Sichah #1


The customs of Lubavitch are based not only on Halachah or on embellishing the performance of a mitzvah,1 but also on spiritual considerations that are vital to the soul. They place the entire direction of a Jew’s life on a basis of avodah, in such a way that he and his family are lit up by the spirit of purity that these customs bring.

Some of the customs of Lubavitch are intended for everyone, and some were practiced only by the Rebbes, the nesi’im.2

The [universal] practice by which every individual reads each verse of the congregation’s upcoming weekly Torah Reading twice, and then reads the verse once in Aramaic translation, is known in Yiddish as maavir-zain di sedra. Everyone knows that this is done in fulfillment of the directive of the Sages that “one should always complete his parshiyos, his Torah passages, with the congregation.”3 Although there are various opinions as to the time limit for this reading, the proper time limit is Shabbos morning, before davenen.

[In addition,] one is obligated to hear the weekly sedra being read from a sefer Torah. So binding is this obligation,4 that even a congregant who is called to recite a blessing over the public Reading, and reads it together with the Reader, must do so very quietly, because “two voices cannot be heard” simultaneously.5

The Rebbes of Chabad would begin the weekly reading by reviewing one or two aliyos6 on Thursday night. On Friday afternoon they would start reviewing the weekly portion again from the beginning, reading the entire sedra and the haftarah. On Shabbos morning, before davenen, they would review the passage from the seventh portion onward again.7

* * *

Following a tradition handed down over the generations, Chabad chassidim observe the practice ordained by the Alter Rebbe – to study each day’s portion of the upcoming weekly Torah Reading, together with the commentary of Rashi. The Rebbes of Chabad did likewise, and also an additional commentary, varying from year to year, whether of Ibn Ezra, or of Ramban, or Or HaChayim. One year, one of the Rebbes chose the commentary entitled Panim Yafos.

Our Rebbes state that the above-described practice of reading each verse twice in the Holy Tongue and once in Aramaic is a halachah; studying the commentary of Rashi involves one’s yiras Shamayim, the awe of Heaven. In the words of the Shulchan Aruch,8 “He who stands in awe of Heaven should read [the Aramaic] Targum and also Rashi.” This means that studying the commentary of Rashi is a spiritual aid9 to attain an awe of Heaven.

The intent of the Rebbes who every year studied a commentary in addition to Targum and Rashi was to become connected to the holy souls of the author of that commentary. This connection opens up a conduit for the understanding and knowledge of the Torah, for the starting point of all original Torah insights,10 whether in the learned debates of the Talmud11 or in the halachic rulings of the Four Parts of the Shulchan Aruch, is an awareness of the holiness that is inherent in the very letters of the Written Torah.12

This awareness opens up a conduit for the knowledge and understanding of the Torah, and ensures that one’s original Torah insights will be true.

* * *

A couple of learned young men were once excitedly reveling in their ability to impress each other with their ingenious original interpretations of the Gemara that they were studying together. At one stage, one of them was bursting with pride: he was certain that he had discovered an underlying scholarly principle that was common both to a certain statement of Rava in Tractate Eruvin and also to another statement by Rava in a seemingly unrelated debate in Tractate Kesubbos.13

Seated at the same table were a few learned young chassidim. Though the above displays of brilliance left them unimpressed, they listened and held their peace. After some time however, when the above hypothesis was being touted loud and long, one of the young chassidim could no longer contain himself. He addressed the speaker: “Okay. So if you’re afflicting the tanna’im and amora’im in one particular passage by imposing on them your innovative hypotheses, that can somehow be stomached. But what have you got against Rava that makes you drag him in iron chains from Tractate Eruvin to Tractate Kesubbos…?!”

* * *

As we have said, true original Torah insights begin from an awareness of the holiness that is inherent in the very letters of the Written Torah. This is the conduit through which the Torah is revealed. Opening that conduit is usually attained by cleaving and being bound to the soul of a tzaddik – and such hiskashrus becomes possible only if one studies the original Torah insights of that tzaddik.

In a well-known exchange, a certain chassid once told a certain Rebbe that he wanted to have a spiritual bond with him – to be a mekushar of his. So that Rebbe answered that if the chassid would study the discourses of Chassidus which his Rebbe delivered, he would become a mekushar of his, because hiskashrus takes place only via studying Torah.14

Now, all the above was an introduction to what I’m going to tell you about.

* * *

From the year 5648 (1888),15 whenever my father was at home, he showed me warm chassidishe closeness. (His frail health often made him travel to various health spas.) And as time went on, nurtured by the elder chassid R. Hendel,16 who was one of my mentors, I began to gain a better understanding of what chassidishe guidance means.

Now, on the morning of Shabbos Parshas Lech Lecha in the year 5651 (1890),17 before davenen, I entered my father’s study. He was seated at his table, in a very happy frame of mind, and as he reviewed the weekly Torah Reading with Targum, his tears flowed freely. I was overawed. How at the same time could he be in tears, yet in high spirits? Nevertheless, I didn’t dare to ask.

That Shabbos, like every Shabbos, he davened until late. As on every Shabbos during winter, he made Kiddush after davenen, then went off to daven Minchah, and a little while before sunset he washed his hands for the seudah of Shabbos.

In those days, as in that winter of 5651 (1890), the routine was that on Motzaei Shabbos my father would examine me on what I had studied in the course of the week, and also the mishnayos that I had undertaken to memorize. If my father was pleased with the results, he would give me a gift: he would recount an incident or a story, and point out and explain what practical lesson could be derived from it.18 Sometimes he would present me instead with a maamar. This was the case on that Shabbos Parshas Lech Lecha, when my father examined me and gave me the maamar that begins, Tanu Rabbanan: Ner Chanukah, which he had delivered in the year 5643 (1882).19

I really wanted to know why that morning, while reviewing the weekly Torah Reading, my father was crying, though at the same time he was in such a happy frame of mind. I now stood perplexed, unable to decide whether to ask or not. Observing this, my father asked why I was standing in this way, and told me that if I had something to say, I should say it. So I decided to ask, and asked.

My father answered: “Those were tears of joy. Once, in his earliest years as Rebbe, the Alter Rebbe said publicly, ‘One should live with the times.’ When the younger chassidim asked the elder chassidim what this statement meant, those elders discussed it among themselves. Only several years later did the Mitteler Rebbe explain it – extensively, in his characteristically Binah-like style. However, when the Alter Rebbe first made his statement, even the foremost chassidim struggled in an effort to work out its meaning. They finally heard it, via the Alter Rebbe’s brother, the holy Maharil:20 ‘One should live with the times’ meant that one should live with the weekly parshah, and more specifically, with each day’s portion.’21

“In those days the chassidim and all those who had a spiritual bond with the Rebbe, old and young alike, used to study each day’s Chumash with the commentary of Rashi. What the [Alter] Rebbe had said was that in addition, one should live with each day’s particular reading.

“Thus,” my father continued, “the reading for the first week of Bereishis is a cheerful passage. [It relates that] G‑d created worlds and creatures, and was happy – as it is written [repeatedly], ‘And G‑d saw that it was good.’ Though the end of that week’s sedra is not so pleasant, the sedra as a whole is cheerful. Besides, it is read on Shabbos Bereishis,22 when every congregation in the world is overjoyed: we’ve started reading the Torah afresh! Parshas Noach is all about the Deluge – a cheerless week which, however, ends on a happy note: Avraham Avinu is born! The really joyful week is the week of Parshas Lech Lecha, for throughout the entire week we live with Avraham Avinu, who was the first to devote his entire life to proclaiming G‑d’s existence in the world. And this mesirus nefesh for Torah and mitzvos he bequeathed as an everlasting inheritance to all Jews.”

* * *

“We should live with the times.” For many tens of thousands of chassidim, that brief teaching of the Alter Rebbe has charted a path in their avodah, in their service of the Creator.

R. Hillel of Paritch23 introduced the concept that “at that time we learned three things” into the chassidic world. [This quotation from the Gemara24 describes how from one brief, specific halachic statement by Rabban Gamliel, the Sages derived three wide-ranging legal principles. In our context this means that] every pithy teaching25 should be understood in depth, and many practical conclusions26 should proceed from it.

“To live with the times” thus means not only that one should study the daily passage of Chumash, but also that one should actually live in harmony with what one has derived from it.

