The Zemach Zedek and the Haskalah Movement
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, famed as the "Tzemach Tzedek" after his magnum opus on Talmudic law, was born on the eve of Rosh Hashana 5549 (1789), to Rabbi Shalom Schachne and Devora Leah. His maternal grandfather was Rabbi Schneur Zalman (Baruchovitch) of Liadi-Lyozna, founder of Chabad Chassidus, and popularly known as the "Alter Rebbe" (Old Rabbi), or simply as the "Rav." Two great works of Rabbi Schneur Zalman are Tanya and Shulchan Aruch, on Chassidus and Torah law respectively. Rabbi Menachem Mendel's father-in-law was his uncle Rabbi Dov-Ber Schneuri, the "Mitteler Rebbe," whom he succeeded as head of the Chabad Chassidim on Kislev 10, 5588 (1827 ), until his passing on Nissan 13, 5626 (1866) .
When Rabbi Menachem Mendel was fifteen, Rabbi Schneur Zalman instructed him to work with his uncle, Rabbi Moshe, in communal affairs. This was in addition to his responsibility to study all inquiries on Torah matters, and after discussion of the law with Rabbi Yehuda Leib of Yanovitch (Rabbi Schneur Zalman's brother and author of Sheris Yehuda), to submit responsa in outline to Rabbi Schneur Zalman.
After residing briefly in Haditch where Rabbi Schneur Zalman had been interred in 1813, Rabbi Menachem. Mendel settled in Lubavitch, Mogilev province, in 1814, with his father-in-law. He stipulated that no communal problems intrude on his studies. His assiduity in study was exceptional,1 and he continued to examine all Torah inquiries received by Rabbi Dov-Ber. When Rabbi Dov-Ber approved, he would answer the letters. This regime lasted about twelve years.
In a supplement to Torah Or (N. Y. 1954, p. 285), Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn writes:
By the age of ten (Rabbi Menachem Mendel) had a swift and beautiful hand. He could write a page of thirty lines in five or six minutes. Every day he wrote for three hours, and to make up for Shabbos and Holy days, he wrote the following evening. Once his son complained about the excessive stringency of a teacher, R. Gershon. "Is that stringent?" Rabbi Menachem Mendel exclaimed. "It is nothing compared to the regimen I imposed on myself at the age of nine, regarding hours of study and writing."
In later years Rabbi Menachem Mendel attributed his success at the Rabbinical Commission of 1843 to three merits. One was the 32,000 hours he spent during thirty years in profound study of Rabbi Schneur Zalman's works, and the commentaries he wrote then twenty hours every week.
Rabbi Dov-Ber was accused1 in 1826 of subversive activities, and ordered to appear in Vitebsk. At this point Rabbi Menachem Mendel entered public life. His first undertaking was the organization of a committee, composed of people from various circles, to defend Rabbi Dov-Ber. He also laid t efforts on establishing farm colonies in Vitebsk and Minsk provinces; Mogilev boasted a great many colonies by that time.
Years later this letter came into the hands of the recipient's heir, as unscrupulous and vengeful enemy of the Rabbi. He harbored air implacable hatred of the Rabbi for some personal family "slight." He attempted to use this letter to blackmail the Rabbi, but the Rabbi refused to be intimidated by a perfectly innocent letter.
With some judicious doctoring, the figures in the letter, "three or four thousand rubles" became "one hundred and three or four thousand." This was indeed a "considerable" sum. What could be its purpose? And how did he gather such a sum on so short a journey? Simple. He was plotting a revolution! The money was destined for the Turks, who then ruled the Holy Land. The regular remittances to needy scholars there lent an air of credibility to the charges.
Other weird accusations were made concerning the dimensions of the Rabbis synagogue being similar to those of the Jerusalem Temple, and of course that meant that he intended to be King of Israel or something. The similarity to the charges leveled against Rabbi Schneur Zalman ( fn. 37) in 1798 is striking.
In the fall of 1826 the Rabbi was instructed to appear in Vitebsk, the provincial capital. This was done in a most respectful manner, through high-ranking officers and arrangements to suit the Rabbi. Hundreds accompanied him from Lubavitch, and at every village the elders met him with the traditional bread and salt. The honor and reverence accorded him by Jew and Gentile deeply impressed the officials.
Governor-General Chavanski, a harsh man who entertained little affection for the Rabbi, conducted the investigation. However, Dr. Heibenthal, Jan Lubomirski, and others interceded on his behalf. He was treated with dignity and later permitted to worship publicly, lecture on Chassidus, etc. He was officially informed that he was completely exonerated of all suspicion and released on Kislev 10, a festival among Chassidim ever since.
