1. Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, Who Founded the Yeshivah in 1897

On the 15th of Elul 5657 (12 September, 1897), two days after the wedding of his son, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, Rabbi Shalom DovBer (the fifth Chabad Rebbe, pictured) convened a gathering of prominent rabbis and announced the opening of a new yeshivah: “To inaugurate and establish a distinguished yeshivah for our young brethren, with proper and correct guidance. It should be the will of G‑d that all their labor be in Torah and G‑dly service, in order that there be no hindrance to it. Their hearts and minds should be completely dedicated to their study and work.”1 This yeshivah was not merely an additional yeshivah to add to the many that were already in existence. This yeshivah was unique. The state of Jewish education concerned Rabbi Shalom DovBer greatly. He felt that in the current climate, studying Chassidic texts was integral to the very survival of the Jewish people.2 It was not enough for this study to be voluntary or to the student’s discretion. It must be incorporated into the curriculum of the yeshivah and taught properly by dedicated faculty. Although there had been yeshivah students in Lubavitch before this time, generally, these were advanced students who would study independently without any formal structure or curriculum to support them. Approximately a year after the establishment of the yeshivah, on the 24th of Elul 5658 (11 September, 1898) Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak was appointed dean.3 On the following Simchat Torah, during the last of the seven hakafot, the Rebbe named the yeshivah, taking his cue from the holiday liturgy:4 “The yeshivah which was established with the kindness of G‑d does not yet have a name. Now I am calling it Tomchei Temimim (supporters of the complete). Indeed the purpose of the yeshivah is to ensure the completeness of the revealed and hidden parts of the Torah.”5

2. The Vilna Edition of Tanya: An Accurate Text and a Source of Revenue

A Tanya by the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.
A Tanya by the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.

In the year 1900 (5660), a special printing of Sefer HaTanya was organized, in part as a fundraiser for the yeshivah. It was printed by the famous Romm family of Vilna and overseen by Rabbi Asher Grossman of Nikolayev, who pored over many manuscripts and original editions to determine the correct version of the text. After he prepared the text, he sent it to Rabbi Shalom DovBer, who resolved any remaining uncertainties, establishing the text as the accurate version of the Tanya. After it was printed, the Rebbe wrote to his son, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak:6 “After the printing I went through the text again very carefully and found an additional 8 errors. We printed 8 new pages to replace the pages that have errors. To the best of my knowledge it is now free of all error.” These pages were printed in a separate booklet with a note to the buyer explaining the errors. The cover of the volume was inscribed in gilded lettering: “Sefer Tanya, printed by the Tomchei Temimim Association, 5660.” A copy of the Tanya was sent to each of the benefactors of the yeshivah. Nine years later, the Romm family gave the rights of this edition to the Rebbe in order that he be able to raise further funds for Tomchei Temimim.

3. The Courtyard (“Chotzer”) in Lubavitch and the Yeshivah Building

Map of the city of Lubavitch with the Rebbe's court and yeshivah in its heart.
Map of the city of Lubavitch with the Rebbe's court and yeshivah in its heart.

Initially, the main campus of the yeshivah was located in Zembin, a suburb of Minsk. However, over the next few years, many students transferred to the town of Lubavitch. By the year 1905, the division in Zembin had closed. In Lubavitch, students studied in various locations around the town. However in 1901, as the number of students grew, it was decided that they should move to the “large hall” (seen in this sketch in the bottom right corner). The building had been built in the year 1872 after a fire in Lubavitch consumed the entire courtyard, where the home of the third Chabad Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, had stood. Before its use as the yeshivah, it was an overflow synagogue for the High Holidays. Since it was only used occasionally, it was not immediately suitable for year-round use and therefore required some renovation. This work was completed on the 8th of Tammuz 5661 (25 June, 1901), on which day a dedication was celebrated with much rejoicing.7

4. The Rabbis of Nikolayev: A Letter of Support

In the early years of the yeshivah, a letter of recommendation was written by two great Torah scholars from the town of Nikolayev. Rabbi Yisroel Eisenstein, author of responsa Amodei Aish and Rabbi Meir Shlomo Yanovsky (the grandfather of the seventh Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory): “To our honored brethren of the House of Israel, the generous of the nation, those who do, and get things done, G‑d should bless you in all manners of good, constantly. We come with this letter to present before you the great, beautiful and holy yeshivah, which is called by the name Tomchei Temimim ... Many of the illustrious and pious of our time have visited these gardens of the Lord of Hosts, and have found great and sweet fruit. The benefit such an institution brings to our holy Torah cannot be understated ... And now to these halls you shall come to be absorbed in G‑d’s Torah, night and day, with purity.”

