This is the first in a series of articles on the unique lives of Chabad-Lubavitch yeshivah students. A series featuring the lives of female students is in the works as well.

Bochur: n. (baw-khur), lit. Selected one, commonly referring to a youth or young man (plural: bochurim). In common parlance, the word is used to refer to a yeshivah bochur, who devotes his time to Torah study. In Hebrew, a Chabad bochur is often referred to as a tomim (plural: temimim), a moniker given to students in Tomechei Temimim, the central Chabad yeshivah network.

From standing on streets offering passersby the chance to perform a quick mitzvah to visiting Jewish residents in nursing homes to traveling to far-flung countries to support isolated Jewish communities as part of the “Roving Rabbis” program, Chabad yeshivah students—with their ubiquitous black hats, conservative suits and budding beards—have become familiar sights, particularly in New York and major North American cities. In Israel, too, and in countries around the world, bochurim can be spotted carrying velvet bags with tefillin at the ready, “just in case.”

Yet the primary occupation of the bochur is to study Torah for many hours every day, delving into Hebrew and Aramaic texts that are the product of thousands of years of Jewish scholarship.

Intrigued? Then take some time to learn about the learned life of the Chabad bochur.

Who They Are ...

As soon as a young man passes age 13—the age of bar mitzvah—he is often referred to as a bochur. However, it’s not until he reaches high school age that he fully adopts such a lifestyle, which can continue for a decade or so until he marries.

A bochur’s life can be divided into four stages.

Deep in study on a bench along Eastern Parkway near Lubavitch World Headquarters in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. (Photo: Mordechai Lightstone)
Deep in study on a bench along Eastern Parkway near Lubavitch World Headquarters in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. (Photo: Mordechai Lightstone)

1. For the first three or four years, he attends a high-school equivalent often called mesivta (the Aramaic term for yeshivah) or yeshivah ketanah (“small yeshivah”).

2. This is followed by a three- or four-year program called either bais medrash (“study hall”) or zal (which means the same thing in Russian-Yiddish); or yeshivah gedolah (“large yeshivah”).

3. Since the 1970s, this has been followed by a year of shlichus, when the students would be sent as the Rebbe’s emissaries to cities all around the world. Typically, they form the nucleus of a yeshivah at their destination cities. While some yeshivahs (such as the one in Melbourne, Australia) host students for two years, most are a one-year stint. This year is often a time of personal growth, as young men find themselves in positions of responsibility.

4. At this point, the student is typically in his early 20s and will begin studying the prerequisites for his semichah, rabbinic ordination. Many do so in the Central Chabad Yeshivah in Brooklyn, N.Y. Others join semichah programs in cities around the globe.

By the time a student has completed his ordination at age 22 or 23, he is often ready to consider marriage and starting a family.

Yeshivah students in discussion at 770 Eastern Parkway, circa 1970. (Photo: Leonard Freed)
Yeshivah students in discussion at 770 Eastern Parkway, circa 1970. (Photo: Leonard Freed)

While the above describes the typical course taken by a young Chassidic man, many young people come to Chabad at a later point and enter yeshivahs, including the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem; Hadar Hatorah in Brooklyn; or Tiferes Bachurim in Morristown, N.J. These institutions are designed to accommodate students with varying levels of Jewish education and serve a slightly older age range, typically from college to the late 20s.

What They Do ...

The yeshivah bochur’s schedule is comprised mostly of learning Torah. The study regimen in Chabad yeshivahs is based on the course of study established by Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber of Lubavitch, when he founded the Tomchei Temimim network of yeshivahs in 1897.

The day begins with the study of treatises of Chassidic philosophy at 7:30 a.m., though sometimes earlier. By that time, many students have already immersed in the purifying waters of the mikvah. This study session is followed by morning prayers and breakfast.

The juxtaposition of study and prayer is no accident. Rather, the deeply contemplative Chassidic texts, which meld Kabbalistic scholarship and an intense course of personal growth, lend the backdrop for a prayer experience that is both meditative and introspective.

Yeshivah students engage in discourse at the West Coast Rabbinical Seminary in Los Angeles. (Photo: Mordechai Lightstone)
Yeshivah students engage in discourse at the West Coast Rabbinical Seminary in Los Angeles. (Photo: Mordechai Lightstone)

The bulk of the day is devoted to the study of Talmud with a break for lunch (and prayers) in the early afternoon (for many high school age students, several hours of the afternoon are set aside to secular studies). In most yeshivahs, students study the same tractate as their peers in other ones, following an eight-year cycle. The morning is devoted to in-depth study that includes the medieval commentaries and their successors.

