The Alter Rebbe was both a leader and an organizer. In all of his holy endeavors - both as rabbi and as a public official - everything he undertook emerged from his hands in perfect order. Each detail was in its proper place, with the necessary explanations to satisfy all of our Jewish brethren, and all factions to whom Torah and mitzvos were dear. The party to which one belonged made no difference, so long as its aim was the strengthening of the Jewish religion and dissemination of the Torah.
The holy Nesi'im of Chabad had their own special system for public service. This system originated with our first forefather, the Alter Rebbe, and it was based on a marvelous method. These are his holy words:
"Israel is the one nation on earth." This means that the Jewish nation - even within the physical world - is bound up with the One G-d. He makes physical matter out of spiritual substance, and the Jewish nation makes spiritual matter out of physical substance. For this reason, the economic status of the Jewish people goes hand-in-hand with their spiritual status.
The holy Alter Rebbe was a product of the rural countryside. While still a young lad, he conceived the idea of Jews working the land. This apparently stemmed from his father's warm friendship with the refugees from Bohemia,
who settled on his estates surrounding Liozna in White Russia. The Alter Rebbe encouraged them to support themselves through manual labor in field and garden, and he appealed to his father Reb Baruch to help them.
When the Alter Rebbe reached marriageable age, he agreed to marry the daughter of the wealthy Reb Yehudah Leib Segel of Vitebsk. The only stipulation was that the sum of five thousand gold florins - which had been promised as a dowry - should be transferred to the Alter Rebbe's possession, to use as he saw fit, with no interference by Reb Y.L. Segel. During the first year of their marriage - with the permission of his wife, Rebbetzin Sterna - he gave this entire fortune of five thousand gold florins to a group of families who wished to engage in agricultural pursuits. With this money, they were able to purchase tracts of land, livestock, and farm tools, and to construct a flour mill, factories for weaving wool, and barns for housing livestock.
Large colonies settled on the outskirts of the city of Vitebsk along the banks of the River Dvina, supported by the money provided by the Alter Rebbe. From time to time, he would deliver a public sermon, urging the people to abandon their occupations which depended on earning a profit in the streets and marketplaces, and to begin working the land instead. He would visit the colonists, and encourage them to set aside fixed times for Torah study - Chumash, Midrash, and Aggadah, for the benefit of the simple folk who were unable to understand Mishnah and Gemara.
At that time, King Poniatowski issued an edict to all the government officials that any Jew who signed a contract promising to begin working the land, would be exempted from paying the head tax. This made a great impression on all the Jewish communities, and many people who had previously had no stable source of income began to engage in agricultural pursuits.
In those days, public service was for the most part a local affair, on the county or provincial level. Only the most important matters, affecting the entire Jewish people (such as laws for organization of the Jewish congregations, taxes, leases, etc.), were conducted at the national level. Most matters, however, involved commerce and business. These were strictly regional affairs to be conducted with the local government officials, and sometimes with the estate of the local nobility. In fact, most villages were the private property of the local squires.
During the years that the Alter Rebbe resided in Vitebsk, he waged an intensive campaign among the Jews to take up agricultural work. In the year 5524 , Empress Catherine II granted official permission for Jews to live in Riga; in the year 5529, this permission was extended to the surrounding villages. After this, the Alter Rebbe waged an even wider campaign to urge Jews to form colonies in these villages, and in inns at the crossroads. Following his advice, many went into the lumber business, tying the lumber into rafts which they floated down the River Dvina. For many years, this river had already been a major trade route between Russia and Germany.
When the Alter Rebbe was in Mezritch for the first time, he learned of the Baal Shem Tov's opinion that Jews should make their living by farming and other country industries, such as gardening, raising fowl and cattle, fishing, and spinning wool. On his way home from Mezritch to Vitebsk, he stopped off all along the way to promote his campaign for Jews to settle in rural areas and engage in agriculture. In each settlement that he visited, he inquired about their material and spiritual status, and the education of the children. In some places, he also urged the local Torah scholars to look after the needs of the simple folk.
There were various settlements where the Torah scholars were disciples of the misnagdim. Here, they would put the simple Jews to shame, calling them names such as "ignoramus" and "boor." The Alter Rebbe would engage such scholars in debate, but he rarely succeeded in convincing them to change their attitude toward the simple folk.
The Alter Rebbe also encouraged the simple folk themselves, instilling new life into them and lifting their spirits (which were depressed because of the Torah scholars' attitude toward them). He also persuaded Torah scholars - from the ranks of the chassidim, of course - to settle among them. Such scholars would take an interest in the simple folk, and maintain friendly relations with them. Within a few years, this bore good fruit; many of the previously simple people became Torah scholars themselves, able to study a page of Gemara-Rashi-Tosafos on their own.
In those days, Russia guarded its border with Poland [and controlled its custom regulations] with special care. In fact, only recently - in 5488  - had the Russian border been opened to merchants from Poland and Germany at all. These merchants were now permitted to bring their merchandise, but only at specified times - during the official fairs - at which they could barter their wares for Russian goods. Those who wished only to sell their wares [for cash] were not permitted to take gold or silver coins out of the country. [They could take paper money only, and] the bank notes were worth only a third of the value of the corresponding silver coins: a silver ruble was worth three paper rubles!
Beginning in 5502 , the Russian government set the time for the fairs twice a year - two months during the winter, and two months during the summer. After these seasons expired, the border was securely closed again.
The Russian counts and dukes were totally ignorant of any scholarly or scientific knowledge. Some of them could not even read or write, and would sign contracts and deeds with an "X." Nonetheless, they were benevolent and good-spirited people. They knew nothing of the relations between their officials and the peasants who worked for them, for the noblemen lived in the large cities, where they spent all their time in the pursuit of pleasure. On the rare occasions that they did visit their estates , they came for a short time only, and spent all their time hunting - one of their favorite pastimes.
In general, the noblemen didn't bother to pay attention to the manner in which their officials managed their business. But, when they did learn of the wicked ways in which their officials treated the serfs and the peasants, they would punish the officials severely, or else dismiss them from their positions.
The noblemen would patronize the fairs, usually buying only the most expensive items - jewels and other precious stones, utensils made of gold, silver, or crystal, finely-woven cloth, and embroidery. Most of these items they purchased from Jews, for they were the most gifted craftsmen. The noblemen even proposed to the dealers and craftsmen (silversmiths, goldsmiths, sculptors of wood or stone, weavers, embroiderers of silk and of silver or gold thread, and refiners of gold and silver) that they reside permanently in that country. They paid them handsomely for their trade, and so many tens of Jewish families settled in Russia each year, mostly in the large cities. Thus, little by little, this cooled off their feelings toward Torah study and pious conduct.
As we have mentioned, the Russian border was heavily guarded. Nevertheless, Jewish families were able to cross the border - with permission of the officers of the border patrol - upon payment of a small bribe (occasionally, even for free). The Russians had kindly dispositions, and dealt mercifully with the poor and the wretched. Thus, numerous families could migrate from cities in Poland to those in Russia, in the counties of Smolensk, Arial, and Sulla. Most of these Jews were craftsmen - cobblers, tailors, tinsmiths, etc. Within a short time, they managed to set themselves up comfortably, as far as their economic standing went. Their spiritual status, however, progressively deteriorated.
At home in Poland, these simple Jews had belonged to various societies and organizations, such as the Chevra Poalei Tzedek, Chevra Mashkimei Kum, Chevra Tehillim, and the like. In the large cities, each society had its own shul, with such names as the Zivchei Tzedek [the Slaughterers'] Shul, the Tailors' Shul, the Bakers' Shul, the Cobblers' Shul. Each person was a member of one of these societies, and he would come three times a day for the public prayer service, and to attend the Aggadah lectures between Minchah and Maariv. On Shabbos, he would attend lectures on the parshah of the week, and Midrash. Thus, though their Torah knowledge was only of the most simple sort, they were very G-d-fearing, and observant of the mitzvos.
