Jewish Oppression in the Russian Empire

The persecution of Jews in Russia has a long and tumultuous history. For centuries, successive monarchs passed numerous edicts in an attempt to subjugate and subdue the Jewish population, including the infamous 1790s edict confining Jewish settlement to the Pale of Settlement.

With Nicholas I’s accession to the throne in 1825, the fortunes of the Jews in the Russian Empire took a decisive turn for the worse. He intensified the efforts of his predecessors and implemented a series of new policies designed to undermine and ultimately eradicate the Jewish population. Among these were the Cantonist Decrees of 1827—which forced Jewish children as young as five into 25 years of service in the Russian army, and the 1835 Statute on the Jews—which introduced a number of new restrictive regulations in addition to organizing and codifying earlier legislation. The subsequent years saw a tightening grip on the Jewish community; the publishing of Jewish literature was heavily restricted and distinctive Jewish dress was banned.1

Disappointed that the persecution had not produced the desired outcome—namely, the elimination of the Jews as a distinct entity—in 1840 the Russian Government adopted a new approach. Tasked with tackling the “Jewish Question,” the Tsar’s Council of State came up with three broad recommendations:

1. Cultural reform: A comprehensive reform of Jewish education which involved setting up a network of State-run schools to combat the traditional cheder. The government hoped that by staffing the schools with gentiles, the Jewish students would be influenced, and they hoped a significant number would convert as a result. Additionally, they planned to curb traditional Jewish dress.

2. Abolition of the system of ‘kahals:’ By deconstructing the system of Jewish community governance and reorganizing the taxes levied on the Jews (which were used to cover some community expenses), they hoped to further destabilize the Jewish communities.

3. Increased persecution: Marking segments of the Jewish population as “un-useful” and subjecting them to increased restrictions, expulsions, conscriptions, and general harassment.

The council submitted a memorandum detailing their suggestions to the Tsar, which was met with approval. Additionally, the Secret Police (“the Third Section”) was instructed to surveil any individuals they suspected may seek to impede the execution of the decree.2

Implementation of Planned Reform

The government set out to persuade the public that they genuinely cared about the well-being of the Jewish community and that their wish to educate them was not simply a ploy to entrap and convert them. They wanted the Jewish population to believe that their primary goal was to improve their financial status and social standing. The task of finding an appropriate messenger was assigned to Minister of Public Education Sergey Uvarov.

In truth, the groundwork for this reform and the appointment of the government representative had been laid a few years earlier. In 1838, after years of persistent lobbying by the Russian maskil Isaac Ber Levinson—often referred to as the “Russian Mendelssohn"—the Tsar approved the establishment of a new, modern school in Riga.3 The school aimed to offer both Judaic and secular studies, with the Judaic section overseen by a Jewish individual and the secular department led by a non-Jewish person. Naturally, Uvarov was enthusiastic about the prospect of creating a prototype school to kickstart his campaign of “reforming” the Jewish population, and was actively involved in selecting a suitable director for the new institution.

Max Lilienthal
Max Lilienthal

Max Lilienthal, a charismatic young maskil from Munich, rose to the occasion. To obtain the required paperwork and to petition the government on behalf of the Jews of Riga, he first traveled to St Petersburg to meet with Uvarov. Uvarov was impressed with Lilienthal, and together they laid the groundwork for a revolutionary transformation of Jewish education in Russia.

After meeting with Uvarov and Minister of the Interior Alexander Grigoriyevich Stroganoff, Lilienthal traveled to Riga to take up his position in the newly established school. He arrived in Riga in early 1840 and enthusiastically got to work. His work at the school was applauded by the government and even the Tsar himself, who sent Lilienthal a diamond ring as a sign of his appreciation.4

After the 1840 reforms were legislated, Uvarov summoned Lilienthal to St Petersburg to discuss their implementation. In their discussions, Lilienthal argued extensively that only the full emancipation of the Jews would solve the “Jewish problem.” Uvarov was noncommittal, however, simply assuring him that the Tsar had good intentions, and tasked him with drawing up extensive plans for the implementation of the planned reform.5

