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Wednesday, January 17, 2007



This past Motzaei Shabbos and Sunday, the 24th of Teves, was the 194th yahrzeit of Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Rav Baal HaTanya, talmid of the Maggid of Mezritch and founder of Chabad Chassidus. He is best known for his sefer “Tanya,” the fundamental source of Chabad Chassidus.

We posted twice on his yahrzeit last year: THE Baal HaTanya's YAHRZEIT - THE MASTER OF SONG and Quill of the Soul: Negina of the "Alter Rebbe" of Chabad. Please be sure to read up on them again.

This year, I’d like to present a fascinating account of the Baal HaTanya’s adventures with Napoleon, including the origin of the Chabad-adapted niggun, “Napoleon’s March.” The following is an edited version from various sources that I found on the Web. However, the main source I had found a number of years ago and was unable to relocate it – perhaps it has been taken down. It appears to be from this book: A Day to Recall, A Day to Remember by Sholom DovBer Avtzon. The article has extensive footnotes, some of which I have integrated into the story below. My other sources were Is Judaism a Theocracy? by Yanki Tauber; The Passing of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi; and Bonaparte and the Chassid.

So without further ado, on to our story.


There was no more time to lose. Anticipating Napoleon's evil designs to attack and conquer Russia, the Rav Baal HaTanya, (the Alter Rebbe) instructed his family to be ready to flee at a moment's notice. He emphasized this by saying: "I prefer death than to live under his rule. I don't want to be a witness to the calamity that will befall my nation."
The Alter Rebbe said, "Napoleon is a very powerful evil force [klipa], and I fear that I will have to have mesiras nefesh (sacrifice my soul) in order to humble him." What did Napoleon represent, and why did the Alter Rebbe loathe him to such an extent? In every country Napoleon conquered, he introduced the (French) Declaration of the Rights of Man, which abolished serfdom and guaranteed religious tolerance. Understandably, oppressed people everywhere considered him a liberator, and many openly assisted him in overthrowing their rulers.
Many of the extremely oppressed Jews at that time were also taken in by Napoleon. Until then, they'd been restricted from engaging in many occupations; they had to pay a special Jewish tax and were forced to live in ghettos. Napoleon promised to change all that. So they, too, assisted Napoleon and were of great help to him in his conquest of Poland.
Once Napoleon captured most of Europe, he set out to conquer Russia as well. On Tisha B'Av 5572 (1812), he invaded Russia, expecting to receive assistance from the Jews there. The Alter Rebbe marshaled his Chassidim against Napoleon. Why? Because the Alter Rebbe believed that even though Napoleon was good to the Jews (that is, he gave them equal rights and abolished the tax on Jews), and under his regime, the financial and political situation of the Jews would (probably) improve; the Alter Rebbe also foresaw that the spiritual level of the Jewish community would be greatly harmed were Napoleon to gain control over Russia. He expressed it thus: “This is what Heaven showed me during Musaf on the first day of Rosh Hashana. If [Napoleon] Bonaparte is victorious, then the power of the Jews will be elevated, and they will have plenty of riches. However, their hearts will become separated and alienated from their Father in Heaven.”
The Alter Rebbe also said that when the Czar won, he would definitely remember everything the Jews did to help him win the war. Not only would he rescind some of the harsh and harmful decrees that had been set forth against the Jews, but he would also help to improve their situation. This actually came to pass: The Rebbe's contribution to Russia's victory was recognized by the Czar, who awarded Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s descendents the status of "an honorable citizen for all generations." Shortly afterwards, the Mittler Rebbe [his son] received from the government some tracts of land in the Cherson province to establish Jewish settlements. Subsequently, five generations of Chabad Rebbes were to make use of this special standing in their work on behalf of the Jews of Russia.
Thus, the Alter Rebbe prayed constantly for Napoleon's downfall. But there were also rabbis and Chassidic Rebbes who eagerly awaited liberation by Napoleon’s armies. No longer would the Jewish people be locked into ghettos and deprived of their means of earning a livelihood; no longer would the state be allied with a religion hostile to the Jewish faith. Liberated from the persecution and poverty that had characterized Jewish life on European soil for a dozen centuries, the Jewish people would be free to deepen and intensify their bond with G-d in ways previously unimaginable. Indeed, there were those--such as the Chassidic masters Rebbe Shlomo of Karlin; Rebbe Yisrael, the Maggid of Kozhnitz; Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev; and Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Riminov--who believed that a French victory would ready the world for the coming of Moshiach and the final redemption.
