Contact Us

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

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

 Email

By that time — 5555 [1795] — Chassidus had already spread through all the Polish territories (both “Great” Poland and “Little” Poland), and large portions of Zamut, Vohlynia-Podolia, and Galicia. Chabad Chassidus had spread throughout the counties of Vitebsk, Mohilev, Vilna and the surrounding districts, large portions of the counties of Kovna, Chernigov, Poltava, Yekaterinoslav, and Cherson, and much of the territory of Bessarabia. The misnagdim were aware that a large segment of the Jewish people had joined the chassidic faction. Their anger, however, was aimed primarily at the accomplishments of the leader of Chabad — the Alter Rebbe — and his rulings concerning sharpening the knives for shechitah1 and heating the water in the mikvos,2 his Shulchan Aruch, and his Siddur.

Reb Y.L. Segel, the Alter Rebbe’s father-in-law, was an eighth-generation descendant of Moreinu Reb Yehudah Leib Segel (who had been a business partner of Reb Tevel the Philanthropist, founder of the Congregation of Vitebsk. He had held the monopoly for distilling spirits under the Polish government, and had bequeathed this enterprise to his descendants afterwards, up to the generation of the last Reb Y.L. Segel3 ). His business affairs brought him into close contact and acquaintance with government circles in the capital city, as well as the governor and his ministers, and many Polish noblemen who owned the local estates.

When Reb Y.L. Segel contracted the match with Reb Baruch, taking Reb Baruch’s son — the young genius from Liozna — as a husband for his daughter, the Alter Rebbe’s fame spread rapidly. It became widely known that he was a gaon in both the revealed and the mystic aspects of the Torah. Beyond this, he was a great philosopher, and possessed broad knowledge of the sciences and mathematics. His musical compositions (niggunim) also captured the heart.

About two months after his marriage, two events took place that caused the Alter Rebbe’s name to become well known among the foremost scientists. This proved to be of great help to the Alter Rebbe in organizing his program of public service.

The first event:

In those days, institutions of higher learning — universities — did not yet exist in Poland. Instead, there were private academic institutions, supported by the nobility at their own expense. These were known as “academies.”

In the Lithuanian district there were three such academies: i) near Vilna, on the estate of Count Radziwil; ii) near Vitebsk, on the estate of Count Tekczynski; iii) on the banks of the Dnieper River, between Dubravna and Liadi, on the estate of Count Czekraty. In those days, the status of learning in the Polish Empire was at a very low level. The Polish people were more interested in the shape of their moustaches, and were not given to academic pursuits. Thus, the professors in the academies were all French.

On the estate of the Governor of Vitebsk stood a palace, and in the courtyard of this palace stood a sundial. For the past two years, however, this sundial had failed to show the correct time between two and five in the afternoon. The governor had consulted various experts, and professors from the academies. But none of them could solve the puzzle. When the governor heard the praises being heaped upon Reb Y.L. Segel’s son-in-law, he sent his assistant to Reb Y.L., requesting him to come with his son-in-law to the estate and inspect the sundial. Perhaps he would succeed in solving the riddle of why the sundial didn’t work between two and five o’clock.

The Alter Rebbe declined to come, quoting the advice of the Sages:4 “Do not seek intimacy with the ruling power.” Today, they were asking this question — and tomorrow, they would pose some other question. This would take time away from his Torah study. However, after much pleading, and assurances that they would not bother him or interrupt his studies again, he consented.

The Alter Rebbe understood the local language, and could speak it fluently. Nevertheless, when he arrived at the governor’s estate with his father-in-law, he refused to speak Polish, insisting instead on speaking Yiddish only. His father-in-law therefore served as interpreter. The Alter Rebbe inspected the sundial three or four times, during the hours when it was working, and also when it was not working. After completing his investigation, he said:

“The Talmud states that at midday the sun is directly overhead; thus, nothing except the clouds can obscure it. But in the afternoon, when the sun begins to move westward, it is possible for certain objects to block the sun’s rays.”

He estimated that there had to be a tall hill about twelve to fifteen miles to the south, with tall trees growing on the hilltop. During the three hours from two to five in the afternoon, the trees were blocking the sun’s rays from reaching the sundial. Later, as the sun’s angle changed, its rays could reach the sundial once more.

The governor was highly impressed, and ordered a special agent to be sent to inspect all areas between twelve and fifteen miles south of his estate, to see whether there was indeed a tall hill with trees at its top.

However, Professor Marseille — Dean of Count Tekczynski’s academy, and a renowned physicist — scoffed at the Alter Rebbe’s theory, and dismissed it. He said: “The Jewish people are an amazing nation. They seem to know everything from the Talmud. Zelig the physician learned his medicine from the Talmud. Baruch the gardener learned how to improve the soil from the Talmud. And now, this young prodigy has discovered in the Talmud how the sun’s rays reach the sundial!”

