Rabbi Menachem Nochum Twersky (1730 - 1798) was a student of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezeritch, and the author of the Chasidic work Meor Einayim. In 1773, he initiated his own Chasidic court in Chernobyl, founded on the pillars of humility and sincerity (temimut).

Upon his passing, he was succeeded by his son, Reb Mordechai. Each of Reb Mordechai’s eight sons branched out and founded a Chasidic court of his own. This is the origin of several Chasidic courts of our generation, such as Skver, Rachmastrivka, Tolna, Trisk, Honisteipel, and Chernobyl.

A Classic Teaching

Many people wonder: Why do we all have such different fates? Some are wealthy, some are poor. Some have blissful home lives, while others struggle. There are health issues that some have to deal with, and others don't. Why?

Reb Nochum taught that the purpose of life is to recognize G‑d, and to facilitate that goal G‑d provides each individual with the circumstances that will help them attain that awareness. For some, it is easier to discover G‑d when wealthy; others find Him more easily when they struggle with poverty.1

“Some have wisdom, some strength, some wealth, and some poverty. This is all because G‑d sees, with His wisdom, what each person needs, that this person needs specifically that situation in order to come close to Him. Others have other life experiences [because those are the experiences that they need to become close to Him].”2

All of Reb Nochum Chernobler's teachings, recorded in Meor Einayim, are based on the lessons he learned from his masters, the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezeritch. This particular lesson, however, he had seen from his own life experiences, even before hearing it from his teachers.

A Lesson From Life

Reb Nochum had a traumatic childhood and continued to suffer many hardships throughout his life.

As a young child, he was orphaned of both of his parents and subsequently raised by his impoverished aunt and uncle. Being an orphan is one tragedy, poverty is another, and to top it off, he was mistreated.

Once, his aunt served toast and cream to her children, but to little Nochum, she gave plain, dry toast. Nochum complained that he also wanted cream, and for that his aunt locked him in a room. There was a bucket in that room filled with white paste. Nochum thought it was cheese, and he put some on his toast. But then he couldn’t eat his toast, because the white spread was cement. This experience taught him, he later said, that when one takes what isn't his, he loses what is his.

His aunt and uncle sometimes gave gifts to their children (such as a penknife, a watch, etc.) but they never gave anything to Nochum. Somehow, however, Nochum always attained the same items as his cousins. The teacher at school suspected that he was stealing, because how else did he get those gifts? When he spoke with Nochum about it, Nochum replied, "My father gives it to me."
The teacher was astonished, "What are you saying? Are you imagining things? You don’t have a father!"

"I wasn't referring to my biological father," he replied. "I meant my Father in Heaven gives me these gifts. I ask, and He gives me."

This didn’t sound right to the teacher, and he shared his suspicions with the uncle. They decided to test it. The uncle gave a coin to each one of his own children, and nothing to Nochum.

Nochum ran to the synagogue, and the uncle and the teacher followed stealthily behind. They watched as Nochum put his head in the aron kodesh (holy ark) and sobbed, "Father in heaven, I also want a coin. I want a coin like my cousins have…" He repeated this prayer many times, and then they all heard a coin drop. Nochum picked it up. His prayers were answered.

This is a remarkable story of faith, and it is certain that Nochum's unfortunate circumstances spurred him to enhance his connection with G‑d, embodying the verse in Psalms, "My father and my mother abandoned me, and G‑d brought me in."3

With the Baal Shem Tov

The Baal Shem Tov had heard about the holy young man, and sent his students to ask Reb Nochum to come see him. Reb Nochum replied, "I work as a teacher; I have students; I can't leave them." Only when the Baal Shem Tov sent a substitute teacher to fill in for him, did Reb Nochum agree to accompany the students back to their master.

He arrived while the Baal Shem Tov was eating a meal with his students, celebrating some kind of holiday. The Baal Shem Tov greeted Reb Nochum and invited him to join them at the meal. Reb Nochum stood there, unsure how to proceed. It wasn't proper to eat a meal while wearing a coat, but he didn’t want to take his coat off, because his clothes were ripped around the shoulders. (He was very poor and he couldn’t afford to mend his clothes. He was fortunate that he even owned his own coat. For a long time, he and his wife, Sarah, had shared a single coat, which they took turns wearing.)

The Baal Shem Tov repeated, "Wash your hands and join us at the meal," so he did.

The Baal Shem Tov invited Reb Nochum to be his guest in his home, and warned his wife, "Be wary of this man, he is a great ganev (thief)."

After observing Reb Nochum's ways, she asked her husband, "Why did you call him a thief? He’s a great tzaddik!"

The Baal Shem Tov replied, "He wants to steal the entire Gan Eden for himself, with his good deeds."

Some say that the Baal Shem Tov added, "And he wants to steal all the holy souls that are in heaven, and have them as his descendants."

A Maggid

Reb Nochum spent two prolonged periods of time with the holy Baal Shem Tov.4 After the Baal Shem Tov's passing, he became a student of Reb Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezrtich.

The teachings recorded in Meor Einayim are based on the lessons Reb Nochum learned from his masters, the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezeritch.
The teachings recorded in Meor Einayim are based on the lessons Reb Nochum learned from his masters, the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezeritch.

When he returned home after his first stay with the Baal Shem Tov, Reb Nochum began serving as a maggid (a preacher who would regularly inspire the masses with teachings about ethics, morality and religious observance).

