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Hasidim in Pinsk and Karlin

* The sources for this Monograph are the following books by the author: Ha-Hasiduth ha-Litaith (Hebrew), Mosad Bialik, Jerusalem 1961; Lithuanian Hasidism, Vallentine, Mitchell, London 1970; Lithuanian Hasidism, Schocken New York 1971.


R. Rafael Hacohen – Rav of Pinsk
Title-page of the "Testament" of R. Aharon the Great of Karlin (Chernovits 1855)
The grave of R. Aharon the Great in Karlin
Letter from R. Aharon the Second of Karlin to his son R. Asher the Second
Letter from R. Aharon the Second of Karlin to his family (Letter A)
Letter from R. Aharon the Second of Karlin to his daughter Miryam, July 1866 (Letter B)
Letter from R. Aharon the Second of Karlin to his daughter Miryam and to his son-in-law R. Avraham-Yaakov of Sadagora, 29.7.1866 (Letter C)
Title-page of the volume 'Beth Aharon', Brody 1875
Letter from R. Asher the Second of Karlin-Stolin to his followers, 1872/1873
Picture of R. Yisrael 'the child' of Karlin-Stolin  
The grave of R. Yisrael of Karlin-Stolin in Frankfurt am Main
Signatures of the Karlin Tsaddikim
The prayer house of the Karlin Hasidim in Tiberias
Signatures of the disciples of R. Yitshak Luria ('Ha-ari') and R. Hayyim Vital, 1575 (From the Stolin Genizah)

Notes on the Transliteration

The transliteration of Hebrew names and words in this monograph follows the Sephardi pronunciation and is based on the phonetic method employed in scholarly works. Special note should be taken of the following conventions:

Hebrew beth with dagesh is represented by b.
“        beth
without dagesh is represented by v
(e.g. A v raham ).
“        beth
is represented by h (e.g. h asiduth ).
“        kaf
without dagesh is represented by kh
(e.g. Baru kh).
“        peh
without dagesh is represented by f
(e.g. se f er ).
“        tau
with dagesh is represented by t
(e.g. t oledoth ).
“        tav
without dagesh is represented by th
(e.g. toledo th).
“         tsaddi is represented by ts
(e.g. ts addik ).

The dagesh forte is represented by a doubled letter (except in the words mithnaged, mithnagdim).

The sheva mobile is represented by e .

Proper names from the Old Testament have been written as spelt in the Revised Standard Version of the English Bible.

Russian place names appear in the text according to their usual Jewish pronunciation. Both these place names and the names of Russian writers, books and articles have been transliterated phonetically for the convenience of the reader. Note should be taken of the following ligatures:

kh as in Scottish loch (e.g., La kh ovich).
ch .. " church (e.g., Lakhovi ch ).
sh " " bush (e.g., Sh neur ).
" " pleasure (e.g.,Zh itomir ).

The titles of books and articles written in Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian appear in the text only in transliteration. A translation has been added in the Bibliography.

The author's explanatory additions to the text of original documents and to Hebrew terms have been placed in square brackets, thus [ ]. Additions or variants forming part of the original text appear in ordinary brackets, thus ( ).


by Simon Dubnow

There was a period in Jewish historiography when hasidism was written about with partisan passion, the question debated being whether the movement was beneficial or harmful to the development of Judaism. Scholars were divided into an anti-hasidic and a pro-hasidic school, and even in our time some writers have tried to continue this controversy. Today, however, we have reached the point at which dogmatism is giving way to a historical approach, and partisan argumentation is being replaced by objective scientific research into the nature and interconnection of the events.

Now that we possess a general history of hasidism in the period of its origin and growth, the time has come for more detailed individual studies on this topic -- monographs on various schools of thought with -- in hasidism and their founders, or on dynasties of Tsaddikim which had an effect on the Jewish masses in various countries.

One excellent monograph of this kind that has come to my notice is Dr. Zeev Rabinowitsch's book on the Karlin hasidic dynasty. The very great importance of this family of Tsaddikim lies not so much in the extent of its influence, as in the fact that its origins go back to the first period of the hasidic movement -- to the period of the Great Maggid, whose disciple, R. Aharon 'the Great' of Karlin, founded the first 'sect' of hasidism in Lithuania, and thereby set off the first polemical attack on hasidism by the Gaon, R. Eliyahu of Vilna. By discovering new source material relating to this important chapter of history or new combinations of old material, the author has succeeded in presenting us with a complete history of the dynasty from its beginnings to the present day. For this he has earned the gratitude of all lovers of Jewish history, including myself.