To this, the Alter Rebbe patiently replied, “Actual demonstrations serve as an axe to cut down those who are haughty with their knowledge of science.”

“Does this saying also appear in your Talmud?” asked the professor.

“No,” replied the Alter Rebbe. “This saying comes from the Greek sage Galen, who applied it to the arrogant folk whose knowledge of science did not reach an elevated level.”

Reb Y.L. Segel took the professor’s venomous remarks to heart, and when he returned home he related the whole incident to several of his non-Jewish acquaintances. When he asked them for suggestions, they replied that they themselves would go to inspect those locations. They discovered that it was indeed so — at the distance specified by the Alter Rebbe, they found a tall hill with very tall trees growing at its top. They decided that —without telling Reb Y.L. Segel about it — they would hire some men to cut down the tall trees growing on the hilltop.

A few days later, the manager of the estate informed his employer the governor that the sundial had suddenly begun to work correctly again, even between two and five o’clock. The governor was amazed by this, and he told his officers about it. Thus, the story spread that the sundial in the courtyard of the palace had begun to work properly again.

Eventually, Reb Y.L. Segel’s acquaintances — who had cut down the trees from the hilltop — heard the story. They then summoned the residents of the village near that hill, to testify before the governor that they were the ones who had ordered them to cut down the tall trees on that hilltop. They themselves brought a deposition — bearing a recent date, and the official seal of that village’s town hall — certifying that on such-and-such date, the peasants had cut down so-and-so many trees from that hill. After that, the Alter Rebbe’s name became well known among the great scientists.

Professor Marseille’s ridicule of the Talmud penetrated deeply into the Alter Rebbe’s heart. He therefore began to devise strategies to head off the evil that was to come because of these French professors. They held great influence over the government officials, the noblemen, and the estate owners, and were inciting them to hatred of the Jews and their Torah. He concluded that if the Jews were to abandon commercial trade and brokerage, and engage in agricultural work instead, their economic situation would be more stable.

The Second Event:

Professor De Lange, Dean of the Faculty at the Academy of Count Czekraty, heard rumor of the Alter Rebbe’s great knowledge of physics and mathematics. His own specialty was the field of botany. However, many years earlier — when he was a student at the Sorbonne University — he had heard a mathematical puzzle from a professor of physics and mathematics. Since then, whenever he met a mathematician, he would show him the puzzle as he had written it down at the time. Unfortunately, he could find no one to solve it. Now, hearing that the son-in-law of the wealthy Reb Y.L. Segel of Vitebsk was an outstanding mathematician and physicist, he made a trip to Vitebsk.

The arrival of the veteran botanist — Professor De Lange — caused a stir among the faculty of Count Tekczynski’s academy. They all came to greet him at the home of the mayor, where he was lodging. Professor Marseille learned that the purpose of Professor De Lange’s trip was to see Reb Y.L. Segel’s son-in-law and request that he solve the mathematical puzzle. Hearing this, he admonished him for slighting the dignity of scientists by coming to receive instruction from a Jewish Talmudist, who derived all his knowledge from the Talmud. Several years earlier, De Lange had asked Marseille himself, and he had been unable to solve the puzzle. Knowing Marseille to be an anti-Semite, De Lange made no reply to him.

The mayor of the city sent one of his officials to the wealthy Reb Y.L. Segel, to inform him that the elderly Professor De Lange had come especially to meet his son-in-law, the outstanding mathematician. When he requested an appointment to come and see his son-in-law, the Alter Rebbe replied that he did not desire to trouble the professor. Instead, he would go to see him.

The professor presented the problem in the Polish language. However, the papers in which the actual numbers were written down were in French. The Alter Rebbe studied the problem deeply. On the third day, the professor went to visit the Alter Rebbe at his father-in-law’s home. The Alter Rebbe gave the solution to the puzzle, and Reb Moshe Mendel “the Frenchman,” who was the accountant of Reb Y.L. Segel’s business enterprises, copied the Alter Rebbe’s notes from Hebrew to French.

The professor was highly impressed by the solution to the mathematical puzzle, for several of the best mathematicians had worked on it and had been unable to solve it. He praised the Alter Rebbe to all his acquaintances, and this proved very useful to the Rebbe’s campaign for Jews to engage in agricultural work for their living.

Yes, the Alter Rebbe was outstanding both as a leader and as an organizer. Every word he spoke and every decision he made, was the result of careful consideration and planning. The breadth of his understanding, the force of his determination, and his sheer strength of will were truly amazing. From his early youth to his old age, he never once retreated from anything he had decided upon or agreed to — neither in spiritual matters, nor in worldly matters — regarding his public service.

