Hei Tevet: The Festival of Books

Link to Video of the Original Hei Tevet

By Yonatan Gordon

Those interested in the history behind the dispute over the ownership of the priceless library of the 6th Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, can read this pamphlet put out by the students of Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad, or purchase the book from Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky about the episode. In this article, though, we will be focusing on the outcome.

Now that close to three decades have passed since the U.S. Federal Court issued the decision in favor of Chabad on Hei (5) Tevet, 5747 (January 6, 1987), as Hei Tevet was established by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a year later as an annual event to celebrate the “victory of the books,” what lessons can we take home today from this event from the past?

Working Hei Tevet

Before I go further, I should first mention that my perspective on Hei Tevet is not from one who experienced it first-hand, but from someone who saw the results. Although there were exciting moments while working at Kehot Publication Society–the publishing house of Chabad–the highlight of the year was always the Hei Tevet sale. But more than the huge trays of cholent, long hours and little sleep, the atmosphere that was “in the air” on Hei Tevet is impossible to describe.

As the former marketing manager at Kehot, one year in preparation for Hei Tevet, I thought to capture the festive nature of the event by commissioning a fanciful cartoon of books parading back to the Chabad Library adjacent to 770 Eastern Parkway, the headquarters of Chabad. The cartoon sketch depicted balloons everywhere and confetti in the air. But ultimately, it was decided that such an approach to promoting Hei Tevet would be making light of the event. As mentioned, the events leading up to Hei Tevet were very difficult. At first glance, the decision to scratch the cartoon idea made a lot of sense. But along with it, came another sentiment. That, outside of Chabad, Hei Tevet is an event that is not so easy to market.

For a long time I grappled with this. On the one hand, it is unique that there is an annual festival devoted to books, something any writer or avid reader is excited to hear. But once the history comes out, the atmosphere plays second fiddle to the details. But if the Lubavitcher Rebbe emphasized that Hei Tevet is an auspicious day connected to seforim (holy Jewish books), so much so that he encouraged everyone to occupy themselves with purchasing new seforim, restoring old, and in general to increase in one’s commitment to learn from and supporting these holy books, then the enduring hope for a marketer is to find some way of conveying the atmosphere of this festive day to others outside of Chabad.

Jewish Spirit

Although it’s been over eleven years since I started working at Kehot, and about five since I left, I couldn’t find a good answer to this marketing dilemma. That was, until I read a recent blog post from Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh about Chanukah [1]:

Historically speaking, Chanukah is the final festival that was added to the Jewish calendar. [2] First is Shabbat, which is rooted in Creation, followed by the entire cycle of festivals that are mentioned in the Torah. Next came Purim, which was added at the beginning of the second Temple era―a festival that is validated by the Prophets and whose story appears as one of the books of Tanach. Finally, Chanukah is unique in the fact that it is a festival that was entirely authorized by the sages of the Oral Torah. However, even in the Mishnah it is hardly mentioned, and even then, just anecdotally. What this means is that Chanukah is a festival that has been nurtured as a Rabbinic injunction from below, unlike the other festivals which were God-given. This is why Chanukah has such a special place in the Jewish heart, and has even been referred to as representative of “the Jewish spirit.”

This paragraph stuck in my mind. At first I couldn’t figure out why, then I thought again about Hei Tevet. For several years now I’ve tried to put down my thoughts about Hei Tevet in writing, and because of my work experience, several publications have thankfully published these pieces. But as a result of this paragraph from Rabbi Ginsburgh, I began to think of a solution to the aforementioned marketing dilemma.

Coming just a few short days after Chanukah, Hei Tevet is an example of the enduring Jewish spirit of our present era. While the situation itself was difficult, the Lubavitcher Rebbe utilized seeming setbacks and difficulties, as a springboard to encourage us to increase our commitment to the study, preservation and financial support of seforim. In the words of the Rebbe, said on the original date of the ruling, 5 Tevet 5747:

…We must say that the reason for these problems was only to bring a greater level of ascent. The only reason for the troubling and uncertain situation was to accomplish greater things many times over, in the area of spreading Yiddishkeit.

