1The Alter Rebbe’s arrest greatly enhanced the public activities of the chassidim in two respects. First, the qualities of the chassidim and their leader the Alter Rebbe were now recognized in government circles. Second, several chassidim of great ability had now become active in public service, and were working for the economic benefit of the Jewish people.

The Alter Rebbe’s first arrest had a very detrimental effect on the health of his family. The Rebbetzin, his sons and daughters, and even his grandson Ramam2 (who was only eight years old) fasted every day, ignoring the fact that they were already weak and sick. Tehillim were recited in public, and they visited the cemetery regularly, to pray at the gravesite of the Alter Rebbe’s daughter, Rebbetzin Devorah Leah.3

Though the old Rebbetzin (Rebbetzin Rivkah), the Alter Rebbe’s mother, was very weak from fasting, she was the one who reassured the rest of the family. She was very strong minded, and manifested an air of calm and serenity. During Shabbos Parshas Vayishlach, the Mitteler Rebbe fainted twice from physical weakness and mental anguish. But his grandmother4 said to him, “I swear that everything will turn out just as my father5 foretold it to me this very week, your father will be set free.”

The one who was most upset by the affair was the Alter Rebbe’s son Reb Moshe.6 He requested permission to travel to Petersburg, for he was sure that with his sound arguments he would succeed in having his father released from prison.7 “I would gain an audience with the Czar himself, if necessary, and with no trouble at all I would triumph over the prosecution,” he said.

However, the Alter Rebbe had issued strict instructions that no member of his family was to come to Petersburg, except his brother-in-law.8 Even the chassidim were forbidden to come, except those who were specifically authorized by the special committee to assist in proving the true facts.9

[When the Alter Rebbe was arrested the second time,] the imperial order arrived on the second day of Chol HaMoed Sukkos, 18 Tishrei 5561 [October 7, 1800]. He was summoned to appear in the capital city, and required to begin his journey on the following Monday, 24 Tishrei. This time, however, he was to travel in a coach belonging to the postal authorities, at government expense. He could take along any two people he chose to serve him and they too would travel free. They would be accompanied by three officials in civilian dress.

This time too, Reb Moshe begged his father to take him along.10 The Alter Rebbe loved his youngest son very much, and would often say of him, “I thank G‑d, through whose kindness my Moshe possesses outstanding abilities ten times greater than those of his namesake.11 May his excellent memory continue to serve him forever.”

We all know how this journey differed from the previous one in 5559. The first arrest was under much harsher conditions, beginning with the first moment that the Alter Rebbe was seated in the black coach. It was covered with iron armor, and was called the “death wagon.”12 The coach was surrounded by armed soldiers, accompanied by an armed escort riding on horseback. They uttered threats, and cried out in shrieking voices, to frighten away the throngs of men, women, and children who attempted to follow the procession.

[At his second arrest,] the Alter Rebbe traveled under far more dignified conditions. He was transported at government expense, in a spacious coach belonging to the postal authority. At every station,13 a private room was placed at his disposal for him to rest. Wherever the coach passed, hundreds of men and women came forth to greet him14 and bless him.15

On Friday, 28 Tishrei, the Alter Rebbe arrived in Petersburg. A high-ranking official of the Ministry of the Interior came to receive him and to accompany him and his entourage to one of the buildings in the courtyard of the Tainy Soviet prison.16 He assigned a Jewish attendant, and also a non-Jewish one, to serve them.

Reb Moshe told the official that the Alter Rebbe was accustomed to daven with a congregation three times a day Shacharis, Minchah, and Maariv. The official apologized, saying that he could not fulfill this request. His orders were that the Alter Rebbe, Reb Moshe, and the second person who accompanied them, were to be kept separated from their fellow Jews. Reb Moshe then suggested that the prayer service could be held in the adjoining room. Since the two rooms were completely separated by a wall, small openings could be cut in this wall, near the ceiling. Thus, the Alter Rebbe would be able to hear the prayers and the Torah reading. Within a few hours, all this had been arranged.