5. The Faculty: Shaping Chabad for Generations

The first mashpia (mentor) of the yeshivah was Rabbi Chanoch Hendel Kugel, an acclaimed elder Chassid. His passing in Tevet 5660 (December 1899), a few short years after his appointment, caused a melancholy impression to fall on the students and the dean, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak. Rabbi Chanoch Hendel had been like a father to the students and his loss was felt greatly.8 Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak set about searching for someone worthy to fill his place. In the summer of 1900, Rabbi Shmuel Betzalel Sheftel, known by the acronym RaShBatZ, was appointed as mashpia roshi (chief mentor). He was an elder Chassid who had been a devotee of the third, fourth and fifth Chabad Rebbes. After his passing in 5665 (1905), the famed Rabbi Shmuel Groinem Esterman, who until that time had been the Mashpia in Zembin, was appointed mashpia roshi. Pictured is a letter in the hand of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak regarding this appointment: “New arrangements have been made regarding our yeshivah because our dear Rabbi Shmuel Groinem Esterman from Zembin has been appointed mashpia roshi of Tomchei Temimim in Lubavitch.” Rabbi Shmuel Groinem continued in this capacity until his death following World War I, when Russia was racked by civil war, famine and disease. As the original mentors of Tomchei Temimim, these Chassidim merited to shape generations of Chabad yeshivah students. Indeed, accounts of these early years of the yeshivah are told and retold in the many branches of the yeshivah today, so that they continue to guide and inspire.

6. Kuntres Eitz HaChaim: The Tree of Life

Kuntres Eitz HaChaim (The Treatise of the Tree of Life), a booklet written for the yeshivah students by Rabbi Shalom DovBer, was given to the students in the summer of 1904 (5664). In it, Rabbi Shalom DovBer stresses the importance of learning the inner dimension of Torah. He explains how the revealed part of Torah is comparable to the body, and the inner dimension is comparable to the soul. Exclusive study of the revealed parts of Torah is like a body with no soul. Aside from the highly sophisticated dissertation on the correct way of seeing the unity of G‑d in the world, he also goes into many details about the appropriate methods of study and conduct befitting students of Tomchei Temimim. Regarding his vision for the yeshivah, he writes:9 “You should know that the purpose of this yeshivah is not only to retain students who toil in Torah ... This is the purpose, that the students be G‑d fearing and pious, unified with G‑d and His Torah.” Pictured is the final page of the booklet, the first five lines are in the hand of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak. Starting from the indent is the hand of Rabbi Shalom DovBer: “After all these words, I request of you, take what is written here to heart, these words shall be in your hearts constantly ... ”

7. A Time of Turmoil: The Yeshivah Relocates

In Cheshvan 5676 (October 1915), as World War I raged, Rabbi Shalom DovBer was forced to leave Lubavitch. He moved with his family some 1,300 kilometers to Rostov-on-Don. The yeshivah stayed in Lubavitch for an additional two years or so, finally leaving in 1918 (5678). The yeshivah initially moved to the town of Kremenchug. In 1920, the Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom DovBer, passed away in Rostov. In his last will and testament, he wrote to his son Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak: “My only son, take care regarding the yeshivah Tomchei Temimim, direct it with G‑d’s help, with the true intention of the inner dimension of Torah and with toil of the heart.” Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak immediately succeeded his father, becoming the sixth Chabad Rebbe. The yeshivah in Kremenchug was in dire straits, lacking the most basic necessities. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak decided to move it to Rostov to perhaps improve the situation. The yeshivah functioned in Rostov for approximately a year, until the summer of 1921. By this time, the Communists had already seized power, and the war against religion had started in earnest. The Communist regime shuttered the yeshivah, the faculty was arrested, the students expelled from the city and the property confiscated. This caused the Rebbe great pain. He was forced to expand the network of the yeshivah beyond the borders of Russia. The first branch was opened in Warsaw, exactly one year from the passing of Rabbi Shalom DovBer. On the stationery of the yeshivah (pictured) is the date of establishment, 2 Nissan 5681 (10 April, 1921). In Warsaw, the yeshivah grew greatly in number and stature, moving locations various times to cater for the increasing number of students. Throughout the coming decades, various “underground” branches of the yeshivah continued to operate across Russia, with students and faculty constantly hounded by Soviet authorities.

