Chai Elul1 is the day destined for joy and blessing for chassidim in general and Chabad chassidim in particular.

There is an old teaching that has been handed down by chassidic tradition in two versions: (a) Chai Elul is the day that introduced – and that introduces – vitality into Elul; (b) Chai Elul lends zest to one’s spiritual labors as defined by the phrase, אני לדודי ודודי לי – “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.”2

Chai Elul 5458 (1698) is the happiest of days among all chassidim around the world, for it is the luminous day on which the Baal Shem Tov was born.

Chai Elul 5484 (1724), when the Baal Shem Tov turned 26, is the immeasurably joyous day when the Heavenly Court ruled that Achiyah HaShiloni should appear to him, and disclose the luminary that lies within the revealed Torah and Kabbalah, as it is apprehended in Gan Eden.

Chai Elul 5494 (1734) marks the conclusion of the ten years during which Achiyah HaShiloni taught and guided him. During this time the Baal Shem Tov led a group of hidden tzaddikim and wandered about from one place to another among simple folk, telling them stories about the distinctive qualities of the Jewish people, stories about the refinement of character and the awe of Heaven. At the conclusion of these ten years, obedient to the directive and demand of his mentor, Achiyah HaShiloni, he revealed himself as a Baal Shem Tov (lit., “a Master of the Good Name”), who worked wonders and revealed profound secrets.

And Chai Elul 5505 (1745) is the day on which the Alter Rebbe was born to his saintly father, R. Baruch, son of the learned R. Shneur Zalman, and his saintly mother, Rebbitzin Rivkah, daughter of the learned R. Avraham.


The customs of Lubavitch over the years have been of four kinds: (a) those that were widely known, whether practiced on weekdays, Shabbos or festivals; (b) those practiced in the households of the respective Rebbeim, including their children and grandchildren; (c) those unique to the Rebbe; and (d) customs which each Rebbe in his generation practiced privately. All four kinds of customs were recorded by my great-grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek.

Chai Elul was one of the hidden festivals. Not until 5605 (1845)3 did my great-grandfather the Tzemach Tzedek divulge its secret to his sons. My grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, told my father of the weighty warning with which the Tzemach Tzedek had charged his sons not to disclose it.

Even when Chai Elul fell on a Shabbos,4 my grandfather used to devote himself to Torah and prayer in the privacy of his study throughout the entire twenty-four hours of the birthday of our first Rebbe. And in the maamar that he used to deliver on Chai Elul, if it fell on a Shabbos, or on the Shabbos preceding a weekday Chai Elul, he would always cite a teaching of the Alter Rebbe.

My grandfather once said: “For us (meaning the Rebbeim of Chabad), the period from Chai Elul to Yud-Tes Kislev is a three-month period of preparation for the divine service that takes place on the Rosh HaShanah of Chassidus, on the holy day of Yud-Tes Kislev.”


The first time that my father left town for a health resort was in the year 5655 (1895). The overt reason was his frail health; the real reason was that he wanted to spend more time with me5 and give more attention to my education.

I owe a debt, a rich debt of gratitude, to my teacher the Rashbatz. May he truly be granted illumination in Gan Eden for having set me up in a ray of chassidic sunlight, and for having groomed me, in the course of eighteen months of schooling, to become worthy of receiving my father’s guidance in the spiritual lifestyle and in the study of Chassidus.

In fact I owe my preparatory chassidic upbringing to three of my teachers. The first was a wise and warm-hearted Chabad chassid of refined character who was known as R. Yekusiel Dardekei-Melamed (“the teacher of the little ones”). With the stories he told us from the Tanach and the Midrashim, stories which we had not yet heard, he aroused in us an appreciation of the glory of Israel. The second was R. Shimshon, an efficient but short-tempered teacher whose thick leather “noodles” we found painful. The third teacher who aroused within me and cultivated the chassidic sensitivity was R. Nissan Skobla.

It was my fourth teacher, the Rashbatz, who groomed me to be able to receive the guidance of my father.