A cardinal rule of the Alter Rebbe’s public service was that anything he made up his holy mind to do, was to be done with the utmost secrecy and discretion. Only those who truly needed to know were informed of it. And even they were instructed by the Alter Rebbe that everything was to be done discreetly and in secret.

When Empress Catherine II conquered White Russia — in the year 5532 [1772] — she granted civil rights to the Jews in the cities of the annexed territories. The Alter Rebbe then worked to move several Jewish families to these territories. Some of them were engaged in various commercial enterprises, some were craftsmen, and some were estate managers whose employers relied on their honesty and their competence.

The Alter Rebbe chose twelve people5 from the chassidic community; most of them were astute and energetic young scholars. He settled them and their families, and supported them while they found their livelihoods. Their special mission was this: in the course of their business affairs, they were to become acquainted with the counts, princes and dukes, and the heads of the government ministries. This would form the cornerstone of his program of public affairs.

The Alter Rebbe arranged a program of operations for his twelve emissaries in the capital city. One of them, Reb Avraham Yaakov “the Smith,” was chosen as the group leader. For many years, they labored for the benefit of the Jews, using their acquaintance with the nobility and the officials of the government ministries. When the chassid Reb Avraham Yaakov passed away, the Alter Rebbe chose his son, Reb Shmuel Moshe, as his father’s successor. This Reb Shmuel Moshe was very wise, strong-minded, and highly energetic.

In the year 5554 [1794], about a year after Poland was conquered, many complaints arose against the Jews in the cities of Lithuania, Little Poland, and Ukraine. The complaints, which involved Jewish business and commercial affairs, were the result of the evil influence of the French professors. They taught the children of the nobility and the estate owners to hate the Jews and to spread false accusations against them.

The secret Public Affairs Committee of the chassidim learned of the complaints against the Jews. Reb Shmuel Moshe — the group leader — then arranged with each member of the group to approach the duke or count with whom he had influence, and speak well of the Jews. He should also hold talks with the officials of the local office of the Ministry of the Interior, to suppress the letters that were arriving from the officials of the provincial governments, containing complaints against the Jews — and to delay the transmission of these letters to the Interior Minister.

Reb Shmuel Moshe was well acquainted with Count Lubamirski, who wielded great influence at the court of Empress Catherine II. He spoke with this count at great length, but unfortunately, he perceived that his efforts were of no avail. Another member of the committee, the chassid Reb Zundel Yitzchak of Shklov, knew Lord Potimkin, who held great influence over the empress. Reb Zundel Moshe managed to persuade this official to intercede for the Jews.

Lord Potimkin succeeded in persuading the empress to send agents to investigate personally the complaints against the Jews. She commanded the Minister of the Interior to send someone who was both reliable and astute, and upon whom the Jews could exert no influence. This agent was to travel to the regions of Lithuania, Little Poland, and Ukraine, to examine, investigate, and study the commercial affairs and the lifestyles of the Jews, and their relations with the non-Jewish citizens among whom they lived. Wherever he went, he was to consult with the government officials, the nobility, and the estate owners. Everything was to be written down in a notebook. The entire trip was to be completed in no longer than two years’ time.

The Minister of the Interior referred the empress’ command to his assistant, Niksin, to see to it that it was executed without delay. This Niksin was widely known as an evil person with degenerate habits. In particular, he was known to be an anti-Semite. Niksin chose the Russian author Derzhavin6 for the job. This Derzhavin was unique among Russian writers, and was famous for his mastery of literature. He harbored an intense hatred against the Jews, and held an important position in the empress’ court.

In his youth, Derzhavin had been an apprentice to an estate owner near Disna. At the time, Reb Dov Moshe had lived on that estate, and the young Derzhavin would visit him at his home. Occasionally, Reb Dov Moshe would praise Derzhavin’s youthful achievements to the estate owner. Many years later — after Reb Dov Moshe had moved to Petersburg, and after Derzhavin had become famous as an important literary figure — the two happened to meet, and recognized each other. Derzhavin was reminded of his youth, and asked to visit Reb Dov Moshe at his home.

Reb Dov Moshe spoke to Derzhavin several times about his attitude toward the Jews, and admonished him for being an anti-Semite. He offered many proofs of the virtues of the Jewish people, but the only reply he received was, “If all your fellow Jews were like you, I would love them; at least, I would not hate them so much.”

It became known that the author Derzhavin had been chosen by the Interior Minister, and appointed to undertake the investigation of the Jews’ commercial affairs and their way of life. Reb Dov Moshe then went to visit Derzhavin, urging him to conduct this investigation fairly, as might be expected from such a scholarly writer.

Reb Dov Moshe found Derzhavin in very cheerful spirits (usually, he had an angry expression on his face). But Reb Dov Moshe was stunned when he heard that on the previous day the Minister of the Interior had granted Derzhavin an audience with the Empress, as the agent chosen to fulfill her majesty’s command. He was to investigate the Jewish communities in Lithuania, Little Poland, and Ukraine, and study their business dealings and their way of life.