During the next two months 28 Tishrei - 27 Kislev [October 17 - December 4] more than twenty hearings were held, attended by people who were experts in various fields. Many of them specialized in research on theology and Kabbalah, as well as Jewish history of the Sanhedrin period.

These hearings took place in one of the rooms in the Tainy Soviet prison; a stenographer was assigned to transcribe all questions and answers. Whenever the Alter Rebbe spoke in Yiddish or in the Holy Tongue, Reb Moshe translated into Russian. With his father’s permission, he explained each concept with an appropriate commentary.

Reb Moshe’s handsome appearance, his polite demeanor, and his methodical way of speaking made a favorable impression on the officials. But most of all, they were impressed by his fluent and idiomatic use of the Russian language, and they were even more amazed by his beautiful and lucid French.

Among the officials conducting the investigation were two priests who were very learned in Jewish history, particularly, the Talmudic period. Most of their questions concerned theology, and they planned to entrap the Alter Rebbe by discussing Christianity. Their questions were posed in such a way that the Alter Rebbe would have to answer in a negative fashion, which would denigrate their religion. However, the Alter Rebbe refused to reply to questions on this topic, saying that he had not been summoned here for a debate on theology.

On the other hand, Reb Moshe by nature loved to argue, especially on religious subjects. He had been interested in theology for the past three years.17 The chassid Reb Moshe Meisels obtained for him several books in Hebrew and French; some supported and others contradicted the doctrines of Christianity. Thus, he was well versed in the arguments they used in favor of their religion, and the “proofs” they brought from the Tanach. He also knew how to disprove these arguments. He took advantage of this opportunity, especially in his private conversations. After the public sessions, he would debate the two priests.

The priests discovered that Reb Moshe had an excellent knowledge of the basic doctrines of their faith. Besides that, he had a wealth of arguments that disproved even the strongest claims they made in favor of their religion. They praised him to one of the elder priests, Zachar Krantchadski, who was already retired from public life and devoted all his time to studying Christian theology. Through the two priests, this old priest invited Reb Moshe to visit him, and Reb Moshe did so twice, without the Alter Rebbe’s knowledge. They held a debate, in which Reb Moshe emerged victorious.

Reb Moshe’s commentaries and explanations of the Alter Rebbe’s position met with the Alter Rebbe’s approval, because they were based strictly on logic and common sense. However, the Alter Rebbe disapproved of his style of speaking, in which he manifested his complete self-assurance and confidence in his own qualities. The Alter Rebbe admonished him about this.

On Sunday, 27 Kislev, the third day of Chanukah, the investigation and hearings ended. The Alter Rebbe was released, and permitted to move to private lodgings with the stipulation that he must continue living in the capital city of Petersburg (at least for the present). The government officials had become aware that the Alter Rebbe was an excellent commander, and that most of the Jews throughout the country were now followers of the chassidim and their leader. Moreover, the Alter Rebbe’s great influence extended even to chassidim of other factions.

Czar Paul approved the recommendation of the government ministers, and granted the Alter Rebbe a full acquittal. He was released, with permission to continue all his activities with the same vigor as before. The only condition was that he must reside temporarily in the Imperial Capital of Petersburg, until further notice. He would live there at his own expense. The Alter Rebbe moved into a private apartment,18 and joy and happiness prevailed in the chassidic community. Thus, the months of Shevat, Adar, and Nissan passed, until Czar Paul’s death.19

During this time, with the help of the Public Service Committee of the Chabad Chassidim, Reb Moshe made many acquaintances among the princes, counts and dukes. He found favor with them, and gained admission to their private libraries. There, he would spend long hours reading books that captured his interest. Among these, were books on theology that supported (or refuted) the tenets of various religions. This subject interested him greatly.

