Sunday 12 August 2018


Shemen laMaor by R. Shmaryahu Schneersohn, the last Rebbe of Kopust, proudly tracing his lineage - in his title-page - back to R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi.


We are all familiar with the story of Chabad-Lubavitch, one of the most popular and well-known Jewish movements in the world today. The movement had seven Rebbes and it is common knowledge that the last Rebbe was considered by many to either have been the Messiah-in-waiting, the potential Messiah, or actually the Messiah.

What is fascinating, though, is that the line of succession from Rebbe to Rebbe was not always a simple matter, nor was it without dispute. The rival groups which had coalesced around the various claimants, also considered themselves to be the true successors of the Chabad movement.

In this article, we will look at a number of claimants to the leadership of the movement over the past two centuries, since its founding in 1775.


After the passing of the founder of the Chabad system, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi[1] (1745-1813), there was a dispute as to who would take over the mantle of leadership and become the second Chabad Rebbe.

R. Shneur Zalman had three sons and three daughters. His youngest son, R. Moshe of Ule 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.[2]

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

One of the reasons for this attempt to obliterate all traces of R. Moshe was because it appears that he converted to Christianity.

However, before that, he enjoyed a substantial following and he expected to take over from his father and become the movement’s second Rebbe. According to one account, the Chabad movement actually split into two factions for a period of about two years.

According to another account, when he heard that his brother, R. Dov Ber had indeed succeeded his father, he said:  

“If a goy (Ber was considered to lack his scholarly ability) can become a rebbe, then the rebbe can become a goy.”[3]

[For more details and sources see WHAT HAPPENED TO MOSHE, SON OF THE BAAL HATANYA?]



It wasn’t just R. Moshe who felt he was eligible to take over the reins of leadership of the new movement. One of R. Shneur Zalman’s foremost students for a period of about thirty years, was the very charismatic R. Aaron haLevi Horowitz of Staroselye (or Strashelye, 1766-1828).

Initially, R. Aaron of Staroselye and R. Dov Ber (who won the succession battle in the end) got on well. R. Shneur Zalman selected the two to be study partners and in fact, it was R. Aaron who, being eight years his senior, taught R. Dov Ber his own father’s teachings. However, a dispute drove the two apart and R. Aaron went to settle in Staroselye.[4]

R. Aaron wrote two main books:

The first was Sha’arei haYichud ve’ha’Emunah, after the section in his teacher’s book, Tanya, which went by a similar title. He claimed that the section in Tanya as we have it, was incomplete and therefore his book was the key to the proper understanding of Tanya.

Sha'arei haYichud ve'haEmunah by R. Aaron of Staroselye
His second book was Sha’arei haAvodah in which he differs fundamentally with R. Dov Ber over the role of emotion in the service of G-d. He criticised R. Dov Ber’s insistence on not showing outward signs of spiritual ecstasy during prayer. R. Dov Ber was known to have prayed without movement, while R. Aaron infused his prayers with outward signs of emotion (just like, as he was quick to point out, his teacher - R. Dov Ber’s own father - had done).

In R. Dov Ber’s Kuntres haHitpalut, he writes rather tellingly:

“We observe the majority of the masses moved to ecstasy in their prayers with an external ecstasy, the result of vain delusion in soul and heart. In the category of an external cry, this comes into the fleshy heart with neither light nor life: it is in no way for the Lord...Even though people call the name of devekut or enthusiasm [hitpa’alut] it is, in fact an entirely false devekut...”[5]

One doesn’t need to read too much between the lines to understand the context and nuances of this teaching. This fundamental difference in theology between 'mind' and 'heart' appears to have been a significant cause of their dispute, which was then intensified when a monetary component compounded the issue:

“In a letter addressed to all of the Hasidim in White Russia, Dov Ber asked that they recognise him as his father’s successor by sending him the funds that they used to send to his father in Liady to his new court at Lubavitch.”[6]

R. Aaron passed the mantle of leadership on to his son, R. Chaim Refael (d. 1842). After those two generations, however, the movement was discontinued, and a substantial number of the Staroselye Chassidim returned to follow the official third Chabad Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn[7], the Tzemach Tzedek (1789-1866). It is probable that the Staroselye dynasty lacked the finance and infrastructure to perpetuate itself any longer.


After the passing of the third Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek[8] in 1866, another major succession dispute erupted. The Tzemach Tzedek had seven sons and two daughters. It was, however, his youngest son, R. Shmuel Schneersohn, who became the Rebbe of the town of Lubavitch.

