Avigdor ‘the snitch’ of Pinsk

A big bunch of information swings loose in this post.

Buckle in.

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So, you remember that bubbe meises story we all got told, about the ‘mitgnadim’ of Vilna being against the ‘chassidim’ just because of some dispute around ‘spirituality’ etc?

And how we figured out a couple of years’ ago, that the real ‘war’ in Vilna was between it’s rabbi, one SHMUEL ben AVIGDOR, vs his kahal over who was going to get the bigger slice of the ‘taxation pie’, when it came to fleecing the Jewish community?

And how that dispute rumbled on for 30 years+, turned father against son and brother against brother, and literally had the people of Vilna fighting each other in the streets?

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We are meant to believe that the VILNA GAON and his (very well-connected and wealthy….) family were somehow totally above this poisonous dispute that convulsed Vilna for three decades.

Somehow, I highly doubt that.

Not least, because the PESSELES family who was funding the GRA’s house and bet hamidrash were apparently marrying the daughters of this same SHMUEL ben AVIGDOR (at least, in some versions of the family trees.)

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But who the heck was this ‘SHMUEL BEN AVIGDOR’, and why was all this stuff so covered up?!

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When I started writing this post, I was hopeful that I’d finally cracked that nut.

Mostly.

The breakthrough happened when I was going back over RUSSIA’S FIRST MODERN JEWS by David Fishman, and I got to page 19, where he was talking about how the partition of Poland also had a big impact on the ‘war’ against the chassidim.

Here’s the snippet, then we’ll start to unpick it:

“R AVIGDOR of PINSK [was] a fanatical Mitnaged who denounced the Hasidic movement to Tsar Paul I in 1800….[He wrote]:

From time immemorial it has been our custom that only our scholars could decide matters of justice….And when the Empress [Catherine the Great], may she rest in peace, assumed the throne, she decreed that Jewish disputes should be decided by the Jews’ scholars.

But certain rich men who did not approve of this, cunningly brought about that the decisions of Jewish courts in such disputes should remain ineffectual….

The truth of the matter is that if now, as in the past, the Jews’ affairs were subject to the judgment of their own scholars, the latter would have – based on the order of the authorities and in accordance with the supreme laws of the land – destroyed these individuals who have dared to rebel against God and His anointed ones.

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Fishman explains:

“R Avigdor’s complaint that the law no longer permitted Jewish scholars to settle the Jews’ affairs unilaterally, was a cause for celebration among the Hasidim.

Hasidic traditions note that following the second and third partition of Poland, the Russian authorities outlawed use of the herem, and the Mitnagdim were no longer able to ban the movement as they had in the past.”

==

At this stage, I am treading cautiously on trying to decide which side was really the mitnagdim, and who were really the chassidim, and what this ‘dispute’ really was about.

They lied about so much, it’s still not obvious, especially not when you understand that the ‘initiated maskilim-Frankists’ are also in this mix – most of whom very quickly turned into the leading ‘reformers’, commies and z-ists.

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But to get back to AVIGDOR THE FANATICAL MITNAGED OF PINSK – I suddenly realised that he was the guy who informed on SHNEUR ZALMAN (at least, on one of the occasions that happened.)

And then, I started wondering if ‘AVIDGOR the SNITCH’ of Pinsk could possibly be the scrubbed father of our very own SHMUEL ben AVIGDOR.

And that’s where a whole bunch of interesting connections suddenly swam into view.

Read on.

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First stop was the Chabadpedia website put together by fanatical mesichists who believe the late Rebbe IS STILL Moshiach.

God bless them, because they have preserved so much useful info that’s been scrubbed out of existence most other places.

HERE’s the page (in Hebrew) for ‘AVIGDOR THE SNITCH’.

