Shneur Zalman of Liady

Founder of the Habad school of Hasidism.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Shneur Zalman of Liady (1745-1813) was a Hasidic master and the founder of the Habad school in Hasidism. Shneur Zalman (the name Shneur probably comes from "Seņor," suggesting that the family came originally from Spain) was born in the Belorussian town of Liozno, near Vitebsk. He married at an early age and, with the approval of his young wife but against the wishes of both his father and father-in-law who were suspicious of the new trends, he resolved to journey to Dov Baer of Mezhirech, disciple of the Baal Shem Tov and organizer of the Hasidic movement, in order to learn, as he said, how to pray. In this he was typical of those learned young men who required a more inward and mystical approach.

Victory of Hasidism

Dov Baer arranged for his son, "Abraham the Angel," as he was called because of his ascetic life, to introduce Shneur Zalman into the mysteries of the Kabbalah while Shneur Zalman would teach the Talmud to Abraham. From all accounts and from his own testimony, Shneur Zalman's Hasidic philosophy owes much to the ideas of Dov Baer as mediated through the "Angel." Dov Baer encouraged Shneur Zalman to compile a new Shulhan Arukh, a code of Jewish law that would take into account the latest opinions. This work, published in 1814, is known as Shulhan Arukh Ha-Rav, "The Rabbi's Shulhan Arukh" and, written with great clarity in a fine Hebrew style, is now a major source for practical decisions even among Rabbis remote from Hasidism.

When Dov Baer died in 1772, Shneur Zalman became a Hasidic master in his own right. He and an older colleague, Menahem Mendel of Vitbesk, awakened the suspicions of the Mitnagdim led by Elijah, Gaon of Vilna. The two Hasidic leaders sought an audience with the Gaon of Vilna to persuade him that Hasidic views were in no way heretical, but the Gaon refused to see them. Shneur Zalman's teaching and activity were brought, by the Mitnagdim, to the attention of the Russian government, alert to any movement smacking of rebellion, and in 1778 he was arrested, on a trumped-up charge, and imprisoned in the fortress in St. Petersburg. All charges were eventually dropped and Shneur Zalman was released on 19 Kislev. Habad Hasidism, and other Hasidic groups, saw Shneur Zalman's release as the divinely sanctioned victory of Hasidism over its opponents. To this day Habad Hasidim celebrate 19 Kislev as a minor festival.

After his release Shneur Zalman settled in Liady. Shneur Zalman, unlike some other Hasidic masters, wished to see the Czarist forces prevail of Napoleon's army. In a letter to one of his followers, Shneur Zalman expressed his fears that if Napoleon were to be victorious the spiritual conditions of Russian Jewry would deteriorate, even though they would enjoy considerable material benefits. When Napoleon's army advanced on Moscow,Shneur Zalman fled to the Ukraine but died on the way. Shneur Zalman was succeeded by his son, Dov Baer of Lubavitch. Habad Hasidim refer to Shneur Zalman as the Alter Rebbe ("the Old Rebbe"). An often reproduced portrait of Shneur Zalman (painted, it is said, during his imprisonment) shows him to have been, if such can be assessed from a painting, a profound thinker and holy man, a picture amply supported by his writings.

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