The empress had expressed satisfaction with this choice. She had also expressed confidence that the mission was entrusted to someone who would not betray his homeland to a people who despised the religion of the country and its inhabitants. In his report, he was to make recommendations for restricting the business and commercial dealings of those people, thus putting them in their proper place.

“I will fulfill this mission with a joyful heart,” said Derzhavin. “And as for you, my longtime friend, and your fellow Jews — prepare yourselves to go into exile.7 In two years’ time, when I return from my journey, my first recommendation will be to expel the Jews from the capital city.”

Reb Dov Moshe emerged from his visit with Derzhavin broken and dejected. He reported their conversation to the members of the committee. They were in deep anguish, and wept along with him. Reb Shmuel Moshe was the only member who remained unaffected by Derzhavin’s words. The council members decided that:

i. No one must discover what had taken place at the empress’ court, nor learn of the visit to Derzhavin. And if the royal decree did happen to become public knowledge, they should try to dismiss the story, and appear to be unconcerned by it.

ii. They should send a special emissary to the Alter Rebbe, to inform him of the situation in detail. Since Reb Dov Moshe knew Derzhavin well, and had personally heard from him all that he planned to do, they decided to send Reb Dov Moshe of Disna as the emissary to the Alter Rebbe.

The Alter Rebbe’s instructions to the public service council in Petersburg were:

i. To send to him a special agent, with the details of Derzhavin’s planned itinerary.

ii. To inform him when the journey was to take place.

iii. The council members should continue their work, doing whatever they could through their acquaintances.

The Alter Rebbe reassured the council members, telling them not to worry about Derzhavin’s threat to recommend the expulsion of the Jews from Petersburg upon his return. In his handwritten reply, he quoted the verses, “Let not the [warrior] who girds on [his sword before battle] boast like one who removes it [from his belt after victory in battle],”8 and “Deliverance is the L‑rd’s.”9 He concluded with a blessing.

When Reb Dov Moshe returned to Petersburg, he managed — in various ways — to obtain a copy of Derzhavin’s planned itinerary. He also obtained a list of names of the people whom he would visit in each place, and an estimate of the time Derzhavin would spend traveling. All this was sent to the Alter Rebbe by special messenger.

The Alter Rebbe chose two business men, and instructed them to arrange their business travels so that they would follow Derzhavin’s itinerary. One of them was the chassid Reb Shmaryahu Zalman of Polotzk,10 a dealer in silk and velvet cloth, and an expert tailor of women’s clothing. The second was the chassid Reb Nasan of Shklov,11 a dealer in jewels and precious stones.

Wherever they went, they were to try to gain admittance — [ostensibly,] in pursuit of their business — to the homes of the officials and the estate owners whom Derzhavin planned to visit. Whenever the opportunity presented itself to obtain a copy of his notes, they should spare no expense in doing so. And if they learned anything about any bribery taking place, they should try to get all the facts, and record everything in a notebook.

These chassidim — Reb Shmaryahu Zalman and Reb Nasan — fulfilled their mission with genuine mesirus nefesh. Through cunning and skill, they managed to obtain copies of some of Derzhavin’s notes, and a list of all cases of bribery that they had uncovered. They recorded the name of the person taking the bribe, and the date when the bribe was offered, all in proper detail.

When Empress Catherine died, her son Paul inherited the throne. He was an honorable and peace-loving person, and he surrounded himself with advisors who were honest, and who loved justice. His chief advisors were Counts Dalgarukov and Lubamirski. Empress Catherine had spurned them and others like them, choosing instead wicked men of depraved character.

Czar Paul also replaced the government ministers with finer people, striving to improve the conditions of the citizenry — including the Jews. When he ascended the throne, he granted the rights of citizenship to the Jews of Courland. His good friends — Counts Lubamirski and Dalgarukov — were benevolent toward the Jews (as mentioned), and they had great influence over him. Thus, a new spirit entered the lives of the Jewish people.

The members of the Public Service Committee now recalled the Alter Rebbe’s holy words, quoting the verses, “Let not the one who girds on [his sword] boast like one who removes it,” and “Deliverance is the L‑rd’s.” It was clear to them that the Alter Rebbe’s prediction was now being fulfilled through the more congenial atmosphere that prevailed in government circles.

The Alter Rebbe summoned the chassidim Reb Moshe Vilenker12 and Reb Moshe Meisels,13 and he turned over to them the material brought by Reb Shmaryahu Zalman and Reb Nasan. He instructed them to arrange the material in proper order, and then take it to Petersburg. There, they were to meet with the committee and determine the best use to make of the collected material. They should then present it to the counts and noblemen who were in a position to exert their influence in favor of the Jewish people.

