This essay will explore the succession of leadership in the Habad Hassidic movement. It will attempt to understand why Habad has preferred dynastic succession over disciple succession. We will also attempt to demonstrate that disciple succession was deemed legitimate at the earliest stages of the Habad movement and that the preference for dynastic succession was only established after the leadership of R. Dov Ber – the second Habad leader.
Although understanding the historical circumstances is vital to shed light on this subject, a comprehension of Habad ideology relating to succession is also needed to get an authentic picture of this. To this end, our focus on the socio-historical perspective will be limited, and our main attention will be focused on the ideological perspective – the history of ideas.
Our study will concentrate on the first two generations of the Habad movement – the leadership of R. Shneor Zalman (d. 1813) and his son R. Dov Ber (d. 1827) – examining how their claim to leadership set the stage for the future generations of Habad leadership succession.
From the socio-historical perspective, Rapoport-Albert has asserted that it is possible that the commonality of hereditary succession in the general rabbinate, outside of Hassidism – what Rapoport-Albert terms Hasidism’s “parent society” – influenced the adoption of the dynastic model of succession in Hasidic leadership.
It was, perhaps, the traditional prevalence of heredity in the leadership of Jewish communities outside Hassidism that rendered natural and straightforward the move towards hereditary succession in the leadership of the movement, so much so that it seemed hardly necessary to explain this move and to justify it ideologically; for Hassidic literature, on the whole, is remarkably poor in ideologies of heredity and of dynastic succession to Zaddikism.
Although this argument is convincing, one should not forget that the nature of Hasidic teachings is such, that even without explicit teachings about a specific topic, Hasidim will know what Hasidism’s attitude towards that topic would be. Succession is a case in point: a Hasid would no doubt instinctively know whether hereditary succession is preferable to the succession of a disciple; indeed, Habad Hasidic teachings are replete with teachings regarding the teacher-disciple relationship and the father-son relationship. No doubt these teachings had some influence – at least on a theoretical if not a practical level – on the question of succession. Thus, when discussing the succession of leadership within the Habad movement, they must be examined.
We will start with examining an important letter written by R. Shneor Zalman comforting fellow followers of R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk following the latter’s death in 1789. This letter is important because the death of R Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk opened the way for R. Shneor Zalman to take over the leadership of White Russian Hassidim.
Now, while the Zaddik was alive on earth, these three attributes where contained in their vessel and garment on the plane of physical space. This is the aspect of the nefesh bound to his body. All his disciples receive but a radiation from these attributes, and a ray from them radiating beyond this vessel by means of his holy utterances and thoughts. That is why our sages, of blessed memory, said that a person cannot comprehend his master… But after his passing, as the nefesh [which remains in the grave] is separated from the ruach [i.e. these three attributes] which is in the Garden of Eden, whoever is nigh unto him [emphasis added by Brackman] can receive a part from the aspect of his ruach [which is in the Garden of Eden], because it is no (longer) within a vessel, nor on the plane of physical space. Thus is known the saying of our sages, of blessed memory, with reference to our father Jacob, peace is to him, that “The Garden of Eden entered with him.” Likewise it is stated in the book Assarah Maamarot that the sphere of the Garden of Eden spreads itself around every person, and in this sphere are recorded all his good thoughts and utterings of Torah and Divine worship; (and likewise to the contrary, Heaven forefend: they are recorded in the sphere of the Gehenna, which spreads itself around every person.) Thus it is very easy for his disciples to receive their part of the essential aspects [emphasis added by Brackman] of their master’s ruach, i.e. his faith, his awe and his love wherewith he served the Lord, and not merely a ray thereof which radiates beyond the vessel. For the essential aspect of his ruach is raised, elevation upon elevation, to become absorbed in his neshamah which is in the upper Garden of Eden, in the supreme worlds.
