Here's a great tip:
Enter your email address and we'll send you our weekly magazine by email with fresh, exciting and thoughtful content that will enrich your inbox and your life, week after week. And it's free.
Oh, and don't forget to like our facebook page too!
Contact Us

Purim in Petrograd, 1917

Purim in Petrograd, 1917

Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavitch and the Russian Revolution

 Email
The Russian Revolution began on International Women's Day, 1917, which serendipitously coincided with the festival of Purim. Tens of thousands of women joined striking workers to call for an end to Tsarist autocracy.
The Russian Revolution began on International Women's Day, 1917, which serendipitously coincided with the festival of Purim. Tens of thousands of women joined striking workers to call for an end to Tsarist autocracy.

Introduction: Resolution in a Time of Revolution

Over the course of eight months in 1917 Russia underwent rapid change, moving from a Tsarist autocracy to a republic ruled by a Provisional Government, then rushing headlong into full scale communist revolution and crippling civil war. For the Jewish population of Russia these upheavals were especially disruptive. At first it seemed that a new era ofUltimately, the revolution would drive Jewish religious life entirely underground civil and religious liberty might emerge. But ultimately the revolution would drive Jewish religious life and culture entirely underground. Throughout the revolutionary period, its leadup and its aftermath, Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn—known in Chabad as the Rebbe Rashab—worked tirelessly to mobilize the Jewish community, strengthen its infrastructure, and ensure that its most basic religious needs were provided for. A wealth of documentary evidence reveals his keen awareness of the significance of the unfolding events, and of the opportunities and pitfalls that the end of the autocracy might bring. The decisive days of February and October 1917 found him in Petrograd and Moscow respectively. Even as the revolution unfolded in the streets around him he remained undistracted and resolute, always asking himself: what can I do today for the perpetuation of Jewish life, learning and practice?

Back in 1910 the Rebbe Rashab had stood up to the Tsarist regime when they sought to secularize Jewish education. In a meeting with Pyotr Stolypin at the time, the soon to be assassinated Minister of the Interior dubbed the Rebbe “Schneersohn the revolutionary.”1 The communists, in contrast, would later brand all associated with the Schneersohn name (the “Schneersohnovschina”) as counter-revolutionaries.2 As we shall see, the Rebbe was constantly alive to the changing political conditions. But in the face of tyranny and upheaval alike, the future of Judaism always remained his foremost concern.

The Spirit of Revolution: World War One and the End of an Era

By the summer of 1914, political and social unrest had been brewing in the Russian Empire for decades. Now Europe, and indeed the entire world, was on the brink of war, and the situation seemed more unstable than ever. Austria-Hungary, backed by the assurance of German support, declared war on Serbia at the end of July. The Tsar responded by mobilizing the Russian army in defense of Serbia, and when the Tsar refused to stand down Germany declared war on Russia.

The Rebbe Rashab often traveled to Vienna, Berlin, Würzburg and Wiesbaden, and had formed a strong dislike for the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II. The Rebbe’s son, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak later recalled an occasion when they had gone to hear Wilhelm deliver a speech in Berlin. The Kaiser was a notorious anti-Semite and he apparently noticed the two Jews in the audience: “We saw from afar that the Kaiser was staring at us with a sharp look. He tilted his head to the crown prince beside him, whispered something in his ear, and the prince smirked slightly. A few moments later police detectives approached us and ordered us to leave. When World War One began my father said to me: ‘Do you remember when we were in Berlin and saw Wilhelm speak with a face as white as plaster? Already then all the plans of this war were arrayed in his mind and thoughts.’”3

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany with his son, Crown Prince Wilhelm (in busby) beside him, parading in Berlin, January 1st, 1900.
Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany with his son, Crown Prince Wilhelm (in busby) beside him, parading in Berlin, January 1st, 1900.

