April 21, 2009


Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vorki was the son and successor of Rabbi Yitzchok of Vorki, two major teachers in the line of the Chozeh (“Seer”) of Lublin and Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pzhys’cha, who continued the development of Chassidism in nineteenth century Poland. The Rebbes of Amshinov, in turn, have carried on this tradition until today.

These stories are excerpts from Martin Buber’s “Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters” (Schocken Books), translated to English by Olga Marx, pp. 300-302. As Dr. Buber’s renditions of the tales occasionally reflect his philosophical views (as well as his skilled literary touch), we must state that we do not have access to the original Yiddish collections on which these versions are based and cannot vouch for their absolute accuracy. However, since our friends in the Amshinov community have not seen any glaring errors, we decided to post a few selelections from the Buber anthology with this caveat.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vorki: Master of Silence

The Voice

After Rabbi Yitzhak’s death many hasidim came to Vorki for the Feast of Weeks. Among them was Rabbi Benjamin of Lublin, who had been a disciple of the Seer but had gone over to the much-maligned Yehudi, the Seer’s disciple, while his first teacher was still alive. Since Rabbi Benjamin was very old and sickly, he had to lie down soon after his arrival. After prayers Rabbi Yitzhak’s two sons went to see him. “Children,” he said to them, “I wish you’d tell me how we are to interpret the words in the Scriptures: ‘And all the people saw the voice.’ ” Rabbi Yaakov David, the elder son, gave a most perspicacious interpretation, but Rabbi Menahem Mendel, the younger, was silent as usual. “And what have you to say?” asked Rabbi Benjamin.

“I say,” answered Menahem Mendel, “that we must take it to mean: they saw and realized that one must take the voice into oneself and make it one’s own.”

No Speech and No Words

Some time after Rabbi Yitzhak’s death, when each of his sons already had his own congregation, they once met in a town far from the home of either and a banquet was held in their honor. Rabbi David delivered a lengthy sermon but Rabbi Mendel said nothing. “Why don’t you also ‘say Torah’?” asked his brother.

“Concerning the Heavens we read in the psalms,” Mendel replied, “ ‘There is no speech, there are no words, neither is their voice heard. [Yet] their line is gone out through all the earth’ (Psalms 19:4).”

But on another occasion, when a great zaddik asked him why he did not “say Torah [i.e., expound in public],” Mendel replied: “The Talmud says (Pesachim 22b) that Simeon of Emmaus interpreted all the passages in the Scriptures in which the word et [an untranslatable term indicating the object of the verb] is used. But when he came to the verse where this word introduces the command: ‘Thou shalt fear (et) the Lord thy God’ -- he refrained from interpretation.”

A Night of Silence

Once Rabbi Menahem Mendel spent an entire night in the company of his hasidim. No one spoke, but all were filled with great reverence and experienced great elation. Finally the rabbi said: “Well for the Jew who knows that the meaning of ‘One’ is one!”

Speech in Silence

Rabbi Mendel’s hasidim once sat at his table [“tisch,” a public gathering during which the master would deliver mystical teachings] in silence. The silence was so profound that one could hear a fly on the wall. After grace the rabbi of Biala said to his neighbor: “What a table we had today! I was probed so deeply that I thought my veins would burst, but I managed to hold out and answer every question I was asked.”

The Way of Silence

The first time Rabbi Mendel, the son of the zaddik of Vorki, met Rabbi Eleazar, the grandson of the Maggid of Koznitz, the two retired to a room. They seated themselves opposite each other and sat in silence for a whole hour. Then they admitted the others. “Now we are ready,” said Rabbi Mendel.

When Mendel was in Kotzk, the rabbi of that town asked him: “Where did you learn the art of silence?” He was on the verge of answering the question, but then he changed his mind, and practiced his art.

Soundless Cry and Soundless Weeping

Rabbi Mendel once commented on the verse in the Scriptures: “For God hath heard the voice of the lad” (Genesis 21:17). He explained it in this way: “Nothing in the preceding verses indicates that Ishmael cried out. No, it was a soundless cry, and God heard it.”

On another occasion he discussed the verse in the Scriptures which tells about Pharaoh's daughter in these words: “And she opened it, and saw ... a boy that wept” (Exodus 2:6).

“What we should expect to be told,” said he, “is that she heard the child Moses weeping. But the child was weeping inside himself. That is why later on we find the words: ‘and [she] said: This is one of the Hebrews' children’ -- it was the Jewish kind of weeping.”

Basic Attitudes

Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Vorki was asked what constitutes a true Jew. He said: “Three things are fitting for us: upright kneeling, silent screaming, motionless dance.”

The Honest Sleep

It was the day before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and people from all over had come to Vorki and gathered in the House of Study. Some were seated at the tables studying, others who had not been able to find a place for the night were lying on the floor with their heads on their knapsacks, for many of them had come on foot. Just then Rabbi Mendel entered, but the noise those at the tables made was so great that no one noticed him. First he looked at those who were studying, and then at those lying on the floor. “The way these folk sleep,” he said, “pleases me more than the way those others are studying.”

A Beautiful Death

Soon after the death of a zaddik who was a friend of the rabbi of Vorki, one of his hasidim, who had been present at the death, came to Rabbi Mendel and told him about it.

“How was it?” asked Rabbi Mendel.

“Very beautiful,” said the hasid. “It was as though he went from one room into the next.”

“From one room into the next?” said Rabbi Mendel. “No, from one corner of the room into another corner.”