Berlin, Nisan 1933 Simon Dubnow

Author's Note

When I found the 'holy writings' in the 'court' of the Karlin dynasty in Stolin, i.e., 'The Stolin genizah', and made this collection the basis of my research into Karlin hasidism, the cradle of the whole Lithuanian movement, I sent the manuscript to the distinguished Jewish historian, Simon Dubnow, who was at that time writing his book Toledoth ha-Hasiduth (The History of Hasidism). It was Dubnow that urged me to publish my research, and he was even good enough to write a foreword to it.

Karlin Hasidism

A. R. Aharon the Great (1765-1772)

History willed that Karlin, a suburb of Pinsk, should be the scene of the rise of hasidism in Lithuania, the movement's center in the early days, and one of the main causes of the mithnaged attack on hasidism.

After the death of the Besht, his disciple and successor, R. Dov Baer, the Great Maggid, established a new center for the movement in the small town of Mezerich, in Volhynia. From Volhynia, which lay to the north of Podolia R. Baer was able to extend his influence over Lithuania and White Russia. The personality of the Great Maggid, his efforts to base hasidism on the historical tradition of Judaism, and apparently also his organizational talents, compelled the Rabbanim, particularly in Lithuania, to pay serious attention to the new movement. For Lithuania, we have two different pieces of information on this subject, one from hasidic sources and the other of mithnaged provenance; and, in addition there is the testimony of Solomon Maimon.

In the well-known collection of mithnaged writings, Zimrath Am ha-Arets [1] , there is a letter from the mithnaged preacher, R. David of Makov, to R. Shelomo-Zalman, the Av Beth-Din [Head of the Rabbinical Court] of the community of Nashelsk. In this letter it is stated that the Rosh Yeshivah [Head of the Talmudic School] and the Av Beth-Din in Pinsk, R. Rafael Hacohen, paid a visit to the Great Maggid of Mezerich, in order to become acquainted with both the man and his doctrine [2] . On his return, he made a report to the Gaon of Vilna. To the Gaon's question 'Is he [sc. R. Baer] a scholar?' R. Rafael answered 'No.' When the Gaon asked R. Rafael about R. Baer's knowledge of Kabbalah, he replied: 'I do not know, since I myself am not conversant with this lore. I can only judge his knowledge of hidden doctrine from his knowledge of revealed teaching [i.e., Gemara].' Further on in his letter, R. David of Makov writes that in the year 1765 - 1766 R. Baer became widely known in the Jewish world, and Rabbanim and talmudic scholars began flocking to him to study hasidic doctrine under his instruction. Hence, it may be assumed that in this year (1765 -1766) the penetration of hasidism into Lithuania was already in process. Among R. Baer's disciples we find the kabbalist and talmudic scholar, R. Pinhas Horowitz (the author of the work Hafiaah), who was at that time a Rav in the small Lithuanian town of Lakhovich. In the introduction to the book Maggid Devarav le-Yaakov" by R. Dov-Baer... of the holy community of Mezerich,' mention is made of 'the learned, pious and humble aged Rav, our Teacher R. Zeev-Wolf of the holy community of Greater Horodno [Grodno] in the Province of Lithuania.' This R. Zeev-Wolf was a disciple of the Great Maggid, and wrote down his master's teachings. R. Baer's great success is also attributed to the emissaries whom he sent out to every Jewish community, including those in Lithuania.

R. Rafael Hacohen – Rav of Pinsk

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Solomon Maimon, himself a Lithuanian Jew -- from Nesvizh, near Slutsk -- has the following to say about these emissaries in his autobiography [3] : 'Its leaders [sc. of hasidism] sent emissaries to every place to preach the new doctrine and gain adherents to it... It once happened that a young man, who had already joined this society and had had the privilege of speaking in person to its leaders, passed through the town where I was living... His words so fired my imagination that I was completely carried away. Seized by an overwhelming desire to attain to true happiness by becoming a member of this noble society of men, I resolved to go to the town of M.[ezerich] where the Rebbe B.[aer] was living.' The events described here belong to the middle of the 1760s, and there must no doubt have been many young Lithuanian Jews who at that time made their way to Mezerich, like Solomon Maimon, to hear 'the new doctrine' there. Among them was the future founder of the Karlin branch of Hasidism, R. Aharon, known to the hasidim as 'R. Aharon the Great,' who became one of the Great Maggid's most distinguished disciples.

