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Sunday 7 July 2024

 

478) 'Fixing' broken Messiahs

The extreme messianic mysticism of the students of the Vilna Gaon (Part II)

 

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

Introduction

This article is a continuation of the previous post and deals with the surprising and extreme messianic mysticism of the students of the Vilna Gaon. It is a technical excursus into the Kabbalah of the Mitnagdim and it shows their conceptualisations surrounding the possibility that the Vilna Gaon was the Messiah and part of his messianic mission was ‘fix’ the previous ‘broken’ Messiahs including the Christian Messsiah as well as Shabbatai Tzvi. It makes liberal use of coded gershaim (inverted commas) and germatria (numerical values) because, as the reader will soon see, these topics are sensitive if not audacious, especially as they were written in the aftermath of the false Messiah Shabbatai Tzvi. This Kabbalah resembles the writing style of another Lithuanian mystic, R. Heshil Tzoref.

The Yud Hafucha

It has always been difficult to ascertain exactly where the Vilna Gaon himself was positioned apropos the interest his students had demonstrated regarding the role Shabbatai Tvi played in the unfolding of the messianic phases. Surprisingly, one area to examine for clues of the Vilna Gaon’s position is his view on the correct Halachic method of writing the letter Tzadi for Seferei Torah, Mezuzot and Tefilin. This seemingly innocuous matter, and the debate surrounding it, stirred up tremendous controversy amongst his students and must be viewed against a Sabbatian (as the followers of Shabbatai Tzvi were known) background (Liebes n.d.:2).

The letter Tzadi looks like a bent-over Nun with a Yud on the top right-hand corner. This Yud of the Tzadi faces either left (just like a normal Yud, י), or right and sometimes it is inverted. We shall refer to the Yud facing right as the Yud Hafucha (opposite or mirror-imaged Yud).

Some students of the Vilna Gaon claimed that their teacher had prohibited the use of the Yud Hafucha. Others including R. Aryeh Leib Friedman who dedicated a book to this matter of Yud Hafucha counterclaimed that their colleagues were relying on השערות פורחות באויר, “assumptions floating in the air,” and that the Vilna Gaon did not oppose the use of the Yud Hafucha at all (Friedman, Tzidkat haTzadik, 1954:95). On one occasion in his writings, R. Aryeh Leib Friedman became so angry about the ‘perceptions’ that the Vilna Gaon had prohibited the Yud Hafucha, that he severely reprimands those who perpetuated this ‘rumour’ (Friedman, Tzidkat haTzadik, 1954:46). Rabbinic literature is replete with opposing views and variant Halachic rulings but it seems that something of greater significance was bothering R. Aryeh Leib Friedman in the case of the Yud Hafucha (Liebes n.d.:4).

Representing the camp of the students of the Vilna Gaon who claim that their teacher had prohibited the use of the Yud Hafucha, is R. Yisrael of Shklov (considered an expert in expounding the Halacha of his teacher). He writes:

והיה מזהיר...[ש]הצד״י כפופין עקומין מאחריו הי׳ פוסל...והיה אומר דגמירא ליה דבא טעות בכתבי׳ על ידי תלמידי הצבי שבור, שהעתיקו בתוך כ׳ האר״י ז״ל

“[The Vilna Gaon] would warn…[against the use of] the ‘bent Tzadi’ [=צ, as opposed to the ‘straight Tzadi’ or ‘Tzadi Peshuta’ =ץ] with the thorn [i.e., the tip of the Yud] facing backwards [to the right], as [such a formulation of Yud Hafucha] would invalidate it…and [the Vilna Gaon] would say that this [mistaken practice] was adopted from a forgery to a text of the Ari Zal, by the students of ‘Tzi shavur’[1] [=Shabbatai Tzvi]” (R. Yisrael of Shklov, Tosefot Maaseh Rav, Siman 6, in Tzidkat haTzadik, 1954:46).[2]

