Beis Iyar: Birthday of the Rebbe Maharash

On 2 Iyar 5594/1834, the Rebbe Maharash was born in the town of Lubavitch. Read a story about the Rebbe Maharash and watch the Rebbe sing his niggun.

The Attempt to Arrest the Rebbe Maharash

By Rabbi Sholom DovBer Avtzon

As difficult as the Rebbe Maharash’s communal work was during the first thirteen years of his nesius, it paled in both magnitude and degree of suffering when compared to the issues he had to deal with during the last few years of his nesius, namely, the years 5639–5643 (1879–1882).

In addition to the pogroms that wreaked havoc on the Jewish communities in Russia during those final years (as related above), at the same time, some government officials wanted to attack him personally by incriminating and imprisoning the Rebbe himself.

To understand this, some background information is necessary.

One of the terrible decrees the Czarist government initiated against the Jews was their forced conscription into the army. This began around 5588 (1828), at the end of the nesius of the Mitteler Rebbe and the beginning of the nesius of the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek. In those years, boys were forcefully taken away from their families at the tender age of eight and sometimes younger, to satisfy the quota of soldiers each community was required to provide.

Then, in 5615 (1855), the severity of the decree lessened somewhat. No longer was there the fear that one’s child might be snatched off the street at a moment’s notice. However, in a different sense it became worse: now, every teenager was required to appear before the draft board when he turned eighteen. As a result, a larger number of boys from the same town could be drafted, and no longer was it limited to the yearly quota of twenty men per one thousand inhabitants.[1]

Although the conscription age had changed, the ramifications of serving in the army did not. For a Jew, becoming a soldier was an almost definite spiritual death penalty. As a rule, Jewish soldiers were not given kosher food or time off to observe Shabbos and Yom Tov, making it difficult for them to remain strong in their beliefs. This was done intentionally, as one of the Czar’s reasons for drafting Jews was to coerce them to convert and cause them to assimilate.

Additionally, since the officials looked down upon anyone Jewish, their safety and wellbeing were not top priorities for the commanding officers. As a result, quite often it was the Jewish soldiers who were sent to fight in the fiercest battles, and many of them would get wounded or even killed. It was no wonder, then, that many Jews did whatever they could to evade the army.

The Rebbe Maharash continued his father’s two-pronged approach in helping Jewish soldiers.[2] Those who were already in the army were provided with any and every possible type of assistance, including kosher food, siddurim, and tefillin, and they were encouraged to remain firm in their commitment to Hashem by fulfilling whatever mitzvos they could. At the same time, he secretly helped many individuals evade the draft. These efforts continued throughout the years of his nesius.

Since the Maharash was his father’s representative, the government ministers were upset at him for intervening and putting obstacles in their way, thwarting their plans to educate the Jews as they desired. For example, he foiled their plans to obligate Jewish children to study secular subjects and forbid them from learning certain laws of the Torah. In addition, once he became Rebbe, they suspected him of somehow being involved in helping young Jewish men evade serving in the army (as his father had been suspected of being involved in), by assisting them in running away from their families and hometowns.

Paradoxically, during most of his nesius, not only weren’t the government officials trying to imprison him, they actually respected him, especially since he possessed an official document requiring any official to assist him.[3] This was unlike his father, the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek, who was under constant surveillance, to the extent that he was sometimes forbidden from leaving his house or even from speaking to others. The Rebbe Maharash, on the other hand, traveled wherever and whenever he desired, even leaving Russia numerous times.

But in the spring of 5641 (1881), all this changed. The government was now trying to connect him to the Jews who had been arrested and charged with helping young Jewish men avoid serving in the army. If they could find that he had some connection to those people involved in helping conscripts escape their duties — even if they had no proof to show that he was personally involved in their efforts — the mere affiliation with such “criminals” was sufficient “evidence” to arrest the Rebbe of Lubavitch.

Notwithstanding the strong suspicions the officials harbored against him, the Rebbe continued his communal work as before, and even more. Now, he was also working feverishly to pressure the government to quell the pogroms against the Jews that had begun erupting once again all over Russia, with hundreds and perhaps thousands of Jews being killed. Hundreds of Jewish communities were being destroyed and ransacked, leaving tens of thousands of families displaced and destitute as they fled for their lives, leaving all of their possessions behind.

Although these problems seemed to pop up suddenly, taking the Jewish community by surprise, a little knowledge of Russian history reveals that they were the consequence of the general upheaval occurring throughout Russia at the time.