We see clearly here the opinion of R. Shneor Zalman that a disciple could inherit the essence of his teacher’s greatness after his passing. One can also assume that Hasidim who read this letter interpreted it to be saying that the closer the, disciple, the greater the inherited measure of the teacher’s ruach. One could therefore argue that this letter convinced many Hasidim of R. Shneor Zalman’s suitability as R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk successor. Hasidim realized that since R. Shneor Zalman was the closest disciple and sole representative of R. Menachem Mendel in White Russia he had inherited more of his ruach then any one else.
The following reported interchange between R. Shneor Zalman and R. Baruch of Medziboz presents even more convincing evidence that R. Shneor Zalman regarded disciple succession to be at least on a par with hereditary succession: “You must respect me because I am the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov,” said R. Baruch. R. Shneor Zalman retorted, “I too am the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, a spiritual grandson, for the Maggid was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov and I am a disciple of the Maggid.”
In light of the letter sent to fellow followers after the death of R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (see above p3/4) this exchange is readily understandable: after the death of the teacher the student can also receive from the essence of his soul (ruach), and this seemingly brings the student on a par with the son. Thus, R. Shneor Zalman was the Baal Shem Tov’s spiritual grandson.
Furthermore, in R. Shneor Zalman’s teachings the student is portrayed as being able to receive and comprehend the depth of the teacher’s thoughts:
…when the student first receives the intellectual concept that has been conveyed to him, he does not yet understand it to its depth. This means that the grasp of his intellect is only very general without detail [so that he will not] be able to internalize all of the parts of the intellectual concept and the ideas individually… However, after the student has contemplated on the intellectual ideas that have been conveyed to him and has descended to its depth and has comprehended it well, then – on the contrary – his intellect surrounds that [conveyed] intellect so that the conveyed intellect can enter as an inner light mamash so that he could understand it well and also be able to internalize all the details of the intellectual idea, each one individually and not merely in a general way.
Hence, according to the teachings of R. Shneor Zalman, during the lifetime of the teacher the student is able to understand the depth of the teacher’s teachings.
However, we find other teachings that do not view a disciple as being equal to a son. Loewenthal quotes the following teaching of R. Shneor Zalman:
The devotion of a disciple to his teacher is subject to vacillation, because it depends on the teachings he receives from him, which are limited and variable; by contrast the devotion of a son to his father is constant, because “it derives from the essence of the soul of his father, not from his teachings … He is bonded to the essence of his father’s soul.”
Hence, due to the son’s essential connection to his father’s soul, his devotion is greater then that of the disciple. There is another teaching of R. Shneor Zalman that seems to go even further then this, stating that a disciple could never completely inherit the intellectual legacy of the teacher whereas a son could:
Through cause and effect from the thought process, speech has a shine of, and is enclothed by, the intellect, [however this intellect] is only the outer aspect of the intellect, for the innermost part of the intellect cannot be enclothed in this process of cause and effect. Indeed we see that the procreating seminal drop that descends form the brain of the father is from the innermost intellectual power to the extent that it actually creates [intellect] similar to it. This is indeed astonishing for speech is more spiritual [then the seminal drop and should therefore be able to create intellect that is also spiritual]; rather this is the reason for it: since the speech is spiritual the drawing down of intellect into it is through a process of closeness and cause and effect. Thus, inevitably this can only be the outer aspect [of the intellect], whereas in the physical there can be a dwelling of the innermost….
It is clear from the above that whereas the student can receive merely the outer aspect of his teacher’s intellect, a biological son can receive the inner aspect of his father’s intellect. This gives the son an advantage over the disciple. It is possible that it was this dichotomy of teachings that helped pave the way for a future leadership battle in which both a son and a disciple participated.
Following the death of R. Shneor Zalman in January 1813 a leadership struggle ensued between the departed leader’s son, R. Dov Ber – subsequently of Lubavitch – and his foremost disciple R. Aaron Halevi Horowitz – subsequently of Staroselye.
The Hasidim of R. Shneor Zalman took sides. Avrum M. Ehrlich has eloquently laid down the nature of the two sides. With a few exceptions, R. Aaron’s supporters were the more intellectual, middle class Hasidim who were looking for someone who was able to continue and develop Habad teachings – not just someone who would repeat the teachings of R. Shneor Zalman. This was something that R. Aaron could offer. In short, the scholars followed R. Aaron.
