The 19th day of Kislev is the well-known "Day of Liberation" of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, founder of Chabad, and the forefather of the Schneerson dynasty of Chabad leaders, known as the Lubavitcher Rabbis. For teaching the Chasidic way of life, and especially his own Chabad system, which he published in his famous book, called Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was denounced by his opponents as a traitor to the Russian government. Brought to St. Petersburg in chains, he was soon found innocent and freed (in 1789-161 years ago). His freedom brought freedom also to the Chasidic movement as a whole, and it was therefore a very important historic event in Jewish life.

This festival is sometimes called the "Rosh Hashanah" of Chasiduth, because it marked the beginning of a new era for the movement at the time when it was still young and struggling for existence. In this connection, we bring you here a chapter of the history of the Jews in Russia in those days:

The history of the Jews in Russia, as a community which continued to exist without interruption to this day, may be said to begin in the year 1772. That was the year of the first partition of Poland, when a large area that had belonged to the Polish kingdom was torn from it and became part of Russia. This was the eastern part of what became known as "White Russia." Together with the land, more than 100,000 Jews now found themselves in Russia, instead of Poland. If this change, was something of a surprise for the Jews, it was no less a surprise for the Russian government. For until that year, no Jews were allowed to settle in Russia. Only individual Jewish merchants found their way into Russian cities, but none had the right to live there permanently, let alone become a Russian citizen. Now, suddenly, Russia which was ruled by Empress Catherine II found that it had acquired a large Jewish population together with the territory.

In the year 1793, there was the second partition of Poland, when further slices were torn from it and made part of Russia. These territories included the central provinces of White Russia, including the important city of Minsk.

Finally, in 1795, came the third partition of Poland, and Russia grabbed the western provinces, including the cities of Grodno, Slonim, Brest, and others.

Among the Polish Jews who became Russian Jews. was also Rabbi Schneur Zalman, then the Maggid (Spiritual leader) of the town of Liozna, his birthplace. Liozna was a small town in the province of Mohilev, district of Orsha, some thirty miles from it, on the road from Smolensk to Vitebsk.

Catherine II was no friend to the Jews. In her imperial Proclamation, welcoming the newly, acquired territories and peoples, she could not ignore the large Jewish population which came under her sovereignty. She welcomed them too, almost apologetically, and recognized them as her subjects along with the other sections of the population.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman realized that the new situation called for action. Under the Polish king and nobles, the Jews had enjoyed many privileges and a fair measure of freedom of movement. Now it was necessary to, make new contacts with new overlords, and establish a friendly relationship with them. It should be remembered that while there was a central government and central authority in St. Petersburg, the capital of the Czars, Russia was a feudal state, where the local nobility and estate owners had almost unlimited power and authority.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman selected a committee of twelve men among his followers, whose task would be to make personal contact with the nobility and with government officials. They were men of great ability who knew their way around the country. The names of nine of them have been preserved in the records of the history of Chabad, which were kept by the Chabad leaders: (Their names were: Abraham Jacob and Gedalia Zeev of Minsk; Abraham and Baruch Joseph of Borisov, Zundel Yitzchak and Chaim Moshe of Shklov, Dovber Moshe of Disna; Elias Shmuel of Ragatchov, and Mordecai of Vitebsk).

Rabbi Schneur Zalman helped these people to get established economically and to make personal contacts with the estate owners and nobility. He urged many Jews to settle in the villages, rent farms from the large estate owners, or become their managers, rent other privileges and sources of income, such as inns, mills, forests, fishing rights, the right of making and selling spirits, and similar occupations and businesses which the Jews managed successfully under Polish rule.

The twelve selected men were also sent to the capital, under the leadership of Abraham Moshe who was a goldsmith. Rabbi Schneur Zalman arranged for them a program of activity, so that they could be useful in helping protect the position. of their brethren. After Abraham Moshe's death, Rabbi Schneur Zalman appointed his son Shmuel Moshe-a very wise and energetic man-to succeed his father as head of the group.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman, as well as the group, carried on their work in strict secrecy.