After surviving thirty years of tyrannical rule under Czar Nicholas I, Russian citizens were thrilled when his son, Czar Alexander II, who became Czar in 5615 (1855), began implementing major reforms. In 5621 (1861) he abolished serfdom, and the local landlords could no longer treat the peasants on their lands as their personal property, as if they were merely slaves. In fact, he instituted a new law allowing all Russians (besides Jews) to own small parcels of land. Furthermore, he decreed that they were allowed to pay for it by giving the previous owner a share of the produce that would grow in the coming years.

However, the joy of the peasants slowly turned to frustration, as the implementation of these laws was being delayed by the many noblemen who desired to hold on to their power. Yes, they sold parcels of land to them as the Czar required them to do, but in some instances they charged such an exorbitant price that it took the worker twenty years of labor to pay it off.

The peasants demanded that the process be sped up and that they be granted more freedom and additional rights. When five years had passed and their demands were still being ignored, some of them turned their bitter frustration into violence. In 5626 (1866), the Czar miraculously survived the first assassination attempt on his life. However, this caused him to change course and deal with his citizens more harshly, and he revoked some of the rights he had granted them. Many of them in turn responded with more unrest. After a few more unsuccessful attempts to assassinate him, in 5641 (March 1881) they finally succeeded in doing so.

Czar Alexander II’s son, Czar Alexander III, succeeded his father to the throne. However, he did not continue with any of his father’s reforms. Fearful of further problems from the people and their demands for complete freedom, he reverted to the ways of his grandfather, Czar Nicholas I, and ruled with an iron fist. The smallest amount of suspicion against a person was enough of a reason to arrest him.

Although he was keenly aware of the problems in the system and understood the frustration of the people very well, he was desperate to hold on to his power. He came to the conclusion that he had to distract the populace from blaming the government for all of their problems. By doing so, he would gain time and weaken the momentum of the winds of rebellion blowing through the country. So he resorted to the age-old scheme of “blame the Jew.”

For example, although interest rates were set by the government and they received part of it, very often it was the Jew who was the lender and the one demanding payment from the non-Jewish borrower. So the Jew was the one who was blamed for taking away the peasant’s money by demanding a high interest rate for the loan.

This “accusation” along with similar attitudes were constantly being publicized and mentioned in the press, blaming the Jews for all the country’s woes. Additionally, the Jews were accused of killing their beloved Czar, the one who had begun implementing reforms. They would always identify the single Jew who had participated in his assassination, ignoring the fact that he was merely one of many individuals who had been accomplices in the act. But this was enough to enrage the masses, and a new wave of pogroms began breaking out all over Russia.

While in some instances the authorities sent soldiers to protect the Jews, often they came too late. And even when they did succeed in stopping that particular attack, all too often the agitators simply moved on to a different town, bringing chaos and destruction to the Jews there.

This phenomenon of harassing the Jews for the country’s woes was happening in practically every city, town, and village where Jews resided.

As a result of this mindset of blaming the Jews, the government’s attitude toward the Rebbe Maharash himself began to shift as well. So in the beginning of 5642 (1881), as soon as they heard that he was possibly involved in helping and arranging for Jews to avoid the draft, they considered arresting him. However, the Rov of the city of Starodub, Rav Zalman Neimark, accepted all of the blame upon himself instead. As a result, he was imprisoned for over a year until his innocence was declared, as you will soon read.

Starodub was one of the numerous Russian towns whose Jewish inhabitants were almost exclusively Lubavitcher chassidim, teaching and guiding their children in the ways of Chassidus. The townspeople of each such city would enjoy boasting about its greatness,[4] and Starodub was no exception.

During the nesius of the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek and the Rebbe Maharash, Starodub was one of the towns that gained prominence among chassidim. Under the guidance of their outstanding Rov, Rav Neimark, they even opened up a yeshiva, which boasted almost one hundred older bochurim (students).

In those days, a yeshiva of even twenty or thirty bochurim was a rarity. Yet, Starodub was home to a large yeshiva where the bochurim were taught both nigleh and Chassidus. This was indeed quite an accomplishment. Proudly, the townspeople would often say:“Ki Mitzion Teitzei Torah, U’Dvar Hashem M’Starodub — For Torah will emerge from Tzion, and the word of Hashem, from Starodub.”[5]

Although the Rov and the vast majority of the Jewish inhabitants were chassidim of the Rebbe Maharash, a few maskilim lived there as well. One such person was named Dov Lazrov, and he also happened to be the richest Jew in town, living in one of the very few brick mansions in the area. He was infuriated that the chassidishe Jews were the vast majority of the community council representatives, and that they always ignored or voted against his proposals (which were always based on the maskilim’s agenda).