Being alive is the highest capacity of a person’s existence. True, the superiority of man, “the speaker,”27 over other creatures is his intellect, which is the highest of his faculties. Nevertheless, intellectual activity does not continue throughout a man’s twenty-four hours without interruption. In contrast, he continues being alive in equal measure, regardless of whether he is awake, or he is asleep, or when his intellectual activity is dormant because he is distracted by his work. And when a person lives with the times, with the current Torah passage, his life takes on a completely different quality. It is truly a Torah-life – a life for the sake of which G‑d created the world and gave the Torah, so that one will be able to deal with his mundane matters in a just and righteous manner. In a word, a Torah-life.

We should live with the times.



Sichah #2


The rav of Bobruisk for decades was a scholarly chassid called R. Baruch Mordechai, who was highly reputed throughout the entire region. In fact he was even revered by the erudite elite of the misnagdim of Shklov, Minsk and Slutzk. He was born in the settlement that sprang up near Shventzian, a town in the Vilna region, and as it grew, it became known as New Shventzian.

His maternal lineage was distinguished. His mother was the daughter of R. Chaim Yehudah Leib, the learned rav of Lvov. All he knew of his [late] father was that he had moved from Lvov to the Vilna region, where he settled in New Shventzian. Years later, when R. Baruch Mordechai became familiar with the lifestyle of the hidden tzaddikim,28 he understood, from his memories of his father, that he had belonged to that circle. As an exceedingly bright and promising young scholar, R. Baruch Mordechai left his parents’ home after his bar-mitzvah, and went off to further his studies in Vilna. On the way there, however, in a beis midrash in Shventzian, he met a gifted young man with whom he studied for a certain time. It was while he was there that his father passed away.

In later years he recalled: “For two years I studied under my mentor, R. Michl (better known among chassidim as R. Michele Opotzker29), without knowing that he was a chassid of the Alter Rebbe! Only in my third year there did he divulge the secret, as if it was to be guarded by ten locks, that he was one of the disciples of the Rebbe of Liozna, and that several of his other chassidim lived in Shventzian. For half a year he taught me Chassidus, and then advised me to continue my studies in Vilna.”

* * *

In Vilna, the young R. Baruch Mordechai got to know some of its renowned scholars, and in the course of his studies he joined the advanced students who heard the lectures and pilpulim delivered by the heads of a few of the local yeshivos. By some circumstance, word got out that this young sixteen-year-old was the prodigy from Shventzian, and his indescribable gifts [in Talmudic argumentation] soon earned him the nickname, Der Baal Higayon.30 He was esteemed by all the local sages and had ready access to the head of the local rabbinical court, R. Shmuel. Moreover, from time to time he was privileged to engage in scholarly discussion with the Gaon of Vilna, R. Eliyahu, of blessed memory.

As soon as R. Baruch Mordechai arrived in Vilna he received a letter from his mentor, R. Michele, and contacted one of the local Chabad chassidim, with whom he studied Chabad Chassidus regularly.

One day, in the course of conversation with one of the local chassidim, he learned of the cherem – the ban – with which the learned R. Shmuel had outlawed chassidim and Chassidus a few years earlier, in 5532 (1772). His attitude to R. Shmuel cooled off considerably and he began to avoid meeting him.

After a few months in Vilna, R. Baruch Mordechai met a young man who told him of the highly-regarded Yeshivah of Slutzk, and decided to relocate. He studied there, and later in “the Av-Beis-Din’s Yeshivah” in Minsk, for a total of about two-and-a-half years. And indeed, throughout his life, he had no end of praise for the scholarly stature of the hoary rosh yeshivah of Slutzk, R. Aharon Yaakov, and likewise for the rosh yeshivah of Minsk, R. Menachem Shlomo, who had been a close disciple of the eminent author of the classic Seder HaDoros, R. Yechiel.

* * *

From Minsk he returned to Vilna, where he immediately found his place in the company of the local chassidim, and was one of the Torah scholars who were supported by a local society that had been founded for that purpose. He immersed himself in the study of nigleh and Chassidus, and from time to time he met a few of the advanced local scholars. Among them were the two sons of R. Shmuel, the above-mentioned head of the local rabbinical court.

R. Shmuel was a son-in-law of the well-known sage and philanthropist, R. Yehudah the son of R. Eliezer, a scribe and judge in that prestigious rabbinical court. On account of his exemplary piety, and the many favors that he did for his townsmen, they gave him the title Yesod, which is an acronym of the Aramaic and Hebrew words that mean “Yehudah, scribe and judge31 [of the holy congregation of Vilna].” That text is engraved on his gravestone. [His son-in-law,] R. Shmuel, was widowed in the year 5528 (1768), and some time later he married the widowed mother of R. Baruch Mordechai.

One day, R. Baruch Mordechai heard that the learned R. Shmuel had married the daughter of R. Chaim Yehudah Leib, head of the rabbinical court of Lvov – a widow of distinguished lineage from a little settlement near Shventzian. He realized that this was his mother, but since by nature he was exceedingly deliberate, he refrained from meeting her for a few months until he had weighed the question of how to proceed.

While studying in Slutzk he had heard that the famous yeshivah which was headed by the aged R. Aharon Yaakov was supported by a fund which a prominent and wealthy scholar had bequeathed for this purpose. Though his two sons were no longer as wealthy as they had once been, they continued to support the yeshivah generously.

R. Baruch Mordechai knew of the intense opposition of Vilna’s leading scholars to the approach of the Baal Shem Tov of Mezhibuzh and to the teachings and approach of the Maggid of Mezritch and of his disciples, the members of the holy brotherhood. Accordingly, he was puzzled by the reverence with which the Baal Shem Tov was mentioned in Slutzk. In fact it was related that the Baal Shem Tov had arrived there, in honor of the dedication of the big beis midrash and yeshivah that those two brothers had built. Moreover, the local people used to show visitors a large stone near the big beis midrash on the spot where he had stood and delivered Torah teachings.32

When he had studied in Minsk, R. Baruch Mordechai had found a community of Chabad chassidim who davened and studied in a shtibl of their own. There he had met young men who were heavyweight scholars of refined character. He had often observed how they were “insulted but did not insult in return, and though disgraced they did not retort.”33 Deeply impressed, he decided to become more closely involved in the chassidic community. And indeed, when he returned to study in Vilna, he devoted himself to studying Chassidus and to follow its approach to avodah.

* * *

He very much wanted to meet his mother and identify himself to her. However, knowing how hateful was the opposition of the senior rabbinic judge to the community of chassidim, he was unable to persuade himself to visit his home.

In the course of those few months in Vilna after his return from Slutzk and Minsk, word spread that this young man, “The Logician,” was back in town. The leading local scholars remembered the firmly-based, original insights in the Talmud that they had heard from him. R. Shmuel, too, very much wanted to see him, but R. Baruch Mordechai refrained from an encounter.

Now, this R. Shmuel had two married sons and a widowed son-in-law, all of whom were serious scholars and were employed at his yeshivos. He also had a young daughter for whom he was seeking a suitable husband.

It was at this time that the well-known controversy between R. Shmuel and the leading townsmen of the Vilna community flared up afresh. Nevertheless, he had many thousands of supporters in Vilna and in that entire region: his scholarship was renowned throughout all the neighboring countries, and many prominent scholars in Poland and Germany shared his anguish. Some of them remembered [R. Pinchas Horowitz,] the famed author of Sefer Haflaah, and his famed brother, R. Shmelke [of Nikolsburg], as well as other tzaddikim and towering scholars who belonged to the Holy Brotherhood of the disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch. Having known them, they had a way to explain that intense controversy which crushed R. Shmuel’s reputation as an outstanding scholar. They attributed it to Divine retribution for the ban by which he had excommunicated the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and the members of the Holy Brotherhood.

* * *

One day, R. Shmuel’s sons were discussing with him the various marriage proposals that could be suggested for their sister. When his rebbitzin heard them talking about “The Logician,” about “the prodigy from Shventzian,” that last phrase caught her fancy. She had recently heard people using it. She had earlier heard that her son, Baruch Mordechai, who had set out to study in Vilna, had stayed on for some time to study in Shventzian. Who knows? Perhaps this prodigy from Shventzian was her son…?

