should relocate from Safed to Jerusalem. Interestingly, R. Yisrael of Shklov the more Halachic student objected to settling in Jerusalem because the Sitra Achra (other side) was too powerful there; apparently because of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Mosque on the Temple Mount. R. Yisrael of Shklov saw the restoration of the Semicha as being more important to the early stages of the messianic process than the rebuilding of Jerusalem. R. Yisrael of Shklov preferred to stay in Safed because Talmudic and Kabbalistic sources spoke of the re-establishing of the Semicha beginning in the Galilee rather than in Jerusalem. 

Restoring the ancient institution of Semicha

For R. Israel of Shklov, settling in the Land was not enough, though, and one of his tasks was to renew the lost institution of rabbinic ordination or Semicha said to have begun from the time Moses ordained Joshua as his succeeding ‘rabbi.’ He writes: 

“For it is a fact, widely known... that before our righteous Messiah arrives, there must first be in the Land of Israel the great court of ordained judges… Let there be chosen several ordained sages, who…will kindly come to the Land of Israel…and ordain some of our scholars, so that a court of ordained judges will exist in the Land of Israel, on which the beginning of the redemption is contingent” (R. Yisrael of Shklov, Letter to the Ten Tribes, in Yaari, Igrot Eretz Yisrael, 348). 

Drawing from the leaders of the Ten Tribes to re-establish Semicha

As early as the twelfth century, Maimonides suggested that it was possible to restore the lost Semicha process if all the sages from the Land of Israel got together and unanimously chose one leader who would begin the Semicha process again. R. Beirav had already tried to do this in 1538 but the Jerusalem rabbis objected (see Kotzk Blog: 191) THE SANHEDRIN/SMICHA STORY – THEN AND NOW:). 

R. Yisrael of Shklov did not attempt to repeat R. Beirav’s methodology but innovated another approach. Instead of getting all the rabbis to agree to work together, he would attempt to get the heads of the lost and scattered tribes to be the adjudicating officers to restore the Semicha. He relied on a ruling by a commentator on Maimonides, the Radbaz (R. David ibn Zimri) that allowed for intervention in this regard by the sages of the lost Ten Tribes. This was the first time in a very rich Jewish messianic history that someone actively sought to engage with the Ten Tribes to bring about the redemption. Morgenstern (2006:102) points out only a respected Halachist like R. Yisrael of Shklov would have been able to utilise such an expediency. 

Locating the Ten Tribes

To achieve his goal of re-establishing the Semicha through the intervention and participation of the leaders of the lost Ten Tribes of Israel, R. Yisrael of Shklov first had to locate them. As early as 1802, R. Yisrael of Shklov wrote a letter to the Jews who dwell in the “great land of Tartaria” (Central Asia and Siberia) requesting information about the Ten Tribes and asking “whether you know their location and can inform us of it” (Derishat Tziyon). He based himself on the teachings of the Vilna Gaon who had written in his commentary on Song of Songs concerning Jews who live beyond the legendary Sambatyon River who will play a crucial role in the redemptive process. These lost Jews: 

“correspond to the Ten Tribes, who are great heroes. They have a king and wage war, and they also are righteous” (Vilna Gaon in Sefer Shir haShiim, Perush haGaon heChassid Eliyuhu miVilna, 6:6). 

People took this seriously and began searching in earnest for these lost Ten Tribes. In 1823, for example, a member of the Safed Perushim, a certain R. David travelled to the Far East. In 1832 he reached Madras in India. 

R. Baruch ben Shmuel of Pinsk

In 1830, R. Yisrael of Shklov wrote his open letter to the Ten Tribes. R. Akiva Eiger and the Chatam Sofer expressed interest in and wanted to see this letter (Morgenstern 2006:106). Surprisingly, some of the Chassidim also showed interest and wanted to participate but, apparently, they were upset that there was no mention in the letter to the Ten Tribes of the role the Baal Shem Tov had played in Jewish history up to that point in time. The Vilna Gaon, instead, had been mentioned as the only recent authority of the Jewish people (Igrot Eretz Yisrael, 350; Morgenstern 2006:108). 

The letter to the Ten Tribes was handed to R. Baruch ben Shmuel of Pinsk who was then living in Safed and was tasked with finding the Ten Tribes. The letter is revealing because it expresses the view held by the students of the Vilna Gaon that the Talmudic notion of the Three Oaths had finally been rescinded. According to the Talmud: 

“What are these three oaths? One, that Israel would not scale the wall [i.e., would not prematurely attempt to restore Jewish dominion in the Land of Israel]; one, that God adjured Israel not to rebel against the nations of the world; and one, that God adjured the heathen not to subjugate Israel excessively” (see Ketuvot 111a). 

In other words, the Three Oaths demanded that: 1) Jews were not to attempt to resettle in the Land of Israel; 2) They remain passive within their host countries; and 3) The host countries do not suppress or subjugate the Jews too much (see Kotzk Blog: 470) Nineteenth-century Jewish Messianism). 

R. Yisrael of Shklov believed the restrictive era of the Three Oaths had come to an end. Now it was time to actively hasten the messianic End through human intervention and initiative, the “awakening from below;” and he requested that the Ten Tribes send their ordained sages (whose ordination he believed originated with Moses), to re-establish that chain of ordination in Safed. He writes: 

“[L]et there be chosen several ordained sages [from the Ten Tribes], who, in their mercy…will kindly come to the Land of Israel…and ordain some of our scholars, so that a court of ordained judges will exist in the Land of Israel, on which the beginning of the redemption is contingent” (R. Yisrael of Shklov in Igrot Eretz Yisrael, 353-354). 

