The tzaddik Reb Avraham Kalisker was a disciple of the Great Maggid, and had arrived in Mezritch even before the Alter Rebbe. As we know, the tzaddik Reb Avraham's system of avodah and Chassidus was very different. He had the highest regard for emotional excitement; also, to him physical gestures were significant features of avodah, as is told in many stories. The young men who surrounded the tzaddik Reb Avraham soon acquired his mannerisms, but without the fundamental principles on which they were based.
To Reb Avraham, emotional excitement, and conduct that visibly demonstrated his total self effacement, were merely the means by which avodah could be achieved. But to these young men, the mannerisms themselves constituted their avodah. As a result, their behavior was extremely eccentric.
At about that time, the holy tzaddik Rabbi Mendel of Vitebsk moved to Horodok, as instructed by his Rebbe, the Maggid of Mezritch. At first, all the young men of the vicinity became his close followers; this was in the years 5528-5529 [1768-1769]. The holy tzaddik Reb Mendel had a completely different approach to Chassidus: his approach was intellectual, with no visible emotional component. For this reason, he could not maintain his large following. His teachings were very deep, without explanatory remarks. On the other hand, the tzaddik Reb Avraham's chief form of avodah was emotional, and Torah study was given far less emphasis. For this reason, the typical young man preferred to attach himself to the Kalisker. One of his closest adherents was Reb Simchah Zissel.
On an ordinary summer weekday, when the sun was scorchingly hot, Reb Simchah Zissel was quite capable of putting on a winter fur coat, felt winter boots, and a round hat with ear flaps, and parading in the marketplace thus attired. By such conduct, and similar unbalanced behavior, he and his colleagues imagined they were demonstrating their self-effacement. Eventually, the Maggid of Mezritch became aware of these doings, and when the tzaddik Reb Avraham came to Mezritch he took him to task about this.
These activities and various other kinds of weird behavior (the young Kalisker Chassidim preferred to call it "chassidic" behavior) took place around the year 5530 . All of this bizarre conduct served as excellent material for the misnagdim who claimed that the chassidim were a cult that intended to create new mitzvos.
This is not the place to describe in detail the lies and slander that the misnagdim invented about the chassidim, all based on the Kalisker type of behavior. At last, as I already mentioned, the Maggid became aware of all this and took a strict stand against it, forbidding such conduct entirely.
The Maggid of Mezritch was very strict with chassidim in general, and with his disciples in particular. Strict obedience ("party discipline," in other words) was expected of all the Maggid's disciples. Even the slightest failure to fulfill his orders or to carry out one of his decisions to the letter resulted in severe penalties.
In one of his letters to Reb Avraham, the Alter Rebbe hinted that Reb Avraham would do well to remember the personal risk that he [the Alter Rebbe] assumed when he interceded with the Maggid on Reb Avraham's behalf in the renowned matter.
The Maggid of Mezritch was about to expel the tzaddik Reb Avraham from the Holy Fellowship. The other disciples, with all their begging, accomplished little; only the Alter Rebbe, with his outstanding G-dly intensity, took a very active role in the matter and finally convinced the Maggid to pardon Reb Avraham. The Alter Rebbe referred to his intervention in this matter as mesirus nefesh - meaning that he placed his own soul in the balance - and he succeeded.
The situation described above gave rise to the well-known chassidic expression, "Tolker, chassidic conduct is not a tolk," meaning that the conduct of the chassidim in 5530 is not orderly conduct. After this, Reb Avraham no longer occupied himself with counseling young men, and he became a follower and colleague of the holy Reb Mendel [Horodoker]. He visited Horodok frequently, and after the Maggid of Mezritch passed away he became Reb Mendel's chossid, later emigrating with him to Eretz Yisrael.
After the Maggid of Mezritch and his son, the Holy Malach ("Angel") Reb Avraham, had both passed away, the Alter Rebbe began visiting Horodok frequently. When the Maggid of Mezritch passed away on 19 Kislev, 5533 [December 15, 1772], the Holy Fellowship of the Maggid's disciples elected the tzaddik, the Holy Malach Reb Avraham as their Rebbe.
I would need to devote separate volumes to write about each of these subjects: the history of [the Malach's] leadership; the situation of the Holy Fellowship at that time; the internal politics (there were different opinions among the members of the Holy Fellowship over the direction that the chassidic way of life should take); and the external politics concerning the misnagdim.
