The town of Lubavitch

The Life and Legacy of the Rebbe Maharash

In honor of Yud Gimmel Tishrei, the yahrzeit of the Rebbe Maharash we asked Rabbi Sholom DovBer Avtzon, the author of the acclaimed Rebbeim Biography Series if he can share with us some insights into the life of the Rebbe Maharash. He graciously agreed to give us an unedited portion of his upcoming biography on the Rebbe Maharash.

Relates Rabbi Avtzon:

A few months after the biography of the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek was published, I as asked by numerous people, if I had begum compiling material on the Rebbe Maharash and if yes, can I explain what L’chatchila ariber means in actuality. Simply put in what aspects did the Rebbe Maharash conduct himself in accordance to this dictum of his?

I replied that I had not begun working on the biography of the Rebbe Maharash, however, from the knowledge and insights that I have gained from the biography of his father, the Tzemach Tzedek, I will say as follows:

First of all, everyone is aware of how outwardly he lived a very rich life style. He had a chariot that was the envy of the nobility, and many horses to pull it. His flatware was made out of gold, as was his watch. Furthermore, this mode of conduct, began already in his father’s lifetime.

After one of the fires of Lubavitch destroyed his parents’ house, he was given the responsibility to rebuild it. When it was finally finished the Tzemach Tzedek moved in and noticed immediately that the new windows were much larger than before.

Turning to his son he asked, “Why did you make such large windows?”

The Maharash answered, “In order that it should be lichtig (bright) in the house.

The Tzemach Tzedek responded, “By [my] grandfather, there weren’t large windows.”

So he replied, “If so, it wasn’t as lichtig as now.”

To which the Tzemach Tzedek responded, “By grandfather it was lichtig lichtig (extremely bright).”

Although the Tzemach Tzedek pointed out that on this point he strongly disagrees, one should not construe it to mean that he didn’t agree with this approach of his. As we see from the following story, his father, the Rebbe, not only approved of it but encouraged it.

Once a Chossid brought to Lubavitch an expensive sled and presented it to the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek as a way to express his deep gratitude to the Rebbe. The Tzemach Tzedek who lived a very austere and scant lifestyle, to the extent that even the walls of his house were not painted, replied, “I have no need for it. Give it to my son Reb Shmuel as he can use it.”

Additionally, the building of that house took close to a year. However, shortly after he became Rebbe the houses burnt down yet another time. This time he instructed that they be rebuilt in three weeks and the buildings should be doubled and some tripled in size.

So you see, this concept of L’chatchilla ariber wasn’t limited to living a certain type of lifestyle; it was his philosophy that he applied in his everyday decisions.  Simply put, he just didn’t believe in limitations, especially man made ones, or that something is too difficult to accomplish. From the very beginning. Even before he became Rebbe, his approach was to go all the way.

But it wasn’t just limited to demonstrating to others to think on a grandeur scale and that they should go all the way. It was his approach in all of his communal dealings as well.

As was discussed in the biography of the Tzemach Tzedek, although the Tzemach Tzedek was iron willed and faced the ministers with passion and determination, during the extended conference in 5603 (1843), it was not something he relished to experience. When the Tzemach Tzedek was informed that he is being called to participate in this conference, he became sick. When he was called to participate in the second and third conference, he obtained a letter from the renowned Doctor Heibenthal that he is to ill to travel. But in order that the government doesn’t take his refusal as a boycott he sent his youngest son, the Maharash to be his representative.

The Maharash by contrast, did not shy away from meeting the ministers. In fact he often travelled to Petersburg on his own accord to meet them; it was almost as if he relished it. He did not plea with them to have pity on a Jew, rather he demanded that the ministers listen to him and show respect to all Jews.

So that was my perspective on what L’chatchilla Ariber meant.

But now that I spent some time on learning more about the Rebbe Maharash, I came to the conclusion that although the above is true, it isn’t an adequate answer, in fact it falls short or is even misleading. Since, L’chatchila ariber wasn’t just a saying of his or a way of conduct under certain circumstances. It was his way of life in every aspect every day.

The Rebbe points out numerous times in his explanations on Pirkei Avos, the words mah hu omer, (which literally mean, what does he say), really mean; if you want to know a person, pay attention to what he says. Subconsciously, one expresses their innermost thoughts and feelings in everyday speech.