When the opportunity arose, she asked her husband’s sons for his name, and was astonished to hear that it was in fact Baruch Mordechai. She then told her husband that she had a gifted son, and ever since he left home many years earlier to pursue his studies, she had not heard from him. A few days later he invited the young man, and mother and son were reunited. R. Shmuel told him that he would be welcome to live in his home, but the invitation was declined. Eventually, in response to the endeavors of R. Shmuel’s sons, R. Shlomo and R. Avigdor, R. Baruch Mordechai agreed – with his mother’s consent – to the proposal of marriage with R. Shmuel’s daughter. The young couple set up their own home,34 and R. Baruch Mordechai was appointed head of one of the major yeshivos of Vilna, where he was widely esteemed.

Ten years later, in 5551 (1791), when his father-in-law passed away, the elders of the community resolved that never again would anyone be appointed head of the rabbinical court of Vilna.

* * *

The local chassidim valued the involvement of R. Baruch Mordechai in their company as they studied Chassidus in depth together, and as time went on he was drawn to it increasingly. Thanks to the efforts of some of the participants, from time to time they received manuscript copies of maamarim that had recently been delivered in Liozna.

The largest of the centers of Chabad Chassidus near Vilna was in Polotzk. Almost ninety percent of its townsmen were chassidim, and the eight largest batei midrash as well as several shtiblach were chassidic. Polotzk already had a history of its own. In the days of R. Yoel Baal Shem and R. Adam Baal Shem35 it had been the home of a circle of kabbalists and hidden tzaddikim. In the times of the Baal Shem Tov, it was one of the first towns to follow his teachings, and its community of Chabad chassidim expanded vigorously. In fact, in the course of the ten years from 5534 to 5544 (1774 to 1784), the whole population of Polotzk and of that entire region became Chabad chassidim.

A major role in this growth was played by the adult students of the chadarim, the study circles in the academy for advanced scholars, which the Alter Rebbe had established in Liozna in 5533 (1773). (That was before he set out to escort R. Mendele Horodoker36 on the way to his departure for Eretz Yisrael, and in fact, the Alter Rebbe had originally intended to go there himself.37)

The Alter Rebbe was an organizer. From the day that he began to publicize Chabad Chassidus, he set up two teams – a team of itinerant scholars who spread his teachings by word of mouth and also by distributing manuscript copies of his maamarim, and a team of copyists whose task was to provide the many thousands of copies that were needed.38 At that time, in 5552 (1792), Polotzk had a group of publicists who worked effectively to disseminate the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov together with the intellectual explanations of Chabad Chassidus, and they were successful in having them accepted by the scholars of White Russia. In addition, manuscript copies of fresh maamarim were often taken to Polotzk by a pedestrian courier who was paid by a few wealthy members of the chassidic brotherhood in Vilna.

When R. Baruch Mordechai used to recall what the members of that brotherhood underwent in that little-known era, he would describe how they would make secret contact with their like-minded brotherhoods in Shventzian and Polotzk. For the courier entrusted with the task of making that contact, this was in some measure a life-threatening situation.

The profound maamarim attracted and influenced the intellectual Lithuanian elite, and particularly, in the Vilna brotherhood, they attracted the brilliant logical mind of R. Baruch Mordechai, who thirstily drank every word of the haskalah39 that they taught. Finally, in 5553 (1793), after many years of intensive study, he visited the Alter Rebbe for the first time, and remained in Liozna for several weeks. In the course of the next few years, until his second visit in 5557 (1797), he had a great deal to relate regarding what he had heard and seen in Liozna among the yoshvim,40 and regarding what he had heard and seen while in the presence of the Rebbe.

* * *

In Tammuz, 5656 (1896), my revered father-in-law, R. Avraham, shared with me recollections that he had heard from his father – my great-uncle, R. Yisrael Noach of Niezhin41 – about the elder chassidim of those days. He related, for example, that R. Baruch Mordechai came to Lubavitch in 5611 (1851) in order to take his leave [of the Tzemach Tzedek] before traveling to Eretz Yisrael, and stayed in town for several weeks. My great-uncle described the ninety-year-old R. Baruch Mordechai as having been of pleasant appearance, his pure face and his dark, open eyes radiating wisdom and refinement. His forehead was high and broad, his expansive gray beard was bordered by curled peyos, his clothes were spotless, and the pearls of his speech resonated as if spoken by a man of barely middle age.

In the course of his stay in Lubavitch, R. Baruch Mordechai had recounted: “My first visit to the [Alter] Rebbe in Liozna was in 5553 (1793), after I had studied maamarim of Chassidus over a long period. I had heard some of his novel interpretations42 from several of the geonim of Vilna who had heard them from his mouth when he had visited there43 together with R. Menachem Mendel of Horodok in order to meet R. Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna. I had also met advanced adult scholars who repeated the Rebbe’s chiddushim on several Talmudic passages. However, I was not particularly inspired by his contribution to that [revealed] branch of scholarship; what motivated me to visit him in Liozna was only the teachings of Chassidus.

“Arriving there, I learned the local protocol: one first had to visit the Rebbe’s brother, Maharil,44 who was responsible for all the young men who used to come to Liozna to see the Rebbe. After arranging for their meals and accommodation, he would direct them to have their scholarly attainments examined. Each young man was then given a study schedule in nigleh and in Chassidus, and only after his prescribed two or three weeks was he admitted to the Rebbe’s study for yechidus. The examiners were the Rebbe’s brothers – R. Mordechai, whose expertise was the Talmud Bavli with the classic commentaries of the Rishonim, and R. Moshe, whose expertise was the Talmud Yerushalmi and the writings of Rambam. Sometimes they examined separately and sometimes jointly.

“After my first scholarly debate with them I was in a daze. I couldn’t quite tell what was going on inside me. And after my two weeks of preparation, I entered the Rebbe’s study for my first yechidus.”

* * *

“At that yechidus, the Rebbe did not answer my questions on matters of avodah. Instead, he asked me if I had any queries arising from my studies, and on which subjects. For over a year there were two thorny passages, one in the Yerushalmi and one in Rambam, for which I had found no solution. When I had presented them to the Gaon of Vilna he explained them to me clearly, but did not unravel their riddles. So when I now stood before the Rebbe at yechidus, I posed both questions, and was amazed to hear his structured solutions.

“Leaving the upstairs yechidus-room, I went downstairs to ‘the Lower Garden of Eden.’45 That’s what chassidim used to call the small shul in the Rebbe’s home. Arriving there, I was taken in to join those present in the traditional ‘yechidus-dance,’46 also known as the ‘yechidus-karahod,’47 which customarily followed a yechidus throughout the first three generations of Chabad Rebbes. However, I saw nothing and heard nothing: I was still awestruck by the superhuman brilliance of the Rebbe’s solutions to my two problems.

“Throughout the three years between my first visit to Liozna and the second, the image of the Rebbe stood constantly before my eyes, and his holy voice, with its teachings in nigleh and Chassidus, rang in my ears. Back at home, I tackled my study of maamarim of Chassidus even more earnestly than before, and my study of nigleh, too, became more intensive and more profound.

“I had spent those few weeks in the company of three veritable princes. I had observed how reverently R. Mordechai related to every word written by Rashi, and how earnestly he weighed every query and answer proposed by Tosafos. I had heard the subtle logic of the arguments with which R. Moshe analyzed a statement of Rambam, or resolved seeming contradictions between parallel passages in the Yerushalmi and the Bavli. I had seen how R. Leib, seeking to deduce valid halachic conclusions, shuddered with an awe of Heaven as he took note of a gloss written by Rama or a fine point made by the Taz or Shach.48 Those experiences, and above all the Rebbe, had opened up a fresh conduit of progress in my comprehension and mastery of the Torah, and it was with a truly broken heart that I took my leave of them all.”

* * *

“We had set out from there as a band of about sixty, including many married men who were serious scholars, as well as elder chassidim who had been groomed by R. Menachem Mendel of Horodok and R. Avraham of Kalisk and had even visited the Maggid of Mezritch. Torah teachings were repeated, stories and traditions were exchanged, and in every village and township that we passed through, we were received happily and lovingly. Yet despite all of that, every one of us was sore at heart, because we had taken our leave of that fountain of the revealed and hidden waters of the Torah.