Those who followed R. Dov Ber were the lower-class peasants, the simpler people who were more interested in inspiring sermons, counseling, blessings, and compassion. For them, the fact that R. Dov Ber was from his father’s seed was sufficient reason to appoint him as successor.
It would appear that for the simple lower class, Hassidim R. Shneor Zalman’s successor needed to be a person who would be intellectually and spiritually similar to R. Shneor Zalman, able to continue teaching, inspiring, and helping them in the same way that R. Shneor Zalman had. In this respect, only a son could be the legitimate continuation of his father. A disciple – even a very close disciple – would be, at best, a poor second.
As mentioned above from Rapoport-Albert, this decision to support R. Dov Ber could also have been influenced by other factors. In other forms of communal leadership, heredity succession was common, as in the case of the appointment of a communal rabbi. Inner communal political considerations, the desire to limit the pool of candidates for future leadership contests and the disputes that could arise thereof, or concern for the long-term continuity of the movement are only some of the many other possible practical considerations contributing to the decision to accept R. Dov Ber. However, the previously mentioned ideological consideration cannot be discounted.
Conversely, the middle-class intellectual Hasidim followed R. Aaron. They were not concerned with whether R. Shneor Zalman’s successor would be intellectually or spiritually similar to R. Shneor Zalman. On the contrary, they wanted someone who could impart their own unique intellect and personality in order to further develop the teachings of R. Shneor Zalman. This is supported by the reported suggestion by an unnamed Hassid that R. Dov Ber should move to Greater Russia, where people were not familiar with Habad discourses. There they would appreciate the mere repetition of R. Shneor Zalman’s teachings (this is related by Loewenthal, who quotes Heilman).
They may have also been influenced by R. Shneor Zalman’s teachings (stated above), stating that after the teacher’s death, having inherited the ruach of the teacher, a student, and a son are on the same spiritual level. Thus these middle-class Hassidim did not view R. Dov Ber as having a natural advantage over R. Aaron. On the contrary, according to their estimation R. Aaron had a better understanding of Habad Hasidism and was, therefore, better suited to develop the Hasidic teachings of R. Shneor Zalman. It must be noted, however, that R. Aaron’s group in Staroselye did not survive beyond the second generation.
Thus, the debate was not merely over whether R. Dov Ber was better suited for leadership than R. Aaron. It was a debate for the future of the movement. Was it going to be a conservative movement retaining the unique identity of its founding father – through a son – or would it have more liberal principles that would allow it to develop and change as each new leader took on office?
After R. Dov Ber succeeded his father, the conservative heredity model of succession became established in the Lubavitch dynasty. This was possibly because this model was now seen to have a Rebbe’s stamp of approval on it, (that of R. Dov Ber), something that no future disciple could ever argue against.
In this light, it is interesting to note that after the passing of R. Dov Ber, the majority of Hasidim wanted R. Dov Ber’s son-in-law and nephew (a maternal grandson of R. Shneor Zalman) R. Menachem Mendel, the Zemach Zedek, to succeed; however, he repeatedly declined. He finally agreed to accept the leadership after the following incident. The prominent Hasid R. Perez of Beshenkoviz met the Zemach Zedek on the eve of Shevuot, 17th of May 1831. He told him that he had proof from the Torah that he had to accept the mantle of leadership of the movement. He brought as proof the verse that states, “A woman who emits seed and bears a male child.” Our sages comment on this, “If the male is first to emit seed she bears a female child.” This, said R. Perez, is your mother [of the Zemach Zedek, the daughter of R. Shneor Zalman]. R. Perez continued when the sages said, “If the woman is first to emit the seed she bears a male child,” this is you [the Zemach Zedek]. Thus, he provided proof from the Torah that there was a direct biological link between the Zemach Zedek and R. Shneor Zalman. Shortly after being told this, the Zemach Zedek is said to have agreed to accept the mantle of leadership over the movement.
