Sunday 30 June 2024

477) The extreme messianic mysticism of the students of the Vilna Gaon


Kitvei haGramam, recently published writings of R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov

Part 1


This article follows on the previous two articles where:

1) Arie Morgenstern had claimed a strong messianic basis to the Vilna Gaon’s teachings.

 2) Immanuel Etkes counterclaimed, however, that “The Gaon of Vilna had no special messianic teaching, Kabbalistic or otherwise” (Foreword by David Biale in Etkes 2024:viii). 

3) We now turn to a third approach, that of Professor Yehuda Liebes, who, based on recently published source documentation, points out just how far the Vilna Gaon and his students’ mystical messianism actually extended. (This is Part 1, to be followed by Part 2, next week.)


Note: Sensitive readers may be uncomfortable with some of the unusual source references in the writings of R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov to previous Messiahs in both Sabbatianism (the movement of Shabbatai Tzvi) and Christianity! These views form part of the messianic theology of the students of the Vilna Gaon that the “new Messiah” must effect a Tikun (spiritual rectification) for all the “previous Messiahs.”


A Sabbatian connection?

According to Liebes, there can be no question that the students of the Vilna Gaon were drawn towards Sabbatianism:

ידוע היה שתלמידי הגר״א בארץ ישראל החזיקו בכמה מנהגים שבתאיים

“It was known that the students of the Vilna Gaon [who settled] in the Land of Israel adopted a number of Sabbatian customs” (Liebes 2003:1).[1]

For example, they nullified the recitation of the Kinot (dirges) in the Tikun Chatzot (Midnight petition);[2] omitted a verse from Lecha Dodi;[3] and relied on the controversial Sefer Chemdat Yamim which was suspected of being a Sabbatian work (Liebes 2003:1, Morgenstern 2006:131). [see Kotzk Blog: 118) 'CHEMDAT YAMIM' - THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL BOOK EVER?] While these may seem like insignificant omissions and practices, in the charged atmosphere of intensely religious, especially messianic environments, small acts and even single words, can take on tremendous significance. What seems now like obvious indications of Sabbatian affiliation, was missed by previous researchers who would never have entertained such suspicions when it came to the ostensibly straight-laced Mitnagdim and Perushim from Lithuania.

R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov writes with almost open references to Sabbatian ideology and is fully aware of the Sabbatian content of his teachings. Whether or not this was rooted directly in the Vilna Gaon is difficult to assess at this stage, although we do know that R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov was particularly close to the Vilna Gaon, especially in the latter’s last years. He was also responsible for collecting and publishing his teacher’s writings (Liebes 2003:2-3).

The writings of R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov and his student R. Yitzchak Isaac Chaver (Wildmann)

Liebes acknowledges that until recently, suggesting any affinity between the Mitnagdim and Sabbatians would have been preposterous. However, recent findings:

מחוגו של הגר״א...מגלים זיקה מפורשת אל השבתאות

“from the group of the Vilna Gaon, reveal an explicit connectivity with Sabbatianism” (Liebes 2003:2).

These recent findings include the publication of the two-volume set of כתבי הגרמ״מ ז״ל (Kitvei haGramam zal Writings of the Gaon, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, zal)[4] in 2001. The frontispiece refers to the “holy writings” of the “Godly Kabbalist” who was a “talmid muvhak (main student)” of the Vilna Gaon, and that the material in these volumes was gathered from his hitherto unpublished manuscripts. There still remain other unpublished writings of R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov (Liebes 2003:3). In a manner that is surprisingly similar to the ‘revelation’ of R. Nachman of Breslov’s hitherto secret writings [see Kotzk Blog: 463) The discovery of R. Nachman’s Secret Scroll], the editors of the 2001 published work of R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov’s autographic manuscripts, Kitvei haGramam zal which were “wondrously revealed” and facilitated by R. Shmuel Aryeh Stern claim that this too is a sign of the imminent redemption. Also, in a strikingly similar manner to R. Nachman of Breslov, R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov warns his readers to uphold the secrecy of his teachings:

