Establishing Tomchei Tmimim – Weekly Story by Rabbi Sholom DovBer Avtzon

This week we are celebrating the 122nd anniversary since the Rebbe Rashab established Tomchei Tmimim. In honor of this momentous occasion, I am posting this week the chapter from his upcoming biography that discusses the happenings of that time.

One of the most interesting points I learned from this chapter is the tremendous belief the Rebbe Rashab had in the youth.

In response to the numerous inquiries as to how far the biography of the Rebbe Rashab has progressed, I am pleased to say that so far almost 300 pages have been written. If this represents a half or only a third of the final draft, I do not know yet. My goal, b’ezras Hashem, is to have a complete draft ready by Beis Nissan, which will be one hundred years from his histalkus.

Those who are willing to help cover some of the editing and research expenses, it would be greatly appreciated and helpful.

As always, your comments and insights are helpful. Last week, after I posted the article, I was informed that the distance between Lubavitch and Avrutch nowadays is 336 miles. So evidently they traveled there and back by wagon as well as by train, as a wagon cannot travel eighty miles a day. 

Wishing all our readers and the entire Jewish nation a kesiva v’chasima tova, l’shana tova u’mesuka.

Establishing Tomchei Tmimim 

On Monday, the 16th of Elul, 5657 (1897), the Rebbe Rashab said:  

“For [ten] years, I was deeply worried and pained by the frozen and parched spiritual level of chassidim. Gone was the fire and excitement in doing mitzvos; their actions were dry and frozen, and everything was done without feeling. 

“My soul bled from what I observed, and every time I prayed at the holy gravesites of my ancestors, the Rebbeim, I would pour out my embittered heart. I would tell them about the low spiritual point the chassidim had reached, and describe the general indifference towards the learning of Chassidus and the ways of Chassidus. Always, I would mention my dream to establish a yeshiva that would teach a new generation of chassidim.

“In the summer of 5656 [1896], I embarked on a journey. I visited the holy gravesites of the Baal Shem Tov [in Mezhibuzh], the Maggid [in Anipoli], the Alter Rebbe [in Haditch], and the Mitteler Rebbe [in Niezhin]. When I returned to Lubavitch, I prayed at the holy gravesites of my grandfather [the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek] and my father [the Rebbe Maharash].

“With their blessing, I began preparing to establish a yeshiva; a school where young chassidishe men will develop a refined character, and be selflessly devoted to the ways of Chassidus.

“I am assured that with the approval of all of our holy Rebbeim, the yeshiva will be successful, and the light of the Torah and avodas Hashem (service of Hashem) will shine throughout the Jewish nation, and especially within chassidim.”

The day before, on Sunday, the 15th of Elul, the Rebbe Rashab summoned some fifty Rabbonim and prominent chassidim to a meeting. The assembled asked each other if they knew what it was about, but no one was informed or even given a clue.

At the meeting, the Rebbe Rashab described the ideal yeshiva he wanted to establish. It would be similar to all yeshivos, with effective supervision. But there would be a few revolutionary differences. The students would be supplied with room and board, so they would not have any distractions from attaining the goal of being entirely devoted to their learning and service of Hashem. Additionally, unlike other yeshivos, this yeshiva would include Chassidus as a major course of study, of equal importance as Nigleh — the study of Jewish law. Furthermore, the yeshiva would demand total obedience on the part of the students. 

The Rebbe Rashab then asked the participants for their opinion as to the viability of such a yeshiva. “Everyone should express their true feelings,” said the Rebbe Rashab, “as that is the purpose of a meeting: through clarifying both the positive and negative aspects, one arrives at the truth.”

In order for their answers to be thought out, it was announced that there would be a break for a complete hour, and the meeting would then resume.

When the meeting continued, each participant answered that the concept itself was wonderful, and they wished such a yeshiva would exist. In fact, it was a necessity! However, the question was whether it was viable (or realistic). Some of them said that while they were skeptical, they felt it was too important an idea to dismiss, and therefore it should be tried with a few students (as a pilot program). The majority felt that establishing such a yeshiva was an impossible feat. Each one explained their answer based on the reality of the situation, giving examples from what was happening in his city. The thread of reasoning was the same: “The sad reality is that the youth of today do not accept authority and limitations. They feel that no one has the right to control them or tell them what to do.”

Since everyone was given a chance to express and explain his opinion, the gathering went on for five hours. At that point, the meeting was adjourned until the next day. 

