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Bonaparte and the Chassid

Bonaparte and the Chassid


The renowned chassid Rabbi Moshe Meisels of Vilna, youngest of Rabbi Schneur Zalman's disciples, once told Rabbi Eisel of Homel: "The aleph of Chassidism saved me from a certain death."

[In his Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi states: "By its very nature, the mind rules the heart." This axiom, known as the "aleph of Chassidism," is a cornerstone of the Chabad-Chassidic approach to life.]

Rabbi Moshe Meisels, an extremely learned man, was fluent in German, Russian, Polish and French. During Napoleon's war on Russia he served as a translator for the French High Command. Rabbi Schneur Zalman had charged him to associate with the French military officials, to attain a position in their service, and to convey all that he learned to the commanders of the Russian army.1 Within a short while Rabbi Moshe had succeeded in gaining the favor of the chief commanders of Napoleon's army and was privy to their most secret plans.

It was he, Reb Moshe, who saved the Russian arms arsenal in Vilna from the fate which befell the arsenal in Schvintzian. He alerted the Russian commander in charge, and those who tried to blow up the arsenal were caught in the act.

"The High Command of the French army was meeting," related Reb Moshe "and hotly debating the maneuvers and the arrangement of the flanks for the upcoming battle. The maps were spread on the floor, and the generals were examining the roads and trails, unable to reach a decision. Time was short. Tomorrow, or, at the very latest, the day after, the battle on the environs of Vilna must begin.

"They were still debating when the door flew open with a crash. The guard stationed inside the door was greatly alarmed and drew his revolver. So great was the commotion, that everyone thought that the enemy had burst in in an attempt to capture the French Chief Command...

"But it was Napoleon himself who appeared in the doorway. The Emperor's face was dark with fury. He stormed into the room and raged: 'Has the battle been planned? Have the orders to form the flanks been issued?'

" 'And who is this stranger?!' he continued, pointing to me. In a flash he was at my side. 'You are a spy for Russia!' he thundered, and placed his hand upon my chest to feel the pounding heart of a man exposed.

At that moment, the aleph of Chassidism stood me by. My mind commanded my heart to beat not an increment faster. In an unwavering voice I said: 'The commanders of His Highness the Emperor have taken me as their interpreter, as I am knowledgeable in the languages crucial to the carrying out of their duties...' "

Biographical notes:

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the "Alter Rebbe" and "The Rav," was born in Li'ozna, White Russia, on the 18th of Elul 5505 (1745). He became a disciple of Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch (the second leader of the Chassidic movement) in 1764. In 1772 he established the "Chabad" branch of the Chassidism. For twenty years he worked on his Tanya, in which he outlined the Chabad philosophy and ethos. First published in 1797, the Tanya is regarded as the "bible" of Chabad Chassidism upon which hundreds of works and thousands of discourses by seven Generations of Chabad rebbes and their disciples are based. Rabbi Schneur Zalman passed away on the 24th of Tevet, 5583 (December 1812) while fleeing Napoleon's armies.

Rabbi Moshe Meisels was originally a disciple of Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, and a member of the opposition to the Chassidic movement. He later became a devoted chassid of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, and, after the latter's passing, of Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch and of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch. Rabbi Moshe served as the leader of the Chassidic community in Vilna until 1816 when he made aliyah ("ascent") to the Holy Land and settled in Hebron, where he passed away in 1849.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman actively supported the Czar against Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars, both on the celestial level, intervening on high for a Russian victory, and by down to earth methods such as the Chassidic spy of our story. Rabbi Schneur Zalman was of the opinion that while Napoleon's plans of "emancipating" the Jewish community may bring respite from the harsh Czarist decrees and improved material conditions, this is but the glittering veneer of forced assimilation and spiritual genocide. The Rebbe's contribution to Russia's victory was recognized by the Czar, who awarded Rabbi Schneur Zalman descendents the status of "An Honorable Citizen For All Generations." Five generations of Chabad Rebbes were to make use of this special standing in their work on behalf of the Jews of Russia.
Told by the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn; translation/adaptation by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Once Upon A Chassid (Kehot, 1994).
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Anonymous NY, USA October 23, 2011