The troubles which Rabbi Schneur Zalman foresaw, soon became apparent. The Russian merchants of Moscow and other cities began to complain against the Jewish merchants, that they were too difficult to compete with. These complaints were sent to the capital, to the Empress. The Empress had a Council of Ministers who were to investigate the complaints and recommend action. It was the task of Rabbi Schneur Zalman's group in the capital to find out through their contacts with Government officials the nature of the complaints, and to acquaint them with the true facts, and generally use their influence to soften the attitude of the Council, or even of the Empress, toward the Jews. Two prominent Russians were made friends of the Jews. One was Prince Lubomirsky, whom Shmuel Moshe knew well, and another was Count Potemkin, whom Zundel Yitzchok knew well. Both had considerable influence in the Court.

Despite all efforts, the Empress gave several orders restricting the Jews. In 1791 she gave a Ukase (order) denying the Jewish merchants of White Russia any right of business outside their province. This was the beginning of a general restriction of the Jews to what became known as the Pale of Settlement, that is, a restricted area of Russia where the Jews had a right to live. The Pale was restricted mostly to the eastern provinces acquired from Poland, while the interior of Russia, especially the large cities, were out of bounds for Jewish settlement. Outside the Pale, only few specially privileged merchants or tradesmen were permitted to visit by a special permit, and the police kept an eye on any Jew that might be found outside the Pale without a special permit.

Then there was the question of taxes. By an Imperial Order of 1783, the Jews were to pay the same taxes as non-Jews, but in 1794, Catherine ordered that the Jews pay twice the amount paid by others. Various other measures were decreed making Jewish life more difficult. Fortunately, these measures were not always put into strict practice.

Then there came a critical period for the Jews of White Russia, when a great famine broke out there, and a special investigator was sent from St. Petersburg to find out the reason, and to recommend remedies. This investigator was the well known Russian poet and Senator Gabriel Romanovitch Derzhavin, State Secretary and Senator under Empress Catherine II, member of the Secret Imperial Council and State Treasurer under Paul, and Minister of Justice under Alexander. He hated the Jews, and his mission threatened to place the Jews in a very serious position.

Senator Derzhavin, who became famous as a poet and writer, played an important role in the affairs of state under three Russian monarchs. Empress Catherine II (1762-1796) appointed him as State Secretary, and when she died (in 1796) and Paul became the Czar (1796-1801), Derzhavin served under him as a member of the Secret Imperial Council, and later as State Treasurer. After Paul was assassinated (in 1801) and Alexander became Czar (1801-1825), Derzhavin served as Minister of Justice. Holding such important positions in the government, Derzhavin clearly had much influence at the court.

Unfortunately for the Jews, Derzhavin was no friend of the Jews. He was altogether a proud and hard man, with a bad temper. He was extremely selfish, .and was interested in his career and success more than in anything else. For the Jews he had nothing but hatred and contempt. His character and attitude towards the Jews came to him from his childhood, which was an unhappy one, and, as we shall see, under bad influences.

Gavrila (Gabriel) Romanovitch Derzhavin was born in 1743, in a village near the city of Kazan. His father was a low-ranking army officer whose income was a modest pension. His mother belonged to the lower Russian nobility, who owned a small estate, which was more of .a liability than an asset. His father moved about from place to place and died when Gavrila was eleven years old. His mother also died soon afterwards. The boy knew nothing but poverty and unhappiness in his childhood, and when he became an orphan and lived with his mother's relatives, he was treated badly and often beaten.

There were no schools or teachers in the villages in Russia at that time. Derzhavin's first teachers were priests of the Russian church who had no love for Jews. Later, his teacher was a German convict, who was serving a life-sentence at hard labor, a very low character, but the only "educated" man in the area.