In addition to mastering the Hebrew and Aramaic works, the students toil to carve out an understanding that is uniquely their own, often publishing novel interpretations and queries in printed journals published by the yeshivahs.

Discussing text and enjoying the camaraderie that goes with yeshivah life. (Photo: Bentzi Sasson)
Discussing text and enjoying the camaraderie that goes with yeshivah life. (Photo: Bentzi Sasson)

In the afternoon, the learning takes on a quicker pace, and includes less commentary and analysis. During these sessions, students may cover as many as 100 double-sided folios of text in a school year, often committing large tracts to memory. In many high school yeshivahs, secular studies instruction takes place in the afternoon as well.

The final period before the dinner break is devoted to the Shulchan Aruch (“Code of Jewish Law”), often the edition authored by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of Chabad.

Dinner is followed by another session of Chassidic philosophy. Depending on the age of the students, this session ends anywhere between 9 and 10 p.m., after which point many students will continue to study late into the night.

Never a spare moment: learning and leaning in front of Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn. (Photo: Mordechai Lightstone)
Never a spare moment: learning and leaning in front of Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn. (Photo: Mordechai Lightstone)

While there are organized lectures on the various subjects studied, the bulk of the work is done in pairs, following the chavruta (meaning “buddy”) model, in which the two study partners read to each other, translating and analyzing as they progress, each one challenging and supporting the other. Chavrutas complement each other, each one pushing the other to maximize his grasp of the text at hand.

Although some students sleep at home, most—especially the older ones—study in out-of-town yeshivahs, living in dormitories.

A yeshivah student engaged in prayer adjusts his tefillin. (Photo: Mordechai Lightstone)
A yeshivah student engaged in prayer adjusts his tefillin. (Photo: Mordechai Lightstone)

Where They Go ...

Another important element of the bochur’s lifestyle is the farbrengen, the informal get-together in which Chassidim share stirring melodies, stories, Torah thoughts and inspiration over refreshments and, for the older ones, small cups of spirits.

The farbrengen is both uplifting and a serious springboard for the intensification of spiritual endeavors. Topics may include the redoubling of efforts in Torah scholarship, the refinement of character and other pertinent issues.

Like all teens, bochurim may be seen reading, playing sports or just hanging out.

A mitzvah familiar to the yeshivah student: Helping a man don tefillin. (Photo: Lubavitch Mesivta of Chicago)
A mitzvah familiar to the yeshivah student: Helping a man don tefillin. (Photo: Lubavitch Mesivta of Chicago)

However, one pastime that is central to the Chabad bochur is time dedicated to mivtzoyim(“campaigns”), when he assists people in performing any one of the 10 mitzvahs selected by the Rebbe as particularly important to emphasize. The most common include helping men and boys over 13 wrap tefillin, distributing Shabbat candles to women and girls, helping people affix mezuzahs to their doorposts and studying Torah with other Jewish people.

Often done in pairs, this is referred to as “going on mivtzoyim,” in Yiddish-influenced Chabad lingo. Participation is entirely voluntary, and bochurim commonly take pride in their accomplishments in this regard, often developing regular “routes” of people they visit on Friday afternoons, when their studies end earlier and they have some free time before Shabbat.

In most cities, mivtzoyim routes grow organically, as bochurim network and meet more people to add to their routes. When a bochur transfer to a yeshivah in a different city, he will often try to take over an existing route that someone else has left. Sometimes, the routes are overseen by the “bochurim shluchim” described above.

Putting on tefillin at Machu Picchu in Peru. (Photo: Mordechai Lightstone)
Putting on tefillin at Machu Picchu in Peru. (Photo: Mordechai Lightstone)

During the summer months, bochurim (as well as their female counterparts) may serve as staff members at Chabad day and overnight camps. Older bochurim (mostly post-shlichus) may also travel on Merkos Shlichus, the “Roving Rabbis” program that dispatches hundreds of pairs of young men to communities around the globe on what are essentially extended mivtzoyim expeditions.

So the next time you happen to bump into a bochur, you know just a bit more about the fellow beneath the fedora.

Two yeshivah students wrap tefillin with a Jewish man at the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy. The piazza was the site of a public burning of the Talmud in 1553. (Photo: Mordechai Lightstone)
Two yeshivah students wrap tefillin with a Jewish man at the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy. The piazza was the site of a public burning of the Talmud in 1553. (Photo: Mordechai Lightstone)