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According to the Chabad version (and remembering that Chabad lies about so much), we are told this, about the ALTER REBBE’s second imprisonment:

Less than two years after he was released from his first prison sentence, at the Feast of Sukkot, 24 Tishri, the ALTER REBBE was again asked to St. Petersburg. [1]

In Hasidic tradition, it is reported that when the old Admor heard that they wanted to arrest him again, he sent an urgent messenger to Prince Lyubamirsky, who governs the towns and settlements around Petersburg during this period and was in a friendship with one of the Hasidim, to consult with him on whether to hand himself in to prison.

The messenger entered the prince’s room in the middle of the night with great devotion, and the prince decided he should not flee….

This time, they did not arrest him by force, and the ALTER REBBE arrived on his own in St. Petersburg on the orders of the government, with a number of followers of means depositing a guarantee that he would indeed arrive in St. Petersburg at the appointed time.

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This unnamed ‘Prince Lubormirski’, big friend of the ALTER REBBE, seems to be this guy:

FYODOR NIKOLAYEVICH GOLICYN

Strangely, given the fact that Russia and France are famously at war at this time, he spends a lot of time in Napoloeon’s Paris, and even has an audience with Napoleon. His wife dies in Paris in 1804.

Tsar Paul appoints him curator of the Moscow University Library in 1796 – and he’s a knight of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. Why he’s such good friends with the famously ‘anti Napoleon’ ALTER REBBE, I can’t tell you.

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You can read the Chabad version of the long story of how AVIGDOR KARO of PINSK informed against SHNEUR ZALMAN here – and if this topic interests you at all, you should really go and do that.

The long version of the short story is that AVIGDOR KARO accused ‘chassidut’ – but really, just SHNEUR ZALMAN and CHABAD – of the following:

In one of the documents documenting the claims in the handwriting of the snitch Avigdor, the claims appear, most of which constitute questions about concepts and elements in the Torah of the Hasidism, in order to try to prove that the Torah of the Hasidism tended from the Torah that was devoted to our ancestors. [6]:

  1. How is it possible to say that a person cannot fear anything, since God is the one who acts and does everything – and according to this, no one who commits an offense can be punished, since God is the one who acts in it.

  2. How can it be said that no one is afraid of any creation except God, for in the Torah it is told how the fathers and King David were afraid of other people.

  3. In Hasidism, it appears that if a person desires for a certain matter, it teaches that there is a spark in him that he needs to correct, and how can we say this, and that a person also desires for the words of a transgression.

  4. The leaders of the Hasidism send many funds to the poor of the Land of Israel, a hundred times the amount that would have been collected until the advent of the Hasidism theory, at the same time that according to the law ‘the poor of your city Kodamin’.

  5. The Hasidim are dismissive of testimony and sworn statements and treat them lightly.

  6. Parents are not treated with respect.

  7. The Hasidim steal money from their families in order to fulfill their financial obligations to the leaders of the Hasidism, at the same time that according to the custom of Israel, a person who is not twenty years old is not allowed to give any gift without the knowledge of his father and mother.

  8. The trip of the Hasidim to the rabbi raises a great question, for in order to hear the words of the Torah he could have sent the words of the Torah in writing to the colonies of the Hasidim, and for what reason would we have to spend large monetary expenses on the trip and gather together with great urgency?[7].

  9. The Hasidim follow the instructions of their leaders more than the instructions of Moses.

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It’s very similar to the same ‘anti-Breslov’ stuff you still here today, spewing out on the YWN site and other ‘government-sponsored misinformation sites’ pretending to be ‘news’.

There is nothing new under the sun.

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In the meantime, Tzar Paul orders the ALTER REBBE into house arrest in St Petersburg, where the government can keep an eye on him.

And the man who arranged this is none other than NATAN NETA NOTKIN – grandpa of BINYAMIN RIVLIN of SHLOV, the fanatical ‘mitnaged’ closely related to the GRA whose son is HILLEL RIVLIN of SHKLOV, whose descendants take over the Holy Land.

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I don’t know why NATAN NETA NOTKIN flipped from being part of the group who got the ALTER REBBE arrested first time around, to the guy who ‘frees’ him the second time.

It’s another mystery.

