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When Mamash Really Means Mamash!
By Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Ginsberg

Chassidic terms are often tossed about casually, without thinking about what they really mean: "A veritable portion of G-d Above." "The whole world is filled with His glory." "When will the master come? When your wellsprings will be disseminated outward." * The innovation of Chabad Chassidus is that when it says mamash, it means mamash – without any p’shetlach!

The Baal Shem Tov and the Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh (Rabbi Chaim ben Atar, whose yahrtzeit was on the 15th of Tammuz) enjoyed a friendly relationship, although — as it was presumed — the two tzaddikim never actually met. In those days, the lines of communication between Yerushalayim and Mezhibozh barely existed, and there is no evidence of any customary, conventional pattern of communication between the two. (There is a tradition among Chassidim that had the Baal Shem Tov and the Ohr HaChayim met in the conventional way, they would have certainly brought about the final Redemption. A collection of the Baal Shem Tov’s sayings about the Ohr HaChayim is printed in the addendum to Shivchei HaBaal Shem Tov K’sav Yad, which includes a quote from a maamer of the Mitteler Rebbe: "The Baal Shem Tov, of blessed memory, used to say that he always encountered the Ohr HaChayim in the heichal of Moshiach, etc.")

When the Ohr HaChayim passed away (at Mincha time on the afternoon of Shabbos Kodesh, the 15th of Tammuz 5503 [1743]), the Baal Shem Tov was in the middle of washing his hands for Shalosh Seudos. For a few moments he appeared to be lost in thought before reciting HaMotzi and while eating the required kezayis. He then made a strange pronouncement: "The western light has been extinguished." When none of the Baal Shem Tov’s disciples understood his allusion he explained, "There is a certain kavana to netilas yadayim that is only revealed to one tzaddik in every generation. Until now, this insight was known only to R’ Chaim ben Attar; however, it was just revealed to me as I washed my hands for Shalosh Seudos. From this I understood that R’ Chaim has now departed from the world."

When Shabbos was over, the Baal Shem Tov tore kriya and observed all the laws of aveilus for his close friend. It was later learned that the Ohr HaChayim had passed away at that exact time.

The daughter of the famous Noda B’Yehuda (Rabbi Yechezkel Landau) was an ardent supporter and Chassid of the Baal Shem Tov. When the story of how he had known that the Ohr HaChayim had passed away began to circulate, she saw it as an opportunity to draw her father closer to the Baal Shem Tov.

Unfortunately, the Noda B’Yehuda refused to believe the miracle stories that were told about the Baal Shem Tov, dismissing them as nothing but a ploy to attract the masses. To him the very idea was anathema, as the Torah doesn’t need any proof to demonstrate its truthfulness.

The gaon even went so far as to make a play on words on the verse in Hosheia (14:10) in one of his t’shuvos: "For the ways of the L-rd are right; the just shall walk in them, but the transgressors shall stumble in them." Instead of the word "transgressors," the Noda B’Yehuda substituted "Chassidim," changing the verse to read "For the ways of the L-rd are right; the just shall walk in them, but the Chassidim shall stumble in them." When the Chassidim learned of this revision, they tried to convince the book publisher to print the verse as it really is, but this only made the Noda B’Yehuda smile. "That is the difference between myself and the Chassidim," he declared. "I have turned transgressors into chassidim, and they make chassidim into transgressors…"

In fact, the Noda B’Yehuda rejected his daughter’s argument completely. Not only was the Baal Shem Tov’s having torn kriya for the Ohr HaChayim not a demonstration of his righteousness and holiness, he reasoned, it was against halacha! According to Jewish law, a person is only permitted to tear kriya if he is present at the moment the neshama departs from the body; seeing it with ruach ha’kodesh does not qualify. As far as he was concerned, the whole story only added to his contention that the Chassidim did not behave properly.

The Noda B’Yehuda’s daughter became so upset at her father’s obstinacy that she went to the Baal Shem Tov and repeated his words. "Why are they saying that I wasn’t there?" the Baal Shem Tov replied. "I was there, which was why I was obligated to tear kriya according to halacha."

* * *

There is one word that appears frequently in the "Written Torah" of Chabad Chassidus, the holy Tanya, and that is "mamash." I’ve even heard it said by many great Chassidim and mashpiim that mamash is the main innovation of the Tanya: Before the Alter Rebbe, people interpreted certain statements of the Torah as analogies for the purpose of illustration; the Alter Rebbe taught, however, that the Torah’s words are to be taken literally, mamash, without resorting to fancy interpretation or analysis.

To cite just a few examples:

In the Book of Iyov (31:2) the neshama is described as a "portion of G-d Above." Until the Alter Rebbe wrote otherwise, this was often interpreted as poetic language or a figure of speech emphasizing the significance of the soul. But the Alter Rebbe paskened that the Jewish soul is "mamash [literally] a portion of G-d Above." The neshama is really and truly a portion of Hashem, as it were.

Every day in our prayers we say that the Holy One, Blessed be He, "fills the earth with His glory." Without the Alter Rebbe, we might take this as a metaphoric expression describing G-d’s greatness, or misinterpret the concept of tzimtzum to mean that G-d has withdrawn Himself from the physical world and merely oversees events from On High, G-d forbid. In fact, that is precisely what many Jews believed until the time of the Baal Shem Tov.

