Shneʾur Zalman of Lyady

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SHNEʾUR ZALMAN OF LYADY (17451813) was the founder of the Habad school of Hasidism. Born into a prominent Jewish family in Liozno, Belorussia, Shneʾur Zalman had an extensive rabbinic education before he became associated with the Hasidic movement. At the age of twenty he joined the circle of students around Dov Ber of Mezhirich (Mie̹dzyrzecz, Poland) and was immediately recognized as a person of unusual intellectual abilities. Dov Ber encouraged him to continue with his legal studies as well as to cultivate his developing mastery of the Zohar and the Lurianic mystical writings. Legend has it that he was the teacher of Dov Ber's son, Avraham "the Angel" (1739/401777), in exoteric matters while the latter initiated him into the secrets of Qabbalah. Shneʾur Zalman's profound legal knowledge is reflected in the Shulhan ʾarukh shel ha-Rav (1814), an updating of the code of Jewish law.

As the major theoretician of the Hasidic movement, Shneʾur Zalman is author of a number of works that are classics of the movement's thought. His popular Liqquei Amarim (Tanyaʾ ), published anonymously in 1797, is the most important systematic theological treatise that Hasidism produced. His collected homilies (Torah Or, 1836; Liqquei Torah, 1848) detail the system first laid out in that work, deftly reinterpreting the entire prior corpus of qabbalistic writings.

Shneʾur Zalman was also an important political figure in the spreading Hasidic "empire." After the emigration of Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk, the leading Hasidic figure in Belorussia, to the Holy Land in 1777, Shneʾur Zalman became, de facto, the leader of Hasidism in that area. This authority was formally recognized in 1788 when he was appointed leader of kolel Reisin, the institution responsible for that district's support of the Hasidic efforts in the Land of Israel.

As leader in the district closest to the anti-Hasidic stronghold of Lithuania, Shneʾur Zalman undeservedly bore the brunt of the sharp anti-Hasidic polemics of the 1780s and 1790s. A moderate who certainly believed in Torah study, respect for sages, and other matters that concerned the mitnaggedim ("opponents" of Hasidism), his efforts at peacemaking between the warring camps ended in failure. In 1798 he was arrested and imprisoned in Saint Petersburg, after leaders of the mitnaggedim, including the rabbi of Pinsk, accused him of disloyalty to the tsar and of leading a dissenting sect. He was released on the nineteenth of the Jewish month of Kislev in that year, a day still celebrated by Habad asidim as a festival. Imprisoned again in 1801, it seems likely that his notoriety in the eyes of the Russian authorities increased his popularity as a leader among the asidim.

After settling in Lyady in 1801, Shneʾur Zalman was established as a major figure in the Hasidic world. His distinctive personal style, combining rigorous intellectuality and a detached, self-negating mysticism, cast its stamp on the religious life of his disciples and made Habad a unique subculture within Hasidism. He devoted himself fully to the education of these disciples, and Lyady became the major center of study in the Hasidic world.

Shneʾur Zalman left two disciples who continued to develop a mystical theology along the lines of his thought. These were his son Dov Ber of Lubavitch (17731827), who became the leader of the Habad community upon his father's death, and Aharon Horwitz of Starosielce (17661828), a profound scholar whose previously little known work has recently been the object of much scholarly interest.

See Also

Hasidism, article on Habad Hasidism.


A biography of the traditional hagiographic type in English is that by Nissan Mindel, Rabbi Schneur Zalman (New York, 1969), based largely on Hayyim Meir Heilman's Bet Rabbi (1900; reprint, Jerusalem, 1965). Greater historical awareness is shown in Mordecai Teitelbaum's Ha-rav mi-Liadi u-mifleget aBaD (1910; reprint, Jerusalem, 1970).

New Sources

Foxbrunner, Roman A. Habad: The Hasidism of R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady. Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1992.

Schachter-Shalomi, Zalman. Wrapped in a Holy Flame: Teachings and Tales of the Hasidic Masters. Edited by Nataniel M. Miles-Yepez. San Francisco, 2003.

Steinsaltz, Adin. Opening the Tanya: Discovering the Moral and Mystical Teachings of a Classic Work of Kabbalah. Edited by Meir Hanegbi. Translated by Yaacov Tauber. San Francisco, 2003.

Arthur Green (1987)

Revised Bibliography