Weekly Story: The Histalkus of the Rebbe Rashab

by Rabbi Sholom DovBer Avtzon

As today, (Friday), Beis Nissan is the centennial (100) year of the histalkus of the Rebbe Rashab, as well as the day the Frierdiker Rebbe became Rebbe, I am posting the chapter on his histalkus from my upcoming biography on the Rebbe Rashab. Presently, it is over 580 pages (and will be bezras Hashem approximately 625 pages).

Your feedback is always appreciated. I thank those who have partnered in this undertaking, if you wish to join them, please contact me.

Being that we all will farbreng on this momentous day, let us keep in mind the statement of the Alter Rebbe that a chassidishe farbrengen can accomplish more than malach Michoel can, and bless all those that need a brocha especially in these trying days, their tefillos should be accepted. Those that need a healing should be healed, those who are healthy should remain healthy, and those that are lacking should no longer lack.

May we indeed witness the saying of our sages, The Jews were redeemed in the month of Nissan, and they will be redeemed in Nissan. Let it be this Nissan, with the coming of Moshiach Tzidkeinu. Speedily in our days.

As the Russian revolution continued, various factions tried to take control of the country. So even after Czar Nicholas II was deposed and assassinated, the war continued between these factions.[1] Rostov was one of the cities that became contested, being controlled by one faction only for them to be thrown out some time later by another one. This went on until the Communists solidified their control over the city (and ultimitely over the entire country) in 5680 (1920).

In order to maintain their grip, the Communists enacted strict regulations on the townspeople. One of the main rules was that it was illegal for any three people who were not family to gather together. Anyone doing so would be charged with counter-revolutionary activity and would be subjected to interrogation by a secret tribunal (which normally meant automatic conviction).

Mindful of the dangers that holding a public farbrengen posed to all those who would be present, the Rebbe Rashab let it be known to the chassidim that from then on,[2] they were not to come to his house to hear the maamorim. Instead, he would say them in the presence of the small number of people who were permitted to stay in his house.

Although this was extremely painful for the chassidim, they all understood the danger involved and kept away. However, the following month, on Purim, they could not bear staying away any longer.[3] Each one thought that everyone else would continue to stay away, and figured that one extra person in the house wouldn’t be that terrible. So on Purim afternoon (which occurred that year on Tuesday), one by one they all came to the Rebbe’s house, and were shocked to see that everyone else had also had the same idea.

Everyone thought that the farbrengen, which began at six-thirty, would only last for a short time, as there was a curfew of nine p.m. in place throughout the city, especially as the Rebbetzin had mentioned that it would be a short farbrengen.

The Rebbe entered the room, acknowledged their presence, and began to farbreng. Everyone assembled breathed a sigh of relief. Boruch Hashem, the Rebbe was not upset that they had come!

At first, while their happiness was tremendous, it was also subdued (out of fear of what might happen). However, a half hour after the farbrengen began, the Rebbe said l’chaim and instructed the chassidim to say l’chaim as well. The Rebbe then began singing a niggun and encouraged the chassidim to join.

His son, HaRav Yosef Yitzchok, motioned to the chassidim to sing quietly, hoping that their singing would not be heard outside and draw the attention of the authorities. However, the Rebbe noticed this and said to him, “Don’t worry. No harm will befall anyone for rejoicing on Purim, just as nothing happened from singing and dancing on Simchas Torah.”[4] He then motioned to the chassidim to sing loudly and with gusto.

To ensure that everyone would truly be in a joyous mood, the Rebbe handed a chossid some money and instructed him to buy a sizeable quantity of mashke.[5] When the chossid returned, he instructed everyone present to say another l’chaim.

The Rebbe then called for everyone to donate toward Kupas Rabbeinu, a fund supporting his activities in strengthening Judaism. The chassidim responded enthusiastically, and all the money given was placed on a silver tray positioned in middle of the table. The farbrengen continued past nine o’clock, but no one left. They were together with the Rebbe!

That evening, the Communists made one of their sweeps of the city, on the lookout for any suspicious activity. At around ten o’clock, three officers entered the Rebbe’s house and stated that they would be checking everyone’s passports.

The Rebbe’s attendant realized that everyone was quaking with fear. Hoping to delay the search until after the farbrengen concluded, he informed the officers that the head of the house was extremely occupied now, and requested that they kindly return in a few hours. To his surprise, they agreed and moved on to search other houses.

The Rebbe was informed of what had transpired, and everyone thought that he would conclude the farbrengen shortly. However, to their surprise, he was completely unfazed and continued as if nothing had happened.

One of the chassidim wished the Rebbe “L’chaim.” “L’chaim  v’livrachah,” the Rebbe responded. “May Hashem give us life. I don’t mean living in the sense of surviving and not dying, but to live a life full of vitality.”

