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The Messiah Code

Updated: Jan 31, 2019

For 200 years, a mysterious manuscript dictated by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav to his two closest disciples has been a closely guarded secret within Bratslav Hasidism. Encoded in abbreviations, hints and acronyms, Bratslav tradition says that only one person in each generation has been handed the key to the manuscript's true meaning. Called the Megilat Setarim, the scroll of secrets, the manuscript's subject and theme is nothing less than the ultimate Jewish enigma and one of Judaism's paramount obsessions: the nature and identity of the Messiah - and even perhaps the exact timing of his arrival.

But secrets have a way of emerging from obscurity in the postmodern era. Within the next few months, the manuscript, its code at least partially deciphered by Dr. Zvi Mark, 43, a scholar of Hasidism who teaches at Bar-Ilan University and is a researcher at the Shalom Hartman Institute, will be published by Bar-Ilan University Press. While some Bratslaver Hasidim oppose its publication, Mark, to his surprise, has had the cooperation and quiet encouragement of some prominent Bratslav Hasidim in acquiring and interpreting the secret manuscript.

"The world is thirsty for the words of our Master," one Bratslav scholar told Mark - hinting that the immense popularity Rabbi Nachman's path has attained during the last decade may signal that the time for hiding is over. "Our master, Rabbi Nachman, told us not to make it public, so we, as Bratslav Hasidim, cannot," another prominent leader said. "But apparently in the heavens, it has been determined that it is already the time for revelation."

Rabbi Nachman, whose teachings are widely considered among the most profound, original and poetic of any in the Jewish tradition, believed he was blazing a new path in Judaism, and he saw this path in a messianic context: "My fire," he is quoted as having said, "will burn until the coming of the Messiah." At the time of the birth of his son Shlomo Efraim, Rabbi Nachman apparently believed that the coming of the Messiah was imminent and that his infant son might fill the role of the redeemer, or would at least play a role in the drama of redemption. After his son died, at the age of one year and two months, Rebbe Nachman told his close followers that he had known, up until now, the exact date the Messiah was set to appear, but that now the Messiah's advent had been postponed by at least a hundred years.

A few months later, on the fifth of Av in 1806, Rebbe Nachman revealed the prophecy, or "vision" encoded in the Megilat Setarim. In his posthumously published memoirs, Rabbi Natan of Nemerov, Rebbe Nachman's most devoted and important disciple, describes hearing the teachings recorded in the Megilat Setarim during a carriage ride between Medvedivka and Tzherin, two cities in Ukraine. As Rabbi Natan and another close disciple, Rabbi Naftali, listened in rapt attention, Rabbi Nachman began to speak of the coming of the Messiah. Several other men were present as well, including one of Rebbe Nachman's sons in law, but strangely, they could afterward not recall more than a few words of what their master had said.

For over two hours, Rabbi Nachman spoke about "The entire order of the coming of the righteous redeemer ... matters which had never been heard before in the world at all." Much of what Rabbi Nachman said, Rabbi Natan writes in his memoirs, was forgotten by the two men immediately. But Rabbi Natan did manage to write down "in hints, in acronyms and abbreviations" much of the substance of his master's prophetic words.

According to Rebbe Natan, Rebbe Nachman did not link his vision to a specific time. "When will this all come about?" the two men asked their teacher. Rebbe Nachman answered obliquely, evasively: "Just the telling of these things is a very great thing", he said. "That we should be able to converse in this world about matters that until now were hidden away in chambers within chambers." Rabbi Nachman ordered the two men not to repeat what they had heard, not to copy the manuscript, even though it was written in code, and certainly not to publish it.

Three years later, in 1809, Rabbi Nachman repeated, to the same two men, essentially the same messianic vision he had articulated before. Again Reb Natan recorded his words. The two versions, recorded together on the same manuscript, are what came to be called Megilat Setarim, the scroll of secrets.

Lost and found

The plot continues to thicken after Rabbi Natan's death. In a note attached as an addendum to Rabbi Natan's words, the posthumous editor of Rabbi Natan's memoirs writes: "After Rabbi Natan's death ... the holy manuscript of Megilat Setarim was stolen and lost, and we still don't know where it is. Woe! What a shame for that which has been lost and is not to be found."

Yet the manuscript was not lost - the claim that it was may have been part of an effort to cover up its continued existence. According to the Siach Sarfay Kodesh, a six volume work of Bratslav oral history first published in the 1980s, the interpretation of the scroll was passed on before Rebbe Naftali's death - Rebbe Natan had died earlier - to Reb Aharon Libvezker, "a very holy man who was born on the knees of Rebbe Nachman."

Before he died, Reb Aharon Libvezker passed the secret on to Reb Avraham Hazan, the son of Reb Nakhman of Tolzhin, a close disciple of Rebbe Natan.