One day, the community council of Starodub called a meeting to discuss various communal matters, and Lazrov was present as well. At this particular meeting, Lazrov threatened that if his opinion would not receive the appropriate attention he believed it deserved, it would be bitter for everyone. Some of the others attending the meeting had simply had enough of his never-ending tirades. “We heard your opinion and voted,” one of them said. “Now you must listen to the majority!”

The exchange became heated, and Lazrov threatened that this would not be the last time they would hear from him: “You’ll soon see. I will let everyone know who I am and what I can accomplish!” Lazrov was duly shown the door, which just infuriated him even more. In his anger, Lazrov swore to go ahead with his threats and inform the government about all of the shenanigans the Jewish community was committing.

Since he was not observant and was also extremely wealthy, Lazrov had moved away from the Jewish area of town, building his mansion in the affluent area inhabited by the higher-class non-Jewish residents. The house’s large size enabled him to rent out a portion of it, and his tenant was none other than the local chief prosecutor.

One evening later that week, Lazrov sat down for his regular chitchat with his neighbor. To the prosecutor’s astonishment and delight, he began enumerating all the illegalities of the Jewish community.

Most of the issues Lazrov mentioned were trivialities that the prosecutor had heard from him before, and he knew that these “offenses” were exaggerations, the mere result of his landlord’s bitterness against his co-religionists. But then his ears perked up as Lazrov began to describe in detail how the chassidic Jews would illegally obtain exemptions for their sons from serving in the army.

Lazrov began listing specific names:

“Ten months ago, the community solemnly inscribed in their official records that Dovid Boehman, a young man who was supposed to be drafted, had passed away. However, in reality he is alive and well, openly living a normal life in the nearby town of Chalichvetz.

“Additionally, while it is true that the Rabbi’s son — who evaded the draft as well — is not in town, it is not true that he ran away on his own, as they claim. His father Rabbi Neimark, the rabbi of the town, manages an entire network whose function is to arrange these disappearances and assist the young men in their places of refuge.

“The local yeshiva he established is home to such draft evaders,” he continued. “Additionally, all of these illegal activities are being done at the behest of the Rabbi of Lubavitch, Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn, and all those involved are his followers.”

This was big news for the prosecutor. If he could prove that Rabbi Schneersohn was indeed involved in these rebellious evasions, he would become famous and gain recognition among the noblemen, perhaps even receiving a promotion!

The prosecutor immediately sent some officers to the nearby town to ascertain if the young man Lazrov had mentioned was indeed living there. If he was, they were to arrest him and bring him back to Starodub. The officers did as they had been told, and sure enough they discovered the youngster there, living a normal life and in excellent health. He was duly arrested and brought to Starodub.

Seeing that this particular allegation had turned out to be correct, the prosecutor concluded that this time all of Lazrov’s other accusations were true as well. A witch-hunt immediately began, with the goal of exposing the townspeople associated with the evasions from the army.

On the day after Yom Kippur, 5642 (1881), Rav Neimark and his elder son, together with the twelve people who had signed Boehman’s death certificate and a few other individuals, were arrested and thrown into jail, without being informed why.

When the twelve individuals were formally charged with falsely signing the death certificate, they responded that they had been under the impression that they were testifying about something altogether different.

“When the official presented us with the certificate for us to sign,” they explained, “the only thing he asked us was if it was true that this youngster’s father is so poor that he can’t afford the head tax. We answered that this was true, and he then asked us to sign. Since we are unable to read Russian, we thought we were merely confirming that our statement about the father’s poverty was true. We didn’t know we were signing an affirmation that the son had died, as the official had never mentioned that.”

After questioning the official, the judge agreed with them that they had not lied intentionally to the government. “However,” he said, “you are still somewhat to blame, because before you signed, you should have asked the official to read the entire document to you. Therefore, while I am freeing you from prison, I am sentencing each one of you to ten months of public service.”

Seething at the fact that these Jews had been freed, and fearing that he was losing his credibility, Lazrov continued to bring additional accusations against various Jews in the community. He identified all the individuals whose sons had been declared unfit to serve or had simply disappeared, and they were all called in for interrogation. Almost all of them were subsequently arrested under the charge of assisting young men evade the army under false pretexts.

Each arrest brought additional fear and trepidation to the members of the community. No one knew who would be the next suspect, especially since people who had no association with the “illegal activities” were also being questioned and arrested. By the time a few months had passed, a total of eighty Jews out of a community of only a few hundred families had been imprisoned.

