The Arrest and Liberation of the Alter Rebbe

Motzei Shabbos Story: In honor of Yud Tes Kislev, and A Chassidisher Derher present the complete story of Yud Tes Kislev, masterfully presented and enjoyable for children and adults alike.

Reb Nochum, the son of the Mitteler Rebbe, had a Yud-Tes Kislev tradition. At the annual farbrengen, he would relate the entire series of events, beginning with the Alter Rebbe’s studies in Mezeritch, all the way to the account of his liberation. If a notable individual would enter the room in the middle of his account, he would start again from the beginning.

For generations, the story of Yud-Tes Kislev has been a staple of Chassidic storytelling. From the youngest age, children are raised on the actions of the Alter Rebbe, the schemes of Avigdor, and the victory of the Chassidim.

For the first time, A Chassidisher Derher will retell the story for our readers. The full story cannot be contained in a single article; instead, we have attempted to shed light on some unknown elements of the story, based on sichos of the Rebbe and the Frierdiker Rebbe, and documents that were discovered in the archives of the Russian government. (Any details that are not footnoted are from “Chag Hageula – Yud Tes Kislev,” by Rabbi Chanoch Glitzenshtein.)

“When I was a child,’ the Tzemach Tzedek told the Rebbe Maharash, “my grandfather would take me under his tallis during tekios and birchas kohanim. During tekios in the year 5559, I saw that a great tzarah would befall him that year, and he didn’t see any salvation…”

The Chassidim too, noticed a bitterness in the Alter Rebbe throughout Tishrei, but they had no plausible explanation for it. At the time, no significant news had reached the small town of Liozna. Little did they know that trouble was brewing in the capital city of S. Petersburg…


In the 25 years since the passing of the Maggid, Chassidus had grown by leaps and bounds.

In Liozna, the Alter Rebbe had founded three chadarim (organized yeshiva-like study systems) which attracted brilliant Torah scholars to their ranks. The regular crowd of Chassidim visiting Liozna had grown to such proportions that Takkanos Liozna were established, regulating the flow of new and old Chassidim. Chassidic shuls flourished in cities and towns across Russia, and the Alter Rebbe established firm organizational principles to ensure Chassidim lived up to Chassidic ideals.

A landmark event had taken place two years earlier, with the printing of the Sefer HaTanya. Now, with the Alter Rebbe’s teachings in a printed form, Chassidus was able to reach even further places.

The opposition to Chassidus took careful note of all these developments. Since the days of the Maggid, a severe hisnagdus had taken form among certain segments of Jewry, with their centers being primarily in Vilna and Shklov. Although there was an ebb and flow to their battles (the greatest flare-up had been during the Maggid’s final days in 5532) the underlying opposition remained strong throughout.

A turning point took place one year earlier, on Chol Hamoed Sukkos 5558, with the passing of the Vilna Gaon. The presence of the Gaon had forced the opposition to suit their actions to befit a person of his stature. With him no longer present, they felt free to take their battle to places they had never dared.

A rumor spread in Vilna that the Chassidim had publicly celebrated the Gaon’s illness and passing. (In truth, a simchas beis hashoevah had been held in Reb Meir Refael’s sukkah a day before the Gaon’s passing, where a public Mi Sheberach had been recited for his recovery.) The misnagdim were infuriated, and they swore to exact revenge.


Over Elul of 5558, communications were held between Czar Paul I and Russian Chief Prosecutor Lupochin about a “Zalman Baruchovitch and the Krolins” (a nickname for Chassidim which evolved from the Chassidic center of Karlin, home to two students of the Maggid, Reb Aharon and Reb Shlomo, and others). A letter had arrived accusing the Alter Rebbe of misdeeds, such as aiding the French revolution and allowing his students to waste their days in frivolous behavior with money stolen from their parents.

The Czar instructed that the Alter Rebbe be arrested (along with 30 Chassidim from Vilna) and sent to S. Petersburg. Later, the name signed on the letter turned out to be false, but the authorities felt that the Chassidic movement should be investigated anyway. New religious movements with anti-Czarist stances had been appearing in Russia, so the new Jewish group was viewed with suspicion as well.

Soon enough, an ominous-looking black carriage rolled into Liozna accompanied by a group of soldiers, striking fear into the hearts of the Chassidim. Hearing about their arrival, the Alter Rebbe hid in the cemetery. Rebbetzin Sterna was asked about her husband’s whereabouts, and when she responded that she didn’t know, a soldier slapped her forcefully across the face and knocked out a tooth.

