The cycle of the Jewish year has many starting points, and many periods of celebration. As the Mishnah noted long ago, there is not one Rosh Hashanah, but four: there are different calendrical cycles for different kinds of things.

In this vein, the Rebbe would often recall the Talmudic debate about whether the world was first created on the 25th of Adar, making Nissan the first month, or on the 25th of Elul, making Tishrei the first month. These two calendarical beginnings, the Rebbe explained, mirror one another as complementary paths in our service of G‑d. Beginning in Nissan, Divine redemption and revelation is bestowed from on high. It is then that we celebrate the redemption from Egypt, and three months later—in Sivan—the giving of the Torah. Beginning in Tishrei, we seek to raise ourselves up from below. It is then that we seek within our own depths to draw forth the depth of all things, returning to our true selves and to G‑d. And three months later—in Kislev—we celebrate the outpouring of Torah’s concealed wellsprings: the teachings of Kabbalah as expounded and explicated by the chassidic masters.

The oldest and best-known of Kislev’s chassidic celebrations occurs on its 19th day (Yud-Tes Kislev). But this month includes many other special occasions, beginning from its very first day (Rosh Chodesh), which was first established as a chassidic celebration as recently as 1977. This is a month of freedom and edification, of joy and transformation, and it climaxes with the eight-day festival of Chanukah. Of course, this holiday of miracles long predates Chassidism. But as with all other aspects of Jewish, life, learning and practice, Chanukah shines with an entirely new degree of luminosity when experienced through the chassidic prism.

So here are five celebratory highlights from the chassidic month of Kislev:

1. Rosh Chodesh Kislev

This photo was taken at the first farbrengen led by the Rebbe after suffering a
major heart attack. Unbeknownst to most of the audience, doctors were using
cardiac monitors to observe the Rebbe’s condition throughout the farbrengen.
This photo was taken at the first farbrengen led by the Rebbe after suffering a major heart attack. Unbeknownst to most of the audience, doctors were using cardiac monitors to observe the Rebbe’s condition throughout the farbrengen.

The first day of the month (Rosh Chodesh) marks the return of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—to public life after suffering a major heart attack just thirty-eight days earlier. During the celebrations of the evening of Shemini Atzeret in the year 1977 (5738), while dancing with the Torahs in the main synagogue, the Rebbe’s face suddenly turned pale. As he sat back in his chair, the chassidim knew that something was very wrong, and the synagogue was quickly cleared. Yet the Rebbe stoically completed the last dance together with his brother-in-law Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary. Dr. Ira Weiss, who flew in from Chicago to treat the Rebbe, testified that “on a scale of ten, he had the full ten heart attack . . . it involved such extensive damage that in anyone’s normal medical experience one would worry about the possibility of survival.”

Knowing that the Rebbe’s life might be in danger, and that he was surely suffering intense physical pain, the chassidim had cause for deep anguish and anxiety. Yet the Rebbe instructed that the celebration must continue, and that the joy must be unconstrained. One chassid who was present later recalled, “The fact that the Rebbe was unwell penetrated us to the very core. To begin with, we sang, ‘The Rebbe should be healthy.’ Then the words changed to ‘The Rebbe is healthy.’ We somehow knew, axiomatically, that our faithful joy would make it so. On Rosh Chodesh Kislev, when we once again saw the Rebbe, we celebrated because we were united again with our own essence. And that was the celebration. Such a thing doesn’t come through any kind of specific preparation. It comes from the very foundation of what it means to be a chassid, knowing that the Rebbe is your essence.”

Strikingly, in a talk broadcast from his room following the festival’s conclusion, the Rebbe too spoke of how his bond with the chassidim was actually intensified through their enforced separation. “For a certain reason,” the Rebbe began, “we speak after the festival’s conclusion, which allows us to use media to communicate what we say even in faraway places, physically far, but obviously spiritually close, which is the main thing among Jews, being that their soul is primary and their body secondary. . . . Thereby there is formed a tie, a bond, a unity, among all those who hear this speech . . .”