“Our party lessened as we continued, until by the time we reached Shventzian we were a little group of just five, three who lived there and two who lived in Vilna. A few miles before Shventzian, we two Vilnaites had to part from our three friends. By that time the brotherhood of chassidim in Shventzian was no longer undercover, and although those three were [not fulltime scholars but] businessmen, they were widely known to be chassidim. So in order that we should not be suspected of being connected with them, we had to part ways.

“Arriving home, I yearned for the Rebbe, and for those three scholars, and for the entire holy brotherhood that surrounded the Rebbe. I quenched that thirst by throwing myself into the study of nigleh, and of the maamarim of Chassidus that I had brought with me. In fact I became so deeply immersed in my studies that after a short time, I often neglected to deliver the shiurim which I was meant to give at the yeshivah, and for which I was being paid generously and respectfully. My brother-in-law, R. Avigdor, who lectured in a lower class at the same yeshivah, rebuked me sternly. He argued that I was depriving the public of their Torah study,49 and that my attitude to my G‑d-given profession was dishonest.50 For some time, nevertheless, the only way I could find peace of mind and satisfaction was through intensive study of the texts that I had brought with me.”

* * *

“My brother-in-law, R. Shlomo, had known of my two above-mentioned problematic questions and also of the answers given by the Gaon, because we often used to discuss them in the hope that we would possibly hit upon their solutions. So now, when I had real answers, I thought it would be only proper to tell him. Unfortunately, this could not be done, because when I returned I discovered that he was not at home: he had undertaken a trek of self-imposed exile.51 When he returned home a few months later he was elated to hear the answers, and insisted that we should visit the Gaon to hear his appraisal of them.

“As soon as I mentioned one of those problematic passages, the Gaon outlined them both, cited his earlier intended answers, and added that since my previous visit he had thought about those problems several times but had not found satisfactory solutions. Seated in his place and wearing his tallis and tefillin, he was now so exhilarated by the answers I quoted, that he stood up and said these very words: ‘Such solutions can be given only by the Head of the Academy on High.52 If a gaon, a tzaddik, said this, he knows it by Divine inspiration.53 If I heard it from the mouth of that gaon and tzaddik in person, then – in the words of R. Yochanan – I would carry his clothes to the bathhouse!’54

“In response, my brother-in-law, R. Shlomo, spoke up: ‘R. Baruch Mordechai isn’t giving the name of the gaon and tzaddik who solved those problems.’ Hearing this, the Gaon gave me a strong look and said nothing.

“Later I earnestly regretted that I had not told the Gaon that it was the Rebbe – ‘the leader of the chassidim,’ as he was then called – who had answered my two queries. That could possibly have brought about a spirit of closeness that would have averted such mistakes as were made by the leading, learned opponents of Chassidus.

“When the Gaon decreed that the Tanya should be burned, even though by that time my identity as part of the chassidic brotherhood was well known, he had a certain degree of tolerance for me. I told him then that I had heard those two answers from the Rebbe, and reminded him of how he had cited R. Yochanan. However, he did not accept what I said, arguing that according to the laws of the Torah I was not a trustworthy source, since I was an interested party.”55

* * *

According to what we know of the history of the chassidim in general and of Vilna in particular in the six years from 5556 to 5562 (1796-1802), and of the protagonists on both sides, R. Baruch Mordechai was one of the pillars on whom the chassidic community was able to rely. He was also respected by the misnagdim. In fact, at the end of 5561 or the beginning of 5562 (late 1801), the communal leaders of Bobruisk decided to appoint him as the city’s rav, and within a very short time he had earned an outstanding reputation in rabbinic circles, which included the leading scholars of Shklov, Slutzk and Minsk.56 And when he left Vilna, a few dozen chassidic families followed him and settled in Bobruisk.

One of the Vilna chassidim was R. Chaim Zelig, a Torah scholar who was also involved in Chassidus, as was then common. He supported himself by hiring out wagon-drivers and carriages for merchants who traveled among the surrounding towns. One of those drivers, an unlettered young man called R. Zalman Leib, had lost his learned father at an early age, and had rolled about without guidance until a chassidisher schoolteacher called R. Yaakov Shlomo employed him to escort the young pupils to and from his cheder. He was a simple fellow, but G‑d-fearing and pure of heart. With great effort he gained some basic knowledge, but since he was unable to understand texts written in the Holy Tongue, he learned whatever he could from Yiddish translations.

He once heard that one of the poskim writes that one ought to read each verse of the weekly Torah Reading in the Holy Tongue and once in the Aramaic Targum. He also heard that a G‑d-fearing person who seeks to perform his mitzvos in the best possible manner should also study the commentary of Rashi, and if he does not understand the Holy Tongue, he should instead learn Tze’enah U’Re’enah.57 From that time on, Zalman Leib would review the weekly parshah in the Holy Tongue and once in Aramaic, but would also learn the Yiddish commentary of Tze’enah U’Re’enah. After his marriage he began to work for R. Chaim Zelig as a wagon-driver, and was therefore known by the local townsmen as Zalman-Leib-the-Whipster.58 For several years he grew to be part of the extended family of Vilna’s chassidim, davening with the same nussach and living a chassidic lifestyle, despite the fact that he had to spend days and nights on the road to eke out his livelihood.

Regardless of his ignorance, his davenen was an outpouring of the soul. Tears came to him readily and his heart was sore, especially because he had learned so little, and with all his soul he yearned to get to know the Torah. Whoever heard him davening was moved by his sweet voice, but the local misnagdim continued to refer to him as “the chassid Zalman-Leib-the-Whipster.” In due course he and his family joined the families that moved from Vilna to Bobruisk, where R. Baruch Mordechai advised him to leave his work as a wagon-driver and to grow vegetables. This he did, and his labors were generously blessed from Above. He was so happy with his change of fortune that despite his age, he hired himself a melamed to teach him at a certain time every day, and whenever his work allowed him a free day, he davened at length.

* * *

It so happened that after some time R. Avigdor, the rosh yeshivah, was in Minsk. Now, ever since word got out that R. Baruch Mordechai belonged to “the chassidic sect,” his brothers-in-law had broken off all contact with him. Nevertheless, when R. Avigdor now learned while in Minsk that the leading local scholars held him in high esteem, he notified R. Baruch Mordechai that he would like to visit him in Bobruisk. Being by nature placid and peace-loving, R. Baruch Mordechai immediately convened a meeting of the seven lay leaders of the community59 together with its most prominent scholars and other respected townsmen. It was decided that they should dispatch a delegation of Torah scholars to greet him at one of the townships on the way. They also decided to set up an impressive reception in one of the largest shuls in town, and there the distinguished guest would deliver a learned discourse.60

The guest of honor was duly conducted to the packed shul, but in order to allow him to rest a little from his arduous journey, he was first shown into a side room. And since this was a chassidic shul, a door from that side room opened into a little Chabadnitze – a cozy nook for those who meditated at length while davening. From that door, the sweet voice of a soul pouring itself out to its Maker reached his ears. It captured his heart and left him wondering. He then reminded himself that Bobruisk was a town with many chassidim, some of whom davened at length even long after midday, so this must be the voice of one of those. Nevertheless, he was so moved by those soulful tones that he asked his brother-in-law, “Who is this chassid, this late davener?”

“That’s Zalman-Leib-the-Whipster,” R. Baruch Mordechai replied. “He used to be one of Chaim Zelig’s wagon-drivers in Vilna.”

R. Avigdor reacted scornfully: “Zalman-Leib-the-Whipster! That’s what you call a davener? Him?! He’s barely the heel of a davener!”

R. Baruch Mordechai remained silent.

Soon after, R. Avigdor delivered his erudite pilpul and then, for the benefit of the less learned householders, added a teaching in the realm of Aggadah. As he stepped down from the dais, he was more than a little pleased with himself. And at that moment, catching sight of R. Zalman Leib, who had been in his audience, he couldn’t refrain from remarking, “Ah! There goes that heel-davener!”

In response to that intended public insult to the individual and to Chassidus and chassidim at large, R. Baruch Mordechai responded: “The heel of a davener is highly esteemed in the Torah, and is of benefit in three areas.”

By this time, the scholars and leading townsmen of Bobruisk were familiar with the clear mind and the restraint of their rav, so they now expected to hear a pungent witticism. After all, that was his style – to bring a person to face his true worth by means of a gentle jibe.

Instead, R. Baruch Mordechai said: “It is stated explicitly in a mishnah that the heel of a davener teaches three things.”