At that time, hundreds of chassidim were in Lubavitch, having come to participate in the chassunah of the Rebbe’s son, HaRav Yosef Yitzchok, which had taken place on Friday, erev Shabbos parshas Ki Seitzei, the 13th of Elul. When the Rebbe left the room, the chassidim approached the fifty individuals who had participated in the gathering and inquired what the lengthy meeting had been about. When they heard the Rebbe’s thought of establishing a yeshiva, they lauded its necessity, and many even expressed their desire to give financial support.

The next day, Monday, at four in the afternoon, the meeting resumed. The Rebbe Rashab addressed the assembled, stating: 

“After much deliberation, I came to the conclusion that with Hashem’s help, this proposal contains the potential to bring light into this dark world. 

“There is no denying the fact that we will face formidable difficulties and obstacles. However, our sages teach us that when one truly tries, they will surely succeed. This undertaking will demand from us endless devotion, immense courage, and tremendous patience. However, we must realize that our life depends on it. The future of our holy nation depends on its success. The difficulties are nothing in comparison to the urgency of this venture.

“I am truly appreciative of all those who candidly expressed their feelings why such a yeshiva will not succeed with today’s youth, and demonstrated this from various true occurrences. Some of you mentioned that in order to draw students, the yeshiva would need to compromise somewhat on its ideals. These statements only crystalized to me the critical need for such a yeshiva. 

“However, I don’t blame the youth! When we grew up, we saw life in the beis hamidrash. We saw people toiling in their learning and pouring out their hearts to Hashem in their davening. So obviously it influenced and inspired us. But nowadays, as soon as davening is over, the shul becomes empty. What do our children see? They see coldness in our service of Hashem, so they continue along that path. It is not their fault!

“With Hashem’s help, and with the blessings of the Rebbeim, this yeshiva will succeed. If it is not created now, your words may prove prophetic.”

Hearing the Rebbe’s words emanating from the depths of his heart, and expressing his vision to return the glory of Lubavitch, all the assembled were inspired, and they enthusiastically pledged to support these efforts.

The next day, the 17th of Elul, the Rebbe Rashab personally chose eighteen fine young men as the yeshiva’s first students. The renowned chossid, Reb Shmuel Gronem Esterman, was selected to be their mashpia, with the responsibility of guiding them and teaching them Chassidus according to the schedule and guidelines set forth by the Rebbe Rashab.

Later that day, during the sheva brochos for his son, HaRav Yosef Yitzchok, the Rebbe Rashab made a startling announcement, saying: 

“Tomorrow, Wednesday, the 18th of Elul, I will publically announce a message that the holy Rebbeim instructed me to convey to the chassidim. This message is especially pertinent to the chassidim and will also benefit the entire Jewish nation for all generations.”

This declaration aroused tremendous excitement among the assembled, and they eagerly waited for the appointed time when they would hear this mysterious message.

On Wednesday, the 18th of Elul, during sheva brochos, the Rebbe Rashab announced with great joy: 

“With the blessing of all the Rebbeim, I am founding a yeshiva. This yeshiva will produce students who will be ready and willing to be moser nefesh for Torah and the service of Hashem in the light of Chassidus.

“May it be the will of Hashem that His shechinah rest in the endeavors of our hands. On Wednesday, the fourth day of creation, the luminaries (i.e., the sun and the moon) were placed in the heavens. Today is the holy day of Chai Elul, the auspicious day when the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe were born. 

“On this holy day, as this yeshiva — which I have yet to name — is about to begin, I am igniting the spark and eternal light that the Baal Shem Tov and all of the succeeding Rebbeim bequeathed us. Through spreading the light of Chassidus, we will bring to fruition the promise that Moshiach gave the Baal Shem Tov: ‘When your wellsprings spread outward, I will come and redeem the Jewish nation.’” 

After Sukkos, the students went with their mentor, Reb Shmuel Gronem, to the city of Zhembin (which was Reb Shmuel Gronem’s place of residence) to study under his tutelage. 

In light of the uniqueness of his vision, the Rebbe Rashab was extremely involved in every aspect of the yeshiva. He asked for, and would receive, a weekly report about each boy’s characteristics and progress. In order that no one else would become involved and alter its course, he initially refused to accept financial backing for the yeshiva, and shouldered the entire budget himself.