These words are particularly resonant today, when we again find ourselves physically separated from the Rebbe. But knowing that our very souls are bound with the Rebbe’s, we know that his spiritual life—his faith, his awe and love of G‑d—are as accessible to us as ever before. On the contrary, as the Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains in Tanya, “having departed from the world, the tzaddik is more present in all worlds than he was in his lifetime . . . since his soul is no longer constrained by a physical vessel or by physical space.”

Rosh Chodesh Kislev marked the beginning of sixteen additional years of life and leadership for the Rebbe. During this period he revealed ever deeper Torah secrets, and inspired many thousands of people to transform themselves and the world for good. But Rosh Chodesh Kislev wasn’t just a point in the past. Rosh Chodesh Kislev continues to be celebrated as the moment that chassidim collectively recognize just how deep the bond with the Rebbe goes. Transcending any physical or temporal dimension, the Rebbe and his teachings continue to provide our essential soul connection, the bedrock of our faith, of our awe and love of G‑d.

Listen to the Rosh Chodesh Kislev niggun, composed by Rabbi Faitel Levin as an expression of joy and thanksgiving for the Rebbe’s recovery and continued leadership:

For more about Rosh Chodesh Kislev, click here.

2. Tes and Yud Kislev

New editions of Biurei ha-Zohar (left) and Imrei Binah (right), originally
published by Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch in 1816 and 1821, respectively.
New editions of Biurei ha-Zohar (left) and Imrei Binah (right), originally published by Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch in 1816 and 1821, respectively.

These two days mark a threefold commemoration of the life and works of Rabbi DovBer Schneuri, the second rebbe of Chabad, and the first to establish his court in the townlet of Lubavitch. The 9th of the month (tes) marks both his birthday and the day on which he passed away, in 1773 (5534) and 1827 (5588), respectively. The 10th of the month (yud) marks the day just one year earlier, in 1826 (5587), when czarist officials cleared him of false charges and freed him from imprisonment.

Already in the lifetime of his father and predecessor, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Rabbi DovBer achieved renown for his eloquent ability to expand on his father’s teachings, accentuating the profundity of their depth and the breadth of their application. He developed an extensive, explanatory style, and often employed distinctly philosophical terminology, departing from Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s words in order to more fully expound and extend his ideas.

The distinctiveness of Rabbi DovBer’s approach is evidenced both in his transcripts of teachings that he heard from his father and in his own discourses and written works. During the tenure of his leadership he also published many chassidic books, including collections of his father’s discourses on prayer and on the Zohar, and many original works of his own.

The intensity of his engagement with chassidic teachings was captured by his son-in-law, nephew and successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn—better known as the Tzemach Tzedek—who commented that if Rabbi DovBer’s finger were to be cut, chassidic teachings would flow rather than blood. His own chassidic teachings were not only qualitatively expansive, but also quantitatively so. On a single Shabbat he would regularly deliver several oral discourses, and on one Shavuot festival delivered no less than eleven. He held himself back from delivering more only when his uncle, Rabbi Yehudah Leib of Yanovitch, exclaimed, “Not everyone has a head like yours!”

It may have been on the same occasion, or perhaps a different year, that on Rabbi DovBer’s preparing to deliver a third discourse in uninterrupted succession, Rabbi Aizik of Homel ran to the home of the Tzemach Tzedek—who was not always in attendance when his father-in-law delivered new chassidic teachings—and exclaimed, “Mendel, Mendel! Come and see, Divinity is flowing in the streets!”

Rabbi DovBer once described the delivery and reception of a new discourse as “the revelation of the root of the soul in the body,” citing the writings of R. Chaim Vital to the effect that such an experience is greater than a mystic encounter with Elijah the Prophet (gilui Eliyahu), and greater than reception of prophecy (ruach ha-kodesh). He was also known to demand that when two young people meet in the street, their conversation should concern the two forms of Divine unity, yichuda ila’ah and yichuda tata’ah.

