The Tunisian Tanya Typeset Anew That Saved Tunisia’s Jews




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    The Tunisian Tanya Typeset Anew That Saved Tunisia’s Jews

    Tunisian shliach Rabbi Nissan Pinson was being constantly harassed and tapped by the Anti-Semitic Tunisian authorities (the Rebbe said “it was worse than Russia…”). The Rebbe had a solution that included a Sefer Torah and a very unique edition of the Tanya • By Beis Moshiach Magazine • Full Article

    Avrohom Rainitz, Beis Moshiach

    If you have the occasion to visit the home of Rabbi Shneur Zalman Chanin in Crown Heights, you can’t miss the dozens of shelves packed with a single sefer in dozens of colors and various sizes in thousands of editions. If you haven’t figured it out yet, it’s a collection of Tanyas that were printed over the past decades around the world. The Rebbe asked that the Tanya be printed wherever Jews live in order to hasten the Geula.

    R’ Chanin is the director of the Vaad L’Hafotzas Sichos for many decades now. Ever since the Rebbe appointed the members of the vaad as responsible for administering the Kehot publishing arm and the printing of the Tanya around the world (which Rabbi Sholom Jacobson a’h oversaw), R’ Chanin has a warm spot for the Tanyas which he collects. Along with the sefarim, R’ Chanin also tries to collect the stories behind them and there are many of those.

    Among all the editions that were printed in the previous 120 years, there are only two editions that are very different than all the rest. Ever since the Tanya was printed in Vilna in 5660/1900, all editions of the Tanya were photocopies of the Vilna edition except for two editions that were printed in a new arrangement of the letters, one in Tel Aviv in 5703 and one on the island of Djerba in 5728.

    This was emphasized in the list of Tanya printings edited by the Rebbe where the Rebbe notes regarding the Vilna edition, “From the plates of this edition (or by means of photography) were published all editions that followed it (except for the edition of Tel Aviv 5703; Tunisia, Djerba 5728).”

    Researchers of the history of Tanya who noted the uniqueness of these two rare editions knew what lay behind the printing of the Tel Aviv edition which was published by R’ Pinchas (Pinye) Altheus, who decided, on his own, to arrange the letters anew in a new type face. Rumor has it that the Rebbe was not pleased by his decision and when he came to visit Beis Chayeinu in 5710, the Rebbe (then Ramash, son-in-law of the Rebbe Rayatz) asked him where he got the nerve (“breitkeit”) to do so.

    R’ Pinye answered in his mischievous way that for every mistake found in this edition, he would give the Rebbe a dollar! Some time later, R’ Pinye mustered the courage and spoke with the Rebbe about his mounting debt and asked, “How much?” The Rebbe lovingly replied, “Not too much.”

    But till today, it was not known what the rationale was for arranging the letters in a new type face in the Djerba edition. Rabbi Yehoshua Mondshine, for example, speculated that the printing of the Tanya in Djerba in a new type face was done primarily because of the technical inability to make a quality photocopy.

    In the following article, R’ Chanin reveals that it was done by order of the Rebbe who was very involved in this printing. R’ Chanin heard some of the details from Rabbi Nissan Pinson a’h himself when he received a copy of this unusual edition from him and some of it he heard from his son, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Pinson.


    5728 – Eight years had passed since the Rebbe had sent Rabbi Nissan Pinson to Tunisia. R’ Pinson, who was first on shlichus in Morocco, went to Tunisia at the time when most of the Jews, including rabbanim and Torah scholars, moved to Eretz Yisrael or left for France. Despite that, he founded yeshivos and Talmudei Torah, mikvaos and schools for girls and fought for authentic Jewish education throughout Tunisia.

    Life wasn’t easy for the young Lubavitcher in an Arab country. After the Six Day War, when Arab armies sustained defeat in their war against Israel, a new wave of persecution against Jews began in all Arab countries. It actually began on the first day of the war when the Arab media announced Arab victories and a band of Arab ruffians made their way toward the Jewish ghetto. The police ignored them as they waged a pogrom, looted Jewish stores, desecrated shuls, burned Sifrei Torah and even killed some Jews.