At the home of one of the noblemen of Petersburg Arkadi Zubarov, an observant Christian Reb Moshe met an ambassador of the Austrian government, who was a ardent Catholic. One topic of conversation led to another, and eventually they began to discuss the differences in the basic tenets of their respective religions.

Reb Moshe spoke on this topic in his usual manner. But most of his remarks were devoted to the differences in personality among the followers of their respective religions. He mentioned in detail the cruel atrocities committed by the Jesuits, compared to the merely wicked behavior of other Christian clergy. His remarks made an unfavorable impression, especially on the Catholic official.

Sometime later, Reb Moshe was invited by Count Zubarov to honor him with a visit, and to participate in a debate that was being organized by the priest of his private chapel.20 The debate would be held at a time yet to be decided.

Reb Moshe accepted the invitation to participate in this debate. There, he delivered a lecture critical of ancient religions that believed in polytheism in the days of Avraham. He also spoke at length about the monotheistic religion that Avraham had preached and publicized.

Step-by-step, in scholarly fashion, he described the gradual evolution of modern religions. He demonstrated that those who had established these religions had contributed nothing beyond what they had copied from the religion of Moshe and Israel. He pointed out the advantages of the Torah (which is a G‑d-given religion) over all other religions (which were invented by men).

This lecture made a strong impression on the audience, so that even the very wise and religious Christian theologians were lost and could make no reply. As a result, they harbored resentment against Reb Moshe.

Several of them expressed the opinion that he had been wrong to make such a speech, in which he had refuted the basic tenets of their religion. He had not even refrained from speaking against the person who was held sacred by a very large proportion of the human race. But Reb Moshe replied that, “A thousand people who can see may still learn something from one sighted person. But even a thousand other blind men cannot add anything to [the teachings of] one blind man.”21

Count Zubarov told his acquaintance Reb Mordechai Liepler22 all about the religious debate that had taken place in the private chapel of his home. He had invited several leading Christian theologians, and each had put forth the advantages of the Orthodox Christian religion over Catholicism, citing passages from the Jewish Bible that (they claimed) foretold the birth of the founder of their religion, and referred to his teachings, his sayings, and his faith.

The assembly had included about forty people, each of whom was famous for his knowledge and scholarship. Each had stated his position, and backed it with powerful evidence found in ancient books written by the great sages of old. But the “Young Rebbe”23 had delivered a long lecture about Enosh, the grandson of Adam (whom he described as “the first man created by the Jewish G‑d”). It was in his days that people began to worship the sun, moon, stars, and various other idols.24

They had invented all sorts of ceremonies for worshipping these idols, and had set up a hierarchy of greater and lesser gods. This situation continued for about two thousand years, until our Patriarch Avraham arose and informed everyone that there is only one G‑d, and taught them to worship only this G‑d.

The lecture then continued describing the evolution of religions, describing how eventually two men had come along and invented the Christian and Moslem religions respectively. He then pointed out that the basic tenets of these two religions had been taken from the Torah of Moshe and the Jewish religion. He also demonstrated the errors of the Christian theologians, who had interpreted Biblical verses as referring to the founder of Christianity.

The lecture was well organized, and presented in lucid fashion. It had a great effect on the audience, and most of them were very angry over the topic of the lecture. They did not do anything to him at the end of the lecture, but this insult to their religion penetrated deep into their hearts. Thus, they prepared themselves for a future debate with the Young Rebbe, vowing that they would not rest until they had vanquished him.

The chassid Reb Mordechai saw how upset Count Zubarov had become, and he understood how serious the situation was, and what the possible consequences might be. Reb Mordechai repeated Zubarov’s words to Reb Moshe and pointed out the dangers involved, admonishing him severely and requesting that he refrain from such actions in the future.

