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During my early teen years, I frequently visited the home of a cousin who is a fervent Visznitzer Chassid. In his living room hung a picture of the “chassidic tree” a famous drawing of a tree, with names of the chassidic Rebbeim superimposed. The trunk, of course, is the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch. The main limbs of the tree are the Maggid’s disciples. The branches and twigs are their disciples and descendants, and their later successors.

Following the main limb of the Alter Rebbe, that diagram only went as far as the Tzemach Tzedek; a later edition of the same diagram also includes the Rebbe Maharash. But within this chassidic tree, these Nesi’im of Chabad appear to occupy only a small cluster, almost lost among other branches and twigs. And yet, the Chabad branch of Chassidus has played a central role in the development and dissemination of the Chassidic Movement, far beyond the proportion of space it was granted on the tree.

Once, shortly after I began to visit “Seven-Seventy” regularly, I overheard a conversation among chassidim of various factions, each promoting his own family’s Rebbe and his own brand of Chassidus. Since no one else present mentioned Lubavitch, I attempted to join the conversation as the Lubavitcher representative.

My remarks were quickly cut short by the others. Though each claimed that his own Rebbeim were superior to the others, all seemed to agree that Lubavitch was something separate and different, and had no place in a discussion of “mainstream” factions of Chassidus. “Chabad is a separate philosophy and a different way of life from all other types of Chassidus,” objected one Belzer Chassid.

“The Baal HaTanya was, after all, only one of the Maggid’s many disciples, and the youngest at that. Why do you Lubavitchers act as if you have a monopoly on the Baal Shem Tov?” demanded a chassid of Karlin-Stolin. Being by far the youngest person present, I quickly retreated and left the others to continue the conversation.

To tell the truth, the points they had brought up troubled me as well. My own roots lay in the Chassidus of Galicia and Bukovina, and to me Lubavitcher ways and customs appeared strange and “unchassidic.”

Years later, when I had become (what these days passes for) a full-fledged Lubavitcher, the questions raised long ago no longer bothered me, but they remained unanswered. And then, the periodical HaTamim was reprinted. I now came upon the Previous Rebbe’s essay “Fathers of Chassidus,” and the accompanying introductory letter which answer these very questions. And the questions had been asked by none other than the Rebbe himself!

In this essay, the Previous Rebbe presents us with an historical overview of the Chassidic Movement, its founding, development, and dissemination from the beginning through 1920. Like much of the Previous Rebbe’s historical work, it is written from a biographical perspective. It features the seven generations of Nesi’im, from the Baal Shem Tov through the Rebbe Rashab, which the Previous Rebbe calls the seven “Branches of the Chassidic Menorah.” Included are stories illustrating the way of life of young Torah scholars of White Russia during the development period of Chassidus.

Unfortunately, only the first three branches of the Menorah were actually printed in HaTamim. Further publication ceased with the impending outbreak of World War II. Some of the material prepared for later issues remained in the Previous Rebbe’s library, and later became available to chassidim in typewritten form (for example, “the Debate in Minsk”).

This volume contains the first part of the essay “Fathers of Chassidus,” the Previous Rebbe’s letter concerning the essay, and additional supplementary material. The remainder of the essay and more supplementary material will appear (with G‑d’s help) in Vol. 2.

Branches of the Chassidic Menorah continues our series of translations of the Previous Rebbe’s historical and biographical narratives: The Making of Chassidim, and Links in the Chassidic Legacy.

As printed in HaTamim, the Previous Rebbe divided the essay into numbered sections, indicating that he considered the order to be important. We have therefore departed from our previous practice, and refrained from rearranging the text. Instead, headings have been inserted to guide the reader in navigating the narrative flow.

We have also divided the text into chapters (most of the chapter breaks and titles do not appear in the original text). I have added some explanatory footnotes and bibliographic references; these are enclosed within brackets. Footnotes without brackets appeared in the original text.

The map of Europe has changed many times in the past 250 years, and many of the geographic names used in the text have since been changed, or have disappeared from the map altogether. Other names are of Yiddish origin, and never appeared on standard maps. Therefore, I have added a guide to Geographic Terms to orient the reader in this area. I have also added an ancestral tree of the Previous Rebbe, as an aid in following the complex interrelationships in the family of the Rebbeim.

I am grateful to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Keller for providing me with a copy of the manuscript of “The Debate in Minsk,” and other helpful background material. My profound thanks also to the staff and administration of Sichos In English Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, who effected the final editorial review; Rabbi Yonah Avtzon, who managed and obtained financing for the entire project; and Yosef Yitzchak Turner, who prepared the final printed text.

A recurring theme in the Rebbe’s teachings is that the study, dissemination, and practice of the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching is the final step in the messianic process a process that has been ongoing since the Creation, and now reaches its imminent climax. May our study of the lifestyles of our Rebbeim and their disciples, lead us to a deeper study of their teachings, so that we may follow the path they have set out for us the path leading to the messianic age and the awakening of those who “dwell in the dust,” immediately NOW.

Shimon Neubort

Motzoei Shabbos, 18 Elul 5757

(Birthday of the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe)

Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NY

Translated from the classic columns of HaTamim by Shimon Neubort
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