Date: Hei Teves” — 5 Tevet, 5747 (Jan. 6, 1987)

Place: Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Time: 11:30 a.m.

“I was in the dining room at the yeshivah when word came that the judge ruled in our favor. We quickly raced up Kingston Avenue, where we joined friends who had already broken into instantaneous dance. It is impossible to describe the feeling of pure joy that we experienced on that day. Never in my life have I experienced such simchah.”

-- Rabbi Mordechai Glazman, today the regional director of Chabad Lubavitch in Latvia

The jubilance radiating from the faces of Chassidim, dancing shoulder to shoulder in an ever-growing circle, seemed to fuse the ecstasy of Simchat Torah, the joy of Purim and the fervor of Yud Tes Kislev into one exuberant celebration of that morning’s historic court ruling.

As Chassidim spilled out of the Kingston Avenue subway stop and airport taxis into the throng of celebrants outside of 770 Eastern Parkway, and schoolchildren streamed there from throughout the neighborhood, it was clear that a milestone of extraordinary proportions was unfolding in real time.

What was it all about?

In conventional thinking, a U.S. federal court isn’t where the 250-year journey of the Chassidic movement would find a climactic peak. Then again, what about Lubavitch is conventional?

The Challenge

It was the winter of 1985 when librarians at the Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad—the Hebrew-language name for the umbrella organization of Chabad-Lubavitch—noticed that rare books were going missing from the archive collection, one of the world’s largest repositories of rare Jewish manuscripts and printed books.

Surveillance cameras eventually yielded the unfortunate reality: The estranged grandson of the Sixth Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory—was surreptitiously taking the books. (He later claimed that they belonged to him as a family inheritance.) Rare-book collectors across the globe were soon reporting a suspicious selection of books suddenly on the market.

Attempts at rabbinic mediation and arbitration failed, with the defendant’s refusal to submit to a beit din (rabbinic court). Seeking to prevent further theft, Agudas Chassidei Chabad secured a restraining order against any additional sale of the books. The matter was eventually referred to trial, to be presided over by Judge Charles Sifton at the U.S. Federal Court Eastern District.

*

As the saga unfolded, it became apparent to the community at large that the issue was not merely a challenge to ownership of the library, but pivoted on such essential matters as the very definition of Jewish leadership, from the times of Moses to the Rebbe today.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn—the Previous Rebbe, of righteous memory—in his younger years.
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn—the Previous Rebbe, of righteous memory—in his younger years.

These important questions included:

● Does a leader like the Rebbe have a private life of his own—and his possessions are thus personal assets transferable as an inheritable possession to family heirs—or, as a servant of G‑d, does he belong to and is utterly inseparable from the very people he was designated to lead, thus leaving over no part of himself for himself?

● Is the life of a departed Rebbe relegated to the past and no longer relevant to the present, or does it continue with full—and even greater—vitality after his passing, literally embodied in his teachings and instructions and their fulfillment by his followers and beneficiaries in this earthly realm?

● For that matter, what constitutes the life of a Rebbe altogether, even during his physical lifetime on earth? Is it his physical and material life? Or is it his spiritual life and his complete devotion to G‑d and to all of humankind?

● Might a Rebbe, for the sake of worthy ends—say, to save a treasured library—act duplicitously, or, when a Rebbe declares something—in this case, that the library belongs to Agudas Chassidei Chabad and to the entire Jewish people, is it undoubtedly an expression of his true position?

These existential and interconnected questions, whose answers flow from Judaism’s historical roots in the Divine Revelation narrative of Torah’s transmission from Sinai onward, fittingly revolved around the ownership of holy books.

Torah—the lifeblood of the Jewish people—has been the thread of connection between G‑d and His people since they stood at Sinai to receive it. And at the heart of Torah’s transmission stands Moses, faithful servant of G‑d and His people (and the very first Rebbe), for whom the Torah is named (“Torat Moshe”).

As Moses did in his transmission of Torah, each generation’s leader infuses Divine inspiration into his oral and written Torah teachings, serving as a conduit to and from the G‑dly revelation at Sinai.