8. Achos HaTmimim: The Sister Institution for Young Women

In the winter of 1935-36 (5696), Rabbi Mordechai Dubin wrote to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak about his future daughter-in-law studying Chassidic texts. The Rebbe answered that the matter was indeed proper. He quoted his father, saying that in this regard: “There is no difference between the education of boys or girls”10 This led to the establishment of Achos HaTmimim, the “sisters of the Temimim” (the students who studied in Tomchei Temimim were known as “Temimim”), in Riga. Later, this organization spread to many other locations. Pictured above is a group of Achos HaTmimim with their mentors. Pictured below is a group of Achos HaTmimim with the wife of Rabbi Shalom DovBer, Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah, both taken in Riga Latvia, circa 1940 (5700). Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak corresponded with several of these girls personally, offering them guidance in their study of chassidus and in their spiritual progress in prayer and the transformation of character. Continuing this vision, the seventh Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel placed a strong emphasis on girls education, similarly encouraging educators to teach the girls Chassidic texts as they would the boys. Today, a vast network of Chabad seminaries educate the young women of Chabad, providing them an education that is thorough and rigorous.

9. The Yeshivah in Otwock: A New Golden Period

The yeshivah in Warsaw flourished for some 15 years. During this time, the Rebbe was arrested and subsequently released by the Communist authorities in Leningrad. He was able to leave Russia at the end of Tishrei of 5688 (October 1927) and eventually moved to Warsaw, finally reuniting with the yeshivah. In the year 1936 (5696), the yeshivah and the Rebbe moved to Otwock, a country town to the east of Warsaw. There, the yeshivah was located in spacious grounds with beautiful scenery, affording a healthful environment for the students. It goes without saying that the clear air, and the quiet and restful surroundings, far away from the noise of the city, instilled a fresh spirit into the yeshivah. As enrollment grew, additional buildings were acquired to house the students.11 The top image above shows the main building of the yeshivah as it stood during that period, including the spacious grounds. The second image shows students deep in Talmudic discussion outside a hotel that was used for extra accommodation. The years of Warsaw and Otwock were considered to be a new golden period in the history of Tomchei Temimim. After the destruction of World War I, the Russian Civil War, and communism, the yeshivah was able to rebuild and prosper in Poland.

10. World War II: Escape to Shanghai

With Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 (5699), the tranquility was again shattered. The yeshivah was once again scattered. Some students managed to escape via Riga; others escaped to Vilna. The Rebbe, who himself escaped to Riga, worked tirelessly to help the scattered students, seeking to obtain visas that would enable their escape. To transport the students via the Atlantic to the United States was not possible at that time. Instead, the route that was decided was via Japan to Shanghai, and from there to the States. Many did eventually make it to Shanghai and spent the remainder of the war there. The yeshivah continued to function as best it could, and even established a printing press that published many key texts, including a Tanya and a selection of Chassidic discourses from Rabbi Shalom DovBer. Following the war, many students of the Shanghai yeshivah took leading roles in the establishment of Chabad communities and institutions across the world. In the top photo, a group of students pose for a photo in Shanghai. In the bottom image, a group from Japan arrives in Shanghai.

11. Rebuilding: The Yeshivah in America

The Rebbe with his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe.
The Rebbe with his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe.

Despite all the tragedy, difficulty and upheaval, the Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak (pictured left), was able to rebuild in the United States. On the very evening of his arrival, on the 9th of Adar 5700 (18 February, 1940), Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak established Tomchei Temimim in America. He declared that “America is no different.” Just like Judaism thrived in Europe, the same was possible here. No compromise or dilution. Although many were skeptical at the time, he was proven to be correct. After his passing in 1950, his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel (pictured right), took over the mantle of leadership. During the second half of the 20th century, the yeshivah continued to thrive. Rabbi Menachem Mendel oversaw a great expansion of the yeshivah network. The yeshivah, as a continuation of Tomchei Temimim in Europe, spawned many branches worldwide and has educated tens of thousands of students. Today, thanks to the vision of three Chabad Rebbes, Tomchei Temimim can be found across the Americas, Europe, Israel, and even in Africa and Australia, continuing to educate and inspire the next generation.