Yud Shevat (the tenth of the Hebrew month of Shevat) marks the anniversary of the passing of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn.
For Chassidim today, however, the primary significance of Yud Shevat is that it is the day on which the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, accepted the reigns of Chabad leadership 60 years ago.
In honor of 60 years the Avner Institute presents a vividly powerful description of a memorable event that took place in 770 over 40 years ago: the completion of the “Sefer Torah to Greet Moshiach,” commissioned by the Previous Rebbe in 1942, and finally completed on the eve of Yud Shevat, which that year also happened to be Erev Shabbos.
With special thanks to Rabbi Yossi Lew, Chabad emissary to Atlanta, Georgia, and Dean of the Atlanta Semicha Program.
The Rebbe Archive presents a unique collection of photos of this memorable event.
To receive letters and inspiring stories from the Avner Institute, email [email protected]
By Rabbi Yossi Lew
On Shabbos afternoon, always at 1:30 p.m., the Rebbe would begin the Farbrengen; on weeknights, 9:30. A half hour or so earlier, people would be hurrying, even rushing, towards 770 with hearts and minds full of expectations. Many hoped to get into their familiar places, surrounded by the familiar people next to whom they stood or sat for years. One would sit there for half an hour or an hour, studying something, or simply getting psyched, in anticipation of that particular time with the Rebbe.
The truth is, one can say the same thing about anytime one was going to spend with the Rebbe: There was always something to wait for in the Rebbe’s presence.
Was there drama? It would be foolish to suggest that the Rebbe was theatrical. But if dramatic means impressive, remarkable, or “royal,” the Rebbe was all of that and more.
One can just imagine, then, when there was, indeed, drama going on, when, for instance, the Rebbe was going to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, or dance on Simchas Torah. Or a Lag B’Omer parade, or the first night Shavuos, when, at 3:00 a.m., the Rebbe would come into the shul just to say a ma’amar, a Chassidic discourse (the last one took place in 1970) – these were highly dramatic times, which people would think about not just all day, but for some time before.
And this brings us to one of the most dramatic times – a truly unusual time with the Rebbe. It could easily be argued that this was the most dramatic time in all the years: the conclusion of “Moshiach’s Sefer Torah,” which took place on 9 Shevat 5730 (January 16, 1970).
I was unfortunately not present at then (I was too young). I vaguely remember the tumult, however, and my father’s departure for New York for a few days. Watching the video many times, hearing and learning the Rebbe’s talks, reading diaries and descriptions of that time, and speaking to those who were there, allows me to relive this moment. In order to best understand and appreciate this incredible time with the Rebbe, the following is necessary:
It is quite clear that the Previous Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, was fully aware of what was going on in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust, long before the full extent of it was known outside of Europe. One can just read the words he was saying, the letters he was writing, or other publications by Chabad during those days (such as Hakriah Vehakdusha), where one clearly sees references to the travails of golus (exile), the slaughter of Jews, and the urgency of getting people out. Most significant, however, was the push towards the redemption with Moshiach. The previous Rebbe regarded the worst destruction of the Jewish people, the Holocaust, as chevlei Moshiach, (the troubles predicted prior to Moshiach’s arrival) and the world’s need to prepare for Moshiach’s arrival.
On Simchas Torah evening 5702 (1941), in the year the Final Solution would be implemented – establishment of death camps throughout Poland, solidifying the wide-scale extermination of the Jewish people (may Heaven protect us) — the Previous Rebbe encouraged people to recite Tehillim (Psalms) and other holy words, for the purpose of “cleansing the atmosphere of the world.” At evening’s end, the Previous Rebbe chose to reveal something that he had until then kept secret: “I have the merit of representing the Jewish people in writing a special Sefer Torah, a ‘Kabbolas Penei Moshiach Sefer Torah,’ with which to greet the righteous Moshiach.” The Rebbe said not to delay, and to begin immediately.
Talk about drama. One can just imagine how that announcement galvanized those who were around. How far can Moshiach be already?
A committee was set up. Its members: Rabbi Simpson, Rabbi Shmuel Levitin and Rabbi Dovid Shifrin. Rabbi Samet, originally from Yerushalyim, was to be the Scribe. The Previous Rebbe wanted the parchment sent from Eretz Yisroel, but that proved to be too difficult and cost prohibitive due to the war. Because of the war, it was not so easy in the USA, either.