When disciples in subsequent generations study and absorb these teachings, the teachings are as alive and vibrant as when first emitted by the leader’s own mouth and pen, and serve as lasting tangible extensions of the leader’s holy life.

Thus, dissembling the Sixth Rebbe’s library and selling it off piece by piece to the highest bidder was considered by Chassidim to be:

● a violation of its ownership by Agudas Chassidei Chabad on behalf of the entire Jewish people;

● a direct challenge to the veracity of the Sixth Rebbe’s own declaration of said ownership;

● an expression of complete disregard for the Sixth Rebbe’s selfless, lifelong devotion to his Chassidim and the entire Jewish people;

● a complete abnegation of the righteous man’s everlasting mark on this world and of his movement’s lasting vibrancy;

and, upon appreciating that his very life was vested in his library,

● equivalent to tearing apart the Sixth Rebbe’s very life—as manifest in his books and manuscripts—piece by painful piece.

Small wonder that the entire matter was considered with such gravity by Chassidim, as well as many others steeped in Torah and Jewish history.

*

Appreciating that nothing in life should be considered happenstance, and that every challenge on this world emanates from spiritual challenges in the “worlds above,” an additional but related challenge was the opposition’s expressed assertion that Agudas Chassidei Chabad and, by extension, the entire movement, was no longer “active.”

Despite how inscrutable this statement was, the reaction of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries worldwide was to to redouble their educational and outreach activities manifold.

Further reflecting the gravity with which the movement considered the case and what was at stake, schoolchildren, yeshivah students and hoary elders alike increased in their personal prayers, their learning and the performance of good deeds, in a collective effort to elicit G‑d’s blessings from On High for the success and continuity of Chassidism and its everlasting leadership by its holy Rebbes.

*

Appreciating more than anyone else possibly could what was truly at stake, both for that time and for well into the future, the ordeal took an excruciatingly painful toll on the Rebbe. The very notion that his father-in-law, his Rebbe—and his holy books and very life, which was one entity with those books—had been torn asunder caused him unbearable anguish. And it moved the Chassidim in ways that the generation of Chabad “born in America” had never felt before.

The Trial

Date: Last day of trial (December 1985)

Place: U.S. Eastern District Court

Time: 11:30 a.m.

Judge Sifton requests to see excerpts of the videotaped deposition of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, granddaughter of Fifth Rebbe Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn, daughter of Sixth Rebbe Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn and spouse of the Seventh Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.

A television screen is brought into the courtroom and placed on the judge’s desk facing him.

For some 20 minutes, Judge Sifton sits transfixed to the screen, while the Rebbetzin’s soft but assuring voice permeates through the courtroom. Finally, at the very end, the following exchange played before the judge:

Q: To your knowledge, in terms of your mind, the books [. . .] the library [. . .] did they belong to your father or did they belong to the Chassidim?

A: I think they belonged to the Chassidim because my father belonged to the Chassidim.

Visibly moved, Sifton, in the only expression of personal reaction he uttered during the entire duration of the proceedings, says, part to himself and part to the assembled: “Remarkable!”

(The defendant’s lawyers subsequently object to the admission of this testimony on technical grounds, which the judge accepted. But the deep impact of the Rebbetzin’s words were evident to all.)

*

The battle for the very soul of Chassidism and the future of its enduring presence as the pumping heart of the Jewish people, was set to manifest itself in full force in the legal minutiae of a case ostensibly about precious book ownership, to be heard in the U.S. federal court system before a judge not schooled in the finer points of mystical philosophy. Much had to be done to prepare.

Agudas Chassidei Chabad’s attorneys wished to establish irrefutably that among Chassidim, in general, and Chabad adherents, in particular, it was unthinkable for Rebbes to spend communal funds on personal property; specifically, to collect a private library for personal gain.

The fall of 1985 saw much activity related to gathering evidence and the requisite depositions. The Rebbetzin, whose knowledge of Chabad dynastic history, and especially that of her own father, was the most extensive of anyone, was grilled for three hours.

