Tes Kislev marks the 250th birthday as well as the yahrzeit of the Mitteler Rebbe. Read a short biography describing his activities as Rebbe towards bettering the lives of Jews, both physically and spiritually.
The Early Years
The Mitteler Rebbe was renowned for the breadth and depth of his Chassidic teachings and his incredible love and concern for every Jew. This brief biography describes his activities as Rebbe towards bettering the lives of Jews, both physically and spiritually.
Rabbi DovBer, the son of the founder of Chabad, known popularly as the Mitteler Rebbe, expounded the philosophy of his father and interpreted the meaning and implications of all its intricate phases in a most lucid manner.
His commentaries on his father’s original texts are filled with detailed discussions of the ideology and philosophical concepts of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, and by their volume, preciseness and clarity testify to the great mental stature of their author.
It is interesting that when news of the death of Rabbi Shneur Zalman reached St Petersburg, the War Minister called a special session of the Cabinet to send a message of condolence to the bereaved family.
The official address was brought to Rabbi DovBer at Krementchug by representatives of the Governors of Poltava, Tchernigow and Odessa, with an enquiry as to the best way in which Russia could repay the Lubavitcher Rebbe for the support and encouragement Rabbi Shneur Zalman had given the Czar during the Napoleonic war.
The son and successor of the first Chabad leader asked nothing for himself, but requested a benevolent attitude by the Russian Government towards the Jews, and the improvement of their economic position.
Asked for specific suggestions, he requested the cooperation of the government in settling numerous Jews on the land, a project which his father had taken up just before the Franco-Russian war broke out. In this way, the famous Jewish settlements of Kherson came into being.
Rabbi DovBer continued the work started by his illustrious father, following the path he had pioneered. In addition to further expounding the doctrines and philosophy of Chabad, he devoted himself to the communal and social activities initiated by his father. Intellectually he was exceptionally gifted and he was also a fluent and sparkling speaker.
Inevitably, the Napoleonic war had disastrously disrupted Jewish life. However, during the days of Rabbi DovBer, there was a revival of Chassidism, and there was a marked increase in the knowledge of it among young students.
The Rebbe had instructed that young men should study Chassidism for at least three hours daily, and in time every Chassidic community produced a growing number of youthful scholars. Later, many of these learned young men became teachers in different communities. This had a marked effect on the local Chassidim, since the study and knowledge of Chassidism promptly increased.
Economic Well-Being of Jews
The Mitteler Rebbe endeavored to persuade the Jewish masses to leave the precarious occupations in which they were then engaged. He urged them to go and live in villages and settlements where they could learn to till the soil, or acquire skills and learn crafts which would provide them with an honest, steady income. This would eliminate the constant worry and insecurity that accompanied their existing occupations.
Of great importance was the fact that this way of life would not interfere with their living and practicing their religion completely and sincerely. In this connection, a letter from the Mitteler Rebbe to the community is of interest. It is quoted below in full:
I have the following proposal to make concerning the decrease of income and the sharp increase in the number of those without a source of income who suffer extreme poverty in the cities, and the resulting evils of unemployment and the misdirected energies of the youth who really want to work.
Only a small minority are employed in shops and open businesses, and even fewer practice manual trades. Those who have some capital are gradually losing it, and we find the Jewish masses in an increasingly dangerous state of impoverishment.
My own suggestion, for the attention of the wise who understand the problem, is that strict regulations be introduced in the Jewish communities, whereby the women and children, boys and girls, learn some basic trades, such as the various types of weaving and spinning and allied crafts which are employed in factories.
The training of artisans should likewise be organized and aided in an orderly manner, and should be properly regulated for the children of the poor and middle class as well. They should have teachers and instructors paid for by the communities and under communal supervision.
They should not despise agriculture. They should acquire good fertile land, large plots or small, and work on the soil; G‑d will surely send His blessing on the soil, so that they will at least be able to feed their children properly. No doubt they will have to hire experienced non-Jewish farm hands for two or three years, until they are sufficiently trained to do all the work themselves.
They should not be ashamed of tilling the soil. Were not the fields and vineyards the source of our subsistence in the Holy Land, the richer farmer using Jewish servants and good workers? Why, then, should we be different from our forefathers, even though we may live in exile among non-Jewish people, provided there are opportunities to follow our ancient occupation as tillers of the soil?
Perhaps we may be permitted to buy land outright, or at any rate to rent it for a long time. When I visited the Southern Steppes, I saw with my own eyes Jewish farmers with their wives and children working the soil every weekday with zeal and enjoyment.
Up to thirteen years of age every boy there learns in the elementary schools (cheder). If he shows promise of becoming a scholar he continues studying the Torah; if not, he leaves the cheder and works in the fields. The Jews there are happy and satisfied, free from worry, and they remain G‑d-fearing, righteous people, supporting themselves honestly and decently.
Although the work may not bring them any riches and luxuries, fancy clothes and jewelry, they have all they require. They sell their crops, the produce of their dairy farming, or their sheep and cattle to the neighboring provinces. I saw their way of living and liked it very much; the soil is fertile in those parts.
We may, if we try hard, acquire good fields here which would greatly aid the poor. I have already corresponded with responsible people, and I believe that G‑d will bless the land, and our people will earn as much as they need. As it is written, “If thou wilt eat by the toil of thy hands, happy art thou.” Thus, those who slander us will have no food for talk, and the nobles and officials will look favorably on the farmers. It cannot be otherwise, for there is no other hope; only the prospect of even greater poverty for the Jewish masses.
And who knows what lies ahead? Perhaps, G‑d forbid, they will be driven away to distant lands. Enough of this, and those with intelligence will understand. These words come from one who wishes well for the Jewish people and desires their prosperity.
DovBer, son of the great gaon
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of blessed memory.
From this letter and other sources we know how deeply Rabbi DovBer was concerned about the economic plight of the Jewish masses, and how much effort he put into various attempts to better their lot.
Rabbi DovBer was at all times interested in aiding the settlement in the Holy Land. In 5583 (1823) he was the first to establish a colony in Hebron, and he continued to support it financially. He personally acquired a synagogue there, which bears his name.The Imprisonment
At the time of his father’s death Rabbi DovBer was in Krementchug in Little Russia, and from there he went to settle in Lubavitch in White Russia.
En route, Chassidim provided him with means to establish himself in his new home. Upon his arrival, however, he decided to distribute these funds to the needy and wrote to a relative about forming a committee of three to supervise the allocation. In this letter he referred to a “considerable” sum.
Years later this letter came into the hands of the recipient’s heir, an unscrupulous and vengeful enemy of Rabbi DovBer. He harbored an implacable hatred of the Rebbe for some personal family “slight.” With judicious doctoring the figures in the letter, “three or four thousand rubles” became “one hundred and three or four thousand.” Indeed a “considerable” sum. What could be its purpose? And how did he gather such a sum on so short a journey? Obviously he was planning a revolution!
The money was destined for the Turks who then ruled the Holy Land. The regular remittances to needy scholars there lent an air of credibility to the charges. Other weird accusations were made concerning the dimensions of the Rebbe’s synagogue being similar to those of the Jerusalem Temple, and that meant that he intended to be king of Israel!
The similarity to the charges leveled against Rabbi Shneur Zalman in 5558 (1798) is striking.
In the autumn of 5587 (1826) Rabbi DovBer was instructed to appear in Vitebsk, the provincial capital. This was done in a most respectful manner through high-ranking officers and the arrangements were made to suit the Rebbe.
Hundreds accompanied him from Lubavitch, and at every village the elders met him with the traditional bread and salt. The honor accorded him by Jew and gentile deeply impressed the officials.
Governor-General Chavanski, a harsh man who had little affection for Rabbi Dovber, conducted the investigation. Important dignitaries interceded on his behalf. He was treated courteously and later he was permitted to worship publicly and to lecture on Chassidism.
He was officially informed that he was completely exonerated of all suspicion and released on the tenth of the month of Kislev, a date which has since been a festival amongst Chassidim.
His death, a year later, on the 9th of Kislev, 5588 (1827), exactly fifty-four years after his birth, marked the end of an important chapter in the history of Chabad.
Rabbi DovBer had plumbed the depths of his father’s teachings, explored their implications and developed the doctrines in detail and depth. His father was the creative, original thinker, the founder of a movement. Rabbi DovBer achieved its consolidation and advanced Chabad’s manifold activities.