Since these tzaddikim disagreed about who should win, Chassidim relate that the Heavenly court decreed that whoever would blow the shofar first on Rosh Hashana, his opinion would prevail. The contest was between Rebbe Schneur Zalman and the Maggid of Kozhnitz, and it would decide the outcome of Napoleon’s war against Russia. According to Kabbalistic tradition, the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashana effects G-d’s coronation as King of the Universe and the Divine involvement in human affairs for the coming year; each of these two Rebbes therefore endeavored to be the first to sound the shofar in the fateful year of 5573 (1812-1813) and thereby influence the outcome of the war. The Maggid of Kozhnitz arose well before dawn, immersed in the mikveh, began his prayers at the earliest permissible hour, prayed speedily, and sounded the shofar; but Rebbe Schneur Zalman departed from common practice and sounded the shofar at the crack of dawn, before the morning prayers. "The Litvak (Lithuanian, as Rebbe Schneur Zalman was affectionately called by his colleagues) has bested us," said Rebbe Yisrael of Kozhnitz to his disciples.
In addition, the Baal HaTanya sent letters to many Jewish communities, urging them to aid the Russian army in every way possible; encouraging them not to be dejected or pay attention to the victories of Napoleon, as they were only temporary. The final and complete victory would be the Czar's. Secretly, he even instructed his Chassidim to spy against Napoleon's army. His youngest son, Reb Moshe, who was fluent in French, also heeded this call. He moved to the city of Dasvia, where the French army headquarters were located. There, he offered his services to the French high command. They eagerly accepted Reb Moshe, who assisted them by making maps of the routes that the French army should take, and translating all the information that the local villagers gave in their native tongue of Russian, Latvian or Polish. In no time, Reb Moshe gained the French generals' trust.
His task was made all that much easier because the area in which the French army found itself fighting was made up of former Polish provinces. Naturally, the French assumed that the Jews living there would regard them as liberators as the Polish Jews had, and would similarly come to their aid, as indeed, some Jews did. Never did they suspect that the Jews in this area would be disloyal. Although Napoleon was well aware of the Alter Rebbe's tremendous opposition to him, he did not realize the amount of effort the Alter Rebbe expended to ensure his downfall, and to what extent was his influence. Acting as a spy, Reb Moshe was able to pass all his military information to the proper Russian army channels.
The Alter Rebbe wanted nothing less than a total collapse of Napoleon's power. The Mittler Rebbe noted in a letter, "My father's wishes will be complete when [Napoleon's] own countrymen rise up against him." (Indeed, shortly after returning to his own country from his shameful defeat, Napoleon was banished from France).
In the Rav’s eyes, the French leader was the greatest threat to the heart and soul of Judaism. Napoleon's arrogance and free spirit were a denial of the Torah's holy principles of life. Behind his abolishing the restrictions that existed was a veil hiding his true intentions. All Napoleon wanted to accomplish with his revolution, insisted the Alter Rebbe, was a refusal to accept any authority, including belief in G-d's rule. This in turn would weaken one's religious adherence. For this reason, the Alter Rebbe refused to live in Napoleon’s conquered domain for even a short period of time. When he heard that the French army was rapidly approaching, he reluctantly fled Liadi, even though the constant traveling was not good for his health.

When the Alter Rebbe heard the marching song of Napoleon's army, he said it was a (song and a) march of victory. He then decided that the song should be used in one's service to Hashem. [On Yom Kippur, before the shofar is blown (at the end of Tefillas Neila), it is customary in Lubavitch to sing Napoleon's March.] We should note that the Alter Rebbe took away from Napoleon his victory march, elevating it for one's service to Hashem, while Napoleon, as related below, was unsuccessful in his tireless attempts to obtain something of the Alter Rebbe's.
You can listen to Napoleon’s March here; or watch a video here.

