1The tzaddik Reb Yitzchak Aizik (of blessed memory)2 was born in Smilovitch in the year 5528 [1768]. He was the rav and Chief Magistrate in Vitebsk. When he passed away in the year 5626 at the age of ninety-eight, my saintly grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, traveled to Vitebsk to attend the funeral, for they had been intimate friends.

Reb Yitzchak Aizik related to the Rebbe Maharash that at the time of the debate the year 5543 [1783] he had been fifteen years old, and a leading student of the rosh yeshivah Reb Zelmele Stutzker. [When I first heard this story,] I didn’t know exactly who this Reb Zelmele was. But my saintly grandfather related that whenever Reb Aizik mentioned his name, he would go into a trance. (More about Reb Zelmele may be found in HaTamim, in the essay “Fathers of Chassidus.”3)

Since Reb Aizik was one of his star pupils, Reb Zelmele took him along, together with five other students, when he traveled to Minsk to attend the debate. At the time, Reb Zelmele was already quite old (in his eighties), and a famous gaon. But ignoring his advanced age, he traveled more than a hundred miles in order to examine the leader of the cult.

“Judging from the teachings that are quoted in his name,” said Reb Zelmele to his students, “the Rebbe of the cult is a Torah scholar. It is the devil’s work that he inadvertently fell into the trap of apostasy. If G‑d (blessed be He) gives me the privilege of saving him from his unwitting heresy, then when I arrive in the World to Come, I will demand an extra slice of the Livyasan as my reward.”

When they arrived in Minsk, many of the guests were already there, having come by order of the Gaon Rav Eliyahu, and by the summons of the elders of Minsk. Many of the chassidim were also present. On the day after their arrival, the Alter Rebbe himself arrived. But a warning had been published that no one must visit him or meet with his people.

The following day, an assembly of the visiting geonim took place. Foremost among the elders were Reb Zelke, Reb Shimalle, and Reb Zelmele. In his younger days, Reb Zelke had been one of the Gaon’s first students, and had been thoroughly versed in the Talmud, by heart, along with Rashi and Tosafos. He was very nearsighted, and so he generally studied by heart, in a melodious voice, exactly as if he were reading it from the text.

Reb Shimalle knew the Talmud Bavli quite well, but his specialty was an ingenious study of the Yerushalmi and the Rambam, and formulating comprehensive explanations of the subject matter.

Besides being a great gaon who studied very diligently, Reb Zelmele Stutzker was also an exceedingly sincere individual. He would never look at anything outside his immediate vicinity, and had never in his life indulged in idle chatter. Reb Zelmele was also versed in Kabbalah, for he had once spent five years in Minsk as a porush, sitting in the yeshivah of the gaon Reb Yechiel, the author of Seder HaDoros. Not even once had he failed to arise at midnight for the Tikkun Chatzos service, and he ate no meat at all from one Shabbos to the next.

At the above-mentioned gathering, the first order of business was to annul the cheirem proclaimed in the year 5532 [1772] against all the disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch and their followers.4 Afterwards, Reb Zelke began speaking to the assembled crowd in a tearful voice, about the renewed activities of the “cult of heretics.”

The devil was succeeding in his work, and many people were being attracted to them, including many Torah scholars and G‑d-fearing individuals. It was simply in error that they were following the false ways of the cult. One of the assembly then read the list of the cult’s “sins.”

Messengers sent by the rabbinical court now arrived, and informed the assembly of what was happening in the city: the Rebbe of the cult had delivered Torah discourses twice, and many Torah scholars had been drawn to follow them. He had also practiced sorcery, for while he was speaking, angels had appeared. Besides this, there were witnesses who had seen them publicly desecrate the Shabbos by carrying the podium out of the shul into the courtyard. Reb Zelmele wept profusely upon learning of this great tragedy.

Afterwards, they decided which individuals would examine the Alter Rebbe in Torah study, and they arranged the whole program of the examination. They also decreed that the day of the debate would be a fast day, and that Selichos would be recited.

