In recent weeks, thousands of people have received their brand-new sets of Toras Menachem, 60 Hebrew-language volumes of the teachings of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. An email sent to purchasers notified anyone picking their books up in person in Brooklyn, N.Y., that they ought to come with a car: the three boxes weigh in at a total of 122 pounds.

The books are a collection of the Rebbe’s talks and teachings, both formal and informal, which have been painstakingly collected, transcribed, translated, edited and footnoted over the last 25 years by the small team of scholars at Vaad Hanachos B’Lahak (Lahak). Volume One begins in 1950, the first entry during the shiva mourning period held following the passing of the Rebbe’s father-in-law and predecessor, the sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory. Volume 60 runs through the summer of 1970.

A year ago, Lahak, whose name literally translates as Committee of Transcribing into Hebrew, announced it would offer the entire set of 60 volumes for $440, or a third of the usual price. The rest, ultimately around $4.8 million, would be footed by donors. The declaration resulted in surge of orders, and during this year that will culminate this Shabbat, Gimmel Tammuz, corresponding to June 16—the 24th anniversary since the Rebbe’s passing in 1994—330,000 volumes of his talks and teachings, a number not including various other publishing projects, have rolled off the presses and straight onto kitchen or dining-room tables around the world—literally.

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The 60 volumes made their way to every state in the union. Thousands of books were sent to Australia, a land whose distance makes shipping boxes of books prohibitively expensive for most. In Russia, where books from abroad must still be reviewed by a government censor, the censors spent months going through a complete PDF before ultimately giving their stamp of approval. And in Europe, Paris became the designated distribution point, as rabbis and laypeople from Denmark to Italy to Spain flocked to stock their homes with the living waters of the Rebbe’s voluminous teachings.

Toras Menachem is as of yet still incomplete. There is a second half of the set, beginning with the Rebbe’s talks of the fall of 1981 and running through the winter of 1992, which clocks in at 43 volumes; additionally, a 61st volume of the first half has been released, and a 62nd will soon be ready. All told, the complete Toras Menachem now numbers 105 volumes and will ultimately include between 160 to 180 books.

Yet even the completed Toras Menachem is far from being the sum of the Rebbe’s vast Torah scholarship. Over the decades of his leadership, the Rebbe himself edited the 39 volumes of Likkutei Sichot, the 11-volume Sefer HaSichot, and the six-volume Maamarim Melukatim, among other works. What Toras Menachem ultimately aims to represent is the estimated 11,000 hours the Rebbe spent leading farbrengen gatherings over a period of 42 years. It is also the culmination of millions of combined hours spent by Chassidim memorizing the complete contents of the Rebbe’s Shabbat and holiday talks (when recording is prohibited by Jewish law), reviewing them for clarity, petitioning the Rebbe in writing when questions arose and transcribing their notes—a continuation of the unique process of transmitting the teachings of the leaders of Chabad-Lubavitch dating back almost 250 years.

In the past year, 330,000 volumes of Toras Menachem, encompassing the Rebbe's farbrengens from 1950 until the summer of 1970, were shipped to buyers worldwide. At a point, no Israeli printing house carried enough paper to fulfill the order; supplies had to be boated in from England. (Photo: Lahak)
In the past year, 330,000 volumes of Toras Menachem, encompassing the Rebbe's farbrengens from 1950 until the summer of 1970, were shipped to buyers worldwide. At a point, no Israeli printing house carried enough paper to fulfill the order; supplies had to be boated in from England. (Photo: Lahak)

The compilation of the first 60 volumes of Toras Menachem began in 1984 when Lahak, directed by Rabbi Chaim Shaul Brook, with the assistance of numerous yeshivah students, began collecting all available notes and recordings made of the Rebbe’s talks during the earlier years of his leadership, with the goal of editing and releasing them as complete volumes. It was a massive undertaking. The Rebbe’s range of Torah knowledge is legendary, and working on the material involved dozens of experts in every area of Jewish knowledge.

“It covers kol haTorah kulah—the entirety of Torah,” a harried Brook tells me in an interview. “Nigleh [the exoteric], nistar [the esoteric], Kabbalah, Zohar, midrashim, varied works of Chassidus, halachah; Talmud, the commentaries of Rashi and the Rambam, it’s all there.” He pulls up a PDF of a document he is working on, a transcript of 11 pages written by the Rebbe in the 1930s. “There are 461 source notes on this document. And that’s not including passages the Rebbe explicitly cites in the actual text.”