From this source, it becomes apparent that the ostensibly Halachic debate over the Yud Hafucha is essentially rooted in a Sabbatian controversy. The question is what were the circumstances surrounding the alleged Sabbatian insertion of the Yud Hafucha into the Lurianic writings? This, particularly since it is generally understood that R. Yitzchak Luria indeed insisted that Tefilin be written with the Yud Hafucha.[3]

What we have here is not just a Halachic debate but a veritable theological polemic, which, as we shall see, concerns the identity of past and present Messiahs. We know from many sources that long before Sabbatianism, the custom in both Ashkenazi and Sefaradi communities was to write the Tzadi with a Yud Hafucha. The Zohar (1:2b) spoke of the Yud Hafucha on the Tzadi which “מהדר לאחורא,faced backwards.” So why would some have claimed that the Vilna Gaon had prohibited the Yud Hafucha?  

Sabbatian stirrings around the Yud Hafucha began more than a century before R. Yisrael of Shklov, with his grandfather (Liebes n.d.:16)[4] R. Yisrael ben Aharon Jaffe also of Shklov. In the latter’s book entitled Or Yisrael (Jaffe, Or Yisrael, 1702:41) a known Sabbatian work there is a teaching about the Yud Hafucha. It bases itself on the Zohar (1:2b) which states that the world could not be created with the letter Tzadi because the two Yuds did not face each other. However, in the future, the Tzadi would be re-established without the Yud Hafucha and with the right-hand Yud facing the left side as per its usual configuration. R. Yisrael Jaffe claimed that that time had already arrived and that the messianic era had begun.  R. Yisrael Jaffe maintained that there are numerical values that (anachronistically) connect the Zoharic teaching to Shabbatai Tzvi because the Zohar refers to a future time as, “אתרא אחרא, another place” when the Yud is restored to its usual configuration. R. Yisrael Jaffe noted that “אתרא אחרא, another place,” has the same numerical value of 814, corresponding to God’s name Sha-dai[5] as well as to Shabbatai Tzvi. Other Sabbatians, including Wolf, the son of R. Yehonatan Eibeschuetz also made similar references to this section of the Zohar (Liebes n.d.: 12). This underscores the notion that the Yud Hafucha, although originating in the Zohar, was later interpreted within some form of Sabbatian context even within the camp of the Vilna Gaon. Whichever way one interprets the Vilna Gaon’s alleged invalidation (or otherwise) of the Yud Hafucha, there was a strong residual component of Sabbatian messianic innuendo − prevalent in Vilna − relating to the way the letter Tzadi was to be written (Liebes n.d.:17). As we shall see, in the mystical context of Vilna, the Yud Hafucha would have represented the historical incarnations of the incomplete Tzadi – the previous Messiahs − who are all the embodiment of:

זה הבלע הוא הפוך האמונה...הפוך משרע״ה

“this Bela[6] [who] represents the [spiritual] inverse [Hafuch] of Emunah [faith]…[and] the [spiritual] inverse [Hafuch] of Moses…” (R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Kitvei haGramam zal, vol.2, 2001:4).[7]

Bela is the archetype of the incomplete Tzadi while Moses represents the completed Tzadik.

Unlike R. Yisrael of Shklov who invalidated the Yud Hafucha, R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov adamantly clung to his position that permitted either orientation of the Yud of the Tzadi, whichever way it faced:

או פניה לגבי הנו״ן, או הי׳(וד) מחזיר פניו מהנו״ן...זה לא איכפת לך...ואלו ואלו דברי אלוקים חיים

“Whether [the Yud] faces the Nun [as per its standard orientation], or whether the Yud turns its face away from the Nun [in a mirror-image]…it makes no difference [and neither orientation will invalidate a scroll]…as these and those are the words of the living God” (R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Kitvei haGramam zal, vol.2, 2001:272).[8]

R. Yisrael of Shklov, by prohibiting the Yud Hafucha, sees no spiritual use for the incomplete and invalidated Tzadi, while R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov sees the possibility of incorporating the Yud Hafucha, with all its blemishes, into the necessary cosmic messianic schema.