R. Aharon of Karlin was born in 1736 [4] . His father, R. Yaakov, was a native of the small town of Yanovo (close to Pinsk) who earned a meager livelihood as the shamash [caretaker and usher] of a beth midrash [house of prayer and study] [5] . At about the same time as the Pinsk Av Beth-Din, R. Rafael Hacohen, returned disappointed from Mezerich, the young man from the Pinsk suburb of Karlin was so attracted to R. Baer's doctrine that he became not only the Maggid's devoted disciple, but also one of the main propagators of his teachings. He traveled regularly through the small Lithuanian towns preaching hasidism, as he later wrote of himself in his will: 'He used to admonish the masses with a sternness that concealed an inner love, in order to bring all Jews closer to their heavenly Father.' Hence he came to be popularly known as 'the admonisher.' [6] R. Aharon was the one and only hasidic Rebbe in Lithuania at that time. R. Mendel of Vitebsk and R. Yisrael of Polotsk were mainly active in White Russia, even though the town of Minsk where R. Mendel then lived was within the borders of 'the Province of Lithuania'; and R. Shneur-Zalman does not appear on the scene until about 1781. R. Aharon was thus the pioneer of hasidism in Lithuania.

So it was that Karlin became the center of the hasidic movement in Lithuania, particularly in that part of it known as 'Polesia.' In the years 1770 - 1772 there were Karlin hasidim in Vilna and the other Lithuanian towns [7] , as we know from several contemporary references to their existence. Thus, for example, Solomon Maimon writes in his autobiography: 'These people [sc. the hasidim] used to make pilgrimages to K.[arlin], M.[ezerich], and other "holy" places where the leaders, teachers, and great lights of this sect lived. Young men would leave their parents, wives, and small children and travel in groups to visit these great "Rebbes" and to receive instruction from them in the new doctrine [8] . Karlin is also described as a hasidic center by Grégoire [9] . The full extent of R. Aharon's influence, not only in Karlin, but also in the whole surrounding district, can be inferred from two post- scripts added by him in the communal pinkos of Nesvizh, which was found among the 'holy writings' of the Karlin Tsaddikim .' [10] Preserved in these Karlin hasidic archives (the Stolin genizah) are several pages from the above pinkas, containing the resolutions passed by the heads of the kahal in the matter of communal taxes. Appended to the resolutions are two postscripts by R. Aharon, indicating his assent to the resolutions passed. From internal evidence it is clear that both the resolutions and the postscripts belong to the year 1769.' [11]

The resolutions in the Nesvizh pinkas are worded as follows:

'These are the ordinances which were enacted... by the drafting committee chosen… together with the leaders of the assembly, on Friday... 10th Adar I, 1769.

'In the ordinances concerning the meat tax [korobka] which were drawn up in the year 1765 there are several seeming iniquities to be put right. Moreover, there is even a contradiction, and this must be corrected. But it is not expressly stated that the heads of the kahal are empowered to amend the meat-tax ordinances. Therefore, we have confined ourselves to making only this amendment -- that in future neither the heads of the kahal nor the leaders of the assembly may impose a double meat-tax, but only a single one. If the money [raised does not] suffice for the needs of the community, then everything shall be done [in conformity with the amendment] and with the ordinances mentioned below, which the heads of the kahal will have to make in addition to the meat-tax of 1765, but without doubling it.'

