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"A Calendar For all Occasions"

"A Calendar For all Occasions"

How Hayom Yom Became a Jewish Classic


The Rebbe’s first book, Hayom Yom, has traveled a distance from its original conception as a calendar to what it is today. At the time of its initial publication in 5703 (1943), one could naturally count on the date and day being in sync with day-to-day life. The 19th day of Kislev was a Shabbos both in the calendar and in one’s life; the 5th of Teves was yom rishon (Sunday); the 7th of Adar I was yom shishi (Friday), and so on. The calendar could serve as a calendar, the additional month fit to a tee, the Torah readings listed for the date and day meshed with the reading in the synagogue and guided one’s own study. Everything matched, everything coalesced, everything was in line. Indeed, that was the end to which Hayom Yom was crafted.

Today, in contrast, no such synchronicity exists. For starters, the date often comes out on a different day; the 19th of Kislev this year took place not on Shabbos, but rather on the second day of the week, Monday; the Torah portion read during the week of the 10th of Shevat was not Bo (as it was in 5703), but rather Beshalach; and this year, like most, consists not of thirteen months (as did 5703) but rather of twelve, compelling Hayom Yom’s readers to double the readings during the month of Adar. In such a case, the original 383 teachings have to be compressed into a shorter year. In sum, the calendar cannot serve as a calendar, the date and the day are generally out of sync, the guide to study is out of kilter, the teachings have to be apportioned differently. All seems helter skelter.

In a sense, this should not come as a surprise. The fate of most calendars, once they have reached the end of the year for which they were designed, is obsolescence. They have done their duty; as the next year rolls around, they yield the floor to the calendars produced for the year at hand. As we know, Hayom Yom has gratefully been able to endure long past its task as a calendar came to an end. But this astonishing success at outwitting fate has a rich story behind it.

Stepping-stone: The Rebbe’s American Calendar

Hayom Yom is usually viewed as the Rebbe’s first book—and perhaps it was. But it was not his first calendar. A short time earlier, he had compiled a like-minded calendar, also for the year 5703 (1942-43). This earlier calendar, however, was almost certainly guided by other principles and targeted a different audience. First of all, it was in English and geared for an exclusively American readership.The straightforward title was Young Scholar’s Pocket Calendar, 5703 (1942-43; the “Young Scholar’s” referred to younger students, i.e. school children, perhaps those nearing the middle-school age of bar and bat mitzvah. (The Rebbe opens his introductory greeting with “Dear Children,” and when later he explains the broader implications of using such a Jewish calendar, he tells them that “you, the children of today, are the grown-ups of tomorrow.”) As with Hayom Yom, this earlier production combined a calendar with daily teachings: of the sages, laws, customs, witticisms, and more. It included Chasidic references but did not explicate or elaborate them. These references formed not the centerpiece, but rather one piece of the pie.

Though straightforward and friendly, such a calendar, the Rebbe made clear, was nevertheless a tool that needed to be used properly: “Make this Calendar [with a capital “C”] your constant companion and take full advantage of the knowledge and wisdom it contains. This Calendar should not merely tell you the date of the month, but, what is more important, the significance of each day.” Behind the concern with each day, notes the Rebbe, lies the nature and challenge of time: “Time is a very great treasure. A minute lost or wasted can never be restored. Time can be very valuable, but it can also be absolutely valueless—all depending upon how you use it. Therefore, you must not let your time pass by without making full use of it, giving it the fullest measure of meaning and worth—Jewish meaning and worth.”

