Rabbi Dovber, known as the Maggid, was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov and the teacher of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. He strengthed the Chassidism of his master, anchoring it firmly in Jewish thought and practice.

The "Journeyman"/Ascetic

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.

Encounter with the Besht

The two sages (the Baal Shem Tov and Maggid) had corresponded during 5513 (1752). The Maggid had grave doubts whether to undertake the journey; the slanderous rumors spread by the opponents of Chassidism deterred him from taking that step. The Baal Shem Tov, in his replies, assuaged the Maggid’s suspicions and hesitations and urged him to come, foreseeing the meeting to be of great significance to Chassidism. The Maggid eventually decided to see for himself whether the Baal Shem Tov was as great as his followers reputed him to be.

The journey to Mezibush was long and arduous and the Maggid was unable to study. This caused him much anguish and he began to regret his decision. He consoled himself by assuming that when he reached his destination he would surely hear profound words of Torah from the Baal Shem Tov. When his coach finally arrived in Mezibush, he lost no time in seeking out the Baal Shem Tov.

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov received his visitor cordially and told him a short, seemingly insignificant story. The interview ended. They met again on the second day and again the Baal Shem Tov told him only a short story.

Rabbi Dovber, the assiduous type, to whom every moment was precious, regretted having come and having wasted so much time. He made plans to return home; he would leave the same night, as soon as the moonlight would make traveling possible. But before he could leave, a messenger came from the Baal Shem Tov asking Rabbi Dovber to come to the master’s house. When he arrived, the Baal Shem Tov asked him: “Are you well versed in Torah?” Upon receiving an affirmative reply, the Baal Shem Tov asked: “Are you familiar with the teachings of the Kabbalah?” Again, an affirmative reply. The Baal Shem Tov then asked the Maggid to interpret a passage in Etz Chaim, the basic work of the Lurianic Kabbalah. Rabbi Dovber carefully examined the passage and offered his interpretation. The Baal Shem Tov rejected his words. Rabbi Dovber deliberated again and reiterated his previous statement, adding: “The meaning of this passage is as I stated. Should you have a different interpretation, tell me and we will see who is right.”

At this stage the Baal Shem Tov read the passage to him. As the Baal Shem Tov read and spoke, it seemed to the Maggid as though the whole house had become full of light and that a Divine fire surrounded them. It appeared to the Maggid as though he actually saw the angels whose names were mentioned in the discourse. Afterwards, the Baal Shem Tov said: “Your interpretation was correct, but there is no soul in your learning.”

Rabbi Dovber remained with the Baal Shem Tov for some time, to learn from him.

Reports show that the Maggid visited the Baal Shem Tov only twice. The second time he remained for six months. Rabbi Dovber related that the Baal Shem Tov taught him everything to the most intricate details of the various works of the Kabbalah and the “language of the birds and trees."

When he wished to return home, the Baal Shem Tov did not agree and delayed him several times. When asked for the reason, the Baal Shem Tov explained that as long as the Maggid was with him, his own mind was “as a gushing well, and the more one draws from a well the more it pours forth.”

Though Rabbi Dovber may not have seen the Baal Shem Tov again, they remained in touch through messengers and correspondence. Occasionally, Rabbi Dovber served as interim leader of the Chassidim in the absence of, and at the request of, the Baal Shem Tov.

Even though Chassidism is generally opposed to self-mortification, the Maggid appears to have continued for some time in his erstwhile habits. The Baal Shem Tov warned him to cease these practices and to guard his health.

Appointed as Maggid

During the period between his first meeting with the Baal Shem Tov and his becoming leader of the Chassidim, Rabbi Dovber was appointed Maggid (preacher, mentor) of the communities of Meseritch and Koritz.

The year 5520 (1760) saw the passing of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. His son Rabbi Zvi assumed leadership of the Chassidim and remained in that position for one year. On the day following the anniversary of the passing (yahrzeit), Rabbi Zvi addressed the assembled Chassidim, and upon concluding his discourse said: “Today, my father came to me and told me that the Heavenly Court had decided that I must relinquish the leadership to Rabbi Dovber.” All those present rose in respect and remained standing to hear Rabbi Dovber’s first discourse.

The Chassidic center now moved from Mezibush to Meseritch. Rabbi Dovber was to remain leader of the Chassidim for the next twelve years and under his leadership Chassidism struck its roots deeply and widely. The seeds which had been planted in Mezibush grew in Meseritch. Attended by a unique group of followers, compounding the greatest minds and spirits of the time, Rabbi Dovber externalized the creative, seminal thoughts and teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and formed them into a comprehensive system.

Within three months of the beginning of the Maggid’s reign a new spirit had been breathed into the Chassidic camp. Throughout Poland and Lithuania, the ranks of the Chassidim swelled. The already established centers in Volhynia and Podolia made their influence felt even more strongly than before, and Meseritch itself was a scene of constant activity.

The Maggid was a stabilizing force to his followers, directing their energies towards achieving the ideal combination of emotional excitement and intellectual restraint in serving G‑d.

Like the Baal Shem Tov before him, the Maggid preached that the love of your fellow Jew (ahavas Yisroel) is the key to true love of G‑d. “The meaning of ahavas Yisroel,” the Maggid declared, “is to love the worst sinner in the same way as the most righteous.”

He impressed this principle of love upon his followers, and molded it into a main factor in the Chassidic outlook. One of his closest disciples, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, addressed everyone as “my heart.”

In the autumn of 5533 (1772) Rabbi Dovber took to his bed. On Kislev 18, he summoned the members of the “Holy Society”, and said to them: “My children, always stay together and you will overcome everything. You will go ever forward and not back.”

On Tuesday, Kislev 19, 5533 (1772) Rabbi Dovber, the great Maggid of Meseritch, returned his holy soul to heaven. Thus ended an era. His task was accomplished.

A new line had not only been started, but set firmly on a solid foundation. It was now the work of others to carry it on.