To this day, Rabbi DovBer and his teachings stand as an avatar for the most intense form of cognitive engagement with the theoretical core of Chabad teachings, an exemplar of an ideal to which we should all aspire.

Listen to the melody most closely associated with Rabbi DovBer, and composed and sung in his court:

For more about Rabbi DovBer Schneuri of Lubavitch, known as the Mitteler Rebbe, click here.

3. Yud-Daled Kislev

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (later the Rebbe) wearing a silk coat and sash
in preparation for his wedding on the 14th of Kislev, 1928 (5689).
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (later the Rebbe) wearing a silk coat and sash in preparation for his wedding on the 14th of Kislev, 1928 (5689).

The 14th (yud-daled) day of the month marks a historic marriage that took place in Warsaw, Poland, in the year 1928 (5689). The bride, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, was the second daughter of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch. The groom was her distant cousin, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who in 1951 would succeed his father-in-law as the seventh rebbe.

This was a time of tremendous upheaval and uncertainty for Chabad. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak had been released from Soviet imprisonment a little more than a year before, and was temporarily living in Riga, Latvia, having yet to decide where to establish a new center for the continuation of Chabad activities. Over the course of the previous year Rabbi Menachem Mendel had made several trips to Berlin, where he had enrolled as a student at both the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary and the prestigious Frederick William (Humboldt) University. He would soon return to that city together with his new wife.

There was a strong feeling at the time that this marriage was somehow the beginning of a new era for Chabad, but it was very far from clear how the movement’s future would play out. This mixture of hope, uncertainty and anticipation is well reflected in a letter penned immediately following the wedding by Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim Althaus, a senior chassid who was appointed by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak to remain at the groom’s side in the days leading up to the great event. He described his experiences and musings during these few days, and especially his impressions of the groom in rich and poignant detail.

Here is how Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim described his own thoughts as he watched Rabbi Menachem Mendel pray the afternoon prayer on his wedding day:

“There are many paths before him, and all of them carry the risk of danger, some in soul and spirit, some in flesh and matter. . . . Seeing before me this young man . . . did I myself not cry along with him too? Did I not connect with him and join with him in his prayers, in his supplications and requests for mercy from the bottom of his heart? Did I not yet know that on the path of this praiseworthy young man is dependent the paths and deeds of our children, and our children’s children. . . . In the truest truth, I clearly see a young man of precious worth; a great scholar . . . in him the sacred is not profaned even the slightest hairsbreadth. . . . In these thoughts I ascended in the preceding generations one after the other . . . and I could not find more worthy than he.”

This sense of shared destiny—of the intertwined futures of the Rebbe’s new son-in-law and of the chassidic community as a whole—echoes strongly in remarks made by Rabbi Menachem Mendel himself, marking his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in 1953. By this time his path, the path of Chabad, and that of the entire Jewish people had taken many treacherous turns. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak had passed away less than four years earlier, and with the trauma of the Holocaust still fresh, Rabbi Menachem Mendel was continuing his predecessor’s project to ensure the future of Jewish life, learning and practice in the United States and across the world. Looking back to his wedding day a quarter century earlier, the Rebbe remarked:

“In general, a wedding is a public event for a private individual. But for me, this was even more the case. Through my marriage I was later drawn into public affairs, whether or not I was happy about it. . . . May G‑d help that our toil shall produce good results. . . . This is the day that bound me to you, and you to me.”

In the intervening years, it is clear, the Rebbe’s work has produced many good results. But his work is not over. And we, who are bound to him as he is bound to us, must continue to toil in the perpetuation of Jewish life, learning and practice, using all the resources he gave us to their fullest extent.

Listen to the Melody of Four Stanzas. Composed by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, it is traditionally sung at Chabad weddings as the bride circles the groom:

For more about the Rebbe’s marriage, click here.

