1. Customs of the Rebbeim

The customs of Lubavitch are based on firm foundations: people observed how our forefathers, the Rebbeim of the respective generations, conducted themselves.

Among the books and manuscripts that I have, thank G‑d, the section of Siddurim includes a copy of the Torah Or prayer book edited by R. David Lavut1 (Vilna, 5649/ 1889). Its marginal glosses in my father’s handwriting include comments on various customs of the respective Rebbeim.

The customs of Lubavitch include those whose reasons are known, those whose reasons are not known, and those that were practiced by only certain individuals in the family of the Rebbe of each generation.2

When the Mitteler Rebbe was born, for example, his father the Alter Rebbe took out a special length of material which he had hidden away, for the infant to be swaddled in after being bathed for the first time. For the other children, however, this was not done. Upon the birth of my great-grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, his grandfather the Alter Rebbe took out that same piece of material once more. It was eventually passed down to my grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, and was used on various occasions.

In the year 5644 (1884) a fire broke out in the home of my saintly grandmother, the Rebbitzin Rivkah.3 Among the things destroyed was one of the two trunks that housed the vestments4 of our forefathers, the Rebbeim, and among them was that piece of material.

There were a great many customs likewise — involving the preparations for a circumcision, a toddler’s first introduction to cheder, his first lessons, the preparatory training for tefillin, and so on — that were practiced by only a select few individuals in the families of the Rebbeim. They were observed very privately, care being taken that they should pass unnoticed.

All the happy occasions in the families of the respective Rebbeim — whether an engagement, a wedding, the birth of a son, a Shalom Ben Zachar,5 the night of waking before a circumcision, a Bris Milah, Pidyon HaBen, Mazel Tov,6 the beginning of a child’s training for mitzvos, his first haircut, his first introduction to cheder, his first Gemara lesson, his first lesson in Chassidus, his bar-mitzvah, — all these occasions had their own established customs.

Most of the customs of Lubavitch were handed down by the Alter Rebbe. Some he received from the Maggid of Mezritch in the name of the Baal Shem Tov or from the Maggid himself, while others were minhagim that he himself practiced. The customs of the Alter Rebbe served in turn as roots. From them sprouted the customs practiced by each of the succeeding Rebbeim — either as hiddurim embellishing earlier customs, or as customs [newly] practiced by the Rebbe of any particular generation.

2. A powerful moment

In addition to the laws governing the Reading of the Torah, there was a meticulous observance in Lubavitch of all its surrounding customs.

It had been handed down in Lubavitch that the Alter Rebbe had said that the children [of each Rebbe’s family] should open the Aron Kodesh for the Reading of the Torah. While the Alter Rebbe was living in this world, the Mitteler Rebbe and his brothers7 opened the Aron Kodesh. After his passing the Mitteler Rebbe succeeded him as Nasi, and no longer took his turn; instead, his traditional prerogative was passed on to my great-grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek. When in due course he became Rebbe, the Aron Kodesh used to be opened by all of his sons, my revered greatuncles.

R. Yisrael Noach (my wife’s grandfather, and my greatuncle) once told my teacher, the Rashbatz, about a certain scholarly discussion that he had had with his father, the Tzemach Tzedek. R. Yisrael Noach had commented that he had found a certain point problematic; in fact he had already been laboring on a solution for quite some time.

“My father pondered deeply,” said R. Yisrael Noach, “and then said: ‘You opened the Aron Kodesh, didn’t you? When a person opens the Aron Kodesh and says, Brich Shmei...8“Blessed is the Name of the Master of the universe! Blessed is Your crown and the place of Your majesty!... Bestow upon us of Your beneficent light...,” — at that time the palaces of the Torah are opened wide, and one’s mind and heart are lit up. My grandfather (the Alter Rebbe) once told me something that he had heard while in Mezritch,9 in the name of the Baal Shem Tov — that when the Aron Kodesh is opened, and a Jew, even quite a simple person, says these words out of uncomplicated faith, and from the depths of his heart, the Almighty fulfills his request, whether fully or in part.’”

When my grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, became Nasi, my father and his brothers used to open the Aron Kodesh. When I turned fifteen, and was strong enough to hold a sefer Torah properly (for the person who opens the Aron Kodesh takes out the scroll and hands it to the sheliach tzibbur), my father told me to take my turn too at opening the Aron Kodesh.

3. When the world falls silent

I myself knew people who used to daven in the shul of my great-grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek,10 and I even knew people who used to daven in the shul of my great-great-grandfather,11 the Mitteler Rebbe.12 And so it has been handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, that the fixed place in shul where the Mitteler Rebbe and the Tzemach Tzedek would daven, was the eastern wall, at the south-eastern corner.

In my early childhood I knew only four hoary elders who remembered the Alter Rebbe.13 One of them (I don’t recall his name), from Liadi, was the grandfather of R. Leib the Sofer, whom he came to visit in Lubavitch. (The grandson himself was about seventy by then, and his grandfather was probably well over a hundred.) Another lived in Dubrovna; one I met when I was in Zelinka in the winter of 5648 (1887-1888); and one I saw in Vitebsk in the summer of 5649 (1889). All four of these aged chassidim related that the Alter Rebbe’s fixed place for prayer was in the south-eastern corner of his shul.