R. Avigdor looked at him in puzzlement. So did the local scholars, waiting for him to quote his unfamiliar source. After a few silent minutes during which none of those present proposed a source, R. Baruch Mordechai told them that the following mishnah appears in Pirkei Avos:61

Akavya ben Mahalal’el says, that is, the heel of a davener who praises G‑d tells you:

Reflect intently upon three things and then you will not come to sin, meaning that you will not transgress the command of G‑d.

Know from where you came, and to where you are going, and before Whom you are destined to give an accounting. “From where you came” – from a putrid drop. If you know that you come from nothing more than a malodorous drop, you won’t be arrogant.

“And to where you are going” – to a place of dust, maggots and worms. If you know that the place to which you are going is the worm-infested earth, you will be free of lust and of a desire for money.

“And before Whom you are destined to give an accounting” – before the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. If a person realizes that he will be accountable to the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, he will stand in fear of sin.

* * *

Although R. Baruch Mordechai’s creative reading of the mishnah is no more than a chassidic interpretation, it reflects the conceptual basis and thought process of a chassid. Indeed, although Chabad Chassidus deals with profound philosophical expositions, it diffuses its light by means of various common expressions and interpretations that are readily comprehensible. Even when they may appear to be mere witticisms, they convey the entire weight of the teachings of Chabad Chassidus. They highlight the loftiest and sweetest modes of chassidic conduct, both in the upright relationships between man and G‑d, and between man and man.

“The Torah is light.”62 It lights up a person’s entire spiritual stature, from its highest faculty, which is the capacity for pleasure,63 down to its lowest faculty, which is the capacity for action. It lights up the person’s faculties of pleasure and will64 by showing him what he should want and from what he should derive pleasure. It lights up his mind and the traits of his character, teaching him where he should invest his brain, heart and sensitivity. The Torah also lights up the soul’s three means of expression65 – thought, speech and action,66 making them blossom to their utmost and embellishing them. Thus, it creates the superior intellectual constructs which a person’s thoughts can then recall; it provides the wisest and most beautiful phrases and the most refined expressions, showing a person what his speech should articulate and in what manner; and it teaches him how to conduct himself in the realm of practical action, both between man and G‑d, and between man and his fellow man.

The teachings of Chabad Chassidus light up the entire spectrum67 of the Jewish people, from the highest levels, such as “the heads of your tribes and your elders,” to the humblest levels, “the woodchoppers and the water-drawers.”68 The teachings of Chabad Chassidus have been a wellspring of life-giving waters for scholars of worldwide repute and for brilliant intellectuals, such as R. Yosef Kol-Bo of Shklov69 and the gaon of our narrative, R. Baruch Mordechai. Those teachings have also been a wellspring of life-giving waters for ordinary, unlettered fellow Jews such as R. Zalman-Leib-the-Whipster.

In this [universal relevance] lies the secret of the life-giving power of the teachings of Chassidus, [which show] that the heel of a chassidisher davener expresses the three foremost points of a man’s life.70

The teachings of Chabad Chassidus are accessible to all. They infuse all Jewish homes with the radiant light of Torah and mitzvos, and with sweet modes of conduct that express a love for one’s fellow Jew.



Sichah #3


When the Alter Rebbe was in Mezritch, he heard not only the teachings that the Maggid delivered in public or shared with his disciples, the members of the Holy Brotherhood, but also teachings that the Maggid transmitted to him personally at certain fixed times. Most of those were teachings that he had heard from the Baal Shem Tov.

The erudite chassid, R. Yitzchak Aizik of Vitebsk,71 gave my grandfather72 a detailed description of the major disputation that took place in Minsk in 5543 (1783), between the Alter Rebbe and the towering Talmudic scholars of Vilna, Shklov, Brisk, Minsk and Slutzk. The two most fundamental objections of his opponents to the approach of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples are outlined here.

Firstly: The approach of the Baal Shem Tov obligates even unlettered folk to give careful attention to their davenen and to their reading of Tehillim, even though they do not know what the words mean. Hence, the Alter Rebbe’s opponents argued with passion, this attitude no doubt elevates the self-esteem of those ignoramuses, and cheapens the respect that is due to Torah scholars – and everyone knows that dire punishments are brought down to the world only because of ignoramuses.73

Secondly: The Baal Shem Tov’s school of thought teaches that even a gaon and a tzaddik must do teshuvah. Surely, they protested, this attitude undermines the honor of the Torah and of its prominent scholars. After all, they argued, both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah teach throughout that Torah sages are the foundation of the world. They increase peace in the world, and they are its true builders – whereas the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings would have them regarded as the kind of people who have to do teshuvah!

* * *

R. Yitzchak Aizik of Vitebsk related further that the disputation in Minsk was conducted in two sessions. The first was an examination in lomdus, Talmudic scholarship, because the misnagdim stipulated that they would not conduct any disputation with chassidim until they were assured that their leader was a lamdan, an outstanding scholar. Only thereafter would they state their complaints, in the second session. The Alter Rebbe agreed to be examined by the geonim – provided only that the chassidim would have the reciprocal right, and to this the misnagdim agreed.

(By the way:74 an additional source gives a detailed account of the discussions of the first session. There, the Alter Rebbe provided answers to all the questions he was asked, whereas a significant number of his questions remained unanswered.)

Both in his answers and in his questions, the Alter Rebbe’s words were clear, concise and distinct. This style of speech, notwithstanding the profundity of the subjects being analyzed, made a favorable impression on all his listeners, from the most outstanding scholars to the ordinary Gemara-learners.

Three of the most esteemed scholars then asked the Alter Rebbe to answer the unanswered questions that he had posed. Those three scholars were: the hoary rosh yeshivah, R. Aharon Yaakov of Slutzk; R. Zemele Stutzker;75 and the eldest rosh yeshivah in Yeshivas HaRaavad, the renowned R. Menachem Shlomo. The Alter Rebbe obliged, leaving just two problematic queries unresolved.

As to the two fundamental objections to the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov that were mentioned above, the Alter Rebbe answered:

“The underlying principle of the approach of the Baal Shem Tov and of the teachings of the Rebbe, the Maggid of Mezritch – the principle that illumines the paths of the Maggid’s disciples in their avodah – is based on the first Divine revelation to Moshe Rabbeinu. The following teaching on that subject was relayed to me by the Rebbe, the Maggid of Mezritch, who had heard it from the Baal Shem Tov.”

* * *

Concerning the revelation to Moshe Rabbeinu it is written: “An angel of G‑d appeared to him in a blazing fire from within a bush. He looked, and saw that the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not being consumed. Moshe said: ‘Let me now turn aside and look at this remarkable sight.’ “76 Now, the first verb in the quotation (וַיֵּרָא) means “appeared” or, more literally, “was seen,” yet it is translated in the Aramaic Targum as וְאִתְגְּלִי, which means “was revealed.” Revelation implies that something is made accessible to every individual according to his level, including even people of modest spiritual attainment. That explains likewise why in the verse that says that “G‑d descended upon Mount Sinai,”77 the Targum uses the same verb (וְאִתְגְּלִי), which means “was revealed,” whereas the expected translation of “descended” would be וּנְחַת, as in the verse that tells us that “Yehudah descended.”78 So, too, the Targum uses a verb of the same root (וְיֵחוֹת) in the verse that says that “the border [of the Holy Land] shall go down” [as far as a certain place].79 In contrast, in a verse [preceding the destruction of Sodom], the phrase אֵרֲדָה נָּא, literally meaning “I will now go down,”80 is translated in the Targum as אִתְגְּלִי כְעַן, “I will now reveal Myself,” using the same verb as appears with regard to the Giving of the Torah – the verb that speaks of revelation. Revelation, as we have seen, implies that that which is being shown can be perceived even by those of very lowly spiritual stature. This was the case at the Giving of the Torah, which was received by everyone, from the stature of Moshe Rabbeinu, down to the lowliest of the Jewish people.

That is why, when relating that the angel of G‑d appeared to Moshe Rabbeinu from within the burning bush, the Aramaic Targum uses the word meaning revelation.