While Likkutei Sichot and Maamarim Melukatim, were rewritten and edited for publication under the Rebbe’s personal direction, they are also removed from the original form and context in which the Rebbe taught. Toras Menachem, by contrast, contains farbrengens in their entirety, so that the student is given a full account of the historic event in all its texture and richness, down to which songs were sung in between the talks. At these farbrengens, the Rebbe almost always connected the Torah he taught to the important issues of the day, ranging from Israel’s position in the world to education reform, the plight of Soviet Jewry, the women’s liberation movement, the role and responsibility of a Jewish writer, or the suicide of Howard Hughes.

“With the vast majority of Jewish scholars, they had specific focuses and areas of expertise, which are treated in relative isolation from each other,” explains Rabbi Eli Rubin, a research writer and editor at Chabad.org. “With the Rebbe, he covers the entire Torah and gamut of the human experience in one sitting. You can’t put the Rebbe’s farbrengens into a specific box. He moves seamlessly from a discussion of Maimonides’ legal code, to the mystical depths of the Zohar and Chassidic philosophy, to current events. He spoke about everything, elucidating whatever the topic was in the light of Torah. Even when he talks about current events, he is constantly invoking passages from across the Talmud and the entire Torah corpus. This is something that you see when you study Toras Menachem. You get the Rebbe’s view on the world around us, refracted through the lens of Torah.”

From left: Rabbi Chaim Shaul Brook, director of Lahak; Rabbi Dovid Feldman, its chief editor; and Rabbi Yoel Kahn, the Rebbe's chief chozer, in discussion at Lahak's office. (Photo: Lahak)
From left: Rabbi Chaim Shaul Brook, director of Lahak; Rabbi Dovid Feldman, its chief editor; and Rabbi Yoel Kahn, the Rebbe's chief chozer, in discussion at Lahak's office. (Photo: Lahak)

Transmission

As noted in two sweeping articles in the monthly A Chassidisher Derher magazine (“Retaining Chassidus,” Adar I and Adar II 5776/2016), the founder of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), did not write down his own teachings, following the precedent set by earlier generations of mystics. Neither did his primary student, the Maggid of Mezritch. But the Maggid’s students did set into writing their teacher’s words, chief among his transcribers being his youngest student, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who would go on to found the Chabad movement. It was he, when establishing his own court in White Russia and Lithuania following the passing of his master the Maggid, who established the official post of chozer, Hebrew for “repeater,” and maniach, or “transcriber.” With the exclusion of his opus, Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, known as the Alter Rebbe, also did not write down his Chassidic teachings, leaving the job of recording his work to the appointed chozer. During 34 years of his leadership, three individuals, including one of his brothers, held the position. With slight variations, the positions have remained much the same until today.

The Sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, addressing a Chassidic gathering in the early 1940s in Lakewood, N.J.
The Sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, addressing a Chassidic gathering in the early 1940s in Lakewood, N.J.

But recording the Rebbe’s teachings was never about memorization, although some of the scholars who held the positions undoubtedly did have photographic memories. The job was to fully grasp the Rebbe’s teaching—not only the words, but the ideas being communicated.

“Since every Rebbe had a unique style of teaching Torah,” explains the Derher, “it often took a different type of person to understand ... and [repeat] it. Just because someone was a chozer in one generation didn’t mean he could be a chozer for the new Rebbe.” While the Alter Rebbe’s maamarim, or discourses, were known for their compact depth, each word packing layers of meaning, his son and successor, Rabbi Dovber, taught in a much more expansive manner. One single discourse of his could stretch up to 12 hours, requiring a different type of intellect to comprehend and process.

On the other hand, in the days before widespread access to type, the maniach was required to have a “smooth pen,” putting down on paper the chozer’s expert reconstruction, thus recording the Rebbe’s oral teachings for posterity. Following the Alter Rebbe’s passing in 1812, this position faded in importance as every subsequent Rebbe began to pen their own Chassidic discourses, providing Chassidim with the text of the teaching as intended by the Rebbe himself. These texts were then copied, and disseminated far and wide. Partly due to Russian bans on the printing of Jewish books this led to a booming industry for the production and distribution of Chabad manuscripts, which can be found today in Judaica collections from Oxford to Jerusalem.

