People Of The Book:
Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition
By Dr. Henry Abramson
It is possible to utilize for Gâ€‘d’s service, according to Torah, all behavior traits. This includes those traits that are unwholesome, and even those that are evil, as their names and descriptions indicate. For example, the tzaddik Rabbi Meshulam Zusya of Anipoli, of blessed memory, learned a number of methods of serving Gâ€‘d–from a thief: (a)Â He works quietly without others knowing; (b)Â He is ready to place himself in danger; (c)Â The smallest detail is of great importance to him; (d)Â He labors with great toil; (e)Â Alacrity; (f)Â He is confident and optimistic; (g)Â If he did not succeed the first time, he tries again and again.
–Entry for 3 Iyar
Years before he was recognized as the seventh Rebbe of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson published a modest collection of chassidic teachings and customs, designed for brief, daily use. Barely larger than a pamphlet, the book was soon recognized as a creation of genius, not only for its deceptively extensive scholarship but also for its broad appeal to popular audiences.
The work was commissioned by the sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, recently displaced from wartime Europe to Brooklyn. Adamantly proclaiming that “Amerika iz nisht anders” (America is no different), Rabbi Schneerson set to creating the tools that would rebuild the Chabad movement in the New World. He recognized that American-born Jewry lacked the foundational awareness of chassidic philosophy and folklore that Eastern European Jews absorbed at a cellular level, so he turned to his son-in-law Menachem Mendel with a rare challenge: create an accessible yet sophisticated review of 200 years of chassidic thought that would both educate and inspire. The result was Today is the day .Â .Â . A Calendar of Light Sown for Chabad Chassidim, 1943—44.
The title is drawn from the liturgical introduction to the Psalm of the Day, and alludes to the intended use of the book for brief, daily study. Written in a diary-style format, each week is presented on two facing pages: seven short entries of some seven lines of text, with a slightly longer passage for the Sabbath. It has the feel of a desk calendar with “a thought for the day” printed on each tear-away page, but the immediate public response dictated a far more expansive use of HaYom Yom. Even though it was clearly intended for temporary use–each entry bears a specific date in 1943 or 1944, beginning with 19 Kislev, considered the anniversary of the birth of Chabad Chassidism–the book was reprinted and translated dozens of times, preserving the original dates but adding editorial emendations to facilitate perpetual use. The edition in my library is the 32nd, published in 2010 as an appendix to the basic curriculum of Chabad Chassidic study: Torah, Psalms, and Tanya.
A typical entry begins with the prescribed reading of the Torah portion, the daily reading of Psalms on the monthly cycle, and a passage from Tanya such that the entire work may be read in a year. A line or two describes a Chabad custom for the day or time of the year (for example, liturgical adjustments or Passover preparations). Finally, a brief nugget of wisdom taken from the broad sweep of chassidic thought is presented in a pithy, thought-provoking manner, often in the Yiddish vernacular.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson modestly presented himself as a mere “compiler,” collecting from his father-in-law’s extensive teachings (published or not), but a deeper study reveals a nuanced subterranean system of connections and allusions between the various elements in each daily entry. Like Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, whose study the seventh Rebbe actively promoted, HaYom Yom is remarkably readable yet profoundly complex. The fact that it was so closely tied to a moment in time–the fateful years 1943—44–has not reduced its enduring value for generations of students of Chassidism.
Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish History and Thought. He serves as dean at the Avenue J Campus of Touro’s Lander Colleges and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.