The Definition of the Rebbe
Updated: Aug 19
Context: The Evolution of Chassidism
The Rebbe is the seventh leader of the Chabad Chassidic dynasty, and the ninth 1 in the chain of general Chassidic leadership, counting from the founder of the Chassidic movement, Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, who was born in the year 5458 (1698 C.E.).
The Baal Shem Tov was an exceptional scholar, saint, and miracle worker 2 as were all the leaders in the chain of Chassidic leadership. After many years of saintly life with his clandestine group of followers, the Baal Shem Tov started actively promoting his message of G‑d's particular providence over every tiny detail, and the immeasurable value to G‑d of even the simple person's divine service.
Of special relevance is a letter the Baal Shem Tov wrote to his brother-in-law, in which he wrote, that once, during a soul ascension, he met Moshiach and asked him when he would come. Moshiach answered the Baal Shem Tov, "When your wellsprings will be spread to the outside", which most simply means when his Chassidic teachings will be widely studied and actively lived. This goal became one of the principle purposes of Chabad Chassidim.
The heir to the Baal Shem Tov’s Chassidic leadership, the Maggid of Mezritch, appointed R’ Shneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe, to be the Rav, or legal authority for the movement. The Alter Rebbe wrote an authoritative code of Jewish law and the fundamental Chassidic text, Tanya, articulating the fiery ideals of Chassidism through an intellectual approach to mystical realties.
Central to the Tanya are the concepts of teshuvah and geulah. Teshuvah means return to G‑d, specifically the restoration of a Torah-based world outlook and lifestyle. Geulah means redemption and is associated with the coming of Moshiach. The latter appears as the pivot of human history and the ultimate goal of the creation. The Alter Rebbe gained many tens of thousands of adherents to the Chassidic movement and established the Lubavitch dynasty, so named for the Russian town where its leaders were centered for over a century.
The Chassidic movement in general and the Lubavitch dynasty in particular, suffered considerable opposition, but continued to grow and flourish nonetheless. One of the bones of contention then (as well as now) was the exalted role of the Rebbe and the special bond between Rebbe and Chassid (or follower). The Baal Shem Tov taught that the word Rebbe in Hebrew is comprised of three letters whose initials spell out a Hebrew phrase meaning Head of the Children of Israel. He explained that just as one's head is the primary residence of the soul, which gives life to all the other parts of the body, so too the Rebbe is the Head of the Children of Israel, who is the source of life for every Jew.
Following the Alter Rebbe, the mantle of leadership passed consecutively to the Mitteler Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, the Maharash, the Rashab, the Rayyatz 3, and then to the seventh and final leader in the Lubavitcher dynasty, the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
As the time of the redemption approached, the movement focused even more squarely on its goal, the coming of Moshiach. Accordingly, the pace of "spreading the wellsprings" increased.
The fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe founded the first Chassidic High School and College with the explicit purpose of raising students who would be as dedicated as soldiers to promoting Torah generally and Chassidism in particular. In a talk he gave in the fall of 1900, he predicted that Moshiach's coming would be soon, following two generations of fierce opposition, one atheistic, and the second, religious but anti-Moshiach 4.
The first period is best exemplified by the forcefully atheistic Soviet Union, within which the Lubavitch movement sustained Jewish faith and observance through a network of underground schools and congregations. Thousands of Lubavitchers, or 'Schneersonskis', as they were called at the time, were imprisoned, tortured, exiled and killed simply for living and teaching the traditions of Judaism.
The second period, religious yet anti-Moshiach, may well be the one in which we presently find ourselves. Among the Jews, this is a generation of incomparable spiritual revival. Also in society generally, we find a New Age spirituality and renewed interest in religious traditions, which together indicate that the societal pendulum has swung back in the direction of faith. In this context it is surprising to find many religious Jews who are strongly opposed to identifying the immediate coming of Moshiach 5 and the redemption even though this is fundamental to the religion that they otherwise observe.