The Rebbe spent much time gathering notes that had been taken of the talks of his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak. Seen here is a transcript of a talk given by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak taken by an attendee, with edits in pencil made by the Rebbe. (Photo: A Chassidisher Derher)
The Rebbe spent much time gathering notes that had been taken of the talks of his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak. Seen here is a transcript of a talk given by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak taken by an attendee, with edits in pencil made by the Rebbe. (Photo: A Chassidisher Derher)

From the earliest days of the movement, Chassidim have been recording, explains Rabbi Michoel Seligson, a Chassidic scholar who authored the 1,600-page Sefer Hamaftechos LeSichos Kodesh, an exhaustive index of the Rebbe’s spoken word beginning from 1935. On the one hand, this was a byproduct of the Chassidic followers’ dedication and enthusiasm for their Rebbe’s teachings. Yet the Rebbes themselves most often led the way, each usually being most ardent about recording and disseminating theirown predecessor’s works.

“In Chabad specifically, the Rebbe taught us that everything should be documented,” says Seligson. “The Rebbe himself documented everything. He wrote diaries, he was passionate about the sixth Rebbe’s talks, always looking for the notes written by Chassidim who had been there, asking if they have any notes, memories, recordings, anything. There was an idea that everything should be written down and published.”

This devotion to recording everything—discourses, talks, everyday goings on—stands unique among other Chassidic, and even more broadly Jewish, communities, and has resulted in a paper trail documenting centuries of Chabad’s intellectual and social history in detail. This took on an added dimension under the Rebbe’s leadership, when he spearheaded the movement’s embrace of modern technology, ranging from radio to satellite television to the Internet. These methods were also used for the purpose of recording and documenting, and thus video and audio recordings, restored and published by Jewish Educational Media (JEM), play a vital role in reconstructing the past.

R' Yoel Kahn, left, can be seen reviewing notes of a farbrengen in an office at 770 in 1979. (Photo: JEM/The Living Archive)
R' Yoel Kahn, left, can be seen reviewing notes of a farbrengen in an office at 770 in 1979. (Photo: JEM/The Living Archive)

Cigarettes and Onion Paper

In February of 1950, a 20-year-old Soviet-born Israeli yeshivah student named Yoel Kahn arrived in New York. Having set off by boat from Israel 12 days earlier, he had not known that Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak had passed away even before his ship left the Haifa docks, learning of it first at customs on Ellis Island. Arriving at the central Chabad synagogue and yeshivah at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, he became acquainted with Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s younger son-in-law, who would a year later formally accept the position of Lubavitcher Rebbe. During the year that the Rebbe resisted the desperate entreaties of Chassidim, R’ Yoel—as Kahn has almost forever been known—began sitting at the Rebbe’s monthly Shabbat farbrengens, typing them up after sundown, and mailing copies to the Chabad communities in Israel and Europe.

On the first anniversary of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s passing, the Rebbe finally agreed to take on his father-in-law’s role and become the seventh leader of Chabad, teaching his first Chassidic discourse that evening. While previously Chassidim would have received a written version of the discourse in the days after the farbrengen, with this new Rebbe nothing was forthcoming. When R’ Yoel had a private audience with the Rebbe a week later, it became clear to him that the Rebbe would not be writing his own discourses, and expected the chozer and his team to hand in notes that the Rebbe would edit. R’ Yoel was appointed chief chozer, a position he has maintained ever since, guiding generations of young men in the art of repetition and transcription. In the earlier years he was also the maniach, the transcriber, typing away on reproducible onion paper in a room filled with cigarette smoke.

Rabbi Chaim Shaul Brook, director of Vaad Hanachos B'Lahak, shows an example of the type of tapes of the Rebbe's farbrengens that he and his team collected to help complete Toras Menachem.
Rabbi Chaim Shaul Brook, director of Vaad Hanachos B'Lahak, shows an example of the type of tapes of the Rebbe's farbrengens that he and his team collected to help complete Toras Menachem.

The process of transmitting the Rebbe’s teachings that developed was at once similar to and different than what had been done in previous generations. While the Rebbe was not writing on his own, he poured countless hours into the editing process.

“In those first years the Rebbe put an intense amount of work into editing his talks,” explains Brook, as he leafs through papers with margins heavily marked-up by the Rebbe’s pencil (the Rebbe always edited with a pencil). “You can see [from these transcriptions of talks with the Rebbe’s edits] that if the Rebbe would have just written it himself in the first place, it would have been a lot easier and would have taken him less time, no question about it. But he wanted to teach them how to write, derech arucha uketzara—the longer shorter way.”

