Major Hasidic courts, 1815–1929. (Based on a map prepared for the exhibition "Time of the Hasidism." by Elżbieta Długosz, The Historical Museum of Kraków—Old Synagogue)

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Lubavitch Hasidism

Branch of Hasidism founded by Shneur Zalman of Liady (ca. 1745–1812). The townlet of Lyubavichi (Yid., Lubavitsh; commonly, Lubavitch), some 50 miles west of Smolensk, was the center between 1814 and 1915 of the main branch of Ḥabad Hasidism (Ḥabad, or ḤaBaD, is an acronym for ḥokhmah, binah, da‘at—“wisdom, understanding, knowledge”). Shneur Zalman emphasized an intellectualist form of spirituality and a systematized version of the teachings of Yisra’el Ba‘al Shem Tov (ca. 1700–1760) and Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezritsh (1704–1772).

Chart: Genealogy of the Leaders of Habad-Lubavitch Hasidism

Shneur Zalman’s Likute amarim (1797), later known as Tanya, together with the manuscripts of his oral discourses (delivered in an ecstatic mode in the presence of his followers and transcribed by his closest disciples), provided an ideological basis for Lubavitch Hasidism, grounded in the concept of the divine life force as the inner reality of all existence and expounding the role of each individual in achieving ultimate spiritual goals. His teachings encouraged intense states of emotional relationship with the divine during prayer, along with a strong emphasis on practical action and a concern for social values. Love of one’s fellow and the giving of charity were prominent themes.

During Shneur Zalman’s lifetime, his followers were mostly found in the shtetls of Belorussia. There was a core of Hasidim who had met with him personally and who had heard his oral discourses, and he had a wider reach of influence among those who studied his printed Tanya. How many did these number? Shneur Zalman’s famous contemporary Naḥman of Bratslav is said to have asked him: “Is it true what people say, that you have 80,000 Hasidim?” Shneur Zalman declined to admit to this enormous number of followers, and we are left uncertain as to the true figure. Whatever the number, his stature was such that 19 Kislev, the day of his release from prison after accusations by Misnagdim (opponents of Hasidism), became a festive day for the later Lubavitch movement, and is still celebrated by Ḥabad Hasidim today.

Shneur Zalman was distinguished among his contemporaries in the Hasidic leadership for his emphasis on the study of mystical texts such as Reshit ḥokhmah by Eliyahu de Vidas (16th century), along with his own Tanya and discourses. This led to criticism by the Hasidic leader Avraham of Kalisk (d. 1810), who thought that Shneur Zalman’s writings were both too philosophical and too mystical: “Too much oil [that is, mystical thought] can extinguish the lamp,” he argued, suggesting that ordinary Hasidic followers required only “ethics and faith in the tsadikim.” Shneur Zalman countered that each Hasid needed to make a spiritual effort on his own, through intellectual study and rational, personal internalization of Hasidic ideas, an approach that was defended by Levi Yitsḥak of Barditshev (ca. 1740–1809).

The emphasis on the study of Hasidic texts continued in the second generation of Ḥabad, despite a fierce conflict that had broken out some years before Shneur Zalman’s death and had intensified once the question of the succession to his leadership arose. At this point in Hasidic history, the dynastic principle of succession, which tended to predominate in later Hasidism, had not yet emerged. Ḥabad Hasidim divided into two groups, one led by Shneur Zalman’s leading disciple, Aharon ha-Levi Horowitz of Staroselye (1766–1828), and the other by Shneur Zalman’s oldest son, Dov Ber (1773–1827).

The ideological aspect of the conflict concerned different approaches to contemplative prayer. Aharon espoused the quest for hitpa‘alut, ecstatic emotional enthusiasm, while Dov Ber taught a path revolving around bitul, self-abnegation, manifested in deep, intense, motionless contemplation. Dov Ber set as his goal the communication and publication of Ḥabad Hasidic thought. From 1814, he lived in Lubavitsh, since the family had moved from Liady when that town was destroyed in the course of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. Dov Ber arranged the publication or republication of the works his father had actually written (as opposed to his oral discourses, which were transcribed by others). Thus, Shneur Zalman’s Tanya was reprinted in 1814 in an expanded edition that included a collection of his letters; over the next several years, his voluminous halakhic writings were published as well.