The drafters of the enactments then go on to explain how the communal tax was to be collected. This was apparently a joint property-and-income tax which all the Jews had to pay. After the signatures of the Rabbanim of Kletsk and Slutsk [?], we find the following two postscripts by R. Aharon:

I. 'After I have beheld the poverty of our Jewish people, how can I hold my peace, when I have seen the bitter plight of the poor of Israel and heard the cry which they utter in their great pain, and I am concerned that the leaders of the community should not go astray (Heaven forbid!) in this bitter iniquity of robbing the poor? Wherefore an assembly was convened and chose some of its number to draw up enactments to deliver the oppressed poor, and they apparently formulated these enactments according to their own opinion. The whole assembly then solemnly undertook to confirm and observe every detail of the enactments... I therefore decree that whosoever shall nullify these enactments and infringe the rights of the poor shall be utterly excommunicated and accursed. Seeing that I am authorized by our Teacher... the learned Sage of the whole golah [diaspora], the Maggid of the holy community of Mezerich, to remove any stumbling block from the path of the children of Israel as far as my power extends, even to the proclaiming of a herem [ban]. Wherefore my advice is not to breach the fence [erected round the Law] by the Sages, so as not to be caught (Heaven forbid!) in the trap [of sin]. He that hearkens [to this decree] will be blessed with every good. Such are the words of Aharon, the son of our Teacher R. Yaakov (of blessed memory) of Karlin.'

II. 'I hereby require that it be recorded as my solemn decree that, on pain of excommunication, no meat-tax shall be collected from melammedim [children's teachers], i.e., deducted from their tuition fees. Moreover, I hereby decree, under pain of excommunication, that no one shall lease double the meat-tax of the year [5]525 [=1765] as registered there, without the agreement of the drafters of the enactments whose signatures appear on the previous page, p. 160, or of all the inhabitants of the city, all the poor and penniless listed in the meat-tax register. Even a single one of the taxpayers can prevent [a double meat-tax]. If someone should innocently ask the reason for the enactment [not to permit a double meat-tax], the answer is that, according to the law of our sacred Torah, no meat-tax at all is permitted. Those who ask questions like this in order to strip the poor of Israel of their last penny are most certainly of the seed of the Gibeonites... Whosoever shall seek to nullify the enactments signed on the foregoing page is hereby placed under the ban and excommunicated from all the communities of Israel. But he that hearkens unto them shall be blessed with every good, for whoever is merciful to his fellow-creatures shall receive mercy from Heaven. Such are the words of Aharon or Karlin.'

The strong wording of R. Aharon's postscripts testifies to the powerfulness of his position and to his profound concern for the poor. At this time, the kahal's jurisdiction over the Jewish community was still legally recognized by the secular power, and there was bitter antagonism between the leaders of the kahal and the masses, even to the extent of open conflict. R. Aharon, as we see from the postscripts, fearlessly takes the side of the poorer classes and in doing so evidently acts as an influential leader. Apparently then, by about 1769 the hasidic movement had already gained support in Lithuania, too. The first clash with the mithnagdim (1772) had not yet occurred, otherwise R. Aharon would not have been bold enough or strong enough to write in the pinkas of another Lithuanian town his own opinions and instructions about the resolutions passed by an assembly of Rabbanim and kahal leaders. R. Aharon's assertion, 'I am authorized by our Teacher... the learned sage of the whole golah, the Maggid of the holy community of Mezerich,' shows that R. Baer was not only well known but was also apparently recognized as an authority even by the Jews or Lithuania.

This was the period of the hasidic movement's taking root and first flowering in Lithuania. However, on account of R. Aharon's untimely death, and as a result of the persecutions of the hasidim which began at that time (1772), the importance of Karlin for hasidism in those years was forgotten.

Karlin's sister town, Pinsk, was a stronghold of rabbinism. It was here that the first shots in the war against hasidism were fired, and they were aimed principally at R. Aharon. This much is evident from the following letter, found in the Stolin genizah, from R. Baer of Mezerich to R. Eliezer Halevi, a Moreh-Tsedek [rabbinical judge] in Pinsk and author of several homiletical works, [12] and to R. Hayyim, also of Pinsk. The text runs as follows: [13]

'Greetings to my dear friend, the learned and venerable Rav Eliezer Halevi, and to his compeer the learned and renowned Rav, the Teacher R. Hayyim. I write to urge you to live together in peace and to work in partnership and harmony with our distinguished and renowned friend, R. Aharon. It is well known that his guidance is pleasing to God (?). Why, then, should you turn away [from him]? What wrong, Heaven forbid, has been found [in his conduct] that provides any ground or doubt? Set aside evil thoughts, that there may be no schism between you (Heaven forbid!). Let the previous good relations be restored, and let not this matter be unimportant to you. Then you will be granted peace from the Lord of peace, and from me, your friend and well-wisher, Dov-Baer, the son of R. Avraham of blessed memory.