כמה דברים הוצרכתי להסתיר ולדבר בדרך רמז, כי אסור לגלות אפילו מפה לאוזן כו׳

“I have had to hide many things and speak [only] in hints, for it is forbidden to reveal [these teachings] even from mouth to ear [let alone to publish them]” (R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov in Frumkin, Toledot Chachmei Yerushalayim, vol 3, 1929:160, footnote 2).[5]

In another source but similar vein, R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov writes:

אוי לי שצריך אני להיות הוליך רכיל ומגלה סוד...אבל ראיתי עני עמנו ב״י...עת לעשות כו׳

“Woe is me that I have to be deceitful and reveal secrets…but I see the [spiritual] poverty of our people, the House of Israel…[and] it is now time to act etc.”[6] (Extract from a previously unpublished manuscript of R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Kitvei haGramam zal, vol.2, 2001:90).[7]

In another source but similar vein, R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov writes:

אגלה סתרי פלאות...מחמת אשר ישוטטו רבים והלכו אחר שטותם...עד שמדיחין את האמת מפני השקר. לכן עת לעשות לה׳

“I will reveal awesome secrets…since many have stumbled and followed their foolishness…to the extent that they have pushed aside the truth in favour of the false. Therefore, it is now time to act for God…”[8] (R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Menachem Tzion, 1885:13a).[9]

In this source, R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov explains that the only reason he is prepared to “reveal awesome secrets” is for the sake of the evil ones who have stumbled. Liebes does not doubt that to “reveal awesome secrets” meant to reveal Sabbatian secrets.  One may have thought that these evil ones who stumbled refer to the Sabbatians, but Liebes (2003:4) maintains that it refers to the Chassidim. The idea that R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov intentionally draws from Sabbatian thought (Liebes 2003:5) and makes an enemy of Chassidism, sets a most unexpected tone in this Mitnagdic group’s ideology and its choice of which of the two ‘evils’ to back.[10] This interpretation is based on other evidence of R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov’s vitriol when it came to the Chassidim and his encouragement for people to break all ties with the Chassidim (Liebes 2003:5). 

Paradoxically, R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov objected to the Chassidim making a god out of their leaders while he elevated his leader to the same level, only he kept it secret (Liebes n.d.:41). This is based on שמ[א] ח״ו הוא יאחז עצמו לצדיק זה או אחרים ח״ו יתלו אמונתם בו... which applies to the Chassidim, while the Mitnagdim  keep this a secret ...אז הוא בסוד קל שקי (R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Derech haKodesh, 36-37).

R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov’s gravitation towards Sabbatianism may have been related to his interest in other earlier strands of mystical messianic Tikunim (spiritual rectifications). Based on new revelations in the recent publication of R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov’s manuscripts, Liebes (2003:5) suggests that these included the Tikun developed by Shabbatai Tzvi and R. Natan of Gaza which even encompassed their conceptualisation of effecting a Tikun for Jesus (Scholem 1973:217, 272, especially 284-287, 296, 306). It seems that R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov was similarly determined to finally effect the ultimate Tikunim. R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov could do this because, in his conceptualisation of messianism, there was an “associative connection” and parallelism between Christianity and Sabbatianism that existed already from the early days of R. Natan of Gaza[11] (Liebes n.d.:18-19). Liebes (n.d.:18, footnote 133) suggests that R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov saw a necessary progression of Messiahs from Jesus to Shabbatai Tzvi to the Vilna Gaon and then after the Vilna Gaon’s passing to R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov himself! (Liebes 2003:39).[12]

       R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, based himself on the teachings of the Vilna Gaon who compared this world to the world of ‘Tohu’ (emptiness) (Gen 1:2) where freedom of choice allows for the world to either be fixed or destroyed by humans. This era of total freedom of choice would last until the end of the six thousand years in the Jewish calendar when freedom would be withdrawn and a new messianic epoch would begin where the choice of God would prevail. In the meanwhile, however, humans are in an extremely powerful position and are afforded complete independence to hasten or delay the arrival of the Messiah through their actions and choices. This theology of absolute freedom of choice has tremendous bearing on R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov’s notion of ‘fixing’ previous failed Messiahs because “even Messiahs can fail and delay the Redemption” (Liebes n.d.:43) due to bad choices. But these failures can be redeemed. Additionally, in the case of Shabbatai Tzvi, there was an almost universal and unprecedented yearning for the Messiah and that energy should not be allowed to dissipate in vain. The grassroots Sabbatian messianic awakening can be conceived as building blocks and potential for the future and true Messiah (Liebes n.d.:48). 