At one time during his childhood, Derzhavin lived on an estate, near the town of Disna. Here he made his acquaintance with Dovber Moshe, an ardent follower of Rabbi Schneur Zalman. The boy liked to come to the house of Dovber Moshe, who befriended the orphan and protected him, when the estate owner wanted to punish him for some childish prank. Many years later, when Dovber Moshe moved to Petersburg as a member of the twelve-man committee which Rabbi Schneur Zalman established, and Derzhavin became famous as a poet and man of letters, the two men met, and Derzhavin, remembering the kindnesses 'which his Jewish friend showed him in his childhood, invited Dovber Moshe to his house. Dovber Moshe spoke to Derzhavin about his wrong attitude towards the Jews, but Derzhavin merely answered, "If all Jews were like you, I would certainly not hate, them." This was the kind of attitude that Jew-haters of all times always had. The Jews they knew were nice, but all other Jews were bad . . . .

We have already told you that Empress Catherine II was no friend of the Jews, and, as luck would have it, it was under her reign that many Jews suddenly became her subjects when several provinces of Poland, with large Jewish populations, became part of the Russian empire (after the three partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793 and 1795). We have also told you how Catherine II began to issue orders making the life of the Jews in Russia ever more difficult. Some of the trouble was caused by Russian merchants who were afraid of Jewish competition.

Before Catherine died, she wanted Derzhavin to make a study of the Jewish position and make suggestions as to how, once and for all, to cope with the unwanted Jews. Actually, Derzhavin's mission did not materialize until 1799 and especially 1800, when Paul was already on the throne of Russia. This interval of time gave Rabbi Schneur Zalman an opportunity to meet the danger and make every effort to avert it.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman's committee in Petersburg had connections with government officials in the capital, and they found out about Derzhavin's mission to "settle" the Jewish question. Dovber Moshe lost no time and went to Liozna to report to Rabbi Schneur Zalman all he knew about Derzhavin's plans. Dovber Moshe told the Rabbi that he had visited Derzhavin and appealed to him to be fair and impartial in his report, but that Derzhavin boasted that he would put the Jews in their place, and that they had better get their wandering staffs and prepare to move.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman instructed Dovber Moshe as to what he and the other members of the committee were to do. They were to find out what route Derzhavin was to take when he toured the Jewish settlements, and when and where he was going to stop. This, they were to inform the Rabbi by special messenger. The Rabbi instructed his followers in the capital to continue their work and good influence in the higher spheres of the government, so that they would be better disposed towards the Jews, and not be so ready to believe all the bad things Derzhavin was going to say about them. As for Derzhavin's boasting, the Rabbi said, in the words of the Holy Scriptures, "Let not him who puts on his armor boast like the victor who takes off his armor," for the Guardian of Israel would protect His people.

When Rabbi Schneur Zalman received the information he had requested from his followers in the capital, he sent out personal messengers to inform his prominent followers in every place where Derzhavin was to visit (in order to use their influence with the local estate owners and government officials), to give friendly reports about the local Jews and their usefulness.

In addition, Rabbi Schneur Zalman selected two trusted followers, well known merchants who had dealings with the upper classes. They were Shemarya Zalman of Polotzk, whose business was in silks and other materials for women's clothes, and Nathan of Shklov, who was a dealer in diamonds and precious stones. The Rabbi instructed them to arrange their business routine in such a way, as to follow in the footsteps of Derzhavin. Through their business connections and visits to the houses of the nobility. and higher officials, they were to find out everything possible about Derzhavin's visit, what he said or noted down, and where he took 'bribes or gifts, and any other information. The two emissaries of the Rabbi carried out their task in an admirable way. They even managed to obtain copies of some of his notes.

All this work by Rabbi Schneur Zalman and his followers was done in strict secrecy, and no one, except those directly concerned with one or another task, knew anything about it.

In the meantime, as already mentioned, Catherine II died, and her son Paul succeeded her to the throne. Paul seemed a man of better nature than his mother. He was, above all, interested in preserving peace in his empire, and he wanted to improve the conditions of his subjects, including the Jews. He surrounded himself with more honest men, among them Dolgorukov and Lubomorsky, who had been kept at bay by his mother. These were better disposed towards the Jews.

One of the new emperor's acts of benevolence towards the Jews was the granting of citizenship to the Jews of Courland, including the important city of Riga, in the year 1799.

