Weekly Dvar Torah: The Rebbe Rashab and Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim

On the second of Nissan we commemorate the 103rd Yartzait of the fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rebbe Sholom Dovber, known as the Rebbe Rashab.

Amongst the many contributions the Rebbe Rashab is known for, is the establishment of the Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim in Lubavitch, in the year 1896.

Why was there a need for this new Yeshiva? One of the reasons was the insertion of in-depth study of Chassidus as a subject, a novelty in the world of Yeshivos. Let me share another view as seen by Harav Yaacov Klemes, OBM, the Rav of Moscow during the 30’s, shortly after the Russian revolution.

My grandfather R’ Chaikel Chanin, once stayed with Rav Klemes for a few weeks. While he was there, he observed him as he led the community. One event caught my Zeide’s attention.

In their passion to eradicate private enterprise and steal the wealth from the population, the soviets nationalized all businesses and factories. They insisted that the original owners continue to run these businesses for the government, to make sure that they remain profitable. Woe to the man who dared resist. One had no choice, it was either do as told, 10 years in Siberia, or a bullet to your head. They stole the business, and then made you work for them in your formerly owned business.

Moishe came in with a Shayla (a Halachic question). “My factory was taken, and the government insists that I manage the business for them. The problem is, that unlike in the past when my factory was closed on Shabbos, I’m now forced to work every Shabbos, or else. What am I to do?”

The Rav listened carefully, and very sympathetically questioned Moishe for the details of his routine in the office. After hearing all the details, and looking in books of responsa, he issued a ruling.

“Some aspects of your activity are not the most severe violations of the Sabbath. But try your best to avoid things like writing, working machines, etc. However, since you have no choice, you may have to desecrate Shabbos in order to save your life.”

R’ Moishe broke down sobbing bitterly. “Rebbe; why do I deserve to become a Mechalel Shabbos? My entire life I was careful to not violate the Shabbos. I ran my business according to Halacha. I tithed and gave charity handsomely. I hired Torah observing Jews so they could earn a living while keeping Shabbos. And now in the prime of my life I’m forced to work on Shabbos?”

The Rav could only join R’ Moishe, and he too broke down crying bitterly, empathizing with him. Together they shed rivers of tears for the lot of R’ Moishe.

R’ Chaikel stood there amazed. He had just witnessed a competent Rav address a serious Halachic matter. He heard him give a comprehensive ruling. And to top it off, this Rabbi is a compassionate man who empathizes with his congregants. Wow, this is the most incredible Rabbi I ever met.

A day later, Yankel came in with the same question. He too had his business stolen by the government, and he needed to know what to do about Shabbos.

My Zeide noticed that the Rav did not seem to listen to Yankel at all. And when he finished, he didn’t show any interest in responding. He just stared at Yankel with cold steely eyes. The room was eerily silent. No prodding from Yankel could elicit any reaction from the Rav. It was really uncomfortable.

Suddenly the Rav declared loudly; ‘Elite forces’! You ask me to allow you to desecrate the Sabbath? Is this what you were trained for? I will not be the one to give you a Heter (permission) for this.

Embarrassed, Yankel grabbed his coat and left, and R’ Chaikel stood there confused. Yesterday the Rabbi had cried with Moishe when he ruled that to save his life he may desecrate Shabbos, and now such a harsh reaction. Why the difference?

The Rav noticed his puzzlement, and with a smile he said:

“Let me explain to you the significance of why I told Yankel that he is of the ‘Elite Forces’. The Czar of Russia had an army of millions. If a soldier made a mistake, he paid with his life, and Russia continued. Sad for the soldier but the country survived. Then there were the ‘Elite Forces’, who served as bodyguards of the czar. They were to protect him with their lives. If they would make one mistake, Russia would be in chaos. This could not be allowed to happen. For this task, these forces are trained from birth to never ever make a mistake. Any error on their part could potentially destroy Russia.

“Moishe asked a Halachic question. He is faced with Shabbos or death. I ruled that saving a life takes precedence over Shabbos. If a Jew, has to desecrate the Shabbos, as sad as that may be, this is what Halacha rules. There will always be other Jews who keep the Shabbos.

“Yankel is a Lubavitcher; he is a ‘Tomim’ (a student of Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim). He belongs to the ‘Elite Forces’. His job is to protect Shabbos from disappearing altogether.

“You see R’ Chaikel, why the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab, started Tomchei Tmimim 25 years ago? Was the world lacking Yeshivos? Absolutely not! There were plenty of Yeshivos in Europe. But the Rebbe saw a need for this Yeshiva, because in his holy vision he foresaw the dark clouds coming to plague the Jewish people with the onslaught of communism. And for this he needed to train Jewish ‘Elite Forces’ to protect Shabbos and Judaism from being eradicated and forgotten, at all costs.

“If Yankel would desecrate the Sabbath, it’s not just he who would be missing out. It is the entire concept of G-d, Shabbos and Judaism, that is being put at risk and G-d forbid could be forgotten forever. And he asks me, a Misnaged, to absolve him of his duty? Not on my watch. He was trained to protect G-d and the Shabbos with his life. I can only help him do his duty, I cannot relieve him from it”.

Such was the understanding by Rav Klemes, a non-Lubavitcher Rav, of the important role, a ‘Tomim’ plays in Judaism, as instituted by its’ founder. This he saw as the achievement of the Rebbe Rashab.

And indeed, the Tmimim did save Yiddishkeit and keep the Shabbos under the harsh rule of the soviets. Many paid for it with their lives. But in the end where are the Soviets, and where are the Tmimim!

Have a Tomim-kind Shabbos,
Gut Shabbos

Rabbi Yosef Katzman

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