R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov often writes in Aramaic, seemingly to mimic the Zoharic style of Kabbalah:

עד שיבוא הגואל ופריק יתיה והאי פרוקא בני ליה כמלקדמין

“…until the Redeemer comes to redeem us, and this Messiah will be built up from the previous [Messiah/s]” (R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Kitvei haGramam zal, vol.2, 2001:163-4).[13]

In a similar sense, R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov writes in a heavily coded phrase replete with gershaim (inverted commas):

וצניע״ו זר״ע קוד״ש גי׳ בראשית...ראשית התעוררות האהבה והקליטה

“[The phrase] ‘The holy seed is hidden’ has the same numerical value (913) as ‘Bereishit’ (‘In the beginning,’ Gen 1:1). [The Hebrew letters of ‘Bereishit’ are the same as ‘R. Shabbatai [Tzvi],’ בראשית = ר׳ שבתאי]…[who] initiated the [messianic movement and the] awakening of love and the ingathering [of the people]” (R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Kitvei haGramam zal, vol.1, 2001:166).

Here it seems that Shabbatai Tzvi is being acknowledged and praised for creating a massive messianic “תעוררות, awakening” due to his being a “זר״ע קוד״ש, holy seed” or holy potential. This holy potential − which must be built upon yet remedied – should remain “צניע״ו, hidden or secret” knowledge. The value of this spiritual and messianic hunger that had been established within the population by Shabbatai Tzvi must not be underestimated.

Shabbatai Tzvi’s spiritual awakening was seen to be the fulfilment of the prophecy of Amos (8:11) who spoke of a “רָעָ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ, hunger in the land”) which was not for bread but rather to hear “the words of God.” R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov is particularly aware of the value and potential of this spiritual awakening and he alludes to it in his comment on Ruth (1:1) “וַיְהִ֥י רָעָ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ, and there was a hunger in the land.” He writes:

זהו ׳ויהי רעב בארץ׳...וס״ת צבי...ובהן כלל האמונה הנשארת בארץ...נשאר הרשימו...בסוד ׳רעב בארץ׳

“And this is the meaning of ‘And there was a hunger in the land’ [Ruth 1:1]…[where] the last letters [of this Hebrew verse make up the name] Tzvi. [The last letters of ויהי רעב בארץ make up the name צבי[...and this [hunger] represents the Emuna [faith] [Emuna has the same numerical value as Tzvi = 102] that [still] remains in the land…because [indeed] a residue [of this awakening still] remains…[And all this falls under the] secret [interpretation of] ‘hunger in the land.’ (R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Menachem Tzion, 1987:2-3).

      In a very difficult, highly coded and perhaps slightly corrupted extract that is not easy to understand, we find two references to ‘Shabbatai’ (שבתא"י) and possibly also to Jacob Frank (מאדי"ם) in the writings of R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov:

...סוד שבתא"י מאדי"ם. כי מבין סוד הנקוד"ה אמצעית, שהן סוד שכנו"ת, ויקרא ש"ם מן זה סוד חש"ך גי׳ שבתא"י מאדי"ם, ור"ת ש"ם

(R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Kitvei haGramam zal, vol.2, 2001:171).[14]

This strange expression שבתא"י מאדי"ם  (Shabbatai Maadim?) is used elsewhere in R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov’s writings.[15] I will not even attempt to translate this difficult extract save to say that מאדי"ם (Maadim or meiEdom?) seems to be related to Edom which often refers to Christianity. This may allude to Jacob Frank who converted to Christianity. The ‘new Messiah’ will ‘fix’ the ‘first Messiahs’ of Sabbatianism and Frankism – Shabbatai Tzvi and Jacob Frank, respectively (Liebes 2003:11).[16]

The name Shabbatai occurs frequently in R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov’s writings. Shabbatai can either refer to the planet Saturn (Shabbatai) or Shabbatai Tzvi. According to Liebes (2003:12) and Idel (1997:179), common messianic references to the planet Saturn (Shabbatai) were obvious intimations for Shabbatai Tzvi. Thus, according to Liebes, R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov also used the planet Shabbatai as a facade to hide his Sabbatian references. 

