Here are 8 facts about this holiday and its meaning:
- Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi a.k.a. the Elder Admor or the Baal Hatanya was the founder of the Chabad Hassidut and its first Admor (Leader). He learned in the Bet Midrash of the Maggid of Mezritch who was the successor of the Baal Shem Tov who founded the Hassidic movement.
- This day is a holiday for on this day the Baal Hatanya was freed from Russian prison in 1798 (5558). Since the Baal Hatanya would raise funds to strengthen the Jewish presence in the holy land slanderers came out and said the was providing funds to the Turks (who controlled the Holy Land at the time) who were Russia’s enemies. The slanderers added more and more false claims to make sure Rabbi Shneur Zalman would be put out of business along with the Hassidic movement and the Rabbi was incarcerated.
The prison was a fearful compound called the Petrobelovsky Fortress and the rabbi was interrogated for hours upon hours. These interrogations also included explaining the nuances and the depth of the Hassidic movement’s teachings and try to make it understandable to the coarse prison wardens and interrogators.
- Ironically, these interrogations were a catalyst for his freedom. The Rabbi deeply impressed his interrogators to the point they knew they had a man of profound wisdom among them and sought to seek out his advice. They sent senior government officials to visit him in his cell; they had deep discussions with him and were duly impressed with his breath of knowledge and his personality.
- The rabbi was released on the 19th of Kislev when it was time for the afternoon prayers after spending 53 days in prison. This corresponds to the 53 chapters in his book “The Tanya”.
- When he was freed he wrote a letter opening with the words: “I am smaller than all the kindnesses”. In this letter he teaches his Hasidim to shrink themselves away from those that oppose the Hassidim just as he did in prison with his captors and those opposing him.
- When in prison the rabbi said: “Whoever is happy with my happiness. I will take him out of narrow straits to the wide open space.” This is why Chabad Hassidim gather to discuss the story of his imprisonment and release to arouse and strengthen the hearts of the Hassidim with words of Hassidut and character development.
- Rabbi Shalom Duber of Lubavitch in one of his letters calls the 19th of Kislev “The Rosh Hashanah of Hassidut”. He explains that as Rosh Hashanah decides the abundance to be poured into the entire year, so too on the 19th of Kislev the light and abundance of the internal Torah is poured out for the entire year. Hassidim sanctify themselves on this day and learn about the final redemption and the coming of the Messiah.
- It is told that after the Rabbi’s release, Hassidim approached him and asked him to write a “Megillah of the 19th of Kislev” to commemorate the Rabbi’s incarceration and release. The Rabbi didn’t want this but said this day should be celebrated as a holiday annually where the name of G-d would be elevated and thousands of souls would be aroused to repentance and proper service of G-d, for what is engraved on the ‘heart of Israel on high’ is written on the heart of Israel in this world below.
The rabbi’s statement was like a vision of the future of this sublime day which indeed was established as a holiday of the redemption where Hassidim gather and accept resolutions to improve upon themselves.