Esau Bilaam Bela 

R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov continues to emphasise that the orientation of the Yud makes no difference,” and it is evident that he is alluding to some form of equivalence between the earlier imperfect Tzadi – and the later perfected Tzadik. The later Tzadik is the perfected incarnation of the previous Tzadi. R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov uses coded gershaim (inverted commas) to allude to possible correlations between the Yud Hafucha and Sabbatianism and Christianity :

כי מה שהי׳(וד) מחזיר א...(ת) פניו מין הנו״ן, ועומד באחורי״ו...והיינו ׳כי צדי אנת וצדיק אנת ואנת צריך למהוי בטמירו׳, והיינו שסוד צדי, נקרא צדי ונקרא צדיק, כי עשו הוא הצד צי״ד [=צדי]...והוא איש שעי״ר...והוא ג״כ בדע״ת גי׳ ער״ב ר״ב, ואין בין זה לזה...כחד חוטא...ומי מפיס ומי יכריע

“This [matter] of the Yud [Hafucha, of the Tzadi]  which turns its head away from the Nun [in its mirror-image orientation] and faces backwards…represents the [Zoharic concept of] ‘You are Tzadi and you are Tzadik and you must remain a secret’ [Zohar 1:2b][9]…This represents the secret of the Tzadi, which is called [both] Tzadi and Tzadik [i.e., the proto-Tzadik or Tzadi, precedes and parallels the final, fixed and completed Tzadik]. Esau [representing Christianity], ‘hunted game’ [Gen 27:33]. [The Hebrew for ‘game,’ ציד, has the same letters as צדי, Tzadi]…He [Esau] came from Seir.[10] …He [Esau] also [corresponds] to Daat [knowledge] [Daat is symbolic of Bilam, who is depicted in the Talmud[11] as representing Christianity, and in later literature as representing Sabbatianism as well.[12] In this reading, Esau and Bilam are thus conceptually connected. Bilam in Kabbalistic literature is described as the Daat, or knowledge, obtained by the Sitra Achra (Evil Side) because “וְיֹדֵ֖עַ דַּ֣עַת עֶלְי֑וֹן, he obtains the knowledge of the Most High” (Num 24:16). Bilam is the negative counterpart to Moses who possess the Holy knowledge]. Daat has the same numerical value as Eirev Rav [Mixed Multitude = Sabbatians = 474][13] And there is no difference between [any] of these two [ opposing architypes]…except for a single [thin] thread[14]…But who will effect the reconciliation between these [opposing architypes] and who will determine [the outcome]?” (R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Kitvei haGramam zal, vol.2, 2001:273).[15]

What is revealing about this section of R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov’s writing is the unusual way he creates an equivalence of past Messiahs, Christian and Sabbatian (representing the incomplete Tzadi). These past Messiahs all build on each other and find expression in the final Messiah (representing the complete Tzadik) – seemingly himself, but certainly the Vilna Gaon while he was still alive who is the only one capable of reconciling, integrating and funnelling all the previous messianic potentials.

Ben Bar Bor Be'er

Picking up on the abovementioned conceptualisation of Esau and Bilaam corresponding to Christianity, R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov continues to deliberate on how the new Messiah can rectify the previous Messiahs:

וכל טוב גנוז בשביל הצדיק, אך הוא ביד בל״ע  מלך אדום, מחמת שבעו״ה חיל בלע...ובאמת אח״ך נתקנים בסוד מ״ה החדש...ויודע ענין התורה וסודה על בוריו והלכה כמותו בכל מקום

“All good is hidden [away] for the Tzadik, but he is in the hands of Bela [Bilaam is Bela][16] the king of Edom [Christianity/Sabbatianism], [but] because of our sins Bela dominates…and in truth afterwards [Bela] will be rectified through the secret of the new Messiah…[who] knows the matter of the Torah and its secrets in its entirety and the law is [decided] according to him in all cases” (R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Kitvei haGramam zal, vol.2, 2001:4).

