In Yiddish, the word farbrengen means "spending time together." It has come to describe an earnest and brotherly gathering of chassidim, punctuated by song and talk. When the Rebbe leads a farbrengen, it takes on a more formal atmosphere as he addresses his assembled followers, communicating his Torah thoughts and his messages for the Jewish world at large.
Although the Rebbe would speak at such gatherings for several hours, he would share more than the content. For the individuals present and for the community at large, a farbrengen with the Rebbe is a live experience. And it is some of that vitality which we have tried to capture in the stories that follow.
The Rosh Yeshivah apologized to his host, Rabbi Berl Rivkin, where he stayed when visiting New York. Although he shared family ties with his host, he nonetheless did not share all of Rabbi Rivkin's interests.
"Yes, I enjoyed the davening at "770" last night and this morning. Thank you for inviting me. But farbrengens are not for me. I'm not trying to minimize the depth and breadth of the Rebbe's scholarship, but his style and selection of topics are different from those discussed in our yeshivah world.
"I like to spend Shabbos afternoons embroiled in a complicated Halachic text or unraveling a difficult passage in the Rambam's works. Besides, I'm just not used to the Rebbe's style of exposition of Rashi's Torah commentary."
Rabbi Rivkin did not wish to press his guest. They spent the rest of the Shabbos meal discussing a complex passage of the Rambam. As the farbrengen was about to begin, Rabbi Rivkin left his guest grappling with the Rambam and hurried to "770". He made it to his place as the Rebbe was entering the hall.
The farbrengen began as usual, and the Rebbe elaborated on the lessons to be derived from the weekly Torah portion and the spiritual significance of this Shabbos, continuing with a deep chassidic discourse and lively singing.
During the singing, Rabbi Rivkin noticed his guest inching through the crowd. Evidently, the Rosh Yeshivah had decided to attend the farbrengen, and the chassidim were helping him reach his host's place. The Rebbe then began discussing Rashi's commentary.
Towards the conclusion of this talk, the Rebbe explained: "In light of all the above, one can also explain a difficult passage in the Rambam...." Rabbi Rivkin and his guest exchanged glances. This was the very passage which they had been studying. The Rosh Yeshivah leaned forward to hear every word.
He was astounded to hear the Rebbe clarify the difficulty in a few carefully worded sentences. He was equally overwhelmed that the Rebbe had tied this seemingly unrelated passage to his discussion just at the time that he had arrived at the farbrengen.
Still intrigued by this awesome coincidence, the Rosh Yeshivah was further surprised when, after concluding, the Rebbe turned to him with a smile and said, "There's no need to be astonished."
At the close of each Jewish holiday, the Rebbe Shlita holds a farbrengen. Afterwards, he recites the Grace After Meals, joins in the evening service, and then says Havdalah. The chassidim then file past and the Rebbe pours a little wine from the cup of wine used for both Grace and Havdalah, "the cup of blessing." An announcement is customarily made after the conclusion of the farbrengen for the benefit of the many visitors.
After the farbrengen which followed the second day of Rosh HaShanah, 5725, Rabbi Shneur Zalman Duchman made the familiar announcement. "The procedure will be as follows," he proclaimed. "After Maariv, the Rebbe will recite Havdalah, and then he will distribute wine from the 'cup of blessing.' The new Vaad HaMesader (organizing committee) asks everyone to proceed to receive the wine in an orderly manner."
The Rebbe smiled broadly and altered the announcement, addressing the directives to G-d as much as to the assembled: "The procedure will be as follows: First we will begin the new year, which will be accompanied by abundant goodness. Afterwards, we will immerse ourselves in the study of Torah, both nigleh (the revealed dimension of Torah law) and chassidus (its inner mystical secrets). We will then observe the mitzvos in a meticulous way.
"Even before we begin, G-d will have already inscribed us for a good and sweet year in every aspect of our lives, with blessings for our children and grandchildren, for success and prosperity; and for a good year in both a spiritual and physical sense. These," the Rebbe concluded, "are the recommendations of the new Vaad HaMesader, which all should follow."