On August 3rd Germany invaded neutral Belgium, and the British government issued an ultimatum requiring Germany to withdraw or face the full might of Britain’s army and navy. The newspapers carrying reports of this ultimatum arrived a few days later, and were read before the Rebbe Rashab during the meal on the eve of Shabbat. In his diary Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak noted that his father was pleased by the British ultimatum to Germany, saying that this would weaken the Kaiser’s aloof egotism: “Though he is by nature not one to be intimidated, this may cause in him a small degree of diffidence. But, without doubt, he will not easily be detached from actions that he has planned in advance.”4 He also expressed wonder at the reckless presumption of a monarch who seemed to be deliberately waging war on all the great powers at once.5

On the following Tuesday, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak accompanied his father on one of their customary walks. By now all of Europe was at war, and the Rebbe Rashab mused on how the rapid pace of world events would touch the lives of so many individuals in ways both terrible and miraculous. He alsoAll of Europe was at war mused on the nature of the strong nationalist spirit that seemed to transcend the material resources or military capabilities of each nation, and which seemed to be most powerfully felt not by the populace, but by the leaders and monarchs.6 Above all he mused about the future, expressing a sense that Russia was facing an existential threat akin to the one faced just over a century before with Napoleon’s invasion of 1812.

In this context, the Rebbe Rashab recalled that at every moment the famed Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev anticipated the onset of the messianic age, the ultimate redemption that Jews have awaited for two thousand years. But at the time of Napoleon’s invasion, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, “knew with clarity that the time had not yet come,” and argued instead that Russia’s success would ensure the spiritual welfare of the Jewish people.

While the Rebbe Rashab’s comments—as recorded by his son—are rather cryptic, it seems that he hoped that this time the war would indeed anticipate a messianic upheaval, bringing spiritual and physical emancipation for the Jewish people and the entire world. Echoing the hopes of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak a century before, the Rebbe concluded: “Now is the general era of the footsteps of the Messiah. Therefore we must hope for light that is good, and that the forecasts transmitted to us by the prophets of G‑d will be fulfilled, that they shall not continue to make war, and that peace will be upon the nations for eternity.”7

Jewish soldiers of the Russian army. Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute, New York.
Jewish soldiers of the Russian army. Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute, New York.

Over the course of the next eighteen months it became clear that the war would neither end swiftly nor leave the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe untroubled. As the Germans advanced, hundreds of thousands of Jews were expelled from areas close to the front or fled voluntarily. Hundreds of thousands more would be drafted into military service before the war was over.8

Early in the winter of 1914 the Rebbe Rashab instituted a new practice. Each day he would pen a note of supplication (pidyan nefesh) and send it with ten yeshiva students to be read at the burial place of his father and grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash and the Tzemach Tzedek, in Lubavitch. Rephael Nachman Kahn was a student in the Tomchei Temimim yeshiva and on one occasion received permission to copy the note, later publishing the text in his memoirs. In part it reads: “It is several months now that war has broken out between our country [Russia], and Germany, Austria and Turkey, and the war is extremely heavy and mighty. Many of our Jewish brethren are at the front (including many heads of families) … may G‑d place it in the hearts of kings to make peace between themselves, and the land will become tranquil after the great and fearsome turmoil …”9

The Rebbe did not make do with prayers alone. It was during this period that his previous efforts to abolish the restriction of Jews to the Pale of Settlement finally met with success.10 He likewise partnered with other influential rabbis, lawyers (such as Oscar Gruzenberg, who had led the defence of Mendel Beilis in 1913) and lay leaders (chief among them Baron Alexander Günzburg), working to secure the exemption of the religious rabbinate, rather than only the state-appointed clergy, from military conscription. This was of fundamental importance; without competent leadership, the basic infrastructure of Jewish religious life would be in danger of unravelling completely.11 He also revived the campaign to send matzah to soldiers at the front, which he had pioneered during the Russo-Japanese war a decade before.12 Finally, he began sending emissaries (most notably Rabbi Yaakov Landau) to provide for the needs of Jewish refugees who often found themselves in places without synagogues, mikvaot, kosher meat or Jewish schools.13

During the summer of 1915 the Germans advanced eastward, taking all of Poland, large swathes of Lithuania, and part of Belarus. As the Russians retreated they often committed atrocities against the locals, and especially against the Jews, who in addition to being regular targets of casual violence were often perceived as pro-German. The supreme commander of the Russian army at the time was a first cousin of the Tsar, Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich, who shared the monarch’s anti-Semitic views. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, who as a young man invested in the logging trade, later recalled that he once had a personal business encounter with Nicholas Nikolaevich. The Grand Duke, he testified, “took pleasure in the spilling of Jewish blood.”14

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (right) speaking with his first cousin Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich, commander in chief of the Russian armies (left), in November 1914.
Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (right) speaking with his first cousin Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich, commander in chief of the Russian armies (left), in November 1914.

