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Is Chabad Lubavitch?

Cryptic though it may sound, Lubavitch is Chabad, but Chabad is not only Lubavitch.

John Baird
Photo by: Atara Beck
Is Chabad Lubavitch? Is Lubavitch Chabad? Are the two terms – “Chabad” and “Lubavitch” – synonymous? Chabad is an acronym; Lubavitch is a town. Chabad represents a hassidic philosophy; Lubavitch the ancestral home of a hassidic court. They are not synonymous. Cryptic though it may sound, Lubavitch is Chabad, but Chabad is not only Lubavitch.

Chabad is an acronym for hochma (wisdom), bina (understanding), da’at (knowledge) – the three intellectual faculties in the kabbalistic system of viewing the world. The acronym refers to the school of hassidic thought pioneered by one of the early and influential hassidic masters, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady (1745-1812). Rabbi Shneur Zalman taught that the mind must rule over the heart; it is the intellect that should define our relationship with the Almighty. This school focuses on developing a methodological approach to understanding God. The seminal text of the Chabad school of thought is Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s Tanya, which was first printed in 1797.

Lubavitch – or Lyubavichi, as it is known – is today in Russia. The town is most famously associated with the contemporary branch of hassidism that has a worldwide presence. Hassidic masters of this branch are descended from Rabbi Shneur Zalman, and the branch takes its philosophy from Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s writings.

Was Rabbi Shneur Zalman a “Lubavitcher”? Born in Liozna, he moved to Lyady later in life and was buried in Hadiach. As a young boy, Shneur Zalman had studied under Rabbi Yissachar Ber of Lubavitch – presumably in his teacher’s city. Later, some of his opponents who sought to undermine his authority lived in Lubavitch. We might well ponder whether Rabbi Shneur Zalman would have felt any affection for that town. But either way, calling Rabbi Shneur Zalman a “Lubavitcher” would be anachronistic.

After Rabbi Shneur Zalman died, his son and successor, Rabbi Dov Ber Shneuri (1773-1827) settled in Lubavitch, and it was from his base in this town that he led his disciples. The custom among most – but not all – hassidic groups is that the branch of hassidism takes and preserves its name from where the founders of that branch lived. Lubavitch, therefore, takes its name from the town where Rabbi Dov Ber led his disciples. Rabbi Dov Ber’s son-in-law and successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1789- 1866) – known by the title of his multi-volume work, Tzemah Tzedek – also presided in that town, as did his son after him, Rabbi Shmuel (Maharash, 1834-1882).

Maharash’s son, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber (Rashab, 1860-1920) was born in Lubavitch, but during World War I he fled to Rostov-on-Don. That signaled the end of the presence of hassidic masters in Lubavitch, although the name “Lubavitch” continued – and continues – to live on as a hassidic identity.

Why did Lubavitch Hassidim not call themselves “Lyady Hassidim,” after the founder’s town? The answer lies in understanding that Chabad is not only Lubavitch. After Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s death, his disciples split between his son – the aforementioned Rabbi Dov Ber – and his prime student, Rabbi Aharon Halevi Horowitz (1766-1828), who established a rival Chabad school in Strashelye. Rabbi Aharon was a prolific writer and his brand of Chabad was popular. When he died, he was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Haim Raphael (d. 1842). Alas, when Rabbi Haim Raphael died, the Strashelye branch of Chabad did not continue.

This was not the only non-Lubavitch branch of Chabad. When the Tzemah Tzedek – Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s grandson – died in 1866, he was succeeded in Lubavitch by his youngest son. Some of his other children and grandchildren established Chabad hassidic courts in the towns of Kopys, Lyady, Nizhyn, Lubavitch, Rezekne and Babruysk. Thus, in the generation of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s great-grandchildren, there were Lyady Hassidim in addition to Lubavitch Hassidim, and both courts adhered to the Chabad philosophy. Kopys, one of the other Chabad branches, even produced important works in Chabad philosophy.

Given this account, why is it commonly assumed that “Lubavitch” and “Chabad” are synonymous? Lubavitch is the only surviving branch of Chabad Hassidism, and hence the custodian of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s Chabad philosophy.

The writer is on the faculty of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.


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