Abstract: The Rebbe's first book, Hayom Yom, is usually viewed only as a daily guide to Chabad custom and study as well as a resource for short inspirational chasidic teachings. This is clearly an accurate assessment of its enduring value. What is often overlooked, however, is the context in which the Rebbe compiled and published the calendar: a time of unfolding crisis, which would escalate into the Holocaust of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis. A careful reading of the explicit teachings and implicit messages of Hayom Yom, suggests that Hayom Yom was also conceived as a response to the crisis whose tragic culmination was yet to unfold. Reflecting a common theme in chasidic thought, the Rebbe sought to harness adversity as a paradoxical opportunity for good. The Hayom Yomm calendar was a way to imbue time itself with a special urgency, encouraging and intensifying the study of Torah, the performance of mitzvot and the devotional service of God. It was thus of a piece with other Chabad wartime efforts to rally world Jewry to intensify Torah, Mitzvot and chasidic piety in the hope that such activities would turn the tide of crisis and bring about salvation.
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Harnessing adversity as a paradoxical opportunity for good, the Ha-yom Yom calendar imbued time itself with a special urgency.
Within Chabad communities, it is standard practice to end the morning prayers with the rabbi or gabbi (beadle) reading out loud the day’s teaching from Hayom Yom, the compilation of Chabad customs and chasidic teachings by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. The readings are brief, often epigrammatic, and thus last no more than a minute or two. They clearly serve as a word of guidance and hizuk (inspiration) as one prepares to leave the synagogue .
The book has many special features: set out as a year-long day-to-day calendar, it begins on the 19th of Kislev, the “New Year” of chasidism. There are, in addition, genealogies of the seven chabad rebbes, listing wives, children, siblings, key life events, and major publications. Strikingly, the genealogies are headed by the forebears, with the famed Maharal of Prague (a great-grandfather of the Alter Rebbe) leading the way. But these preliminary notes are extraneous for those whose familiarity with Hayom Yom comes by way of hearing the day’s teaching in synagogue .
Yet the book’s special features go beyond what one finds with a quick perusal. Importantly, it was the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s first book, undertaken at the direction of his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (Rayatz), the sixth Chabad Rebbe, who asked if he would “be so good as to compile a calendar for the year beginning with this 19th of Kislev until the next 19th of Kislev [5703-5704 (1942-1943)].” The calendar/book was thus a collaborative effort with the purpose to provide a “truly chasidic cultural work” even for readers with “minimal familiarity with chasidic teachings.” From that viewpoint, it has stood the test of time, serving the spiritual chasidic needs of today’s readers (or listeners) as it did for the initial ones.
But the readers of the first edition—a 128 page pocket edition published around Pesach 5703/1943—were also in need of special guidance. By this time, European Jewry had been brutally decimated. Hundreds of thousands of Russian, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian Jews had been shot in mass graves; labor, concentration, and death camps were operating with unprecedented malevolence; the Great Deportation of Warsaw Jewry, whereby most of the ghetto’s Jews were sent to the Treblinka death camp, took place just months before, from July to September (Tisha b’Av to Yom Kippur). Indeed, one of the victims was the rebbe’s sister-in-law, Rebbetzin Sheina Horenstein, murdered on the 2nd of Tishrei, 5703/1942. Her husband, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Horenstein, perished some six weeks later. The plight of European Jewry was desperate; that of the members of the Rebbe’s immediate family equally so. Over the next year — the year that the calendar of Hayom Yom was designed to cover — conditions became even worse. By the last day of the calendar - the 18th of Kislev, 5704/1943 - between four and five million European and North African Jews had been murdered. This is what the readers of the first edition had to contend with.
For the Rebbe, the horrible persecutions in Europe were anything but abstract. It is we today who overlook this anguished dimension of Hayom Yom.
Certainly, many of these details were not yet known at the time when Ha-yom Yom went to print. Neither was it then known that the crisis that was rapidly enveloping the Jews of Europe would result in the systematic genocide of six million Jews, which we refer to today as the Holocaust. Hence, Ha-yom Yom certainly does not embody the Rebbe’s response in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Rather it is representative of his efforts to rally American Jews to the cause of Torah, mitzvot and chasidic piety, before the full extent of the Holocaust had unfolded and was known. The way the Rebbe dealt with the Holocaust in its aftermath must be dealt with in a separate study.
Nevertheless, at the time of publication the crisis was already significant; Jews were already being murdered systematically, the Rebbe himself had just over a year before arrived in New York, having taken flight from Vichy France. The horrible persecutions in Europe were for him anything but abstract. It is we today who overlook this anguished dimension of Hayom Yom, especially because we may be looking for the wrong kind of references. No war events are mentioned, no battles singled out, no secular leaders praised or condemned, no sites of evil alluded to. There are certainly no references to the enemy. In this respect, the Rebbe’s strategy is similar to that of other great spiritual responses from the period - the Warsaw Ghetto derashot of the Piaseczner Rebbe, for example, or, closer to home, the wartime derashot of the Rebbe Rayatz - which chose to confront the tragedy almost exclusively from within the framework of the Torah and the Torah community.
