The tisch: Schneerson or Schneersohn: What’s in a name?

LUBAVITCHERS CELEBRATE Lag Ba’omer with a parade in front of Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York, in 1987. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
LUBAVITCHERS CELEBRATE Lag Ba’omer with a parade in front of Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York, in 1987.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Chaya Mushka Schneersohn was born in 1901 in Babinovitchy near Lubavitch. She was the second daughter of Nechama Dina (1881-1971) and Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (Rayatz, 1880-1950). At the time, Rayatz’s father – Rabbi Sholom Dovber (Rashab, 1860-1920) – was the presiding Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Rashab was abroad when his second granddaughter was born, but he telegraphed his only son with well-wishes and with a suggestion: If the newborn had yet to receive her name, she should be called after her ancestor Chaya Mushka (d. 1861), the wife of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn of Lubavitch (1789-1866) – more commonly known by the title of his scholarly works, Tzemach Tzedek.
Nechama Dina and Rayatz were second cousins – they were both great-grandchildren of Chaya Mushka and the Tzemach Tzedek. When she married in 1897, Nechama Dina did not change her surname – indeed, she did not need to, since she was already a Schneersohn! Thus young Chaya Mushka Schneersohn – or Moussia, as she was known – was the great-great-granddaughter of her namesake from both sides.
In 1928, at the age of 27, Moussia married Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Ramash, 1902-1994) – her third cousin once removed. Ramash would go on to achieve worldwide fame as the charismatic leader of Lubavitch, after his father-in-law, Rayatz, died. Ramash was also a descendant of the Tzemach Tzedek: he was his great-great-great-grandson and had been named “Menachem Mendel” after this illustrious ancestor. Thus, when Chaya Mushka (that is, Moussia) wed Menachem Mendel (that is, Ramash), this was the second time these exact names had appeared on a wedding invitation.
Unlike her mother, Moussia did adopt her new husband’s surname, though the change was almost imperceptible. By a quirk of orthography, Ramash spelled his surname “Schneerson,” without an h, while his father-in-law’s family used “Schneersohn,” with an h.
Had Moussia opted for a double-barreled surname after her marriage, she might have been known as Moussia Schneersohn-Schneerson, or perhaps Schneerson-Schneersohn!
Is there a distinction between Schneersohn and Schneerson? The truth is that it is hard to find significance in the seemingly trivial orthographic difference. Many people who are interested in the teachings, activism or biographies of these two charismatic leaders of the 20th century may not have even noticed the extra or missing grapheme in the surname of the Lubavitch hassidic master. Surely the legacy of Rayatz, which was continued, furthered and developed by Ramash, towers above a single letter in a surname. Moreover, surviving documents demonstrate that the spelling was not religiously enforced. Notwithstanding its seeming insignificance, the orthographic quirk may lead to a surprising thought.
In the 1980s, Lubavitch Hassidism was at the center of a contentious court case that was adjudicated in the United State federal courts. At the heart of the dispute was the proprietorship of an impressive Judaica library. The collection had been amassed by Rayatz, but the legal question focused on its ownership: Had the collection been Rayatz’s private property, or did the books belong to the organization headed by Rayatz? The practical significance of the historical question was the rights to the library after Rayatz had died: Did the library belong to Rayatz’s heirs, who were then free to sell the volumes, if they so wished? Or did the library remain the property of the Lubavitch organization?
The case came before Judge Charles Proctor Sifton (1935-2009) of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. After lengthy proceedings where expert witnesses were called, Sifton ruled that the library belonged to the Lubavitch organization. As such, Rayatz’s descendants could lay no personal inheritance claims. The ruling was upheld on appeal.
The court decision was a tremendous boon for the Lubavitch Hassidic community, which rejoiced the victory with boisterous celebrations. Alas, the matter was not entirely closed. Parts of the original collection had never reached the shores of America. Books, manuscripts, and photographs remained in Moscow, held by the V. I. Lenin State Library of the USSR and at the military archives.
With the collection behind the Iron Curtain, there was not much that could be done. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Lubavitch activists have ardently tried to force Russia to hand over the books. To date, they have been unsuccessful.
In an act of compromise, Russian authorities decided that while the books would be retained in Moscow, they were transferred from the Russian State Library to the new Jewish Museum & Tolerance Center, which opened its doors in 2012. In addition, the books were digitized, making them accessible to everyone around the world.
Returning to surname trivia: The Russian holdings are known as the “Schneerson Collection” or “Schneerson Library.” Contrary to the decision of the United States courts, the moniker used for the holdings suggests that the books do not belong to the Lubavitch organization. Rather, the books are private property... or at least they were before Bolshevik nationalization. But by dropping the h from Rayatz’s surname, it looks like the collection belonged to Ramash. Not only is this historically incongruous, but Ramash was the very voice behind the claim that the library was not private property but belonged to Lubavitch!
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.