Two centuries after the death of its founder, Chabad launches year-long celebration with reissue of his works

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the Alter Rebbe and author of the mystical treatise Tanya, laid the foundations for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, the largest Hassidic group in the world

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man prays at the 770 building in Kfar Chabad, Israel (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90/File)
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man prays at the 770 building in Kfar Chabad, Israel (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90/File)

NEW YORK — Chabad-Lubavitch, thought to be the largest of Hassidic groups, has launched a year-long celebration marking the 200th anniversary of the death of its founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, known to Hassidim as the “Alter Rebbe,” or “old master.”

Schneur Zalman died on December 15, 1812, or 24 Tevet on the Hebrew calendar, a date that falls on January 6 this year.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (photo credit: Courtesy)

The movement founded by Schneur Zalman is best-known in the Jewish world for its shlichim, or emissaries, young rabbis and their families who relocate away from the movement’s headquarters in Brooklyn to far-flung locations around the world, seeking to build Jewish communities in places ranging from US college campuses to Siberia and sub-Saharan Africa.

It was Schneur Zalman who laid the intellectual and kabbalistic foundations for this work, developing in the Tanya and in discourses and homilies a mystical theory that grew into an ideology that saw work in the mundane world and among the most assimilated of Jews as one of the highest expressions of religious faith and observance.

In a 1902 sermon that continues to be studied in the movement, one of Schneur Zalman’s successors, Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Schneerson, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, explained the philosophy of Schneur Zalman that has inspired the movement’s growth, and particularly the expansion of the phenomenon of the emissaries.

“There are two types of tzadikim [righteous people],” Shalom Schneerson explained, “with two different paths: There are tzadikim who are removed from the world, and tzadikim who are involved in the world. Rabbi Shneur Zalman revealed and founded the Chabad Hassidic path in the second manner, a path directed from the bottom up, through a labor of distilling and refining. One of the conditions of this path of service is that, regardless of how high your station may be, your service must always be connected to the lower realm. This means that the one doing the refining must invest himself into the situation of the one who is to be refined and only in that way does he refine him and raise him up.”

Delivered in December 1902 before Hassidim gathered at Chabad’s Tomchei Tmimim Yeshiva in the town of Lubavitch, in present-day Russia, it was a talk Hassidim view as having laid out their obligation to travel the world and bring fellow Jews closer to the tradition and Orthodox religious practice.

Chabad shlichim often live in scattered communities for decades, working to rebuild Jewish life especially in the largely assimilated and emptied communities of Asia and Eastern Europe.

The movement has grown spectacularly in recent years, with Chabad shlichim now based in well over 1,000 cities in 70 countries.

Schneur Zalman himself was an intellectual scion of the founder of Hassidism, a populist religious revival movement begun in the 18th century by the Baal Shem Tov, the rabbinic title of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer. Schneur Zalman was himself a student of the Baal Shem Tov’s chief disciple, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch.

In his best-known work, the Tanya, considered by scholars of modern Jewish thought to be one of the central works of Jewish mysticism in modern times, Schneur Zalman attempted to interpret and expand the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and Hassidism’s mystical tradition into a more rigorous, intellectually coherent vision. It marked the first effort to develop a methodical Hassidic philosophy, injecting into Chabad at its very genesis a tradition of systematic intellectualism that distinguished it from other early Hassidic sects.

The last late Lubavitcher Rebbe, the seventh since Schneur Zalman, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, said the work “expounds a philosophy and way of life permeated with profound awareness of the Supreme Being whose benevolent Divine Providence extends to all His creatures, to nations as well as to every individual human being,” and “inspires trust in G-d, a feeling of [humility] and confidence, dedication to the time-honored moral values, and a deeply felt responsibility to promote all that is good, indeed vital, for a wholesome and meaningful human society.”

According to Talmud scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, author of a popular Hebrew translation of the Talmud and a well-known leader in the Chabad movement, this intellectual tradition remains the distinctive characteristic of Chabad.

“We can now understand,” Steinsaltz once said of Schneur Zalman’s later discourses, “how Chabad received such a different character than other Hassidic movements. From [Schneur Zalman’s writings] one can see the beginnings of the great Chabad library of thought, both in quantity and in quality.”

The 200-year anniversary of Schneur Zalman’s death is seen by Chabad as an opportunity to rekindle interest in his writings and ideas. To that end, the movement’s publishing house, Kehot, is reissuing his collected writings and discourses.

The story of the rabbi’s works is a microcosm of the story of the movement itself. Many of the writings in the 27 volumes being published anew were gathered from manuscripts and students’ notes that had been scattered throughout the world in the wake of the Second World War.

The effort to collect them began with Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe and the man who brought the movement to America in 1940. He viewed the finding and preservation of the manuscripts and collected thought of the Chabad movement as part of the preservation of Jewry itself in the face of the twin challenges of repressive secularism in the Soviet Union and what he viewed as anti-spiritual materialism and ease of assimilation in the United States.

Yosef Yitzchak’s son-in-law and successor, Menachem Mendel, gave the final order during the 1950’s to have the extant copies of Schneur Zalman’s writings located and brought to the movement’s headquarters in Brooklyn for preservation and study. It was in the ensuing decades that the majority of the volumes of letters, discourses and teachings on Jewish law and mysticism were located and published.

While the documents, like the movement itself, found a new base in America, they always enjoyed a second base and many devoted followers — both of the movement and Schneur Zalman’s works — in Israel.

One of the key figures in the collection of the manuscripts during the 1950’s and 1960’s was Zalman Shazar, who would become Israel’s third president in 1963. Shazar was born in 1889 to a Chabad family in Minsk, in present-day Belarus, and was named for Schneur Zalman.

Events related to the anniversary will be spread throughout the year. Sunday saw several events in Chabad communities in the United States and elsewhere. On Monday, Hebrew University will host a three-day academic conference dealing with the history and thought of Chabad.

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