A farbrengen in "770" is a multidimensional experience. The Rebbe is noticeably more intense just before delivering a maamar, formal chassidic discourse. In the middle of singing a chassidic niggun, his face becomes extremely serious, and everyone immediately changes the niggun to begin the traditional chassidic melody sung before maamarim.
In the very first years of the Rebbe's leadership, these signs were even more noticeable. In particular, the Purim farbrengen of 1953 stands out in the memory of many chassidim. At the beginning of the farbrengen, the Rebbe delivered a maamar. As usual, his deep concentration was visible throughout the entire prelude. After the maamar, the Rebbe delivered several addresses punctuated by chassidic song.
The farbrengen increased in intensity, continuing well past midnight. At this late hour, an elder chassid Reb Shmuel Levitin approached the Rebbe with a sincere request for a blessing for the welfare of the Jews in Russia.
Quite unexpectedly, after answering Reb Shmuel, the Rebbe showed visible signs of delivering another maamar. This was most unusual, as the Rebbe had never delivered two chassidic discourses during a single farbrengen. As the chassidim stood in anticipation of the maamar, the Rebbe related the following story:
"After the fall of the Czarist regime, general elections were held in Russia. The Rebbe Rashab, Rabbi Sholom Ber Schneersohn, instructed his followers to exercise their right to vote. The Rebbe's message was spread throughout the chassidic community. One chassid, a devout man who spent most of his time in pursuit of spiritual matters, was totally uninvolved in the country's politics. Nevertheless, he was prepared to carry out this directive as readily and intently as any of the Rebbe's other biddings.
"He immersed himself in the mikveh, girded his gartel (prayer belt) and proceeded to the polls. He was not familiar with the procedure, and did not even know for whom to vote. Luckily, he met other chassidim at the polls and they instructed him. With earnest concentration, the chassid adjusted his gartel and solemnly cast his ballot.
"As he glanced around him, he noticed many excited voters cheering for their candidate, shouting 'Hoo-rah! Hoo-rah!' The chassid thought that the chanting might be a required part of the voting procedure. Fearful that he might offend others or draw attention to himself if he refrained, he also joined the chanting.
"Hoo-rah is the Russian version of our familiar "hurray," but in Hebrew the words 'hoo rah' mean 'he is evil.' So the chassid chanted, 'hoo rah' along with the others, his intention being that he (the voters' hero) is evil."
With this the Rebbe concluded the story. The crowd in "770" also began to chant, "Hoo rah, hoo rah."
After the farbrengen there was much discussion among the chassidim regarding the unexpected maamar and the preceding story. Everyone sensed that it was somehow related to events taking place somewhere behind the Iron Curtain.
Soon afterwards, the news hit the headlines. The infamous Russian ruler Stalin had suffered a fatal stroke.
"It's more than just a desire to prolong the holiday spirit," the man from Boro Park said to his fellow passenger, riding to Crown Heights on the night following the last day of Passover. "It's quite exhilarating to enter "770", where thousands of people are still celebrating the holiday, as opposed to my community, where everyone hurries home after Havdalah to put away the Pesach dishes.
"But I don't come just for the inspiration. I make this trip after every holiday when the Rebbe distributes some of the "cup of blessing" after Havdalah. I've heard of numerous miraculous incidents occurring at these occasions."
The two men stood in line, waiting together with the thousands of others to approach the Rebbe. After the first one received his wine, the second held out a small cup to receive wine from the Rebbe. Instead of pouring, the Rebbe motioned to the man to hold the cup with his right hand.
The man made no move to exchange hands and the Rebbe did not pour the wine. An attendant urged him: "Reb Yid, please hold the cup in your right hand."
With obvious trepidation, the man extended his right hand. He looked on in disbelief as the Rebbe filled his cup. The people around him were almost annoyed with the delay he had caused the Rebbe. But he wholeheartedly forgave them. How could they have known that his right hand had been paralyzed?
"I suppose I should have felt thankful and lucky," relates Reb Feivel, speaking about his involvement in rehabilitating displaced Jews in post-war Europe. "I found it difficult to be optimistic about life after I had lost everything in the Holocaust. An old friend of mine found me a job in the Vaad HaHatzalah (Rescue Organization) offices in Paris. My heavy workload helped me maintain my sanity.