At the time of his writing, it seems that R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov was referring to his teacher as the new messianic candidate. The Vilna Gaon certainly knew “the matter of the Torah” because he was regarded as a Gaon (genius). He also knew Kabbalah and “its secrets in its entirety,” and he commanded unparalleled Halachic authority.

R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov’s writings move into deeper Christological allusions and become a conceptualisation of what appears to be a most unusual  especially for rabbinic writings chain or dynasty of Messiahs that include: 1) Jesus (ב״ןBen, 'son' in Hebrew or ב״רBar, 'son' in Aramaic); 2) Shabbatai Tzvi (בו״רBor, 'pit'); and 3) the Vilna Gaon (בא״רBe’er, 'well').

 Linguistically these names are similarly constructed and they also prefigure and reflect each other conceptually. In an astonishing piece of coded writing, we find:

סוד ב״ן. וב״ן אלקי״ם אדנ״י גי׳ בא״ר...והוא ב״ר של בראשי״ת...בסוד ב״ר בו״ר בא״ר תרי״ג, שהוא תכלית בריא״ת העול״ם, וזה ב״ן נתברר...ובא״ר מש״ה אליה״ו

“The secret of [the word Ben] ‘son:’[17] The [expression] ‘son of God and Lord’ has the same numerical value (203) as ‘well’ [Be’er, representing Eliyahu, the Vilna Gaon]. This [‘son,’ Ben in Hebrew, or] F [‘son’ in Aramaic] represents the Bar of Bereishit [the first two letters of ‘In the Beginning’ (Gen1:1)[18]…[This forms part of] the secret of Bar [Jesus], Bor [Shabbatai Tzvi,[19] and] Be’er [Vilna Gaon][20] who together have the numerical value of Taryag [תרי״ג = the 613 commandments of the Torah],[21] which is the purpose of the creation of the world, because the ‘son’ [Ben] has been purified…and Be’er [represents the completion of rabbinic law, Taryag, through] Moses and Eliyahu [Vilna Gaon]”[22] (R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Kitvei haGramam zal, vol.2, 2001:303).

This ‘dynasty’ of Messiahs is thus described as building upon and remedying the previous Messiahs through the ultimate Tikun effected by the Vilna Gaon.

R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov was not all that unusual in trying to rectify previous Messiahs because, as we have seen, even the Baal Shem Tov saw an aspect of the Messiah in Shabbatai Tzvi and had tried to ‘fix’ him with a Tikun (spiritual rectification). The same may be said about R. Nachman of Breslov (see Kotzk Blog: 402) Was R. Nachman’s Tikun haKelali a ‘fixing’ of Sabbatianism?). The difference was that the Baal Shem Tov gave up on his spiritual ambitions to rectify Shabbatai Tzvi, whereas R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov believed he, himself, had accomplished this goal and had completed the Tikun (Liebes n.d.:35).

However, where R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov was radically unusual was in his relationship with Christians and Christianity. Around this period, there was much Christian missionary activity in the Holy Land, under the patronage of the London Society. They were well-organised and kept accurate and meticulous records. The members of this organisation held fast to their belief that the redemption of the Jews would herald the redemption of mankind, and the return of Jews to their homeland would be one of the early signs confirming the unfolding of that plan. They were very keen, therefore, to document the waves of Jewish immigration to the Holy Land (Morgenstern 2006:viii).

In an unusual messianic irony, the Perushim (as the students of the Vilna Gaon who immigrated to the Holy Land were known) and the missionaries shared some common interest; so much so that R. Shlomo Hershel Berliner, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of London, wrote unapprovingly of the situation:

“And see, the…Perushim in the Holy Land play up to them [the missionaries]. Alas for the embarrassment…would that our co-religionists…were still living in the Diaspora” (R. Shlomo Hershel Berliner, miKitvei R. Shlomo Hershel Berliner miLondon, n.d.:528).