The eastern wall of the little shul in the courtyard in Lubavitch was about 20 arshin long, with nine arshin left on either side of the Aron Kodesh. The place which my grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, always occupied in shul was likewise in the south-eastern corner, and after my father assumed the leadership on Rosh HaShanah 5654 (1893), this became his fixed place too.

When the Aron Kodesh used to be opened before the Reading of the Torah, my father — following the custom of all the preceding Rebbeim — would step aside from his place in time to be able to look at the sifrei Torah that were standing in the open Aron Kodesh during the recitation of Brich Shmei.

During our strolls in the summer of 5656 (1896), my father told me at great length all the many teachings14 he had heard from my grandfather on the subject of the opening of the Aron Kodesh in general, and on the exalted standing of Brich Shmei in particular.

“When the Aron Kodesh is opened in shul,” my grandfather had begun, “the World of the Aron Kodesh of the Covenant of G‑d15 is opened up above. This is the abode of all the exertion and all the self-sacrifice invested in all the sifrei Torah that Jews have written throughout the generations. The Angel Michael proclaims: ‘G‑d is in His holy Sanctuary: let all the world fall silent before Him!’16 And at this time, when a Jew says Brich Shmei from the bottom of his heart — ‘Blessed is the Name of the Master of the universe! Blessed is Your crown and the place of Your majesty!’ — the Angel Michael intercedes on his behalf, begging that his request be fulfilled.”

This my father had heard from my grandfather; as to my father’s explanations of this subject, they are worthy of treatment in a place all their own.

4. Bowing in quiet deference

As soon as a sefer Torah was taken out of the Aron Kodesh and could be seen in the shul, and before it was handed to the sheliach tzibbur, my father — ever so imperceptibly — would bow his head in deference towards it. When more than one Sefer was taken out, such as on Yom-Tov, Rosh Chodesh that fell on Shabbos, or the like, or on Yom Kippur for Koi Nidrei, or on Hoshana Rabbah, or for Hakkafos on Shemini Atzeres or Simchas Torah, my father would bow his head to each Sefer separately.

Whoever had the opportunity — and the sense — to gaze upon the saintly face of my father while the Scrolls were being taken out, beheld a countenance luminous with joy.

While the chazzan was saying Shema Yisrael17 my father would face the east; when the chazzan began the verse opening with Gadlu (“Exalt G‑d with me”), my father would face the Aron Kodesh and bow his head, and complete the verse with uneromemah... (“And let us extol His Name together”) while gently bowing his head once more in the direction of the sifrei Torah that had been taken out for the Reading.

As the chazzan completed the last words of the above verse, my father would quickly step towards him, embrace the sefer Torah with both hands, and earnestly kiss its mantle. He would remain standing at that place, accompanying the Sefer with his eyes until it had been laid on the table and the Reader had approached it, and only then would he return to his regular place.

My father used to follow the Reading of the Torah out of a Chumash or Siddur, even on Chol HaMoed, Rosh Chodesh, and Mondays and Thursdays. There were however certain times, on Chol HaMoed or the Minchah of Shabbos, when he followed the Reading from memory.

5. That’s exactly what happened

Our forebears, the Rebbeim, were always insistent that at every Reading of the Torah, including Mondays and Thursdays and the Minchah of Shabbos, the proper order of Kohen, Levi and Yisrael should be followed.

They were likewise insistent that the musical traditions of the cantillation should be meticulously observed during the Reading. It happened quite often that a Reader who misread one of the musical directions had to repeat a word — or a half or even a whole verse, if it included none of the Divine Names — just as if he had misread a syllable that altered the meaning of the word.

The Rebbeim were punctilious about the quality of the public reading of the Torah, especially with regard to their precise enunciation of the words, and their faithful rendition of the musical notations. As is known, all of the Rebbeim used to study grammatical texts, and took particular care over correct pronunciation and enunciation.

When my grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, was eight or nine years old, he was already buying books — out of his weekly pocket money or prize money,18 which is talked about elsewhere.

It once happened that he wanted to buy a couple of books, so, being without funds, he approached his father for a loan. When the Tzemach Tzedek asked him what he needed money for, he replied that among the wares of R. Noach Baruch the Bundle-Carrier — the itinerant bookseller — he had seen new books that he did not have, so he wanted to buy them.

Said his father: “First be thoroughly familiar with the books you own. When you’ve done that, you’ll go ahead and buy new books, and then become thoroughly familiar with them.

At that moment R. Chaim Dov der Meshares walked in, and informed my father that the bound volumes that R. Noach Baruch had brought had been placed in the new bookcase that Yosef David the Carpenter had delivered. The unbound books had been put aside.

In later years my grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, recounted this episode to my father, and explained: “Five open bookcases of my father’s books and two closed bookcases of his manuscripts stood in his study, and there were six open bookcases of books in the adjoining room whose door was left open.

“R. Noach Baruch the Bookseller used to visit Lubavitch twice a year, around Shavuos and Chanukah, and would give my father a list of new titles. On this occasion he brought a great number of new books.

“I walked into the second room with my father, and saw that the new bookcase that Yosef David the Carpenter had brought only the day before — the twelfth open one — was already filled with the books that R. Noach Baruch had brought. Apart from these, there were four bundles of unbound books that had to be given to Avraham Abba the Bookbinder. My heart was sore.