In the face of the double threat of the German advance and the Russian retreat, the Rebbe Rashab resolved to leave Lubavitch. His grandfather and great-grandfather had first settled in the town following the war of 1812, and for just over a century it had been the home of fourThe tumult of war and unrest was just the beginning successive Chabad rebbes. This was not just a physical home for the Rebbe, but a place steeped in the holy spirit of Chasidism. It was here that his ancestors were buried and it was here that he had built the great Tomchei Temimim Yeshivah. Initially it was hoped that the move from Lubavitch would only be a temporary one. But in truth the tumult of war and unrest was only just beginning, and the spirit of revolution was already in the air.

Yehudah Chitrik was a student in Lubavitch at the time. In his memoirs he recalls that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneersohn of Ekaterinoslav spent the Sukkot festival in Lubavitch together with the Rebbe Rashab in the fall of 1914 or 1915. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was one of the Rebbe’s foremost lieutenants in all manner of communal affairs, and was also renowned as a kabbalistic authority in his own right. At one of the festive meals in the Rebbe’s home, Chitrik writes, a discussion about the kabbalistic significance of revolution ensued. “They searched in Kabbalistic books to find a source for this, but I did not hear what resulted from that search.”15

A long diary entry by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak makes it very clear that no one took the Rebbe’s departure from Lubavitch lightly. Not his family, nor the Chassidim, nor even the local non-Jews. In the course of the deliberations the Rebbe spoke again of the national spirit vested in the person of the Tsar and his hope that the Tsar would somehow marshal that power to rally the army and the people and push the Germans back. “May G‑d help that in this town the Germans will never set foot, not even for a short while! … It is my hope that the hated [enemy] will not come here, and nor our marauding army.”16

The Rebbe Rashab was then in the midst of delivering the great series of discourses known as Hemshekh Besha’ah Shehekdimu 5672. He would continue working on the manuscript for the rest of his life, but now that he was leaving Lubavitch a significant portion would never be orally transmitted.17 From this point until the end of the Russian Civil War, the temporary center of Chabad-Lubavitch would be far to the south, in the Caucasian city of Rostov on the River Don, at the north-eastern tip of the Black Sea. Though the Rebbe would continue to deliver Chassidic discourses, and though the Yeshiva would be partly reestablished in Rostov, the golden era of “Lubavitch in Lubavitch” had come to an end.18

The city of Lubavitch, home to the Rebbes of Chabad from 1813 to 1915. The Rebbe’s courtyard is depicted on the left.
The city of Lubavitch, home to the Rebbes of Chabad from 1813 to 1915. The Rebbe’s courtyard is depicted on the left.

Purim in Petrograd: The February Revolution

The Rebbe continued with his efforts on behalf of Jewish soldiers and refugees from Rostov. During the winter and summer of 1916 he was particularly concerned with constructing new mikvaot in the towns and cities seeing great intakes of Jewish refugees, and also with securing the exemption of the religious rabbinate from military conscription. These efforts were hampered by the increasing incompetence and disorder of Russia’s central institutions.19 The people, the Duma and even the army were rapidly losing confidence in the Tsar, and as 1916 drew to a close the vast apparatus of the Russian state was bereft of effective leadership and authority.20

For several months the Rebbe had resisted the suggestion that he travel to Petrograd (the Russified name given to St. Petersburg during World War One) and intercede with the authorities in person. But that winter he wrote to Shmuel Michel Trainin—a wealthy Chassid and well-connected industrialist who had served as his main representative in the capital for decades. He expressed his frustration at the lack of news and progress, and concluded: “I’m thinking of traveling to Petrograd in another two weeks.”21

The documentary record on the Rebbe’s activities over the next two months is scant. No letters from this crucial period are extant. His internal passport, however, shows that he arrived in Petrograd on Tuesday, January 10th according to the old style calendar, corresponding to January 23rd, new style.22 He would remain there for seven full weeks before returning to Rostov. In the course of those seven weeks the Tsar’s government would disintegrate before his very eyes.23

A page from the Rebbe Rashab’s internal passport, as published in Me-beit Ha-genazim, 22.
A page from the Rebbe Rashab’s internal passport, as published in Me-beit Ha-genazim, 22.