To emphasise how R. Yisrael of Shklov believed the era of the Three Oaths and the restrictions against ‘pushing for the messianic End’ had come to a close, he writes in his open letter to the Ten Tribes about the importance of hastening the End: 

“Multiply your prayers and the tears of your pure souls and holy spirits, garb yourselves in royal garments and enter the inner court before the King, King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed Be He, in your awesome audiences in the holy sanctuaries, for we are in dire straits” (R. Yisrael of Shklov in Igrot Eretz Yisrael, 353). 

There was one other point. In that same letter, R. Yisrael of Shklov also asks for financial assistance. This was because the redemption was not a sudden event but rather a gradual process that may be drawn out over some considerable time: 

“God forbid, the time until our redemption and salvation [may] be long, and the birth pangs of the Messiah and associated troubles [may] be harsh, and our lives hang in the balance—have compassion on us to provide us yearly help” (R. Yisrael of Shklov in Igrot Eretz Yisrael, 356). 

R. Yisrael of Shklov’s letter to the Ten Tribes was copied and disseminated to the various fundraisers and communities and they were asked to: 

“add to the usual donation a gift of funds to cover that emissary’s [R. Baruch ben Shmuel of Pinsk’s] expenses…and how can our people not be inspired to donate for such an important matter, for if God grants the emissary success, something great will happen…and perhaps this will bring about the salvation of Israel” (Igrot haPekidim, vol 5, 13b). 

In time, however, some began to turn against R. Yisrael of Shklov and accused him of being a “false prophet” and they complained that the donors “now send him funds far exceeding his expenses: woe to us” (Igrot haPekidim, vol 5, 76a). 

The character, mission and fate of R. Baruch of Pinsk

R. Baruch of Pinsk is recorded in different ways by the various sources. In one source he is described as an intrepid explorer who knew natural medicine and the science of grasses and herbs (Jacob Sapir, Yemenite Journey, ed. A. Yaari, 1951:154-163). Another source describes him as an uncouth person who eats non-kosher food “acting like a gentile, with no fringes or phylacteries” (Igrot haPekidim, vol. 5, 76a). Yet, R. Yisrael of Shklov had characterised him as “the eminent, righteous rabbi, possessed of the capacity to miraculously shorten a journey” and he even appraised R. Baruch of Pinsk of G-d’s ineffable Name (Igrot haPekidim, vol. 5, 118a). 

In any event, R. Yisrael of Shklov handed over three letters to R. Baruch of Pinsk. The first was a ‘decoy’ official letter confirmed by a consul, claiming R. Baruch of Pinsk’s mission was to find husbands who had abandoned their wives without a divorce leaving them no chance to remarry. The second was the abovementioned letter to the Ten Tribes which was to remain undisclosed. The third letter, Igeret haSefeikot (Letter of Uncertainties) contained questions on Jewish law that R. Yisrael of Shklov wanted resolved by the ‘Sanhedrin of the Ten Tribes.’ 

The story of R. Baruch of Pinsk and the attempt to locate the lost Ten Tribes as the first stage in the process of redemption came to an abrupt end when he was murdered on 12 January 1834 by the Yemeni Imam Yachya (Sapir, Yemenite Journey, 160). 

Nevertheless, Morgenstern (2006:110) reminds us that: 

“Israel of Shklov’s failure to renew ordination through the mechanism of the Ten Tribes’ Sanhedrin in no way diminished his confidence that, in the process of redemption, the renewal of ordination precedes the rebuilding of Jerusalem.” 

The Halachic representative of the Vilna Gaon, R. Yisrael of Shklov continued to oppose the settlement of his fellow Perushim in Jerusalem under his rival and colleague, R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov representing the mystical views of the Vilna Gaon.  

R. Yisrael of Shklov did not give up. After the murder of R. Baruch of Pinsk, he tried to send a replacement but fellahin rebellions and the devastation of the Safed community by earthquakes and epidemics did not allow those plans to reach fulfilment (Igrot haPekidim, vol. 6, 62a). Other groups were also trying to locate the Ten Tribes for similar reasons, some searching even in Tibet. 

Internal disapproval from within the circle of students of the Vilna Gaon

Some within the camp of the students of the Vilna Gaon expressed their opposition to this Mitnagdic messianism. R. Menashe of Ilya, the rationalist student of the Vilna Gaon expressed his views about fictitious End- reckonings. He writes: 

“Anyone who abounds in stupidity and firmly clings to a false belief is holy in his own eyes…and it is well known what happened in this regard in the time of the false messiah Shabbetai Zevi…and we still have not escaped him and his legacy…In any event…Torah and commandments should not contradict straight intellect” (Alfei Menashe, part 2, 51-52). 

Another of the group to express opposition was R. Elyakim Getzel Altschul from the Lithuanian town of Ratzki. He writes: 

“King Solomon…said in his wisdom, unless God builds the house, its builders labor in vain…In vain do you rise early” [Ps. 127:1–2]…Therefore, it is impossible for them in any way to be redeemed before all is repaired…for those who maintain a vigil for it to occur through natural means act in vain” (Zeved Tov by R. Zev Wolf Altschul, Introduction by his son R. Elyakim Getzel Altschul). 


Some of these notions are severely challenged by Immanuel Etkes in his book, ‘The Invention of a Tradition,’ and I hope to dedicate an article to this in a future post. The claim is that (despite the meticulous documentation) this presentation is a revision of history put forward by religious Zionists to create the impression of an established tradition of settlement in the Land originating with Vilna Gaon.

[1] Morgenstern, A., 2006, Hastening Redemption: Messianism and the Resettlement of the Land of Israel, Oxford University Press.

1 comment:

  1. I suggest looking into Rav Yosef Avivi works.
    A master in Arizal, Gra and Rav Kooks seforim.
    Rav Yaakov Hillel doesn't publish anything without his editing.