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Scholarly Publication: The Printed Word Endures

Scholarly Publication: The Printed Word Endures

1942-1946

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Despite being heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the three organizations he directed, Rabbi Menachem Mendel remained deeply invested in scholarly endeavors. Chief among them was his work for Kehot Publication Society, where he was not only executive director but also editor-in-chief.1

Throughout the 1940s he corresponded with rabbinic figures and leading chassidim in North America, Europe and the Holy Land.2 These letters showcase the degree to which he synthesized community activism with scholarly engagement. While efficiently addressing whatever administrative issues needed to be taken care of, R. Menachem Mendel never failed to offer a word of timely Torah inspiration, or scholarly comment and insight. Many letters are devoted specifically to Torah topics, replying to specific queries or offering critical comment on books newly received. Beginning in 1944 he dedicated a special column in the Kehot periodical Kovetz Lubavitch to answering all manner of queries, many of which concerned theThese letters showcase the degree to which he synthesized community activism with scholarly engagement. intersection of chassidic thought and lore with Talmudic sources and Jewish law.3

One of his most frequent correspondents during this period was R. Menachem Zev Greenglass, an active leader in Montreal’s Chabad community. A letter addressed to him in 1946 reveals just how overburdened R. Menachem Mendel was. After dealing with eight administrative queries point by point, R. Menachem Mendel continues to explain why it has been several months since he was last in touch: “I have not written due to the overwhelming burdens, especially regarding publication.”

In order to give some idea of how busy he was at the time he proceeds to list the publishing projects he is currently editing: “a booklet about Purim and Passover in French (similar to the one about Tishrei), one about Purim in English, [and] the first volume of Our People [a history of the Jews since Biblical times] in English.” Additionally, he notes, a chassidic discourse titled Mayim Rabim is in the final stages of proofreading, and he is in the middle of proofreading a volume of legal responsa by his namesake, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the Tzemach Tzedek of Lubavitch, as well as a short history of the latter’s struggle against the “enlightening” mission of Max Lilienthal in the 1840s. Also in the middle of being proofread was a collection of talks by Rabbi Shalom DovBer, the fifth rebbe of Chabad.

Several other publications are described as “at the beginning of being proofread” including a volume of questions and answers between a teacher and a child regarding Jewish religion and practice, and a code of Jewish law for youth, both in English. “All of the above” R. Menachem Mendel continues, is “in addition to the [administrative] work on behalf of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, Machne Israel and Kehot.” Notwithstanding the demands on his time, he concludes "...in many instances the author provides explanations and reasons of his own, some of them legal, some kabbalistic...”the letter with a discussion of the biblical Yosef’s mystical significance and the role the present day Yosef (i.e. his father-in-law) and his followers must play in the Messianic revelation.4

Not mentioned in this letter is an original scholarly work composed by R. Menachem Mendel in precisely this period, Haggadah for Passover with Collected Customs and Reasons. In his review of this work, Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Talmudit, lauded it as “a wondrous Haggadah, with few comparable to it.” It’s most striking feature was its encyclopedic scope, “for each section of the Haggadah the sources in the early authorities and legal decisors are succinctly placed before us with a synopsis of the relevant laws and customs, and together with fitting explanations collected from the best commentators… There is not scholarship without innovation, [and] in many instances the author provides explanations and reasons of his own, some of them legal, some kabbalistic...”5

As Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel constantly encouraged people in possession of manuscripts to publish them, and scholars to publish their own works. He would often repeat a saying his father-in-law relayed in the name of the Tzemach Tzedek: “The spoken word is public, the written word is for all the world, and the printed word endures for generations.”6 Wisdom can only be beneficial to mankind if it is accessible, and publication is the best way to ensure that wisdom will always be accessible to those who seek it. He constantly reminded publishers to take care that their books should be attractive both inside and out, with clear typeset, strong paper and quality binding.7

The Rebbe also encouraged scholars to crown their works with comprehensive citations and indexes, maximising accessibility, and enabling readers to further pursue topics and assess information critically.8 The scholarly works he himself published show he worked tirelessly to compare different manuscripts and compile indexes.9

Understandably, the Rebbe specifically encouraged people to publish Torah works, which would bring people to greater knowledge of G‑d and enhance their practice of Judaism. But Knowledge that brings light to the world deserves to be published.he was also interested in works of critical scholarship,10 and extended this encouragement to other areas too, constantly reminding his correspondents to send him their publications whatever the topic.11 The Hebrew term for publication, the Rebbe emphasized, literally translates as “bring to light.” Knowledge that brings light to the world deserves to be published.12

Footnotes
1.
For a general overview of his work in this capacity see Zushe Wolf, Hotzoat seforim kehot (Kehot Publication Society 2013), pages 165-287.
2.
Among them, Rabbi DovBer Rivkin (New York), Rabbi Avrohom Elyah Axelrod (Baltimore), Rabbi Yitzchok Dubov (Manchester, England) and Rabbi Moshe Gourary (Tel Aviv). Letters written to all of them during this period have been published in the first volumes of the Rebbe’s Igrot.
3.
See the Introduction to Igrot Kodesh vol. 2 (in which many of the letters published in this series are reprinted) pages 5-6. A collection of these columns, titled Teshuvot Ubiurim, was first published by Kehot Publication Society in 1974.
4.
Igrot vol. 2, page 90. In a similar letter addressed to Rabbi Nissan Neminov (a legendary chassid then serving on the faculty of Tomchei Temimim in Brunoy, France) Ramash excuses himself for not having fulfilled “my promise to explain the [Rayatz’s] talk in the booklet from the festival of Passover” due to his heavy workload. Igrot Vol. 3, page 172.
5.
See here.
6.
This statement is cited tens of times in the Rebbe’s letters and public talks. See the list of citations by Rabbi Michael Seligson, Sefer Ha-mafteichot Le-sichot Kodesh 5695-5752 (Kehot Publication Society 2011), page 221.
7.
He often noted that if a book is superficially attractive and easy to use more people are likely to open it and benefit from its content. See for example Igrot Kodesh Vol. 10, page 65. Ibid., Vol. 25, page 26.
8.
See for example Igrot Kodesh Vol. 10, page 402. Ibid., Vol. 11, page 294. Ibid., Vol. 22, page 158.
9.
See also Igrot Kodesh Vol 1. page 190. Ibid., Vol. 3, page 94. Ibid., Vol. 4, page 487.
10.
An interesting example of this concerns the Hebrew University Bible Project, begun in 1956 with the aim of producing a critical edition of the Bible. In a 1964 letter to Zalman Shazar, the journalist, academic and politician who was then serving as President of Israel, the Rebbe made it clear that he supported the project’s goals, but argued that they should not replace the prevalent masoretic text of the bible with that of the Aleppo Codex, because such a move would deepen the split between those who respectively choose to identify as “religious” and “secular” Jews. Igrot Kodesh Vol. 23, pages 127-130.
11.
In one example he urged a doctor to publish his papers on prostate surgery, Igrot Kodesh Vol. 27, page 562. See also Ibid., Vol. 13, page 235. Ibid. Vol. 6, page 152.
12.
Igrot Kodesh Vol. 24, page 327.
Eli Rubin studied Chassidic literature and Jewish Law at the Rabbinical College of America and at Yeshivot in the UK, the US and Australia. He has been a research writer and editor at Chabad.org since 2011, focusing on the social and intellectual history of Chabad Chassidism. Through his writing, research, and editorial work he has successfully participated in a range of scholarly interchanges and collaborative endeavors.
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Twenty-eight articles, each encapsulating a period of the Rebbe’s life, and highlighting key themes that distinguish his ideas.