Perhaps the most well-known fact about Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezritch, is that he had many great students. Almost all the famous figures of the early Chassidic movement were disciples of “the Great Maggid.” He was the master teacher, the teacher of masters.

Another noted fact about the Maggid is that he was the prime student and successor of the Baal Shem Tov, the wellspring from which the life-giving water of Chassidism flowed forth.

The 18th century saw the conception, birth, and development of the Chassidic movement as we know it today. Following a dark period in Jewish history—including the rise and fall of the false Messiah Shabbatai Tzvi and the horrific Khmelnytsky Massacres—Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov pioneered a novel way of serving G‑d. Entrenched in Jewish mystical tradition, the Baal Shem Tov empowered simple and downtrodden Jews to serve G‑d with joy and excitement. He traveled from city to city, assuring the masses that their seemingly simple service of G‑d was as valued as the advanced Torah study of scholars.

After the Baal Shem Tov’s passing in 1760, the Maggid took his place at the center of this nascent spiritual awakening. Through the Maggid’s students, the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings were disseminated across Eastern Europe.

By the end of the Maggid’s life, in 1772, Chassidism had been transformed into a recognizable and fast-growing movement, with many seeing it as a threatening rival to the traditional Jewish establishment. But today, 250 years later, it is well acknowledged that the Maggid brought Judaism back to life from within.

How did he achieve this?

The kernel of an answer lies in the well-known story of how the Maggid became the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple:

When the Maggid visited the Baal Shem Tov—before he was part of the Baal Shem Tov’s inner circle— he was already an accomplished scholar, but unfamiliar with the particular path that the Baal Shem Tov taught. The Baal Shem Tov queried him regarding a particularly difficult section of the Kabbalistic work Eitz Chaim. As an established scholar, he was able to solve the difficulty. The Baal Shem Tov, however, responded that the Maggid’s explanation was insufficient.

The Maggid contemplated the passage a second time and stood his ground, asserting that his explanation was correct and that if the Baal Shem Tov had a superior one, he should articulate it.

The Baal Shem Tov then proceeded to read the relevant section with the Maggid, and due to his intense concentration, energy and fervor, when Divine angels were mentioned, the two were able to physically discern the angels created by their study, and the room filled with light.1

Reflecting on this story, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, remarked that it wasn’t the Baal Shem Tov’s miracles that attracted the Maggid; rather, it was his ability to endow esoteric mystical teachings with vivid coherence that transformed the Maggid into his disciple.2 The Baal Shem Tov turned the words from mere abstractions into living realities, and the Maggid could now clearly see them with his mind’s eye.

The Baal Shem Tov was a mystic and miracle worker. The Maggid was a scholar and an intellectual. When they met, a marriage was forged between mysticism and scholarship. The Maggid, accordingly, was able to work a miracle of a different kind: He used words and language to turn the Baal Shem Tov’s vivid, mystical visions into teachings that could be understood, studied, and taught.

A Center of Study

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak pointed out a key distinction between the Maggid and the Baal Shem Tov:

Among the differences between the practices of the Baal Shem Tov and that of the Maggid: The Baal Shem Tov would constantly embark on various journeys while the Maggid stayed in one place.3

As a result of his travels, the Baal Shem Tov became well known as a miracle worker and spiritual guide. Of course, many traveled to Mezibuz to seek his counsel, but a significant portion came due to his reputation as a miracle worker and a healer, not necessarily to hear mystical teachings. Most of those who did become associated with him and are considered his disciples didn’t spend much time in Mezibuz.4 Indeed, it seems like Rabbi DovBer himself met the Baal Shem only twice, although one of those visits lasted six months.5

By contrast, the Maggid established a center where young scholars from across the region came to study. They immersed themselves in the traditional curriculum of Talmud and Jewish law, and also delved into the Kabblisitic mysteries of the Zohar and the writings of the famed Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Arizal). Most importantly, they heard many new teachings from the Maggid himself, imprinting them on their hearts and inscribing them on paper. These transcripts were copied and recopied, memorized and repeated, circulated far beyond the Maggid’s court in Mezritch.

In the words of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak: “To be attached to the Baal Shem Tov, it was sufficient to feel a connection, actuated by living in accordance with his directives, articulating words of Torah, or loving your fellow. However, concerning the Maggid, actual study was required; mere connection was insufficient. His disciples had to spend time in his presence to study with him and learn from his example.”6

Not all who made the journey to Mezritch, however, were admitted as students. While the Baal Shem Tov’s door was always open, access to the Maggid was restricted. For the most part, even the young men who studied under his direction did not merit to see him except on Shabbat.

On several occasions, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, remarked on this contrast. The Baal Shem Tov allowed all to come to hear him, yet he did not discuss mystical ideas publicly. Instead, he communicated through stories and parables. The Maggid, however, while being more discerning with regard to who he taught, was much more open with the content. He discussed profound mystical ideas openly with his students, who wrote them down and further disseminated them.

