Sunday 13 May 2018


R. Moshe's handwritten transcript of his father, R. Shneur Zalman's talk in 1803. The additions are from the Tzemach Tzedek.

What follows is a story few know; less will tell, and many will deny – but it must be told because, in one way or another, it was and is not an isolated incident:[1]


In one of the saddest episodes in Chassidic history, Moshe, the youngest son of the first Rebbe of Chabad – R. Shneur Zalman the famed Alter Rebbe or Baal haTanya (1745-1812) - allegedly converted to Christianity in 1820.

In the interests of full disclosure, Professor David Assaf (from whom I draw extensively in this article) writes: 
The partial and contradictory nature of the data, coupled with the blurring of their traces in Hasidic historiography, make it difficult to track the story of Moshe’s apostasy...But even if the full picture eludes us, there is still at our disposal sufficient information to outline this episode’s main strata...”


R. Moshe lived somewhere between 1784 and 1853. He had two older brothers (one was R. Dov Ber who became the Second or Mitteler Rebbe) and three older sisters (one was Devora Leah who became the mother of the Third Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek).

Moshe appears to have enjoyed the special fondness of his father. He was known for his ability to remember details and he was tasked with the duty of repeating his father’s talks to the Chassidim who had not been able to be present at the gatherings.

In 1797, he married Shifra from the nearby town of Ule. We also know that a week before his wedding “the wondrous youth, our teacher Moshe[2] became a member of Liozna Chevra Kaddisha.
Sometime later, R. Moshe was appointed as a communal rabbi.


Just before the time of the Napoleonic invasion, R. Moshe’s father - R. Shneur Zalman - fled Liadi and enjoyed the protection of the Russian army in their retreat with a ‘sixty wagon caravan’. In that same year, 1812, R. Shneur Zalman died and was buried in Hadyach. 

For some reason, his son Moshe did not join him on his journey despite attempts of messengers to encourage him to join his family.

Later he did try to flee but was arrested by the French army in Shklov, accused of spying and sentenced to death. He was, however, pardoned and released when the captors realized that R. Moshe was emotionally unwell.[3]


According to archival sources, Moshe appears to have been recognised as suffering from mental illness at eight years old. A doctor who examined Moshe in 1820 said he had treated him years earlier as well.

Assaf writes that: “The documentary evidence clearly indicates that, beginning in 1813, many doctors in various towns attempted to cure Moshe.”

In 1817, R. Moshe’s mother Shterna wrote to ‘the Chassid Doctor Gill of Dubrovno’ that “ son...the famed Rabbi Moshe has, thank G-d, regained his former strength...”[4] According to Assaf, this may have been an indication that the trauma of being sentenced to death triggered R. Moshe’s mental condition which appeared to subside and then reoccur at various intervals.


In 1813 the two older brothers settled in Lubavitch and there was some dispute as to who would assume the mantle of leadership of the new movement. Some followers felt the position should have gone to R. Shneur Zalman’s foremost disciple of thirty years, Aharon haLevi Horowitz of Staroselye, but ultimately R. Dov Ber became the leader.

R. Dov Ber, now the Mitteler Rebbe, was penniless but soon managed to raise the huge amount of 35,000 rubles with the help of his Chassidim. He was arrested in 1825 after one Simcha Kissin informed on him but he was released and there were no untoward issues found pertaining to the money.

The money was then distributed to all members of the family. However, a significantly unequal proportion of 3,000 rubles was sent by R. Dov Ber to his brother, R. Moshe in Ule, as “ outright gift – not out of obligation but out of good will – to please our late father...”[5] This telling letter suggests that their relationship was strained for some reason. Also, the money was entrusted to R. Moshe’s wife Shifra which, according to Assaf was “indicative of Moshe’s mental condition at the time.


Astoundingly, Professor Assaf was able to gain access to hitherto unknown documents. 

He writes:
When I first published my study of Moshe in 2000 I noted ‘my regret that, to date, we have no official records of this episode (of his conversion to Christianity)[6]’ and my ‘hope that the rich Russian archives contain documents able to shed light on it.’...I had no inkling how rapidly the discovery of new documents would take place. Shortly after my article’s publication, two files covering the 1820-21 period, which documented Moshe’s conversion and its circumstances, were located in the Minsk archives...this rich material leaves no doubt as to the fact of his conversion.”