'These words are also addressed to the learned scholar, the Teacher R. Shelomo, that he should strive in his wisdom to establish peace in your camp.'

The letter bears no date, but it was most probably written between 1769 and 1772 and is thus evidence of the first persecutions of the Karlin hasidim led by R. Aharon. It also shows that R. Baer, who here takes his disciple, R. Aharon, under his protection, was well known in Lithuania and felt sufficiently sure of his own authority to intervene with a Moreh-Tsedek in Pinsk. The R. Shelomo mentioned in this letters is R. Shelomo of Karlin, one of the outstanding disciples of the Great Maggid , a disciple and associate of R. Aharon and subsequently his successor as Rebbe. R. Shelomo was at that time living with R. Aharon in Karlin and was his chief aide in the campaign to propagate the hasidic doctrine among the Jewish masses.

According to hasidic sources, at this same time, another of R. Baer of Mezerich's outstanding disciples, R. Levi-Yitshak (later known as R. Levi-Yitshak of Berdichev) was officiating as Rav in Pinsk. These sources state that, in 1771, R. Levi-Yitshak was elected the Av Beth-Din and Rosh Yeshivah of Pinsk. [14] However, from his written approvals to the volumes Hovath ha-Levavoth (1772) and Erkhei ha-Kinnuyim (1775) we learn that, in those years, R. Levi-Yitshak was in fact still officiating as Rav in Zhelikhov. [15] Nor does hasidic literature contain any historical material, or even legendary traditions, about the relations between R. Aharon and R. Levi-Yitshak in Karlin or Pinsk. We do know that a bitter dispute broke out between R. Levi-Yitshak and the mithnaged population of Pinsk, which resulted in R. Levi-Yitshak's deposition from the office of Rav and his expulsion from Pinsk. But this event occurred after the death of R. Aharon. [16]

While in Lithuania the attacks on hasidism were being directed against individual adherents of the movement, [17] the first assembly of the communal representatives and Rabbanim of neighboring White Russia was convened in Shklov, in White Russia. This assembly issued the first public anti-hasidic proclamation drawing the attention of the Gaon of Vilna, to the danger in the new movement. [18] From a letter written by R. Shneur-Zalman of Ladi to R. Avraham of Kalisk (Kolishki, in White Russia), we learn that this assembly took place in the winter of 1771 – 1772. [19] It was called primarily on account of the strange conduct of R. Avraham of Kalisk, on his return home from the beth midrash of Mezerich. His strange antics while praying ('turning repeated somersaults,' and the like) and his contemptuous and abusive attitude to talmudic scholars outraged not only the Rabbinim but even the Great Maggid himself. R. Avraham and his followers were popularly known as the Talk [=530] hasidim, with reference to the year 5530 [=1769 – 1770], when they first made their appearance in Kalisk. The above-mentioned letter by R. Shneur-Zalman goes on to state that in the ensuing public debate between the communal leaders and the Maggid 's disciples, R. Avraham of Kalisk was obliged to apologize. The Shklov assembly of 1771 decided to persecute the hasidim and appealed to the Gaon of Vilna for his support. [20]

In spite of the persecutions and the general atmosphere of hatred all around them, the Karlin hasidim, led by R. Aharon, continued their vigorous propagation of hasidic doctrine among the Jews of Lithuania. The collection of anti-hasidic writings known as Zemir Aritsim ve-Harvoth Tsurim , published in 1772, gives us a picture of contemporary hasidism as seen by the mithnagdim. In this volume the hasidim are referred to as 'Karliners': 'Lament for the hasidim of this time who are called Mezerichers and Karliners.' [21] The hasidim in Vilna were also called 'Karliners': 'It was resolved to drive out and scatter forthwith the Karliner minyan [in Vilna].' [22] We also read that 'in these times we have heard to our sore amazement of the flourishing of the wicked in the Province of Lithuania, how they have multiplied and become very strong... And because of our many transgressions the plague has spread to every province, and to every city.' [23] The hasidim formed their own minyanim [prayer quorums], so as to be able to follow the Sephardi form of prayer and to pray with their customary noisy fervor. They distributed large numbers of broadsheets containing the tenets of hasidism, and perhaps also propaganda letters from R. Aharon, who was not permitted to preach the hasidic doctrine publicly and freely, like his comrades in the south. These sheets, however, have not been preserved, since the mithnagdim, as is clear from their own broadsheets, used to burn all hasidic writings that they could lay hands on. [24]

