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The eve of 13 Tishrei 5643/1882. It was approaching midnight when the Rebbe Maharash got out of bed and sat down. His face shone with a special light. He wore a pocket watch which he detached from its chain. He then took a piece of paper from the table in front of him, turned the hands of the watch to 11:51 and inserted the paper to block the hands from moving. * Presented to mark the passing of the Rebbe Maharash.


One letter out of hundreds and even thousands of letters written by the Rebbe Rayatz contains a terrible veiled secret, which was known only by a very few. This secret pertains to the lives of two of the Chabad leaders. This letter was sent by the Rebbe Rayatz to his son-in-law, later to become the Rebbe. He wrote as follows:

It is known that the blessing for long life of the Alter Rebbe was for 90-100 years (that of the Tzemach Tzedek was for 70-80 years), and the Tzemach Tzedek passed away at the age of 77. This is the basis of the story I told you, which my father the Rebbe told me, that he heard from my grandfather the Rebbe that the fact that the shliach did not carry out his mission in the winter of 5626/1866 regarding the pidyon nefesh at the gravesite of the Baal Shem Tov, caused 13 years to be taken from the life of the Tzemach Tzedek and his sons.

The Rebbe quickly sent a letter back to his father-in-law in which he asked for the details of this story, but the Rebbe Rayatz responded:

Regarding the shliach, I even refrain from telling it verbally, all the more so in writing. (Igros Kodesh Rayatz vol. 2, p. 494 and 507)

Thus, the Rebbe Rayatz concealed more than he revealed. Not only would he not write about it but even saying it orally was forbidden.

Who was the Chassid who shortened the life of the Tzemach Tzedek, that G-dly soul, the “connecting intermediary,” who stood between G-d and the Jewish people and provided every Jew with spiritual and material good? Furthermore, how did the same thing nearly happen again in the life of the Rebbe Maharash?

We will see that it was a very painful episode in the family of Beis HaRav and it remained veiled in secrecy for many years.


It was one day between Yom Kippur and Sukkos 5634/1873 when the Chassid, R’ Shlomo Zalman Zlatapolsky, one of the great Chassidim of the Rebbe Maharash, arrived in Lubavitch. He came to bask in the aura of the Rebbe Maharash as he did now and then. It was already evening and everyone was at home.

As he walked the roads of Lubavitch, he met with the Chassid, R’ Shmuel Betzalel Sheftel (known by his acronym Rashbatz), a distinguished Chassid of the Tzemach Tzedek and the Rebbe Maharash.

“Shalom aleichem!” Rashbatz shook the guest’s hand in a friendly greeting. It was a joyous occasion when these two great Chassidim met again, for Chassidim are like brothers.

“The Rebbe asked about you several times,” said Rashbatz to the guest who had just arrived in Lubavitch.

“The Rebbe is looking for me?!” wondered R’ Zlatapolsky.

As they spoke, R’ Levi the gabbai, known by everyone as Levik the Milchiger, came rushing by. “Ho, R’ Zalman, hurry, the Rebbe is waiting for you!”

Now it was clear to him that the Rebbe was in fact urgently looking for him. After only a few minutes, R’ Shlomo Zalman entered Gan Eden HaElyon, i.e. the Rebbe Maharash’s room. He found the Rebbe sitting with his second son, Sholom Dovber, a boy almost thirteen years old.

“Zalman, how long do you think you will be staying here?” asked the Rebbe to his faithful Chassid without any preamble.

“Not long,” replied the Chassid, “for I am busy with business affairs at this time.”

A look of surprise appeared on the Rebbe’s face. “How can you not attend the bar mitzva?” he asked, referring to the bar mitzva of the son sitting by his side. “If you stay, you will hear much Chassidus from him and from me,” as though trying to convince his Chassid to stay.

Uncharacteristically, the Rebbe said, “My son Sholom Ber is disappointed. He complained to his mother that before the bar mitzva of my oldest son, Zalman Aharon, I learned a lot of Chassidus with him, while I am not as busy with him. Although he is only a boy, I think about him no less than I did of my son Zalman Aharon,” wanting this message to be conveyed to his son as well.

The Rebbe looked at his son, “Sholom Ber, review the maamer for Zalman.”

His son began to immediately review the maamer Chassidus clearly, knowledgeably and fluently. It was apparent that he understood every word. His father’s face shone with joy and nachas.