A rudimentary philosophy of time was, as we see, already joined to Chabad’s wartime calendar project. Yet in many respects, this “Young Scholar’s” calendar was a primer. The American English-language oriented audience whom this calendar addressed had to be schooled in Jewish time from the ground up. It thus begins with an explanation of the Jewish day, week, month and year. One could assume nothing about what was known, so it was necessary to start with the basics. In this respect, the calendar could not introduce revolutionary concepts or format. Instead, it had to convey that there was an alternative to the Gregorian calendar--the calendar of choice for most Americans and, likely, for many American-based Jews. Hence, the starting point for the Young Scholar’s Pocket Calendar was, as with most Jewish calendars of this period, the 1st day of the month of Tishrei. For the American-oriented, English language “young scholars,” to begin a calendar with the Jewish New Year must have felt radical enough. For them, the Gregorian calendar likely had unimpeachable authority. They had to be persuaded that January 1 had to take a back seat. It would take the vastly different kind of initiative of Hayom Yom to intrepidly formulate an entirely new point of beginning, the 19th day of Kislev, a date and beginning that diverged from standard Jewish practice. In the Rebbe’s earlier calendar, in contrast, the challenge was to train young American Jews what the standard practice ought to be.

Finally, in contrast to Hayom Yom, the Young Scholar’s Calendar makes no reference to the tragic events in Europe circa September 1942. Neither in the foreword, in the footnotes, nor in the calendar itself does the perilous fate of European Jewry receive attention. American through and through, the calendar could have just as well been produced in 1922 or 1932. Tracking Jewish time, it was, like most calendars, oblivious to the specific historical context in which it came into being. To be sure, the calendar views its goal as cultivating an appreciation for Jewish history, with the dates calculated according to a Jewish calendar reckoning. To that end it appends a list of “some outstanding events in early Jewish history, beginning with the creation of Adam and Eve” and ending with the “Conclusion of the Babylonian Talmud” in 4260. But the list was obviously compiled with an eye toward teaching about the “outstanding events” in ancient history, viewed from a Jewish perspective. It was not, however, concerned with presenting an approach to the European debacle and with laying out how a calendar might serve as a response to contemporary events. This is exactly what Hayom Yom was designed to do.

Hence, well laid was the Rebbe’s vision of these years as being a time for specially orchestrated calendars, and for fusing the calendar with a book of teachings and Chassidic customs. This earlier calendar provides an important stepping-stone to the realization of Hayom Yom. The origin of Hayom Yom is usually traced to a statement of the Previous Rebbe on the final day of Pesach, 5700 (1940), where the Baal Shem Tov’s custom of a special meal on this day led the Previous Rebbe to call for a more general collection of Chassidic customs. What was needed was:

a compendium of all the customs of our revered predecessors, the Rebbeim (May their merit stand us in good stead!), and a book of customs that would relate to and be matched with one’s daily life—and book of daily reading for Chabad Chassidim, including Chabad customs, selected teachings, and very short narratives.

For the “compendium” to emerge as Hayom Yom, however, it had to be joined to the idea of a calendar. To be sure, the idea is latent in the original sketch, which refers to “daily life” and “daily readings.” But there is no explicit plan of fashioning the book into an actual calendar. The earlier youth calendar likely formed the intermediate step, the missing link. In a modest way, the youth calendar contained all the components, albeit in a general rather than Chassidic guise. Moreover, the Previous Rebbe was aware of his son-in-law’s role in the production of the youth calendar. He could then turn to him a few months after the youth calendar had seen the light of day and ask him to meld these components into a calendar not for the public at large, but rather for the Chassidim in the know. The step from one calendar to another was both simple and revolutionary.

Publication Midstream

Once it appeared at Pesach time, 5703, Hayom Yom no doubt served its readers as a calendar as well as the compendium that the Previous Rebbe had sought to have compiled. That being said, it was a peculiar calendar, beginning on a date (19 Kislev) different than all other calendars. It was peculiar also because Hayom Yom became available to its users only after five months of the Chassidic calendar year had elapsed.

Let us recall: the Rebbe received his mandate from his father-in-law to fashion such a compendium on 20 Kislev 5703--a day after the date when the calendar was supposed to commence. He then spent the next five months preparing the book for publication, a process that included culling the teachings from the writings of the Previous Rebbe himself. Given the formidable task, the compilation was accomplished with remarkable speed. Yet the Chassidim who first looked at the book when it came out at Pesach 5703 entered the Chassidic year midstream.

