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Chapter 2: The Alter Rebbe’s Public Service (1)

Chapter 2: The Alter Rebbe’s Public Service (1)


1 The Alter Rebbe was both a leader and an organizer. In all of his holy endeavors — both as rabbi and as a public official — everything he undertook emerged from his hands in perfect order. Each detail was in its proper place, with the necessary explanations to satisfy all of our Jewish brethren, and all factions to whom Torah and mitzvos were dear. The party to which one belonged made no difference, so long as its aim was the strengthening of the Jewish religion and dissemination of the Torah.

The holy Nesi’im of Chabad had their own special system for public service. This system originated with our first forefather, the Alter Rebbe, and it was based on a marvelous method. These are his holy words:

Israel is the one nation on earth.”2 This means that the Jewish nation — even within the physical world — is bound up with the One G‑d. He makes physical matter out of spiritual substance, and the Jewish nation makes spiritual matter out of physical substance.3 For this reason, the economic status of the Jewish people goes hand-in-hand with their spiritual status.

The holy Alter Rebbe was a product of the rural countryside. While still a young lad, he conceived the idea of Jews working the land. This apparently stemmed from his father’s warm friendship with the refugees from Bohemia,4 who settled on his estates surrounding Liozna in White Russia. The Alter Rebbe encouraged them to support themselves through manual labor in field and garden, and he appealed to his father Reb Baruch to help them.

When the Alter Rebbe reached marriageable age, he agreed to marry the daughter of the wealthy Reb Yehudah Leib Segel of Vitebsk. The only stipulation was that the sum of five thousand gold florins — which had been promised as a dowry — should be transferred to the Alter Rebbe’s possession, to use as he saw fit, with no interference by Reb Y.L. Segel. During the first year of their marriage — with the permission of his wife, Rebbetzin Sterna — he gave this entire fortune of five thousand gold florins to a group of families who wished to engage in agricultural pursuits. With this money, they were able to purchase tracts of land, livestock, and farm tools, and to construct a flour mill, factories for weaving wool, and barns for housing livestock.

Large colonies settled on the outskirts of the city of Vitebsk along the banks of the River Dvina, supported by the money provided by the Alter Rebbe. From time to time, he would deliver a public sermon, urging the people to abandon their occupations which depended on earning a profit in the streets and marketplaces, and to begin working the land instead. He would visit the colonists, and encourage them to set aside fixed times for Torah study — Chumash, Midrash, and Aggadah, for the benefit of the simple folk who were unable to understand Mishnah and Gemara.

At that time, King Poniatowski5 issued an edict to all the government officials that any Jew who signed a contract promising to begin working the land, would be exempted from paying the head tax. This made a great impression on all the Jewish communities, and many people who had previously had no stable source of income began to engage in agricultural pursuits.

In those days, public service was for the most part a local affair, on the county or provincial level. Only the most important matters, affecting the entire Jewish people (such as laws for organization of the Jewish congregations, taxes, leases, etc.), were conducted at the national level. Most matters, however, involved commerce and business. These were strictly regional affairs to be conducted with the local government officials, and sometimes with the estate of the local nobility. In fact, most villages were the private property of the local squires.

During the years that the Alter Rebbe resided in Vitebsk, he waged an intensive campaign among the Jews to take up agricultural work. In the year 5524 [1764], Empress Catherine II granted official permission for Jews to live in Riga; in the year 5529, this permission was extended to the surrounding villages. After this, the Alter Rebbe waged an even wider campaign to urge Jews to form colonies in these villages, and in inns at the crossroads. Following his advice, many went into the lumber business, tying the lumber into rafts which they floated down the River Dvina. For many years, this river had already been a major trade route between Russia and Germany.

When the Alter Rebbe was in Mezritch for the first time, he learned of the Baal Shem Tov’s opinion that Jews should make their living by farming and other country industries, such as gardening, raising fowl and cattle, fishing, and spinning wool. On his way home from Mezritch to Vitebsk, he stopped off all along the way to promote his campaign for Jews to settle in rural areas and engage in agriculture. In each settlement that he visited, he inquired about their material and spiritual status, and the education of the children. In some places, he also urged the local Torah scholars to look after the needs of the simple folk.

