1. His Name Was R’ Schneur Zalman

Rabbi Schneur Zalman was born on 18 Elul 5505 (1745), to R’ Baruch and Rivkah. According to tradition, his first name, which can be broken into shnei or (“two lights”), was reflective of the immense illumination he would gift the Jewish world, both in the revealed elements of Torah (Talmud and halachah) and in its hidden, mystical dimensions (Kabbalah and Chassidism). Indeed, when the Alter Rebbe was but a toddler, on Rosh Hashanah of 5507, the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the chassidic movement) experienced a heavenly revelation, following which he disclosed that the world would be illuminated by these two lights.1

Read: Two Lights

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi

2. He Was the Youngest Student of the Maggid

Trained as a Torah scholar from a young age, he excelled in his studies. By the age of 9 he had mastered mathematics and astronomy.2 By the age of 12 he was proficient in Talmud and Kabbalah, and was accepted as a peer by the sages of Vitebsk. Yet, he yearned for more.

Thus, at the age of 20, with the blessing of his wife, he set out to learn more. He considered traveling to Vilna, where he could learn at the feet of the famed Gaon (Genius), but instead decidedto go to Mezeritch, the center of the nascent chassidic movement, where he could be guided by the Maggid of Mezeritch.

Known by his peers as Der Rav (“The Rabbi”), he was the youngest member of the Chevraya Kadisha (“Holy Society”), the elite group of the Maggid’s students, many of whom went on to become chassidic masters in their own right.

3. He Was the Author of a Shulchan Aruch

While in his twenties, at the behest of the Maggid of Mezeritch, Rabbi Schneur Zalman set out to compose an expanded version of many sections of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law). Commonly known as Shulchan Aruch Harav, it provides the reasoning behind each ruling and gives a final opinion, taking into account the rulings of later authorities. Although it follows the chapter divisions of the original work, the text is entirely reworked and significantly longer.

Read: What Was Shulchan Aruch Harav and Why Was It Necessary?

4. He Founded Chabad

Trained as a Talmudist, and a native Litvak (see below, point 7), the Alter Rebbe crafted a unique brand of Chassidism, with a heavy emphasis on the contemplation of the divine and the premise that through intellectual comprehension one can affect his emotions and actions.

This movement became known as Chabad, an acronym for chochmah, binah and daat, the three stages of the intellectual process.

After his passing, he became known as the Alter Rebbe (“Old Rebbe”), since, as the first rebbe of Chabad, he blazed the path that was followed by subsequent generations of Chabad leaders and chassidim.

Read: What Is Chabad?

'A Chossid Davening' by Hendel Lieberman
'A Chossid Davening' by Hendel Lieberman

5. He Wrote the Tanya

While he authored many books (more on that below), he is most closely associated with the Tanya, a structured and systematic guide to living a spiritually healthy life, which was published in 1796. In the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe describes the qualities of the Jewish soul and provides practical tips for maintaining inspiration, dealing with depression, and remaining focused, energized and aware of one’s divine purpose.

Learn Tanya

A Tanya by the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.
A Tanya by the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.

6. He Was a Fearless Debater

As word of the chassidic movement spread, and many people were attracted to its refreshing tenets, others were suspicious of its innovations. To combat the misinformation and distrust, the Alter Rebbe traveled to many cities, where he publicly debated those who opposed Chassidism, notably in a 1783 debate in Minsk.

Invariably his erudition and fealty to tradition allayed the fears of his listeners and won many new adherents to Chassidism, particularly among the scholarly class, who could appreciate his learned articulation of chassidic philosophy.

In fact, in 1774, he and a senior colleague went so far as to visit the Gaon of Vilna, seen as the leader of the opponents of Chassidism, in an effort to quell his suspicions. However, the Gaon chose to jump out of his second-story window rather than meet the men and hear them out.

Watch: An Encounter With the Alter Rebbe

7. He Had Many Titles

In conversation and in written records, he is known by many names and appellations.

Alter Rebbe: Ever since his passing, he is almost invariably known amongst chassidim as the Alter Rebbe (“Old Rebbe”), or its Hebrew counterpart, Admor Hazaken.

Rabbeinu Hagadol: “Our Great Rebbe”

Baal Hatanya: Due to the immense contribution the Tanya made to Jewish life, he is often referred to as the Baal Hatanya, the author of the Tanya. At times this is expanded to include the Shulchan Aruch as well, making him the Baal Hatanya Vehashulchan Aruch.