Perhaps this was more evident by the Rebbe Maharash, because of this statement, than by any of the other Rebbeim. He said, “The world says if  or when a person can’t get around it, [then] you go above it. And I say the initial approach should be to go above it.

As we will see this saying or better said, this motto was the way of his life. His niggun which was called eintz, tzvei drei, fiur (1-2-3-4), is referred to by the Rebbe as the niggun of L’chatchilla ariber. And as is well known, the Alter Rebbe says, a niggun (song without words) is the pen of the soul. It is the essence of the soul, that can’t be captured [or limited] by words.

The Rebbe Maharash was saying, a person should look at what he considered obstacles and challenges, as things that have to be taken care of and nothing more. Because if a person would be set back because of these “challenges”, the Rebbe Maharash’s should have been beset, as his life was beset with all sorts of challenges from the very beginning. And we are not talking about average everyday challenges, but about real hard, difficult and painful ones. And not only was he not deterred in his goals, but he indeed succeeded in achieving them.

He was born with, or developed because of a sickness, a terrible metabolism, every ounce of food that he ate, added to his weight. He was on a strict diet, but already at around six years old, his fingers were so swelled up that it affected his circulation and the doctors were afraid that they might have to chas v’sholom amputate some of them. Three days after his marriage, his wife became ill, never to recover and passed away around ten weeks later.

At twenty he had a severe bout of leukemia, where his white blood cells rose dangerously high, and only through the actions and prayers of his father, the Rebbe, coupled with the dedicated care of the renowned physician, Dr. Heibenthal, did he survive.

Survived yes, but healed not, as he had to remain under the constant watch of the doctors for the remainder of his life, for that as well as numerous other horrific ailments, which sometimes caused him to be away from his family for months at a time. Indeed this disease reappeared with a vengeance the last few months of his life and was the natural cause of his histalkus.

During the seventeen years of his nesius, he was constantly working to annul or at least alleviate the terrible decrees that the Czar kept on making against the Jews in all aspects of their life; be it concerning what they could learn in cheder, who could be their teacher, being drafted into the army, and being accused of being part of a blood libel. Then there was the governor of Vitebsk desire to hurt him personally and force his son the [Rebbe] Rashab to be drafted into the army.

The severest of these harsh challenges and indeed what we will call formidable obstacles was the government’s incited pogroms against the Jews throughout Russia. So even one who has the heart and strength of a lion, when faced with these challenges, his courage would melt and evaporate.

But not so the Rebbe Maharash; These decrees and actions of the ministers were indeed challenges that could not be ignored, but he responded to them head on. His reply to the government was to challenge them in a bigger way. Instead of pleading with them to have pity on the defenseless Jew, something that would indirectly and unintentionally give support to the viewpoint of the ministers, that the Jews were inferior to the other citizens and needed special protection, he demanded that they receive equal protection, as any other citizen of the country.

He challenged them, if Jews aren’t important, then why are you so upset that I spoke to Jewish bankers from other countries. You claim that you are superior to everyone else, so why are you furious that I spoke to gentile leaders abroad. So evidently it is not as you claim, so admit to the truth and change your tune.

They were furious at him, and threatened to charge him with treason because of his actions and these words and punish him accordingly, but three days later a edict went out from the interior minister to stop all the pogroms.

However, it would be wrong to say that this is just the way he approached and dealt with challenges and adversaries. This was his way in every aspect of his life, no matter what the situation was. In other words this is who he was.

When he was young and learning in the cheder, his father, the Rebbe, would come and test the class periodically. After one such test, when young Shmuel excelled, the melamed was beaming with pride and mentioned to the Rebbe, “Look how well he did!”

The Tzemach Tzedek replied, “What is so surprising that one who was born on [the 17th of the Omer, which is called] tiferes she’b’tiferes (beauty within beauty) does well.”

This was said when he bested his classmates, some of whom were two to three years older than him. However, there were incidents that he won debates with other chassidim and even bested an elderly Rov. A few times, the Tzemach Tzedek remarked, “It is not surprising, as his bris was on the day that is called beauty within victory, [so yes he was victorious].

In other words the Tzemach Tzedek was saying, this is who he is. It is not an exception or a one (or few) time phenomenon that he is the victor, this is what he is and it can be expected that he will come out on top.

Later on when he became Rebbe, it was even more noticeable. While on one hand he was extremely approachable, and often he would sit in the courtyard and say stories to whomever was around. Additionally, when he travelled and strangers who had never seen him before and didn’t even know his identity, would mention to the chassidim that accompanied him, that they would like to speak to him, the Rebbe Maharash was always agreeable.

