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The Black Carriage

The Black Carriage

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During the "intermediate days" of the festival of Sukkot of 1798, an armed officer arrived in Liozna to arrest Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement. Deciding that it would be advisable at this point to take the biblical advice "Hide yourself for a brief moment" (Isaiah 26:20), the Rebbe slipped out of a side door. The officer returned to his headquarters empty-handed.

Back in the house, the Rebbe decided that if the agent were to return, he would allow himself to be arrested. Some say that he decided this only after consultation with Rabbi Shmuel Munkes, one of his close Chassidim, who happened to be in the Rebbe's home at the time. Reb Shmuel reputedly said to the Rebbe: "If you are a true Rebbe, you have nothing to fear by being arrested. If you are not, you deserve whatever they will do to you (!), for what right did you have to deprive thousands of Chassidim from enjoying the pleasures of this world?"

When the officer appeared on the day after Simchat Torah, which fell on Thursday that year, the Rebbe did not hide.  Within a few hours he was already seated in the infamous "Black Mary," the carriage which was reserved by the Czarist regime for rebels who were under capital sentence. Covered on all sides with heavy black metal panels, and with no windows whatsoever, it was designed to cast dread on all those who saw it. Guarded by heavily armed soldiers, the ironclad black carriage pulled out of Liozna on Thursday night and clanked its fearsome way down the highway to Petersburg, via Vitebsk and Nevel.

At half past ten the next morning, some six hours before candle-lighting time, the Rebbe asked that they stop where they were until after Shabbat. The officer in charge ignored his request. A moment later the axles of the carriage broke. No sooner had they repaired them, that one of the horses collapsed and died. Fresh horses were brought, but they could not move the carriage from its place. By this time the gendarmes gathered that it would be impossible to press on with their journey against the Rebbe's will, so they asked their prisoner if they could detour to a nearby village, and spend the next day there. The Rebbe refused, but did agree that the carriage be moved off the highway to an adjacent field.

The spot at which the Rebbe spent that Shabbat is about three miles from the village of Seliba-Rudnia, which is near the town of Nevel. An old Chassid who survived into the twentieth century--Reb Michael of Nevel--used to relate that he knew Chassidim who were able to point out the exact spot at which the Rebbe had spent that lonely Shabbat. He himself had gone there to see it with his own eyes. All the way there he had seen old and drooping trees on both sides of the road, but that memorable spot was marked by a tall tree with luxuriant foliage.


Commentary from Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Rebbe of Chabad:

The story of the Rebbe's journey to Petersburg gives tangible testimony to the statement that whatever happens to a tzaddik--and especially to a tzaddik who is a leader of Jewry-- takes place only with his consent. Indeed not only the Rebbe, but every tzaddik likewise rules over all material matters. What the Torah has to say about the created universe is decisive: all temporal matters are subject to the dominion of the Torah.

When the Rebbe did not want to travel further, the wagon came to a halt, and it came to a halt where and when the Rebbe so desired. Had the wagon stood still at candle-lighting time this would have been not at all remarkable. For such things we find concerning even an unwitting reaction, as it is written "No evil shall befall the righteous." But that the wagon should stand still at ten-thirty on Friday morning, and not budge,  this is a palpable wonder of G‑d, like an overt miracle.

From all of the above it should be abundantly clear that one whose word carried weight over material things, as was the case with the Rebbe, had the option of not being imprisoned at all; and of not hiding, even for a solitary hour. If he did go nevertheless, this was for the sake of a profound purpose involving the service of G‑d.

The patriarch Abraham opened the channel of self-sacrifice for the sanctification of G‑d's Name, and the Rebbe opened the channel of self-sacrifice for Chassidic service of G‑d. From all of this one can gather that the whole episode of the Rebbe's imprisonment was only a garment worn by choice, in order to avoid making use of supernatural means.

Truth to tell, this subject warrants a detailed explanation, especially since this would provide at least an inkling of an appreciation of the Rebbe's quintessential inner love for Jews in general--for he wanted every individual to start living with zest in his Torah study, and in his divine service according to the teachings of Chassidism--and his love for Chassidim in particular. And this love the Rebbe planted in the Rebbes who succeeded him.  Such a deep-seated and quintessential love is everlasting, throughout all the generations until the coming of Moshiach, when it will be granted us, at the time of the Resurrection of the Dead, to gaze directly upon the living and luminous countenances of the Rebbes.

Adapted from Likkutei Dibburim (a collection of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s talks), by Yerachmiel Tilles. Rabbi Tilles is co-founder of Ascent of Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the Ascent and Kabbalah Online websites.
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Fro December 3, 2015

My immediate internal response in reading this story is total silence. Loaded silence in presence of a true great tzadik. Thank you for sharing Reply

Anonymous Far Rockaway, NY April 16, 2012

To Francoise Coriat On Yom Kippur we read about the Ten Martyrs, righteous tzaddikim who were all killed in a brutal fashion. (Rabbi Akiva, for instance, died from having iron combs tearing apart his flesh). The passage starts with a description of how they inquired and found out that this was the Will of Heaven. Surely these are the biggest questions of all time: why does a Merciful G-d allow good and innocent people to suffer? Why does the G-d of Righteousness allow evil to flourish? We human beings have been asking these questions for millennia. The answer is that only G-d knows the answers to these questions, and that in the Days of the Messiah we will finally understand. Reply