Alas, the leadership of the Rebbe the Malach did not last much longer than two years; in the year 5535  the Holy Malach passed away. Despite the fact that the Holy Fellowship unanimously elected the Alter Rebbe as the coordinator of the Fellowship, he chose Reb Mendel to be his Rebbe.
All the members of the Fellowship agreed that they would not have one Rebbe over all of them; each of the younger disciples was to choose for himself an elder disciple who would be his mentor and leader. Each disciple was assigned a city where he would be the maggid; this was to be his territory, and no other disciple was permitted to trespass upon it. Each disciple would disseminate the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid in his own territory according to his own preferred system.
From time to time, they were to meet together at a place to be agreed upon, where they would discuss ways to use their utmost powers to guard themselves against the misnagdim. For this they needed a coordinator for the Fellowship, and they unanimously chose the Alter Rebbe. But the [Alter] Rebbe followed his own conscience, becoming an adherent of Reb Mendel, and he began visiting Horodok frequently.
Reb Simchah Zissel, along with the other former Kalisker chassidim, now became a follower of the tzaddik Reb Mendel. Because his in-laws lived in Horodok, he had the opportunity to be near Reb Mendel frequently. However, he was very emotional and excitable by nature, and not much of an intellectual. As a result, he found it difficult to understand Reb Mendel's teachings, and so he continued in his old ways, though his behavior was not so bizarre as before. He thus suffered great anguish, being unable to find a stable system of avodah.
Reb Simchah Zissel was aware that the Rebbe of his Rebbeim (i.e., the Maggid of Mezritch, the Rebbe of both Reb Avraham of Kalisk and Reb Mendel of Horodok) had forbidden the path of avodah that stressed emotional excitement and the kind of self-effacement that Reb Simchah Zissel had practiced for several years in the past; but he was unable to achieve the kind of avodah demonstrated by Reb Mendel. Thus, he found himself in severe distress, and on no account could he adjust to any stable avodah.
With regard to his material standing, Reb Simchah Zissel was rather well off. He was quite a gifted handyman - a bit of a tinsmith, a bit of a locksmith - when needed, he could repair a scythe for cutting hay, a rake, and even a plowshare for tilling earth. He partitioned off a small space in one of his rooms, built himself a forge and a bellows, and thus managed to earn a good living.
But Reb Simchah Zissel had no children. The tzaddikim Reb Avraham and Reb Mendel had both given him their blessings that he might beget children, and they had even mentioned his name to their own Rebbe, the Maggid of Mezritch, but to no avail. Years passed, and unfortunately he still had no children. Although he suffered greatly because of this, he accepted his suffering with love. Being by nature a cheerful individual, his anguish at being childless was not outwardly apparent.
His wife Chavah, however, could not bear it, and she constantly wept and lamented. She did numerous good deeds: she would care for poor women who had given birth, for orphans, and for the sick. During the days of the month when it was possible for her to become pregnant she would distribute charity, but nothing helped. The years kept passing by, and they were both close to forty; she still felt physically well and her health was good, but time was running out.
Reb Simchah Zissel, being broken in spirit because of his inability to find for himself a stable system of avodah (as described previously), and being afflicted by his physical distress of childlessness, begged the Alter Rebbe to be his guest. He placed a comfortable room at his disposal, and the Alter Rebbe agreed. When the Alter Rebbe moved into Reb Simchah Zissel's guest-room, Reb Simchah Zissel explained to his wife who their visitor was, telling her that this was none other than the Liozner Maggid, who was instructed by the Maggid of Mezritch - the Rebbe of all the Rebbeim - to write a Shulchan Aruch, and that all the other Rebbeim considered him their right eye.
Hearing this, Chavah begged the Alter Rebbe to bless her with children; but the Rebbe replied that she should go to the holy Reb Mendel, for he himself was unable to help her. Thereupon she broke out in loud, bitter weeping, imploring him to have mercy upon them, so that they might be helped. The Alter Rebbe tried to comfort her, assuring her that Almighty G-d would surely come to their aid, but that they must remain steadfast in their faith.
