#523 (s5768-12 / 17 Kislev 5768)

To Be or Not To Be?

One Shabbat, The Maggid of Mezritch surprised his chasidim by altering the style of his weekly mystical discourse and engaging in a Talmudic debate.

To Be or Not To Be?


[For brief biographical profiles of the four famous scholars and rebbes in this story, see below]

The erudite Torah giant, Rabbi Refoel (Raphael) of Hamburg, was a devoted disciple of Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna. Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, successor to the Baal Shem Tov, recognized the sublime source of Rabbi Refoel's soul and wanted to attract him to become his disciple.

Once during a mystical Shabbat third meal, the Maggid surprised his chasidim by altering the style of his discourse and engaging in a Talmudic debate. They knew it was not the way of their master to examine legal distinctions and Talmudic propositions in public.

Although others of the Maggid's students might have found it surprising, it did not surprise Rabbi Meshulam Zusya of Anopoli when the following day he was sent on the road by the Maggid. Nor was he surprised that the Maggid had not given him specific instructions. Serene in his confidence in his master, he took his walking stick and wandered from town to town, assured that the goal of his mission would be revealed in due time.

Around that time the chief rabbi of Posen1, Germany passed away and the city officials were interviewing candidates to fill this rabbinic seat. The custom in those days was that the candidate had to expound on a scholarly Torah subject. To test his knowledge, the candidate was presented with a series of questions and intricacies from the Talmud and the Codes and asked to resolve them. Only if he was able to answer all the questions posed to the satisfaction of the scholars of the city and found grace in their eyes was he appointed to the rabbinic post.

Rabbi Refoel was invited to become a candidate and was scheduled to deliver the presentation he had prepared. In order to review his presentation before delivering it in Posen, he stopped at an inn in a nearby hamlet. That same day Rabbi Zusya also arrived at the inn. As he entered he saw Rabbi Refoel sitting in a side room surrounded by open books. The innkeeper had given him this quiet place to review his presentation.

Since the door was ajar, Rabbi Zusya entered the room without knocking. As he approached the desk, he heard Rabbi Refoel reviewing the presentation he had prepared. Rabbi Zusya suddenly remembered the lesson he had heard from the Maggid the Sabbath before he set out on his travels and he realized that it was on the exact same topic as that being rehearsed by Rabbi Refoel!

Rabbi Refoel stopped in mid-sentence when he suddenly recalled a commentary by Tosafos that contradicted the entire premise upon which his discourse was based. Rabbi Zusya saw his anguish and offered Rabbi Refoel his assistance. At first Rabbi Refoel hesitated but without any other option, he finally agreed to listen. The next day he was to deliver his presentation and he had no idea as to how to get out of his quandary.

Before Rabbi Zusya told him the answer, he explained that he had heard it from his teacher, the Maggid of Mezritch. He stipulated that in exchange for the answer, after he was appointed chief rabbi in Posen, Rabbi Refoel would have to visit the Maggid. Rabbi Refoel again hesitated for he knew that traveling to the seat of the chasidim in Mezritch was something his teacher, the Gaon of Vilna, would disapprove of. Nevertheless, seeing once more that he had no choice, he gave his solemn handshake to Rabbi Zusya and promised him that he would travel to Mezritch to visit the Maggid. He reasoned that if Rabbi Zusya the student of the Maggid could acquire such depths of knowledge from the lessons of his teacher then the teacher must certainly possess even greater wisdom. Rabbi Zusya proceeded to resolve all the difficulties in the text in an exceptionally brilliant fashion. He continued to debate with Rabbi Refoel on the topic to further prepare him for the presentation.

The next day, Rabbi Refoel arrived in Posen and delivered his presentation before the scholars of the city. He found grace in their eyes and they unanimously accepted him as their chief rabbi with great honor.

After that, Rabbi Refoel had to keep his promise to travel to Rabbi Zusya's teacher, the Maggid of Mezritch. He was apprehensive about making the trip because of the intense antagonism against the newly organized chasidic movement. He decided to recount the entire story to his own teacher, the Gaon of Vilna, and seek his advice about the situation.

When he heard the story, the Gaon of Vilna told Rabbi Refoel that he was legally bound to keep his promise and make the trip to Mezritch. The Gaon wanted Rabbi Refoel to bring back answers to three questions. These were: (1) Did the students in Mezritch have respect for the Maggid compared to their fear of Heaven?2 (2) Did they study the exoteric parts of the Torah like such as Talmud and Codes?3and (3) Did the Maggid possess Divine Inspiration? The Gaon requested that Rabbi Refoel report back to him everything that he saw and heard in Mezritch.4 He then made Rabbi Refoel swear in front of ten witnesses that he would remain anonymous during his visit.

When Rabbi Refoel arrived in Mezritch he was careful not to reveal his identity. He was relieved to find Rabbi Zusya was not present. He entered the study hall and was extremely impressed by their mode of prayer the likes of which he had never seen before in his life. He noted the cheerful camaraderie amongst all the students.