"Sitting behind a big gray desk piled with papers, files, and forms, I found solace in being in a position to help others reconstruct their lives, yet I also felt constant misery while listening to tale after tale of woe.
"One day, I heard a short, gentle knock at my office door. This was a pleasant change from the familiar nervous rapping of troubled survivors.
'Come in,' I called.
"A well-dressed, bearded, man walked up to my desk. His distinguished features radiated inner peace. That overwhelmed me, for in post-war Europe inner peace was a very rare commodity. Moreover, his peaceful composure was infectious, and for the first time in years, I felt at ease.
'How can I help you?' I asked.
'My mother, Rebbetzin Chanah Schneerson has arrived here from Russia. I have come to facilitate her immigration to the United States. Can you please advise me how much time I will have to set aside for this procedure? I would like to organize my schedule accordingly.'
"I could not take my eyes of this softly-spoken man. He was the first person who came through my office who radiated a sense of direction, expressing the desire to calculate time and spend it wisely. In the shambles of a chaotic Europe, this man valued his minutes.
"I promised to assist him, assuring him that I would process the necessary papers myself so that he could use his time as he saw fit. I gave him the necessary forms, and he supplied the information. Afterwards, he expressed his gratitude and left my office. Though I had not said so, I was also grateful to him. The few minutes he had spent with me endowed me with renewed dedication and sense of purpose.
"Many years passed. In the interim, I had married, built a family and immigrated to the States. One day, I was driving through Brooklyn with a co-worker. 'Let's go visit the Lubavitch Headquarters,' he suggested. 'Why not?' I replied. Seventeen years had passed since that incident in Paris. Although I had never gone to see the Rebbe, I had since learned that he was the man who had visited my office then and that meeting was still etched in my memory.
"We arrived at "770" in the midst of a farbrengen. I marveled at the atmosphere of spiritual intensity, which sharply contrasted with the ordinary American environment. I looked around slowly, shifting my eyes from the Rebbe to the chassidim periodically.
"Suddenly, I caught the Rebbe's eye, and he caught mine. He looked at me directly, and then said something to an attendant. Before I knew it, the attendant was beside me. 'The Rebbe has requested that you come,' he whispered to me. I was both surprised and flustered at the unexpected attention.
"I nervously followed the attendant and found myself face to face with the Rebbe. It was the same warm and eloquent voice that had echoed in my ears seventeen years ago. 'Yasher Koach for your efforts on behalf of my mother in Paris. Blessings and thanks for everything you did.' "
Among the participants of a Shabbos farbrengen in the spring of 1952 was the world chess champion, Mr. Roshevsky. At one point during the talks, the Rebbe explained that anything can teach people lessons in serving G-d. He then related the following story.
It is customary to refrain from Torah study on the eve of December 25. One such evening, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab, saw his son, Yosef Yitzchak (who later succeeded him as Rebbe) playing chess with a revered chassid, Reb Elchanon Dov Morozov.
The Rebbe Rashab stood nearby and said: "Nu, it is not fair to give advice." He watched the game without uttering a word. Afterwards, the Rebbe proceeded to teach a lesson in worshipping G-d based upon the game of chess, explaining that there are two kinds of chess pieces: the officers and the simple soldiers, the pawns.
The officers may make a variety of different moves and move several squares at a time. The pawns, by contrast, may only progress one square at a time. Nevertheless, when the pawn arrives at the other end of the board, he may ascend in rank and may be exchanged for any other piece, even a queen. However, a pawn cannot assume the rank of a king, for there is only one king.
Our worship of G-d is similar. There are heavenly angels and mortal men. The angels, like the officers in the game of chess, have a wide range of movement which is unrestricted by physical limitations. However, their rank and level can never change. Mortals, on the other hand, are like pawns. They can progress only one step at a time. Yet, when these souls complete their mission in this world and "reach the other side," they can assume higher ranks, even becoming "queens." Still, there is only one king - the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
- (Back to text) See Sefer HaMinhagim (English translation, Kehot, N.Y., 1992), p. 162.