This was so revolutionary that it raised the ire of some of the other associates of the Baal Shem Tov, notably Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, as evidenced by an episode recorded by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak in the name of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Rabbi Schneur Zalman was a student of the Maggid, and later emerged as the founder of the Chabad school of Chassidism:

Rabbi Pinchas of Koritz was opposed to the way in which the Maggid openly discussed Chassidic ideas. He believed that great discretion was necessary with such lofty matters. He once discovered a transcribed Chassidic teaching that had fallen to the ground of the courtyard, and it caused him great distress.

I noticed this [continued Rabbi Schneur Zalman], and in an attempt to pacify him, I related the known parable:

There was once a king whose only son fell ill. The doctors asserted that the only cure entailed crushing a particular precious stone, mixing it with water, and having the prince drink from the liquid. They searched for this particular stone in the king's treasury to no avail.

One adviser, however, discovered that the stone they were searching for was set in the king's own crown.

Meanwhile, the prince's condition deteriorated to the extent that the doctors doubted whether he would be able to ingest any of the liquid at all. It was likely that even if they removed this gem from the king’s crown and prepared the mixture as per the doctors' instruction, it would all be for naught.

The king, however, persisted, explaining: true, the crown of the kingdom represents the splendor and glory of my sovereignty, and this stone is the centerpiece of the crown. Still, all this is entirely insignificant in comparison to my only son. It is worthwhile to crush this jewel even if it is doubtful we will succeed. Perhaps the prince will ingest a single drop of this liquid and be healed.

When I concluded this parable [continued Rabbi Schneur Zalman], Rabbi Pinchas was pleased, exclaiming: “You are correct! This is a vindication of the Maggid’s approach. Happy is the teacher who has such students.”7

Through this parable, Rabbi Pinchas came to recognize that the Jewish people were in dire straits; only the revelation of the most sublime secrets could provide them the fortitude and inspiration to persevere. Indeed when the Maggid heard about this episode later, he was pleased, explaining that there was opposition from on High to his dissemination of Chassidic thought and the argument of Rabbi Schneur Zalman had exonerated him.8 The Maggid—while a loyal transmitter of the Torah of the Baal Shem Tov—had the courage and foresight to orchestrate the spreading of wellsprings of Chassidism to the masses.

Who Came to the Maggid’s Court?

We can split the visitors to the Maggid’s court into three general categories: 1) Those who visited for a short while to gain inspiration from being in his presence and hearing his teachings. 2) Individuals who spent a considerable amount of time at the Maggid’s side but were not considered his close disciples. These individuals, known as assistants (mesharsim), also performed the general duties required for the successful running of the household. 3) The Maggid’s close disciples, many of whom became influential Chassidic leaders in their own right. This group was known as the “Chevraya Kadisha” (Holy Brotherhood).

On Shabbat, all visitors were welcome at the Maggid’s table. But gaining access to the Maggid in a personal way was more difficult. A rotation of the Maggid’s trusted disciples controlled admittance to his study. In fact, on one occasion, Rabbi Schneur Zalman took the liberty of admitting a certain individual, and the Maggid was displeased.9

It was with his close circle of students, who were already accomplished scholars, that the Maggid was chiefly occupied. Investment in these gifted individuals was key to the success of Chassidism. The Maggid’s talented students, including Rabbi Aaron of Karlin, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Horodok (also known as Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk), Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli, Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk, Rabbi Avraham of Kalsik, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz (the Haflaah), Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chornobyl, Rabbi Yisroel Hopstein (Maggid of Kosnitz), Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz (Chozeh of Lublin), and the Maggid’s own son, Rabbi Avraham HaMalach, spread the teachings of Chassidism far and wide, changing the course of history.10

Chassidic Customs From the Maggid’s Court

Another way the Maggid channeled the Baal Shem Tov’s mystical inspiration into a distinct movement was through the adoption of particular customs and practices, which would become the hallmark of Chassidism. These customs were born of a desire for increased piety and devotion to G‑d and often included Halachic stringencies.

