On Tevet 5, we celebrate the Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad - Ohel Yosef Yitzchak Lubavitch and its position as the communal treasure for all who value the teachings and ideals of Chabad Chassidism.

For decades, the library has been open to researchers as well as the general public, sharing its priceless collection of sacred books and artifacts. Led by Rabbi Shalom Dovber Levine, its staff has published hundreds of valuable books, meticulously researched and artfully laid out.

To celebrate, we present you with 11 treasures from the library, each of which presents another facet of Jewish history. These are not the oldest, most valuable, or even the most historically significant of the library’s vast collection, which contains parchment manuscripts that predate the printing press, writings of the master Kabbalists and the Baal Shem Tov’s own siddur with his handwritten notes. Rather they were selected because they show how our people have marshalled their faith and innate goodness to overcome whatever challenges came their way, even in the most difficult circumstances.

1. The Diaries of the Sixth Rebbe

Much of the library was collected by the sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, a prolific writer with a powerfully expressive pen who journaled throughout his life. Entries from his younger years often include teachings he heard from his father and elder Chassidim; others simply recount the events and experiences of the day.

Written over decades, they chronicle the terror and resolve of his time spent in Soviet prison, the highs and lows of his travels on behalf of Judaism, and more.

The entries from his last years are often brief, recounting his state of health and what he managed to write that day—primarily Chassidic discourses and replies to the hundreds of letters he received from around the world.

Through reading his journals, one gains a window into the life of a selfless leader who stood up to the communists, barely escaped the Nazis, and zealously endeavored to build Judaism in America.

2. Rebbetzin Chana’s Tehillim

Among the precious belongings Rebbetzim Chana brought to her husband was her Tehillim (Book of Psalms), from which he would pray for hours.
Among the precious belongings Rebbetzim Chana brought to her husband was her Tehillim (Book of Psalms), from which he would pray for hours.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, father of the Rebbe, was exiled for his fearless work on behalf of Jewish life in the Soviet Union. His wife, Rebbetzin Chana, soon joined him in the remote swampy village he had been forced to make home. Among the precious belongings she brought was her Tehillim (Book of Psalms), from which he would pray for hours.

In her diary, she recounts the time she fell ill with a mysterious illness. After the doctors left, her husband sat down at her bedside with the Tehillim, saying he would now “practice some medicine” of his own. “The tears poured from his eyes in rivers,” she recalled. “As I lay in bed, I could sense in his voice how heartbroken he was—his broken heart could have moved boulders. I believed then with perfect faith, as I believe now, that his recital of Psalms helped me recover from my sickness.”

3. The Broken Stick of Suffering

The annals of Chassidic history will forever remember the “brothers Schapiro,” grandsons of Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz and administrators of the Slavita publishing house, who were imprisoned because of accusations that they had printed books illegally and caused the death of a former employee.

After years of imprisonment, they were sentenced to 1,500 lashes and a lifetime of hard labor in Siberia. They suffered greatly on account of the lashes they received and were ultimately exonerated by Czar Alexander II.

A small Torah scroll that the brothers used during their incarceration was gifted to the Rebbe, who frequently held this scroll during services and danced with it on Simchat Torah.

The Rebbe was also given a walking stick that originally belonged to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, whose granddaughter was married to one of the brothers. The granddaughter took the stick with her and stood outside the prison where her husband was held. It was a muddy day, and she slipped, breaking the stick. She had the handle replaced, but the break can still be seen.

4. Vouching for a Wandering Collector

The Alter Rebbe was believed to have written many brief letters of introduction, vouching for destitute people collecting on behalf of their needy families. This is the only known surviving letter, in which he evokes the Talmudic teaching that “anyone who has compassion upon the creatures is subject to mercy from Heaven.”

