This coming Friday – the second of Nissan – marks 100 years since the passing of the Rebbe Rashab, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber Schneersohn (1860-1920), who was the fifth Lubavitcher leader.
When he was born in 1860, most Jews lived in shtetlach where a close-knit community kept them faithful by and large to Yiddishkeit. Although secular culture was prevalent in America and most of Western Europe, it was not prevalent in Eastern Europe or Sefardic lands.
By 1920, however, most European Jews lived in cities, and secular education and culture were infiltrating everywhere. While Jews in Eastern Europe generally remained close to tradition, standards were dropping almost everywhere. During his time as leader of Lubavitch, the Rebbe Rashab would battle to ameliorate the situation.
From his earliest childhood, he imbibed the vibrant spirit of the Lubavitcher court run by his celebrated grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek (1789-1866), and later his father, the Rebbe Maharash (1834-1882). Lubavitch was a center where chassidim came for inspiration and where the Rebbe Rashab absorbed classic Chabad devotion and tradition. By his early teens, the Rashab was noted for his intense devout prayer and extensive grasp of Chabad philosophy.
When his father passed away in 1882 at the early age of 48, chassidim implored the Rebbe Rashab to become the leader of Lubavitch. But he was just 21 and did not feel ready to accept the position. While agreeing to give Chabad discourses – highly praised, for their unique insights by that era’s great experts on Chabad philosophy– he did not accept most other responsibilities.
Only gradually, over the next decade, did he see no other choice but to accept leadership in light of the growing problems of Russian and world Jewry. In keeping with the tradition of Chabad leaders, he worked hard to help Jews both materially and religiously. He cooperated with other Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor, the rav of Kovno, and later with Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, in counteracting anti-Semitic decrees by the czarist regime. Over time, he became the main activist in Russia working against such decrees and fighting for Jewish concerns.
Among his greatest accomplishments: He influenced Jewish philanthropists to establish, in 1902, a textile factory in Dubrovna employing 2,000 Jewish workers, thereby helping alleviate livelihood problems for many families; in 1904-1905, during the Russo-Japanese War, he organized committees to send matzos for Pesach to Jewish soldiers in the Far East; he helped organize Mendel Beilis’s defense during the infamous blood libel trial in which the czarist prosecution sought to defame Judaism and Chassidus; and during World War I, he succeeded in obtaining official exemption from military service for rabbis and other religious dignitaries.
The Rebbe Rashab worked to foster religious observance among all Jews. Despite little previous contact between Ashkenazi communities within Russia’s “Pale of Settlement” and the Jews of Bukhara and the Caucasus, he utilized opportunities to send them rabbanim to help maintain and raise standards of Yiddishkeit and establish Torah schools there, the effects of which we continue to see today.
To counteract increasing secularization, he campaigned to create an association of Torah-observant Jews throughout Eastern and Central Europe, which later crystallized into Agudath Israel. Although he left that particular organization as it became increasingly politicized, the idea of forming such organizations caught on and many were created in various forms in many lands.
The crown of his efforts, however, was the special yeshiva he founded named Tomchei Tmimim (in Lubavitch and later in other locations) where students studied – alongside the traditional curriculum – Chabad Chassidus. Although many yeshivos then existed, the Rebbe Rashab said he wanted a yeshiva that emphasized both Torah and yiras shamayim. His unique approach schooled thousands of scholarly, self-sacrificing graduates who later became Chabad’s vanguard in its life-and-death struggle against Bolshevik persecution.
Over and above his widespread activism, the Rebbe Rashab is remembered as “the Rambam of Chassidus” for his systematic and well-reasoned profound expositions of Chabad philosophy. In his many deep discourses – including many clustered in series (hemshechim), one of which contains 144 installments – he laid the foundations for intense study of Torah’s mystical concepts, from which we benefit greatly to this day.
May we be inspired by his life and teachings.