“‘Father,’ I said, ‘you told me that first one should become thoroughly familiar with the books one already has, and only then should one buy new ones. Tell me, are you thoroughly familiar with all these books that you own?’

“‘I usually am,’ replied my father. ‘Here, take out a book and we’ll see.’

“Without stopping to think, I ran across to one of the bookcases and took out the first volume that came to hand.

“‘That’s Sefer Maslul,’ said my father. ‘Open it up, tell me what page you’re on, and I’ll tell you what’s written there.’

“And that’s exactly what happened.”

6. Musical traditions

While still a boy, my grandfather the Rebbe Maharash was expert in the grammar of the Holy Tongue. In fact he was sharp-witted in all respects, and enjoyed a touch of mischief as well. Being the son of the Rebbe’s old age,19 of exceptional beauty, and a lively child, he was everyone’s favorite company. By the time he was ten he had committed to memory the Torah, the Earlier and Later Prophets, and the greater part of the Kesuvim.

Every winter during those years there used to be a major fair in Lubavitch, because it was situated not far from the border between the provinces of Minsk, Vitebsk and Mohilev, where Jews were allowed to live, and the provinces of Smolensk, Tula and Moscow, where Jews were not allowed to live. These fairs were attended by prominent merchants from both the Russian and the Jewish provinces. Among them were many German Jews, who were of the opinion that chassidim were ignorant of grammar. They were truly astonished, therefore, to discover that the Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, and his children were all experts in dikduk, and outstanding in their knowledge of the Tanach. In fact among the regular shiurim studied by the Rebbeim of all the generations, there was always a daily session during which they perused the Tanach systematically.

Music, as is known, has been favored by the Rebbeim of all the generations, and of course a Reader with a good voice would always have been very much desired — but in fact no great attention was ever paid to this requirement.

What was insisted on was that the musical notations should be sung according to the melody, or nussach, that is traditional for each kind of Reading — for the Torah, for each of the Five Megillos, for the Prophets, and for the Kesuvim. The nussach for the Reading of the Torah itself was in turn divided into various musical modes — for the regular Reading of the parshiyos of the Torah; for Az yashir,20 the Song of the Sea; for the Ten Commandments;21 for Vayehi binso’a haaron;22 and for Haazinu.23 Then, of course, the nussach used on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur was different to that used throughout the rest of the year.

The Alter Rebbe was meticulous in teaching his children and grandchildren the musical notations for these Readings, with the respective nussach of the Tanach and each of the Five Megillos, and was most particular that they should be correctly sung.

My great-grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, recounted that his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe, used to read the Ten Commandments that appear in Parshas Vaeschanan to a different melody from the one he used when reading the Ten Commandments that appear in Parshas Yisro. Likewise, the Alter Rebbe had a special melody for the four verses beginning Az yashir Yisrael,24 though this was different to the melody used for Az yashir Moshe, the Song of the Sea.

All the Alter Rebbe’s sons — the Mitteler Rebbe and his brothers, R. Chaim Avraham and R. Moshe — and the Tzemach Tzedek likewise, used to read the Torah publicly, all of them having been taught by the Alter Rebbe. My greatuncle, R. Baruch Shalom,25 also learned from the Alter Rebbe how to render the musical notations of each of the above-mentioned nus’chaos, and he in turn passed them on to my uncle, R. Zalman Aharon.

7. The Mitteler Rebbe’s bar-mitzvah

The customs surrounding the celebration of a bar-mitzvah in the families of the respective Rebbeim are known to us from the time of the Mitteler Rebbe onwards.

The Mitteler Rebbe was born on 9 Kislev, Wednesday of the week of Parshas Vayeitzei, in the year 5534 (1773), and his bar-mitzvah fell on 9 Kislev, Thursday of the week of Parshas Vayeitzei, in the year 5547 (1786).

(What is being recounted here in public refers only to the customs that were revealed, and not at all to the private customs that were mentioned earlier.)

The details of that occasion have been handed down to us from a reliable source — in fact, from an individual who was present, namely, the celebrated and learned chassid R. Pinchas (son of the renowned scholar, R. Chanoch Henich Schick of Shklov), known among chassidim as R. Pinchas Reizes.

However, since the inward dimension of anything, its pnimiyus, is arrived at by orderly stages, a narration on this inward level should also be transmitted by orderly stages.

I heard the account of the bar-mitzvah of the Mitteler Rebbe from my uncle, R. Zalman Aharon, who heard it in turn from my great-greatuncle, R. Nachum,26 who heard it directly from R. Pinchas Reizes.

8. My uncle’s many gifts

In addition to his remarkable talents and exceptional gifts, superior intelligence and refinement of character, my uncle R. Zalman Aharon was a man of rare eloquence. Whatever he spoke about — whether it was a concept analyzed, or a chassidic vort explained — one would not only understand, but experience.

The period during which he used to expound27 Chassidus publicly, in the years 5643-5644 (1883-1884), I do not remember.28 The one such occasion I do recall was the wedding of his sister29 (my aunt and mechuteneste, Chayah Mussia) and my uncle and mechutan, R. Moshe HaKohen [Horenstein], in 5652 (1892). When speaking to one person, however, or occasionally to a few individuals, my uncle would sometimes repeat or explain a maamar, and would very much enjoy telling a story.

