Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi

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Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi

Founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidic Movement

5505-5573 (1745-1812 C.E.)

24th Tevet (17 January in 20’23) is the yahrzeit (anniversary of passing) of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman.

19th (Yud-Tes) Kislev (13 December in 20’22) is celebrated as the day of his miraculous redemption from arrest on slanderous charges in Czarist Russia in 17’99. He was the founder of the Chabad Chassidic movement. The 24th of Tevet, about one month later, is the anniversary of his passing.

Part 1: A brief biography

Excerpted from judaicaplus.com

Rabbi Shneur Zalman was a direct descendant of the MaHaRaL of Prague. R’ Shneur Zalman, who became one of the pillars of the chassidic movement, displayed early signs of genius; as a 15-year old youngster he had already gained fame as a Torah scholar of high caliber. At 30 years he became a disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch, the most prominent of the Baal Shem Tov’s disciples. In Mezritch he was initiated into the world of Chassidism and in particular the writings of the Ari. For the following 12 years he studied under the Maggid, becoming a member of his inner circle and one of his favorite disciples.

After the Maggid’s death, Rabbi Shneur became the leader of the chasidim in Lithuania, the center of the mitnagdim (opponents of Chasidism). Undaunted by their strident antagonism, he succeeded in creating a powerful network of chassidic centers. His attempts at creating a dialogue with his chief adversary, the Vilna Gaon, failed completely. In the wake of the resulting altercations he was twice incarcerated in Petersburg, the capital of Russia. After [that ordeal], he moved to Liadi where his movement grew immensely.

The rabbi of Pinsk formally accused R’ Shneur Zalman of personal acts of treason against the state; his sending of money to the Land of Israel was interpreted as “helping the Turkish sultan” (relations were strained between the two countries at that time). He was also accused of creating a new religious sect, which was an illegal act in Russia.

Turmoil in Russia under the Czar

In 1798, he was arrested and taken to Petersburg, where he was imprisoned to face trial for treason and subversive political activities. Tales of his sagacity, presence of mind and majestic poise attest to the impression he made on the Czarist commission selected to try his case. Czar Paul I incognito, and others of the highest social and military standing, visited him to test his sincerity and fathom his wisdom… on Yud-Tes (19th) Kislev, he was freed on the orders of the Czar. This date has since been a festival amongst Chabad-Lubavitch chassidim. [In 2023, it began on the evening of Dec. 1.]

Two years after later, the opposition again denounced him on false charges. Again he was brought to Petersburg and imprisoned, but as before, he was cleared of all guilt and released with the approval of Czar Alexander I, who shared the admiration of his predecessor for the venerable leader of the Lithuanian Chassidic movement.

During the war between France and Russia, he espoused the Russian cause. The cooperation of his followers proved of great service to the Russian High Command. Other Chassidic leaders, such as the famous Maggid of Koznitch, were loud in their acclaim of Napoleon, who promised freedom and equality to all the oppressed, including the Jews. But Rabbi Shneur Zalman realized that the spread of French influence might bring greater moral harm than all the hostility of the Czarist regime.

Accompanied by his family and a number of disciples, he took to the road, barely keeping ahead of the onrushing French armies. Though he escaped capture, Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s weakened body was not equal to the  strains of the flight. He became ill and died in Piena, a village near Kursk. He was laid to rest in the Jewish cemetery at Haditz, near Poltava.

Originator of Chabad Chassidic teachings

Rabbi Shneur Zalman is the originator of Chabad Chassidut, also known as Lubavitcher Chassidut. Chabad is an acronym formed of the initials of Chochmah, Binah, Daat – wisdom, understanding, knowledge. Its ideology seeks to create a synthesis between Chassidism and Torah scholarship, and to establish a fusion of the mystical and the revealed aspects of the Torah.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman formulates his thoughts in the book Likutei Amarim, better known as Tanya, which is its opening word. He expounds on such profound kabbalistic themes as the Oneness of G-d, tzimtzum, the sefirot, and many other mystical concepts. He also wrote Likutei Torah, reflections on the weekly Torah portions and the book Shir HaShirim. In the realm of Halachah he wrote the Shulchan Aruch HaRav, a comprehensive code of Jewish law. His works form the cornerstone of Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidut and had a major impact on the Torah world as a whole.

His ability to explain even the most complex issues of Torah made his writings popular with Torah scholars everywhere. Rabbi Shneur Zalman had a vast knowledge of mathematics and science as well. His son Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Schneerson, became the leader of the Chassidic movement after Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s death.

Part 2: His arrest and liberation

This account of his arrest on slanderous charges is excerpted from L’Chaim, issue 190, Nov. 22, ’91. For the complete history, see “The Arrest and Liberation of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi,” by Rabbi A. C. Glitzenstein (translated by Rabbi J. I. Schochet ), pub. Kehot.