Two files are housed in the National Historical Archives of Belarus containing documents in Russian, Polish and Latin all relating to the conversion of ‘Rabbi Leon Shneyer’. In the Polish documents, he is referred to as ‘Mowsze Sznejer’.

In an 1820 document, the then rabbi of Ule makes an affidavit to Josaphat Siodlowski - the assistant Catholic priest - that R. Moshe announced his long-time desire to convert to Catholicism. The rabbi continues to state that thereafter the Jews of Ule kept a close watch on him and even beat him in an attempt at dissuading him from converting. R. Moshe then requested that the priest protect him from his community, teach him the ways of his new faith and baptise him.

This affidavit was then signed by R. Moshe in Hebrew and Russian and witnessed by army officials, nobles and another priest Grigorri Eliashevich – and stated that R. Moshe was of sound mind when he made his decision.

Three days later he was baptised and moved to a monastery in Beshenkovichi near Vitebsk.
However, while at the monastery, the priests and doctors determined that he was not of sound mind and, amazingly, was sent back to his family in Lubavitch!


R. Moshe’s two brothers sent letters of protest against the conversion to the officials and they are extant:

Letter with signatures of both R. Avraham and R. Dov Ber (Discovered recently by Shaul Stampfer in State Archives in Minsk).

It emerged that a Lt. Col. Mikhail Alekseevich Puzanov wanted to see R. Moshe convert. According to the brothers, Puzanov wanted to exact revenge for the following reason:

In those days, army officers were often put up in the homes of civilians. Puzanov found himself in a stone house belonging to R. Moshe’s wife’s family. But they wanted him to move to a less comfortable wooden house on the same property. One day, while Shifra was out, the officer invited R. Moshe over for ‘tea’.  But instead, it turned out to be an alcoholic beverage which got him inebriated.
While drunk, the officer got R. Moshe to sign a document stating that he wanted to convert.

Puzanov then took further advantage of the intoxicated man and shaved off his beard and payers and sent him, under armed guard by soldiers, to the priest, who baptised him several days later.

The protest letter from the older two brothers also indicated that their younger brother had issues of mental instability - that their father had tried to have him cured - that R. Moshe did have intervals where he was able to function normally – and that his arrest and sentence by the French army had triggered his instability.

The official reply from the authorities was that they were not prepared to look at the alleged issues of mental instability at that stage.


While still under supervision at the family home in Lubavitch, R. Moshe somehow contacted the Russian Orthodox Church, expressing his desire to convert. The Orthodox Church proceeded to request certification from its Catholic counterpart. Upon investigation, it was discovered that there were irregularities with the conversion!

Moshe had claimed, according to Church documents, that he sought conversion to escape persecution and beatings from his own community. It was also discovered that there were insufficient witnesses and that he was only baptised once. This may have been why he was unhappy with the Catholic conversion and had turned to the Russian Orthodox Church. Much confusion surrounded the matter as one of the witnesses denied he had signed the conversion document:

The 'complicated' conversion certificate from the Catholic Church (Discovered recently by Shaul Stampfer in State Archives in Minsk).

Assaf writes: “In any event, it is likely that the Catholic Church’s objections to the conversion were based on doubts regarding either Moshe’s sincerity or sanity, or on generous Jewish bribes.”


Eventually, however, the Catholic conversion was declared valid, with the Church declaring that the medical evidence of Moshe’s instability was unconvincing. He was officially confirmed as a Christian with his new name Leon Yulievich.

The new Leon Yulievich then underwent Christian instruction by the well-known Christian mystic, Johannes Gossner, in St. Petersburg.

Towards the end of 1821, Leon experienced seizures and was admitted to Obukhovskaya Hospital which specialised in treatment for nervous disorders.

It is at this point that all documental evidence stops and not much is known about what happened next.