Seeing that his words had no effect on Reb Moshe, Reb Mordechai related the whole affair to the Alter Rebbe. The Alter Rebbe was very troubled by this. He explained to Reb Mordechai that everything Reb Moshe had said was the truth. “Nevertheless, I am very worried over the possible consequences; but, ‘Deliverance is the L-rd’s!’25“ he declared. The Alter Rebbe then resumed speaking [and told Reb Mordechai the following]:

After the cheirem was issued [by the misnagdim] in Vilna during the year 5543 [1783], ten elders of the Holy Society of the Maggid’s disciples convened. They had decided to issue a “real cheirem as prescribed by Kabbalah26 against the saintly Gaon Rav Eliyahu (whose soul is in Gan Eden). They made a Heavenly inquiry, and received the reply that [in order to issue such a cheirem] they would have to possess at least one-tenth of [the Gaon’s] greatness.

Therefore, two members of the Holy Society approached me and requested that I join them; but I refused. My son Moshe was three years old at the time, and was standing next to me. One of the two declared angrily, “You are afraid of a chilul HaShem; you yourself will suffer a chilul HaShem, which this [young boy] will cause you.” But I replied, “May G‑d not listen,”27 and “Deliverance is the L-rd’s!”

When Czar Alexander ascended the throne,28 he became aware that the majority of the government ministers and the great noblemen and counts were under the influence of the academic scholars. He despised these intellectuals, who were all of French origin. He therefore sought ways to find favor and common interest with members of all the nationalities living in the Russian Empire, including the Jews.

Czar Alexander knew that there were three factions among the Jews: chassidim, misnagdim, and maskilim. He set out to befriend all three. [Therefore,] :

i.He granted an unconditional release to the Alter Rebbe, including an official document stating that he was permitted to lead the chassidic community as he saw fit. He invited the Alter Rebbe to choose Petersburg as his place of residence.

ii.He sent three thousand rubles to the Jewish Community of [misnagdim in] Vilna, to distribute in any way they desired.

iii.He fulfilled the request of the maskilim, granting permission for Jewish children to study at non-Jewish schools.

The Alter Rebbe dwelt in Petersburg for nine months and ten days 25 Tishrei to 10 Menachem Av. He spent two of these months in the Tainy Soviet prison, and seven months in a private apartment. While he was in Petersburg, the Alter Rebbe continued to look after the communal needs [of the Jewish people].

The Alter Rebbe, his son Reb Moshe, and their attendant Reb Yosef Moshe spent four days on the journey from Petersburg to Liadi. They traveled in a lavish carriage generously provided by Count Lubamirski, accompanied by two honor guards on horseback. Some of his closest chassidim also rode with him in four additional carriages. On Friday, the eve of Shabbos Nachamu, 14 Menachem Av 5561 [July 24, 1801], he arrived in the village of Liadi (Mohilev County).

After the Alter Rebbe settled in Liadi, he worked even more energetically in public affairs. He assigned his son Reb Moshe the task of pursuing the public campaign to settle Jews in small villages and farms, where they would make their living working the land and selling the produce. He raised sums of money especially for this purpose, to aid those who settled on the land and worked it.

Through the Public Affairs Committee of the Chabad Chassidim in Petersburg, the Alter Rebbe obtained government support for hundreds of Jewish families who settled on the land and farmed it, in Russia and in the Ukrainian counties of Yekaterinoslav and Poltava. Through his son Reb Moshe (whom he appointed Coordinator of Public Affairs) the Rebbe also arranged for them to have melamdim for their children, shochtim, rabbonim who could rule on matters of Jewish law, shuls and mikvos (he had already instituted the practice of heating the mikvos).29

Thus, ten years passed with fruitful activity. During this time, Reb Moshe traveled to Petersburg several times to attend to urgent business involving public affairs. G‑d granted him success in these undertakings.

During the year 5571 [1811], the Alter Rebbe assigned the Public Service Committee of the Chabad Chasidim in Petersburg the task of instituting a campaign among the government officials to grant parcels of land in Cherson County, on which Jews could settle. The Jews would also receive assistance in the form of necessary farming tools and livestock. These would be given as loans, to be repaid over ten years. During the first five years, the settlers would be exempt from taxes and military service.