A story from his mouth was a pleasure to hear. Not only did he have an unusually smooth delivery, a tastefully deployed vocabulary, and a clear and placidly modulated voice — but above all, his words painted pictures that his listener could see in his mind’s eye.

My uncle never overlooked the minutest detail. Moreover, when retelling a familiar story, he would use exactly the same phrases and words that he had used the first time. Not that the hearer’s pleasure was in any way diminished thereby, even though after a few times he knew the incident thoroughly — for the very listening to my uncle speaking or recounting was a delight in itself.

R. Zalman Aharon knew a prodigious number of stories. So fond was he of stories as a child — he lived for them — that when he was barely three years old my grandfather engaged a young man (his name was Bere Peishes) to tell him all the narratives of the Chumash. At four my uncle knew all the narratives of the Tanach. By the time he was five it was apparent that here was a child of quite exceptional sensibility, talent and articulateness.

My uncle was born in Lubavitch on Thursday of the week of Parshas Matos, 19 Tammuz 5619 (1859), not long after the Rebbe at the time (the Tzemach Tzedek) and my grandfather had settled in the new apartments that had been built after the big fire that struck the township on 3 Elul 5616 (1856).

His earliest childhood recollections went back to the year 5624 (1864), when he was not quite five years old. During that year he saw R. Hillel of Paritch, who was visiting Lubavitch for Shavuos for the last time. My uncle likewise knew quite a number of aged chassidim who had seen the Alter Rebbe. Some of them had recounted stories in plenty that they in turn had heard from their parents.

In my uncle’s memory, every single narrative was preserved with all its genealogy — by whom it was told, where it was told, and the date that the incident described took place.

9. How to listen to a story

After our engagement in the summer of 5656 (1896), my uncle stayed with our family for several days in the resort town of Bolivke. The greater part of the day we would spend in the garden, and there my uncle would relate stories.

I always liked to record anything noteworthy that I heard. Normally this was difficult to manage because I had no spare time, but during these couple of weeks there was enough time available, and I wrote everything down at my leisure.

On the day before my uncle left the resort town (it was Sunday of the week of Parshas Balak, 10 Tammuz), my father and he were sitting in the garden.

As I approached them, my uncle said to my father: “Your Yosef Yitzchak is very fond of hearing stories, and I’m very fond of telling them, so most of the week has been spent on storytelling.”

“One has to know how to tell a story so that it will come out alive,” remarked my father. “More importantly, though, one has to know how to listen to a story, so that the listening will conjure up a complete picture, just as if the hearer were actually experiencing what is being described to him.”

My father turned to me and said: “I suppose you’ve already written down whatever your uncle has told you.”

“He has a strong bent for writing,” he added to my uncle.

“Sometimes that can be a wonderful thing,” my uncle replied. “You no doubt recall what our father told us on the Motzaei Shabbos following your bar-mitzvah, Parshas Chayei [Sarah], 25 MarCheshvan 5634 (1873) — that from the time of his bar-mitzvah he began to record everything that he had heard from our grandfather,30 as well as from elder relatives (especially from his greatuncle, R. Chaim Avraham), and elder chassidim.”

The content of this conversation, during which my father and uncle recalled various times at which my grandfather used to recount stories for them, was new to me, and I was very pleased to have heard it.

10. Recording stories

On Monday, 11 Tammuz, following his weekly custom, my father traveled to Lubavitch. My uncle accompanied him, and when they were about to set out, my father told me to join them. The journey from Bolivke used to take about two hours, and as soon as we were on the road, my father and uncle began to recall and relate various narratives.

Arriving at Lubavitch I went straight off to my room, and all day long, with brief intervals, I jotted down outlines. I always used to start this way, in order to remember all the contents of each story in an orderly manner; only then would I write them out in fitting length. Since I had heard so very many stories in the course of those two days, 10 and 11 Tammuz, I was most anxious in case I forgot anything, so all that day I recorded my outlines.

11. Fresh resources

On Sunday, 16 Menachem Av 5656 (1896), I traveled to Vitebsk, where I was a guest for ten days — until Tuesday, 25 Menachem Av — in the home of my uncle, R. Zalman Aharon, and my aunt, Devorah Leah.31 My aunt clearly remembered her grandmother, Chayah Mussia,32 who had told her of episodes that she herself had seen, and others that she had heard from her grandmother, Rebbitzin Sterna,33 who had also told her of the lifestyle of the Alter Rebbe before his visit to Mezritch.

That stay in Vitebsk was a veritable delight. Not only had I gained a fresh source of stories in the person of my aunt, Devorah Leah, but in addition my uncle gave me a valuable gift — the daily loan of a manuscript book in which he had written down the stories that he had heard in Niezhin from the mouth of his greatuncle, R. Nachum.

12. The written word vs. the spoken word

My uncle’s small handwriting filled 30-35 lines per page of ordinary, unruled correspondence paper, with 14-16 words per line. Of its 180 leaves, 167 were used, though they included 33 half-pages. The inscribed pages, with small intervals between one story and the next, thus came to about 300, or 150 leaves. The book was written in Niezhin, in the province of Chernigov, in the months of Kislev, Teves and Shevat, 5634 (1873-1874), and in a few places there is a record of the day and date that a particular story was narrated.

