BAER (DOB) OF MESERITZ (known also as the "Maggid [Preacher] of Meseritz"):
First apostle of Ḥasidism and its most important propagator; born in Volhynia in 1710; died in Meseritz, Dec. 15, 1772. Little is known of Baer's youth, and scarcely more of the interval preceding his conversion to Ḥasidism. In all probability he was educated, according to the custom then prevalent in Poland, in Talmudical and rabbinical lore. He preached in Rowno and Meseritz. Though never a rabbi, Baer was an accomplished Talmudist so far as is known, despite the contrary assertions of his opponents. A dreamy and speculative nature such as his was sure, however, to realize that it could find no satisfaction in Talmudic-rabbinical dialectics. Accordingly he became a convert to Luria's system of Cabala, then popular. At the same time he was an enthusiastic admirer of Moses Ḥayyim Luzzatto (see Walden, "Shem ha-Gedolim," s.v. "M. Ḥ. Luzzatto"), whose writings, then only in manuscript, had considerable renown among the Polish mystics of that day. Baer followed the precepts of the Lurian school with intense earnestness, and in consequence lived the life of an ascetic. He fasted a great deal, denied himself both the necessaries and comforts of life, and prayed with copious tears and self-abasement. He sought to impart his ideals to others, and, as a preacher, dilated in glowing periods to the people upon the horrors of a material hell, certain to be the reward ofhim who indulged in the comforts of earthly life. As Baer had neither a fortune, nor any salary as preacher in Rowno or in Meseritz, he lived in abject poverty despite his few needs. This lack of nourishment, together with his ascetic mode of life, gradually made him a cripple.His Visit to Besht.
It was the broken state of his health that caused Baer to seek Besht, though he found in him a physician for the soul rather than for the body. The date of their meeting, and the manner in which Besht brought about the conversion of the seemingly confirmed ascetic, are not accurately known. The Ḥasidic legend concerning this episode has it that Baer, who had heard much of Besht, visited him to satisfy himself of the truth or falsity of the current reports of Besht's remarkable powers. Arrived at the latter's house, and admitted to his presence, Baer expected to hear profound mysteries expounded; instead, Besht merely related to him numerous stories of every-day life. Hearing only similar stories at each subsequent visit, Baer decided to return home. But just as he was about to set out, at a late hour of the night, he was summoned to Besht's house. Without preliminary explanation, Besht opened the "Ez Ḥayyim" of Ḥayyim Vital, and asked Baer to elucidate a certain passage. The latter did so to the best of his ability; but Besht declared that Baer knew nothing of the real meaning of the passage, and proceeded to give his explanation. As he did so—so runs the legend—the darkness suddenly gave way to light, and angels appeared eagerly listening to Besht's words. "Your explanations," said he to Baer, "were correct, but your deductions were thoughts without any soul in them." This experience induced Baer to remain in Besht's vicinage.Leader of the Hasidim.
The legend is correct in so far as it intimates that Baer learned through his connection with Besht to value every-day things and events, and to emphasize the proper spirit through which alone the study of the Torah is made a source of knowledge and enlightenment. Under the guidance of Besht, Baer abandoned his ascetic mode of life, and in consequence recovered from the disease which had led him to seek out the Ḥasid leader. Although their intercourse covered not more than the last two years of Besht's life, yet the association was intimate enough to cause Baer to be considered as Besht's heir presumptive, even during the lifetime of the founder of Ḥasidism. Baer's reputation as a preacher and an ascetic on the one side, and his authority as a Talmudist on the other, made him an ideal leader for the Ḥasidic movement. Directed, as it was, against the learned men of the customary type, the propaganda needed an expert Talmudist to prolong its life beyond the demise of its founder. Baer was the only man capable of leading the masses, and at the same time of impressing the learned world.Spread of Ḥasidism.
Immediately after the death of Besht (1760), Baer assumed the leadership of the sect, there being no opposition to him from any quarter. As its acknowledged leader, he sought to free Ḥasidism from the authority of the rabbis by the introduction of a new ritual and other innovations. Incidentally, he endeavored to make himself the spiritual and material focus of the cult. The introduction of the Lurian prayer-book, from which all the medieval piyyuṭim are excised, was the first manifesto of Ḥasidism, giving notice that it was henceforth not merely the possession of the few chosen ones, but the property of the masses. But in order better to reach the multitude, Baer had to appoint apostles to spread his teachings. Jacob Joseph ha-Kohen, Elimelech of Lyzensk, his brother Meshullam Suse, and Nahum of Tschernobyl, some of the more important of Baer's emissaries, traveled from place to place spreading the new dispensation. While they appealed to the imagination and sympathies of the people at large through their discourses, Baer endeavored to attract to himself the most intelligent portion of the younger element. His powers must have been considerable, for he converted such Talmudists as the brothers Horwitz, both Phineas and Samuel, and such philosophical natures as Shneor Zolman of Ladie, and Mendel of Vitebsk. In contrast to Besht, the man of the people, who walked about, pipe in mouth, chatting to and entertaining whom he met, Baer never relinquished the student habits of a Polish Talmudist. Concerning his mode of life and home, Solomon Maimon states that Baer passed the entire week in his room, permitting only a few confidants to enter. He appeared in public only on the Sabbath, arrayed in white satin, white being the symbolic color of mercy in the Cabala. On such occasions he prayed with people, and kept open house for those desirous of eating at his table.His Public Audiences.