The Rebbe invited everyone to participate in this endeavor, since it was on behalf of the entire Jewish people. Yet the Rebbe paid for the whole thing from his own private funds. All the monies collected for this purpose were diverted to the institutions of Merkos and Machne Yisroel.
The starting of the writing was delayed, for some reason, till 2 Iyar. There was no fanfare. It was done quietly, with only Rabbi Simpson and the scribe present in the Rebbe’s room. The Rebbe himself filled in the first word of Breishis, after the scribe drew the outline of the word.
A l’chaim (toast) was held downstairs. Minchah (afternoon prayer) soon followed in the presence of the Previous Rebbe, after which he related how the Baal Shem Tov once instructed a town to write a Sefer Torah to stop the people from dying in a plague. The Rebbe concluded: The Jewish people need abundant mercy from the Almighty, so we are writing a Sefer Torah.
The Sefer Torah got as far as the parsha of Haazinu, towards the end of the Torah, pretty quickly. It did not even take a year.
But the conclusion ceremony did not happen. There was talk about doing it in 1947, and then in 1948, but nothing ever came of that for reasons we don’t know. The Previous Rebbe passed away in 1950. Until 1970 the whole project stalled.
As the twentieth anniversary of Yud Shevat closed early in 1970, a suggestion was made that it was time for Moshiach Sefer Torah to be completed. The current Rebbe declined to accept this proposal.
After returning from the Ohel on Wednesday, Erev Rosh Chodesh Shevat, the Rebbe suddenly said that whatever was preventing the Sefer Torah from being completed had been removed. The Rebbe then fixed the date for its completion: close to Yud Shevat, which fell that year on a Shabbos. No one knew exactly when the completion would be.
A frenzy gripped Lubavitch, Can you imagine, the siyum Sefer Torah of Moshiach’s Sefer Torah? Now, after all this years? All this could only mean one thing: Moshiach must be ready to come now! This is it!
The buzz going through Lubavitch was electric. The rest of the world began to hold its breath as well, watching and waiting with great anticipation.
At the Farbrengen on Shabbos Vayera, six days prior to the event, the Rebbe called on everyone to include as many people as possible in this major merit by purchasing a letter for one dollar. From Israel alone, about 100,000 names were collected. That was unbelievable, taking into account the shortness of time, the number of Lubavitchers those days, and the Israeli currency – one lira – that came with each name. Such was the inspiration of the world, not just of Lubavitch.
As the weekend drew close, the atmosphere became more charged. People streamed in towards New York and 770. Entire families came. Busloads rode in from Montreal, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and many more cities. No one would miss this event.
Except, no one quite knew when the events would transpire. No one knew, for example, when the Torah would be concluded. Would it be before Shabbos, when Yud Shevat fell? Or would it be at the Farbrengen on motzei Shabbos? Sunday? When?
After returning from the Ohel on Thursday, 8 Shevat, the Rebbe summoned the committee into his room and said that the siyum would take place the next day, as close as possible to Shabbos and Yud Shevat, after midday. The time set was the normal time for the Shabbos Farbrengens: 1:30 p.m.
An incredible feeling came over the people after this news: A special Farbrengen? Friday? Afternoon? Wow! This was unprecedented and unimagined.
How deep was this feeling? My father related that he had been unsure when to go the Previous Rebbe’s resting place at the Ohel. If Yud Shevat fell on Shabbos, does one go on Friday or on Sunday? So, he called Rabbi Yossel Wineberg to find out when he was going. Rabbi Weinberg replied, “The Ohel? The talk is that the Ohel is coming to 770!”
Golus was over; there’s no doubt about it.
As the Friday moved on, the excitement grew and grew. Stores closed early. By noon women had finished their Shabbos preparations. People got ready for Shabbos, not knowing what to expect, or what was going to happen, or how they were getting to Israel.
At 1:30 the Rebbe left his room. He was clutching a box in his hands, the contents of which no one knew. Rabbi Simpson, who was in the Rebbe’s room, took the Sefer Torah and waited for the Rebbe to leave. Since the Rebbe refused to go ahead of the Sefer Torah, Rabbi Simpson carried it forward, while the Rebbe followed closely behind.
