Written by Rabbi Shmuel Pevzner, Photos by Shimon Roumani
In the midst of the days of Selichos, the streets leading to Oholei Torah’s grand ballroom teemed with people, as throngs of men, women and many children, kein yirbu, dressed in their Shabbos finest, came to celebrate the conclusion of the 38th annual Rambam study cycle of Mishneh Torah and Sefer Hamitzvos.
A quick glance at the crowd illustrates the strength of the Rebbe’s takanah. Here are Jews that have completed a compendium on the entire Torah sheBaal Peh for the thirty eighth time! These types of numbers were in the past only the lot of great Torah scholars, about whom it is related how they completed the Torah a vast number of times. The takanah of Rambam study has brought even the average Jew to be able to complete the entire Torah within one or three years, together with thousands of other Jews around the globe. Among the crowd are younger faces, along with bochurim and children, who were born after the institution of Rambam study, and were raised with the simple idea that part of the daily routine of a Jew and chossid includes the study of Rambam.
Everyone turned aside from all their matters in order to participate in the International Siyum Harambam, which has been organized for many years by the capable hands of Rabbi Shmuel Menachem Mendel Butman, Director of the Central Lubavitch Youth Organization and Chairman of the “International Siyum HaRambam,” an event which has merited extraordinary interest and involvement by the Rebbe, including naming it “Siyum Harambam Haolami,” and the guidance to delay the celebration to an appropriate time to enable a more glorious celebration with a larger crowd, as it was by the celebration of the second cycle’s conclusion in 5746.
The formal opening of the celebration began with the recital of chapter 118 of Tehillim, the chapter recited for the Rebbe this year. The chassidic cantor Rabbi Shneur Zalman Baumgarten led the recital posuk by posuk, and the conclusion of the chapter, “Keili atah,” was sung with much emotion in the famous melody composed by the Alter Rebbe, providing a farbrengen element to the event.
The lights in the hall were dimmed while video screens displayed short clips of the Rebbe from the early days of the takanah, beginning with the siyum delivered by the Rebbe on the first study cycle in 5745, followed by the famous hadran that sent waves across the entire spectrum of the Jewish world. The joy evident on the Rebbe’s holy face as the crowd subsequently sang Sisu v’Simchu brings us to immediately sense the tremendous satisfaction derived by the Rebbe from the current siyum on the 38th cycle, a satisfaction that is brought about by each and every one of the participants in the study.
The celebration was enhanced by the Tomchei Temimim Boys Choir, directed by Rabbi Moshe Goldstein, who sang a medley of songs in honor of the occasion.
The Way to Connect with the Rebbe!
The speeches opened with remarks from the emcee Rabbi Shmuel Butman, who discussed the question some ask: “What is the idea behind learning Rambam?”
Obviously, as Rabbi Butman pointed out, who are we to attempt understanding the true reasons behind the takanah of the Nasi Hador. Still, there are certain aspects that everyone is able to understand and explain.
The Gemara in Maseches Megilah compares the halachos of Torah to the “crown” of Torah. The Alter Rebbe explains that a crown is worn above the head which is the seat of intellect. The Divine Will in the fulfillment of mitzvos is called ‘Kesser,’ and these 620 pillars of light—the numerical value of Kesser—are the 613 biblical mitzvos and 7 rabbinic mitzvos. The way through which one takes hold, so to speak, of Hashem Himself is by studying the halachos in which His Will is explained, for Hashem and His Will are one.
Another explanation is found in the posuk with which the Rambam chose to begin his sefer: “Then, I won’t be ashamed when I look at all Your mitzvos.” Many have struggled to understand the connection between this posuk and the Rambam. The Rebbe explains that without learning Rambam, there is the possibility to be embarrassed, for when a Jew is asked whether he fulfilled the obligation to study the entire Torah, even if he has mastered several masechtos of Talmud, he has still not studied the entire Torah. Embarrassment isn’t only a detail of the person, rather the entire person is filled with shame. But “then”—when one studies the Mishneh Torah, which encapsulates the entire Torah sheBaal Peh, “I won’t be embarrassed,” for the study of all the halachos in Rambam is considered like studying the entire Torah.