This time the focus of opposition was Rabbi Shneur Zalman, due in part to the great strength the movement had gathered under his leadership. But perhaps the strongest reason for the violent feelings was the publication of his seminal work, the Tanya. A special committee was formed with the express purpose of destroying Chasidism.

It was decided to use the power of the central government in Petersburg to this end, and the Rebbe was accused of treason. Since the Rebbe had established a fund for aiding the indigent of the Holy Land, which was then under the sovereignty of Turkey and an enemy of Russia, the opponents accused him of disbursing funds to a foreign power. They also added the charge that in his teachings, he denigrated the importance of kingship.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman was arrested and driven in the dreaded “Black Mary,” a special vehicle reserved for the transport of the worst criminals, to the frightful Fortress of Petropavlovsk where he was detained for fifty-two days. [After the Rabbi requested for the carriage to stop on the way to wait out the Sabbath and the officers refused, wheels repeatedly fell off the carriage and were repaired, and eventually it became just impossible to move the carriage. With the Rabbi’s permission they then drove the carriage off the road and into a field before the Sabbath eve, and they did not continue on until the next evening.]

The Rebbe’s superior vision

[In Petersburg, he was taken to the prison.] He was endlessly interrogated regarding the charges and other matters of the Jewish faith in which the government interested itself.

The interrogators were greatly impressed by the strength of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, who preserved his composure in the most trying of circumstances, and answered their inquiries with extraordinary wisdom. Even in matters totally divorced from the trial proceedings, the gentile prison officials were able to see the great saintliness of their prisoner. Once, the Rebbe was interred in a room which was pitch back, as dark in the day as in the night. His only source of light was a small lamp.

One day, at about two o’clock in the afternoon, the Rebbe was told that the time was already past midnight and he should go to sleep. “Right now,” the Rebbe retorted, “the time is two hours and five minutes past noon.” The astonished jailers asked him how he could possibly know that, to which he replied: “Every day is illuminated by the twelve forms of the letters of the Ineffable Name [of G-d] (Tetragrammaton), while the night is illuminated by the twelve forms of the Name denoting G-d’s Lordship. By experiencing these various forms I know how to distinguish between the day and night, and between one hour and the other.”

The impression the Rebbe made on his captors

During the term of the Rebbe’s imprisonment, the Chief of Police had discussed the case with the Czar, telling him that he perceived the prisoner to be a saintly individual who was the victim of false charges stemming from jealousy and hatred. The Czar became curious to meet such an extraordinary person and decided to draw his own conclusions.

[The Czar] disguised himself as an ordinary clerk of the court and went to see the Rebbe for himself. But as soon as he entered the cell, the Rebbe rose and uttered the blessing which is recited before royalty. The disguised Czar asked him in surprise why he stood and appeared to accord him such great honor, as he was a mere clerk.

The Rebbe replied, “For you must be the Czar! Our Sages teach us that ‘sovereignty on earth is similar to the sovereignty of the Heavens.’ Just as the fear of G-d is great, so too, did I experience an unusual sense of awe when you entered, such as I have never felt before any other official. I therefore concluded that you must be the Czar.” The Czar left convinced of both his saintliness and innocence.

Miraculous intervention to do a mitzvah in a natural way

Throughout his terrible ordeal the Rebbe never doubted his salvation. When the time came for the Rebbe to be brought to court for an important interrogation, he was led from his underground cell out into the cold night air. He was seated on the deck of a ferry which was to bring him across the river to the Imperial Court.

The Rebbe suddenly saw emerging from behind a cloud the sliver of a new moon. He turned to the officer who was escorting him and requested that the boat be stopped so that he might utter a brief prayer – the Kiddush Levana – which is said when the new moon is sighted. The officer replied that it would be impossible, but the words had hardly left his lips when the boat stopped of its own accord. The Rebbe recited the Psalm which precedes the blessing, and the boat continued across the river.

A few seconds later the Rebbe repeated his request to halt the boat [since the Divine commandments need to be performed in a natural way, in order to elevate nature without breaking it]. The officer replied that he would heed the request, but wished that the saintly rabbi give him a blessing. This the Rebbe did, writing the blessing on a piece of paper, and the attendant stopped the boat while the Rebbe completed the blessing on the new moon. The court officer rose to a prominent position and kept the note inscribed with the blessing in an ornate golden frame which was passed as an inheritance to his descendants.

On the nineteenth of Kislev in the year 1799, Rabbi Shneur Zalman was vindicated, declared innocent of all charges and released from prison.

The events surrounding his untimely passing

Events surrounding Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s passing in 1812 revolved around political conflicts in Europe. The following is from the book “Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi” (pub. Kehot), and was presented in the “L’Chaim” weekly publication, issue 803, Jan. ’04.