After the meal he would begin to chant a soul-stirring melody, and, placing his hand upon his forehead, would call upon all new adherents present to quote any verse in the Bible they desired. These served as texts for Baer's subsequent sermon. "He was such a master in his craft that he combined these disjointed verses into an harmonious whole," declares Maimon; and what seems to impress this chronicler as still more remarkable, each new proselyte was made to believe that that part of the sermon based upon his verse contained a direct reference to such matters as lay closest to his heart (Maimon, "Selbstbiographie," i. 231 et seq.). Although it is not probable that Baer sought to play the miracle-worker, there is no doubt that the common people considered it miraculous when some chance remark of his happened to come true.Opposition of the Rabbis.
Thanks to the powerful personality of its leader, Ḥasidism spread with remarkable rapidity. It gained a secure foothold simultaneously in Volhynia, Lithuania, and Little Russia. The dissolution of the "Four-Lands" synod in 1764 proved favorable to its spread. The Rabbis, though annoyed by the growth of the movement, could not easily take combined action, at least not such as would receive the approval of the governmental authorities. The opposition of the local rabbis against the well-organized movement proved futile; men among them whose authority reached beyond their narrow sphere of influence were few. Elijah b. Solomon, called the "Gaon of Wilna," was the only one whose reputation extended beyond the borders of Lithuania.When Ḥasidism made its appearance in Wilna and adjacent towns, Elijah, usually far removed from earthly things, was forced to take cognizance of its existence, and the first anathema against Ḥasidism was issued at Wilna April 11, 1772, when Elijah had become convinced that the innovation was antagonistic, practically and theoretically, to Talmudic rabbinism. Baer's envoys, his pupils Mendel of Witebsk and Zolman of Ladie, were not received by Elijah, who declined even to meet the dissenters. The ban issued at Wilna drew the eyes of the world toward Ḥasidism, and it needed all the strong will and moral courage of a Baer to take up the gage of battle. His policy for the time was to ignore his opponents. The proposition of his pupils to reply to the ban by a counterban he opposed. But the exertions and excitement consequent upon the intense opposition to Ḥasidism overwhelmed Baer, and he died just as the battle against the Ḥasidim began in earnest, in 1772.Baer's Published Utterances.
While Baer's practical activity in the Ḥasidic cause is well known, it is difficult to determine exactly his services in the domain of theoretical Ḥasidism. He left no writings of his own; the two works (1) "MaggiD DebarO le-Ya'aḳoB" (the last letters of which title spell "Dob"), known also under the title of "Liḳḳuṭe Amarim" (Collected Sayings), published at Koretz, 1780, and frequently reprinted; and (2) "Liḳḳuṭe Yeḳarim" (Collected Gems), published at Lemberg (1790?) are the only authentic ones in existence. They consist of excerpts from his sermons, mechanically written down and collected by his relative, Solomon b. Abraham of Lutzk, who, as he himself confesses, was often ignorant of their meaning. The separation of the kernel from the shell is so difficult a task in Baer's writings, that modern historians are puzzled to discover any system at all in Ḥasidism. And yet it is of the utmost importance in the study of this sect to become acquainted with its doctrinal side, the underlying and basic principles.Fundamentals of Hasidism.
The foundation of Baer's system is Besht's assertion of the omnipresence of God. Before the Creation the world existed in potentia Dei; the act of creation consisted in God's Will—or Word—causing the materialization of the world. Creation consequently implies not a separation from the Creator, but merely a manifestation of His power; and just as the world was already in God before the Creation, so God is in the world now, He being not only the original cause of material things, but constituting also their inward essence; wherefore God is termed "the Preserver of all things" (Neh. ix. 6) (Heb. , "the Animater"). While every existing thing is a manifestation of God, the degrees of such manifestations differ according to the higher or lower organism of things. The essence of things is for Baer the spark of divinity which is revealed in each, both as regards mind and matter. Baer remarks somewhat drastically that even heathen deities have the divine spark () in them; for had they not, even an imaginary conception of their being would have been impossible. Independent of the particles of divinity in things, God remains an undivided substance, for the powers manifested in various things are all one—merely the outward appearances differ. The relation of the one substance to the many outward manifestations of the same, Baer explains by the cabalistic theory of (ẓimẓum), "concentration," a theory that holds an important place in Ḥasidism, as it did with Moses Cordovero. According to Baer creation is in reality a species of divine self-limitation.The Divine in All Things.