Our story continues:
With the assistance of the Russian army, the Rebbe and his entire family began their flight, loaded on four wagons, on Erev Shabbos, 22 Av, 5572 (1812). Before leaving, he instructed the townspeople to help themselves to his furniture and utensils and to make sure to remove everything that was in his house. After traveling approximately two miles, the Alter Rebbe asked the commander for a fast carriage and horses. Together with two attendants, he returned to Liadi and instructed them to search the house for anything that might have been left behind. After a thorough search, they found a pair of worn-out slippers, a sieve, and a rolling pin in the attic. Not wanting Napoleon to obtain any memorabilia from him, the Alter Rebbe took these objects with him. Chassidim insist that the Alter Rebbe thought that Napoleon was a sorcerer, and if he would have gotten hold of anything that belonged to the Alter Rebbe, he would have used it to guarantee his victory (or in the least, to mitigate against the Alter Rebbe's ability to oppose him). Then he told his attendants to set fire to the house, and they left.
This was not a second too early, as immediately afterwards, Napoleon's soldiers entered the city from the opposite direction. Despite their utmost efforts, they were unsuccessful in putting out the fire. All that was left of the Rebbe's house were smoldering ashes. In Napoleon's name, the French soldiers proclaimed that anyone who would give them something that had belonged to the Alter Rebbe would be richly rewarded with gold coins. Obeying the Alter Rebbe's wishes, no one gave them anything. In their anger, the French soldiers burned down the shul that was adjacent to the Alter Rebbe's former house. The Alter Rebbe had foreseen this, and before leaving had instructed the townspeople of Liadi to remove everything from the shul before Napoleon's arrival there.
In the meantime, the Alter Rebbe rejoined his family and the Chassidim, and they continued their flight from the French army. Half an hour before Shabbos, they managed to reach a safe haven, and they remained there in the village until Motzaei Shabbos. Promptly, he continued his flight, hoping to reach a Jewish community in the province of Poltava before Rosh Hashana.
The rapid advance of Napoleon's army made it virtually impossible for the Alter Rebbe and his entourage to rest, and he was forced to be constantly on the run. Some cities were captured by the French barely a few hours after the Alter Rebbe had left them. In one instance, he told his son, HaRav Dov Ber (the Mittler Rebbe), that they should continue their flight on Shabbos as it was a question of pikuach nefesh [survival]. Unfortunately, the entourage made a wrong turn, which put them dangerously off schedule in addition to having to travel an extra distance in the freezing weather.
The Mittler Rebbe wrote: "On Erev Rosh Hashana, my father, the [Alter] Rebbe, confided to me: 'I am extremely pained and worried about the battle of Mazaisk [in history books it is referred to as the battle of Borodino], since the enemy is becoming stronger and I believe he [Napoleon] is also going to conquer Moscow.' He then wept bitterly, with tears streaming down his face.
"On Rosh Hashana, my father again called me to him and happily told me the sweet and comforting news: 'Today, during my prayers, I had a vision that the tide has changed for the better and our side will win. Although Napoleon will capture Moscow, he will eventually lose the war. This is what was written in Heaven today.'" On that day, the battle of Borodino began. It was the first time that the Russian Army openly engaged the French in a battle, and they inflicted great losses upon them. We should note that the battle began in the early morning, at approximately the time that the Alter Rebbe blew his shofar.
The Mittler Rebbe continued: "That day we ate and drank in joy and happiness, in good spirit - rejoicing with gladness of heart. Two days before Yom Kippur, Moscow was captured by Napoleon's army, but two months later, on the 15th of Kislev, it was driven back, and this was the beginning of Napoleon's rapid downfall." With the rout of Napoleon's army, the Alter Rebbe could proceed in a more relaxed and orderly manner on his journey. On Friday, the 8th of Teves, he and his entourage arrived in the city of Piena. This was one of the few non-Jewish cities or villages that welcomed them hospitably (even to the extent of offering free lodging and firewood).
As soon as he arrived in Piena, he began immediately to organize a relief campaign for all Jews who were affected by the war. He sent his oldest son (and successor, the Mittler Rebbe) HaRav Dov Ber to arrange housing for the refugees of the war. HaRav Chaim Avraham (his second son) was sent to nearby provinces to raise the necessary funds to help rebuild the many communities ravaged by Napoleon's army. Reb Pinchas Schick, a Chassid and extremely accomplished businessman, went to Vitebsk to coordinate the effort and find the most practical solutions of finding some means of livelihood for the refugees.
The Mittler Rebbe noted that, in one of the greatest acts of mesiras nefesh, the Alter Rebbe put his own life in mortal danger to do his part to defeat the evil ways of Napoleon. Indeed, the Alter Rebbe's ill-fated prophecy came to be, for the humbled last remnants of Napoleon’s army retreated out of Russia that Motzaei Shabbos at the time of the Alter Rebbe's histalkus [passing]. In a letter, the Mittler Rebbe writes, "Napoleon's total defeat will be when his own countrymen rise against him." That happened a year later.
Shortly before his histalkus, the Alter Rebbe said: "Anyone who will hold onto my klaymkeh [door handle], I will do him a favor [in return] in this world and the next one." The Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek offered eight explanations for this statement. One of them is: "My door handle [or my ways] does not merely mean learning Chassidus. For the Alter Rebbe, through mesiras nefesh, instilled in Chassidim the practice of Ahavas Yisrael" - and Chassidim should live with it.

