Rabbi Dov Baer ben Avraham of Mezeritch, also known as the Maggid of Mezritch, was a disciple of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, and was chosen as his successor to lead the early movement
Rabbi Dov Baer ben Avraham of Mezeritch (Hebrew: דֹּב בֶּר מִמֶּזְרִיטְשְׁ) (died December 1772 OS), also known as the Maggid of Mezritch, was a disciple of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, and was chosen as his successor to lead the early movement. Rabbi Dov Baer is regarded as the first systematic exponent of the mystical philosophy underlying the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, and through his teaching and leadership, the main architect of the movement. He established his base in Mezhirichi (in Wołyń), which moved the centre of Hasidism from the Baal Shem Tov's Medzhybizh (in Podolia), where he focused his attention on raising a close circle of great disciples to spread the movement. After his death, avoiding the unified leadership of the first two generations, this third generation of leadership took their different interpretations and disseminated across appointed regions of Eastern Europe. Under the inspiration of their teacher, this rapidly spread Hasidism beyond Ukraine, to Poland, Galicia and Russia.
His teachings appear in Magid Devarav L'Yaakov, Or Torah, Likutim Yekarim, Or Ha'emet, Kitvei Kodesh, Shemuah Tovah, and in the works authored by his disciples. His inner circle of disciples, known as the Chevraia Kadisha ("Holy Brotherhood"), included his son Rabbi Avraham HaMalach (The Angel), Rabbi Nachum of Czernobyl, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, Rabbi Zusha of Hanipol, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, Rabbi Boruch of Medzhybizh, Rabbi Aharon (HaGadol) of Karlin, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, Rabbi Shmuel Shmelke of Nikolsburg and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.
The most common transliterations are Dov Baer, DovBer, or Dov Ber; rarely used forms are Dob Baer or Dobh Baer which often depend on the region in Eastern Europe where Jews resided and hence the influence of the local Yiddish dialects. "Dov" literally means "bear" in Hebrew and "Ber" means the same thing (i.e. "bear") in Yiddish, a type of "double-barrelled name" used by Jews when giving a name of an animal to a child whereby both the Hebrew and Yiddish versions of the name are combined into one.
He was known as the Maggid — "Preacher" or literally "Sayer," one who preaches and admonishes to go in God's ways — of Mezritsh, and near the end of his life the Maggid of the town of Rivne where he was buried.
The German form Meseritz is sometimes used instead of Mezeritch.
Dov Baer was born in Lokachi Wołyń (now Volhynia) in 1710, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia, though his year of birth is unknown and some sources place it around 1700. Little is known about him before he became a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov. A Hasidic legend states that, when he was five years old, his family home burst into flames. On hearing his mother weeping, he asked: "Mother, do we have to be so unhappy because we have lost a house?" She replied that she was mourning the family tree, which was destroyed, and is traced to King David by way of Rabbi Yohanan, the sandal-maker and master in the Talmud. The boy replied: "And what does that matter! I shall get you a new family tree which begins with me!"
When he was young, he reportedly lived in great poverty with his wife. One legend relates that when a child was born, they had no money to pay the midwife. His wife complained and the Maggid went outside to "curse" Israel. He went outside and said: "O children of Israel, may abundant blessings come upon you!" When his wife complained a second time, he went outside again and cried: "Let all happiness come to the children of Israel — but they shall give their money to thorn bushes and stones!" The baby was too weak to cry, and the Maggid sighed rather than "cursing". Immediately the answer came, and a voice said: "You have lost your share in the coming world." The Maggid replied: "Well, then, the reward has been done away with. Now I can begin to serve in good earnest."
Dov Baer later became an admirer of Rabbi Isaac Luria's system of Kabbalah, which was becoming popular at that time and was aware of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, whose writings, then only in manuscript, were well known among the Polish mystics of the period. Dov Baer followed the Lurian school, living the life of an ascetic, fasting a great deal, praying intensely, and living in poverty. He is reported to have become a cripple as a result of poor nourishment.
One account has it that on account of his poor health he was persuaded to seek out the Baal Shem Tov for a cure.
