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The Zemach Zedek and the Haskalah Movement

Chapter 5
Apostates, Spies and Informants

In the autumn of 1839 a new settler, one Lippman Feldman, came to Lubavitch. He was about fifty years old, a native of Zamut. Feldman was a devout Jew, and his wife was equally pious; they attended worship in the synagogue twice daily. Since he was a master chandler he suggested to Rabbi Baruch Shalom, the Rabbi's oldest son, that they form a business partnership. With his father's approval Rabbi Baruch Shalom agreed, and Feldman soon became a frequent visitor in the homes of the Rabbi and his sons.

Lippman's candles sold well in Lubavitch and the surrounding countryside, because of their quality. Lippman himself was highly thought of because of his generous contributions of candles to the three local synagogues, the yeshiva students, and the households of the Rabbi and his sons. His wife, Basya Miriam, distributed candles every Friday to the poor women of the town, at no charge.

Lippman Feldman hired workers to manufacture the candles according to his instructions, while he spent his time in the synagogue, the homes of the Rabbi's sons, the Yeshiva, and the lodgings of the guests in Lubavitch where the Chassidim gathered to review the Rabbi's talks and retell stories of the great Chassidim.1 Lippman often remarked that because of his lack of learning he was unable to study Torah, but he enjoyed simply being present at these gatherings. Wherever he came he was treated with deference because of his exemplary piety and conduct, and his considerate relations with all men, especially the poor.

1 Chassidim habitually gather with a senior Chassid to discuss their spiritual condition, review the Rabbi's discourses, retell stories of great Chassidim, etc. Melodies played a large part in these farbrengen, as Chassidim called these gatherings. The farbrengen, generally informal, are indispensable in forming the character of Chassidim. Farbrengen will be held on Festivals and Chassidic "holidays;" often with the Rabbi himself, and spontaneously when Chassidim meet. The arrival of an older Chassid is sufficient reason for a farbrengen. - Trans.  

Every winter Lubavitch had a fair lasting some two months. Since it was a border town it attracted merchants from distant places like Vilna, Koenigsberg, Krakow, Kiev, Warsaw, Moscow, etc. Several days before the fair Lippman left Lubavitch for a short while, entrusting the business to an artisan relative who had just arrived. When Lippman returned after the fair, his relative continued to conduct the business while Lippman, as usual, spent many hours in the synagogues among the visitors who came for an audience with the Rabbi. He was interested in learning their affairs, their problems and the counsel offered them. He frequented all Chassidic gatherings, and only when the relative left town with merchandise was he actually busy with his work.

It was a month after the fair that the Vilna Chassidim learned through one of their young agents assigned to the Maskilim,1 that an accusation had been lodged against the Rabbi. They succeeded in procuring a copy of the accusation, and sent young Shlomo Moshe to Lubavitch with instructions to give the Rabbi the letter and all pertinent details. When Shlomo Moshe arrived he found two eminent guests there -- the famed Rabbis Isaac of Gomel and Baruch Mordecai of Bobroisk. The two elder Chassidim were at the moment participating in a farbrengen in the home of Zalman Beshes, where they had lodgings. Despite the urgency of his mission the young man was reluctant to upset the Rabbi immediately, especially now that these "giants" of the Chassidim were in Lubavitch. The head of the Chassidim in Vilna, Rabbi Moshe Elia Shirman, had confided to him that these two were among the leaders of the Rabbi's committee on communal affairs. Shlomo Moshe decided to confer with them before reporting to the Rabbi, and he remained to attend the gathering. 

1 Since the organization of a Chassidic group in Vilna, the Chassidim had posted agents there, as in all Misnagdic centers, to keep informed of developments.

The two elders reviewed the discourses they had just heard from the Rabbi, repeated his conversations at the Shabbos meals, and discussed the life of Chassidim in earlier generations, and their tribulations at the hands of their foes. They bemoaned the terrible situation of the moment, the enmity of the Government to the Jewish religion, and the efforts to convert Jewish children. They spoke of the accursed Maskilim and their apostatizing work, and the deplorable fact that the Rabbi was so immersed in study and worship that he utterly ignored public affairs, an unfortunate departure from practice under similar circumstances in earlier days.1

1 Public references to the Rabbi's work were, naturally, misleading.

Shlomo Moshe, a Chassid from Kaidan, Kovno, earned his living as a broker, and was a master scribe and engraver. He was an excellent judge of character, a brilliant and resolute young man. Three years earlier he had moved to Vilna for the specific purpose of being an agent among the Misnagdim and Maskilim, a duty he discharged with distinction.

During the gathering his attention was drawn to a man standing on a bench who wrote occasionally on a slip of paper. Shlomo Moshe was certain he had met the man, his face was vaguely familiar, but he could not recollect where or when. Though the fellow was dressed in Chassidic garb, and sang spiritedly with the other Chassidim, clapping his hands, with eyes closed in devotion, still Shlomo Moshe's conviction grew stronger that the stranger was not a visitor to the Rabbi, and he continued to study him closely. He noticed a quick wink between him and Lippman Feldman -- the two apparently had something in common. Suddenly he recalled the face. The "guest" was Benjamin "the Apostate," an agent of the provincial Government. He realized with sickening apprehension that the trusted Lippman must also be an agent. A trap was being carefully laid for the Rabbi and the Chassidim.