4. Yud-Tes Kislev

Aerial view of the Peter and Paul Fortress, which served from around 1720 as a
prison for high-ranking and political prisoners. Today it is an important part
of the State Museum of Saint Petersburg History.
Aerial view of the Peter and Paul Fortress, which served from around 1720 as a prison for high-ranking and political prisoners. Today it is an important part of the State Museum of Saint Petersburg History.

The 19th (yud-tes) day of the month marks the 1798 (5559) release of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, by the express order of the czar, from imprisonment in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Rabbi Schneur Zalman had been arrested after a letter was addressed to the czar accusing the rebbe of supporting the revolution in France, and encouraging thievery and anarchy among Jewish youths. This false denunciation, whose author hid behind a pseudonym, initiated a full investigation into the ascendent chassidic movement. Leading members of the chassidic community, in Vilna and elsewhere, were also arrested and interrogated.

This was not simply an attack on Rabbi Schneur Zalman personally. It was also an attempt to instigate a government crackdown on the chassidic movement as a whole. Rabbi Schneur Zalman was specifically targeted because by this stage he had emerged as the preeminent chassidic leader in the Russian Empire. In written testimony penned during his internment, Rabbi Schneur Zalman offered a spirited defense of the chassidic movement’s emphasis on intentional prayer as the key to cultivating love and awe of G‑d. He likewise defended the role of chassidic leaders as teachers who communicate the inner meaning of the prayers to the wider community, empowering them to serve G‑d, each according to their capacity.

Explaining why his own teachings were particularly popular, Rabbi Schneur Zalman wrote: “They desire to hear from me more than to hear from other teachers (maggidim) . . . for their words are included in mine, and enhanced with conceptualization and understanding built on many earlier books, and sometimes drawing from Kabbalistic books, what can be understood and explained to those who have studied Kabbalah . . .”

Rabbi Schneur Zalman understood his imprisonment to be a result of his prominence as a chassidic leader, which in turn derived from his distinctly cognitive, conceptual and explanatory approach to the perpetuation of chassidic teaching and practice. This distinction—later marked by the appellation Chabad—was controversial even within the chassidic community. For this reason Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s ultimate release was seen not only as a victory for the chassidic community as a whole, but also as Divine vindication of his particular approach.

From this point on, Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s tendency to include conceptual and Kabbalistic elements in his public teachings would be significantly accelerated. While he always remained focused on the application of contemplative techniques in practice, he now devoted complete discourses to explaining and probing esoteric Kabbalistic concepts in rich detail and at great length. Accordingly, Yud-Tes Kislev does not simply mark the release of Rabbi Schneur Zalman himself from imprisonment. Yud-Tes Kislev marks the redemption of his distinct mode of thinking and teaching: the opening of the conceptual wellsprings of Chabad so that far deeper ideas could be widely communicated, studied, absorbed, developed, and ultimately applied in the contemplative service of G‑d.

In a famous letter underscoring this point, Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, the fifth rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, described Yud-Tes Kislev as “the festival upon which our souls were redeemed in peace, and the light and life of our souls were given to us.” He added that “one might say that it is the Rosh Hashanah” for chassidic teachings, the “words of the living G‑d,” as communicated by Rabbi Schneur Zalman and his successors.

In this letter we find a definitive statement establishing Yud-Tes Kislev as the joyous celebration of ultimate significance on the Chabad calendar: “This day is the beginning of our work to complete the true intention in the creation of man on this earth, which is to draw forth the revealed light of the interiority of our holy Torah, which is drawn forth on this day as a general revelation for the entire year. It is incumbent on us to arouse our hearts on this day with a desire, an inner and essential will in the true point of our hearts, that our souls shall be illuminated with the light of the interiority of G‑d’s Torah . . . that all our actions and endeavors (whether in service of G‑d—meaning prayer, Torah and mitzvot; or whether in worldly affairs that are necessary for the sustenance of the body) shall be with true intention for the sake of heaven, for the purpose that G‑d desired . . .”

Yud-Tes Kislev also marks the passing of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s teacher, Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezritch, in 1772 (5533).

