The 19th of Kislev marks the anniversary of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Ladi’s (the Alter Rebbe’s) release from prison in czarist Russia in the year 5559 (1798). This was not just a personal liberation; rather, it heralded a new era in the dissemination of Chasidus and is thus known as the “Rosh Hashanah of Chasidus.”
Two generations earlier, the Baal Shem Tov had begun to reveal the mystical teachings of the Torah that had previously been confined to a select few Kabbalists in each generation. His disciple, Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezritch, served as his successor and furthered his work. On 19 Kislev 5533 (1772), just before returning his soul to his Maker, the Maggid told his disciple, the Alter Rebbe, “This day is our Yom Tov.”
The Alter Rebbe went a step further than his predecessors in disseminating the teachings of Chasidus to wider parts of the Jewish population in Eastern Europe. Additionally, he founded the “Chabad” approach to Chasidus, a philosophy to be studied intellectually along with methods to apply the concepts in practical refinement of character and daily service of G-d.
In the fall of 5559 (1798), as a result of slanderous accusations of the movement’s opponents that the ideology and activities of Chabad Chasidus were against the czarist regime, the Alter Rebbe was arrested and imprisoned in an island fortress within Petersburg. During his interrogations, he was asked to explain to the czar’s ministers the fundamental concepts of Judaism and various aspects of chasidic philosophy and practice. After 53 days, he was found innocent of all charges and released.
The Alter Rebbe viewed his imprisonment as a mirror of Heavenly accusations against his revelation of the Torah’s secrets, and his release as an indication of his exoneration in the Heavenly court. Therefore, following his release, he intensified his efforts in disseminating Chasidus and began delivering ever more detailed explanations of Chasidic teachings.
The 19th of Kislev thus marks the Yom Tov of the Chabad Chasidic movement – the time when it emerged openly to teach, and expanded in order to illuminate Torah and Jewish life as a whole.
It is customary amongst chasidim that each community or shul divides the entire Talmud to be studied collectively by its members. This is done annually on the day of Yud Tes Kislev. It is also customary to eat black buckwheat (kasha), reminiscent of the kasha eaten by the Alter Rebbe in prison.
Amongst chasidim, it is customary to wish each other, in the language of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year in the study of Chasidus and the ways of Chasidus.” Chasidic farbrengens, gatherings, are held to celebrate the festival and for chasidim – men and women – to encourage one another to strengthen their commitment to the study and practice of Chasidus.
All this is to further hasten the great revelation of Moshiach, as known through the visit of the Baal Shem Tov to the habitation of Moshiach in the upper world when he asked him, “When are you [Moshiach] coming?” and the response of Moshiach was, “When your Wellsprings will spread outwardly.”
Gut Tom Tov.