That revelation took place “in a blazing fire.” Rashi comments: “in a flame of fire, in the heart of the fire.” (In the Holy Tongue, the spelling of the latter phrase, belabas esh (בְּלַבַּת אֵשׁ) recalls the word lev (לֵב), meaning “heart.”) Where does G‑d’s emissary reveal himself? – In the heart of the fire. This signifies a man’s innermost kavanah [in his service of G‑d], the earnest and artless exuberance that is alluded to [in the verse in Shir HaShirim81 that says], “Its coals are coals of fire, an intense blaze.”

And where is the heart of the fire to be found? – In a [lowly] bush. Rashi notes: “And not in some other tree, in the spirit of G‑d’s assurance, ‘I am with him in distress.’ ”82 The word for “distress” (צָרָה) echoes the word צָר (“narrow”), and hence alludes to This World. In the higher, spiritual worlds, the Divine light is diffused far and wide. This World, by contrast, is described as narrow, because here the Divine light is restricted to the finite parameters of the laws of nature. And [underlying this restriction,] the Divine intent is that by means of avodah in studying Torah and performing mitzvos, this distress (צָרָה) should be transformed into a source of light (צֹהַר) that illuminates the world with the light of Torah and mitzvos.83

Man is likened to “a tree of the field.”84 There are fruit-bearing trees which, as R. Yochanan teaches,85 represent talmidei chachamim, the Torah scholars, and there is the sneh, the [barren] bush. That is where the blazing fire is to be found. The talmidei chachamim are fiery because the Torah is likened to fire. However, of their fire it cannot be said that it is “not consumed,” because they quiet their fiery fervor by producing innovative Torah teachings.86 This is not the case with the unlettered folk represented by the sneh, because the blazing fire is their heart. True, they do not know the meaning of the words they are reading. Nevertheless, because their earnest, unsophisticated davenen and Tehillim spring from simple faith,87 the blazing fire within them is not consumed. It is never quieted, and they constantly experience an intense yearning for G‑dliness and the Torah and the mitzvos.

[Having beheld the burning bush,] Moshe said: “Let me now turn aside [and look at this remarkable sight].”88 Rashi comments: “I will turn aside from here and come closer to there.” Moshe Rabbeinu now comprehended the Heavenly sight: he had been shown how such ordinary folk possess a lofty quality in which they are superior to the Torah scholars. Now that he had been shown that the blazing fire is to be found only in the humble bush, he reached the rung of teshuvah. However, Moshe Rabbeinu was a consummate tzaddik,89 and for a person at this level, teshuvah is utterly different from ordinary teshuvah. In fact the Torah relates that when he was born, “[his mother] saw him, that he was good,”90 for “the entire house was suffused with light.”91 For him, teshuvah meant that he would now “turn aside from here and come closer to there.” This means that one should never be satisfied with his current spiritual rung. Even a tzaddik like Moshe Rabbeinu must engage in this avodah – to “turn aside from here and come closer to there.” This is the dynamic of teshuvah.92

* * *

In that teaching, the [Alter] Rebbe said, the Baal Shem Tov spells out his approach to a Jew’s service of the Creator. The blazing heart of fire is to be found among the artless, commonplace Jews. Moreover, the fire of the Torah that burns within talmidei chachamim in general and within geonim in particular is quieted by the pleasure they experience at having produced chiddushei Torah, whereas the burning bush within the ordinary, unlettered Jews is never consumed. Indeed, their heartfelt davenen and their simple reading of Tehillim actually intensify the blazing fire within them, making them yearn even more ardently for G‑dliness. The Baal Shem Tov also states clearly that the avodah of tzaddikim demands constant ascent. Their [avodah] today should serve them to strive to attain a higher level in the service of the Creator than yesterday’s level, and tomorrow’s level should be higher than today’s – all of which adds up to teshuvah. Moreover, [the Alter Rebbe added,] the above approach of the Baal Shem Tov is learned from the first Divine revelation to Moshe Rabbeinu, whom G‑d chose to be “the first redeemer and the ultimate redeemer.”93

The Divine revelation to Moshe Rabbeinu was different from the revelation to No’ach, and even to the revelation to Avraham Avinu.

The revelation to No’ach was beamed specifically to No’ach and resulted from G‑d’s love towards him as an individual. Whether G‑d’s love and closeness towards No’ach sprang only from the favor that he found in the eyes of G‑d, (as it is written, “And No’ach found favor…,”94) or whether it came as a response to his righteousness, (as it is written, “For I have seen that you are righteous before Me in this generation,”95) G‑d revealed Himself to him as an individual.

The revelation to Avraham Avinu was utterly different. It included specific directives on the manner of his Divine service and entailed serious tests. True, this revelation was far loftier than the revelation to No’ach. Nevertheless, after all, the love and closeness shown to Avraham Avinu was addressed to him mainly as an individual, and with the future in mind. Thus it is written, “For I have known him, so that he should command his children and his household after him to observe the path of G‑d and practice righteousness and justice.”96 Rashi explains that here, the word yedaativ (here translated “I have known him”) really means “I have loved him” – because he will teach and command his children and his household to observe and to follow the ways of G‑d.

The Divine revelation to Avraham Avinu was thus addressed to him mainly as an individual, though at a higher level than the revelation to No’ach, because Avraham Avinu was superior to him as a servant of G‑d. In addition, of Avraham Avinu it is written, “For I have known him, so that he should command…” By virtue of that, the revelation to him was loftier, and he is called “the man whom the King loves.”97

In contrast, the revelation to Moshe Rabbeinu was not only a revelation to an individual because he was a servant of G‑d. Rather, that Divine revelation was comprehensive, and was granted only to an individual whom G‑d had chosen to be a leader and redeemer of the Jewish people. What constituted this revelation? He was shown that a leader of the Jewish people who is destined to be the emissary for their redemption must discover the blazing fire in a mere bush, in an ordinary Jew. His entire spiritual life-taskmust be to reveal that blazing fire and to make it surface – and that can be accomplished only by the above-mentioned avodah which is implied by the words, “I will turn aside from here and come closer to there.”

* * *

R. Yitzchak Aizik of Vitebsk added that the [Alter] Rebbe repeated the above teaching of the Baal Shem Tov with passion, and concluded by stating its practical implication,98 namely: The greater scholar a man is, the more is he required to toil in this avodah. If he does not do so, he is (Heaven forfend!) a rebel against the supernal King; as it is taught, “Those who sin against Me”99 means that they are sinning (as it were) “against the King’s person.”100 Such an individual really needs to do teshuvah from the depths of his heart, in order to uproot from within himself the Amalek that freezes the ardor101 of his progress along the path of G‑d and along the paths of His service.

Those few words of the Alter Rebbe were delivered with such heartfelt ardor that their awe and love of Heaven struck a deep chord in the hearts of all his listeners. The aged R. Aharon Yaakov was the first of the assembled geonim to approach him and wish him, “May you be blessed!” And indeed, R. Yitzchak Aizik of Vitebsk reported that at that time, some four hundred reputed Talmudic scholars, both old and young, from Minsk, Vilna, Brisk, Shklov and Slutzk, joined the chassidic community.

* * *

This, then, is the narrative that I wanted to convey to you. I abbreviated it somewhat and retained only its inner content, in which the approach of the Baal Shem Tov is lit up by the beacon of Chabad Chassidus. That narrative is a seminal statement on the teachings of Chassidus and on the paths in avodah that characterize chassidim. By publicizing this teaching and by explaining its role in the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, the [Alter] Rebbe opened up for chassidim entire chambers of Divine service.

Many years ago, at a farbrengen on a chassidic red-letter day, it was said that the pioneering achievement of the Baal Shem Tov was to show that even the plainest of ordinary Jews can become a servant of G‑d, and the pioneering achievement of the Alter Rebbe was to show how even the plainest of ordinary Jews can become a servant of G‑d. Both the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe speak about the plainest and most ordinary Jew, because by virtue of their ahavas Yisrael, they value and cherish him. Over the years, building on the Alter Rebbe’s guidance on how everyone, including the plainest Jew, can serve G‑d, the Rebbes of the respective generations have opened for us paths in avodah and teshuvah. Those paths are based on two main principles: one must uncover the blazing fire [in every ordinary Jew], and one must “turn aside from here and come closer to there,” [constantly upgrading oneself].