Hence, it is clear that R. Dov Ber succession from his father had set the standard for future successors to the movement’s leadership. Only one with a direct biological link with one of the previous leaders would be eligible as a leadership contestant.
We have shown that at the inception of the Habad movement, there was a dichotomy in the teachings of R. Shneor Zalman about the status of a disciple versus a son. This dichotomy possibly played an important role in guiding the leadership dispute between R. Dov Ber and R. Aaron. R. Dov Ber’s achievement in succeeding his father as leader finally ensured the tradition of hereditary succession in the Lubavitch dynasty.
Post Note (added in July 2023 by the author)
The succession of leadership in the Lubavitch/Habad movement is an intriguing subject, revealing an internal lack of consistency and perhaps even duplicity. R. Shneor Zalman initially argued that a disciple is more suited to leadership, as demonstrated by his desire to take over from his teacher, R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk. He emphasized the transmission of the teacher’s essence and the ability of a disciple to inherit greatness. However, he seems to hedge his bets in his teachings, opening up the possibility that a son is more suited to inherit leadership from In fact this allowed for his own son, R. Dov Ber, who sought leadership after his father’s passing, to suddenly champion the idea that a son is more suitable.
This inconsistency raises questions about the integrity of R. Shneor Zalman’s arguments. Did he manipulate his beliefs to serve his personal interests and those of his family? His shift in stance suggests a lack of principled reasoning and undermines the credibility of his succession model.
Furthermore, the division among the followers of R. Shneor Zalman and R. Dov Ber indicates a wider debate within the movement on the matter. The lower-class Hassidim supported R. Dov Ber, prioritizing familial lineage, while the more intellectual middle-class Hassidim aligned with R. Aaron Halevi Horowitz, seeking someone who could develop and expand upon Habad teachings rather than a clone of the former leader.
Ultimately, the hereditary model of succession prevailed within the Lubavitch dynasty. This solidification of the succession pattern was likely influenced by R. Dov Ber’s own assumption of leadership, as it was argued that it carried the weight of R. Shneor Zalman’s approval. From then on, the biological link to previous leaders became the defining criterion for future leadership contenders.
The complexity of this succession process exposes the internal contradictions and potential opportunism within the Lubavitch/Habad movement. It calls into question the consistency and transparency of their succession principles, as well as the motives of individual leaders in shaping the course of the movement’s leadership, and had huge implications down to the present day.
Ehrlich, Avrum M., Leadership in the HaBaD Movement, A Critical Evaluation of HaBaD Leadership, History, and Succession (2000). New Jersey:Jason Aronson Inc.
Liady, R. Shneor Zalman, (1999), Liqqutei Torah. New York: Kehot Publication Society.
Liady, R. Shneor Zalman, Tanya translated into English (1973) London: The Soncino Press Limited.
Lowenthal, N., (1990), Communicating the Infinite, The Emergence of the Habad School. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Rapoport Albert, Ada (1974) unpublished Ph.D thesis, The Problem of Succession in the Hasidic Leadership With Special Refrence to the Circle of R. Nachman of Braslav. London: University College.
Rapoport Albert, A. Hasidism Reappraised (Ed. Rapoport Albert, A.), Hasidism after 1772. The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization: London.
Schneersohn, R. Menachem Mendel (1985), Liqqutai Sichot, Volume 4, New York: Kehot Publication Sociaty.
Schneersohn, R. Yossef Yitzchok (1985), Igrois Kodesh Volume 4. New York: Kehot Publication Society.
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nidah (1996). Jerusalem: Vagshal Publishing Ltd.
 This has been stated very eloquently by Dr Ada Rapoport Albert (1974) in the preface to her unpublished Ph.D thesis entitled The Problem of Succession in the Hasidic Leadership With Special Refrence to the Circle of R. Nachman of Braslav p7:
It cannot be denied that the two approaches – that of the social-historian on the one hand and the approach of the historian of religious thought on the other hand, must be interrelated, as the ideology of the movement inevitably determines some features of its social organization, and vice versa, but such mutual influences can only be detected and clarified if the distinction between the two aspects are constantly kept in mind.
