(ca. 1745–1812), Hasidic leader and founder of Ḥabad Hasidism, the branch promulgated by the Lubavitch movment. Shneur Zalman was born in Liozno (Liazna, Belarus); when he was about 20, he was attracted to Hasidism. He joined the bet midrash of Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezritsh, for a number of years, studied Kabbalah with him, and regarded him as his master. After the Magid’s death, Shneur Zalman became an associate of Menaḥem Mendel of Vitebsk, a senior colleague and teacher.
The process of Shneur Zalman’s acceptance as a Hasidic leader was a lengthy one, connected to the wave of Hasidic immigration to the Land of Israel in 1777. Menaḥem Mendel of Vitebsk and Avraham of Kalisk led immigrants there and at the same time sought to continue guiding the Hasidim who had remained in Belorussia. To fill the gap in leadership they had left behind, they appointed Shneur Zalman and two other men as substitutes. This arrangement proved unsatisfactory, and many Hasidim began to travel to foreign tsadikim, to the dismay of the emigrant leaders. Against this background, the leadership authority of Shneur Zalman gradually expanded, though he became the sole leader of the Hasidim of Belorussia only after the death of Menaḥem Mendel in 1788.
Shneur Zalman began to function as a leader while the expansion of Hasidism was at its height. Like other tsadikim of his generation, he wrestled with the question of the correct way to transmit the Hasidic manner of serving God to the growing general public of new adherents. He believed that it was not the tsadik’s task to serve as a bridge between the Hasid and God; rather, the tsadik had to be content with his role as a guide, and the responsibility for ascent in the worship of God was incumbent upon each individual Hasid. Shneur Zalman also rejected the view that a tsadik was endowed with supernatural powers, and that he was responsible for fulfilling the earthly needs of his Hasidim. This position was not acceptable, however, to the masses of Hasidim, who expected that he would follow the path taken by many other tsadikim. The pressure that the Hasidim imposed upon Shneur Zalman and his aspiration to draw them closer to him led him to take a compromise position: he would not promise to fulfill the earthly needs of his Hasidim, but was willing to listen and give advice in these areas.
The patterns of leadership that Shneur Zalman developed were suitable to this conception of his role. Two principal focuses of his activity were his court, which was in the town in which he lived, and the periphery, which included scores of distant Hasidic minyanim (prayer communities). The central activity of the court was the sermon that Shneur Zalman delivered to his Hasidim, intended to guide them in the service of God. In addition to the sermon, a framework of individual meetings with the rebbe was created, known as yekhides (Heb., yeḥidut)—being alone with the rebbe. In the course of such a meeting, each Hasid could pour out his troubles before Shneur Zalman and receive his instruction and blessing.
During the 1790s, the stream of Hasidim flowing to Shneur Zalman’s court increased into the thousands, leading him to institute special regulations to organize and regulate the visits of devotees to his court. Preference was given to new Hasidim, who had not yet met with him, over veteran Hasidim, who were permitted to visit just once a year (aside from four holidays, when all Hasidim were permitted to gather there). Underlying these regulations was Shneur Zalman’s belief that in order to guide a new Hasid in a way that suited the individual’s personality, he had to hold a long conversation with him. It is not clear to what degree these regulations were enforced, but the fact of their publication indicates the expansion of Ḥabad Hasidism and the pains taken by Shneur Zalman as a Hasidic leader.
Another focus was the Hasidic communities, which were dispersed mainly in Belorussia but also in other parts of the Pale of Settlement. Shneur Zalman closely supervised the activities of these congregations, both by means of local leaders and through emissaries. In that way, he sought to make certain that the Hasidim did indeed follow his instructions in their daily life with respect to the worship of God. He also dispensed punishments, the most severe of which was denying a Hasid the right to visit his court.
In 1797, a conflict broke out between Shneur Zalman and Avraham of Kalisk. Avraham leveled harsh accusations against his former colleague and attacked him for revealing secrets of the Kabbalah in Shneur Zalman’s book the Tanya—secrets that by nature were not supposed to be revealed—and for deviating from the path of the founders of Hasidism, who endowed their followers with simple, innocent faith. Avraham also attacked the organizational patterns instituted by Shneur Zalman and challenged his authority as a leader. Shneur Zalman rejected these accusations and threatened to stop raising money for those who lived in the Land of Israel. In response, Avraham instituted an alternative mechanism for raising money. When he realized, however, that he was powerless to impose his authority over Shneur Zalman, Avraham severed relations with him completely, in 1806. Both leaders sought to influence public opinion among the Hasidim, and Shneur Zalman emerged victorious from this struggle—which contributed to a sharpened self-awareness on the part of his Hasidim as constituting a special community, proud of their leader and his path.
Shneur Zalman was involved in the controversy between Hasidim and Misnagdim from the start. In winter 1772, he went to Vilna with Menaḥem Mendel of Vitebsk to convince the Vilna Gaon that rumors describing the Hasidim as a heretical sect were groundless. The Gaon, whose negative opinion of the Hasidim had already been formed, refused to receive them. Soon afterward, Shneur Zalman took part in a debate held in Shklov, in the course of which the Hasidim were accused of showing contempt for Torah scholars and of wild behavior that led to profanation of the name of God. Following this debate, the leaders of Shklov reported to the Vilna Gaon and reinforced his opinion of the nature of Hasidism. The Gaon’s proclamation that Hasidim were heretics led the Jewish community of Vilna to launch an organized and systematic campaign against Hasidism during Passover 1772.