The chassidim Reb Moshe Meisels and Reb Moshe Vilenker executed all these instructions. When they arrived in Petersburg, they found that the writer Derzhavin was already there. Through his acquaintances, Reb Dov Moshe of Disna learned that Derzhavin was in the process of submitting the report based on his research.

The wicked Derzhavin took no notice of the new mood that prevailed at the Imperial Court. He submitted the report based on his investigations in the cities where the Jews lived, severely maligning the Jews. In a personal letter to Czar Paul, he stated that he had accomplished his mission honestly, as assigned to him by the empress. He included a quote of her words to him prior to his journey.

During the three months of Shvat, Adar I, and Adar II, the chassidim Reb Moshe Meisels and Reb Moshe Vilenker succeeded in their mission — with the help of Counts Lubamirski and Dalgarukov. The Czar castigated the author Derzhavin, heaping insults on him. He then ordered all of the reports to be thrown into the fire. After this, the fears of the Jews throughout the country were allayed.

The chassid Reb Moshe Meisels possessed an all-encompassing mind and heart, and by nature he was very strong-willed. Even in his early youth he had been renowned for his quick grasp and wondrous memory. He studied constantly and with great diligence, and as time went on, he steadily rose to ever higher levels of knowledge. He was about thirty years old14 when the geonim Reb Yissachar (brother of the Gaon Rav Eliyahu) and Reb Avraham sent him and a few of his outstanding fellow students to Berlin.15

In Berlin, Reb Moshe Meisels had studied German, French, and Italian,16 and spent all day and all night reading various books.17 Most of them were philosophical works that he had never seen before. Reb Moshe always made a good impression with his pleasing appearance, his wise sayings, and his joyful nature. He found favor with several wealthy residents of Berlin who owned libraries, and they would lend him all sorts of books, for as long as he needed them. He would return them by mail, whereupon they sent him others in their place. This was a regular practice with him.

About two years after his return from Berlin, he was appointed secretary and trustee of the congregation. Due to his lofty abilities and his sharp mind, he breathed new life into the congregation. The Gaon Rav Eliyahu said of him that since the day the congregation was first established,18 there had been no person like him.19

Reb Moshe was highly impressed by his stay in Petersburg in connection with the Derzhavin affair. He loved intellectual pursuits, understood several languages, and was an avid reader. Most of Petersburg nobility possessed libraries where he would spend most of his time, and this added to his wisdom.

Reb Moshe returned home in exceedingly good spirits. He was about fifty years old — at the prime of his life, and in solid condition both materially and spiritually. He possessed an expansive personality, and was strong willed by nature. And so, he described to everyone the full details of the political maneuvers he and his assistant — the chassid Reb Moshe Vilenker — had just achieved. Of course, he also mentioned the participation of the Public Service Committee of the Petersburg chassidim, headed by Reb Shmuel Moshe, following the Alter Rebbe’s orders.

The members of the Vilna chassidic congregation recommended that a communal feast of celebration be held, complete with the recitation of Hallel and prayers of thanksgiving, and with Tachanun omitted. Furthermore, a description of the entire event — in all its details, and including the names of the participants — should be written down in the official archives of the congregation, to be remembered forever. A feast should be held in honor of the mitzvah.

However, the party of the misnagdim opposed this idea. The chassidim were aware that the leaders of the misnagdim were plotting against them. Even the more reasonable members of the misnagdim judged that such an undertaking might cause the evil plans to be put into action, and so they sided with the rest of their fellow misnagdim.

However, the Chabad chassidic faction set a date for feasting and rejoicing, completely disregarding the fact that it was already several days into the month of Nissan. Only a few days remained before Pesach, and most of them were busy with preparations for the festival. They sent notices to all chassidim of the district, and a few young chassidic volunteers set out to inform the districts of Minsk and Polotzk.20

At the designated time, many chassidim — from all cities and towns — arrived in Vilna. The celebration took place at the home of the President of the congregation, Reb Meir Raphael’s. In his courtyard there was a large building, built especially for chassidic gatherings.

During the feast, Reb Moshe stood up and related the whole story. Each detail was in its proper place, and he gave due emphasis to the contributions of the Public Service Committee that had operated under the Alter Rebbe’s instructions. He recited the tale word by word, as if he were reading from the Megillah. He audience paid close attention to the recital. Afterwards, they passed a unanimous resolution that the story of the evil decree — and G‑d’s salvation through the Alter Rebbe and his Public Service Committee — should be written in a scroll, and sent to all chassidic communities, wherever they were.

Reb Moshe was an expert scribe, and possessed great literary talent. He wrote a straightforward account of the decree and of G‑d’s rescue through the Alter Rebbe and his public servants, the Chabad Chassidim of Petersburg. The text was written according to the Alter Rebbe’s instructions, sent by a special messenger from the chassidic community of Vilna.