The Sequel

No matter how definitive Hayom Yom’s teachings appear today, the book—referred to by the Previous Rebbe as a “splendid palace of Chassidus”--was slated to be set aside the next year to make room for a sequel based on the next year’s calendar. Hayom Yom would, of course, serve as the template. But new teachings would be culled and placed on the date and day which they best fit; Torah portions and study guide would be aligned with the Chassidic year of 5704-05.

We know this because the Rebbe spent time on the sequel, even compiling some forty-seven teachings destined for it. The teachings were again collected from the files of the Previous Rebbe. In letters and publications of 5704, the Rebbe made it known that a follow-up was in preparation. At first, he had hoped to have it ready for 19 Kislev (5704), which, as we recall, was the anniversary of the unconventional opening date for the original Hayom Yom. Then, Nissan (5704) was slated as the publication date, perhaps in keeping with the appearance of the first volume in the Previous Nissan (5703). Finally, when this date came and went, Pesach Sheni, a month later, was projected as the new date. But the sequel never came out, the new volume never brought to fruition.

Though it did not reach publishable form, the second volume is nevertheless important for several reasons. First, we see that the Rebbe originally conceived Hayom Yom as a book in the form of a calendar that could (or would) be refashioned anew in succeeding years. Time did not stand still; it shifted, moved, changed course. It was the Chassid’s job to keep pace, to do the same. Second, a number of the forty-seven teachings compiled for the second volume found their way two decades later into Sefer HaMinhagim, an authoritative compilation of Chabad customs edited by Rabbis Greenglass and Groner, first published in 5726 (1966). Third, the forty-seven teachings were eventually brought out as a compendium of their own, serving in selected editions of Hayom Yom as a coda to the original volume.

Important as it is to have these second-year teachings at hand, they remain but an intimation of what the Rebbe had in mind, particularly because the teachings are not attached to any date or day. The task of matching the teaching to the appropriate day was still to come. As it stands, the forty-seven teachings are a unit unto themselves, aloof from the connection to the calendar and the daily avodah set forth in its predecessor, the original publication of Hayom Yom.

A New Identity: Printed in Shanghai

The fact that a new edition of Hayom Yom did not appear in the subsequent year did not render the book obsolete. But it did mean its conception had to change.

No longer would a new version of the book accompany the onset of a new (Chassidic) year. Rather the original edition would be reprinted; the teachings would be recycled, and somehow the calendar would be made to fit the new circumstances.

Fortunately, the calendar itself lent a hand.

The second printing of Hayom Yom took place in the auspicious year of 1945 in Shanghai, China. Though the city of Shanghai was under the jurisdiction of Japan during the war, it nevertheless provided a wartime refuge for a European Jewish community, the head of which was Rabbi Ashkenazi, a noted Chabad figure. Beginning in the early 1940s, Shanghai became a Chabad publishing center, chosen as such mainly for financial reasons, but also because Rabbi Ashkenazi could be relied on in his role of supervising the endeavor. The students at the Chabad yeshiva in Shanghai provided the manpower. While favoring Chassidic books, the Shanghai press printed classic sifrei kodesh as well as educational materials. Printing in Shanghai continued in the early postwar years, trying energetically to overcome the dearth of books left by the scourge of war. A second edition of Hayom Yom was deemed one of the books appropriate to put on the list; the Rebbe acknowledged having received the Shanghai-printed copies in a letter dated 27 Nisan, 5706.

The “5706” date of the Rebbe’s letter provides a clue as to why the reprinting of Hayom Yom took place when it did. The printing history lists 5705 as the date of the second printing. But this decision to reprint Hayom Yom seems actually to have been geared for the following year, 5706, since this year matches the original one to a tee (indeed, the card catalog entry for the volume in the Chabad library at 770 lists the publication date as 5706). It was again a leap year, a necessary feature for a tight fit. But more than that, every date matched every day: the 19th of Kislev again fell out on Shabbos, the 5th of Teves on yom rishon (Sunday); the 7th of Adar I on yom shishi (Friday), and so on. The calendar could be used without any dissonance, everything (or almost everything) was in sync. It was as if Hayom Yom had been issued for the first time.

