Yud-Tes (19th) Kislev: the Rosh HaShanah for Chassidic Teachings

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi

Anniversary of the Liberation of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the “Alter Rebbe,” Founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidic Movement 5505-5573 (1745-1812 C.E.)

A brief account of the Alter Rebbe’s arrest in Czarist Russia after slanderous charges, and his miraculous redemption, which marked a great increase in the spreading out of the wellsprings of his Chassidic teachings. Excerpted from the November 22, 2013 (19 Kislev 5774), edition of lchaimweekly.com.

This year, Yud-Tes Kislev starts at sundown on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 20’17.

As the Chasidic Movement grew in popularity and expanded, opposition to its teachings and practices increased. Particularly in the scholarly circles of Lithuania, opposition became fierce and eventually involved the secular authorities. Some of the leaders of Chasidism even left for the Holy Land. Rabbi Shneur Zalman prepared to do likewise, but instead returned to Lithuania to spread the Baal Shem Tov’s doctrines there.

The battle continued over the next twenty years. After the passing of the saintly Gaon of Vilna, the strongest oppositional figure, strife erupted again more fiercely than ever. 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 52 days. 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 12 forms of the letters of the Ineffable Name (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.”

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. He 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.

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 – 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. 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 1798, Rabbi Shneur Zalman was vindicated, declared innocent of all charges and released from prison.