Most of the stories there were those told by R. Nachum, though several had been told by R. Yisrael Noach, my uncle’s father-in-law. A separate cycle of stories had been recounted by a certain exceedingly old chassid by the name of R. Baruch Chaim. He himself had been in Petersburg during the time of the Alter Rebbe’s second visit there.34 Several other stories had been handed down by the aged R. Meir Hirsch, one of the attendants of the Mitteler Rebbe, whom he had accompanied on the journey from Lubavitch to Haditch,35 and in Niezhin. And when the Mitteler Rebbe passed away in Niezhin, on 9 Kislev 5588 (1827), R. Meir Hirsch remained there.

The book was written in the Holy Tongue, though Yiddish phrases appear in almost every story. My uncle’s style was clear but brief, with a classic economy of words. One had to read each story a few times over, applying both head and heart, and only then would one begin to feel its flavor. And the more one read, the nearer the narrative approached him — until its subject was visualized, and at certain moments one felt the episode to be so near at hand that it seemed that one was actually experiencing it.

It is in this respect that writing has the advantage over oral narration. For a few written words can embrace extensive content, enabling the brain and heart of a gifted reader to arouse and apply his faculty of imagination. But if the written word is to awaken visual images, the narrator must be talented — and such a narrator was R. Zalman Aharon.

It goes without saying that it is far easier to listen to a story than to read it, especially if one is hearing it from the mouth of a gifted speaker such as my uncle, with whom every word was clear and luminous, and every phrase was a live particle of a beautiful picture. How much easier this is than reading a written story, where at first glance it seems that one has been given no more than its outlines — until one finally arrives at the realization that writing is a scant vessel of ample capacity, a scant medium that contains the soul of a story. And only then can one appreciate the intrinsic superiority of the written word over the spoken word.

13. R. Meir Zvi the Meshares

As mentioned above, R. Zalman Aharon’s manuscript book was mainly made up of stories he had heard from his greatuncle, R. Nachum, though it also recorded what he had heard from his father-in-law, R. Yisrael Noach, from the aged chassid by the name of R. Baruch Chaim, and from R. Meir Zvi the Meshares.

Each set of stories was preceded by a description of its narrator, and here R. Meir Zvi the Meshares was treated at especial length. He was a son of R. Zalman, the meshares of the Alter Rebbe, during whose lifetime he was already employed as an attendant of the Mitteler Rebbe. From that time on he was always with him, accompanying him on all his travels, and when the Mitteler Rebbe passed away in Niezhin, that was where R. Meir Zvi the Meshares remained. He had a family in Lubavitch, but at this point he notified them that he was staying in Niezhin near the Rebbe; henceforth they would have to fend for themselves, because he was now unable to do anything for them. And indeed, over 46 years later,36 R. Meir Zvi was still in permanent residence, day and night, in the beis midrash that stood at the resting place of the Mitteler Rebbe.

The details with which my uncle describes the conduct of R. Meir Zvi give one a picture of his personality, and in particular of his devotedness to the Mitteler Rebbe, who in his eyes was just the same after his passing as he had been during his lifetime in this world.

With sensitive strokes my uncle portrays the manner in which R. Meir Zvi divested himself of the things of this world, and marvels over the metamorphosis that overcame him. For the Mitteler Rebbe, as is known, never laid eyes on a coin. All income, and all expenditure for his household and family, went through the hands of a responsible individual, and for most of the time that the Mitteler Rebbe was Nasi, this individual was R. Meir Zvi. His tasks entailed a close and ongoing connection with all the chassidic communities, so that he knew the situation of each of them as a whole, and of the individual chassidim as well.

With the passing of the Mitteler Rebbe, however, R. Meir Zvi’s manner of involvement in the material things of life also passed.37 He began to live a life of spirituality, the life of a recluse who needs no one, and wants no one, and is interested in nothing — except that when you asked him about the Mitteler Rebbe, his answer was lively and happy.

14. R. Pinchas Reizes

Among the entries in the manuscript book is the account of the Mitteler Rebbe’s bar-mitzvah that my uncle related to me when he came to the resort town for our engagement. He had heard it from his greatuncle, R. Nachum (the son of the Mitteler Rebbe), who had heard it from the mouth of R. Pinchas Reizes, R. Pinchas having been in Liozna at the time.

R. Pinchas had been one of the scholastic marvels of Shklov,38 who had been tumultuously feted throughout that entire region. His fame spread even more since he was the son of the celebrated scholar, R. Chanoch Henich Schick, whose name was known even in distant lands by virtue of the halachic responsa that he dispatched to his far-ranging questioners.

His natural and intellectual gifts could be discerned in his early childhood. When he was seventeen years old, he was selected for individual tuition by the world-renowned Talmudist, R. Yosef of Shklov, whose erudite colleagues nicknamed him R. Yosef Kol-Bo (“R. Yosef the Encyclopedia”). And at twenty, R. Pinchas was one of the delegates of the rabbinic elders of Shklov at the conference of the Council of the Lands39 that was held in Slutzk.

15. “R. Yosef the Encyclopedia”

It was a blustering Cheshvan evening in Shklov, in the year 5531 (1770). In the Perushim Shul,40 R. Yosef Kol-Bo was immersed in his study of the Talmudic passage that begins, “If a person placed [his eruv] in a tree, above ten cubits….” (Eruvin 32b). He had spent hours on the passage that clarifies the views of Rabbi [Yehudah HaNasi] and the Rabbanan, while scrutinizing the commentary of Rashi with a penetrating mind.

