Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, the fifth Lubavitcher rebbe, died on March 21, 1920, at the age of 59.
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Schneersohn was born on October 24, 1860, in Lubavitch, the village in western Russia (in the Smolensk oblast) where the Chabad Hasidic sect was based for most of its early decades. He was the second son of Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn, the fourth rebbe, who died in 1882. At the time, neither Sholom Dovber nor his older brother, Zalman Aharon, was prepared to take over the responsibility of leading the community, so they shared some of the duties, until 1892 when Sholom Dovber became the rebbe. He married his cousin, Shterna Sara Schneersohn, and their lone son, Yosef Yitzchok (born 1880), succeeded him as the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe.
Schneersohn moved from Lubavitch to Rostov-on-Dov in 1915 when fighting in World War I approached the former town, and died there five years later.
In the winter of 1902-1903, suffering from loss of feeling in his left hand – or, according to Chabad sources, from a “low spirit,” Rabbi Schneersohn traveled to Vienna to consult with Sigmund Freud, who was then in the thick of developing the principles of psychoanalysis. The two apparently had profound discussions about the relationship between the mind and the heart and Freud also treated the rabbi with electrotherapy, but the treatment brought only temporary relief. When Schneersohn returned home, the problem persisted.
It was the Rashab (an acronym for Reb Sholom Ber), as he is known within Chabad, who established the movement’s first yeshiva, Tomchei Temumim, in Lubavitch, in 1897.That was followed by yeshivot in Palestine, in 1911, and one in Georgia, five years later, a reflection of his concern about the welfare of the so-called Mountain Jews. He maintained good relationships with other Orthodox rabbis, and was involved in promoting agricultural and other employment for Jews in Russia, but was a strong opponent of the Zionist movement.
According to the scholar M. Avrum Ehrlich, Sholom Dov Ber was significant for beginning the Chabad tradition of outreach, in which he made himself available not only to the already geographically divided followers of his sect (many Lubavitchers had already begun immigrating to the United States by the turn of the century), but also with non-Chabad Jews, who would often write him for advice. The establishment of yeshivot was also a major way of guaranteeing the training of a new generation of followers, and thus the future of Chabad. Ehrlich writes that the yeshiva in Lubavitch “was one of the first such institutions in Hasidic history, and therefore was important in establishing the Lubavitch sect as the dominant Chabad dynasty.”
Rabbi Schneersohn also wrote extensively about Chabad philosophy. A 29-volume collection of his Hasidic discourses, “Sefer Hama’amarim” (book of articles), serves as an introduction to the movement’s oral tradition and thought.
Schneersohn was buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery, in Rostov. In 1940, when a sports stadium was built on the site, some of his followers disinterred his body and moved it to the Rostov Jewish Cemetery, where it remains to this day, and is a site of pilgrimage. Chabad tradition says that the rebbe’s body, though it had been buried 20 years earlier, showed no signs of decomposition when they removed it from its original grave.