Not finding their man, the soldiers left, and the Alter Rebbe returned home. That night, Reb Shmuel Munkes came to the Alter Rebbe, and gave his opinion:

“What should I tell you? I think you need to go.”

“But it’s dangerous!” the Alter Rebbe replied.

“If you are a Rebbe,” said Reb Shmuel, “no bullet will hit you. But if you are not a Rebbe, you deserve it…”

[According to a different version: How could you take the pleasures of olam hazeh from thousands of Jews?]

Resting his head on his hand, the Alter Rebbe thought about it for some time, and then said to Reb Shmuel, “Whether you are right, I don’t know, but go gezunterheit.”

The next morning, the Alter Rebbe went to mikveh. He called his brother Maharil and his sons the Mitteler Rebbe and Reb Avraham and instructed them to fast, saying, “Today they will take me.” That evening, the soldiers returned. The Alter Rebbe davened Mincha, and went with them.

The journey to S. Petersburg took several days. They left Liozna on Thursday night, Isru Chag Sukkos, and soon enough, Shabbos was approaching. The Alter Rebbe asked the officer to stop off at the side of the road, but his request was refused.

The wagon was beset by a series of strange events. First an axle broke, and then a horse died. The officer realized that he didn’t have a choice, and they spent Shabbos at the side of the road.

In later generations, the Chassidim of nearby Nevel were able to point out the exact place the Alter Rebbe spent Shabbos, where a large beautiful tree stood out among the other broken and dead trees.

The fear and distress Chassidim was unimaginable. The Czar was a ruthless person, and the investigations would be held in complete secrecy. Nobody had any idea how things would turn out.

The night the Alter Rebbe was arrested, the senior Chassidim held an emergency meeting. Within a short time a list of instructions was sent out for the Chassidim, both in spiritual and material matters.

All Chassidim were to fast each Monday and Thursday, and even Shabbos meals were to be kept to a bare minimum. Cheder children were to recite Tehillim. In the event that a Chossid would pass away, his entire community was to fast, and after the tahara, they were to exhort the individual to go before the Maggid and Baal Shem Tov in heaven and beseech their help.

On a material level, every Chossid was asked to make a list of all the valuables he owned, and in the case of a lengthy arrest, they would be pawned and the money used for the redemption efforts.

Chassidim were dispatched to spread these instructions far and wide. Others were sent to S. Petersburg to look for clues about the Alter Rebbe’s situation, and yet others traveled to Vilna and Shklov to spy on the misnagdim, who were assumed to be behind the mesirah.


Before his departure, the Alter Rebbe dispatched the Chossid Reb Yaakov Smilianer with a pidyon nefesh to Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev.

When Reb Yaakov arrived in Berdichev, it was morning. He immediately came to see Reb Levi Yitzchak, who lit his pipe. “With this pipe, I could have burned the entire Petersburg!”

The Alter Rebbe had discussed his derech of Chabad Chassidus with Reb Levi Yitzchak a year or two prior, and Reb Levi Yitzchak had scolded the Alter Rebbe for taking so much responsibility instead of making use of miraculous means, which was more common among Chagas Rebbes.

The Alter Rebbe had replied, “Hashem wants a dirah batachtonim, that Atzmus should be in tachtonim. That is accomplished through pnimiim, not through makifim (miracles).

Now, Reb Levi Yitzchak repeated his argument. “With this pipe, I could have burned the entire Petersburg!”

“Berdichever Rav,’ Reb Yaakov replied, “the Rebbe is a Reisisher (a Russian). The Rebbe is Chochmah, Binah, Daas!” (Implying that Chabad doesn’t work through miracles).

Reb Levi Yitzchak gave him a piercing look.

“What’s a Reisisher Chossid. He’s fine with a Rebbe without a mother…”

This comment pertained to the pan. Arriving in Berdichev, Reb Yaakov had discovered that he had lost the pan of the Alter Rebbe, and although he remembered its contents, he didn’t know the Alter Rebbe’s mother’s name.

Reb Levi Yitzchak went to the mikveh, and upon emerging, he said, “Yesh shever b’Mitzrayin” (“Shever” being roshei teivos Shneur ben Rivkah). After davening Shacharis, he said resolutely, “Yesh shever, there is hope!”’


