1. In the year 5559 (1798), the year of the Alter Rebbe’s incarceration, Yud-Tes Kislev1 fell (like this year) on a Tuesday.2 Significantly, in the year 5557 (1796), Chaf Kislev3 was a Tuesday. On that day the Tanya was first released to the world (evidently its first release from the printer). And Tuesday, Yud-Tes Kislev, in the year 5559 (1798), was the day on which the Alter Rebbe was released to the world.

2. For me, Yud-Tes Kislev this year is a double festivity: today marks fifty years since the first time I ever attended a Yud-Tes Kislev farbrengen.4

On that occasion, my father, [the Rebbe Rashab,] related that when the [Alter] Rebbe was brought to [the Peter-Paul Fortress in] Petersburg, the interrogator was a deputy minister who knew the Tanach by heart.

He had a question: “How can it be understood that after the Sin of the Tree of Knowledge, G‑d asked Adam, ‘Where are you?’5 After all, He knew where Adam was!”

The Alter Rebbe answered by quoting the explanation that Rashi gives.6 And when the interrogator said that that he already knew, the Alter Rebbe answered him with the well-known teaching.7

Having related that exchange, my father said that the Alter Rebbe, by giving this answer to the interrogator, saved his own soul from expiring8 out of sheer ecstasy. He explained: When the Alter Rebbe was confined to his cell in the Peter-Paul Fortress in Petersburg, and reminded himself that he was sacrificing his life9 for the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and of the Maggid, he was suffused with such spiritual pleasure that his soul could have fled from his body. He was saved from this by the above teaching: it reminded him that he himself still had what to accomplish in This World.

3. [After describing the farbrengen of the Rebbe Rashab on Yud-Tes Kislev, 5653 (1892), the Rebbe Rayatz said:] When one visualizes that period, one sees how utterly different it was. One senses that today’s world is made of paper, a plaything of toddlers.

At that farbrengen my father related that once, at yechidus, he had heard from his father, [the Rebbe Maharash,] that he in turn had heard the following from his father, [the Tzemach Tzedek]: “For my grandfather, [the Alter Rebbe,] the yom-tov of 5569 (1809) was particularly happy. [At this point in his narration, the Rebbe Rayatz explained that in those days, the term “yom-tov,” unless otherwise specified, meant the yom-tov par excellence, namely, Yud-Tes Kislev. To resume the narration of the Tzemach Tzedek:] On that day my grandfather, [the Alter Rebbe,] called in his three sons – the Mitteler Rebbe, R. Chaim Avraham and R. Moshe. I was there, too. Then, lying down and resting his head on his arms,he asked them: ‘What is the difference between a maskil and an oved?’ After they proposed their respective answers in order of age, my grandfather, [the Alter Rebbe,] said: ‘Those answers all relate to a maskil and an oved whose soul reaches the level of the Worlds of Beriah, Yetzirah and Asiyah but what is the difference between a maskil and an oved who is at the level of the World of Atzilus?’ And he answered his own question: ‘To be an oved of the World of Atzilus means relishing the mitzvah of one’s tzitzis, or delighting in doing a favor for a fellow Jew!’ ”10

[The Rebbe Rayatz now concluded:] On the above-mentioned Yud-Tes Kislev,11 my father shared a thought that shows how even after the passage of many years, a mere few words spoken by an atzmi are never lost. We are speaking of those last few words of the Alter Rebbe, [about relishing one’s tzitzis]. This is true even if those few words were seemingly lighthearted. As a rule, the Rebbeim did not speak in lighthearted jests, though one does find such speech in the maamarim of the Mitteler Rebbe, and likewise of my father. And the Alter Rebbe’s few words quoted above were spoken in that spirit.

5. At12 the above farbrengen of my father, while speaking of Polish tzaddikim,13 he related that on the first night of Sukkos, R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev used to kiss his esrog. After discussing the possible sources for this custom, my father spoke about delighting in a mitzvah – and hearing that talk was itself a delight.

One of those present at the time was a chassidisher Yid who understood and visibly enjoyed what was being said.14

On that occasion, the refreshments included kasha. (On Yud-Tes Kislev, every region traditionally serves its favorite delicacy; in Lithuania it was kasha.) And the individual who had visibly enjoyed the discussion about relishing a mitzvah, was now enjoying his kasha with relish. When my father noticed that this person’s earlier relish over the discussion of mitzvos had somehow slipped over to relishing kasha, which he was now eating not as a chassidisher Yid ought to eat, he said: “You’ve forgotten that you’re eating kasha!”