When he finished, he told his son he could leave the room for he did not need him any further. When he left and closed the door, the Rebbe smiled broadly. “One time, I told him to leave the room and afterward I found out that he did not go, but hid under the table to hear Chassidus … That is how much he yearns to hear Chassidus!”

Instantly, the Rebbe’s face grew serious as though changing from one form to another. He addressed his Chassid and said, “Zalman, I have a request to make of you, that you come back here at three in the morning when I will speak to you about a very important matter. I have no other time for it and it is the only time we can talk. However, I state explicitly that this is on condition that you go to sleep now at seven. You need to think firmly now that you will be getting up before three. If that is possible, fine; if not, do not ask them to wake you up.”

The Rebbe added a warning, “Don’t think you will fool me by not going to sleep all night and afterward you will wash your face in snow so I will think you slept. You should know that I will realize if that is what you did.”

R’ Zlatapolsky accepted the condition obediently and nodded. He carefully walked backward and left the Rebbe, lost in thought. The Rebbe had never spoken to him like that. He knew something important was afoot but what could it be?


Three in the morning. Lubavitch was asleep. Nobody was out and about in the streets at this hour except for R’ Shlomo Zalman who quickly left his hostel and walked toward the Rebbe’s house. He lifted the collar of his jacket due to the chill of the night air and made his way quickly. The first signs of the winter cold had begun to make their sting felt.

When he entered the Rebbe’s house he was taken aback by what he saw. The door to the house was open and many candles were lit as though it was early evening. He did not spend much time contemplating for he soon walked into the Rebbe’s room and found him sitting at his desk with two large candles burning.

For a moment he recoiled, the Rebbe’s face looked so ominous that it was hard to gaze upon him. Although R’ Zlatapolsky was not known to be timid, even he felt very scared. He realized that something terrible had happened.

When the Rebbe saw him, he immediately began:

“No doubt you know the story about my grandfather the Alter Rebbe when he fled from Napoleon. It was when the grandson, R’ Nachum took the reins against the will of the gentile wagon driver and wanted to lead the convoy. But R’ Nachum, who was not experienced enough with a horse and wagon, mistakenly veered off the right road. The Alter Rebbe had dozed in the wagon due to the travails of travel and the many hardships. When he woke up, he looked around in great fear and cried out, ‘Oy, where are we?’

“R’ Nachum had made a mistake at one of the forks in the road and did not reach the right place. The great fear and the error are what caused the passing of the Alter Rebbe. So it turns out that R’ Nachum took ten years off of the Alter Rebbe’s life!”

The Rebbe Maharash’s face darkened with deep sorrow and he continued, “It is impossible to imagine what lights we would have received from him during those ten years. Ach, how much the world would have benefited and what he would have accomplished had he lived another ten years.”

The Rebbe Maharash paused for a few moments and then continued with a cloud of deep pain shrouding his face. “Something like this (see sidebar) was done by Rashbatz to the Tzemach Tzedek who passed away ten years before the time allotted to him. What happened was this:

“My father called for him one day and sent him with a pidyon nefesh to the Ohel in Haditch. From there, he was supposed to go and take care of the printing of Likkutei Torah, but Rashbatz first went to take care of the printing. In the interim, the Tzemach Tzedek passed away. Ten years were taken off his life!

“Oy, what lights we would have received during those years? And what would he have accomplished for himself and how much would he have benefited the world during those years …”

The Rebbe Maharash sat absorbed in his pain. Only after long minutes of sad silence did he set forth his request:

“I want that our holy ancestors not lose out by their passing and that we too not lose out. ‘Let the one who reads the letter be the one to carry it out.’ I would like Rashbatz to go to the Ohel in Haditch with a pidyon nefesh from me. However, since he works for your father, R’ Leibel, as a melamed for his sons, tell your father that Rashbatz is going on a mission for me on a matter that concerns Klal Yisroel. Indeed, this is so, because this matter affects everyone.”

R’ Zalman stood before the Rebbe’s holy countenance in trembling and terror. He took in everything that was said with great seriousness. When the Rebbe finished he asked, “It says regarding the departed that the ‘deceased are free’ [of all commandments]. What can be rectified at this point?”

The Rebbe replied in a somewhat annoyed tone. “You have offered me a klutz kashe (fool’s question). In the Gemara Yevamos it quotes R’ Yochanan in the name of R’ Shimon bar Yochai, ‘Any Torah scholar whose teaching is repeated in his name in this world, his lips move in the grave.’ Surely now too they are alive. I have proof of this.”