In the 1970s, Rabbi Dovid Feldman, now the editor-in-chief of Lahak, became a chozer and began writing the Rebbe’s talks down in Hebrew (Lahak is an acronym for Lashon HaKodesh, i.e. Hebrew) while Rabbi Simon Jacobson did the same in Yiddish, published via Vaad Hanachos Hatemimim. Through the 1980s and into the early 1990s, the main job of these organizations was to disseminate the Rebbe’s increasingly frequent talks throughout the world. When the Rebbe’s farbrengen on Shabbat or a holiday ended, the process of chazzarah—reviewing—would begin immediately, with R’ Yoel leading it together with a team around him. At that chazzarah, multiple note-takers would record the repetition word for word, and by Tuesday, a full transcript of the Rebbe’s four- or five-hour-long Shabbat gathering—on special days they could last as long as eight or nine hours—was being sent by whatever mode of technology then available to every continent aside from Antartica.

Rabbi Dovid Feldman and Rabbi Yisroel Shimon Kalmenson (Photo: Lahak)
Rabbi Dovid Feldman and Rabbi Yisroel Shimon Kalmenson (Photo: Lahak)

On March 2, 1992, the Rebbe suffered a stroke while at Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s resting place. Suddenly, the flood of Torah and teachings that had issued forth from the Rebbe, who had increased the frequency of his talks the older he was getting, stopped. During that difficult time, the team at Lahak decided to double down on editing the Rebbe’s earlier works (which they had begun slowly two years earlier), copies of which had only been distributed and published in very informal ways. In 1985, two students had collected a vast compendium of the Rebbe’s talks, publishing the unedited typewritten pages in a massive collection titled Sichos Kodesh. While a major feat, the photocopied pages were rough and filled with mistakes—some as simple as misquoted Torah passages, others an inaccurate exposition of the Rebbe’s words and intent. These unedited notes were not fit to be published in any formal capacity.

Attendees at a farbrengen of the Rebbe held in October 1979 take personal notes of the contents of the Rebbe's talk. (Photo: JEM/The Living Archive)
Attendees at a farbrengen of the Rebbe held in October 1979 take personal notes of the contents of the Rebbe's talk. (Photo: JEM/The Living Archive)

Using Sichos Kodesh as a base, but knowing that there was much more out there, Lahak issued a call to anyone and everyone who might have a tape, copy, letter or personal transcription—called a hanachah—that they could contribute to help fill the gaps and elucidate the Rebbe’s words. Over time, they began receiving binders filled with handwritten notes that various students had taken while they were studying at the central yeshivah at 770. Some of the students had taken better notes, others less so; some wrote generally, others every detail, yet taken together they helped to form a more complete picture of what had actually been said. Seligson, for example, provided Lahak with his personal transcript of a discourse said by the Rebbe on the Shabbat of July 17, 1971. It ended up containing a sentence instrumental to understanding the discourse, one recorded nowhere else.

Chazarah, or repetition, following the Rebbe's farbrengen on Sept. 23, 1979. R' Yoel is in the center, elucidating a point, while to his right, taking notes, is Rabbi Dovid Feldman, today chief editor of Lahak. Chazzarah took place in the synagogue and was open to everyone. (Photo: JEM/The Living Archive)
Chazarah, or repetition, following the Rebbe's farbrengen on Sept. 23, 1979. R' Yoel is in the center, elucidating a point, while to his right, taking notes, is Rabbi Dovid Feldman, today chief editor of Lahak. Chazzarah took place in the synagogue and was open to everyone. (Photo: JEM/The Living Archive)

“We started collecting sichos and maamorim, anything and everything,” says Brook. “We dug in I don’t know how many places.”

Off his desk, he picks up three notebooks, three different transcriptions taken by three different people of one single farbrengen on a Shabbat in 1964. Picking up another one, he says, “Here he wrote 57 pages of one single farbrengen, Shavuos 1967, and it’s not the whole thing.”

It was not unusual for these students to have sent questions based on their notes in to the Rebbe, and the ones that received responses are obviously of particular value.

