December 4, 1772 (or December 15, in the Julian calendar), is the date on which Dov Ber of Mezeritch, the successor to Hasidism’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov, died, 11 years after the death of his teacher master.
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The birthdate of Dov Ber ben Abraham, who is known widely as the Maggid (preacher), was somewhere between 1700 and 1710; like most details of his life, the exact date is not known. He lived most of that life in Mezeritch, in the region then called Volhynia, which straddles modern-day Ukraine, Poland and Belarus.
The most well-known legend about Dov Ber’s childhood concerns a fire that destroyed his family’s house when he was 5. As his mother watched their home go up in flames, she wept, and Dov Ber asked why she was crying. She explained that a copy of the family tree, which traced their heritage back to King David, was inside. The son told her not to worry, that he would make a new family tree, “starting with me.’
Although Dov Ber was not trained as a rabbi, he was well-versed in Torah and Talmud, and served as a maggid, a preacher. He found particular interest in the study of Lurianic kabbala and in the teachings of the scholar and mystic Moshe Haim Luzzatto, a contemporary. He lived his life as an ascetic, often afflicting himself, and his sermons often spoke about divine reward and punishment.
Living as he did in extreme poverty, Dov Ber suffered from frequent ill health, and in particular had a lame leg. Having heard about the curative powers associated with Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the Besht (an acronym for his name), Dov Ber traveled to the latter’s home, in Medzhibozh. Over the course of several days, he visited with the Besht, but was disappointed that the famed teacher, far from offering profound spiritual lessons, related a variety of accounts of his day-to-day activities.
Presence of angels
After a few days, Dov Ber decided to leave town quietly, and waited for the moon to come out that night, so that he could travel with some light. Just before his departure, near midnight, he was called to the home of the Besht, who asked him to explain a passage in “Etz Haim,” a mystical text by Haim Vital. This was Dov Ber’s specialty, and he proceeded to interpret the words, only to be told that he was wrong. Taken aback, he insisted that his analysis was correct, but also asked the Baal Shem Tov to provide his own interpretation. The Besht responded that Dov Ber had indeed parsed the passage properly, but that his words lacked soul.
As he spoke, Dov Ber later reported, the room filled with light and with the presence of angels.
Not surprisingly, Dov Ber decided to remain in Medzhibozh, and he became a disciple to the Besht. Rabbi Yisrael helped him infuse his knowledge with spirituality, and taught him to appreciate the value of everyday life. Dov Ber continued to be a more intellectual and text-oriented preacher than his teacher, but he now joined to this a deeper spirituality. As the Besht supposedly described it, “before Dovber came to me, he was already a pure golden menorah. All I needed to do was ignite it.”
The Baal Shem Tov died in 1761. For a year after his death, his son Tzvi served as his successor, until he announced that he was retiring - and turning over the leadership of the emerging movement to Dov Ber of Mezeritch.
Dov Ber indeed moved the base of the Hasidic movement to his town and began sending out followers to spread the teachings of the Besht throughout the region and beyond, to Poland, Galicia and Belarus. These included Elimelech of Lizhensk and his brother, Zusha of Anipoli (or Hanipol), Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Aharon of Karlin, Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, Nachum of Chernobyl and several others.
Each of these men became the head of a different branch of Hasidism, but after the death of Dov Ber, there was no longer a single leader uniting them all.
Dov Ber was said to have spent most of his time learning in isolation. Only on Shabbat would he emerge, dressed in white satin. He would ask his followers to call out random biblical verses, and then he would weave them into a coherent, cohesive sermon.
Like the Besht, Dov Ber left no writings of his own, but a relative of his, Solomon ben Abraham, collected many of his teachings into several volumes. He himself, however, admitted that he did not always understand the meaning of those teachings.
In brief, it can be said that Dov Ber taught that everything in creation is a manifestation of God, and that man’s task is to reunite with God. This is done through prayer, but whereas the Baal Shem Tov had taught that all people could come close to God through prayer, Dov Ber said that only certain tzaddikim (righteous teachers) could achieve that union, through ecstatic prayer, and that they would serve as the link between regular people and God. Through their love for the tzaddik, normal people could find grace with God.
As Hasidism began to grow, so did opposition to it, although initially, the only rabbi with sufficient gravity to show that opposition openly was the Gaon of Vilna. In April 1772, when several followers of Dov Ber came to visit him, he refused to receive them, and placed a ban on them and their followers. This acrimony was said to greatly disturb Dov Ber, who died later that year, on December 4. According to tradition, he is buried in nearby Anipoli, next to the grave of his follower Zusha.