“Shortly after the week of mourning [for the Tzemach Tzedek], a document purporting to be the late rebbe’s will surfaced. To the surprise of many, it tapped the youngest son, Shmuel, and not his older brother Yehuda Leib, as first among equals...Insiders who had watched what was happening at the court during the last years and months guessed that the ambitious young man[R. Shmuel]...would..."make a ‘revolution’ at the court."”[9]

R. Shmuel Schneersohn, as mentioned, was strategically situated in Lubavitch "...where he would call himself both a ChaBaD and Lubavitcher Rebbe. However, the other brothers who similarly established their own individual rebistves [Chassidic courts], took on the names of the towns in which they set up their headquarters.

To complicate matters, the brothers remained attached to and variously interpreted the ChaBad ways, texts, ideas, and traditions. This way R. Shmuel’s brand of ‘Lubavitch’ had lost its ChaBaD monopoly as the other brothers also claimed to represent Chabad.

At the age of thirty-two and in sole possession of the Lubavitcher succession, Shmuel had to come to terms with the fact that ChaBaD was no longer a unified rebistve and that all its various branches were growing in directions over which he had nothing like the control that his predecessors had.

In a number of ChaBaD communities during Shmuel’s reign, Hasidim were divided between Lubavitcher and other customs, and in some cases, fights broke out among the different groups."[10]

R. Shmuel, known also as the Maharash was prone to health problems - and his period as Rebbe was beset with pogroms and other distractions such as modernization, Zionism and emigration. He also did not have many followers, possibly due to the difficult times.

Samuel C. Heilman paints a rather negative picture of R. Shmuel:

“Little from his reign stands out even in Lubavitcher lore. Nor did he outshine his brothers, even though he controlled Lubavitch – indeed there is no official ChaBaD image left behind of how he looked.”[11]

Incidentally, according to a friend and colleague well respected within Chabad, a picture of  R. Shmuel does in fact exist, except it was never published as due to his ill health it would not have done justice to him. 

It was during R. Shmuel's tenure as Rebbe (which only lasted about sixteen years), that he introduced the notion of mashpia, or special mentors who would personally guide the followers through their religious journeys.

Heilman suggests that he may have ‘outsourced’ the leadership role somewhat to compensate for his 'inadequate leadership' and the difficult times. While his father, the Tzemach Tzedek did already introduce the notion of older Chassidim assuming prominent teaching positions (something usually done by the Rebbe himself):

“Shmuel’s appointment of a mashpi’a, however, seems to have been driven more by a desire to supplement his weaknesses, while his father’s strategy might be understood more as a way of controlling his court and keeping it unified...[as] the Hasidim, particularly those older than him [the Tzemach Tzedek], who had powerful links to the past, and later those who had their own charisma, ‘could easily command followers’ of their own. Better to allow them a higher profile, which they would have anyway, in return for their loyalty, then to create schisms.”[12]

Naftali Lowenthal, however, describes R. Shmuel rather more positively:

Besides his communal activism, he had wide intellectual interests. He spoke several languages, including Latin. He wrote widely on a range of religious and secular topics, and much of his writing has never been published and remains in manuscript form alone. His discourses began to be published for the first time under the title Likkutei Torat Shmuel in 1945 by Kehot and 12 volumes have so far been printed.”[13]

According to other historians though:

“Chabad historiography tends to paper over the impression that Shmuel was the least prominent Chabad leader in terms of political and literary activity. For example, the fact that his teachings are less sophisticated than those of other Chabad leaders is explained as his way of reaching lay people.”[14]

In fairness, though, it is possible that the vicissitudes of that period, as pointed out (pogroms, modernisation, Zionism and emigration), may have demanded less of a focus on theological technicalities and more of an outreach to ordinary folk who were grappling with those very real issues.

Whichever way one wishes to view R. Shmuel, the fact remains that after his passing in 1882, there remained a vacuum in the leadership position of Chabad which was only filled about ten years later in 1893 by R. Shmuel’s second son, the Rashab (probably after the elder son relocated from Lubavitch to Vitebsk).


At the same time as R. Shmuel was establishing himself at Lubavitch, his older brother, R. Yehuda Leib Schneersohn, became the Rebbe in the town of Kopys (present-day Belarus).

The Kopust Chabad Chassidim believed they were the rightful heirs to the movement and that they were the official representatives of the previous three Rebbes. The Kopust faction survived the longest of all the other offshoot groups, with a dynasty of four Rebbes and still boasts a number of adherents today, although most re-joined Chabad after the passing of the last Kopust Rebbe, Shmaryahu Noach Schneersohn in 1924. He had established a yeshiva in Babruysk in 1901 and authored the two-volume work ‘Shemen laMaor’.