But in the meantime, according to the Chabadpedia site, NOTKIN sets a condition, that the ALTER REBBE will have to come and convince three of the biggest ‘mitnagdim’ of Shklov that he’s not a heretic.

The three are named as:

YEHOSHUA ZEITLIN (f-i-l of BINYAMIN RIVLIN, who marries his daughter DREIZA and hangs out in his mansion with BARUCH SHICK).

MOSHE CHAFEITZ – somehow connected to the GRA’s close family, and the main fundraisers of Eretz Yisrael in Vilna and Brody known as the ‘EARLS of VILNA’.

JOEL of AMITSLAVL (probably connected to CHAIM of VOLOZHIN’s nephew in some way, AVRAHAM SIMCHA of AMITSLAVL.)

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Of course, the ALTER REBBE ‘blows them away’ with his erudition and piety, and they all decide they were wrong (and want to become Chabad….)

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The ALTER REBBE is released from house arrest after six months, and then takes up Prince Lubormirski’’s offer to come and live out the rest of his days in peace in one of his villages, either DUROBIN or LIOZNA.

He picks LIOZNA.

And the rest is (faked….) history.

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OK, now let’s zoom-in on ‘AVIGDOR BEN CHAIM KARO’ of Pinsk, the ALTER REBBE’s main persecutor (the second time around), according to Chabad.

On the Chabadpedia page for him HERE, we are told that Avigdor ‘fell into drunkenness’ after all this and hung out with loose women in the market place….

Apparently, this is some of the slanderous lashon hara the Alter Rebbe himself wrote about him, in his written defence against Karo’s accusations.

I don’t know if that’s true – I have a lot more to read now to try and pin it down – but what is beyond the shadow of a doubt is that AVIGDOR KARO’s attack against the ALTER REBBE cost him very dearly.

He was deposed from his position as the Chief Rabbi of PINSK – a position that he’d paid 54,000 zlotys to acquire! – and he was financially ruined as a result.

Plus, Chabad slandered him so thoroughly, as a drunkard and woman-chaser, he probably couldn’t hold his head very high in public any more.

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So how does this tie-in with our own ‘SHMUEL ben AVIGDOR’ of Vilna, also at the centre of a terrible ‘war’ with his (‘Chabadnik’….) kahal?

Let’s see if we can figure it out a bit more.

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Let’s start with this very strange snippet on the bottom of the Chabadpedia page for AVIGDOR THE SNITCH:

The machine-translation says this:

The Rebbe said in the conversation[6] that there was also a”curse” in Avigdor that the descendants of the greatest of the dissenters would approach Hasidism and become Chabad followers.

Indeed, Avigdor’s grandson Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Chaikin became close to Chabad‘s Hasidut, and served as a rabbi of the Chabad community in London[7] Other descendants of Avigdor who are members of the Chabad of Chabad are the Izraelite family[8].

==

Say what?!

This somehow links JOEL of SMOLYAN – the main fundraiser / shaliach for the Alter Rebbe and Avraham Kalisker in Tiberius directly to the ‘fanatical mitnagid’ AVIGDOR KARO of Pinsk.

(MOSHE AVIGDOR CHAIKIN’s real name is ‘ZEITLIN’. And his brother is the Chabad rabbi of Hebron who apparently lives for 113 years (!) SHMUEL MENASHE CHAIKIN.)

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At this point, I wasted two valuable hours of my life trying to figure this bit of the equation out, but then I realised they have lied about so many individuals, so many details, at this point, I am just wasting my time.

And maybe, the point is to not focus in so tightly on the ‘individual’, but to actually pull the lense back out to the much bigger picture, about the true nature of the machkloket between the so-called mitnagdim and the so-called chassidim.

So, I went off to the National Library here in Jerusalem to track down a book by Mordechai Nadav called ‘The Jews of Pinsk, 1506-1880‘ that sets out much more of the ‘official history’ of the Jewish community of Pinsk, including a chapter on AVIGDOR KARO.

Here’s what I learned.