He was a celebrity throughout Lithuania: in Minsk and even in Vilna people referred to him in his absence by the deferential title of marana verabana (“our master and teacher”); his renown had even reached the ears of the sages of Germany, whom he had met on one of the few occasions that he had traveled to the fairs in Leipzig; yet he was not yet 40 years old.

By nature R. Yosef was strongwilled and self-assertive. He was aware of his superior qualities, and let others be aware of them likewise. Moreover, he was exacting in his insistence that he be accorded the respect that is the due of a Torah scholar.

Everyone knew that when he was engrossed in his studies, one ought not trouble him with queries. One kept one’s questions until afterwards, or until he interrupted his studies himself.

R. Yosef used to study aloud, and with visible and expansive ardor. When studying alone he likewise articulated all his thoughts in speech, just as he would if he were in company, translating every phrase of the Gemara or Rashi or Tosafos into Yiddish.

Encountering a particular comment of Rashi, for example, or while studying a paragraph of Tosafos, he would commonly express himself in this manner: “In that case, Rashi, there’s a logical objection against what you’ve just said! How can you say that this quotation from the Gemara means so-and-so, when this is contradicted by such-and-such? It’s clear, then, that what you really meant to say is so on and so forth...”

The writings of Tosafos, Rif and Rosh were all given the same treatment, as befitted the self-assurance of one who was fully conscious of his own exalted stature.

At any rate, as he was sitting over his books in shul that night, a young man with a sack over his shoulder walked in, and went straight across to the stove to warm up. He was obviously freezing cold, and exhausted by the rigors of the highway.

16. How to test a stranger

A little while later, the young stranger was approached by a scholarly and hospitable individual by the name of R. Yerucham Dov the Fisherman. He offered him his hand, greeted him with Shalom Aleichem, asked him if he was provided with food — and began to test his ability as a scholar. (He had a special room set aside to accommodate any guest who was learned.)

On Wednesdays and Thursdays, R. Yerucham Ber41 was busy selling fish. In his younger years, when his sons (R. Gedaliah Fishl and R. Tuvia) were young yeshivah students, he used to travel about the rivers with the gentile fishermen. At the same time, he would recite by heart the tractates of Seder Nashim that he had memorized while still a young married student supported by his father-in-law, R. Eliyahu Shmuel the Builder. When in due course his sons completed their respective periods of being supported oif kest and joined him as partners, they took over the task of going to the rivers. From that time on, their father was occupied with his business on Wednesdays and Thursdays, while during the rest of the week he applied himself energetically to his studies. After twenty years’ consistent effort he had mastered a great quantity of Gemara, and had become quite a fine scholar.

For the last few days, R. Yerucham Ber had been grappling with a problematic comment of Rashi on the statement in the Gemara that begins “Shnei yamim tameh ra’isi…,” [a complex calculation involving the laws of niddah, in Tractate Arachin 8a]. Though he had already consulted a number of scholars he was still without a satisfactory clarification.

Like all his learned peers, he had the profoundest respect for R. Yosef Kol-Bo, and honored him accordingly, but he was not fond of coming to him with his scholarly problems. Instead, he used this very comment of Rashi to test the young stranger who had just walked into shul.

17. The young stranger surprises the scholars

As soon as R. Yerucham Ber began to tell the young man that he was studying the Gemara that expounds such-and-such a mishnah in Tractate Arachin, and that he had encountered a difficulty while studying the comment of Rashi on the above-quoted statement, the young man did not wait to hear just what the problem was. Instead, he began to recite from memory, sweetly and verbatim, that very mishnah with the whole of Rashi’s explanation, and then that statement of the Gemara with the whole of Rashi’s explanation, just as if he were reading it at his leisure from the text. And as he proceeded, he translated every phrase into Yiddish.

R. Yerucham Ber was amazed both by the young man’s familiarity with the text and by his smooth explanation, and perceived that when the comment of Rashi was viewed in this light there was nothing whatever problematic about it. He now asked the young stranger to pick up his bundle and accompany him to his home, where he would treat him with the respect that befits a talmid chacham. The young man however replied that since he had to leave in the morning, he would spend the night in the beis midrash, then daven at daybreak, and take to the road.

Their exchange had caused quite a stir in the beis midrash. R. Yerucham Ber told his friends how he had found no satisfaction from the solutions proposed by revered scholars such as R. Shmuel Nachum the Parush, the aged R. Zalman Yechiel the Blatt-zogger,42 and R. Pesach Ber the Masmid.43 And now this visitor had explained the mishnah and Gemara and Rashi — from memory — so smoothly, that the logical inconsistency that had bothered him proved to be nonexistent.

His listeners were astonished.

At this point R. Pesach Ber the Masmid and another few scholars of stature joined them, and R. Yerucham Ber recounted the episode all over again.

18. Excitement in the beis midrash

R. Pesach Ber the Masmid at once stepped across and greeted the stranger with Shalom Aleichem. Several of his colleagues followed his lead, and soon they were all involved in a lively Torah debate.

