Rabbi Menachem Mendel was, throughout his life, an activist for his people. He intervened politically, economically and spiritually to help his brethren. This biography describes his life and times as Rebbe and advocate of his people.

The Early Years

Rabbi Menachem Mendel was born on erev Rosh Hashanah 5549 (1789). His mother was Devorah Leah, daughter of the founder of Chabad Chassidism, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812). Rebbetzin Devorah Leah passed away three days after the Menachem Mendel's third birthday, and from that day the young orphan was reared and educated by his illustrious grandfather.

The young lad's prodigious abilities soon became evident. By the time he was twelve he had written many treatises on matters of Halachic importance and had begun recording the Talmudic and Chassidic teachings of his grandfather, supplementing them with his own comments and explanations.

While still in his teens, he was appointed by Rabbi Schneur Zalman to engage in the necessary research and reply to the numerous Halachic inquiries pouring in from scholars in Russia and Europe.

When Rabbi Menachem Mendel was only eighteen years old, the manuscript of his famous Chassidic discourse, "Roots of the Precept of Prayer" (Shoresh Mitzvat HaTefillah), which he had tried to conceal, was discovered by his grandfather. Rabbi Shneur Zalman was so delighted with his find that he thereafter allotted more time for their study together.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel was only twenty years old when he was appointed to take charge of most of Rabbi Shneur Zalman's communal activities.

Becomes Rebbe

After the passing of Rabbi Shneur Zalman in 1813, his son Rabbi DovBer (Rabbi Menachem Mendel's uncle and father-in-law) was appointed his successor. At this time Rabbi Menachem Mendel commenced a period of fourteen years seclusion, during which he devoted himself to study and prayer. He emerged to play his part in public life in 1826, at the time when Rabbi DovBer was accused of subversive activities. His first undertaking was the organization of a committee to defend Rabbi DovBer.

When Rabbi DovBer passed away in 1827, the Chassidim called upon Rabbi Menachem Mendel to accept the leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. For many months he rejected the tremendous responsibility of this position, but finally, he reluctantly answered the call.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel was a prolific writer. His works contain a unique synthesis of the "esoteric" and "exoteric" aspects of Torah — Talmudic, Midrashic, Kabbalistic and Chassidic thought are harmoniously and lucidly blended. He would certainly have liked nothing better than to continue his writings, edit the works of his grandfather and father-in-law, and lead the tens of thousands of Chassidim who had swelled the ranks of Lubavitch. But this era had its own share of problems with which Jews were confronted.

Jews in Russia were barred from most occupations and business opportunities, and poverty was rampant among them. Deeply interested in the economic position of the Jewish people, Rabbi Menachem Mendel advised the Chassidim to engage in agriculture wherever possible, and he gave financial aid to those who followed his advice.

At that time it was the policy of the Russian government to make it difficult for Jews to settle in the villages, so Rabbi Menachem Mendel bought a large tract of land near the city of Minsk on which to settle many Jewish families. In 1844 he purchased another large area of land with some adjoining forests in Minsk Province from Prince Shzedrinov, and established the settlement of Shzedrin. A council was organized to direct its affairs.

The founding of Shzedrin made a deep impression on Jews and non-Jews alike. In a government report from the official of the Province of Minsk to the Minister of Interior, they spoke of Rabbi Schneersohn of the city of Lubavitch with respect and praise. The report mentioned that he had acquired a large tract of land and established there a settlement for Jews, thereby raising their living conditions and improving their position. It also spoke of the great influence of the Rabbi of Lubavitch on all the Jews living within "the pale of [Jewish] settlement" of the Russian Empire and of the manner in which he constantly tried to improve their material living conditions.

In 1827, the infamous Czar Nicholas I instituted the "Cantonist" edict, which introduced the conscription of children for military training and service. Originally it applied to children of the age of twelve years old and older. The Jewish communities had to supply a quota of ten children per thousand (non-Jews had a smaller quota and more liberal exemptions).

The children were sent away by government officials and distributed among the peasantry, or sent to special schools until the age of eighteen. They were then removed to barracks for military service for twenty-five years. This meant that the children were torn from home and from cheder for the greater part of their lives, and were subjected to treatment calculated to estrange them from their own people.

No parent would willingly yield a child for such a callous scheme, but the community was obliged to provide its quota. This led to the appearance of a despicable character, the "catcher," whose job was to catch or kidnap the children and hand them over to the government officials. Heart-breaking scenes, with children being torn from their mother's arms, became commonplace. The brunt of the tragedy fell upon the poorer Jews, who were unable to buy their children's freedom from the "catchers."

Rabbi Menachem Mendel attacked the problem without regard to the dangers involved. It was necessary to save as many as possible of the children who were actually conscripted. With this in view the Rebbe organized a special council for the following three purposes:

First, to study the position of the individual Jewish communities, with a view to helping them decrease the number of children they would have to supply.

Second, to engage in freeing those who had been captured. It was arranged to achieve this through the organization of a special clandestine society known as Techiat Hameitim ("revivers of the dead"). The method employed was to pay a ransom for each child to the officials concerned. They would return the child, at the same time reporting to the authorities that the child in question had died during the journey. They would also officially inform the community concerned of the death of the child. These "death certificates" brought great happiness to the parents. Obviously, the "dead" children had to be hidden for a long time (hence the name, Techiat Hameitim Society). They were then sent to cheders or Talmud Torahs far from their home towns.

Third, to send special trustworthy people to the places where the cantonist children were stationed to encourage and urge them to remain faithful to their religion and to their people.

Apart from the huge expense it involved, this responsible work was highly dangerous, for it amounted to an act of treason. Yet this underground program was successfully carried out and was never betrayed.

