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Sunday, 6 August 2017

KOTZK BLOG 137) WHY THE  LETTERS OF THE CHERSON GENIZA MAY NOT BE FORGERIES: 

1771 letter signed by R. Leib Saras as found in the Cherson Geniza.
The Letters of the Cherson Geniza are subject to much controversy. Many scholars, as well as most Chassidic groups (besides Chabad and Radzin), consider them to be forgeries. They maintain that someone forged the collection of letters in order to sell them to the Chassidic courts because they knew such letters would fetch a very high price. In my original article on the Cherson Geniza, I too was inclined to believe that they were indeed forgeries.

However, after immersing myself in, and working on, translating these letters for the past few months, I am no longer sure.

I know that some of the dates which appear on the letters are said to allegedly correspond to Shabbat and Yom Tov. But we also know that the letters were hurriedly copied during the tumultuous times of the Russian revolution in 1917 and were never claimed to have been original. There is full disclosure in this regard, and that is why it is quite conceivable for some technical errors to occur. The spelling of names of towns and individuals, for example, also often vary from letter to letter, which is consistent with the notion that these documents were never touted as original letters.

However, it is not unreasonable to believe that the gist of letters and their general content may still be accurate.

Also, these letters have never before been translated into English which would obviously have precluded English speaking academics and historians from analyzing their actual content.
I was most surprised to find just how candid these little-known letters were. They seem to demystify the early Chassidic Masters who are usually portrayed in supernatural idiom. 

Here they appear as very human, with real emotions such as anger, fear, succession tensions, a concern for marketing skills, and even sometimes displaying sensitive egos[1]. The letters themselves have very little mystical content and are instead amazingly practical[2] and pragmatic[3].
But most surprising and noteworthy, are numerous open references to teachings which had to be hidden[4]. This is interesting because Chasidism prided itself on spreading, not hiding, the mystical teachings.

The false Messiah Shabbatai Tzvi had wreaked absolute havoc on the Jewish world and had about half the Jewish population - including a great many prominent and scholarly rabbis - believe in him as the Messiah. No study of Chassidism can be complete without a thorough understanding of just how devastating the Shabbatai Tzvi phenomenon was to future Judaism. Shabbatai Tzvi was not just a footnote to Jewish religious history, as is commonly portrayed – the ethos of his mass movement didn’t suddenly die, but continued to inform much of what was still to come. Truly, his roots run deep.

Shabbatai Tzvi passed away a mere twenty-four (or according to some accounts twenty-two) years before the Baal Shem Tov was born.

Chassidism was then birthed into the milieu of the immediate aftermath of Sabbateanism.  Shabbatai Tzvi had succeeded in bringing the hidden mystical teachings to the masses of people in a way no one else had done before. Granted he distorted and abused Kabbalah, but he certainly knew it and placed it in the public arena. This was the very same accomplishment the Chassidic movement was later to be credited with as if they were the first to do so.

It is, therefore, not impossible for the early founders of Chassidism to have been influenced by some aspects of the allure of this popular and successful mysticism. I’m not suggesting that they were in any way followers of Shabbetai Tzvi, but they certainly and proudly perpetuated the spread of popular mysticism which was introduced by the Sabbatean leaders who were also great and knowledgeable Kabbalists.

The mystical material was not a problem but some of the sources of that material may have been. This would not have gone down well in a Torah world trying to recover from the embarrassment of the Shabbatai Tzvi success. - Could this be the reason why there was an obsession to hide the teachings of the ‘rav hayedua[5] and the ‘moreh hayedua’ (the unnamed well-known rabbi and the unnamed well-known teacher)?

There is no attempt at hiding these insinuations in the Cherson letters!

There is also a letter from R. Yehonatan Eybeschutz who asks for his ‘amulets’ to be urgently returned to him. We know that R. Yaakov Emden accused R. Eybeschutz of using Sabbatean amulets and of being a secret follower of Shabbatai Tzvi.[6]

We see how the Baal Shem Tov rebuked the Maggid of Mezeritch for revealing the ‘secret of the Rav of Rashkov’. We don’t know what exactly the secret was but we do know the Rav of Rashkov[7] was the scribe who wrote a copy of the allegedly Sabbatean work known as Sefer haTzoref specifically for the Baal Shem Tov.