The Rebbe went on to quote a story from the Gemara in Brachos from where we derive that even after a person’s passing, he has the ability to impact on matters of this world. “From here we see that one can do and accomplish even after one’s lifetime.”

When the Rebbe finished speaking, R’ Shlomo Zalman left the room and went to look for his friend, Rashbatz. He met him in the beis midrash, as he was one of the early risers. The first rays of dawn were beginning to pierce the darkness.

“You need to prepare for a trip on behalf of the Rebbe,” he informed him.

Rashbatz went to the Rebbe and was given a pidyon nefesh as well as money for the trip. That same day he set out for Haditch in order to read the pidyon nefesh there.


Nine years passed since that awesome night that was shrouded in mystery.

The Rebbe Maharash had given many indications about his passing to his mekuravim in the weeks and months that preceded it. If you were alert, you understood these hints.

One time the Rebbe told his attendant, “I am 100 years old.”

The attendant looked at the Rebbe in wonder for the Rebbe was still a young man. The Rebbe saw his bewilderment and said with a smile, “I am 48 years old, and 52 is what is written on my ID,” referring to Shmuel HaNavi who lived for 52 years and whose name he shared.

Before his passing, when his illness became more severe, the Rebbe called his youngest daughter, Mussia, who was still young, and said to her with a cry from the heart:

“My daughter, I really ought to lead you to the chuppa together with your mother but when Hashem does not want …” He said this with a sigh and did not complete the thought. As he spoke, he placed his hands on her head and blessed her.

Shortly before his passing, the Rebbe said he wanted to go to the gravesite of his father, the Tzemach Tzedek. He told his wagon driver to prepare the wagon and to harness the horses. The wagon was waiting outside the house and when the Rebbe left the house and was about to board it, he only managed to put one leg up and not the second. He thought briefly and then decisively alighted and returned to the house. Some add that on this occasion he sadly said, “They don’t even let me go to my father.”

When his condition worsened a top doctor from Vitebsk was called to the house. The doctor thoroughly examined him and then reassured the Rebbe, “We will yet travel abroad,” meaning for health reasons, but the Rebbe did not accept this and said, “Indeed, to travel from one world and reach the next world, that is also a journey.”

When the doctor, a tall, impressive looking gentile, left the Rebbe’s room, the Chassidim surrounded him, eager to hear how the Rebbe was. One of the young Chassidim quickly offered him a chair. The doctor looked at the Chassidim surrounding him with a look of satisfaction. He enjoyed the attention.

“Do you think that you know who your Rebbe is?” he asked them. Without waiting for their reply he said, “I will tell you. Listen.

“When I entered your Rebbe’s room, I was given a detailed report about his illness from the team of doctors who had treated him until that point. After I read it, I began speaking to the Rebbe about his illness. At a certain point, I asked him to give me his hand and I passed my hand over his palm. Then I asked him permission to perform a small operation behind his ear. A look of discomfort crossed his face but after thinking briefly about it, he consented and I did it.

“I diagnosed the Rebbe as having pus in his blood and this is what caused him to be sick and put him in danger. I asked for the Rebbe’s hand to see whether there were signs that validated this theory. That is also the reason for my asking him permission to conduct minor surgery behind his ear in order for me to know whether the pus had spread to his brain.

“While I explained to the Rebbe what I was doing, he began to explain to me the reason for his illness and all about it. For an hour and longer he lectured to me about the illness while analyzing its progression in great detail. As he spoke, I felt as though I was sitting in medical school and listening to a lecture from a professor, expert in the field.”

The doctor surveyed the Chassidim who listened avidly to every word he said. Then he took a deep breath and said, “You should know that this is a serious illness in which the patient suffers terribly. Usually, a patient like this lies in bed and suffers and when the disease reaches his brain he loses his mind.

“And yet, I see your Rebbe sitting on a chair with a smile on his lips. That is why I was uncertain about his diagnosis. But when I saw that the disease had, in fact, reached his brain, I was astounded to see a ‘Rebbe,’ not a doctor, in such a serious condition and he was sitting calmly and giving a medical lecture to a top doctor who came to heal him, while the doctor himself felt like a student before his teacher!”


13 Tishrei 5643/1882.

The hour was approaching midnight as the Rebbe Maharash rose from his bed and sat in a chair. His face shone. He wore a pocket watch which was partially hidden in his pocket. The Rebbe took the watch and detached it from the chain. He took a piece of paper from the desk, moved the hands of the watch to 11:51, and stuck the paper in. His face glowed with what seemed like the joy of perfection-completion.

