Rabbi Dov Ber was the famous son of a very famous father-Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad, and of the distinguished line of the Schneerson family of Lubavitcher Rabbis. Rabbi Dov Ber was the oldest of three sons, and he succeeded his father as the head of the Chabad Chassidim. It was he who made Lubavitch-a small town in White Russia-his residence, and it continued to be the center of Chabad for over 100 years. This is how the heads of Chabad became known as "Lubavitcher" Rabbis, and the Chassidim as "Lubavitcher" Chassidim. He adopted the family name of "Schneuri," after his father, but succeeding generations changed it to "Schneersohn," or "Schneerson."
Rabbi Dov Ber was born on the 9th of Kislev, in the year 5534 (1773) , in Liozna, also in White Russia, where his father was the spiritual leader (Maggid) of the community, and of many Chassidim in White Russia and Lithuania, and other parts of Russia.
His father named him after his own teacher, the famous Rabbi Dov Ber of Messeritch, the disciple and successor of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement.
As a boy, Dov Ber was a very eager student, with a brilliant mind and exceptional memory. Soon after he started to attend "Cheder," his teacher complained that the little boy plied him with so many questions and demanded so much attention, that it was difficult for the teacher to conduct the classes.
Little Dov Ber was far advanced for his age, and had to be put together with older boys. He started learning Mishnah and Gemara before he was seven years old.
The Bar Mitzvah of Rabbi Dov Ber was an occasion of great celebration in Liozna. Many hundreds of Chassidim from all parts of Russia came to participate in the rejoicing, and to listen to both father and son as they addressed the gathering.
Rabbi Dov Ber continued to study with great devotion and diligence. In addition to his Talmud studies, his father taught him the holy Zohar, and transmitted to him the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. At the age of sixteen, Rabbi Dov Ber had attained such scholarship and maturity, that his father appointed him to instruct the young men who were students in his Yeshivah. These were no ordinary students, for they had all been selected for their .piety and scholarship, and had been receiving instruction from Rabbi Schneur Zalman himself. At the same time, his father continued to give special lessons to his sons and the best of his students. He gave special attention to his older son, who was to succeed him some day.
Those were critical times for the Chassidic movement, which was still fairly young. Although it was growing steadily under the leadership of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, and the number of followers increased rapidly, there were many Jews who misunderstood the near movement, and suspected, strange as it may now seem, that it would lead Jews away from the Torah and tradition. Even some prominent Rabbis opposed the movement. Twice, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was arrested on false charges. He was brought to St. Petersburg, the capital, where he was investigated by the Tzarist government. In each case Rabbi Schneur Zalman and his movement were cleared. The 19th day of Kislev, the day of his first release from prison, became a great annual Chassidic festival ever since.
After Rabbi Schneur Zalman's second release, in 5561 (18 00) , he moved to Liadi, which became the center of Chabad until the Napoleonic war twelve years later. Liadi lay directly in the path of Napoleon's invading army. Rabbi Schneur Zalman hated the little conqueror, and urged his followers to support the war effort of the Russian government though the Tzars were never friendly to the Jews. When Napoleon's army approached Liadi, Rabbi Schneur Zalman with his family and many followers hastily fled southward. It was a bitter Russian winter, and the weeks of wearisome journey in sleds, undermined the health of the aging Rabbi Schneur Zalman. In a village called Pyena, in the district of Poltava, Rabbi Schneur Zalman passed away (on the 24th day of Teveth, S 573) . Rabbi Dov Ber, who was 39 years old, was now recognized as his successor. The question arose as to where to make his residence. The war was over, with the defeat of Napoleon by Tzar Alexander 1. (It was Alexander, who upon ascending the throne in 1800, gave Rabbi Schneur Zalman his freedom after his second arrest.) However, Liadi lay in ruins. Prince Lubomirsky, to whom Liadi belonged, and who had been a great friend and admirer of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, offered to rebuild it for his successor.
