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Publisher's Foreword

"Fathers Of Chassidus"
The First Three Generations

   The First Generation: The Baal Shem Tov

Second Generation: The Maggid Of Mezritch

Third Generation: The Alter Rebbe

Torah Scholarship In Reissin

Reb Yitzchak Aizik Of Vitebsk

The Debate In Minsk

Letter By The Previous Rebbe

The Rebbe's Response To The Previous Rebbe's Letter

On The Subject Of Miracles

The Alter Rebbe's Later Years

The Previous Rebbe's Ancestral Tree

Founders Of Chassidism & Leaders Of Chabad-Lubavitch


Geographic Terms

Branches Of The Chassidic Menorah - Volume One
Biographical Stories Based On The Essay
Fathers Of Chassidus
By The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn
First published in the classical columns of HaTamim

The First Generation: The Baal Shem Tov

Translated by Shimon Neubort

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  Publisher's ForewordSecond Generation: The Maggid Of Mezritch  



During one of my saintly father's most holy addresses, delivered on 19 Kislev 5663 [December 19, 1902], we were privileged to hear the following:

The Rebbe[2] possessed a soul derived from Atzilus. Now it is true that all souls have their source in the world of Atzilus. This is what is meant by the passage, "the soul which You have given within me is pure,"[3] which every Jewish man and woman recites each morning. This, however, means only that the source of every soul is in the world of Atzilus. As for the Rebbe, by contrast, even the soul as manifest within his body was a soul of Atzilus. This is something exceptional, and deserves to be viewed with special respect.

Besides this, he was a natural born mentor, leader, and commander. He possessed all the instincts, faculties, and abilities that a mentor, leader, and commander must have. Moreover, he excelled marvelously in these areas.

From the very beginning, organization and activity played a major role in the chassidic camp. Even before the Baal Shem Tov revealed himself, while his identity was still hidden, he and his fellow hidden tzaddikim were extremely well organized. They established centers in various locations, and each pursued his endeavors in his own center. From time to time, they would send detailed reports to the Baal Shem Tov's headquarters. The names of several of these early hidden tzaddikim (e.g., Reb Mordechai, Reb Kehos,...) appear in papers and letters found in the recently-discovered archives.[4]

According to tradition, the principal mission in which the Baal Shem Tov and his companions - the hidden tzaddikim - were engaged was to encourage the Jewish people and to strengthen their hearts. The years 5408-09 [1648] were years of terrible decrees against the Jewish people. Tens of thousands of people perished, and all their money and property were lost.

After these tragedies, the Jewish population began to concentrate in large cities and settlements, for they were afraid to continue living in smaller colonies. Most of these Jews were unemployed and poverty stricken. Their poverty was accompanied by a deep depression of their spirits because of their bitter exile.

The spiritual status of the Jews in those days remained on the highest level of piety. Nevertheless, the Jewish regional councils would dispatch itinerant preachers and sermonizers. These would travel from city to city and from settlement to settlement, reprimanding the Jews.

Their style of preaching was to speak words of mussar tempered with parables. For the most part, they would throw fear into the listeners, telling them that G-d was punishing them because of their wicked deeds. In their sermons they would remind the audience of what had happened to their parents and grandparents during the years of the cruel decrees (may G-d have mercy). Their words depressed the spirits of the Jews even further.


At that time - about the year 5480 [1720] - the Baal Shem Tov and his companions, the hidden [tzaddikim], began a campaign to persuade the Jews of Podolia and the surrounding territories to move from the cities and the larger settlements to villages and small settlements. There, they were to work the land and engage in other manual labor, while the women learned to spin yarn and to raise cattle, fowl, vegetables, and the like.

The Baal Shem Tov and his companions, the hidden tzaddikim, went about their mission - reassuring the Jews, raising their depressed spirits, and eliminating their fears and anxieties. They persuaded the Jews to live in small villages and rural colonies, and engage in manual labor. They accomplished these tasks in a wonderfully organized manner (according to the standards of those days).

The Alter Rebbe told his grandson the Tzemach Tzedek that his own [spiritual] grandfather,[5] the Baal Shem Tov, had said that the first goal of the task he and his companions, the hidden tzaddikim, undertook was to heal the bodies of the Jewish people. Only afterwards could they heal their spirits and souls.

Thus, during the entire time that the Baal Shem Tov remained hidden, all his efforts were focused on helping the Jews earn their livelihoods. His main efforts were directed at the simple folk (who constitute the body of the Jewish people). Only after he had revealed himself did he use his efforts in behalf of the students and Torah scholars (who constitute the soul and spirit of the Jewish people).

