Chapter 8: Farbrengen
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
“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
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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
It is customary to refrain from Torah study on
the eve of December 25.1 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.
1. See Sefer HaMinhagim (English translation, Kehot, N.Y., 1992),