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

Chabad-Lubavitch hassidim around the world began on Monday to celebrate Yud Tet Kislev, known by its acronym "Yat Kislev" and called by some the “Rosh Hashanah of Hassidism.” Chabad hassidim dress in holiday attire on the day and wish one another "Happy Holiday" (Gut Yontif, in Yiddish).

The holiday falls on the 19th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, according to the Jewish calendar. It was on this date in 1798 that the founder of Chabad Hassidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812), was freed from his imprisonment in czarist Russia.

More than a personal liberation, this was a watershed event in the history of Hassidism, heralding what Chabad terms a new era in the revelation of the “inner soul” of Torah.

The public dissemination of the teachings of Hassidism had in fact begun two generations earlier. The founder of the hassidic movement, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698–1760), revealed to his disciples gleanings from the mystical soul of Torah which had previously been the sole province of select Kabbalists in each generation. This work was continued by the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, Rabbi DovBer, the “Maggid of Mezeritch”.

The Baal Shem Tov spoke to the common man, whose life was hard and whose knowledge of Torah was limited, bringing joy and acceptance to those who could not spend their time studying in yeshivas. People generally see hassidism as characterized by this joy, singing and dancing, as well as special customs - and when it comes to Chabad, they think of the "shluchim" who man the Chabad centers, disseminating knowledge, warmth and hospitality for Jews the world over -  but hassidism is actually based on a deep, philosophic approach to Judaism which is studied in religious and academic milieus today.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman went farther than his predecessors, bringing these teachings to broader segments of the Jewish population of Eastern Europe. More significantly, Rabbi Schneur Zalman founded the “Chabad” approach—a philosophy and system of study, meditation, and character refinement that made these abstract concepts more easily and rationally comprehensible and practically applicable in daily life.

In the fall of 1798, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was arrested on charges that his teachings and activities threatened the imperial authority of the czar, and was imprisoned in an island fortress in the Neva River in Petersburg. In his interrogations, he was compelled to present to the czar’s ministers the basic tenets of Judaism and explain various points of hassidic philosophy and practice. After 53 days, he was exonerated of all charges and released.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman regarded his arrest as but the earthly echo of a heavenly indictment against his revelation of the most intimate secrets of the Torah. He saw his release as signifying his vindication in the heavenly court. Following his liberation on the 19th day of Kislev, he redoubled his efforts, disseminating his teachings on a far broader scale, and with more detailed and “down-to-earth” explanations, than before.

The nineteenth of Kislev therefore marks the “birth” of Hassidism: the point at which it was allowed to emerge from the womb of “mysticism” into the light of day, to grow and develop as an integral part of Torah and Jewish life.

In Israel, a large celebration was held at Binyanei Hauma, the Jerusalem Conference Center, which included classes on hassidic philosophy and musical performances.