[This story is for the Chassidic Yud-Tes Kislev
festival. This amazing story of the first 24 hours of the Rebbe's
arrest in 1798, (the story in the footnote) and the commentary that
follows it, are assembled from several published sources.]
During Chol HaMoed Sukkos 5558 (1798), an armed officer arrived in
Liozna to arrest Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder
of the Chabad movement. Deciding that it would be advisable at this
point to take the biblical advice "Hide yourself for a brief
moment" (Isaiah 26:20), the Rebbe slipped out of a side door.
The officer returned to his headquarters empty-handed.
Back in the house, the Rebbe decided that if the agent were to return,
he would allow himself to be arrested. Some say that he decided this
only after consultation with Rabbi Shmuel Munkes, one of his close
chassidim, who happened to be in the Rebbe's home at the time. R.
Shmuel reputedly gave an extraordinary reply to the Rebbe: "If
you are a true Rebbe, you have nothing to fear by being arrested.
If you are not, you deserve whatever they will do to you (!), for
what right did you have to deprive thousands of Chassidim from enjoying
the pleasures of this world?"**
When the officer appeared on the day after Simchat Torah, which fell
on Thursday that year, the Rebbe did not hide. Within a few hours
he was already seated in the infamous "Black Mary," the
carriage which was reserved by the Czarist regime for rebels who were
under capital sentence. Covered on all sides with heavy black metal
panels, and with no windows whatever, it was designed to cast dread
on all those who saw it. Guarded by heavily armed soldiers, the ironclad
black carriage pulled out of Liozna on Thursday night and clanked
its fearsome way down the highway to St. Petersburg, via Vitebsk and
At half past ten the next morning, some six hours before candle-lighting
time, the Rebbe asked that they stop where they were until after Shabbat.
The officer in charge ignored his request. A moment later the axles
of the carriage broke. No sooner had they repaired them, than one
of the horses collapsed and died. Fresh horses were brought, but they
could not move the carriage from its place. By this time the gendarmes
gathered that it would be impossible to press on with their journey
against the Rebbe's will, so they asked their prisoner if they could
detour to a nearby village, and spend the next day there. The Rebbe
refused, but did agree that the carriage be moved off the highway
to an adjacent field.
The spot at which the Alter Rebbe spent that Shabbat is about three
miles from the village of Seliba-Rudnia, which is near the town of
Nevel. An old chassid who survived into the twentieth century - Reb
Michael of Nevel - used to relate that he knew chassidim who were
able to point out the exact spot at which the Rebbe had spent that
lonely Shabbat. He himself had gone there to see it with his own eyes.
All the way there he had seen old and drooping trees on both sides
of the road, but that memorable spot was marked by a tall tree with
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch, records
that when this old man from Nevel used to recall that moment and describe
the spot in full detail, he would do so with inspired excitement and
awe. And the Rebbe adds that the sight of the tree did more for arousing
the soul of this chassid of a bygone age than Torah-study or prayer
does to certain chassidim today!
** According to one version, Reb Shmuel preceded his opinion with
Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Horodok had a Jewish wagon-driver whom he
frequently employed. At one point, however, Rebbe Menachem Mendel
did not travel for many months. The wagon-driver and his family suffered
from this lack of income. Finally, the wagon driver sold his horse
and carriage and bought a dairy cow with the money. With the proceeds
from the sale of the milk, the former wagon-driver was able to eke
out a living.
Time passed and Rebbe Menachem Mendel suddenly called the man. "I
would like you to take me on a journey," he requested.
"I'm truly sorry, Rebbe," the man explained, "but
I sold my horse and carriage and have bought a milking cow in order
to provide for my family."
"Sell your cow and purchase a horse and carriage," Rebbe
Menachem Mendel instructed him. "I need to set out as soon as
Without any hesitation, the man did as the Rebbe requested. As they
traveled, the Rebbe pressed the driver, "I am in a hurry, let
us go faster."
The driver whipped the horses and the carriage sped onwards. Soon,
they were going downhill very quickly, with the driver barely able
to control the galloping horses. To his horror, he saw they were heading
straight toward a palatial house at the bottom of the hill. His efforts
to slow the horses were unsuccessful and the carriage went right through
the yard and stopped only after it broke a window of the house.
