Jailbirds: Hassidic masters who were imprisoned in Eastern Europe

Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhyn (1796-1850) was subject to investigation and imprisonment beginning in September 1836 on suspicion of sedition against the czar.

COSSACK MAMAY – the ideal image of Cossack in Ukrainian folklore. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
COSSACK MAMAY – the ideal image of Cossack in Ukrainian folklore.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Since the formative era of Hassidism, through the annals of the movement, there were significant hassidic masters who were investigated, questioned, arrested and incarcerated by state authorities in Eastern Europe. Trumped-up charges were often orchestrated by opponents – both Jewish and non-Jewish – in a bid to hinder the growth of Hassidism and handicap the influence of its leaders. Investigations often focused on religious activity whose criminality was dubious.
Thus, for example, Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhyn (1796-1850) was subject to investigation and imprisonment beginning in September 1836 on suspicion of sedition against the czar. On February 19, 1840 – Shushan Purim – he was unexpectedly released. Yisrael hastily fled Russian jurisdiction, crossing into Austrian-controlled Galicia.
Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Alter of Ger (1799-1866, author of Hiddushei Harim) was one of the hassidic masters who had to contend with “clothing decrees” – legislation requiring Jews to change their attire. According to Gerrer collective memory, the hassidic master was imprisoned for his vehement opposition to the legislation.
(Scholars have doubted the veracity of this narrative, suggesting that the Gerrer Rebbe’s response to the clothing decrees was typified by restrained protest and selective accommodation.)
A hassidic tale relates that Rabbi Arye Leib of Shpola (1724-1811) – known as the Shpoler Zeide, the grandfather from Shpola – voluntarily imprisoned himself! A Jew who was unable to pay his rent was arrested, dressed in a bear suit and made to dance against a Cossack. The dance contest was simple: the last one standing would win. Alas, the prize was lopsided: If the Jew in a bear suit won, he would be set free; if the Cossack won, the Jew would be whipped to death. No one thought the Jew had a chance of victory. Under the cover of darkness, the Shpoler Zeide stole into the prison and swapped places with the poor Jew. That night, Elijah visited the Shpoler Zeide in jail and taught him how to dance. The next day, the Shpoler Zeide outdanced the Cossack and gained his freedom.
WHILE VARIOUS hassidic masters were imprisoned, there is one hassidic group for whom jail time almost seems to be part of their identity: Chabad-Lubavitch.
The founder of the dynasty, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady (ca. 1745-1812) was arrested twice. In 1798 he was arrested on suspicion of treason and brought to St. Petersburg, where he was held for 53 days. Following a serious investigation, Shneur Zalman was acquitted and released. The Hebrew date of his release – 19 Kislev – was enshrined in the Chabad calendar and later dubbed “Rosh Hashanah lehassidut,” the Hassidic New Year.
A few years later, in 1800, Shneur Zalman was arrested again. He was released a few weeks later, but initially he was forbidden from leaving St. Petersburg. Eventually, he was granted freedom, but instead of returning to Liozna he moved to Liady.
Shneur Zalman’s oldest son and primary successor, Rabbi Dov Ber Shneuri (1773-1827), was under criminal investigation beginning in the summer of 1825. The charges against Dov Ber focused on embezzlement of moneys he had collected. He was incarcerated for a short period in the winter of 1825. The investigation continued after his release, with the final decision exonerating him handed down in December 1827 – less than two weeks after he died.
According to Lubavitch tradition, Dov Ber’s son-in-law and successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1789-1866, author of Tzemah Tzedek), was arrested in 1843. That year a rabbinic gathering was convened in St. Petersburg by the Russian government. Inter alia, the convocation dealt with the reform of Jewish education. The Tzemah Tzedek was an outspoken opponent of any change, and Lubavitch tradition notes that he was arrested 22 times during the conference!
The following two Lubavitch hassidic masters bucked the trend of their forebears. The Tzemah Tzedek’s youngest son, Rabbi Shmuel (“Maharash,” 1834-1882), and his second son, Rabbi Shalom DovBer (“Rashab,” 1860-1920) did not do jail time.
Rashab was succeeded by his only child, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn (“Rayatz,” 1880-1950), the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe. Rayatz was hounded by Yevsektsiya, the Jewish section of the Soviet Communist Party. On June 15, 1927, he was arrested for “counterrevolutionary activities,” making him the fourth hassidic master in the dynasty to be incarcerated.
Rayatz actively promoted and furthered Jewish education in Communist Russia, in defiance of state directives. Initially, he was sentenced to death, before his sentenced was commuted to years of exile. Soon after Rayatz’s arrest, on July 12, 1927 – which happened to be his Hebrew birthday – he was notified that he would be released, and on the next day he gained his freedom. The corresponding Hebrew dates – 12-13 Tamuz – were marked as festive days on the annual Lubavitch calendar.
THE LAST Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (“Ramash,” 1902-1994), was fortunate never to have served time. While Ramash was never subject to criminal investigation and he never stood trial, he had a proxy in the courtroom. In the late 1980s the ownership of his predecessor’s library was adjudicated in United States courtrooms. Opening arguments for the case began on December 2, 1985 – 19 Kislev on the Hebrew calendar – a fortuitous link to the past and an omen that portended success.
After lengthy court proceedings, Ramash’s side won the case, as the court ruled that the books belonged to the Lubavitch organization. The corresponding Hebrew date of the court decision – 5 Tevet – was designated by the phrase didan notzah, our side was victorious, and has since been celebrated by Lubavitcher Hassidim as hag hasfarim, the festival of books.

The writer, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah, is on the faculty of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a postdoctoral fellow with the Galicia project at the University of Haifa.