Living Legacy: Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk
by Yehuda Alter
The first day in Iyar marks the yohrtzeit of the Rebbe Rebbe Mendele of Vitebsk, a talmid of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezrich, and was among the group of those early Chassidic luminaries to make their way to Eretz Yisroel.
He was born in Vitebsk to his father Rav Moshe in the year 1729. His father was already among the talmidim of the Baal Shem Tov. From an early age, he became known for his superhuman avodas Hashem, and he many would journey to him to see his incredible Torah and tefillah.
Tzaddikim attested that he attained a level wherein he experienced every Shabbos as though it were the first and the last Shabbos in existence. This is how he felt every Shabbos of his life.
In the year 1737, the Rebbe Mendele made his way to the holy land of Eretz Yisroel, along with his friend, Rebbe Avorhom of Kalisk, and an entire group of their talmidim. This aliya, which totaled about 300 people, became known as “the ascension of the talmidei Ba’al Shem.”
Among those who were drawn close to Rebbe Mendele was Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the Ba’al Hatanya. He too wished to join his rebbe as he left for Eretz Yisroel, but Rebbe Mendele explained that he was needed to lead the chassidim of Russia, as their rebbe, the Maggid had foretold. Thus, he remained back in Russia—but their connection was never severed, and they continued to communicate through letters.
Upon arriving, Rebbe Mendele said that if he could live for two years in the village of Peki’in (where Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai hid out with his son Rabi Elozor when being pursued by the Romans) he could bring Moshiach. Alas, he was chased out of there by the local Arabs, and he relocated to Tzfas, and later in Teveria.
One erev Shabbos, the Rebbe needed fish for Shabbos, and went to the Kineret without any net or fishing device, and he called out, “Ribbono Shel Olam, I need fish for Shabbos.” On the third time, an enormous fish came out of the water, and this is what he ate on that Shabbos.
From Teveria he sent a famous letter to his talmidim in Europe. It is filled with fiery words of direction in avodas Hashem, and was printed in Rebbe Mendele’s seforim.
On 1 Iyar, 1888, the holy neshomoh of Rebbe Menachem Mendel ben Reb Moshe left this world.
When word reached Russia of the passing of Rebbe Mendele, the Ba’al Hatanya, consoled the devastated chassidim with the words of the Zohar hakodosh stating that “the neshomos of tzaddikim who leave this world are present in all the worlds even more than in their lifetime.”
Rebbe Mendele was laid to rest in the Teveria cemetery, and is one of the most well-known kevarim in this section of the “Talmidei Ba’al Shem,” drawing thousands of people every year.