Indeed, faith in the immediacy of Moshiach's coming is one of Maimonides' 13 Principles of Faith. Maimonides states that whoever denies this principle, denies the entire Tradition from Sinai. The teachings of Maimonides, in turn, are not innovations but are based on the Jewish Bible and the teachings of the sages of the Talmud. In more recent times this view has been strongly adopted by such Torah giants as the Chafetz Chaim, the Chasam Sofer, and others, with special emphasis put on by the Chassidic masters.
It is strange but true that many Jews today accept the authority of the Sages for guiding their lifestyle and other beliefs, yet seem to ignore or rationalize away these same Sages on the importance of believing that Moshiach and the ultimate redemption are matters of current relevance. The Lubavitcher Rebbe himself has testified that our times fulfill this prophecy of the Rashab. 6
The sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch, the Rayyatz, led the movement through Stalin's Communist regime, World War 2, the Holocaust, and the relocation of its world headquarters to Brooklyn, New York. He announced that immediate repentance would bring immediate redemption and that the horrible tribulations of the Holocaust were actually the birth pangs of Moshiach. From Lubavitch HQ at 770 Eastern Parkway he set about to rebuild Jewish study and observance worldwide and especially throughout North America, which by then had become home to the world's largest (and most assimilated) community of Jews.
His son-in-law, the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, formally assumed the leadership of the movement in 1951, precisely one year after the passing of the Rayyatz. We will now take a closer look at the life of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe.
The Rebbe's Early Years
A few days before Passover in the year 5662 1902 C.E.), in the city of Nikolaev, in the Ukraine, a son was born to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson and his wife Chanah. At the circumcision, the baby was named Menachem Mendel, after his great-great-great-grandfather, the third Rebbe of the Chabad Lubavitch dynasty. Even then, there were signs that something special was in store for this child.
On the day he was born, the Rashab, who was the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, sent six telegrams to the parents with detailed instructions regarding the infant. According to these instructions, his mother was to wash the baby's hands 7 before he ate; she even washed his hands before nursing him. Indeed, he never ate in his life without first washing his hands.
When he was only two years old, Menachem Mendel was already asking the four questions at the Passover seder. At two-and-a-half, he knew how to pray like an adult. His mother, not wanting to draw undue attention to the child, would scurry him out of sight rather than allow him to astound houseguests.
At three, he started his Torah studies in the traditional cheder - Jewish primary school. Once, his mother came to visit him during recess. All the other children were trying without success to climb one of the trees that stood in the playground, but her son succeeded in climbing the tree in a few short minutes. "How did you manage that, Mendel?" asked his mother. "They look down, so they are afraid of falling, but I look up so I am not afraid," answered the little boy.
Only a short time later, the teacher of the cheder reported to Menachem Mendel's parents that their son could no longer study with the other children because his talents were so superior to theirs. Menachem Mendel began to learn at home with his father, the Rabbi.
Those were the days of the short-lived Russian Revolution of 1905. For some time, waves of pogroms and attacks against Jews were common. One day, when Menachem Mendel was four-and-a half, a wild mob fell upon the Jews of Nikolaev, threatening their lives. The Jews escaped to various hiding places to wait until the danger passed. Menachem Mendel and his parents were hiding with other families with small children, but the children were making such a racket with their screaming and crying that they were all in danger of being discovered.
Little Menachem Mendel, who was keenly aware of the danger, went around to all the little children, gave this one a candy, that one a pat on the cheek, another words of love and encouragement, and succeeded in distracting them until the danger had passed.
When he was five, his family moved to Yekaterinoslav, where his father had been appointed Rabbi of the City. Despite the constant traffic through the house with all the personal and community concerns that his father dealt with, little Menachem Mendel could always be found sitting and learning. He would learn day and night, typically until dawn, take a quick nap, and then resume his studies.
One day, a few years later, he was taking a walk with his mother on the banks of the Dnieper River, when his mother noticed a preschooler surrounded by an excited crowd. The child was soaked to the bone. The boy's mother was emotionally telling the people around her what had happened: "My son fell into the water and he was drowning, but at the last moment an older boy about nine years old, jumped into the river and pulled him out!" Only then did Rebbetzin Chanah notice that her Menachem Mendel was not at her side. She was filled with fear until, a few moments later, her son appeared, soaking wet - without saying a word.