Corresponding to the gap in extant correspondence is a gap in transcribed Chassidic discourses. The last discourse before he traveled to Petrograd was delivered on Shabbat Parshat Va’airah. These discourses, as a rule, do not explicitly address current affairs, restricting themselves to explaining kabbalistic concepts and their application in the service of G‑d. But in this case the allusions are hard to overlook. Commenting on the verse “See! I have made you a lord over Pharaoh,” he discussed the power given by G‑d to Moses to bring about Pharaoh’s downfall.

The souls of the righteous, he explained, are from the realm of tikkun (order and repair). The souls of the evil, on the other hand, are from the realm tohu (unchecked chaos), which resulted from the cosmic shattering of divine singularity. Paradoxically, tohu carries greater divine potency than tikkun, but without order and repair it is tragically perverted. It is generally theResentment against the Tsar was growing, but few imagined he would be forced to abdicate role of the righteous person to help the evil person through a process of repair, identifying their good points, or finding a way to extract some good results from their chaotic activity. Only once the good that tohu harbors has been extracted can the downfall of evil be brought about. Without this process of repair the evil person remains at the height of their unconstrained power, and the righteous cannot bring about their downfall. Pharaoh remained impervious to all attempts at repair, and so Moses was powerless against him. Only the transcendent power inherent in G‑d’s essential infinitude could bring about emancipation and exodus for the enslaved people of Israel.

“This is the meaning of ‘See! I have made you a lord over Pharaoh,’ … this is only in the power of the essence of the infinite, and G‑d gave this power to Moses, which is a wondrous thing…” The Rebbe Rashab further argues that this power is also given to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and others, “for righteous people of this station have the power to topple the wicked” even if they remain at the height of their powers and are impervious to any process of repair.24

While resentment against the Tsar was building few imagined that he would soon be forced to abdicate. The practical change that most envisaged was more along the lines of constitutional monarchy. Considering the events that would unfold over the next few weeks, this teaching on the downfall of a despotic monarch at the height of his powers seems presciently significant.

That year, International Women's Day serendipitously coincided with the festival of Purim, which marks the salvation of the Jewish people, in part through the audacious bravery of Queen Esther. Tens of thousands of men and women joined the workers of the Putilov factory who had already been striking for several days. Marching in the streets of Petrograd they demanded an end to the continuous food shortages, an end to the war, and an end to the Tsarist autocracy. Michoel Dworkin, a graduate of the Tomchei Temimim yeshiva, was in the city at the time and recalled that the Rebbe delivered a discourse marking the festival. It began with the passage from the megillah in which Haman, the arch-foe of the Jews is advised to “build a gallows fifty cubits high” (Esther, 5:14). Though originally intended for Mordechai, the righteous Jew, Haman himself was ultimately hung upon it instead. Unfortunately, no transcript of the discourse is extant.25

Revolutionaries take up arms against Tsarist police during the early days of the February Revolution in Petrograd.
Revolutionaries take up arms against Tsarist police during the early days of the February Revolution in Petrograd.

By the end of the week most of the armed forces in the city had mutinied and joined the revolution, the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies had been convened, and the Provisional Committee of the State Duma declared itself the governing body of Russia.26

Many years later Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak recalled that he too had been together with his father in Petrograd during the revolution, and that they traveled back to Rostov accompanied by Eliyahu Chaim Althaus. “At one of the stations Reb Eliyahu Chaim bought a newspaper with the latest reports. When my father read that the Tsar had been overthrown and that the country had become a free land he said, ‘now we must establish branches of the Tomchei Temimim yeshiva in all towns and villages. Now that secularism is spreading we must make many schools and yeshivot. In all times and in all matters victory is determined by the power of mesirut nefesh alone.’”27 Mesirut nefesh translates literally as “soul dedication” but signifies the willingness to offer your very life for the perpetuation of Judaism. This term is traditionally associated with oppression, anti-Semitism and martyrdom. But the Rebbe understood that the civil freedoms of a new secular state would pose just as great a challenge to the Torah way of life, which could only be overcome with even deeper levels of selflessness and commitment. Under such circumstances a rigorous foundation of Torah education would be the only guarantor of a Jewish future.

