The city of Kursk in Southwest Russia is best known for the great tank battle fought there in 1943. Sixty-five kilometers south of Kursk, and a little way west of the main highway, lies a tiny hamlet called Pyena. Today, it hardly appears on the map, and no Jews live there. Two hundred years ago, no Jews lived there either. But it was there that Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, passed away on the eve following Shabbat the 27th of December 1812.
In anticipation of this bicentennial occasion, a plethora of publications have appeared—both in print and online—dedicated to the life, works and teachings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman.
In November 2011, the Zalman Shazar Institute published a biography by Professor Immanuel Etkes of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, subsequently translated into English and published by Brandeis University Press in 2014. Etkes demonstrates that Rabbi Schneur Zalman was unique as a Chassidic leader who functioned primarily as an educator. According to Etkes, this pedagogical approach enabled Rabbi Schneur Zalman to successfully engage a wide cross-section of Jewish society, both the scholarly and the less educated, while preserving the central elements of the Baal Shem Tov’s mystic teachings. For more on this topic see here.
While this biography relies heavily on Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s magnum opus—the Tanya—and on his extant correspondence, it remains limited in its scope, failing to address Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s communal efforts or the more esoteric elements of his thought. Thankfully, however, Kehot Publication Society has paved the way for some of these gaps to be filled with two landmark publications. The first is a comprehensive collection of more than 200 items of correspondence and is prefaced with weighty introduction by Rabbi Shalom DovBer Levine, head librarian at the the Central Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad in New York. This introduction provides much insight into Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s interactions with the wider Jewish community, as well as with his own followers, and also details a wide variety of communal projects that he led.
The second contribution by Kehot is a 26-volume collection of all extant transcripts of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s oral discourses. This collection represents a formidable challenge to scholars, and its outstanding value is eclipsed only by the absence of a general introduction.
Drawing on a wealth of documentary and anecdotal sources, Mundshine reconstructs the dramatic events as they unfolded.
More accessible to the wider public is “The First Imprisonment” by Rabbi Yehoshua Mundshine, a Chabad Chassid who is also an archivist in the manuscript division of the National Library of Israel. The imprisonment of 1798 was much harsher than the second imprisonment of 1801, and represented a threat not only to Rabbi Schneur Zalman as an individual but to the Chassidic movement has a whole. Mundshine has tracked down the original government files dealing with Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s incarceration in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, including written testimony in his own handwriting, and the Tsar’s order to have him set free on the 19th of Kislev. Drawing on a wealth of documentary and anecdotal sources, he reconstructs the dramatic events as they unfolded step by step.
Mundshine also devotes several chapters to such tangential issues as the more benign 1788 imprisonment of Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, in the Vilna City Guest House, and the elusive personality of “the Rabbi of Volpe,” a gifted contemporary of Rabbi Schneur Zalman who apparently ended his days as a drunk. Between this work and the aforementioned introduction by Levine, much light is cast on the shadowy politics that beset the Jewish community in Vilna, making it a bastion of opposition to the Chassidic movement and a constant thorn in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s side. Ultimately, Rabbi Schneur Zalman emerged vindicated and triumphant, and established a good relationship with Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, leader of Lithuanian Jewry and successor to the Chassidic movement’s most authoritative critic.
The most recent edition to the growing list of relevant publications is “The Last Journey.” This work, also by Mundshine, takes us back to that hardly known village south of Kursk. What brought Rabbi Schneur Zalman to Pyena? Why did he pass away in the home of an anonymous peasant some 500 kilometers from his home in Liadi?
Five months earlier, Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grand Armée had crossed the Neman River and invaded Russia. As the tension between the French Alliance and the Russian Empire came to a head, the Jewish community was split between the supporters of the French—heralds of liberalism and emancipation—and the patriotic supporters of the Tsar. Rabbi Schneur Zalman recognized that the Russians were no lovers of the Jews, and yet he committed himself utterly to the cause of the Tsar. The Tsar, he insisted, was a man of faith—and that faith endowed him with humility and kindness, making him fit that G‑d should ultimately grant him victory. He regarded Napoleon, on the other hand, as the complete antithesis of anything G‑dly; a man whose extreme egotism would lead him first to the depths of depravity—throwing away tens of thousands of lives for nothing more than his own glory—and ultimately to ignominious defeat.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman used a network of his disciples to track the eastward thrusts of the French army and report them to the Russian authorities.
