1. My great-grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, was most particular that all the customs of chassidim should be observed. Most of them were instituted on various subjects by the Alter Rebbe.

On Shavuos, the early chassidim used to say Mazel-Tov! Originally they used to say it in the midst of the Torah Reading, but later, since the sources say that doing so would constitute a hefsek, an unwarranted interruption, it became customary to exchange Mazel-Tov greetings only after the davening. I recall aged chassidim in Lubavitch who used to say Mazel-Tov on Shavuos.

Everywhere there are local customs which were instituted by early authorities and which have solid foundations.

2. Customs justly deserved pride of place in the Jewish homes of bygone days. Those homes were lit up by the principle that “a Jewish custom is Torah,”1 and this principle a father would pass on to the sons and a mother would pass on to the daughters.

Some customs hark back to ancient generations, even to the time of the prophets, and their rationales have been forgotten.

3. In the big cities and little towns of every single country without exception, well-founded local customs illuminated the lives of Jewish communities. In every Jewish settlement and village, the special times – the days of Elul, Selichos, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and of each Yom-Tov in its season – were clearly visible. And what children saw and experienced in their childhood remained with them as a lifelong pillar of light, especially if they were rich in spiritual sensitivity.2

“That general category,” my father said, “includes many different levels. Chassidim of that kind whom I have known included thirty different kinds of baalei chush.”

4. Every Yom-Tov is preceded by an erev Yom-Tov that serves as a preparation for it, each in its appropriate way, and that preparation stands on its own merits, just as the introduction to a learned book is [often] itself a book.

Rosh HaShanah is preceded by the month of Elul. This is a comprehensive preparation, inasmuch as it includes two elements – the conclusion and rectification of the past year, and the preparation for the coming year that one undertakes during the days of Selichos and on erev Rosh HaShanah.

Now, the weighty scholars and geonim of Vitebsk were frigid, frozen and bloated. When the Alter Rebbe arrived there, soon after his marriage the local geonim already recognized his stature and came to refer to him as “the young gaon,” or “the Baal-Shelah3 gaon.” Within a few months his spiritual impact was felt, not only on the young scholars, but also on the hoary sages. His fiery but intellectually calm mode of avodah warmly invigorated their study of Torah and their observance of mitzvos.

The elder chassidim who recalled the early years after the arrival of the Alter Rebbe in Vitebsk used to repeat various episodes and Torah-related statements of his. For example: He used to say that if one invests the six weekdays in studying Torah and focusing on one’s davening, then Friday, erev Shabbos, heralds a sweet Shabbos.4 Likewise, if one conducts oneself earnestly through the month of Elul and the days of Selichos, then the eve of Rosh HaShanah (lit., “head of the year”), erev Rosh HaShanah, heralds a sweet head of the year.635

The festival of Shavuos is preceded by three days of self-limitation5 in three areas – in the area of one’s intellect, of one’s middos, and of one’s will and desire for pleasure. Readying oneself to receive the Torah at the most inward level depends on the preparatory avodah that was undertaken during the three days of limitation.

5. The Mitteler Rebbe used to speak highly of guidance that he had received from his first teacher, R. Yisrael Dov, who encouraged him to listen to chassidishe stories and to be invigorated by them.

One day, when he once encountered a few chassidim who were sitting together and exchanging such recollections, he heard how one of them, R. Chayim Dribiner, told his friends that the finest Torah scholars in Dribin were outspoken misnagdim. “There was barely a minyan of chassidim,” he said, “mostly newly-married Torah scholars who were supported by their fathers-in-law.6 I was one of them. We used to study under R. Zerach Meir Gribler, an eminent scholar of about sixty, ‘whose mouth never ceased uttering words of Torah.’7 Whatever subject he taught turned into a learned and multi-faceted debate. In fact the geonim of Brisk and Vilna used to refer to him as ‘the gaon, R. Zerach Meir Gribler.’

“Whenever he delivered his regular shiur, the elder sages of Dribin would come and listen, because he was an innovative scholar with a finely-honed style of explanation. He used to introduce his lectures by saying, ‘Now give this your fullest concentration! Listen to innovative Torah teachings8 that are delighting the ears of the tanna’im and amora’im9 in Gan Eden!’

“One day, when R. Zerach Meir was about to deliver his regular shiur, a bypasser walked into the beis midrash, put down his knapsack and washed his hands. We young men each greeted him with a handshake and a Shalom Aleichem. Just then another person entered. This was a chassid called R. Shalom Shlomo, a local storekeeper. He greeted the stranger likewise, asked him if he had already eaten, and invited him to drop into his home to have a bite of something. The stranger answered that he had already eaten, and sat down at the table.

“The elders, and R. Zerach Meir too, told him to move away. He shouldn’t be taking a seat next to the senior scholars! After all, they added, every man ‘ought to know his place.’10 The stranger got up without a word and stood at the side.

“It was now time for R. Zerach Meir to rise and deliver his familiar eloquent preamble in praise of his own scholarship. That done, he began to teach the mishnah (in Bava Basra 4b) concerning someone who bought fields that surrounded his neighbor’s field on three sides. After his lengthy explanation, the senior geonim exclaimed that such chiddushei Torah most certainly made the tanna’im and amora’im in Gan Eden exult.