He then said a maamar and a few sichos in which he explained that when someone is completely connected to G-dliness, there is no room for kelipos (the forces of evil that wish to oppose the revelation of G-dliness).

The officers returned a few hours later, and this time they entered the house. Standing at the entrance of the dining room, they stared in astonishment at what was happening. What was the meaning of this large and illegal gathering, especially at such a late hour?!

However, to everyone’s surprise, they did not interrupt nor demand that the gathering be stopped.

HaRav Yosef Yitzchok noticed them staring in bewilderment at the unusual scene. He motioned that the vodka and overflowing tray of money should be removed or at least covered, as each one on its own was illegal.

However, his father, the Rebbe, told him to remain calm and to leave everything as is. “They do not intimidate me,” he said. “[unlike kelipah,] Holiness always remains in its place. I am not afraid of them at all!”

Turning to his son, he said in a loud voice, “We will remain complete. I don’t mean that we will remain complete only if we serve Hashem in secret, but we will remain complete even when we serve Hashem publically, since kelipah has no real substance.”[6]

The officers then said to the Rebbe’s attendant that they wanted to search the Rebbe’s private study. When the Rebbe was informed of this, he declared, “There, they will become completely nullified.”

Indeed, the officers did not enter the room; they merely stood at the entrance and glanced inside. The Rebbe repeatedly told the chassidim to ignore their presence and stated that no one would be harmed.[7]

Then, with great ecstasy he exclaimed, “I will say another maamar so they will become completely ineffective.” He then said a maamar beginning with the words Reishis Goyim Amalek, which explains that forces that oppose G‑dliness do not truly exist; their entire existence is one of void and nothingness.[8]

The officers merely stood in the hallway for a few minutes, and then meekly asked the attendant to call out a few people so they could record that they had checked their passports.[9] Three chassidim — among the very few whose passports where completely in order — complied, and after checking them the officers left.

The entire episode was miraculous, as the officers disregarded the numerous illegalities in front of their eyes. Each one alone carried heavy penalties and grave consequences; how much more so when combined!

When the officers were in the house, the Rebbe said numerous times in revulsion and disgust, “Feh! They are evil. I cannot bear them and I cannot be together with them!” He remained in high spirits throughout the entire farbrengen, which only ended close to four in the morning. The farbrengen was more than nine hours long![10]

The chassidim were hoping that the experience of that Purim farbrengen with the Rebbe was a sign that the situation was improving, and that from then on they would be allowed to come and hear the weekly maamar. However, to their disappointment, they were instructed not to come to the Rebbe’s house that Shabbos, and the Rebbe did not say a maamar. The Rebbe also refused to give out his transcription of the maamar he had said on Purim. Then, on Motzoei Shabbos Parshas Ki Sisa, the Rebbe secluded himself in his study.

At that time, no one knew or even had an inkling of the reason for these unusual changes Only later did they find out that on Motzoei Shabbos he then had begun writing his tzavaah, his final will.[11]

The following Thursday evening (of Parshas Vayakhel-Pekudei), the 21st of Adar, it became evident that the Rebbe was not feeling well, as he had a low-grade fever.

Despite the difficulties involved in traveling during the revolution, the finest doctors in the area were brought to cure the Rebbe. The doctors remained with him for a week, trying feverishly to restore his health. On Monday, the 25th of Adar, the chassidim fasted the entire day and read the Torah portion of Vayechal. Every night throughout that week, they tearfully recited the entire Tehillim. On Shabbos Parshas Vayikra, Rabbi Berman, the Rov of Rostov, announced that everyone should recite the entire Tehillim that afternoon in their respective shuls and beseech Hashem to send the Rebbe a complete recovery.

However, it was not to be. That Motzoei Shabbos, at ten in the evening, a few hours before his histalkus, the Rebbe said in a clear voice to those attending to him “I am going to the heavens, but my writings I am leaving with you.” In essence he was saying that although he wouldn’t be in this world physically with the chassidim, they could still remain connected to him through learning his maamorim.

He then said, to them “Take me to the study hall [i.e., the room he would farbreng] and we will be one.”[12]

His son, HaRav Yosef Yitzchok, was visibly shaken by these words. Noticing his worried expression, his father quickly admonished him, saying, “Hispaalus? Hispaalus? Mochin! Mochin!” inferring a principle of Chassidus that the intellect controls the emotions. HaRav Yosef Yitzchok immediately regained his composure. The Rebbe then asked his Rebbetzin to please bring him a cup of coffee on which he would make havdalah.[13]

Seeing how dire the situation had become, it was decided to say a mi shebeirach and add the name Chaim to the Rebbe’s name. The chassidim also convened a Beis Din,[14] and the Beis Din allowed all those present to give some months (or years) of their life as a gift to the Rebbe.[15]

Shortly before his histalkus, the Rebbe instructed that everyone should leave the room, as he wished to speak to his family in private. He then blessed his son and three granddaughters individually.[16]

Sometime after four in the morning, shortly before his histalkus, he gave one final look at his son. He then straightened his body and was nistalek.