There were various settlements where the Torah scholars were disciples of the misnagdim. Here, they would put the simple Jews to shame, calling them names such as “ignoramus” and “boor.” The Alter Rebbe would engage such scholars in debate, but he rarely succeeded in convincing them to change their attitude toward the simple folk.

The Alter Rebbe also encouraged the simple folk themselves, instilling new life into them and lifting their spirits (which were depressed because of the Torah scholars’ attitude toward them). He also persuaded Torah scholars — from the ranks of the chassidim, of course — to settle among them. Such scholars would take an interest in the simple folk, and maintain friendly relations with them. Within a few years, this bore good fruit; many of the previously simple people became Torah scholars themselves, able to study a page of Gemara-Rashi-Tosafos on their own.

In those days, Russia guarded its border with Poland [and controlled its custom regulations] with special care. In fact, only recently — in 5488 [1728] — had the Russian border been opened to merchants from Poland and Germany at all. These merchants were now permitted to bring their merchandise, but only at specified times — during the official fairs — at which they could barter their wares for Russian goods. Those who wished only to sell their wares [for cash] were not permitted to take gold or silver coins out of the country. [They could take paper money only, and] the bank notes were worth only a third of the value of the corresponding silver coins: a silver ruble was worth three paper rubles!

Beginning in 5502 [1742], the Russian government set the time for the fairs twice a year — two months during the winter, and two months during the summer. After these seasons expired, the border was securely closed again.

The Russian counts and dukes were totally ignorant of any scholarly or scientific knowledge. Some of them could not even read or write, and would sign contracts and deeds with an “X.” Nonetheless, they were benevolent and good-spirited people. They knew nothing of the relations between their officials and the peasants who worked for them, for the noblemen lived in the large cities, where they spent all their time in the pursuit of pleasure. On the rare occasions that they did visit their estates , they came for a short time only, and spent all their time hunting — one of their favorite pastimes.

In general, the noblemen didn’t bother to pay attention to the manner in which their officials managed their business. But, when they did learn of the wicked ways in which their officials treated the serfs and the peasants, they would punish the officials severely, or else dismiss them from their positions.

The noblemen would patronize the fairs, usually buying only the most expensive items — jewels and other precious stones, utensils made of gold, silver, or crystal, finely-woven cloth, and embroidery. Most of these items they purchased from Jews, for they were the most gifted craftsmen. The noblemen even proposed to the dealers and craftsmen (silversmiths, goldsmiths, sculptors of wood or stone, weavers, embroiderers of silk and of silver or gold thread, and refiners of gold and silver) that they reside permanently in that country. They paid them handsomely for their trade, and so many tens of Jewish families settled in Russia each year, mostly in the large cities. Thus, little by little, this cooled off their feelings toward Torah study and pious conduct.

As we have mentioned, the Russian border was heavily guarded. Nevertheless, Jewish families were able to cross the border — with permission of the officers of the border patrol — upon payment of a small bribe (occasionally, even for free). The Russians had kindly dispositions, and dealt mercifully with the poor and the wretched. Thus, numerous families could migrate from cities in Poland to those in Russia, in the counties of Smolensk, Arial, and Sulla. Most of these Jews were craftsmen — cobblers, tailors, tinsmiths, etc. Within a short time, they managed to set themselves up comfortably, as far as their economic standing went. Their spiritual status, however, progressively deteriorated.

At home in Poland, these simple Jews had belonged to various societies and organizations, such as the Chevra Poalei Tzedek,6 Chevra Mashkimei Kum,7 Chevra Tehillim,8 and the like. In the large cities, each society had its own shul, with such names as the Zivchei Tzedek [the Slaughterers’9 ] Shul, the Tailors’ Shul, the Bakers’ Shul, the Cobblers’ Shul. Each person was a member of one of these societies, and he would come three times a day for the public prayer service, and to attend the Aggadah lectures between Minchah and Maariv. On Shabbos, he would attend lectures on the parshah of the week, and Midrash. Thus, though their Torah knowledge was only of the most simple sort, they were very G‑d-fearing, and observant of the mitzvos.

