In 1798, twenty-two Hasidic leaders were arrested by the czar’s police for “political crimes and anti-imperial activities.” Among them was Rabbi Shneur Zalman. He alone was indicted, and he spent fifty-three days in solitary confinement in a jail in St. Petersburg. A messenger was dispatched to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak in Berditchev, asking him to intercede with God on Shneur Zalman’s behalf.

“Tell me all you know,” the Berditchever demanded. “What did Rabbi Shneur Zalman look like? Was he disturbed?”

“Yes, he was disturbed.”

“Only on the outside, or on the inside, as well?”

“On the outside only.”

“How could you tell?”

“He forgot to take one of his slippers, but not his tallis and his tefillin.

“Good,” said the Berditchever. “Your master taught you how to observe.”

In jail, Shneur Zalman was questioned about Judaism and Hasidism, and the alleged differences between the two. It was clear that the rabbi had been denounced to the authorities by someone who had also provided the police with a list of questions to ask. They wanted to know why Hasidim and their adversaries do not pray from the same prayer book, why their rituals are somewhat different, why some sing and others do not, why some drink when others study the Torah. In a more ominous line of questioning, they wanted to know why Hasidim send donations to Palestine, a territory within the Ottoman Empire, whose sultan was hostile to the czar of Russia. Shneur Zalman explained that Jews had been sending money to poor scholars and their families in Palestine for centuries, and that this was completely unrelated to world politics. Then, incredibly, the interrogators quoted a passage from the Tanya that seemed to insult the czar. Expounding on the Kabbalah (Jewish mystical teachings), the Tanya mentions that of the ten sefirot (divine emanations) through which God reveals elements of Himself, the sefirah of royalty is the lowest. Is that not clearly an insult to the czar?

Patiently, wisely, Shneur Zalman refuted all the false accusations that had been leveled against Hasidism and against himself, explained Jewish customs and what was unique—but not blasphemous or seditious—about Hasidic practices, and convinced his interrogators that his imprisonment was wrong and unjust.

There are many stories about Shneur Zalman’s time in prison, including how he impressed all with whom he came into contact—judges, police officers, jailers. It is said that whoever saw him wrapped in his tallis and tefillin would never forget him. It is also said that Czar Paul I himself came to visit him in his cell. Whether this is fact or fiction, one thing is certain: Shneur Zalman’s police file eventually reached the czar’s desk.

It seems almost unbelievable, but this Jewish quarrel about customs, rituals, and prayers reached the highest levels of the Russian government. And, even more shocking, legend has it that the informer, one Rabbi Avigdor of Pinsk, who also masterminded subsequent denunciations against Shneur Zalman, succeeded in obtaining an audience with the czar and proceeded to give him a lecture on Hasidism.

Accusations and counteraccusations, pleas and counterpleas, arguments and briefs: the file was passed from prosecutors to generals to governors, and was finally placed into the hands of the famous general Mikhail Kutuzov, who would win his place in history by defeating Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812.

How to explain their fascination with all these Hasidic and anti-Hasidic intrigues and plots? Why was the case examined at such high levels? I confess to have found no answer. Did they really entertain the possibility that a political conspiracy against the czar existed within the Hasidic court?

In any case, Shneur Zalman won over all his interrogators and, on the fifty-third day of his imprisonment, while he was reciting the verse “Padah b’shalom nafshi” (He has redeemed my soul in peace) from the fifty-fifth Psalm, the door of his cell opened and he was informed that he was being freed. It was the nineteenth day of the month of Kislev, and Chabad Hasidim proclaimed it a holiday henceforth—chag ha’geulah, the holiday of liberation. It continues to this day to be a joyous annual celebration for Lubavitchers all over the world; whoever has not attended the event should.

There was joy on more than one level. Not only was Rabbi Shneur Zalman free but the Hasidic movement was now formally legitimized.

I must admit, taking on a personality as large as Rabbi Shneur Zalman worried me; he seemed to be too complex a character to be explored in an essay. He had to be approached from more than one angle; actually, from more than ten angles. But that was not the only reason for my hesitation. Although he established his court in Liadi, Shneur Zalman’s domain is most famously associated with another White Russian town called Lubavitch. But Shneur Zalman’s Lubavitch is no longer in Lubavitch; it was transported to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1940, its headquarters to this day. So why study it in a book when you can go there and see for yourself? The fact is that Hasidism is not simply a doctrine or a theory; it’s an experience to be felt, to be lived from within. To fully understand it, you must be moved by it—and move with it. And unless you are ready to become part of it, to integrate its song into your own life, you will sense neither its meaning nor its beauty. This isn’t as hard as it sounds. At Kfar Chabad in Israel, at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, you’ll find someone to tell you about the Tanya, Shneur Zalman’s magisterial book of philosophy; to explain to you the depth of the message that the Old Rebbe, as he is affectionately called, communicates from generation to generation; and to teach you his niggun, that mystical melody in which words become silence and silence turns into song—a song so profound, so hidden, so pure that you hear it with your soul. And the Chabad festivities—the farbrengen, the chag ha’geulah, the l’chaim—will tell you more about Chabad Hasidism than all the explanations in the world.

But the story of Rabbi Shneur Zalman possesses its own magic, and it must be told. Hasidism in all its permutations is unimaginable without him.