Little is known about the immediate background and early life of Rabbi Dovber, later known as the Maggid of Meseritch.
Even the exact year of his birth is unknown, but it would appear that he was born at the end of the seventeenth century at about the same time as the Baal Shem Tov. His parents (Abraham and Chavah) traced their ancestry back to the royal house of King David. It is told that when Rabbi Dovber was five years old his home was destroyed by fire. His mother stood by the charred remains and wept bitterly. “It is not for the house that I weep,” she explained to the child, “but for the records of our family tree which have been burnt.”
“Then start a new line from me,” returned the child.
How aptly those words described the role he was later to play; for the boy was destined to become the successor to the Baal Shem Tov.
All his time was devoted to the study of the Torah and he was recognized as a great Talmudic scholar. As was not uncommon among Torah scholars in those days, Rabbi Dovber delved into the significant ethical treatises of the mediaeval and the tracts of the Lurianic Kabbalah. From these he adopted their prescriptions of strict fasts and mortifications. He lived a simple life of great poverty by choice rather than of necessity, for it is recorded that he refused to accept numerous calls to become Rabbi and spiritual leader of great communities.
A popular story about him relates to this fact. After the Maggid had already become his disciple, the Baal Shem Tov asked a follower, who was due to pass through Meseritch, to convey his regards. With great difficulty the messenger found the Maggid’s small and neglected home. Entering the Rabbi’s poor abode, the visitor found Rabbi Dovber seated on a rough block of wood. Before him were his pupils seated on planks of wood supported by similar blocks of wood. The only other furniture in the room was a wooden table.
As the Maggid was in the midst of teaching, the visitor agreed to return later. When he did so, he found the scene changed. The pupils had gone; the “table” had been converted into a “bed”; the Maggid was still seated on the block of wood, studying alone. The visitor could not hide his astonishment at the conditions in which the great Rabbi lived. “I am far from wealthy,” he said, “but in my home you will find a chair, a bench, a bed and other home furnishings.”
“At home,” replied his host, “one indeed needs a chair, a bed, a table and a lamp. But on a journey things are different.”
To the Maggid his earthly dwelling was not his “home.” Here on earth he was but a sojourner and, as such, only those values which bring the traveler to his ultimate destination were of real and lasting importance.
The Maggid suffered from lameness in his left foot and was generally of a weak constitution. His life of self-denial aggravated his condition. His ill health, however, was one of the causes for his first meeting with the Baal Shem Tov. It is related that his teacher, the famed author of the Pnei Yehoshua, endeavored to persuade him to visit the Baal Shem Tov to seek a cure for his ailments.
Strange are the ways of Providence leading to the first meetings between the Baal Shem Tov and some of his principal disciples. Many of them were far removed from Chassidism in thought and practice and yet, after initial opposition, they became the very pillars of the movement. The first meeting between the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid is of particular interest. It took place late in 5513 or early in 5514 (1753); less than eight years before the Baal Shem Tov’s passing.