The Alter Rebbe’s Companion Who Was…a Drunk?

Chapters in Chabad History: Over time, the legend of ‘The Volper,’ a foremost talmid of the Mezritcher Maggid, has become somewhat of an enigma, largely due to the extraordinary highs and lows his life story contains.

By Nochie Wolf –

The Volper

Over time, the legend of The Volper has become somewhat of an enigma, largely due to the extraordinary highs and lows his life contains. Other than a handful of famous stories often shared by fabrengens etc. little is known about his life; this article will hopefully shed some light on his story and the various traditions surrounding his life.


Unsurprisingly, almost nothing is known about Reb Chaim Volper’s early years. The name Volper derives from him having served as Av Beis Din in the city Wolpa. Though the exact years of his holding this position is unknown, it must’ve been before he left for Karlin in circa. 5522.

From Karlin community documents of 5544, we know that a Rav Chaim Volper, recorded as one of the city Dayanim, was the son of Gedlaya and the husband of Freida. This almost certainly refers to our Reb Chaim.

The famous Shul in Wolpa built in the early 1800’s. Picture circa 1920.

Talmid Hammagid

Reb Chaim was one of the foremost talmidim of the Maggid. His prodigious grasp of the Maggid’s teaching and the unique clarity he expressed in explaining them made him one of the central members of the chevraya. Many others would come to his chazarah to hear the Maggid’s teachings and gain his clarity.

The Rebbe Rashab once described the way the Maggid’s teachings were received by the various talmidim, “Reb Shlomo of Karlin would become ill from irregular blood flow, the Rav [Levi Yitzchok] of Berditchev would depart from the regular contained state of being into a tremendous dveikus and hispaalus. Only the Alter Rebbe and the Rav of Volper [properly] obtained [the teachings[1]].”

It is not entirely clear during which period the Volper learned by the Maggid. However, the Rebbe Rashab recounts[2] that he interacted and learnt with the Alter Rebbe who was there later. Assumably this interaction was during a visit, since he had already been sent to Karlin, but it does establish Reb Chaim’s presence in Mezritch during the years 5525-7.

Also from other sources, we can identify a relationship between Reb Chaim and the Alter Rebbe. Reb Yechiel Halperin (the noted Chossid, Shadar, and Chazzan in Lubavitch) records[3] that once the Alter Rebbe traveled with “his friend the Rav from Volper,” visiting and encouraging the Jews of various towns. Upon hearing of a particular town’s custom to distribute tzedakah on Erev Yom Kippur, they traveled there and joined the poor to receive this money from the Gabai. But, at the distribution, noticing that they didn’t have the necessary ‘documentation,’ the Gabai disgracefully sent them away.

Later that day the Gabbai’s child became ill and their hostess, having witnessed their piety, understood the connection. After she relayed this to the Gabai, he came and begged them for forgiveness. “The Alter Rebbe rebuked him benevolently,” blessed his child, and after Yom Kippur, the two left town and the child recovered.


Despite his greatness, already in the Maggid’s court, Reb Chaim was forewarned about eventually ending on the outer as a result of his negative behavior. There are many different versions of what happened, who rebuked him and what were the contents of the warnings. Here are a few of the traditions:

The Tzemach Tzedek relates in a letter to his son Reb Yosef Yitzchak- where he encourages him to abstain from dvorim hamutarim– what he heard from the Alter Rebbe. “The holy Rav of Volpe… said he needed sixty kopeks weekly for a particular purpose. As a response to this, in Mezritch it was said that a worm is consuming him within for claiming ‘I need,’ because who is the I.”

A slightly different account of events was retold by the Rebbe Rashab[4]: After hearing a Torah from the Maggid, the Alter Rebbe went to the Volper’s host residence, an elderly widow, to chazer the teaching together. The house was full of smoke because it had no chimney, and because the air near the ground was cleaner- and since there were no chairs anyway- they had to sit on the floor.

Frustrated at this arrangement, the Volper complained to the Alter Rebbe, “If the Aibishter would help me that I would have a [certain] amount of money, I would have a better host.” The Alter Rebbe later commented “A worm is consuming him! [That he should have the impudence to claim] I should have?!”

According to other traditions, it was the Maggid himself. Once, by the Maggid’s tisch he arose and declared, “I have one individual who is a precious apple, but there is a worm within him. If he overcomes this worm he will be a very precious vessel, however, if not, chas veshalom, the worm will fully consume him.” Reb Chaim, who was present, assumed the Maggid was referring to Reb Nochum Tchernobiler who was then absent. He afterward recounted this to Reb Nochum who countered that this could not be since the Maggid would have said it in his presence[5].

Finally, according to the Karlin mesorah, it was Reb Aharon of Karlin (see later for their relationship) who made this declaration.