In that year, the Jews of Shklov complained against the bad treatment and persecutions by the governor of the city, Zoritch. Paul ordered his Attorney General Lopuchin to send someone to investigate the complaint. Lopuchin chose Derzhavin.

Under Polish rule, many Jews acted as middlemen between the large estate owners .and the peasants. The Jews were permitted to live both in the larger cities and in the rural areas. Many Jews used to lease estates, or inns, from the Polish landowners. In the inns they were permitted to sell not only food, but also spirits (liquor). Jews were given the opportunity to buy the right of distilling spirits, and this was an important source of livelihood to many Jews. Jewish merchants had a considerable measure of freedom to travel and carry on their business.

When these Polish territories became part of Russia, Catherine could not deprive them of their rights at one stroke, for it would have created confusion in the whole economy of these new Russian provinces. As a group, the Jews officially belonged to the merchant class. As such, they were below the status of the nobility, but above the status of the peasants, for the latter, under the feudal order, were not free at all, and were attached to the land, being almost like bondmen to the estate owners.

But after a while, Catherine began to try to limit the Jewish rights. In 1782 Catherine ordered all "merchants" out of the rural provinces. Although the order applied to all merchants, Jews and non-Jews, it was aimed especially at the Jews, since, as already mentioned, all Jews belonged to this class officially. A year later, local authorities in White Russia were ordered to prohibit the estate owners from leasing to Jews the right to distil and sell spirits. If these orders were carried out, it would have meant a great hardship on countless Jews, and a loss of revenue to the local estate owners. These laws were therefore not enforced.

Soon the Russian merchants began to complain to the central government in Petersburg that the Jewish merchants create competition, and they demanded action against them. In 1791 Catherine gave out an imperial Order ("Ukase"), according to which Jewish merchants of White Russia had no right to do business outside that province. The Jews became restricted to the so-called Pale of Jewish Settlement, and had no right to move, or travel, out of the provinces where they lived. As the new Polish territories were joined to Russia in 1793 and 1795, they became part of the Pale.

Liozna, where Rabbi Schneur Zalman lived, was also part of Poland, before the area was taken over by the Russians. We have already seen how Rabbi Schneur Zalman tried to do his best to help his brethren cope with the growing restrictions. And as the "Jewish question" began to attract more and more attention in Petersburg, Rabbi Schneur Zalman became ever more watchful. We have already told you about the twelve man committee which Rabbi Schneur Zalman appointed among his prominent followers to stay in Petersburg and keep a watchful eye on all that was going on there in relation to the Jews, as well as to do everything possible, through personal contacts, to make things easier for their brethren. They kept in close touch with their saintly Rabbi, reporting to him, and receiving instructions from him.

Empress Catherine II died in 1796, and her son Paul succeeded her to the throne. He was a better person than his mother. He was not so prejudiced against the Jews. He was above all interested in peace, and in the improvement of the general conditions in his empire.

When, in 1799, Paul received a complaint from the Jews of Shklov that the governor Zoritch was oppressing them, he ordered his Attorney General Lopuchin to investigate the complaint. Lopuchin chose Derzhavin to be the investigator. We have already told you what kind of a man was this Derzhavin and how he hated the Jews, though he was one of Russia's most educated men, and a statesman and poet as well.

Derzhavin went to White Russia to investigate the Jewish complaint. But, of course, he was not interested in the Jewish side of the matter. He looked for, and found, counter charges against the Jews. He left the matter in abeyance and returned to Petersburg.

In the following year, a great famine broke out in White Russia. Emperor Paul sent Derzhavin to investigate the reasons for the terrible famine, and make recommendations.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman's committee in Petersburg learned about it, and. informed their Rabbi in Liozna. This was a very serious matter. For, in view of Derzhavin's hostility to the Jews, he was very likely to give a report that would be very harmful for the Jews. This, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was determined to forestall. We have already told your about the steps which Rabbi Schneur Zalman undertook to counteract Derzhavin's influence.

It was in June, 1800, that Derzhavin was ordered on his new investigation, and after several months he came to Vitebsk to write his report. In October he returned to Petersburg with his report, which he called "Opinion" (in Russian Mnenie).