A portrait of Alexander Grigoriyevich Stroganoff - Ivan Kramskoi
A portrait of Alexander Grigoriyevich Stroganoff
Ivan Kramskoi

When Lilienthal returned to Riga a few weeks later, a curious chassid, eager to learn about the events in St Petersburg, attended Lilienthal’s synagogue and peppered him with questions.6 Lilienthal filled him in and then asked his opinion on what had transpired. The chassid responded with a parable:

There was a king who wished to appraise the Jews of his kingdom. Never having met one, he demanded that the Jewish community send a representative to his court. After some deliberation, the community selected a candidate, but before he was sent off, it was suggested that he shave his beard as it was inadvisable to send an individual with such a long beard to someone as important as the king. All were in agreement that in such a situation it was permissible to shave the beard. With the beard gone, his payot (sidelocks) appeared more prominent, and it was decided that they too must go. Furthermore, the traditional Jewish attire was considered unsuitable for the king's court, so they opted for the latest fashion. With the preparations complete, the individual was dispatched to the king’s court. But when the king received him, he took one look and exclaimed “This is no Jew, send him back immediately!”

Reflecting on this anecdote some years later, Lilienthal remarked that a poignant parable is at times more accurate than a plain assertion, a caustic admission that he was indeed out of his depth when he embarked on his ambitious campaign to reform Judaism in Russia.7

Investigation and Surveillance of the Tzemach Tzedek

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, known as the "Tzemach Tzedek."
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, known as the "Tzemach Tzedek."

Shortly after the passing of the memorandum concerning the Jews, prominent Vilna maskil Nissan Rosenthal commissioned an article praising the planned reforms, in which he identified the chassidim—specifically the third Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn—as the main source of opposition to the government plans.8 After some delay, orchestrated by the chassidim, it was published in the German periodical, Israelitische Annalen #6, on February 5, 1841. Uvarov was furious and immediately wrote to the Minister of Interior, Alexander Grigoriyevich Stroganov:

I have received information from Germany our government’s intention to rectify the moral situation of Russian Jews has already found deliberate opponents, and that the well known Chassidic sect, located in the provinces of White Russia, whose head and leader is one man named Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, is the one that is trying, with all the tricks at his disposal, to thwart the thoughts of our government.

Therefore, I ask your highness to inform me, perhaps the Ministry of Interior has some information about this Lubavitcher and his personality, as well as the level of his influence on Jews in general and on the members of the Chassidic sect in particular.

Shortly thereafter he wrote to the head of the notorious Third Section, Alexander von Benckendorff:

Our government’s plan to improve the situation of Jews living in Russia through education is surely known to Your Highness. These plans and intentions have already found opponents among our Jews.

From [an article in] issue number 6 of the newspaper Israelitische Annalen published in Frankfurt am Main, your highness will recognize that the Jewish Chassidic sect—which is in the district of Vitebsk and Mohilev, and one man named Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch is considered its leader—is trying with all the tricks at his disposal to stand against the plans and intentions of the government.

The publisher of the newspaper, Dr. Yost, is known as a scholar and a trustworthy person, and if he confirms the matter publicly, it can be relied upon, and therefore I see a need for myself to ask your highness to inform me, if there are no reports about this Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, what is the nature of this man? How far does his influence reach? And if there is no such information, then I will ask that your kind lord find importance in this notification in Yost’s newspaper, and apply pressure upon whoever needs to be pressured, to gather detailed information about Lubavitcher, so as to clarify the matter

In response, Benckendorff ordered the General Governor of Smolensk-Vitebsk-Mogilev, Pyotr Nikolaevich Dyakov, to investigate. Not long afterward, Dyakov responded:

In response to Your Excellency’s appeal to me from April 5 of this year, you asked me to gather detailed information about the Jew Mendel Schneersohn: what kind of person he is, his conduct, his opinions and his qualities, who he is in contact with, and to what extent his influence on Jews reaches.

In my initial investigation, it was revealed that the aforementioned Jew is Mendel Schneersohn, who resides permanently in the town of Lyubavichi in the Arshansky district of the Mohilev province . . .