Soon after, the clopping of crutches was heard from the anteroom. With great awe, all of the students in the study hall sprung to their feet at attention. This sound signaled the approach of their master, the Maggid, who was crippled and required crutches to walk. He had come to teach the day's lesson. During the course of the ensuing lesson, a woman brought a freshly slaughtered chicken to the Maggid for a legal rendering on its questionable status for kosher consumption. The Maggid deferred the question to the students present and they debated the issue at length. Their discussion focused on three major opinions: Rabbi Moshe Maimonides, Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi and Rabbi Avraham Davidi. They concluded that the chicken was in fact kosher. The Maggid said that he learned from his teachers that the esoteric teachings of the Torah parallel its exoteric teachings. Just as there are three opinions in Torah there are similarly three opinions in Kabbalah. Those are the opinions of Rabbi Yehudah Chayit, Rabbi Moshe Cordevero and Rabbi Yitzchak Luria. He added that according to Kabbalah the same conclusion was reached - the chicken is kosher.

The Maggid concluded, "The chief rabbi of Posen is present with us. Let him come and make a legal ruling." He turned to Rabbi Refoel and inquired how he would render this case. Rabbi Refoel answered. The Maggid remarked, "Your rendering of the law is technically accurate. However, it is an academic answer that lacks practicality."

Rabbi Refoel was very impressed with all that he saw and heard. He saw the supreme respect the students had for the Maggid. He noted that they learned the exoteric Talmud and Codes as well as the esoteric Kabbalah. He was amazed that the Maggid knew who he was despite the care he had taken to conceal his identify.

When he returned to the Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Refoel reported that in his opinion, the Maggid does not have only mere human powers but also transcendent powers including Divine Inspiration. He proceeded to give the details of all that he saw and heard. Some say the Gaon was not prepared to accept the testimony of Rabbi Refoel. Other says he did accept his testimony and even entertained the idea of meeting with the Maggid but was dissuaded by his mother at the behest of his students and colleagues.

As for Rabbi Refoel, he did not make a second trip to Mezritch so as not to impinge upon the honor of the Gaon of Vilna. Nor did he travel to the Gaon of Vilna in deference to his experience in Mezritch. During the heated controversy over the acceptability of the chasidic movement, Rabbi Refoel never took issue with the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov because of his respect for the great Maggid in Mezritch. He even refused to sign the excommunication ban against the Chasidim that issued from Vilna.5 And it is significant to note that some of Rabbi Refoel's own children eventually became chasidim.

1.This story is usually told with reference to Rabbi Refoel's candidacy for the chief rabbinate of Hamburg, Germany. However, based on circumstantial evidence Reshimos Devarim points out this appears to be a mistake. Rabbi Refoel became the chief rabbi of Hamburg in 1777 which was well after the demise of the Maggid of Mezritch in 1772. This story occurred around 1769 or 1770 being the beginning of Rabbi Refoel's seven year term as chief rabbi of Posen.
2.Cf. Avos 4:12; Maimonides, Hilchos Talmud Torah 5:1.
3.According to another version, (2) Was there peace and harmony among the students in Mezritch?
4.The apparent motive behind the request was to get untainted, first hand information of the worthiness of Maggid, perhaps even for the purpose of meeting him.
5.Cf. A Treasury of Chassidic Tales (Rabbi S. Y. Zevin, Mesorah Publications, 1982) Vol. I, p. 76.

[Compiled and translated from HaLekach V'HaLebuv (Rabbi Alexander Yudasin, Vol. II, pp. 194-195), Kesavim (Rabbi Shalom Dovber Notik, p. 8), Kovetz Merchefes (Stencil, p. 42-43), Reshimos Devarim (Rabbi Yehuda Chitrik, Vol. I, pp. 36-38) and Shmuos V'Sipurim (Rabbi Refoel Kahn, Vol. II, pp. 158-159; Vol. III, pp. 149-152) - with appreciated assistance from Mrs. Adina Leitner, Rabbi Boruch Lesches, Rabbi Moshe Miller, Rabbi Hirshel Notik, Rabbi Shalom Spalter and Rabbi Yrachmiel Tilles. The drawing is taken from JewishGen.com.]
Rabbi Refoel Leitner, a former guest teacher at Ascent when he lived in Tsfat, is a database administrator and chasidic scholar currently living in Monsey, NY.

Biographical notes:
Rabbi Raphael HaKohen of Hamburg (? -1791?) was a prominent scholar and author of Toras Yekusiel. He was the chief rabbi of several major towns in Lithuania. He is famed for his saintly conduct. His disciples included the celebrated Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, the Gaon of Vilna (1720 - 19 Tishrei 1797) was one of the most prominent figures in the Torah world of recent centuries, his erudition covered the entire field of Torah scholarship (as well as natural sciences and mathematics) on which he wrote some 70 works. Despite his extreme seclusion - his ascetic assiduity has become proverbial - he exerted a powerful influence on Jewish affairs.

Rabbi Dov Ber (c.1700-19 Kislev 1772), the son of Avraham and Chava, known as the Maggid of Mezritch, succeeded his master, the Baal Shem Tov, to become the second head of the chasidic movement. Most of the leading chasidic dynasties stem from his disciples and his descendents. The classic anthologies of his teachings are Likutei Amarim and Torah Ohr (combined by Kehos Publishing as Maggid Devorav l'Yaakov), and Ohr HaEmmes.

Rabbi Meshulam Zusya of Anopoli (?- 2 Shvat 1800), was a major disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch, successor to the Baal Shem Tov. The seemingly unsophisticated but clearly inspired "Reb Zusya" is one of the best known and most beloved chasidic personalities. He and his famous brother, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk, spent many years wandering in exile, for esoteric reasons.

Yrachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds of published stories to his credit.

A 48 page soft-covered booklet containing eleven of his most popular stories may be ordered on our store site.

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