After they moved to the Russian cities, their societies were dissolved. In many places, there were no more than a few Jewish families, living among hundreds - or thousands - of gentile citizens. Therefore, their moral fiber wore away, little by little. They began to be lax in observing mitzvos, following the local customs of that country. Their Russian-born children began to assimilate among the gentiles, for they had no one to teach them or guide them. The large cities still possessed shuls, rabbonim, and melamdim. But in the small towns there was only a shochet - who also served as chazan, baal korei, and melamed. And in the villages, they didn't even have a shochet. Thus, the children grew up without any Torah learning. Often, bar mitzvah boys had to recite the blessings over the tefillin and over the Torah reading by heart, for they were unable to read from the Siddur.
The first person to take an interest in the moral stature of the Jews in the Russian interior was the Alter Rebbe. He sent special emissaries to visit the Russian Jews and to arrange regular public Torah study sessions for the adults, in Mishnah, Gemara, Midrash, and Aggadah. For the children, they established chadorim.
The Russian-Polish border ran by the village of Liliakovna, about fifteen miles from the village of Rudnia. If one draws a straight line between this village and the town of Smolensk, Russia, then everything west of this line was in Poland, and everything east of this line was in Russia. In those days, most Jews dwelt in Poland, with only a small minority living in Lita. But in the Russian interior - Smolensk County - there were only a few scattered Jewish families. Most of them were ignorant of Torah, living in the country and engaged in agricultural pursuits. Even those who lived in the cities, lived a rural lifestyle in that country in those days.
One of the Alter Rebbe's chassidim, Reb Yochanan Zev of Horodok, was a man of stature and an outstanding Torah scholar. He knew several volumes of the Talmud thoroughly by heart, with the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafos. He also possessed broad knowledge of Chassidus. But most significantly, he was a master of avodah, and possessed the finest character traits. He made a good living selling perfumes in the villages, and to the courts of the nobility who owned the local estates. He donated considerable sums to charity.
Once, the Alter Rebbe requested that - in the course of his business travels - he should make his way through the Russian side of the border near Smolensk County. Now all the Jews of Poland knew that Russia was an uncouth country in general, and especially Smolensk County, where the majority were gentiles. Only a few Jews lived there, and they were so materially-oriented that they were unrecognizable. Their manner of dress and way of life could not be distinguished from the other residents of that country.
The chassid Reb Yochanan Zev followed the Alter Rebbe's orders, but this journey saddened him greatly. He had been accustomed to traveling through the villages around Vitebsk and Horodok, where he found many Jews living in the rural areas and at the inns by the crossroads. He would lodge in their homes, and study Torah with them. Sometimes; he would even meet Torah scholars, and fellow chassidim. He usually returned home for Shabbos, but sometimes he would spend Shabbos with chassidim.
His present journey lasted about five months, and he spent the festival of Shavuos in Smolensk, in the company of ignorant and boorish folk. When he visited the Alter Rebbe during the month of Elul, he brought with him a large sum of money for charity, that he had set aside from the profits of his present travels. But he complained bitterly about his situation, and wept profusely about his recent sojourn among the boors and ignoramuses. He begged - from the depths of his soul - to be relieved of his assignment, and to be permitted to resume his former business affairs, in the Jewish provinces.
The Alter Rebbe replied harshly: "It is written, 'Man's footsteps are ordained by G-d, and he desires this path.' G-d (blessed be He) ordains where a person's footsteps will take him, for He desires that His path - the path of G-d - be fulfilled. Who is man, to say, 'This, I desire, and this, I do not desire.'"
After Sukkos, Reb Yochanan Zev again made his way across the border, as before. Because of the heavy snows and the intense cold, he was forced to spend two weeks and more in some places. The Jews among whom he stayed had no work to do at the time, and so he made it his business to engage them and their families in conversation. He taught them the laws of the Torah, and inspired them to adopt good character traits. G-d sent him success, and during that winter he cultivated several baalei teshuvah.
Now, when he visited the Alter Rebbe at the beginning of Nissan, he was in cheerful spirits because of his good works, in which he had succeeded. The Alter Rebbe took the portion of his earnings that he had brought for charity, and used it to pay the expenses of melamdim whom he sent to those places.
After Pesach, the Alter Rebbe summoned several people by name, and sent them to the towns and villages of Smolensk County, where they were to follow the instructions of Reb Yochanan Zev. Before three years had passed, whole communities were organized there, complete with rabbonim, shochtim, melamdim, shuls, mikvos, and charitable institutions.
In this manner, twenty years passed. In 5554  Poland was partitioned, and the territories of Polish Lithuania [White Russia], Vohlynia, and Podolia were annexed to Russia. Russia then officially opened the interior of the country to travelers, and hundreds of families (including some great Torah scholars) moved to the cities of Russia proper. They were amazed at the high moral stature of the local Jewish communities. Though their populations were small, they possessed shuls, rabbonim who were outstanding Torah scholars, and expert melamdim.
Most of the Torah scholars who moved to Russia had been residents of Lithuania. They had sons and sons-in-law who were wealthy merchants, and they foresaw a glorious business future in their new country. In their letters to their parents who had remained in Lita and continued studying Torah full-time, they highly praised and extolled the moral stature and the status of Torah study of the Russian communities.
Everyone was aware that [the high level of Torah study in Russia] was due solely to the Alter Rebbe's efforts during the twenty-year period 5523-5543 [1763-1783], through his special emissaries and agents. Furthermore, during the most recent decade - 5543-5553 - many chassidic families had moved to Russia proper. Because of them, the society of the Alter Rebbe's activists had expanded, and their activities included disseminating Torah and establishing schools for children and adolescents.
Many of the Lithuanian expatriates had come from Vilna, and had once been members of the inner circle of the leaders of the misnagdim. They were well aware of the persecutions that the chassidim and their leaders had suffered at the hands of the misnagdim (especially the charomim published in 5542).
They now wrote to their relatives and friends, praising the chassidim and their leader, the Alter Rebbe. They described their productive labors in disseminating Torah and G-d-fearing behavior among the working class. This proved that they were truly pious people and perfectly innocent [of the misdeeds they had been accused of]. It therefore appeared that the Gaon Rav Eliyahu, the Chief Rabbi, and the whole assembly of great Torah scholars had judged the chassidim wrongly, without hearing proper testimony. The charomim had been invoked without following the Torah's requirement to investigate the facts. They wrote:
According to our observations of the conduct of the people called "chassidim" - the disciples of their master and Rebbe, the gaon and Maggid of Liozna - they are G-d-fearing, and they treat all poor and disheartened people with great love. Moreover, they do this with enthusiasm and devotion, for this is the command of their master and Rebbe, transmitted in his letters and through his special emissaries, whom he sends to them at frequent intervals.
One of these [Lithuanian] expatriates was named Reb Zundel Volf. Though his knowledge of the Torah was no more than average, he had been a firm follower of the great Torah scholars who were the Gaon Rav Eliyahu's disciples. He had been especially devoted to carrying out everything that concerned persecution of the chassidim. He fulfilled this mission zealously, and on occasion he would even put his life in danger to fulfill this mission. He was one of the men who traveled about to publicize the cheirem of the year 5536 , and he was also a member of the band of "fanatics" (more correctly - "murderers") who went to Szventzian to carry out the notorious sentence of 5541 .
Among the hierarchy of the misnagdim, he was treated with great favor because of his constant labors in persecuting the chassidim.