Liadi lies close to the main road between Minsk to the west and Smolensk to the east, and Rabbi Schneur Zalman used a network of his disciples to track the eastward thrusts of the French army and report them to the Russian authorities. As the forces of Marshal Davout drew near, Rabbi Schneur Zalman resolved to leave Liadi and join the Russian Army under the command of General Neverovsky at nearby Krasnyi. On that very day—Friday the 29th of Elul (July 26)—General Neverovsky’s troops were attacked by a superior French force, and R. Schneur Zalman’s party fled in the direction of Smolensk. They spent that Friday night in the woods, arriving in the city on Shabbat morning.
A passport issued by the Civil Governor of Smolensk, Baron Ash, to “the Jew, Zalman Schneur from the town of Liadi,” certifies that, “By order of the Tsar ... all military and government personnel everywhere are obligated to aid him and grant him free passage ... In an instance that he needs it, he should be given all manner of protection and aid ... ” This passport—which is housed today in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) in Jerusalem—together with other surviving documents, sheds much light on the wanderings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman and his entourage over the next few months.
Mundshine’s scholarly approach does not prevent him from enriching the narrative with a vast reservoir of anecdotal material and hundreds of period artistic impressions. Some of these depict the very places that Rabbi Shneur Zalman passed through some days before—now occupied by French troops.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman was nearing his 70th year, and his wanderings extended deep into the Russian winter. On the 19th of Tevet, he suddenly took ill. At the time, he and his party were heading southwest, intending to establish temporary residence in Kremenchug, but they were forced to seek shelter in Pyena, some 400 kilometers short of their destination.
Three elements make Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s style particularly unique—systemization, explanation and arbitration—enabling the preservation of scholarly depth and integrity without the sacrifice of accessibility.
Mundshine has collected an abundance of rich detail concerning Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s last days, including various manuscripts that record his final teachings. But unfortunately for the reader whose language of choice is English, “The Last Journey” was published in Hebrew, as were all the other works described above. Chabad.org—the flagship website of the international Chabad-Lubavitch movement—has stepped up to fill the language gap, creating a new mini-site devoted to the life, works and teachings of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, making a wealth of quality material available for the English speaking public.
A combination of video, audio and text makes the site versatile and engaging: In one instance, an article by Chabad.org editor-in-chief Rabbi Yanki Tauber that highlights a last-minute turnaround in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s thinking about the nature of the physical realm is complemented by a video conversation on the same topic.
In some areas, the English reader may be marginally better off than one who is limited to Hebrew. While the 26 volumes of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s oral teachings lack a Hebrew introduction, the present writer has attempted to articulate the nature of these teachings and highlight their importance in an article here. Theosophical meditations on the divine, yet intimately tied to the practical, transformative mission of each individual, these oral teachings formed the primary medium through which Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s idea were perpetuated both in his own time and in subsequent generations. Many other articles featured on the new site also do not have a competitive Hebrew counterpart.
In other areas, we have rendered quality Hebrew material in accessible English. One example is a talk by the fifth Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, describing how Rabbi Schneur Zalman captured the spirit of his teachings in the most famous of his musical compositions. The translation is complemented by relevant multimedia.
Another example is an article by famed Talmudist Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin (1887–1978), which first appeared in commemoration of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s 150th birthday. Now, the English reader too is exposed to the full significance of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s contribution to contemporary Jewish law. Rabbi Zevin lucidly illustrates three elements that make Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s style particularly unique—systemization, explanation and arbitration. Combined, they enable the preservation of scholarly depth and integrity without the sacrifice of accessibility.
Eli Rubin oversaw the creation of the new Chabad.org mini-site, The Life, Works and Teachings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Founder of Chabad.