Basing himself closely on his father’s manuscript discourses, Dov Ber (later known as the “Mitteler,” or middle, rebbe) continued to focus on striving for spiritual states of consciousness through contemplation, while also emphasizing the mystical importance of observing the practical commandments. Both Dov Ber of Lubavitsh and his rival, Aharon of Staroselye, taught paths of intensive spiritual experience, concentrating on contemplative prayer. Yet Dov Ber was more critical of self-deception in this quest, as he expressed in his book Kuntres ha-hitpa‘alut. He also accorded the simple man more spiritual dignity, as is evident in his Yiddish work Pokeaḥ ‘ivrim (1817), written as a manual for the repentant. His varied works of Hasidic teaching include Be’ure ha-Zohar (1816); a prayer book (also 1816) with lengthy Hasidic commentaries on the prayers; a tract on deep contemplation called Sha‘ar ha-yiḥud (1820); discourses about the meaning of Hanukkah and Purim, in Sha‘are orah (1822); and writings on the Torah. Dov Ber’s philosophical and rationalistic style of discourse was attacked by a contemporary Hasidic leader, Tsevi Hirsh of Zhidachov (or Zhidetshoyv; d. 1831); yet others, such as the latter’s prominent disciple, Tsevi Elimelekh Shapira of Dinov (1785–1841), defended him.

Aharon’s main works were Sha‘are ha-yiḥud veha-emunah (1820) and Sha‘are ha-‘avodah (1822), expounding ideas from the Tanya, and a collection of discourses, Avodat ha-Levi (1862). Shneur Zalman taught of two distinct steps of mystical awareness: perception of the “upper unity,” in which there is no world, but only the divine; and that of the “lower unity,” in which one recognizes the divine in the world. Aharon sought primarily the upper unity; Dov Ber, the lower. A focus on the lower unity—on discovering the divine in the world, through the complex dialectic of Ḥabad Hasidic thought—became a characteristic of the teachings of future generations of Lubavitch Hasidism.

In 1825, Dov Ber was arrested on charges similar to those that had been laid against his father. In particular, he was accused of sending money to the Turks, based on the information that he was, in fact, sending funds to the Hasidic community in the Holy Land. Dov Ber wrote an interesting letter to the governor-general of the Vitebsk region in charge of the case, spelling out some Jewish mystical ideas. He was released after two months on 10 Kislev, which eventually became another festive date for Lubavitch Hasidim.

Shneur Zalman’s grandson, Menaḥem Mendel Shneerson (or Schneersohn; 1789–1866), who was also Dov Ber’s son-in-law, became the third Lubavitch leader, known as the Tsemaḥ Tsedek. The six-volume collection of his responsa (1871–1874) indicates his skill as a halakhist. Most of Menaḥem Mendel’s works remained in manuscript until the twentieth century, when they were printed in more than 40 volumes. His Sefer ha-ḥakirah: Derekh emunah (1912) contains discussions of the philosophical writings of Maimonides, Sa‘adyah Gaon, and Yosef Albo, as well as of the Hebrew scientific writings of David Gans (1541–1613).

In his lifetime, Menaḥem Mendel produced an edition of Shneur Zalman’s teachings, edited from manuscript transcripts. The first volume, Torah or, appeared in Kopys in 1837. However, at this period, following denunciation by maskilim, printing of Hasidic tracts was being severely curtailed. A decade passed before the second volume could be printed—in another town and with a different title (Likute Torah; 1848). Menaḥem Mendel considered this project to be a great achievement, consistent with the belief expressed by earlier kabbalists, and also by the Ba‘al Shem Tov, that the spread of mystical knowledge would hasten the advent of the Messiah. He also staunchly defended the traditional Jewish educational system, which was the object of governmental attempts in the 1840s to reform it in the spirit of the Enlightenment.

Menaḥem Mendel’s followers were drawn from Belorussia, and also from farther afield. During his leadership, the distinctive Ḥabad prayer book was printed in Vilna, Czernowitz (Chernivtsi), Königsberg (Kaliningrad), Warsaw, and Slavuta. This information does not convey much about the geographical locations of his followers, however, since there was a constant attempt in the Jewish community to avoid tsarist censorship by diversifying the locations in which Jewish texts were printed. But it does suggest that there were considerable numbers of Hasidim for whom use of the Ḥabad prayer book was an important way of signifying their allegiance. The 1847 census indicates a Jewish community in Lubavitsh numbering 1,164, many of whom may have been Menaḥem Mendel’s followers; and there were also significant Ḥabad communities in many other Belorussian towns.