As if mirroring the earlier debate of 'mind' vs 'heart' between R. Aaron Staroselye and R. Dov Ber, the Kopust Rebbes pointed to the neglect of ‘service of the heart’ in favour of ‘mental contemplations’ or ‘hitbonenut’. As we have seen, this debate seems to have plagued the movement over time and refused to go away.

The oldest Chabad synagogue in Israel is the Baal haTanya Shul, established in 1900 in Mea Shearim and affiliated to the Kopust school. Apparently, in the 1920’s, when the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe visited Israel, he was not welcomed at the synagogue. This gives some indication of conflicting politics between these movements, although the same sixth Rebbe referred respectfully to the Kopust leaders as ‘Admorim’ (Rebbes).


Another branch could be added to the list of parallel Chabad movements as one of the sons of R. Yehuda Leib of Kopust settled and held court in Retzitza. This group apparently only lasted one generation.


Simultaneously, while the Kopust movement was being established by R. Yehuda Leib, another of the Tzemach Tzedek’s sons, R. Chaim Schneur Zalman founded an additional branch, called Liadi. This branch only lasted two generations and was discontinued after the passing of his son, R. Yitzchak Dovber.


And yet another claimant to the leadership of Chabad was established by still another of the Tzemach Tzedek’s sons, R. Yisrael Noach of Niezhin. Niezhin was where Yisrael Noach’s grandfather, R. Dov Ber (the second Rebbe) was buried. It has been suggested that he set up his headquarters in Niezhin as a challenge to his youngest brother, R. Shmuel of Lubavitch, to show that he was indeed continuing with the authentic line. 

This movement of Niezhin, however, did not survive more than that one generation.
Interestingly, his son’s daughter, Nechama Dina later became the wife of R. Yosef Yitzchak, the sixth Rebbe of Chabad, so in a sense, both movements were reconciled.


A fourth son of the Tzemach Tzedek, R. Yosef Yitzchak of Ovrutch, also tried to create an authentic line with his Ovrutch dynasty. This group too did not outlive that first generation.


Hornisteipol is another group with strong ties to Chabad and consider themselves to be an extension of Chabad. It began with a marriage arranged by the first Rebbe, R. Shneur Zalman and the Chernobler Maggid (R. Mordechai Twerski) – whereby the former’s granddaughter married the latter’s son.

The groom, R. Yaakov Yisrael Twerski had lived and studied with R. Shneur Zalman and thereafter also spent some years residing with his father-in-law, the second Rebbe, R. Dov Ber.

R. Yaakov Yisrael Twerski later became a Rebbe in Hornisteipol where he taught much of the Chabad teachings he had acquired from his intimate connections with the first Rebbes.

[He was also later to become close to his brother-in-law the Tzemach Tzedek, whose son (R. Yosef Yitzchak of Ovrutch) went on to marry his (Yaakov Yisrael’s) daughter. They, in turn, had a daughter Shterna Sara Schneersohn who married the fifth rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab, and she was the mother of the sixth Rebbe, the Frierdiker Rebbe, R. Yaakov Yitzchak.]

This movement still exists today, and they place great emphasis on the teachings of the first three Chabad Rebbes (although they have also integrated some traditions from other Chassidic groups as well).



Another group emerged after the generation of succession battles between the sons of the Tzemach Tzedek. They were formed sometime after the passing of R. Shmuel Schneersohn - the fourth Rebbe - thus claiming their connection only to the first four ‘legitimate’ Rebbes of Chabad. This group was founded by R. Chaim Avraham Dov Ber Levine (1860-1938), known as the ‘Malach’ or ‘angel’. He was one of the closest followers of R. Shmuel. He also was the teacher of the sixth Rebbe R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn!

On his arrival in America in 1923, R. Levine headed the Nusach Ari Synagogue in the Bronx. During that time, the head of Mesivta Torah Vodaas[16], R. Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz would come to visit R. Levine in order to study Tanya.  R. Mendlowith would later encourage his own yeshiva students to also study with R. Levine, the ‘Malach’. Many students were thus influenced by R. Levine and the Malachim movement was born. They still exist today in small numbers.

The Malachim adopted a more overtly ‘Chassidic’ style of dressing than mainstream Chabad (who were more ‘modern’) and began to question the authority of their original Rosh Yeshiva, R. Mendlowitz. After some friction, they broke away (or by some accounts were expelled) from Torah Vodaas and established their own yeshiva.