But the signposts of the war and unfolding destruction are there for those that wish to see them. The first appears just before the beginning of Hayom Yom’s calendar, in a Yiddish letter of the Rebbe Rayatz that spiritually characterizes the terrible era:
At the present time, when the world trembles, when all the world shudders with the birth-pangs of messiah , for G‑d has set fire to the walls of the Exile… it is the duty of every Jew, man and woman, old and young, to ask themselves:
WHAT HAVE I DONE AND WHAT AM I DOING TO ALLEVIATE THE BIRTH-PANGS OF MESSIAH , AND TO MERIT THE TOTAL REDEMPTION WHICH WILL COME THROUGH OUR RIGHTEOUS MESSIAH?
The references to the total redemption through our righteous messiah certainly strike a familiar chord. But the world out of which these terms come is in upheaval: trembling, shuddering, spiritually (and literally) on fire. The introduction to the calendar via the Rebbe Rayatz’s vivid words charges the reader to address this upheaval directly, through action. It was no time to be a casual bystander. Multiple strategies were enlisted to intensify the effort, among them memorizing Tehillim and Mishnayot, and commissioning the writing of a Sefer Torah to welcome the messiah. Hayom Yom was a crucial facet of this urgent enterprise.
A central goal of the calendar was to induce self-examination. This would, in turn, catalyze action which would alleviate the immense suffering and bring the redemption.
The Rebbe returned to this message several times in the Hayom Yom calendar itself. On the 15th of Tevet, for instance, he related succinctly that “the sufferings befalling us are the birth-pangs of the messiah ”; on the 8th of Shevat, he put it in the form of a community wide decree: “it is a mitzvah and duty of every rabbi in the Jewish community to inform his congregation that the current troubles and sufferings are the ‘birth-pangs of the messiah .’” A central goal of the calendar, then, was to induce a heshbon nefesh (self-examination) among all Jews. This would, in turn, catalyze action which would alleviate the immense suffering and bring the redemption.
The very idea of such a book qua calendar was an innovation. No such calendar existed in chasidic literature, and likely none in Jewish religious literature. There had been attempts to adapt the non-Jewish idea of a “book of days” to the Jewish calendar. In 1931, a decade or so before Hayom Yom was published, the prolific English Jewish historian Cecil Roth brought out A Jewish Book of Days. Yet Roth’s book contrasts with the Rebbe’s in most every aspect. For instance, it uses a Gregorian calendar, beginning on January 1st and ending on December 31st, a decision he (a religious Jew) explains as facing the reality of what Jews generally referred to. In contrast, Hayom Yom not only begins on the chasidic “New Year,” and is organized from “Yom Rishon” to “Shabbat” (rather than Monday to Sunday), but it eschews the non-Jewish calendar completely. Every entry begins simply with the day of the week, the date of the Jewish month, and the Jewish year. There is no spiritual room, as it were, for the secular calendar. Time, as Hayom Yom projects it, is Jewish time, chasidic time, messianic time. The novel idea of a teaching calendar - a truly Jewish book of days - was the way to harness time to the project of teshuvah (repentance or return).
The special urgency of time is associated with the book’s title. Hayom-Yom is commonly translated “From Day to Day.” But the Rebbe Rayatz understood it differently: the calendar communicates “the true Hayom Yom (‘today is the day’) for its every day is indeed a day” (es iz der emeser Hayom Yom, yeder tag iz a tag). On the 17th of Cheshvan, the Rebbe elaborates this teaching, and in the process redefines what constitutes a “day”: “One must be vigilant with time... every day that passes is not just a day but a life’s concern... My father [the Rebbe Reshab] quoted the Alter Rebbe: A (long) summer day, a (long) winter night—is a year!”
Via the calendar and its teachings, time was stretched, reorganized, and measured according to a rigorously spiritual standard.
Via the calendar and its teachings, time was stretched, reorganized, and measured according to a rigorously spiritual standard. This was true of the days of the calendar as a whole. Yet the calendar dates most likely to give further guidance of how to respond to the European catastrophe were those that commemorated past catastrophe. On the face of it, Tisha b’Av, the preeminent date commemorating Jewish tragedy, speaks only to the observance of the day. But on closer inspection Hayom Yom’s configuration of the three weeks leading up to Tisha b’Av, Tisha b’Av itself, and the seven weeks following may be interperated to reveal an extraordinary calendrical response to Jewish suffering.
The three weeks preceding the 9th of Av are known as bein hamitzarim, and choreograph a gradual adoption of mourning customs. Shabbat of each week is distinguished by special haftorot, highlighting the theme of repentance. On Tisha b’Av, the day commemorating the destruction of the ancient Jerusalem temples, the customs of mourning are given their most intense expression, letting up in the afternoon. The seven weeks that follow, referred to as shiva d’nehemata, the seven consolations, feature Shabbat haftorot with words of comfort. These ten weeks, pivoting on the demanding mourning customs of Tisha b’Av, constitute a significant period leading up to Rosh Hashana.