 

The burial took place Sunday afternoon. Before the aron was lowered into the ground, his son the Frierdiker Rebbe announced that he was being interred here conditionally. If he would discover a note or oral testimony that his father the Rebbe wished to be interred next to his father and grandfather in Lubavitch, he would be moved.

The Rebbe’s histalkus left the chassidim devastated. The following Shabbos, the last day of shivah, after Minchah, the Frierdiker Rebbe called for Reb Berel Rivkin, who merited to attend to his father, the Rebbe Rashab, during tthose final weeks. “My father instructed me to say Chassidus for the chassidim,” he told him, “but who am I, and how can I bring myself to say Chassidus in front of everyone? However, this is what I was instructed to do. So I will say a maamar to you, and this way I will have fulfilled my father’s instruction.”

After the maamar, he demanded from Reb Berel not to divulge what had transpired; however, he did not reply. When he left the room, he didn’t publicize what had happened, but just “confided” with one individual. Soon enough the word got out, and the chassidim were somewhat comforted, knowing that there was a continuation to the nesius.

After the histalkus, his son the Frierdiker Rebbe bemoaned, “The entire year my father was alluding to this, but I didn’t understand.”

Years later he said, “On Chof Cheshvan, 5680 (1919), my father said a maamar.[17] He then said to me: ‘On a birthday, one should say Chassidus. Hashem should give you the gift of saying Chassidus on your birthday, but it should be with kindness and compassion.’” With these words, the Rebbe Rashab was hinting that by the time his son’s birthday would arrive later that year, he would be the one saying Chassidus, i.e., he will be the Rebbe then.

The Frierdiker concluded, “[Obviously, I said a maamar that year on my birthday.] However, the blessing [that it should be with kindness and compassion] took seven years to materialize.”[18]

The Frierdiker Rebbe didn’t say what the rest of the hints were, but he did say that during those final months of his father’s life, his father discussed the Alter Rebbe’s maamar of V’hodarta pnei zokein.[19] This maamar was said by the Alter Rebbe shortly after the Maggid’s histalkus, and the Mitteler Rebbe and the Rebbe Maharash said it as well before their own histalkus.[20]

Additionally, he said that during that winter, his father described to him the personality and level of each and every chossid. This was an obvious hint that he would be given the task of continuing to guide them.

Around three weeks before his histalkus, the Rebbe Rashab said to his only son and successor:

“There are difficult clouds over Russia at this time. They will last for at least twenty-two years. The Alter Rebbe noted that a government that harasses Jewish observance and abolishes the learning of Torah will certainly be destroyed. That is what happened in the final years of [Czar] Nikolai [the I], who was devastated by the Crimean War at the end of his life and died as a result.”

He also said that Lenin would die amid tumultuous circumstances,[21] Trotsky would be forced to go to exile and would be assassinated, and Stalin would……..[22]

The Frierdiker Rebbe noted that his father’s final words to him were about the tmimim, and it was therefore evident that to him that his father considered them as if they were his own children.[23]

Once, during the year of aveilus, the Frierdiker Rebbe needed to find a certain explanation in Chassidus and didn’t remember where the manuscript discussing that topic was. His father revealed himself to him and informed him where it was located.[24]

 

[1] At that time, the main battle was between the Whites, who were loyal to the Czar, and the Reds, representing the rebels.

[2]    This took place in the month of Shevat, corresponding to the beginning of February 1920 (when these guidelines were enforced).

[3] Although the Rebbe said maamorim very often (on an almost weekly basis), he usually farbrenged with the chassidim only three times a year: on Simchas Torah, Yud-Tes Kislev, and Purim. So these farbrengens were truly special.

 

[4] Author’s Note: That Simchas Torah, unbeknownst to the chassidim, the = = wrested control over Rostov from the ===. The losing soldiers could have interpreted their singing and dancing as a celebration of their defeat, and let out their anger against the Jews as they were leaving the city. However, miraculously that did not happen.

[5] As was also noted above his son, HaRav Yosef Yitzchok, was very concerned and did not want to arouse any suspicion. So when his father, the Rebbe, inquired if there was any mashke to be found in the area, he replied, “Presently there is no mashke available.”

“There is a saying that in Russia nothing is unavailable,” the Rebbe replied. “Everything can be found!”

“In me as well?” his son asked.

“Yes, everything can be found in you as well!” his father replied.

“That means I still have negative traits,” bemoaned HaRav Yosef Yitzchok.

“No, it means you have tremendous powers and abilities,” replied his father (Ashkavta D’Rebbe, p. 6).