R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov was known to have often engaged with these missionaries and even managed to return some Jews, who they had converted to Christianity, back to Judaism. He did this by showing the apostates the role they could play as Jews in the process of Redemption. These Anglican missionaries were able to exert political pressure on the Turks to allow the Perushim to rebuild the ruins of the Churva synagogue (Liebes 2003:40). R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov’s association with Christians, must be viewed within the context of his determination to ‘fix’ all previous Messiahs, including Jesus.

On the other hand, R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov was not the first to use the image of the Nun and Yud Hafucha compounded together to form the letter Tzadi as a symbol of Christianity in general, and of Jesus, in particular. Liebes (n.d:20) shows that in the Zohar itself, and even in Sefer haBahir, the Tzadi with the Yud Hafucha was sometimes understood to allude to Jesus (possibly even to the acronym Yeshu haNotzri or Jesus the Christian). In the Midrashic work Otiyot deRabbi Akiva (especially the earlier manuscripts of the work), which Liebes suggests may be the originator of the Zoharic interpretation, the letter Tzadi is directly associated with Jesus. R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov was comfortable combining paradoxical theologies seamlessly, in a way that even surpassed the masterful attempts of the Sabbatians to do the same (Liebes n.d.:23).

R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov alludes to Christianity in his typical coded writing with copious gershaim (inverted commas) on significant words that require extra interpretation:

מחמת עונותינו נסתתר אלהינ״ו בשביל זה בבע״ל הדין הזה...שורש ב״ן סטד״ה

“Because of our sins, God is hidden due to this accused [Baal hadin] [i.e., Shabbatai Tzvi (בעל, Baal = Bela has the same numerical value as צבי = 102)]…rooted in ben Satada [usually taken as a reference to Jesus in the Talmud]”[23] (R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Kitvei haGramam zal, vol.1, 2001:66).

We have seen that there is an equivalence between Esau, Bilaam, Bela, Daat of the Evil Side and Eirev Rav. They represent the spiritual counterparts to Moses. In Lurianic Kabbalah, Bela represents the holy ‘sparks’ that became absorbed (נבלעים = absorbed = בלע = Bela) within Tuma (spiritual impurity) (Liebes n.d.:27, footnote 215). Bela becomes the archetype representing an obsession with overt mysticism and spirituality at the expense, and in place, of Halachic observances. This is why Bela represents Christianity and SabbatianismThe extreme spiritual seekers of Christianity and Sabbatianism ‘fell’ because of a spiritual הבלענות (gluttony) and coveting of secrets of the Torah that were far too deep and not meant for them:

כי הקב״ה נותן לו חכמה ומגלה לו בסוד, סוד ה׳ ליריאיו

“for the Holy One…gives wisdom and reveals secrets, [as it states in Ps 25:14] ‘The secrets of the Lord are for them that fear Him’”[24] (R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Kitvei haGramam zal, vol.2, 2001:4).[25]

'Fixing' an 'over emphasis' of spirituality

The earlier incarnations of the Tzadi, therefore, made the mistake of coveting and overemphasising mysticism, spirituality and secrets while not being entirely worthy of such endeavours. As a result, they subjugated the primacy of the Halacha. This required remedial action necessitating R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov and the Vilna Gaon to enter those very realms that Jesus and Shabbatai Tzvi had entered into but superseding them in matters of Kabbalah (Liebes n.d.:36,37). They had to supersede them in knowledge of mysticism in order to remedy them and bring them back to the Law. In fact, their involvement in Kabbalah had to exceed even that of Moses:

והבא לחקר חפץ להיות יותר ממשה רבינו

“And the one who comes to delve [into this remedial Kabbalah] needs to [be more proficient] even than Moses our Teacher” (R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Kitvei haGramam zal, vol.2, 2001:4).[26]

Two types of messianic 'snakes'

The idea of previously failed messianic attempts rectified by a final successful accomplishment of the messianic act is described in earlier Talmudic[27] and Kabbalistic literature in terms of one or sometimes two types of snakes that impregnate the doe, איילה (representing the Shechina, and sometimes even the Kelipa or evil forces) and birthing the Messiah (Liebes 1992:21,39,45). The Hebrew word for snake, נחש, has the same numerical value (358) as Messiah, משיח and Shabbatai Tzvi had strongly identified himself with the snake.

