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The Tzemach Tzedek: Unchaining Agunot

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 after 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 a number of 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.


A relative of the Tzemach Tzedek was having financial problems and then, things got worse. His son-in-law disappeared and his daughter became an agunah.[1] The man’s wife asked him to journey to the Tzemach Tzedek to receive his blessing and to ask his advice. The relative, however, was a mitnaged[2]  and was not interested in his wife’s proposal. “Everyone goes to the Rebbe and is saved,” his wife urged him. “Why shouldn’t you go?” After days of her pleas, the husband finally gave in and set out to see the Tzemach Tzedek. When he arrived, the Rebbe welcomed him warmly and gave him close attention. It is known that when a relative would come to one of the Rebbes, they would receive special attention and affection, even if they themselves were not chasidim. The man told the Rebbe why he came. “Once when I was sitting in the kitchen,” the Tzemach Tzedek said to him, “I heard someone reading from the newspaper that in Kiev they need a pharmacist. As this is your profession, go there. And regarding your daughter, God will help.”

The man returned to his home crestfallen. “The Rebbe can’t help,” he said to his wife. “The Rebbe said to me that he once heard someone reading from the newspaper that in Kiev, they are looking for a pharmacist. Who knows how long ago that item appeared in the newspaper? Maybe they already filled the position?”

“And what did he say about our daughter?” asked the wife.

“He gave me no advice or practical plan to find our son-in-law. All he did was bless me that God will help,” he answered.

“If that is the case, then don’t worry,” answered the wife. “If these are the words of the Rebbe, we will certainly be saved. All that we have to do is fulfill his instructions and God will help. After all, everyone goes to the Rebbe. Is everyone crazy?”

The man was convinced and journeyed to Kiev. He was pleasantly surprised to discover that the pharmacist position was still open. The owner of the pharmacy took a liking to him and hired him for a good salary.    

A year passed and, as Pesach was approaching, the man took a vacation so that he could go home and celebrate the festival with his family. In the middle of the week-long festival, he was surprised to receive a telegram from his boss that read: “Please come urgently to Kiev.” The man and his family were frightened by the telegram and what may be in store for him, but decided that he should set out for Kiev immediately. The man took some matzah and sugar with him and made the trip to the big city. When he arrived in Kiev, his boss met him and apologized for calling for him so suddenly. “My birthday is coming up,” he explained, “and I want to make a big party. I plan to invite many honored guests, landowners, army officers, and priests. I thought about who could oversee such a great event and have found no one more devoted and capable than you.  True, you are a pharmacist, but I am asking you to take this position.”

Many important guests came to the birthday party. The pharmacy owner welcomed them all and sat them down to a splendorous table, seating each guest according to his status and importance. Suddenly, the host noticed that the Jewish pharmacist, who was orchestrating the entire event, looked very frightened and upset.

“What happened?” he approached the pharmacist.

“One of your guests, who introduced himself as a priest, is my son-in-law who disappeared,” the pharmacist answered. “He has left my daughter an agunah, and yes, this has upset me greatly.”

“Continue with your work without changing anything, “the pharmacy owner told him. “When the festivities are over, I will take care of it.”

When the party was over and the guests began to leave, the pharmacy owner approached the “priest,” invited him to his room and asked him, “Where is your wife? Is it true that you are a Jew, that you disappeared from your home and left your wife an agunah?” The priest denied everything. The pharmacy owner pulled out a gun and called for the pharmacist. “Do you know this man?” he asked the priest, pointing at the pharmacist. “No,” the “priest” answered. “If you don’t give him a divorce for his daughter, you are in big trouble…” the owner retorted. With no other choice the “priest” admitted that he was the long-gone husband. Immediately, they called for a rabbi to arrange the divorce and the pharmacist returned home with the divorce papers. He was happy and convinced that the Tzemach Tzedek’s advice was well worth taking.

Unchaining agunot is one of the most complicated and emotional issues in Jewish law due both to the fateful implications for the woman and to the great difficulty in finding the missing person or proving that he has died. As one of the most important halachic authorities in his generation, the Tzemach Tzedek was very involved with unchaining agunot, which attempts to prove that the missing husband is not alive. But what can be done when the husband is alive and well, but hiding in an unknown place? This is where the Tzemach Tzedek was able to don his other hat: in addition to being a posek, the Tzemach Tzedek was also a rebbe and a tzaddik who had ru’ach hakodesh (Divine inspiration).

Divine inspiration is a form of “knowledge” stemming from the soul’s faculty of da’at (as Rashi says in his commentary on the Torah). Finding the missing husband, either among the dead (by power of the rebbe’s knowledge of Torah, which provides considerations for doing so) or among the living (through his individual Divine inspiration), is an act of da’at. After locating the missing husband, sometimes the might of da’at must be employed to force the wayward husband to give his wife a divorce. For all of these reasons, stories of agunot, which are told about many tzaddikim, are a primary expression of their da’at and ru’ach hakodesh.

Another aspect of da’at in stories of agunot is the connection between husband and wife, which the Torah refers to as da’at, “Adam knew his wife Eve.”[3] Both the problems in the marriage relationship and the will of the wife to remarry are relevant to the rectification of the soul’s faculty of da’at. It is no coincidence that family ties and their importance to the Chabad rebbes are mentioned specifically in this story, because the da’at of the Torah and the da’at of ruach hakodesh are both dedicated to making as many connections as possible.



[1]. An agunah is a married woman who is “anchored” to her husband because his whereabouts are unknown or he is unable [or refuses] to give her a divorce and so she cannot remarry

[2]. An individual opposed to the Chasidic movement.

[3] Genesis 4:1.

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