[The Rebbe Rayatz now explained:] This person’s intellectual delight in the explanation of loving a mitzvah led to the delight of his natural soul15 in eating kasha. He didn’t notice this at all, because he wasn’t involved in eating, but only in what he had heard. Nevertheless, his animal soul fulfilled its role faithfully, so that he didn’t realize that his delight had been rerouted. This explains my father’s reminder: “You’ve forgotten that you’re eating kasha!”

Another one of those present at that farbrengen was a 19-year-old bachur. When I met him in America many years later, in 1930, I didn’t recall the above incident, but in the course of our conversation he reminded me of my father’s warning: “A person should remember that he is now eating kasha!”

Those were words spoken by an atzmi.

6. In Lubavitch there lived a chassidisher Yid called Avraham Yitzchak Zarchin,16 who had learned how to make ink and used to sell it. He, too, sat at the above-mentioned farbrengen, but with tears streaming down his face. When my father asked him, “Why are you crying?” he answered, “I’m still somewhere between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur...”17

My father said: “I envy you!”

“What?” he protested. “Envy me?!”

My father assured him: “If a man walks through the marketplace selling ink, and he’s thinking about Tanya or Chumash, he is – Tanya. That’s a Tanya walking down the street!”

My father went on to illustrate this by telling him of a related incident.

“Whenever R. Pesach Malastovker18 taught Chassidus, he would focus on bittul, the avodah of humbling one’s ego, and his message was duly internalized. In fact, a few of his disciples were once challenged by a policeman: ‘Who goes there?’

“Their joint response was spontaneous: ‘Bittul!’

“In the same way,” my father added, “if a person focuses his mind on words of Tanya while he’s walking through the marketplace, at that time he is – Tanya. Its words have made an impact.”

My father went on to tell his chassid: “Why do you find that so overwhelming? After all, it is written in Sefer HaBahir:19

The Attribute of Chessed said [to the Holy One, blessed be He]: “Ever since Avraham has been on earth, I have not been required to perform my tasks, for Avraham is there to function in my stead, as it is written, ‘And he guarded what I was intended to guard!’ ”20

To this my father added: “This plaint of the Attribute of Chessed sprang from envy – because when a soul within a body resembled the Attribute of Chessed, it was in fact superior to the Attribute of Chessed in the World of Atzilus.”21

And concluding his words of reassurance to this chassid, my father said: “Regarding the Giving of the Torah it is written, ‘And G‑d descended on Mount Sinai,’22 which Targum Onkelos renders as ‘And G‑d revealed Himself23 on Mount Sinai,’ which signifies a revelation of Atzmus,24 a revelation of His very Essence. If I were to dare, I would go as far as to say that likewise, when a man walks about in the marketplace and meditates upon Chumash or Tanya, there is a revelation of Atzmus, of the very Essence of Elokus.”

7. R. Hendel [Kugel]25 often used to sit and drink tea in the waiting-room of my father’s study. One day, when my father left his study, he took a seat next to R. Hendel, who asked him, “What’s new?”26

My father answered: “I just spent three hours in Gan Eden.

I was a very young child at the time, and was struck by these words.

My father continued: “When a person studies Chassidus in depth, he is in Gan Eden.”

8. This is a time for mashke. My father once said: “Taking mashke can be not good, but not taking mashke can be even worse. The [Alter] Rebbe’s chassidim used to drink mashke, but they drank as much as was needed and when it was needed. At my father’s farbrengens there was a lot of mashke, but it went to where it was supposed to go.”27

9. The concept of taking mashke recalls the mitzvah of bringing mundane fire to the sacrificial altar, [even though fire descended from Heaven].28 Ideally, a person should be aroused spiritually either because he heard a teaching from whomever he is meant to hear a teaching, or because he grasped a concept that can bring about a spiritual arousal.29 If, however, a person is not aroused, mundane fire must be brought – from mashke.