Shneur Zalman nonetheless helped determine that the Hasidic response to persecution at the hands of the Misnagdim would be one of maximal restraint. In this spirit, he scrupulously honored the Vilna Gaon, both during the latter’s life and after his death. He did not hesitate to attribute responsibility for the persecution of Hasidim to the Vilna Gaon, but believed that the Gaon had been misled by false witnesses and that he had acted in good faith.
In October 1798, Shneur Zalman was arrested and interrogated as a result of being denounced to the Russian authorities as a threat to the state. The informer argued that Hasidism was a new religion, forbidden by law; that its leaders encouraged young people to steal money from their parents; and that Shneur Zalman was sending large sums of money out of the country without authorization. Shneur Zalman managed to refute the accusations against him, and at the end of November was released from prison in Saint Petersburg. The day of his release, 19 Kislev, is celebrated by Ḥabad Hasidim to this day. In 1801, Shneur Zalman was arrested and imprisoned again, this time following a denunciation by Avigdor ben Ḥayim, the deposed rabbi of Pinsk. Shneur Zalman was released from prison after about a month, but he remained in Saint Petersburg until the middle of the summer. After he left Saint Petersburg he transferred his court to the town of Liady.
During the Napoleonic wars, Shneur Zalman supported the Russian regime, fearing that if Russia were conquered by the French the Jews would be granted emancipation, and their connection with tradition would be weakened. With the advance of the French, Shneur Zalman and his family fled from the Pale of Settlement. On the way, he fell ill and died; he was buried in Haditz, in the province of Poltava. After his death, a struggle for leadership broke out between his eldest son, Dov Ber, and his chief disciple, Aharon ha-Levi Horowitz. Most of the Hasidim accepted the leadership of the son, who established the dynasty in Lubavitch (Lyubavichy), and from then on the leadership of Ḥabad Hasidim remained with the descendants of Shneur Zalman, who took the family name Shneerson. The conversion to Christianity in 1820 of the mentally unstable younger son of Shneur Zalman, Mosheh, has been recently documented.
Shneur Zalman was a deep and systematic thinker. His main work, Likute amarim (Compilation of Teachings; 1797), better known by the Aramaic name Tanya (“We have learned,” the first word in the text), is anchored in the doctrines of divinity and the soul taught by Lurianic Kabbalah. Its main innovation is expressed in the distinction between the tsadik and the benoni (middling or average person). The tsadik has completely purified his soul from evil, and his worship of God is therefore expressed by turning evil into good. The rank of tsadik, however, is attainable only by select individuals who have received divine grace. The middling person, by contrast, keeps all the commandments of the Torah fully but still struggles with earthly desires. The service of God that suits him is the suppression of appetites by the power of will. In the Tanya, Shneur Zalman suggests ways of acting in order to attain the level of the middling person, within the reach of many people.
The distinction between these degrees reflects Shneur Zalman’s desire to make the path of Hasidism accessible to the community at large, even though the path is demanding and requires the investment of spiritual effort. He also attributes great importance to prayer with the proper intention, which he regarded as the main innovation of Hasidism. Similarly, he assigned an important role to the powers of consciousness in the soul—ḥokhmah, binah, and da‘at—in forming and developing the conception of the Divinity and one’s relation to it. This is the origin of the acronym Ḥabad, which became an appellation for his Hasidim during his lifetime.
One of the major tendencies that characterized the school of the Magid of Mezritsh is conspicuously absent from the Tanya: namely, the notion of redeeming evil and making it good, as through raising up alien thoughts or through worship in physicality (‘avodah be-gashmiyut). Shneur Zalman did not reject that idea, however, as is evident in the sermons that he gave to his Hasidim, which were printed only after his death (Torah or ; Likute Torah ). Shneur Zalman apparently distinguished between teachings appropriate to the community at large, which he included in his principal work, and esoteric teachings, which were meant just for the few and which he was scrupulous in expressing only orally.
Shneur Zalman’s view of God embraced both the notion of radical immanence, which denied all independent existence to the world and demanded worship of God, and whose essence was bitul ha-yesh (annihilation of being) and hafikhat ha-ani le-ayin (making the ego into nothing); and that of transcendentalism, which imparts significance and value to the worship of God through the Torah and the commandments.
In addition to letters that he sent, which were collected in several editions, and his sermons and teachings that were transcribed by his disciples, Shneur Zalman left behind other works that were printed posthumously, including Shulḥan ‘arukh ha-rav, a revised and abbreviated version of that halakhic code, which he had prepared at the request of the Magid of Mezritsh; Bi’ure Zohar (Explanations of the Zohar); and a prayer book.
Rachel Elior, The Paradoxical Ascent to God: The Kabbalistic Theosophy of Habad Hasidism, trans. Jeffrey M. Green (Albany, N.Y., 1993); Immanuel Etkes, “‘Aliyato shel R. Shne’or Zalman mi-La’di le-‘emdat manhigut,” Tarbits 54.3 (1985): 429–439; Immanuel Etkes, “Darko shel R. Shne’or Zalman mi-La’di ke-manhig shel ḥasidim,” Tsiyon 50 (1985): 321–354; Ḥayim Me’ir Helman, Bet Rabi: Toldot Admor ha-Zaken Ba‘al ha-Tanya’ (Berdichev, Ukr., 1802); Naftali Loewenthal, Communicating the Infinite: The Emergence of the Habad School (Chicago, 1990); Mordecai Teitelbaum, Ha-Rav mi-Ladi u-mifleget Ḥabad, 2 vols. (Warsaw, 1909/10–1912/13).
Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green