'It was already the custom, in those early days, for a hasidic leader to wear white garments on Sabbaths and Festivals. [25] His disciples would assemble in his home -- so hasidic tradition relates -- for the 'third meal' [eaten on the Sabbath in the late afternoon] and the melaveh malkah [gathering of hasidim on the Sabbath night to eat and to sing liturgical songs together]. Then the Rebbe would deliver a discourse, and his assembled followers would sing zemiroth [liturgical poems]. According to the tradition of the Karlin hasidim, these customs were already practiced by R. Aharon the Great. These, then, would be the first signs of tsaddikism. However, in the actual writings of R. Aharon the Great -- his letter and will -- there is no allusion to any such cult of the Tsaddik.

The tendency of the hasidim to segregate themselves from the rest of the community greatly alarmed the Lithuanian communal leaders and Rabbanim, who feared the appearance of a new messianic movement. The hasidic demand that ritual slaughtering be performed with 'polished knives' also aroused great indignation. In the larger cities --Vilna, Minsk and Shklov -- the hasidim began to be severely harassed. R. Mendel of Vitebsk, who was then living in Minsk, traveled to Vilna in an attempt to see the Gaon, R. Eliyahu, but was not received by him. [26] Karlin is not mentioned in contemporary documents, even though in Karlin R. Aharon had his own house of prayer and hasidic community, and his followers flocked to him from the whole surrounding district. [27] His most important disciples in those days were his friend and future successor, R. Shelomo of Karlin, and R. Hayym-Heikel of Amdur [28] They were both drawn to hasidism through the influence of R. Aharon and subsequently became disciples of the Great Maggid.

The increasing success of hasidism in Lithuania brought home to the leaders of Lithuanian Jewry the alarming realization that what they were confronted with was not just a series of isolated incidents, but a large-scale popular movement. After the Passover Festival in 1772 the first herem against the hasidim was proclaimed, on the authority of the Gaon of Vilna, in every beth midrash and synagogue in Villa. The prayer-houses of the hasidim were forcibly closed, their preachers assaulted, and their writings burnt. [29] Moreover, the formation of new hasidic groups was proclaimed unlawful. The Vilna community further published a manifesto, signed by the Gaon, calling on the four other principal Lithuanian communities (Pinsk, Grodno, Brest-Litovsk, Slutsk) and on those of White Russia (Shklov and Minsk) to outlaw the hasidim, as the Vilna community had done, and to persecute them relentlessly. [30]

At the very time when the Vilna hasidim were being subjected to persecution and excommunication, [31] there occurred in Karlin an event which was to have a great effect on the future development of Karlin hasidism and of Lithuanian hasidism in general. On the fourth intermediate day of Passover, 19 th Nisan , 1772, R. Aharon the Great died suddenly in Karlin, at the early age of thirty-six. The Karlin hasidism thus found themselves bereft of their Teacher and Rebbe, while the hasidic movement as a whole lost one of its most important leaders and the Great Maggid one of his most loyal and active disciples. 'The Tsaddik , R. Aharon the Great, was devoured by the flame of piety that burnt in him,' said the hasidim to one another. [32]