These reasons are understandable to every Jew. We, chassidim, have an additional—and the most fundamental—reason:
Rambam study is the takanah of the Rebbe!
In countless letters, the Rebbe writes regarding Chitas, “Surely you learn the daily study regimens of Chumash, Tehillim, and Tanya, as my father-in-law the Rebbe instituted.”
Rambam is the Rebbe’s inyan and the takanah that he instituted! Everyone looks for ways to connect with the Rebbe, but there is no need to look far—Rambam study is the way to connect with the Rebbe every single day, whether by learning three chapter a day, one chapter, or for women and children, Sefer Hamitzvos. Connecting with the Rebbe brings with it the blessings of Hashem for children, health and sustenance—all in abundance.
Decades ago, the Rebbe stressed the importance and urgency of this collective study of Torah by the entire community. This unity will herald the redemption from galus and bring a solution to all the problems that stem from a lack of unity. We don’t need any proofs; the situation in the world at large, and particularly in Eretz Yisrael, is in desperate need of the complete geulah, which will bring a solution to all the problems and bring to the completeness of Torah, completeness of the Jewish people, and completeness of the Holy Land, with the true and complete geulah very soon.
“Your stress should be in Torah”
Next, Rabbi Leibel Wulliger, Rosh Kollel of Torah Vodaas, and representative of the Munkatcher Rebbe, was invited to the podium. Rabbi Wulliger, an old friend of Lubavitch, began by describing his experiences accompanying his father Rabbi Binyomin Wulliger every Shabbos Mevorchim to the Rebbe’s farbrengen, as well as to the unforgettable hakafos on Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah.
At the conclusion of his speech, exuding chassidic warmth, he related a miracle that his father experienced thirty years ago when he had heart problems:
“I came with my father to 770, and my father told the Rebbe, ‘Tomorrow I will need to undergo a stress test, and I request the Rebbe’s blessing.’ The Rebbe responded, ‘Your stress should be in Torah.’ When my father returned home, he asked my mother to cancel the scheduled test, for after the Rebbe’s words he doesn’t need any test, and he proceeded to live without any heart issues to the age of 96! This is a Rebbe and chossid—simple emunah in the tzaddik is the essence of a true chossid.”
The Rabbonim of the Crown Heights Beis Din, Rabbi Avrohom Osdoba, Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Schwei and Rabbi Yosef Yeshayah Braun, extended their blessings to the gathering, and encouraged all those present to strengthen their commitment to the Rebbe’s takanah.
Before proceeding to the actual siyum, Rabbi Butman brought attention to the famous Gemara in Maseches Shabbos, quoting Abayei who said: “When I see a young Torah scholar who has completed a tractate, I make a festive feast for the sages.”
The Gemara is discussing a Torah scholar whose constant occupation is Torah. It is also just one individual who has completed the tractate, and the celebration is for all the sages. The joy is perhaps even greater considering that those who completed Rambam aren’t necessarily immersed full time in Torah; most are average Jews who toil all day to earn a living, and notwithstanding all their preoccupations, they don’t even consider the thought of getting into bed before studying the daily Rambam. Furthermore, the Gemara discusses one individual who completed one tractate, and here the entire gathering completed the Rambam, which encapsulates the entire Torah. One can just imagine how great the joy and celebration is with regard to the Siyum Harambam!
The actual siyum, concluding the 38th cycle, was recited by a distinguished guest, Rabbi Usher Anshel Eckstein, the Belzer Dayan of Machzikei Hadas and a respected figure in the world of Kashrus.
Rabbi Eckstein began with learning the last halachah of Rambam, in Hilchos Melachim, describing how the world will be in Moshiach’s times: “There will be no hunger, nor war… and the goodness will be plentiful… ‘For the earth will be filled with knowledge of Hashem as the water covers the sea.’”
He went on to relate the strong bond between the Belzer Rebbeim and Chabad Rebbeim throughout the generations, and called for the community to strive for a higher level of Rambam study, each according to his capabilities.
Amazing Hashgacha Pratis
The siyum was immediately followed by beginning the Rambam anew, and invited to commence the 39th cycle was the steady and revered attendee, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Daskal, Rosh Yeshivah of the Vizhnitzer Yeshivah Tzemach Tzadik, whose vast knowledge of Chabad’s teachings is apparent from his annual talks at the siyum.