The great day finally arrived. The members of the rabbinical court arrived at the appointed place. The Alter Rebbe arrived, accompanied by his two brothers the geonim, a few elderly chassidim, and many younger scholars. When the Alter Rebbe arrived, they cleared the way so that he could get to the place prepared for him.

Reb Zelmele related:

Before he even approached his place, we were seized with fear and trembling. When I heard his quivering voice as he quoted the verse,5 “And I, through Your abundant kindness …,” and especially when he reached the words, “in awe of You,” great fear fell upon all who were present. Then, the Rebbe sat on one of the benches that stood near his place, and recited Psalm 134. When he finished, he stood up and went to the place prepared for him. I was amazed to see that not even one white hair was visible in his beard. After this, they began the examination and the testing, which lasted for about eight hours.

The Alter Rebbe answered all the questions eloquently, with clear language. The great men who administered the examination were amazed by the depth of his wisdom, his powerful memory, and his wondrous erudition. Each passage he quoted was recited verbatim. When they finished the examination, the Alter Rebbe declared that now he had a Torah topic that he wished to discuss with the geonim who had examined him.

When they heard the questions posed by the Alter Rebbe, a storm erupted among the Torah scholars. Meanwhile, the rabbinical court declared that the debate would be adjourned to the following day. Now, they would daven Minchah and read VaYechal. For the members of the rabbinical court and all those participating in the debate were fasting, because they had been obliged to sit together with people who had been previously placed under a cheirem.

Reb Zelmele returned to his lodgings, weak and broken by the fast. He was thoroughly exhausted from the intellectual effort he had expended during the day. He declared to his students that this assembly had been similar to the assembly in the Sanhedrin chamber. The Rebbe of the cult was a Torah giant, and possessed a broad and incisive intellect. Alas, it appeared that he was the victim of a terrible misfortune (may G‑d preserve us).

After he had eaten a little food, Reb Zelmele told everyone that he had been unable to comprehend fully the questions posed by the Rebbe of the cult. Therefore, he desired to meet his colleagues Reb Zelke and Reb Shimalle the next morning after the sunrise minyan.

The rumor spread quickly that the Rebbe of the chassidim had answered all the questions posed to him. But as for the questions that he had posed, the geonim had been unable to come up with satisfactory answers. Therefore, the matter had been adjourned until the following day. The scholarly misnagdim appeared to be in a very agitated state.

The following morning, after the sunrise minyan, the geonim assembled to discuss amongst themselves the situation in general, and the Alter Rebbe’s questions in particular. Reb Zelmele considered the questions. After giving them careful thought, he sighed, and declared that the Rebbe was very incisive and logical. As for himself, he was unable to discover solutions to the questions.

Meanwhile, an agent of the rabbinical court arrived and said that a rumor was spreading in the city that the Rebbe of the cult had been victorious. Therefore, it was essential that they assemble before noon and prepare the appropriate answers to all his questions. The geonim assembled and discussed all the complicated aspects among themselves. After the fourth hour, they all went to the place appointed for the debate. The beis hamedrash was filled to capacity, and the agent of the rabbinical court went to summon the Rebbe.

When the Alter Rebbe entered, silence immediately prevailed in the beis hamedrash. The Rebbe repeated his actions of the previous day. When he sat in his place, Reb Zelke stood up and announced:

“In the name of the rabbinical court, and in the name of the geonim assembled here, I hereby demand that the Rebbe of the cult give us clear justification according to the law of the Torah for the new customs that he and his colleagues have instituted, for we suspect that they are offshoots [of the heresy] of Shabbatai Tzvi6 (may his name be erased)!”

The Alter Rebbe then stood up in his place and declared:

According to the decisions of the rabbinical court, it was agreed between us that I would first be required to answer the questions posed by the assembled geonim. Then, they would have to answer the questions I would pose.

I have already answered their questions. Now, I am ready to hear their answers to my questions. Only after that, will I give (with G‑d’s help) a clear response to the accusations hurled at us. I will prove, according to the Torah, (with G‑d’s help) that our way is the way of truth and righteousness.