The introduction to Meor Einayim refers to him as "Reb Menachem Nachum, the Maggid of Chernobyl and other holy communities … With his talks … he brought many people to teshuvah, and to serve G‑d, so that the awe of G‑d shall be on their faces. He drew them with cords of love, with holy ideas – sweet like honey … mostly based on the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. Every Shabbat … and every holiday … and sometimes on weekdays, he taught Chassidut, and he also taught Talmud and Jewish law…"

His speeches were highly effective, immediately having the desired effects. In fact, when Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev met a particularly humble person and he asked him how he reached that level of humility, he was told, “I heard Reb Reb Nochum Chernobler quote the Mishnah, ‘Be very humble,’ and it changed me permanently."5

His Teachings

Reb Nochum’s students wrote down what they heard, eventually culminating in a tremendous amount of handwritten pages which they asked Reb Nochum for permission to print. Reb Nachum went through the pile, page by page, and chose just one fifteenth of the material. He explained, "These are the lessons that I don’t remember teaching. That means it must have been the Shechinah (Divine Presence) speaking through me. I want only those lessons printed."

This is the holy book, Maor Einayim, one of the first Chassidic works ever printed.

Reb Nochum told people that it is worthwhile to study his lessons, even if they don’t understand them, because Moshiach will teach the same lessons.

Divine Service

Reb Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye (author of Toldot Yaakov Yosef) said that each tzaddik has an area of expertise. Some tzaddikim excel in Torah study, some in passionate prayer, others excel in giving tzedakah, and so on. It is rare that a person can be outstanding in several ways. Of Reb Nochum, however, he said, "Reb Nochum isn't one tzaddik; he is like ten tzaddikim," as he excelled in several aspects of Divine service.

Excellence in Tzedakah

Reb Nochum heard about a city that couldn’t afford to build a mikvah. He traveled there and announced, "Whoever pays to build a mikvah, I will sell him my portion in the World to Come."

In that city lived a wealthy person who never gave tzedakah. He realized that this was a golden opportunity to earn his place in paradise. He put down the money for the construction of the mikvah, plus more to pay for the heating of the mikvah for many years. Reb Nochum wrote up a document stating that he sells his portion of the World to Come to the benefactor, and it was signed by witnesses.

People asked Reb Nochum why he agreed to give away his eternal reward, and Reb Nochum explained that this is his way of giving charity. "I don’t have money. My only asset is my Divine reward. So, I gave that away for G‑d's honor. This is how I fulfill the commandment in the Shema to serve G‑d bechol meodecha, with all your means."

Actually, Reb Nochum earned a nice salary serving as a maggid, but nevertheless, he and his wife were always poor, as he gave most of his money to the destitute. .

In particular, Reb Nochum excelled at the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim, raising money to release people from prison. When Reb Nochum himself was imprisoned for a prolonged period, many of his followers were surprised that his merits of saving people from jail didn’t protect him. But Reb Nochum explained that the imprisonment was for his benefit, because now that he knows how painful it is to be a prisoner, he will perform the mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim in an even better way.

Passionate Prayer

Reb Nochum teaches us the recipe for deriving pleasure when praying and when serving G‑d.

"When one studies Torah and prays with joy, fiery passion, love and fear, the pleasure will come. Because at first, one must toil in G‑d's service [to say the words joyously, and with excitement, with love and fear] … and then the pleasure always comes in the midst of his service."6

In Hayom Yom, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, himself a descendant of Reb Nochum, wrote:

"My father [the Rebbe Reshab] writes in one of his discourses, 'When one's soul derives pleasure from G‑dliness, one can become fat just from that. They say about Reb Nochum of Chernobyl that he became portly from saying amen yehei shemei rabbah."7

Devotion to Shabbat

One Shabbat, Reb Nochum complained that he couldn’t feel the holiness of Shabbat in one of his feet.

His young son Mordechai told him that one of his socks had become dirty in the mikvah on erev Shabbat, so he had handed him a weekday sock.

“You have consoled me,” replied Reb Nochum, realizing that it wasn't due to sin that he didn’t feel the holiness of Shabbat.

On another occasion, Reb Nochum woke up in the middle of the night, on Shabbat, and wanted to leave the house. Everything was dark, however, and he was forced to grope in the darkness. He later asked his host why he hadn’t prepared tall candles that would last through the night. His host was stunned, because there was a tall, lit candle in the home.

They later discovered that the candle had blown out and the non-Jewish maid had relit it. Since the flame was lit on Shabbat, Reb Nochum wasn’t able to see its light.

Excellence in Humility

A group of chassidim were sitting together, discussing their Divine service, and with broken hearts they lamented, "We have no good deeds. The only good thing we have is that we have a great rebbe." With this thought in mind, they traveled to Chernobyl to be with Reb Nochum.

When they arrived in Chernobyl, they heard Reb Nochum saying to himself, "I’m very lowly. There’s nothing good about me. The only quality I have, which gives me some hope, is that I have good chassidim who come to me."

When Reb Nochum was in his late sixties, he was hit by a running animal and never recovered from his injuries. He was forced to borrow money to pay the doctors, and his colleague, the Alter Rebbe, raised money to help him pay off his debts.8

Reb Nochum passed away on 11 Cheshvan, 5558 (1797), leaving behind a wealth of inspiration, good deeds, and teachings that continue to nourish the soul.