Although the original complaints about the famine were directed against the estate owners, and the emperor's order mentioned nothing about investigating the Jews, Derzhavin had immediately decided that it was the Jews' fault, and he was determined so to report. He only needed certain "facts" to make a case against the Jews, and his main purpose was to collect such information as would be most damaging to the Jews.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman had seen to it that Derzhavin should receive good opinions about the Jews. Many estate owners and members of the local authorities had promised Rabbi Schneur Zalman to be fair, and to speak favorably of the Jews. But Derzhavin ignored almost all the favorable things he had heard about the Jews. He made only one exception, mentioning in his report that Prince Lubomirsky, a prominent nobleman and estate owner in White Russia, declared that the Jews were very helpful to him in the management of his estates, and were generally useful to the population at large. (Prince Lubomirsky was an admirer of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, and after Rabbi Schneur Zalman's second arrest and acquittal, invited the Rabbi to settle in the town of Liadi which belonged to the prince.)

Derzhavin's report consisted of two parts. The first part dealt with White Russia in general; the second part dealt with the Jews.

His report on the Jews began with historical review of the Jewish people and how they came to Russia. It contained a mixture of truths, half-truths and falsehoods about the Jewish people, their religion, customs and way of life. He condemned the kahals, the councils of the Jewish communities, and generally tried to put the Jews in a bad light.

From his report we see that Derzhavin visited Liozna. This is what he wrote:

"A Jew, Zalman Borukhovich, has gained fame as an arbitrator, and enjoys authority even among foreign Jews. He lives in a small town Liozna, where, under his very nose, I raided a distillery, carried on by the Jews on the basis of a privilege granted them by the nobility. In him believe especially the Hasidim, whose patriarch he is considered. His word is law for them; they are sectarians with new ways and customs of their own. Some Jews complain about them that they alienate their children, also take away their gold and silver, which he is said to send to Palestine in expectation of the Messiah and the rebuilding of their temple in Jerusalem."

It should be remembered that this was the time when the Chassidic movement in general, and Rabbi Schneur Zalman, its leader in White Russia, were misunderstood and opposed by misguided Jews ("Misnagdim"). It is sad to note that some opponents did not shrink from an attempt to denounce him before Derzhavin. Indeed, soon after, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was denounced even to the Czar, and arrested as a rebel. (But this is another chapter.)

Derzhavin blamed the famine on the Jews, and recommended that the Jews be expelled from the rural areas, should not be permitted to rent inns, make and sell spirits, and other measures restricting the Jews.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman was well informed about Derzhavin's report, even while it was in the making, through his friends and followers in Vitebsk and in Petersburg. He did all he could to weaken the effect of the report, and to bring to the attention of the high government spheres, the kind of a man Derzhavin was.

Thus, when Derzhavin returned to Petersburg to present his report, he found that a complaint had been lodged against him by a Jewish woman from Liozna. In the complaint it was stated -and verified by local authorities - that when Derzhavin raided the distillery in Liozna, he beat her mercilessly with his cane, disregarding the fact that she was pregnant. As a result, she lost her baby.

The complaint had reached Emperor Paul, who ordered Derzhavin to stand trial at the Senate. Nothing came of it, as the complaint was quashed with the help of Attorney General Obolianinov, a friend of Derzhavin. But it did not improve Derzhavin's reputation. Complaints against Derzhavin came in from various estate owners, who realized that they would be in a bad way if the Jews were expelled from their provinces. The emperor was very sensitive to any kind of "rebellion" or unrest. The trouble created by Derzhavin was not to the Emperor's liking. Derzhavin fell into disfavor with the Czar (Emperor). Paul did not even permit Derzhavin to present to him personally the report which he had made. A year later Derzhavin was relieved of his post. In his memoirs, Derzhavin complained against the "intrigues" which were instigated against him at the Imperia Court. Be it as it may, nothing substantial came of his report about the Jews, and their position remained as before, for the time being at any rate.

Once again, Rabbi Schneur Zalman showed himself as a great leader of his people, for it was largely thanks to his work that the designs and plans of the Jew-hater Derzhavin came to nought.