The Mishnah (Rosh Hashana 1:1) declares four calendar dates as “Jewish New Years.” On the first day of Tishrei, we celebrate Rosh Hashana as the annual day of judgment for all humanity because it marks the anniversary of the creation of the first human. The first of Nissan is known as the New Year for kings and months. The New Year for animal tithes is calculated on the first of Elul. On this day, all animals become a year older. Finally, the 15th of Sh’vat, or in Hebrew, Tu b’Shevat, is the New Year for Trees. The age of trees, which is important for certain agricultural laws, is calculated from this day. All trees become a year older on this date.

But among some Chassidim, most notably the disciples of Chabad or Lubavitch, there is another New Year: the 19th of Kislev is known as the New Year of Chassidut, based on some historical events that took place on this day.

On this date, the founder of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) is credited for revealing the “inner soul” or mystical components of Torah to the masses. His primary disciple, Rabbi Dov Ber, the “Maggid” (preacher) of Mezeritch, died on the 19th of Kislev. According to tradition, the Maggid told his disciple, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1742-1812), the first Rebbe of the Lubavitch Chassidim, also known lovingly as the Alter Rebbe, (Yiddish for Old Rabbi), that “this day is our Yom Tov (festival).”

Rabbi Schneur Zalman was successfully disseminating Chassidic thought to the general public. However, he was arrested in 1798 for treason, and was accused of supporting the Ottoman Empire, an enemy of Russia at the time. Apparently, he was sending funds to impoverished Jews in the Holy Land, which was under Ottoman hegemony. He was imprisoned on an island off Saint Petersburg’s Neva River, and after 53 days, was released on the 19th of Kislev. Rabbi Schneur Zalman saw his exoneration as a Divine omen to continue spreading the secrets of Chassidic Torah to the masses.

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