Rebbe Schneur Zalman’s fears were borne out by the events of the next two centuries. When emancipation did come to European Jewry, it came as a gradual process, and the traditional Judaism had by then developed an array of intellectual and moral responses (most notably, the Chassidic and Mussar movements). Still, the spiritual toll of freedom was high: traditional Jewish life was all but wiped out in France and Germany by the upheavals spearheaded by the French Revolution, and while it persevered in Eastern Europe until the eve of the Holocaust, many fell prey to the winds of anti-religious "enlightenment" blowing from the west. We can only imagine what the toll might have been had Napoleon conquered the continent in the early years of the nineteenth century.

Shortly before his passing (by one account, "after Havdala, several minutes before giving up his soul in purity to G-d") the Rebbe penned a short discourse titled, "The Humble Soul."
"For the truly humble soul," Rabbi Schneur Zalman wrote, "its mission in life lies in the pragmatic aspect of Torah, both in studying it for himself and explaining it to others, and in doing acts of material kindness in lending an empathizing mind and counsel from afar regarding household concerns, though the majority, if not all, of these concern things of falsehood.... For although the Divine attribute of Truth argued that man should not be created, since he is full of lies, the Divine attribute of Kindness argued that he should be created, for he is full of kindnesses... And the world is built upon kindness."

Zechuso Yagein Aleinu v'al Kol Yisrael - May his merits protect us all!


A truly enlightening post. Thanks.
correction - 194 years ago
CX - Thanks for stopping by & taking the time to read it!
Anon - There's contradictory dates given on the Chabad website, some articles have 1812, others 1813. However, 1813 makes more sense to me, as the Rosh Hashana mentioned in the article was 5573, and 24 Teves usually [if not always] falls in January. So I've corrected it.
EVERYONE - check out this link of this year's trip to: Haditz [where the Baal HaTanya is buried] & other kivrei Tzaddikim.
very good! i have your blog in RSS feeds.
if possible, can you provide where this particular part is from, where Mitteler Rebbe writes it?
"The Mittler Rebbe wrote: "On Erev Rosh Hashana, my father, the [Alter] Rebbe, confided to me: 'I am extremely pained and worried about the battle of Mazaisk [in history books it is referred to as the battle of Borodino], since the enemy is becoming stronger and I believe he [Napoleon] is also going to conquer Moscow.'"
Phoenix Mom - Thanks for stopping by. The footnote says it was a letter to R. Moshe Meisels. "This letter is printed in Sefer HaToldos of the Alter Rebbe, pp. 1031-41."
great post
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Curious - Outside of Chabad sources, is Napoleon's March recorded elsewhere?
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