Book Review

Sefer Ha-Maftechot Le-Sichot KodeshSefer Ha-Maftechot Le-Sichot Kodesh (5695-5752)

A Comprehensive Index to the Spoken Word of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe (Hebrew)

By Rabbi Michael A. Seligson

1600 pp. Rabbi Michael A. Seligson / Kehot Publication Society. $49.95.

On you can listen to some 2,000 hours (that’s about eighty full days of listening time) of the recorded talks of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, delivered between the years 1951 and 1992. Indeed, it was the spoken word that was the Rebbe’s chief medium of leadership and instruction. This audio collection, however, actually represents a very small fraction of the Rebbe’s verbal output, as the vast majority of his public talks were delivered on Shabbat and Jewish Festivals when such recordings are prohibited by Jewish law. On an average Shabbat the Rebbe might easily talk for six to eight hours, and for much of the Rebbe’s leadership these talks where transcribed from memory by a group known as chozrim, Hebrew for repeaters, who were distinguished by their ability to accurately memorize the several hours of verbal output, repeating and transcribing it upon the conclusion of the holy day.

These transcripts have been published in a variety of different collections spanning different years, the Torat Menachem series of Hebrew transcripts (adapted from the spoken Yiddish) is incomplete, but to-date it includes more than eighty volumes. The thirty nine volumes of Lekutei Sichot contain the Rebbe’s teachings as distilled and redacted by a team of scholars, and meticulously edited by the Rebbe personally for publication. In addition to these works, the present index references a broad range of more minor publications, recording not only the Rebbe’s public talks, but also private conversations held with individuals and subsequently transcribed by people who were present or from audio recordings. The introduction includes a general listing of publications used, which includes some forty individual titles. Many of these titles represent several volumes.

The duplication of themes across several decades presents a distinctive problem… each reoccurrence is unique.

Untill now this vast corpus of diverse output has presented a basic methodological problem for scholars. This is by no means an organised body of literature, with specific subjects addressed in logical sequence. What the Rebbe might speak about on a particular occasion could depend on a wide verity of factors, some - like the significance of the date in the Jewish calender, or current events - predictable, others - the intricacies of a Talmudic controversy, or the abstract depths of some point of Kabbalistic theosophy - less so. In addition there are many topics that the Rebbe addressed on multiple occasions. In the words of Elliot Wolfson, one of the few scholars to deal with the Rebbe’s thought comprehensively, “Working on the Rebbe has proven a burdensome undertaking… mostly due to the sheer wealth of material generated by the recording of virtually every word he offered publicly… The duplication of themes across several decades presents a distinctive problem… each reoccurrence is unique.” (Open Secret, xiv)

A new index, published by Kehot Publication Society, and the work of Chabad Scholar and author, Rabbi Michoel A. Seligson, fills a very large gap. The volume, measuring 8.5 by 11 inches and several inches thick, contains sixteen hundred pages, each spanned by three columns of dense print. It is overwhelming in its scope, but nevertheless easy to navigate.

The first 1,260 pages of Seligson’s index cover some 3,000 individual topic entries. The references to discussions of Abraham, the first of the Jewish Patriarchs, for example, fill more than nine columns of compact text. Other entries of particular length include a range of diverse topics, many of which are easily anticipated, Physicality/Spirituality, Unity of the Jewish People, Exile, The Yom Kippur War, The Giving of the Torah, Body/Soul, Who is a Jew, Redemption, Education – an entry which runs to sixteen pages, and Elul (a month in the Jewish Calendar). Randomly, I came across an entry for Coffee, and another for Melody that fills no less than twenty pages.

Separate listings of names of organizations, places and individuals cover an additional 150 pages. The section indexing names of individuals includes rabbanic names as diverse as Rabbi Israel Abuchatzira – the Baba Sali, Rabbi Elijah – the Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Moses Isurlis – famed as the RaMA, Rabbi Chaim Vital, Rabbi Chaim of Brisk, Miamonides, Rabbi Moshe Alshech, and Rabbi Sadi’ah Gaon, alongside Israeli politicians such as Menachem Begin, Yitzchak Shamir and Zalman Shazar (listed under Rubachov – his Russian surname), and Chasidic greats, such as Rabbi DovBer – the Maggid of Mezritch, Rabbi Hillel of Paritch, Rabbi Chaim Halbershtam – the Tzanser Rebbe, Rabbi Zushe of Anipoli, Rabbi Yoel Tietelbaum – the Satmer Rebbe, and Rabbi Nachman of Breslav.

A volume of great value to anyone interested in studying any aspect of the Rebbe’s thought, leadership or persona.

The remaining couple of hundred pages are devoted to the tens of thousands of references to the twenty-four books of the bible, the sixty-three tractates of the Talmud, and other important Rabbinic texts including Midrash, Zohar, Maimonides, the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), and also the vast corpus of published Chasidic texts.

This is truly an encyclopedic work, encapsulating decades of prolific and highly varied output into a single highly organized volume. Such a volume is of great value to anyone interested in studying any aspect of the Rebbe’s thought, leadership or persona. Seligson’s work embodies a huge step that will significantly further the cause of informed scholarship, and stands as testimony to the two decades he spent researching and indexing this huge body of literature. We may be confident that the time he devoted to this work will be well repaid in the many hours it will save for scholars, and that this index will serve as a catalyst for ever more fruitful efforts in an area of research in which interest only seems to grow.