After Menaḥem Mendel’s death in 1866, several of his sons and grandsons became rival Hasidic leaders in the towns of Liady, Kopys, Niezhyn, and Ovruch (Yid., Ovritsh; near Zhitomir). There was fierce conflict among the respective groups, although the incidence of interfamilial marriages between the offspring of these leaders suggests that the conflicts may have subsequently subsided, at least at the leadership level. The Hasidic teachings of Menaḥem Mendel’s grandson Shelomoh Zalman of Kopys (d. 1900) are collected in Magen avot (1902). Menaḥem Mendel’s youngest son, Shemu’el (1834–1882), known as Maharash (Morenu ha-Rav Shemu’el), became rebbe in Lubavitsh, with influence over many other communities.

An important factor in Shemu’el’s leadership was the fact that he remained in Lubavitsh, which had been the center of the movement for the previous half century, while his brothers fanned out to other towns. He also managed to retain possession of the considerable collection of manuscripts of Ḥabad Hasidic teachings left by his father, comprising the latter’s own voluminous writings along with those of Shneur Zalman and Dov Ber. In a far-reaching step, Shemu’el established the role of mashpi‘a, or spiritual guide, as a paid official in the community, parallel to the role of the rabbi. The task of the mashpi‘a was to teach Hasidic discourses and, it seems, to conduct Hasidic gatherings, complete with stories and melodies. Maharash himself taught Hasidic nigunim (wordless melodies) and was credited with the ability to read music.

Shemu’el also composed lengthy Hasidic teachings, organized as a week-by-week hemshekh (series) unfolding an esoteric theme. This was also the style of his son Shalom Dov Ber (1860–1920), known as Rashab (Rabbi Shalom [Dov] Ber), who eventually became the fifth-generation Ḥabad rebbe after his father’s death in 1882. Shalom Dov Ber’s Hasidic teachings are especially noted for delving into the beginning of the process of divine creation, exploring topics that had previously been regarded as out of bounds, even for kabbalists. He wrote a number of tracts on Hasidic spirituality, among them Kuntres ha-tefilah (1924).

Lubavitsh was Shalom Dov Ber’s center until 1915. The 1897 census records 1,660 Jewish men, women, and children in this townlet, which had a total population of 2,711. A large proportion, although not all, of the Jews of Lubavitsh were Shalom Dov Ber’s followers; he also had sizable groups of followers in other towns in Belorussia and more distant locations.

At the time of Shalom Dov Ber’s death, some of the largest communities of his adherents were in Horodok, Vitebsk, Liozno, Rudnya, Smolensk, and Orsha. Shalom Dov Ber also sent emissary rabbis and spiritual leaders to the Sephardic Jewish communities of Georgia, thus establishing the Lubavitch movement as an ideology rather than a merely territorial phenomenon. With the advance of German troops in 1915, he moved to Rostov-on-Don, thus leaving Lubavitsh, which had now been the main center of Ḥabad leadership for more than a century. The name Lubavitch, however, was to remain as the name of the movement.

Shalom Dov Ber’s most obvious achievement, apart from his remarkable output of Hasidic teachings, was to found the Lubavitch yeshiva, Tomkhe Temimim, in 1897. This was the first Hasidic yeshiva, complete with full boarding facilities akin to those of the famous Lithuanian yeshivas. The yeshiva’s curriculum, however, unlike those at the Lithuanian institutions, included study of mystical Hasidic teachings; and among the yeshiva staff was a mashpi‘a, entrusted with the task of providing spiritual guidance to the students. The overt goal of the yeshiva was to be a bastion of traditional, spiritual Orthodoxy in the face of the growing influence of the Haskalah and the rise of secular movements such as Bundism and secular Zionism. After the First Zionist Congress of 1897, Shalom Dov Ber emerged as a leading rabbinic antagonist of Zionism, claiming that the movement would weaken adherence to Judaism and delay the coming of the Messiah.

During the first and second decades of the twentieth century, the European Orthodox religious leadership began the process of political modernization that led to the founding of Agudas Yisroel in Katowice in 1912; this development linked the Central and East European branches of Orthodoxy. Shalom Dov Ber was initially attracted to this program, which was strongly supported by the Gerer Hasidic leadership, but eventually withdrew from direct engagement in it. The ambiguous stance on the part of the Ḥabad movement with respect to Agudas Yisroel continued during the 1930s, when the center of Ḥabad was in Poland, the heartland of Agudas Yisroel.

Shalom Dov Ber died in 1920 and was buried in Rostov-on-Don, where he had spent his last years; he was succeeded by his son Yosef Yitsḥak Shneerson (1880–1950). Despite his youth, the latter had directed the Tomkhe Temimim yeshiva from its beginning. The immediate task, as he saw it, was to attempt to preserve Judaism in the USSR. The earlier mystical contemplative stance of Lubavitch was now combined with a dynamic activist attempt to run secret schools for children and provide religious requisites for traditional Jews in several regions of the USSR (an effort partly funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee).

