Until the previous Rebbetzin (Nechomo Dina) - wife of the previous Rebbe and mother-in-law of the Rebbe - passed away, on Teves 10, 5731 (January 7, 1971), the Rebbe gave up the comfort and pleasure of his very own Yom Tov table for the sake of kibud aim (honoring parents - his wife’s mother and his mother-in-law). The Rebbetzin herself never actually attended those meals and, instead, was in a separate room with the women.

At the time, we were puzzled and surprised that the Rebbe did not sit at the head of the table; after all he was our king. Yet it made sense - although, we did not always realize it at that time - as the Rebbe was repasting in the residence of the previous Rebbe, of saintly memory, he preferred to sit in the same seat he had occupied during his predecessor’s lifetime.

Still, Rabbi Shemtov adamantly declined to attend these meals. He could not bear to see the Rebbe take a “back seat.”

The guests would assemble in the large dining room upstairs, on the second floor of 770. This was the residence of the previous Rebbe, and his Rebbetzin was our hostess.

We would sit around a large rectangular table. There were normally six seats on either side, with a chair at each end. Each place was set with a silver goblet for kiddush and two loaves of bread. The table itself was laid with an immaculate snow-white linen cloth, and the finest cutlery, crockery and glassware were provided. Wine, soda and other drinks were at hand when required.

The top, the head of the table, was set exactly the same as all the other places but the chair was to remain unoccupied. This was the Previous Rebbe’s tish (table), and the chair was his too. It was a symbolic gesture. Therefore, the Rebbe, who was the younger son-in-law, sat on the left side, whereas Rabbi Gurary (the older son-in-law known as the “Rashag”) sat on the right. Next to him was Rabbi Simpson. My seat was always the same, next to Rabbi Simpson and almost opposite to the Rebbe.

The Rebbe would make kiddush quietly whilst his Rebbetzin listened at the door, which would be only slightly ajar. We all followed suit, each one in a subdued voice.

Then we would all wash our hands for bread. The Rebbe was served first, of course, but he did not commence eating until everyone was seated and served, even the yeshiva boys who were acting as waiters. I once asked a boy to exchange the beef tongue I was given for chicken. It took seven minutes. It seemed like seven hours, as the Rebbe and everyone present were waiting for me to be served.

The Rebbe would eat very slowly indeed and he would see to it that he finished last. No one ate after the Rebbe put down his cutlery. Therefore, he was always watching and ensuring that all had eaten before he put down his knife and fork. There was no talking or even whispering during the actual courses, which consisted of the usual Yom Tov dishes: fish, soup, chicken or meat, fruit and drinks.

Subsequent to the first meal I had ever attended, when I was in yechidus, I told the Rebbe that I was very disappointed at the atmosphere at the dinner. So quiet, so still, so tense. I said, “tell the chassidim to make the Rebbe freilich.”

The Rebbe said, “Yes, you should tell the chassidim to make the Rebbe freilich.”

So I then felt a special responsibility for trying to enliven the proceedings in between the courses, with the Rebbe’s permission of course, singing niggunim and telling a joke or two. It is a bit embarrassing to have to force oneself to break the uncanny silence. Although the Rebbe normally speaks to me in perfect English, at the meals he would insist I speak in Yiddish so that all will understand.