However, after this Reb Zundel Volf had lived among the chassidim in the village of Yelnia (Smolensk County) for about two years, he observed their G-d-fearing conduct and their fine traits of ahavas Yisrael and love of the Torah. His conscience pained him deeply for having persecuted the chassidim over a period of many years.
The scene of the murders in Szventzian remained constantly before Reb Zundel Volf's eyes. He himself had been among those who took part in the vengeful acts against the four chassidim. But now, he wrote to the Gaon Rav Eliyahu describing to him the chassidim's conduct. He requested that he assign him a program of penance whereby he might atone for having persecuted chassidim in general, and specifically for having taken part in the murder of four chassidim from Szventzian. He concluded his letter by stating that no one knows when his last day on earth will come. And when they stood before the Heavenly Court to be judged, the blame for spilling the innocent blood of four tzaddikim (who were dedicated to doing mitzvos) would fall upon the Council of Vilna and its rabbinical court.
The letters written by these misnagdim - especially Reb Zundel Volf's letter - made a great impression among the Vilna misnagdim. The chassidim published hundreds of copies of these letters throughout all of Lita. All this aroused the anger of the misnagdim in Vilna, Brysk, and Slutzk.
[End of excerpt from the Previous Rebbe's diary]
By that time - 5555  - Chassidus had already spread through all the Polish territories (both "Great" Poland and "Little" Poland), and large portions of Zamut, Vohlynia-Podolia, and Galicia. Chabad Chassidus had spread throughout the counties of Vitebsk, Mohilev, Vilna and the surrounding districts, large portions of the counties of Kovna, Chernigov, Poltava, Yekaterinoslav, and Cherson, and much of the territory of Bessarabia. The misnagdim were aware that a large segment of the Jewish people had joined the chassidic faction. Their anger, however, was aimed primarily at the accomplishments of the leader of Chabad - the Alter Rebbe - and his rulings concerning sharpening the knives for shechitah and heating the water in the mikvos, his Shulchan Aruch, and his Siddur.
Reb Y.L. Segel, the Alter Rebbe's father-in-law, was an eighth-generation descendant of Moreinu Reb Yehudah Leib Segel (who had been a business partner of Reb Tevel the Philanthropist, founder of the Congregation of Vitebsk. He had held the monopoly for distilling spirits under the Polish government, and had bequeathed this enterprise to his descendants afterwards, up to the generation of the last Reb Y.L. Segel). His business affairs brought him into close contact and acquaintance with government circles in the capital city, as well as the governor and his ministers, and many Polish noblemen who owned the local estates.
When Reb Y.L. Segel contracted the match with Reb Baruch, taking Reb Baruch's son - the young genius from Liozna - as a husband for his daughter, the Alter Rebbe's fame spread rapidly. It became widely known that he was a gaon in both the revealed and the mystic aspects of the Torah. Beyond this, he was a great philosopher, and possessed broad knowledge of the sciences and mathematics. His musical compositions (niggunim) also captured the heart.
About two months after his marriage, two events took place that caused the Alter Rebbe's name to become well known among the foremost scientists. This proved to be of great help to the Alter Rebbe in organizing his program of public service.
In those days, institutions of higher learning - universities - did not yet exist in Poland. Instead, there were private academic institutions, supported by the nobility at their own expense. These were known as "academies."
In the Lithuanian district there were three such academies: i) near Vilna, on the estate of Count Radziwil; ii) near Vitebsk, on the estate of Count Tekczynski; iii) on the banks of the Dnieper River, between Dubravna and Liadi, on the estate of Count Czekraty. In those days, the status of learning in the Polish Empire was at a very low level. The Polish people were more interested in the shape of their moustaches, and were not given to academic pursuits. Thus, the professors in the academies were all French.
On the estate of the Governor of Vitebsk stood a palace, and in the courtyard of this palace stood a sundial. For the past two years, however, this sundial had failed to show the correct time between two and five in the afternoon. The governor had consulted various experts, and professors from the academies. But none of them could solve the puzzle. When the governor heard the praises being heaped upon Reb Y.L. Segel's son-in-law, he sent his assistant to Reb Y.L., requesting him to come with his son-in-law to the estate and inspect the sundial. Perhaps he would succeed in solving the riddle of why the sundial didn't work between two and five o'clock.
The Alter Rebbe declined to come, quoting the advice of the Sages: "Do not seek intimacy with the ruling power." Today, they were asking this question - and tomorrow, they would pose some other question. This would take time away from his Torah study. However, after much pleading, and assurances that they would not bother him or interrupt his studies again, he consented.
The Alter Rebbe understood the local language, and could speak it fluently. Nevertheless, when he arrived at the governor's estate with his father-in-law, he refused to speak Polish, insisting instead on speaking Yiddish only. His father-in-law therefore served as interpreter. The Alter Rebbe inspected the sundial three or four times, during the hours when it was working, and also when it was not working. After completing his investigation, he said:
"The Talmud states that at midday the sun is directly overhead; thus, nothing except the clouds can obscure it. But in the afternoon, when the sun begins to move westward, it is possible for certain objects to block the sun's rays."
He estimated that there had to be a tall hill about twelve to fifteen miles to the south, with tall trees growing on the hilltop. During the three hours from two to five in the afternoon, the trees were blocking the sun's rays from reaching the sundial. Later, as the sun's angle changed, its rays could reach the sundial once more.
The governor was highly impressed, and ordered a special agent to be sent to inspect all areas between twelve and fifteen miles south of his estate, to see whether there was indeed a tall hill with trees at its top.
However, Professor Marseille - Dean of Count Tekczynski's academy, and a renowned physicist - scoffed at the Alter Rebbe's theory, and dismissed it. He said: "The Jewish people are an amazing nation. They seem to know everything from the Talmud. Zelig the physician learned his medicine from the Talmud. Baruch the gardener learned how to improve the soil from the Talmud. And now, this young prodigy has discovered in the Talmud how the sun's rays reach the sundial!"
To this, the Alter Rebbe patiently replied, "Actual demonstrations serve as an axe to cut down those who are haughty with their knowledge of science."
"Does this saying also appear in your Talmud?" asked the professor.
"No," replied the Alter Rebbe. "This saying comes from the Greek sage Galen, who applied it to the arrogant folk whose knowledge of science did not reach an elevated level."
Reb Y.L. Segel took the professor's venomous remarks to heart, and when he returned home he related the whole incident to several of his non-Jewish acquaintances. When he asked them for suggestions, they replied that they themselves would go to inspect those locations. They discovered that it was indeed so - at the distance specified by the Alter Rebbe, they found a tall hill with very tall trees growing at its top. They decided that -without telling Reb Y.L. Segel about it - they would hire some men to cut down the tall trees growing on the hilltop.
A few days later, the manager of the estate informed his employer the governor that the sundial had suddenly begun to work correctly again, even between two and five o'clock. The governor was amazed by this, and he told his officers about it. Thus, the story spread that the sundial in the courtyard of the palace had begun to work properly again.
Eventually, Reb Y.L. Segel's acquaintances - who had cut down the trees from the hilltop - heard the story. They then summoned the residents of the village near that hill, to testify before the governor that they were the ones who had ordered them to cut down the tall trees on that hilltop. They themselves brought a deposition - bearing a recent date, and the official seal of that village's town hall - certifying that on such-and-such date, the peasants had cut down so-and-so many trees from that hill. After that, the Alter Rebbe's name became well known among the great scientists.
Professor Marseille's ridicule of the Talmud penetrated deeply into the Alter Rebbe's heart. He therefore began to devise strategies to head off the evil that was to come because of these French professors. They held great influence over the government officials, the noblemen, and the estate owners, and were inciting them to hatred of the Jews and their Torah. He concluded that if the Jews were to abandon commercial trade and brokerage, and engage in agricultural work instead, their economic situation would be more stable.