As a young man, he became known as a great genius from whom no secret of the Torah was hidden. He succeeded in teaching himself a variety of foreign languages - French, German, Spanish, English, Italian and a few others in addition to Yiddish, Hebrew, Aramaic and Russian. He also mastered mathematics, astronomy, physics, and other natural sciences. As Yeshayahu Sher, who as a teenager was a friend of the Schneersohn children testifies, 8 he learned languages from dictionaries. His knowledge of mathematics and astronomy was such that at the age of fifteen he won the most complicated university contests in those sciences.
In 5684-1923, Rabbi Menachem Mendel traveled to Rostov to join the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rayyatz, and soon began working as his trusted aide. Shortly before Chanukah in 5689-1928, he married the Rebbe's second daughter, Chaya Mushka. In 1940, the Previous Rebbe came to America, and the following summer, his daughter and son-in-law joined him in New York. In the winter of 1951, one year after the passing of his father-in-law, the Rebbe reluctantly took upon himself the awesome task of leading the Chabad movement and indeed the entire Jewish people.
A Leader of the Generation.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe's concern and longing for the final Redemption was evident even when he was a child, as seen in the Rebbe's 1956 correspondence with Yitzchak ben Tzvi (the President of Israel at that time).
"From the day I went to cheder [primary school] and even before, the picture of the final Redemption started forming in my mind - the Redemption of the Jews from their last exile, a Redemption in such a way that through it will be understood the sufferings of exile, the decrees and the destruction ... And all will be in a way that with a complete heart and full understanding it will be said on that day, 'Thank you G‑d for chastising me.'" 9
The Rebbe has been recognized as a leader of all Jewry. When the late Prime Minister Begin was asked why he went to visit the Rebbe rather than the Rebbe visiting him, he replied that as Prime Minister, his mandate was for the welfare of the inhabitants of Israel, whereas the Rebbe is responsible for each and every Jew in the entire world. As well, hundreds of Chief Rabbis of rabbinical colleges, various Jewish movements, cities, and countries, have paid homage to the Rebbe throughout his leadership. 10
Since the beginning of his leadership in the year 5711 (1951), his efforts to reach every segment of the Jewish people have been unrelenting. For over forty years, the Rebbe sent emissaries wherever a Jew may be found, in order to uplift fallen spirits and further Jewish education and observance. There are currently over 3000 Lubavitch outreach institutions worldwide. 11 There is Lubavitch in virtually every state in the USA, and in over 50 countries, from Alaska to Australia, from Cuba to the Congo, and from Scotland to Singapore.
It is important to realize that the entire worldwide organization has essentially been run by the Rebbe alone. Nowhere except in Lubavitch could one find such an enormous scale of activity under the direct management and control of one man. Besides the regular channels of influence and control that the Rebbe exerts through his teachings and directives, there are also the 'supernatural' dimensions of his leadership. Virtually each and every one of his emissaries and his followers can testify to the Rebbe's prophetic powers and potent blessings to reverse misfortunes of every description.
The Rebbe has also stressed the importance of bringing a recognition and belief in G‑d to the world. To this end he frequently spoke on cable TV broadcasts throughout the 1980's, calling on all peoples to observe the Torah's "Seven Noahide Laws" which apply to all humanity, and for public schools to observe a "Moment of Silence." The United States government has recognized the Rebbe's greatness by awarding him the Congressional Medal of Honor and by observing the Rebbe's birthday, the 11th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, establishing it as "Education Day USA."
The Rebbe's concern has been just as much for each individual as for all people in general. The Rebbe has offered his potent blessings and sage advice to all, whether big shot or beggar, unlettered or erudite, adherent or atheist. The Rebbe has responded on a daily basis to countless phone calls and faxes, as well as two large US mailbags of correspondence daily. His secretaries proposed that to save the Rebbe's precious time, perhaps the letters could be opened by machine. The Rebbe refused asking how could he open by machine letters that have been sealed with tears.