At the same time, Rabbi Menachem Mendel concentrated his efforts on supporting the agricultural centers in the districts of Vitebsk and Minsk. He dispatched Rabbi Hillel of Paritch, one of the leading Chassidim, to the settlements in the district of Kherson, where he spent several months each summer.

Besides instructing the Jews there in the study of the Torah and the fear of G‑d in accordance with Chassidic teachings, he inspired them to rise to a high level of brotherly love, mutual help and generally high moral conduct.

During the twelve years from 1827-1839, Rabbi Menachem Mendel concentrated his efforts on communal activities in the field of material aid; the protection of Jewish children from kidnappers and their maintenance in safety, and spiritual help for the cantonists.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel devoted particular attention to the requirements of the Jewish conscripts in the Russian army. He ensured that there should be special representatives at every place where Jewish troops were stationed, with the specific aim of concerning themselves with the troops' moral conduct. These representatives were to encourage the soldiers and strengthen them from falling into the traps of conversion to Christianity laid for them by eager missionaries.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel also worked for the support of needy Torah scholars studying at the Yeshivahs and advanced institutes of learning.

During all these years he carried on his work without any interference from the opponents of Chassidism, in either the religious ("Mitnagdim") or the so-called "enlightened" groups in Russia ("Maskilim"). During this time also, there was no conflict between Chassidim and Mitnagdim. On Rabbi Menachem Mendel's frequent visits to Chassidic communities in Minsk and Vilna, the Mitnagdim always accorded him great honor and attended his chassidic and talmudic discourses.

The Petersburg Conference

In 1843 the Russian Government announced that a conference was to be held at Petersburg for the purpose of deciding important religious problems. It was the intention of the government, at the instigation of the Maskilim, to use the conference as a means to introduce into the school system innovations which would interfere with traditional procedures in Jewish education and prayer.

A Rabbinical Commission composed of leaders of Chassidim and Mitnagdim was convened to plan how best to combat the threat the conference posed. Rabbi Menachem Mendel was appointed to the commission.

The first meeting between Rabbi Menachem Mendel and Rabbi Yitzchok of Volozhin, the leader of the Mitnagdim, made a favorable impression on both of them. Observers remarked that the meeting proved to the Mitnagdim that the Chassidim were Torah scholars, and convinced the Chassidim that the Mitnagdim were pious. This rapprochement and communal cooperation had salutary effects on the general relationship between Chassidim and Mitnagdim. The antagonists were reunited and began to work together for the common cause of traditional Judaism.

At the first meeting of the government-called conference in 1843, Rabbi Menachem Mendel expressed his opinion that the purpose of the conference could only be to encourage religious observance among the Jews and he reiterated the indefensibility of tampering even with Jewish custom, since "customs are also considered Torah." Despite threats by the chairman of the conference, a Minister of Government, and being placed under house arrest on numerous occasions during the four-month period of the conference of the conference, Rabbi Menachem Mendel showed unswerving determination to oppose any proposed change of any Jewish custom whatsoever.

"We are not summoned to legislate," he said. "We are here to clarify statutes previously decided in the laws of the Mosaic faith. We are here to clarify too, the customs of Israel, to protect both the commandments of G‑d and Jewish usage from tampering."

The conference ended without the adoption of any of the changes proposed by the Maskilim. Rabbi Menachem Mendel's resoluteness and selflessness impressed all the participants and enhanced his already considerable reputation.

The granting of "honorary citizenship" papers signed by Czar Nicholas was one of the honors bestowed on Rabbi Menachem Mendel in 1844, in recognition of his valuable work at the Petersburg conference the previous year. This great honor bestowed on Rabbi Menachem Mendel by the government made a deep impression on the Jewish population throughout the Russian Empire. Whenever an important problem arose concerning the Jewish community in White Russia, Rabbi Menachem Mendel was consulted and asked to negotiate with the government. The communal activities undertaken by Rabbi Menachem Mendel thus spread into even wider fields.

He made every effort to improve the economic conditions of the Jews in the "Pale of Settlement." Of all the inhabitants of Russia, only the Jews were discriminated against in the matter of where they could live. They were allowed to settle only in certain districts forming a belt or "pale." Even there, they were restricted to the urban areas and kept out of the rural areas.

At the conclusion of the Rabbinical conference, Rabbi Menachem Mendel submitted a report to the Minister of the Interior on the economic situation of the Jews in the Pale of Settlement, and petitioned the Government to extend it. The reaction of the Minister of the Interior was favorable, and at the suggestion of one of his assistants, he invited Rabbi Menachem Mendel, together with two interpreters (Mr. Feitelson and Mr. Chaikin) to come and see him in the capital in order to elaborate on his proposals. The Minister received Rabbi Menachem Mendel courteously and assured him that his proposals would be submitted to the next session of the cabinet.

Several days later, one of the assistants of the Minsiter of the Interior announced that, although Rabbi Schneersohn's proposals concerning the economic plight of the Jews in the Provinces of Vitebsk, Mohilev and Minsk had not been accepted in full, a decree had been promulgated forbidding the expulsion of Jews from villages and estates if they were already settled there. The precarious position of many Jews was thus legalized, and the Pale was in fact extended.

News of the new regulation gained by Rabbi Menachem Mendel spread among the Jews, and hundreds of Jewish families took advantage of the new development to infiltrate into the new zone, finding ways to antedate their move so that it would meet the requirements of the law.

During the summer of 1844, several hundred families settled on the land and earned a good livelihood. Furthermore, as a result of the exodus from the cities, the problems of overcrowding and competition were eased.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel's personal magnetism drew tens of thousands of chassidim from all parts of Europe and Russia, and his thirty-eight years as leader of the movement were a colorful and flourishing period for Chabad. His efforts, like those of his predecessors, served as an inspiration to his successors.