We are privileged, dear readers, to give you a special pre-Chanukah treat—an up-close, personal account of how a contemporary Torah luminary, the Satmar Rebbe, zt”l, conducted himself during Chanukah, from the vantage point of Rabbi Chaim Moshe Stauber, author of the just-published biography of Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, zt”l. In a close relationship that spanned twenty years, Rabbi Stauber drank deeply from the holiness and Torah of his Rebbe, even spending time as the Rebbe’s hoiz-bochur. In this exclusive interview, Rabbi Stauber shares with us an insider’s view of Chanukah in the Satmar Rebbe’s inner circle. So step into the Rebbe’s court for a few, precious moments, and enjoy!
RP: Could you describe to us, please, the atmosphere in the Rebbe’s court as the month of Kislev was heralded in, and Chanukah approached?
RCS: The month of Kislev was not much different from most other months. For the Rebbe, every aspect of life was based on Torah and so, as Kislev approached, he encouraged more hours of learning in the Yeshivah, and his divrei Torah were more focused. On Parshas Vayishlach, the Rebbe frequently cited the Ramban that states that whatever occurred to our Avos was a symbolic model of that which would ultimately happen to Bnei Yisrael in Galus, Exile. Many of these divrei Torah were printed in the Rebbe’s sefer, Divrei Yoel.
As it happens, most years, Parshas Vayishlach coincides with Kaf-Alef Kislev, the 21st day of Kislev, which is an auspicious day for Satmar and for many other branches of chassidus. It is the day that the Rebbe was saved from the hands of the Nazis, when we celebrate our spiritual survival.
RP: Some of our readers may not be familiar with this celebration. Can you tell us more about Kaf Alef Kislev?
RCS: Kaf Alef Kislev is a major celebration to this day, with live music, dancing and festive speeches on the real message of the day for all Torah Yidden. In most places around the world, huge crowds gather together for a lengthy evening at tables served and catered with a full meal and countless stories told of the suffering under the Nazis ym”s and the miracles of survival of the Rebbe and others. In years past, before the Rebbe suffered his stroke, Kaf Alef Kislev was celebrated separately from the Annual Satmar Dinner, which raises money for the Yeshiva. Afterwards, to make it easier for the Rebbe to attend both events, the two were combined, and this practice has continued in most places – including Eretz Yisroel – to this day.
In his talks during these celebrations, the Rebbe talked about how we must remember the millions of Kedoshim who perished; we are certainly not better than they were! He urged us to fulfill our duty to give thanks to Hashem for saving us, by redoubling our service to Him, as a meaningful expression of gratitude. A famous vort the Rebbe often gave was about Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe Rabbeinnu named his eldest son Gershom, reminiscent of his being a “Ger”, a stranger in the land of Midyan. His second son was named Eliezer, in thanks for Hashem saving him from the sword of Pharaoh. The question the Rebbe raised was this: Shouldn’t the names have been in the reverse order? First, Moshe had been saved from the sword of Pharoah, and only later was he a stranger in Mitzrayim! The answer the Rebbe stressed was that when Moshe fled to Midyan and was able to maintain his service of Hashem, he was subsequently able to express his gratitude for being saved from Pharaoh. If not for the ability to serve Hashem, then the physical salvation is incomplete!
I have found an interesting connection between Chanukah and Kaf Alef Kislev – the day the Rebbe, zt”l, was saved from the accursed Nazis ym”s. The Gemara in Masseches Shabbos begins the sugya of “Maiy Chanukah” on none other than…Daf Kaf Alef! In fact, the substance of both celebrations—Chanukah and the Rebbe’s salvation—have a lot in common.
RP: It sounds like the atmosphere in Satmar intensified as Chanukah approached, what with the celebrations of Kaf Alef leading up to Chanukah just a week later. How did the Rebbe conduct himself during Chanukah?
RCS: Every night, the Rebbe gave lengthy shmuessen on the topic of Kedushas Am Yisrael, the holiness of the Jewish Nation. All these discourses were organized as a type of a series, with continuations on the same topic every night. The Rebbe spoke about how the main objective of our enemies was to defile and render impure our holiest of vessels, including the “Shemen zayis”, the olive oil, which refers to chachmas HaTorah, the wisdom of Torah, and that unlike Purim, which posed a physical threat to the Jews, we celebrate our spiritual survival on Chanukah.