R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov’s main student and the most important Kabbalist in the school of the Vilna Gaon, was R. Yitzchak Isaac Chaver (Wildmann). Following the typical coded writing styles of secret Sabbatians, he references tell-tale expressions like תתי״ד, which is the numerical value of Shabbatai Tzvi (400+400+10+4=814); אל תמירנו, which is an allusion to המרת דתו or the apostasy of Shabbatai Tzvi; and, צדיק באמונתו יחיה, where the first letters correspond to צבי, Tzvi (Liebes 2003:18).[17]

Both R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov and his student R. Yitzchak Isaac Chaver made frequent references to the controversial Nekuda − or ‘Pintele’ − and even interpreted it more pointedly than the Chassidim. R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov discusses two Messiahs. Shabbatai Tzvi is the first Messiah and he is associated with the first-century Talmudic rabbi turned heretic, Elisha ben Avuya, also known as Acher.[18] The first Messiah, Acher, must be ‘fixed’ by the second Messiah corresponding to R. Akiva:

ר׳ עקיבא בסוד...ויצאה נשמתו באחד, שהוא תיקן מה שקלקל אח״ר...וזה שורש הנקודה של ד׳ של אחד...וזה הנקודה שורש של זה השער, צדיקים יבואו בו...כי התורה ממתקת הכל...תור״ה גי׳ סמא״ל לילי״ת...עו״ן ופש״ע וחטא״ה

“R. Akiva [corresponds] to the secret of…his soul departing [while he recited] Echad, [and he] restores what Acher had damaged…This is the root of the Nekuda of the Dalet of Echad…and this Nekuda [corresponds to] the root ‘This is the gate [to the Lord]…Tzadikim pass through it’ (Ps. 118:20)…[This method is effective] because the Torah sweetens everything…[The word] ‘Torah’ has the same numerical value [611] as ‘Samael Lilit’…[and also the same numerical value as] ‘[forgiving] iniquity, transgression, and sin’ (Ex. 34:7)” (R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Kitvei haGramam zal, vol.2, 2001:116).[19]

The Nekuda plays a very significant role in this teaching because it still relates to the first Messiah, Shabbatai Tzvi. This is reminiscent of Sabbatian Kabbala where:

היוד היא הנקודה ונשמת המשיח

“the Yud is the Nekuda and soul of the Messiah” (Liebes 2003:28).[20]

This is because “the root of the Nekuda” is the “gate” through which “Tzadikim pass through” (צדיקים יבואו בו). The first three letters of the Hebrew phrase make up the word צבי, or “Tzvi.” Also, in the text are two references to a Nachash (snake), which was a symbol associated with Shabbatai Tzvi because it has the same numerical value (358) as Mashiach. The נחש הקדמוני (primordial snake) has to be countered by the other snake, the נחש הטהור from the side of holiness. But it goes deeper, because although the second Messiah ‘sweetens’ the first, Shabbatai Tzvi remains a necessary Nekuda and the ‘gateway’ in the unfolding of the messianic program (Liebes 2003:27,36). [See a similar approach of R. Nachman of Breslov who also attempted to repair Shabbatai Tzvi with his Tikun haKelaliKotzk Blog: 402) Was R. Nachman’s Tikun haKelali a ‘fixing’ of Sabbatianism?]