Agudas Chassidei Chabad Library chief librarian Rabbi Sholom DovBer Levine and his colleagues sifted through hundreds of thousands of archival documents. By late autumn, Chabad had compiled thick dossiers demonstrating that the Sixth Rebbe had publicly appealed for book donations to Chabad (rather than himself) in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, and that book purchases had been made out of several of Chabad’s organizational accounts rather than personal funds. The movement also found evidence that books continued to be bought for the library in the name of Chabad even after the his passing in 1950.

After this preparation, attorneys Nathan Lewin and Jerome Shestack were given the opportunity to consult with the Rebbe. At the meeting, the Rebbe pointed to the Sixth Rebbe’s 1946 letter to Dr. Alexander Marks of the Jewish Theological Seminary as a crucial piece of evidence, constituting a clear and unequivocal statement that the books were a treasure of the Jewish people at large and not a private possession. The Rebbe recommended that it become a prominent part of their legal argument.

Witnesses selected for the case included celebrated author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, and such renowned scholars of Jewish studies as Toronto’s Immanuel Schochet and London’s Dr. Louis Jacobs. Another key line of argument was to show that Agudas Chassidei Chabad had been an active organization since the mid-1920s, and that the books were its legal possession.

Once the 23-day trial got underway—providentially, Chassidim pointed out, on the 19th of Kislev, the very date of the first Chabad Rebbe’s public deliverance in Czarist times from trumped-up charges about the veracity of Chassidim—the expert witnesses were called to testify about the inseparable bond between the Rebbe and Chassidim, the actual composition of the library, and the successive Rebbes’ relationships with it during its evolution over seven generations of Chabad.

Throughout the duration of the trial, the Rebbe traveled every day to his predecessor’s resting place, spending the day in freezing weather fasting and praying.

Elder Chassidim—like towering Talmudic scholar and rosh yeshivah Rabbi Mordechai Mentlik—traveled to the courthouse daily to closely follow the proceedings and demonstrate their concern. They were joined by dozens of their younger compatriots, who held lotteries for a chance at one of the relatively few open seats.

Elie Wiesel testified to the court about the subtleties of the Chassid-Rebbe relationship:

“It is not the Rebbe who chooses the Chassid; it is the Chassid who chooses the Rebbe,” Wiesel explained. “But once that choice is made, it is boundless. It is total, total loyalty. [T]herefore, the Rebbe owes the Chassid total loyalty. So, the Rebbe must have for the community [not only] total loyalty, but total generosity [and] compassion. Even more, [he must have] total responsibility. That’s why he is a Rebbe.”

Wiesel further emphasized that Chabad Chassidic life decisively rejects the notion that the Rebbes may acquire personal wealth as a sign of their unique status.

But more than any other, it was the Rebbetzin’s videotaped testimony that left an indelible mark on the court. The Rebbetzin’s declaration that her father and his books belonged to Chassidim brilliantly and succinctly summed up all the delicate theological and philosophical issues, articulating them in a manner never before expressed, and characteristically packaging it all with disarming humility.


The Ruling

Date: “Hei Teves” — 5 Tevet, 5747 (Jan. 6, 1987)

Place: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Time: 12:30 p.m.

“I received the call before 11:30 a.m. from our attorney, Mr. Jerry Shestack, that the court’s ruling was waiting for us at the judge’s office,” reads the diary of Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the Rebbe’s secretary, who together with Rabbi Avraham Shemtov had been appointed by the Rebbe to oversee the case.

“I set out posthaste to the courthouse to pick up the judgement and, upon doing so, immediately called from the car to transmit to the Rebbe, and then to tell the Rebbetzin, that, thank G‑d, ‘Didan Notzach!’ ”

*

“Didan Notzach”—lit., “We are (or: “ours is”) victorious”—is a quote from the Talmudic-era Midrash describing a struggle by the forces of good against the challenges around them. The words had been adopted and even sung by Chabad Chassidim throughout the previous year as the encouraging message from Torah that by focusing on its responsibility to spread the love of G‑d and fellow humankind worldwide, the movement would overcome this immense challenge to its very foundation.

On that fateful day, by the grace of G‑d, this had finally come to be.

