Sunday, 13 November 2016


Midrash Pinchas by R. Pinchas of Koretz


Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz (1728-1790) was a talmid chaver (student and contemporary) of the Baal Shem Tov, and rose to become one of the leading lights of the new Chassidic movement.[1] 

R. Pinchas received a thorough Lithuanian style Torah education and wrote many Talmudic and Halachik novellae while still a young man. He was also interested in the writings of the Rishonim (medieval scholars and philosophers) and additionally mastered secular studies like engineering science and mathematics. This may have been because he was influenced by the Gaon of Vilna who placed great emphasis on secular education for Torah scholars (see here). Apparently a page of Euclides which was translated into Hebrew under the Vilna Gaons’s instruction, made its way to R. Pinchas and he studied it with the same diligence with which he applied to his Talmudic studies.

However, with time he eventually ‘grew tired’ of science and philosophy and was drawn to mysticism particularly the Zohar and became one of its greatest proponents ever (see here).

His father, R Avraham Abba Shapira was a staunch opponent of the Chassidic movement, but after fleeing from his hometown of Shklov he happened to meet the Baal Shem Tov. He changed his views and became a follower. 

His son Pinchas became one of the Baal Shem’s closest friends (although they may only have met on four occasions[2]). There is some debate as to whether R. Pinchas was indeed his best friend or his closest disciple[3]. The Baal Shem entrusted the education of his grandson R. Baruch of Mezhibuzh to R. Pinchas.


R. Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) arguably created a movement that almost rivalled that of Chassidism’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov himself. This brought him into sharp focus by many of his contemporary rabbinic colleagues and caused him to be constantly surrounded by great controversy[4]

This controversy came from both Chassidic and Mitnagdik sources. Some Mitnagdim felt he was even more radical in his teachings than the Baal Shem himself - while some Chassidim saw him as a threat because he didn’t believe in the concept of dynastic rule which was already well entrenched within the general Chassidic movement.

In the early 1800’s R. Nachman moved to Zlatipol, a town in the Ukraine. This move was seen by some as a challenge to the authority of R. Aryeh Leib known as the Shpoler Zaide (1725-1812) who resided in Shpola, a mere two miles away and under whose jurisdiction the town of Zlatipol fell. 

Although the Shpoler Zaide, who was 75 years old at the time, had originally supported R. Nachman he now became one of his fiercest opponents. It seems as if R. Nachman chose the Shpole Zaide as a symbol of the mainstream Chassidic Rebbes he had set out to oppose.[5]

The Shpoler Zaide was a student of R. Pinchas of Koretz, and he now accused R. Nachman of deviating from the path of the Baal Shem Tov!

I would like to propose the following question:

Did the Shpoler Zaide draw from an alleged text (or even just from the tenor) of his teacher R. Pinchas of Koretz, to justify his negative opinion of Breslov?


About a century later in the early 1900’s, R. Meir Shapira[6] the head of the Bet Din of Lublin (who also happened to be a direct descendant of R. Pinchas of Koretz) once told about how in his youth he was drawn towards the teachings of R. Nachman. However, he records that his father had expressly forbidden him from reading any of R. Nachman’s books.

His father, on his own admission, based his opposition to R. Nachman upon something he had read in Midrash Pinchas, a work of (his ancestor) R. Pinchas of Koretz (loose translation follows)[7]

“(R. Pinchas of Koretz) rebuked his students, after he heard them speaking (positively) about R. Nachman of Breslov, because Breslov was not part of traditional Judaism![8]

However, R. Meir paid no heed to his father’s words (nor to the alleged proof text from his own ancestor) and defiantly continued to surreptitiously study R. Nachman’s teachings.

Once, his father caught him secretly studying R. Nachman writings by candlelight in his bedroom, and became very angry. This tension between honoring his father and needing to study R. Nachman, deeply affected the young man and tore at his soul.

Then, one day R. Meir met the illustrious R. Avraham Mordechai of Gur (1866-1948) author of Imrei Emet. R. Meir asked what he thought about the shocking comment against Breslov as recorded in Midrash Pinchas.

The Gerer (Gur) Rebbe responded:

The words printed there (in Midrash Pinchas) are a huge mistake. For in the original hand written manuscript it reads that R. Pinchas would rebuke his students who (incorrectly) said that Breslov was not part of traditional Judaism!

[The difference appears to me as to whether the original text said the R. Pinchas would rebuke those he heard speaking MEY- for-  or AL – against-  CHASSIDEI BRESLOV.] 

Thus, according to this reading of the text, R Pinchas was a supporter and not an opponent of the Breslov movement.

Now R. Meir must have felt justified in his secret studying of R. Nachman’s works against the wishes of his father!

He then went back to his father and asked him to check his original handwritten copy of Midrash Pinchas (which he happened to have in his possession probably as a family heirloom) and indeed it was in accordance with the version of Gerrer Rebbe!  (Although the printed and published versions ran with the contversial text.)


Original grave site of R. Pinchas in Shepetovka, Ukraine.

The whole matter of the handwritten manuscript is rather confusing in the first place:

R. Pinchas refers to the term ‘Breslover Chassidim’ in his manuscript. The problem is that R. Pinchas of Koretz passed away when R. Nachman was only 19 years old.  At that stage R. Nachman did not yet have a following and he certainly wasn’t yet living in Breslov (where the followers were only later referred to as Breslover Chassidim).[9]

A probable answer is that the actual words quoted from Midrash Pinchas were not written by R. Pinchas himself but perhaps by his student R. Refael of Bershid who (writing some time later) took the liberty of referring to them as Chassidei Breslov! 

It’s also interesting to note that both the Shpoler Zaide and R. Baruch of Mezhibuzh had issues with R. Nachman, and both were (coincidentally?) taught by R. Pinchas of Koretz!

Either way, it turns out that there is a significant discrepancy between the apparent original handwritten manuscript and the subsequent printed versions.

The difference between the two spells the difference between the Midrash Pinchas -  a work of one of the most respected Chassidic leaders - either endorsing the early Breslov movement, or distancing itself from them in the strongest of terms by going so far as describing Breslovers as no longer being within the pale of Judaism itself!

The question is:

- Was it just a simple printer’s error?

- Or was this indicative of a more sinister agenda?

[1] His father was R. Avraham Abba who was a descendent of R. Natan Shapira, author of Megale Amukot.
[2] R. Pinchas is said to have visited the Besht twice and the latter visited him twice as well.
[3] The Baal Shem Tov is said to have had some followers who were more learned than him. Nonetheless he could still teach them more than they could have learned from books.  It appears as if R. Pinchas may have been one of these, hence the appellation talmid chaver.
[4] See introduction to Shivcho Shel Tzadik (second page); “...R. Nachman was birthed in conflict and defined by it”. This was something R. Baruch of Mezhibuzh already made reference to at his nephew’s brit milah. [‘Ki hamachloket hayeta hechrach hametziut’.]
[5] See Tormented Master, by Arthur Green, p. 100
[6] R. Meir Shapira (1887-1933), also known as the Lubliner Rav, is famous for his introduction of the Daf Yomi learning programme and also for his founding of Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin.
[7] As with many Chassidic books, although it is commonly assumed that they were authored by the Rebbes themselves, they were often written by their students instead.
[8]Lo be’eleh chelek Yaakov.’ See Shivcho Shel Tzadik p. 69
[9] See footnote 8. Shivcho Shel Tzadik p. 69

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