Tuesday of the week of Parshas Behaalos’cha, the twelfth of Sivan 5655 (1895), was the happy day on which my father began to give me spiritual guidance through education of a special kind – recounting confidential episodes and stories of deepseated content. These had the immediate effect of making me somewhat deliberate, and critical of my own habits and conduct.

During our first two-hour stroll my father told me that he had decided to devote himself personally to my upbringing, in the same manner and in the same order followed by his father when he had turned eleven.

In my father’s very first few words I could perceive the profound insight6 into his disciple’s mode of feeling that an educator must have. Only with this insight can education truly yield its anticipated results, for the student, sensing how his mentor comprehends him with such perception, is drawn to him with a deepseated bond.

My father, with his boundless chassidic traits and his unerring sensitivity to his fellow, now devoted himself to my education. In his first few words he explained to me his anguish at not having been in a position to do this personally until that time; his delicate health had compelled him to entrust my education and guidance into the hands of R. Chanoch Hendel and R. Nissan the Melamed – “while I,” he concluded, “was in a variety of health resorts abroad.”

My father proceeded to tell me of the unpleasant experiences of that time – how on account of his very poor health he had had to spend Pesach and the whole of summer in various health resorts, but by virtue of his holy forebears G‑d had granted his innermost soul-request. And as he explained how he had had to delegate the responsibility for my upbringing, he wept profusely.

The greatest portrayer of feelings would be incapable of describing the limitless devotion to my father that these words of his aroused within me.

On that occasion he said: “I offer grateful praise to the Almighty for accepting my prayers. This is no doubt due to the intercession of our holy forefathers. May G‑d prosper you, so that the paths of education will be utterly internalized within you – with the chassidic inwardness that diffuses a penetrating and essential light.”


It was then that my father fixed my daily schedule, setting out how long I should study every day with my teacher the Rashbatz and how long I should study alone, [also] reviewing my chassidic studies. Keeping in mind my habit of recording whatever subjects my father spoke of, he allocated a certain time in the day for this too.


Our routine of going for a stroll was observed scrupulously. One Tuesday in Tammuz, during our twenty-first walk, my father told me that on the forthcoming Thursday, Yud-Beis Tammuz, my birthday, he would travel with me to Lubavitch to the holy resting places of my grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, and my great-grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, and ask that they should intercede – that the spiritual guidance that he was giving me should succeed throughout a long life.

During Wednesday’s stroll my father explained the concept of “the Torah academy in Heaven”7 as expounded in the writings of the Kabbalah.He spoke of the pleasure enjoyed by souls when their children and grandchildren walk in their ways, and of the Divine compassion that their intercession arouses on behalf of the spiritual and material success of those offspring.

As we walked my father told me how I should conduct myself in the course of that evening – praying Maariv at length; including the confessional Al Chet in the Kerias Shema recited before retiring at night; Tikkun Chatzos at midnight; rising no later than five a.m.; immersing in the river; reading the morning prayers with due deliberation; and then at eight he would travel with me to visit the resting places of our holy forebears at Lubavitch. I did as I was told, and on Thursday morning, Yud-Beis Tammuz, we set out.

My father spent almost three hours with me at the holy resting places; the order of events there cannot be revealed. On our return from there, my father took me to my revered grandmother, Rebbitzin Rivkah,8 so that I should receive her blessing.

All the way back to the health resort my father spoke of what transpires with souls when their descendants pray at their resting places, of how they intercede for Divine compassion on their behalf. And when we arrived at the resort at seven p.m., my father took his daily stroll with me and resumed our regular schedule.


My father punctually maintained this schedule even when there was rain and bad weather.

On Tuesday, the first day of Rosh Chodesh Elul, my father interrupted his regular narration of episodes and stories, and said that he had a reason for doing so at the point which he had then reached. He now wanted to tell me what he had heard from his father about the Alter Rebbe – about who he was, about his soul’s mission in this world, and about his self-sacrifice for the successful dissemination of the teachings of Chassidus.