[At this point the Rebbe Rayatz delivered the maamar beginning Padah BeShalom.30 ]

10. On one of the evenings of Chanukah, the Tzemach Tzedek would customarily hold a kind of farbrengen together with the members of his family.31 This gathering was known as a latke evening.”32 The Alter Rebbe and the Mitteler Rebbe had done likewise. The stories and traditions that they passed on at this festive meal included some that they spoke of every Chanukah, even though they had spoken of them the previous year.

On one such evening, the Tzemach Tzedek spoke about the musical notations33 that regulate the melodious Reading of the Torah.

11. Rabash,34 my great-uncle,35 knew even the Alter Rebbe, who passed away when that great-grandson was eight years old. By that time the Alter Rebbe had taught him his distinctive incantation of the Tanach, which preserved diverse melodies for the Chumash, the Nevi’im and the Kesuvim. Moreover, within the Chumash itself, he taught him different melodies for each one of several distinctive passages, such as Az yashir Moshe (“The Song of the Sea”), Az yashir Yisrael, Vayehi binso’a, and so on.36

Intoning the Torah Reading according to this unique musical tradition demanded extraordinary stamina. Thus, for example, the Rebbe Maharash was known to have such capacious lungs that with one breath, he was able to sound 53 teruah-blasts on the big shofar. Nevertheless, it once happened that he clutched his heart while still only halfway through intoning a certain pasuk in Tehillim. (By the way, there is a tradition that the above-mentioned shofar once belonged to the Maharal of Prague, but when a crack was detected in one of its extremities, it was shortened.)

One Chanukah evening, in the course of his discussion of the musical notations of the Torah Reading, as we mentioned earlier, the Tzemach Tzedek raised the question: “If those notations are of elevated spiritual significance, why don’t they appear in the Torah scroll? Even the tiny ‘crowns’ that adorn the heads of certain letters, and of course the script of the letters themselves, can invalidate an entire sefer Torah if they vary even slightly from their stipulated form. There is no similar law concerning the musical notations. Why?”

The Tzemach Tzedek then answered his own question by explaining that unlike the visual shapes of letters, distinctions between musical sounds cannot be transmitted by written words nor by sight.

In the course of that same evening, the Tzemach Tzedek addressed his sons. To the eldest son, Rabash, he said: “You saw my grandfather.” [That is, the Alter Rebbe.] To the second son, Maharil,37 he said: “You saw my father-in-law.” [That is, the Mitteler Rebbe, from whom he had learned. In fact, the Mitteler Rebbe would sometimes deliver a maamar specifically for him.]

[The Tzemach Tzedek then addressed his other sons:] “You, however, did not see them. Look at me. I received things from my grandfather. That which can be received by means of action, I received by means of action; that which can be received by means of speech, I received by means of speech; that which can be received by means of thought, I received by means of thought; and the innermost faculties of will and spiritual pleasure,38 I received by means of the level of chayah within [my] soul.”

12. Whenever the Tzemach Tzedek sat in the company of his sons and wanted to tell them something about the Alter Rebbe, he would first turn to my great-uncle, Rabash, and would say: “What do you remember of my grandfather?”

As a rule, my great-uncle was so crushed and lowly of spirit that he found it difficult to speak in the presence of the Tzemach Tzedek. However, when he was asked to answer this question, the expression on his face would change, and in order to honor his father he would speak up.

13. At one of those Chanukah gatherings, someone asked the Tzemach Tzedek:“Why in the court of the Mitteler Rebbe was there a band?”39

The answer: “The choir was set up in order to restrain the Mitteler Rebbe’s soul from expiring out of klos hanefesh, out of a rapturous love of his Maker, and soaring aloft to leave his body.”

14. My grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, once related that at a certain farbrengen, the Tzemach Tzedek described in great detail what a Yud-Tes Kislev farbrengen is like in Gan Eden. The Rebbe Maharash added that some of those present heard everything that was said, whereas some others only heard that the Tzemach Tzedek was speaking, with no details beyond that.40

15. [Before taking his leave, the Rebbe Rayatz rose and gave his blessing:] Today is Rosh HaShanah,41 and on Rosh HaShanah people wish each other, Leshanah tovah tikaseivu veseichaseimu (“May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year”), because on this day blessings are drawn down for a good year, materially. May G‑d grant that today’s Rosh HaShanah should begin a good year – materially, too, but also in actual, practical avodah!”