The Rebbe conducted himself mostly according to the customs he had inherited from his illustrious father the Kedushas Yomtov. He did not wear a shtreimel on Chanukah. There were no special external trappings; he had a nice, large silver menorah and he lit the wicks for the oil with a yellow wax candle.
Every single night there was a special choir comprised of older bachurim and young boys—often including a chazzan and soloists—with new niggunim prepared every year. They started singing when the Rebbe gave a signal, usually about 30 minutes after lighting, after he finished saying the special tefillos recited on Chanukah. The Rebbe’s uttering of the candle-lighting brachos was like thunder and it penetrated all hearts, but he always swayed gently and refrained from showing any excessive external body movement. However, all present could easily visualize the meaning of, “Al yedey kohanechu hakedoshim “.
RP: Did the Rebbe have any shitos about the modern-day trappings of Chanukah, such as gift-giving?
RCS: Let me state that the Rebbe was very much opposed to any celebrations – or gift-giving – on Chanukah. The only tisch conducted every night after the choir concluded its singing of “Haneriros halolu” and “Ma’oz tzur” was comprised of sitting down in the middle of the Beis Medrash, which was configured differently than on Shabbos and Yomtov, at which time the Rebbe said divrei Torah, leading into decrying all those who deviate from the path of our holy ancestors.
Once the Rebbe concluded his divrei Torah, the crowded Beis Medrash, filled with many Rabbonim and Roshei Yeshiva who had come to hear the Rebbe’s words, echoed with a thunderous ‘Omein’. Then the Rebbe made a bracha and took a sip from a small cup of Slivovitz, saying a loud “Lechayim!” and waving his hand to the crowd that later partook of his Shirayim leftovers.
Every night of Chanukah, the Rebbetzin Alta Faiga, a”h, would stand by the door, always in the company of a relative, collecting tzedakah for the poor and needy. During the day, she would go visit the children in the Yeshiva and hand out pekelach of sweets as well as a Tehillim or Siddur, as a personal gift. (After the Rebbe suffered his stroke she was forced to curtail these tasks, and often sent somebody else to represent her.)
Hearing the Rebbe daven Hallel every day was a real sweet treat—better than any latkes or donuts. The last night of Chanukah, “Zois Chanukah”, the choir added in the singing of Mizmor Shir Chanukas habayis (Tehillim 30). In the afternoon, the Rebbe handed all the boys who had sung in the choir Chanukah-gelt, to reward them for their nightly performances for which they had prepared and practiced for weeks beforehand.
I believe that the Rebbe washed on Zois Chanukah, in the privacy of his residence, with two more individuals invited in at the end to make zimun for bentsching.
RP: Are there any specific divrei Torah or points of hashkafah that the Rebbe stressed, which could inspire our readers during these days?
RCS: These are a few important points which the Rebbe constantly stressed:
1. The Rebbe urged his listeners to understand the meaning of the words in the bracha we make: “Bayomim hoheim bizman hazeh”, to be literal—that Hashem is Omnipresent and the same as He was then. Thus, those same kochos that He manifested then are present today, displayed to us through Torah and Avodas Hashem b’kedushah u’vetaharah, with sanctity and holiness.
2. As Chazal states, Hashem has not wrought miracles for nothing, and it is our duty, as Torah Yidden for whose service the world was created and maintained, to find relevance to ourselves and today. We have to keep in mind the “B’zman hazeh”—how can we strengthen our emunah in the basic Thirteen Ani Maamins and keep in mind the comforting pasuk, “Ani Hashem, lo shanisi, ve’atem Bnei Yaakov, lo kilisem.” (Malachi 3), “I am Hashem, I have not changed, and you, the Jewish Nation, have not been destroyed.”
3. The most dangerous mixture in Yiddishkeit is Torah with, lehavdil, secularism. Those who try and narrow the gap between Kedusha and Tumah are compared to someone serving kosher food in traif utensils, rendering all of it unkosher!
4. All of the sifrei kodesh are replete with the idea that the ‘sitra achra’, the Evil Inclination, always tries to snatch from our Torah and Mitzvohs, like vultures, by which it gains strength, thus prolonging our Exile and preventing the Geulah from coming. The lights of Chanukah are a semblance of the Geulah, like the pasuk says: “Orachti ner limshichi…”, “I prepared a light for my Anointed One.” (Tehilim 132)
Thank you to Rabbi Chaim Moshe Stauber for sharing his vignettes and insights with us. May we be zocheh to see that radiant “light for my Anointed One” speedily in our days. Amen!