On Friday morning, the seventeenth of Elul, my father said: “In the course of the guidance of your inner spiritual development9 I explained to you the significance of self­preparation, at both its outward and inward levels. Come to my study dressed in your Shabbos clothes a couple of hours before candle-lighting time, and I will tell you more about it.”

Entering his study I found him in his Shabbos garb. He told me to close the door tight, then put on the shtreimel that he used to wear on Shabbos, and earnestly enjoined me not to let anyone know of what he was now going to tell me – until a certain time, at which I should repeat it.

My father then said: “In order that this narrative should be absorbed deeply and inwardly, and not be revealed before its time, and in order that you should repeat it when the time comes, I shall bless you.”


Whenever my father blessed me he always stood facing south while I stood opposite him facing north; he would rest both his holy hands on my head, and bless me. This time, as he placed his hands upon my head, I felt that they were trembling with emotion. I saw his tears falling to the floor, and wept profusely. Then, when he had lifted his hands from my head, I saw that his face was all aflame and astir.

Regaining his composure he said: “May G‑d be praised for everything. Avodah comprises two aspects which are essentially one: one needs to grow out of the outward aspect of avodah and become involved in its inward aspect; this is true avodah. I shall give you directives as to how to do this – but you alone have to do it. By means of a blessing from a deep source, and with its help, inward and elemental powers are given – but the work has to be done by you alone. May G‑d help you to devote yourself with your innermost powers to the cause of pnimiyus, the inwardness of divine service. May you be blessed with success, and with long days and years, both materially and spiritually.”


Before any soul descends here from its Root and Source it needs to undergo a year’s preparation; a new soul needs three years’ preparation.


Three years before the birth of the Alter Rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov knew that a new soul was soon to descend to This World. But who would be privileged to host it he did not know, so he searched for it in the heavenly palaces.

Even angels are not told of the impending descent of a new soul, so that no envious eye should harm it.

What a soul is in its pristine state Above, – this the Baal Shem Tov knew; how a soul descends into This World and is garbed in materiality, – this he also knew; how fares a new soul, – this he would dearly love to know.

He knew that this new soul was due to descend to This World during that year; he did not know where, or in whom.

* * *

The Alter Rebbe’s father, the saintly R. Baruch, was one of the Baal Shem Tov’s circle of hidden tzaddikim. There had been a stage at which these holy people did not know of each other, but even when later they did know of each other, they were solemnly warned by the Baal Shem Tov not to reveal themselves.

The disciples knew that R. Yosef Yitzchak10 belonged to the circle of the Baal Shem Tov, but no one knew of R. Baruch – no one, that is, apart from [his wife,] Rebbitzin Rivkah.

When a year had passed since their marriage and they had not been blessed with a child, R. Baruch and his wife set out during the month of Elul to visit the Baal Shem Tov in order to ask for his blessing. The Baal Shem Tov blessed them, and promised them that in the forthcoming year, 5505 (1745), they would be granted a healthy son.

The fact that this child was connected to the new soul that was destined to descend that year, was hidden even from the Baal Shem Tov.


The Baal Shem Tov, as is known, had a particular mode of conduct for weekdays throughout the year, for Shabbos and for the festivals. And the way he conducted himself on Rosh HaShanah of that year was different to his accustomed conduct on every other New Year.

His divine service of the month of Tishrei began in general terms with the [preceding] month of Elul, and in particular with the days of Selichos [with which it closes]. Moshe Rabbeinu spent forty days in Heaven interceding after the sin of the Golden Calf and receiving the Torah, and thereby elicited the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Compassion; during these forty days [from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur]11 the visibly dominant theme in the Baal Shem Tov’s divine service was awe. From the close of Yom Kippur until Simchas Torah was over, the dominant theme was joy.

