19th of KislevBlog PostsChassidut

19 Kislev: Redoubling our Efforts to Spread Chassidut

Anyone who is released from prison must thank God. But, only under very special circumstances does such an event become a festive day that is noted for generations on the calendars of hundreds of thousands of people. However, this is the case with 19th of Kislev, the day on which the founder of Chabad Chassidut, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, was released from prison more than two centuries ago. This date was not only instituted by Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s devoted followers, but Rabbi Shneur Zalman himself even saw the episode of his captivity and subsequent redemption as an event of national importance.

The Generation of Pioneers

Historically speaking, the generation that preceded Rabbi Shneur Zalman marked the appearance of Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov, who illuminated the skies of Judaism with the new-old light of faith in God and universal love. In a letter to his brother-in-law, Rabbi Gershon Mikitov, the Ba’al Shem Tov wrote about a wondrous vision he experienced, in which he saw himself wandering through the upper realms (in a “soul elevation”) until he reached the Hall of Mashiach. The Ba’al Shem Tov asked the Mashiach, “When will my master come?” and Mashiach answered, “When your wellsprings will disseminate outwards.” This is why―openly and unabashedly―Chassidut is a “messianic” movement. The very fact that it has already spread and disseminated is a significant step towards the ultimate redemption. But the goal of “Your wellsprings will send out rivulets of water in the streets”[1] did not happen overnight. Although the Ba’al Shem Tov had a group of students, and his influence reached crowds of simple Jewish folk, nonetheless, during his era there was not yet a movement of any significance that would ensure its dissemination.

The next stage of Chassidut can be compared to focusing sunrays onto a powerful lens. Like a mighty magnet, the Ba’al Shem Tov’s greatest student, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch, attracted a group of unsurpassed spiritual giants. It is enough to mention names such as Rebbe Elimelech of Lizensk, Rebbe Zusha of Anipoli, Rebbe Mendel of Vitebsk, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Rabbi Nachum of Tchernobel, Rebbe Shmelke of Nikolsberg, Rebbe Pinchas, author of Sefer Hafla’ah, the Great Rebbe Aharon of Karlin, Rebbe Shlomo of Karlin and Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi, in order to prove how Rabbi Dov Ber’s meager study hall was actually one of the “lions’ dens and the mountains of leopards.”[2]Rebbe Dov Ber himself sat hidden at home―even physically, because of his difficulty to get around due to his crippled legs―and taught profound Torah teachings which at first were comprehensible only to the choice few who surrounded him. But, it was clear to all his wondrous group of students that this needed to be expounded, in order to fulfill the vision of “Your wellsprings will disseminate outwards;” i.e., to conquer more regions in the Jewish world and bring them the light of Chassidut. Then came the next stage, which clearly saw a growing movement that swept many into its wake by a surge of activity. But, as the movement grew, its opponents began to rear their heads. Some of the opposition developed because of an innocent hesitation towards encouraging any new sects in general. However, some of the opposition was an ugly attempt to undermine the movement’s development, initiated by provocative warmongers.

Two Lights

But before the opposition began, let’s take note of the figure of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the youngest of the Magid’s students, but one of the most prominent. Just as his name, Shneur (שְׁנֵיאוֹר) suggests in Hebrew, he had two lights (שְׁנֵי אוֹר). On the one hand, he stands at the top echelon of Talmudic giants and scholars of Jewish law throughout the ages, as one can see from his version ofThe Code of Jewish Law, which he rewrote, and is named after him “The Rabbi’s Code of Jewish Law” (Shulchan Aruch Harav). This was the light of the revealed level of the Torah, “Torah is light.”[3] On the other hand, without any contradiction at all to his genius in the classical Torah subjects, he was also well-versed in the light of the Torah’s inner dimension, its secrets and its mysteries.[4] In an abundance of Chassidic discourses, he elucidated the hidden wisdom of the Torah and explained it in clear language. Without altering the original language used in Kabbalah, he added to it a Chassidic clothing that relates to the human soul and to God’s service, making the Torah’s secrets accessible to every one of us. Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s crowning glory in the inner dimension of the Torah is the Tanya. This is how Rabbi Shneur Zalman “stitched” these two lights together, and joined the two occupations that had previously been considered completely separate into one.