Yet, when he had to take care of communal matters, he did as he understood. As we see from the following incident he wanted and tried to work with and involve others in the work, but if it didn’t succeed, meaning that they felt it should be done a different way, he went forward without them.

The classical episode that demonstrates this happened around 5640 (1880) a few years before his histalkus.

At that time he called for a meeting of Jewish leaders, including some maskilim as they had some connections with various ministers, with the intention of stopping the pogroms that were spreading all over Russia. At the meeting he spelled out the situation, adding some tidbits of information that not everyone was aware of and then presented his plan of action. That as a group they all should go to the Minister of the Interior.

The assembled listened carefully to what he said and while many agreed with him, some of them were upset, never-the-less. One of them speaking on behalf of the others said, If the Lubavitcher Rebbe is calling us to a meeting that shows that we are important people. Furthermore, you just said that you want us to speak to the ministers that we are acquainted with; that too shows that we are important people with whom others – including – the ministers, take our opinion into consideration.

So being that this is the case, the Lubavitcher Rebbe should also listen to what we have to say on the matter. Perhaps we have an alternative approach, which in our opinion would be more successful. Or we might follow your plan 95% and do just a few little points slightly different.

“We are not like pawns [in a chess game] that are moved at the whim of the player. Sometimes you call us and tell us what we must do, while other times you ignore us completely.”

The Rebbe Maharash answered: I requested that you come in order to give you an opportunity to help our nation. Then quoting Mordechai’s message to Esther he said; “however, if you prefer t remain silent, the salvation of the Jewish people/nation will come from another source, and you and your whole family [i.e. your power and prestige] will be lost. Who knows, perhaps it was just for this situation, you became queen [i.e. Hashem granted you your wealth and influence].

Saying that the Rebbe left the meeting and accompanied by two of his chassidim, visited the ministers and succeeded in stopping the pogroms.

But it wasn’t only with adversaries that he dealt with in this manner. As noted this was who he was and therefore when necessary even dealt with elder chassidim and his own brothers in the same way.

Not only was he the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek’s youngest son, but he had nephews older than him. His brother Reb Yehudah Leib (known as the Maharil), had a son who was almost three years older than the Maharash. The Maharil was fifty five when their father, the Rebbe , was nistalek, while he was thirty-two.

The Maharil was reviewing their father’s maamorim for over thirty years, while he did so publically only during the last half a year of the Tzemach Tzedek’s lifetime.

But yet on numerous occasions, he told the Maharil, as well as his brother Reb Yisroel Noach, who used to tutor him, “You are older in your years, while I am older in fathers’.”

Furthermore, he did not believe that it was an approach that was uniquely his or limited to a small amount of people, to the contrary he felt everyone can go with this approach and additionally guaranteed that anyone who goes in this path would be successful. The question then becomes; he was a Rebbe, so he could have this unbelievable approach, but how can it be expected from regular people like us?

The Rebbe writes in HaYom Yom, that every Rebbe had a maamar which he said in order to purify the air. He then notes, the maamar of the Rebbe Maharash began with the words mi chomocha. And this very concept is discussed there!

The maamar focuses on the possuk that says mayim rabim lo yuchloo l’chabos es hu’ahava and explains it to mean that the headaches and frustrations of earning a living can not extinguish the love a Jew has for Hashem.

He then explains that the reason why nothing can deter a Jew from serving Hashem, is because a Jew recognizes the truth that Hashem created him and the entire universe. So it is unfathomable to say that Hashem created you and gave you commandments and instructions as to what you should do, in other words, he is spelling out the reason why each one of us was created and then one would say that there is something else that Hashem created that is preventing me from fulfilling His desire. Obviously he did not create something to stop and prevent you from fulfilling your mission.

When one has this mindset, Hashem created me for a purpose and gave me a mission to accomplish in the world He created, can any person than accept the notion that there is something stronger that could prevent him from succeeding, obviously not!

And that my friends’ is the message of L’chatchilla ariber. We should know that we are going with the strength of Hashem and therefore our ability is only as limited as we make it to be, but on its own it has unlimited potential and reach as high as we can to succeed in the mission that the Rebbe and all the Rebbeim have entrusted to us. Spread Torah and yiddishkeit and prepare the world for kabalas moshiach tzidkeinu speedily in our days.