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  1. The father of YECHEZKEL KATZENELLENBOGEN, the KNESSET YECHEZKEL, was called ABRAHAM KATZENELLENBOGEN, the ABD of BREST-LITOVSK (Brest).

He was one of the main persecutors of the so-called chassidim – and a person who we will be returning to, BH.

Here’s a snippet from p302 of Nadav’s book:

“Some time before late August 1781, R LEVI YITZHAK [who was the chief rabbi of Pinsk before AVIGDOR KARO] encountered R ABRAHAM KATZENELLENBOGEN, the rabbi of Brest-Litovsk, in Warsaw, and was forced to engage in a public debate over the doctrines of the Hasidim, in the synagogue in the Warsaw suburb of Praga.

In a letter calling his community to bitter battle against the Hasidim….R. Katzenellenbogen boasted that he had bested R LEVI YITZHAKtheir head goon’…..

Sometime before July 1784, R Katzenellenbogen tried to challenge R Levi Yitzhak to a second public debate.”

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R Levi actually didn’t bother debating ABRAHAM KATZENELLENBOGEN the first time around, and other sources state: “on the contrary, [R LEVI YITZHAK] was insolent, jesting and mocking in a way inappropriate….”

It’s kind of hard to believe that about R LEVI YITZHAK.

But in any case, on June 25, 1784, ABRAHAM KATZENELLENBOGEN writes him again, accusing him of “behaving in certain ways and matters which I and all who see the truth do not find appropriate.”

And on June 23, 1784, the Vilna Kahal also sends a very strong letter to the Pinsk kahal, telling them to get rid of LEVI YITZHAK and declare a ban against the chassidim.

According to NADAV’s research:

“The letter was signed by Rabbi Samuel ben Avigdor, the Gaon, Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, and twenty of the Vilna kahal leaders.”

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This is kind of strange, for so many reasons.

For the people who are still believing the myth that the Gaon just sat shut up in some cupboard somewhere and avoided all communal politics – that’s simply not true. He was throwing his weight around all over the place.

And the fact that this letter was also signed by our very own SAMUEL ben AVIGDOR and 20 members of the kahal of Vilna that he’d apparently been battling against for 25 years by this point….

The story doesn’t add up.

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So a year later, after his ten year stint as chief rabbi of Pinsk ends, LEVI YITZHAK either decides to leave (because the mitnagdim have been making his life so miserable) or he’s forced out.

Either way, he ends up in BERDICHEV.

And now, the mitnagdim on the Pinsk Kahal are looking for a new rabbi, and Mordechai Nadav tells us on page 304:

“Their aim was to install a rabbi acceptable to the Gaon and the Vilna community….the kahal decided to accept payment from an applicant for the position of rabbi. Rabbi AVIGDOR ben HAYYIM, a vehement opponent to Hasidism, was willing to pay a respectable sum for his appointment….

He paid three thousand czerwone zlotys… Of which twenty-six hundred was apparently paid to the starosta and four hundred constituted a loan to the kahal….

In return for R Avigdor’s payment, the Pinsk kahal conferred on him the position oif Rabbi of Pinsk and the Pinsk district, for a period of ten years.”

And of course, he also got granted certain leases and monopolies, so he could make some money on his investment.

This is really what all this ‘chief rabbi’ stuff was boiling down to – control, honor and money.

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I read this, and it struck me that AVIGDOR KARO seems to have got ‘parachuted’ into Pinsk as the candidate of the Vilna Gaon, together with SHMUEL ben AVIGDOR, the Rav of Vilna.

If this AVIGDOR KARO really is the (scrubbed….) father of SHMUEL ben AVIGDOR, then it’s easy to see how Vilna could control Pinsk by proxy, if he was appointed.

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AVIGDOR KARO wants to burn Hassidic books, the way the Vilna kahal apparently burned the book about the BESHT in the synagogue courtyard.

But he lacks the popular support to do that.