There is a letter where the Baal Shem Tov calls for help from R. Dovber of Mezeritch to assist in a Talmudic and Halachic debate with Mitnagdim who were erudite scholars. The inference (true or not) that the Baal Shem Tov may not have been able to deal with that by himself does not paint him in an exceptionally scholarly light with regard to his mastery of the revealed as opposed to the mystical Torah. This is not hidden from us either.[8]

For these, and many other reasons, I am now of the theory that perhaps because of all this open and raw frankness - which plays into the hands of the opponents of the Chassidic movement -it would be beneficial to some to want to deny any authenticity to these letters.

This is why I now view the Letters of the Cherson Geniza in a very different light and tend to believe that they may indeed be genuine in their general content.

I hope they are, as this is a most captivating and intriguing body of literature offering an unprecedented window into the story behind the story that we all think we know so well.

This may just be the story some would not like us to know and this may be why these letters are rejected out of hand as alleged forgeries.

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LETTERS FROM THE CHERSON GENIZA – TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH.  PART 7.

THE OFFICIAL CHASSIDIC RESPONSE TO THE EXCOMMUNICATION BAN AGAINST THEM - IN ENGLISH FOR THE FIRST TIME: 

See here for introduction.
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DOCUMENT 31:

Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to R. Dovber of Mezeritch encouraging him to listen to his colleagues (just once) - regarding the behavior of one unnamed individual, even though they both believe that advice to be misguided - because it will prevent a further desecration:


B”H

Sunday (Parshat) Shelach 5517 (1757).

To the beloved of my soul, my student the rabbi and gaon, officer of the Torah, whose name is holy, Mr Berenya[9] n’y.

The letter from your holy hand has reached me right now.

And from between the lines[10] of your holy letter, I determined that you, honourable and elevated Torah (personality)[11] do not agree with the opinion of your colleagues[12], (who are) my holy students, (in regard to a certain undisclosed matter regarding an undisclosed individual).

And that (now) you are asking for my inconsequential opinion (on the matter).

I shall therefore respond to (you), honourable and holy (one), that even though my opinion is (similarly) inclined towards your (opinion), honourable and holy one – (that) in a situation where a desecration of (G-d’s) name (can occur) one does not (halachically) have to show respect even to a rabbi.[13]

But did not our sages say ‘Happy is the generation where the great (people) listen to the small (people)’.

Therefore my sincere advice is that you, honourable and holy (one) n’y, listen to your colleagues (and do not show any disrespect the individual in question).

And my intense hope is that you do not depart from my advice, unless he (the selfsame unnamed individual), heaven forefend, returns to his foolish (ways) one more time. (In such a case) I also will be...(text missing) (and shall then) agree with your (present) opinion. Enough said.

And may G-d, blessed be He, who in His mercy wants (all to) repent, assist that known individual to repent soon. Amen, so may it be (G-d’s) will.

 From your teacher who requests your well-being with a yearning heart and soul:

Yisrael, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Baal Shem of Medzebuzh.


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UNNUMBERED DOCUMENT:

Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to R. Dovber of Mezeritch requesting that he join him immediately in Sudilkov to assist in the polemic with the ‘enemies’:


B”H

Wednesday (Parshat) Korach. Sudilkov.

To my student, the holy rabbi and gaon, officer of the Torah etc. etc. etc. our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Berenya[14], may you live.

If you are in good health, come here (to Sudilkov) immediately because we need to debate with our enemies and we need a giant who knows how to respond accurately according to the law[15], and how to base them on the Talmud. Enough said.

If you are unable to come, (then) at least see to it that my (other) student, the Rav of Polnoye[16], n’y, comes (in your stead).

From your teacher who loves you with a yearning heart and soul:

Yisrael, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Baal Shem of Medzebuzh.

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UNNUMBERED DOCUMENT:

Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye informing him that he is going to be away for some time and that he is leaving the leadership of the Chassidic movement in the hands of R. Dovber of Mezeritch[17]:


B”H

Thursday (Parshat) Korach 5517 (1757). Medzebuzh.

To my dear student, my beloved, who dwells in the depths of my heart, the holy rabbi and gaon etc., Mr Yaakov Yosef the Kohen, n’y.

G-d willing, after Shabbat, I will be travelling to the state of Volchiy[18] for (a period of) three months.

I, therefore, inform you, honourable and holy (one), that in my place shall remain my (other) exceptional student, the holy rabbi to whom praise is worthy, Mr Berenya[19] n’y.

And his hands are like my actual hands, and I trust him to raise up many students and to enlighten the face of the world.