The New York Times summed up the decision thusly:

To a large extent, the decision turns on what the judge calls “one extraordinary letter” from Rabbi Joseph Schneerson, the sixth rebbe, to an American scholar, Dr. Alexander Marks, the former head of the library at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The letter was written in 1946 as part of the rabbi’s effort to get the library out of Poland. Leaving the books behind, the rabbi had fled the Nazis six years earlier and set up a new Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn.

“I turn to you with a great request,” Dr. Schneerson [sic] wrote, “that as a renowned authority on the subject, you should please write a letter to the State Department to testify on the great value of these manuscripts and books for the Jewish people in general and particularly for the Jewish community of the United States to whom this great possession belongs.”

Lawyers for [the defendant] characterized the letter as “duplicitous and of a piece with the wartime letters in German intended to be read by the Nazi censor,” according to the judge.

But Judge Sifton rejected the argument. “Not only does the letter, even in translation, ring with feeling and sincerity,” he wrote, “it does not make much sense that a man of the character of the Sixth Rebbe would, in the circumstances, mean something different than what he says, that the library was to be delivered to plaintiff for the benefit of the community.”

The Times further reports:

The ruling was received with joy on the streets in front of the headquarters of the plaintiff, the Lubavitch movement, at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Hasidic men in traditional black garb danced in circles to the music of a klezmer band.

To Chassidim worldwide, the message from the secular court was unambiguous: The court affirmed the unique character of a Rebbe, the unbreakable spiritual ties between the Rebbe and Chassidim and the Torah books that connect them, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s vitality and continuity, and, ultimately, the unique everlasting nature of the Rebbes’ lives as vested in their teachings and directives.

From London to Paris, from Jerusalem to Los Angeles, and many places in between, the relief was palpable. “Didan Notzach! Didan Notzach” the Midrashic message of confidence in the power of holiness to prevail reverberated in soaring song and dance.

*

World-famous Jewish guitarist and songwriter Yosi Piamenta was among the euphoric Chassidim heralding the judgement in favor of the Lubavitch movement. Instinctively, he came running to 770 with his musical ensemble and set it up on the lawn outside 770 to accompany the singing and dancing that was gaining increasing momentum.



The Lesson

Date: “Hei Teves” — 5 Teves 5747 (Jan. 6, 1987)

Place: 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Time: 3:15 p.m.

Word suddenly spread through the crowds outside that, in conduct normally followed only during the High Holiday season when 770 was packed with visitors, due to the large amount of people who had assembled today, the regular weekday afternoon service would take place downstairs in the Main Synagogue.

Thousands streamed downstairs into the large hall, continuing to sing “Didan Notzach, Didan Notzach,” but with greater intensity, in anticipation of the Rebbe’s imminent arrival to the synagogue hall for the 3:15 p.m. Minchah service.

When the Rebbe entered the synagogue’s back door from his upstairs office, Chassidim’s festive singing reached a crescendo, all their angst and concern from the past year transformed into joy. As was his custom before each prayer, as the Rebbe made his way to the front of the shul, he stopped to personally hand a coin to every child to give to charity.

Though the Chassidim’s celebration charged that afternoon’s Minchah service with an atmosphere more reminiscent of Simchat Torah eve than a mid-January afternoon, the Rebbe himself did not visibly join or even encourage the exuberant celebration.

Upon conclusion of the service, the Rebbe turned from his place of prayer to his podium and shared a special talk, drawing inspiration from that day’s Torah portion.

*

The Rebbe spoke about that day’s daily study portion—about the dramatic story of Joseph, the viceroy of Egypt, revealing his identity to his brothers who had sold him into slavery 22 years earlier. Sensing their fear that Joseph might now exact revenge from them for their treacherous deed, he puts them at ease with his famous words of reassurance, as quoted in the Torah:

“And now, it was not you who sent me here [to slavery and Egypt], rather it was G‑d [who sent me so that I could provide for you later on when there would be a drought in the land].”

The lesson, the Rebbe said, is quite clear:

When Jews find themselves in an undesirable situation, even after it has passed and they are relieved from the challenge (like Joseph and his brothers once they had been reunited), they must remember—and remind others—that the experience was not a coincidence, G‑d forbid, but by Heavenly design, to achieve a purpose for which G‑d put them in that situation in the first place.

