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The Tzemach Tzedek: Simple Sincerity on Pesach

Rabbi Menachem Mendel, known as the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, was born to his father, Rabbi Shalom Shachna and his mother, Rebbetzin Devora Leah, on the 29th of Elul 5549 (1789). When he was three years old, his mother passed away and as per her request, Menachem Mendel was adopted by his grandfather, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe (also known as the Alter Rebbe). The Alter Rebbe loved his grandson very much.  On the 5th of Kislev 5564 (1804) the Tzemach Tzedek married his cousin, Chayah Mushka, daughter of the Mittler Rebbe of Chabad. After the passing of the Mittler Rebbe on 9 Kislev 5588 (1828) the chasidim decided to appoint the Tzemach Tzedek as his successor and leader of Lubavitch. Rabbi Menachem Mendel refused to accept the position and would not accept the many contingents of senior chasidim who came to request that he become the next Rebbe. Ultimately, he did accept their pleas, but on the condition that they would not ask him for advice on mundane matters. Rabbi Hillel of Paritch, one of the leading chasidim at the time, agreed and said, “Chasidim want to hear chasidut.”

The Tzemach Tzedek was known as one of the great halachic authorities of his time and indeed, was known for his book of responsa, “Tzemach Tzedek” (which also has the same numerical value as his name, Menachem Mendel). He gave over many chasidic discourses and was known for his lobbying for the Jews of Russia (for which he was jailed several times). The Tzemach Tzedek published the books “Torah Or” and “Likutei Torah,” both collections of his grandfather’s essays on the Torah and established farming communities for the Jews of Russia and supported them – and even established the village of Tzedrin. The Tzemach Tzedek passed away on the 13th of Nissan 5626 (1866) and was laid to rest in Lubavitch.

On one of the intermediary days of Passover, someone found a chametz tart (leavened pastry, which is forbidden on Passover) on top of a cupboard in the Tzemach Tzedek’s home. Quite an uproar ensued: How could it be that in the rebbe’s house, a completely chametz, forbidden pastry  could be found in the middle of Passover?

The Tzemach Tzedek responded: “I am also a Jew, and the law in the Code of Jewish Law also applies to me.”[1]

From the Tzemach Tzedek’s reaction, it seems that whoever was in an uproar over the chametz, was primarily shocked by the fact that it happened in the home of the great Rebbe. The Tzemach Tzedek, however, with simple sincerity and serenity, identifies with simple Jews. He is not surprised to discover mistakes and shows how to rectify them. This is the attribute of “acknowledgment” (hod, הוֹד), which in Hebrew is cognate to “confession” (וִדּוּי) and repentance, as well as with “Jew” (יְהוּדִי).

A similar story, in a completely different context, is told about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who was named after the Tzemach Tzedek (and whose wife had the same name as the wife of the Tzemach Tzedek) and described himself as a “Shulchan Aruch Jew” (a Jew of the Code of Jewish Law). When the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chayah Mushka, passed away, the Rebbe—despite being a Torah genius—requested a copy of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (an abridged version of the Code of Jewish Law) so that he could study the laws pertaining to the pre-funeral mourning and see what had to be done. This story is also relevant to the attribute of hod, both in its bleak context, about which the verse states, “My hod has turned against me as a destructive force”[2], or in the context of the fact that the deceased is the Rebbe’s wife. Regarding kingdom, which symbolizes the woman, it is said “She is in hod[3] (אִיהִי בְּהוֹד).

When hod, in the context of a mistake, manifests the discovery of chametz in the middle of Pesach, the rectification of the hod of the tzaddik (or anyone else) is the acknowledgment that “I am also a Jew” and I also make mistakes. But why turn specifically to the Code of Jewish Law, in both the stories?

Part of the rectification of hod is the recognition that “a person does not appreciate the words of Torah unless he has transgressed them.”[4] It is only by facing failure and difficulty that we merit to draw conclusions in the study of Jewish law. We can even say that this is the true aim of the Code of Jewish Law. After all, if no mistakes are made, the laws pertaining to mistakes and transgression remain useless, without any person who can truly understand what is behind them.


During the period of the struggle against the Enlightenment, which attempted to obligate Jewish children to engage in secular studies, the government demanded of the Tzemach Tzedek that at least one of his grandchildren would learn in a public school. None of his grandchildren agreed. The Tzemach Tzedek called his grandson, Reb Mordechai, and asked him to attend the public school. In exchange, he promised him that when he would return from school every day, the two of them would study Tanya together. And so it was. The grandson went to the public school and every day, he would study Tanya with his grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek.

When they reached chapter 50 in Tanya, they reached the words “There is one individual who is excited by, etc. and there is another individual who is excited by, etc.” (יֵשׁ מִתְפָּעֵל כוּ׳ וְיֵשׁ מִתְפָּעֵל כוּ׳). The Tzemach Tzedek explained to his grandson that, “though the excitement discussed is from matters of Divinity, still even that can turn into a feeling of self, a feeling of being something.”[5]

This story contains much more than initially meets the eye: The Tzemach Tzedek’s prudence, which guided him to give in and send his grandson to public school, for the benefit of the community at large would be greater than the damage that may be suffered by his grandson; the spiritual benefit of study of the Tanya to safeguard holiness; the grandson’s decision that for the sake of a chance to study Tanya daily with his grandfather, it was worthwhile even to attend a Russian public school. We will focus on another detail that was conveyed in this story.

In its original context in the Tanya, the expression “there is one individual who is excited by” was not said in a derogatory manner, but rather, as a realistic description that different people are affected and excited by different things, even when it comes to matters of Divinity. There is a person who is in wonderment from one type of contemplation, and another person who is in wonderment from a different thought. The Tzemach Tzedek, however, finds another message between the lines and warns his grandson: Even getting excited from the holy can become a catalyst for false pride and egotism.

The Mittler Rebbe made a similar statement regarding feelings of love and fear of God. Even then, “there is a sense that there is someone here who loves” and “there is a sense that there is someone here who fears.” As opposed to objective intellectual thought, or to cleaving that comes about through absolute self-negation, emotions are always experienced by those who feel them. Emotions possess both grandeur and risk. This is particularly highlighted with love, the most heartfelt and emotional feeling. The pleasantness of love is liable to subtly bring about a state in which the person feeling the love is focused only on himself and not on the object of his love.

The Tzemach Tzedek emphasized this point specifically to this grandson. More than others, a person who learns in public school must beware of the dangers of pride and egotism—even when studying Torah. This was the exact goal of the decree of the Jews who were proponents of Enlightenment (the so-called maskilim). They wished to inject a secular atmosphere into holiness. This is how Chasidut explains the words in the Channukah Al Hanisim prayer, “To make them forget Your Torah” (לְהַשְׁכִּיחָם תּוֹרָתְךָ). The Greeks were willing to tolerate the study of Torah, if it was void of the understanding that it was God’s Divinely given Torah.

The study of the “enlightened” Torah—the one that is just a collection of historically accumulated human wisdom—quickly becomes another academic course, detached from the Giver of the Torah. Its study and its impact are then translated into personal achievement and that is how it is perceived. The Tzemach Tzedek wanted to negate this mindset from his grandson, who later became the Chief Rabbi of the esteemed town of Vitebsk.

[1]. Reshimat Sipurim, vol. 1, p.42.

[2]. Daniel 10:8.

[3]. Eitz Chaim, Sha’ar HaKelalim, ch. 1.

[4] As per Gittin 43a.

[5]. Reshimat Sipurim, vol. 1, p. 48.

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