Thursday, February 09, 2017

The Rabbi, the Rebbe, and the Messiah

The Rabbi, the Rebbe, and the Messiah
By Brian Schwartz

If someone were to ask you of an instance where a rabbi was declared the messiah by his followers, the first example that would probably come to mind is the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, R’ Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, who to this very day many of his chasidim regard as the Messiah, despite his death.  Many people would struggle to point to any other similar times in history, besides for the Shabbethai Tzvi affair and his various successors[1], where someone was thought of as the Jewish Messiah. However, throughout the past few hundred years, there have been a handful of rabbis who have been explicitly or implicitly declared the messiah, suggested it, or have been accused of suggesting it. 

Messiahship was a chasidic and mystical phenomenon, with chasidic rebbes; R’ Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov[2], R’ David of Tulna[3], R’ Yisrael of Ruzhin[4], R’ Nachman of Breslov[5], R’ Yitzchak Isaac Safrin of Komarna[6], R’ David Moshe of Chortkov[7], and mystics; R’ Chaim Vital[8], R’ Chaim ibn Attar[9], R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzato[10], Shukar Kuchayil I[11], and Shukar Kuchayil II[12], and more recently Yisrael Dov Odesser[13], all being labeled one way or another as the Messiah[14].  Despite the characterization of these individuals as the Messiah, most lived on without any scandal associated with the eschatological attribution.  There is one instance however, which unfortunately did cause a great uproar.  I refer to you the case of R’ Menachem Mendel Hagar, the scion of the Vizhnitz chasidic dynasty, and the Transylvanian town of Borşa.

Borşa was a mountain village located in Northern Transylvania, in the Maramureș region of Romania.  In 1830 it had a Jewish population of 250, rising to 1,432 in 1890.  Most of the people in Borşa were chasidim of the Kosov-Vizhnitz dynasty.  In 1855, R’ Yaakov Tzvi Waldman, a chasid himself, though an adherent of R’ Chaim Halberstam of Sanz, was chosen as rabbi of Borşa.  Considered a great talmid chacham by his peers[15], Rabbi Waldman was defrocked by his own kehillah because of his harsh words towards the Vizhnitz Chasidim of his town.  The story behind this is relayed by R’ Avraham Yehuda Schwartz, author of the Sh”ut Kol Aryeh, in two letters he sent; one to the townspeople of Borşa, and one to R’ Menachem Mendel Hagar, the Rebbe of Vizhnitz.  In the letters, he mourns over the great bizuy talmid chacham that transpired because of the people of the town removing Waldman from his position as rabbi, replacing him with a boor, and threatening anyone who still considered him rabbi with excommunication.  

What caused all this to transpire?  In the year 1870, the Chasidim of Borşa decided that since the gematria of “Menachem” (the Vizhnitzer rebbe’s name) is equivalent to that of “Tzemach” (a term used by the prophets to refer to the messiah, see Zachariah 6:12, and Midrash Eicha Rabbah 1:57), Menachem Mendel Hagar, the Rebbe of Vizhnitz must be the messiah.  Reacting to this, Waldman said, “כי אמונה כזאת ועבודת האנשים המאמינים בה זרה.”

Here are the two letters printed in the Toldos Kol Aryeh, and if you look at the footnote to the letter to Borşa on p.147, you’ll notice that it says that it was first printed in the beginning of Shu”t Vayitzbor Yosef:





The Vayitzbor Yosef was written by R’ Yosef Schwartz[16], the grandson of R’ Avraham Yehuda Schwartz.  The copy I initially had, was the second edition printed by R’ Yosef’s nephew in Brooklyn in 1987[17].  Here is the title page:


  
However, a thorough search for the letter through the entire work came up with nothing.  It seems to have vanished.  After an exhaustive hunt, I was finally able to procure a first edition of the Vayitzbor Yosef, and upon examination, I was able to realize the full extent of how doctored the second edition is.  In the second edition, there are approbations added from R’ Yosef Schwartz’s other work Ginzei Yosef, and the index is in the back of the sefer, unlike the first edition where they were printed in the front, right after the hakdamah and before the pesicha.  These changes are quite innocuous.  However, in the second edition, a picture of the original title page is presented with a glaring omission.

