Rabbi Abraham Malach in the early Hasidic setting by Igor Turov



Rabbi Abraham Malach (1740-1776) is one of the most mysterious and little-studied faith teachers of the early Hasidic era. Though he was a son of Dov Ber of Mezhirech, one of the most influential leaders of the new religious movement, he, unlike his father’s disciples, never delivered public lectures, received pilgrims or attended synagogue services and was a long way from any public activity as such. Rabbi Abraham led a secluded life of an ascetic, who rejected everything that had to do with the secular world for the sake of contemplating the celestial world. He died before ever reaching the age of 36 years. He was buried in Fastov. A compilation of his teachings under the title “Chesed le Avraham” (Mercy of Abraham) was originally published in Chernovtsy in 1851. According to Chasidic legends, followers of Besht had high regard for Abraham Malach.

However, researchers expressed their doubts regardingwhether he may be considered a follower of the new religious movement. Sh.Dubnov wrote the following about him: “The author [of “Chesed le Abraham”] thought that he transcends the new Hasidism, that he has risen to heights of Kabbalah knowledge and is contemplating the mysteries of the Universe” . According to A.Sh.Gorodetsky, Abraham Malach was going down a road which was different to one of Besht and of Maggid of Mezhirech. Whilst the latter rejected asceticism as such and encouraged pleasures allowed by the Law, rabbi Abraham was unrestrictedly zealous in mortifying the flesh.

A.Rubinstein in his commentary to a compilation of stories about life of Besht said: “Rabbi Abraham was a kabbalist and an advocate of extreme asceticism, far from the passions of this world, which is in conflict with the way of Besht’s Hasidism… I doubt whether we should include him among the followers of Hasidism”. According to opinion of I.Alfasi, Abraham Malach returned to the tradition of mystics and ascetics, which was prevalent in the society before the advent of Besht’s teaching. Both information on his lifestyle and the fact that he was not guided in his teachings by works of classics and founders of Hasidism testify to the above.

It seems reasonable to question whether rabbi Abraham must be included in the number of the teachers of New Hasidism. He lived in times when the movement was just nascent. Ascetic views of cabbalist hermits, who followed the established tradition of the Eastern-European Jewish mysticism, were a force in the society, including Hassidic circles. It wasn’t surprising that the son of Maggid of Mezhirech preferred a teaching which was more authoritative for his generation to views of his father and his friend. However, an analysis of sayings of rabbi Abraham enables us to doubt this point of view. The article advances a hypothesis confirming that there are grounds to include Abraham Malach in the number of the teachers of New Hasidism.

Abraham Malach’s teaching on tzadik’s mission

In his lectures rabbi Abraham emphasizes over and over again that the point of serving the Lord is to increase the good things given to us from above for the sake of the heavenly world, which good things he also calls a revelation of the Kingdom of God. Realization of the objective is possible only thanks to tzadik’s intermediary activity. “Revelation of the Kingdom of God in this world takes place in two ways. Sometimes it happens “from below upward” thanks to tzadik who has subdued all his 7 qualities to the Lord, causing all good things to be sent down to this world. Sometimes it happens “from above downward”: not with standing the fact that tzadik has not managed to do a lot in his service, the Lord, may His Name be blessed, in His mercy sends down to the world all possible good things, and when His Kingdom is thus disclosed, “Fire goes before Him and burns up His adversaries round about” (Psalm 97:3) and then “All who do iniquity [are] scattered” (Psalm 92:9). And then all [fallen] sparks fly up to the Lord, may His Name be blessed.

But it is impossible for the Shekinah to descend lower than the tenth degree (Suka 5a), because any degree may not reach any degree other than the closest higher degree, and if the first should reach the latter, it shall cease to exist. Therefore revelation takes place with tzadik’s help, who is on the ayn (self-denial) degree, for in it there is no destruction”. Thus, Abraham Malachs sees only two possibilities to send down to this world the good things of the God’s Kingdom. Either the tsadik reaches a level enabling him to send them down independently, or the Lord does it by virtue of His limitless mercy. In this case, mediation of tzadik is also necessary, because without it the world is unable to come in touch with the higher beings without being dissolved in them. Only the righteous man of God, thanks to a special spiritual practice, set forth in detail below, is able to accept and to transmit the gifts of the heavenly world. The original plan was to impose responsibility to mediate between the Creator and the creation on the whole chosen people, but due to imperfection of ordinary people who were not able to reach a proper level of spirituality, the mission was imposed on the tsadiks.