The members of the Public Service Committee obeyed the Alter Rebbe’s instructions, and filed written applications to the government bureaus. They requested them to intercede with the government ministers in the matter. However, as the winds of war with France began to blow in 5572 [1812], the campaign came to a halt.

The Alter Rebbe clearly expressed his holy opinion concerning the coming war if the Russian Czar was victorious, the Jews would be secure in their moral standing. But if Bonaparte was victorious, heresy and free-thinking would result.

The Alter Rebbe therefore sent letters to all the Jews in the Russian Empire regardless of faction, great and small, rich and poor that they must all stand as one to aid the government with their money and with their efforts, and with everything they possessed. He concluded the letter saying: “And as for yourselves, do not be afraid. Do not pay any attention to the enemy’s temporary victories. The final and complete victory will go to the Russian Czar.”30

There were several reasons why the Alter Rebbe refused to leave his hometown of Liadi during the war. The main reason was so that the Jews of White Russia would not despair. But when Napoleon’s troops crossed the Berezina River, and advanced thirty miles in a single day, The Alter Rebbe was forced to flee Liadi.

The Alter Rebbe took with him all members of his family who lived with him, except for his youngest son Reb Moshe, who was then in Ulla visiting his father-in-law, and his brother Reb Yehudah Leib, who was at home in Yanovitch (Vitebsk County). About twenty of the foremost chassidim also accompanied him.

He departed from his hometown on Erev Shabbos, in great haste. Before leaving, he instructed the townsfolk to remove all household furnishings from his home: beds, tables, benches, and the like. Nothing was to be left behind in the house; even tattered old clothes and worn-out slippers were to be removed. If time was very short when the enemy forces arrived in town, they should set fire to his house, after removing the Torah scrolls from the shul adjacent to the house.

Within less than three hours of the Alter Rebbe’s departure from the city, the French troops arrived. One of the officers asked for directions to the home of Grand Rebbe Baruchovitch.31 They showed him the street in which the Alter Rebbe’s house stood, and the officer sped away on his horse, with ten horsemen following. But when they got there, they found the house in flames. The officer was furious, and commanded that the shul be burned down.

Immediately after Napoleon had taken command of his troops positioned at the Russian border, the Alter Rebbe had instructed one of his closest adherents the gaon and chassid Reb Moshe Meisels to investigate the latest plans of the high-ranking officers in Napoleon’s armies. Since he spoke French fluently, he was to try to obtain employment at the general staff headquarters, so that he could discover what orders were being issued by the army officers of Napoleon’s general staff to the field officers. He was to transmit this information to the Russian military authorities.

When the French army crossed the Russian borders and entered Kovna and Vilna, they sought out people who spoke both Russian and French. Reb Moshe Meisels therefore managed to obtain a good position in a division of the French secret service, at the headquarters that were under Napoleon’s direct command. This enabled him to fulfill his assignment to perfection.

The Alter Rebbe’s son Reb Moshe also spoke French fluently. He moved temporarily from his home in Ulla to the Town of Droia, where the French intelligence service had its headquarters. There, they maintained the maps of all of Russia, showing details of all highways and roads between towns and villages, as well as the forests and streams. From this office, they sent smaller maps to each regiment under the command of the general staff.

Reb Moshe became friendly with the commanding officers, and assisted them in copying various documents written in the Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian languages. Their spies had obtained these documents from many villages and settlements, where the inhabitants would tell them everything they wanted to know for a payment of cash. They would write this information in their own language Lithuanian, Polish, or Russian. Reb Moshe would later transmit everything to trusted agents [of the Russian military].