Believing the informant’s accusation that many of the draft evaders were studying in the local yeshiva, the police conducted a surprise visit and ordered everyone to show their documents. Although everything was found to be in order, and there was not even one young man there who may have dodged the draft, the officials shut down the yeshiva anyway. Life for the Jewish community was becoming extremely difficult.

As the weeks passed, everyone realized that the government was looking for something much larger than just a series of unrelated crimes carried out by various individuals. They were trying to connect them all to an organization and its leader, and everything indicated that they were trying to zero in on the Rebbe Maharash.

One of the main objectives of the interrogation was to find out the name of the person responsible for all of these activities. Who authorized them and who was financing them? According to the informer Lazrov, it was none other than the Rabbi of Lubavitch. However, since the Rebbe was legally protected from any unsubstantiated investigation, additional factual evidence would be needed to be able to arrest him or even to question and interrogate him.

According to Lazrov, Rav Neimark was the one with whom the Rebbe communicated about this endeavor and was responsible for carrying out the Rebbe’s instructions. So the prosecutor decided to place him among the most hardened criminals in the prison. He hoped that their cruel demeanor would break Rav Neimark’s spirit, and he would begin disclosing information on how everything was arranged and who was responsible for the illegal activities. After all, any normal person wouldn’t be able to survive among people who behaved like animals!

However, to his dismay, it didn’t work out as he had hoped. Rav Neimark resolved that since he was now in prison and was no longer in a position to deal with any communal or personal matters, he would dedicate himself to davening and learning. The non-Jewish inmates were so overwhelmed by his davening and righteousness that whoever came in contact with him, no matter how tough he may have been, resolved to mend his ways. The transformation these prisoners underwent was unbelievable, and they did everything humanly possible to help the Rabbi.

Ultimately, the chief investigator himself began showing him respect. Special accommodations were made for him in prison, to the extent that permission was granted for a sukkah to be built for him inside the prison yard. He even would have allowed him to go home under house arrest, but the charges against him were too serious to allow for such preferential treatment.

Lazrov had told the prosecutor that most of the Jews in town would travel to Lubavitch at least once a year. He claimed that the reason for this trip was to discuss with the Rebbe Maharash how to evade the draft, as he was the one who gave instructions and guidance how to arrange the exemptions.

When the Rov was questioned about his frequent visits to Lubavitch, he immediately understood their intentions. The implication was clear; they wanted to mix the Rebbe into this mess. They wanted him to say he had discussed various communal issues with the Rebbe, implying that the Rebbe was now their prime target. So he replied: “It is a Jewish custom to pray at the gravesites of the righteous, and we all go to pray at the gravesite of the old Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the Tzemach Tzedek.”

Seeing that he wasn’t supplying any information on his own, the interrogators asked him directly: “What is your association with Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn, the present Grand Rabbi of Lubavitch?”

“His older brother, Rabbi Yehudah Leib from Kopust, would visit us quite often,” he replied, “and we were his followers. Unfortunately, however, he passed away half a year after his illustrious father. At present I have no one to guide me anymore, so I pray at the gravesite of the great Rabbi of Lubavitch on behalf of my community. But we are not associated with anyone in Lubavitch.”

Although he denied having any association with the Rebbe Maharash, he continued to maintain correspondence with him even while he was in prison. He concealed the true recipient of these letters by addressing them to “my dear and beloved uncle.”[6]

In one of his replies, the Rebbe Maharash told Rav Neimark that he should not weaken nor despair, as his father, the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek, had informed him that ultimately he would be exonerated. The Rebbe also sent his gabbai Reb Levik to Starodub to see the situation for himself and decide how best to help the inhabitants until the ordeal would pass.

Jewish communities throughout Russia realized that this episode was not just a local tragedy; it was a severe danger to them all. If the Jews of Starodub would be found guilty, these same charges of organized evasions from the army would be presented against every Jewish community in the country. To prevent such a catastrophic outcome from materializing, the community leaders who got involved hired the renowned lawyer, Mr. L. Kupernik, to argue in defense of the Starodub prisoners.

After being in jail for over a year, the trial finally began. Kupernik’s style was extremely professional and persuasive. He began by asking the prosecutor a simple question: “Who is the one who writes that a given person is unfit for the draft? Is it the rabbi or the officers of the Russian army?”

Once it was established that it was the officers who determined the exemptions, he demanded to know which officers were being accused of accepting bribes and being in cahoots with the Jews being charged as law-breakers. “After all,” he challenged, “they are the ones who falsified the records. It is they who should be put on trial!”