 ‘“I have taken the Levites from among the sons of Israel” (Numbers 3:12). …For all sons of Israel must lift up sparks which are on the lower degrees of the creation, so that the world may be filled with understanding of the divine things, but they did not reach the proper degree. Therefore tzadik, who includes in him all Israel, is called a Levite. For he clings to the Lord, may His Name be blessed, and performs the action and lift ups the Kingdom… This is why it is said: “I have taken the Levites”, i.e. tzadiks.

In this passage tzadiksare bracketed together with the Levites, a priestly caste of the Biblical times, which was given the privilege of the temple service, which originally belonged to the whole people. They carry out their service thanks to the fact that the soul of a tzadik includes souls of all Jews of his generation. Therefore when they are lift upd, they lift up with them all the community of the faithful. Similar sayings are often found in works of teachers of faith of early Hasidism.

According to views of rabbi Abraham Malach, not only the Jews but also other nations of the world get good things from the higher powers only thanks to the mediation of their righteous. “Tzadikis the foundation of the world, for when he prays, he lift ups the whole world. The same is true for the nations of the world. There are 70 nations of the world against 70 souls of the house of Jacob, from which they eat the good things (literally “they suck”). Each nation has many degrees and each subsequent degree is closer to holiness. The one who gets closer to holiness than all the others, elevating his qualities to holiness, thereby lift ups all his nation to holiness. However, at that they reach just one of the holy souls which they such, one of the 70 souls of the house of Jacob” .

M.Idel among most characteristic features of the early Hasidism dogma mentions a doctrine, according to which tzadik is the channel connecting the divine and the created worlds. By using special mystical techniques tzadik rises and merges with the deity, and then comes down and endows all around him with good things he obtained from above. Abraham Malach gets back to discussing such service of tzadik in most of his lectures. In this matter he is more consistent than all other leaders of the early Hasidism.

His father, Dov Ber of Mezhirech, who was one of the most influential followers of Besht, despite bent on discussing tzadik’s mission as a mediator, from time to time remarked that coming of God’s good things in this world depends on organized joint actions of all the community of believers. A typical example of this is his saying which explains why the Lord commanded to the peoplestanding on the coast to be silent before making the great miracle of separating waters of the Red sea. “Be silent”, said the Lord, for at that point He had to change the nature by turning sea into dry land, while the Hebrews were praying and thus holding on to the speech world, which supports life of this created world. Therefore it was impossible to carry out a change in this world. And that’s why He said to them, “Be silent” – and the letters of speech which support life of this world were brought up to the “Ancient of Days” himself (God’s will), where there is no distinction between qualities, there is no sea and dry land but everything is the same, for this is the highest will.

And no sooner when the sea returned to its abode, the people sang a song” . The above passage describes a technique of influencing the deity by lifting up the letters of speech, popular among the Hassids. When used by all the people simultaneously, it enabled the miracle of salvation from persecution by the pharaoh’s army. The outstanding righteous people did not play any special part in what had happened. In lectures of Abraham Malach miracles and any manifestations of grace in this world as such, as well as elevation of the chosen people to degrees close to the Creator take place exclusively through tzadik’s mediation. In this matter his position was close to views of the founder of Hasidism rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. The following sayings are significant in this regard: “The generation leader is able to lift up all sayings and narratives of the people of his generation, thereby linking the material with the spiritual” , “The man is a small world. The first corresponds to the head and the latter corresponds to the feet. The one who is called the generation leader is the eyes of the community. When the generation leader changes himself into a cart where Shekhinah may abide, and from him it reaches all the people of his generation. This is why they say, that the spirit of creation flows from him” .