    In those days, some of the Chabad mosdos were on the edge of the city but the school for Jewish girls, Bais Rivka, was located in the city center. The hooligans tried to break into the building and set it on fire. R’ Pinson called the Rebbe’s office and as soon as Rabbi Chodakov heard R’ Pinson’s voice he put the Rebbe on the line (as was done in those days, whenever R’ Pinson called from Tunisia) and the Rebbe gave his blessing.

    R’ Pinson was holed up in the building surrounded by hoodlums and shortly after the conversation with the Rebbe he saw, through a crack in the window that the evil ones had ripped a mezuza off the doorway and knowing that the parchment inside is holy to Jews, they tried to burn the parchment. Amazingly, although parchment is flammable, in an open miracle it did not burn! They realized this was miraculous and it terrified them so they all ran away.

    R’ Pinson quickly went out and took the miracle mezuza that the family has till today. You can see the scorched edges but the parchment itself remained intact.

    After the war, the attacks on Jews ceased but the Arab government continued to harass R’ Pinson in every way possible. Since he was not a citizen of any other country, the government couldn’t expel him from Tunisia, but when he wanted to renew his passport (which, according to law, he had to renew every year or two), they pushed him off. With various excuses they kept telling him to go and come back for several months thus effectively keeping him a prisoner in the country.

    During those long months, the government placed a policeman outside the Pinson home to keep on eye on all those who came and went from the house. One day, the family noticed workers from the phone company who had supposedly come to fix the line. Mrs. Pinson told the technicians that they had no problem with the line but they said they were sent to fix the problems and had to do their work.

    It was later discovered that they had placed a listening device that could record every word said in the house, even not on the phone. The moment the shluchim realized that everything they said was being recorded, they were afraid to talk in the house and when there were sensitive subjects to discuss, they wrote notes. Later on, when they reported this to the Rebbe, the Rebbe said it was worse than Russia.

    It’s important to note that Tunisian Jewry did not have such a bad situation but the shluchim, who were not locals, were suspected by the government as spies for Israel.

    It took months for R’ Pinson to get his passport back. At the first opportunity he ordered a ticket for New York to visit the Rebbe and receive his bracha which he needed at this difficult time.

    At the final yechidus before his trip back home, R’ Pinson was given a surprising instruction, to print the Tanya in Tunisia and not with a photocopy as was the common practice, but to set the letters in a new type face.

    Nowadays, after more than 7000 editions printed all over the world, we are not excited by another printing of the Tanya but in those days, when only 62 editions had been printed since the days of the Alter Rebbe, every edition was special and this instruction surprised R’ Pinson.


    The Rebbe said: If the Tanya would be printed in Djerba, Australia and another country (the Rebbe did not specify which one), Moshiach would come!

    As though to cement the bond between the Tunisian edition and the Australian edition more strongly, the Rebbe took out a Tanya that had been printed the year before in Australia (edition #61) and told R’ Pinson to set the new type face according to the Australian edition. [This Tanya is in the possession of the Pinson family till today.]


    The print house in Djerba was established before the first world war by Chacham Dovid Idan (see sidebar) and the lead letters they used to create the engravings were worn out from much use, after printing nearly 700 sefarim!

    R’ Pinson, who was familiar with the print house, expressed his reservations to the Rebbe saying that since it was old, he wanted to know whether it was important to the Rebbe that the letters be set specifically with the original Djerba typesetting with old letters and who knew how the printing would come out or should they look for new letters so that the printing would be beautiful.

    The Rebbe got up, went over to the bookcase and took out a book that was printed on Djerba. The Rebbe opened the sefer, flipped through the pages to examine the quality of the print and then said: In my opinion it’s not so bad and you can print the Tanya with the letters they have there. The Rebbe then went on to say: I want it to be printed with the old letters of the print house in Djerba since they used these letters to print sifrei kodesh for many years and therefore, these letters became sanctified with the holiness of sefarim and they have extra holiness. “Therefore, I want them to print the Tanya in Djerba specifically with these letters because of their sanctity.” The Rebbe concluded, “These letters have a special yichus and this yichus, the holiness of the letters, is not in other letters.”

    The Rebbe went into detail about the printing. As in any print house, there were styles to choose from and the Rebbe chose a style and showed R’ Pinson which type of letters they should use to print the Tanya.