Professor De Lange, Dean of the Faculty at the Academy of Count Czekraty, heard rumor of the Alter Rebbe's great knowledge of physics and mathematics. His own specialty was the field of botany. However, many years earlier - when he was a student at the Sorbonne University - he had heard a mathematical puzzle from a professor of physics and mathematics. Since then, whenever he met a mathematician, he would show him the puzzle as he had written it down at the time. Unfortunately, he could find no one to solve it. Now, hearing that the son-in-law of the wealthy Reb Y.L. Segel of Vitebsk was an outstanding mathematician and physicist, he made a trip to Vitebsk.
The arrival of the veteran botanist - Professor De Lange - caused a stir among the faculty of Count Tekczynski's academy. They all came to greet him at the home of the mayor, where he was lodging. Professor Marseille learned that the purpose of Professor De Lange's trip was to see Reb Y.L. Segel's son-in-law and request that he solve the mathematical puzzle. Hearing this, he admonished him for slighting the dignity of scientists by coming to receive instruction from a Jewish Talmudist, who derived all his knowledge from the Talmud. Several years earlier, De Lange had asked Marseille himself, and he had been unable to solve the puzzle. Knowing Marseille to be an anti-Semite, De Lange made no reply to him.
The mayor of the city sent one of his officials to the wealthy Reb Y.L. Segel, to inform him that the elderly Professor De Lange had come especially to meet his son-in-law, the outstanding mathematician. When he requested an appointment to come and see his son-in-law, the Alter Rebbe replied that he did not desire to trouble the professor. Instead, he would go to see him.
The professor presented the problem in the Polish language. However, the papers in which the actual numbers were written down were in French. The Alter Rebbe studied the problem deeply. On the third day, the professor went to visit the Alter Rebbe at his father-in-law's home. The Alter Rebbe gave the solution to the puzzle, and Reb Moshe Mendel "the Frenchman," who was the accountant of Reb Y.L. Segel's business enterprises, copied the Alter Rebbe's notes from Hebrew to French.
The professor was highly impressed by the solution to the mathematical puzzle, for several of the best mathematicians had worked on it and had been unable to solve it. He praised the Alter Rebbe to all his acquaintances, and this proved very useful to the Rebbe's campaign for Jews to engage in agricultural work for their living.
Yes, the Alter Rebbe was outstanding both as a leader and as an organizer. Every word he spoke and every decision he made, was the result of careful consideration and planning. The breadth of his understanding, the force of his determination, and his sheer strength of will were truly amazing. From his early youth to his old age, he never once retreated from anything he had decided upon or agreed to - neither in spiritual matters, nor in worldly matters - regarding his public service.
A cardinal rule of the Alter Rebbe's public service was that anything he made up his holy mind to do, was to be done with the utmost secrecy and discretion. Only those who truly needed to know were informed of it. And even they were instructed by the Alter Rebbe that everything was to be done discreetly and in secret.
When Empress Catherine II conquered White Russia - in the year 5532  - she granted civil rights to the Jews in the cities of the annexed territories. The Alter Rebbe then worked to move several Jewish families to these territories. Some of them were engaged in various commercial enterprises, some were craftsmen, and some were estate managers whose employers relied on their honesty and their competence.
The Alter Rebbe chose twelve people from the chassidic community; most of them were astute and energetic young scholars. He settled them and their families, and supported them while they found their livelihoods. Their special mission was this: in the course of their business affairs, they were to become acquainted with the counts, princes and dukes, and the heads of the government ministries. This would form the cornerstone of his program of public affairs.
The Alter Rebbe arranged a program of operations for his twelve emissaries in the capital city. One of them, Reb Avraham Yaakov "the Smith," was chosen as the group leader. For many years, they labored for the benefit of the Jews, using their acquaintance with the nobility and the officials of the government ministries. When the chassid Reb Avraham Yaakov passed away, the Alter Rebbe chose his son, Reb Shmuel Moshe, as his father's successor. This Reb Shmuel Moshe was very wise, strong-minded, and highly energetic.
In the year 5554 , about a year after Poland was conquered, many complaints arose against the Jews in the cities of Lithuania, Little Poland, and Ukraine. The complaints, which involved Jewish business and commercial affairs, were the result of the evil influence of the French professors. They taught the children of the nobility and the estate owners to hate the Jews and to spread false accusations against them.
The secret Public Affairs Committee of the chassidim learned of the complaints against the Jews. Reb Shmuel Moshe - the group leader - then arranged with each member of the group to approach the duke or count with whom he had influence, and speak well of the Jews. He should also hold talks with the officials of the local office of the Ministry of the Interior, to suppress the letters that were arriving from the officials of the provincial governments, containing complaints against the Jews - and to delay the transmission of these letters to the Interior Minister.
Reb Shmuel Moshe was well acquainted with Count Lubamirski, who wielded great influence at the court of Empress Catherine II. He spoke with this count at great length, but unfortunately, he perceived that his efforts were of no avail. Another member of the committee, the chassid Reb Zundel Yitzchak of Shklov, knew Lord Potimkin, who held great influence over the empress. Reb Zundel Moshe managed to persuade this official to intercede for the Jews.
Lord Potimkin succeeded in persuading the empress to send agents to investigate personally the complaints against the Jews. She commanded the Minister of the Interior to send someone who was both reliable and astute, and upon whom the Jews could exert no influence. This agent was to travel to the regions of Lithuania, Little Poland, and Ukraine, to examine, investigate, and study the commercial affairs and the lifestyles of the Jews, and their relations with the non-Jewish citizens among whom they lived. Wherever he went, he was to consult with the government officials, the nobility, and the estate owners. Everything was to be written down in a notebook. The entire trip was to be completed in no longer than two years' time.
The Minister of the Interior referred the empress' command to his assistant, Niksin, to see to it that it was executed without delay. This Niksin was widely known as an evil person with degenerate habits. In particular, he was known to be an anti-Semite. Niksin chose the Russian author Derzhavin for the job. This Derzhavin was unique among Russian writers, and was famous for his mastery of literature. He harbored an intense hatred against the Jews, and held an important position in the empress' court.
In his youth, Derzhavin had been an apprentice to an estate owner near Disna. At the time, Reb Dov Moshe had lived on that estate, and the young Derzhavin would visit him at his home. Occasionally, Reb Dov Moshe would praise Derzhavin's youthful achievements to the estate owner. Many years later - after Reb Dov Moshe had moved to Petersburg, and after Derzhavin had become famous as an important literary figure - the two happened to meet, and recognized each other. Derzhavin was reminded of his youth, and asked to visit Reb Dov Moshe at his home.
Reb Dov Moshe spoke to Derzhavin several times about his attitude toward the Jews, and admonished him for being an anti-Semite. He offered many proofs of the virtues of the Jewish people, but the only reply he received was, "If all your fellow Jews were like you, I would love them; at least, I would not hate them so much."
It became known that the author Derzhavin had been chosen by the Interior Minister, and appointed to undertake the investigation of the Jews' commercial affairs and their way of life. Reb Dov Moshe then went to visit Derzhavin, urging him to conduct this investigation fairly, as might be expected from such a scholarly writer.
Reb Dov Moshe found Derzhavin in very cheerful spirits (usually, he had an angry expression on his face). But Reb Dov Moshe was stunned when he heard that on the previous day the Minister of the Interior had granted Derzhavin an audience with the Empress, as the agent chosen to fulfill her majesty's command. He was to investigate the Jewish communities in Lithuania, Little Poland, and Ukraine, and study their business dealings and their way of life.