Starting in 1986, when the Rebbe was 84 years old, he would stand for hours every Sunday, and personally receive each of the thousands of people who came to see him for a blessing and advice. The Rebbe handed each and every person a dollar to be used for charity, and spent a timeless moment with every visitor, during which each person felt they were the one-and-only concern the Rebbe had.
Old and young, men, women and children, academics and laborers, religious and secular, each person was treated with equal love and care. A look, a blessing, or a word of advice given in a fraction of a second have in countless cases changed a person's life.
The general editor of this article recalls when he had the privilege to stand beside the Rebbe at length, as 11,000 people passed by one by one, over a period of 12 hours, during which the Rebbe stood interacting with each one in their language and according to their concerns. From moment to moment, he would switch from English to Hebrew to French to Russian to Spanish to Yiddish to Italian and so too with the issues. Communication took microseconds as the Rebbe addressed personal matters of the visitor's health, livelihood and relationships, communal matters of education and social services, and world issues of economy and geopolitics.
In the midst of all this, he took a large shopping bag full of notes people gave him detailing their problems, and traveled to the resting place of his predecessor, the Rayyatz, where he poured out his heart in prayer to the A-mighty on behalf of each person. The Rebbe did all this while fasting the whole day, as is the Chassidic custom before traveling to a cemetery. After some hours of this, he returned to continue working well into the night.
On a similar occasion, years later when the Rebbe was already in his 90's, an elderly woman asked the Rebbe how he could stand for so many hours. She had been waiting on line for only two hours and was totally exhausted. The Rebbe replied, "When you're counting diamonds, you don't get tired."
Very often the Rebbe would launch ambitious educational or social action programs and inspire followers and others to help implement them. For example when some of the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster complained to the Rebbe about their plight, the Rebbe insisted that his emissaries create a massive humanitarian aid program to airlift the Children of Chernobyl to safety and provide them with specialized medical care. As a result, a multi-million dollar, multi-national emergency relief program was instantly launched by his emissaries, in which more than 1000 children have to date been treated and cured.
The Rebbe is also well known for his frequent public gatherings for men, women, and children, during which he would reveal insights into Torah, world events, and social issues.
The Rebbe is very likely the most prolific Torah scholar ever. Well over 300 volumes of the Rebbe's Torah commentary are published to date, with more coming out monthly, in addition to countless manuscripts, letters, and speech transcripts still awaiting publication. His works have been translated into French, Russian, Italian, Spanish, Portugese, Arabic, Farsi and even Braille. His writings span the full spectrum of Jewish scholarship, including Jewish law, Bible commentary, ethics, philosophy, Chassidic thought and Kabbalah.
In his secular studies, he has graduated from Berlin University and from both the Sorbonne and Polytechnic Institute in Paris, having studied the sciences, philosophy and mechanical engineering, and having achieved the highest expertise in all areas. Following World War 2, he was decorated by the US Navy for supporting the war effort by designing the self-inflating pontoons with which the American troops safely accessed Europe via the rocky shores of France.
The Rebbe has also provided a most comprehensive treatment of the Torah vs. Science issue, and has resolved many apparently contentious questions decades before the current wave of popular interest in religion and science issues.
But together with the greatness, there is humility. When the Rebbe was teaching Talmud in a Paris synagogue during World War 2, there was a shortage of texts. The students doubled and tripled up with books, and the Rebbe taught daily in-depth lessons, reading the Talmud with the commentaries, and then adding some explanation. Once however it was discovered that the text the Rebbe was holding was a different one altogether than the one he was teaching. He did this because he knew the whole voluminous text by heart, and wanted more texts for the class, without drawing attention to his scholarship. 12
Of the Rebbe's 30,000-odd pages of published Torah commentary, he almost never uses the pronoun, "I". For the spreading of his teachings, he has often advised to withhold his name if this would make the message more palatable for the audience. And with all his Torah and secular knowledge, he has always made time for young children whom he would often address by the thousand, inspiring them to disciplined enthusiasm in their studies and good deeds.