Yosef Yitsḥak was arrested by the Evsektsiia, the Jewish section of the Communist Party, in 1927 but, following international protest, was released on 12 Tammuz, a date that became another day of annual celebration for Lubavitch Hasidim. He moved to Riga, and then in 1931 to Warsaw and in 1936 to Otwock, a secluded woodland suburb southeast of Warsaw. This last town became the site of the central Tomkhe Temimim yeshiva. During this period, much of Yosef Yitsḥak’s time was devoted to gaining help for Jews in the USSR.

A new venture was the production of a Lubavitch journal, Ha-Tamim (The Pure-hearted, a play on the name of the Lubavitsh yeshiva) in Hebrew and Yiddish. Much of the editing was done in Paris by Menaḥem Mendel Shneerson (1902–1994), the son-in-law and eventual successor of Yosef Yitsḥak. In 1938, Yosef Yitsḥak set up a study group in Riga called Aḥot ha-Temimim (Sister of the Pure-hearted), in which girls studied Hasidic teachings. This marked the first time that girls were taught the Jewish mystical traditions in an organized way.

In 1940, the efforts of Yosef Yitsḥak’s American followers to bring him from occupied Poland to freedom were successful. On reaching New York, he made vigorous attempts to maintain contact with and rescue other Jews from Eastern Europe.

Throughout the 1930s and subsequently, there continued to be circles of Lubavitch Hasidim in the USSR—Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, was an important center—guided by leading Hasidim. Some of them were arrested by the Communists, including Mendel Futerfas and Bentsion Shemtov (both were later released); some, including Elḥanan Dov Marozov (d. 1938?), were tortured and killed.

After Yosef Yitsḥak’s death in 1950 he was succeeded as rebbe by his son-in-law, the second Menaḥem Mendel Shneerson. Menaḥem Mendel, now the seventh rebbe of Lubavitsh, would sometimes correspond from Brooklyn with his followers in the Soviet Union via postcards signed “Zeyde” (Grandfather) or “Mendel Zeyde.” He also maintained some contact through certain Jewish businessmen and Israeli diplomats, before the cessation of diplomatic relations between Israel and the USSR in 1967. A new venture began in the 1970s, whereby Menaḥem Mendel sent emissaries to the USSR who pretended to be ordinary tourists. These efforts dovetailed with other Jewish attempts from the West to establish and maintain contact with Soviet Jews. The Lubavitch Hasidim in Moscow were led at that time by Getsel Vilensky (ca. 1902–1988), known as Reb Getche. Menaḥem Mendel’s emissaries would meet with a clandestine group of these Hasidim, often conveying personal messages to individuals from the rebbe.

As Jews began gaining permission to leave the USSR, Lubavitch organizations were established to help them. FREE (Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe) was established in New York in 1969 at Menaḥem Mendel’s request, and with his close involvement; another group, Shamir, was set up in Jerusalem in 1972 as an informal club where Russian academics and intellectuals were able to meet and gain help for their religious and, to some extent, material needs, such as job placements. Shamir later produced religious publications in the Russian language for use in the West, which were subsequently smuggled into the USSR.

With the fall of communism, some Lubavitch activist rabbis and their wives learned Russian, in many cases the language of their own grandparents, and began moving to the former USSR and to other parts of Eastern Europe. As of 2000, there were some 260 Lubavitch couples living in 75 cities in the former Soviet Union, as well as in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia. They seek out Jews, many of whom are intermarried; provide Jewish contact, education, and ritual services, including circumcisions for men and boys; and set up summer camps for children, Jewish schools, and other helping organizations.

Suggested Reading

David Assaf, Ne’eḥaz ba-sevakh: Pirke mashber u-mevukhah be-toldot ha-ḥasidut (Jerusalem, 2006); Avrum M. Ehrlich, Leadership in the HaBaD Movement: A Critical Evaluation of HaBaD Leadership, History and Succession (Northvale, N.J., 2000); Rachel Elior, The Paradoxical Ascent to God: The Kabbalistic Theosophy of Habad Hasidism, trans. Jeffrey M. Green (Albany, N.Y., 1993); David E. Fishman, “Preserving Tradition in the Land of Revolution: The Religious Leadership of Soviet Jewry, 1917–1930,” in The Uses of Tradition, ed. Jack Wertheimer, pp. 85–118 (New York, 1992); Roman A. Foxbrunner, Habad: The Hasidism of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1992); Naftali Loewenthal, Communicating the Infinite: The Emergence of the Habad School (Chicago, 1990).