Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, The Admor of the Land of Israel

Today is the yahrtzeit (death anniversary) of Menachem-Mendel of Vitebsk and in brief, this is why he was a pivotal and crucial link in the ongoing efforts to restore the Land of Israel to the Jews by restoring Jews to the country through immigration, Torah study and practical projects of commerce and agriculture:

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (1730–1788), also known as Menachem Mendel of Horodok, was an early leader of Hasidic Judaism. Part of the third generation of Hasidic leaders, he was the primary disciple of the Maggid of Mezeritch. From his base in Minsk Menachem Mendel was instrumental in spreading Hasidism throughout Belarus...After the Maggid's death, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, along with fellow disciple Rabbi Abraham Kalisker ("Kalisker") settled in Horodok.

In 1777 the two, along with 300 followers, emigrated to the Land of Israel settling in Safed. In 1783 they were forced out of Safed, and moved to Tiberias. The synagogue they built there is 1786 still stands among the Ancient synagogues of Tiberias.

More details:

The Decision to Emigrate to the Land of Israel

It is difficult to understand what exactly caused Reb Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk to make the move to the Holy Land...suddenly, he decided to take a group of followers and travel to the land of Israel with the intention of staying there for the rest of his life.

...In the year 5537 (circa 1777), Reb Menachem Mendel took three hundred of his followers and set out for the land of Israel. [This: - The first Chassidic aliyah ("ascent" - immigration to the Holy Land), led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, Rabbi Abraham of Kalisk and Rabbi Yisroel of Polotzk, reached the Holy Land on Elul 5 of the year 5537 from creation (1777 CE).] The hardships involved were enormous, and one peril after another came upon the group. Even before reaching Israel one of travelers’ boats sank, taking with it the lives of thirty Jews. When they arrived in Israel they settled in Safed, but the Turks and the Arabs persecuted them, so much so that eventually they were forced to leave the city and move to Tiberius. Yet, they were not permitted to settle comfortably in this new setting.

The difficulties of income were great; most of the company possessed no skill from which they could earn a living. As a result, Reb Menachem was forced to ask the Jews of Russia time and time again to send donations in order to support the Chassidic community in Eretz Yisrael. On top of all of these difficulties, it happened that from time to time epidemics would break out taking the lives of some of Reb Menachem’s followers.

...The Sefardic Jews living in Israel at that time held Reb Menachem Mendel in great esteem, and he attached himself to them affectionately. Rabbi Menachem even matched his dearly loved son, who was also an outstanding scholar, with the daughter of a Sefardic family (a practice that was not at all accepted in those times - and even today is frowned upon by some...). In his last will he advises against scrutinizing or quarreling with the Sefardic Jews whether on issues of religious practice or any other matter.

The tremendous difficulties of settling the land, while caring for the material and spiritual welfare of his followers in Israel and in the Diaspora, sapped the pious rebbe’s strength. Ten years after his arrival in the Holy Land in Menachem-Av, 5547 (circa 1787), at the age of fifty-seven, Reb Menachem Mendel passed away.

Disease had weakened him greatly, but his mind remained clear until his final hour. The rebbe, in his last will writes: ...Let no words of praise be engraved on my headstone - just "Our teacher, Rabbi Menachem Mendel."

...On the first of Iyar Reb Menachem Mendel’s holy soul ascended to heaven.

...thanks to Reb Menachem, the land of Israel became engraved in the consciousness of the Chassidic movement. Leading Chassidic sages, his students and his friends, were appointed with the task of collecting donations in order to support the Jewish settlers in Israel. As a result, they and their followers became attached in one way or another to the land of Israel...In fact, it may very well have been Reb Menachem Mendel’s move to the land of Israel that sowed the vision of settling and nurturing the land of Israel deep in the hearts of Russian Jewry - a vision that would lead to the appearance of a movement for practical Zionism led by Russian Jewry many years later.

Some of his words:

Rabbi Mendel used to say: “It is true that the air of the Land of Israel makes a man wise. Before I was in that land, all my thoughts and desires were intent on single prayer just once in exactly the right way. But since I am in this land, all I want is just to say 'Amen' in the right way."

Another thing he said, was: “This is what I attained in the Land of Israel. When I see a bundle of straw lying in the street, it seems to me a sign of the presence of God, that it lies there lengthwise, and not crosswise.”

A recorded lecture.

(If you wish to purchase a first edition of his book, check this out)

Suggested Reading

Moshe Halamish, “The Teachings of R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk,” in Hasidism Reappraised, ed. Ada Rapoport-Albert, pp. 268–287 (London and Portland, Ore., 1996); Raya Haran, “Shivḥe ha-Rav: Li-She’eylat aminutan shel igrot ha-ḥasidim me-Erets-Yisra’el,” Katedrah 55 (1990): 22–58; Raya Haran, “Mah heni‘a et talmide ha-Magid la‘alot le-Erets-Yisra’el,” Katedrah 76 (1995): 77–95; Naḥum Karlinski, Historiyah sheke-neged: “Igrot ha-ḥasidim me-Erets-Yisra’el” (Jerusalem, 1998); Yehoshu‘a Mondshine, “Aminutan shel igrot ha-Ḥasidim,” Katedrah 63 (1992): 65–97, 64 (1992): 79–97; Mordecai Wilensky, Ha-Yishuv ha-ḥasidi bi-Teveriya: ‘Ad petirato shel Rabi Avraham mi-Kalisk, 570 (Jerusalem, 1988).

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