Tag Archives: Lubavitcher Rebbe

Jews of the Week: Zalman Shazar and Reuven Rivlin

Two Israeli Presidents

Reuven Rivlin (b. 1939) was born in Jerusalem to a family descended from the great Vilna Gaon, that made aliyah in 1809. His father was a Hebrew University professor who first translated the Koran into Hebrew. Not surprisingly, Rivlin speaks Arabic fluently. That made him a key asset during those years when he served in the IDF Intelligence Corps. In the Six-Day War, Rivlin fought with the Jerusalem Brigade. He later studied law at Hebrew University, and served on Jerusalem’s City Council. In 1988, he was elected chairman of Likud and took his first seat in the Knesset. In 2003, he became Knesset Speaker, a position he held until 2014, when he was elected Israel’s tenth president. In that election, he had the support of Arab MKs, despite the fact that he has always been very right-wing, heavily criticized the withdrawal from Gaza, declared that “West Bank settlements are as Israeli as Tel Aviv”, and continues to push for a one-state solution. Nonetheless, he has been praised for building bridges in Israel, and being an eloquent spokesperson on the state’s behalf. Rivlin is a vegetarian and a big supporter of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, which he once managed decades ago. Earlier this month, his term as Israel’s president came to an end, and he has been replaced by (former Jew of the Week) Isaac Herzog.

Schneur Zalman Rubashov (1889-1974) was born in the Belorussian town of Mir, near Minsk, to a deeply religious Chabad family, and was named after Chabad’s founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. From a young age, he was drawn to Zionism and was also a member of Jewish self-defence organizations in Eastern Europe. He regularly wrote articles for a number of Yiddish publications. After being released from the Russian army in 1924, he made aliyah and settled in Tel-Aviv, changing his last name to “Shazar” (an acronym of his full name). There he worked for the Histadrut (Israel’s national trade union) and also as a journalist. In 1947, Shazar was part of the Jewish delegation to the UN during the critical Partition Plan vote. He was elected to the first Knesset in 1949 and became the new state’s Minister of Education. In 1963, Shazar was elected Israel’s third president. He wrote a goodwill message that was taken by the Apollo 11 crew to the moon, where it still rests. On it he wrote: “From the President of Israel in Jerusalem with hope for ‘abundance of peace so long as the moon endures’ (Psalms 72:7).” Shazar was a devoted member of the “Chein Circle” for Hasidic study in Jerusalem, often hosting the group in his presidential residence. He became a student of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and later helped him produce his renowned translation and commentary of the Talmud. Shazar kept a regular correspondence with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and often visited him in Brooklyn. He co-founded Kfar Chabad in Israel. Shazar passed away shortly after completing his second term as Israel’s president. Today, his portrait appears on the Israeli 200 shekel note.

Words of the Week

I have no doubt, and my positions are known, that the status of Judaism according to halachah is what has kept us going for 3,800 years.
– Reuven Rivlin

President Shazar toasts the Lubavitcher Rebbe at Chabad headquarters (770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn)