During the life of the Maggid, many of his students traveled to spread Chassidus amongst the unexposed Jewish communities. Reb Aharon and Reb Shlomo of Karlin and Reb Chaim traveled to Karlin to create a center of Chassidus there. It seems that Rav Chaim served as a Dayan.

However, soon after, tensions formed between Reb Chaim and both Reb Aharon and Reb Shlomo. The Maggid even involved himself in this dispute; there is an undated letter addressed to Reb Chaim (likely our protagonist) and Reb Elazar (the city’s Rosh Yeshiva) calling on them to remain united under the leadership of Reb Aharon[6].

Some within Karlin have suggested that the conflict was at least somewhat predicated on different positions regarding the proper emphasis in Avodah[7]. The Karlinim stressed the importance of maaseh bpo’el, while the Volper favored a more intellectual approach. However, as we shall see the Alter Rebbe and other sources assert that other factors induced this falling-out.

During the lifetime of Reb Aharon, it seems that the Volper remained part of the Karlin court. However, this changed following his passing and the consequent appointment of Reb Shlomo.

Karlin Chassidim tell the following story: Reb Shlomo did not immediately accept the nesius following Reb Aharon’s passing. So, came Mincha on that Shabbos, the amud stood empty since the custom was for the Rebbe to lead the tefillos. Eventually, the Volper ascended and began leading the tefillah. But, as he reached the possuk of וּֽמֵאֲרָצ֗וֹת קִ֫בְּצָ֥ם מִמִּזְרָ֥ח וּמִֽמַּעֲרָ֑ב מִצָּפ֥וֹן וּמִיָּֽם׃ and began to turn in all four directions- as was Reb Aharon’s custom- the Chassidim removed him from the amud. They placed Reb Shlomo in his place and he subsequently led the tefillah.

Following this episode, the Volper was rejected by Reb Shlomo and the Karlin Chassidim. He was subject to public criticism from Reb Shlomo and reportedly, was even physically abused by the Chassidim[8].

Trip to Vilna

It was presumably following these events in 5532 that the Volper opened his own Beis Medrash independent of the existing Karlin institutions. This Beis Medrash would operate for a long time after his passing and only ceased operations shortly before the Second World War. Throughout its history, there was always conflict and tension between it and the Karlin community[9].

Reb Simcha of Pinsk, a noted baal-moifes and a boki in the Arizal’s Kabbalah, his student Reb Uziel, Rav Yitzchak Yechiel Halevi Davidowitz (grandfather of Reb Moshe Feinstein) are amongst those who learned in the “Volper’s Beis Medrash”. The former two were actually excluded from and banned from participating in the court of Stolin, Lechitchov and Slonim because of their association with the Volper[10].

At some point after his separation from the Karlinim, the Volper traveled to Vilna to meet with the Vilna Gaon. Regarding this meeting, we have two fascinating sources which shed light on the events:

Handwritten responses of the Alter Rebbe. Sidebar indicates the relevant passage.

While in prison, the Alter Rebbe hand-wrote his responses to the questions of the interrogators and they were subsequently translated. Apparently, the Alter Rebbe was questioned regarding the Volper Rav and he responded as follows. “Regarding that individual from the city of Wolpa, it is well known to all that he aspired to be a prestigious Rav, one to whom people would travel to hear his sermons and give him large amounts of money. He also claimed that he was a better speaker than his colleague from the same town, Shlomo [Karliner]. He would also roam amongst many places, deliver many sermons, and request large amounts of money.

Since they did not accept him as a Rav or provide him with the money he desired, his ‘heart turned to hate.’ He thereafter traveled to Vilna with insincerity and trickery in the hope that they would pay him there. But, there too they did not pay him as he desired and he departed in anguish. Significant time has passed since he departed [Vilna] and he did not return.”

The same events are recorded in a secular historical outline of the Chassidic movement, found in Russian archives. In 5558 as part of the investigation into the Alter Rebbe’s imprisonment, Yakov Ivanovitch Bulgakov, then the civil governor of Vilna and Horodona wrote this summary for the Russian Ober-Procurator. This record also contains details regarding the Volper.

He writes, “Of those who flocked to Reb Ber of Mezritch, two were from Lithuania- [Reb] Aharon and [Reb] Shlomo from Karlin, and the Rav [Chaim] from Amdor and the Tes-Rav [the designation for a Dayan] from Wolpa. Amongst these Reb Aharon, Shlomo and the Tes-Rav of Wolpa together established the Beis Medrash in Karlin. The population of this movement is large and they are called “Karlinim” after their city. The [Chassidim] are split into many varying sects, each group is in line with the outlook and directives of their leader.