And not only because there were way more hassidim, or ‘Karliners’, as they were known at this point, in Pinsk and Karlin. Nadav states on page 306:

“[A]pparently many non-Hasidim were similarly repelled by the new rabbi, who conducted his affairs imperiously, not by virtue of greatness in Torah or personal authority but thanks to his wealth and political power.”

==

For as long as Pinsk remains in Polish territory, AVIGDOR KARO keeps his job.

But after the second partition of Poland, Pinsk comes under the control of Russia, while Vilna remains under Polish control – and without the clout of the Vilna Gaon and ‘SHMUEL ben AVIGDOR’ to back him up, AVIGDOR is removed from his position two years early.

And then, he spends the next few years trying to ‘sue’ the Pinsk kahal via the Russian bureaucracy, to get back the money he ‘invested’ in becoming the Chief Rabbi of Pinsk.

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Let’s quote a little of AVIGDOR KARO’s letter, that he sends to Tzar Paul I in 1787, a couple of years after he’s been deposed from his pulpit:

“Even though I was the rabbi, I no longer had the power to burn their books publically, for in all the towns under my jurisdiction the majority already belonged to that sect.

I was accordingly obliged to inform the late Gaon, R Elijah of Vilna, of what had happened,since he was the greatest of our sages….

Moreover, I proved to him [the Gaon] that, since their books lead the simple man astray from the straight way, according to the Mosaic Law their books should be publically burnt in the presence of all the people. And this was indeed done in Vilna, where the order was given to burn the books of this sect in public in front of the synagogue.[1]

When this became known to the sect and they discovered that I was opposed to their ideas, they rose up as one man against me and deprived me of my livelihood, and even eventually incited the others not to give me my due.”

==

As usual, someone here is lying.

The Vilna Gaon and ‘Shmuel ben Avigdor’ wrote harsh letters demanding the persecution of Levi Yitzhak and  the ‘sect’ in Pinsk years before AVIGDOR KARO was even appointed as ‘their man in Pinsk’.

Meanwhile on the other side of the story (from page 319):

“[S]even years later R SHNEUR ZALMAN of LADI noted that R Avigdor had forcibly extracted unwarranted sums from the residents and that he had been accustomed to drinking intoxicating beverages.”

How’s that, for a nice piece of lashon hara?

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Are you noticing how this sinat chinam that was flourishing so beautifully particularly in Vilna then got ‘exported’ to a bunch of other communities, with the Vilna Gaon, ‘Shmuel ben Avigdor’ and the Alter Rebbe the main engines powering it?

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AVIGDOR makes his first complaint in 1793, after he’s just lost his job – and it’s ignored by the Russians.

Four years later, apparently when the Vilna Gaon has just passed away and there is a big struggle going on over his ‘succession’ in Vilna again (you remember, we learnt his students and his children also went to court to decide who gets his property….) – AVIGDOR KARO tries again, to get his money back from the Pinsk kahal.

Here’s another snippet from page 323 – and notice who starts the war, this time around:

The Vilna Hasidim, who especially suffered from persecution, hastened to make the first denunciations to the authorities about irregularities in the conduct of kahal affairs involving taxes and use of funds, and shortly afterward another accusation that the kahal had collected monies unjustly.

The Russian rulers in Vilna quickly conducted an investigation into the matter; they had no difficulty uncovering improprieties, and the kahal leadership found itself in great danger.”

==

Next, we’re told the Mitnagdim send a letter to the Tzar accusing Shneur Zalman, and 22 other chassidic rabbis in Russian territory, of ‘acts detrimental to the empire’.

All 23 chassidic leaders are arrested and brought to Vilna. 15 are immediately released, while the others are sent to St Petersburg.

In Riga, the other seven are released, and only Shneur Zalman is taken to prison in St Petersburg, while the Russians investigate.

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You and me already know all this was about money, and particularly, about the charidee money being collected for Eretz Yisrael.

Interestingly, AVIGDOR KARO’s name doesn’t even appear on the letter sent by the mitnagdim to the Tzar.