The Rebbe then spoke to Pinchas Leib the attendant and asked him to call for his three sons. The attendant left to carry out this instruction.

The first to enter was the eldest, R’ Shneur Zalman Aharon, who was known by the acronym Raza. Nobody knows what passed between the two of them, father and son. Only the attendant stood there humbly, making himself invisible. When the eldest left, the middle son, R’ Sholom Dovber known as Rashab, entered. Father and son gazed upon one another meaningfully. The son cried, trying, despite his emotional turmoil, to absorb every word his father uttered.

Then the youngest, R’ Menachem Mendel, entered, and the Rebbe exchanged final words with him as well.

The hands of the watch continued their slow but inexorable move. The moments of life remaining in this world were running out.

When the hands moved to 11:51, the Rebbe’s holy soul left his body. The fourth generation in the chain of Chabad leaders had passed away at the young age of 48.

Lubavitch was in shock. The relatively young Rebbe had passed away rather suddenly. True, he had been sick for years and had suffered greatly, but who thought the Rebbe would leave them at such a young age? His mechutan, R’ Sofer, wrote in an elegy, “Community of Lubavitch wail bitterly – the ark of the Lord has been taken captive.”

There wasn’t much time for the burial, not even time to wait for the arrival of Chassidim from near and far to pay their final respects, for it was almost Yom Tov. The Chassidim rushed to make all the arrangements for the funeral and burial. In later years, his son Rashab said with great passion, “I am convinced that if they would have taken him to the mikva upon his passing, he would have immersed himself, but we did not do that out of fear,” referring to the story about the Arizal that during his purification his students said to him, “May he forgo his honor and immerse his head,” and so he did (a similar story took place with the Maggid of Mezritch).

The days of mourning were brief, for the Rebbe’s passing was a day and a half before Sukkos. Between the burial and the start of Yom Tov were only a few hours.

During these days and throughout the year of mourning, the Rebbe’s sons davened in separate minyanim with each one davening for the amud and reciting Kaddish. Rashab had a minyan in the Rebbe’s room.


Nine years went by since that mysterious night when R’ Shlomo Zalman Zlatapolsky was called to the Rebbe’s room at three in the morning.

The news about the Rebbe’s sudden passing quickly spread from Lubavitch to Kremenchug. It was the start of the tenth year since the night that the Rebbe had sent a pidyon nefesh to Haditch.

R’ Shlomo Zalman sat with his fellow Chassidim wallowing in his mourning and broke out into a terrible cry. For the first time, he recounted to the others the entire story, from beginning to end. “That fateful night I did not realize that the Rebbe was referring to himself and that he was sending a pidyon nefesh to Haditch in order to arouse mercy for himself and for his life. Only now do I understand who he was praying for then, and what he was hinting at when he quoted the Gemara about [the Amora called] ‘Avuha [father of] d’Shmuel.’ Indeed, that pidyon nefesh sent to Haditch helped and the Rebbe was given another ten years or so.”


In Chassidic works it says that in the heavenly court sit the very same tzaddikim, the righteous of the generation, those who are familiar with the suffering and weakness of the generation and are cognizant of the concealments and challenges of that generation. They judge those souls that come to the heavenly court when their time comes in accordance with the limitations of that generation, for the tests of one generation are unlike the tests of another generation. However, when the time comes for the souls of those tzaddikim to ascend to supernal chambers, the souls of tzaddikim who are in this world are taken in order to replace them.

R’ Shmuel Gronem the mashpia said, in the name of the tzaddik R’ Aharon of Koidanov, that since in the heavenly court they needed a tzaddik of that generation to advocate on behalf of the Jewish people, and the tzaddikim of the previous generation had ascended and could no longer speak positively for the generation, the Rebbe Maharash was called up to the heavenly yeshiva.


Greater are tzaddikim in death than in their lifetimes.

Many stories are told about the holiness of the Rebbe Maharash, about his power of influence even after his passing.

One of the stories has to do with the Chassid, R’ Hillel Chernin. He was someone who would visit regularly amongst Chabad Chassidim. He limped a little. One time when he was in a good mood he explained why he limped:

“It was when I was a youngster, young and lively. I had veered somewhat from the path of Torah and mitzvos. My father, the Chassid R’ Meir Mordechai Chernin of Vitebsk, chastised me many times, but in my youthful foolishness I did not listen to him and went even further away from Judaism.