Chaim Leib Halbert November 27, 2010

Re: A tzadik is human (The will of a tzadik) As for the Will of G-d and the will of a tzadik, there are numerous sources for the concept. Take Ashrei, for example: "He does the will of those who fear Him; their cry is heard and they are rescued." Also, Rabban Gamliel ben Rabi Yehuda HaNasi in Pirkei Avos, chapter 2: "Treat His Will as yours, so that He will treat your will as His. Nullify your will before His, so that the will of others is nullified before yours." Our Sages indicate that, to the extent a man alters his normal behavior for G-d's sake, G-d alters His normal behavior ("Nature") for that man's sake. Reply

Chaim Leib Halbert November 27, 2010

Re: A tzadik is human Yes, a tzadik is human, flesh and blood.

But, as marvelous and complex as flesh and blood is, that does not sum up even an "ordinary" human being. I'm talking, of course, about the soul.

In this lower world, the soul is in exile. It is limited by the body, and is not readily apparent. Its home is before the Throne of Glory. Where does a person feel stronger, more alive, more himself? Not in exile. At home!

That is why the yahrtzeit of a tzadik is celebrated. The tzadik associates more closely with his soul rather than his body. He (his soul) has left exile, gathered up its (spiritual) possessions, and moved back home!

At home, the soul is invigorated and transcends physical limitations. (For example, only one thing can be in one place at one time, etc.) And what does the tzadik do with that strength? What he loves doing best - caring for the Children of Israel!

"Torah sages have no rest in This World or the Next," as the Gemara says. They don't want it! Reply

Beiloum Chem Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine November 24, 2010

A tzadik is human BS"D

A tzadik is still human, flesh and blood. He therefore does pass away like any human being does, and he is not Hashem himself that every wish he has comes true.

Explaining the Shoah is very difficult. It seems to have been a time when Hashem hid Himself from us - and why He did that is not something even the Rebbe would conjecture about. Those who try to explain it often make errors that either negate G-d or try to blame it on the victims themselves. Reply

Stephen Weinstein Camarillo, CA November 23, 2010

Does he consent to die? If "whatever happens to a tzaddik—and especially to a tzaddik who is a leader of Jewry—takes place only with his consent" then how is it possible for a tzaddik to die? If he consents to die, that is the sin of suicide. If he commits that sin, then he is not a tzaddik. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma November 23, 2010

arrivals and departures There are events in our lives that are so tragic and terrible and they do happen to very devout and loving people. And then there is such a story, that does seem like G_d's arranging for the carriage carrying the Rebbe, the chassid, to stop, because it is Shabbat.

It seems we are confronted by paradox wherever we turn, and that for each miracle, there is also someone along the way who is equally worthy, who encounters some disastrous event, that is humbling, sad, problematical and frightening.

So where is the Divine at these times, and what are we to divine from them?

People dove to their deaths during 911 and others were saved by the miracle of being detained by a lost contact lens on a subway platform and beyond.

We must think about both sides and ponder, deeply. For me, there is only one way out, and that is, there's another side, not just another side to the question, but life isn't over, when, it's over.

Maybe G-d is asking for us to question because to depart is to arrive. Reply

levi R December 5, 2009

previous comments The previous commentators missed the point. The tzaddik isnt a movie super hero who snaps his fingers and makes all problems go away, (although he could). The tzaddik uses his abilities to do the utmost for G-ds plan and for the good of the jewish people within the context of what divine providence sees fit. Reply

Mary Wilbur St. Charles, IL December 4, 2009

Answers I too would like answers to Ms. Coriat's questions. But I suspect there aren't any. I can only say that evil behaves like an epdemic plague. It's extremely infectous. Reply

Anonymous Dallas, Texas USA December 4, 2009

"A Tzaddik rules over material matters" My mother's entire family was murdered in Khorostkov on 5 July 1941, so Francoise's question: how do you explain the Shoah - is very poignant to me. As a student of what happened back then (as all of us are to one degree or other), I am deeply interested by the fact that the Shoah would have occurred at a time and place when Judaism was experiencing a renewed burst of energy through Chasidism. All of Gesher Galicia, that was punctuated with one devout shtetl after another, became the bulls eye of the Shoah's target. What are we to expect from soils which are soaked with the blood of so many holy martyrs? One thing is for sure, the event has generated a great deal of thoughtful consideration. In the US, the teaching of the Shoah and its themes of the dignity of all people and need for tolerance is widely practiced. As humankind continues to come to grips with the Shoah, the lesson-rich, post-mortem "rulings" of so many tzaddikim I suspect is far from over. Reply

Françoise Coriat Jerusalem, Israel November 30, 2009

"A tzaddik rules over material matters" If a tzaddik rules over material matters, how do you explain the Shoah? Among the Six Million victims (One Million innocent children), were there no tzaddikim? How do you explain the pogroms, the Inquisition, the Crusades, the destruction of the Temples? No tzaddikim ever suffered? What about Rabbi Akiva? And if they had the power to stop persecutions and disasters, why did they let them happen? Reply