Here is how it is presented:


And here is it in actuality:


Notice anything different?  That’s right, on the original title page, there is mention of a separate part of the sefer, “Naftali Savah Ratzon” which is supposed to be a collection of things that the author heard from his father R’ Naftali Schwartz.  If you guessed that the second edition is devoid of this section in its entirety, you would also be correct.  Here is a picture of the beginning of that missing section, which also happens to be printed in the back of the New York edition of Toldos Kol Aryeh:


Having gone through the Naftali Savah Ratzon, I couldn’t find any objectionable material that would have motivated the publishers from removing it.  So what was their motivation?  Remember the missing letter from R’ Avraham Yehuda Schwartz, the Kol Aryeh?  Well, in the first edition, there is another small section right after the pesicha, called “Hashmatah V’hosafa L’kunteres Naftali Savah Ratzon.”

Here is how the second edition appears:


And here is how it’s supposed to look like:


This section is four pages long, and in it can be found the censored letter from R’ Schwartz to the people of Borşa.  It would seem that this sensitive letter was behind the publisher’s motivation to totally remove any mention of the Naftali Savah Ratzon, since it was officially part of it as a hashmatah.  So not only was an important document lifted from the sefer, a whole section became a casualty along with it.  Why the publishers couldn’t just take the letter out and keep the rest of the Naftali Savah Ratzon, I’m not sure.  I guess they wanted as “clean” of a job as possible.

I must point out how Leopold Greenwald, Yaakov Tzvi Abraham, Dr. Yehuda Speigel, and Gedaliah Stein explain the rationale of the people of Borşa’s belief that Menachem Mendel Hagar was the Messiah, and how their explanation is mistaken.  Greenwald[18], Abraham[19], Speigal[20], and Stein both suggest how the belief was formulated as a reaction to Hagar’s sefer, Tzemach Tzadik.  In his work Zichron Borsa[21], Stein explains that since Hagar gave no explanation to the title of his sefer, which was perplexing since it did not have Hagar’s name within its title as do other sefarim, such as “Kedushas Levi” by R’ Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, or “Ahavas Yonasan” by R’ Yonasan Eibeshutz, his chasidim saw in it an esoteric meaning.  As the gematria of “Tzemach,” which is used to refer the Messiah in Zachariah 6:12, is equivalent to “Menachem,” and likewise the gematria of “Tzaddik,” which is also used in Zachariah 9:9 to refer to the Messiah, is equivalent to “Mendel,” this must mean that their rebbe, R’ Menachem Mendel Hagar is indeed the Messiah! 

This explanation is simply untrue.  In no way, could the work Tzemach Tzadik have had any influence on what happened in Borşa in 1870, when it was only published for the first time in 1885.  As for the reason why it was called Tzemach Tzadik, Hagar’s son Baruch, explains in the preface to the work that he simply named it because the gematria is equivalent to Menachem Mendel.  It is also untenable to argue that a manuscript, or knowledge of one with the title Tzemach Tzadik, was floating around at the time of the dispute, because  R’ Baruch Hagar writes in the preface that the material for the work was only written a few years before his father’s passing in 1885.  Consequentially, we must take the letters of the Kol Aryeh for their simple meaning, that the people themselves came up with the gematria of tzemach and its link to the Messiah and the Vizhnitz Rebbe.

Many leading rabbis of the time came to R’ Waldman’s defense, including; R’ Moshe Schick[22], R’ Chaim Sofer of Munkatch[23], R’ Chaim Halberstam of Sanz[24], R’ Yosef Shaul Nathansohn[25], and the previously mentioned R’ Avraham Yehuda Schwartz. It seems that the only rabbi that came to the defense of the Vizhnitz Chasidim, was R’ Yehuda Modern[26].  What happened next isn’t very clear, but it seems that a tribunal was held by Schwartz to settle things[27], and Waldman was reinstituted as rabbi of Borşa.  Waldman died in Vienna in 1883.

As a side note, take a look at the last page of the letter of R’ Schwartz, printed in the first edition of the Vayitzbor Yosef, on the very bottom:


That is a stamp referring to the responsum of R’ Moshe Schick to Borşa!  I don’t know if this appears in every first edition copy, or if some private owner went to the trouble to specially stamp this, but it would be interesting to find out!