Alluding to Chabad’s foundational “Yud Tes Kislev” celebration whence the Alter Rebbe derived a lesson of growth and expansion from challenges—both on our material plain, as well as in the heavenly abode—to his work of spreading Chassidism, we, too, the Rebbe said, must learn from those who disputed the movement’s veracity by increasing the work manifold.

So while some claimed that Lubavitch is “not active” (despite the obvious quantum growth that the movement had seen across the globe in the 35 years since the Sixth Rebbe’s arrival to America in 1940), we, the Rebbe said, must still learn and apply lessons from these claims to our lives, and commit ourselves to growing and expanding even more the actualization of our generation’s mandate to make this world a dwelling place for G‑d.

Restoring the Spirit

Date: Thursday, 7 Teves 5747 (Jan. 8, 1987)

Place: 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Time: 2:00 p.m.

It is now two days after the dramatic court ruling and, as hundreds of Chassidim watch from the side, the Rebbe exits the door of 770 to his car waiting in the driveway, where he is about to depart to the Ohel—the resting place of his father-in-law and predecessor, the Sixth Rebbe.

In his hands, he carries two very large (and heavy) paper bags filled to the top with panim—prayer petitions from people all over the world—and is followed by aides who place an additional 12 such sacks into the car. Throughout his time praying at the Ohel today, many additional sacks are brought to the Rebbe.

After evening services the night before, the Rebbe said that the time was now fortuitous for blessing, and that he would be happy to take all names for prayer for anyone who sent them to his office to be placed at the resting place of the Sixth Rebbe. (The Rebbe went further to say that one need not be embarrassed to write whatever he or she desires, as he would not read it and simply place them at the Ohel.) During the next 14 or so hours, newly acquired fax machines within a 25-mile radius from 770 were mobilized for “round the clock” sending of blessing requests by Jews from all over the world.

As a New York Police Department escort blared a path through the busy traffic for the Rebbe’s car, Chassidim begin to realize that at the heart of the celebration of Hei Teves is a reality of the everlasting “nature” of holiness that transcends the confines of time, space and spirit.

*

The spontaneous joy of that afternoon in 1987 has turned into an annual celebration.

As I write this in 2017 (5777), 30 years after the original court victory and more than two decades since our generation has been left bereft of the Rebbe’s physical presence, the fifth of Teves has become a special day on the Chassidic calendar, and despite the unbelievable pain of the Rebbe’s passing, not only has the commemoration continued over the years, it has in fact taken on a whole new meaning.

*

On that first Hei Teves afternoon, the Rebbe concluded his teaching by citing the closing verses of that day’s Torah portion, when Jacob, back at home in the land of Canaan, received the great news that his son Joseph, for whom he had been mourning for years under the impression that he had died, was actually alive. Then, upon seeing the wagons Joseph sent him, which carried his long-lost son’s symbolic message that not only was he alive in the physical sense, but he had remained faithful to the teachings of Jacob and his forebearers, the verse concludes, “and the spirit of their father Jacob was restored (or, lit., enlivened).”

Why was Jacob’s spirit restored only upon seeing his son’s adherence to the path he taught him?

The Rebbe connected this seamlessly with an idea he had expounded upon times earlier that year, that of the Talmud’s declaration (on a later Torah portion) that “Jacob our forefather did not die” because “just as his children are alive, so, too, is he alive.”

(In earlier talks, the Rebbe expounded on the profound implications of Jacob being “alive” and applied the same principle to the Sixth Rebbe: The Rebbe’s very life even when he was physically alive in body, was entirely devoted exclusively to the study and dissemination of Torah and the love and fear of G‑d that it inspires in his students, and his very work in that regard is continuing now after his passing in even greater measure. As such, the Rebbe said, “he is alive!”)

In similar fashion, when Jacob’s life lost its vitality after suffering the loss of his son, it was the recognition that his child was spiritually “alive” that restored his grieving spirit and made him “alive” once again.

[The Rebbe characteristically drew this lofty concept into specific actionable expressions to increase goodness and holiness in the world. It’s cited in part in next section.]

This idea reverberates louder for me now than when the Rebbe first taught it.