RE: emancipation vs. pogroms If you take a look at Jewish History at the time, many Rabbis opposed Napoleon, Napoleon had a strong desire for Jews to assimilate.
The Chasam Sofer also strongly opposed Napoleon, obviously it wasn't a matter of ego.
When you read Jewish and non Jewish History books of that time, this story becomes truly remarkable! Reply

Menachem Cylich Melbourne, VIC/Australia June 9, 2009

Menachem Cylich That seems to be even better than my idea! Reply

Feigele Boca Raton, Florida USA June 8, 2009

Synchronization! The Mind and the Heart are in harmony with each other. One doesn’t go without the other. When the heart feels, the mind reminds why. When the mind reasons, it incorporates the heart's feelings. Therefore, you need the heart and the mind to work together as you need two wings to fly. Reply

Menachem Cylich Melbourne, VIC/Australia June 7, 2009

Connection Rabbi Moshe Meisels must have watched Kabbalah toons.
He had mastered control of his heart. Reply

Feigele Boca Raton, Florida USA June 5, 2009

Does your Heart Grow Only in Poverty? If only in poverty can man’s heart be close to G-d, how would they still be here today to worship G-d? Would they survive poverty and disease? No, I believe they would endure a slow demise and be extinct. Their imminent future was doomed. Maybe their heart belongs to G-d but is that what G-d would like for them in order to survive in this world?
Napoleon’s view for the Jews’ emancipation gave them the freedom to worship their G-d too. It was man’s choice to continue to do so, and many today have done just that, which resulted in the extermination of 6 millions Jews whose hearts had not left G-d.

Feigele Boca Raton, Florida USA June 4, 2009

What is the Connection? How is this related to Napoleon and the Jews? If any connections, please let me know because I don’t see it. Maybe the two wings are a metaphor for the 2 camps, one Russian and one French, and in order to survive the Rabbi had to flap between both camps playing both of them!
And his mind was telling his heart to do so! I am missing something here… Reply

Mencahem Cylich Melbourne, VIC/Australia June 3, 2009

Kabbalah toons Please watch the related kabbalah toons
"The flying tzadik" (
and "Walking your heart" ( Reply

Menachem Posner for June 19, 2008

RE: emancipation vs. pogroms See Is Judaism a Theocracy? for a discussion of the Alter Rebbe's view of Napoleon, and the opinions of other Jewish leaders of the day. Reply

Feigele Boca Raton, Florida USA June 17, 2008

emancipation vs. pogroms I understand he was a spy. So he was betraying the French. Were the Jewish better off with the Russians in those times? How did the Russians treat the Jewish in those times?
At least Napoleon tried to assimilate and emancipate the Jewish versus killing them. He gave them more chances than the Russians did later on or even maybe during that period of time.
I believe it was a matter or alter ego rather than good reasoning.
Sorry, I don't mean to be judgmental but fair is fair. Reply

Menachem Posner for June 16, 2008

RE: Russian Arms! Reb Moshe actually served as a Russian spy. He worked for the French and conveyed much useful information to the Russians.

He did so on the behest of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, who despised Napoleon and all that he stood for. He felt that the spiritual perils which came with emancipation outweighed the potential material gains. Reply

Feigele Boca Raton, FL, USA June 13, 2008

Russian Arms! It was he, Reb Moshe, who saved the Russian arms arsenal in Vilna from the fate which befell the arsenal in Schvintzian. He alerted the Russian commander in charge, and those who tried to blow up the arsenal were caught in the act.

Why did Reb Moshe save the Russian arms, if he was helping the French army? not too clear.
and why did he help the Russians who created so many pogroms against the Jews? Thank you for your explanation, if possible. Reply