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The Degel Machaneh Ephraim: In Honor of Whom?

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov was born in Mezhibuzh (Medzhybizh, Ukraine) in 5502 (or 5508) (1742 or 1748) to Rabbi Yechiel-Michel Ashkenazi and Adel, the daughter of the Ba’al Shem Tov. In a letter to his brother-in-law Rabbi Gershon of Kitov around the year 1753, his grandfather, the Ba’al Shem Tov, described him as, “A great genius in the ultimate sense.” After his grandfather's passing, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim studied with the Ba’al Shem Tov’s students: the Maggid of Mezritch, Rabbi Zev Wolf Kitzes, and primarily with the author of Toldot Ya’akov Yosef. However, he himself also received directly from his grandfather’s teachings and included teachings that he heard from him in his book, Degel Machaneh Ephraim. He served as a rabbi and preacher in Sudilkov, leading a relatively small community. Like his teacher, the author of the Toldot, his prowess was mainly in writing and preaching. Around the year 1788, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim returned to his birthplace,  Mezhibuzh, and since his brother Rabbi Baruch served there as a rebbe, he prayed in his grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov's synagogue, and also provided counsel for his own followers  there. The bond of friendship between the brothers was very close, even though both served as rebbes in the same town. On the 17th of Iyar, the eve of Lag BaOmer of the year 1800, Rabbi Ephraim passed away and was buried in Mezhibuzh, by the side of his grandfather, the holy Ba’al Shem Tov.

When the holy Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim was an honored preacher in the town of Sudilkov, he had an enemy who greatly distressed and embittered his life, until he fell ill. His brother, Rabbi Baruch of Mezhibuzh, came to visit him, and the tzaddik poured out his heart to his brother.

Rabbi Baruch, who was by nature very judgmental advised his brother that he “pray that he be punished from Heaven!” Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim responded: “How can it occur to you to seek revenge against a Jew and to bear him a grudge? Does not the Torah say ‘You shall not take vengeance nor bear any grudge?’” Rabbi Baruch replied: “Are you not a Torah scholar? The sages say that ‘a Torah scholar who does not take revenge and bear a grudge like a snake is not a Torah scholar.’[1] Even if you forgo your own honor and forgive him, how can you forgo the honor of the Torah?” But Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim said innocently: “Indeed, I also thought so. But every time I decided to ask for his punishment from heaven, I felt that I was not doing so for the honor of the Torah but to protect my own honor, and immediately I stopped praying for this.”

The meeting between the holy brothers, Rabbi Moshe Chaim and Rabbi Baruch, well emphasizes the difference between them:

The author of the Degel, Rebbe Moshe Chaim, was associated with the right side of his grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, the side of loving-kindness, whereas his brother, Rebbe Baruch, was associated with the left side of the Baal Shem Tov, the attribute of might, or severity. Even the gematria of their names hints at this: Moshe Chaim Ephraim (מֹשֶׁה חַיִּים אֶפְרַיִם) equals 3 times the value of “Abraham” (אַבְרָהָם), meaning that Abraham, the man of loving-kindness, is the average of his three names. On the other hand, “Baruch” (בָּרוּךְ) equals “like Isaac” (כְּיִצְחָק), Abraham’s son who is the Torah’s archetypal figure of might.

Accordingly, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim was noted for his humility and lowliness (traits that also belong to Abraham, who said “I am but dust and ashes”[2]) and Rabbi Baruch was known for his severity and his fierce struggles against anything opposing holiness and Chasidut. Accordingly, the two brothers also conducted themselves under completely different economic conditions: Rabbi Baruch was of the mindset that, “He who wishes to become rich should incline to the north” and his brother, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim was of the mindset that, “He who wishes to become wise should incline to the south.” The north is associated with the left and the sefirah of might while the south is associated with the right axis of the sefirot including the sefirah of loving-kindness.

It is told that once Rabbi Baruch visited his brother, the author of the Degel on a holy Shabbat, and was shocked to see the extent of his poverty: the cloth spread on the table was like a sack, and the candlesticks were made of clay. He asked him: “To such an extent?! You don’t even have silver candlesticks?!” His brother responded: “And you have silver candlesticks?!” Rabbi Baruch said: “Yes.” Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim asked his brother: “And how did you have money to buy such expensive candlesticks?” Rabbi Baruch said: “I travel between the villages and towns to deliver the Jewish people from calamities and sickness, and they benefit me from their money.” Rebbe Moshe Chaim Ephraim said to him: “You travel in towns and your candlesticks are at home, and I prefer to stay at home and let my candlesticks be in the towns.”

Let us conclude with another numerical allusion, revealing the stature of the tzaddik.  The gematria of “Moshe Chaim Ephraim” (מֹשֶׁה חַיִּים אֶפְרַיִם) is also the same as the phrase, “in our image and in our likeness”[3] (בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ). From this, one can learn that the humble tzaddik is the embodiment of the supreme will that informs the creation of the first man. This connection reminds us of a similar statement made regarding Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose day of passing is the day after that of Rebbe Moshe Chaim Ephraim: “’Let us make man,’[4] was said on your behalf.”[5]


[1]. Yoma 23a.

[2]. Genesis 18:27.

[3]. Ibid. 1:26.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. From the poem Bar Yochai.

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