New York, NY — A new exhibit in the central Chabad-Lubavitch library in New York displays priceless manuscripts and handwritten notations by the successive Lubavitcher Rebbes and provides a rare public glimpse into some unknown aspects of the life of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory.
Inside the Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad-Lubavitch, adjacent to 770 Eastern Parkway, Rabbi Efrayim Keller, an archivist at the library, leads tours through the seven display cases gracing the walls and five additional glass cases scattered throughout the room, that make up the newest exhibit.
Part of a rotating series of exhibits – previous ones have featured first prints of the Talmud and pages of the very first known printed book, the commentary of the famous author Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki – the current display represents the first time original manuscripts written in the Rebbes’ own hands have been shown to the public. There is a volunteer fee for visitors to the library.
“The Mitteler Rebbe,” says the rabbi, referring to the second leader of Chabad, Rabbi DovBer, “was known to write extremely small and quickly.”
Pointing to a page of a book protected by thick glass, he explains: “If you look at the document, you can see the small letters. A hand-writing expert estimated that the text contained on one page would fill three pages in average handwriting.”
This particular book, says Keller, was housed in the Polish government’s archives until 1978. After World War II, authorities in Poland collected up many manuscripts left behind by Jews fleeing the Nazi onslaught. When the book was properly identified, it eventually made its way to New York in a story of extraordinary international intrigue, along with cases full of volumes belonging to Lubavitch.
Keller then gestures to the bottom left corner of the page, which contain the beginning of lines of script that apparently disappear into the surrounding space.
“The Mitteler Rebbe’s mind worked so fast and he wrote so quickly, that he continued to write on the table,” relates the rabbi. “Many of the pages are missing words.”
Stories Behind the Books
The Agudas Chassidei Chabad library is one of the largest private Jewish libraries in the world, possessing more than 250,000 individual volumes and tens of thousands of pages of manuscripts.
The institution’s chief librarian and archivist, Rabbi Shalom Ber Levine, who seems to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of every document and book in the library’s collection, points out details that an average visitor might miss. Like a calendar, written primarily in Hebrew but bearing headings in French, belonging to the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, who came to America after leaving Paris in 1941.
“In November 1940, the Rebbe was fleeing the Nazis during World War II,” explains Levine, who has authored and edited more than 30 books and compilations. Pointing to a certain set of calendar entries, Levine says, “If you take close look at these entries you can see where the Rebbe marked for himself the fasts of the Monday, Thursday and Monday – known as baha”b – after the holiday of Sukkot that year.”
Due to the “weakening of the generations,” the series of voluntary fasts following some major Jewish holidays are not observed nowadays. The calendar, though, confirms what had always been conveyed by word of mouth, that the Rebbe did keep these fasts. And he did it in the midst of war.
Levine picks up the story of the Rebbe’s arrival to the United States, detailing how his father-in-law, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, appointed him to direct the Chabad-Lubavitch publishing house. In this role, the future Rebbe edited, compiled and verified many books, despite the fact that most of the Chabad library lay scattered throughout war-torn Europe at that time.
In the quest to publish little-known Chabad texts, the Rebbe would go out of his way to track down a document or manuscript, says Levine, holding a copy of a book on Jewish law written by Rabbi Yehudah Leib, the brother of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe. In the 1940s, explains Levine, the original volume sat in the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“The Rebbe sat there and filled-in the missing paragraphs and sentences [of what he had] and corrected the printed text.”
Markings on other books on display show the Rebbe’s painstaking attention to detail when preparing new volumes for publication.
Further on in the exhibit, a collection of three volumes illustrates the tremendous dedication of the Rebbe’s parents. The books’ margins are filled with glosses on an array of Torah topics, in different colors of ink.
“This was the Rebbe’s father’s handwriting,” says Levine, referring to the esteemed Kabbalist Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, who died in 1944 in exile in Siberia. “It was written while he was in Soviet exile with ink that his wife, Rebbetzin Chana, made herself from grasses she painstakingly gathered in the fields.”