    Then the Rebbe told R’ Pinson that immediately upon returning to Tunisia, he should start working on the new Tanya and when he had several pages ready, he should send the galleys of the first eight pages to the Rebbe because the Rebbe wanted to see how it looked after being reset.


    As soon as R’ Pinson landed in Tunisia, he went to the Jewish print house in Djerba and began the work with great devotion. Within a short time he had the first eight pages and after checking them himself for errors, he sent them to the Rebbe.

    The degree to which the Rebbe cherished those galleys is seen in that they remained on his desk for more than twenty years! R’ Yosef Yitzchok Pinson, shliach in Nice, France, said that twenty years after it was printed, when he was visiting Crown Heights, Rabbi Binyamin Klein, the Rebbe’s secretary, gave him the old galleys and said: The Rebbe cleaned his desk today and gave me these galleys. They were on the desk ever since your father sent them, over twenty years ago and from this you see how important this printing was to the Rebbe!


    The work in rearranging the Tanya wasn’t easy for R’ Pinson. Aside from typesetting the letters, the multiple title pages also had to be created from scratch. While in a typical sefer there is only one frontispiece and for most authors it doesn’t matter how it looks, it’s altogether different for the Tanya which has a number of title pages starting from the first one known as “Shaar shel Rabeinu HaZakein,” which is a uniform design in all the sefarim of the Alter Rebbe; then the “shaar” on the next page which is made up of multiple squares with a variety of shapes where it says where it was printed; and in the additions to the Tanya there is a “moreh shiur” edited by the Rebbe Rayatz which is designed like the “shaar” of the Rebbe Rayatz; then the “shaar” of the “mafteichos” that the Rebbe edited which is designed like that of all of the Rebbe’s sefarim.

    The print house in Djerba obviously did not have designs on hand that were similar to these, and the printer designed his own decorative frames. For the first page he came up with a relatively simple design, whereas for the second page he developed a unique design, which was reminiscent of the standard design but highlighted the uniqueness of the Tunisian design.


    Since the letters were set anew, naturally, errors crept in (by the one who arranged the lead letters, known in Yiddish as “der bachur der zetzer”). For example, on top of the pages of Shaar Ha’Yichud v’ha’Emuna, one of the pages mistakenly had “Shaar Ha’Yichud V’ha’Yira.” When R’ Pinson caught the mistake after the sefer was printed, he wanted to fix it in all the sefarim but the Rebbe wrote that he should leave it the way it was.

    [Perhaps, one can say, that the reason the Rebbe said to leave it was because the purpose of printing the Tanya was to impose fear on the Arabs and it was an appropriate error.]

    Also, since the Tanya was being set from scratch, R’ Pinson thought it would be an opportunity to incorporate all the corrections the Rebbe had made in the “Luach Ha’tikun.” He asked the Rebbe and the Rebbe said not to do it.

    This instruction fits well with the general instruction that the members of the Vaad L’Hafotzas Sichos received when they were given responsibility to run Kehot, including printing editions of the Tanya worldwide, not to correct anything inside the Tanya. Even after the “Moreh Shiur” (daily learning schedule) was added to certain editions, in the margins, when Kehot printed the Tanya in 5749 and 5750 and the Rebbe gave out that edition, they asked whether to print the “Moreh Shiur” in the margins and the Rebbe said no.


    The work took many months and when the sefer was finally printed, R’ Pinson quickly traveled to the Rebbe to present it.

    On 4 Kislev 5729, R’ Pinson went in with the new Tanyas to the Rebbe. The Rebbe was very happy to receive them and he took one of the copies and gave it back to R’ Pinson and said: By printing the Tanya it will be easier to overcome all the obstacles and hurdles in the country.

    At the end of the yechidus, the Rebbe took the Tanya that was on his desk and gave it to R’ Pinson. It was a pocket edition that was printed shortly before in Australia.

    At that time, the Rebbe issued another instruction for a heavenly intervention to remove the decrees from the Jews of Tunisia. In 5729, there was a serious threat against the Jewish community in Tunisia and Chabad mosdos were in danger of being closed down and the shluchim expelled. When R’ Pinson informed the Rebbe, the Rebbe said the Jewish community in Tunisia should send him a Sefer Torah and in this merit, the decree would be abolished.

