The Rosh Hashanah Of Chassidus?


Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Chassidim have celebrated the 19th of Kislev (“Yud Tes Kislev”) ever since the Alter Rebbe (1745-1812) – author of Shulchan Aruch HaRav and Tanya – was released from czarist imprisonment on that date in 1798. It gained even greater significance, however, when 103 years later his great-great-grandson, the Rebbe Rashab (1860-1920), proclaimed it to be the “Rosh Hashanah of Chassidus.”

The Alter Rebbe was imprisoned on charges of treason because, among other reasons, he had annually sent funds to support chassidim in the Holy Land, which was then part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire – Russia’s enemy. A person charged with treason in czarist Russia could easily be executed, especially a Jew. Thus, the Rebbe’s release from jail was an extraordinary miracle.


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Halacha mandates that the anniversary of a miracle be celebrated, not only by its subject, but by his descendants and disciples in later generations. The Rebbe’s release, though, wasn’t just a miracle. It signified vindication of Chassidus. From its early days, the Baal Shem Tov’s new movement encountered fierce opposition from some Jewish leaders who feared it would weaken standards of Jewish observance (like Shabsai Tzvi’s ill-fated movement had a century earlier). So after the Vilna Gaon’s passing, some hotheads presented false accusations to the czarist government, which resulted in the Alter Rebbe’s arrest. They hoped he would be found guilty and that the government would subsequently crush Chassidism, resulting in its eradication. Their plans failed, though, and the Alter Rebbe’s release from jail ensured the continued existence of Chassidus.

His enemies informed on him a second time two years later (and he was arrested again), but after his second release active opposition to Chassidus ended. While some still opposed it in principle or disagreed with some of its ideas or customs, they allowed Chassidus to expand exponentially until even outsiders came to respect its leaders and adherents. So Yud Tes Kislev was a turning-point in the history of the Chassidic movement.

But the designation “Rosh Hashanah of Chassidus” implies something far deeper. Jews who believe in Divine providence know that historical events reflect Heavenly forces. Far beyond external differences of opinion between Chassidim and their opponents was a deeper question: To what extent may and should the Torah’s mystical concepts be revealed?

Ever since the Talmud (Chagiga 11b, 13a) described limitations on revealing them – which are quoted in halacha (Rambam’s Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah, end of ch. 2 and 4:11ff) – Torah leaders have been hesitant to talk openly about mystical concepts. Over the centuries, however, these concepts were revealed more and more, even in works that weren’t written solely for the saintly (such as the Ramban’s Torah commentary).

And then the Arizal (1536-1572) ruled that in the generations approaching Moshiach’s revelation, it is “permitted and obligatory” to reveal these subjects. Indeed, a principal purpose of the chassidic movement was to spread knowledge of these subjects to the wider Jewish population. Even within the movement, however, differences of opinion arose as to how much to reveal.

After his release, the Alter Rebbe related that, while in prison, his spiritual masters, the Maggid and the Baal Shem Tov, appeared from the higher world and explained that his suffering was due to a Heavenly criticism (“kitrug”) that he was revealing too many Torah secrets by teaching Chassidus.

“Should I stop?” the Alter Rebbe asked.

“No,” they replied, “since you’ve already started, continue teaching even more.”

Indeed, after his release, the Rebbe started teaching Chassidus much more often and at greater length and depth. This practice was developed much further by his son, the Mitteler Rebbe, and his successors, resulting in the splendid edifice of Chabad Chassidus today numbering hundreds of volumes from the seven generations of Rebbes, besides works of commentary by their disciples.

In other words, Yud Tes Kislev marks the Heavenly vindication of the Alter Rebbe’s decision to reveal mystical concepts and teach how to utilize them in serving G-d. As such, it is indeed a crucial date in the spiritual underpinnings of Chassidus and worthy of being called the “Rosh Hashanah of Chassidus.” On this day, we celebrate our preparations for the revelation of the deep mystical teachings of Moshiach, may he come very soon.


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