Weekly Chasidic Story #836 (s5774-14 / 28 Kislev 5774)
A few years after his first arrest, the old charges were revived and Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the Alter Rebbe of Chabad, was arrested a second time.
Just a few years after his first arrest, the old charges were revived, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the Alter Rebbe of Chabad, was arrested a second time. The imperial order arrived on the second day of Chol HaMoed Sukkos, 18 Tishrei 5561 [Tuesday, October 7, 1800]. He was summoned to appear in the capital city, St. Petersburg, and required to begin his journey on the following Monday, 24 Tishrei, two days after Simchat Torah.
This journey differed from the much harsher one in 5559. Then he had to ride in a vehicle reserved for prisoners charged with capital crimes -an armored black coach surrounded by armed soldiers, accompanied by an armed escort riding on horseback. They uttered threats, and cried out in shrieking voices, to frighten away the throngs of men, women, and children who attempted to follow the procession.
At his second arrest, the Rebbe traveled under far more dignified conditions. He was transported at government expense, in a spacious coach belonging to the postal authority. He could take along any two people he chose to serve him and they too would travel free. They would be accompanied by three officials in civilian dress. At every station where they stopped to rest and to change horses, a private room was placed at his disposal for him to rest. Wherever the coach passed, hundreds of men and women came forth to greet him and bless him.
On Friday, 28 Tishrei, the Alter Rebbe arrived in Petersburg. A high-ranking official of the Ministry of the Interior came to receive him and to accompany him and his entourage to one of the buildings in the courtyard of the Tainy Sovietprison.1 He assigned a Jewish attendant, and also a non-Jewish one, to serve them.
One of the two “attendants” the Alter Rebbe had chosen to accompany him was his youngest son, Moshe. R. Moshe told the official that the Alter Rebbe was accustomed to pray with a congregation three times a day: morning, afternoon and evening. The official apologized, saying that he could not fulfill this request. His orders were that the Alter Rebbe, R. Moshe, and the second person who accompanied them, were to be kept separated from their fellow Jews.
After just a moment’s thought, R. Moshe suggested that the prayer service could be held in the adjoining room, so that the three of them would be completely separated from the minyan by a solid wall. Small openings could be cut in this wall, near the ceiling, so that the Rebbe would be able to hear the prayers and the Torah reading. Within a few hours, all this had been arranged.
During the next two months 28 Tishrei – 27 Kislev [October 17 – December 4] more than twenty hearings were held, attended by people who were experts in various fields. Many of them specialized in research on theology and Kabbalah, as well as Jewish history of the Sanhedrin period.
These hearings took place in one of the rooms in the Tainy Soviet prison, with a stenographer assigned to transcribe all questions and answers. Whenever the Alter Rebbe answered in Yiddish or in the Holy Tongue, Reb Moshe translated into Russian. With his father’s permission, he explained each concept with an appropriate commentary.
Reb Moshe’s handsome appearance, his polite demeanor, and his methodical way of speaking made a favorable impression on the officials. But most of all, they were impressed by his fluent and idiomatic use of the Russian language. They were even more amazed to discover that he spoke a beautiful and lucid French.
On Sunday, 27 Kislev, the third day of Chanukah, the investigation and hearings ended. Czar Paul approved the recommendation of the government ministers, and granted the Alter Rebbe a full acquittal. The Rebbe was released, with permission to continue all his activities with the same vigor as before. The only condition was that he must reside temporarily in the Imperial Capital of Petersburg, until further notice. The government officials had become aware that the Alter Rebbe was an excellent leader, and that most of the Jews throughout the country were now followers of the Rebbe and his chasidim. Moreover, the Alter Rebbe’s great influence extended even to chasidim of other factions.
The Alter Rebbe moved into a private apartment, at 21 Voznieski Street, at his own expense, and joy and happiness prevailed in the chasidic community. Thus passed about three months, until Czar Paul’s death.2
When Czar Alexander ascended the throne two weeks after the assassination of his father, Czar Paul, he became aware that the majority of the government ministers and the great noblemen and counts were under the influence of the academic scholars. He despised these intellectuals, who were all of French origin. He therefore sought ways to find favor and common interest with members of all the nationalities living in the Russian Empire, including the Jews.
Czar Alexander knew that there were three factions among the Jews: chasidim, misnagdim (opponents of Chasidut), and maskilim (“intellectuals”-i.e. Reformed). He set out to befriend all three.
i. He granted an unconditional release to the Alter Rebbe, including an official document stating that he was permitted to lead the chassidic community as he saw fit. He invited the Alter Rebbe to choose Petersburg as his place of residence.
ii. He sent three thousand rubles to the central Jewish Community of misnagdim in Vilna, to distribute in any way they desired.
iii. He fulfilled the request of the maskilim, granting permission for Jewish children to study at non-Jewish schools.
Chasidim mark the anniversary of his release on the third day of Chanukah with farbrengens (Chassidic gatherings) and the study of his teachings.3
1. The Alter Rebbe’s first imprisonment had been in the Peter-Paul Fortress which at that time had been called Tainy Soviet (“secret command”). In the two years between his arrests, the larger building [on the other side of the Neva River] was completed. This now became the Tainy Soviet.
2. On Shabbos HaGadol, Czar Paul passed through Voznieski Street while riding in his carriage. The Alter Rebbe was standing at the window at the time, and when he saw the Czar passing, he observed him carefully. Then, he declared that his royal bearing had departed from him, and he was nothing more than a common Poviak [a coarse Yiddish nickname, corresponding to the gentile name Paul]. That same night, the first night of Pesach, he was assassinated in a coup carried out by members of his own family.
3. According to other versions of the story, the liberation occurred on the fifth day of Chanukah. Apparently the liberation happened in two stages.
Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from Supplement E to “Fathers of Chassidus” in Branches in the Chassidic Menorah [S.I.E.], Vol. 1, by Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, translated by Shimon Neubort.
Rabbi Shnuer Zalman [of blessed memory: 18 Elul 5505 – 24 Tevet 5573 (1745 – Dec. 1812 C.E.)], one of the main disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch, is the founder of the Chabad-Chassidic movement. He is the author of Shulchan Aruch HaRav and Tanya as well as many other major works in both Jewish law and the mystical teachings.
Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.
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