[1] Mordechai Mochiach of Eisenstaedt, Baruchia Russo, Jacob Querido, Abraham Cordozo, Yehuda Leib Prossnitz, and Jacob Frank
[2] See Ba’al Shem Tov Al Hatorah (Jerusalem 1998) in the Hakdamah #23 in the name of Nachum from Chernobyl, though this is seemingly a contradiction to the Iggeres Hakodesh of the Ba’al Shem Tov where he writes that he spoke with the Messiah.
[3] See Aharon Wertheim, Halachos V’halichos B’Chasidus (Mossad Harav Kook, 2002), pp. 20-21 fn. 52
[4] See David Assaf, The Regal Way (Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 257-261
[5] See Yehuda Leibes, Studies in Jewish Myth and Jewish Messianism (State University of New York Press, 1993) p. 115
[6] See the hakdamah to Chumash Heichal Bracha (Lemberg 1864), "וגם דודי מורי החסיד השלם הצדיק אא"ק מוהר"ר משה הוא קרא אותי בפעם הראשון בשם מורה מורנו בפ' בהר וקרא לפני או דודו יגאלנו ואמר עשיתי אותך גואל ואמר זה באנפין נהרין.".  See Heichal Bracha on Leviticus 25:49 where he says that the verse is referring to Mashiach ben Yosef.  See also Megilas Starim (Jerusalem 1944) where he says he was born in the year משיח בן יוסף,  here.
[7] See Nochum Brandwein, Imrei Tov (1891) p.29a where he writes, "כמו ששמעתי מפי מרן הק' והטהור איש צדיק תמים שמו נאה לו מוהר"ר דוד משה שליט"א. וזאת ידוע כי "משה" עולה :"אלקים אחרים", כי בכוחו נמתק אלקים אחרים , "משה דוד" עולה: "שטן",כי בכוחו להמתיק את השטן מישראל, ואז נמשך גאולה לישראל, כי: "משיח" עם הכולל עולה: "משה דוד", ואז יקויים "ועינינו תראינה מלכותך" ע"י דוד משיח צדקך .  here.
[8] See Chaim Vital, Sefer Hachizyonos (Jerusalem, 2001) pp. 8, 17-18
[9] See Ohr Hachaim, Deuteronomy 15:7 at the end, here.
[10] See Isaiah Tishby, Messianic Mysticism (Littman Library, 2014) pp. 196-199
[11] See Yaakov Sapir, Iggeres Teiman Hasheni (Mainz, 1873)  here and Amram ibn Yachya Kerach, Sa’aras Teiman  (Jerusalem. 1954) pp.36-39 here.
[12] See ibid.
[14]  Though R’ Shalom Shachna of Lublin allegedly wrote on his gemara about the debate in Sanhedrin 98b over the name of the Messiah, "אני אומר שכנא שמו שנאמר לשכנו תדרשו", referring to Deuteronomy 12:5, See Reuven Margolyos, Margolyos Hayam, Sanhedrin 98b #14, it was probably from a disciple in jest.  See Asher Ziv, Rabbeinu Shalom Shachna Milublin, Hadarom No.57, p.119.
[15] His two volume halachic work, Shu”t Tzvi V’Chamid, was printed from a manuscript in 2008.
[16] Here is a picture of R’ Schwartz with his wife:



[17] Unfortunately, hebrewbooks.org doesn’t yet have the sefer online. You can still look at the first forty pages for free on Otzar Ha-Hochma online with this link, here, even if you don't have a subscription.
[18] Matzevat Kodesh (New York 1951) p.24 fn.57 here,  L’toldos Hareformatzian Hadatis B’Germania U’bungaria p.20 fn.40 here.
[19] L’koros Hayahadus B’trasylvania (New York) p.84
[20] Toldos Yisrael V’hispatchus Hachasidus B’Rusia H’Karpatis p.32
[21] (Kiryas Motzken, 1984) part 2 pp.68-71
[22] Shu”t Maharam Schick, Yoreh Deah #219,  here.  The published teshuva is written to an anonymous kehillah, though it is attributed to the town of Borşa.
[23] Toldos Sofrim (London, 1962) pp.37-38, here.  From Sofer’s letter we see how this was also part of the greater dispute between the Sanz and Sadigura chasidim, on this see David Assaf, Heitzitz V’Nifga Ch.19.
[24] Measef Ha’be-er year 7 p.42,  here.  I was very pleased when I first saw this letter. In it, Halberstamm argues that even an evil person that learns torah, his torah isn’t נמאסת, how more so then to a righteous person.  He brings a proof from the famous gemara in Chagiga 15b where a fire came down from heaven in front of Yehuda Hanasi to defend Elisha ben Avuya from disparagement.  I always made the same argument to fanatics who would say disparaging remarks about R’ Joseph B. Soloveitchik.
[25] Shu”t Shoel U’Meishiv Sheviah #16, also in Kerem Shlomo Tamuz 5743
[26] Tzfunos no.10 Teves 5751 p.118, here.
[27] See Toldos Kol Aryeh p.79 #122, here.

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