I. Early Years
Rabbi Schneur Zalman was born on the 18th day of Elul (which is also the birthday of the Baal-Shem-Tov), in the year 5505 (1745), in the town of Liozna, province of Mohilev, in White Russia, which was part of Poland at that time. His parents, Baruch and Rivkah, had three sons, all of whom were outstanding Talmud scholars and Rabbis.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman's father was a man of some means. He came from a family that originally lived in Bohemia and directly traced its ancestry to the famed Rabbi Yehuda Lowe (Maharal) of Prague. R' Baruch was a secret follower of the Baal-Shem-Tov, and when Schneur Zalman reached the age of three years, his father took him to the Baal-Shem-Tov for the traditional haircutting ceremony. That was the only time that Rabbi Schneur Zalman saw the Baal-Shem-Tov in his life, though he was fifteen years old when the Baal-Shem-Tov passed away. It was the Baal-Shem-Tov's wish that Rabbi Schneur Zalman should find his own way of Chassidus.
Until the age of twelve Schneur Zalman studied under a scholar of noble character, Rabbi Issachar Ber, in Lubavitch. Then his teacher sent him back home, informing his father that the boy could continue his studies without the aid of a teacher.
During these early years, Schneur Zalman was introduced also to mathematics, geometry and astronomy by two learned brothers, refugees from Bohemia, who had settled in the vicinity of Liozna. One of them was also a scholar of the Kabbalah.
When Schneur Zalman reached the age of Bar Mitzvah and, in accordance with custom, delivered his first public discourse on the Talmud, he was acclaimed as an outstanding Talmud
scholar. He was thereupon elected as an honorary member of the local Chevra Kaddisha and entered into the pinkas (Register) of the community with titles and honors given only to mature scholars of exceptional merit.
The fame of the young iluy (prodigy of learning) reached Vitebsk, where one of its most prominent Jews, Yehuda Leib Segal, a man of considerable wealth and scholarship, and a leader in the community, desired to have him as his son-inlaw. Rabbi Schneur Zalman was fifteen years old when he married Sterna, Yehuda Leib's daughter. She proved to be a worthy mate, who stood by him throughout his lifetime. As was the custom in the better families of those days, the young couple was fully supported by the wife's father for several years, so that the young scholar could dedicate all of his time to the learning of Torah.
Before his marriage, Rabbi Schneur Zalman began to take an active interest in the economic position of his brethren. He had always felt that the towns and cities were too overcrowded to offer many opportunities to the Jews for making a living, and that more Jews should settle on the land and engage in agricultural pursuits. In his younger days he stood up on a wagon in the market place in Liozna, where many Jews had gathered for the local fair, and delivered a talk on the need of settling on the land. Now that he was married and in possession of a substantial dowry, he created a special fund, with the consent of his wife, to help Jewish families settle on the land.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman's father-in-law had dealings with the nobles and high officials in and around Vitebsk. Two occasions presented themselves to him to introduce his brilliant son-in-law to these circles. One occasion was when the sun-dial in the garden of the governor of Vitebsk suddenly stopped functioning perfectly. Severa1 scientists whom the governor had called in, failed to solve the mystery. Finally, the young Rabbi Schneur Zalman was invited to take a look at it and he discovered the cause of the malfunction in an obstruction created by trees that had grown tall on a hill at a certain distance away. The other occasion was when he solved a mathematical problem with which the local academy of science had been wrestling for a long time. Rabbi Schneur Zalman's reputation and acquaintance with the local nobility later stood him in good stead.
II. Turning Point
Being a very ardent student, and gifted with a brilliant mind, Rabbi Schneur Zalman had become proficient in the entire Talmudic literature ,with all its commentaries and early and late poskim (codifiers), before he was eighteen years old. Soon afterwards he decided to leave home in search of a teacher and guide to help him attain a higher degree of Divine service. From wandering scholars that passed through Vitebsk he had heard about the saintly teacher of Miezricz, Rabbi Dov Ber, the disciple and successor of the Baal-Shem-Tov. It was said: "In Wilno you learn how to master the Torah; in Miezricz you learn how to let the Torah master you." Rabbi Schneur Zalman made the momentous decision to go to Miezricz. This was the turning point in his life.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman's father-in-law was vehemently opposed to his going to Miezricz. Like many other Jews at that time, who knew very little of Chassidus and what it stood for, Yehuda Leib Segal was a bitter opponent of the new movement. He threatened to deprive his son-in-law and daughter of any further financial assistance if Rabbi Schneur Zalman did not change his mind. But Sterna stood by her husband and agreed to his leaving home for eighteen months. She sold some of her precious possessions to buy a horse and cart for her husband to make the long trip. Rabbi Schneur Zalman set out for Miezricz together with his brother Rabbi Yehuda Leib. Having made their way to Orsha, a distance of fifty miles, the horse collapsed. Rabbi Schneur Zalman then learned that his brother had left home without his wife's consent. He urged him to return home, while he himself continued his journey to Miezricz on foot.
His first impressions were not encouraging, but Rabbi Schneur Zalman decided to stay, and before long he realized how saintly and learned Rabbi Dov Ber was, and became his devoted disciple.