During the above-mentioned discourse, my saintly father recited to me the teaching that he had heard from his saintly father, who had heard it from his saintly father the Tzemach Tzedek, who heard it from his grandfather the Alter Rebbe. The teaching is based on the verse,[6] "And on the vine there were three twigs...."

The Sages of blessed memory teach us[7] that the "vine" refers to the Jewish people. The main theme of the teaching is that the grape vine differs from all other trees in two respects: i) every part of the vine - even the leaves - serves some purpose with respect to the fruit; ii) every part of the vine possesses some vital characteristic not found in the other parts. Even the leaves possess a feature that is superior to the fruit, for they serve to protect the fruits. It is obvious that the entity offering protection must possess powers greater than - and superior to - the thing which is protected.[8]


During all the years that the Baal Shem Tov remained hidden, he and his companions, the secret tzaddikim continued working toward the goal mentioned above in an organized manner. When the Baal Shem Tov finally revealed himself, he established public centers. Either he sent one of his close disciples to live in a particular center, or else he would establish the center in a place where one of the disciples already lived.

We find that by the year 5500 [1740], our master the Baal Shem Tov was surrounded by mighty disciples and geonim, fighting the battles of the Torah. Besides his disciples and colleagues who were hidden tzaddikim, there were world-class geonim who were openly his disciples. They also worked in a highly organized and energetic fashion, each at his appointed task, in the location designated for him by the Baal Shem Tov.

Within about fifteen years, the Baal Shem Tov's outstanding organization, his G-dly program of ahavas Yisrael, and the mesirus nefesh dedicated to the campaign of his holy disciples, bore fruit. The Baal Shem Tov's teachings spread throughout the land. Furthermore, he had captured the hearts of the Jewish people - not only in Poland, but also in Lita.

The Baal Shem Tov held several debates with the Frankists, and finally prevailed over them. (This is documented at length in the above-mentioned archives.)[9] This victory earned the Baal Shem Tov and his holy disciples a concealed hatred on the part of the Frankists. Nevertheless, the highly-organized discipline [of the Baal Shem Tov's campaign] proved advantageous. On every front, the Divinely-inspired success in disseminating the Baal Shem Tov's teachings was apparent.

The Baal Shem Tov's passing had a powerful impact within the chassidic camp. At the same time, the misnagdim planned a major offensive against them. The Frankists too, were roused to oppose the Baal Shem Tov's disciples, and they carried out several plots against them. Were it not for their organization and their steel discipline, the chassidim would have been unable to maintain their position.


As I mentioned in my previous letters, when my saintly father the Rebbe [Rashab] spent the summer of 5655 [1895] in the vacation resort Balivka, he arranged a specific time to take his stroll. This occurred each day except Monday, when he would travel to Lubavitch to visit his mother, the Rebbetzin [Rivkah], and to receive the visitors who had come to Lubavitch.

The time spent during these strolls was very dear to me. On those occasions Father would tell me stories of things that happened to him during his youth, the holy addresses he had heard from his saintly father the Rebbe [Maharash], as well as things he had heard from the elder chassidim.

During the three summer months (from the middle of Sivan to the middle of Elul) of the six years 5655 to 5660 [1895-1900], Father would take me for a walk that lasted two hours (sometimes even three hours or more) each weekday, except Monday (as I already mentioned).

My father's wedding took place in the city of Avruch (in the territory of Vohlynia), where his father-in-law, the saintly Rebbe, Reb Yosef Yitzchak[10] lived. For various reasons - primarily because of his poor health - my saintly grandfather the Rebbe Maharash was unable to make the trip to Avruch to attend the wedding. During one of our walks in the summer of 5655, Father told me the details of that story.

My father went on at length about the greatness of my saintly grandfather (his own father-in-law) Reb Yosef Yitzchak, his outstanding diligence in study, his philanthropic nature, and (most of all) his humility. He also repeated to me everything his father the Rebbe Maharash had told him about the greatness of his own brother, my grandfather Reb Yosef Yitzchak.

My saintly grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, said to his son, my saintly father:

Your father-in-law is a master of avodah. When he still lived with his own father-in-law, Reb Yaakov Yisrael of Cherkassy, he was once asked how he davened. My brother replied that - as much as possible - he prayed betzibbur, [understood to mean] "with the congregation."

Once, after my uncle Reb Yaakov Yisrael had finished davening, he sent for his son-in-law (who was my brother and your father-in-law), requesting that he come to see him. The messenger returned saying that [Reb Yosef Yitzchak] was still davening. A while later he sent for him again, and again the messenger returned to say that he was still davening. The sequence was repeated a third time.