The Rebbe chooses a teaching for the 18th of Tammuz - the virtual onset of this delicate period - that by way of allusion gives new meaning to these ten weeks and to the tragic events in Europe more generally. The first part describes the accomplishment of one of the Alter Rebbe’s premier chasidim:
The Alter Rebbe said of R. Moshe Vilenker: ‘Moshe has magnitude of intellect (mochin d’gadlut), and in his ten years of toil, he has attained through his labors a powerful, capacious, wide-ranging intellectuality (mochin rechavim).”
A lengthy period of toil and labor has secured these enviable traits. But how exactly did he do it? The second part of the teaching provides this crucial information:
For three years R. Moshe Vilenker prepared himself for yechidut (private audience) with the Alter Rebbe. Afterwards he remained in Lyozna for seven years to translate (auf brengen) the yechidut into actual avodah (devotional service).
The specific features of the time frame are significant. The chasid’s remarkable accomplishments took place over a ten year time span, divided into three and seven year periods. In the middle came the defining event: the yechidut with his Rebbe. This matches to a tee the period in the calendar that this 18th of Tammuz teaching initiates. And the correspondence may be carried over to the spiritual meaning. The ten years of toil parallel the ten weeks that precede and follow Tisha b’Av; the three years of preparation parallel bein hamitzarim; the seven years parallel the seven weeks of consolation.
Hayom Yom’s configuration of the three weeks leading up to Tisha b’Av, Tisha b’Av itself, and the seven weeks following many be interperated to reveal an extraordinary calendrical response to Jewish suffering.
What then parallels the yechidut, the decisive encounter with the rebbe that confers meaning and purpose to the time before and after? It is Tisha b’Av, the day that commemorates the destruction of the ancient Temples but also, traditionally, the day on which the messiah is born. Tisha b’Av is thus also, according to Hayom Yom, a day of yechidut, not with the Rebbe (though perhaps that too), but of the Jewish people with the Almighty. That destruction-filled day comes to signify, not the remoteness of the Almighty, but rather the intimacy with him. This message was clearly geared for a time when the anguish of world Jewry was at a height. Seeing the worse imaginable disaster as a time of “yechidut,” of spiritual bonding and avodah gave a way to confront the suffering of European Jewry and respond to it. The task was to alleviate the pain that comes with the birth of the Meshiach. The 18th of Tammuz teaching outlined this task in terms that the individual chasid could grasp.
One detail is perhaps in need of explanation: Why did the Rebbe choose as the day of this teaching the 18th of Tammuz rather than the 17th, which officially ushers in the period of Bein hamitzarim? What is the special merit of the 18th? The avodah (the devotional service) it embodies. The 17th of Tammuz marks the breaking of the first set of tablets. On the 18th, as Rashi brings from the Midrash, Moses ascended the mountain to pray for Hashem’s forgiveness. The 18th, in other words, launched the avodah per se, which resulted in G‑d’s reconciliation with the Jews and climaxed - after the ten weeks and the yamin noraim - with the giving of the second set of tablets on Yom Kippur. Indeed, Hayom Yom’s teaching for the 17th of Tammuz sets forth the differences between the first and second set of tablets; this teaching hints at the tangible outcome of the avodah - the giving of the second set of tablets - even as destruction is occurring. Yet it is truly on the 18th that the avodah commenced.
On the surface and beneath it, Hayom Yom then is geared to respond to terrible, overwhelming suffering. It presumes that during such a confrontation doubts arise as to the reasons for the vast suffering (how could they not?) and what to do in the face of it. Much of the time, the response set forth is indirect: know and maintain the tradition scrupulously; see oneself and one’s avodah as a link in the chain of that tradition; build up chasidic life at the very moment that it is undergoing unprecedented persecution; and, in the calendrical terms of “today is the day,” understand this as a daily task.
Hence, Hayom Yom’s methodical listing of each day’s learning of Chumash with Rashi, reciting psalms, and studying Tanya: a program that clearly orchestrates a sacred response.
By way of this calendar, the Rebbe sought to re-frame each day as an opportunity for an encounter with G‑d, and ultimately, an impetuous for the the mission to remove the terrible sting of suffering from a devastated world.
Hayom Yom was brought into the world at a moment when the potential for both material and spiritual loss was at its peak. By way of this calendar, the Rebbe sought to re-frame each day as an opportunity to transform the nature of time as such. The result would be nothing less than a yechidut, an intimate encounter with G‑d, analogous to that which a hasid enjoys with his Rebbe. An encounter that would be an impetus for the subsequent work - the mission to remove the terrible sting of suffering from a devastated world - to truly begin.
Written in the aftermath of Mumbai