Rabbi Daskal pointed out that the celebration was scheduled for the night preceding 23 Elul, the yahrtzeit of the Rebbe’s grandfather Rabbi Meir Shlomo Yanovsky, for whom the Rebbe would say kaddish on this day. With astounding hashagacha pratis, thirty years ago during the farbrengen of Shabbos Parshas Nitzavim 5749, the Rebbe discussed the holy life of his grandfather, and pointed out a parallel between him and the Rambam: The name of the Rambam contains an open mem (מ) and a closed mem (ם), since in his Torah there are both revealed and concealed parts. The Rebbe said similarly of his grandfather, that there are aspects that are known and those that are concealed, and the Rebbe quoted in connection to this the concluding words of the Rambam: “For the earth will be filled with knowledge of Hashem as water covers the earth.”
This illustrates how everything is by Divine Providence; the Rebbe saw with his Ruach Hakodesh that there will be a Siyum Harambam on 23 Elul, and the scheduling of the siyum for this night was ordained from Above.
Another wondrous idea he pointed out is that during the coming Rosh Hashanah, we will be studying the laws of Shofar in Rambam. We will also be reciting the text of the hagadah as part of the Rambam study for that day, which he explained based on the teaching of the first Vizhnitzer Rebbe, the Tzemak Tzadik, regarding the connection between Shofar and Pesach: the letters that make up the word “shofar” (שופר) are the letters that follow those that make up the word “kaarah” (קערה)—i.e. shin comes after reish, vav comes after hei, and so on—and this is the meaning of “we lift the seder plate (kaarah),” to go one letter above, in other words, backwards. This year, according to the Rebbe’s takanah, we will be studying the nusach of the hagadah on Rosh Hashanah!
Rabbi Yitzchak Wolpin, representing the Stoliner Rebbe, began by mentioning his late uncle, Rabbi Chaim Boruch Wolpin the Rosh Yeshivah of Karlin-Stolin, who participated for many years in the siyum.
The Rebbe’s Ruach Hakodesh
Rabbi Wolpin spoke of the friendship between Chabad and Stolin-Karlin dating back many generations, and that every Chabad machzor contains the famous story about R. Aharon Hagadol of Karlin, colleague of the Alter Rebbe from the time they learned together under the Mezritcher Magid.
The power of completing the entire Rambam is evident from the story with R. Shlomo of Karlin, who after completing the Rambam on the Rambam’s yahrtzeit, 20 Teves, ruled in accordance with the Rambam in order to exempt a Jew from the sin of degrading a Torah scholar.
Rabbi Wolpin concluded with a personal miracle he experienced with the Rebbe: In 5750, he was involved in working with Russian Jewry, and for Chanukah, he and his colleagues arranged Jewish concerts in Moscow and Lvov to bring joy and encouragement to the local Jews.
“R’ Avraham Fried, who was among the singers, and did it l’sheim shamayim without asking for any remuneration, requested of me to mention him for a brachah by the Rebbe. My plan was to first travel to Eretz Yisrael to be by the resting place of the Rebbe R. Yochanan of Stolin in Tverya, and afterwards continue to Moscow for the Chanukah concert.
“I saw it as a great zechus to bring satisfaction to the Rebbe from my work with the Jews in Russia, knowing how much efforts the Rebbe invested for them with mesiras nefesh throughout the years. I came to the Rebbe and told him about my upcoming to trip to Moscow for the concerts. The Rebbe responded with a blessing for success and gave me a dollar. Then, the Rebbe gave me another dollar, and told me to give it for tzedakah in Eretz Hakodesh. Although I hadn’t mentioned anything about my plan, the Rebbe knew this with Ruach Hakodesh.
This, however, is a small miracle. The primary miracle is the spreading of Torah every day through the Rebbe’s shluchim and chassidim, who reach every single Jew regardless of their level or affiliation.
During Seudas Moshiach in the year “Divrei Moshiach”
The following speaker was Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Wolfson, Rav of Beis Midrash Emunas Yisrael and son of the mashgiach Rabbi Moshe Wolfson, who shared a special closeness with the Rebbe.