Hazan, also known as Reb Avraham b'Reb Nachman, is a legendary figure in Bratslav circles - and one of the two major conduits through which Bratslav Hasidism emerged out of Eastern Europe and reached Israel and beyond. Hazan, in many ways, fit the classic stereotype of the intense, ascetic and eccentric Bratslaver Hasid. According to Siach Sarfay Kodesh, Hazan was visited as he lay mortally ill in Uman (where Rabbi Nachman lived the last two years of his life and where he is buried) by Tzirel, the daughter of Reb Aharon Libvezker, who had bequeathed the Megilat Setarim code to Hazan. Tzirel screamed at Hazan, upbraiding him for not having transmitted his secret knowledge to the next generation, but it was too late. Hazan had already lost the power of speech and died, according to this account, without passing on the key to the code.

Yet the idea that Hazan was the last to know the true interpretation of the Megilat Setarim - or even that he was the only person in his generation who did know - may be another Bratslav attempt at protection and concealment. The scroll itself eventually reached Jerusalem in 1963, when it was entrusted to Rabbi Gedaliah Fleer, then 23, a Bratslav Hasid from Brooklyn, by Rabbi Michael Dorfman, a Bratslav Hasid living in Moscow. Fleer, with Dorfman's help, had braved the Soviet Union's fierce hostility to Judaism and their ban on religious pilgrimage, and had become the first Western Hasid to reach Uman in the postwar period.

Constantly threatened by the KGB, Dorfman and the handful of other Bratslav Hasidim who remained behind the Iron Curtain felt that their survival as a community was in grave danger. As Fleer was preparing to leave, Dorfman passed him a handwritten book which he feared the Soviets might some day seize. The book contained various esoteric Bratslav writings, including a manuscript handwritten by Reb Alter Tepliker, an important 19th century Bratslav figure, who said it had been "Copied letter by letter from Rabbi Natan's handwriting," and that it told "The whole order of the coming of the Righteous redeemer." The elusive Megilat Setarim had been found.

Fleer, as well as Dorfman, trace their spiritual lineage to the other major conduit through which Bratslav Hasidism reached the West - Reb Avraham Sternharz, who escaped the Soviet Union for Jerusalem in 1940, where he lived until his death in 1955. Now 66 years old and living in Jerusalem, Fleer told Haaretz that soon after reaching Jerusalem he had shown the manuscript to another disciple of Sternharz, Rebbe Hirsch Leib Lippel. Lippel teased Fleer with a question. "Do you know how to read it? I do."

Lippel told Fleer that Sternharz, considered by his disciples as at least as great an authority on Bratslav Hasidism as Avraham Hazan, and as a great-grandson of Rabbi Natan privy to intimate family traditions, had decoded the manuscript for him one winter night in Ukraine. "I asked Lippel to let me in on the secret," Fleer said, "but he claimed that he was old and sick and had forgotten everything." But that, too, proved to be camouflage. A few weeks later, Lippel changed his mind.

"'If God put the scroll in your hands,' Fleer says that Lippel told him, 'I guess he meant for you to know what it says.'" He invited Fleer and two other Bratslav Hasidim to his home that evening and read the manuscript through, forbidding the men to record or take notes. "Every one of the abbreviations and acronyms fit," Fleer says today. "He definitely knew the secret of how to read it." Fleer distributed photocopies of the encoded manuscript to several people within the Bratslav community, but kept judiciously silent about what the scroll actually said.

Fast forward to 30 years later, when a Bratslav Hasid let slip in a conversation with Zvi Mark, a graduate of religious Zionist yeshivot and an academic researcher of kabbala and Hebrew Literature, that he had seen a copy of the mysterious Megilat Setarim. Mark was intrigued, though he got no closer to the scroll through that Hasid. Earlier researchers into Bratslav Hasidism had mentioned esoteric writings that were in the possession of the elders of the Bratslav community. Two of them, Yosef Weiss and Yehuda Leibes, had posited that the writings, which included two stories - "Story of the Bread" and "Story of the Armor" told by Rabbi Nachman, along with the Megilat Setarim - had been suppressed because they were connected with Sabbateanism, the 17th century messianic movement whose aftershocks traumatized Judaism for decades and perhaps centuries.

"It is not that these researchers thought that Rebbe Nachman was a Sabbatean," Mark says, "but that in order to spiritually battle Sabbateanism he veered close to Sabbatean ideas, and this had to be kept secret." Part of Mark's interest in Bratslav's esoteric writings, besides his interest in the mystical and visionary side of Rebbe Nachman, has been his desire to prove that their concealment had nothing to do with Sabbateanism. "In the wake of Gershom Scholem, Sabbateanism became like the joker in a deck of cards," Mark says. "Whenever there was a mystery, the answer in academia was always 'Sabbateanism'."