Looking across from his place, R. Yosef Kol-Bo observed that quite a number of people had gathered together near the stove, and they were now all listening to one man. What could they be talking about? He walked across, and saw that some young visitor was speaking. In fact, he was discussing the Talmudic topic44 known as turbetz haveshet [“the wide part of the gullet,” in connection with the laws of treifos; Tractate Chullin 43b]. The discussion continued for hours on end, to the delight of all those who listened, R. Yosef Kol-Bo included.

Now in those days the little Perushim Shul did not have a midnight shift45 of scholars. It did have two other study groups — the “Late Sitters,”46 who remained in the beis midrash every evening until midnight, and the “Early Risers,”47 who arrived at 3:00 a.m.

“I belonged to the ‘Early Risers,’” R. Pinchas Reizes recounted in later years. “As I walked into the beis midrash for my daily shiur, I found it crowded. I made my way through to see what was going on, and saw that the southern table was surrounded by R. Yosef Kol-Bo, R. Zalman Yechiel the Blatt-zogger, R. Pesach Dov the Masmid, R. Shmuel Nachum the Parush, R. Yerucham Dov the Fisherman, and even R. Avraham Shemayah the Silent,48 as well as almost all of the ‘Late Sitters.’ With them sat a young man whom I had never seen before, who was listening carefully to R. Zalman Yechiel the Blatt-zogger.”

19. A novel approach to the study of Gemara

“At that time,” recalled R. Pinchas, “R. Zalman Yechiel used to teach his blatt of Tractate Bava Kama on Mondays and Thursdays to very advanced scholars, such as were already permitted to compose original discourses. In fact at every shiur the participants would propose their chiddushim, their own novellae. That Monday’s session was on the topic, Einah lishechitah ela libasof…, [which defines the duration of shechitah; Tractate Bava Kama 72a].

“R. Zalman Yechiel’s approach to study was characterized by profound and finely-honed pilpul. He now repeated the above-mentioned shiur to the young stranger, beginning with the phrase in the preceding mishnah (shochet venimtzeis treifah), and continuing with the Gemara until the following mishnah. As he spoke, the young man was completely absorbed in listening to his innovative interpretations.

“When he finished, the young man remarked that this was indeed an incisive instance of pilpul study, and it had included fine novellae in plenty. For his part, however, he was accustomed to a different style of study. And with that he began to explain — from memory — the paragraph of Tosafos that begins, Seifa lo karina bei, utvacho kulo b’isura. In the course of so doing, he analyzed the entire discussion in the Gemara of the individual who stole an animal and then slaughtered it, including a number of special cases — where this was done on Yom Kippur, or where the animal belonged to the thief’s father, or where he dedicated it for sacred use, or where he intended to use it for medical purposes. In addition, he detailed all the practical, legal applications of each case. The whole exposition lasted some three hours, and his listeners all reacted enthusiastically to his style of study.

“R. Yosef Kol-Bo was quite beside himself with praise for it. He argued repeatedly that this was the truly logical mode of study that gave a man a mellow understanding, unlike the approach of pilpul, that constricted one’s mind.

“As for the young man, though he was asked from all sides where he came from and what was his occupation, he gave no reply. When pressed further, he only answered that he was a full-time student, not a rav.”

20. The talmid chacham room

“As soon as they had finished davenen at daybreak,49 the visitor prepared himself for his journey. R. Yerucham Ber, however, begged him to have pity on him, claiming that if (Heaven forfend!) he denied him the mitzvah of hospitality, this would cause him actual suffering. At first the visitor declined, but when he saw what his reply meant to his host, he accepted his invitation.

“Full of joy, R. Yerucham Ber escorted his guest to his home, and showed him the book-filled room which he had set aside for learned visitors. Then, since it was Wednesday, and he was occupied with his business, he left the young man in the room alone.

“Within a flash the news spread around town. An exceedingly learned passer-by had visited the little Perushim Shul; right through the night, until daybreak, he had been involved in scholarly discussion with R. Zalman Yechiel the Blatt-zogger, R. Shmuel Nachum the Parush, R. Pesach Dov the Masmid, R. Avraham Shemayah the Silent, and R. Yosef Kol-Bo; right now he was at the home of R. Yerucham Ber the Fisherman, in the talmid chacham room.

“Everyone in town knew of R. Yerucham Ber’s special talmid chacham room: the most eminent sages had lodged there.”

21. Honoring a Torah scholar

In those days — and to a certain extent today too — the concept of honoring the Torah and Torah scholars was strongly emphasized in all the towns and townships of Lithuania.

Shklov was one of the most prestigious towns in the land. It boasted a great number of distinguished scholars and wealthy townsmen, so that Torah learning and worldly standing were united in the same place. Accordingly, the respect due to the Torah and its students was zealously safeguarded in all its manifestations. Local custom thus dictated that whenever an outstanding scholar came to town, the parnas of that month would first notify the head of the rabbinical court of his arrival. A meeting was thereupon held in the home of the rav to determine in what manner the visiting gaon should be honored — whether he should be invited to deliver a pilpul in the big beis midrash, or asked to conduct a Torah discussion at the table50 of the local rav,51 or to do the same in the community house.52

So much for scholars of renown. When a little-known scholar arrived, even a scholar of stature, he would first speak to the monthly parnas, and from there proceed to visit the head of the local rabbinical court.