Rabbi Butman divulged that Rabbi Wolfson has a daily study session with a chavrusa in the teachings of the Rebbe’s father R. Levi Yitzchak, and was in Alma Ata this year for chof Av.
Rabbi Wolfson recalled his thoughts when he first heard of the takanah in 5744: “I decided this must be connected with the geulah, with which the Rebbe was involved so enthusiastically. I wrote to the Rebbe, quoting from various sefarim that the Ruzhiner said the Rambam was worthy of being Moshiach, only that the generation wasn’t worthy, and therefore the Raavad wrote his hasagos on the Rambam. I concluded that it seems to me that this is why the Rebbe, during the Seudas Moshiach, in the year of “Divrei Moshiach,” instituted the study of Rambam. The Rebbe responded with a handwritten note: ‘Received, and much thanks. Note that the Rambam writes in Igeres Teiman of the tradition that the geulah will come in the year 4976, and that this is the most correct ketz. This was eleven years after the Rambam’s passing, and this was the time of Achishenah for that time period.’
“I saw this as an affirmation of my feelings that the takanah of Rambam is connected with hastening the geulah.”
Rabbi Gavriel Zinner, who merited to be personally directed by the Rebbe to speak at the siyum, and has since participated annually, spoke briefly with passionate words related to the present time in the days leading to Rosh Hashanah.
Rabbi Avrohom Rabinowitz, representing the Boyaner Rebbe in Eretz Yisrael, stressed the uniqueness of celebrating the siyum in the days prior to Rosh Hashanah.
Rabbi Shlomo Leiser representing Sanz-Klausenburg, Rav of Klausenburg Borough Park, annual participant in the siyum, began with stating that his participation isn’t as a guest, rather as part of the congregation. He continued to quote various sichos of the Rebbe in connection to Rosh Hashanah.
The Rambam Himself Demands the Siyum
Rabbi Meir Waldislavsky, Gerrer Rosh Kollel, described how the Gerrer Chassidim begin studying Tanya even prior to their Bar Mitzvah. He spoke of the greatness of completing Rambam, and quoted from R. Yibi, disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, regarding the statement of Chazal, “One who begins a mitzvah, they tell him to finish.” Who tells him? The mitzvah itself asks him to finish! Thus, the Rambam himself demands that we complete his sefer!
Rabbi Butman thanked the personal representative of the Skeverer Rebbe who came specially from New Square to the siyum celebration.
The final speaker was Rabbi Aharon Weinberg, grandson of the Slonimer Rebbe the “Birkas Avrohom,” and well known for his knowledge in Chabad Chassidus, spoke excitedly about the takanah of Rambam study, and the Rebbe who instituted the takanah.
Subsequently, a special presentation was shown containing rare videos of the Rebbe over Tishrei 5740, prepared by the family of the chossid Rabbi Schneur Zalman Gurary z”l, allowing those gathered to experience the atmosphere of how Tishrei is spent with the Rebbe.
It isn’t possible to not get emotional from the young children who gathered in an adjacent hall, with open pride, to celebrate their own siyum on Sefer Hamitzvos which they studied and throughout the year and completed. They enjoyed a special festive program under the direction of experienced educator Rabbi Levi Goldstein and his son Rabbi Schneur Zalman.
Rabbi Butman expressed heartfelt thanks to his son Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, who expended much effort for the success of the siyum.
The emcee announced that the next siyum will take place on 17 Tamuz 5780 in the holy city of Yerushalayim. He stressed that this day will already be transformed into a yom tov, and it will additionally be a festive day due to the siyum. Rabbi Butman noted a wondrous thing in the upcoming cycle, that the first halachah in the current cycle was studied on Tisha B’Av, and the final halachah will be studied on 17 Tamuz. There is a saying of the Chozeh of Lublin that in Moshiach’s times, Tisha B’Av will be the first day of yom tov, and 17 Tamuz will be the final day of yom tov. May it be so, and the world will be filled with knowledge of Hashem as water covers the earth, speedily in our days!
To the melodious music of R’ Yosef Yitzchak (“Fitche”) Benshimon, the crowd danced joyously in the rejoicing of Torah, Sisu v’simchu b’simchas Torah, as a prelude to the tremendous rejoicing with the coming of Moshiach immediately.