After they moved to the Russian cities, their societies were dissolved. In many places, there were no more than a few Jewish families, living among hundreds — or thousands — of gentile citizens. Therefore, their moral fiber wore away, little by little. They began to be lax in observing mitzvos, following the local customs of that country. Their Russian-born children began to assimilate among the gentiles, for they had no one to teach them or guide them. The large cities still possessed shuls, rabbonim, and melamdim. But in the small towns there was only a shochet — who also served as chazan, baal korei, and melamed. And in the villages, they didn’t even have a shochet. Thus, the children grew up without any Torah learning. Often, bar mitzvah boys had to recite the blessings over the tefillin and over the Torah reading by heart, for they were unable to read from the Siddur.

The first person to take an interest in the moral stature of the Jews in the Russian interior was the Alter Rebbe. He sent special emissaries to visit the Russian Jews and to arrange regular public Torah study sessions for the adults, in Mishnah, Gemara, Midrash, and Aggadah. For the children, they established chadorim.

As an example, I insert here an excerpt from
my diary, as I recorded it at the time.

The Russian-Polish border ran by the village of Liliakovna, about fifteen miles from the village of Rudnia. If one draws a straight line between this village and the town of Smolensk, Russia, then everything west of this line was in Poland, and everything east of this line was in Russia. In those days, most Jews dwelt in Poland, with only a small minority living in Lita. But in the Russian interior — Smolensk County — there were only a few scattered Jewish families. Most of them were ignorant of Torah, living in the country and engaged in agricultural pursuits. Even those who lived in the cities, lived a rural lifestyle in that country in those days.

One of the Alter Rebbe’s chassidim, Reb Yochanan Zev of Horodok, was a man of stature and an outstanding Torah scholar. He knew several volumes of the Talmud thoroughly by heart, with the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafos. He also possessed broad knowledge of Chassidus. But most significantly, he was a master of avodah, and possessed the finest character traits. He made a good living selling perfumes in the villages, and to the courts of the nobility who owned the local estates. He donated considerable sums to charity.

Once, the Alter Rebbe requested that — in the course of his business travels — he should make his way through the Russian side of the border near Smolensk County. Now all the Jews of Poland knew that Russia was an uncouth country in general, and especially Smolensk County, where the majority were gentiles. Only a few Jews lived there, and they were so materially-oriented that they were unrecognizable. Their manner of dress and way of life could not be distinguished from the other residents of that country.

The chassid Reb Yochanan Zev followed the Alter Rebbe’s orders, but this journey saddened him greatly. He had been accustomed to traveling through the villages around Vitebsk and Horodok, where he found many Jews living in the rural areas and at the inns by the crossroads. He would lodge in their homes, and study Torah with them. Sometimes; he would even meet Torah scholars, and fellow chassidim. He usually returned home for Shabbos, but sometimes he would spend Shabbos with chassidim.

His present journey lasted about five months, and he spent the festival of Shavuos in Smolensk, in the company of ignorant and boorish folk. When he visited the Alter Rebbe during the month of Elul, he brought with him a large sum of money for charity, that he had set aside from the profits of his present travels. But he complained bitterly about his situation, and wept profusely about his recent sojourn among the boors and ignoramuses. He begged — from the depths of his soul — to be relieved of his assignment, and to be permitted to resume his former business affairs, in the Jewish provinces.

The Alter Rebbe replied harshly: “It is written,10 ‘Man’s footsteps are ordained by G‑d, and he desires this path.’ G‑d (blessed be He) ordains where a person’s footsteps will take him, for He desires that His path — the path of G‑d — be fulfilled.11 Who is man, to say, ‘This, I desire, and this, I do not desire.’”

After Sukkos, Reb Yochanan Zev again made his way across the border, as before. Because of the heavy snows and the intense cold, he was forced to spend two weeks and more in some places. The Jews among whom he stayed had no work to do at the time, and so he made it his business to engage them and their families in conversation. He taught them the laws of the Torah, and inspired them to adopt good character traits. G‑d sent him success, and during that winter he cultivated several baalei teshuvah.