The polemics and disagreements [between the groups] eventually disturbed the order [i.e. caused internal chaos] and this was revealed later in Vilna when the Tes-Rav of Wolpa (who was steeped in exceeding jealousy after his conflicts with the Jews- [Reb] Aharon and [Reb] Shlomo who had embarrassed him publicly, denigrating his honor and distinction) came to [Reb] Elisha in Vilna. There, he [the Volper] informed him about the sect that was established in Karlin by his opponents, [Reb] Aharon and Shlomo, which was opposed to his [the Gra’s] way of thinking. At that time it appeared as though the beliefs of the Tes-Rav of Wolpa were aligned with those of [Reb] Elisha. This episode strengthened the public’s love for [Reb] Elisha more than [it impacted public opinion regarding] the inadequate informant from that sect…..”

Yaakov Bulgakov

Many of this trip’s details have been hotly debated. Questions such as when it happened, what was the nature of the complaints, and what were the consequences have never been conclusively decided. Though on all accounts, the Volper’s trip was a betrayal of the Karlinim and an attempt to castigate them and advance his agenda. But, as retold by both reports, his trip was not successful and he did not gain the support of the Gaon, nor the people of Vilna.


The author of Beis Rebi describes how the Volper eventually experienced a tremendous downfall and became a wandering drunk. Many stories are told of Chassidim encountering him in various inns and hearing him share the Chassidus he heard from the Maggid.

However, others put forth that such an extreme downfall never occurred and this version of events is possibly an exaggeration of sorts by the author of the Beis Rebi. While the reliability of Beis Rebi is a topic in itself, it is worthwhile to point out the Rebbe’s comment that “Regarding the Baal Shem Tov and his talmidim others have done a better job, but regarding the Alter Rebbe his history is superior.”

They point towards numerous factors that seemingly indicate that Reb Chaim did not simply become a degenerative wandering drunkard. Firstly, Reb Chaim is mentioned in multiple Rabbinic sources following his passing[11], and this narrative appears nowhere before Beis Rebi.  Even the letter of the Tzemach Tzedek that shares the Alter Rebbe’s negative judgment, refers to him as “The holy Rav of Volpe.”

In the sefer of Reb Aryeh Leib of Wolpa[12], the Volper’s son-in-law, there is a section of the Volper’s Torahs. As an introduction, Reb Aryeh Leib wrote about his father-in-law and extolled his virtues at length. His extraordinary praises and descriptions make for a fascinating read, though, it seems significant that he doesn’t mention the Maggid and ignores the latter parts of the Volper’s life. A later descendant wrote on the Shaar Blat of his sefer (see below), “Descendant of the Tzadik and Mekubal Hoeloiki.”

Now, multiple Chassidim did encounter him wandering from city to city- interestingly, a behavior the Volper is noted to have engaged in by the Alter Rebbe and his son-in-law. However, only the story of his meeting with Reb Yehuda Leipli makes mention of any drinking. Additionally, the source of this story is the Beis Rebi who originated this description of his ending.

The story relates that the Volper, drunk in an inn, lay on the oven and began to mutter deeply esoteric teachings of the Maggid. Hearing these “awesome words,” Reb Yehuda Lipeli, a prominent student of the Vilna Gaon demanded he reveal the source of these Torahs. The Volper directed him to Liozna as the Maggid had already been nistalek and he ultimately became a Chossid of the Alter Rebbe.  Some have suggested that this story served as the basis for the Beis Rebbi’s conjecture that Reb Chaim became a wandering alcoholic[13].

Reb Chaim passed away sometime around the year 5560. Reb Shlomo of Karlin is said to have declared that he died having done Teshuvah[14].

[1]סה”ש תורת שלום’ עמ’ 82

[2] הנ”ל

[3] ספר מגדל עז (לר”י מונדשיין) ע’ קנז

[4] סה”ש תורת שלום’ עמ’ 82. ראה גם, אברהם חן, למנחמי, תל אביב תרצ”א, עמ’ 21.

[5] כתבי ר’ יאשע שו”ב א’ עמ’ רצב

[6] קובץ בית אהרן וישראל קלז עמ’ קס

[7] ‘קארלין בתקופת גלות,’  ר’ אברהם אביש שור, עמ’ 91

[8] .274 עמי ב, ו. אך לציין כי ייתכן שהכוונה היא לזמן מאוחר יותר

[9] קובץ בית אהרן וישראל קלז עמ’ קס

[10] כתבי ר״י שו״ב  חלק שני (כת״י).

[11] ראה לדוגמא


[13] קובץ הערות וביאורים ש”פ אמור תש”פ ע’ 135

[14]כתבי ר״י שו״ב  חלק שני (כת״י).

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