It is significant that Besht, as well as rabbi Abraham Malach, does not include the public preaching in the mystique practices which miraculously lift up souls of the descendants of Jacob. He sets his hopes in the first place on the exceptional abilities of the man chosen by God to secure the universal salvation by his own effort. At the same time, the son of Maggid of Mezhirech and rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov took different views on the matter of participation of the righteous man in a collective prayer. Besht, according to Hassidic tradition, led festival prayersof worshippers and thereby he managed to cancel rulings of the heavenly court which were unfavorable for the Jews a few times. 

According to a collection of lectures by rabbi Israel “Keter Shev Tov” the ecstatic prayer of a small group of devotees in a synagogue arouses ecstasy in souls of all others present. As for rabbi Abraham, according to Hassidic stories, he did not use to attend the synagogue services and in exposition of his doctrine he does not place any emphasis on the importance of tzadik’s participation in the collective prayer.

To continue comparing views of the two outstanding teachers of faith, let’s recall a passage from Besht’s epistle relating his talk with the King Messiah: “I asked the Messiah: “When will you come?” He replied: “Be aware that when your doctrine spreads and becomes known to the world and when your springs break outside, the things I’ve taught you and you’ve learned, and they also (all the faithful) will be able to carry out mergers like you and to raise up their souls like you… then the time desired for and salvation will come”.

I was amazed at this and was full of anguish because of how much time shall pass before this will be possible. But of the things I’ve learned while being there, three healing methods and three holy names are easy to learn and to explain. Then my mind was set at rest and it occurred to me that thanks to this my peers will also be able to reach my degree and my level. They will be able by using them (the names learned) to lift up their soul like me, they will be able to learn and will be like me”. M.Idel suggests that we should translate the expression bney gili (literally “peers”) as contemporaries and believes that tendencies to introduce all to the elitist spiritual practices carried out by him were not alien to Besht . If we agree with this interpretation, we must also acknowledge that rabbi Israel conceded in principle that all coreligionists may reach his level and his supernatural abilities, even though the King Messiah forbade him to disclose the secret to people.

In lectures of rabbi Abraham Malach tzadikinvariably acts as a mediator between God and the people. The righteous man carries out the exalted service thanks to his exceptional spiritual perfection. Discourses of rabbi Abraham do not contain even the slightest hint to a possibility to transmit such abilities of the man of God to the whole generation by magic or by teaching and exhorting. In the introduction to his work rabbi Abraham speaks about granting a particular nature to the man depending on his merits “in incarnation of the soul or in its first incarnation in this world or the higher one. This approach rules out any possibility for people to reach an equal degree of service to the Creator, since inclinations and abilities of the man turn out to be depending on the secret history of his preceding incarnations of his soul. In this case, position of rabbi Abraham is close to one preached by one of the closest disciples of Besht, rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonnoye. According to his views, the humanity is divided into people of the matter and people of the form.

Each of these two groups has own way of service. They must learn to understand each other and to help each other to realize the mission entrusted to them, but the difference between them shall not be eliminated, at least not in this world. Father of rabbi Abraham, Dov Ber of Mezhirech believed that souls of people descend into this world from various levels of the divine world. Each of those levels is divided into a number of degrees. The degree of Moses is the highest degree the man can reach. By self-cultivation any man can rise up to the degree of Moses of his spiritual level, but no more than that. Accordingly, from the beginning only few people are allowed to become tzadiks of the higher level

Thus, on the basis of the above we must conclude that comments of Abraham Malach on tzadik’s mission were close to the package of concepts which had been formed in the circle of founders of Hasidism. With that he used to choose the most elitist ideas from all great number of ideas proposed. Like Besht, he was inclined to diminish the role of the individual service of tzadik and did not believe that it was necessary to disclose the secret sense of Torah to the common people. Like his father and like rabbi Yaakov Yosef, he did not concede even in theory that the whole community could reach a level which would enable it to carry out all the spiritual practices of tzadik.

To finish this section, I would like to comment on the passage from the lectures of rabbi Abraham, on the basis of which Sh.Dubnov and A.Sh.Gorodetskiy reached a conclusion that rabbi Abraham substantially disagreed with Hasidism of Besht. The passage speaks of the well-known story from the Book of prophet Samuel about King Saul showing mercy on the captured king of amalekites, which made the prophet very angry. It was traditional for rabbinical and mystical literature to picture Saul as a great righteous man, who because of some weaknesses was not able to carry out the king’s mission properly.