The empress had expressed satisfaction with this choice. She had also expressed confidence that the mission was entrusted to someone who would not betray his homeland to a people who despised the religion of the country and its inhabitants. In his report, he was to make recommendations for restricting the business and commercial dealings of those people, thus putting them in their proper place.
"I will fulfill this mission with a joyful heart," said Derzhavin. "And as for you, my longtime friend, and your fellow Jews - prepare yourselves to go into exile. In two years' time, when I return from my journey, my first recommendation will be to expel the Jews from the capital city."
Reb Dov Moshe emerged from his visit with Derzhavin broken and dejected. He reported their conversation to the members of the committee. They were in deep anguish, and wept along with him. Reb Shmuel Moshe was the only member who remained unaffected by Derzhavin's words. The council members decided that:
- No one must discover what had taken place at the empress' court, nor learn of the visit to Derzhavin. And if the royal decree did happen to become public knowledge, they should try to dismiss the story, and appear to be unconcerned by it.
- They should send a special emissary to the Alter Rebbe, to inform him of the situation in detail. Since Reb Dov Moshe knew Derzhavin well, and had personally heard from him all that he planned to do, they decided to send Reb Dov Moshe of Disna as the emissary to the Alter Rebbe.
The Alter Rebbe's instructions to the public service council in Petersburg were:
- To send to him a special agent, with the details of Derzhavin's planned itinerary.
- To inform him when the journey was to take place.
- The council members should continue their work, doing whatever they could through their acquaintances.
The Alter Rebbe reassured the council members, telling them not to worry about Derzhavin's threat to recommend the expulsion of the Jews from Petersburg upon his return. In his handwritten reply, he quoted the verses, "Let not the [warrior] who girds on [his sword before battle] boast like one who removes it [from his belt after victory in battle],"
and "Deliverance is the L-rd's."
He concluded with a blessing.
When Reb Dov Moshe returned to Petersburg, he managed - in various ways - to obtain a copy of Derzhavin's planned itinerary. He also obtained a list of names of the people whom he would visit in each place, and an estimate of the time Derzhavin would spend traveling. All this was sent to the Alter Rebbe by special messenger.
The Alter Rebbe chose two business men, and instructed them to arrange their business travels so that they would follow Derzhavin's itinerary. One of them was the chassid Reb Shmaryahu Zalman of Polotzk, a dealer in silk and velvet cloth, and an expert tailor of women's clothing. The second was the chassid Reb Nasan of Shklov, a dealer in jewels and precious stones.
Wherever they went, they were to try to gain admittance - [ostensibly,] in pursuit of their business - to the homes of the officials and the estate owners whom Derzhavin planned to visit. Whenever the opportunity presented itself to obtain a copy of his notes, they should spare no expense in doing so. And if they learned anything about any bribery taking place, they should try to get all the facts, and record everything in a notebook.
These chassidim - Reb Shmaryahu Zalman and Reb Nasan - fulfilled their mission with genuine mesirus nefesh. Through cunning and skill, they managed to obtain copies of some of Derzhavin's notes, and a list of all cases of bribery that they had uncovered. They recorded the name of the person taking the bribe, and the date when the bribe was offered, all in proper detail.
When Empress Catherine died, her son Paul inherited the throne. He was an honorable and peace-loving person, and he surrounded himself with advisors who were honest, and who loved justice. His chief advisors were Counts Dalgarukov and Lubamirski. Empress Catherine had spurned them and others like them, choosing instead wicked men of depraved character.
Czar Paul also replaced the government ministers with finer people, striving to improve the conditions of the citizenry - including the Jews. When he ascended the throne, he granted the rights of citizenship to the Jews of Courland. His good friends - Counts Lubamirski and Dalgarukov - were benevolent toward the Jews (as mentioned), and they had great influence over him. Thus, a new spirit entered the lives of the Jewish people.
The members of the Public Service Committee now recalled the Alter Rebbe's holy words, quoting the verses, "Let not the one who girds on [his sword] boast like one who removes it," and "Deliverance is the L-rd's." It was clear to them that the Alter Rebbe's prediction was now being fulfilled through the more congenial atmosphere that prevailed in government circles.
The Alter Rebbe summoned the chassidim Reb Moshe Vilenker and Reb Moshe Meisels, and he turned over to them the material brought by Reb Shmaryahu Zalman and Reb Nasan. He instructed them to arrange the material in proper order, and then take it to Petersburg. There, they were to meet with the committee and determine the best use to make of the collected material. They should then present it to the counts and noblemen who were in a position to exert their influence in favor of the Jewish people.
The chassidim Reb Moshe Meisels and Reb Moshe Vilenker executed all these instructions. When they arrived in Petersburg, they found that the writer Derzhavin was already there. Through his acquaintances, Reb Dov Moshe of Disna learned that Derzhavin was in the process of submitting the report based on his research.
The wicked Derzhavin took no notice of the new mood that prevailed at the Imperial Court. He submitted the report based on his investigations in the cities where the Jews lived, severely maligning the Jews. In a personal letter to Czar Paul, he stated that he had accomplished his mission honestly, as assigned to him by the empress. He included a quote of her words to him prior to his journey.
During the three months of Shvat, Adar I, and Adar II, the chassidim Reb Moshe Meisels and Reb Moshe Vilenker succeeded in their mission - with the help of Counts Lubamirski and Dalgarukov. The Czar castigated the author Derzhavin, heaping insults on him. He then ordered all of the reports to be thrown into the fire. After this, the fears of the Jews throughout the country were allayed.
The chassid Reb Moshe Meisels possessed an all-encompassing mind and heart, and by nature he was very strong-willed. Even in his early youth he had been renowned for his quick grasp and wondrous memory. He studied constantly and with great diligence, and as time went on, he steadily rose to ever higher levels of knowledge. He was about thirty years old when the geonim Reb Yissachar (brother of the Gaon Rav Eliyahu) and Reb Avraham sent him and a few of his outstanding fellow students to Berlin.
In Berlin, Reb Moshe Meisels had studied German, French, and Italian, and spent all day and all night reading various books. Most of them were philosophical works that he had never seen before. Reb Moshe always made a good impression with his pleasing appearance, his wise sayings, and his joyful nature. He found favor with several wealthy residents of Berlin who owned libraries, and they would lend him all sorts of books, for as long as he needed them. He would return them by mail, whereupon they sent him others in their place. This was a regular practice with him.
About two years after his return from Berlin, he was appointed secretary and trustee of the congregation. Due to his lofty abilities and his sharp mind, he breathed new life into the congregation. The Gaon Rav Eliyahu said of him that since the day the congregation was first established, there had been no person like him.
Reb Moshe was highly impressed by his stay in Petersburg in connection with the Derzhavin affair. He loved intellectual pursuits, understood several languages, and was an avid reader. Most of Petersburg nobility possessed libraries where he would spend most of his time, and this added to his wisdom.
Reb Moshe returned home in exceedingly good spirits. He was about fifty years old - at the prime of his life, and in solid condition both materially and spiritually. He possessed an expansive personality, and was strong willed by nature. And so, he described to everyone the full details of the political maneuvers he and his assistant - the chassid Reb Moshe Vilenker - had just achieved. Of course, he also mentioned the participation of the Public Service Committee of the Petersburg chassidim, headed by Reb Shmuel Moshe, following the Alter Rebbe's orders.
The members of the Vilna chassidic congregation recommended that a communal feast of celebration be held, complete with the recitation of Hallel and prayers of thanksgiving, and with Tachanun omitted. Furthermore, a description of the entire event - in all its details, and including the names of the participants - should be written down in the official archives of the congregation, to be remembered forever. A feast should be held in honor of the mitzvah.