Sichah #4


Orderliness is crucial in every endeavor, whether of an individual or of a group. It secures success in the life and creativity of an individual, and even more, of a group. Anyone can palpably see that if even the most gifted individuals are not orderly, their brilliance drains away; their talents crumble and remain fruitless. In contrast, if people with quite ordinary gifts have been blessed from Above with a sense of orderliness, their scholarly efforts are successful and highly creative.

The chassidic masters102 were blessed from Above with outstanding gifts, and one of them was a sense of orderliness. All of those masters, from the Baal Shem Tov onward, excelled in the art of being well organized, and made a significant contribution to that art.103 To make that art effective, they created the necessary strategy and utilized it fully and skillfully, for, as everyone knows, no craftsman, even the greatest, can function without tools, and likewise no craft, even the simplest, can function without tools.104 Only they can give practical and optimal expression to the craftsman’s talents.

* * *

The principle that no craft can function without tools is as true in the spiritual realm as in the physical realm: just as tools translate the physical craftsman’s talent into the beauty and utility of his craft, so too does spiritual craftsmanship require tools – to translate the spiritual craftsman’s talent into the beauty and utility of his craft. Nevertheless, with regard to this interdependence of the craftsman and his tools, the similarity between the spiritual and the physical realms is true only in broad terms, just like the distance between any analogy and its analog. On closer inspection, we see that the two cases are so utterly different, that their broad similarities vanish when the physical model is placed next to the rich subtlety of the spiritual theme.

For example: A physical craftsman must be skilled in his field, and must be utterly dedicated to what he is doing so that he will make no mistakes. The spiritual craftsman likewise must be skilled in his field, and must be utterly dedicated to what he is doing. Yet although in broad terms the two cases are identical, the subject to which the spiritual craftsman is dedicated is something quite different.

It is taught in Avos deRabbi Nasan (sec. 22): “A man who is wise and who fears sin105 may be likened to a craftsman with his tools in hand.” Chacham here means one who is skilled, and “who fears sin” refers to the devoted worker’s fear of making a mistake – for the word חֵטְא [here translated “sin”] basically means “lack.”106 The difference between the fear experienced by the physical craftsman and the fear experienced by the spiritual craftsman serves as a reminder of the vast difference in status between spirituality and physicality. In truth, instead of speaking of the vast difference between them, we should really have spoken of their incomparability.107 It is only that “it is the nature of the benevolent to do good.”108 In the words of Etz Chayim: It was G‑d’s will, as it were, to be benevolent to His created beings and to grant them enough understanding to have some scant grasp of a spiritual concept. He therefore invested spiritual concepts with characteristics that are broadly comparable [to the characteristics of physical concepts]. This explains why we speak merely of the vast difference between spirituality and physicality, [whereas we should really have spoken of their incomparability].

Those who study Chassidus and immerse themselves in the insights that they learn can appreciate the meaning of that vast difference in status between spirituality and physicality. They, too, can have a conception of the above teaching – that “a man who is wise and who fears sin may be likened to a craftsman with his tools in hand.”

* * *

As everyone knows, in order to promote and establish a particular school of thought,109 to make it flourish and come to life, one must have certain powerful spiritual and physical potentials and natural characteristics. Above all, one must have a self-sacrificing devotion, foregoing and setting aside not only one’s This-Worldly “I,” but also one’s Next-Worldly “I.” A person does this because for him, the nucleus and ultimate purpose of everything is the merit and the benefit that the public will have – and for this, one must be prepared for self-sacrifice.

This can be appreciated by those who are familiar with the history of Chassidus from its earliest beginnings – how this school of thought was revealed in its earliest period,110 in the generations of the tzaddikim and geonim who were its first three nesi’im, namely, R. Eliyahu Baal Shem of Worms, R. Yoel Baal Shem of Zamosc, and R. Adam Baal Shem of Ropshytz; likewise the history of the second period, during the two generations under the nesius of the Baal Shem Tov of Mezhibuzh and the Maggid of Mezritch; and likewise the history of how the teachings of Chabad Chassidus were revealed and applied in people’s lives by the five generations of the nesi’im of Chabad Chassidus111 in the course of over 150 years. All those who are familiar with this history know what G‑d-given spiritual faculties and talents the nesi’im of Chassidus were blessed with, and what superhuman self-sacrifice was shown by the leaders of all the above three periods, for the dissemination of the teachings of Chassidus. Little wonder, then, that their teachings and their holy endeavors were blessed from Above with such rich and boundless success.

This is neither the place nor the time for even a brief outline of the superhuman labors of over three hundred years. Nevertheless, I would like to focus on one aspect of the gift of orderliness with which the nesi’im of Chabad were blessed, and by virtue of which, with the help of G‑d, they created the universal chassidic characteristic of orderliness.

* * *

This characteristic is diversified, affecting the life of individuals, families and entire communities, but the particular aspect on which I would like to focus is the manner in which mashpi’im are appointed in the chassidic community.112

As a title, the word mashpia signifies a person who transmits teachings, maamarim and oral traditions to the chassidim of his community; at a deeper level, that word refers to the spiritual influence that he shares with them. Traditionally, the personal status of mashpi’im has been varied. Sometimes the mashpia was the community’s rav, or the local halachic authority,113 or the shochet, or the melamed. Sometimes he occupied none of the above positions: he was simply the mashpia, who alone was responsible for guiding his community towards the spiritual lifestyle of chassidim.

In the third generation of the nesi’im of Chabad, in the time of the Tzemach Tzedek, a system was instituted whereby chassidishe mashpi’im were dispatched to settle in the towns and villages in which there were Chabad chassidim. Their work was tailored to match local conditions. For example, the regular sessions for the study of Chassidus were organized separately for fulltime scholars and for working householders, but at the loving and comradely farbrengens held in honor of a festive day114 in the chassidic calendar, they would all join in together – whether scholarly or unlettered, whether rich or poor – as equals.

* * *

The following descriptions relate to the year 5619 (1859), about fifteen years after my [great-]grandfather,115 the Tzemach Tzedek, had bought at his own expense a large tract of land in the Minsk region, extending over 3,500 desiats.116 It included dense forests and substantial stretches of rich black soil, as well as meadows and streams, and there he founded the Schedrin farming settlement, the pioneering project in his plan to attract Jews to agriculture. He settled there over three hundred families. Their work earned them a comfortable living, and at certain seasons they were able to devote their free time to Torah study. Each family received, without any payment, a block of land on which they could build a home and whatever other buildings that their farming work required, as well as a garden patch, and an area in which they could grow pasture for their cattle and horses. Each family of settlers also enjoyed certain governmental privileges, including a loan of 200 rubles in cash from the official treasury of Bobruisk, to be repaid by future harvests.

My [great-]grandfather divided up the area of 3,500 desiats as follows: About 1,700 desiats of pasture land, forests and meadows, were divided up among the families of settlers. The remaining area, about 1,700 desiats of forests, he sold to a wealthy chassidisher individual called R. Ephraim Yosef Golodetz, who lived in Bobruisk. Part of the payment was to be made at the time of purchase, and part was to be paid in installments over the years. Of the amount received at the time, my [great-]grandfather sent part to the Collel Chabad fund in Eretz Yisrael,117 and another part he deposited in his tzedakah fund, which supported communal needs and also needy individuals.

Several members of the Golodetz family settled in Schedrin, so that they could conduct their timber business there.

* * *

Like many chassidic towns and villages, the farming community of Schedrin originally had its own mashpia, in addition to its halachic authority, its shochtim and its melamdim. This mashpia was R. Yerucham Fishel Yanovitcher, [and after the passage of years, the time came for a successor to be found].

Now, the well-known chassid, R. Betzalel Ozaritcher, had an old friend called R. Yisrael Moshe, a man of outstanding erudition and refinement of character, who had a close bond with the Tzemach Tzedek, and was constantly immersed in Torah and avodah. In addition, his mind was sharp and he was well loved. Throughout some decades of fulltime study, he had been supported by his father-in-law,118 R. Chaim Yosef, a storekeeper in Ozaritch and a chassid of the Mitteler Rebbe. He had been a melamed for a few years, and in 5612 (1852), about ten years after my [great-]grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, had founded the Schedrin farming community, he decided to appoint R. Yisrael Moshe as mashpia in that community, as the successor to R. Yerucham Fishel Yanovitcher.

At all times, the mashpi’im at every chassidisher farbrengen used to share a brief expression which would develop into the focus of all the following talks and narratives, and would thus remain forever engraved in the memories of all those present.

