Just Like Before: Rules of Writing to the Rebbe
Avrohom Rainitz, Beis Moshiach
Nearly twenty-six years have passed since Gimmel Tammuz 5754 and along with the tremendous concealment where, in addition to the length of the galus, we don’t see the Rebbe, Hashem did a great chessed with us and revealed a way of receiving the Rebbe’s directions, advice and brachos through the Igros Kodesh. What started out as a few drops of stories turned into a massive river of hundreds of thousands of people asking the Rebbe for advice and a bracha. The Rebbe blesses, advises and directs as in days gone by and far more than that. There are countless stories about people who wrote to the Rebbe and opened to incredible answers and when they conducted themselves accordingly, they saw salvations and wonders, materially and spiritually.
In the early years, there were Chassidim who were apprehensive about a “new way” of connecting to the Rebbe and some even raised arguments against it with halachic and Chassidic rationales.
Rabbi Asher Gershowitz, then a Chassidic young man who was a maggid shiur in the yeshiva in Tzfas, researched the matter extensively, addressing every complaint raised against the practice that began to spread among Chabad Chassidim. After his lengthy well-annotated article was published in volume four of Shaarei Yeshiva and later, in a special series in Beis Moshiach, his conclusions were accepted by those who are truth-seekers. Over the years, this practice has become common among Chabad Chassidim of all views and stripes.
In an interview that we conducted with him, R’ Gershowitz presents a summary of the sources and clarifies some points that became obscured over the years about various regulations that the Rebbe established and which apply now too.
R’ Gershowitz began our discussion with a story of a marvelous answer that he opened to in the Igros Kodesh. This is what happened:
“One day, I got a phone call from a woman who said they had bought a home in a new Chabad project and now they were unsure about whether to move to the new neighborhood or to stay in the old neighborhood and rent out the house they bought. Even after consulting with knowledgeable friends, as the Rebbe says to do, they could not decide. Upon her request, I wrote to the Rebbe with her question and put the letter into a volume of Igros Kodesh. The answer had a bracha for moving to a new home and instructions about the chanukas ha’bayis.
“A few weeks later, she called me again and said that when her husband heard the answer, he wasn’t at peace with it, both because at that time, not all of Anash realized that the Rebbe was answering us now too, through the Igros Kodesh, and because he himself was skeptical about it. He asked his mashpia who said that since it would be 15 Av in a few days, which is an auspicious day, he should make the right preparations and on that day write to the Rebbe and put it in the Igros Kodesh.
“How stunned they were when they opened the Igros Kodesh and it turned out that it was the same page that I had opened to for his wife!”
Another more recent story. One of the mekuravim who had business dealings with a company in Germany was apprehensive about the future of this company and decided to ask the Rebbe. The Rebbe’s answer had to do with someone who wanted to change his nusach ha’tefilla and the Rebbe said it was possible to change from Ashkenaz to Sefard but not the other way round. I told him that it’s a clear answer to change from the company in Germany (Ashkenaz) to one in Spain (Sefard).
A short while later, the German company went bankrupt and since he had already cut ties with them, the damage to him was minimal. At the same time, he found out that in Spain there are similar companies and he began doing business with them, just as the Rebbe said.
Before we talk about writing to the Rebbe after Gimmel Tammuz, I’ll ask you for some background about writing to the Rebbe. Why should we write to the Rebbe altogether?
Since forever, Chassidim and non-Chassidim would write to the Rebbe on nearly every subject, on both spiritual and material matters. Asking the Rebbe wasn’t done to absolve oneself of the burden of making an independent decision. The real reason is in order to know what is the will of Hashem regarding that issue. To a Chassid it is clear that what the Rebbe says is what Hashem wants, since the word of Hashem is upon his tongue and the Shechina speak from the throat of the Rebbe – through his answers. In this way, a Chassid can know what Hashem wants.
Even one who has not yet reached the point of internalizing that what the Rebbe says is the will of Hashem, knows that when it comes to momentous decisions, a person cannot rely on the shadchan, broker, adviser or doctor, and the Rebbe’s word is the final decisive factor for resolving doubts. That is why he consults with the Rebbe.
Asking the Rebbe questions did not start, of course, in this generation. It started with Moshe Rabeinu. For thousands of years, Jewish leaders issued rulings and advice on a broad range of questions that were brought to them. With the rise of the Chassidus movement, this phenomenon became more pronounced as Chassidim understood that the Baal Shem Tov and then the Maggid of Mezritch “stand between G-d and the people” and bring them the word of G-d. The teachings of Chassidus intensified the awareness of the role of the Tzaddik as the connecting-intermediary between a Jew and his Creator and the positive aspects of the connection between the neshama of a Jew and the elevated neshama of a Tzaddik.
What connection is there between writing a letter/question to the Rebbe and the hiskashrus between Chassid and Rebbe?
An old Chassidic aphorism says that just as “a woman is acquired in [one of] three ways – kesef, shtar, biah, so too, a Chassid is acquired and designated to a Rebbe in three ways: kesef – with maamad money (to support the Rebbe’s household); shtar – writing to the Rebbe; biah – traveling to the Rebbe.
That “deed of acquisition” became the “deed of submission” and one of the main ways by which a Chassid connects to the Rebbe. It is hard to describe the life of a Chassid without writing to the Rebbe at every juncture of life, in matters material and spiritual, as the Rebbe testifies in his letter of 15 Shevat 5709:
“There is a Rebbe in Israel and he is not entered into the limitations of nature; and one who wants to walk securely: in business, running the house, etc. should not raise his hand without asking the Rebbe.”
To those Chassidim who did not write frequently and only remembered to write when some disaster took place, the Rebbe wrote that a Chassid ought to get used to informing the Rebbe about every joyous thing and what a pity it is that they wait until something distressing happens and only then write to the Rebbe.
From these letters we see how important it is to write to the Rebbe.
Writing to the Rebbe is of supreme importance and Chassidim even drew a parallel between the day they wrote to the Rebbe and the day they had yechidus. Immersing in a mikva, properly preparing, wearing a hat and jacket (a gartel for those who are married), practices associated with yechidus, became standard for writing to the Rebbe as well.
Today too, the widespread approach among Chassidim is to treat writing to the Rebbe as a sort of yechidus and the answers received through the Igros Kodesh are founded upon what the Alter Rebbe testifies in his well-known introduction how through the Tanya, one can receive answers to all questions:
“All of them are answers to many questions posed continually by Anash of our country seeking advice …because time no longer permits [me] to reply to everyone individually on his particular query, and also because forgetfulness is common. I have therefore recorded all the replies to all the questions, to be preserved as a sign, and to serve as a reminder in everyone’s mind. No longer will one need to press for a private audience, for in these Likutei Amarim one will find tranquillity for his soul, and true counsel on everything that he finds difficult in the service of G-d. Thus his heart will be firmly secure in G-d who completes and perfects everything for us.”
THE REBBE FOUND THE WAY
When did the phenomenon of writing to the Rebbe and getting answers in the Igros Kodesh begin?
After Gimmel Tammuz 5754, it was no longer possible to ask the Rebbe anything. The confusion was even greater on major issues such as urgent medical matters where decisions had to be made, shidduchim which people did not dare conclude without the Rebbe’s bracha, life and death issues and the like.
At that time, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Gluckowsky would learn some letters in the Igros Kodesh every day. After a while, he noticed that he was seeing answers to subjects that he was dealing with at the time. Sometimes, someone came and asked him a question and he remembered that that day or the day before he had seen that topic in a letter. The first times he chalked it up to coincidence but when it occurred frequently he realized that something unusual was going on.
He remembered what the Rebbe said, that the Rebbe will find a way to answer and then he told stories about answers he got from the Rebbe through the Igros Kodesh. That is how this was publicized.
At first, there were many who evinced skepticism on the matter…
Yes. Like anything new, here too, people raised questions. You can look at the whole thing in a number of ways and each of them separately can be “problematic.” Some see these answers as a sort of siman. Some compare it to holding a lottery. Others treat it like prophecy. But as I mentioned earlier, most Chassidim see it as a direct continuation to what Chassidim did, i.e. write to the Rebbe, and therefore, they consider the letter as an answer they received from the Rebbe.
Those who looked at it as receiving a siman maintained that this is forbidden because Rashi says on the words “lo senachashu,” “This refers to those who predict the future using a weasel or birds, his bread fell from his mouth, a deer crossed in front of him.” The Rambam rules that if the siman is just seen as a general sign then it is permissible to do, but if the siman will be used to decide future behavior, it is forbidden. However, contrary to the view of the Rambam, many of the poskim rule that even if an action is taken because of the siman, this is not the prohibition of nichush, as they’ve written, “We have found a number of gedolim who said to a child, ‘relate a verse,’ and took action based on this, considering it a sort of minor prophecy.”
In an article that I wrote on this topic, I brought a list of gedolim who would make decisions about practical matters by using a siman, starting with Eliezer the servant of Avrohom who decided on a proper wife for Yitzchok with a sign, continuing with Yonasan the son of Shaul who made a siman when deciding whether to go and fight the Pelishtim and Yoshiyahu the king who ripped his clothes and returned the nation in repentance and even hid the Aron because of a hint he received in a Sefer Torah.
In the Gemara several stories are recounted about Tannaim and Amoraim who asked young children, “p’sok li p’sukecha” and based on the verse the child quoted, they knew what to do or what would happen.
That’s all in connection with an ordinary siman but when it involves opening a sefer, there are many sources for this. In the Sefer Taamei HaMinhagim he brings from Yalkut Mishlei, “If you want to take counsel from the Torah, take it,” meaning, opening a sefer and seeing what verse you chanced upon. Also in that Medrash, “Whatever a person learns each day, he may contemplate [and derive from it] counsel in all his matters about what to do.” From this we see that even in order to take practical action, it is permissible to open sefarim and he concludes there, “It seems to me that according to all opinions it is permissible to open the Torah and see what verse comes up, because this is our life and as we find with Yoshiyahu who took action based on finding a Sefer Torah.”
The Chida explains the rationale for permitting this and brings a source from this Medrash, “If you want to take counsel from the Torah, take it,” and from Tehillim where Dovid says, “In Your commandments I will speak.”
Other poskim and commentators incline towards this practice of opening sefarim and even emphasize the need and benefit in doing so.
In Darchei Yosef it says that he received from his teachers that when they wanted to do something and were unsure whether to do it or not, they would take a Chumash or Tanach and open it and see which verse came up first on the page and take action based on what the verse said, and they would consult with the Torah about what to do in all their matters. And this is learned from the statement of the Sages about taking counsel from the Torah, which indicates the validity of so doing and this does not connote “using” the Torah. There is another allusion to this in the verse, “Seek out from upon the sefer of Hashem.”
Another allusion is from the explanation of the verse, “Also Your testaments are my delights, men of my counsel,” meaning that Your testimonies are my playthings since in them and through them, I am attached to Hashem. And they are “men of my counsel” in that I know through them how to conduct myself. Thus Dovid asked, “uncover my eyes and I will see wonders from Your Torah.”
In Likutim Yekarim it brings that from the Torah that a person learns that day and afterward encounters something related to that subject and he is unsure about whether to do it or not, he can understand how to behave from what he learned, as long as he clings constantly to Hashem.
In Sifsei Tzaddikim he brings an explanation to the statement, “Know what is above you; an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book,” that in the first Beis HaMikdash they knew, through the Urim V’Tumim, and in the second Beis HaMikdash, through a heavenly voice. The “eyes that sees” refers to the Urim V’Tumim; the “ear that hears” refers to the heavenly voice; and now in exile a Tzaddik can see everything in what is written in Torah works, and this is the meaning of “all your deeds are written in a book,” and as the Baal Shem Tov said that by opening a sefer a Tzaddik can deal with all of his questions as a sort of prophecy.”
In Notzer Chessed he explains the statement of the Sages, “Turn it and turn it for all is within it, and in it you will see,” that when they would ask the Baal Shem Tov any question, he would open a sefer (Zohar or a Gemara or the like) and learn and then respond. He said that the light that Hashem created enabled Adam to see from one end of the world to the other, and where did Hashem hide it for Tzaddikim? In the Torah. When a Tzaddik learns Torah for Hashem’s sake, then he sees from one end of the world to the other and this is “and in it you will see.”
In all those examples, we see there is no prohibition to open sefarim; on the contrary, one who does so connects his ways and deeds with the Torah. But from the Notzer Chessed it seems that this is only for someone on a high level like the Baal Shem Tov and other Tzaddikim who saw from one end of the world to the other and cleaved to Hashem. What source is there for people like us to get answers from sefarim?
In the sicha of 19 Kislev 5715, the Rebbe mentions this and categorizes that “what was said only pertains to such a Jew whose every matter is aligned with as they are above, and so he can be sure that what he opens to is an instruction from above.”
Alternatively, the Rebbe himself once said that this is something that pertains to everybody. For example, the answer the Rebbe gave to a question he was asked, “We were presented with various proposals for … and we cannot decide which to pursue. What should we do?” was “There are those who open a Chumash or Tehillim and the first verse they come across is one from which they learn what to do.”
The Rebbe spoke about this publicly, basing it on the practice that was seen with numerous gedolei Yisrael of the past, which places it in the category of “the practice of one’s Rebbi” and conduct that pertains to all, including simple people and women. This is what he says:
“We find a source for this behavior, i.e. to look for instruction in the Torah about what to do, from stories of Chazal about Tannaim and Amoraim who met a child and said, “p’sok li p’sukecha,” and based on this they decided what to do, meaning, hearing the verse that the child they met learned that day was a lesson and instruction for them, by divine providence, (and therefore they specifically asked a child because since he does not involve his intellect etc. the divine providence is more apparent) about what to do.
“As is known, the practice of many Jews, whether gedolei Yisrael or simple people and women, that before doing a certain thing they open a holy book and look at the place they opened to and their eye fell upon first, and based on this they decided what to do. For example, when they opened to “open shall you open,” or “rejoice shall you rejoice,” they had a sign from above that they would be very successful in the thing they were about to do, or they understood from the sign to refrain from doing something or to postpone it.”
To summarize, from the Rebbe we see that it pertains to all and even simple people, women etc. and this conduct has the advantages of faith in Hashem and His divine providence and the advantage of consulting with the Torah. But it is important to stress that Chassidim do this and consider it as directly asking the Rebbe and connecting to him and not just an ordinary sign or lottery.
NOT A SIMAN
You mentioned in the beginning and you stress it now again that there are those who considered these answers as a kind of sign but Chassidim see it as asking the Rebbe and a direct response from the Rebbe. What is your source for this?
As far as putting letters into the Rebbe’s sefarim, the first source for this is a letter for 10 Shevat 5711 where the Rebbe writes that “after davening in the morning and reviewing Chassidus, each one should read a pidyon nefesh (wearing a gartel) … then put the pidyon nefesh in the pages of a maamar, kuntrus etc. of the teachings of the Rebbe, my father-in-law, and to send it (if possible, that day) to be read at his tziyun.”
As an additional support, there is the known practice of Chassidim over the generations when, for whatever reason they could not send their letter to the Rebbe, they would place the letter between the pages of his sefarim and teachings. I heard that till today, there are volumes of maamarei Chassidus in the library of Aguch that are handwritten, that had been owned by elder Chassidim, and they would place the pidyonei nefesh that they wrote to the Rebbe within the pages. They remain there until today.
Another important source is in a sicha of the Rebbe of 12 Tammuz 5710 that there are those who think there is a difference between the situation in the past and today. In the past, the Rebbe [Rayatz] would be able to call him in for a private audience or write him a letter to demand of him that he carry out his mission, but today he can do as he wants. To this, the Rebbe says life is eternal life and therefore all matters of shlichus and the abilities that were previously conferred remain in full force, and today too [the Rebbe Rayatz] continues to demand of him to fulfill his role and shlichus.
“There are those who wonder about such talk but the truth is, it is found in Tanach, ‘And a letter came to him from Eliyahu Ha’Navi’ several years after Eliyahu went up in a whirlwind! So why the surprise that now too, the Rebbe continues to send? In what way does he inform? The Rebbe has his ways and can be relied upon …”
Chassidim understood that if this was true previously, it is certainly true today and they began to follow the practice that the Rebbe mentioned a number of times, to open sefarim randomly. Indeed, it was discovered that the Rebbe has his ways of making known what he wants and this refers to answers received via the Igros Kodesh. The practice spread to all communities and many receive an answer through the Igros Kodesh. When the miracles began to become ubiquitous, this practice gained traction and many tried and received answers and were saved in this way.
Since this entire matter of putting a letter into the Igros Kodesh was accepted by us as writing to the Rebbe, obviously, one should apply all the rules for writing to the Rebbe. Therefore, only ask those questions that you would have previously asked the Rebbe. Preparations should include washing hands, wearing a gartel and spiritual preparations like giving tzedaka and make a good hachlata in Torah and mitzvos as the Rebbe taught us, to make vessels to receive the blessings.
OBEYING THE REBBE’S INSTRUCTIONS ABOUT WRITING
Would you tell us more about what you mentioned, about not asking the Rebbe certain things?
Since the Rebbe told us to appoint a rav for ourselves with whom to consult about avodas Hashem, when a Chassid is unsure about a spiritual matter, he should first approach his mashpia and ask him. After the mashpia hears the question, if he knows what the Rebbe’s view is, he should say so and there is no reason to ask the Rebbe, since he knows the Rebbe’s wishes on this matter.
By the way, the series of Igros Kodesh is an amazing source for clarifying the Rebbe’s view on a myriad of topics. With the index of topics you can find letters in which the Rebbe addresses various situations in detail and clearly states his view.
This is actually addressed in the foreword in volume twelve of Igros Kodesh (p. 17) which was written by the Rebbe’s instruction and which the Rebbe saw before it was printed. There it says that these letters are full of advice and guidance in avodas Hashem, matters of communal work, personal problems and every possible subject. The letters encompass all areas of life and one who studies them will find a wealth of instructions and guidance. When you examine the thousands of letters in these volumes, you learn what the Rebbe’s view is on nearly every question that might arise.
“In the early years,” says the foreword, “as the number of Chassidim grew, may they increase, receiving individuals for personal audiences was stopped; also the writing of detailed letters is unlike earlier years. The Rebbe said more than once in his sichos that in this era they should not add in [sending in] personal questions. Rather, one should consult with one’s mashpia etc.
“At precisely this time, we merit the appearance of the volumes of Igros Kodesh in print so that one who seeks to know the Rebbe’s view on nearly every subject in every area of life can find it in the Igros Kodesh.”
What if the mashpia does not find a direct response from the Rebbe to the problem and he feels that he cannot take responsibility to decide on the question. Is it then okay to write to the Rebbe?’
Not so fast … The Rebbe himself set the rules about writing to him (sicha of 21 Adar 5748, Sefer HaSichos 5748, volume 1, p. 316) and obviously, you cannot write to the Rebbe while circumventing rules that the Rebbe himself established:
“Regarding questions in avodas Hashem, Torah and mitzvos, ask a rav moreh hora’ah (or beis din) in your city, including the instruction of the mishna, ‘asei lecha rav.’
“Regarding questions for advice about parnassa and the like, ‘salvation with much counsel,’ consult with knowledgeable friends.
“Regarding medical matters, ‘and guard etc. your souls,’ conduct yourself in such a way that from the outset you don’t become sick, including, when necessary, doing as an expert doctor instructs … even better, a doctor-friend and in special situations, ‘salvation with much counsel,’ two expert doctors and when there is a difference of opinion, do as the majority.”
We first need to fulfill the Rebbe’s instruction and speak to a rav/doctor/adviser. It sometimes happens that the rav/doctor/adviser does not know what to say and then they can tell him to write to the Rebbe.
Another rule the Rebbe said is that asking by opening holy books is only “when you want to clarify something within the realm of the permissible (where there is no explicit directive of the Torah to do like this or that)” (Bamidbar 5749, Sefer Ha’Sichos 5749, volume 2, page 489). In other words, “It is necessary to clarify an essential point: looking for signs in Torah about actual conduct is only for those matters about which there is room for doubt etc., and more generally, about permissible matters … where there is a need to look in ‘heaven’ (Torah) for a ‘sign’ how to act. But when you know with certainty what one must do according to Torah, actual heavenly matters, there is no need to look for signs etc., and obviously not to postpone doing something because of some sign (Shabbos parshas Noach, Hisvaaduyos 5749, volume 1, page 310).”
Of course, all these limitations are when there is a question, whether to do this or that. However, after asking a doctor-friend etc., as the Rebbe says to do, it is important to ask for the Rebbe’s bracha for success. So for example a medical matter; after consulting with two expert doctors, it is important to write to the Rebbe that you fulfilled his instruction and the doctors say such-and-such and that you request a bracha. In the same sicha where the Rebbe set the limitations on asking him, he concludes, “As far as asking for a bracha, pidyonos etc., we are reiterating and informing again that in these matters there is a ‘chazaka’ that with Hashem’s help these requests etc. will continue to be fulfilled.”
What about writing reports to the Rebbe? Are there limitations on that too?
Unlike letters with questions, which can be written to the Rebbe only after speaking to a rav/adviser/doctor, when it comes to reports the Rebbe encouraged the Chassidim to write detailed reports about their activities in the “vineyard of Chabad.”
At the same time, the Rebbe asked not to write about trivial matters: “There are those who think that the first order of priority is to write me letters and the more the better, not considering who is the writer, what is his position, what he is writing about etc. … therefore, it is necessary to clarify that before writing a letter … think again about whether this letter should be written or if it’s a waste of time, the time of the writer and the time of the recipient” (27 Cheshvan 5749, Hisvaaduyos volume 1, page 263).
After writing the letter, what is the best way to understand the answer in the Igros Kodesh?
Since this is about the Rebbe and Chassid bond through the medium of the written word, first, just as in earlier years, we did not write to the Rebbe about every nonsensical thing, but just about serious matters, the same applies today. Before writing, think for a moment; before Gimmel Tammuz would I have written this letter?
Second, in earlier years we did not always merit to receive an answer form the Rebbe. The same applies today; we do not always receive an answer. The Rebbe does not have to reply…
There are some who haven’t absorbed this basic idea and think that there must be an answer. Therefore, they look for some hint, just to get an answer … This is not right and can lead to twisting the meaning of what the Rebbe says, G-d forbid.
Sometimes, people come to me to consult about an answer in the Igros Kodesh. A person asked about something and does not see an answer to what he asked, but since he thinks there must be an answer, he tries to look for something in the letter. I always want to know what the question was and if I don’t see an answer to his question, I say: The Rebbe did not answer you. As in the past, if circumstances change, you can ask again; of course, after all the requisite preparations.
[Many times, I’ve seen that there was no answer and it turned out that the questioner did not first speak to his mashpia or doctor as the Rebbe said to do. This might be the reason the Rebbe did not respond.]
An important point: Since, sometimes, one can arrive at different conclusions as to what the Rebbe is saying, it is worthwhile not to rely solely on your own opinion but to show it to a mashpia, rav, friend, etc. From experience, I can say that when you consult with your mashpia, there is a special siyata dishmaya to arrive at the correct answer of the Rebbe.
It also fits with the Rebbe’s instruction in the aforementioned sichos and the sicha of 2 Adar 5748 or as the Alter Rebbe himself concludes in his introduction to Tanya, “He whose mind is too limited to understand how to derive advice from these pamphlets, let him discuss his problem with the foremost scholars of his town and they will enlighten him. Of [these scholars] I request that they not lay their hand upon their mouth, (not to keep silent when asked for advice, for fear of appearing to be proud in their knowledge), to conduct themselves with false modesty and humility. It is well known how bitter is the punishment of him who ‘withholds sustenance,’ and also how great is the reward (granted to one who provides such knowledge. This is well known) from the comment of our Sages on the verse, ‘G-d enlightens the eyes of them both.’ Thus G-d will cause His face to shine upon them, with the light of the countenance of the King [which provides] life.”