There are different formulations of this idea of a snake biting the doe which is derived from interpretations of Psalm 29:9, “ק֤וֹל יְהֹוָ֨ה  יְחוֹלֵ֣ל אַיָּלוֹת֮, The voice of the Lord causes hinds to calve.” However, R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov and his student R. Yitzchak Isaac Chaver extend the interpretations of the two snakes beyond anything expressed before. The sexual innuendo is quite graphic as two encounters are described. One encounter is successful and the other not corresponding to the staff of Moses which also alternates as a snake (Liebes n.d.:25). Shabbatai Tzvi was the ineffective Messiah that could only be redeemed by the greater Tzadik, the Vilna Gaon, who is described as נחשא דחיי, the living or effective snake” (Wildmann, Afikei Yam, vol. 1, 1994:37-8).  This style of erotic Kabbalistic writing (Maciejko 2014:xxv) carries some semblances of Sabbatianism (Halperin 2008:3) and is familiarly similar to the work vaAvo haYom el haAyin, attributed to R. Yehonatan Eibeschuetz, which Maciejko (2014:xix) has described as a “pornographic text…written in the rabbinic idiom” and as “unimaginable.”

The Vilna Gaon and R. Yehonatan Eibeschuetz

The Vilna Gaon had been surprisingly ambivalent when it came to responding to R. Eibeschuetz’ written request that he weigh in on the Emden-Eibeschuetz controversy (see Kotzk Blog: 272) THE DISCOVERY OF NOTARIZED AMULETS OF R. YONATAN EIBESCHUETZ INTENDED TO BE USED IN A CIVIL CASE AGAINST HIM:). Although R. Eibeschuetz − who was charged with and convicted of writing Sabbatian amulets (Liebes n.d.:17) − claimed that the Vilna Gaon had exonerated him, the fact is that the latter effectively only apologised for not wanting to get involved in the controversy. Leiman (2001:260) suggests this may have been due to the Vilna Gaon’s relatively young age of thirty-five and the distance between Vilna and Hamburg, the centre of the controversy. Liebes, however, dismisses both Leiman’s suggestions. Instead, he proposes that the Vilna Gaon was not prepared to condemn or “expose the blatant Sabbatian content” of the amulets because aspects of them “may not have been all that far removed from the spirit of the school of the Vilna Gaon” (Liebes n.d.:17).[28]

The Vilna Gaon as Moshe

Liebes (2016:604) makes it clear that there are no references to Shabbatai Tzvi in the published writings of the Vilna Gaon. This is not surprising, though, because he stuck to a rule that only allowed for citations from traditional Rabbinic and Zoharic sources. He would not even quote from the later Lurianic sources even though he drew copiously from them. This makes it difficult to know whether R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov took his intricate messianic theology directly from his teacher or not.

Still, Liebes (2016:604) maintains that the Vilna Gaon did consider Shabbatai Tzvi to be a link in the messianic dynasty that may even have represented an aspect of the Gaon himself. Perhaps Shabbatai Tzvi was some form of his previous incarnation that he now had an opportunity to rectify. If this is correct, it shows an unexpected yet fundamental Sabbatian influence on the heart of the Mitnagdic movement.