On Rosh HaShanah of that year, the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov observed a marked difference from his accustomed mode of divine service. His abounding joy could be perceived in his manner of prayer during Maariv on the first evening; in the especially cordial tone with which he then blessed them – that they each be inscribed and sealed for a good year; in the Torah teachings at the meal thereafter; in the next day’s sounding of the shofar; and in the Mussaf prayer.

The conclusion of Yom Kippur that year found the Baal Shem Tov in a distinctive state of holy elation, which remained with him until after Simchas Torah.

His disciples understood that something wonderful must have transpired that Tishrei, something that had brought him such joy that he had departed from his accustomed mode of divine service during the Days of Awe, for joy was now its dominant theme. But eager as they were to discover the reason for this joy, they were left disappointed.


Before the learned R. Baruch and his wife left Mezhibuzh, they called on the Baal Shem Tov to receive his farewell blessings. Rebbitzin Rivkah, bestirred by spiritual emotion, told the tzaddik that when the Almighty fulfilled his blessing and granted her a healthy son, she would dedicate him to the study of Torah and to divine service in the spirit of the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov.

Seeing their state of spiritual arousal the Baal Shem Tov gave them his blessing, and they left town with gladsome hearts.


Rebbitzin Rivkah, as is well known, was a learned lady, but her regular daily study schedule was known to no one but her husband. Having returned to her home, she paid a visit to her learned sister-in-law in Vitebsk in order to report everything that the Baal Shem Tov had told her and her husband, as well as whatever she had heard and seen of his conduct, and what she had heard about the wonderment of his disciples – as to why his mode of divine service that Tishrei was so different from that of every other year.

She asked her sister-in-law to draw up a plan of study for her. Moreover, since she was so certain that the Baal Shem Tov’s blessing was going to be realized, she asked to be directed in her prayer and study during her forthcoming pregnancy.


Her heart brimming over with joy, she duly brought her husband the glad tidings – that the blessing of the tzaddik was being fulfilled. Though they were certain that he knew of this they decided that they should inform him nevertheless, and early in Adar Sheni, R. Baruch set out for Mezhibuzh.

The Baal Shem Tov was overjoyed at the news, and particularly wanted to know when the pregnancy had begun. When he was told, he instructed R. Baruch to pronounce the thanksgiving blessing of Shehecheyanu, though without mentioning the Divine Name.12 He directed him moreover to return home at once and to convey Mazel-Tov greetings to his rebbitzin, and prescribed a number of precautionary measures.

R. Baruch took the homeward road a happy man.


On Wednesday morning, Chai Elul, the Baal Shem Tov returned from his immersion in the mikveh in extraordinarily buoyant spirits. His disciples were mystified, but none of them ventured to breathe a question. Moreover, the tzaddik personally led the prayers to the jovial rhythms of the festival melodies. And when he surprised them by omitting the Tachanun13 prayers, they realized that this must be a uniquely festive day.

He then invited them to share his visible joy at a festive meal, where he said: “On Wednesday, ‘the day on which the luminaries were suspended14 [in the heavens]’; on the Wednesday of the week whose haftorah opens with the words, Kumi ori – ‘Arise and shine’;15 on this day a new soul has come down, which will light up the world through the revealed levels of the Torah and through Chassidus. It will endure self-sacrifice for the sake of the spiritual path of Chassidus, and will succeed in its mission until the Coming of Mashiach.”


When the Baal Shem Tov received R. Baruch who had come to Mezhibuzh for Yom Kippur 5506 (1745), he warned him that he should tell no one that he had had a son, nor should he tell anyone of the child’s name. Later, when R. Baruch was about to leave for home, the Baal Shem Tov gave him detailed instructions as to how the child should be attended to and how he should be watched over, and told him that during the summer he should be taken to the fields. He warned him solemnly, moreover, that the child should be kept out of public view, and in particular out of the view of the local gossips.

And three times a day, at each of the daily prayers, the Baal Shem Tov made mention of the newborn child.


