Once, when Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi passed through Shklov, local scholars who opposed Chasidism visited him and asked many learned questions.
Connection: Seasonal--201st yahrzeit of Rabbi Shneur Zalman. (Plus, in two weeks is "Shabbat of Song" so keep this one around!)
Masters of Song
In the first years after Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi became a rebbe, the Chassidic interpretations which he gave of Biblical verses and Talmudic quotations were often condensed into one sentence. On one occasion, for example, he took as his text a statement from the Mishnah in tractate Shabbat: "All [animals] bearing a chain or ring (shir) may go out wearing their chain and may be drawn along by the chain." The context defines the restrictions applying to animals on Shabbos - under what circumstances may they more freely and be led from a private domain to the public domain.
Reading this same text on a mystical level, though, Rabbi Shneur Zalman gave the following interpretation: "All the masters of song (shir) - that is, the souls and angels who inhabit the World Above - go out in song and are drawn in song, that is, they may be either elevated or drawn down into This World through the outpouring of a worshiper's soul in melody."
When one of the Chassidim who heard this from the rebbe's mouth repeated this thought to the few Chassidim who then lived in Shklov, they were most distressed, in anticipation of the attack which the local opponents of Chassidism would no doubt make on this seemingly bizarre interpretation of a straightforward legal statement. And in a short time their anxiety proved to be well founded.
In due course Rabbi Shneur Zalman had occasion to pass through Shklov, but since the local scholars had be now recognized that he was a luminary in the Torah world, many of them visited him and asked him various learned questions which had engaged their attention. He, however, offered no answers. They therefore decided to convene a gathering of scholars in the communal house of study that was known locally as "the cold Beis Midrash," and at this forum the visiting rebbe would be asked to deliver a learned dissertation, and to answer all the questions that had been put to him. Rabbi Shneur Zalman accepted the invitation.
Ascending the pulpit he said: "Instead of delivering a discourse and answering questions, I shall sing you a melody. For there is a Mishnah which says: "Kol baalei shir yotzein b'shir v'nimshachin b'shir" -- that is, "souls and angels from the World Above may be both elevated and drawn down into This World through the singing of a melody."
And with this he began to sing a haunting melody and they heard in it the intense yearning of a lofty soul. A sweet stillness stole into the heart of every man there. In ways that they could not fathom, the thorny questions and problems that had brought them there all found clearly true answers. With his melody lending voice to his meditative attachment [dveikut] to the Divine, he refreshed their minds from the wellsprings of wisdom, and they could now gaze upon the Torah with a clearer eye.
One of their number, by the name of Rabbi Yosef Kolbo, had spent
months of fatiguing exertion in an attempt to solve four near-insoluble problems
that not even the genius sages of Vilna and Polotzk could master. But by cleaving
to the Source, the toughest of his problems resolved itself peacefully. Years
later, when he had already become a steadfast disciple of Rabbi Shneur Zalman,
this scholar recalled: "When those four problems resolved themselves in
my mind, I felt like a small child."
In 1804 an elder chassid of Rabbi Shneur Zalman by the name of Reb Avraham Sheines of Shklov told this story to the rebbe's grandson, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch. It was on the basis of this story that Rabbi Menachem Mendel later wrote a long Chassidic discourse which explains, among other things, the kabbalistic connotations of the musical cantillation symbols that adorn the printed Hebrew text of the Torah.
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