One cannot do Professor Assaf any justice for his astounding research, in a short article like this, but he goes on to show how differently the episode of R. Moshe was recorded by various other interest groups:


Some members of the enlightenment movement recorded the story as follows:

In a letter from Yitzchak Ber Levinsohn to Yosef Pearl, he writes:

“...conflict broke out between Reb Ber and Reb Moshe, each of whom wanted to fill his father’s place.  And Reb Ber the town of Lubavitch...but his brother Moshe...was appointed rabbi of the town of Ule...Upon seeing that R. Ber had become greater than he, Reb Moshe approached the priests and converted. 

And although there had been a schism between the two factions of Habad - for the previous two years Habad had split into two factions – they made peace among themselves, and collected much money and bribed the priests and the town and the provincial officials to return Moshe to them, claiming he was incompetent and insane...And the news reached Czar Alexander...and brought him to St Petersburg in order to interview him.[7]

Here is another account from the maskil Moshe Berlin of Shklov:

The death of the first zaddik (Schneur Zalman)...sparked debate among the Hasidim regarding the choice of his successor...The eldest, Moshe, had a certain reputation as a scholar, but he was wedded to his desires, behaved immodestly, and did not observe Jewish law strictly. The youngest son, Avraham, although a simple, straight individual, was not a scholar...The middle son, Berke, was also no scholar, and he too was wedded to his desires. 

But being...a talented, and hardworking, preacher he knew how to draw attention and to attract the love of the communal elders by various means, such as flattery, distributing honors, and the like. In order to keep his older brother Moshe from blocking his aspiration to take his father’s place, Berke persecuted and humiliated him as much as he could, driving Moshe to the brink of despair. Consequently, and in embarrass his brother Berke, Moshe converted to Christianity...And Moshe himself, whose conscience was not clear, went insane and died in St. Petersburg.[8]

Chabad historian Yosef Kaminetzky counters such accounts by writing:

"During the same period, an embarrassing case of conversion occurred among the opponents of Hassidism: that of Avraham Peretz, the son-in-law of Yehoshua Zeitlin, who lived in the same city as Chabad founder Shneur Zalman. The Chabad leader himself prophesied that Peretz would leave the faith. The opponents of Hassidism had spread the story about Moshe's supposed conversion to deflect attention from their own shame.


The Jewish historian, Shimon Dubnow, was researching Chassidic history and wrote to one of the Baal haTanya’s descendants, Shmaryahu Schneersohn for information.

He replied:
Regarding his third son, Moshe, I again beg you to remain silent, for everything that happened to him is hidden in fog...And, as your aim is to write of Hasidism in general, and of its glorious rabbis, mentioning this episode will bring no benefit and only shadow his reputation. I am confident that you will honor my request.”[9]

Dubnow respected this request and did not publish anything on R. Moshe. However, in his personal notes, Dubnow wrote that he found other sources which claimed that:

“...when Ber seized the reins of power, instead of his older brother, Moshe was angered and cried out: ‘If a goy (Ber was considered to lack scholarly ability) can become a rebbe, then the rebbe can become a goy.’”


Other accounts have filled some of the oral traditions with stories of a mystical scholarly figure wandering from town to town, particularly around  Kamenetz Podolsk, hardly eating, keeping his face obscured with his talit and yet able to answer the most obscure of questions. He was identified as Moshe, son of the first Rebbe.[10]

Other mystical accounts have him wandering in the forests, in clean white linen robes and linen shoes and sometimes sleeping in the roof with one leg tied to the rafters. He would never remain inside the synagogue lest he be called up to the Torah and have to reveal his father’s name. “Some said he was mad; others that he was one of the thirty-six saints.[11]


I spoke to a friend and colleague who is a respected Chabad scholar and he shared the following internal tradition:

A group of non-Chabad rebbes approached the Baal haTanya and asked that he join a group which was to place the Vilna Gaon – an early opponent of Chasidism – in some form of excommunication. They were going to ‘arrange’ for the Vilna Gaon to convert to Christianity. This was the only way they thought they could silence his opposition and destroy his great credibility.
The Baal haTanya refused to bring even his opponent into such disrepute. The other rebbes became angry at his refusal to join them.

During the meeting, the Baal haTanya’s young son happened to come into the room. His father touched him on the head as a sign of affection – and the other rebbes said that because he refused to join them, his beloved young son, Moshe, would one day convert to Christianity.