In several public letters issued in the next few months, the Rebbe Rashab rejoiced at “the event that has illuminated the entire earth” and at “the emancipation given to all the peoples of the land.” He even compared the end of the autocracy to the exodus from Egypt. He hoped that the ascendant forces of the liberal revolution sought to reshape Russia into a free nation, enlightened and democratic. In this spirit he called on the Jewish community to rally behind the new government, subscribing to the liberty loan program and supporting the new military effort to turn back the German army. “In one word, it is incumbent on us to dedicate our hearts and souls to the good of the land of our birth, and to save it from the mouths of the predatory lions. When all citizens of our land will together apply themselves to the one cause, G‑d will be at our aid … and eternal peace will reign in our land.”28

The Provisional Government of the Russian Republic, March 1917.
The Provisional Government of the Russian Republic, March 1917.

But the Rebbe was also very alive to the profound consequences of the liberal revolution for the place of the Jewish people within Russian society. Despite his enthusiasm for the newfound freedoms, the Rebbe also expressed deep concern that the spirit of emancipation would lead to a new degree of religious laxity and irreverence within the Jewish community. Rather than throw off the yoke of heaven, he argued, the Jews of Russia should exercise their civil rights to advance the cause of Torah. In a second public letter he called for individuals in each city and town to organize themselves on the local level, acting strategically to reinforce the fundamental institutions of Jewish life. “You, my brethren in each city and town who are in awe of G‑d and tremble at His word, if you stand from afar and do nothing, all of Judaism is in great danger. Our land, which till now was the nest of the Torah, made splendid by its scholars and writers, will in not much time be emptied of everything … Awaken yourselves, inspire yourselves … each man must strengthen his fellow. Each person most make his Judaism more visible than before, both in personal affairs and in public affairs.”29

Corresponding personally with leading rabbis across Russia, and especially with Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski of Vilna, the Rebbe Rashab began developing a vision for a united religious front that could gain a majority in the National Jewish Congress. The congress would be a democratically elected body, empowered by the new government of Russia with a degree of autonomy over Jewish affairs. The Rebbe understood that with religious freedom came the civic responsibility of political organization and engagement. To sit with arms folded would be to allow Zionists and Secularists to displace the traditional Torah way of life, learning and practice, and to reshape the Jewish community and its public institutions in their own image.

After much deliberation, a rabbinic conference was held in Moscow in the Summer of 1917, where many questions of public policy were discussed and a united religious front was established. In the end, however, all of these efforts would prove to be futile: Following the February Revolution the Provisional Government faced crisis after crisis. The fragile dream of a free Russia was slowly disintegrating, and would soon be entirely swept away. No democratic government would ever be elected, nor would the Jewish Congress ever convene.30

Shabbat in Moscow: The October Revolution

In the fall of 1917 the Rebbe Rashab received a series of letters and telegrams urging him to travel to Petrograd where the Ministry of Religion was convening a commission that would help shape some of the public policy issues surrounding the establishment of the Jewish Congress.31 By this time the Provisional Government’s continuous state of crisis was reaching new heights. The country was rapidly descending into anarchy and bankruptcy. Revolts by peasants and workers against land and factory ownersRevolts against land and factory owners were rife were rife, and large divisions of the army and navy had formed Soviets, declaring that they would no longer take orders from the government. Travel was becoming less reliable and more dangerous due to strikes and increasing lawlessness.32

The Bolshevik party had until now been one of the smallest of the revolutionary parties competing for power. But now their radical call for immediate peace, immediate land redistribution, and a complete restructuring of government - “all power to the Soviets” - was swiftly gaining support. On October 10th (old style) Lenin returned to Petrograd from Finland and the Central Committee of the parts passed a resolution declaring that recent developments place “armed uprising on the order of the day.” An armed revolution was now only a matter of time.33

Armed Red Guards on a truck in Petrograd, October 1917.
Armed Red Guards on a truck in Petrograd, October 1917.