(At one point in the early battle against the Chassidic movement, things got so bad that the Misnagdim accused the Chassidim of adhering to a kind of animism. In one of their letters of denunciation they seized upon the verse in Yirmiyahu, "…who say to a piece of wood, you are my father; and to a stone, you have brought me forth," and wrote that the Chassidim actually believe that G-d is found in every piece of wood and stone. Chassidus, of course, teaches that G-d is mamash everywhere, and that the words "He fills the earth with His glory" are to be taken literally. "There is no place void of Him." Even in the lowliest of locations, even in a place of idolatry, etc., G-d is present in all His power and force, but concealed.)

Take another example from Pirkei Avos: "Be humble of spirit before every person." Everyone realizes that this is a nice thing to do and that the world would surely be better off if everyone aspired to this ideal. But take it literally? How can a Torah sage feel genuine humility in the face of a sinner or even a murderer? Maybe the Mishna is only trying to convey that a person shouldn’t feel too arrogant. But the Alter Rebbe wrote in chapter 30 of Tanya that one should be humble "really and truly before every single person mamash, even before the simplest of simpletons." The Alter Rebbe explained that even the greatest gadol cannot accurately assess his own spiritual standing, for how can he be sure that he is closer to Hashem than anyone else? Who is to say that the "simplest of simpletons" has not overcome his trials in life more successfully than he?

Another maxim: "Every person who cleaves to talmidei chachomim is considered to be cleaving to the Shechina." Before Chassidus, some people may have interpreted this as a nice thing to say about talmidei chachomim, but not to be taken literally. How can attaching oneself to a human being of flesh and blood be equivalent to attaching oneself to the Divine presence? Yet the Alter Rebbe explained that this is the true reality – "it is as if he has attached himself to the Shechina mamash." The tzaddik, precisely because he is of flesh and blood, acts as the connecting intermediary (as opposed to being an outside third party or an obstructive intermediary) between the individual Jew and the Ein Sof. The Alter Rebbe clarified the role of the tzaddik: Because he is completely battel to Hashem and united with Him, and at the same time a mortal of flesh and blood, which we can relate to, he enables every Jew to connect to his true Source. (The principle itself predates Chassidus by thousands of years: "Who is the face of the Master Havaya? The Rashbi!")

When the Baal Shem Tov said that he was present at the passing of the Ohr HaChayim, he was mamash there. Not in his mind, not in his thoughts, not with ruach ha’kodesh but actually and factually there, which obligated him to tear kriya according to halacha.

When the Baal Shem Tov ascended to the heichal of Moshiach and asked him, "When will the master come?" and Moshiach replied, "When your wellsprings will be disseminated outward," it’s not just a nice story. It wasn’t a vision, a dream, or a hallucination, G-d forbid. The Baal Shem Tov was mamash there, he actually asked Moshiach the question, and received this precise answer.

When the Rebbe Rashab heard that the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid visited the Alter Rebbe in his prison cell, he asked if there was room enough for three people in the tiny compartment. Why? Because the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid could have revealed themselves in only the spiritual sense, but they also could have appeared in physical bodies, if that’s what they chose to do.

When the Rebbeim use words like "dreams" or "visions," they aren’t talking about hallucinations, G-d forbid. Rather, they are referring to revelations of G-dliness that are reality in the literal sense.

It is said that the Rebbe MH"M once came back from the Ohel and greeted the Chassid Rabbi Yaakov Katz of Chicago in the entranceway to 770. "Regards from the Shver [my father-in-law, i.e., the Rebbe Rayatz]," he told him. Reb Yaakov became very agitated and kept asking, "From whom?" To which the Rebbe replied as a matter of fact, "Yes, from the Shver."

The Rebbe would often return from the Ohel and report that he had been told such and such, and instructed to do such and such. This was reality, mamash, because it really happened.

To get to the matter at hand: When the Rebbe proclaims that the service of "separating the sparks" has been completed and that the world is ready for the Redemption, it is mamash so. When the Rebbe talks about the prophecy of the Messianic king just prior to the Redemption and cites the Rambam, he’s talking about real prophecy. When the Rebbe says that Moshiach is already present and revealed in the world, he is just giving us the facts.

When the Rebbe says that we should announce and publicize this, he really means announce and publicize! When he states that greeting Moshiach Tzidkeinu b’poel mamash is the only service that remains, it really means the only service that remains!

When the Rebbe tells us that declaring "Yechi HaMelech" will bring about "Arise and sing Dovid Malka Meshicha," and that the deed is the main thing, he means exactly what he says. For it is this declaration, expressing our acceptance of Moshiach’s sovereignty, that will bring about his full and complete revelation before the eyes of the world. Mamash! "Yechi Adoneinu Moreinu V’Rabbeinu Melech HaMoshiach L’olam Va’ed!"


Not only was the Baal Shem Tov’s having torn kriya for the Ohr HaChayim not a demonstration of his righteousness, he reasoned, it was against halacha!





When the Rebbe Rashab heard that the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid visited the Alter Rebbe in his prison cell, he asked if there was room enough for three people in the tiny compartment.


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