Mendel Schneersohn is listed as a third guild trader in the city of Bobynovichi of the Mohilev province, but he does not engage in trade, having left this to his family members. He has been living permanently in Lyubavichi since 1813. He is fifty years old, and due to his poor health, he hardly leaves his house. His manners and conduct are good. As for his opinions, there is nothing found in him contrary to the laws . . .

Since he spends all his days on Hebrew texts, he is so proficient in them that the Jews from the Chassidic group to which he belongs, and even the opponents, turn to him asking to resolve their doubts in religious matters. Because of this, Jews also come to him from other places, and he explains to them the principles of faith and resolves doubts that arise for them.

Naturally, he has influence over the Jews through this. They appreciate his value greatly and treat him with great trust, out of respect and admiration for his ancestors, who were great rabbis.

After reporting to Your Excellency on this matter, I have the honor to add that the aforementioned Mendel Schneersohn is the grandson of that Jewish rabbi of Liozno, who has already passed away, and as they say, was known in St Petersburg due to some incident.

General Maier Freigang, Commander of the Fourth District of the Gendarmerie (who Benckendorff had also contacted for information), ordered a special investigator to travel to Lubavitch to conduct an in-person investigation. He subsequently sent the following report to Benckendorff who forwarded it to Uvarov:

According to Your Excellency’s order from April 5 of this year, I instructed the officers of the districts belonging to the fourth district, and especially in Vitebsk and Mohilev, to gather detailed information, whether there is someone in these districts named Mendel Lubavitcher, who, according to what has come to your Excellency’s attention, is considered the head of the Jewish sect existing in Vitebsk and Mohilev called Chassidim, and it opposes the government’s plans regarding the Jews.

In accordance with this instruction, reports were received from the Vitebsk, Mohilev, and Minsk districts, by Polkovnik Kuczynski, Voitsek, and Captain Yurkavsky, whose general contents are entirely consistent with each other.

That is, the Jew who is considered the head of the Chassidic sect should be none other than Mendel Schneersohn, known as Lubavitcher, who lives in the town of Lyubavichi in the Mohilev district, and from this he got the name Lubavitcher.

He fills the role of the rabbi, his manners are decent, he leads a simple life, lives modestly, presents himself as not a rich man, he has influence over his environment, according to the respect that Jews have for him.

Each of these three districts reported more privately to me, according to the on-site examination:

From Vitebsk, Polkovnik Kuczynski9 reported that this Jew strictly adheres to the ancient Jewish customs and follows them faithfully, and is considered by the members of his sect to be a great scholar.

From Mohilev, Polkovnik Voitsek reported that according to estimates he heard, this Jew is highly respected not only within his own sect, which he leads, but also by other Jews, but he does not get involved in any conflicts and tries to stop disputes among Jews. And when he saw him himself and spoke with him, Voitsek found him far from the description of a scholar. His home life showed poverty and the lack of cleanliness common to Jews. In general, he seemed to him a simple man, but he has connections and influence over the Jews of his sect in the districts of Vitebsk and Mohilev.

From Minsk, Captain Yurkavsky reported that Mendel Lubavitcher was in Minsk six years ago and gave lectures there, explaining various passages from Kabbalah and some from the Talmud. In the eyes of the uneducated, he seemed important, a man upon whom the holy spirit rests, a philosopher, G‑d-fearing, and strong in his faith. Educated Jews [i.e. “enlightened” reformers] do not find in him special intellectual talents, special speaking talent, or anything of prophecy, yet they believe that his dedication to Chassidic Torah is rooted in his deep and strong faith that Kabbalah is true, and that he has no intentions of using the Jews’ vain beliefs to amass wealth for himself.

They say that Mendel Lubavitcher’s grandfather, the late Zalman, was called for investigation and questioning in St Petersburg around 1802, due to suspicion of belonging to some harmful sect, but he was excused and soon returned to his place of residence.

After I respectfully report this to Your Excellency, I have the honor also to present the original report on this matter, written by Polkovnik Voitsek on May 29, so that you can review it yourself in a more detailed manner.

