19 Kislev is a particularly joyous day on the calendar of Chabad-Lubavitch. Known as the New Year for Chasidism, it is the date in 1798 on which Rabbi Schneur Zalman (1745-1812) the founder of Chabad, was released from prison. His detractors, hoping to sabotage the dissemination of Chasidism, made false accusations against him to the Czarist authorities who arrested him on charges of treason. Incarcerated for 53 days, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, was interrogated and challenged to explain his activities on behalf of the Jewish people.
Specifically, informants made all his holy work appear suspicious to the authorities. They depicted the charity he raised for Jews in Israel as support for a hostile government; they described Chasidism as a new religion, and claimed that he was leading a subversive movement.
His interrogators questioned him about Chabad, about prayer, about the funds he was raising. In large part, the Alter Rebbe responded in writing to the questions. Some of the interrogation proceeded orally. On occasion, he insisted on a translator to ensure that more complex issues were accurately communicated.
Following the fall of communism, Chabad researchers uncovered the file of the arrest and interrogation of Rabbi Schneur Zalman in the archives of the Russian government.
In honor of 19 Kislev, corresponding this year to December 6, lubavitch.com loosely translated segments of the file. The first part is an excerpt of the oral interrogation; the second is excerpted from his written response to the accusations against him.
Q: What’s your name? What’s your title? What’s your place of residence?
A: My name is Zalman Boruchovitch. Some Jews call me rabbi, others don’t recognize me as a rabbi. I issue halachic rulings to those who seek that of their own volition. I live in Liozna in Belarus belonging to Count Khrapovizki, son-in-law of Laghinski.
Q: What’s your occupation? Do you pay taxes?
A: I live from my wife’s income. She deals in bread and other goods. I am a member in the guild of businessmen level three. I give a percentage of my income to taxes. I own a tavern.
Q: We received information that you are the leader of a new Jewish sect. Answer properly, what is the difference between this Jewish sect and standard Judaism.
A: Because this is a complicated question, I can’t answer it without a translator.
Q: What is the source of this sect, who is the leader, who are the followers, and who was the leader in the previous generation.
A: There is no new sect to speak of. It’s only a different interpretation of the holy scriptures, and every rabbi interprets according to his level of understanding. The purpose of these new interpretations is to inspire devotion and fervor for G-d and his laws. I have gained my knowledge from the study of books.
Q: What is the importance of the sect, and how do you draw followers?
A: The question is too complicated to answer without a translator.
Q: How many followers do you have and where do they come from and how closely do they adhere to the customs of this sect, and what are its unique customs.
A: People come from various places to the synagogue. People follow the customs of their families.
Q: What connections do you have with foreign countries, who and where.
A: I have no connection with Jews from any [foreign] countries besides Jews in Jerusalem. The Jewish community is connected to them because they send out messengers to Poland and Germany and Lithuania to collect funds for the Jewish needy of Jerusalem.
Q: Who brought you into the secret connections and how long has this taken place.
A: I have no secret connections in Israel. I wrote to people there to pray for me as do many Jews.
From his written response:
I was born here in Liozna. I lived here until I was 15-16. I married a woman from Vitebsk at age 15, then lived in Vitebsk for about 17 years after which I lived in Horodoker for two years. Then I returned to Liozna, lived here for around 15 years.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am honest with G-d and man. I never deceived anyone. I don’t know what my sin was to warrant this interrogation.
Some people think kabbalah is about magic, about using names and angels. I never saw anything like this. My teacher never used it, and it serves no purpose in Divine service.
About his services
People come to listen to my sermons once a year. I only see people who have disagreements in financial matters or halachic issues, I don’t take money.
About his finances
I support myself through my wife who sells various grains and beverages, plus I get a few ruble a week from the community because that is the tradition in every Jewish community. That’s enough for me because I live in small city where the cost of living is low, there are many cows, and abundant milk. This in fact is one of the reasons I don’t live in a big city.
I have no need for fancy clothing as you can see from the way I’m dressed now. Sometimes, when my wife’s business isn’t doing too well, individuals help us out. But everyone who knows me will confirm that I have no interest in luxuries, so there’s no reason for me to collect money for myself.
About his charity for Jews in Israel
In Israel there are four major Jewish communities. Jerusalem, Tiberias, Tzfat and Chevron and other small villages. All the Jews there come from abroad and they have no vocation or business. The only thing they do is pray and study, and the only way they support themselves is by funds from abroad. It has always been the custom of Jews to support those who dedicated themselves to prayer and to study.
In Judaism, the service of G-d is both study and prayer. Study concerns the mind. Prayer relates to feelings–prayers are an anthology of verses of Psalms and Scriptures that extol G-d’s greatness inspiring us to fulfill G-d’s commandments and also to show regard for our King, the Czar.
About his role
If one prays well, it affects his behavior all day long and fosters decent behavior. In order to know how to pray with the right intentions, one needs a teacher. This is my function–to inspire people to pray. Some people gesticulate wildly in prayer; this is a reflection of the enthusiasm and fervor in their prayers.
In the early sources, people who dedicated a lot of time were called Hasidim. This is why we are called Chasidim.