This first letter was apparently organised by none other than NATAN NETA NOTKIN of Shklov, the in-law of the SHA’AGAT ARYEH.

==

Shneur Zalman is famously released in November 1798, once the Russians can find no proof that he is sending any charidee money to Eretz Yisrael.

(Because as we figured out, he really wasn’t sending it.)

And then three months later, ‘the hassidim’ in Vilna inform on the Vilna kahal to the Tzar again, leading to it’s disbandment sometime after February 4, 1799.

The timing of this is oh-so-interesting, as this is said to be the time when SHMUEL ben AVIGDOR, the ‘last ABD of Vilna’ dies.

According to Nadav (page 324):

“In the new elections, the Hasidim seized control and elected one of their own, Rabbi Meir Rafels, as head of the kahal. This was precisely what had happened in Pinsk six years earliers when Hershel Kolodner, a Hasid, was elected head of the kahal.”

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But AVIGDOR KARO is by now destitute, and desperate to get some money back from the Pinsk kahal, so he puts all his efforts into one more ‘denunciation’ of the Karliners.

According to Nadav (page 325):

“[T]he rabbi accused them (falsely) sic of being remnants of the Sabbatians, a sect rejected in Turkey and Poland because of its dangerous political aims.”

I’m not so sure – at all – this accusation is ‘false’.

In the meantime, let’s bring the last couple of snippets, for now, from Nadav:

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“In his final letter of denunciation, written after March 1801, Avigdor described how he coordinated his actions with the mitnaggedic leaders of Vilna.”

Initially, this complaint also goes nowhere with the Russians, but then:

“Suddenly, at the end of 1800, the Russian authorities were prompted to reinvestigate R Avigdor’s allegations against the Hasidim and R Shneur Zalman….following a harshly anti-Semitic pronouncement by the poet and nobleman Derzhavin.

In 1799, Derzhavin was first sent to Belarus to investigate a dispute between the Jews of Szklow and the nobleman Zoricz, and in 1800 to inquire into the causes of poverty and famine among the farmers of the area.

Derzhavin’s statement blamed the Jews for the farmers’ dire circumstances and included strong charges against R SHNEUR ZALMAN and the Hasidim in general.”

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We are back to SHKLOV, the stamping ground of NATAN NETA NOTKIN, YEHOSHUA ZEITLIN, and BINYAMIN RIVLIN.

And this time, we’re told that NATAN NETA NOTKIN is the one who arranges for the ALTER REBBE’s conditional freedom, as described above.

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Another strange thing to note is that this DERZHAVIN is said to be a very close friend of that same PRINCE LYUBORMISKI, who helps out the ALTER REBBE.

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As always, there is so much more to write, but that will do for now.

If you want a ‘Disney-fied’ version of the dispute with Zoricz on the Chabad site – replete with the usual fantastic imaginary scenes to tug at the readers’ heartstrings (whilst dissolving their brain to mush….) go HERE.

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I was hoping we’d finally get to the bottom of the ‘SHMUEL ben AVIGDOR’ story in this post.

As usual, the goalposts just moved back again.

But each time we put more ‘truth’ out there, it’s exploding more of the lies being told, generally.

And that has to be useful.

==

OTHER LINKS IN HEBREW ABOUT AVIGDOR KARO OF PINSK:

Behadrei Forum
Behadrei Forum
Haaretz
Kikar
Kotar
Kotar
Otzar Forum
Otzar Forum
ivelt
Ishei Israel
Tora Forum

[1] The book burned was Zava’at Ha-Rivash.

2 replies
  1. Simcha Vsasson
    Simcha Vsasson says:

    Truly fascinating and incredible work writing and piecing this all together. The war between the chassidim and Mitnagdim really just never made sense to me and the many others talking about it…But once you bring in the money, power, monopolistic positions, etc…ah, got it.

    I understand that there is still so much to clarify and just like when looking into the “lost history” of this world – there are often more questions than answers. However, I prefer to be left with questions about the truth than the confidence of fabricated falsehoods.

    Reply

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