The Torah was placed at the Rebbe’s right, on the Farbrengen table. The Rebbe placed the box on the left side of his seat. The Rebbe remained standing until the Sefer Torah was left on the table, after which he finally sat down.
The Rebbe began with a short sicha (discourse). Listening to this sicha today, one can hear the emotions even in the Rebbe’s voice and manner of speaking. It very much reflected the mood of all those present: slightly shaky, a somewhat higher pitch, and, at times, a hesitation or pause. One can feel what a major historical moment this was in the history of Lubavitch.
The sicha included the significance of twenty years (of the Previous Rebbe’s passing), and the appropriateness of concluding a Sefer Torah at this time, since Moshe, who passed away on a Shabbos, must have concluded the sifre Torah he wrote before his passing on a Friday.
And then something straight out of Heaven came tumbling forward: The Rebbe announced that at this juncture, it was appropriate to invite all of the Jewish people anywhere they may be!
A statement like that sent ripples of electricity throughout the assembled. Just listening to those words is enough to get one’s heart beating.
The Rebbe said that this invitation would come through the recitation of chapter 20 in Tehillim, where the posuk (verse) “Hashem Hoshioh (may G-d being salvation)” would include those (from Russia) who are “b’shivyoh (in captivity), uvetzoroh uvemotzor (and it trouble and confinement).” Although it was unusual to be reciting this chapter on a Friday afternoon, we were living in an unusually difficult time.
There was not a single person at that Farbrengen that didn’t “feel it.” One could almost hear everyone holding their breath on the recording. There was no doubt that this was something very special, “heavenly,” and there was a sense of responsibility for the task at hand, as the Rebbe was obviously trying to pull off something very big with the help of those privileged to be present.
Talk about drama. And this was only the beginning.
The Rebbe then invited Reb Shmuel Levitin, the “Elder Statesman” of the committee for the Sefer Torah, to lead the recitation of this chapter of Tehillim, verse by verse. The Rebbe stood up, opened his siddur (prayerbook), and pointed to the place, while Reb Shmuel began the opening words Lamnatzeach mizmor l’Dovid.
Reb Shmuel was a veteran Chassid who had been around three of the Lubavitcher Rebbes. He had seen a great amount of special times. There is no doubt, however, that this must have been a most incredible moment for him. One can hear in his trembling voice what must have been going through his mind. It took him a few verses to straighten himself out.
And the Rebbe continued pointing at his siddur, word by word.
During the first few verses, the crowd basically followed along. At first they sounded a bit anxious – confused, maybe, as they repeated the verses. It didn’t take long, though, for the crowd to get back to themselves. Voices, in unison, began to rise. By the time the final verse “Hashem Hoishioh” was said, a clear and deep emotional outburst was felt. People were basically screaming those words out.
My father told me that there could not be “Shma Yisroel, Boruch Shem,” or “Hashem Hu Ho’elokim” recited on Yom Kippur at neila (closing prayer) any more serious than this chapter of Tehillim, with the Rebbe himself presiding and basically leading it.
The Rebbe then sat back down, as those present were all shaken up – and instructed to sing the “Alter Rebbe’s Niggun (Melody).” How’s that for an encore?
After the niggun the Rebbe instructed the singing the songs of all the Chabad Rebbes – something usually reserved for the Rosh Hashanah Farbrengen. The Rebbe’s song was “Hoishioh Es Amecho.”
The singing at this occasion underscored the significance of this time. During the singing the Rebbe did not seem as if he were there; in fact, he looked almost uncomfortable, frequently shifting in his chair. For the most part, he faced either downwards – as it would be during the singing on Rosh Hashanah – or upwards; but the eyes had a faraway look about them. This look was captured well in a couple of pictures from this time.
Following the singing the Rebbe called over the scribe, Rabbi Shmaryoh Factor. The Rebbe rose and the scribe handed the Rebbe the quill, which the Rebbe returned to complete the last three words of the Torah, L’einei Kol Yisroel. While standing, the Rebbe never removed his and piercing eyes from the Torah.
