Hasidic People: A Place in the New World

By Jerome R. Mintz | Go to book overview

1
The Dynasty of Reb Dov Ber: From Mezritch to East Broadway

Reb Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch

Hasidism is a relatively young religious phenomenon, spanning the mid- eighteenth century to the present. The Hasidic movement is traditionally said to have begun with the appearance of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov (the Master of the Good Name, 1700-1760), a pious healer and wonder worker in the Ukranian regions of Podolia and Volhynia whose teachings inspired fervent and joyous fulfillment of the law. The new movement spread rapidly among Eastern European Jewry when leading disciples of the Baal Shem Tov won followers of their own and formed separate communities apart from other Orthodox Jews.

The model for these new communities was established by the court of the Baal Shem Tov's chief disciple, Reb Dov Ber, ( 1704-1772), the learned and charismatic Maggid (Preacher) of Mezritch, a town in Volhynia. A visit to the court of Rabbi Dov Ber was made by Solomon Maimon, then a curious rabbi and later a skeptical philosopher, who left a memorable picture of the new faith.

Accordingly, on Sabbath I went to this solemn meal, and there found a large number of respectable men who had gathered together from various quarters. At length the great man appeared, his awe-inspiring figure clothed in white satin. Even his shoes and snuffbox were white, this being among the kabbalists the color of grace. He greeted each newcomer with "Shalom." We sat down to table and during the meal a solemn silence reigned. After the meal was over, the superior struck up a solemn inspiriting melody, held his hand for some time upon his brow, and then began to call out, "Z . . . of H . . ., M . . . of R . . ., S.M. of N . . .," and so on. Each newcomer was thus called by his own name and the name of his residence, which excited no little astonishment. Each as he was called recited some verse of the Holy Scriptures. Thereupon the superior began to deliver a sermon for which the verses recited served as text, so that although they were disconnected verses taken from different parts of Scripture they were combined with as much skill as if

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