For example, he adopted the version of daily prayers influenced by the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria (“the Arizal”). According to Kabbalah, there are 12 versions of the liturgy, each applicable to one of the 12 tribes. Only by praying according to the liturgy of one’s tribe does one’s prayer have the desired effect. There is, however, explained Rabbi Dov Ber, a thirteenth gate which is an all-inclusive path accessible to all. This was the liturgy developed by the Arizal and adopted by the Maggid as the Chassidic formulation of the prayer liturgy.11

Page from a manuscript prayer book used by the second leader of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi DovBer of Mezritch. Highlighted in red is a marginal note in the handwriting of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi; highlighted in blue are marginal notes in the hand of Rabbi Yisrael, the Maggid of Koznitz. (Photo: Private collection/Courtesy
Page from a manuscript prayer book used by the second leader of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi DovBer of Mezritch. Highlighted in red is a marginal note in the handwriting of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi; highlighted in blue are marginal notes in the hand of Rabbi Yisrael, the Maggid of Koznitz. (Photo: Private collection/Courtesy

Another example was the controversial “doubly sharpened knife” for ritual slaughter, also known as “polished knives.” Before this time, the knives that were generally used for slaughter were uniformly thick from heel to blade. Since the sharp edge was the same thickness as the heel, it took considerable effort to shape the blade and keep the edge. The innovation of the Maggid was the tapering of the knife on both sides, a gradual transformation from the thick heel of the knife to the sharp edge. The advantages of this knife were many, but primarily it was easier for the slaughterer to sharpen the edge and keep it free of nicks which would potentially invalidate the kosher status of the meat. This was a great innovation at the time, but it was eventually accepted by all. Today it is the only type of knife used to slaughter kosher animals.12

Both of these innovations were championed and defended by Rabbi Schneur Zalman after the Maggid's passing.

Additionally, the Maggid instructed Rabbi Schneur Zalman to author a revised edition of the authoritative Code of Jewish Law, which had been penned by Rabbi Yosef Karo some 200 years earlier. The original Code sought to set out Jewish Law clearly and concisely. In the time since its publication, however, a vast amount of commentaries and super-commentaries had been published, which led to a good deal of confusion. The work authored by Rabbi Schneur Zalman, known as Shulchan Aruch HaRav, clearly and concisely synthesized the different opinions into well reasoned rulings. It would become a bedrock of the Halachic corpus and quiet some of the accusations regarding the supposed frivolity of the Chassidim with regard to Jewish Law.13

Success and Opposition

A further indication of the Maggid's success can be observed by the reaction of those who opposed Chassidic ideas and the rise of the Chassidic movement. This opposition began in earnest in 1770, when a group of Chassidim led by the Maggid’s student, Rav Avraham of Kalisk, began acting boisterously, performing somersaults in the streets—as a way of belittling themselves—and making light of overly haughty Torah scholars. Things came to a head when a member of this group traveled to Shklov and, after delivering an astonishingly scholarly lecture, took the opportunity to disparage the Torah giants of the day. This led to an uproar and enraged those who opposed the Chassidim.14

Shortly after this, in the winter of 1771-2, Rabbi Schneur Zalman and Rabbi Mendel of Horodok traveled to Vilna to intercede with the Gaon of Vilna in an attempt to pacify the Gaon and defuse the situation. Their mission was unsuccessful, however, as the Gaon refused to meet with them.

In a final last-ditch effort to avoid a prolonged confrontation, a debate was arranged in Shklov. Rabbi Schneur Zalman was to defend the ideology of Chassidism, and Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk was to defend the misdemeanors of his students. Although Rabbi Schneur Zalman mounted an effective defense of the core tenets of Chassidism, the unrestrained behavior of the students of Rabbi Avraham could not be defended. The rabbis of Shklov turned this fury against the Chassidim, sending word to the Gaon and convincing him to issue edicts of excommunication against the Chassidim.

This synagogue in Rovno, Ukraine, is where Rabbi Dovber, the Maggid of Mezritch—who was successor to Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov as leader of the Chassidic movement—prayed, studied and taught as early as 1760.
This synagogue in Rovno, Ukraine, is where Rabbi Dovber, the Maggid of Mezritch—who was successor to Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov as leader of the Chassidic movement—prayed, studied and taught as early as 1760.

Faced with a rising wave of persecution, the students of the Maggid gathered in Rovno—where the Maggid was living at the time15 —to formulate their response. Rabbi Schneur Zalman describes traveling to Rovno with Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk and how the latter was afraid to enter the town for fear of the Maggid’s wrath. Rabbi Avraham requested that Rabbi Schneur Zalman ask Rabbi Mendel of Horodok (who was already present in the town) to intercede with the Maggid on his behalf. The Maggid consented to receive Rabbi Avraham and severely reprimanded him.16

This unfortunate chain of events led to decades of fierce and bitter opposition to the Chassidic movement. However, it is clear that by the last years of the Maggid’s life his work was complete. Chassidism had transformed into a dynamic movement that was a force to be reckoned with. In fact, it can be argued that this opposition, and the subsequent need to unite in response, helped cement the Chassidim as a cohesive group.

After the passing of the Maggid, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, along with other prominent disciples of Rabbi Dovber, carried on this work. Dozens of Chassidic courts were established across the towns and cities of Eastern Europe, and many Chassidic books were printed so that more and more people could become students of the Maggid, and of his teacher, the Baal Shem Tov.