Now, when he visited the Alter Rebbe at the beginning of Nissan, he was in cheerful spirits because of his good works, in which he had succeeded. The Alter Rebbe took the portion of his earnings that he had brought for charity, and used it to pay the expenses of melamdim whom he sent to those places.

After Pesach, the Alter Rebbe summoned several people by name, and sent them to the towns and villages of Smolensk County, where they were to follow the instructions of Reb Yochanan Zev. Before three years had passed, whole communities were organized there, complete with rabbonim, shochtim, melamdim, shuls, mikvos, and charitable institutions.

In this manner, twenty years passed. In 5554 [1794] Poland was partitioned, and the territories of Polish Lithuania [White Russia], Vohlynia, and Podolia were annexed to Russia. Russia then officially opened the interior of the country to travelers, and hundreds of families (including some great Torah scholars) moved to the cities of Russia proper. They were amazed at the high moral stature of the local Jewish communities. Though their populations were small, they possessed shuls, rabbonim who were outstanding Torah scholars, and expert melamdim.

Most of the Torah scholars who moved to Russia had been residents of Lithuania. They had sons and sons-in-law who were wealthy merchants, and they foresaw a glorious business future in their new country. In their letters to their parents who had remained in Lita and continued studying Torah full-time, they highly praised and extolled the moral stature and the status of Torah study of the Russian communities.

Everyone was aware that [the high level of Torah study in Russia] was due solely to the Alter Rebbe’s efforts during the twenty-year period 5523-5543 [1763-1783], through his special emissaries and agents. Furthermore, during the most recent decade — 5543-5553 — many chassidic families had moved to Russia proper. Because of them, the society of the Alter Rebbe’s activists had expanded, and their activities included disseminating Torah and establishing schools for children and adolescents.

Many of the Lithuanian expatriates had come from Vilna, and had once been members of the inner circle of the leaders of the misnagdim. They were well aware of the persecutions that the chassidim and their leaders had suffered at the hands of the misnagdim (especially the charomim published in 5542).

They now wrote to their relatives and friends, praising the chassidim and their leader, the Alter Rebbe. They described their productive labors in disseminating Torah and G‑d-fearing behavior among the working class. This proved that they were truly pious people and perfectly innocent [of the misdeeds they had been accused of]. It therefore appeared that the Gaon Rav Eliyahu, the Chief Rabbi, and the whole assembly of great Torah scholars had judged the chassidim wrongly, without hearing proper testimony. The charomim had been invoked without following the Torah’s requirement to investigate the facts. They wrote:

According to our observations of the conduct of the people called “chassidim” — the disciples of their master and Rebbe, the gaon and Maggid of Liozna — they are G‑d-fearing, and they treat all poor and disheartened people with great love. Moreover, they do this with enthusiasm and devotion, for this is the command of their master and Rebbe, transmitted in his letters and through his special emissaries, whom he sends to them at frequent intervals.

One of these [Lithuanian] expatriates was named Reb Zundel Volf. Though his knowledge of the Torah was no more than average, he had been a firm follower of the great Torah scholars who were the Gaon Rav Eliyahu’s disciples. He had been especially devoted to carrying out everything that concerned persecution of the chassidim. He fulfilled this mission zealously, and on occasion he would even put his life in danger to fulfill this mission. He was one of the men who traveled about to publicize the cheirem of the year 5536 [1776], and he was also a member of the band of “fanatics” (more correctly — “murderers”) who went to Szventzian to carry out the notorious sentence of 5541 [1781].12 Among the hierarchy of the misnagdim, he was treated with great favor because of his constant labors in persecuting the chassidim.

However, after this Reb Zundel Volf had lived among the chassidim in the village of Yelnia (Smolensk County) for about two years, he observed their G‑d-fearing conduct and their fine traits of ahavas Yisrael and love of the Torah. His conscience pained him deeply for having persecuted the chassidim over a period of many years.