The poritz who owned the mansion was enraged and stormed out
toward the carriage, pointing his rifle at the driver. "You did
this!" he shouted.
"No, no! Not me!" cried the terrified man. "It's not
my fault, but his!" he said, pointing to Rebbe Menachem Mendel
who was sitting behind him meditating, oblivious to the entire incident.
The poritz aimed his rifle at the Rebbe. As he was about to
fire, he suddenly froze, unable to move a limb in his body. The other
members of the household had also come running outside. When they
saw the poritz paralyzed, they begged the Rebbe for forgiveness
and asked him to remove his curse.
"If he will promise never to harm a Jew, he will be cured,"
answered the Rebbe.
The poritz indicated his consent by nodding his head slightly,
and his ability to move was restored. Later, as they continued their
journey, Rebbe Menachem Mendel turned to the driver and asked, "How
could you do this! Why did you put the blame on me? The poritz
almost killed me!"
"Rebbe," replied the driver in all sincerity and with utmost
respect, "when you didn't travel for months, I accepted it. Then,
when you instructed me to sell my cow, I immediately did so. Though
my family was left without an income, I trusted that you were a Rebbe
and had reasons for making the request. When you told me to go more
quickly I did so, though no wagon-driver allows his horses to run
"So, when the poritz came out, I figured, if you are
truly a Rebbe, he will not be able to harm you. And if you are not,
then you would have deserved everything you would have gotten. For,
how could you have left an entire family going hungry for bread?"
Commentary (from Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Rebbe
"The story of the Alter Rebbe's journey to Petersburg gives
tangible testimony to the statement that whatever happens to a tzaddik
- and especially to a tzaddik who is a leader of Jewry - takes
place only with his consent. Indeed not only the Alter Rebbe, but
every tzaddik likewise rules over all material matters. What
the Torah has to say about the created universe is decisive: all temporal
matters are subject to the dominion of the Torah.
When the Alter Rebbe did not want to travel further, the wagon came
to a halt, and it came to a halt where and when the Alter Rebbe so
desired. Had the wagon stood still at candle-lighting time this would
have been not at all remarkable. For such things we find concerning
even an unwitting reaction, as it is written 'No evil shall befall
the righteous...'. But that the wagon should stand still at ten-thirty
on Friday morning, and not budge, - this is a palpable wonder of G-d,
like an overt miracle.
From all of the above it should be abundantly clear that one whose
word carried weight over material things, as was the case with the
Alter Rebbe, had the option of not being imprisoned at all; and of
not hiding, even for a solitary hour. If he did go nevertheless, this
was for the sake of a profound purpose involving the service of G-d.
The patriarch Avraham opened the channel of self-sacrifice for the
sanctification of the Divine Name, and the Alter Rebbe opened the
channel of self-sacrifice for the service of G-d according to the
teachings of Chassidus. From all of this one can gather that the whole
episode of the Alter Rebbe's imprisonment was only a garment worn
by choice, in order to avoid making use of supernatural means.
Truth to tell, this subject warrants a detailed explanation, especially
since this would provide at least an inkling of an appreciation of
the Alter Rebbe's quintessential inner love for Jews in general -
for he wanted every individual to start living with zest in his Torah
study, and in his divine service according to the teachings of Chassidism
- and his love for chassidim in particular. And this love the Alter
Rebbe planted in the Rebbes who succeeded him. Such a deep-seated
and quintessential love is everlasting, throughout all the generations
until the coming of Mashiach, when it will be granted us, at
the time of the Resurrection of the Dead, to gaze directly upon the
living and luminous countenances of the Rebbes."
[adapted from Likkutei Dibburim, vol. I, pp. 89, 91-92]
Rabbi Shnuer Zalman [18 Elul 1745-24 Tevet 1812], one of the main
disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch, is the founder of the
Chabad-Chassidic movement. He is the author of Shulchan
Aruch HaRav and Tanya as well as many other major works
in both Jewish law and the mystical teachings.