Yud-Tes Kislev, the "Rosh HaShanah
of the Chassidic year," starts this year on Sunday evening, December
18. It is the yartzeit of Rabbi Dov Ber (c.1700-1772), the "Maggid"
of Mezritch, successor to the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), founder of
the Chassidic movement, as well as the anniversary of the miraculous
release of the founder of the Chabad dynasty, Rabbi Shneur Zalman
(1745-1812), from Russian prison in 1798 on charges of treason. The
day also takes on yet a third identity: it marks the publication in
1796 of his famous book of Chassidism (and Kabbalah, psychology and
The three events are not unconnected, as we shall see
by examining two interesting episodes in the history of the Chassidic
One day during Rabbi Shneur Zalman's imprisonment, he
was "visited" by the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid. He asked
them for the spiritual explanation of his arrest. They explained that
a serious accusation had been brought against him in Heaven for revealing
secrets of Torah, intensified by the publication of the Tanya. When
he then queried if that meant he should cease, they responded that
at this point not only must he not stop, he should continue with increased
This is an amazing story. However, some students of
Chassidic annals find a contradiction between this story and another
episode that took place a generation previously, when Rabbi Shneur
Zalman was a young disciple in the court of the Maggid.
Rabbi Pincus of Koritz, a distinguished disciple of
the Baal Shem Tov and a spiritual giant in his own right, objected
to the Maggid's public expositions of the "inner dimensions".
Once, when he visited him, he found a page containing notes on a Chassidic
discourse of the Maggid's lying on the ground. He was incensed. His
ire aroused a heavenly accusation against the Maggid which was only
neutralized when Rabbi Shneur Zalman appeased Rabbi Pincus with his
There was a king who had an only child that became deathly
sick and fell into a coma. The royal physician announced that there
was only one hope. If the prince could be made to swallow a few drops
of a special medicine, perhaps it would help. The main ingredient
of this remedy was the ground-up particles of a certain precious stone.
The jewel was so rare, however, that there was only one in the entire
kingdom: the central and most beautiful gem of the king's crown.
His advisors told the king not to risk destroying the
crown, because the chances of success were much too small. Without
the slightest hesitation the king dismissed them, exclaiming, "If
the prince doesn't survive, of what value is the crown?"
The two stories seem to clash. Given Rabbi Shneur Zalman's
successful defense of his master, isn't the seemingly identical charge
against him decades later a clear case of double jeopardy?
The key is to isolate two different approaches to the
study of the mystical teachings, each of which is an outgrowth and
embodiment of one of two justifications for the spread of this study
in our times.
Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620) wrote in the name of the
Holy ARI of Tsfat, that the spread of the hidden wisdom is indispensable
for two reasons: to overcome the increasing spiritual darlness of
the modern environment, and to help usher in the Era of Moshiach.
For the first purpose the best approach is to search the literature
for those sparks that impact meaningfully for you - or in terms of
the parable, to assimilate a few drops. The latter purpose, however
- to prepare for and elicit the Messianic redemption - mandates a
more explicit, detailed knowledge than the first, scanning approach.
Here the goal is not illumination but saturation - until "the
world be full of the knowledge of G'd as the waters of the sea cover
their bed of earth" (Maimonides, Mishnah Torah (end), from Isaiah
Now the two stories can be understood in sequence, resolving
the apparent contradiction. The "crown prince" parable effectively
defended the "spark-gathering" approach. The second accusation,
a genetation later, was not a repetition of the first; rather it focused
on the intellectual explicitness of Rabbi Shneur Zalman's public teachings.
Both approaches are, of course, important and necessary.
However, the imminent arrival of Moshiach would seem to add emphasis
to the attainment of deep, full knowledge of Torah's inner dimensions.
A great way to begin on this Yud-Tes Kislev, is with the new
cycle of daily Tanya study.
Yrachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director
of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com
and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds of published stories
to his credit.