In 1798, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813) was arrested by the Czarist Russian government and charged with treason for supporting the Jewish community in Israel. At that time, the Land of Israel was part of the Ottoman Empire, with whom Russia was at war.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman was a follower and later a leader of the early Chassidic community in Eastern Europe, founded by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov in 1734. By the end of the 18th century, entire Jewish communities were comprised of followers of Chassidism, with its emphasis on sincerity, passionate prayer, scrupulous observance of the biblical precept to love one's fellow as oneself, and its stress on the Kabalistic underpinning of Jewish belief, and strict adherence to Jewish law. This philosophic outlook helped empower thousands of working-class Jews, and had also begun to resonate among the scholarly. However, many of the scholarly elite felt that the rise of Chassidism would mean the end to their influence over communal affairs. The crystallization of Rabbi Shneur Zalman's branch of the Chassidic movement, Chabad, and the publication of his philosophical masterpiece, the Tanya, brought matters to a head. Some Jewish leaders began to plot against the fledgling movement.

In 1777, a group of senior Chassidic leaders made aliyah and settled in Safed and Tiberius in the north of Israel. Rabbi Shneur Zalman sought to accompany them, but the group implored him to remain in Russia to lead the movement. They also recognized that they would need financial support from the established Jewish communities in Europe. So Rabbi Shneur Zalman accepted the responsibility of collecting funds in Europe and forwarding them to the new Chassidic community in Israel.

In 1798, the opponents of the Chassidic movement saw their chance. They alleged to the government that sending money from Russia to Israel meant supporting the Turkish enemy. Rabbi Shneur Zalman was arrested and taken in a special black coach, reserved for the most serious criminals, to a fearful prison island in Petersburg.

Thus, 150 years before the founding of the modern state of Israel, a Chabad Rebbe was arrested for the crime of supporting Jewish settlement in the Holy Land.

After 53 torturous days in prison, and after much investigation and interrogation, the charges were thrown out, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman was freed. To this day, his followers mark the day of his release — Kislev 19 — as a holiday, for it marked a seismic shift in the development of Chabad Lubavitch.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman's legacy lives on in today’s Israel. Israel's largest kfar ("village") is located 10 minutes southeast of Tel Aviv. It is populated for the most part by Chabad Chassidim, and is appropriately called Kfar Chabad. Chabad also operates a growing network of educational, social, and religious facilities, with nearly 300 centers in all parts of Israel.

In Tiberius, there is a cemetery where the tombstones date back well over two hundred years. Many of the surnames on the grave-markers are taken from the names of the Byelorussian villages from which these brave and noble Jews originated. These are the remains of the Chassidic aliyah, which was financed by the personal sacrifices of Rabbi Shneur Zalman. And in Jerusalem, easily visible from the Kotel plaza, is the "Kollel Chabad" soup kitchen for the needy. This is a branch of the very same charitable organization that Rabbi Shneur Zalman financed over 200 years ago.


Rabbi Shneur Zalman was certainly a wise man. He was aware of the ramifications of his continued support of the Jews in "enemy territory." He had knowledge that his opponents were plotting against him.

What may have motivated him to continue supporting the Jewish settlement? And what timeless lessons can we, today, glean from his story?

Indeed, Rabbi Shneur Zalman was sharply aware of the dangers involved in supporting his fellow Jews. But he also recognized the potential consequences of his failure to act. The resettlement of the land would have ended in ignominy causing those who were there intense physical and spiritual suffering. Thus, Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s obligation to others triumphed over his instinctual self-preservation. This selfless commitment is a profound expression of the fundamental mitzvah, "Love your fellow as yourself."

The lesson is one of commitment and dedication in the face of adversity; and of hope that in a chaotic world, peace and justice will ultimately triumph.

May it be so, and speedily in our days.