After several days of travel, the Alter Rebbe arrived in S. Petersburg and was imprisoned in the Petropavlovsk fortress, the most infamous and secure prison in the country, situated on an isolated island in S. Petersburg.

“When the Alter Rebbe entered the prison,” the Frierdiker Rebbe related, “there were secretaries sitting there. He came in with his tallis and tefillin under his arm. They had heard that a revolutionary was being brought in, but they were very surprised that such a person could be a traitor.

“The Alter Rebbe faced east, put his tallis over his shoulder, inspected his tzitzis and began putting on the tallis and Rabbeinu Tams tefillin. When he donned the shel rosh, he used both hands to ensure it was in place, while facing the people that were sitting there.

“{At that moment,] whoever was sitting couldn’t stand up, and whoever was standing couldn’t sit down. As Chazal said on the possuk וראו כל עמי הארץ כי שם ה’ נקרא עליך ויראו ממך – אלו תפילין שבראש –  tefillin shel rosh strike fear into the hearts of the nations.”


In the file of the Alter Rebbe’s imprisonment, which was preserved in the archives of the Chief-Prosecutor, one document describes the Alter Rebbe’s initial interrogations, where they began asking basic personal questions (what is your name, how do you support yourself, do you pay taxes, etc.). The conversation was held in Russian, and when they began to ask more sophisticated questions about Chassidus (What is the movement called? Kroliners or Sochods [=Chassidim]? Why is it successful?) the Alter Rebbe replied that he would need a translator for proper accuracy.

The request was presented to the Czar. With his approval, the Alter Rebbe wrote a significant part of his testimony in lashon hakodesh, and it has been preserved in his holy handwriting in that same file. No translators were available in S. Petersburg, and the document was sent to Vilna, creating a significant delay in the investigations.

In the written document, the Alter Rebbe explains the basics of avodas Hashem in very simple terms, pointing out the different pursuits of learning versus davening.

He explains that the Chassidic focus on davening isn’t because it is a new religion. In fact, they had both been considered important, until recent generations when a corrupt rabbinical system had allowed rabbis to acquire their position by bribing a local poritz, a situation that lasted until the abolishment of the Vaad Arba Ha’aratzos between the years 5524 and 5532.

Those rabbis, obviously lacking in fear of Heaven, didn’t find davening to be an important pursuit, and downgraded its importance in the eyes of their students. The Chassidic emphasis on davening was a response to this situation.

The Alter Rebbe also explains how his opponents, out of senseless hatred and jealousy — “because they are too lazy to properly engage in the pursuit of prayer” — named them Karlinim and so on, and spread utter lies and slander about them.

Another topic is the money sent to Eretz Yisroel, which was ruled by Russia’s arch-enemy, the Ottoman Empire. The Alter Rebbe describes the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael, and explains that it is the Jewish tradition “to support the poor of the Land of Israel, so that they pray there for the entire Jewish nation.”


The Frierdiker Rebbe recounted:

My father related that when the [Alter] Rebbe was brought to Petersburg, the interrogator was a deputy-minister fluent in Tanach. He asked the Rebbe, “Why does G-d ask Adam Ayeka, where are you?’ after the cheit eitz hadaas? G-d surely knew where Adam was!”

The Rebbe responded with Rashi’s answer, but the minister said that he was already aware of it.

That is when the Alter Rebbe answered with his famous statement [that Hashem says to every individual: “Ayeka, where are you? What are you up to? What were you supposed to accomplish, and what have you accomplished in the world?”

My father [the Rebbe Rashab] said that explaining this to the minister held the Alter Rebbe back from klos hanefesh:

When the Alter Rebbe was brought to the Petropavlovsk fortress and imprisoned in a cell, he remembered that he was sacrificing his life for the sake of the Baal Shem Tov and Maggid’s Torah, and he experienced such great pleasure that it could have ended in klos hanefesh. This teaching held him back, because it reminded him of what he had yet to accomplish in the world.


Chassidim had no information about the Alter Rebbe’s whereabouts or his condition. Then, one sign of life managed to make it out of the prison.

The story has various versions. This is how the Rebbe transcribed it, after hearing it from the Frierdiker Rebbe at a Yud-Tes Kislev farbrengen:

“The minister of the prison in Petropavlovsk would come from time to time to see how the Alter Rebbe was doing. He asked what he could bring for him to eat, and the Alter Rebbe replied, ‘Eingemachtz’ [a sort of fruit stew]. When he brought it, he said that he wanted it to come from a Jew.