*

In hindsight: the entire experience of Hei Teves and the year of pain leading up to it gaveand gives!new depth to the concept of the everlasting life of a selflessly devoted tzaddik and leader like the Rebbe, and the great responsibility and merit our entire generation has to “restore his spirit” by living and emulating his teachings.

Harking back to the Rebbe’s Hei Teves prayers at his father-in-law’s resting place, the experience also adds many layers of depth and vitality to the experience of visiting the Rebbe’s Ohel and praying to G‑d there. Far from being a morbid place, it is very much vital and alive—a place for personal and communal blessing and guidance.

The Marching Orders

Date: Monday, 11 Teves 5747 (Jan. 12, 1987)

Place: 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Time: 5:30 p.m.

A full week of celebration has passed.

Yesterday, in his Sunday afternoon talk for the 10th of Tevet fast, the Rebbe thanked the many who had traveled far and wide to celebrate, and encouraged further expansion of Chabad’s work. Additionally, the Rebbe urged every individual to similarly turn their homes into “Chabad Houses”—welcoming centers of spreading Torah and mitzvot, and further encouraged every child to similarly transform their own bedroom into places of holy activity (see below).

The Rebbe’s talk today took a noticeably inward turn, transforming the zest and passion of the previous week’s celebration into an internal vision for every Chassid, to be held accountable for their own personal study of Torah and spiritual growth.

By late that evening, the nightly circles of dancing and celebration were replaced with study groups of profound Talmudic debate, and circles of students deep in immersion of Chassidic texts.

The Rebbe’s evening talk was a direct call for transformation—and transform it did. A transformation beginning from the thematic words of the week, “Didan Notzach.”

*

The words “Didan Notzach” come from an enigmatic Midrash that refers to a Jewish community overcoming an “evil spirit,” which the Rebbe used as a paradigm for the Yetzer Hara, the evil inclination that each one of us struggles with personally.

To succeed in that struggle—the personal struggle that we each face every day of the year—we need to remember that, like Joseph’s last moments with his father, it was around texts of Torah that the saga began, and it is through the personal study of these Torah texts that the celebration of victory will remain eternally and personally relevant.

And so, as the Rebbe explained, the celebration must always create as much personal transformation in our own lives as it does for us as a community. We must never get caught up in an abstract collective responsibility—or celebration, for that matter—to the point of forgetting that it must all begin with the personal responsibility we carry for our own selves.


So for this year’s celebration of “Didan Notzach,” let’s not only say l’chaim to celebrate “our” collective victory. Let’s each start a new daily lesson in the texts of Torah—from Sinai to smartphone—to make sure it’s “my” own victory, too. Here are some suggestions, adapted from the Rebbe’s own directives or conduct of the time:

1. Build Up: It was not a coincidence that this victory happened around Torah books.We must use this opportunity to buy Jewish books and build up individual collections of holy books.

The online Kehot bookstore offers special sales during the Hei Teves season to motivate the growth of our own personal libraries.

2. Spread Out: The era of Hei Teves marked a new era on the Rebbe’s urging of expanding the global network of “Chabad Houses.”

The Rebbe also emphasized how every Jewish individual could and should establish their personal home as a “Chabad House”—a warm and welcoming place that fosters Torah and Yiddishkeit. Today is the perfect time to set up your personal “Beis Chabad,” spreading the light of Torah and mitzvot to your family and surroundings.

3. Reach In: The Talmud’s declaration that hu bachayim (“he is alive”) is interwoven with the reality that zaro ba’chayim (“his children are alive”). “Children” in this case broadly connotes anyone who benefits from the Rebbe’s teachings, and the immense outreach activities he modeled and set into motion.

This day is an auspicious time to reach into our inner soul, infuse it with the life of Torah, and especially the extraordinary teachings and directives of our dear Rebbe to our entire generation.

It is surely opportune and advisable to utilize the vitality of this time to visit the Rebbe’s resting place in person or to send one’s prayer requests by email or fax to be placed there, thus restoring our own spirit together with the Rebbe, who lives on “in us, with us and through us.”


With images supplied by the Chassidisher Derher Magazine.