As a second choice, the prince offered the nearby town of Lubavitch, which belonged to his nephew. The prince was not unmindful of the great economic benefits for the town and its surroundings, if it be the residence of so famous a Rabbi, with hundreds of followers coming periodically to spend Shabbosim and festivals in that town. He was therefore delighted when Rabbi Dov Ber agreed to settle in Lubavitch, and the prince lost no time in erecting the necessary buildings for the Chabad headquarters, and other structures, such as a synagogue, classrooms, etc. Thus Lubavitch became the "capital" of the Chabad Chassidim, and remained so for 102 years, until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Incidentally, it was in Lubavitch that Rabbi Schneur Zalman received his earliest schooling, his teacher being Rabbi Issachar Ber.
Rabbi Dov Ber was a true and worthy successor to his great father. He continued to teach the Chabad Chassidic way of life, and to enrich its literature by many volumes. He established a Yeshivah in Lubavitch, which attracted exceptionally gifted young scholars. His son-in-law, who later became also his successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, headed the Yeshivah.
Like his father, Rabbi Dov Ber considered it his sacred task to help the Jews of Russia, whether Chassidim or not, not only spiritually but also economically. The position of the Jews under the Tzars was never easy, but it became much worse when Tzar Alexander I was succeeded by Tzar Nicholas I " the year 1825. The restrictions against the Jews increased in number and severity. The Jews were confined to a small area, called the Pale of Settlement. They had no right to live, work or do business outside this crowded Pale, where conditions had become very difficult in the wake of the Franco-Russian war.
Rabbi Dov Ber began a campaign (in 1822, or 1823) to urge Jews to learn trades and skilled factory work. He urged Jewish communities to organize trade schools where Jewish boys, especially of the poorer classes, would be able to learn a trade. He also called on his fellow-Jews to learn agricultural work, dairy farming, and the like, reminding them that once upon a time, when the Jewish people lived in their own land, they were a people of farmers, fruit growers and herdsmen. He urged that boys who did not show promise of becoming Torah scholars, should, after the age of thirteen, devote part of their time to the learning of a trade, or work in the fields, to help support the family.
Not content with words alone, Rabbi Dov Ber himself began to organize colonies of Jewish farmers. The first colony was organized in the district of Kherson, with some fifty Jewish families. Others followed. Rabbi Dov Ber took to the road to raise funds for this purpose, and he personally visited the Jewish farmers and encouraged them in their pioneer work, also seeing that their spiritual needs and the education of the farmers' children should not be neglected.
The reign of Nicholas I was one of continued harassment of the Jewish population of Russia, with a view to force them into assimilation and conversion. One of the worst and most cruel decrees of Nicholas was the enforcement of child conscription into the Russian army. This decree, issued in 1827, made it compulsory upon every Jewish community to deliver a certain number of recruits, between the ages of twelve and twenty-five, for 25 year's service. Jewish children showed wonderful courage in resisting conversion, but the tragedy of their broken lives and the suffering of their families, broke Rabbi Dov Ber's heart and affected his health.
Like his father, he too was denounced by his enemies as a danger to the Russian government. He was arrested, but later released, and the day of his release, the 10th of Kislev, is remembered gratefully by Chabad Chassidim.
In addition to his many talents, Rabbi Dov Ber inherited from his father a great love for sacred music and Chassidic melody. His father had composed ten soul-stirring melodies (niggunim), and Rabbi Dov Ber knew their powerful effect to rouse the singers and listeners to great heights of ecstasy and attachment to G‑d. He encouraged the singing of these and other melodies of his own composition at certain occasions of solemn and joyous gatherings. He even had an organized choir from among his Chassidim who led in the singing. '`
Rabbi Dov Ber wrote many works on Chabad and Kabbalah, including a commentary on the Zohar. He was a brilliant thinker and a fast writer. It was told that when he finished writing the bottom line on a sheet of paper, the ink of the top line has not yet dried. About twenty of his works have been published, a good many of them during his lifetime.
Rabbi Dov Ber .passed away on the 9th of Kislev, on the very day he was born 54 years earlier. He became known as the "Mitteler Rebbe,"-the "Middle" Rebbe, being the second of the first three generations of Chabad leaders, who are regarded as the "fathers" and builders of Chabad-Lubavitch, which, for the last two hundred years, has been one of the strongest forces in Jewish life, whose influence has been felt in almost every Jewish community throughout the world.