The scene of the murders in Szventzian remained constantly before Reb Zundel Volf’s eyes. He himself had been among those who took part in the vengeful acts against the four chassidim. But now, he wrote to the Gaon Rav Eliyahu describing to him the chassidim’s conduct. He requested that he assign him a program of penance whereby he might atone for having persecuted chassidim in general, and specifically for having taken part in the murder of four chassidim from Szventzian. He concluded his letter by stating that no one knows when his last day on earth will come. And when they stood before the Heavenly Court to be judged, the blame for spilling the innocent blood of four tzaddikim (who were dedicated to doing mitzvos) would fall upon the Council of Vilna and its rabbinical court.

The letters written by these misnagdim — especially Reb Zundel Volf’s letter — made a great impression among the Vilna misnagdim. The chassidim published hundreds of copies of these letters throughout all of Lita. All this aroused the anger of the misnagdim in Vilna, Brysk, and Slutzk.

[End of excerpt from the
Previous Rebbe’s diary]

A continuation of the collection of notes from which the previous chapter was taken.
[Paraphrased from II Shmuel 7:23; Siddur, p. 206.]
[See HaYom Yom, entry for 27 Elul.]
My saintly great-grandfather the Tzemach Tzedek told his son, my saintly grandfather the Rebbe Maharash, that the Alter Rebbe highly praised the Bohemian refugees who settled on his father’s estates during his childhood years. They were both G‑d-fearing and learned; among them there were even outstanding scholars. One of them, Reb Yaakov Tzvi of Königstein, besides being a gaon, was also an outstanding mathematician and scientist, and he possessed a wonderful ear for music.

When the Alter Rebbe was a young boy, this Reb Yaakov Tzvi taught him mathematics and science. And when the Alter Rebbe returned from his stay in Lubavitch, where he had been a pupil of Reb Yissachar Ber (he was about twelve years old at the time [see Appendix B in The Making of Chassidim, Sichos In English, Brooklyn, 1996]), he set aside time to study philosophy with Reb Yaakov Tzvi. At about that time, Reb Yaakov Tzvi’s brother (his name was Reb Menachem Eliyahu, and he too was a refugee from Königstein in Bohemia) settled on an estate adjoining his father Reb Baruch’s estate. His knowledge of Gemara-Rashi-Tosafos was no more than average, but he had a vast knowledge of Kabbalah. He possessed hand-written manuscripts of the AriZal’s writings, which he studied with the Alter Rebbe for a full year’s time.

My grandfather the Rebbe Maharash told my father the Rebbe [Rashab] that among the sacred written manuscripts that the Tzemach Tzedek received from his grandfather the Alter Rebbe, there was a fifteen-year calendar — for the years 5515-5530 [1755-1770] — including the exact times of the equinoxes, solstices, and lunar conjunctions, and the days of Shabbos, the festivals, and the days of Rosh Chodesh. For the first three or five years, the dates of the fairs in Liozna were also indicated. This calendar was drawn up in the Alter Rebbe’s handwriting, and he had composed and arranged it when he was only ten years old. It contained about thirty pages of thick green paper (in the folio size well known to those who copy chassidic manuscripts), and it was bound in yellow leather. It perished in the fire that broke out on 5 Elul 5667 [August 13, 1907].
[Also known as Stanislaw II, the last king of Poland. In 1764, At the beginning of his rule, the Polish Empire was very large, and included almost all of White Russia. Later, however, Poland was subjected to a series of partitions among the neighboring empires. By 1795 it had ceased to exist as an independent country.]
[Lit., “Society of Doers of Righteousness,” whose members devoted themselves to charitable works.]
[Lit., “Society of Early Risers,” whose members would arrive at the shul early, for study and prayer.]
[The Tehillim Society,” whose members met early each morning to recite Tehillim before Shacharis.]
[Lit., “Sacrifices of Righteousness”].
[Tehillim 37:23.]
[See HaYom Yom, entry for 3 Elul.]
By the year 5538 [1778] a group of chassidim already lived in the town of Szventzian. Several of them were very active in the chassidic campaigns — not only in the town itself, but also in the surrounding territory. The Szventzian district boasted many different estates, inns, mills, and small colonies. Thus, everyone earned an ample living, and the chassidim had members living in virtually every settlement and community. Within about two years’ time, it became known in the capital city of the misnagdim that all the colonies in the Szventzian district had converted to Chassidus. Moreover, this campaign was being coordinated by the chassidic society in Szventzian.