However, the party of the misnagdim opposed this idea. The chassidim were aware that the leaders of the misnagdim were plotting against them. Even the more reasonable members of the misnagdim judged that such an undertaking might cause the evil plans to be put into action, and so they sided with the rest of their fellow misnagdim.
However, the Chabad chassidic faction set a date for feasting and rejoicing, completely disregarding the fact that it was already several days into the month of Nissan. Only a few days remained before Pesach, and most of them were busy with preparations for the festival. They sent notices to all chassidim of the district, and a few young chassidic volunteers set out to inform the districts of Minsk and Polotzk.
At the designated time, many chassidim - from all cities and towns - arrived in Vilna. The celebration took place at the home of the President of the congregation, Reb Meir Raphael's. In his courtyard there was a large building, built especially for chassidic gatherings.
During the feast, Reb Moshe stood up and related the whole story. Each detail was in its proper place, and he gave due emphasis to the contributions of the Public Service Committee that had operated under the Alter Rebbe's instructions. He recited the tale word by word, as if he were reading from the Megillah. He audience paid close attention to the recital. Afterwards, they passed a unanimous resolution that the story of the evil decree - and G-d's salvation through the Alter Rebbe and his Public Service Committee - should be written in a scroll, and sent to all chassidic communities, wherever they were.
Reb Moshe was an expert scribe, and possessed great literary talent. He wrote a straightforward account of the decree and of G-d's rescue through the Alter Rebbe and his public servants, the Chabad Chassidim of Petersburg. The text was written according to the Alter Rebbe's instructions, sent by a special messenger from the chassidic community of Vilna.
Hundreds of copies of this epistle were made, and they were sent everywhere that chassidim lived - even as far away as Romania and Galicia. In all Jewish communities where the story was heard, there was happiness and rejoicing among the Jews. The chassidim publicized the letters, blessing and extolling the Alter Rebbe. Thus, hundreds and thousands of people joined the Chassidic Movement, and the chassidic communities grew ever larger.
News of the feasting and rejoicing reached the leaders of the misnagdim who waged war against the Chabad Chassidim and their leader, the Alter Rebbe. They learned that the chassidim in Vilna had even invited their colleagues from far-away places, and that they had greatly publicized the event, sending pamphlets to all the communities. This aroused the anger of the misnagdim, and they held a meeting to discuss ways of salvaging their honor and thwarting the spread of the Chassidic Movement. They decided the following:
- To enlist the wealthy contractor Nota Haimovitch, who held the title of Counselor to the Czar. They would try to persuade him to write a pamphlet to be sent to all the Jews, extolling Czar Paul for acting kindly toward the Jews. He would emphasize that it was through his own (Haimovitch's) efforts, and those of Count Lubamirski, that the Czar had rejected Derzhavin's recommendations to pass laws against Russian Jewry, and instead had actually strengthened the civil rights of the Jews.
- To urge the Gaon Rav Eliyahu to issue a cheirem against the chassidim, and their leader, the Maggid of Liozna.
The committee sent an impressive group of people to visit the wealthy Reb Nota. To their disappointment, he was not at home - he had gone away to Paris with one of the noblemen. Thus, the committee members returned home, and composed a public letter - dated 24 Iyar 5556 [June 1, 1796]. In it, they described G-d's mighty rescue of the Jews of Russia from the wicked Derzhavin's scheme. They emphasized that this had come about through the efforts of the magnificently wealthy Counselor to the Czar, the famous contractor, the praiseworthy Nota Haimovitch, together with the benevolent Count Lubamirski.
However, the above-mentioned letter [of the chassidim] had already been publicized at the end of Adar II. Thus, even among the councils of the misnagdim, no attention was paid to the letter of this committee. Moreover, the committee of [the misnagdim of] Slutzk - in a letter dated 2 Sivan [June 8] - reprimanded the Vilna committee for publishing such a pamphlet, because:
- The members of the "cult" had already published the whole story in all its details two months earlier; and
- The wealthy contractor Reb Nota Haimovitch had already left town during the previous month of MarCheshvan, while the writer Derzhavin had not returned from his travels until the month of Teves, as described in the cult's pamphlet published on Erev Rosh Chodesh of the present month, thus contradicting the committee's letter of 24 Iyar.
For about a year, even the more reasonable leaders of the misnagdim had harbored resentment of the chassidim in their hearts. They resented all chassidim in general, and particularly the members of the Committee of the congregation, and their trustee, Reb Moshe Meisels. The reason for this was the following.
The gaon and chassid Reb Pinchas - also known as "Reb Pinchas Reizes" - was the son of the gaon Reb Henoch Schick, the Chief Rabbi of Shklov. The father resented the fact that his son had become a chassid. Nevertheless, he held him in high esteem, and loved to exchange novel Torah insights with him.
Reb Pinchas had been a long-time disciple of the mighty gaon Reb Yosef Kalbo, whose Torah study strictly followed the rules of logic. From that time on, he had joined the chassidic congregation. While living in Liozna - in his early years [as a chassid] - he had studied with the geonim Reb Mordechai and Reb Moshe, the Alter Rebbe's brothers. They too studied with strict logic. This reinforced the logical nature of Reb Pinchas' Torah study to such an extent, that his father Reb Henoch Schick was amazed.
Once, Reb Pinchas was deeply engrossed in a handwritten notebook. When Reb Henoch saw his son studying the manuscript so intently, he assumed that it must be a collection of Reb Pinchas' novel insights, and he asked to see them. He expressed satisfaction that his son was finally committing his novel insights to writing.
A few days later, Reb Henoch returned the notebook, saying that the book ought to be printed and published - though it was small in size, it was of great quality. As for what he had written in his Kuntres Acharon, the brilliance was extraordinary.
Reb Pinchas replied that he was willing to publish it, with the stipulation that the preface would not mention the author's identity. He would also print it at his own expense. The elderly gaon Reb Henoch agreed to this. He wrote an introduction to the sefer, approving its publication, but not mentioning the author's name, and Reb Pinchas printed it at his own expense.
The sefer immediately became well known to the public. In less than four months, the entire first edition - consisting of four thousand copies - was sold out.
When the sefer arrived in Vilna, the Gaon Rav Eliyahu heard its praises. After studying it, he too praised it, saying that the contents were arranged in logical order. He added that it would be a mitzvah if this sefer were to be found in every corner of the Jewish world. The rumor persisted that the author was one of the geonim of Shklov, who insisted on anonymity because of his great humility and saintliness. During that same year, the congregations of Vilna and Shklov contributed to the cost of two additional printings.
After more than a year passed, it became known that the author of the Hilchos Talmud Torah was none other than the Alter Rebbe himself. Thus, the sefer was held even more precious by the chassidim. Though they all possessed copies, they now reprinted it a fourth time, producing a large number of copies, which they distributed in all districts of Russia. It was also distributed in neighboring countries, in the Holy Land, and in countries between Russia and the Holy Land.
The fact that the sefer had been published anonymously aroused the anger of the misnagdim. They claimed that this was just another plot by the chassidim to bring the residents of all nearby countries under the influence of their leader, the Alter Rebbe. Even the great Torah scholars among the misnagdim, who were usually more reasonable, harbored resentment in their hearts over this.
By that time, several short treatises on various Halachos in the four sections of Shulchan Aruch had been distributed in handwritten form among the chassidim. A few excerpts of Likkutei Amarim were now available, arranged into chapters by the Alter Rebbe. The Alter Rebbe's new text of the Siddur was also well publicized, as were his Halachic innovations concerning the method of sharpening the knives for shechitah and heating the water in the mikvos.