 See Rapoport-Albert ibid p127. See also Dr Naftali Lowenthal (1990) Communicating the Infinite the Emergence of the Habad School, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p108. Rapoport-Albert, however, qualifies this by saying that because of the charismatic-sectarian preference for Hassidic succession it is difficult to assess accurately the full impact of the parent society’s preference for hereditary succession on Hassidic succession see Rapoport-Albert ibid p100.
 See Dr Naftali Lowenthal ibid, p42: in the last years of R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk’s life R. Shneor Zalman was his last remaining representative in White Russia, see also ibid p108-109.
 Published in Iggeres haKodesh, this English translation was taken for Tanya translated into English (1973), London: Published for Kehot Publication Society by The Soncino Press Limited.
 This exchange is found in Rodkinson’s, Shivhei haRav (1961) Jerusalem, fol 17a. It can also be found in Butsina diNehorah haShalom, section 12. It is quoted by Ettinger, haHanhagah HaChasidit beItsuvah p13, Rapoport Albert ibid p 77-79, Rapoport Albert, Hasidism Reappraised (Ed. Rapoport Albert), Hasidism after 1772, London: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization,p111-112 and Loewenthal ibid p109.
Rapoport-Albert ibid p112 doubts the authenticity of the above mentioned exchange and claims it to be:
…a piece of fictional writing by Rodkinson, inspired by the dynastic outlook which has become characteristic of Habad by the second half of the nineteenth century, when the group had developed a strong sense of its unique position in the history of Hasidic movement, claiming to be the one school which maintained an unbroken and exceptionally intimate connection with the Besht and the Maggid of Mezhirech, and thus preserving more authenticity then any other school the original teaching of Hasidism.
Whether the above-mentioned exchange is fictional or not is open to debate as is demonstrated by the fact that Rapoport-Albert herself, in The Problem of Succession in the Hasidic Leadership, ibid p78, says, “The factuality of the clash lies beyond any doubt.” However, as we have shown below, the teachings of R. Shneor Zalman seem to conclude that after the death of the teacher a student and son – as regards their relationship with their father/teacher – are both on the same level. The aforementioned exchange is in line with this view.
 See R. Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1985) in Liqqutai Sichot, Volume 4, New York: Kehot Publication Sociaty, p1136-1137 where he states that the above mentioned story of the exchange with R. Baruch reflects R. Shneor Zalman’s general view that a Hassid has a more quintessential connection to his Rebbe than a father has to a son.
 R. Shneor Zalman, (1999), Liqqutei Torah. New York: Kehot Publication Society, Section 2 p74.
 See next note.
 See Loewenthal, ibid p259 n39.
 See Liqqutei Torah, ibid, section 5 p78
 In his book entitled: Leadership in the HaBaD Movement, A Critical Evaluation of HaBaD Leadership, History, and Succession (2000), New Jersey:Jason Aronson Inc.
 See Ehrlich ibid p158-159.
 See Loewenthal ibid p136-137 who seems to concur with Ehrlich’s assessment of the make up of the two opposing camps.
 Ibid p104.
 Although the Hasidim first turned to R. Dov Ber’s son R. Chaim Avraham, Ehrlich (ibid p197) suggests that this was only done out of ritual courtesy.
 Leviticus 12:2
 Babylonian Talmud Tractate Nidah 25b.
 This story can be found in a letter written by R. Yossef Yitzchok Shneersohn, the sixth Habad Rebbe, dated 25th April 1939. It is printed in Igrois Kodesh (1985), Volume 4 New York: Kehot Publication Society, R. Yossef Yitzchok quotes this story from his notes – written in 1902 – taken from stories that he heard from Dovid Zvi of Tshernigov, who related the stories in the name of his father, Perez of Beashenkoviz. Thus, although this letter was written over one hundred years after the story transpired, its accuracy seems irreproachable.