When he returned the eingemachtz to the minister, he also gave him a note that said ‘Shema Yisrael Havaye Elokeinu vigomer (My father-in-law the [Frierdiker] Rebbe shlita was medayek with those words twice. M.M.)

“When the note came before the censor, he permitted it to be delivered, and so it arrived into the hands of Reb Mordechai Liepler [who had provided the food]. For a long time, they didn’t understand its meaning, but later, Reb Mordechai said that he finally understood the Alter Rebbe’s message. (To my query what the meaning was, he didn’t answer. M.M.)

“Chassidim related that a kvort was brought into his room; he always had water and bread, and that is what he ate. On Shabbos, they would bring him beer or mead for kiddush.”


The Russian Psychiatrist

“One of the accusations against the Alter Rebbe,” the Rebbe related, “was that he wanted to overthrow the Czar. He was accused of planning  to appoint himself as the  king of the Jews, and that he planned to overthrow the Czar of his day. The Alter Rebbe brought proofs against these accusations, just as he defended himself from all the others…

“However, as the Frierdiker Rebbe explained, the Alter Rebbe indeed had such a yearning. He yearned in his heart to act as a Melech b’Yisroel. The yearning came from his deep soul-connection to sefiras hamalchus.

“This was apparent to the extent that when the government doctor [psychiatrist] interviewed him, the doctor said that he sees a yearning in the Alter Rebbe’s heart, a thirst to be a king. He didn’t understand what being a melech meant for the Alter Rebbe, and therefore the Alter Rebbe categorically denied the accusations.

“But on a deeper level, there was a basis for the accusation, because his avoda was “asher kidishanu bemistzvosav vetzivanu, [bringing Hashem’s presence into this world through Torah and mitzvos] and sefiras hamalchus is the sefira of ‘malchuscha malchus kol olamim [that rules over the world]’. Thus, his avoda was in complete and total unification (“yichud nifla”) with sefiras hamalchus.”


In Kislev, the Alter Rebbe’s interrogations finally came to a close, and the prosecutor prepared a report to the Czar with his findings.

In the report, he sums up the investigation and presents the Czar with his opinion:

“…Baruchovitch is very famous, and people travel from over 100 milyas [equivalent of around 450 miles] away to visit him. His authority is so powerful that if he would command a child to steal or kill his parents, the child would obey. This blind obedience could be a method for him to carry out his secret intentions to make contact abroad. There is a basis to believe he has significant connections with Jerusalem, Egypt and other Ottoman areas. He doesn’t send his letters by post; he  uses personal couriers, often with unwritten messages.

“Governor Zhegulin of Belarus says that Rabbi Baruchovitch’s personal conduct is impeccable, but is inherently damaging because of his status as one of the extremist leaders of the Krolins, who pose certain dangers…this is despite the fact that nothing reproachable or criminal was found in his behavior. From a young age he studied ancient Jewish books and became fluent in Kabbalah, and because his lifestyle was so impeccable, Jews from all over began to turn to him for judgement and were satisfied with his just rulings…”

Although the prosecutor couldn’t deny the Alter Rebbe’s integrity, he still maintained that the new movement was a dangerous one, and needed to come to an end (which, he surprisingly maintained could be accomplished by exiling a mere 30 Chassidic leaders).

“Thus,” he concludes, “terminating this sect will be advantageous for all Jewish people…”

Notwithstanding the prosecutor’s opinion, which was also supported by the various other government officials, the Czar’s ruling inscribed at the bottom of the report was unequivocal:

“The king found no issue in the conduct of the Jews who founded the sect of the Krolins, not corruption nor anything that disturbs the public peace. He commands that they all be released, if nothing is found in their actions or intentions to be against national interests. However, impose strict surveillance, especially over their correspondence…

“16 November 1798 [=19 Kislev 5559].”


“When the Alter Rebbe was told that he was free to go,” the Frierdiker Rebbe explained, “he didn’t want to leave!”

After his release from prison on the afternoon of Yud-Tes Kislev, the Alter Rebbe asked to be taken to the home of Reb Mordechai Liepler, but he was instead mistakenly brought to the home of a misnaged named Notkin, who berated him for close to three hours.

“The Alter Rebbe suffered more during the three hours at Notkin’s home,” the Rebbe quotes the Frierdiker Rebbe in Reshimos, “than the entire time he was imprisoned. In fact, when the Alter Rebbe was told that he was free to go, he didn’t want to leave, because all three tefillos of Yud-Tes Kislev he had davened with the Maggid and Baal Shem Tov.”

“…Being with the Maggid and listening to the Baal Shem Tov…and to go from there to the home of a misnaged?!”

As the hours passed and the Alter Rebbe failed to show up at Reb Mordechai’s home, some Chassidim decided to ask the downstairs neighbor, Notkin, if he had heard any information. To their shock, they overheard him yelling at the Alter Rebbe, and they began banging on the door.

Fearful of their response, Notkin opened the door and ushered them in. The Alter Rebbe motioned them to control themselves, and after drinking a cup of tea to honor his host, he quickly left the misnaged’s home.


On the cold winter day following his release, many Chassidim crowded the Alter Rebbe’s lodgings, hoping he would say Chassidus, but the Alter Rebbe refused.

Two simple Jews broke out of the crowd, and said to the Alter Rebbe:

“We are very distant [from a Jewish community] in Russia, but Hashem is our witness that we serve Him and fulfill everything we know from the Torah. Rebbe, say Torah and strengthen our hearts to serve Him…”

The Alter Rebbe agreed, and some time later, he entered the courtyard and said a maamar. It was extremely cold outside, but their hearts felt warm inside…

The Alter Rebbe also penned three letters; to Reb Levi Yitzchak of  Berdichev, Reb Baruch of Mezhibuzh, and to the Chassidim, thanking Hashem for His kindness and exhorting Chassidim to control their impulses and not seek any retribution for his suffering.

“Hashem did wonders in the world,” writes the Alter Rebbe to Reb Levi Yitzchak, in a line that was quoted by the Rebbe countless times. “His name was glorified and sanctified in public, especially in the eyes of the ministers and the all nations in the land .. they all said, ‘It was from Hashem…

“When I read the possuk Padah Beshalom Nafshi, before I began the following possuk aterwards, I came out in peace…”

The news spread about the Alter Rebbe’s release, and celebrations broke out in all the Chassidic centers. Many non-Chassidim participated as well, rejoicing in the Alter Rebbe’s exoneration. In the city of Yas (Jassy) in Romania, there was only a bare minyan of Chassidim, but when the news arrived on the second night of Chanukah, the joy spread throughout the entire city.


The next year, the Alter Rebbe feared that celebrations might get a bit out of control, and he penned another letter, the one famously known as Katonti, ensuring the Chassidim live up to the standards he set for them.

Chassidim wondered whether the Alter Rebbe himself would celebrate. They had already decided that tachanun would not be recited, but they were unsure if the Alter Rebbe would sanction anything else. Many wanted to come to Liozna, but a strict notice had been sent out by the Maharil that nobody was allowed to come.

The above mentioned Reb Yaakov Smilianer served as the shadar for Colel Chabad. He suggested to the Chassidim that they collect the money for Eretz Yisroel earlier, allowing him to arrive back in Liozna before Yud-Tes Kislev, and he would attempt to nullify the decree.

Ultimately, he was successful, and the Chassidim were notified that they were welcome. Many people traveled to Liozna where a great celebration was held, and the Alter Rebbe delivered a maamar (Dibbur Hamaschil “Lshana acheres kva’um— They established it the next year”).’”


The visit the Alter Rebbe received from the Maggid and Baal Shem Tov while in prison was a defining moment in the history of Chassidus Chabad.

“They explained to the Alter Rebbe; the Rebbe related in a sicha, “that there was a kitrug in Heaven for him disseminating Chassidus.

“The Alter Rebbe asked, if there was a kitrug, what should he do afterwards—they had informed him that the kitrug was nullified, and he would be freed—so what should he do then?

“They replied that to the contrary, not only should he not cease spreading Chassidus, but he should do so even more than before.”

In the following years, the Alter Rebbe’s Chassidus changed drastically, from short, concise Torahs to long, elaborate drushim the likes of which we know of from Likutei Torah and so on. Of the sefarim printed with the Alter Rebbe’s maamarim, almost all are from the years following Yud-Tes Kislev until his passing 14 years later.

For the Rabbeim, the term “noch Peterburg” was a code-word referring to the vast expansion of Chassidus that took place after the Alter Rebbe’s liberation, both conceptually and geographically.

The initial kitrug had been removed, and it was time to spread the maayanos all the way to chutza, to the farthest reaches, and usher in the coming of Moshiach. May it be bmeheira byameinu mamash!

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