This explains another conduct that was unique by him and [almost] not seen by the other Rebbeim. He often warned his adversaries of the exact consequences that would befall them, in case they continue to oppose him. Quite often the person took the words to heart and complied with the Rebbe’s instructions, while other times, the person foolishly ignored it and indeed suffered.

We will mention two such episodes; one when the person listened and one when he didn’t.

One of the Communal matters that he was involved in, was combating the maskilim and their insidious platform of forcing all Jewish children to learn secular studies as well as using their books for Jewish studies, which omitted many halachos etc.

After thwarting one such attempt, he sent a letter of warning to Baron Ginsberg, that if he doesn’t retract his letter of intent to support the maskilim, I will make sure that you lose your entire fortune. As a sign that he meant it, the Rebbe Maharash told him, as a sign that this is true, all of the new stock transactions that you will buy in the next few weeks, will cause you a loss. Indeed after experiencing a series of continuous setbacks and losses, Baron Ginsberg retracted his support for them and asked the Rebbe Maharash, how should he spend the money that he had earmarked for them. [The Rebbe instructed him to build a shul].

And then there was the governor of Vitebsk that out of personal reasons tried to draft the Rebbe’s son into the army. After not heeding his warning, the Rebbe Maharash said a maamar and inserted the words heichal hanegef – the plague began, and immediately the governor was afflicted with terrible pains and passed away a few months later.

As we noted in the biography of the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek that he was the third Rebbe of Lubavitch. In many sichos, the Rebbe pointed out that three corresponds to the third sefirah (attribute) of intellect, which is daas (understanding) as well as to the third sefirah of emotions which is tiferes (beauty).

Following this comparison, the Rebbe Maharash who was the fourth Rebbe of Lubavitch corresponds to the fourth sefirah of emotions and that is netzach.Netzach is the root word of netzuchon which means victory. A true victor can be magnanimous and gracious towards his opposition, but if and when necessary will deal decisively with him.

So too was with the Rebbe Maharash; he attempted to do everything in a pleasant way, going through the proper channels and doing the needed hishtadlus(intercession). Yet when necessary, he would make sure that the other side realizes who they are dealing with and as mentioned often warned them up front.

This brings to mind something that happened a few years after he became Rebbe.

The city of Babroisk was without an official Rov ever since the great Rov, Reb Hillel passed away in 552? (186?) on the 11th of Av. Seeing the need to appoint a new Rov, he appointed his nephew Reb Shmaryahu Noach, a son of his brother Reb Yehudah Leib. In his letter to the community, he extols all of his qualities and then makes a note; he does have one shortcoming, but that would take care of itself over the course of time. Presently he is relatively quite young, only in his twenties.

One of the leading chassidim, immediately announced, the Rebbe spoke and chassidim listen. This mans’ sons were married and were independently wealthy and they weren’t happy, and replied, The Rebbe is Rebbe, however, chassidim are chassidim . meaning we love him, but we do things also and ignoring their fathers plea and warning they voted against the nomination.

That night or a few nights later, a fire broke out in their house. The son realized it was heavenly retribution for speaking up against the Rebbe and his choice, cried out and said, Rebbe, the doors of teshuvah are always open, I accept him,” and managed to save himself and family.

But when one has to win, there is no compromise.

This brings us to another aspect of the Rebbe Maharash, he was known for the extraordinary miracles that he preformed on a constant basis. In fact from all the Rebbeim, he is called “A Baal Shem’ske Rebbe.”

One of the wonders of the Baal Shem Tov, was the fact that his wagon traveled, in a few hours, distances that normally take days or weeks. Simply put, he wasn’t bound by the limitations of the world. This is, as noted, exactly what the Rebbe Maharash said in the maamar, that the world can not be an obstacle to fulfill Hashem’s will. Therefore he did open miracles to demonstrate that the world is not a contradiction to the fulfillment of Torah and Mitzvos.

The author can be contacted at


  • lifelight

    Thank you so much for sharing this excerpt with us. It is truly inspirational, and a great encouragement to purchase the forthcoming book on this incredible personage that was the Rebbe Maharash.

  • Devorah Leah

    Beautiful. Thank you for this. Looking forward to the upcoming book, iy”H!

  • Sholom Dovber Cohen

    Unfortunately there was a lot of family discord among the children of the Tzemach Tzedek.
    The Chassidim of each son were drawn into the conflict.
    By the time of the Rebbe Rashab Lubavitch had diminished in size considerably.