[6] Chassidim explain that they understood that the Rebbe Rashab was giving encouragement and strength to his son and successor to spread Judaism even under the extreme hardships he would endure under the tyrannical Communist regime.

[7] Author’s note: This can be understood based on how Chassidus explains the concept of a person being tested. For example, when Avrohom Avinu was on his way to the Akeidah, the Satan tried to stop him and prevent him from going by creating a river in his path. However, Avrohom was not deterred and walked right through it. When the water reached his neck, he davened to Hashem, and the Satan (in the form of a river) disappeared.

The explanation given for this is that those forces that oppose G-dliness are only an illusion and are truly non-existent. However, if we give them any credence, they assume power. The Rebbe Rashab therefore instructed the chassidim not to pay any attention to the officers, since that would give them significance and thereby the power to do something harmful.

[8] A few times during the maamar, the Rebbe uncharacteristically stopped and reminded everyone to ignore the presence of their visitors.

[9] In those days everyone was required to carry their identification papers with them.

[10] When the meal ended, the Rebbe Rashab went to his room and took a envelope out of his pocket. He removed a paper and asked his son, “Yosef Yitzchok, do you recognize this?” He then lit a match and burned it.

The Frierdiker Rebbe relates that this was the paper his father had written on when sitting in the cubicle of King Wilhelm in the royal park (see below, “Section three, ==”). The Frierdiker Rebbe trembled and cried out, “Tatte!”

“A tatte….,” his father replied. “A father knows what he is doing.”

He then took another piece of paper, wrote certain things on it, and placed it in the envelope. “After my father’s histalkus,” the Frierdiker Rebbe later related, “I read it and saw that it contained points pertinent to me” (Reshimas Hayoman, p. 336).

[11] Only small parts of it were publicized (in various letters of the Frierdiker Rebbe). It should be noted that this was not the first time the Rebbe wrote a will; he wrote his first will in 5648 (1888, around thirty years earlier), when he was extremely ill (see above ====). In it, he outlined his wishes and instructions how the Frierdiker Rebbe should be raised and educated. This will is published almost in its entirety in the kuntres Chanoch L’naar.

[12] Clarify the meaning of this

[13] The Alter Rebbe was also nistalek on a Motzoei Shabbos, and he, too, made havdalah on coffee shortly beforehand.

[14] The Beis Din consisted of the chassidim Reb Shmuel Gurary, Reb Zalman Havlin, and Reb Yisroel Levin (Neveler).

Although a Beis Din is usually convened to rule in matters of halachah, since they have the power of Torah, they were also given the power to rule on other matters as well (for example, as in our case, that the chassidim should be able to give some of their life to the Rebbe), as ultimately this too is halachah.

See The Rebbeim Biography Series: The Alter Rebbe (pp. 132 – 136), where this was done to save the Alter Rebbe’s life.

[15] Initially the Rebbetzin offered ten years. However, the Beis Din was accepting from each chossid a maximum of six months. They finally agreed that the Rebbetzin could give two years.

[16] Reb Shmaryahu Gurary, who was then engaged to the Rebbe’s oldest granddaughter, was also called in and received a brochah.

[17] Beginning with the words Nosata l’yirei’echo ness (Tehillim 60:6, from the chapter corresponding to his 60th year).

[18] Hayom Yom, entry for Chof Cheshvan.

We should note that seven years later was when he was freed from his imprisonment and death sentence, as will be discussed b’ezras Hashem in his biography.

[19] A short maamar printed in Likkutei Torah, Parshas Kedoshim, p. 30b. The second part of that maamar, explaining the words Mipnei seivah tokum, was included in the maamar Shechorah ani, printed in Likkutei Torah, Shir Hashirim, p. 7d.

[20] Sefer HaSichos 5707, p. 93.

[21] Officially, his death was the result of a series of strokes after an assassination attempt. However, some say he died by poisoning.

[22] Sefer HaSichos 5687, p. 132.

[23] Sefer HaSichos 5685, p. 80.

In Sefer HaSichos 5705 (pp. 44–45(, the Frierdiker relates:

“In 5672 (1912), my father the Rebbe was in Menton, France. I traveled to visit him and give him a report regarding various communal matters he had sent me to take care of.

“After asking about the health of his mother [Rebbetzin Rivkah], the first question my father asked me was, ‘Did you bring along a report about the progress of each student?’ When I replied that I hadn’t, my father said, ‘Then you are only half a guest.’

“I immediately wrote a letter to Lubavitch, asking to send the report to Menton. After discussing the communal matters, I needed to travel again. When I returned, although the communal matters were very pressing, the first thing he asked me was to give him a report of the students’ progress, based on the written report which had arrived by then.”

From this we also see that to the Rebbe Rashab, the success of the yeshiva and its students was of paramount importance, superseding everything else.

[24] Reshimas Hayoman, p. 370.

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