For the past 50 years, a radio program has been taking a foundational 18th-century Chasidic text and promulgating its lessons weekly through the New York City airwaves. With its launch, it revolutionized study of the Tanya, the primary work of Chabad-Lubavitch thought penned by the First Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, and laid the groundwork for a slew of rabbinical shows throughout the United States.

It all began in 1959 when noted scholar Rabbi Yosef Wineberg was approached by Rabbi Shmaryahu Gourarie, director of the Chabad-Lubavitch yeshiva system and the brother-in-law of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. Gourarie had some extra airtime that he bought on the local Yiddish station WEVD for fundraising purposes, and he thought that Wineberg, no stranger to making appeals on behalf of the yeshivas, could help fill it.

“I began using the radio time to speak about Chasidic ideas,” says the 92-year-old Wineberg, who has since passed the reins of the show, which airs every Saturday night at 570 on the AM dial, to his son, Rabbi Sholom Ber Wineberg, director of Chabad of Kansas and Missouri. “And then I thought, why not give a class in the Tanya?”

Published in the late 18th century after the First Chabad Rebbe spent years redacting and editing his teachings on sublime mystical concepts, the Tanya’s stated aim is to illuminate a path to realizing one’s purpose in the world and developing a deeper relationship with the Almighty. Hundreds of thousands of Chasidim around the world study it daily, and much of modern Chasidic thought is based upon its conclusions and explanations.

But when Wineberg approached the Rebbe with his idea, the answer he got was “that it was not yet the time.”

About a year later, in February 1960, Wineberg again went to the Rebbe, encouraged by the fact that a Tanya lecture was already being broadcasted over the radio in Israel. The answer was the same.

“So I wrote out a lecture exactly the way I would say it, and sent the manuscript to the Rebbe,” recalls Wineberg. “The Rebbe sent back $100 to help pay for the project and agreed to edit every lecture.”

Rabbi Yosef Wineberg
Rabbi Yosef Wineberg

Power of Technology

Thus began a 20-year project. The Rebbe corrected and amended each of Wineberg’s scripts, adding his own insights and commentary, until the entire Tanya had been covered in depth. His care for the project was so profound that after suffering a massive heart attack in 1977, the Rebbe told his doctors that their regular Saturday night examination would have to be over by 10:00 in time for Wineberg’s broadcast.

Eventually, the Kehot Publication Society compiled the lectures into its multi-volume Lessons in Tanya. Translated into seven languages, the text remains a vital study guide for thousands of students, lay leaders, teachers and rabbis.

Among the show’s contributions is its demonstration of using modern technology to disseminate Jewish teachings, an approach endorsed by the Rebbe during a public address on the occasion of the program’s first anniversary.

“Since everything in the world was created for the sake of the Torah and for the sake of Israel,” the Rebbe explained, quoting rabbinic sources, “it is clear that the powerful force of radio was created so that it would be utilized for holy matters.”

Rabbi Simon Jacobson, author of Toward a Meaningful Life and director of the Meaningful Life Center in New York, puts the radio show in context, noting that it represented a new way to reach thousands of people.

“You can knock on someone’s door and ask to come in,” says Jacobson, who for 14 years, led a team of scholars that transcribed the Rebbe’s talks, “or [with radio], you can reach straight into their living rooms.

“I think that the innovation was the broadcast part,” he continues. “It was taking the relatively new technology of radio, and using it to teach Tanya, the foundational book of Chasidic thought. And what technology really does is it eliminates time and space. Television does that, Internet does that. They are all the same idea, reaching more and more people simultaneously.”