A recent discovery of a never-before published notation made by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, in the years before his ascension to the leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement has shed light on the enormous undertaking of the then son-in-law of the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, to compile all of the movement’s teachings into an orderly index arranged by subject.

Spanning hundreds of years of scholarship, the thousands of priceless handwritten manuscripts and discourses were traditionally passed down from leader to leader, but the future Rebbe embarked on both a groundbreaking project to open the trove of teachings to the masses and to provide a systematic guide for their study.

The note itself serves as a scholarly explanation of an obscure teaching of the First Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, dealing with the metaphysical nature of the Jewish people’s ritual animal sacrifices in the desert and, later, in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. But its discovery – and subsequent release by the Kehot Publication Society – has offered present-day scholars a further glimpse into an effort that consumed much of the future Rebbe’s time.

“Recently we were reviewing the index the Rebbe wrote prior to his 1941 arrival in the United States, which covered Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s Chasidic discourses,” says Rabbi Chaim Shaul Brook of Lahak Publications, which continues to uncover manuscripts as part of its effort to publish talks and discourses delivered by the Rebbe between 1951 and 1994. “There, they found a note on half of a page that was never before published.”

While he was studying in Berlin and Paris, the future Rebbe worked on his index of all published and unpublished works of Chabad teachings. Written on 8 by 5.5 inch paper, the original notes that made up the index reflect a time of upheaval in the lives of the future Rebbe and Jews across Europe.

“These indexes were written in different times, in different life conditions,” the Rebbe wrote years later as an explanation of the notations’ variant writing styles. “They were written in both situations of comfort and prosperity and in situations of distress and siege.”

Published throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the index continues to be pored over by scholars who toil over the Rebbe’s choice of format, as well as his selection of certain items and his exclusion of others.

The late Dr. Nissan Mindel said in an interview in the late 1980s that when he arrived in the United States with the Sixth Rebbe, he “decided to delve into the teachings of Chabad.”

But “it turned out to be a difficult task to just approach the text of the Tanya,” explained Mindel, referring to Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s foundational 18th century work of Chabad philosophy. At the time, Mindel, who had a doctorate in Semitic language from Columbia University, knew of no systematic approach to the teachings.

One day, the Sixth Rebbe “called me into his office [and gave] me a pile of precious manuscripts,” recalled Mindel. “He told me to make microfilm from them. In there, I found an index of the published Chabad volumes. It was an entire binder, written in small letters.”

Mindel stayed up the entire night going over the manuscripts.

“The indices opened up a new world for me,” he said. “They helped me study different topics in Chabad teachings. The index gave me a systematic approach to the teachings.”

It was only later that Mindel found out that the Rebbe penned the indices.

“I made personal copies for myself and used them until they were later published,” he said.

In a letter to Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, famed scholar and editor-in-chief of the Talmudic Encyclopedia, the Rebbe explained that he wrote the index as part of a broader project that he had in mind.

“For tens of years I’ve felt the great need” for an encyclopedia of Chabad teachings, he wrote in Hebrew in 1967. “And I began decades ago to prepare the necessary foundation for [this] by creating indices of concepts developed in the foundational volumes of Chasidic thought.”

“Every place the Rebbe chose to index, there’s a reason behind it,” said Rabbi Yoel Kahan, a noted Chasidic scholar and chief editor of Chabad works in Hebrew. Since the Rebbe didn’t note every particular mention of a certain subject, “his choices to cover certain subjects were very calculated.”

A page from the Rebbe’s handwritten index and associated glosses.
A page from the Rebbe’s handwritten index and associated glosses.

The Note

The newly discovered gloss first found its way into the indexes’ original publication in a condensed format of just several words.

“For years, I tried to understand the comment, and it was challenging to understand via the various citations what the question was, and what the response is,” said Kahn.

The discovery of the original nine-line notation written in small letters, however, has allowed a more thorough analysis.

“When the Rebbe prepared the indices for final publication,” explained Brook, “he condensed his long comment to a short few lines. While working on reviewing the index and notes from the original manuscripts they found this longer note.”

The passage dwells on the different flames that consumed the sacrifices in the travelling Tabernacle in the desert and in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Written on the bottom of the blue-lined paper, the Rebbe explains at length how Rabbi Shneur Zalman would opine according to a certain opinion in the Talmud and the Zohar that contradicted the opinion cited by the famed medieval commentator Rashi.

The note explains the different opinions, which disagreed on the form that the heavenly fire took when it consumed the sacrifices.

If the fire took the shape of a lion, as Rabbi Schneur Zalman contended, wrote the Rebbe, it represented the supernal angel that was the spiritual root of the animal. A mere flame, however, would have represented G‑d Himself consuming the sacrifice.

“There was a need for there to be an angel between the Jew bringing the sacrifice and G‑d,” the Rebbe wrote in paraphrasing the discourse of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, which goes on to explain that such a principle has a direct bearing on mankind’s present Divine service.

In the gloss, the Rebbe takes up the other opinions as well, citing 27 separate well-known and obscure sources in the Talmud, Jewish legal codes, Kabbalistic commentaries, and supra-commentaries.

Three scholars worked on the text before releasing it.

“It took weeks just to comprehend what all the citations were referring to,” said Brook.

Click here to read the entire note.