The scribe then began to sew the final piece of the Torah’s parchment onto the wooden handles. While waiting for the ink to dry, the Rebbe instructed Rabbi Simpson to proceed with “Atoh Hor’eiso,” then to announce the person’s name, title, and country.
The Rebbe was honored with opening posuk, customary on Simchas Torah. Rabbi Simpson, reading from a prepared paper, then honored the Rebbe’s brother in law, the Rashag. Rabbi Hodakov, the Rebbe’s secretary, also pulled out a piece of paper with the names of those honored with the pesukim. The list of honorees had been obviously prepared by the Rebbe: Rabbi Shmuel Levitin; Rabbi Azriel Zelig Slonim, from Eretz Yisroel; R. Shlomo Madenchick, from Kfar Chabad; R. Shlomo Chayim Kesselman, from Kfar Chabad Yeshivah; Rabbi Simpson; R. Adin Steinsaltz (in the name of Israeli president Shazar); R’ Nissan Nemenov, of Paris; R. Binyomin Gorodetzky, of Europe and North Africa; R. B.Z. Shemtov, in the name of all those imprisoned in Russia; R Zalman Serebryanski, of Australia; the scribe, R. Shmaryoh Factor; R. Berel Baumgarten, of South America; R. Dovid Skolnick, who had recently left Russia (in the name of either those still in prison or the name of Georgian Jews); and R. Hodakov, of the committee.
The last posuk, Ki Mitzion, was given to the Rebbe, as usual. The Rebbe then instructed the singing of “Prozos Teshev Yerushalayim.”
The Sefer Torah was then closed. There was no hagboh (rewinding the Scroll), to the best of my knowledge. The Torah was simply lifted by R. Simpson, aided by R. Krinsky. Rabbi Meir Gurkov, a Chassid visiting from London, dressed the Torah.
This over, one of the more dramatic moments happened: the Rebbe went to the box, opened it, and, as the crowd held its breath, proceeded to pull out the crown, still wrapped in plastic.
It must be pointed out that until now in Lubavitch there were no crowns for any Torahs. The Rebbe removed the plastic, placed the crown in his hands, looked it over, then made his way towards the Sefer Torah and attempted to place the crown atop the Torah. The crown, though, did not quite fit. And so, the Rebbe kept his hands atop the crown for an extra few seconds, so it looked as though the Rebbe was blessing the Sefer Torah.
The Rebbe then took the Sefer Torah. A chuppah (wedding canopy) was somehow unfolded, and thus, under the chuppah, and to the tune of “Sisu V’Simchu,” the Rebbe carried Moshiach’s Sefer Torah to the aron kodesh (ark). The Rebbe then returned to his place, took up a date, made the blessing as well as the blessing of She’hechiyonu (recited over new fruit).
Wine was then poured and the Rebbe said l’chaim. He then led everyone into the song before the ma’amar. During these twenty minutes, the Rebbe discussed the significance of concluding a Sefer Torah, and how Moshe, who brought the Divine presence to this world, was credited with “finishing” things.
In a short sicha following afterwards, the Rebbe basically put to rest any thoughts about the Moshiach’s arrival right there. Although the action had now been completed after finishing the Torah, to our dismay, there would not be a “banquet” or a dinner, followed by an “installation” with “statements.” Instead, that Shabbos was still the yahrzeit of the Previous Rebbe.
Following the sicha the Rebbe sang “Tzomoh,” and then led the crowd into “Ani’im Zemiros.” Let me tell you, just listen to this rendition. One can hear the incredible emotions in both of those tunes pouring through the speakers. And then, with “Uforatzto,” the Rebbe stood up to leave.
It was 3:15 p.m. when the Rebbe left this incredible and historic Farbrengen.
At the Farbrengen of that Shabbos, the Rebbe spoke, among many other things, about the Rashi on the verse that discussed a child who will ask you “tomorrow” about the Exodus from Egypt. Rashi explains that “Yeish Mochor L’achar Z’man,” the word tomorrow could also mean “in later generations.”
From this Rashi the Rebbe explained a profound lesson: “Later generations” might be referring to the same time frame, but with people on different levels. And just like one had to deal with a child who was present in one’s life right now, one also had to deal with the child who was from a different “generation,” or persuasion. Even if communication was difficult, and “Ehr redt Terkish” (he speaks “Turkish”), it was the parent’s responsibility! And especially in this country, where the “Lachar Z’man” syndrome was most prevalent, looking after this child and taking care of him or her was most necessary.