“One day, my father went to the Rebbe Maharash and complained about me. Among other things he said, he blurted out in great bitterness, ‘If only Hashem would make him break a leg or something like that, perhaps that would influence him to improve his ways.’

“A short while later I crashed into a wagon and my foot was injured. The wound spread and pus began to ooze and I suffered great pain. My condition worsened from day to day. The doctors I went to were unable to cure me. My father heard about this and rejoiced. ‘So, did you improve your ways? I am certain that if you improve and I go to the Rebbe and tell him about this, he will give his blessing and you will recover.’

“In my great pain I promised my father to improve and I did so. My father went to Lubavitch and told the Rebbe what happened. The Rebbe gave his blessing and I recovered.

“A long time passed, in the course of which the Rebbe passed away, and thoughts of sin began to rise forth within me once again. I slowly reverted to my old ways, departing from the path of Torah. My father, who observed my deterioration in great distress, warned me about what he was going to do, but this time too, a spirit of foolishness filled my heart and his threat had no effect on me.

“My father went to the Rebbe’s gravesite and read from the pidyon nefesh that he had written: My son went off the good path again and I ask of the Rebbe that he take back his blessing that he blessed him to recover.

“That is exactly what happened. When my father returned to our home in Vitebsk I felt great pain in my leg and the wound began to produce large quantities of pus. When the pain increased I knew I had no choice and I committed to going on the right path. Once again, my father went to the gravesite and told the Rebbe: My son improved. Please Rebbe, give me back the blessing that he recover. And I recovered.”

R’ Hillel concluded his story, “Since then, on those days that I am strong in my Judaism and my faith, I am completely healthy. When I am weak in my fulfillment of mitzvos, then I start feeling the pain in my leg again.”



The Tzemach Tzedek“Ten years were taken from the life of my father the Tzemach Tzedek,” bemoaned the Rebbe Maharash during the yechidus with the Chassid, R’ Shlomo Zalman Zlatapolsky, on that fateful night. “Oy, what lights we would have received during those years? And what would he have accomplished for himself and how much would he have benefited the world during those years …”

In the year 5625, the Tzemach Tzedek called for his Chassid, R’ Shmuel Betzalel Sheftel. The Rebbe gave him the Torah Ohr of his grandfather the Alter Rebbe, along with his notes, in order to have it printed. A year later, he gave him Likkutei Torah to be printed too. Before he left, the Tzemach Tzedek gave him a pidyon nefesh to read when he arrived at the gravesite of the Baal Shem Tov in Mezhibuzh.

Since Rashbatz earned a living selling books and since he had no money at the time, he innocently thought that since he had money for travel expenses from what the Rebbe gave him, it made sense to stop in various towns that dotted the long road to Mezhibuzh where he could sell s’farim to learned Jews who loved Torah. Thus, he would earn some money. The trip took longer than he expected it would and he spent many days on the road before arriving in Mezhibuzh.

With great awe and trepidation he prepared to enter the Ohel and after immersing himself he read the pidyon nefesh in which the Rebbe asked that Hashem lengthen his days in peace and that he have nachas from his children and household, and that the glory of Torah and Judaism be raised up etc.

A short while after leaving Mezhibuzh, he heard the news about the passing of the Tzemach Tzedek. The blood rushed from his face and his paleness testified to his state of shock. Not only because of the Rebbe’s passing but because he instantly realized that it may have been prevented if he had gone directly to the Baal Shem Tov’s gravesite and read the pidyon nefesh there.

For several days he went here and there, heartbroken and not knowing what to do with himself. He felt that there was a grievance from the Rebbe’s youngest son, the Rebbe Maharash, for delaying the reading of the pidyon nefesh. That is the reason that Rashbatz did not rush to return to Lubavitch. Instead, he went back to Mezhibuzh where he spent about two months at the Ohel, in fasting and tears, praying and asking forgiveness.

One day, he saw the Baal Shem Tov himself who told him that he was forgiven and said he should return to Lubavitch. It was only for Rosh HaShana 5627, about half a year after the Rebbe’s passing, that he returned to Lubavitch and to the new Nasi.

Rashbatz told this story to the then young Chassid, R’ Yisroel Noach Blinitzky, when he came to learn in Tomchei T’mimim in Lubavitch, after testing him in learning and finding him to be a great vessel filled with Torah.

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