After his arrest, Rabbi Shneur Zalman was at once escorted to the secret cells of the dread Peter-Paul fortress in St. Petersburg, where he was to spend over seven weeks until his miraculous release on the 19th (Yud-Tet) of Kislev, 1798. For the first three weeks he was held under the severe conditions which were the lot of those impeached for rebellion against the Czar. The rationale for this was simple: one of the principal charges against the rebbe was that he had treacherously raised funds for Russia's traditional enemy, the Turkish sultan. (He had collected money through the charity boxes of the Rabbi Meir Baal Haness Fund for the support of his disciples in the Holy Land, which was then under Turkish rule!)

This interrogation took place not there, but in the headquarters of the Tainy Soviet, the Secret Council on the other side of the Neva River, so that the Rebbe had to be taken across each time by ferry.

If I want to, I can stop the boat myself….

On one such occasion, the Rebbe asked the gentile official accompanying him to stop the ferry so that he could stand and recite Kiddush Levana, the blessing recited over the New Moon. He refused, whereupon the Rebbe said, "If I want to, I can stop the boat myself."

And indeed, after the man again refused to oblige, the boat stopped in the middle of the river. The Rebbe then recited the verses of Psalm 148, which are said before the blessing over the moon, but did not pronounce the blessing itself. The ferryman realized that unusual forces were at work. He begged the Rebbe to release the boat. The ferry then proceeded on its way.

When the Rebbe again asked the official to stop the boat, he asked: "What will you give me in exchange for the favor?"

In reply, Rabbi Shneur Zalman gave him a blessing. The man then demanded it in writing, and the Rebbe recorded it on a note in his own handwriting.

In later years, when that official rose to a position of power and enjoyed an old age of honor and prosperity, he treasured that note, which he kept under glass in a heavy gold frame. Indeed, it was seen and read by a renowned disciple of the Rebbe by the name of Rabbi Dov Zev, who, before he was appointed rabbi of the Chasidic community in Yekaterinoslav, lived in Stradov, where he was given the main responsibility of teaching Chasidic philosophy and the guiding chasidim in observance and self-refinement. He had heard from an aged chasid that there lived a gentile squire not too far from Stradov who was the son of the official who had received that written blessing from Rebbe Shneur Zalman halfway across the River Neva. The son too revered the note in the frame, he said. Hearing this, Rabbi Dov Zev made it his business to locate that nobleman, and was thus able to see the note.

One year on the 19th of Kislev, on the anniversary of Rabbi Shneur Zalman's release, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak related the above episode and added that as a boy he had been left with a question. Since the Rebbe had already stopped the boat, why did he not recite the blessing as well, and then he would not have to depend on the favor of the gentile? When he had grown older, he continued, and had grasped the approach of Chasidism more profoundly, he understood that here was a point of principle involved. The Rebbe had been obliged to act as he did, for a mitzvah is made to be performed only when it is clothed in the ways of nature, and not through supernatural miracles.

He added incidentally that the very fact that a manuscript page of Rabbi Shneur Zalman's handwriting should be found in the hands of a gentile is a mystery known only to the Knower of Secrets.