Jews from all walks of life are celebrating what is widely regarded as the “Rosh Hashanah of Chassidut,” the day in history when the founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, was released from a czarist prison after being held on charges originally emanating from opponents of the Chassidic movement.

After an imprisonment rife with insufferable challenge that he responded to with an extraordinary show of courage and indefatigable faith—in the vein he lived his whole life as the leader of a Chassidic dynasty—the Alter Rebbe, as he was known, or alternatively, the Baal HaTanya, was released on the Hebrew day of Yud Tes Kislev or the 19th of Kislev, corresponding to Nov. 27, 1798.

The celebration is extended to the 20th of Kislev, the day the Alter Rebbe was released.

As is the custom, for two days and nights—this year Monday night, Dec. 16, through Wednesday night—the watershed milestone on the Jewish calendar will be marked throughout the world with gatherings (farbrengens) of song, inspirational learning and camaraderie, along with regaled devotion to the study of the inner dimension of the TorahKabbalah and Chassidut.

“It is a day celebrated by all Chassidim and others to renew our appreciation of and commitment to the study of the inner dimension of the Torah and the depth of Jewish law,” Chaim Goldstein, a follower of the Sanz Chassidic movement living in northern Israel, told Chabad.org.

In his comments, he specifically was referring to the ground-breaking mystical teachings contained in the Alter Rebbe’s foundational Chassidic tract, the Tanya, and his well-known code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch Harav.

The gala celebration at the Binyanei Hauma convention center in Jerusalem will coincide with the world’s largest Chassidic book fair, where hundreds of thousands of texts will be on sale. (File photo: Meir Alfasi)
The gala celebration at the Binyanei Hauma convention center in Jerusalem will coincide with the world’s largest Chassidic book fair, where hundreds of thousands of texts will be on sale. (File photo: Meir Alfasi)

Events Being Held Worldwide

Events across the Chabad institutional spectrum are numerous and varied with a tradition for centers to invite out-of-town guest rabbis to inspire their audiences. Chabad House of Camden and Burlington Counties in Cherry Hill, N.J., has invited Rabbi Yacov Barber—a longtime emissary from Melbourne, Australia, and author of the book, Wit and Wisdom on the weekly Torah portions—to speak. In its promotion of the event, organizers detailed his impressive profile and summed up what the day is all about:

“Yud-Tes Kislev marks the ‘birth’ of Chassidism: the day it was allowed to emerge from the womb of mysticism into the light of day, to grow and develop as an integral part of Torah and Jewish life.”

An hour-long excerpt of a Yud Tes Kislev farbrengen will be aired online (Photo: JEM)
An hour-long excerpt of a Yud Tes Kislev farbrengen will be aired online (Photo: JEM)

In Jerusalem, more than 10,000 participants are expected to pack into the Binyanei Hauma convention center for a gathering sponsored by the Chabad-Lubavitch Youth Organization in Israel. The gala celebration will again coincide with the world’s largest Chassidic book fair, where hundreds of thousands of texts will be on sale.

On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and the Chabad Houses of Manhattan and the Hamptons are sponsoring a 19 Kislev farbrengen featuring remarks by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Rabbi Emeritus of Kehilath Jeshurun; Rabbi Benzion Krasnianski; Rabbi Elie Weinstock; Rabbi Leibel Baumgarten; and Professor Ran Kivetz of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business.

1981 ‘Farbrengen’ Aired Worldwide

As part of the worldwide observances and programs, an hour-long excerpt of a Yud Tes Kislev farbrengen, presided over by the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—in 1981 will be aired online beginning at 7 p.m. EST by Jewish Educational Media.

The premier production is expected to be viewed simultaneously in an act of unity and atmosphere of togetherness by Chabad centers and some non-Chabad centers globally. (It can be accessed here.)

One of the tens of thousands of people gearing up for the special days is Yosef Reuven Rabe, who, as a new graduate of the University of Pennsylvania in 2000, found himself stepping into a Chabad center in downtown Boston one Shabbat, purportedly to pursue his interest in the Yiddish language and not to have a religious experience.

“I am not from a Lubavitch home and instead from a very non-religious home with a capital ‘R,’ but it was revealed beginning then and there a strong connection to Chabad,” he said on Sunday. “[Boston Chabad-Lubavitch center co-director] Rabbi Shmuel Posner spoke very powerfully about Judaism and the Alter Rebbe, and after a very short time, I felt a connection to the Alter Rebbe, especially because of his self-sacrifice forYiddishkeit.”

Rabe, 22 at the time, eventually made his way to B’nei Brak, Israel, where he continued to pursue his studies. He will be attending one of the many Yud Tes Kislev farbrengens in the city of Safed in the north of Israel, he said.

There are separate hours for women at the book fair. (File photo: ICC)
There are separate hours for women at the book fair. (File photo: ICC)

Imprisonment and the Threat of Death

As the leader of the Chassidic movement, the Alter Rebbe had become the target of opponents to the spreading of Chassidic teachings and was informed on by one or more of his detractors. He spent 53 days in the Petropavlovski fortress in Petersburg, where he was threatened with death and interrogated intensely by a secret commission.

Until what is accepted widely as an extraordinary, if not miraculous, exoneration, the Russian authorities held him on false charges of treason and insurrection for urging his followers to send money to the Holy Land, which at the time was part of the Ottoman Empire, an enemy of Russia. The fundraising, though earmarked for the poor of Israel, was cast as subversive activity.

Chabad tradition holds that the spirits of his own Rebbe—Rabbi Dovber, the Maggid of Mezeritch—together with the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, visited him in prison to share that on a deeper level his incarceration was a reflection of accusations in Heaven that he was revealing new dimensions of mystical teachings too widely.

The notion finds a basis in Jewish mysticism itself, which advances the concept that its lessons are best balanced with Judaism’s more grounded teachings: its legalistic and Talmudic aspects.

Rabbi Moshe Wolfson at a 2015 farbrengen in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn. (File photo: JDN)
Rabbi Moshe Wolfson at a 2015 farbrengen in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn. (File photo: JDN)

Nonetheless, in reply to the question of whether he should stop, the spirits of the deceased Chassidic leaders, replied that once released, he should continue with even more dedication. Therefore, in Chabad thought, the day on the calendar is called the “New Year of Chassidut.” It is also the anniversary of the passing of the Alter Rebbe’s mentor, Rabbi Dov Ber, in 1772.

Just like on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, it is a time when people take a moment to reflect on past regrets and future betterment.

For Chaim Cohen, Yud Tes Kislev served as a magnet to pull him back to Torah observance when he was a young man living in New York and faltering in his practice.

“I found myself back in America after learning in Israel for a few years having a very difficult time keeping Torah and mitzvot, but when Yud Tes Kislev came around, I remembered how important it was to get to a farbrengen,” he shared. “Once there, I remembered the advice from my earlier yeshivah days about the importance of learning the Alter Rebbe’s Tanya by heart, and I made the commitment at the farbrengen to start.

“Within a week, I got myself a spiritual adviser and re-entered yeshivah full-time,” he said. “I am now studying to be a rabbi.”

The day is marked by inspirational learning and camaraderie, along with regaled devotion to the study of the inner dimension of the Torah—Kabbalah and Chassidut. (File photo: Meir Alfasi)
The day is marked by inspirational learning and camaraderie, along with regaled devotion to the study of the inner dimension of the Torah—Kabbalah and Chassidut. (File photo: Meir Alfasi)