Uvarov responded that while he understood that up to this point “the Jew Mendel Schneersohn, also known as Lubavitcher, has not committed actions against the law . . . I am of the opinion that we should monitor him covertly, especially during the time when the government is implementing its new plans concerning educational institutions for Jews.”

The investigations and surveillance took a great toll on the Rebbe. Even Lilienthal, reporting on his visit to Lubavitch in 1842, noted that ever since the search in his home the Rebbe had been of poor health.10 The degree to which the Rebbe was shaken by the interrogations is illustrated by the fact that he considered giving up heading the charity Colel Chabad, which had been established by his grandfather, the first Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, to provide much-needed funds for communities in the Holy Land. The Tzemach Tzedek was concerned that the authorities would accuse him (like they had accused his grandfather) of soliciting funds for illegal activity.11

Lilienthal Expands His Efforts

A drawing of the Great Synagogue of Vilna in the 19th century.
A drawing of the Great Synagogue of Vilna in the 19th century.

It was shortly after the Tzemach Tzedek was placed under surveillance, in the summer of 1841, that Lilienthal’s involvement as an official representative of the Russian Government took shape. While the deliberations continued in St Petersburg, the infamous Vilna maskil, Nissan Rosenthal, wished to open a school similar to Lilienthal’s. Uvarov ordered Lilienthal to travel to Vilna and assist Rosenthal’s efforts. Despite the opposition, Lilienthal’s visit to Vilna was moderately successful.

At a meeting to discuss the plans for the school, he was able to gain some reluctant approval. According to his memoirs, he assured the elders of the community that he was working for and not against the Jewish community. “I shall not go a step further in promoting the plans of the government before having attained the assurance that nothing will be undertaken against our holy religion,”12 he assured them. But after spending some time in Vilna without seeing the progress he expected, he resolved to travel to Minsk, where the “enlightened” elements of the city were attempting to organize their own modern school and sought his assistance. Lilienthal hoped that success in Minsk would help his cause in Vilna.

In Minsk, however, he was met with unreversed coldness and derision. Whereas in Vilna there were a number of individuals who supported the education reform, in Minsk the overwhelming majority favored traditional education. As such, he was constantly heckled and unable to make any progress at all.

Disappointed, he returned to Vilna to continue his efforts. News of his reception in Minsk had reached Vilna, however, and there too, the tide turned against him. The muted acceptance he had enjoyed earlier dissipated. Emboldened by the example set by their counterparts in Minsk, the Jews of Vilna renewed their efforts to thwart his plans. Things came to a head at a communal meeting held on chol hamoed Pesach, 1842, where the people grew so agitated that the chief of police called the fire department to control the crowd with their hoses.13

Alerted that reports of his unfavorable reception had been forwarded to St Petersburg, Lilienthal rushed to the capital, hoping to arrive before the mail coach brought the unsavory news to the government. On arrival, however, he was pleasantly surprised to find that the ministers were not too perturbed by the reaction in Vilna and Minsk; it was almost as if this was exactly what they had expected. They assured him that no adverse action would be taken. This was a blatant (and unfortunately successful) attempt to win Lilienthal’s confidence and convince him that they did not wish to harm the Jewish community.

In the subsequent discussions, Lilienthal suggested they convene a conference of rabbis—one rabbi representing each of the 17 districts in which Jews were allowed to settle—arguing that true reform would only be possible with the approval of the leaders of the community. Uvarov approved the plan and submitted it to the Tsar for authorization. The Tsar endorsed the idea but limited the attendees to four.14

On July 22, 1842, an edict from the Tsar was issued that commissioned a rabbinical meeting of four rabbis who would meet in St Petersburg to “support the efforts of the government.” Additionally, all Jewish schools, including chedarim and yeshivot, were placed under the direct authority of the Ministry of Education.15

A portrait of Count Sergey Uvarov - Golike Vasily
A portrait of Count Sergey Uvarov
Golike Vasily

Uvarov now instructed Lilienthal to tour the major Jewish communities with two main objectives: He was to impart the government’s message that reform was going to take place, and that it would be in the best interests of the Jewish community to go along with it. Secondly, he was to seek out appropriate delegates to attend the Rabbinical Commission.