With this method of questioning, he planted the idea that the court was dealing with an informer as well as a prosecutor who carried a personal grudge against the accused, and they weren’t truly concerned about the sabotage or damage these activities were causing to the government.

Kupernik then proceeded to question the main witness for the prosecution, Lazrov himself. Leading Lazrov to emphasize that he had turned his back on his own people due to his loyalty to the Czar, he asked a few simple questions. “Why did you only come forward now, when you claim this has been going on for over ten years? Where was your loyalty all this time?!” Lazrov’s incoherent answer made him lose some of his credibility in the eyes of the judges.

After exposing some more inconsistencies in his testimony, Kupernik offered another possibility:

“Is it not true that you, Mr. Lazrov, recently asked the rabbi and some of the other accused individuals to arrange for a young man in your family” — and here he mentioned the person by name — “to be exempted from army service? Is it not correct that when they replied that they don’t do such things, you swore to punish them for not helping you circumvent the law?!”

The trial was finally over a few weeks later, in mid-Cheshvan, 5643 (1882), over a year after his arrest (and one month after the histalkus of the Rebbe Maharash).[7] Although the officials’ mindset was to blame the Jews and convict them of everything they could, the brilliant defense and evidence presented before the court was overwhelming. Rav Neimark and the rest of the eighty men were all freed and declared innocent of the more serious charges. A few were found guilty of minor infractions.

After his release, Rav Neimark was asked by some of his friends why he had accepted everything upon himself, causing him to sit in prison for over a year. “If you would have admitted that you were following the directives of the Rebbe Maharash or that you are his chossid,” they said, “they would have focused their attention on him instead and you would have been released immediately!”

As a true chossid, Rav Neimark replied: “It would be better for me to sit in prison for over eight years than for the Rebbe to be brought in for questioning and interrogation for even one moment![8]

Indeed, it was Rav Neimark’s devotion to the Rebbe that spared the Rebbe from being accused and imprisoned.

Rabbi Avtzon is a veteran mechanech and the author of numerous books on the Rebbeim and their chassidim. He is available to farbreng in your community and can be contacted at [email protected]

[1] See The Rebbeim Biography Series: The Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek, pp. 185–188.

[2] See The Rebbeim Biography Series: The Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek, pp. 197–201.

[3] See above, “Finding Grace in the Eyes of Others.”

[4] For example, the townspeople of Nevel would often quote the Mitteler Rebbe as having paraphrased the words of the final chapter of Tehillim,Halleluhu B’neivel — He is praised in Nevel.”    

[5] Paraphrased from the possuk said when opening the Aron Kodesh. In the original, the last word of the phrase is “m’Yerushalayim ­– from Yerushalayim,” but the townspeople replaced it with their hometown, Starodub.

[6] This was also the way chassidim corresponded with the Rebbe during the difficult years of the Communist regime. They would write to a family member asking how Uncle or Grandfather was doing, what his opinion was on a certain matter, etc.

[7] Author’s note: It is interesting to note the similarities between the Mitteler Rebbe and the Rebbe Maharash. They are the only two Rebbeim of whom we don’t have a picture, and both of them were nistalek while a court case was still pending against them and were exonerated only after their histalkus (see The Rebbeim Biography Series: The Mitteler Rebbe, p. 230). (Additionally, they were both Rebbe for relatively short periods of time compared to the other Rebbeim: the Mitteler Rebbe for around fifteen years, and the Rebbe Maharash for less than seventeen years.)

We even find a similarity with regard to their maamorei Chassidus. At first glance, their maamorim almost seem to be polar opposites: the Mitteler Rebbe said extremely lengthy and intricate maamorim, while the Rebbe Maharash generally said short and seemingly simple maamorim. Yet, there is a similarity between them: both of them used mesholim and metaphors to explain the most profound thoughts in (seemingly) simple terms. The average person would read them and understand the basic meaning, while the deep chassidic scholars would plumb their depths (see below, “His Seforim”).

[8] This entire chapter is based on the sefer Kocha Shel Sanigorya from Fishel Schneersohn. This last detail about Rav Neimark’s comment after his release was taken from Reshimas Hayoman, p. 207.

In Reshimas Hayoman it is also noted the bittul he had for the Rebbe Rashab. Once, when he noticed the Rebbe Rashab going to the mikvah, he said: “The Rebbe doesn’t need the mikvah [to become pure and elevated]. The mikvah needs him! But he is going because that is what the Torah instructs us to do.”

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