#321 (s5764-12/ 15 Kislev)

The Moon Over The River

"I can stop the boat myself," said Rabbi Shnuer Zalman of Liadi.


After his arrest, Rabbi Shneur Zalman was at once escorted to the secret cells of the dread Peter-Paul fortress in St. Petersburg, where he was to spend over seven weeks, until his miraculous release on Yud-Tes (19) Kislev 1798. For the first three weeks he was held under the severe conditions which were the lot of those impeached for rebellion against the Czar. The rationale for this was simple. One of the principal charges against the rebbe was that he had treacherously raised funds for Russia's traditional enemy, the Turkish sultan. (Read: He had collected money through the charity boxes of the Rabbi Meir Baal Haness Fund for the support of his chasidim in the Holy Land, which was then under Turkish rule!)

This interrogation took place not there, but in the headquarters of the Tainy Soviet, the Secret Council on the other side of the Neva River, so that the Rebbe had to be taken across each time by ferry.

On one such occasion the rebbe asked the gentile official accompanying him to stop the ferry so that he could stand and recite Kidush Levana, the blessing recited over the New Moon. He refused, whereupon the rebbe said: "If I want to, I can stop the boat myself."

And indeed, after the man again refused to oblige, the boat stopped in the middle of the river. The rebbe then recited the verses of Psalm 148 which are said before the blessing over the moon, but did not pronounce the blessing itself. The ferryman realized that unusual forces were at work. He begged the rebbe to release the boat. The ferry then proceeded on its way.

When the rebbe again asked the official to stop the boat, he asked: "What will you give me in exchange for the favor?"

In reply, Rabbi Shneur Zalman gave him a blessing. The man then demanded it in writing, and the rebbe recorded it on a note in his own handwriting.

In later years, when that official rose to a position of power and enjoyed an old age of honor and prosperity, he treasured that note, which he kept under glass in a heavy gold frame. Indeed, it was seen and read by a renowned chasid by the name of Rabbi Dov Ze'ev who, before he was appointed rabbi of the Chassidic community in Yekaterinoslav, lived in Stradov, where he was the community's mashpia - that is, the elder chassid charged with the teaching of Chassidic philosophy and the guidance of the brotherhood in observance and self-refinement. He had heard from an aged chasid that there lived a gentile squire not too far from Stradov who was the son of the official who had received that written blessing from Reb Shneur Zalman halfway across the River Neva. The son too revered the note in the frame, he said. Hearing this, Rabbi Dov Ze'ev made it his business to locate that nobleman, and was thus able to see the note.

One Yud-Tes Kislev, on the anniversary of Rabbi Shneur Zalman's release, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak related the above episode and added that as a boy he had been left with a question. Since the Rebbe had already stopped the boat, why did he not recite the blessing as well, and then he would not have to depend on the favor of the gentile? When he had grown older, he continued, and had grasped the approach of Chassidism more profoundly, he understood that here was a point of principle involved. The Rebbe had been obliged to act as he did, for a mitzvah is made to be performed only when it is clothed in the ways of nature, and not through supernatural miracles.

He added incidentally that the very fact that a manuscript page of Rabbi Shneur Zalman's handwriting should be found in the hands of a gentile is a mystery known only to the Knower of Secrets.

[Adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles from Sipurei Chasidim by Rabbi S. Y. Zevin and Likutei Diborim by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Yosef-Yitzchak Shneersohn, both translated by our esteemed colleague Uri Kaploun.]

Biographical note:
Rabbi Shneur 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.


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.

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