When he finally finished his prayers and went to see his father-in-law, he said to him: "Didn't you tell me that you pray betzibbur?"[11]

To this, my brother replied: "My saintly father [the Tzemach Tzedek] said to me in the name of his grandfather the [Alter] Rebbe, that praying betzibbur means gathering[12] all the Divine sparks that one has refined, and elevating them through his davening. [This is what I meant when I said that] as much as possible I try to pray betzibbur.


Continuing his stories, Father repeated to me what he had heard from his own father, the Rebbe Maharash, during the month of Elul 5635 [1875]:

When I was nineteen years old, I became seriously ill (may we be spared). Dr. Heibenthall, the specialist from Vitebsk, was brought to my bedside two or three times. After I was out of danger, I was ordered to remain in bed for about three months. Each day, my saintly father[13] would come to visit me, sitting at my bedside for two whole hours, and sometimes even three or four hours.

On most of those visits, he would tell me stories of events that had happened to him while he lived in the home of his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe. He also repeated to me the stories he had heard from the Alter Rebbe, concerning his days in Mezritch at the court of the Maggid of blessed memory.

The Alter Rebbe told the Tzemach Tzedek that during the period immediately following his arrival in Mezritch, "the nights were not long enough to set down on paper all that he had heard during the day." He was especially careful to write down the stories he had heard from his master and Rebbe, and from the members of the Holy Society. Most of these stories concerned events of the time when the Baal Shem Tov was still at their head, and each story contained a lofty message on some topic of avodah in serving G-d.

The Alter Rebbe possessed many bundles of papers - including both those he had written himself, and those obtained from his fellow members of the Holy Society during his stay in Mezritch. Alas, most of these - about twenty bound notebooks and ten bundles of loose papers - were destroyed during the fire that broke out in Liadi in 5570 [1810], while the Alter Rebbe was visiting Berditchev. Most of these were original manuscripts by the Alter Rebbe, but some were only copies. The sacred manuscript of his Shulchan Aruch was also burned, and only part of it survived.

The Baal Shem Tov, explained the Alter Rebbe, carried out his leadership very stringently, with strict discipline, and in a highly-organized fashion. [He and his followers] were aware of what the misnagdim were doing at all times. In those days, a trip from Mezhibuzh to Shklov or Vilna took several weeks. Nevertheless, there was constant communication, by means of travelers who journeyed back and forth. What is most amazing, is that no outsiders were aware of this at all.



  1. (Back to text) From the Previous Rebbe's essay, "Fathers of Chassidus," HaTamim, Vol. 2, pp. 137-140.

  2. (Back to text) The Alter Rebbe, Baal HaTanya.

  3. (Back to text) [Quoted from the Shacharis prayer; Siddur, p 6.]

  4. (Back to text) [During the revolution in 1918, archives of manuscripts that had been hidden in Cherson were discovered and made available to the public. These included numerous letters and brief notes by the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid. Each issue of HaTamim featured a section devoted to the publication of these letters.]

  5. (Back to text) The Alter Rebbe used to call the Baal Shem Tov his "grandfather," for as a disciple of his disciple [the Mezritcher Maggid], he was indeed his spiritual grandchild. ["Disciples are considered as children" (Sanhedrin 19b.)]

  6. (Back to text) [Bereishis 40:10.]

  7. (Back to text) [Chulin 92a.]

  8. (Back to text) [The intent appears to be that the simple Jews, who keep the Torah and observe its mitzvos, are in some respects superior to the great scholars who study it.]

  9. (Back to text) [The followers of Yaakov Frank (1726-1791), who misled many Jews by claiming that he was the messiah, and encouraged them to engage in sinful practices to lift up the sparks of G-dliness found within the forces of evil.]

  10. (Back to text) This was the holy Reb Yosef Yitzchak, son of the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek, and son-in-law of the saintly Rebbe Reb Yaakov Yisrael of Cherkassy. [He was the Previous Rebbe's maternal grandfather, and a brother of the Previous Rebbe's paternal grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash; the Previous Rebbe was named after him.]

  11. (Back to text) [His father-in-law had understood the remark according to its straightforward meaning, i.e., that he prayed with the congregation. And the congregation had finished the prayers much earlier.]

  12. (Back to text) [A play on words: the Hebrew word betzibbur has the root "Tzibur", which also means "gathering together."]

  13. (Back to text) I.e., the Tzemach Tzedek.

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