Returning to Vitebsk after eighteen months, as he had promised his wife, Rabbi Schneur Zalman met with a great deal of animosity on the part of his wife's family and other members of the community. But he also gained a number of followers who were eager to learn about the Chassidic teachings and way of life. Soon Rabbi Schneur Zalman went to Miezricz again, and continued to visit his master from time to time, following him also to Rovno and Anipoli, where Rabbi Dov Ber moved towards the end of his life.
For several years Rabbi Schneur Zalman and his wife suffered many hardships. Finally, in the year 5527 (1767), he was offered the position of Maggid (preacher) in his home town Liozna. He accepted this post, which he held for the next thirty years, until he moved to Liadi after his second arrest and liberation (in 1800).
When Rabbi Schneur Zalman was barely twenty-five years old, Rabbi Dov Ber chose him, the youngest of his disciples, to re-edit the Shulchan Aruch. It was 200 years since Rabbi Joseph Caro had written his famous work. During this time much material had been added to the Halachah literature, and it was Rabbi Schneur Zalman's task to examine and sift all the new Rabbinical material, make decisions where necessary in the light of the earlier codifiers and Talmudic authorities, and finally embody the results into the new edition of the Shulchan Aruch, thus bringing it up-to-date. Rabbi Schneur Zalman superbly accomplished this task, which gave him an honored place among the great codifiers of Jewish Law. The work became known as the "Rav's Shulchan Aruch," in distinction from its forerunner.
Several years later he began to work out his Chabad system of Chassidus, which he eventually published in his famous work Likkutei Amarim, or Tanya.'
On the 19th of Kislev, in the year 5532 (1772) , Rabbi Dov Ber passed away. His disciples resolved to continue spreading the teachings of Chassidus in their respective territories. Rabbi Schneur Zalman's task was to capture the very stronghold of the opposition, the province of Lithuania, with Wilno, the seat of the famed Gaon Rabbi Elijah. During the next three years Rabbi Schneur Zalman visited many important communities, where he preached publicly and won many followers. But the spread of the Chassidic movement only sharpened the opposition. Rabbi Schneur Zalman, accompanied by his senior colleague Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Horodok, went to Wilno in the hope of convincing the Gaon that his opposition was based on misinformation. But Rabbi Elijah refused to see them. Rabbi Menachem Mendel and some other Chassidic leaders and followers left for the Holy Land. Rabbi Schneur Zalman undertook to raise funds for their support. When Rabbi Menachem Mendel died (in 1788) , Rabbi Schneur Zalman was recognized as the chief leader of the Chassidim.
III. The Rebbe and Leader
Rabbi Schneur Zalman established a school of selected disciples in his hometown Liozna. Under his wise leadership and guidance, many well-organized Chassidic communities were established. He was a lover of peace, and he urged his followers to refrain from debates and quarrels with their opponents. He introduced many important ordinances to improve the standards of prayer and religious observances. He insisted that the prayers in the Chassidic congregations should be recited unhurriedly and with devotion. He established the proper text of the prayers, Nusach Ari, publishing a Nusach Ari Siddur (in two volumes). The nusach is often called Nusach Chabad. He insisted that Chassidic shochtim should use steel knives for Shechitah (instead of the older wrought iron knives), to ensure the better observance of Kashrus. He introduced the warm Mikvah. The two last mentioned improvements, which at first raised a storm of protest on the part of some opponents, have eventually been accepted by all orthodox Jews.
During the years 1781-1788 Rabbi Schneur Zalman was very busy organizing and defending the position of the Chassidic communities. But the next seven years (1788-1795) were relatively quiet, which gave Rabbi Schneur Zalman the longed-for opportunity to devote more time to spread Chassidus.
With the partition of Poland in 1793 and again in 1795, when Russia took over large Polish territories densely populated by Jews, there arose many economic problems, which were worsened by restrictions placed on Jews by the Russian government. Rabbi Schneur Zalman proved himself to be a wise leader not only of the Chassidim, but of Jews in general. Thus he created a pattern of dedicated leadership-both as a Chassidic leader ("Rebbe") and as a Jewish leader in general-a pattern which was followed by his successors, the heads of Chabad to this day.
The burden of leadership began to weigh very heavily on him. He had some 100,000 personal followers (Chassidim) at this time, and their numbers were increasing steadily. Many people besieged him with their personal problems, material and spiritual. He appealed to them to address their material problems to their Father in Heaven, and come to him only with spiritual problems. He published the Tanya as a "guide" to spiritual problems. But those were difficult times for the Jews of Russia, and he could not free himself of the burdens of leadership.
In 5558 (1798) a group of extremists among the opposition denounced Rabbi Schneur Zalman and some of his leading Chassidim to the Russian authorities in Petersburg as traitors to the Czar. The false accusation was well timed. The territory had only recently been annexed from Poland, and Czar Paul was highly sensitive to any activities by Polish nationalists. Besides, Russia and Turkey had been at war for years. The fact that Rabbi Schneur Zalman collected funds to support the needy in the Holy Land (which was part of the Turkish empire) was used by these slanderers as "evidence" that Rabbi Schneur Zalman was an "enemy" of Russia.