R. Pinchas continued his account of that eventful day as follows: “When R. Yerucham Ber came home at midday, he found several of the local scholars with his guest in the talmid chacham room. And when I went to see my father for the shiur in Halachah that he used to give me after davenen every morning, I told him the whole story about the stranger, and repeated his discussion on the topic from Bava Kama.

“Exceptionally pleased, my father said: ‘He’ll probably come here53 soon together with R. Moshe David the parnas, and then, as the law prescribes, I’ll accord him all the honor that is due to a talmid chacham.’

“‘I doubt whether he’ll pay you a visit,’ I said to my father. ‘You see, he was only passing through our town, and wanted to leave after vasikin this morning — except that R. Yerucham Ber the Fisherman hooked on to him like a plague-spot: he absolutely had to bestow upon him the mitzvah of hospitality; in fact if he didn’t, he’d be causing him unspeakable suffering. The visitor had no choice but to accept. So if you want to see him, you’ll have to ask him to take the trouble of coming here.’”

22. Observing one’s study schedule

“My father,” continued R. Pinchas, “was an extremely assiduous scholar and husbanded his time vigilantly, especially the times that were punctually set aside for his regular shiurim.

“When we concluded our shiur in Halachah, R. Zalman Yechiel the Blatt-zogger called on my father. He told my father what had taken place in the little Perushim Shul that night, and that he and R. Pesach Ber the Masmid had agreed that the visitor ought to be invited to teach a blatt of Gemara to a circle of advanced scholars. But the honor due to the Torah and the honor due to a talmid chacham, he explained, demanded that this could not be done without the permission of the honorable head of the rabbinical court, my father. And this was what he had now come to request. By the way, he added, it would be a good idea for the erudite head of the rabbinical court to invite the visitor to his home, and to call a meeting of leading scholars in his honor, as was the custom.

“My father was a deliberate person, bearing the responsibility of being the rav of Shklov, and methodical as well. Rather than upset his daily routine, therefore, he first went off to the shtibl where the beis din sat, then came home and wrote halachic responsa at the scheduled time, and finally prayed the Minchah service. Only then did he send off R. Zalman Weiss the Shammes to invite several of the elder scholars of the community to his home, and to ask R. Yerucham Ber too to come with his guest.”

23. The name of the nameless stranger

“That day a sizable number of scholars foregathered. Some were students of R. Zalman Yechiel, some studied under R. Yeshaya Minsker, and some used to study independently. And every one of them was more than happy with the answers that the stranger gave to his queries.

“When I arrived at the home of R. Yerucham Ber, I found the talmid chacham room packed with serious scholars, most of them young married students, and the stranger was outlining an approach to the study of Gemara. Then, in response to their requests, he delivered a shiur based on the beginning of the chapter entitled Chezkas HaBatim.54 They enjoyed it immensely: it was smooth, penetrating, and logical, each proposition with a profundity of its own. Though his presentation lasted a long time, it was so well-ordered that there was no difficulty in following it.

“Early in the evening the visitor arrived at the meeting of the sages of Shklov that had been convened at the home of the rav, and remained there until late at night. Though they were all pleasantly impressed by his scholarship, no one knew who he was.

“R. Zalman Yechiel knew no rest. He now wanted the visitor to deliver his Thursday shiur, and worked so hard at it that when the time came, after davenen on Thursday morning, the visitor in fact took the class. For five hours he taught the mishnah that begins, Ganav al-pi shnayim… venimtz’u zomemim [on the laws of testimony; Tractate Bava Kama 72b], together with its Gemara, Rashi and Tosafos. Once again, R. Zalman Yechiel and R. Pesach Ber the Masmid and their colleagues were most enthused by the style of study that they were now hearing.

“Late in the afternoon a carriage chanced by, on its way to a village not far from where the visitor had to go, so he left town.

“Some time later the townsfolk of Shklov discovered that their visitor was... the [Alter] Rebbe.”

24. R. Yosef Kol-Bo becomes a chassid of the Alter Rebbe

In the course of his account, R. Pinchas describes the bitter opposition that was once again aroused against “the disciple of the Baal Shem Tov of Mezhibuzh, who lived in Mezritch.”55 He goes on to tell how R. Yosef Kol-Bo became a chassid, and how in the year 5540 (1770) he himself set out for Liozna in order to study under the Alter Rebbe, and was accepted into Cheder Beis. He explains at length the course of study pursued there, and tells how three years later the Alter Rebbe established Cheder Gimmel.

By this time there were several scores of exceedingly learned young chassidim in Shklov. Whenever the Alter Rebbe traveled through the town, even though among the elders there was some stern antagonism to his chassidic teachings, everyone — his most energetic opponents included — held him in the highest regard, and referred to him as the leading scholar of the generation.56

R. Pinchas proceeds to describe in detail how the geonim of Shklov began to accept the teachings of Chassidus, and how increasing numbers within the Torah community became chassidim. Recalling his journeys to Leipzig in the company of R. Yosef Kol-Bo, he tells how R. Yosef used to expound the principles of Chassidus to the Torah leaders of Germany, and how he used to tell them of the stature of the Alter Rebbe.

And among all his stories, R. Pinchas told my great-greatuncle, R. Nachum, all about the bar-mitzvah celebration of R. Nachum’s father, the Mitteler Rebbe — for R. Pinchas had been there himself.