He arrived at the Baal Shem Tov's house, expecting to hear expositions of profound mysteries, but instead was told stories of the latter's everyday life. Hearing only similar stories at each subsequent visit, Dov Baer decided to return home. Just as he was about to leave, he was summoned again to the Baal Shem Tov's house. The Baal Shem Tov opened an "Eitz Chaim" of Rabbi Chaim Vital (Rabbi Isaac Luria's chief disciple), and asked him to explain a certain passage. Rabbi Dov Baer did so to the best of his ability, but the Baal Shem Tov declared that he had not understood the real meaning of the passage. Dov Baer reviewed it once more and insisted that his interpretation was correct. The Baal Shem Tov then proceeded to explain the passage himself. Legend has it that, as he spoke, the darkness suddenly gave way to light, and angels appeared and listened to the Baal Shem Tov's words. "Your explanations," he said to Dov Baer, "were correct, but your deductions were thoughts without any soul in them." This experience persuaded Rabbi Dov Baer to stay with the Baal Shem Tov.
Rabbi Dov Baer is reported to have learned from the Baal Shem Tov to value everyday things and events, and to emphasize the proper attitude with which to study Torah. The mystical philosophy of the Baal Shem Tov rejected the emphasis on mortification of the body in Musar and Kabbalistic traditions, seeing the greater spiritual advantage in transforming the material into a vehicle for holiness, rather than breaking it. This could be achieved by the perception of the omnipresent Divine immanence in all things, from understanding the inner mystical Torah teachings of Hasidic thought. Under the guidance of the Baal Shem Tov, Dov Baer abandoned his ascetic lifestyle, and recovered his health, though his left foot remained lame. The Baal Shem Tov said that "before Dov Baer came to me, he was already a pure golden menorah (candelebrum). All I needed to do was ignite it." Regarding his holiness, the Baal Shem Tov also reputedly said that if Dov Baer had not been lame, and had been able to ritually immerse in the mikvah, then he could have been able to bring the Mashiach .
Immediately after the death of the Baal Shem Tov in 1760, his son Rabbi Tsvi became the next Rebbe. After only a year he gave up this position. Among the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, two stood out as contenders to succeed him, Dov Baer and Yacov Yoseph of Polonne. Yacov Yoseph would later become the author of the first Hasidic book published ("Toldos Yaacov Yosef" in 1780), one of the most direct records of the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. By collective consent, the Maggid assumed the leadership of Hasidism. In effect he became the architect of the Hasidic movement and is responsible for its successful dissemination.
The Maggid was housebound because of his poor physical condition. Jewish philosopher Solomon Maimon records an encounter with the Maggid in his memoirs, in which he passes a strong negative judgement on the Hasidic movement. He relates that the Maggid passed the entire week in his room, permitting only a few confidants to enter. He appeared in public only on Shabbat, dressed in white satin. On those occasions he prayed with people, and kept open house for anyone who wanted to dine with him. After the meal he would reportedly begin to chant, and placing his hand upon his forehead, would ask those present to quote any verse from the Bible. These served as texts for the Maggid's subsequent sermon. Solomon Maimon wrote: "He was such a master in his craft that he combined these disjointed verses into an harmonious whole."
He attracted a remarkable group of scholarly and saintly disciples, including most of his fellow students of the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov had travelled across Jewish areas, reaching out to and inspiring the common folk, whose sincerity he cherished. He sought to revive the broken spirit of the simple Jews. At the same time, he would also seek out the great scholars of Talmud and Kabbalah, to win them over to Hasidism, to whom he taught the inner meaning of his teachings. Many Hasidic tales relate the stories of the Baal Shem Tov's travels, accompanied by his close disciples, and led by his non-Jewish wagon driver. Dov Baer, in contrast, set up his court in Mezhirichi, where his lameness restricted him, and devoted his main focus to articulating the mystical-philosophical system within the Baal Shem Tov's teachings to his close circle of disciples, who would lead the future movement. The simple folk were also able to visit during the Sabbath public attendancies of Dov Baer, and receive spiritual encouragement and comfort. The Maggid's court became the spiritual seat and place of pilgrimage of the second generation of the Hasidic movement, and moved its centre north from the Baal Shem Tov's residence in Medzhybizh. This move benefited the growth of the movement, as it was closer to new territories in Galicia, Poland and White Russia to reach. It was also nearer to the centre of Rabbinic opposition in Lithuania, who perceived of the new movement as a spiritual threat. The disciples of Dov Baer related that:
With the move of Rabbi Dov Baer, the Shechina (Divine Presence) "Packed up Her belongings and moved from Medzhybizh to Mezeritch, and all we can do is follow"
The elite group of disciples, the "Chevraya Kaddisha" ("Holy Society"), included Rabbi Aharon of Karlin, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, the brothers Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk and Rabbi Zusha of Hanipol, the brothers Rabbi Shmelka (later Chief Rabbi of Nikolsburg) and Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz (later Chief Rabbi of Frankfurt-am-Main and author of profound Talmudic commentaries), and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (author of the Tanya, and by instructions of his master, author of an updated version of the Shulchan Aruch Code of Jewish Law for the new movement). These disciples, being themselves great Talmudic authorities and well-versed in Kabbalah and Hasidic philosophy, were successful in turning Hasidus into a vast movement.