R. Yitzchak Isaac Chaver, refers to the Messiah who redeems Shabbatai Tzvi in what appears to be the only known reference to this term as נחשא דחיי (the snake of life). This may have been based on an interpretative reading of the biblical copper snake (Num. 21:9) which restored life (וָחָֽי) to those bitten by the snakes in the wilderness. He explains the function of the נחשא דחיי (the snake of life) is to rectify the first Messiah:

והוא נחשא דחיי, וע״י יתבערו אותם דאתיין מסטרא דנחש הקדמוני

“This is the ‘snake of life,’ and through him are removed those who come from the ‘earlier/primordial snake’” (Wildmann, Afikei Yam, vol. 1, 1994:37-8).[21]

The question, of course, is who does R. Yitzchak Isaac Chaver identify as the final Messiah who redeems Shabbatai Tzvi? In the same text by R. Yitzchak Isaac Chaver, just a few words earlier, are two references to אליהו (Eliyahu or Elijah). While one reference certainly refers to אליהו, Elijah the Prophet, the other reference adds the coded gershaim (inverted commas), often used by Sabbatians, to make אליה״ו. Liebes comments about the context of this teaching:

קשה לקרוא דברים כאלה על אליהו בספרו של רי״א, בלא לקורשם לרבו הנערץ, ר׳ אליהו גאון מוולנה 


“It is difficult to read these words about Eliyahu in the book by R. Yitzchak Isaac [Chaver], without connecting them to his admired rabbi, R. Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna” (Liebes 2003:37).[22]

In the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on the Torah, the word הואי״ל appears, also with similarly coded gershaim (inverted commas). This word הואי״ל is taken from הוֹאִ֣יל מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֵּאֵ֛ר אֶת־הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את, “Moses undertook to expound this Torah” (Deut. 1:5). In the interpretation of the Vilna Gaon on the word הואיל in this verse, he says that at the end of days, Eliyahu will come back to earth as the ‘Moses of the last generation,’ and expound on the Torah in its deepest sense. The word הואיל (“undertook”) has the same letters as אליהו (Eliyahu).  The Vilna Gaon writes וסוד נעלם הוא, that this concept “is a hidden secret” (Vilna Gaon, Aderet Eliyahu, 1887:331). Eliyahu can either refer to Elijah the Prophet or to R. Eliyahu, the Vilna Gaon.

Identifying the Vilna Gaon as the Messiah would have resonated with R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov who refers to the new Messiah as a גר (stranger). In his view, the new Messiah is considered a ‘stranger’ or ‘outsider’ because he is allowed to delve into matters that no other Jews should engage with:

והגואל...נכנס בתוך התהום...והוא דוגמת נפש הגר ממש, שחוקר מה שאסור לחקור לישראל

“The Redeemer…enters into the abyss…and absolutely resembles the stranger, who investigates that which is forbidden to investigate” (R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Kitvei haGramam zal, vol.2, 2001:167).

The students of the Vilna Gaon promoted the idea that he was not just a great Torah scholar, but also an exceptional secular scholar. Although some of his students, like R. Chaim of Volozhin, tried to deny the Vilna Gaon’s engagement with secular wisdom and even misrepresented the evidence thereof,[23] we know that that was not the case:

“[i]t is widely recognized that the Gra had a personal interest in general knowledge, especially the exact sciences; the evidence is abundant” (Shuchat 2023:6). 

R. Yisrael of Shklov corroborates this view with some detail:

“This is what he [the Gra] said: All knowledge is necessary for [understanding] our holy Torah… He knew them all thoroughly and mentioned them: algebra, trigonometry, geometry, and music which he praised greatly…He knew human anatomy and all things relevant to this…And regarding the wisdom of philosophy he said that he had studied it thoroughly” (R. Yisrael of Shklov, Pe’at haShulchan, 1836:5).[24]

The Vilna Gaon’s grandson, R. Yaakov Moshe of Slonim together with his uncle, R. Yehudah Leib, the Gaon’s son, testified: 

“[The Vilna Gaon] explained the constellations…and their paths…three hundred and three new principles never seen before in the land of Judea. He researched and prepared a wondrous chart of fractions” (Biurei Zohar, 1810:Introduction).[25] 