I have already fulfilled the decree of the rabbinical court, and I now demand, according to Torah law, that the other side also fulfill the decree of the rabbinical court, and answer all of my Torah questions.

A great storm now erupted among the members of the rabbinical court. Some declared that they had not come here to hold a debate about Torah learning, but to investigate the new customs instituted by the chassidim. Others, however, insisted that they must first answer the Rebbe’s questions.

Finally, after lengthy and heated argument, the rabbinical court declared that according to the Gemara,7 “discussion of a Torah topic requires a clear head,” and now was not the right time. Therefore, the rabbinical court had decided that the geonim would reply to the Rebbe’s questions some other time. Now, they would deal with the problems that they had with the customs of the cult.

The Alter Rebbe then stood up in his place and declared:

Geonim of Israel! This Torah topic which you casually dismiss “can destroy the top of a house” (see Rashi’s commentary, Kiddushin 63b).8 When I first came to my master the Maggid of Mezritch, I asked him about this same topic that I have presented to you. This is what he answered…”

The Alter Rebbe then repeated the Maggid’s answer, along with a lengthy commentary, which took a long time.

The members of the rabbinical court and their colleagues were thus put to shame. But the gaon Reb Shimalle began to deliver a lengthy sermon, during which he pointed out that the ways of Kabbalah are very hazardous, and many have been led astray thereby. Even many of the great sages acquired erroneous ideas because of it.

According to information in the possession of the rabbinical court, the cult was suspected of following the ideas of the followers of Shabbatai Tzvi. Therefore, they proclaimed in the name of the Torah and in the name of the leaders of Israel that the ideals of the cult were contrary to those of the Torah.

[Reb Yitzchak Aizik described the scene]:

Within an instant, the whole beis hamedrash resembled a storm at sea, as the shouting steadily increased. I was very strong in those days, and I shoved my way through among the combatants. But I was unable to follow their arguments.

One side screamed that [the misnagdim] ought to have stated specifically what their claims [against the chassidim] were. The opposing side replied that [the chassidim] were under a cheirem, and it was forbidden to engage them in any discussion.

It is difficult to describe the unfavorable impression that the whole affair had on the Torah scholars. Many younger scholars who were present then decided to travel to the Alter Rebbe, and to become his followers.

My master Reb Zelmele declared that the chassidim had not been treated fairly, and this fact caused him much distress. He now saw that much of what had been said against the chassidim consisted of lies.

This was the first time that I heard my master use the name “chassidim.” Ordinarily, whenever he spoke of them, he referred to them as “the cult, may G‑d save us from them!”

Reb Zelmele spent that Shabbos in Minsk, and he discussed this subject with the gaon Reb Chanoch Henoch Schick of Shklov. Both agreed that the rabbinical court had been wrong in making its proclamation [that the practices of the chassidim were contrary to the Torah]. Reb Henoch Schick confided that, “my son Pinchas says that he too wishes to travel to the chassidim.”

I myself remained with my master Reb Zelmele for another three weeks. After that, I informed him that I too had decided to travel to the Rebbe of the chassidim in Liozna. For some time he remained silent, making no reply. But a few days later, he gave me his consent and his blessing for the journey.

After the festival of Sukkos I arrived in Liozna, where I found several other young scholars, whom I had previously met in Minsk during the debate. A few young scholars also came from Shklov, one of them being the aforementioned son of Reb Henoch Schick.9 I remained there to study during the whole winter, unlike the other young scholars who studied there for no longer than three months according to the rules that had been established.10

The Alter Rebbe’s brother Reb Yehudah Leib told the Tzemach Tzedek:

“I was very joyful on the first day of the debate in Minsk. Very difficult, profound, and involved questions had been prepared, but the Alter Rebbe answered them all in clear terms. On the second day, when his turn came to ask his questions, the misnagdim became very angry. But when he repeated the Maggid of Mezritch’s answers to the questions, they all calmed down and listened attentively.

“That was the first time I had the opportunity to appreciate my brother’s great erudition. Our brother Reb Mordechai remarked that if we had accomplished nothing more during this trip than comprehending this, it would still have been worthwhile!”