Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Tuesday, 24 Teves (January 17) will mark the 210th yahrzeit of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe and the Baal HaTanya, founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

Few gedolei Yisrael have made as lasting and profound a contribution to Jewish life as the Alter Rebbe.


His works embrace the entire spectrum of Jewish thought – mysticism, philosophy, psychology, ethics, and halacha – and represent an expression of unparalleled creative genius.

I heard from Reb Yoel Kahan, the Rebbe’s chozer (often translated as “oral scribe”) that the Rogachover Gaon held the Alter Rebbe in the same esteem as the Rambam.

The rise and growth of the general Chassidic movement was rapid. Based on the directive of Rachmonoh liboh bo’i, “G-d wants your heart,” the leaders captured the happiness and bliss of Jewish emunah and Jewish faith for the common man.

In and through this, even Jewish peasants, traders, laborers, day workers and craftsmen found themselves in the warm haven of the Torah universe from which they had been excluded because of their limited scholarship. No longer forced to consider their religion a “Paradise lost,” they eagerly absorbed the inspired message of the Torah on the emotional level that Chassidism projected for them.

The Alter Rebbe founded the Chabad movement stressing the requirement of Da es Elokei Avichoh, “Know the G-d of your Father,” with your intellectual faculties and abilities. The Chabad movement developed into one of the strongest and most dynamic forces in Judaism.

Reb Schneur Zalman was a seventh-generation descendant, “son after son,” of the Maharal of Prague. His great-grandfather, Reb Moshe, later lived in Posen, and as the family moved eastward, they wandered through Galicia and Poland, finally settling in Vitebsk, then a flourishing center of Torah scholarship.

When Reb Schneur Zalman was a child his father, Reb Boruch, wanted to develop his son’s scholarship, and took him to a renowned teacher, Reb Yisochor Ber of Kobilnik, who lived in the town of Lubavitch. Under Reb Yisochor Ber’s tutelage, the young scholar traversed the “sea of the Talmud” in all directions and familiarized himself with Kabbalah, the esoteric side of traditional Torah wisdom.

Before long, Reb Yisochor Ber sent for Reb Boruch and told the overjoyed father of his student: “There is nothing more that I can teach your son; he has grown beyond me.”

Reb Boruch now took young Schneur Zalman to Vitebsk. The twelve-year-old boy won immediate recognition and fame as a genius, and he was accepted as an equal by the great scholars of the city.

After his marriage, his wealthy father-in-law supported him so that he could devote his undivided attention to the exclusive study of Torah.

Numerous tales of those years attest to the unquenchable thirst for Torah knowledge of Reb Schneur Zalman. His proficiency as a scholar won the admiration of everyone who came into contact with him.

At the age of 20, with his wife’s consent, he went to search for the fulfillment of a deep yearning in his soul. Despite all his knowledge, he felt that he was missing an element of Jewish religious experience that could not be captured in the solitude of the four walls of his own study.

Two centers of Jewish learning and leadership competed for his attention: Vilna, the main seat of Talmudic scholarship and the fortress of the opposition to the young, yet rapidly growing Chassidic movement; and Mezritch, the seat of Reb Dovber, the famed Maggid of Mezritch, the successor of Reb Yisrael Baal Shem Tov.

Full of hope and expectation, but with few material resources, he set out on the long journey to Mezritch.


Master of the Revealed and Hidden Dimensions

After Reb Schneur Zalman was with the Maggid of Mezritch for just a short while, the Maggid not only told him what had been in his mind but without having been asked, gave Reb Schneur Zalman astounding answers to some test questions the young scholar had prepared in order to assure himself of a worthy master. Deeply impressed, Reb Schneur Zalman asked to be admitted into the inner circle of the Mezritcher Maggid’s disciples.

A new world now unfolded before the eager eyes of the young scholar as he absorbed the Maggid’s daily explanations of the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. In the company of the Chevraya Kaddisha – the “Group of the Holy Disciples” of the Maggid – Reb Schneur Zalman delved into the realm of the holy relations that unite G-d, the Jewish People, the Torah and the world into one indivisible system as a universal entity.

Reb Dovber’s son, Reb Avrohom who by his holy conduct earned the title of Der Malach, “the Angel,” was his guide to this higher sphere of wisdom and knowledge. In return, Reb Schneur Zalman learned the revealed part of the Torah with him. The Alter Rebbe was forever grateful to Reb Avrohom.

(To be continued)


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Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman is director of the Lubavitch Youth Organization. He can be reached at [email protected].