Hundreds of copies of this epistle were made, and they were sent everywhere that chassidim lived — even as far away as Romania and Galicia. In all Jewish communities where the story was heard, there was happiness and rejoicing among the Jews. The chassidim publicized the letters, blessing and extolling the Alter Rebbe. Thus, hundreds and thousands of people joined the Chassidic Movement, and the chassidic communities grew ever larger.

News of the feasting and rejoicing reached the leaders of the misnagdim who waged war against the Chabad Chassidim and their leader, the Alter Rebbe. They learned that the chassidim in Vilna had even invited their colleagues from far-away places, and that they had greatly publicized the event, sending pamphlets to all the communities. This aroused the anger of the misnagdim, and they held a meeting to discuss ways of salvaging their honor and thwarting the spread of the Chassidic Movement. They decided the following:

i. To enlist the wealthy contractor Nota Haimovitch, who held the title of Counselor to the Czar. They would try to persuade him to write a pamphlet to be sent to all the Jews, extolling Czar Paul for acting kindly toward the Jews. He would emphasize that it was through his own (Haimovitch’s) efforts, and those of Count Lubamirski, that the Czar had rejected Derzhavin’s recommendations to pass laws against Russian Jewry, and instead had actually strengthened the civil rights of the Jews.

ii. To urge the Gaon Rav Eliyahu to issue a cheirem against the chassidim, and their leader, the Maggid of Liozna.

The committee sent an impressive group of people to visit the wealthy Reb Nota. To their disappointment, he was not at home — he had gone away to Paris with one of the noblemen. Thus, the committee members returned home, and composed a public letter — dated 24 Iyar 5556 [June 1, 1796]. In it, they described G‑d’s mighty rescue of the Jews of Russia from the wicked Derzhavin’s scheme. They emphasized that this had come about through the efforts of the magnificently wealthy Counselor to the Czar, the famous contractor, the praiseworthy Nota Haimovitch, together with the benevolent Count Lubamirski.

However, the above-mentioned letter [of the chassidim] had already been publicized at the end of Adar II. Thus, even among the councils of the misnagdim, no attention was paid to the letter of this committee. Moreover, the committee of [the misnagdim of] Slutzk — in a letter dated 2 Sivan [June 8] — reprimanded the Vilna committee for publishing such a pamphlet, because:

i. The members of the “cult” had already published the whole story in all its details two months earlier; and

ii. The wealthy contractor Reb Nota Haimovitch had already left town during the previous month of MarCheshvan, while the writer Derzhavin had not returned from his travels until the month of Teves, as described in the cult’s pamphlet published on Erev Rosh Chodesh of the present month, thus contradicting the committee’s letter of 24 Iyar.

For about a year, even the more reasonable leaders of the misnagdim had harbored resentment of the chassidim in their hearts. They resented all chassidim in general, and particularly the members of the Committee of the congregation, and their trustee, Reb Moshe Meisels. The reason for this was the following.

The gaon and chassid Reb Pinchas — also known as “Reb Pinchas Reizes” — was the son of the gaon Reb Henoch Schick, the Chief Rabbi of Shklov. The father resented the fact that his son had become a chassid. Nevertheless, he held him in high esteem, and loved to exchange novel Torah insights with him.

Reb Pinchas had been a long-time disciple of the mighty gaon Reb Yosef Kalbo, whose Torah study strictly followed the rules of logic. From that time on, he had joined the chassidic congregation. While living in Liozna — in his early years [as a chassid] — he had studied with the geonim Reb Mordechai and Reb Moshe, the Alter Rebbe’s brothers. They too studied with strict logic. This reinforced the logical nature of Reb Pinchas’ Torah study to such an extent, that his father Reb Henoch Schick was amazed.

Once, Reb Pinchas was deeply engrossed in a handwritten notebook.21 When Reb Henoch saw his son studying the manuscript so intently, he assumed that it must be a collection of Reb Pinchas’ novel insights, and he asked to see them. He expressed satisfaction that his son was finally committing his novel insights to writing.

A few days later, Reb Henoch returned the notebook, saying that the book ought to be printed and published — though it was small in size, it was of great quality. As for what he had written in his Kuntres Acharon,22 the brilliance was extraordinary.

Reb Pinchas replied that he was willing to publish it, with the stipulation that the preface would not mention the author’s identity. He would also print it at his own expense. The elderly gaon Reb Henoch agreed to this. He wrote an introduction to the sefer, approving its publication, but not mentioning the author’s name, and Reb Pinchas printed it at his own expense.23

The sefer immediately became well known to the public. In less than four months, the entire first edition — consisting of four thousand copies — was sold out.