Hasidism spread rapidly as a result of Dov Ber's powerful personality, gaining footholds in Volhynia, Lithuania, and Ukraine. The dissolution of the "Four-Lands" synod in 1764 proved favorable to its spread. The local rabbis were annoyed by the growth of the movement, but could not easily do anything about it. The Gaon of Vilna was the only rabbi whose reputation extended beyond the borders of Lithuania. When Hasidism appeared in Vilna, the Vilna Gaon enacted the first major excommunication against Hasidism, which was issued on April 11, 1772. The Vilna Gaon believed the movement was antagonistic to Talmudic rabbinism and was suspicious that it was a remnant of the recent Sabbatean movement. See Hasidim and Mitnagdim.
The Maggid's pupils Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi tried to visit the Vilna Gaon to bring about reconciliation, but the Vilna Gaon declined to meet them. Lubavitch legend has it that had the Gaon met with these two Rabbis, the Mashiach (Messiah) would have come.
The ban issued at Vilna drew the eyes of the world toward Hasidism. Rabbi Dov Ber ignored the opposition, but it is blamed in part for his death in Mezhirichi on December 15, 1772.
Dov Ber assigned future territories of influence to his leading disciples. After the death of the Maggid in 1772, these disciples dispersed to their assigned territories. Under the Baal Shem Tov and then the Maggid, Hasidism had flourished in Podolia and Volynia (present Ukraine) After 1772, under the third generation of leadership, it rapidly spread far and wide, from Galicia and Poland to White Russia (Belarus) in the north. The disciples of the Maggid took different interpretations and qualities of their Master's teachings. This, combined with the new dispersal of their locations, meant that after the Maggid, the Hasidic movement avoided appointing one unifying leader to succeed Dovber.
The Maggid's disciple Elimelech of Lizhensk began Hasidism in Poland. His classic work Noam Elimelech focuses on the Hasidic doctrine of the Tzaddik (Saintly leader and Heavenly intercessor for the wider community). Schneur Zalman of Liadi described Noam Elimelech as the Hasidic "book of the righteous". In Hasidic history, Noam Elimelech became the spiritual doctrine for General-Hasidism, giving birth to the many leaders, successors and dynasties of mainstream Hasidism, and inspiring the emotional attachment and spiritual bond of the common folk to their Rebbe. Through attachment to the saintly individual, who knew mystical secrets, and interceded in Heaven on their behalf, the followers could connect to Divinity. Where the mainstream role of the Tzaddik was emphasised, it often accompanied belief in the benefit of miracle-working, to channel spiritual and material blessing, and increase fervour. The followers would make pilgrimages to their Masters, where they would gain enthusiasm, receive teachings, or could gain private audiences.
Later dynasties such as Peshischa-Kotzk would break away from this General-Hasidic emphasis on Tzaddikim and mysticism.
Among the other followers of Dov Ber in the academy of Mezeritch, the brother of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, Rabbi Zusha of Hanipol holds a beloved place in Hasidic tradition. Reputedlyunable to receive a full teaching from the Maggid, as his excitement caused him to have to run out of the room in dveikus, his holy example personified the elevated soul of the Tzaddik. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who spread Hasidism in the Ukraine, authored the classic Hasidic commentary on the Torah Kedushas Levi, and personified the advocacy of the Jewish people in its relationship with God. He innovated a new spiritual path in defending the people, and persuading their "Heavenly Father" to nullify harsh decrees.