IV. Yud-Tes Kislev
On the day after Simchat Torah 5559 (1798), Rabbi Schneur Zalman was arrested and placed in the Peter-Paul Fortress in Petersburg. His life and the future of the whole Chassidic movement hung in the balance. A special commission was set up by the Czar to investigate the charges. Rabbi Schneur Zalman was able to convince his investigators that his movement was purely a religious one and had nothing to do with political matters. Favorable reports from the local authorities of Rabbi Schneur Zalman's district helped to convince the Czar that the prisoner was a peace-loving sage and scholar, and that all the charges against him and his teachings were false. Fifty three days after his arrest, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was informed that he had been found innocent, and that nothing wrong was found with his movement. He was released on the 19th of Kislev. This day (Yud-Tes Kislev) became known as "Rosh Hashanah" of Chassidus, since on it, not only the leader, but the whole Chassidic movement received a new lease on life.
The news of Rabbi Schneur Zalman's release spread quickly and brought great joy to his many followers. Rabbi Schneur Zalman used the occasion to try again to bring about peace and harmony between the opposing camps. Immediately upon his return home, he wrote a special letter to all his followers. With humility and love he appealed to them to forget their grievances and seek to win over their opponents through friendliness and brotherly love.
The next two years saw Rabbi Schneur Zalman busy to counteract a new danger that threatened Russian Jewry from the Russian government. The Czar had appointed the famed Russian poet and statesman Gabriel R. Derzhavin as a one man committee to investigate the Jewish position in Russia, and suggest ways and means to cope with the "Jewish problem."
Derzhavin hated the Jews, though he knew some "good Jews." These were certain Chassidim of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, who had shown him kindness in his miserable youth. Derzhavin travelled through White Russia to make an on the spot investigation. He was also in Liozna. In October of 1800 he returned to the capital and presented his report ("Opinion about the Jews"), which was a mixture of truths, half-truths and falsehoods, and decidedly unfavorable to the Jews, advocating a series of new restrictions. It also contained an unfavorable reference to Rabbi Schneur Zalman, stating that "some Jews complained about him that he took their children away from them and sent their gold and silver to Palestine." It seemed that while Rabbi Schneur Zalman was busy trying to ensure that the landed nobility and government officials should have good things to say about the Jews, some of the opponents of the Chassidim were carrying bad tales to Derzhavin about the Chassidic leader. However, bad as Derzhavin's report was for the Jews, it contained at least one favorable view, that of Prince Lubomirsky, a prominent nobleman and estate owner in White Russia, who was a friend of Rabbi Schneur Zalman. Several other estate owners of White Russia sent a complaint against Derzhavin to the Czar. As a result of what Derzhavin called "intrigues" against him at the Court, his report was not received favorably by the Czar, and the position of the Jews remained unchanged for a time.
V. Final Years
In the meantime, the opponents of Rabbi Schneur Zalman were again busy plotting against him and against the Chassidic movement. False charges were again brought to the authorities in Petersburg, and once again Rabbi Schneur Zalman was summoned to the capital to defend himself and his teachings. This time it took over nine months until Rabbi Schneur Zalman won a complete victory over his slanderers. In the meantime Czar Paul was murdered, and the new Czar, his son Alexander the First, ordered the case dismissed.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman did not return to Liozna. At the invitation of Prince Lubomirsky, he took up his residence in the town of Liadi, which was one of Lubomirsky's possessions. It was in Liadi that Rabbi Schneur Zalman spent the remainder of his life. But he was not destined to end his life in peace. In 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia, and the invasion route led through White Russia. Rabbi Schneur Zalman, who had twice been accused of high treason, turned out to be a loyal patriot. He saw that if the French conqueror would conquer Russia, the economic position of the Jews might improve, but their spiritual position would suffer. He therefore opposed Napoleon and urged his numerous followers to give their all-out support to the Russian war effort against the invaders. Indeed, his followers, many of whom found themselves behind the enemy's lines, were able to bring very useful intelligence to the Russian generals. The Russians were grateful to Rabbi Schneur Zalman for it. When Napoleon approached Liadi, the Russian generals provided horses and wagons to evacuate the aging Rabbi and his family and many followers. It was in the middle of one of Russia's winters that the Rabbi and his family found themselves on the open roads, suffering hardships and perils. In a village in the district of Kursk, the Rabbi became seriously ill, and he died at the age of sixty-eight. His body was laid to rest in Hadiacz, in the district of Poltava.
The Hebrew inscription on his tomb reads as follows:
Here is concealed the Holy Ark
The great and Divine Rav, pious and humble
Holy and pure, diadem of Ariel
Crown of the Torah, wellspring of wisdom
He practiced the righteousness of G‑d and his judgements with Israel
And many did he turn away from sin;
Our master and teacher Shneur Zalman, son of Baruch, his soul rest in Eden
Longing for holiness, his soul returned to G‑d
On the First Day of the week, 24th of Teveth
In the year 5573 of Creation