Jew of the Week: the Alter Rebbe

Founder of Chabad

Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) was born in the shtetl of Liozna in what is now Belarus. A child prodigy, he wrote his first commentary on the Torah when he was eight years old. Shortly after, he was sent to the nearby town of Lubavitch to begin advanced Talmudic studies, and was sent back home at the age of 12 as he had surpassed the knowledge of his teachers. He married at 15, and around the same time was first exposed to Kabbalah by two Bohemian refugees that settled in Liozna. They also taught him math, astronomy, and philosophy. A few years later, Rav Schneur Zalman met the Hasidic master Dov Ber, “the Maggid [Preacher] of Mezeritch”, who was himself the disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement. Rav Schneur Zalman became the Maggid’s devoted student, and when the latter died in 1772, was recognized as his successor. Unfortunately, there was still great opposition to the Hasidic movement at the time, most notably from the Vilna Gaon, who attempted to ban the Hasidim. Rav Schneur travelled to Vilnius in an effort to assuage the Gaon, but was refused a meeting. Despite the opposition, Hasidism flourished across Eastern Europe, and many Hasidic masters were emerging in towns large and small. Rav Schneur Zalman’s approach was unique in that he placed rationalism and thought above all else, and held by the mantras of “mind over matter” and “intelligent, not blind faith”. He therefore called his branch of Hasidism “Chabad”, based on the acronym for the Kabbalistic sefirot of Chokhmah, Binah, and Da’at, loosely translated as Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge. Rav Schneur Zalman would become known as the Alter Rebbe, the “Elder Rabbi”, the founder of Chabad. His magnum opus, known as the Tanya, is sometimes considered the “Bible of Hasidism”. The Alter Rebbe also put together a new Hasidic code of law, a prayer book, and multiple discourses on Hasidic teachings. During the Napoleonic Wars, he sided with the Czar, despite the fact that the Russians oppressed the Jews while Napoleon brought emancipation to them. He believed that while the Russians threatened the Jewish body, Napoleon threatened the Jewish soul, as his “emancipation” would lead to mass assimilation of Jews in Europe. History would prove him right. In 1812, the Alter Rebbe fled Napoleon’s approaching armies, and succumbed to an illness on the difficult journey. His disciples split among two potential successors: some supported Aharon Horowitz, based in the town of Strashelye, while others supported Rav Schneur Zalman’s son, Dov Ber, based in Lubavitch. Over time, the Strashelye branch dissipated, leaving the Lubavitch stream. This is one reason why the movement is still known as Chabad-Lubavitch. The organization has become the most successful Jewish outreach group in history, mainly due to the work of the seventh and last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Today, there is a Chabad House on every continent (except Antarctica, for now), with over 1300 Chabad-run institutions around the world. Yesterday, the 18th of Elul, was the Alter Rebbe’s birthday.

A Secret History of Zionism

Words of the Week

A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness.
– the Alter Rebbe

In a letter to his grandson, dated 24 Tevet 5583 (December 1812, shortly before his passing), the Alter Rebbe wrote: “I no longer see a table, a chair, a lamp… only the letters of the Divine Utterances.” As we read in the Torah, God “spoke” the world into existence, and all material things are only a reflection of their spiritual inner essence, composed of a combination of Hebrew letters, the building blocks of Creation. Like other great Kabbalists before and after him, the Alter Rebbe saw through the illusory material world, and beheld the spiritual “code” within, reminiscent of this famous scene from ‘The Matrix’.

Jew of the Week: Ahmed Zayat

Ahmed Zayat holding the trophy at the 2015 Preakness Stakes

Ahmed Zayat holding the trophy at the 2015 Preakness Stakes

Ephraim Ahmed Zayat (b. 1962) was born in Cairo to a wealthy Orthodox Jewish-Egyptian family. His father was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s personal doctor. Zayat studied in the US at Yeshiva University, and then at Boston University, where he got his Master’s in business and health. He then spent some time as a real estate investor in New York (working for past Jew of the Week Zev Wolfson), before returning to Egypt to run Al-Ahram Beverages. Zayat turned the company into a huge success, particularly through its popular alcohol-free halal beer catered to the Muslim world. He sold Al-Ahram to Heineken in 2002 for triple the original price, making it the largest buyout in Egypt’s history. Zayat then turned his attention to horse racing. He first learned to ride horses as a child growing up in Egypt, and had competed in various show jumping tournaments, winning a couple of national titles. Zayat soon started his new company, Zayat Stables, to breed his own race horses. His horses have gone on to win two dozen prestigious competitions. At one point, he was America’s number one race horse owner. Most recently, his horse American Pharoah made history by winning the Triple Crown – one of just 12 horses to do so, and the first since 1978. Before the final race, Zayat had American Pharoah’s jockey Victor Espinoza visit the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to pray for success. Zayat still has big investments all over the world, including being the main shareholder in Egypt’s largest glass container manufacturer. He is also a noted philanthropist, donating large sums to various important causes, including Jewish schools.

Words of the Week

From the time that God said to our forefather Abraham, “Go from your land…” and “Abraham went on, journeying southward,” began the process of birurim – of extracting the sparks of holiness that are scattered throughout the universe and buried within the material existence… By Divine providence, a person wanders about in his travels to those places where the sparks that are to be extracted by him await their redemption…
– Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch