In honor of Chof Cheshvan, the 159th birthday of the Rebbe Rashab, we present the story of his bar mitzvah. by Rabbi Shalom DovBer Avtzon
When Sholom DovBer turned eleven, his father said to him, “I will now relate to you what my father [the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek] told me: ‘To attain the shleimus (the highest spiritual level) of eleven years, one begins putting on tefillin. However, this should be done in secrecy, so that no one will have any notion that you are doing so.’”
In Beis HaRav, the custom was that all the sons would memorize all six (sedorim) sections of Mishnayos before their bar mitzvah. Sholom DovBer completed this feat by his twelfth birthday. His son, the Frierdiker Rebbe, related what transpired in honor of this momentous occasion.
For Shabbos Parshas Vayeira, 5633/1872 (which happened to be the 20th of MarCheshvan, Sholom DovBer’s twelfth birthday), a large amount of chassidim came to Lubavitch. On Sunday, the Rebbe Maharash instructed his gabbai, Reb Levik, “Despite the usual schedule, today I will not be accepting anyone for yechidus. Instead you should call the following three venerable chassidim into my room: Reb Zalman Zlatapolsky of Kremenchuk, Reb Zalman Neimark of Polotzk, and Reb Leib of Nevel. Make sure I will not be disturbed,” the Rebbe concluded.
When they entered, they noticed that the Rebbe’s son was also present. The Rebbe instructed to light the six candelabras in the room, which each had twelve lights. The Rebbe then informed them that today was a special, joyous day for him, saying, “My son the Rashab has concluded learning the entire Mishnayos by heart!”
The Rebbe continued:
“The Baal Shem Tov wanted those who are close to him (i.e., his family) to know the entire Tehillim by heart; the Maggid added that those close to him should also learn the song of Haazinu by heart; while the Alter Rebbe instituted that in addition to the above, his children should learn the entire Mishnayos verbatim by the time of their bar mitzvah.”
The Rebbe Maharash then said a maamar Chassidus before them, expounding on the final mishnah of Mishnayos. In the maamar, the Rebbe explained why the mishnah quotes the saying of Reb Yehoshua ben Levi before the saying of Reb Shimon ben Chalafta, who was much older than him.
He then proceeded to relate numerous stories about the Alter Rebbe, the Mitteler Rebbe, the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek, and himself. These stories demonstrated the spiritual power of knowing Mishnayos verbatim, and how this allows the light of the neshomah to shine.
After the Rebbe finished speaking, the three chassidim left. The young boy thought that he, too, should leave. However, his father the Rebbe instructed him to remain. In the privacy of his room, he proceeded to explain to him the inner meaning of the last tractate of Mishnayos, Maseches Uktzin:
“The final seder of Mishnayos is Taharos (purity), and it concludes with Tractate Uktzin (stems).
“One should know that through studying and repeating Mishnayos, one attains a level of purity. However, one must know that even the best fruits have stems [which are inedible and are not beneficial for people. In other words, even someone who has reached a high level of purity may still possess some unwanted elements.] So the first three chapters of Uktzim discuss how to deal with these ‘stems.’
“But then, once a person has succeeded in removing these undesirable characteristics, he might feel a taste of sweetness [and happiness, knowing that he finally achieved this level. This is why] the second-to-last mishnah speaks about honey. [One must know that] sweetness and sourdough — namely, self-importance and depression — are both forbidden when it comes to one’s connection to Hashem.”
In the year before his bar mitzvah, the Rashab entered his father’s room for a yechidus. He asked, “How does one learn in such a way that it is truly considered as if he has learned?”
The Rebbe Maharash answered:
“The possuk states, ‘Veshinantom levonecho’ (and you shall teach them [the words of the Torah] to your children). [Why does the Torah use the word veshinanatom, instead of the usual word velimaditem, which it uses in the second parshah of Shema?] Rashi explains that the root of this word is shinun, which means ‘sharp’ and ‘to the point.’ This means that whatever you learn should be extremely clear to you. This is also brought out from in the word livonecha, which is related to the word libun, which means ‘lucid’ and ‘shining.’ [This means that whatever you learn should be extremely clear to you.]
“The possuk continues, ‘vedibarta bom’ (and you shall speak of them [the words of Torah]), informing us that [the words of Torah] should be brought into our lives. ‘Beshivtecha beveisecha’ (when you sit in your house) means that this should be felt as long as our neshomah is found on this earth [our ‘house,’ meaning that the Torah should become an integral part of our lives.] ‘Uveshochbecha uvikumecha’ (when you lie and when you arise) means that the benefit of learning Torah will mainly be felt in the era of techiyas hameisim, [when all those who passed away will arise].”
The Rebbe Maharash continued:
“The Gemora instructs us, ‘A person should divide his studies into three: a third in Chumash, a third in Mishnah, and a third in Gemora.’ The inner meaning of this teaching of our sages is as follows: The first step in a person’s learning is to arouse the love for Hashem that is found within every Jew, often hidden in the depths of their heart — the ahavah mesuteres. After that has been accomplished, the next step is to change himself [in thought, speech, and action], and to act according to the teachings of the Torah.
“The third step is in Gemora, which can also mean ‘completion.’ This teaches us that we should strivebto make our vessels complete and effective vessels. Once that is accomplished, our learning will be properly.
Years later, the Rebbe Rashab repeated these words of this yechidus to his son, Rav Yosef Yitzchok, the future Frierdiker Rebbe. He then related:
“When I heard those words, I resolved to study the section of Shulchan Aruch that deals with day-to-day life, with an emphasis on the laws that pertain to one’s body, such as washing the hands and so on. I learned these laws to the extent that my body acted on its own in accordance with halachah. This is similar to what is mentioned in Gemora that a person can train himself to such an extent that he automatically bows down at Modim (in Shemoneh Esrei), without even thinking about it. It was only after I accomplished that, did I became an ish (a man).”
His son, the Frierdiker Rebbe, noted that Shulchan Aruch does not only refer to the Code of Jewish Law. In essence, a maamar Chassidus is also a “Shulchan Aruch,” guiding us in our personal, spiritual journey in avodas hatefillah (davening) and improving our character. “So when my father said that he trained his body to act according to Shulchan Aruch,” the Frierdiker Rebbe explained, “it also meant that when learning a maamar, he would put a tremendous emphasis on the moral of the maamar, making sure it would result in an actual change in refining his character.”
As a preparation for his bar mitzvah, his father, the Rebbe Maharash, taught him the Tanya. In addition, he related to him certain aspects regarding how the Alter Rebbe wrote it.
The Rashab began reviewing his father’s maamorim by heart before his bar mitzvah. The first maamar he reviewed was the maamar Kamah maalos tovos, which was said by his father the Rebbe on Shabbos Hagadol 5633.
During the seder on the Pesach before his bar mitzvah, the Rebbe Maharash said to him, “Come and hear how my father [i.e., the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek] says the haggadah in Heaven.” The Rebbe and his son listened, and they understood it!
When he became bar mitzvah, his father the Rebbe blessed him that he should succeed in attaining the higher level of adam.
The bar mitzvah festivities began a week before the Rashab’s actual birthday, on Tuesday, the 13th of Cheshvan. The Rebbe Maharash called the bar mitzvah boy and his older brother, the Raza, and said, “Your bar mitzvah will be next week. Travel to my brother [HaRav Chaim Schneur Zalman] in Liadi and receive his brochah/blessing. I am certain he will say a maamar in honor of the occasion. You will spend the night in Liadi and return tomorrow before nightfall.”
The Rashab and his brother, accompanied by two of his father’s gabba’im, traveled there in their father’s large carriage, which was harnessed to four horses. The Rebbe also instructed twelve of the young men who were then learning in Lubavitch to travel with them in two additional coaches. HaRav Chaim Schneur Zalman indeed said Chassidus and blessed the Rashab on the occasion of his upcoming bar mitzvah.
Rebbetzin Rivkah related that before the Rashab’s bar mitzvah, she asked her husband the Rebbe whether their son should be given a gartel to wear [for davening]. The Rebbe Maharash replied, “[Yes], that is a proper thing,” and a short time later, he proceeded to give him one.
On the day of the Rashab’s bar mitzvah, the Rebbe Maharash said to him, “I am now instructing you to ask me any question you desire, just as my father instructed me at my bar mitzvah.”
During the bar mitzvah seudah, Reb Sholom DovBer recited the maamar Isa b’midrash tehillim, which his father had taught him and instructed him to recite. The Rebbe Maharash then told him that would be giving him the manuscript he had written of that maamar as a present for him to keep.
The Rebbe Maharash then said the maamar Chagor charbicha al yarech gibor — “Gird your sword upon the thigh of a mighty warrior,” and he related:
“This maamar was said by the Alter Rebbe at the bar mitzvah of my father, the Rebbe [the Tzemach Tzedek]. My father said it at my bar mitzvah and added, ‘I was told by my grandfather, the [Alter] Rebbe, to wear a gartel of silk, but you will need to wear a gartel of leather.’” Looking at his son, the Rebbe Maharash continued, “And you will need to wear a gartel of iron.”
The Rebbe Maharash wasn’t referring to a literal gartel; he was alluding to the fact that during the Rashab’s years as Rebbe, the communal state of affairs would require of him a level of mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice) that exceeded what was required in his times. By informing him that he would require even greater mesiras nefesh, he was foretelling that he would endure some exceptionally challenging and difficult situations.
At that time, Reb Sholom DovBer also began wearing a silk sirtuk (kapote).
Sometime during the meal, the Rebbe Maharash gave his son a cup of mashke and instructed him to say L’chaim. Some of the participants protested, saying that he was only a young boy. “I am giving him mashke,” the Rebbe responded, “so that he should stop being a child.”
The Rebbe Maharash then explained the thought expressed in the niggun nie zhuritzi chluptzi.
The Rebbe Maharash also related some stories during the meal. One of them was something he had heard from the elder chossid Reb Yitzchok Aizik of Vitebsk during the year of his own bar mitzvah. The Rebbe Maharash stated, “Today [twenty-seven years later], I still feel the awe that Reb Yitzchok Aizik displayed when he repeated to me the brochah he had received from the Alter Rebbe. At that time, fulfilling the request of my father, the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek, he blessed me.”
After the bar mitzvah of each of his sons, the Rebbe Maharash no longer called them by their name alone; rather, he was particular that they be called by their roshei teivos (e.g., “the Rashab,” “the Raza”).