The significant advancement Rabbi Shneur Zalman made in disseminating the wellsprings of Chassidut, especially with the publication of his seminal work, the Tanya, aroused opposition. As a result of false charges and libel by other Jews, Rabbi Shneur Zalman was accused of conspiring against the Russian Czar, and sent to prison.

Now that we have mentioned the charges made against Rabbi Shneur Zalman, we see that they were not against him as an individual, but against the entire movement he represented, beginning with the Ba’al Shem Tov.[5] But, devoted to the Ba’al Shem Tov’s approach of seeing how every event that transpires is rooted in Divine providence, Rabbi Shneur Zalman interpreted the case on a universal level. He understood his physical imprisonment in this world as a reflection of a spiritual confrontation, “a prosecution from the Heavenly Court.” He saw that the Chassidic Movement was being put to the test to see whether or not the time had truly come to disseminate the wellsprings to the world at large; and whether the Jewish nation was ready to be aroused to step out of the coma of exile and greet Mashiach.

From here we see that the good tidings regarding Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s release were not just a verdict that had been passed by the Czar’s officers who cleared him of treason. As the Talmud states, “The kingdom of earth is an illustration of the kingdom of the Heavens,”[6] meaning that in the Heavenly court Rabbi Shneur Zalman was also acquitted, as if to say, “Continue your endeavors to spread Chassidut!” Indeed, the greatest lesson that Rabbi Shneur Zalman took from the episode was to disseminate Chassidut even more than before. The Chassidic tradition even relates that while he was imprisoned, the souls of the Ba’al Shem Tov and Rabbi Dov Ber appeared to him. Rabbi Shneur Zalman asked them whether he should continue disseminating Chassidut or to adopt a “lower profile.” Their reply was that he should continue to teach, and at an even greater pace! The hidden spring of the Torah’s inner dimension began to trickle out, but encountered a daunting dam and its ability to continue its flow was shaded in doubt. But as soon as the barrier was removed, water could gush out with even greater force, and Chassidut could succeed in reaching more areas.

Exactly twenty-six years before Rabbi Shneur Zalman was released from prison, he had stood beside the bed of his great Rabbi on the last day of his life in this world. Rabbi Dov Ber suddenly turned to his favorite student and said, “Zalman’ev, today is a festive day (יוֹם טוֹב) for us.”[7] On the day when atzadik passes away, all his days on earth gather together and become a huge pillar of light that continues to illuminate the coming generations (even more than during his life, while his soul was still connected to the limitations of his physical body). This is why the 19th of Kislev is a festive day for Rabbi Dov Ber; it was his own “day of celebration.” Yet, by the same token, it is also his student’s, Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s festive day. Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s release from prison is not only a tiding of redemption for his Rabbi and the student together, but also for every Jew, wherever he happens to be, because these figures are “universal souls” who influence all of us, even if we are not aware of it.

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[1] Proverbs 5:16.

[2] Song of Songs 4:8.

[3] Proverbs 6:23.

[4] “Mystery” (רָז) has the same numerical value as “light” (אוֹר).

[5] Who Rabbi Shneur Zalman referred to as his spiritual “grandfather.”

[6] Berachot 58a.

[7] There is a fascinating source for the Magid’s words: One of the Tosfot wrote an outstanding book that is called “Questions and Answers from Heaven.” This book is a collection of questions that he asked, with replies that were transmitted to him in a Heavenly vision. One of the questions there (siman 5) relates to the date of the 19th of Kislev, and in the reply he was told, “Today is a day of good tidings” (without any additional explanation). The essence of this day of good tidings only became known a few centuries later (see also Rabbi Margaliot’s note there, cited in the name of theMishmeret Shalom).

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