Assaf brings this same tradition and the account concludes, in no uncertain terms, that:

Such a ban uproots the excommunicate from his heavenly soul...And when the light of the soul in the body is cut off from the soul’s root...then the person excommunicated must inevitably convert...and to such a desecration...our holy admor (R. Shneer Zalman) could by no means agree. And this angered the Polish zadikim.”[12]

Obviously, this is a tradition which is impossible to verify, but ironically it shows that R. Moshe’s conversion was something accepted by at least some within the Chabad community.

On the other hand, others within the movement have proclaimed that “the conversion (allegation) is a libel.”[13] Rather, it is alleged, R. Moshe was forced to take place in an interfaith debate. He lost and was coerced to convert but refused and had to spend the rest of his life in hiding.

"Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson, in his published chronicle of Chabad history went so far as to deny that the conversion ever took place. According to Schneerson’s hagiographical account, Rabbi Moshe was compelled to engage in a theological disputation with the Catholic priest of his town, in which he was of course victorious, and then was forced to flee for his safety. Rabbi Moshe, according to Schneerson’s account, spent the remaining years of his life as a lamed-vovnik — the classic anonymous saint of rabbinic mythology — and was buried anonymously in the Ukrainian shtetl of Radomysl." [14]

In the words of the R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson himself: "My grandmother...passed on to me a vast amount of information concerning Rabbi Moshe." He tells of Czar Alexander visiting the vicinity of Lubavitch and the governor of the district showing disrespect to R. Moshe and his brother R. Dov Ber by presenting them to the Czar only after other nobles were presented.

R. Moshe became angry and in the presence of the Archbishop of Smolensk "made a stinging retort and there ensued a heated debate on religion, culminating in the decision to arrange a the church of Yartzava...and lasted an entire month. Rabbi Moshe emerged triumphant. Chagrined at their defeat, the ecclesiastical authorities decided to confine him in one of the churches in Kiev...en route...escorted by two clergymen and a detachment of armed soldiers...(while the soldiers were sleeping) Rabbi Moshe took flight...Rabbi Moshe's escape took place on the night of 19 Kislev (1815)." (Sefer haToldot Admur haZaken, p.1191)  [See Appendix below for a fuller version.]

According to Chabad historian Yosef Kaminetzky:
"1. The documents in the Minsk files are forgeries, as shown by the name appearing in the letter, Shneurson, which had yet to exist as a last name at the time.
2. The church, as well as Jewish opponents to Hassidism (known today as Lithuanians), wanted to claim that Moshe had converted. The truth is that against the wishes of his family, he would participate in, and always win, theological debates with Christians. However, the debate's judges declared arbitrarily that Moshe had lost, and therefore, by law, he had to convert. When he refused, he was imprisoned, but managed to escape, after which he wandered around. The Church never admitted this, and continued to present his alleged conversion as an achievement."  [15]
The second last Chabad Rebbe, the Rayatz[16], writes: “The writings of Rabbi Moshe...are in my possession in his holy handwriting and they fill several volumes.”[17] On one occasion[18], he showed eleven volumes of R. Moshe’s writings to the rabbi of Fastov, and told him that no one knew about these writings, but they were of a ‘lofty’ nature.

In 1814, R. Moshe joined his two brothers in signing an approbation for the Tanya and the Shulchan Aruch haRav. Interestingly, some later editions omitted these signed approbations.  In some copies, the line referring to R. Moshe was deliberately erased and in others, the entire page was torn out.

A modern edition of the Tanya with approbations by all three sons of the Baal haTanya.
(My colleague R. MA pointed out that the wording of R. Moshe's approbation leaves out Marana veRabana which refers to my Master and Teacher, which may also be significant.)

A modern edition of the Shulchan Aruch haRav with the approbation of R. Moshe notably absent.

In 1816, R. Dov Ber writes about the difficulties caused by “what is happening with our well-known brother etc.”[19] Parts of this letter were later censored by Chabad and marked with ellipses as they contained harsher statements about his ‘well-known brother’. According to the letter, R. Moshe liked to drink - and once, while inebriated, he made some caustic remarks about Chassidim being un-innovative. [20]


Perhaps we shall never know for certain just what happened to R. Moshe. There are too many ‘interest groups’ lobbying one way or the other.  It is understandable that those who oppose Chasidism and Chabad, in particular, would want to show how the son of the Baal haTanya converted to Christianity.