A year later, when R. Baruch again visited Mezhibuzh for Rosh HaShanah, the Baal Shem Tov asked him in detail about the child’s early upbringing, and repeated his stern warning about not telling anyone anything about him. After Sukkos, when R. Baruch was ready to leave town, the Baal Shem Tov gave him directives as to how he should conduct himself in the course of the forthcoming year. He reiterated his warnings about keeping the child out of view, and told him not to repeat his precocious remarks, as some parents are fond of doing.


The Baal Shem Tov asked similar questions at the next Rosh HaShanah visit, the following year. R. Baruch told him that when he had returned home the previous year, his rebbitzin had reported that on the child’s [first] birthday, Chai Elul, he had begun to speak more articulately than before. In the course of the year that had passed since then, the parents had seen that the child had a remarkable memory and a stupendous power of comprehension: whatever he once heard was his forever.

To this the Baal Shem Tov reacted by warning him yet again that he was to tell no one that he had been blessed with a son; if asked, he should answer briefly that he and his wife trusted that G‑d would no doubt make things work out for the best.

When R. Baruch entered the Baal Shem Tov’s study to take his leave and to receive his farewell blessings, he told the tzaddik that he and his wife had decided to bring their son with them for the following year’s Chai Elul. The [three-year-old] child would then have his first haircut and would be left with peyos.16 The Baal Shem Tov agreed, told the father to keep his child out of sight, and to see to it that he should be accompanied by his mother and by his aunt Devorah Leah. They were to arrive after morning prayers on Chai Elul, and as soon as he himself had cut the child’s hair in his study they were to leave incognito.


Returning home after an absence of two months, R. Baruch discovered that his son had mastered a great number of chapters of Tehillim, and his talents continued to astonish.

On Wednesday, Chai Elul, 5508 (1748), Rebbitzin Rivkah and her sister-in-law duly arrived in Mezhibuzh. As soon as the Baal Shem Tov had given the child his first training in leaving his peyos uncut, and had given him his blessing, he urged them to leave immediately and not to discuss between themselves where they had been. Finally, he wished them a good year and a safe journey home.

The little boy kept on asking who was this man who had cut his hair and left him with peyos, and who had blessed him.

“That was a grandfather,” replied his mother.


When the Alter Rebbe was five years old his teacher sensed that the gates of Torah were open to him: in his mind, all the ramifications of its most obscure subjects were utterly clear. In later years he told my great-grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, that when as a child he was so successful in his studies, he was distressed at not having been privileged to fulfill the obligation of toiling in order to master the Torah.

“While still a little boy,” he continued, “I was much impressed by the notion of loving a fellow Jew. I very much enjoyed being friendly to people – and not only scholars, but simple folk too. In fact I often respected them more, for they observe the commandments on the strength of faith alone.

“For ten years I was pained by the fact that I had no need to exert my brain, because the Torah was open to me – until when I turned fifteen I was informed who I was, and what was the ultimate purpose of my soul’s descent into This World.”

When the Alter Rebbe went to Vitebsk17 he continued to practice his love of fellow Jews, being always warm and open towards the unlettered. He vigorously encouraged people to earn their livelihood through farming, and in fact later spent his dowry buying land and essential agricultural implements.

“However,” he later recalled, “because the scholars of Vitebsk held that it was seemly for their ignorant townsfolk to be kept at a cool distance, I somewhat restrained my customary closeness with those simple people.”


The Alter Rebbe continued: “Having found out my function in This World, the potential with which I had been endowed and the responsibility which lay upon me, I selected a number of gifted scholars of profound understanding. In addition to our studies in the revealed levels of the Torah, we studied Kabbalahsystematically, and prayed in our own minyan according to the custom of the Shelah.”

In the course of the three years during which the Alter Rebbe taught this circle of outstanding scholars, he gained a reputation as a scholar of towering stature.

His learned uncle, R. Yosef Yitzchak, did not disclose to the Alter Rebbe that he had been a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov18 and then of the Maggid of Mezritch, though he conveyed to him the principal teachings of Chassidus that the Baal Shem Tov had revealed and that the Maggid had extended.