The depiction of the Vilna Gaon in such an extraordinary way for a Torah scholar is seen by Liebes as part of the messianic scheme. The Vilna Gaon was allowed to look into matters that no one else was allowed to because that is the function of the Messiah. In this sense, R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov saw the Vilna Gaon (גר״א) as a stranger (גר) because only he could enter the secular realms and raise the sparks hidden therein (Liebes 2003:38). This way, the new Messiah would sweeten the teachings of the old Messiah:

המשיח החדש ממתק בחקירתו את...תורתו של משיח הראשון...ומסמל שם את הלבוש הנוכרי שלבש שבתי צבי אחרי המרתו

“The new Messiah, through his [secular=non-Jewish] research sweetens…the teachings of the first Messiah…and symbolises [and counters] the non-Jewish garment Shabbatai Tzvi adorned himself with when he apostatised” (Liebes 2003:11).

Raphael Shuchat also notices that R. Chaim of Volozhin even though he tried to deny his teacher’s involvement in secular wisdom nevertheless describes “the Gra in almost messianic tones” (Shuchat 2023:13).

However, Liebes suggests that from the perspective of R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, the Messiah was not to be the Vilna Gaon, who had already passed away when he wrote this teaching. Instead, the ultimate Messiah was to be R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov himself![26]

He believed he was well qualified for this position because he expounded on the mysteries of the esoteric Torah even more than his late teacher. Perhaps he too felt that his teacher may have overstepped the boundaries with his involvement in secular wisdom.

Part 2 to follow next week.


Etkes, I., 2024, The Invention of a Tradition: The Messianic Zionism of the Gaon of Vilna, Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Frumkin, A.L., 1928-1930, Toledot Chachmei Yerushalayim [History of the Sages of Jerusalem] (Hebrew), three volumes, Salomon Press, Jerusalem.

Liebes, Y., 2003, ‘Talmidei haGra, Shabtaut vehaNekuda haYehudid [The Students of the Vilna Gaon, Sabbatianism and the Jewish Essence]’ (Hebrew), in Daat: A Journal of Jewish Philosophy & Kabbalah, No. 5052, Bar Ilan University Press, 255-290 (1-41).

Liebes, Y., n.d., ‘Tzidkat haTzadik: Yachas haGaon miVilna veChugo kelapei haShabtaut [The Righteousness of the Tzadik: The relationship of the Vilna Gaon and his group towards Sabbatianism]’ (Hebrew), Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1-93.

Menachem Mendel of Shklov, 2001, Kitvei haGramam zal, Jerusalem.

Morgenstern, A., 2006, Hastening Redemption: Messianism and the Resettlement of the Land of Israel, translated by Joel A. Linsider, Oxford University Press, New York.

Michal, G., 2022, ‘Jewish messianism culminating in the rise and dissemination of Sabbatianism - an excursion into messianic Kabbalah and its theological enterprises,’ Master’s Thesis, University of Pretoria, Faculty of Theology and Religion.

Shuchat R., 2023, ‘Protecting the Image: Was Rav Hayyim of Volozhin's Portrayal of the Vilna Gaon an Altered Image’, Jewish History

Wildmann, Yitzchak Isaac Chaver, 1994, Afikei Yam, Machon Shaarei Ziv, Jerusalem.

[1] Translation and square brackets are mine.

[2] The Midnight Tikun or Tikun Chatzot, is a midnight lamentation remembering the destruction of the Temple. Some of these lamentations could now be omitted because the Perushim believed that the redemption had already begun and there was no longer a need to mourn the destruction.

[3] The hymn welcoming in the Sabbath. The omitted verse was ‘Hitnaari,’ calling on Zion to arise from the dust. The verse was omitted because the Perushim believed that the redemption had begun and Zion was no longer in the dust.

[4] The title of the book Kitvei haGramam zal is an acronym for Writings of the Gaon, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, zal (zal is an abbreviation for zichrono liveracha’ – ‘may his memory be for a blessing.’ In this case, the student is also referred to by the honorific Gaon (Genius), like his teacher, the Vilna Gaon. Gaon was traditionally the title used for the heads of the Talmudic Academies in Babylonia between the sixth and eleventh centuries.