The councils of the misnagdim in Vilna, Minsk, and Shklov then carried on a continuing consultation about the situation; this correspondence went on for about half a year. At that time — 5540-41 [1780] — there were already whole communities of Chabad Chassidim living in Minsk and Shklov, and the misnagdim of these cities had already become aware of their errors [concerning the chassidim]. The more tolerant individuals had even ceased their opposition and persecutions. Thus, when the proposals against the Chabad Chassidim enacted by the Council of Vilna reached them, they refused to approve them.

Unfortunately, the Councils of Brysk and Slutzk accepted the proposals of the Vilna Council. They even added their own demand, that a cheirem be issued against the chassidim and their leaders — especially the Chabad Chassidim in the provinces of Lithuania and Ukraine, and their leader, the Maggid of Liozna.

At a special session of the Vilna Council they appointed a rabbinical court to sit in judgement of the chassidim of Szventzian. They sentenced about fifteen people to be flogged, and presented this judgement to The Gaon Rav Eliyahu, who approved it.

As was customary on such occasions, public announcements were made at the Torah reading on three consecutive Shabbasos, and on Mondays and Thursdays. The proclamations stated that on a certain date, a cheirem would be issued against the chassidim and their leader. They also announced in the name of The Gaon Rav Eliyahu and the Chief Rabbi that all students in the senior yeshivos, intermediate Torah schools, and elementary chadorim must assemble at the designated place. Even those who never took part in any worldly affairs were ordered to put aside their Torah study to attend to this mitzvah, for it involved sanctifying G‑d’s Name, and the dignity of the Torah scholars, which were being profaned by the “cult.”

The chassidim of Vilna already constituted a full congregation, with four shuls and a large yeshivah. There were also fifteen chadorim for children — from young children just learning to read, to older ones who were studying Gemara in depth. They were quite nonchalant when they heard of the proclamation, and paid little attention to it.

However, when the chassidim of Szventzian heard of the proclamation, they [became alarmed and] convened an assembly. They decided to send emissaries throughout the district, requesting that each colony send a representative to Vilna, where they would meet together on the day the cheirem was to be issued. They also informed everyone that the community of Szventzian would send about fifty men to Vilna on the designated date.

The Szventzian chassidim arranged a program for that day, including a joint council of the Vilna chassidim, the Szventzian chassidim, and the chassidim who came from other districts (they had sent emissaries to the chassidic centers of Polotzk, Minsk, and Shklov, requesting them to come on the designated date). Then, all of them together would march throughout the city in a grand parade, complete with musical instruments and dancing.

On the designated day about three hundred men arrived. When these were joined by the local Vilna chassidim, they comprised a large throng of several thousand. When the congregation [of misnagdim] assembled on the designated day to proclaim the cheirem, the crowd was estimated at more than ten thousand. Black candles were set up on the dais, and each member of the court put on his tallis and kittel. At the same time, the chassidim began their public procession — marching throng after throng, all dressed in their Shabbos clothes.

The geonim Reb Baruch Mordechai (son-in-law of the Chief Rabbi), Reb Moshe Meisels (a former disciple of The Gaon Rav Eliyahu and the executive secretary of the congregation), and other communal dignitaries led the procession. They carried musical instruments — tambourines, trumpets, and cymbals — and they sang joyful songs so that the earth shook with the sound of it. This caused great confusion among the crowd who had assembled to hear the cheirem proclaimed, and a very large number ran out to watch the parade. Thus, only a few people remained inside, and this had a powerful effect on the members of the court who were issuing the proclamation.

After that incident, the misnagdim waged open war against the chassidim. The feud thus grew stronger on both sides. When the misnagdim discovered that the idea of marching in a parade — which had diluted the effect of the cheirem — had come from the Szventzian chassidim, they sentenced four of the Szventzian chassidim to death. Reb Zundel Volf was one of the agents appointed to carry out this verdict.
Translated from the classic columns of HaTamim by Shimon Neubort
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