His team, which includes Feldman, Rabbis Yisroel Shimon Kalmenson, Hershel Notik, Aharon Leib Raskin, Menachem Mendel Kaplan and Chaim Eliezer Twersky, each work on this effort to reconstruct the Rebbe’s talks to the fullest possible degree, turning often to the venerable R’ Yoel, especially when they need elucidation or guidance. Toras Menachem is the end product, 62 volumes and counting, with roughly three new volumes being released each year.

Often, people would write to the Rebbe with questions regarding the content of his talk. In the above, the Rebbe gives his response. In the last line the questioner wrote, “I did not grasp this idea well.” The Rebbe circled the words “did not grasp” and wrote: “It was in your ability to take part in the chazzarah,” where it would have been discussed. (Photo: Lahak)
Often, people would write to the Rebbe with questions regarding the content of his talk. In the above, the Rebbe gives his response. In the last line the questioner wrote, “I did not grasp this idea well.” The Rebbe circled the words “did not grasp” and wrote: “It was in your ability to take part in the chazzarah,” where it would have been discussed. (Photo: Lahak)

Printing Books, Building Libraries

As anyone building a personal library can tell you, buying a massive new set of books can be prohibitively expensive, something Brook well knows. A year ago, he decided to try to do something about it. Working with donors who agreed to sponsor two-thirds of the cost, Brook arranged to print 2,000 sets of the 60 books and offer them to the public at the deep discount of $440 (around $7.50 a book). The price was limited to individuals—schools and libraries were excluded—three sets to a household. Lahak announced the sale in June of last year, saying it would run over the period of one month. They sold out all 2,000 sets, or 120,000 books, in 72 hours.

Brook was astounded. The orders had come streaming in, and from everywhere. Then came the phone calls and emails from individuals, especially parents, saying they hadn’t been able to make the purchase in time.

“A father called me and said his son had pulled out his entire $400 in savings to buy the Toras Menachem, and that he had added the last $40, but then the sale was over,” says Yisroel Zilbershtrom, Lahak’s project manager. “I can show you hundreds of emails. It was overwhelming!”

Brook turned 50 later that month and went to the Ohel, the Rebbe’s resting place in Queens, N.Y. There, considering the public’s reaction, he decided he would go for another round and attempt to get another 3,500 sets (about $3 million) subsidized by donors. Within a few months, he had the donors on board, and Lahak announced two more sales throughout the year, both of which sold out.

The sale was all pre-orders, meaning that once Lahak would have the one-third from customers, combined with the funds fronted by donors, they would be able to go to print. Lahak does its printing in Israel, and was suddenly faced with unexpected complications.

There are two halves of Toras Menachem: The first, above, is now approaching 62 volumes and runs from 1950 to 1971; the second, published contemporaneously, runs from the fall of 1981 until the winter of 1992.
There are two halves of Toras Menachem: The first, above, is now approaching 62 volumes and runs from 1950 to 1971; the second, published contemporaneously, runs from the fall of 1981 until the winter of 1992.

“They didn’t have enough paper,” says Zilbershtrom. Each volume averages 400 pages, thus at the time of the second printing, around 42 million sheets of paper were needed (the books are a combined 84 million pages) and not one print house in Israel had enough to complete the order. “We needed to order paper in England and send it to Israel by boat.”

But there were positive side effects, too. The excitement caused by the initial announcement caused a deluge of new notes and recordings of the Rebbe’s farbrengens to be sent to Lahak by individuals who might have been holding on to them for as much as half a century. Lahak’s editors went into overdrive reviewing the material, and where new material was discovered, adding it into Toras Menachem. All told, an additional 200 pages were added in the months between the pre-orders and the actual delivery of the books. For those who had purchased the books on their own as they were released over the years, Lahak compiled all the additions into one volume and sent it to them free of charge. In addition to the volumes in print, Lahak is in the process of uploading the entire Toras Menachem online—searchable by word, subject or date—giving access to the wealth of material even to those who are not able to purchase the set.

And the work of uncovering and finding lost recordings or transcripts of the Rebbe’s talks continues. Brook says that when he began in 1985, the content of 458 of the Rebbe’s 1,563 discourses were missing. Today, it is down to 44—43 of them dating to before 1968. Can they be found?

“Listen, when we came to 85, I said, ‘That’s it, we’re not going to find any more,’ ” says Brook. “Took a few years, and we found more.”

The precious notes might be enveloped in the old paper smell of a yellowing book, hiding at the bottom of a desk drawer, or buried in a basement shoebox, but there’s a team of people determined to find them and make their contents available to be studied and internalized the world over.