In particular, Abraham Malach wrote about him: “There is a sublime tzadik, who is unable to lead (lehanhig) his generation, and the generation is unable to tolerate him. For he both by his stature and by his level is above all the people, for his understanding is so great that the generation is unable to tolerate him. He is close to the higher wisdom and may not descend to a lower degree in order to lift up his generation”. Dubnov thought that in this case the author speaks of himself. 

Exactly because of such views Abraham Malach never handled matters of the community and lived simple life of a mystic and an ascetic. He consciously rejected the path of tzadik-leader, in which other teachers of Hasidism believed. However, if we read the passage carefully it makes us doubt such conclusions. The passage speaking of acts of King Saul, is preceded by the above-mentioned discourse on struggle between Mordechay and Haman. In particular, it mentions Haman’s intent to raise Mordecai in the higher spheres, so that he dissolves in the deity and ceases to exist. “So that he would cease to be himself there, God forbid, and there would be no one who is able to lead(lehanhig) the generation, for he would be raised to such a height where he would cease to be himself. This would make it possible that those at the lower degrees to fall in sin and there will be no one who is able to lead them to correction”.

“But Mordecai learned about what had happened” (Esther 4:1). And he saved himself from this by means of Torah and prayer until he had brought a delivery. He brought it into the night, which is the great exile (galut). He brought a revelation of the first cause, which is the great name of the first cause itself. He brought it into the darkness of halut and destroyed halut”.Thus, rabbi Abraham views as a great disaster tzadik’s refusal to guide the generation, even when it is caused by his ascension into the higher layers of the world. It is important to remark that as it follows from this passage, the guidance is carried out not by contacts between the righteous man and the community, but by his spiritual practice: studying Torah, prayers, acts performed by means of the secret names of God. It was because of these that Mordecai was able to destroy forces of darkness and to save his generation.

In this context the verb lehanhig (literally to lead) becomes a specific term, which means the righteous man’s concern for the people expressed in mystical acts concealed from the eyes of the ordinary person.This attitude toward the mission of the man of God was close to views of rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. Concluding his discourse on Mordecai, Abraham Malach points out that Moses “reached a higher degree not as to become inapproachable (nitbatel) and be unable to lead (lehanhig) the generation, God forbid, but in such a way that heled the generation to a degree so high, that even if he himself should be on a degree which is still higher, he will be able to lead (lehanhig) the generation anyway”. Then rabbi Abraham begins a discourse on King Saul. He also condemns his inability to lead (lehanhig) the generation. In this case, the son of Maggid of Mezhirech warns the righteous about a danger of a different kind. Whilst Mordecai was in danger of complete break-up with his generation, Saul got into trouble due to his attempts to correct this world by using a spiritual practice which is not allowed in our times, namely, by lifting up sparks of light of those captured by forces of evil exclusively by means of mercy.

“But this is truly not so. For just as the quality of mercy is necessary, the quality of cruelty is necessary also. And the Creator has commanded to show mercy to the one who requires mercy, and to show cruelty to the one requiring cruelty”. Explanation of Saul’s mistake is that he ascended to the high degree of the universe where there is no quality of judgment but only the pure mercy. “He rose to the great degree, so the generation was not able to tolerate him, he rose to the degree of mercy, which is a heritage without limits”. According to rabbi Abraham the degree to which Saul rose, was the degree of the King Messiah, and it was intolerable to act the way he acted during times preceding the deliverance. 

Thus, bracketing rabbi Abraham with the righteous man like King Saul is hardly justifiable. The conclusion is confirmed by all subsequent contents of the work of the son of Great Maggid, devoted mainly to describing the way of serving the Lord by means of all main qualities of the soul. The next chapter of this study will be devoted to examining the above material.

Spiritual practice of rabbi Abraham Malach

Rabbi Abraham Malach taught that the entities emanating from the highest source and constituting a manifested deity (sefirot), are a hierarchy of individual minds. This teaching was maintained by the medieval mystics. 

Igor Turov, Doctor of Science

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