R. Aharon the Great's personality is revealed in his 'Exhortations,' his letter and his will, [33] as well as in sayings and thoughts attributed to him and legends told about him. [34] The Besht, as is reported, had based his doctrine on three loves. Every one of his disciples subsequently concentrated all his efforts and aspirations on one of these three: to R. Levi-Yitshak of Berdichev, the most important principle was the love of Israel; for R. Shneur-Zalman of Ladi, the founder of the Habad school of hasidism, it was love of the Torah; and for R. Aharon the Great, it was the love of the Creator -- 'bringing Israel closer to their heavenly Father,' as he wrote in his will. R. Aharon's strong sense of religious awe transported him into a state of constant spiritual devotion and mystical ecstasy. According to hasidic tradition, R. Shneur-Zalman of Ladi said of him: 'R. Aharon's fear of the Holy One Blessed Be He was like the fear of a condemned man who stands bound to the stake while a soldier in front of him aims the arrow at him, and he sees the head of the arrow leaving the bow and speeding towards him. Such was his fear in small matters. In great matters, it was beyond all conceiving.' Hasidic legend further relates that, whenever R. Aharon recited the Song of Songs, there would be a commotion in Heaven and the angels would cease singing their paeans of praise to the Holy One Blessed Be He and gather together to listen to R. Aharon's holy melody. The ecstatic fervor which is still seen to this day in the praying of the Karlin Hasidim is said by the hasidim themselves to take its origin from R. Aharon the Great.

R. Aharon demanded that every one of his disciples should 'shut himself up in solitude in a special room for one day of every week and spend the time in fasting, repentance and study of the Torah… And, if possible, he should shut himself up alone every day. Even without fasting let him take care to withdraw for not less than an hour, and let him make confession to his Creator and entreat His forgiveness. [35] This shows that R. Aharon did not completely shake off the kabbalistic tendency to asceticism. He himself used to fast frequently, though he would warn his disciples against excessive fasting. In a letter to one of his disciples he writes: 'Frequent fasts, ascetic practices, and ritual immersions are a device of the evil impulse to distract you from your study and prayer, to make you pray with a weakened body and a confused mind.' [36] To his advice to his disciples to study the volume Reshith Hokhmah he adds: 'You shall carry out all that is written in it, except the self-mortifications and fasts prescribed in it, and then it will be well with you.' [37] R. Aharon also required of his disciples that they should study the Aggadah, a demand that was also alien to the Lithuanian Jew who was primarily interested in the Halakhah. In his 'Exhortations' R. Aharon writes: 'Beware of pride and anger even in the performance of a mitsvah, still more of dissension (Heaven forbid!), and be particularly careful in this even with one's own family.' [38] '"Know Him in all your ways" means that eating, drinking, sleeping, and sexual intercourse are all to be directed only to the worship' of the Creator, blessed be His Name.' [39]

R. Aharon the Great was the author of the lyrical Sabbath song 'Yak Ekhsof Noam Shabbath' ['Lord, I yearn for the Sabbath's delight'], a poem filled with spiritual love and religious longings.

This liturgical poem was sung by the adherents of Karlin hasidism and its offshoots --Lakhovich, Koidanov, Kobrin, Slonim and others -- privately in their own homes, or all together on the Sabbath eve and at 'the third meal'. [40] The Karlin hasidim have about twenty different tunes for his song [41] which is called by them simply Ha-Zemer [' the liturgical poem']. One of these tunes has become widely known as Ha-Niggun ha-Kadosh ['the holy tune']. There are also hasidic stories about R. Aharon's special customs on Simhath Torah . [42]

In hasidic tradition R. Aharon is described as possessing a keen capacity to distinguish 'between pure and impure.' He could also discern lofty souls in simple Jews and, on the contrary, lay bare the true character of hypocrites. This is why the Great Maggid used frequently to send him out 'to purge away impurity.' [43] The apocryphal hasidic literature contains various sayings and ideas attributed to R. Aharon the Great [44] which, though of doubtful authenticity, combine to give us a picture of his character and his influence on his adherents down the generations. Thus, he is reported to have said that melancholy is not a sin, but that it dulls the heart more than the gravest sin. 'And what is actually the source of melancholy? It is when I feel I am entitled to something or lack something, physical or spiritual. But all this is my own good. And what of it, if I lack something? What really matters is that God should not be deprived of His due.' R. Aharon distinguishes between 'melancholy, which is a bad quality, and bitterness which is really willfulness, because I have not made a start on doing good deeds. For nothing in the world, no matter how minute, can be achieved without devotion. And since I had no devotion, I have done nothing, and therefore I do not deserve anything; so that I cannot maintain that I lack anything. Nevertheless, I breathe God's air and have what I require. This in itself should make us happy. Hence bitterness is good.' R. Aharon expatiates on this point: 'There are some young scholars that think they are bitter, when in fact they are simply melancholy. A man must know how to distinguish between these two conditions. After the soul-searching that comes from melancholy, a man goes to sleep, being unable to bear himself, much less his friend, and seething with anger. But after the soul-searching that comes from bitterness, a man cannot sleep. For what actually is bitterness? The recognition that you have not begun to do good deeds. So you forthwith make haste and set yourself to study and prayer. Now you feel that you are a Jew. You enjoy seeing another Jew. Nevertheless, you must know that only a hair's breadth separates bitterness from melancholy. The most spiritual bitterness touches on melancholy, while even the coarsest joy springs from holiness.' [45] In another place, the following words are attributed to him: 'When we speak of the value of joyfulness, we do not mean the joy that comes from the performance of the mitsvah, since this joy is already a higher degree which not every Jew can be required to attain to. What we mean is the denial of melancholy]y. Quite simply, a Jew who is not happy with his lot as a Jew is ungrateful to God. It shows that he has never once heard the blessing, "That hast not made me a Gentile." But when he examines himself to see if he is a hasid or not, that is pride. What does it matter if he is a hasid or not? He is a Jew.' [46]