5. Encouragement in the Face of Illness

This letter was written by Rabbi Dovber of Lubavitch, addressed to two brothers-in-law when the wife of one was suffering from a terrible illness. Despite the bleak prognosis, he encourages them to continue to pray and hope that G‑d heal her through the agency of medical care:

…I am greatly distressed from this evil thing, for it is a dangerous illness, and she needs great [Divine] mercy. Yet, they should not hold back from [praying for Divine] mercy. And [may] G‑d send His word and heal her, through the compound of such and such a healer, a skilled doctor etc.

6. When Jewish Clothing Was Forbidden

In the 1860s the Czar issued a decree forbidding Jews from dressing in the traditional manner. Long frocks, kippahs, and payos (sidelocks) were all forbidden.

In order for the Jews to acclimate themselves to the new law, for an interim period they were allowed to maintain their traditional dress as long as they paid a tax. When news of the impending law spread, the Jewish residents of Lubavitch scrambled to amass the sums needed.

In an effort to ascertain how much they would need to pay to exempt the entire village, and what forms they would need to fill out, three of the seven sons of the Tzemach Tzedek (the third Rebbe) wrote this letter to Rabbi Aaron Lipschitz, rabbi of Bilinitz, to learn how his community had dealt with the law.

7. On Behalf of a Missing Boy

The context of this brief, undated letter, written by Rabbi Nochum Dovber of Ovrutch, grandson of the Tzemach Tzedek, is not entirely clear. Addressed to R’ Yaakov Ayerov, he pleads that action be taken on behalf of a man whose son had been taken from him. One can perhaps speculate that the boy had been taken for a 25-year term of forced service in the Czar’s army, an ordeal which many did not survive.

8. Caring for the Poor of Lubavitch

In the poverty-stricken shtetls of Eastern Europe, many Jewish people survived largely due to the generosity of their (relatively) better-off brethren. There were often several societies (chevras), each devoted to providing another service.

This is the cover of the pinkas (charter) of the Chevra Malbish Arumim (“Dressers of the Unclothed”), founded in Lubavitch in 1860, which notes the dire need of the poor, particularly their children.

Each member of the charter—led by the Tzemach Tzedek and his sons—listed how much he would donate on a regular basis.

9. Letter Against Secularization of the Cheder

In 1910, a rabbinic conference took place in St. Petersburg. Rabbi Shmarya Leib Medalia was sent to represent the city of Vitebsk. The Jewish educators of his city composed and signed this letter for him to bring to the conference. In it, they lay out the challenges imposed by the government’s insistence that students be taught Russian language and secular subjects, which they felt impeded the students’ mastery of Jewish subjects and development as G‑d-fearing Jews.

Rabbi Medalia was eventually appointed Chief Rabbi of Moscow, a position he held until he was assassinated by the Soviets in 1938, an atrocity which was not acknowledged until the 1960s.

10. A Desperate Coded Letter from Nazi-Occupied Belorussia

As the Nazi inferno swept through Europe, Jews on both sides of the Atlantic tried desperately to maintain contact, and to help people escape the impending Holocaust.

This short letter was penned by Rabbi Leib Shenin, rabbi of the Belarussian town of Dokshitz, a bastion of Chabad Chassidism, to his friend, Rabbi Yochanan Gordon, erstwhile shochet of Dokshitz, who had since relocated to New York. Afraid to sign his own name, lest he attract undue attention from the Nazi censors, the rabbi wrote the letter under the guise of R’ Yochanan’s elderly uncle. In it he mentions his extreme “weakness,” and writes that he does not have enough to subsist on.

Understanding how dire the situation was, R’ Yochanan submitted Rabbi Shenin’s letter—along with a lengthy cover letter—to the previous Rebbe, noting that this was the first time he had heard from his friend since the outbreak of the war.

Tragically, R’ Leib was murdered by the Nazis along with (almost) all the Jews of his town.

11. Prayers for Jews in the Holocaust

As word of the atrocities in Europe reached America, several requests were written to the sixth Rebbe, formally asking him to pray on behalf of European Jewry. Virtually all of the signers of this petition (like the Rebbe himself) had close relatives, friends, and loved ones in Europe, whose fate was yet unknown.