R. Yisrael Moshe by nature was very deliberate and punctual, and expected everyone who attended the community’s regular study sessions to arrive exactly on time. Any latecomer would be called to order and given the stern admonition that he deserved. When R. Yisrael Moshe urged someone to earnestly consider what was the purpose of his life, he was most articulate. He could describe that person’s ethical and spiritual state so clearly, that by the time the listener took his leave he felt contrite and battered, a sinful and worthless fool, overcome by shame.

Yet his unique and characteristic approach to people was basically mild. He never raised his voice and never used harsh words of rebuke, but would modify his style to suit the listener facing him. He would discuss a moral flaw in a way that showed how the relevant listener was to be pitied, but would express himself in such language that every word of his found its way into the depths of his listener’s heart. And as every phrase touched that listener’s innermost soul-strings, he was brought to tears.

R. Yisrael Moshe’s talent for description was exceptional. Regardless of whether he was depicting an event, or someone’s appearance or conduct, his listeners saw the picture before their eyes as clearly as if he had just painted a portrait.

* * *

On Shavuos, 5656 (1896), I heard the following recollections from a chassid by the name of R. Avraham Dov, the son of R. Yirmeyahu.119

This R. Avraham Dov had a maternal uncle called R. Leib Yitzchak, a vintage chassid of the Alter Rebbe and a mellow master of both nigleh and Chassidus. He had been a businessman all his life, first as a prominent storekeeper in Homil, and later as the manager of R. Ephraim Yosef Holodetz’s interests in the forest of Schedrin. Throughout his years in Homil, he had entrusted his spiritual growth to the guidance of the eminent R. Aizik [of Homil].120 Whenever R. Aizik expounded Chassidus publicly he was always one of the first to arrive, and he would often visit him to discuss his studies in nigleh and especially in Chassidus. In fact R. Aizik used to say that with Leib Yitzchak he could discuss such subjects freely, “because his ear not only listens; it also discerns.”121

R. Avraham Dov recalled: “From the age of bar-mitzvah until I turned 17, in 5603 (1843), my father took me to Lubavitch to study under the Tzemach Tzedek in the yeshivah there, and whenever I had free time from my studies, whether on weekdays or Shabbos or Yom-Tov, I would always spend it with my uncle, R. Leib Itche.122 He devoted time to telling me all about his childhood, his teachers, and his early studies. His father – my grandfather, R. Elye Shaul – was quite a scholar. He had virtually memorized two [of the Six] Sedarim of the Gemara, namely, Nashim and Nezikin, together with the commentaries of Tosafos. A paid helper attended to his dry-goods store, while he sat in a corner and pursued his studies.

“That grandfather, R. Elye Shaul, was born a misnaged and remained a misnaged – except that he was one of those who utterly shunned controversy, and avoided taking sides with either party. However, he had a friend from his youth called R. Tanchum Shlomo, known as the Maggid of Belitz, who was not simply a misnaged but a person who hated ‘the Sect’123 with a passion. In fact, he had been a member of the rabbinical court of Vilna headed by the gaon, R. Shmuel, which had issued a decree of excommunication in 5532 (1772) against the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, the Maggid of Mezritch, and his disciples.

“Now my uncle, R. Leib Itche, had studied industriously for several years under R. Tanchum Shlomo, who was also known as ‘the parush124 of Belitz,’ so one can easily guess how intensely the young student was influenced by him. It was only by virtue of the workings of Divine Providence that two scholarly brothers, my uncle’s best friends, had joined the chassidic brotherhood, and then he, too, found himself growing closer to chassidim, until he himself became a deeply-rooted chassid.

“When my uncle eventually settled in Schedrin, I used to go and visit him a couple of times a year. That was already after the time of R. Yerucham Fishel, the mashpia of Schedrin, and in his place the Rebbe, [the Tzemach Tzedek,] had sent R. Yisrael Moshe of Ozaritch, who was soon renowned throughout that entire region. My uncle was very fond of the new mashpia, who related to him with the deepest respect. My uncle would participate in every chassidisher farbrengen. There he would share recollections of his earliest years before he became a chassid, and of his first years as a chassid, and of how he visited the [Alter] Rebbe for the first time in Liozna, and also of events from the time of the Mitteler Rebbe. His words always left a deep impression on his listeners.”

R. Avraham Dov added: “I was always eager to be present whenever Chassidus was being taught by the mashpia, R. Yisrael Moshe. Whether he was discussing haskalah or avodah, his explanations were always rich and precise, and were often accompanied by a narrative which not only clarified the subject at hand, but also engraved it in the minds and hearts of his listeners. The spiritual pleasure generated by his farbrengens was even more exceptional. His gift for portrayal was so graphic that if you closed your eyes while he spoke, you forgot where you were; you imagined that you literally saw the situation that he was describing, or that you were actually there.”

* * *

“In the year 5616 (late 1855),” R. Avraham Dov further recalled, “I spent Chanukah with my uncle, R. Leib Itche, in Schedrin. Now, according to the local custom, the farbrengens celebrating chassidishe red-letter days such as Yud Kislev and Yud-Tes Kislev and the fifth day of Chanukah125 were held in one big beis midrash in the evening, and in the other big beis midrash on the following day. That year, the fifth day of Chanukah was a Sunday – and Sunday and Wednesday were the two weekly market days on which the townsmen earned most of their livelihood from the surrounding villagers who converged on Schedrin.

“At the rich farbrengen on Motzaei Shabbos, the eve of the fifth light, the beis midrash was packed. After Shacharis the next morning a large crowd assembled for the second session, but since many chassidim could not attend because it was market day, it was decided to defer the main farbrengen until the evening, after Maariv. Many chassidim duly arrived, but it was evident that the mashpia, R. Yisrael Moshe, was displeased that some of them, who were stall-keepers, came late. In his eyes, this indicated not only that they were being complacent with regard to the time-honored chassidic tradition of farbrengen: it also indicated that in their lives, Matter was prevailing over Form.126 It was bad enough that their business – albeit a necessity – overrode their attendance at a chassidisher farbrengen, but even when their business was over, it had cooled down their haste to arrive there on time.

“Accordingly, R. Yisrael Moshe’s theme at that farbrengen was Adam. He pointed out that Adam was ‘created by the hands of the Holy One, blessed be He,’127 his body was so luminous that even his heel dimmed the sun,128 and his wisdom outshone the wisdom of the ministering angels,129 notwithstanding their lofty stature. Yet by succumbing to the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, that mighty Adam was reduced to a pathetic nebbich – like a Torah sage who has forgotten his scholarship, or like a magnate after a fire. When he heard all the punishments that G‑d was giving him as a result of his sin, he uttered not a word, because he recognized the enormity of his sin. However, when he heard that when he sowed grain in the soil, ‘it will sprout thorns and thistles for you [and you will eat the grass of the field],’130 that was more than he could take. The tears gushed forth as he cried out: ‘Master of the Universe! So I and my donkey will eat from the very same trough?!’131

“[R. Yisrael Moshe now focused on his late-coming listeners:] ‘G‑d made every man in the mould of Adam,’132 he said, but added that ‘[just as their faces are not identical, so too,] their dispositions are not identical.133 Today’s Adams don’t gush tears. In fact, they are even quite content to eat in the same trough as their donkey – because in them, Matter prevails over Form…’ “

* * *

I heard the following in Teves, 5662 (1901-02), from R. Shmuel Zanvil, an emissary who raised funds for the Rebbe’s institutions.134 In his earlier years he had been employed as a resident malemed in the household of [R. Ephraim Yosef] Holodetz, in Schedrin.

At the lively and fruitful farbrengen that accompanied a major family celebration there in 5619 (1859), the dominant speaker was R. Yisrael Moshe, who earnestly admonished his wealthy listeners for their lax attitude to the regular local sessions for group study, and for their late-coming to the shiurim of Chassidus and to farbrengens. His hosts listened, and offered the well-worn excuse that the fault lay with the pressure of business.

In response, the mashpia discussed the Divine assurance that “the L‑rd your G‑d will bless you in all that you do,”135 and that “it is the blessing of G‑d that grants wealth.”136 His listeners were responsive to his words, which he concluded with a [whimsical] question: “Why should you help the Master of the Universe? Rather, help yourselves!”