During the early years when the Alter Rebbe frequently visited Horodok, from 5535 to 5537 or 38 , he always stayed at Reb Simchah Zissel's home. Reb Simchah Zissel observed the Alter Rebbe's way of avodah, and became one of his devotees. Each time, Reb Simchah Zissel's wife would cry and beseech the Rebbe to do something for them so that they might be delivered.
Although Reb Simchah Zissel had an ample income, he remained broken in spirit and depressed because he had no children. He understood that there was something wrong here: they consulted many doctors, they drank herbal solutions, they recited incantations, they tried various traditional remedies, but nothing helped. They had blessings from the tzaddikim Reb Avraham Kalisker and Reb Mendel [Horodoker], their names had even been brought to the attention of the Great Maggid, but until now nothing had brought about their salvation.
All this suggested that there was a great heavenly decree against them; therefore, the solution obviously lay in teshuvah, prayer, and charity. He donated (what was in those days considered to be) huge sums to charity: both locally, and in support of students of Torah abroad.
With each visit of the Alter Rebbe to Horodok, Reb Simchah Zissel became ever more attracted to him. He began to comprehend Reb Mendel's teachings: when he heard the teaching directly from Reb Mendel he understood nothing, but when he later heard the same teaching repeated by the Alter Rebbe together with the Alter Rebbe's explanatory remarks, he understood it quite well, and took great delight in it. Reb Simchah Zissel therefore came to the decision that he would become the Alter Rebbe's chossid.
But becoming a chossid requires a certain amount of preparation. In those days people were wiser, and knew what a "Rebbe" means, and what qualities a "chossid" must possess.
Time passed, without a visit by the Alter Rebbe to Horodok. Reb Simchah Zissel greatly missed the Alter Rebbe, and from day to day his longing grew stronger, until he finally decided to travel to the Alter Rebbe in Liozna.
Reb Simchah Zissel thought the whole matter over carefully, and concluded that his decision to become the Alter Rebbe's chossid should first be discussed with Reb Mendel. He would tell him that for some time now he had been attracted to the Alter Rebbe. Whenever the Alter Rebbe visited and reviewed Reb Mendel's teachings, and when he observed the Alter Rebbe's conduct and avodah, he became a new person entirely. Then, he would hear what Reb Mendel had to say about it.
The day arrived when Reb Simchah Zissel felt himself worthy of entering Reb Mendel's chamber for yechidus. In those days people understood that going to the Rebbe for yechidus requires advance personal preparation: first, to be able to reveal to the Rebbe everything that troubles one's soul, both the mental anguish and the emotional distress; second, to make up one's mind firmly that he will do whatever the Rebbe advises, and do it with mesirus nefesh.
But beyond this personal preparation, the day itself when one goes for yechidus must be worthy. On the evening before the yechidus day, one should recite Kerias Shema before retiring along with the appropriate soul-searching; then one should rise at midnight and recite Tikkun Chatzos with feeling, so that he comes to feel within himself the destruction of his personal Beis HaMikdash, (meaning the personal sanctuary about which is written, "And they shall make a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell within"). The person should feel that his Beis HaMikdash is (may G-d preserve us) destroyed and desolate; that the G-dly soul which G-d gave him is now in exile.
While meditating on these subjects, he should recite Tikkun Chatzos with genuine bitterness of heart, weeping and lamenting bitterly from the very depths of his soul. Then, he should study some Torah, purify himself in the mikveh, and study Chassidus in preparation for prayer. He should daven with both his intellect and emotions, imploring G-d's assistance in doing teshuvah, and spend the day fasting and studying Torah. On this kind of day, it is appropriate to go to one's Rebbe for yechidus with some anticipation that the yechidus will be of help.
As Reb Simchah Zissel entered the Holy Reb Mendel's chamber for yechidus, he searched his mind and wrung out his heart. At that very moment, everything that had happened to him during the past twenty-five years ran through his thoughts. For many long years he had been an adherent of the Kalisker; he followed in the ways of Chassidus with mesirus nefesh. Later, he had to abandon that style of Chassidus; he found it exceedingly difficult to do so, but his Rebbe Reb Avraham Kalisker had himself compelled him to abandon those ways. Now it was almost six years that he had been a follower of the holy tzaddik Reb Mendel; during the whole six years he had not had a single good week.