Considering these circumstances the Rebbe was understandably reluctant to travel to the capital. On October 24th he wrote to one of his associates in the city: “Due to the tremendous gravity of being in Petrograd now, apart from the gravity of traveling, I nearly decided not to travel. But due to the importance of the matter, that there may be public policy questions… I found it to be an obligation that I must travel… salvation is in G‑d’s hand… we will travel tomorrow.”34

Soon after his return from Petrograd he wrote to Rabbi Shmarya Yehuda Leib Medalia—a senior member of the Russian rabbinate who would later be murdered by the NKVD—and recounted the details of his trip:

“The rumors about opposition to the Provisional Government inspired dread, and my household protested greatly against me traveling, and with great emotion. In my mind the thoughts were racing … In the end I decided to travel alone and achieved the consent of my family … When I was in Oryol I first received news via telegram of what was happening in Petrograd, and in Tula I got hold of a Petrograd newspaper with specific reports, and I saw that it was impossible to travel to Petrograd. Being that it was Thursday evening I decided to halt my journey in Moscow, spend Shabbat there, and return home on Sunday.”35

The Hotel National, where the Rebbe Rashab stayed during the October Revolution, as photographed in 1903.
The Hotel National, where the Rebbe Rashab stayed during the October Revolution, as photographed in 1903.

In the early hours of that morning, Thursday October 26th, revolutionary Red Guards had entered the Winter Palace, meeting little resistance. At about 2 am they found the ministers of the Provisional Government sitting around a table and placed them under arrest. At 5 am the Second Congress of Soviets, which was then in session, adopted a decree drafted by Lenin transferring power to the Soviet Government and giving all local power to the Soviets of Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies. The revolution in Petrograd had been achieved with minimum disturbance. In Moscow, however, the streets were about to turn into a battleground between pro-government forces and Red Guards, with upward of 10,000 armed men on each side.36

In his letter to Rabbi Medalia, the Rebbe reported:

“I arrived in Moscow about one or two hours after midnight, and between then and Shabbat morning the maelstrom in Moscow began. On Shabbat morning there was gunfire in the locality of my hotel and one corner of the building was disfigured by [cannon] shot. On Sunday the gunfire increased greatly in some sections of the city, though not in the immediate vicinity of my hotel … and our friends would not allow me to travel on that day. On Monday morning I decided to travel and walked to the train on foot. Some of our friends accompanied me … and thank G‑d we arrived safely at the Kurskaya Station and departed on the Kislovodsk train.”

Rephael Nachman Kahn was in Moscow at the time and recalled that his parents prepared kosher food for the Rebbe which they carried through the streets “while the cannon shot flew over our heads.” He also recalled that the Rebbe stayed in the Varvarinskoe Hotel, better known as the National, which still stands today in Manezhnaya Square in the center of the city, facing the Kremlin. In March 1918 the National would become the home of the first Soviet government as the Kremlin was still under repair from the damage done in October.37

View from the Hotel National, where the Rebbe stayed during the October Revolution, across Manezhnaya Square. The Kremlin is on the right and the State Historical Museum is on the left.
View from the Hotel National, where the Rebbe stayed during the October Revolution, across Manezhnaya Square. The Kremlin is on the right and the State Historical Museum is on the left.

Kahn also reported that at one point “the Rebbe walked back and forth from one corner of his room to the other with a look of dissatisfaction upon his face … saying, as if to himself, ‘I set out to Petrograd and now remain in Moscow, certainly there must be a reason for this.’” Despite the danger, the Rebbe then decided to gather a group of wealthy Chassidim. Kahn’s father began calling them by phone, but soon the lines were cut, and he walked to call on the rest in person. Once they had all gathered, the Rebbe began to speak about the religious needs of the many refugees who had been displaced to cities and towns that did not have even the most basic resources necessary for daily Jewish life. He proposed a new initiative to print and distribute prayer books so that they could pray and seek spiritual solace despite the difficulties that they would continue to face. All of those gathered pledged substantial sums of money, and the Rebbe listed their names and commitments. A copy of that document remains extant to this day.38

On returning to Rostov the Rebbe acquired a printing press and published prayer books according to both the regular Ashkenazi liturgy and the Arizal liturgy favored by Chassidim. The press imprint was Defus Ezra and the prayer book was titled Siddur Tehillat Hashem.39 These prayer books were reprinted several times during the early years of the Soviet regime and the standard Chabad prayer books in use today continue to bear that title.