The Rebbe's adherence to every detail of Jewish law is legendary. For example, in the midst of the Holocaust, while in Nazi-occupied France, he required a citron to observe the Jewish festival of Sukkos (Tabernacles). Unable to obtain one in France, he openly undertook a most perilous journey across Switzerland and through Italy in order to obtain one from the island of Calabria, where Moses is reputed to have obtained his citron for the holiday.
A half-century later, on the same holiday, while tens of thousands of the Rebbe's emissaries throughout the world were sharing the observances and joy of the holiday with people everywhere, the Rebbe himself was watching and listening with utmost attention as many thousands of men, women and children took turns blessing and waving the Rebbe's own set of the traditional four plant species used for Sukkos.
Besides ritual observance, the Torah has very high standards for development of one's personality, which the Rebbe surpasses on all accounts.
Although the Rebbe has spent countless hours and hundreds of millions of dollars on charitable works, he never indulged in anything, which could even remotely resemble personal luxuries. In over 40 years of leadership, he never took so much as a day off. He once commented after spending 15 minutes with his saintly wife on their porch, that that was his summer vacation.
About 25 years ago, a couple in Toronto, a chiropractor and a midwife, suffered a terrible tragedy when their six-year old daughter wandered off into a construction site and fell, crushing her elbow into countless fragments of floating bone as determined by hospital x-rays. The prognosis: At best, two years of constant pain and never more than partial use of the arm.
At 2:30 am, the mother reached one of the Rebbe's secretaries, Rabbi Laibel Groner, at his home, begging for emergency attention. Rabbi Groner said he couldn't bother the Rebbe as he had just gone home and would be back to his office by 6:00 am. She screamed hysterically and begged him to go to the Rebbe at once for a blessing. Rabbi Groner gave in, and disturbed the Rebbe at home. The Rebbe said that there was nothing to worry about and told them to check their mezuzos, which are small parchment scrolls that Jews install onto their doorposts. They checked and found that the scroll on the patio door (through which the girl had wandered out on her fateful escapade) had fallen.
They returned to the hospital after 3 weeks to see if the swelling had gone down enough to permit setting of the arm. The family was surprised to see a large contingent of shocked radiologists and physicians wondering how so many fragments of shattered bone could migrate back into place and start knitting together. It was as probable as unscrambling eggs and putting them back into the shell. Within six months the girl was well, with no pain and complete use of her arm including athletically. The point of the story here is not only the miracle but also the selflessness of the Rebbe regarding his time.
On one hand, the Rebbe has no idea about self-interest or personal pleasure, yet on the other hand, he is 100% updated on all the concerns of the everyday people who consult him on countless issues and personal problems.
And with his money, the Rebbe has been no less selfless. For example the approximately $10,000 per week that the Rebbe publicly gave for charity during "dollars line", came from his own money. Privately, he would often dig into his own resources for individuals. The Rebbe's secretary, Laibel Groner, relates that when the Rebbe overheard a wedding ceremony taking place without a musician due to the family's poverty, he sent his secretary to fetch them a musician at the Rebbe's expense. On another occasion, when he was informed that a certain poor but proud family had nothing cooking on the eve of Passover, the Rebbe sent an envelope of money, instructing his envoy to slip it under the door and run away unseen.
But even though he was so free with money for others, he never wasted money on personal indulgence. It once happened that the Rebbe's secretariat replaced his aging Cadillac with a new one. When the Rebbe saw this, he refused to enter it despite his secretary's insistence that no chief executive uses such an old car. I have been in the Rebbe's house in 1988, and have seen his old gas stove and refrigerator, clean and in good repair, but obviously from the 1950's or early 60's. Even his shoes were routinely resoled rather than replaced.
Ultimately a tzadik is not a demi-god, but rather a complete human being who fulfills his G‑d given potentials - just like the Rebbe.