He did not comprehend the teachings, and was unable to achieve the kind of intellectual avodah taught by Reb Mendel.
What was to become of him? His life fluctuated from one extreme to the other. He was filled with an inner shame, coupled with fear and dread, as he approached Reb Mendel to tell him that he had no relish for his avodah, and that he therefore wished to become a chossid of the Liozner Maggid. He felt sick, and burst into weeping from the depths of his heart.
Reb Mendel waited for quite a while until Reb Simchah Zissel recovered and began to speak and pour out his bitter heart. For more than twenty-five years he had followed the ways of Chassidus, but had accomplished nothing! It was only during the last few years, since the Liozner Maggid began coming to the Rebbe more frequently, and he was able to hear [the Liozner's] explanatory remarks to the Rebbe's discourses, that he began to understand anything. Therefore, he had become attracted to the [Liozner] Rebbe, and wished to become his chossid; he had come to the holy Rebbe [Reb Mendel] to seek his advice and blessing. If Reb Mendel agreed, he was requesting permission to travel to Liozna to the Maggid, along with a blessing that G-d grant him success.
After listening to him, the holy Rebbe Reb Mendel replied, "We all studied from the same source, but a cure requires two things: the correct medicine, and the correct physician. Go to Liozna and become a true follower; may Almighty G-d grant you good fortune."
Upon leaving the yechidus, Reb Simchah Zissel found himself more broken than ever, for it appeared that Reb Mendel had erased his name from among his followers. By saying, "Go to Liozna and become a true follower," he implied that the truth had been missing. "Become a true follower" meant that until then his adherence [to Reb Mendel] had not been genuine.
"So the failure is my own! It is no surprise that I don't understand the teachings, and that Reb Mendel's ways do not attract me. If the truth is missing, things are bad!" Now, Reb Simchah Zissel understood why the blessings for children had failed. The failure was his own: his adherence was not true, and one must be a true follower.
Reb Simchah Zissel began to contemplate the Rebbe's answer in depth. "A cure requires both the correct medicine, and the correct physician." Now everyone knows what "the correct medicine" refers to, for the Rebbe clearly said, "We all studied from the same source." But what was it that they studied from this one source? Obviously, he was referring to the medicines for ailing souls; they all learned the correct medicine from the same source. However, the medicine must be prescribed by the correct physician. That's why the Rebbe told him to go to Liozna.
But, why hadn't the Rebbe told him this on his own? Why had the Rebbe waited until he - Simchah Zissel - came to him and said that he desired to go to Liozna? The answer was that he - Simchah Zissel - was not a "true" follower. The best the Rebbe could do was to advise him to "become a 'true' follower." Only then did the Rebbe bless him, "may Almighty G-d grant you good fortune." The tzaddik's blessing was indeed a command, but only on the condition that he became a "true" follower; only then might the blessing be fulfilled, "may Almighty G-d grant you good fortune."
When Reb Simchah Zissel thought more deeply into the Rebbe's answer, his pain became even greater. "I labored my whole adult lifetime, twenty-five years, lacking truth! If it isn't truth, then it must be a lie. So for twenty-five years I have been lying to the Master of the Universe, the Rebbe Reb Avraham, and the holy Reb Mendel. No wonder the blessings have not been fulfilled!"
Reb Simchah Zissel debated with himself for days on end, but could find no names for himself besides "liar" and "fraud." He would constantly berate himself, calling himself the most awful names, and vilifying himself. He poked such fun at himself that he began to find himself repulsive and he viewed himself as the lowliest creature on earth.
He fasted, he recited Tehillim with tears from the depths of his heart, he tormented himself, gave charity, and did teshuvah. He learned sayings of the Talmudic Sages dealing with the sin of committing fraud; he studied all the Mussar texts that declare the enormity and heinousness of this sin and the punishments that befall liars, especially those who deceive the Master of the Universe and the Rebbeim.
For several weeks Reb Simchah Zissel continually learned the Mussar texts about this one topic: the sin of fraud, and the punishments meted out for it.
During these several weeks, he would recall in precise detail how he had come to be a chossid and a follower of Kalisker ways. His father had been a plain Jew, an unsophisticated Jew, who knew nothing of "chossid vs. misnaged." He would rise at three o'clock in the morning, summer or winter, and go right to the beis hamedrash. First, he would recite Tikkun Chatzos, then he would study a lesson in Gemara, and recite several chapters of Tehillim.