[5] Translation and square brackets are mine. Regarding this citation it must be noted that Aryeh Leib Frumkin recorded this passage by R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov (which originated in the latter’s introduction to his Shaar haTzimtzum) which came to Frumkin in manuscript form and Frumkin published it in his Toledot Chachmei Yerushalayim (Etkes 2024:29).

[6] A reference to Psalms 119:126, often interpreted in rabbinic literature as a call to act boldly in extenuating circumstances and to challenge the norms.

[7] Translation and square brackets are mine.

[8] Again, the same reference to Psalms 119:126 as in previous excerpt.

[9] Translation is mine. I could not locate this quotation in the copy of Menachem Tzion that I consulted. I rely on the reference in Liebes (2004:4, footnote 23).

[10] Liebes (2003:5) does, however, leave open the lesser possibility that the ‘evil ones,’ for whom the secrets now have to be revealed, are the Maskilim (members of the Enlightenment).

[11] This “associative connection” preceded the blatant and overt connection to Christianity under Jacob Frank (Liebes n.d.:19).

[12] See footnote 26.

[13] Translation and square brackets are mine. It is not always easy to decipher exactly which Messiahs are being referred to in these writings, but it certainly seems to fit the general post-Sabbatian style of mystical writings where Shabbatai Tzvi is considered the first, or immediate, Messiah that needs to be ‘fixed’ by the ‘final’ Messiah (Liebes 2003:7).

[14] In this extract מאדי"ם (Maadim?) seems to be related to Edom which often refers to Christianity. This may allude to Jacob Frank who converted to Christianity. The ‘new Messiah’ will ‘fix’ the ‘first Messiahs’ who are a combination of both Shabbatai Tzvi and Jacob Frank − Sabbatianism and Frankism (Liebes 2003:11).

[15] R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Kitvei haGramam zal, vol.1, 2001:229.

[16] The notion of a messianic duo is not unusual. See Michal (2022:47).

[17] See Wildmann, Yitzchak Isaac Chaver, Afikei Yam, Machon Shaarei Ziv, Jerusalem, 1994, vol. 1, 37-38.

[18] As mentioned earlier, R. Nachman expounded upon the miniscule difference between Echad (אחד) and Acher (אחר) being the Nekuda or “point of the letter Dalet (ד);” and the importance of turning the “Acher into Echad”. R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, a contemporary of R. Nachman, expands on this idea and Acher and Echad are no longer mere concepts, but become personified as Acher (Elisha ben Avuya) the first Messiah (Shabbatai Tzvi) – who must be redeemed by R. Akiva, the new Messiah. R. Akiva (a historical contemporary of Acher) represents Echad as he died with the word Echad, from the declaration of the Shema Yisrael (Deut. 6:4), on his lips. Thus, the homiletical tensions between Acher and Echad as depicted by R. Nachman, are played out more dramatically by R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, with his latter-day personifications of the Messiahs of Elisha ben Avuya and R. Akiva respectively. R. Akiva was also regarded as the most mystical of the four rabbis who entered the Pardes (b. Chagiga 14b) which may also be an allusion to R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov who was considered even more mystical than the Vilna Gaon (Liebes n.p.:41).

[19] Translation and square brackets are mine.

[20] Translation is mine.

[21] Translation is mine.

[22] Translation and square brackets are mine.

[23]R. Hayyim consistently omitted all biographical facts relating to the Gaon’s knowledge of secular studies” (Shuchat 2023:5). 

[24] Translation by Shuchat (2023:7).

[25] Translation by Shuchat (2023:9).

[26] Liebes (2003:39), however, still remains open to the possibility that (at least at some stage), R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov may have considered his teacher to have been the Messiah. Liebes suggests that R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov’s activities were most likely intended to be the completion of the messianic activities of his teacher, השלמה לפעילותו המשיחית של רבו.


  1. How about attempt D) None of the Above
    As all the prior options counteract the others, put them all together in a jar & shake them till a new concoction comes out of it

  2. It's a convincing and well thought out suggestion but then we would have to exclude from our jar, and close our eyes to, literally volumes of written testimony from Talmidei haGra - who tell this story in their own words.