All this, in addition to their publicizing of the rescue from the evil decree, kindled the anger of the council of the misnagdim who were battling the Chabad Chassidim and their leader. Therefore, they requested that the Gaon Rav Eliyahu issue an additional cheirem against the chassidim in general, and against the Chabad Chassidim and their leader in particular. Otherwise, it would not be long before they took over the entire territory of Lita.
The Gaon Rav Eliyahu declined to issue the cheirem against the chassidim. It was only with difficulty that the wealthy Yosef Peseles persuaded him to publish an open letter stating his opinion of the chassidic "cult." The Gaon Rav Eliyahu published his open letter on 9 Sivan. Among other things, he wrote, "It is incumbent upon everyone who calls himself a Jew, or who has fear of G-d in his heart, to oppress them, to harass them with all sorts of persecution, and to suppress them wherever Jews wield any influence."
But when the geonim - the Gaon Rav Eliyahu's associates and disciples - saw how little effect his letter had, they rebuked the council members for having pursued their resolution to persuade the Gaon Rav Eliyahu to issue the letter.
Members of the chassidic community in Vilna were in good spirits at that time. For one thing, the letter of Iyar had only brought shame upon its writers, while the letter of Sivan had been without any effect at all. Besides this, the chassidim had succeeded in appointing two officers of the community, in addition to the four who were already in office. Thus, the twelve community officers included six who were members of the chassidic congregation. Moreover, it was just then that the Alter Rebbe's sefer was finally printed (previously, it had been available only in handwritten copies).
So great was the desire of the chassidim to obtain this sefer, that they contracted with the publishers - the chassid Reb Shalom Shachna (son-in-law of the Alter Rebbe, and father of the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek) and his partner Reb Mordechai. The contract stipulated that the printed volumes were to be sent to all localities where chassidim lived - each bundle of five copies to be sent by special messenger as soon as they came off the press. About four thousand copies were ordered for Vilna, and two thousand for the rest of that district. Many of the more reasonable misnagdim also studied these volumes in secret.
The mighty gaon Reb Chayim of Volozhin also eventually became convinced that the chassidim were following the proper path, and that everything that had been said about them during the previous decades had been nothing more than false accusations. From time to time, he too would peruse a copy of the Tanya. Inwardly, he became closer to the chassidim, and so he resigned from the council of the misnagdim. What distressed him most was that the Gaon Rav Eliyahu's honor was now being denigrated; the rumor was spreading that the Gaon Rav Eliyahu was ill, and that the members of the council - headed by Yosef Peseles - were speaking in his name without his consent.
- (Back to text) A continuation of the collection of notes from which the previous chapter was taken.
- (Back to text) [Paraphrased from II Shmuel 7:23; Siddur, p. 206.]
- (Back to text) [See HaYom Yom, entry for 27 Elul.]
- (Back to text) My saintly great-grandfather the Tzemach Tzedek told his son, my saintly grandfather the Rebbe Maharash, that the Alter Rebbe highly praised the Bohemian refugees who settled on his father's estates during his childhood years. They were both G-d-fearing and learned; among them there were even outstanding scholars. One of them, Reb Yaakov Tzvi of Königstein, besides being a gaon, was also an outstanding mathematician and scientist, and he possessed a wonderful ear for music.
When the Alter Rebbe was a young boy, this Reb Yaakov Tzvi taught him mathematics and science. And when the Alter Rebbe returned from his stay in Lubavitch, where he had been a pupil of Reb Yissachar Ber (he was about twelve years old at the time [see Appendix B in The Making of Chassidim, Sichos In English, Brooklyn, 1996]), he set aside time to study philosophy with Reb Yaakov Tzvi. At about that time, Reb Yaakov Tzvi's brother (his name was Reb Menachem Eliyahu, and he too was a refugee from Königstein in Bohemia) settled on an estate adjoining his father Reb Baruch's estate. His knowledge of Gemara-Rashi-Tosafos was no more than average, but he had a vast knowledge of Kabbalah. He possessed hand-written manuscripts of the AriZal's writings, which he studied with the Alter Rebbe for a full year's time.
My grandfather the Rebbe Maharash told my father the Rebbe [Rashab] that among the sacred written manuscripts that the Tzemach Tzedek received from his grandfather the Alter Rebbe, there was a fifteen-year calendar - for the years 5515-5530 [1755-1770] - including the exact times of the equinoxes, solstices, and lunar conjunctions, and the days of Shabbos, the festivals, and the days of Rosh Chodesh. For the first three or five years, the dates of the fairs in Liozna were also indicated. This calendar was drawn up in the Alter Rebbe's handwriting, and he had composed and arranged it when he was only ten years old. It contained about thirty pages of thick green paper (in the folio size well known to those who copy chassidic manuscripts), and it was bound in yellow leather. It perished in the fire that broke out on 5 Elul 5667 [August 13, 1907].
- (Back to text) [Also known as Stanislaw II, the last king of Poland. In 1764, At the beginning of his rule, the Polish Empire was very large, and included almost all of White Russia. Later, however, Poland was subjected to a series of partitions among the neighboring empires. By 1795 it had ceased to exist as an independent country.]
- (Back to text) [Lit., "Society of Doers of Righteousness," whose members devoted themselves to charitable works.]
- (Back to text) [Lit., "Society of Early Risers," whose members would arrive at the shul early, for study and prayer.]
- (Back to text) [The Tehillim Society," whose members met early each morning to recite Tehillim before Shacharis.]
- (Back to text) [Lit., "Sacrifices of Righteousness"].
- (Back to text) [Tehillim 37:23.]
- (Back to text) [See HaYom Yom, entry for 3 Elul.]
- (Back to text) By the year 5538  a group of chassidim already lived in the town of Szventzian. Several of them were very active in the chassidic campaigns - not only in the town itself, but also in the surrounding territory. The Szventzian district boasted many different estates, inns, mills, and small colonies. Thus, everyone earned an ample living, and the chassidim had members living in virtually every settlement and community. Within about two years' time, it became known in the capital city of the misnagdim that all the colonies in the Szventzian district had converted to Chassidus. Moreover, this campaign was being coordinated by the chassidic society in Szventzian.
The councils of the misnagdim in Vilna, Minsk, and Shklov then carried on a continuing consultation about the situation; this correspondence went on for about half a year. At that time - 5540-41  - there were already whole communities of Chabad Chassidim living in Minsk and Shklov, and the misnagdim of these cities had already become aware of their errors [concerning the chassidim]. The more tolerant individuals had even ceased their opposition and persecutions. Thus, when the proposals against the Chabad Chassidim enacted by the Council of Vilna reached them, they refused to approve them.
Unfortunately, the Councils of Brysk and Slutzk accepted the proposals of the Vilna Council. They even added their own demand, that a cheirem be issued against the chassidim and their leaders - especially the Chabad Chassidim in the provinces of Lithuania and Ukraine, and their leader, the Maggid of Liozna.
At a special session of the Vilna Council they appointed a rabbinical court to sit in judgement of the chassidim of Szventzian. They sentenced about fifteen people to be flogged, and presented this judgement to The Gaon Rav Eliyahu, who approved it.
As was customary on such occasions, public announcements were made at the Torah reading on three consecutive Shabbasos, and on Mondays and Thursdays. The proclamations stated that on a certain date, a cheirem would be issued against the chassidim and their leader. They also announced in the name of The Gaon Rav Eliyahu and the Chief Rabbi that all students in the senior yeshivos, intermediate Torah schools, and elementary chadorim must assemble at the designated place. Even those who never took part in any worldly affairs were ordered to put aside their Torah study to attend to this mitzvah, for it involved sanctifying G-d's Name, and the dignity of the Torah scholars, which were being profaned by the "cult."