Even the documentary evidence is not entirely conclusive although, historically, perhaps the most compelling.

But even within Chabad itself, the various traditions contradict each other with what appears to be some acknowledgement of conversion to outright denial.

The story is a profoundly sad one - heart-rending in fact - particularly if he was ill.

R. Moshe was certainly an enigmatic figure. Something very serious was going on with a scholar who once represented his respected father and who wrote eleven volumes of ‘lofty’ substance - and whatever was going on, it had to be hushed over or explained away.

We may never really know whether he acted consciously or whether he was just an innocent victim of either his own health or something more nefarious from a variety of possible sources.


Here is an official Chabad account of the story of R. Moshe:

Yud-Tes Kislev, From Father to Son

Rabbi Moshe, the youngest son of the Alter Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, was born in Liozna, in 5544/1784. He was exceptionally intelligent, and during the lifetime of his father would repeat verbatim all the explanations of Torah that he had heard from his lips.

The Alter Rebbe was especially fond of Rabbi Moshe. He was fond of saying that, through a rare act of divine grace, his mental capacities had been increased tenfold over those of his great-grandfather, Rabbi Moshe, after whom he was named. This apart, his memory was a cemented cistern from which no detail escaped.[1]
The sixth Rebbe, R. Yosef-Yitzchak [Shneursohn], writes:

"My grandmother [2] passed on to me a vast amount of information concerning Rabbi Moshe, the son of the Alter Rebbe, which she in turn had received from [her father-in-law, the third Rebbe, known as] the Tzemach Tzedek…concerning events when the Governor of Mogilev presented R. Dov-Ber [3] and Rabbi Moshe to Czar Alexander the First, when the latter visited Babinovitch, in the vicinity of Lubavitch. Then, much to Rabbi Moshe's chagrin, he did not show them the respect that was their due.

What happened was that the Governor presented various nobles to the Czar first, and only then did he present the sons of the Alter Rebbe. Rabbi Moshe took his grievance directly to the Governor, aided by his fluency in a number of languages.
The Archbishop of Smolensk happened to be present at the time and, considering his behavior to be effrontery, lashed out both at Rabbi Moshe and the Torah. Rabbi Moshe made a stinging retort and there ensued a heated debate on religion, culminating in the decision to arrange a disputation-to be held in MarCheshvan 5576/1815.
The disputation took place in the church of Yartsava, near Smolensk, in the presence of the bishops of Smolensk and Niezhin, and lasted an entire month. Rabbi Moshe emerged triumphant. Chagrined at their defeat, the ecclesiastical authorities decided to confine him in one of the churches in Kiev or Vladimir, in the interior of Russia.
On the fourth day, he was already en route to Vladimir, escorted by two clergymen and a detachment of armed soldiers. As they spent the night in the vicinity of Moscow, a deep sleep fell upon the party. Seeing his chance, Rabbi Moshe took flight.
G-d gave him strength he did not normally possess and, impervious to the cold and the massive snowdrifts, Rabbi Moshe forged on until he came to Aryal. There he took refuge with Rabbi Moshe Leib Jacobson, who hid him in his house for several days. Then he set out for Wolhinia.
Rabbi Moshe's escape took place on the night of the 19th of Kislev, 5576/1815 [exactly 27 years after his father's miraculous liberation]. Some time later his family left for Eretz Yisrael and he went into exile from 5576/1815 to Sivan 5638/1878."
Rabbi Moshe passed away [at age 94] in Radomislya, near Kiev, in 5638/1878, and is buried there.
1.See Pirkei Avot 2:9
2.Rebbetzin Rivka, wife of the fourth Rebbe, R. Shmuel Shneursohn.
3.Rabbi Moshe's eldest brother, who eventually succeeded his father to become the second Rebbe.