Exactly one year later, on Chai Elul 5658 (1898), Reb Shmuel Gronem brought the students to Lubavitch and presented them to the Rebbe Rashab.

The Frierdiker Rebbe conveyed the satisfaction this visit gave his father, the Rebbe Rashab:

“My pen cannot express — and indeed, there are no words to describe — the sheer happiness my father experienced when he saw the tremendous positive affect of the study program on these young men. They were so transformed by their training that it was discernable even in their outward appearance.”

However, it wasn’t only the Rebbe who was impressed; many of the chassidim who had come to Lubavitch for Tishrei were astounded as well, and they hoped that the yeshiva would grow and expand. Yet, they realized that since the Rebbe needed to travel constantly due to his health issues, he was unable to assume the financial responsibility of an expanded and growing yeshiva. So with Reb Asher Grossman at the head of their delegation, they suggested to HaRav Yosef Yitzchok that he become responsible for the development of the yeshiva. They then discussed their idea with the Rebbe Rashab, and on the 24th of Elul the Rebbe appointed his son as the menahel poel

One month later, on the night of Simchas Torah, the hakafos continued well into the early hours of the morning. Before beginning the seventh hakafah, the Rebbe Rashab began to explain the inner significance of the seven hakafos. He then declared: 

“With the help of Hashem, I established a yeshiva where the students learn Nigleh and Chassidus — both the revealed and inner dimensions of the Torah — as one. The students now understand that even within the revealed aspects of the Torah, one can find the inner dimension of Chassidus. At the same time, they also realize that they must comprehend this deeper meaning as clearly as they understand the obvious and the revealed.”

He then instructed the assembled to sing.

The Rebbe Rashab continued: “Now, on Simchas Torah, I pray to the Giver of the Torah and beseech Him that He help the students of the yeshiva!” He then began to recite [the verses that are said during the seventh hakafah when circling the bimah]: “Kodosh v’nora hoshiah na… Holy and awesome One, deliver us; merciful and gracious One, grant us success; Keeper of the covenant, answer us on the day we call.” He then stopped circling the bimah and again told those present to sing. 

When the singing finished, he continued to recite: “Tomech Tmimim… Supporter of those who are whole, deliver us; eternally invincible One, grant us success; He who is perfect in His ways, answer us on the day we call,” and he then recited all the remaining verses. The Rebbe was extremely joyful, and he danced and sang for a long time. When he returned to his usual place, he encouraged all those present to sing and dance and to rejoice exceedingly. 

When the dancing and singing stopped and the hakafah was coming to an end, the Rebbe Rashab declared:

“As of yet, the yeshiva which has been established with the help of Hashem does not have a name. It has been made known — I will not tell you by whom — that its name is Tomchei Tmimim [“supporters of those who are whole”].

“The aim of the yeshiva is that Hashem’s Torah, the revealed dimension of Torah and the teachings of Chassidus, should be whole and perfect. It is then that the Torah restores the soul, as stated in the Midrash: ‘Why is [the Torah] whole and perfect? Because it restores the soul. Why does it restore the soul? Because it is whole and perfect.’ [In other words, this yeshiva will support and develop students who will be complete, and will learn both aspects of the Torah so the Torah will be complete.]

“I am certain that in the merit of our fathers, the saintly Rebbeim, the words ‘eternally invincible’ shall be realized in the way the yeshiva is conducted, until the coming of Moshiach speedily in our days, and the words ‘perfect in his ways’ shall be realized in each of its students.”

The Rebbe then announced that the yeshiva’s name was to be “Tomchei Tmimim,” and that its students, who would act in its spirit, would be called “tmimim.” He then added: 

“In fifty years’ time, the yeshiva will be renowned throughout the world.

“I ask everyone, both those who are present and those who are not: Hoshiah na, help us. In exchange, Hatzlichah na, you will have great success.”

At that time, the decision was also made that the tmimim would remain in Lubavitch, under the tutelage of Reb Chanoch Hendel Kugel, instead of returning to Zhembin. In their place, the new students who would be accepted would learn in Zhembin, under Reb Shmuel Gronem.

In the annals of Tomchei Tmimim, that Simchas Torah was legendary. However, there was another noteworthy event that occurred that day, as will be related in the following chapter.

Rabbi Avtzon is a veteran educator and the noted author of numerous books on the Rebbeim and their chassidim. He has farbrenged in numerous communities and is available to farbreng in your community. He can be con be contacted at avtzonboks@gmail.com

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