After Arriving at the Sea of Galilee, a Group of Early Hasidim Encountered Plague

July 14, 2020 | Yitzhak Melamed
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In 1777, Rabbi Menaḥem Mendel of Vitebsk, the foremost leader of the still-young ḥasidic movement in what is now Belarus, set off with 30 of his followers and their families for the Land of Israel. Among his fellow travelers was another prominent Belarusian ḥasid, Abraham Katz of Kalisk, famous for his fits of wild prayerful ecstasy. They arrived—after an arduous six-month journey over land and sea—in Safed, which two centuries before had been an international capital of Kabbalah. A few years later they relocated to Tiberias, a city with its own rabbinic tradition dating to the 1st century CE. Yitzhak Melamed tells their story:

In 1785, Menaḥem Mendel of Vitebsk built a fine three-floor house. The upper floor served (and still serves) as a small synagogue. But . . . by Purim [of 1786], Tiberias had been stricken by the plague. Menaḥem Mendel sealed himself and ten of his disciples in his newly built house. For more than two months, no one came in or out of the walls of the house. Preparations for Passover, the seder night, the mourning [period following Passover known as the] of the Omer, and the ḥasidic gatherings at the end of the Sabbath were all experienced in quarantine on the shores of the Galilee.

The Kalisker [as Rabbi Katz was known], meanwhile, followed his ailing son to the village of Peki’in, where he himself fell ill. Seeking a place to heal, the Kalisker and his son climbed the mountain and found shelter in a cave, as if reenacting the talmudic story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai and his son, Elazar, who hid in a Peki’in cave during the Hadrianic persecutions [of the 2nd century]. Following a long illness, which they described as coming in waves, the Kalisker and his son eventually recovered.

For both the Kalisker and Rabbi Menaḥem Mendel, past and present blurred in their thoughts about the plague: the ten plagues of Egypt, Passover, the plague of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva who perished during the Omer between Passover and Shavuot, and their own day-to-day experience of cholera in Tiberias were uncannily fused.

[In 1788], Menaḥem Mendel passed away. The Kalisker succeeded him and led the ḥasidic community in Tiberias for more than twenty years, until his demise in 1810.

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