The Vilna Gaon is well-known but little understood. His inner character, writes Liebes (2016:609), “except for a few exceptions, is different from the way he is commonly perceived.”[29] In his mystical commentaries, the Vilna Gaon engaged with the  variant Kabbalistic depictions of Moses, who is said to emerge again and again in every generation. Sometimes the ‘new’ Moses is depicted as the final arbiter of the law struggling to create a unified and single umbrella of authoritative Halachic practice. Other times the ‘new’ Moses is depicted as not being so pedantic about Halachic practice and is somewhat of a mystical ‘non-scholar.’ The Vilna Gaon found other ways to interpret that portrayal of Moses. But other times Moses is depicted as someone despised by the rabbis of the generation. This description of a despised Moses would have perhaps resonated with the Vilna Gaon as alluding to a Shabbatai Tzvi.  Liebes understands the Vilna Gaon as identifying particularly with this last description of a despised Moses, but in his present incarnation, determined to ‘fix’ the blemishes of his own soul in a previous incarnation.

Bibliography

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.

Maciejko, P., 2014, Jonathan Eibeschütz, And I Came this Day unto the Fountain, Critically Edited and Introduced by Paweł Maciejko, Cherub Press, Los Angeles. 

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

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



[1] This is a borrowed expression from Mishna Bava Metzia (1:4) referring to acquiring ownership of a crippled deer that broke its leg while in the owner’s field. The ancient legal Mishna refers to a “crippled deer,” or “tzvi shavur,” which later in a completely unrelated context, became a convenient and derogatory play on words and a reference to Shabbatai Tzvi.

[2] Translation and square brackets are mine. R. Aryeh Leib Friedman questions this attribution to R. Yisrael of Shklov (Friedman, Tzidkat haTzadik, 1954:45).

[4] Liebes is convinced that the earlier Sabbatian activity in Lithuania with rabbis like Heshil Tzoref, coupled with rabbinical families maintaining intergenerational links to their Sabbatian past − like R. Yisrael of Shklov and his grandfather R. Yisrael Jaffe of Shklov − would have contributed to maintaining a strong Sabbatian ideological presence in Lithuania.

[5] According to the Aleinu prayer which concludes all prayer services, in the messianic future all humanity will be united under the name Sha-dai. The numerical value of 814 is derived from Sha-dai spelt in its ‘full form’ as שין דלת יוד. This gematria or numerical value of 814 is perhaps the most common of the Sabbatian codes for references to Shabbatai Tzvi (Liebes n.d.:12).

[6] See below where Bela, Bilaam, Edom, Seir, Daat, Eirev Rav (Mixed multitudes) are equated with Jesus and Shabbatai Tzvi, representing the Tzadi and Yud Hafucha (inverse Yud).

[7] Translation is mine.

[8] Translation and square brackets are mine.

[9] The Zohar 1:2b describes the Tzadi having two Yuds, “מהדר לאחורא, facing backwards” to each other. Its meaning had to remain a secret until a point in the (messianic) future when the right-hand Yud would be turned around to its regular orientation. The Sabbatians later claimed that that time had now arrived.  

[10] See “עֵשָׂ֖ו אֲבִ֣י אֱד֑וֹם בְּהַ֖ר שֵׂעִֽיר, Esau the ancestor of Edom, in the hills of Seir” (Gen 36:9). Both Seir and Edom are therefore associated with Christianity.

[11] b. Gitin 57a. Although the Talmudic text, in its plain reading, seems to distinguish between Jesus and Bilaam, over time the two personalities became conceptually united (Liebes n.d.:19, footnote137).

[12] Particularly in the writings of R. Yakov Emden (Liebes n.d.:19).

[13] The term Mixed Multitude was generally used to refer to the Sabbatians (although sometimes it was also used the other way around to refer to the opponents of the Sabbatians).

[14] Thus: Esau is equated to Bilaam who represents the Daat of the Evil Side. Bilaam/Bela/Esau represent the counterpart to Moses. Esau also represents Daat = Eirev Rav (Mixed Multitude) = 474, which equates Christianity with Sabbatianism. Moses is the complete ‘Tzadik,’ while the Messiahs of Christianity and Sabbatianism represent the incomplete ‘Tzadi.’ There is no difference between ‘Tzadik’ and ‘Tzadi’ except for a “single thread,” and therefore they can be reconciled (Liebes n.d.:19).