And you (R. Yaakov Yosef) can ask anything from his mouth, and whatsoever he tells you, you must do. (This is) because my mouth is like his mouth and a double portion[20] is in his spirit. Enough said.

I notice that all my students cleave to him almost as they do to me.

Let there be peace now.[21]

From your teacher and rabbi who loves you in truth with a yearning heart and soul:

Yisrael, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Baal Shem of Medzebuzh.


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DOCUMENT 304:

The contract drawn up by the Baal Shem Tov and R. Dovber of Mezeritch in regard to the delivery of a new Sefer Torah:


B”H

Thursday (Parshat) Chukat 5517 (1757). Medzebuzh.

There was deposited with me[22] the amount of one thousand pure golden Adumim from the rabbi, Mr Shlomo Kahana, n’y, on the condition that provided his brother the rabbi, Mr Chaim Kahana, n’y, hands over to me of to my student the holy rabbi and gaon Mr Dovber, n’y, a Sefer Torah with a satin cover interwoven with gold together with a crown for the Torah (made out of) gold (plated) silver – then hand over the above-mentioned amount of money to R. Chaim as mentioned above.

We hereby sign[23] on this day and year as specified above:

Yisrael Baal Shem of Medzebuzh.

Dovber, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Avraham.


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UNNUMBERED DOCUMENT:

Letter from the Baal Shem Tov to R. Dovber of Mezeritch advising him on health matters.


B”H

Wednesday (Parshat) Devarim. Medzebuzh. 5517 (1757).

To my student the holy rabbi and gaon, officer of the Torah, holy lamp[24] etc. Dovberenya[25], n’y.

Do (no longer) take the (healing) baths for in my opinion, they are unnecessary. Just rub oil mixed with Patish on your (ailing) legs every day as I have instructed you.

And may G-d, blessed be He, heal you. Amen. So may it be His will.

From your teacher and rabbi:

Yisrael, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Baal Shem of Medzebuzh.


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DOCUMENT 33:

Letter from R. Dovber of Mezeritch to the Baal Shem Tov informing him that the ‘rebellion’ against Chassidism is still in full force:


B”H

Wednesday (Parshat) Eikev 5517 (1757). Bor.

To my holy and awesome teacher and rabbi, may you live.

They (an opposition faction) are still steadfast in their rebellion[26] (against Chassidism).

But I am certain that with your great holiness, my teacher and rabbi, may you live, you will cause them to fall like straw and be (they will) vanish.

And (then) the sins and (even the) sinners (themselves)[27] will be banished from the land, and the land will (in their stead) be filled with wisdom. Amen. Netzach. Sela va’ed.

(From) your servant who is writing with trembling:

Dovber, son of Chava.


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UNNUMBERED DOCUMENT:

Chassidic pronouncement declaring the ban against them null and void:


B”H

We join together as one in a group in conjunction with those who acknowledge the truth, and in conjunction with all the brothers from the House of Israel who believe in the Holy One blessed is He, and (in conjunction with) His servants, the righteous the pious the honest and the wholehearted – and we (hereby) nullify, with a completed nullification, as if it were the dust of the earth, all the Excommunication Bans which were made (against the Chassidim by)...(text missing) (which originated in the city of Shklov from the 19th of Tammuz in the year 5517 (1757) LaPeret Katan[28] against our teacher and rabbi, the Head of all the Children of the Exile, the Baal Shem Tov Shalita, and against us the undersigned, and against all the children of the House of Israel who are associated with us.

Even though, according to the law of our holy Torah, only those who issued the Ban (in the first instance) can annul it - nevertheless on the instruction of our master, teacher and rabbi Shalita (the Baal Shem Tov), who has given us the authority and permission to annul (the Excommunication Ban) ourselves, in order to facilitate (the carrying out of the Baal Shem Tov’s) will, and (also) our insignificant will (i. e. to annul the Ban).

Therefore we are changing (the law) for the good with all the force and power (necessary) because the Excommunication Ban which was declared against us by...(text missing)[29] in the city of Shklov on the 19th of Tammuz in the year 5517 (1757) LaPeret Katan, is (hereby) nullified and has no substance as its (very) foundation was falsehood, from beginning to end, and it is (no longer) an Excommunication Ban, nor a Shamta[30], Heaven forefend.

Instead, it is void, and of evil intent and has no (authoritative) substance whatsoever. It is null and void like the dust of the earth.