When the sefer arrived in Vilna, the Gaon Rav Eliyahu heard its praises. After studying it, he too praised it, saying that the contents were arranged in logical order. He added that it would be a mitzvah if this sefer were to be found in every corner of the Jewish world. The rumor persisted that the author was one of the geonim of Shklov, who insisted on anonymity because of his great humility and saintliness. During that same year, the congregations of Vilna and Shklov contributed to the cost of two additional printings.

After more than a year passed, it became known that the author of the Hilchos Talmud Torah was none other than the Alter Rebbe himself. Thus, the sefer was held even more precious by the chassidim. Though they all possessed copies, they now reprinted it a fourth time,24 producing a large number of copies,25 which they distributed in all districts of Russia. It was also distributed in neighboring countries, in the Holy Land, and in countries between Russia and the Holy Land.

The fact that the sefer had been published anonymously aroused the anger of the misnagdim. They claimed that this was just another plot by the chassidim to bring the residents of all nearby countries under the influence of their leader, the Alter Rebbe. Even the great Torah scholars among the misnagdim, who were usually more reasonable, harbored resentment in their hearts over this.

By that time, several short treatises on various Halachos26 in the four sections of Shulchan Aruch had been distributed in handwritten form among the chassidim. A few excerpts of Likkutei Amarim27 were now available, arranged into chapters by the Alter Rebbe. The Alter Rebbe’s new text of the Siddur was also well publicized,28 as were his Halachic innovations concerning the method of sharpening the knives for shechitah and heating the water in the mikvos.

All this, in addition to their publicizing of the rescue from the evil decree, kindled the anger of the council of the misnagdim who were battling the Chabad Chassidim and their leader. Therefore, they requested that the Gaon Rav Eliyahu issue an additional cheirem against the chassidim in general, and against the Chabad Chassidim and their leader in particular. Otherwise, it would not be long before they took over the entire territory of Lita.

The Gaon Rav Eliyahu declined to issue the cheirem against the chassidim. It was only with difficulty that the wealthy Yosef Peseles persuaded him to publish an open letter stating his opinion of the chassidic “cult.” The Gaon Rav Eliyahu published his open letter on 9 Sivan. Among other things, he wrote, “It is incumbent upon everyone who calls himself a Jew, or who has fear of G‑d in his heart, to oppress them, to harass them with all sorts of persecution, and to suppress them wherever Jews wield any influence.”

But when the geonim — the Gaon Rav Eliyahu’s associates and disciples — saw how little effect his letter had, they rebuked the council members for having pursued their resolution to persuade the Gaon Rav Eliyahu to issue the letter.

Members of the chassidic community in Vilna were in good spirits at that time. For one thing, the letter of Iyar had only brought shame upon its writers, while the letter of Sivan had been without any effect at all. Besides this, the chassidim had succeeded in appointing two officers of the community, in addition to the four who were already in office. Thus, the twelve community officers included six who were members of the chassidic congregation. Moreover, it was just then that the Alter Rebbe’s sefer29 was finally printed (previously, it had been available only in handwritten copies).

So great was the desire of the chassidim to obtain this sefer, that they contracted with the publishers — the chassid Reb Shalom Shachna (son-in-law of the Alter Rebbe, and father of the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek) and his partner Reb Mordechai. The contract stipulated that the printed volumes were to be sent to all localities where chassidim lived — each bundle of five copies to be sent by special messenger as soon as they came off the press. About four thousand copies were ordered for Vilna, and two thousand for the rest of that district. Many of the more reasonable misnagdim also studied these volumes in secret.

The mighty gaon Reb Chayim of Volozhin also eventually became convinced that the chassidim were following the proper path, and that everything that had been said about them during the previous decades had been nothing more than false accusations. From time to time, he too would peruse a copy of the Tanya. Inwardly, he became closer to the chassidim, and so he resigned from the council of the misnagdim. What distressed him most was that the Gaon Rav Eliyahu’s honor was now being denigrated; the rumor was spreading that the Gaon Rav Eliyahu was ill, and that the members of the council — headed by Yosef Peseles — were speaking in his name without his consent.