In summertime he would daven at six o'clock, followed by a chapter of the Mishnah; in wintertime he studied a longer Gemara lesson before davening, and the Mishnayos lesson also preceded the davening. He would begin davening at eight o'clock, and at nine o'clock he would come home for a bite to eat.
Afterwards he went to the store to relieve his wife, for during the times of morning and afternoon prayers she took care of the business. Between Minchah and Maariv, he studied Aggada and after Maariv he studied Halachah. In this way he lived quietly, with no troubles or worries. Reb Simchah Zissel's father had indeed heard of the people called "chassidim," but he had no desire to find out who they were, or what they stood for.
Reb Simchah Zissel had been born in his parents' old age; his older brothers were much older than he. When Reb Simchah Zissel was still a small child, several of his brothers were already married. One was a melamed, one was a potter, one was a butcher. All were quite learned and pious Jews, but fanatic misnagdim. They used to tell such wicked stories about the chassidim that their old father - who himself was no lover of chassidim - could not bear to listen to their slanderous tales. As a child, Reb Simchah Zissel did not know exactly what chassidim were. But he did know that whenever his brothers visited their father, they were constantly complaining about "the chassidim," and they would heap the most terrible curses upon them.
Reb Simchah Zissel's father had a sister whose husband was a chossid. Once, during an argument with his sister about some old quarrel, Reb Simchah Zissel's father became enraged, and the uncle came to his wife's defense. When the father vilified his brother-in-law as a member of "the cult," the uncle responded with a curse, "May your Simchah Zissel become a chossid!" Upon hearing this, the father began to tremble.
When Simchah Zissel grew a bit older, he was transferred to a more senior teacher, with whom he spent several years - he had started off as a pupil in the class taught by his brother. When he approached the age of Bar Mitzvah, possessing a good mind and a fondness for study, he began frequenting the beis hamedrash, where he would go to study a bit.
In this beis hamedrash there was an old Jew, a genuine Torah scholar, who was called Reb Chayim Holtz, because whenever he lay down to sleep - he would sleep on a bench in the beis hamedrash - he would put a piece of wood under his head for a pillow. This Reb Chayim studied Torah very diligently. He often fasted, and when he ate, his meal consisted of bread and water; on weekdays it was cold water. In honor of Shabbos, however, he drank warm water that had been heated before Shabbos. He would recite Kiddush over challah.
By nature, Reb Chayim was the silent type. He paid no attention to anything that happened in the beis hamedrash, but if asked about a Torah subject he would answer at length.
When people spoke ill of the chassidim he would reply, "Why do you slander your fellow Jews? If I were not so old and sick, I myself would go to visit the Rebbe of the chassidim."
When Reb Simchah Zissel asked Reb Chayim why he slept on a piece of wood, he replied with the Talmudic saying, "Sleep is one sixtieth part of death."
"Now you tell me," said Reb Chayim to Reb Simchah Zissel, "does it make sense to do something that will make you sleep even more? You could sleep your whole life away!"
Reb Chayim advised Reb Simchah Zissel to go to a yeshivah out-of-town to study. He offered to give him a letter of reference to a famous Rosh Yeshivah in Vohlynia; but Reb Simchah Zissel declined, preferring to continue his learning in the local beis hamedrash.
Reb Chayim Holtz had lived in Kalisk for many years, but no one knew who he was or where he came from. All he did was sit in the beis hamedrash and study. At that time there were numerous young men who were being supported by their in-laws so that they could sit in the beis hamedrash and study. They were very fond of hearing Reb Chayim's novel insights and pilpulim. He convinced them to take upon themselves the Talmudic injunction, "Exile yourself to a place of Torah," pointing out that it would be to their benefit if they traveled to other cities to study.
These young folk thought it over, and concluded that it made good sense. When they came to Reb Chayim with the reply that they were willing to go away to study, he advised them about which cities to go to. A few of the finest young men, the young Reb Avraham Kalisker foremost among them (even in his youth, the tzaddik Reb Avraham was renowned as a genius), set out for some village in far-away Vohlynia.