Almost everything: though the date squared with the day of the week, the Jewish calendar did not line up with the Gregorian in the same way as it did three years earlier. But since Hayom Yom marked time only according to the Jewish calendar (the Gregorian/civil calendar does not appear) very little was lost. In two instances did it make a difference. In the first instance, “Tal u’Matar,” calculated according to the Gregorian calendar date of December 5, would be introduced not, as designated in Hayom Yom, on the 26th of Kislev, but rather on Rosh Chodesh Tevet. The second instance where the lack of correspondence made a difference was in the entry for “nittel nacht,” which in 5703 occurred on the 17th of Teves. Three years later, in 5706, “nittel” (December 24) took place on the 21st of Teves, with the result that the Rebbe’s “nittel” entry did not fall out on the corresponding Gregorian calendar date. There was no way to avoid the mismatch.

But, that said, the teaching for “nittel” retained its punch: “The reason for not studying Torah on nittel, I heard from my father, is to avoid adding vitality.” The Chassidic custom of abstaining from learning Torah on the night of December 24 was not simply an arcane practice which had currency in the Old World but was irrelevant in the New. The entry makes clear that this “not learning” has behind it a well-developed principle of Chassidic philosophy, and that, as paradoxical as it may seem, the practice of refraining from the study of Torah on this particular night is undertaken to achieve a certain spiritual goal. Moreover, as with many entries in Hayom Yom, this one is based on a direct line of transmission—“I heard from my father”—indicating that the Previous Rebbe received the teaching from his father, the Rebbe Rashab. No better, more incontrovertible source could be cited. This practice carried the authentic seal of a Chabad tradition.

The teaching about “nittel” thus had its own integrity, even though the second printing entry of 5706 no longer matched up with the date in question. To be sure, a tension existed: teaching versus calendar, custom versus date, and, in a broader context, Chassidic theory versus actual practice. But in a low-key incipient form, the “nittel” entry was giving birth to the Hayom Yom that would be in the future.

These subtle discrepancies occasioned by the different alignment of the Jewish and Gregorian calendars were, however, the only two of their kind. Otherwise, all fit as smooth as silk; Hayom Yom of 5706 could be read just like it was three years before.

This was the immediate payoff. But the Shanghai publication had greater implications as well. In this Asian port halfway around the world, Hayom Yom was transformed from a calendar for a designated year into one that could serve many. It could outlive itself. Seizing the opportunity to give Hayom Yom a second life, without it being newly minted, the Rebbe set in motion a magnificent precedent for Hayom Yom’s future afterlife.

Daringly Off Kilter: The Third Printing

The Shanghai edition ushered in a new possibility; the third edition, the chazaka, published in Brooklyn in 5717 (1957) more than a decade later, went a step further in giving Hayom Yom its identity as we know it. In truth, the third printing was a complex identity, part in sync with the original calendar, part out of sync. To be sure, 5717 was also a leap year; the two Adars conformed to the year of the first edition of Hayom Yom. Moreover, most of the calendar meshed perfectly with the original: the 5th of Teves was again yom rishon (Sunday); the 7th of Adar I was yom shishi (Friday), and so on. Indeed, from the month of Teves on—twelve months out of thirteen—all dates and days corresponded beautifully.

But the beginning of the calendar was daringly off kilter. The month of Kislev, which kicked off Hayom Yom’s Chassidic calendar, was at variance with the original. The first day, the 19th of Kislev, known as the “Rosh Hashana of Chassidism,” fell not on a Shabbos but on Friday; every day in Kislev was a day off. True, the distance between the two calendars was small, merely a single day. It was as close as one could get without being a perfect match. Yet small or large, the fact that it was off the mark was what mattered. From a practical perspective, this third edition of Hayom Yom could, at least at the outset, not be used as a calendar. If one made an appointment, for instance, for Monday, the 22nd of Kislev, one couldn’t find it on the calendar. And given that Hayom Yom organized the calendar according to the week, the mismatch would have been conspicuous.