The Rebbe has made thousands of documented predictions regarding unforeseeable and highly improbable events, all of which have come to pass precisely as predicted. The following are among the most well known:
A week and a half before the Six Day War in 1967, the Rebbe predicted a great victory and asked that his prediction be publicized. 13
In 1966, the Rebbe already predicted the fall of Communism. 14 In April 1985, he made it clear that this was imminent. Then in 1987, when the Iron Curtain was still impenetrable, the Rebbe made a startling request. He asked his followers to build homes and prepare jobs in Israel for the masses of Jews who would be leaving Russia. 15 Two years later in 1989, miraculously the doors of Russia sprung open. Hundreds of thousands of Jews streamed into Israel. The housing that was prepared according to the Rebbe's directive overflowed with the new arrivals.
During the Gulf War, the Rebbe predicted that Israel would be the safest place to be, 16 so there would be no need for gas masks, 17 and that by the holiday of Purim the war would be over. 18 The Rebbe actually took personal responsibility for the lives of people by advising them to travel confidently to Israel and assuring them that no harm would befall them. This is in contrast to American and Israel government and military projections to the contrary on all three points. Nonetheless, events unfolded exactly as the Rebbe had predicted.
These are only three prophecies - the list is endless. According to Jewish Law, once someone passes the lifestyle and character criteria to be a prophet, and his prophecies materialize as predicted, two prophecies are sufficient to be considered a true prophet. 19
On August 25, 1991, the Rebbe said that as the leader, judge and prophet of our generation, his main prophecy is "immediate redemption" and "Behold this Moshiach coming." 20 As a true prophet according to Jewish law, the Rebbe's prophecy is for all people. The Rebbe adds that it is an obligation to believe and listen to this prophecy "because these are G‑d's words through the prophet." The Rebbe then instructs us to publicize to everyone that G-d has chosen a prophet for our generation.
When the Rebbe gives us instructions, we know that these are instructions from G‑d. The Kabbalah teaches 21 that in every generation there is an extension and continuation of Moses, the father of all prophets. The head of the generation is the extension of Moses. Just as Moses brought the words of G‑d into the world, so too the Rebbe, the Moses of our generation, brings us G‑d's words.
FOOTNOTES 1. There have been over a hundred Chassidic rebbes during this period, all of them scholarly and saintly, but we are limiting the discussion to the unique generational leaders who are the equivalent of Moses for their generation.
2. For authoritative biographical information and verified stories, see Lubavitcber Rabbi's Memoirs by the Rebbe Rayyatz as translated by Nissan Mindel. Kehot Pub. Soc, NY. 1960.
3. These are the titles given to these 5 Rebbes by their followers. Their actual given names are DovBer, Menachem Mendel, Shmuel, Sholom DovBer, and Yosef Yitzchok, respectively.
4. Maamar Kat HaYatsei by the Rebbe Rashab 5661 (1901). English translation by E. Touger in With Light and Might. Kehot Pub. Soc. NY
7 . This washing is not merely a hygienic measure but a Torah-based ritual, effecting a spiritual drawing down of intellect into the emotional aspects of the personality.
8. H. Branover and A. Naveh. 1989. Vision of tbe Heart. Maariv Publishing House, Israel. (in Hebrew)
9. Igros Kodesb of the Rebbe, vol.12, p.414
10 . D.B. Volpe, 1995. Shemen Sasson MayChavayrecha. Jerusalem.
11. Solomon, A. 1997. Characteristic Themes of the Edited Addresses of Rabbi M. M. Schneerson and their Relationship to his Educational Discourse. Doctoral Thesis, laTrobe University, Melbourne.
12 . This story has been related by an attendee of this class, one of the Reichmann brothers of Toronto, famous for their property developments such as the World Trade Center in New York and Canary Wharf in London.
13 . Kfar Cbabad, Vol. 762, p.20; Speech of Lag Ba'Omer 5727-1967; Sicbos Kodesb 5727-1967, Vol. 2, p.133
16 . Kfar Cbabad, Vo1.459, 24 Teves, 5751-January 10, 1991
21 . Zohar vol 3 273: 1