At the time Simchah Zissel began studying in the beis hamedrash, those young men who had gone abroad to study a few years earlier began to return. They came back in good health and cheerful spirits. While davening, they would hum melodies, snap their fingers, clap their hands - strange behavior, most unusual for that town. Even in the middle of their study, they would stop, and begin a tune. And what singing! Fiery, full of energy, it lifted you from your feet.
Now Reb Chayim came to life. He began to talk, no longer keeping his silence. The young men were happy with Reb Chayim, and he was happy with them. There was conversation, and occasional laughter.
Once - Reb Simchah Zissel saw this with his own eyes - late at night, they brought potatoes and baked them on the stove, and they produced a small bottle of strong spirits. Reb Chayim drank, and gave the young men to drink. They kissed one another, and then they began to dance. With his very own eyes, he saw them dancing and singing, for hours on end.
At intervals, Reb Chayim would sit at the table, with the young men surrounding him, and they would speak in whispers. Suddenly, with no warning, Reb Chayim broke into a loud song, and he resumed dancing with the young men.
Reb Simchah Zissel never got over his amazement at this incomprehensible sight: Torah scholars demeaning themselves in a holy place, dancing, drinking whiskey, consuming potatoes, and kissing like doves.
A few weeks later, it all came out: this very Reb Chayim was a leading member of "the cult," who had come here to convert Kalisk to Chassidus. That's why he was always so silent; he was being careful that no one discover who he was and what he was trying to do. Reb Chayim devoted all his energy to convincing the young men to go abroad to study, but he sent them to chassidic villages only. There, they spent a few years among the chassidim, and they assimilated chassidic ways.
The city was afire. What sort of business was this? Imagine taking young folk and misleading them so diabolically! A tempest erupted in the town.
Reb Chayim and the young men took no notice of the yelling and screaming, and continued studying in the beis hamedrash. They convened a separate minyan in the side-room of the beis hamedrash, where they davened in the chassidic style, slowly and without hurry. Occasionally, they would start humming strange, moving melodies that were a pleasure to hear. Right in the middle, they would begin clapping their hands, prancing about, all with the greatest joy. The whole town came to gaze at their davening.
Shortly after the arrival of the young men, they and Reb Chayim began to speak about Chassidus openly with the young people and with the learned menfolk of the town.
Reb Chayim was an excellent speaker. All were aware that he was a great gaon and of a fine character. For as long as he had been in town, everyone had praised and adored him, but no one had ever heard him speak. True, he would reply to questions about Torah study, but as for his speaking publicly and preaching from the pulpit, no one had ever imagined such a thing!
The first few times that Reb Chayim spoke, the learned menfolk became quite enraged; nevertheless, everyone wanted to hear what he had to say. And it was truly worth hearing.
Within three months' time, virtually everyone in town had become a chossid. The truth was out: Reb Chayim was a disciple of the great miracle-worker, the Baal Shem Tov, as he was called by chassidim.
Reb Chayim had two companions: one was named Reb Yissachar Ber, and the other was Reb Mordechai. These three - Reb Chayim, Reb Yissachar Ber, and Reb Mordechai - were comrades who had studied in the same yeshivah for many years. Later they had separated, each returning to his own hometown. But the love they bore for one another remained, and during the first few years of their separation they corresponded frequently.
- (Back to text) A play on words: the Hebrew letters eWk,, which stand for the year 5530, can be pronounced the same as the Yiddish word ekuy, which means "proper order."
- (Back to text) Shmos 25:8.
- (Back to text) In winter, the sun rises later, and in certain locations it is forbidden to recite the morning prayers at the same time as during the summer.
- (Back to text) Holtz means "wood" in Yiddish.
- (Back to text) Berachos 57b.
- (Back to text) The names Vohlynia (sometimes spelled Volhynia) and Podolia refer to territories in the western Ukraine that were once parts of the Polish Empire. The two names are often joined, without regard to the order: Vohlynia-Podolia, or Podolia-Vohlynia.
- (Back to text) Avos 4:14
- (Back to text) The name Ber is a Yiddish form of the Hebrew name Dov ("Bear"). The two are often interchanged (Reb Yissachar Ber and Reb Yissachar Dov are the same person), or joined together (e.g., Reb Dov Ber, the Mitteler Rebbe).