    At that time, the government confiscated R’ Pinson’s passport again so he sent the Sefer Torah with his wife and his  19-year-old son, Yosef Yitzchok. Upon their arrival, they had yechidus accompanied by R’ Nissan’s brother R’ Yehoshua, the gabbai of 770.

    The Rebbe told them to have the scroll fixed of any and all problems and to correct the words, “petzua daka” so that it would be written with an “alef” as is Chabad custom and that all the letter “shins” in the Torah should come to a point on the bottom and not be with a broad end and then to place the Sefer Torah in the aron kodesh in 770. The Rebbe asked that this be done quietly and the Sefer Torah was put in the aron kodesh on erev Shabbos when 770 was nearly empty. The Rebbe ended the yechidus by saying that after the Sefer Torah was brought in he would say a maamar and on Shabbos he would get an aliya in this Sefer Torah and then all the problems in Tunisia would be resolved.

    On Friday afternoon, 22 Elul 5729, R’ Yehoshua Pinson brought the Sefer Torah to the Rebbe’s room. Together with him were Rabbi Binyomin Gorodetzky, the Rebbe’s representative in Europe and North Africa; Rabbi Michoel Lipsker, the first shliach to Morocco in 5710, and Mrs. Rochel Pinson who brought a bottle of mashke with her which she put on the Rebbe’s desk.

    The Rebbe spent a long time alone with the Sefer Torah in his room and then he came out holding the Torah and went down to the big zal of 770. R’ Binyamin Gorodetzky opened the aron kodesh and the Rebbe himself put the Torah in.

    Then the Rebbe said they should daven mincha and one of the family members should be the chazan. Since one of the Chassidim who was a “chiyuv” had already approached the lectern to lead the services, the Rebbe asked R’ Chodakov to tell him that he should forgo it for R’ Pinson. The Rebbe said to that young man, “Most likely you will succeed in finding another minyan here.”

    Although at first the Rebbe wanted to say a maamar Chassidus after the hachnosas Sefer Torah, apparently the secret got out and by the end of mincha a large crowd had gathered in 770 and the Chassidim awaited the special maamar. The Rebbe said he would not say a maamar just then but would speak about the matter in a sicha on Shabbos.

    After that, the Rebbe told R’ Chodakov to tell R’ Gorodetzky and R’ Lipsker to come in to see him after Kabbolas Shabbos and maariv with a bottle of mashke, which they did.

    The next day, Shabbos, the Rebbe received his aliya in the Sefer Torah from Tunisia. At the farbrengen in the afternoon, the Rebbe said that the previous week a Sefer Torah had been brought to the Rebbe’s shul and in accordance with the Alter Rebbe’s instruction that we need to live with the times, it was connected to the parsha of the week, Nitzavim, where it says “Take this Sefer Torah and place it on the side of the aron bris Hashem your G-d.” The Medrashim say that Moshe wrote thirteen Sifrei Torah, twelve for the tribes and one to remain in the aron in the Holy of Holies.

    Then the Rebbe said a maamar connected with the subject and a sicha on the Medrash quoted by Rashi that “one is exiled to Barbary and one is exiled to Sumatra” (and as is known, Tunisia is the Barbary of the Medrash).

    Then the Rebbe blessed the shluchim in Tunisia who sacrificed themselves to spread the wellsprings, that they be successful in all matters, personal and communal.

    After the maamar, they brought five bottles of mashke to the Rebbe from his room. The Rebbe poured from each of these bottles into his kiddush cup. Then he poured back into the bottles. He gave the first three bottles to those involved, to R’ Gorodetzky, R’ Lipsker and R’ Pinson and to another two Chassidim. To each of them the Rebbe said he should give out from the mashke to Chassidim at a farbrengen and then return the bottle to the Rebbe.

    When the bottles were returned to the Rebbe, the Rebbe mixed the remains of the five bottles which he gave to R’ Chodakov and asked him to bring the bottles to his office.

    At the end of the farbrengen they sang “Uforatzta” and the Rebbe stood in his place and began clapping vigorously. This was unusual for those days.

    These otherworldly events quickly had an effect and the decrees were abolished during the following week. After the Tanya was printed and the hachnosas Sefer Torah and until today, the shluchim of the Rebbe operate in Tunisia with no hindrances and obstacles. In Djerba there is a big yeshiva and other mosdos Torah and kedusha with no problems from the government, unlike in other Moslem countries.


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