In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia, and the route of the invasion led through White Russia. Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Chasidim and leader of the Chasidic movement in White Russia, […was] a loyal patriot. [Napoleon] was hailed in some religious Jewish quarters as the harbinger of a new era of political and economic freedom. [However,] the Rebbe saw in Napoleon a threat to religious principles and spiritual values.

The Rebbe had contempt for Napoleon, whose arrogance and lust for power [were] the antithesis of humility and holiness. The Rebbe urged his followers to help the Russian effort against the invaders in every way. With the aid of his followers behind enemy lines, some of whom were employed by the French Military Command, the Rebbe was able to render valuable intelligence service to the Russian generals…

When the French armies approached Liadi, Russian generals advised the Rebbe to flee. In August, he hastily left Liadi, leaving everything behind, and fled with his family towards Smolensk. For five months the Rebbe and his family suffered hardships and perils of the road and unusually inclement winter. [This lasted] until they reached a village in the district of Kursk. Here the Rebbe succumbed to a severe illness in the final stages of the harrowing journey, and passed on at the age of sixty-eight.

Traditions and records preserved in the family of the Rebbe provide interesting details in connection with the Rebbe’s last and fateful journey. From an account by Rabbi Nachum, grandson of the Rebbe, relating his personal experiences, we learn the following details.

The Rebbe’s fateful escape from Napoleon

On Friday, 29th of Menachem Av, the Rebbe fled Liadi on the advice of generals commanding the Russian armies in that area. Sixty wagons were put at his disposal, but they weren’t enough, and many had to walk. Armed troops were assigned to accompany and protect the caravan. In view of the rapid advance of the French army, the generals suggested that the best route for the Rebbe would be through the town of Bayev. But the Rebbe decided to head for Krasna, urging the caravan to make utmost haste, to cross the river Dnieper at the earliest possible time.

After a short distance, the Rebbe suddenly requested the troops to let him go back to Liozna. At his house, he ordered his men to search the house carefully to make sure that nothing had been overlooked. The only things found were a pair of worn-out slippers, a rolling pin and a sieve, which had been left in the attic. He ordered these to be taken along, and to set the house on fire before the enemy arrived, first removing the sacred Torah scrolls from the adjacent synagogue. Then he blessed those of the townspeople who remained, and speedily departed again.

No sooner had he left the town on the road to the Dnieper than the avant-coureur of Napoleon’s army reached the town from the opposite end. Presently, Napoleon himself with his entourage entered the town on their galloping steeds. Napoleon inquired after the house of the Rebbe, but when he reached it, he found it ablaze, burning beyond control. Napoleon wished to have something which belonged to the Rebbe and offered a rich reward to anyone who could bring him anything. But nothing was there. [Napoleon practiced some sort of sorcery for which such an object was required.]

The Alter Rebbe’s final days

During the long and arduous journey the Rebbe kept in touch with the situation of Russian Jewry caught in the gigantic Franco-Russian war. The retreating Russian armies, using the scorched earth policy in order to deprive the enemy of vitally needed supplies, exacted a tremendous sacrifice from its own people. At the same time the invading armies plundered everything. Starvation and ruination were the order of the day, and the Rebbe’s heart went out to his suffering brethren, who were the most hard-hit victims of the invasion.

The Rebbe had foreseen Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow as well as his defeat there. He also predicted that Napoleon’s final defeat would be at the hands of his own compatriots. At the same time he knew that the retreating French armies, starving and desperate, would plunder the Jewish communities which lay in their path. Arriving in Piena, the Rebbe embarked upon a relief campaign to aid the Jewish victims of the war, including resettlement plans, fund raising, and relief distribution.

For ten days after his arrival in Piena the Rebbe worked feverishly on his plans and projects to alleviate the plight of his brethren. Then, he fell ill, his condition worsening day to day. At the conclusion of Shabbat he composed a letter full of mystical allusions, and a few minutes later, on the 24th of the Hebrew month of Tevet, he returned his soul to his Maker.

For more information

AUDIO: Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s stand against Napoleon

For a synopsis of the Rebbes talk “Leadership Despite Opposition: Maimonides (Rambam) and Alter Rebbe” click here


Rabbi Shneur Zalman predicted (c. 1800) a future phenomenon of POLAR Warming – not Global Warming – in conjunction with the transition to the Messianic Era.
From “Exile to Redemption,” Vol. 2, as quoted by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe in “Sefer HaSichos 5703″ [1943], p. 6:

A certain illustrious scholar once visited the Alter Rebbe and asked that he turn him into a chassid. “That I cannot do,” replied the Alter Rebbe; “the frozen seas will be warmed up by Mashiach….”