Listen to a joyous song, which celebrates the dissemination of the Baal Shem Tov’s chassidic teachings as the path to the messianic redemption:

For more about Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s life, works and teachings, click here.

5. Chanukah

Chabad representative Rabbi Abraham Shemtov (right) and other rabbis light the
first public menorah in front of Philadelphia’s iconic Liberty Bell.
Chabad representative Rabbi Abraham Shemtov (right) and other rabbis light the first public menorah in front of Philadelphia’s iconic Liberty Bell.

Chanukah is a universal Jewish celebration, rather than a distinctly chassidic one. But one of the striking features of chassidic teachings is the way they illuminate every aspect of Jewish life and practice. This is perhaps especially so in the case of Chanukah, precisely because it is experienced and celebrated as the culmination of the chassidic month of Kislev.

On Yud-Tes Kislev in the year 1965 (5726) the Lubavitcher Rebbe delivered a historic talk, later edited into a definitive treatise, on the nature or essence of Chassidism. All aspects of the Torah, he pointed out, and all methods of Torah interpretation are “utterly united with the revelation of the Infinite, blessed-be-He.” Yet, when studying some point of Jewish law, a story from the Torah or a point of moral instruction, the essential Divinity of this or that aspect of Torah is not always overtly apparent. The role of chassidic teachings is to illuminate all these different genres of Torah, making their specific details entirely transparent to their unified source in G‑d’s infinite essence.

This is the reason, the Rebbe explained, that chassidic teachings are compared to oil. Oil has dual, indeed paradoxical, qualities. On the one hand, it always remains separate, rising to the top when poured into water, rather than diffusing or emulsifying. On the other hand, it has a tendency to ooze all over the place, to seep and spread throughout. Similarly, the essence of the chassidic innovation at once transcends all specifics, all examples of its expression, but also permeates the very core of all specifics, all aspects of Torah, all aspects of our service of G‑d and all aspects of life.

It is no accident that oil is the central motif of Chanukah’s story and celebration. The one pure jug of oil, which contained only enough to light the menorah for one day, miraculously burned for eight days. Chassidic teachings about Chanukah abound with meditations and insight into the mysterious interplay of darkness and light, of nature and of miracles. Ultimately, however, these dialectical categories are fundamentally bound together by the singular essence of all things, by the pure oil that at once transcends all specifics and is the immanent core of all specifics.

Through the celebration of Chanukah these lofty ideas are drawn into the reality of our lived experience, illuminating the concrete world. The ideal time to light the menorah, according to Jewish law, is after sundown. The ideal place is in the street, outside the door of the home. Divine light should not be locked away in places that are already luminous, nor should it remain a strictly private affair. For the Rebbe, the menorah and its laws symbolized the ideal role religion should play in the public square: a source of moral illumination extending to the darkest corners of society.

In 1974, Chabad representative Rabbi Abraham Shemtov applied these teachings in practice, erecting the first public menorah in front of Philadelphia’s iconic Liberty Bell. The next year Rabbi Chaim Drizin erected a “giant” menorah in San Francisco’s Union Square, and within a few years Chabad representatives across the United States and the world were following suit.

These public menorahs brought Jewish observances to the fore of public consciousness in a very visible way, and sometimes sparked controversy. But the sincere warmth and nonconfrontational enthusiasm so openly shared through the public celebration of Chanukah continues to embolden Jews everywhere to engage more deeply with their Judaism. As the Rebbe put it in one letter to a critic of Chabad’s Chanukah campaigns, “countless Jews . . . have been impressed and inspired by the spirit of Chanukah which has been brought to them, many for the first time.” It was precisely the extension of Divine light beyond the confines of the home and synagogue, to illuminate and thaw the dark wintry streets, which made this new way of celebrating Chanukah so powerful and so boundlessly joyful.

Listen to a classic Chabad Chanukah melody, capturing both Chabad’s contemplative hallmark and the joyous celebration of Chanukah’s miracles:

For more about Chanukah, click here.