During these two years of study, R. Yosef Yitzchak also taught the Alter Rebbe how prayer is at be approached according to the teachings of Chassidus.

In the Alter Rebbe’s twentieth year, some time after Pesach in the year 5525 (1765),19 he decided, with the consent of his rebbitzin,20 to travel further afield in order to engage in Torah and avodah.

“I had been unable to decide where to go,” he later recalled, “and my learned brother, the Maharil, a level-headed man, said that I ought to head for Mezritch. I knew that in Vilna one could learn how to study and in Mezritch one could learn how to pray. I knew something about study, but very little about how to daven – so off I went to Mezritch.

“The Almighty prospered my decision, and in an auspicious hour I became a devoted chassid of the Rebbe.21 When I returned home to Vitebsk I arranged a study schedule in Chassidus for my students and, thank G‑d, they absorbed it well.”


The Baal Shem Tov concealed himself from the Alter Rebbe, and was distressed that he had to do so.

Every year or two, R. Yosef Yitzchak would visit the Baal Shem Tov for Shavuos. At every visit, beginning from the year 5509 (1749), the Baal Shem Tov would question him in detail about the Alter Rebbe, and would warn him that he should be careful not to tell him about the teachings of Chassidus.


The last time that R. Yosef Yitzchak ever visited the Baal Shem Tov at Mezhibuzh was for Shavuos 5520 (1760). In the course of that visit, on Shabbos Parshas Bamidbar, the Baal Shem Tov expounded the verse that says, “And the Children of Israel will be as numerous [as the sand of the sea], which can be neither measured nor numbered.”22

After Minchah, in the presence of R. Yosef Yitzchak, the Baal Shem addressed the Maggid as follows: “From the day that this new soul had to come down from its place – in the Sefirah of Chochmah in the World of Atzilus – and to be invested in a body, and my saintly disciple Baruch and his wife Rivkah were privileged to have this soul be enclothed in their son, Shneur Zalman, I have undergone self-sacrifice for his sake. “He is yours – but he must come to you alone, without being aroused from without. When he reaches you, realize what kind of receptacle this is. Extreme care must be taken while giving him spiritual guidance, so that he will be able to succeed in carrying out the mission which has been placed upon him.”


The Alter Rebbe told the Mitteler Rebbe about the meaning of Chai Elul when he turned fifteen, and at that time inducted him into the more inward levels of spiritual endeavor. When the Tzemach Tzedek turned fifteen, the Alter Rebbe told him too about Chai Elul. The Tzemach Tzedek in turn told the same to my grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, when he turned fifteen, and he explained these things to my father when he too turned fifteen. And when I turned fifteen, I was invited to join the dance.


Thanks be to G‑d for the fulfillment of the blessings of our forebears, the Rebbeim – that chassidim, wherever they are, should succeed in maintaining Torah and avodah according to the ways of Chassidus. Thanks be for the fact that even in this blind and deaf land there is already more than a minyan [of chassidim]. According to Torah law, by the way, a minyan does not necessarily mean exactly ten – but it does mean more than nine.

Now one has to see about performing an operation on those others, too – to remove cataracts from their eyes and to clean out their ears. The surgery, however, has to be painless. It has to come out of awareness. One has to show such a person that what is being offered is a cookie, for when you show people a cookie, everyone wants some.

* * *

Today, Chai Elul, one can fill one’s buckets generously.

It is my wish to you all and to your families, both those who are present23 and those who are not – physically – present, that the Almighty grant each man what he lacks, in children, health, and ample sustenance. It is my wish not only that these material blessings not hinder you in the study of Torah, in the avodah of prayer, and in conducting your lives according to the ways of Chassidus, but that on the contrary they should help you carry out your spiritual tasks with a peaceful heart and with peace of mind (and everyone knows what needs to be done), so that we should arrive at the ultimate attainment – to be found worthy of witnessing the revelation of Mashiach, with lovingkindness and compassion.

A good Yom-Tov!