The Maggid left no writings of his own. Many of his teachings were recorded by his disciples and appeared in anthologies "MaggiD DebaraV le-Ya'akoV" (מגיד דבריו ליעקב the last letters of which title spell "Dov"), known also under the title of Likkutei Amarim ("Collected Sayings"), published at Korets in 1780 (second edition with additions Korets 1784), and frequently reprinted; Likkutim Yekarim ("Precious Collections"), published at Lemberg in 1792; Or Torah (the largest collection)published in Korets 1804; Or Ha'emet published in Husiatin 1899; Kitvei Kodesh (small collection) published in Lemberg 1862; Shemu'ah Tovah (small collection) published in Warsaw 1938. A number of manuscripts with additional teachings are in the National Library of the Hebrew University. They consist of excerpts from his sermons, transcribed and compiled by his students. The first to be published (Likkutei Amarim) was collated by his relative, Rabbi Solomon ben Abraham of Lutzk, who, as he himself notes, was unhappy with the manuscript but did not have time to edit it properly. There is a great deal of overlapping between all these texts, but each contains teachings that do not appear in the others. All the texts are corrupt, full of omissions, twisted order, printing-errors and other problems because they were based on whole chains of copyists who were not careful or had faulty manuscripts to begin with. It is only recently that serious work and editing has been done on them: Maggid Devarav Layaakov was edited by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kohn (Jerusalem 1961). Later, a critical edition was edited by Prof. Rivkah Shatz-Uffenheimer (Hebrew University, Jerusalem 1976). Recently, Kehot Publishing of Chabad put out another edition edited by Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet (Brooklyn NY 2008). These recent editions all contain comprehensive introductions, annotations and indices. Or Torah has appeared in an authoritative, annotated edition with introduction, commentaries, comprehensive cross-references and detailed indices, authored by Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet (Brooklyn NY 2006). Likkutim Yekarim annotated edition by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kohn (Jerusalem 1974).
For the Maggid, God manifests Himself in creation, which is only one aspect of His activity, and which is therefore in reality a self-limitation. Just as God in His goodness limited Himself, and thus descended to the level of the world and man, so it is the duty of the latter to strive to unite with God. The removal of the outer shell of mundane things, or "the ascension of the [divine] spark," being a recognition of the presence of God in all earthly things, it is the duty of man, should he experience pleasure, to receive it as a divine manifestation, for God is the source of all pleasure.
Rabbi Dov Ber's view of prayer was that it is the purpose of the life on earth to advance until the perfect union with God is attained. Thus the vegetable kingdom serves as food for the animal kingdom, in order that the lower manifestation of divinity, existing in the former, may be developed into a higher one. Man being the highest manifestation has a duty to attain the highest pinnacle in order to be united with God. The way to achieve this, he argued, is through prayer, in which man forgets himself and his surroundings, and concentrates all his thought and feeling upon union with God.
Like the Neo-Platonists, he said that when a man becomes so absorbed in the contemplation of an object that his whole power of thought is concentrated upon one point, his self becomes unified with that point. So prayer in such a state of real ecstasy, effecting a union between God and man, is extremely important, and may even be able to overcome the laws of nature.
Rabbi Dov Ber taught that only the tzadik is able to remove all his thoughts from earthly things and concentrate completely on God. Because of his union with God, he is the connecting link between God and creation, and thus the channel of blessing and mercy. The love that men have for the tzadik provides a path to God. The duty of the ordinary mortal is therefore to love the tzadik and be subservient to him. In this connection Hasidim cite the classical Jewish teaching that Scripture considers one who serves Torah scholars to be cleaving to the Almighty Himself. Many Jews outside Hasidic circles argued that there can be no intermediaries between man and God, and this was one of the reasons that some non-Hasidic rabbis objected to Hasidism . Hasidim believe that the root cause of this disagreement, as of all disagreements on questions of Torah, is lack of diligence in investigation.
May the merit of the tzadik Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch protect us all. Amen