“The stranger who had been listening at the side now spoke up. He listed and refuted, one by one, every contrived argument that the speaker had invented, and refuted its basis. All of the elders, including the former speaker, were left in consternation. They were dumbstruck. The stranger now added that he once heard how a certain young rosh yeshivah in a little township had analyzed this passage, and went on to repeat that explanation for a couple of hours.

“Astonished, R. Zerach Meir and his elder colleagues rose from their places and approached him, shook his hand, and invited him to take a seat at the table. He replied by saying that ‘every man ought to know his place…’

“This visitor was a chassid by the name of R. Menachem Zechariah. He remained and settled in Dribin – and within a few years, those elder geonim of Dribin became chassidim of the Alter Rebbe. By the way, from his arrival in town, R. Menachem Zechariah made himself responsible for the chassidishe upbringing of the local children.”

6. The Mitteler Rebbe heard from his father that the way in which a Jew lives his day depends on how he says Modeh Ani when he wakes up in the morning, because that Modeh Ani awakens the light of his soul, so that he will sensitively apprehend the meaning of the words that the soul hears in Gan Eden.

7. Already as a child, the Mitteler Rebbe was a quick and fluent writer with a beautiful handwriting. He used to write down all the statements and talks that he had heard from the Alter Rebbe, or from chassidim who remembered the Alter Rebbe from when he was a boy and from when he was studying before his wedding.

One of the serious scholars who remembered the time when the Alter Rebbe was a child was a chassid called R. Chayim Elye Vitebsker, a close follower of the Baal Shem Tov and a friend of the tzaddik R. Baruch, the Alter Rebbe’s father. R. Chayim Elye was famed for his sharp and concise explanations, and was also very well liked. His father was R. Shlomo Yochanan Vilner, who was one of the geonim of Vilna before the time of R. Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna.

[The following episode was recounted by R. Chayim Elye.]

* * *

One day, as R. Shlomo Yochanan was sitting and studying audibly, a passerby walked in and took a seat at the same table. As soon as R. Shlomo Yochanan noticed him, he closed his book, piously washed his hands at the nearby basin, and devoutly declared: “Leshem yichud…! For the sake of the union of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shechinah, I am hereby about to fulfill the mitzvah given by G‑d, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to respect visitors!”

That said, he approached the visitor, shook his hand, and greeted him with Shalom Aleichem.

Later, after he had resumed and completed his regular study session and it was time to go home, he invited the stranger to accompany him there and join him in a meal. The stranger declined, explaining that he had brought his own provisions with him. R. Shlomo Yochanan broke into tears: Why was he not to be privileged to fulfill the mitzvah of hospitality?

The stranger, who was none other than the gaon and tzaddik, R. Shimon Zundel Trisker, seeing his distress, decided after all to accompany him, and took up his knapsack. His host, R. Shlomo Yochanan, was overjoyed. He walked over to the Aron HaKodesh and kissed the paroches.11 He then hurried back to his guest, took the knapsack from his hands, and declared: “Leshem yichud…! For the sake of the union of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shechinah, I am hereby about to fulfill the mitzvah given by G‑d, Who commanded us to be hospitable!” And he carried the knapsack with joy.

At the table, the host and his above-mentioned son, R. Chayim Elye, waited personally on their guest, and listened with awe to his stories about the Baal Shem Tov.

After the meal, the guest told R. Shlomo Yochanan that he had been dispatched by his mentor, the Baal Shem Tov, on a shlichus to urge him to send his son, R. Chayim Elye, to study and settle in Vitebsk. The guest concluded: “I have now carried out my shlichus.” With that, he picked up his knapsack and went on his way.

* * *

Having completed his narration, the chassid R. Chayim Elye recalled: “Some time later, my father sent me off to Vitebsk. The Baal Shem Tov’s people there were very few, and they were all hidden tzaddikim. When I eventually visited the Baal Shem Tov, I made the acquaintance of the tzaddik and gaon, R. Baruch,12 and also of his learned brother-in-law, R. Yosef Yitzchak, the local rosh yeshivah. On a few occasions I stayed at the home of R. Baruch for a few weeks at a time, and was amazed by the extraordinary gifts of his young son.”

8. The Mitteler Rebbe’s notebooks include various explanations and interpretations of the prayers, that he wrote in his childhood years. Here is one such entry, dating from 5543 (1783):13

“Today, while I was davening, this is how I interpreted to myself the verse that says,14 כִּי רֶגַע בְּאַפּוֹ, חַיִּים בִּרְצוֹנוֹ; בָּעֶרֶב יָלִין בֶּכִי, וְלַבֹּֽקֶר רִנָּה ‘For his anger endures only for a moment; when He is appeased, life is granted. In the evening, one retires weeping; in the morning, he rejoices.’

“The word רֶגַע (lit., ‘a moment’) shares a root with a word meaning ‘tranquility.’ Hence, when a person meditates upon the concept that G‑d is the ultimate good, he is able to spiritually sense the truth – that that which mortal creatures perceive as אַף (‘anger’) is in fact from G‑d’s perspective חַיִּים (‘life’). And the main Divine purpose of avodah is that one should internalize that perspective.

“In that spirit, we can understand the words that follow: בָּעֶרֶב יָלִין בֶּכִי (lit., ‘In the evening, one retires weeping’). If one has shed tears of remorse when stocktaking and saying the Shema before retiring for the night, then וְלַבֹּקֶר רִנָּה – ‘in the morning, he rejoices,’ by virtue of the spiritual awareness15 that he will now gain in the course of his davenen and Torah study throughout the day.”16