Working partly as a detective, partly as an anthropologist, and partly as a scholar, Mark began to piece together and analyze esoteric Bratslav writings that were already beginning to emerge from concealment within the expanding borders of the Bratslav community itself. Since its inception, the community had consisted of a tiny, dedicated band harassed and persecuted by other Hasidic groups, not least because of their insistence on Rabbi Nachman's unique greatness.

But over the last decade, Bratslav has become more and more influential in Jewish religious circles. Thousands of Israeli baaley teshuva (newly religious) identify with Bratslav. The pilgrimage to Rebbe Nachman's grave in Uman every Rosh Hashanah has grown to massive proportions. Celebrities like Aryeh Deri have made the trip along with rabbis, kabbalists and entertainers with no previous allegiance to Bratslav.

New Bratslav groups, consisting mostly of the newly religious, have emerged, and some of them, challenging the authority of the Bratslav elders, had already begun to publish previously suppressed material, such as the "Story of the Bread" - which tells of Rebbe Nachman's experience of receiving the Torah into his own body and seeing the Ten Commandments emerge from his own mouth. The censored material, it seemed, was not about Sabbatai Zevi, but about Reb Nachman himself, and some within the Bratslav movement felt that in a world that had begun to recognize Rebbe Nachman's greatness there was no further need for concealment.

Mark eventually managed to obtain a copy of the Megilat Setarim itself, with the aid of David Asaf, a longtime scholar and bibliographer of Bratslav, and began the difficult work of decoding, aided by Bratslav friends. Mark has not succeeded in decoding every abbreviation in the scroll and admits there may be layers of the scroll that he has not managed to decipher, but he believes that he has a fairly complete picture of the scroll's content. For those expecting a wrathful Messiah who will wreak vengeance on the nations of the world - or a rabbinic Messiah with a white beard - the Messiah of the scroll will come as a disappointment.

Rebbe Nachman, on that carriage ride long ago, predicted, instead, a Messiah whose appearance and identity would surprise the world: a Messiah who would begin his messianic mission as a young child. The scroll describes the Messiah's marriage, and his ascension to the throne as emperor while a teenager. The Messiah, according to the scroll, will eventually conquer the world without firing a single shot: his war will be a spiritual battle with a tidal wave of atheism that will have engulfed the world.

Rabbi Nachman's messianic vision includes no apocalypse and no mass destruction of evildoers. The Messiah's power will emanate from his genius for healing illness through new kinds of medicines he will synthesize from various compounds, and from his profound originality in the field of music: The Messiah will compose melodies with the power to arouse tremendous yearning and hunger for God. Rabbi Nachman's Messiah is universal: He comes not just to the Jews, but to all nations, and for the good of the whole world.

Mark feels that the publication of the scroll, with its peaceful, universalist vision, may have a positive affect on groups such as the hillside youth for whom Rebbe Nachman is a profound influence.

Mark's decoding of the scroll corresponds, to a great extent, with what Gedaliah Fleer remembers of Reb Lippel's reading. Yet Fleer himself is not certain that the manuscript he brought back from Russia contains all of what was once called Megilat Setarim. "There may have been more", he says, "perhaps much more." Rabbi Moshe Binenstock, a student of Bratslav elder Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Bender, who was himself a disciple of Rabbi Avraham Hazan, insists that the exact date of the coming of the Messiah was once part of the secret tradition of the scroll - despite Rabbi Natan's question to Rabbi Nachman - but that the secret apparently died with Hazan. He remembers Hasidim teasingly begging Bender, who died at the age of 92 in 1989, to reveal the date, but Bender insisted that he did not know.

Binenstock also rejects the possibility that Rabbi Avraham Sternharz had himself received a transmission of the scroll's secrets. The scroll's meaning, completeness, and the possibility of its interpretation thus connect to other fault lines within Bratslav over the relative authority of Sternharz and Hazan, the two dominant 20th century Bratslav teachers.

Now that Zvi Mark has deciphered the basic text - which may or may not be all of what Bratslav tradition called Megilat Setarim - and written about its historical context and meaning, the possibility of searching for deeper layers of significance has also been opened. Mark has cracked the abbreviations - still, there are the hints and acronyms that Rabbi Natan mentioned, as well as questions of interpretation. Is the scroll talking about physical healing, for example, or spiritual healing? Are the compounds the Messiah combines made of molecules or letters?

Rabbi Nachman's words about himself, says Mark, may very possibly apply to the Megilat Setarim as well: "I am a secret, but I am the kind of secret that remains a secret even after it is revealed."

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