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Yat Kislev

The 19th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev (Yat Kislev) is celebrated as the “Rosh Hashanah of Chassidism.” It was on this date, in the year 1798, which the founder of Chabad Chassidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812), was freed from his imprisonment in czarist Russia. More than a personal liberation, this was a watershed event in the history of Chassidism, heralding a new era in the revelation of the “inner soul” of Torah.

The public dissemination of the teachings of Chassidism had in fact begun two generations earlier. The founder of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698–1760), revealed to his disciples gleanings from the mystical soul of Torah which had previously been the sole province of select Kabbalists in each generation. This work was continued by the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, Rabbi DovBer, the “Maggid of Mezeritch”—who is also deeply connected with the date of “19 Kislev”: on this day in 1772, 26 years before Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s release from prison, the Maggid returned his soul to his Maker. Before his passing, he said to his disciple, Rabbi Schneur Zalman: “This day is our yom tov (festival).”

Rabbi Schneur Zalman went much farther than his predecessors, bringing these teachings to broader segments of the Jewish population of Eastern Europe. More significantly, Rabbi Schneur Zalman founded the “Chabad” approach—a philosophy and system of study, meditation, and character refinement that made these abstract concepts rationally comprehensible and practically applicable in daily life.

In its formative years, the Chassidic movement was the object of strong, and often venomous, opposition from establishment rabbis and laymen. Even within the Chassidic community, a number of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s contemporaries and colleagues felt that he had “gone too far” in tangibilizing and popularizing the hitherto hidden soul of Torah. the fall of 1798, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was arrested on charges that his teachings and activities threatened the imperial authority of the czar, and was imprisoned in an island fortress in the Neva River in Petersburg. In his interrogations, he was compelled to present to the czar’s ministers the basic tenets of Judaism and explain various points of Chassidic philosophy and practice. After 53 days, he was exonerated of all charges and released.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman saw these events as a reflection of what was transpiring Above. He regarded his arrest as but the earthly echo of a heavenly indictment against his revelation of the most intimate secrets of the Torah. And he saw his release as signifying his vindication in the heavenly court. Following his liberation on 19 Kislev, he redoubled his efforts, disseminating his teachings on a far broader scale, and with more detailed and “down-to-earth” explanations, than before.

The nineteenth of Kislev therefore marks the “birth” of Chassidism: the point at which it was allowed to emerge from the womb of “mysticism” into the light of day, to grow and develop as an integral part of Torah and Jewish life.

We are enclosing the historical letter that the Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman) sent to all of his followers upon his release:

“Upon his arrival from Petersburg”

“I have become diminished from all the kindnesses and from all the truth. (Chapter 32, verse 11 of this week’s Torah portion Vayishlach.) This means that with every single favor that G-d bestows upon a man, he ought to become very humble. For the supernatural Sefirah of “Chesed is the right arm,” and, [as scripture states,] “His right arm embraces me,” which refers to the state of G-d actually bringing him close to Himself, far more intensely than before. And whoever is brought exceedingly close to G-d, being raised aloft to great heights, ought to be ever more humble, to the lowliest plane, as it is written, “From afar has G-d appeared to me.” And, as is known, “All that are before Him are esteemed as nothing.” Hence, whoever is more “before Him” whoever is closer to G-d is that much more like nothing, naught, and non-existent. This self-effacing response to Divine favors is the level of the “right side” of holiness, and of “Chesed unto Abraham” who said, “And I am dust and ashes.” This humility born of kindness is also the characteristic trait of Jacob, and therewith he justified himself for his fear of Esau, and did not regard the Divine promise given to him as being sufficient: “And behold I am with you and I shall protect you wherever you go” This was so, because Jacob regarded himself as utterly insignificant on account of the multitude of G-d’s favors. As he said, “For only with my staff did I cross the Jordan, and now I have enough property for two camps,” and he considered himself as being utterly unfit and unworthy to be saved, and so on. As our sages, of blessed memory, expressed it, “Jacob was apprehensive lest sin would cause him not to be saved,” for it appeared to him that he had sinned.

Accordingly, I am now making a weighty announcement to all the men of our Chassidic fraternity, regarding the multitude of favors, “the great things that G-d has done with us.” As a result of these favors: hold on to the attributes of Jacob, for Jews are known as “the remnant of His people” and “the remainder of Israel”; regarding [yourself] truly as mere remnants, as something truly superfluous and dispensable. Let the men of our fraternity not become haughty in relation to their brethren, let them not jeer nor whistle derisively at them, heaven forfend. A strict warning: Hold your peace! Mention nothing! Rather, the men of our Chassidic fraternity are to subdue their spirit and heart before every man according to the attribute of “truth unto Jacob,” with humility, with “a soft answer that turns away anger,” and with a restrained spirit… And through all that, perhaps G-d will put a conciliatory and loving response into the heart of their brethren, for as waters reflect one’s face, so too does the heart of one man reflect the heart of another.”

To all of us on this Holy day the 19th of Kislev (Tuesday, December 1st 2015), the teachings and ideals of Chassidus should elevate us and direct us to embrace and unite with our fellow brethren with real Chassidic joy and spiritual warmth.

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