God in His endless and innumerable attributes manifests Himself in creation, which is only one aspect of His activity, and which is therefore in reality a self-limitation. And just as God in His goodness limited Himself, and thus descended to the level of the world and man, so it is the duty of the latter to strive to unite with God. The removal of the outer shell of mundane things, or, as the cabalist terms it, "the ascension of the [divine] spark," being a recognition of the presence of God in all terrestrial things, it is the duty of man, if he experience pleasure, to receive such emotion in all purity and sanctity as a divine manifestation, for He is the source of all pleasure.The Ecstasy of Prayer.
As the degrees of divine manifestation differ according to the nature of the various objects, it is the purpose of the world-life to advance toward an ever higher degree, until the perfect union with God is attained. Thus the vegetable kingdom serves as food for the animal kingdom, in order that the lower manifestation of divinity, existing in the former, may be developed into a higher one. Man being the highest manifestation, and the crown of creation, it is his duty to attain the highest pinnacle of development in order to be ultimately united with God. The only means through which man can attain communion with God is prayer, not a mechanical recital, but that condition of ecstasy in which man forgets self and all surroundings, and concentrates all his thought and feeling upon union with God. Like the Neo-Platonists, Baer says that when a man becomes so absorbed in the contemplation of an object that his whole power of thought is concentrated upon the one point, then his self becomes blended and unified with that point. So prayer in such a state of real ecstasy, effecting a complete union between God and man, becomes of extraordinary importance. It is even capable of breaking through and overruling the accustomed laws of the universe. While, in the natural order of things, objects slowly ascend through a series of developments from a low plane to a higher one, prayer, by this union with God in the moment of ecstasy, effects a sudden ascension of the object. This of course is conditioned by the use made of it by the truly pious man, who alone is capable, in the moment of his ecstasy, of ennobling and edifying both objects and actions.The Ẓaddiḳ as the Exception.
This is the danger point of Ḥasidism. It is obvious that the ecstatic state is for the select few only. Besht, the founder of Ḥasidism, maintained that real service to God must consist in prayer, rather than in the study of the Torah, for the very reason that the former is possible for all men, while the latter is not. Besht's first apostle completely over-turnedhis democratic ideal. He recognizes only the supplication of the perfectly pious, the Ẓaddiḳ, who is capable of absolutely withdrawing all his thought from earthly things, and concentrating it upon God. The Ẓaddiḳ, as the favorite of heaven, is the instrument by means of which God bestows His mercies upon the world. Because of his union with God he is the connecting link between God and creation, and thus the channel of blessing and mercy. The love men bear the Ẓaddiḳ is therefore the means to win the grace of God. The duty of the ordinary mortal is thus to love the Ẓaddiḳ, and to be entirely subservient to him. In this conception of Ḥasidism lies Baer's significance; he destroys the idealism which lay at the foundation of the Ḥasidic movement, originating thus a tendency which could not but result in crass superstition and addled doctrines. Baer indeed sought hereby to establish the authority of the best, as he conceived the Ẓaddiḳ to be, in opposition to the Rabbis, who relied upon their learning for their authority. However, he insisted upon the precepts promulgated by Besht, such as unselfishness, industry in doing good, peaceableness, charity in judgment of others, temperance without total abstinence, courage without pride and insolence. The success of Ḥasidism under Baer was due in great part to the ideal conceptions and sacrifices of its early converts, who resembled in their actions the enthusiasts among the first Judæo-Christians.The Degenerate Zaddiḳ.
But all of this did not prevent the appearance, soon after the inculcation by Baer of such lofty conceptions, of less noble characters who impressed upon Ẓaddiḳism some most pernicious features. Not all of Baer's disciples accepted Ẓaddiḳism, at least not in its entirety. There came to be two distinct tendencies among Baer's followers; the philosopho-mystic, prevalent in Lithuania, and the practical Ẓaddiḳist, at home in Poland and Galicia (see Cabala and
- Dubnow, Voskhod, ix. Nos. 9-11;
- Grätz, Gesch. der Juden, xi. 98 et seq. and note 22;
- Kohan, in Ha-Shaḥar, v. 634-639;
- Ruderman, ib. vi. 93 et seq.;
- Lobel, in Sulamith, ii. 315;
- Rodkinsohn, Toledot 'Ammude ha-ḤaBad, 1876, pp. 7-23.