Editor’s note: The 19th of Kislev is celebrated throughout the chassidic world as the day of the liberation of the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812). Rabbi Schneur Zalman was arrested by the czarist regime under the accusation that his teachings undermined the imperial authority, and his release allowed the vigorous growth of Chassidism and the uninhibited dissemination of its teachings.

During the “intermediate days” of the festival of Sukkot of 1798, an armed officer arrived in Liozna to arrest Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement. Deciding that it would be advisable at this point to take the biblical advice, “Hide yourself for a brief moment” (Isaiah 26:20), the Rebbe slipped out a side door. The officer returned to his headquarters empty-handed.

Back in the house, the Rebbe decided that if the agent were to return, he would allow himself to be arrested. Some say that he decided this only after consultation with Rabbi Shmuel Munkes, one of his close chassidim, who happened to be in the Rebbe’s home at the time. Reb Shmuel reputedly said to the Rebbe: “If you are a true Rebbe, you have nothing to fear by being arrested. If you are not, you deserve whatever they will do to you (!), for what right did you have to deprive thousands of chassidim from enjoying the pleasures of this world?”

When the officer reappeared on the day after Simchat Torah, which fell on Thursday that year, the Rebbe did not hide.  Within a few hours he was already seated in the infamous “Black Mary,” the carriage which was reserved by the Czarist regime for rebels who were under capital sentence. Covered on all sides with heavy black metal panels, and with no windows whatsoever, it was designed to cast dread on all those who saw it. Guarded by heavily armed soldiers, the ironclad black carriage pulled out of Liozna on Thursday night and clanked its fearsome way down the highway to Petersburg, via Vitebsk and Nevel.

At half past ten the next morning, some six hours before candle-lighting time, the Rebbe asked that they stop where they were until after Shabbat. The officer in charge ignored his request. A moment later the axles of the carriage broke. No sooner had they repaired them, than one of the horses collapsed and died. Fresh horses were brought, but they could not move the carriage from its place. By this time the gendarmes gathered that it would be impossible to press on with their journey against the Rebbe’s will, so they asked their prisoner if they could detour to a nearby village and spend the next day there. The Rebbe refused, but did agree that the carriage be moved off the highway to an adjacent field.

The spot at which the Rebbe spent that Shabbat is about three miles from the village of Seliba-Rudnia, which is near the town of Nevel. An old Chassid who survived into the twentieth century—Reb Michael of Nevel—used to relate that he knew chassidim who were able to point out the exact spot at which the Rebbe had spent that lonely Shabbat. He himself had gone there to see it with his own eyes. All the way there he had seen old and drooping trees on both sides of the road, but that memorable spot was marked by a tall tree with luxuriant foliage.

Commentary from Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Rebbe of Chabad:

The story of the Rebbe’s journey to Petersburg gives tangible testimony to the statement that whatever happens to a tzaddik—and especially to a tzaddik who is a leader of Jewry—takes place only with his consent. Indeed, not only the Rebbe, but every tzaddik likewise, rules over all material matters. What the Torah has to say about the created universe is decisive: all temporal matters are subject to the dominion of the Torah.

When the Rebbe did not want to travel further, the wagon came to a halt, and it came to a halt where and when the Rebbe so desired. Had the wagon stood still at candle-lighting time, this would have been not at all remarkable. For such things we find concerning even an unwitting reaction, as it is written, “No evil shall befall the righteous” (Proverbs 12:21). But that the wagon should stand still at ten-thirty on Friday morning, and not budge—this is a palpable wonder of G‑d, like an overt miracle.

From all of the above it should be abundantly clear that one whose word carried weight over material things, as was the case with the Rebbe, had the option of not being imprisoned at all, and of not hiding, even for a solitary hour. If he did go nevertheless, this was for the sake of a profound purpose involving the service of G‑d.

The patriarch Abraham opened the channel of self-sacrifice for the sanctification of G‑d’s Name, and the Rebbe opened the channel of self-sacrifice for chassidic service of G‑d. From all of this one can gather that the whole episode of the Rebbe’s imprisonment was only a garment worn by choice, in order to avoid making use of supernatural means.

Truth to tell, this subject warrants a detailed explanation, especially since this would provide at least an inkling of an appreciation of the Rebbe’s quintessential inner love for Jews in general—for he wanted every individual to start living with zest in his Torah study, and in his divine service according to the teachings of Chassidism—and his love for chassidim in particular. And this love the Rebbe planted in the Rebbes who succeeded him.  Such a deep-seated and quintessential love is everlasting, throughout all the generations until the coming of Moshiach, when it will be granted us, at the time of the Resurrection of the Dead, to gaze directly upon the living and luminous countenances of the Rebbes.