Today the Malachim movement has ties with Satmar and adopt an anti-Zionist position.


No discussion on the issue of the direction of the contemporary Lubavitch movement would be complete without mention of the Meschichits who believe in a form of messianism relating to the last Rebbe. Much has been written about this phenomenon and there is much debate over just how widespread this new movement is.

I wish to share just one point: In the early 1980’s, I was a student at a flagship Chabad yeshiva. During one Thursday night gathering with the Mashpia, we started singing a song which proclaimed the Rebbe as Messiah. The Mashpia immediately stopped us in our tracks and told us never to sing that song ever again as ‘although it was true, it cannot get out to the wider community that that was our belief.’ I remember feeling very privileged thinking that I was now privy to a 'great secret'.


The battle over leadership succession was nothing new to the Chassidic movement. It went right back to the first candidate to succeed the Baal Shem Tov himself.

The Baal Shem Tov had two close students, R. Dov Ber known as the Maggid of Medzeritch, and R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye.  When the time came to hand over the mantle of leadership to the next generation, it was assumed that the more scholarly R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye would assume that vital role.

However, to everyone’s surprise, the following letter[17] from the Baal Shem Tov suddenly arrived at the home of R. Yaakov Yosef:

(My translation follows:)

“...I inform you very confidentially that my teacher, whose soul is in Eden, appeared to me – in (real) life and not in a dream nor in a perception, but in reality face to face.

(And he) revealed to me many matters concerning the mysteries of the world and the era preceding Messiah.

And he also revealed to me that my place will be filled by my (other) holy student, (and) officer of the Torah, Ber, may his light shine.

Therefore, know, my student (R. Yaakov Yosef), what lies before you.

And hand back to me (all) the writings from R. A(dam) Baal Shem Tov, of blessed memory (who had handed the ‘secret writings’ to me in the first place), and I will transfer them to him (my successor, R. Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch).

Enough said.

The matter is secret and sealed.

From your teacher and rabbi,

Yisrael, son of our teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Baal Shem.


Cherson Geniza.

The Seven Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbes, by Chaim Dalfin.

Hasidic People, by Jerome Mintz.

Hasidism: A New History by  David Biale, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, Marcin Wodziński.

[1] Known also as the Alter Rebbe, the Rav and the Baal haTanya.
[2] In more recent times the second last Chabad Rebbe, the Rayatz, wrote of R. Moshe: “The writings of Rabbi Moshe...are in my possession in his holy handwriting and they fill several volumes.” On one occasion, 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.
[3] See the link above for an in-depth analysis of the story from various angles, including sources.
[4] See Hasidism: A New History, by David Biale, David Assaf...p. 295.
[5] Dobh Baer of Lubavitch, Tract on Ecstasy, translation by Louis Jacobs, p. 67.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Not to be confused with the seventh (last) rebbe with the same name.
[8] The Tzemach Tzedek was the son of Devora Leah, daughter of R. Shneur Zalman.

[9] Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America, by Samuel C. Heilman, p. 216.

[10] Ibid. p. 218.

[11] Ibid. p. 219.

[12] Ibid. p. 220.
[13] Encyclopedia of Hasidism, entry: Schneersohn, Shmuel. Naftali Lowenthal. Aronson, London 1996.
[14] Hasidism: A New History, p. 302.
[15] Although not on the same scale and rather controversial - perhaps another attempt at some contemporary style of leadership is the ‘Liozna Chassidim’. After the passing of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneersohn in 1994, R. Shaul Shimon Deutsch (b. 1966) started a new movement with himself in the position of Liozna Rebbe (after the town where R. Shneur Zalman had resided). He is situated in Boro Park and the followers are called Anshei Liozna.[15] (For R. Deutsch’s unusual story, see here).
[16] Mesivat Torah Vodaas was originally established in 1918 and adopted a ‘Torah im Derech Eretz’ philosophy, which encouraged secular studies in addition to Torah learning. Today, though, it has moved over to more of a Chareidi or ultra-orthodox philosophy. However, it still allows its students to attend college while studying at the yeshiva. Many of its graduates go on to work in the secular workplace.
[17] From the Cherson Geniza. There is some controversy as to whether these letters are genuine or forgeries. Most scholars believe them to be forgeries but, interestingly in our context, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe (in whose library these letters are housed) was one of those who claimed the letters were in fact genuine.

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