The chassidim of Vilna already constituted a full congregation, with four shuls and a large yeshivah. There were also fifteen chadorim for children - from young children just learning to read, to older ones who were studying Gemara in depth. They were quite nonchalant when they heard of the proclamation, and paid little attention to it.
However, when the chassidim of Szventzian heard of the proclamation, they [became alarmed and] convened an assembly. They decided to send emissaries throughout the district, requesting that each colony send a representative to Vilna, where they would meet together on the day the cheirem was to be issued. They also informed everyone that the community of Szventzian would send about fifty men to Vilna on the designated date.
The Szventzian chassidim arranged a program for that day, including a joint council of the Vilna chassidim, the Szventzian chassidim, and the chassidim who came from other districts (they had sent emissaries to the chassidic centers of Polotzk, Minsk, and Shklov, requesting them to come on the designated date). Then, all of them together would march throughout the city in a grand parade, complete with musical instruments and dancing.
On the designated day about three hundred men arrived. When these were joined by the local Vilna chassidim, they comprised a large throng of several thousand. When the congregation [of misnagdim] assembled on the designated day to proclaim the cheirem, the crowd was estimated at more than ten thousand. Black candles were set up on the dais, and each member of the court put on his tallis and kittel. At the same time, the chassidim began their public procession - marching throng after throng, all dressed in their Shabbos clothes.
The geonim Reb Baruch Mordechai (son-in-law of the Chief Rabbi), Reb Moshe Meisels (a former disciple of The Gaon Rav Eliyahu and the executive secretary of the congregation), and other communal dignitaries led the procession. They carried musical instruments - tambourines, trumpets, and cymbals - and they sang joyful songs so that the earth shook with the sound of it. This caused great confusion among the crowd who had assembled to hear the cheirem proclaimed, and a very large number ran out to watch the parade. Thus, only a few people remained inside, and this had a powerful effect on the members of the court who were issuing the proclamation.
After that incident, the misnagdim waged open war against the chassidim. The feud thus grew stronger on both sides. When the misnagdim discovered that the idea of marching in a parade - which had diluted the effect of the cheirem - had come from the Szventzian chassidim, they sentenced four of the Szventzian chassidim to death. Reb Zundel Volf was one of the agents appointed to carry out this verdict.
- (Back to text) [I.e., the use of steel knives, polished to a keen edge. Most Jewish communities had been using iron knives, which were more difficult to sharpen. If they were highly polished, they would quickly become knicked, and thus unfit for use. The nuisance of constantly resharpening and repolishing them was not considered worthwhile. Moreover, the polished steel knives had been deemed a new innovation, which some authorities wished to avoid. The Alter Rebbe, however encouraged the use of the polished steel knives (see Alter Rebbe's Shulchan Aruch, Vol. 6, Responsum No. 7.]
- (Back to text) [Originally the mikvos contained cold water. This posed two problems: i) in cold climates such as Russia, there was great danger to health; ii) because of the cold, women might hurry the immersion and not do it properly. The Alter Rebbe approved a system for heating the mikvah which would not compromise the validity of the mikvah. There were other authorities who questioned this, but the Alter Rebbe's system is defended in the Tzemach Tzedek's Responsa, Yoreh De'ah 176:3:2 and 334.]
- (Back to text) [In his days, the kingdom of Poland ceased to exist, and monopolies granted by its government became worthless.]
- (Back to text) [I.e., avoid dealings with government officials; Avos 1:10; Siddur, p. 212.]
- (Back to text) We know the names of only nine of them: from Minsk, Reb Avraham Yaakov and Reb Gedaliah Zev; from Borisov, Reb Avraham Zev and Reb Baruch Yosef; from Shklov, Reb Zundel Kohen and Reb Chayim Moshe; Reb Dov Ber Moshe of Disna, Reb Eliyah Shmuel of Radczov, and Reb Mordechai of Vitebsk.
- (Back to text) [The Russian poet, Gavrila R. Derzhavin (1743-1816).]
- (Back to text) [Lit., "Prepare utensils of exile for yourselves"; Yechezkel 12:3.]
- (Back to text) [I Melachim 20:11.]
- (Back to text) [Tehillim 3:9.]
- (Back to text) The grandfather of the chassid Reb Shlomo Zalman of Yanovitch.
- (Back to text) The father of the chassid Reb Shlomo Monnessohn.
- (Back to text) [See Links in the Chassidic Legacy, Sichos In English, Brooklyn, 1997, p. 125ff.]
- (Back to text) [See Vol. 1 of this translation, Supplement E: "The Alter Rebbe's Later Years."]
- (Back to text) He was born in the year 5505 .
- (Back to text) [These scholars were sent to investigate Moses Mendelssohn and his translation of the Chumash, as described in the previous chapter.]
For the rest of his days, Reb Moshe would quote the blessing they had received from The Gaon Rav Eliyahu before departing for Berlin. He had said, "My sons, I am well aware that the road you are about to travel is a perilous one. It is forty years since I last traveled in Germany. In those days there were still great Torah scholars to be found there; even so, the atmosphere there favored the attractions of the pleasures of the material world. And this is especially true today! May G-d bless you and watch over you."
- (Back to text) He had a native talent for learning foreign languages.
- (Back to text) He used to say that while he lived in Berlin, the twenty-four hours of the day were not sufficient for him.
- (Back to text) He was referring to the time of Rav Yehudah the notary and magistrate, who would set the calendar for hearing lawsuits and other disputes.
- (Back to text) The Gaon Rav Eliyahu was unaware that Reb Moshe was already a Chabad Chassid. [He came to be one] when the famous gaon Reb Yosef Kalbo visited Vilna in 5531 . Reb Yosef was already a fervent chassid, and was one of those who urged The Gaon Rav Eliyahu to grant an audience to the holy Reb Menachem Mendel of Horodok and the Alter Rebbe. Several of the outstanding scholars, including Reb Moshe, were drawn to Reb Yosef. When the Alter Rebbe visited Vilna in 5532 (this was before the cheirem was proclaimed), Reb Moshe became his adherent, and began to study Chassidus diligently.
- (Back to text) To avoid the expense of sending a special messenger, they would hire a horse, and one of the younger chassidim would volunteer to ride it.
- (Back to text) The chassid Reb Pinchas was very much loved by the Alter Rebbe. Besides his genius in Chassidus and Kabbalah, he was also a great gaon in the revealed aspects of the Torah. His chief asset was that he was extremely orderly, and loved brevity. When the Alter Rebbe wrote his work Hilchos Talmud Torah [Lit., "Laws of Torah Study"; a subsection of the Alter Rebbe's Shulchan Aruch, including extensive annotation], he greatly desired to publish it anonymously. Therefore, he gave it to the chassid Reb Pinchas, instructing him to copy it in his own handwriting. He told him, "If you are worthy, you will be my agent in doing a very great mitzvah."
- (Back to text) [Lit., the "Final Appendix."]
- (Back to text) It was with great joy that he paid the cost of the printing. All revenues from the sale of the book were donated by him to the community treasury.
- (Back to text) Apparently, this was the edition printed in 5554 .
- (Back to text) About fifteen thousand.
- (Back to text) Booklets on Hilchos Tzitzis, Hilchos Birchos HaNehenin [blessings recited when partaking of various foods, and on certain other occasions], Hilchos Shechitah, Hilchos Treifos [defects that render an animal or fowl non-kosher], Hilchos Ta'aruvos [mixtures of kosher and non-kosher foods].... [The latter collection was never published and appears to have been lost to posterity.]
- (Back to text) While still in handwritten form, it was entitled simply Likkutei Amarim; when it was printed, the title Tanya was added.
- (Back to text) Changes that the Alter Rebbe had made to the standard text were written by hand into the margins of printed Siddurim.
- (Back to text) [I.e., the Tanya.]