Footnotes
1.
[I.e., the use of steel knives, polished to a keen edge. Most Jewish communities had been using iron knives, which were more difficult to sharpen. If they were highly polished, they would qickly become knicked, and thus unfit for use. The nuisance of constantly resharpening and repolishing them was not considered worthwhile. Moreover, the polished steel knives had been deemed a new innovation, which some authorities wished to avoid. The Alter Rebbe, however encouraged the use of the polished steel knives (see Alter Rebbe’s Shulchan Aruch, Vol. 6, Responsum No. 7.]
2.
[Originally the mikvos contained cold water. This posed two problems: i) in cold climates such as Russia, there was great danger to health; ii) because of the cold, women might hurry the immersion and not do it properly. The Alter Rebbe approved a system for heating the mikvah which would not compromise the validity of the mikvah. There were other authorities who questioned this, but the Alter Rebbe’s system is defended in the Tzemach Tzedek’s Responsa, Yoreh De’ah 176:3:2 and 334.]
3.
[In his days, the kingdom of Poland ceased to exist, and monopolies granted by its government became worthless.]
4.
[I.e., avoid dealings with government officials; Avos 1:10; Siddur, p. 212.]
5.
We know the names of only nine of them: from Minsk, Reb Avraham Yaakov and Reb Gedaliah Zev; from Borisov, Reb Avraham Zev and Reb Baruch Yosef; from Shklov, Reb Zundel Kohen and Reb Chayim Moshe; Reb Dov Ber Moshe of Disna, Reb Eliyah Shmuel of Radczov, and Reb Mordechai of Vitebsk.
6.
[The Russian poet, Gavrila R. Derzhavin (1743-1816).]
7.
[Lit., “Prepare utensils of exile for yourselves”; Yechezkel 12:3.]
8.
[I Melachim 20:11.]
9.
[Tehillim 3:9.]
10.
The grandfather of the chassid Reb Shlomo Zalman of Yanovitch.
11.
The father of the chassid Reb Shlomo Monnessohn.
12.
[See Links in the Chassidic Legacy, Sichos In English, Brooklyn, 1997, p. 125ff.]
13.
[See Vol. 1 of this translation, Supplement E: “The Alter Rebbe’s Later Years.”]
14.
He was born in the year 5505 [1745].
15.
[These scholars were sent to investigate Moses Mendelssohn and his translation of the Chumash, as described in the previous chapter.]

For the rest of his days, Reb Moshe would quote the blessing they had received from The Gaon Rav Eliyahu before departing for Berlin. He had said, “My sons, I am well aware that the road you are about to travel is a perilous one. It is forty years since I last traveled in Germany. In those days there were still great Torah scholars to be found there; even so, the atmosphere there favored the attractions of the pleasures of the material world. And this is especially true today! May G‑d bless you and watch over you.”
16.
He had a native talent for learning foreign languages.
17.
He used to say that while he lived in Berlin, the twenty-four hours of the day were not sufficient for him.
18.
He was referring to the time of Rav Yehudah the notary and magistrate, who would set the calendar for hearing lawsuits and other disputes.
19.
The Gaon Rav Eliyahu was unaware that Reb Moshe was already a Chabad Chassid. [He came to be one] when the famous gaon Reb Yosef Kalbo visited Vilna in 5531 [1771]. Reb Yosef was already a fervent chassid, and was one of those who urged The Gaon Rav Eliyahu to grant an audience to the holy Reb Menachem Mendel of Horodok and the Alter Rebbe. Several of the outstanding scholars, including Reb Moshe, were drawn to Reb Yosef. When the Alter Rebbe visited Vilna in 5532 (this was before the cheirem was proclaimed), Reb Moshe became his adherent, and began to study Chassidus diligently.
20.
To avoid the expense of sending a special messenger, they would hire a horse, and one of the younger chassidim would volunteer to ride it.
21.
The chassid Reb Pinchas was very much loved by the Alter Rebbe. Besides his genius in Chassidus and Kabbalah, he was also a great gaon in the revealed aspects of the Torah. His chief asset was that he was extremely orderly, and loved brevity. When the Alter Rebbe wrote his work Hilchos Talmud Torah [Lit., “Laws of Torah Study”; a subsection of the Alter Rebbe’s Shulchan Aruch, including extensive annotation], he greatly desired to publish it anonymously. Therefore, he gave it to the chassid Reb Pinchas, instructing him to copy it in his own handwriting. He told him, “If you are worthy, you will be my agent in doing a very great mitzvah.”
22.
[Lit., the “Final Appendix.”]
23.
It was with great joy that he paid the cost of the printing. All revenues from the sale of the book were donated by him to the community treasury.
24.
Apparently, this was the edition printed in 5554 [1794].
25.
About fifteen thousand.
26.
Booklets on Hilchos Tzitzis, Hilchos Birchos HaNehenin [blessings recited when partaking of various foods, and on certain other occasions], Hilchos Shechitah, Hilchos Treifos [defects that render an animal or fowl non-kosher], Hilchos Ta’aruvos [mixtures of kosher and non-kosher foods].... [The latter collection was never published and appears to have been lost to posterity.]
27.
While still in handwritten form, it was entitled simply Likkutei Amarim; when it was printed, the title Tanya was added.
28.
Changes that the Alter Rebbe had made to the standard text were written by hand into the margins of printed Siddurim.
29.
[I.e., the Tanya.]
Translated from the classic columns of HaTamim by Shimon Neubort
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
 Email
Start a Discussion
1000 characters remaining
Related Topics