R. Aharon's humility and self-effacement are illustrated by the following story. On one occasion, one of the disciples of the Great Maggid happened to pass through Karlin on his way home from a visit to his master in Mezerich. His desire to see R. Aharon was so great that he decided to call on him, even though it was the middle of the night. So he went and knocked on the window of R. Aharon's house and called: 'Aharon, open the door to me!' When R. Aharon asked who was there, the other answered simply, 'I,' because he was sure that R. Aharon would recognize him by his voice. But R. Aharon did not reply, and did not open the door. Again the disciple knocked, and again R. Aharon made no response. Then the disciple asked: 'Aharon, why do you not want to open the door to me?' To this R. Aharon replied: 'Who is it that arrogantly calls himself "I", an appellation fitting and proper on]y to the Holy One Blessed Be He?' 'In that case,' said the disciple to himself, 'I have not yet learnt anything from my Teacher,' and he at once returned to Mezerich. [47]

Hasidic doctrine has its own special definition of humility. Man is merely dust and ashes, and must therefore never forget his own imperfection in comparison with the perfection of the Creator; yet, at the same time, he must also know that he is the son of a King. True humility consists in the proper synthesis of these two perceptions. This was the kind of modesty possessed by R. Aharon the Great. In his will he calls himself 'the greatest of sinners and worst of offenders'; but, at the same time, he enjoins 'that my place of rest shall have a clear space, four cubits wide, left all around it -- that is to say, that no one shall be buried within four cubits of my grave, unless

Title-page of the “Testament” of R. Aharon
The Great of Karlin (Chernovits 1855)

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it be someone whom you know I would certainly have wanted as my close neighbor. If anyone wishes to transgress this injunction and to bury there someone whom it is known I certainly would not have agreed to have as a close neighbor, let him know that, just as in my life in this world I zealously punished any who sinned against the Creator, so will he be punished by the zealous God of vengeance... I further enjoin that no words of praise shall be spoken of me. Whoever wishes to speak ill of me may do so, and I hereby give him leave; but let him know full well that if he utters any falsehood, he will be judged for it in the court of heaven... Only the true disciples of our Teacher and Master [sc. R. Baer], the God-fearing and perfect ones, may speak such praises of me as they know for a certainty to be true and may intercede [sc. with God] on my behalf. But they too, must be extremely careful in any matter wherein they are not certain of what was my real intention. The best would be for them not to speak at all… Immediately after the seven days [of mourning], a memorial stone shall be erected on my grave, but no honorific titles shall be inscribed on it. Only the following shall be engraved on the stone: Here lies so and so, who was himself vouchsafed Divine grace and was several times granted to obtain it for others, devotedly sacrificing himself for this purpose, [48] according to his own understanding, in order to obtain Divine grace for the many; and who used to admonish the masses with a sternness that concealed an inner love, in order to bring all Jews closer to their heavenly Father and join them to Him in a perfect union.' [49]

To his disciples he addressed the following last wish: 'All those that have ever learnt from me a single letter of Divine worship, I do most solemnly and earnestly request them, as if I were actually standing in person in their presence... every day for a whole year [after my death] to study at least two or three lines of Aggadah.'

The Grave of R. Aharon the Great of Karlin
Photographed in 1932

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