Source: Adapted and supplemented by Yerachmiel Tilles from "Days in Chabad" (Compiled by Rabbi Yosef Y. Kaminetzky; translated by Yosef Cohen; based on Sefer Hatoldot Admor Hazaken, p. 1191).
Biographical note:
Rabbi Moshe Shneuri [of blessed memory [5544-5638 (1784-1878)] was the youngest son of the Alter Rebbe of Chabad.He was known to be exceptionally brilliant with an astounding memory. Also fluent in several languages, at the young age of 16 he was his father's translator for some of the interrogations during his second arrest in 1800. He lived the last decades of life in self-imposed exile, after having his sent his family to live in the Land of Israel. He passed away at age 94 near Kiev.
Appendix: Divine Providence:
(1) Note from the administrative assistant, Sima-Devorah Siev, who graciously typed the text for me:
Reb Moshe is my alter-Zeide (great-great-plus grandfather). When I read this I wondered if this incident hadn't happened and his family moved to Hebron, if I would be here at all, let alone living in Israel!

(2) Editor's note:
When I first moved to Israel and Tsfat in 1978, there were three religious elderly brothers - alas, all never married -- living together. They were direct descendants of Rabbi Moshe.

[1] I have drawn extensively from Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis and Discontent in the History of Hasidism, by Professor David Assaf, as well as from sources from referenced Chabad literature, contemporary writing and oral tradition.
[2] BeOhelei Chabad 1:38.
[3] Ne’echaz baSevach 133.
[4] MiBeit haGenazim, Bita’on Chabad, 15-16.
[5] Levin, Ma’asar, 18.
[6] Parenthesis mine.
[7] Katz, “Igrot maskilim,” 269.
[8] Moshe Berlin, “Istoria Hasidisma,” RGIA [Russian State Historical Archive, St.Petersburg]: F. 821, op. 8, D. 331, pp. 31b–32a.
[9] Dubnow Collection, no. 77539.
[10] Migdal Oz, 257 (Mondshine).
[11] Sefer haToladot, Admor haZaken, 357.
[12] Divrei haYamim haHem 98.
[13] Kol hair, 13 October 2000, 82-85.
[14] Alan Nadler, 25 August 2006, Forward.
[15] Chabad: Documents are fake, Haggai Hitron, July 22 2005. See also Days in Chabad, by R Yosef Y. Kaminetzky, P. 71. [The title reads: Release of Rabbi Moshe, Son Of The Alter Rebbe, From Detention By The Church - but the account which follows speaks of an 'escape' rather than a 'release'.]
[16] Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Scheersohn (1880-1950).
[17] Ne’echaz BaSevach 68.
[18] On the founding of the haTamim association, in 1934.
[19] Iggrot Kodesh Moharayatz 2:321 letter 520.
[20] Assaf references this under: A copy of the files from the investigation of Dov Ber, including much material not published by Levin (Ma’asar), has been preserved in CAHJP, HMF 925. The letter in question is numbered as pp. 20–23.


  1. AS a mitnag i recall the stories of the hostilities between the Chassidim and the mitnagdim. So let me also display ulterior motive, as have many of the writers mentioned in your blog. I have heard it said that Moshe was also part of the informers causing his brother to be arrested. Dov Ber had been raising money for his family through his emissaries causing resentment amongst various chassidish factions. Dov Ber then gave the money so raised, exclusively to his family, but he excluded Moshe and gave a paltry amount to his (Moshe's ) wife. When the arrest plot failed, Moshe converted to Christianity. We mitnagdim used to say that the "bam bam" in Chassidishe niggunim referred to the fact that both Dov Ber and Moshe were goyyim. Viva the GRA viva!

    PS The rumours of Moshe being unstable are many - but if so, would his esteemed holy father have allowed him to marry in that condition? If he was competent enough to marry, why should he not have been competent enough to convert?
    PPS Somewhere in the back of my mind I seem to recall that the son of a prominent Litvak had converted some years before and the Chassidism were mocking mocking the mitnaggim. This incident was just a mida k'neged mida or maybe a mida k'neged mitnag - (but then I could also be mistaken)

    1. "PS The rumours of Moshe being unstable are many - but if so, would his esteemed holy father have allowed him to marry in that condition? If he was competent enough to marry, why should he not have been competent enough to convert?"

      As the article goes on to State, it's very possible that the death sentence he received could have messed with his mind and revived demons that were long gone.