Over the course of the next few months the Rebbe continued to hope for a free Russia with a unified front of religious leadership in the Jewish National Congress. But the situation went from bad to worse. Soon theTo begin with, the Rebbe kept a low profile entire country was wracked by civil war, with famine and disease not far behind. Lines of communication were often cut and always unreliable, so it became nearly impossible to organize on a national scale. Slowly but steadily the Bolshevik Red Guards strengthened their grip and ultimately gained complete control of Russia. They consolidated their hold on Rostov at the beginning of 1920 and imposed strict curfews, forbidding any gathering of three people or more.40

To begin with the Rebbe kept a low profile. But when the festival of Purim arrived he allowed the Chassidim to gather and encouraged them to sing and celebrate without constraint. The illegal gathering soon attracted the attention of Soviet officers who entered the room but didn’t intervene. Many of those present were understandably afraid, but the Rebbe announced “I am not impressed by them … Perhaps at another time I would be afraid, but as I stand now I am not impressed at all …” Turning to his son he proclaimed loudly: “Yosef Yitzchak! We will remain whole, and I don’t mean whole but hidden, I mean that we will be whole with full openness and expression, for unholiness in the presence of holiness is truthfully nothing.”41

Siddur Tehillat Hashem according to the Ashkenazi liturgy. Rostov 1918. (As reprinted in 1928.)
Siddur Tehillat Hashem according to the Ashkenazi liturgy. Rostov 1918. (As reprinted in 1928.)
Footnotes
1.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Reshimot Ha-yoman, 421. Regarding the deliberations at the conference in 1910 and the Rebbe’s meeting with Stolypin, see Yehoshua Mondshine, Asifat ha-Rabanim be-Russia bi-Shenat 1910, Kfar Chabad Magazine, no. 898 et seq..; Shalom DovBer Levin, Toldot Chabad be-Russia ha-Tzarit (Kehot Publication Society, 2010), 296–301; Ilia Lurie, Lubavitch and its Wars: Chabad Hasidism and the Fight for the Image of the Jewish Society in Czarist Russia (Ph.D. thesis, Hebrew University, 2009), chapter 5.4.
2.
The term “Schneersohnovschina” was used by Anatol Lunatcharsky, Soviet Commissar of Education, as quoted in a JTA report from 1928, Soviet Education Commissar Advises Jews to Fuse in Russian Melting Pot. On Chabad activities during the early years of the Soviet regime see David Fishman, “Preserving Tradition in the Land of Revolution: The Religious Leadership of Soviet Jewry, 1917-1930,” in Jack Wertheimer (Ed.), The Uses of Tradition (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1992), 85-118.
3.
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Sefer Ha-sichot 5680, 1. See further sources cited there. In several private letters written during the course of the war the Rebbe Rashab wrote of the need to “vanquish, throw to the dust and expel”. . . “our enemies, the cursed Germans” with particular vehemence. See, for example, Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, Igrot Kodesh Vol. 2, 809 (#454).
4.
Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, Sefer Ha-sichot - Torat Shalom, 202.
5.
Shalom DovBer Levine, Me-beis ha-genazim, 24-26.
6.
Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, Sefer Ha-sichot - Torat Shalom, 202. For more musings on the national and spiritual power vested in the monarch, and in the Tsar in particular, see Levine, Me-beis ha-genazim, 29.
7.
Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, Sefer Ha-sichot - Torat Shalom, 203.
8.
See David Engel "World War I," in YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe.
9.
Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, Igrot Kodesh Vol. 2, 796 (#439).
10.
On the Pale of Settlement and its history, see John Klier, "Pale of Settlement" in YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. On the Rebbe Rashab’s involvement in efforts to relieve the restrictions, see Shalom DovBer Levine, Toldot Chabad Berussia Ha-tsarit, 277-284.
11.
Levine, Ibid., 307-313.
12.
Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, Igrot Kodesh Vol. 2, 802 and 806 (#445 and #450). See also Eli Rubin, The Chinese Matzah Campaign of 1905.
13.
See Shalom DovBer Levine, Toldot Chabad Berussia Ha-tsarit, 304-305; Andrew Koss, “War Within, War Without: Russian Refugee Rabbis during World War I,” in AJS Review 34:2 (November 2010), 231-263.