Of course, the government’s intent was never to improve the lot of the Jews: Already in 1840, Uvarov had made it clear to the other ministers that they must “uproot the influence of the Talmud,” with the intended result that the Jews would eventually turn to Christianity. Although this information was withheld from Lilienthal, whom Uvarov skillfully persuaded of the government’s benevolent intentions, most were able to discern their ulterior motives. This led to justified skepticism towards any government intervention.16

Lilienthal was an outsider, who was perhaps naively unaware of the deeply anti-Semitic feelings of the Russian ministers, particularly Tsar Nikolai, who was a notorious anti-Semite. He perhaps thought that since reform was inevitable, his involvement would only be of benefit.

Be that as it may, it is clear that Lilienthal did not have a full grasp of the complexities of the issue at hand. His argument for the full emancipation of the Jews as a prerequisite for successful reform is one of the many examples that illustrate his naivety and overconfidence in his capabilities; the government never even entertained the possibility of the maskilic ideal of a prosperous “enlightened” Jewish community flourishing alongside its Christian neighbors.

Infighting Among the Maskilim

Mordechai Aaron Guenzburg
Mordechai Aaron Guenzburg

In preparation for his trip, Lilienthal published Maggid Yeshuah (Herald of Salvation), a pamphlet that outlined the government’s plans, assured the population that ‘no harm was intended,’ and appealed to the Jewish community for support in implementing the reform. However, he also emphasized that the government’s ‘patience and benevolence’ were not inexhaustible. If there was a repeat of the denigration and scorn he had experienced in Vilna and Minsk, the outcome would not be favorable.

As previously mentioned, Lilienthal hailed from Bavaria, which is part of present-day Germany. Understandably, the Russian maskilim, who had long striven to influence the government and implement change, were frustrated. They implored Lilienthal to recommend them as teachers in his new school system instead of importing German teachers as planned.

Despite collaborating with some of them, it appears that Lilienthal did not hold them in high regard. In one letter, he called them “bearded Jews who are barely touched by the rays of enlightenment.”17 With the publication and distribution of Lilienthal’s Maggid Yeshuah, a prominent Vilna maskil, Mordechai Aaron Gunzberg, authored an anonymous rejoinder titled Maggid Emet (Herald of Truth). Gunzberg criticized the German rabbis for liberally conferring the title “Doctor” to individuals who would not be considered noteworthy in Russia. Regarding Lilienthal himself, Gunzberg was not overly impressed, writing: “His Torah knowledge is rudimentary, akin to a student. Even his grasp of philosophy is not vast.”18

Incidentally, Lilienthal exacerbated this rift during his travels by neglecting to visit the prominent Russian maskilim.19

Lilienthal’s Tour of the Pale of Settlement

A photograph of the famous Volozhin Yeshiva
A photograph of the famous Volozhin Yeshiva

Lilienthal’s first stop was the familiar ground of Riga, where he was gratefully received by his community. After a brief stop, he traveled on to his first major hurdle—the town of Vilna, where he arrived shortly before Rosh Hashanah of 5703. Understandably apprehensive after his debacle there a few months prior, he was pleasantly surprised—according to his account—to find the opposition muted.

The sentiment in Vilna seemed to be one of resignation; the reform was inevitable and the best the community could do was work with the government to defray the damage as much as possible. The government’s threats had had the desired impact.

The community showed their willingness to work with Lilienthal. They chose Rabbi Yitzchak of Volozhin, known popularly as Reb Itzeleh Volozhiner, as their representative to serve on the Commission of Rabbis. After Rosh Hashanah, Lilienthal traveled on to Volozhin, together with representatives from Vilna, to confer with Reb Itzeleh.