Napoleon began the campaign on Tishah beAv, when his troops crossed the Russian border. Within twelve days, his armies had already reached the outskirts of Vitebsk and Orsha. On Thursday, 21 Menachem Av [July 30] the troops left Orsha, and on Erev Shabbos, 22 Menachem Av, while it was still night, the Alter Rebbe and his family fled from Liadi, spending Shabbos in a village near Krasna. Afterwards, they continued moving from village to village and from town to town in the Russian interior. From 22 Menachem Av 5572 to 8 Teves 5573 [July 31 - December 11, 1812] a period of 140 days32 the Alter Rebbe and his family wandered from place to place, before arriving in the village of Piena. They were accompanied by about thirty additional men and their families.

During this time, shocking reports reached the Alter Rebbe about the destruction and mayhem wrought by Napoleon’s armies in the towns and villages of White Russia. Tens of thousands of Jewish families lost their homes and their livelihoods.

On the other hand, in the counties of Kovna, Vitebsk, and Vilna, Napoleon’s soldiers became friendly with the Jews. The officers, who pursued a libertine lifestyle, became attracted to the Jewish girls, and would invite them to their parties. This situation caused the Alter Rebbe much grief.

On Motzoei Shabbos,33 Parshas Vayeitzei, 10 Kislev [November 14], while in the village of Zemaievke (Sambov County), the Alter Rebbe predicted that during the coming week Napoleon would be defeated at Moscow. This would fulfill the prophecy he had seen about Napoleon and his army on the previous Rosh HaShanah.

On Sunday, 11 Kislev they departed from Zemaievke, traveling from one village to another. On Wednesday they arrived in the village of Yesievke, where they spent the night. On Thursday, 15 Kislev after Maariv, at the conclusion of the fast,34 The Alter Rebbe requested that everyone drink LeChayim in celebration of the defeat of the enemy of the Jewish religion, who had been forced to retreat from Moscow that very day. But the Alter Rebbe remained greatly distressed, and he wept profusely over the situation of the Jews living in White Russia; while passing through during their retreat, the French troops looted and pillaged whatever remained.

On Friday, 8 Teves [December 11], the Alter Rebbe and his entourage arrived in the village of Piena in about sixty wagons. There, they were able to rest a little, for the village of Piena was large; at that time it had about three hundred courtyards with large houses. Many of them were unoccupied, for the men had gone to the battlefront. The residents of the village were kindly people, and they provided free living quarters and firewood for all the new arrivals.

When the Alter Rebbe arrived in Piena with his family and his entourage, he declared that they must arrange assistance for our fellow Jews living in the towns and villages through which the enemy had passed. He and his family would therefore remain settled in Little Russia for as long as necessary. To prevent the prices of local real estate and food from rising, it was his holy opinion that they should divide their numbers among three towns: Haditch, Kremenchug, and Romani.

The Alter Rebbe divided his forces into three groups. One headed by the Mitteler Rebbe was to travel to the aforementioned towns and arrange for their living quarters. The second headed by his son Reb Chayim Avraham was to travel to the counties of Poltava and Cherson and raise money for the support of our fellow Jews living in White Russia, to enable them to rebuild what had been destroyed. The third headed by the chassid Reb Pinchas Schick of Shklov was to travel to Vitebsk and set up a committee to gather the necessary information to decide what materials were needed, and how they should be distributed to support those in need, and to restore their livelihoods.

On Monday 12 Teves [December 15], the Alter Rebbe fell ill. This illness grew more serious from day to day, as he grew progressively weaker. On Motzoei Shabbos Parshas Shemos, the eve of Sunday, 24 Teves 5573 [December 27, 1812], he passed away. He was taken to the town of Haditch (Poltava County), where he was buried.

For a period of sixty years 5512 to 5573 [1752-1812] the Alter Rebbe had worked to establish and build his program of public service. This program was based on four principles: ahavas Yisrael, disseminating Torah learning, acts of kindness, and giving of charity. Thus, he left as a legacy to his descendants the Rebbeim of Chabad a paved road and a broad highway for continued public service.