A maggid is a Jewish preacher, a title most commonly held by preachers who flourished in Poland and Russia during the 17th and 18th centuries, most notably the Maggid of Mezrich.

A maggid would usually preach about ethics, morality and religious observance, often linked to the current Torah portion or holiday, with the goal of encouraging or admonishing the audience. His sermon would be interlaced with quotes from the Bible, Talmud and Jewish law, as well as exegesis and homiletic interpretations.

In general, there were two types of maggidim: one who lived and preached in a set community; and an itinerant or "wandering” preacher, who would go from town to town preaching in the various synagogues. The communities would usually pay him a modest sum based on his stature and ability.

A well-known maggid of that era was Rabbi Yaakov Kranz (1741-1804), the Dubner Maggid, who is famous for the many parables that he used to illustrate his point. Ironically, his most famous parable explains why his stories fit so well with the lesson he was trying to teach:

Once, I was walking in the forest, and saw tree after tree with a target drawn on it, and at the center of each target an arrow. I then came upon a person with a bow in his hand. "Are you the one who shot all these arrows?" I asked. "Yes!" he replied. "Then how did you always hit the center of the target?" I asked. "Simple," he replied, "first I shoot the arrow, then I draw the target."

Fire and Brimstone

Of course, there have been rabbis going back to the Talmudic era who have given sermons of the type that later maggidim would give. But in the late 17th and early 18th centuries there arose a new type of maggid, largely influenced by Rabbi Eliyahu of Izmir (1640-1729), author of Shevet Mussar. In his speeches, Rabbi Eliyahu would describe the terrible punishments and horrors that one would experience both in this world and the next unless he corrected his moral and religious conduct. Many maggidim followed in his footsteps and borrowed ideas from his work; thus, the "fire and brimstone" maggid was born.

At roughly the same time, the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) began to preach an altogether different philosophy, one that called for serving G‑d will joy and love. While the Baal Shem Tov did not go by the title of maggid, his successor, Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch (d. 1772), was known as the Maggid of Mezeritch. Unlike his predecessor, who traveled extensively, Rabbi DovBer stayed in Mezeritch, and his students would flock to him to hear his teachings.

The following stories illustrate the contrast between the “fire and brimstone” maggidim and the Chassidic masters, while giving us a taste of Jewish life in that era.

They are Good!

The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, recounts a story that occurred when the Baal Shem Tov was still traveling incognito, before he officially started the Chassidic movement:

Once, the Baal Shem Tov arrived in a village where the local Jews worked the land for their livelihood. It was in the middle of the summer, and the area suffered from a terrible drought. The rain hadn’t fallen in a long while, and the crop was drying out. The livestock were getting sick with an epidemic, and the townsfolk were in great distress. The locals were pious Jews, and these events aroused them to repentance. When the tragedy persisted, they decided to bring a maggid to preach words of rebuke and inspire them to even greater repentance.

All the townsfolk gathered in the shul, and the maggid did not spare any words. He used harsh language to rebuke his listeners with “fire and brimstone“ while the entire community groaned and cried bitterly. Hearing the painful cries of the men and women, the Baal Shem Tov, who was in the shul at the time, turned to the maggid and called out: “What do you have with the Yidden? Yidden are good!” Turning to the Jewish community, the Baal Shem Tov announced, “Come, Yidden! Dance with me, and after Minchah, the rain will fall!” The assembled first looked at him suspiciously. They thought perhaps he didn’t believe in G‑d, or maybe he was out of his mind, G‑d forbid. But then, the Baal Shem Tov began strengthening his argument with proofs from the Sages, and the people took heed of his words, believing in the power of G‑d’s salvation. They joined him in a dance. As their dance progressed, the gates of heaven opened, and a downpour of rain fell upon the ground.1

A Person Needs to Make a Livelihood

Another incident helps illustrate the point:

A well-known preacher once came to Berditchev before Rosh Hashanah and requested permission from the head of the Jewish community to preach. “I am a widely-acclaimed maggid,” he said, “and consider myself worthy of preaching in the synagogue of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak.”

“I would gladly allow you to preach in any other synagogue,” the communal leader replied. “If, however, you wish to speak in Rabbi Levi Yitzchak's synagogue, obtain permission from him.” The preacher went to the Chassidic master and presented his request. "I give you my permission on condition that I say a few words before your speech,” said Rabbi Levi Yitzchak.

Word spread quickly that a visiting preacher would be speaking in the Rebbe's synagogue and that the Rebbe himself would introduce him. Crowds of people flocked to the shul and listened attentively as Rabbi Levi Yitzchak made his introduction.

“Master in Heaven, the Day of Judgment approaches. The Satan will come before You to accuse the Jewish people. Do not listen to him, for You have written in Your Torah, ‘One witness shall not suffice to accuse in judgment.’

“This visiting preacher has come to preach in our city. Should his words contain accusations against Your people, do not hearken to his words. Do not accept him as a second witness. He is unqualified to pass testimony, for he has a personal interest in the matter. He is preaching only because he is in need of funds to marry off his daughter.

“However, if his words are commendable to Your people, listen to them, though he is only one witness. Our sages have taught us that while the testimony of a single witness is not sufficient to obligate a person, it is sufficient for a vow to be taken. And You have made a vow to our forefathers.”

The preacher was at a loss for words. The talk he had prepared was filled with fire and brimstone, condemning the people for their many faults. He announced that in light of the Rebbe's words, he had nothing to say. The crowd dispersed.

After Rosh Hashanah, Rebbe Levi Yitzchok himself collected money for the needy preacher and provided him with the funds necessary to marry off his daughter.2

Uplifting Everyone

While there were many innovations and teachings that were introduced with the Chassidic movement, one underlying theme is the importance of instilling all Jews, even the unlettered folk, with a sense of hope, pride and joy. For it is through this that we will overcome both our personal and communal exiles, allowing the essential goodness of the soul to shine brightly and radiate to the entire world.