Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Schneersohn, The Fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch
The Lubavitch movement has always shown interest in intense public work for Klal Israel. Its Rebbes have never enclosed themselves in the four cubits of Halachah, but rather have come into contact with the Torah greats of every generation. The fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Schneersohn, was particularly active. He expanded the work being done for the community and adapted to the conditions of the times and the needs of the hour. He approached the Gaon of the generation, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, and maintained a correspondence with Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Chaim Ozer of Vilna, and other leading Torah figures.
The Rebbe also took an active role in the general assembly of Rabbis in Russia, of which he was the living spirit and moving force. He placed great importance on work done for Klal Israel, and little by little he became one of the great leaders of Jewry.
He was also the first Rebbe to found a yeshiva that followed the teaching methods of Lithuanian yeshivot. In Lubavitch yeshivot, the Talmud and the Poskim were studied just like in their Lithuanian counterparts, all while devoting several hours each day to the study of Chassidus.
Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber was born to Rabbi Shemuel, the fourth Rebbe of Lubavitch, on Heshvan 20, 5621 (1860). His father loved him greatly, stating that he was holy from his mother’s womb. After the death of his father, the position of Rebbe remained vacant for a long time, since Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber was the youngest of his brothers and did not want to take his father’s place. However his older brother did not want the position either, for he believed that Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber was worthier of the position than he. In the end, the most elderly Chassidim fervently insisted that he take the position, and thus he was appointed as the fifth leader in the dynasty of Chassidim of Chabad (an acronym formed by the words Chochma, Binah, Da’at and adopted by Lubavitch Chassidim).
He undertook this task at the young age of 29. At first he enclosed himself at home to study Torah from nine in the morning until nine at night, studying solely the Gemara and the Poskim. Then, beginning from very late at night, he would study and write on Chassidus. He very rarely showed himself in public, and even guests to his home only saw him when he spoke of Torah. It was only at three times of the year (Simcha Torah, Purim, and the 19th of Kislev) that he participated in a communal meal (Rabbi Moshe Dov Rivkin, Ashkavta DeRebbe).
The Rebbe, whose heart was touched by all the tragedies of the Jewish people, and who by nature was very kind, could not remain secluded in his tent of Torah study forever. Thus little by little he began to involve himself in the matters of the community. Over the course of time, his house in the town of Lubavitch became the central address for all matters affecting the public.
Rabbi Shalom Dov founded his first yeshiva, named Tomchei Temimim, in the town of Lubavitch. Not long afterwards it grew so large that it comprised 400 students. The Rebbe knew each of them personally and helped those who had graduated from the yeshiva to find jobs as Rabbis or Roshei Yeshiva. In fact, over the course of time great scholars emerged from there and came to occupy important positions in the Jewish world. Other than this great yeshiva, he founded smaller yeshivot in various towns, all of which carried the name Tomchei Temimim. Every week, the students in the yeshiva edited a booklet written in Hebrew that contained in-depth articles, stories, poems, and everyday conversations of Talmidei Chachamim. The aim of this booklet was to spread the fear of Heaven to its young readers and to instill in their hearts confidence in the Tzaddikim.
When the First World War erupted, the Rebbe went to settle in Rostov, when he also brought his yeshiva. It was then that he heard that there were many G-d fearing Jews in Georgia (Russia) who were, nevertheless, quite weak in Torah. Without thinking it over long, the Rebbe sent his disciple Rabbi Shemuel Levitan to establish chederim and yeshivot there. The attempt proved successful, and from these yeshivot a great many students emerged who would remain in Georgia to become rabbis, shochatim, and sofrim.
The Rebbe also achieved a great accomplishment at that time. The Russians wanted to draft rabbis into military service, and so a great assembly was organized in St. Petersburg in order to find a way to free them. After an exhausting period of work lasting several months, they in fact managed to obtain military exemptions for rabbis, but only on condition that they were actually working as such. Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber could not stand by and silently witness the grief of the Talmidei Chachamim who possessed Semichah, yet were not officially employed as rabbis. He therefore wrote to all towns and villages asking them to send him rabbinical contracts, and because of the Rebbe all the Talmidei Chachamim of the time were freed from military service. (For more information on the subject, refer to Ishim Ve’Shitot by Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin. In particular, there is a remark at the beginning of the book stating that Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik opposed the Rebbe’s plan).
Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber did not live a very long time. The terrible massacres that occurred in the Ukraine in 1918, coupled with the religious persecution of Jews by the Bolsheviks, had a terrible affect on his health.
Rabbi Moshe Dov Rivkin, the Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaath, was one of his closest disciples. He witnessed the passing of his great Rav firsthand, and he recorded his final moments in his book Ashkavta DeRebbe.
The Rebbe felt that his days were numbered. He also perceived that it was a crucial hour for the Jewish people, and he foresaw the great danger stemming from the communist government that threatened Jews. This is why he used the last moments of his life to push his Chassidim to never lose hope, and to accept evil with a strong soul and steel fortitude. In all the conversations that he had with his students, he commanded them to sanctify life, life for evermore.
After Purim, which he lived through with great joy, the Rebbe fell ill with typhus and did not recover. On 2 Nissan 5680 (1920), he closed his eyes for the last time and rendered his soul to his Creator. He was 59 years old. The Rebbe was buried in the town of Rostov-on-Don. In his last will he ordered his son Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak to succeed him, and he continued his father’s work to spread the Torah among the Jewish people.