In this matter we have come to sign, on this the 5th day (of Parashat) Vaetchanan 5517 (17570 LaPeret Katan, here in the community of Medzebuzh:

Witness: Yisrael, son of our teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Baal Shem of Medzebuzh.
And witness: Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye.
From the insignificant Yeshaya of Yanov.
The lowly Yitzchak of Drobitch.
Witness: Leib Fistiner.
From David Furkess.
From David of Micholoyov.
Witness: David Lakus.
The insignificant Menachem Mendel of Bor.
From Dovber, son of our teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Avraham of Medzeritch.
Witness: Zev Woolf Kitzes.
The insignificant Shimshon, son of Rabbi M. Of Anipoli.
The most insignificant from all his peers Tzvi Hirsh, the scribe in the house of our rabbi the Baal Shem Tov Shalita. This was written and signed in my presence on the above mentioned day and year and I sign here in the above mentioned holy community.
Meir Margoliot, Head of the Court of Lvov and Ostroa.


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DOCUMENT 283:

Declaration not to respond to the opponents, and to grant them forgiveness:



B”H

We the undersigned take upon ourselves not to respond to any of our opponents whether for good or for (bad).

We further forgive, in all manner of forgiveness, all our enemies from the House of Israel, with complete forgiveness – as it is written ‘the sin will be banished (from the land)’, not the sinner Heaven forefend.[31]

In this way, may G-d, blessed is He, renew for us and for all the House of Israel, a good and sweet year.

Erev Yom haKippurim in the year 5518 (1758), here in the holy community of Medzebuzh:

Witness: Yisrael Baal Shem of Medzebuzh, son of our teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer.
And witness: Dovber, son of our teacher the rabbi, Rabbi Avraham.
And witness Yaakov Yosef haKohen (of Polnoye).
And witness:...(text missing).
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[1] See Documents: 73,215.
[2] See Document 146.
[3] See Documents: 167, 208 for notable exceptions.
[4] See Documents: 170, 172,185,191.
[5] See Documents: 170, 308, 47.
[6] See Documents:192,194,8.
[7] See Document 32.
[8] See Documents: 203, Unnumbered Document below, 308 (to R Chaim of Lvov).
[9]A term of endearment for R. Dovber of Mezeritch.
[10] Lit.: ‘from the walls of your holy letter’.
[11] Sktr”h is an abbreviation for shekavod Torato haramah, which means honourable and elevated Torah (personality).
[12] This would, in all likelihood, be a reference to the Chevraya Kadisha or ‘holy band’ which was how the followers of the Baal Shem Tov were known.
[13] It appears as if the honour of a recalcitrant rabbi or other individual was being protected by the other students and R. Dovber wanted to expose him. However, the Baal Shem Tov advised R. Dovber to hold back on any punitive action, in concert with the general consensus of the other students, and to give the individual one more chance. The letter gives no other indication of the context.
[14] A term of endearment for R. Dovber of Mezeritch.
[15] This appears to be a reference to a debate with the learned Jewish opponents to the Chassidic movement (the Mitnagdim, as opposed to the Frankists) hence the need to respond correctly and accurately according to scholarly Jewish law.
[16] Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye.
[17] It must be remembered that R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye was a candidate for the leadership position but it was instead placed with R. Dovber of Mezeritch (partly because of his people and organizational skills).
[18] A town in Homyel, Belarus.
[19] A term of endearment for R. Dovber of Mezeritch.
[20] Chassidic tradition has it that the Baal Shem Tov had sixty students, while R. Dovber of Mezeritch had one hundred and twenty students,
[21] This appears to be an appeal against any possible disharmony in the succession of the leadership.
[22] T’y is an abbreviation for tachat yadi which means into my hand.
[23] Baah”ch is an abbreviation which stands for baanu al hachotem which means the undersigned.
[24]An honorific.
[25]A term of endearment for R. Dovber of Mezeritch.
[26] This could be a reference to the Mitnagdim, or more likely because of the strong language, to the followers of the false messiah Jacob Frank (see next note).
[27] This is very strong language because usually, we ask for the sin to be expunged, but never the sinner, who always must be given a chance to repent. C.f. Document 283; where the sin is distinguished from the sinner.
28] A calendar designation.
[29] Unlike instances in the other letters where text is missing, in this letter there are two instances where text is missing, but it seems to be deliberate. It probably was a deliberate censoring of the text to remove the name (or names) of the originator (or originators) of the Ban – in order to be less confrontational.
[30] An Aramaic word which similarly means ‘Ban’.
[31] C.f. Document 33.

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