Benjamin the Apostate was notorious all over Vilna and its environs. He was universally feared, by Jew and Gentile, as a sadist reveling in human misery. In his heyday he had destroyed Polish nobles, and through him hundreds had been sentenced to death, and their properties confiscated by the Government. Investigations of any vague suspicions of disrespect to the Government were entrusted to this Benjamin.

After the gathering Shlomo Moshe revealed his mission to the two Rabbis, showing them the copy of the accusation, and told them all he knew and the manner in which it was learned. He also told them that here in Lubavitch he had recognized the notorious spy, Benjamin, disguised as a Chassid, and had seen him signaling the "Chassid" Lippman the chandler, who was no doubt an accomplice.

Shlomo Moshe hurried off to follow Lippman and Benjamin. Because of the deep mud, the two were unhurriedly making their way along the roadside. The young man followed them until they reached Lippman's home on Seriza Street in the Gentile quarter. He heard Benjamin exclaim, "For the two days I've spent here I've been unsuccessful. They sent me to you for no good reason. In two hours I'm leaving and I'll verify your report The Rabbi is obviously occupied with study and worship, his visitors discuss purely personal problems, and he plainly has no time for public affairs. But his influence is tremendous. There is no need for you to remain any longer. I'm sure that within a few weeks you will be able to leave this muck and return home."

Lippman then urged Benjamin to come in and eat, but Benjamin retorted that he already had had enough kosher food during these past two days. Instead, he intended to go to the police station, awaken the vayit, the police official, show his credentials and get his fill of fat swine meat.

Shlomo Moshe returned to the Rabbis to tell what he had observed. They, in turn, told him the purpose of their own visit to Lubavitch. Three weeks earlier, they had been interrogated in their respective homes by the secret police about the character of the Rabbi and his involvement in Jewish affairs, in regard to improving both material and moral conditions among his people. The Rabbis now came to Lubavitch to report and confer.

At noon the next day Avraham, the tax-collector, told the Rabbi's attendant, Chaim Ber, in strict confidence, that an hour earlier the vayit1 Danila had called on him and told him that last night someone had banged on the window of the police station and demanded entry. Danila ordered a policeman to open the door. "I was shocked to see a Jew enter, a bundle on his back, dressed like a visitor come to the Rabbi. He ordered me to go into another room with him or dismiss the policeman because he has secret business to discuss. He barked orders just like an officer, and when he showed me his credentials identifying him as a secret agent, I was certainly frightened! I gave him a private room to change his clothes. He demanded food, ate and drank and inquired about the Rabbi. Before dawn he left by a fancy coach for headquarters in Lyozna, and ordered me never to reveal his visit. Now, Avraham, go tell the Rabbi, but secretly. I'm sure you remember who Danila is!" And with the parting warning Danila had left, Avraham told Chaim Ber.

1 Danila, a petty police official, was a hateful person, but respectful and cordial to the Rabbi and his family. A short while before this incident, he had arrested Avraham for two days.

The two elder Chassidim told the Rabbi the entire story of the agents as Shlomo Moshe had told them. The Rabbi summoned Shlomo Moshe to report personally about his own mission as well. The Rabbi decided that no one but his son, Rabbi Baruch Shalom (whom Rabbi Schneur Zalman had given the blessing of determined courage), should know of the Lippman/Benjamin affair. Meanwhile, the relations with Lippman were to continue as in the past. Two weeks later Lippman informed Rabbi Baruch Shalom that he must return home for an indefinite stay. He had decided to sell his share of the candle business cheaply. A Lubavitcher householder, Avraham Shillaver, bought Lippman's interest.

In May, the District Police Officer was directed to move to Lubavitch and establish residence on Zarietcha Street, with two assistants. The officers and one aide spoke Yiddish, and were often in the Rabbi's antechamber where visitors awaited their turn for an audience. When the Rabbi lectured in the Yeshiva, the officer was present, always in civilian clothing, wearing his uniform only on special days like Sundays and holidays.

The Rabbi's work took on broader, scope all this time. The Petersburg vaad was functioning smoothly; and young Israel Chaikin of Nevel had brilliant success in his highly confidential work with Andratov, assistant Minister of the Interior. In that year, 1840-1841, the Rabbi sent 15,000 rubles to the Holy Land, part of it earmarked to defray outstanding debts. He founded Chabad synagogues in Jerusalem, Safed, and Tiberias, and organized the chaluka for the entire Chabad community in the land.

Two men of Borisov kept the entire region terrorized, Zundel Mazik (harmful) and Isaac Chap (snatcher). In 1841 they accused the Rabbi of concealing in his yeshiva in Lubavitch thirty youths who had been conscripted and, on the Rabbi's orders, had been kidnapped from the Army. Though a police official was already assigned to Lubavitch, special officers were sent from Babinovitch, the District seat, and Mogilev, the provincial capital. At night they suddenly surrounded the Rabbi's home, the Yeshiva, and two synagogues. The officers examined the documents of every student and visitor, searched the hotels, and homes of the Rabbi and his sons, and private individuals, constantly, for three full days and nights. They discovered nothing. However, Provincial Secret Agent Gavrilov declared his confidence in the affidavit, as he called the libel, of citizens Zundel Maitin and Isaac Ginsberg. He insisted that though nothing was found now, everything would be uncovered in due time.

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