In his memoirs, Lilienthal richly describes the great yeshiva in Volozhin and the detailed discussions he had with Reb Itzeleh. Of note is his recollection of a portion of the sharp sermon Reb Itzeleh delivered before kol nidre:

. . Thus it is with men; in the holiest day of Atonement, they appear in the House of G‑d with the intention of beating their breasts, without shedding the tears of sincere repentance. This beating, brethren, is of no avail.20

According to other accounts of the episode, this rebuke was actually directed at Lilienthal himself. Reb Itzeleh was accusing Lilienthal of being double-faced—presenting as someone on the side of tradition, while actually seeking to destroy it. Upon hearing this from Reb Itzeleh, he is said to have taken a Torah Scroll from the ark and sworn an oath in front of the entire congregation that he would not do anything to undermine religious practice. If this is accurate, it may partially explain Reb Itzeleh’s support.21

After Yom Kippur, Reb Itzeleh reluctantly agreed to attend the commission as the representative of the religious Jews of Lithuania. While Reb Itzeleh’s participation was crucial for their endorsement, or at least their tolerance of Lilienthal, it was unclear how it would be received by the chassidim. Lilienthal’s next stop, Minsk, had a large chassidic community. Avoiding open conflict would be vital to the success of his mission.

Fortuitously for Lilienthal, it seems, the tide had turned, at least for now. He was warmly received in Minsk, and—if his memoirs are to be believed—he was even given the prestigious honor of Chatan Torah in the chassidic shtiebel. He describes at length the celebrations and honor he was accorded there.22 (It is possible that the chassidim might have been excessively flattering him as a subtle form of disparagement, a nuance that likely went over his head.)

The Tzemach Tzedek’s Response

Unbeknown to Lilienthal, however, there were still strong pockets of resistance. The Previous Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, described 5603 (1842-43) as an “extraordinary year.” A noticeable shift in the Tzemach Tzedek could be observed as early as the 18th of Elul 5602, a date that commemorates the birthdays of both the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad. Contrary to his usual practice, the Tzemach Tzedek spent the auspicious day—which falls just a few weeks before the onset of the new year—secluded in his room.

Initially, the chassidim assumed that this deviation from routine was due to the upcoming leap year of 5603, which required preparation of a different nature. However, it quickly became apparent that there was more at play.

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah and on the fast of Gedaliah—which is commemorated the day after Rosh Hashanah and also marks the anniversary of the Tzemach Tzedek’s mother's passing—the Tzemach Tzedek sent notes to his mother Devorah Leah’s gravesite in Liozna. Both notes read:

The people of Berlin are gathering strength; the decree is ready to be announced. They have decided to invite rabbis who will agree with their proposals, either way, whether it's my brothers or others. Since you are going to your father's (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi) chamber, convey to him my request to arouse mercy so that the decrees may be nullified. And if I am fortunate, may it be His will that they are nullified by my hand.23

Likewise, his reaction to the blessing customarily conferred on him on the eve of Rosh Hashanah—which also happened to be his birthday—cast a foreboding shadow. Typically, his reply would be, “Amen, so shall be His will.” But on this occasion, he added, “The 54th year of a person's life poses unique challenges; it necessitates double, even triple, blessings.”24

Indeed, as described above, it was precisely during this period, the days prior to Rosh Hashanah, that Lilienthal successfully shifted the dynamics in Vilna, and then, a short time later, secured the support of Reb Itzeleh in Volozhin. This success was pivotal in establishing the momentum for the rest of his trip.

Lilienthal in Lubavitch

Nevertheless, despite his early triumphs, Lilienthal’s journey wasn't entirely smooth. Around this time, Lilienthal feared that the honor he was showing the mitnagdim would upset the chassidim, so he sent a letter to the Tzemach Tzedek offering to travel to Lubavitch to meet with him. The visit did take place, but we have limited knowledge of what transpired.25

What we do know is that he did not deem the visit a success. One of the few towns that actively opposed him was the town of Lubavitch. According to chassidic sources, Lilienthal later denounced the Tzemach Tzedek to the Tsarist authorities, claiming that in Lubavitch, he was greeted with scorn. Groups of children chased him shouting, “Here is the German apostate!” By the Tzemach Tzedek’s order, no one attended the meeting Lilienthal called, and the destruction of his Maggid Yeshuah was encouraged.26

While the Tzemach Tzedek expressed his dissent unequivocally, he did eventually concede to attend the commission under considerable pressure. As Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak put it:

The Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, was brought to Petersburg. Even though ostensibly he was invited to attend, this was not just an invitation. They forced him to come, and warned that if he did not come himself — they would bring him by force.27

Preparations for the Commission

Before traveling to St Petersburg, the Tzemach Tzedek stopped at the grave of his mother to pray for success. He later recounted the event to his son, the Rebbe Maharash, explaining that his mother’s sacrifices for the Chasidim had earned her passage to the Baal Shem Tov's chamber, where she could petition for mercy on his behalf. She requested from the Baal Shem Tov a segulah to aid him in standing firm against the opposition. The Baal Shem responded, “Your son is proficient in the five books of Torah, the Tehillim, and the Tanya. It is written, 'And there was the dread of G‑d.' 'Dread' (חתת)—is an acronym for Chumash, Tehillim, and Tanya, suggesting that their mastery dispels all obstacles and challenges.”28

After obtaining the requisite paperwork, the Tzemach Tzedek traveled with two attendants—his son Rabbi Yehuda Leib (Maharil) who would later become the Rebbe of Kopust, and Rabbi Shmaryahu Faitelson, son of Rabbi Mordechai of Liepli. Interestingly, among the copious writing of the Tzemach Tzedek, there exists a list detailing the seforim he took with him on the journey. The list includes: a tractate of the Talmud, Midrash Rabbah, Siddur Im Dach, the Commentary on the Zohar by Rabbi Schneur Zalman, Torah Or, Mishnayot, Kuzari, Chovat Halvavot, Zohar, a concordance, the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch, Reshit Chochmah, Tanya, Etz Chaim, Tur & Shelah, et al.29

The Tzemach Tzedek in St Petersburg

In terms of the actual deliberations that went on in the capital, we only know what was passed down orally. No official transcripts exist. The Previous Rebbe recounted and transcribed various interactions between the Rebbe and the other participants. The commission took place over the summer months from May until August of 1843. Those in attendance included: the Tzemach Tzedek, Rabbi Itzeleh of Volozhin, Israel Halperin (a businessman with traditionalist leanings) and Bezalel Stern, a maskil who was empathetic to the traditionalist perspective. In addition, the maskil Aryeh Leib Mandelstam served as the official translator, and Lilienthal and various officials were also present.

From the outset, the atmosphere was confrontational. The Rebbe articulated his hope that the purpose of the meeting was to reinforce Jewish observance. A minister immediately intervened, asserting that the goal of the gathering was essentially for the rabbis to endorse the decisions the government had already made. He craftily employed the Talmudic maxim, “The law of the land is law,”30 in an attempt to persuade the rabbis to acquiesce to the government's plans.

The Tzemach Tzedek countered, explaining that the Talmudic concept only applies to secular matters such as taxes and other monetary legislation that does not conflict with Torah law. Civil law, however, can have absolutely no influence on Torah law. Indeed, with regard to Torah law, we uphold the maxim, “Suffer death rather than transgress.”31

Due to his antagonistic stance, the Rebbe was reportedly placed under arrest no less than twenty-two times over the course of the commission.32

An additional noteworthy episode that illustrates the dynamics of the meetings was told regarding Rabbi Itzeleh of Volozhin. Uvarov questioned Rabbi Itzeleh about his large and visible tzitzit, compared to Lilienthal’s less conspicuous ones.33 Rabbi Itzeleh replied that the commandment of tzitzit was given to remember the mitzvot and everyone's memory is different. Lilienthal, an educated man, might need less of a reminder than he, an older and simpler man. The government officials appreciated Reb Itzeleh’s wit, and Uvarov commented that if he had devoted himself to worldly knowledge as he had to Torah, he could have been a government minister!34

Interaction With Cantonists

Aerial view of Peter and Paul Fortress on Zayachy Island, St Petersburg, Russia. - Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia
Aerial view of Peter and Paul Fortress on Zayachy Island, St Petersburg, Russia.
Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia

At one point, the authorities did not want the Tzemach Tzedek to return to his influential position in the town of Lubavitch. They believed that by keeping him in St Petersburg he would be unable to cause as much “disruption.” Due to the events described below, this idea was quietly scuttled.