For details of the dramatic trip and investigation, see Hatomim II, Warsaw, 1935, p. 74 ff.
The Kherson farmers1 had demonstrated the feasibility of Jews' settling on farms. They prospered there, and many regularly gave tithes to charity, a portion to be distributed at the discretion of Rabbi Dov-Ber. The settlers in Vitebsk, Minsk, and Mogilev received aid from the reconstruction fund established by Rabbi Dov-Ber, and a large proportion of the loans had been repaid into the agriculture fund.
Rabbi Dov-Ber's last three years, 1825-1827, were hard. Because of the depression the contributions for the families in the Holy Land1 were only one third of the required sum, and the debts were overwhelming. Rabbi Dov-Ber loaned money from the agriculture fund to complement the contributions.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel appointed a council of five senior Chassidim who would make the necessary decisions in communal problems. They were Rabbis Moshe Meisels1 of Vilna, Baruch Mordecai Eitinga2 of Bobroisk, Isaac3 of Gomel, Hillel4 of Paritch, and Peretz5 of Beshenkovitch. Rabbi Hillel began making regular visits to the Kherson settlements in 1828, and would spend the three summer months there annually. Besides his influence on the settlers in regard to Torah and piety in the Chassidic tradition, he had a salutary erect on their personal conduct and brotherly relations with each other.
In 1818 Rabbi Dov-Ber instructed Rabbi Hillel to visit the colonies.
"Harvest material (gather funds for those in need) and sow spiritual (teach and guide and inspire the colonists)" -- these 'Words of Rabbi Dov-Ber became his mission. He provided conscripted soldiers in Bobroisk with Kosher food, and aided Jews who were imprisoned there under various pretexts.
Rabbi Dov-Ber appointed him mashpi'ya, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel emphatically confirmed the appointment. Rabbi Hillel was thoroughly devoted, sparing nothing of himself for the least of his charges. -- Likutei Diburim 23, Brooklyn, 1943, p. 56.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel was systematic1 and an excellent organizer. It was his policy to carry on all his communal activities covertly; only those directly involved were aware of his work. For example, when the Conscription Laws were applied to Jewish youths" in 1827, Rabbi Menachem Mendel arranged to have people at the conscripts2 assembly-points, to care for the spiritual needs of the recruits, to encourage them. and inspire them to observance of Judaism, and to resist the blandishments of conversion3 they would soon face.
He was deeply interested in the material welfare of his people, and encouraged his followers to engage in agriculture; assisting them financially when necessary. Because of the difficulties resulting from official restrictions on Jews,1 he decided to purchase a large tract of land in the Pale of Settlement, in Minsk province, where Jewish families could settle near existing Jewish communities.
It was about the year 1844 that he purchased some 3600 desiaten (about 9700 acres) of forest and farm land laced with brooks, from Prince Schtzedrinov, in Minsk. He mote over 300 Jewish families to settle in the new colony of Schtzedrin, under the supervision of a special board. The lead was distributed to the settlers at no cost, every family receiving enough land for a home and farm buildings, and sever acres for cultivation and pasture, besides farm equipment. Some 1700 desiaten were thus distributed. The other 1800 desiaten of forest were sold to one Ephraim Holodetz of Bobroisk, a condition of the sale being that lumber be supplied for homes and stables for the colonists. The settlers were granted Special government privileges, among them a long term loan of 200 rubles, by the Provincial treasury, to be repaid with farm produce. The settlers prospered and were soon able to devote several periods of the year to Torah study. The purchase money paid by Holodetz was used defray the expenses and debts of colonization. Part of the down payment was sent by the Rabbi to the Holy Land, and the rest contribute to his regular Charity Fund.1
The establishment of the Schtzedrin colony impressed Russian Jewry and Government officials alike. The Governors of Minsk, Vitebsk, and Mogilev provinces wrote laudatory letters to the Minister of the Interior in regard to the officially sanctioned colony. The Governor of Minsk noted the beneficial effects of the colony in diverting Jews from unstable and insecure petty trading activities. He noted that Rabbi Schneersohn of Lubavitch had considerable influence over all segments of Russian Jewry, including former Misnagdim and Chassidim of Vohyln and Poland. They recognized and appreciated his activities on their behalf, not excluding their material welfare, as exemplified in the establishment of the new colony in Minsk Province.
The Governor of Vitebsk, too, notified the Minister of the official registration of "Rabbi Mendel Schachnovitch Schneersohn, son-in-law of Rabbi (Dov-Ber) Schneuri of Lubavitch, grandson of Rabbi (Schneur Zalman) Baruchovitch of Liadi as a citizen of Vitebsk. He described the Rabbi's conduct as faultless, and also remarked upon his influence among the Jews who consulted him regarding their material problems.