There was a long Farbrengen on motzei Shabbos. The Rebbe, unusually, washed for challah, which meant that when the Farbrengen concluded, with bentching (blessing after meal) the Rebbe distributed “Kos Shel Bracha.” The Farbrengen was filled with references to the Sefer Torah, which clearly showed that this was a continuation of the Friday’s Farbrengen.
It is interesting to note that that motzei Shabbos Farbrengen was the first to be transmitted live outside of 770 through a phone line to Israel. This definitely began a new period of inspiration, in which the Rebbe’s message reached untold many more numbers, expanding the ranks and work of Lubavitch beyond compare.
One more thing. That was the Farbrengen on Chof (20) Shevat that year.
The Farbrengen was held after mincha (I believe at 3:30) and begun with a ma’amar, a continuation of the one recited Friday, 9 Shevat. The first sicha, basically a continuation to the theme on Yud Shevat, lasted for about half an hour, while the second sicha was about the events of the past 20 years.
During the first two sichos, the Rebbe spoke very fast, as many among the crowd were preparing to leave back to Israel, and some hadn’t even packed their bags yet. And the Farbrengen seemed to be going right along. People were on shpilkes (anxious), glancing at their watches, and the Rebbe, as usual, noticed everything.
The next sicha began with a story when the Rebbe once witnessed the Previous Rebbe, his father-in-law, shortly before an important trip to Moscow for communal activism. When the Rebbe asked how the Previous Rebbe could be so calm and focused, the latter replied that there was something called “Hatzlochoh in Z’man” – the ability to utilize every moment to its fullest, without allowing anything to distract. The commentator Rashba used to deliver three lectures a day, answer responsa, practice medicine, and take a walk every day. How did he manage this? By realizing that while occupied in a lecture, for example, there was nothing else in the world at that time.
And here came the point: the crowd was sitting and looking at the zaiger (watch), or they are halten zich ayn (trying to control themselves) from not looking at the zaiger – which, in and of itself, is also a distraction!
True, people had to fly away soon, and they still had to pack their bags, thank their hosts and families, and fallen oif di helzer (fall on the necks) to say “Sholom Aleichem” and “Aleichem Sholom,” and somewhere also to daven ma’ariv. But, then and there, they had to feel as though El-Al, and Kennedy Airport, were simply not there – just that we were presently in the territory of the Rebbe! Ober der oilom zitzt un kukt afen zaiger – but the crowd is sitting and looking and the clock! Therefore, said the Rebbe, he would be brief from here on.
The Rebbe added that once l’chaim is said on something of material substance (on a beverage like wine or other alcohol) the concepts discussed at that moment are drawn down to this physical world. Therefore the Rebbe wished to distribute something physical as well from this actual Farbrengen, so that when people returned they should be able to say that, together with the words, this physical drink hailed from this actual Farbrengen.
The Rebbe asked for all guests from Israel to come up first: Glitzenshtein from Jerusalem, then Madanchick from Kfar Chabad, Gopin from Kfar Chabad; Steinsaltz, shaliach (emissary) of President Shazar. Then for the yeshivoth there was “Volf,” “Tzach” (Reb Zusha Vilamovsky), and all those who had won raffles to come to New York; then Machane Yisroel, Nachalas Har Chabad – Yeruslavsky, Chevron, the Kosel, Lud (“Reb Efrayim’s zun”). The Rebbe then called representatives from Australia (Serebryanski), England, France, Morocco, Tunisia, Reb Yaakov (Peles) for Kiryat Gat, Canada, other places in the United States like Cleveland, Detroit; Raichick – Los Angeles; New Haven, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Rivkin (Zushe) for the restaurant; Manchester, UK.
Then the Rebbe said that since it began here, everyone should say l’chaim again.
After another sicha about the parsha, the Rebbe led everyone into the song “Hoishioh,” then “Prozos,” and almost immediately jumped up and started dancing.
What a sight, what a moment, what an amazing couple of weeks with the Rebbe!
Matan Torah only happened once. The Rebbe never attended another siyum Sefer Torah.