[15] Translation and square brackets are mine.

[16] According to Eitz Chaim 8:4 (1961:113) “בלעם הוא בלע, Bilaam is Bela.” Etz Chaim records the Lurianic teaching of the Ari, as compiled by his student, R. Chaim Vital. However, Bilaam represents the Bela that has not been refined. Once Bela is refined and ‘sweetened’ he becomes Moses. R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov viewed Shabbatai Tzvi as the Bilaam who could be transformed into the Bela (like Moses) − or, put the other way, Shabbatai Tzvi was the potential Moses/Mashiach who deteriorated into Bilaam (Liebes n.d.:85-6).

[17] The Hebrew formulation ב״ן (just like מ״ה) can be read as common Kabbalistic names of God. However, in this context it seems to carry its literal connotation of ben or ‘son,’ together with its Christological insinuations (Liebes n.p.:59, footnote 592).

[18] This is remarkably similar to the New Testament’s John 1:1-3 which has Jesus participating in the creration of the world.

[19] The expression ‘Bor’ (בו״ר) is an acronym for “וַיְהִ֥י רָעָ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ, and there was a hunger in the land” (Ruth 1:1). As mentioned earlier, this spiritual hunger was considered a positive consequence of Shabbatai Tzvi. This way Bor corresponds to Shabbatai Tzvi: ׳ויהי רע״ב בארץ׳ בו״ר (R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Menachem Tzion, 1987:3).

[20] The text continues “ובא״ר מש״ה אליה״ו, Be’er [represents the completion of rabbinic law through] Moses and Eliyahu [Vilna Gaon].” Be’er = Moshe = Eliyahu (Vilna Gaon) who combine to ‘fix’ the Bor (Shabbatai Tzvi) and the Ben/Bar (Jesus). Eliyahu corresponds to and represents the Moses of the generation (Liebes n.d.:62).

[21] According to this reading, the accumulated messianic potentials of Jesus, Shabbatai Tzvi and the Vilna Gaon together represent the ‘wholeness’ and ‘completion’ of the 613 Commandments.

[22] This last phrase בא״ר מש״ה אליה״ו corresponds to the earlier mentioned verse הוֹאִ֣יל מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֵּאֵ֛ר, “Moses undertook to [expound this Torah]” (Deut. 1:5). The word הואיל (undertook) has the same letters as אליהו (Eliyahu), the Vilna Gaon. The word Ben has the same numerical value as Eliyahu (52) and when read within the context of the coded inverted commas, the message is that Eliyahu (who corresponds to Moses) can ‘fix’ the Ben (who is also connected to Shabbatai Tzvi).

[23] b. Shabbat 104b. This section has been removed from many editions of the Talmud because of the censors. It is, however, found in the Steinzaltz edition. Liebes (n.d.:36, footnote 318) explains ben Satada to be a generally accepted reference to Jesus.

[24] Besides a desire for extreme mysticism, the Sabbatians emphasised Emunah (belief) over Halacha. The one who ‘fixes’ Sabbatianism must have a more serious approach that is congruent with Yirah (awe) – not just belief. This would necessitate a concomitant acceptance of Halacha that was lacking with the Sabbatians. The serious and conservative Halachic approach of the Vilna Gaon was, therefore, also seen as befitting the new Redeemer worthy of the “secrets” which are specifically “for them that fear Him’ (Liebes n.d.:39).

[25] Translation and square brackets are mine.

[26] Translation and square brackets are mine.

[27] b. Bava Batra 16b. Here the Talmud simply mentions how the snake, or דרקון (drakon) in this instance, bites the opening of the womb of the doe to aid in the birthing process. It seems that the later mystical literature expands on this imagery.

[28] Translation is mine.

[29] Translation is mine.

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