With a strange (shall we say Chassidic) twist, the disparity had an upside. It demonstrated that the book could stand on its own, independent of the specific calendar that had served as its original template. The variance between day and date did not form an insurmountable barrier. Being out of sync did not prevent publication. To be sure, the discrepancy was mild; approximately ninety five percent of the days and dates did correspond. After a rocky beginning, Hayom Yom could serve as a pocket calendar, where appointments could be jotted down and simchas recorded. The third printing thus launched the use of Hayom Yom as we know it: a book of daily Chassidic teachings joined to a calendar that sometimes overlapped with the current one—and sometimes did not.

Risking Everything: The Fourth Printing

But the true take off was still some years in the offing. That came some four years later. Printed in Brooklyn in 5721 (1960-61), a year without the extra month of Adar, the fourth printing of Hayom Yom risked everything. First, all the teachings had to be compressed into a shorter year. Second, days and dates never coincided. Third, the guide for the week’s study and readings often lagged behind or shot ahead. Despite or because of the divergence from the original, this publication of the Rebbe’s Chassidic calendar was clearly a breakthrough. With the fourth printing, Hayom Yom became a compilation of daily Chassidic teachings joined not to a certain year’s calendar but rather to any year’s calendar. The match no longer needed to be exact.

To be sure, there was a price to be paid. The reader would have to operate with two calendars, shuttling back and forth between them. And the teachings and learning regimen had to be transferred as best as one could, whatever the awkwardness of the fit. But it was decided the pay off in salvaging the daily teachings was worth the effort. Hence, the fourth printing gave Hayom Yom its identity as calendar qua book that, with some ingenuity, could mesh with any calendar at any time; it revealed itself to truly be a calendar for all occasions.

Every Day, Every Year

We who devotedly follow Hayom Yom’s teaching know how well the entries have withstood the test of time, have outfoxed the calendar’s shifting alignment of days, weeks and years. For example, the 4th of Sivan teaching—“Shavuot is an opportune time to achieve everything in improving Torah study”--may not fall out on a Monday, as it did in the original, 5703 Hayom Yom. Yet, as a prelude to the upcoming holiday, it can’t help but lift us to new heights.

Even a teaching linked explicitly to the day of the week (in this case Wednesday), such as that for the first day of Shavuot, can give us much to ponder:

The Baal Shem Tov passed away on Wednesday, the first day of Shavuot 5520 and is interred in Mezibuz. The Alter Rebbe said about this (on Wednesday, the 20th of Kislev 5559 in Petersburg): “On Wednesday the luminaries were taken away.”

A chain reaction of Wednesdays shows that nothing is coincidental—the death of a leader, the comment of a follower--including the day of the week on which a given event or set of events takes place. In this case, Wednesday linked the removal of one light from the world (the passing away of the Ba’al Shem Tov on the first day of Shavuot) to the setting free from prison of another light (the Alter Rebbe). Moreover, the Rebbe’s teaching reminds us ever so subtly that events point back to their source, to the nature of a day in the sequence of creation. If one wants to find out what gives each day of the week its character, its particular punch, so to speak, one must go back to the beginning of time, to creation itself.

Wednesday, the fourth day of creation, witnessed “the luminaries”—the sun, moon, and stars—being set in position in the heavenly firmament.

While it is true that all of this teaching twirls around Wednesday, the general lesson floats above the specific day. So if Shavuot takes place not on Wednesday but rather on Sunday (as it did a year ago and will again, iy”h, next year), Hayom Yom’s Shavuot teaching can still divulge fundamental precepts of Chassidic life.

And above all, Hayom Yom, Chassidic book that it is, continues to teach us that the Jewish calendar is mystically imbued with meaningful connection. Every day, every year.

Avraham Rosen is the author and editor of a number of books on Holocaust literature, testimony, and history. His book, "Keeping Time Sacred, Making Time Holy: The Holocaust’s Jewish Calendars," is scheduled to be published in 2018 by Indiana University Press.
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