14.
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Sefer Ha-sichot 5702, 16.
15.
Yehudah Chitrik, Reshimot Devarim (2009 Edition), 179.
16.
See the personal journal of Rabbi Yosef yitzchak Schneersohn, published in Levine, Me-beis ha-genazim, 29-31.
17.
For more about Hemshekh Besha’ah Shehekdimu 5672, also known simly as “Ayin Bet,” see Eli Rubin, The Ayin Bet Discourses One Hundred Years On. See also Elliot R. Wolfson, “Nequddat ha-Reshimu—The Trace of Transcendence and the Transcendence of the Trace: The Paradox of Ṣimṣum in the RaShaB’s Hemshekh Ayin-Beit,” Kabbalah 30 (2013), 75–112.
18.
See Shalom DovBer Levine (Ed.), Lubavitch (Agudat Chassidei Chabad Be-medinat Chever Ha-amim, 2001).
19.
See Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, Igrot Kodesh Vol. 5, 99 (#1’61) and 103 (#1’64).
20.
For an overview of how the First World War exacerbated existing tensions and brought Russia over the precipice of revolution, see Rex A. Wade, The Russian Revolution, 1917 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 17-28.
21.
Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, Igrot Kodesh Vol. 5, 106 (#1’65).
22.
Levine, Me-beis Ha-genazim, 23.
23.
Regarding the Tsar’s abdication and the Rebbe’s return to Rostov see below, n. 27.
24.
Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, Sefer Ha-maamarim 5677, 133-134.
25.
Ibid., VI.
26.
For an overview of the unfolding of the February Revolution in Petrograd, see Wade, The Russian Revolution, 29-52.
27.
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Sefer Ha-sichot 5703, 94-95.
28.
Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, Igrot Kodesh Vol. 2, 829-831 (#466) and 834-837 (#469).
29.
Ibid.
30.
For an overview of the Rebbe Rashab’s efforts in this arena, as reflected in the extant correspondence, see Shalom DovBer Levine, “Introduction” in Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, Igrot Kodesh Vol. 5, 17-20.
31.
See Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, Igrot Kodesh Vol. 2, 875-877 (#495 and #496).
32.
On the breakdown of government control during this priod, see Wade, The Russian Revolution, 215-223.
33.
Ibid., 223-230.
34.
Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, Igrot Kodesh Vol. 2, 877 (#496).
35.
Idem., Igrot Kodesh Vol. 5, 128 (#1’77). See also the letter to Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, Idem., Igrot Kodesh Vol. 2, 885 (#500).
36.
Wade, The Russian Revolution, 241, 244 (events in Petrograd), and 253-254 (events in Moscow).
37.
Rephael Nachman Kahn, Shemuot Ve-sipurim Vol. 1 (First Edition, Kfar Chabad, 1964), 103. Some details, including the name of the hotel, do not appear in later editions.
38.
Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, Igrot Kodesh Vol. 2, 878 (#497).
39.
See Idem., Igrot Kodesh Vol. 5, 126 (#1’75), 144 (#1’87) and other relevant sources cited by the editor there.
40.
For an example of the devastating impact of revolution and civil war on Jewish communities in Russia, see Eli Rubin, Strength in the Soviet Shadow: The Life and Writings of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson—Part Two.
41.
DovBer Rivkin, Ashkavta De-rebbi (New York: Balshon Printing Co., 1976), 8.
Eli Rubin studied Chassidic literature and Jewish Law at the Rabbinical College of America and at Yeshivot in the UK, the US and Australia. He has been a research writer and editor at Chabad.org since 2011, focusing on the social and intellectual history of Chabad Chassidism. Through his writing, research, and editorial work he has successfully participated in a range of scholarly interchanges and collaborative endeavors.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
 Email
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
4 Comments
1000 characters remaining
Avrohom Monsey March 13, 2017

Amazing articles! You guys do an amazing job with articles like these. The detailed history along with the personal accounts by leading chassidim is absolutely incredible. Will they be published in book form? Reply

Silvia Covarrubias Mexico March 9, 2017

Quite an interesting article!
Thank you so much ... Reply

M. Diane Flushing, NY March 8, 2017

Another fine history, geography and vocabulary lesson! And a chance to learn more about the bravery of our Rebbes.
Thank you very much!

(and what happened next?!?) Reply

Shmul Levertov March 5, 2017

Thank you so much for this article, it is extremely interesting and informative. Reply