The Rav: A rabbi’s rabbi, he was often referred to as “the Rav” amongst his colleagues, an acknowledgment of his stature as a Torah scholar, whose authority was so great that he was seen as on par with the authorities of previous generations as well. (In this vein, his Shulchan Aruch is often referred to as Shulchan Aruch Harav.)

Der Litvak: Jews of Lithuanian heritage are often seen as keen, methodical and erudite. The quintessential Litvak, he was lovingly referred to as such by his peers and also by the Maggid himself.

RaShaZ: In rabbinic literature he is sometimes quoted as Rashaz (an acronym for Rabbi Schneur Zalman), or even Raz (Rabbi Zalman).

8. He Worked to Stabilize Jewish Life

The Alter Rebbe invested significant efforts into improving the material lot of Jews, who were often crammed into small villages with little opportunity for economic growth. Among his manifold efforts was a campaign to encourage Jews to settle deeper in Russia, where there was opportunity for commerce and farming.

He also endeavored to influence the government in S. Petersburg to deal kindly with the Jews.

Read: The Group of 12 vs. The Russian Poet

9. He Founded Colel Chabad

In 1777 a group of chassidim, led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Horodok, made their way to the Holy Land. Rabbi Schneur Zalman had originally intended to accompany them, but was ultimately persuaded to remain in Europe to tend to the chassidic communities there.

He was, however, charged with the task of collecting funds to support the community in the Holy Land, who settled first in Safed and then in Tiberias. Known as Colel Chabad, the fund he started is still active today, more than 200 years later.

Watch: Israel’s Oldest Charity

Boxes of food that are to be distributed to the needy under lockdown before Passover 2020 in Israel. One of the many Colel Chabad operations happening now, centuries after its founding by the Alter Rebbe.
Boxes of food that are to be distributed to the needy under lockdown before Passover 2020 in Israel. One of the many Colel Chabad operations happening now, centuries after its founding by the Alter Rebbe.

10. He Was the Leader of Chassidim in White Russia and Lithuania

Following the departure of his mentor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was recognized as the leader of all chassidim in White Russia, Lithuania and the surrounding area.

11. He Was Released from Prison on 19 Kislev

As the leader of the burgeoning chassidic movement in Lithuania and White Russia, the stronghold of the movement’s opponents, R’ Schneur Zalman drew much jealousy and ire. In 1798 he was arrested by the czarist government and accused of treason. The trumped-up charges, based on libelous accusations made by opponents to Chassidism, included attempting to become king over the Jews and sending funds to the chassidic community in the Holy Land, then ruled by the Turks, enemies of Russia.

Eventually the fallacy of the accusations came to light, and he was released from prison 53 days later, on the 19th day of Kislev, which is celebrated annually as the “New Year of Chassidism.”

Read: What Is Yud-Tes Kislev?

Illustration of Chassidic celebration and dancing by Chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman
Illustration of Chassidic celebration and dancing by Chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman

12. Lived in Both Liozna and Liadi

In 1767 he settled in Liozna, where he accepted the post of maggid (preacher). In 1800, two years after his first arrest, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was arrested a second time and summoned to the capital city to defend himself. After being fully exonerated, he did not return to Liozna, and instead settled in Liadi, where he remained until he was forced to flee toward the end of his life.

13. He Passed Away While Fleeing Napoleon

As the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte swept through Europe, the Alter Rebbe saw cause for concern, perceiving that Napoleon intended to tear apart the religious fiber of Jewish life in an effort to remake the Jews into citizens of his utopian Western society.

So loath was he to live under Napoleon that he fled his home as the French swept through White Russia.

Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte

While on the road, he became seriously ill and passed away in Piena, a small village near Kursk, on 24 Tevet 5573 (1812). He was laid to rest in the Jewish cemetery of Haditch, a village near Poltava.

Read: The Town Where Ukraine’s Jews Go to Gain Strength

The resting place of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad-Lubavitch, in the small town of Haditch, Ukraine. He passed away on this day (the 24th of the Hebrew month of Tevet) in 1812. (Photo: Uman Express)
The resting place of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad-Lubavitch, in the small town of Haditch, Ukraine. He passed away on this day (the 24th of the Hebrew month of Tevet) in 1812. (Photo: Uman Express)

14. His Descendants Were Subsequent Rebbes of Chabad

Following Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s passing, the mantle of leadership was passed on to his son, Rabbi Dov Ber, and then his grandson, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, who bore the last name Schneersohn—as did all subsequent Chabad rebbes, who were his direct descendants.

Read: 15 Facts About Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch