Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of LiadiIsrael news photo: courtesy of Chabad.org

Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidim around the world will launch a flurry of activities Wednesday night and Thursday to celebrate Yud Tes Kislev -- called by some the Chassidic New Year. The date, the 19th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev on the Jewish calendar, is celebrated as the Rosh HaShanah of Chassidim.

It marks the release from a Czarist Russian prison in 1798 of the founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidic philosophy, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812).

In the fall of that year, the rabbi was arrested and charged with threatening the imperial authority of the czar. He was jailed in the island fortress located in the Neva River, in Petersburg.

During his interrogations, investigators forced the rabbi to reveal the basic tenets of Judaism and Chassidic philosophy and practice. Fifty-three days after he entered the prison, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was exonerated of all charges and freed.

Because the rabbi perceived the events as an echo of those taking place in the Heavenly Court, he regarded his release as a vindication of his efforts to disseminate teachings about Chassidism, thus marking with the 19th of Kislev the "birth" of the Chassidic movement.

Public dissemination of the teachings of Chassidism had begun nearly 100 years earlier with the emergence of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), a leader who believed that the poor and less educated Jews should be made to feel worthy, be taught the beauty of Torah and the happiness it brings, even if they are unable to spend their lives learning Torah in depth.

The Baal Shem Tov's disciple, Rabbi Dov Ber, known as the "Maggid (preacher) of Mezeritch", a brilliant orator who swayed people with his moralistic parables, is also connected with the 19th of Kislev. On that day, 26 years before Rabbi Schneur Zalman was liberated, the Maggid passed away. Before he died, he informed the disciple who became the Alter Rebbe, "This day is our 'yom tov' (holiday)."