A group of Jewish military personnel stationed at Kronstadt, near St Petersburg, who had been drafted into the Russian army as cantonists, invited the Rebbe to visit and address them with words of inspiration. With the approval of the commanding general, the Rebbe, accompanied by fifty chassidim, addressed a gathering of troops, sailors, and infantrymen. He delivered a chassidic discourse titled machete cheav pesha’acha,35 and drew on passages from Midrash Eichah to emphasize the importance of self-sacrifice for Torah and Judaism.

At the conclusion of the commission, as the Tzemach Tzedek prepared to return to Lubavitch, he was notified that a sizable group of soldiers wished to meet with him before he left. Subsequently, he was given permission to address about 600 soldiers in the courtyard of the Petropavlovsk Fortress. During this gathering, he once again bolstered the soldiers' faith, reciting a discourse beginning with the words 'Shema Yisrael'.36

Due to his considerable influence on these soldiers, the Russian Government did not think it was in their best interests to detain him in St Petersburg.

In the end, the Rebbe effectively halted a comprehensive reform of Jewish education while also succeeding in lifting the ban on the printing of religious books.37 Although the maskilim pushed back, the established Russian Jewish educational framework endured, although new regulations were incorporated. For example, the introduction of Russian language instruction and compulsory state exams for cheder educators. Concurrently, a modernized educational system accentuating secular studies was to be set up. These resolutions appeared to have been arrived at with considerable reluctance on the part of the Tzemach Tzedek.

In recognition of his work at the conference, the Tzemach Tzedek and the other delegates were granted the title “Honored Citizen.”38 According to some reports, a gold medal was also gifted to each of the participants.39

On Tuesday, the 26th of Av, the Tzemach Tzedek left St Petersburg en route to Lubavitch. After a brief stop in the city of Pskov, he arrived in Lubavitch on the 5th of Elul.

The Results of the Commission

Shortly after his return, he was visited by a delegation of Lithuanian rabbis—Rabbi David Luria of Bichov, Rabbi Shlomo Lifschitz of Minsk, and Rabbi Yehezkel Beininson of Slutsk. They discussed the Petersburg conference and potential countermeasures to the Haskalah movement. The Tzemach Tzedek expressed the importance of strengthening traditional schools and expanding yeshivot,40 and warning against the maskilim's influence through Lilienthal. He also highlighted the fact that the financial burden of any newly established public schools would fall upon Jewish communities through a new tax. Given the widespread economic hardship, he argued it would be difficult for communities to assume additional obligations.

These three rabbis, prominent figures in White Russia, then met with the rabbis of Vilna, Kovno, and Brisk to strategize against the public school decree. Rabbi Luria addressed a mass meeting and expressed strong condemnation for the new schools. His speech was circulated widely throughout Lithuania

Lilienthal Leaves Russia

A year or so after these events, in the summer of 1845, Lilienthal mysteriously left Russia, abruptly abandoning his grand plans for reform.

There are various accounts of what transpired. One version suggests that he was involved in misappropriating government funds, leading him to flee Russia before the authorities could act against him. This was allegedly related to the publication of Chumashim, where he was suspected of overcharging the government beyond the actual cost of the books.41

Other accounts suggest that Lilienthal felt a responsibility to provide for his family back home and that his salary in Russia was inadequate.42 Lastly, there is a version that posits he became disillusioned with his mission. According to this narrative, he genuinely believed he was helping the Jews of Russia in the best way possible. When he realized he was being manipulated as a pawn of the Russian Government, which had no genuine interest in improving the state of the Jews, he abandoned his mission. This action was in line with a promise he had made to the Jews of Vilna, or, according to some accounts, to Reb Itzeleh of Volozhin.43

Shortly after leaving Russia, Lilienthal made his way to the shores of America, where he became one of the founding leaders of the Reform movement.

Despite the attempts of Lilienthal and his fellow maskilim, traditional Judaism continued to flourish in the Russian Empire up until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Despite facing the most severe conditions under communist rule, the light of Yiddishkeit persisted. Successive Chabad Rebbes and their followers risked everything to preserve—and eventually restore— traditional Judaism in Russia.