In addition to increasing our efforts related to seforim, as Rabbi Ginsburgh mentioned in that blog post, Hei Tevet also has a  “special place in the Jewish heart,” because like Chanukah before it, it is a “festival that has been nurtured as a Rabbinic injunction from below.”

The Author Behind the Book

While studying at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem in early 2000, the time was coming close to return to the states to finish my college degree. As the date of my departure was drawing near, I became increasingly concerned about my ability to keep up my newly inspired level of adherence and commitment to Yiddishkeit. It was toward the end of my study that I was introduced to a spiritually sensitive soul at the nearby school, Yeshivat HaKotel. Although we met several times, there is one lesson that stayed with me, and unbeknownst to him, began my path to both Chabad and the world of publishing.

He had an array of books lined up at his table that stretched from his personal study space, into the study areas of his friends. While there was an interesting assortment of books, many of them were Kabbalah and Chassidut related. For most of these books, I hadn’t remembered seeing them before, and was very intrigued by these new-found spiritual treasures. As I picked up book after book, he responded with a comment that I will never forget. That for every book he felt himself drawn to, he made it a point to pick up the phone and contact the author. To this end, for nearly all of the books on his table, he had merited to speak to someone involved in the book’s production. Since coming back to America in early 2000, I started doing the same; an act which eventually led me to both become Chabad and involved in the world of book publishing.  

Books with Souls

I mention this because if Hei Tevet is indicative of the Jewish spirit in modern times, then as with my marketing dilemma, it’s important to think about what lessons we should promote about this festival. But in order to come out with a clear approach, we need to first go back again to comments made by the Rebbe.

One is that the Rebbe used to refer to seforim as “books with souls.” I take this to mean that when a person learns from these books, they are connecting with the original author. This is again the lesson that I learned that day in Yeshivat HaKotel; although knowing the terminology for this concept helps to concretize the approach.

Next, in relation to what was said above related to the Jewish spirit of both Chanukah and Hei Tevet, there is precedent for relating the two aside from the chronological proximity of both holidays on the Jewish calendar. The Rebbe compared the victory of Hei Tevet to the victory of Chanukah, pointing out that both festivals were established as a time of celebration only on their first anniversary. The Rebbe also referred to the celebration of Hei Tevet as a time to “publicize the miracle” (pirsumei nisa), a phrase that is also used in relation to Chanukah.

The Rebbe called it a “propitious day and a time of Divine favor” related to victory of the seforim, and while there are many more implications, those interested can read some of them in this pamphlet, published as part of the A Call to Action series.

Parade of Authors

In light of the above, I’ve come to terms with the fact that a cartoon rendition of a parade of walking books returning to the Chabad library is probably still not the best idea. But instead of discrediting the thought completely, as a result of these ideas, I think a parade of the authors behind these books is an easy way to convey the importance of this day to children. In addition to speaking about some of the more fascinating and rare books that were returned, it’s also a good opportunity to discuss the personalities or Torah figures behind them. But in terms of a quick marketing concept, a parade–of authors holding their books, not of the books walking themselves–seems like it could work after all.

Be the Book

Rebbe Dovid of Lelov (1746-1814, and founder of the Lelov Chassidic dynasty) once said: “Now we learn the tractate of Baba Kama, but in the World to Come there will be an additional tractate called Rebbe Dovid of Lelov.” Apart from what we can learn about proper conduct from the stories of tzadikim (righteous people, such as Rebbe Dovid), the life-story of every tzadik is actually Torah. Just as most of the Torah itself is filled with the stories of tzadikim, so too should we should view the present-day stories of tzadikim as the continuing living Torah of our people.

How do I write the story of my life? Rabbi Ginsburgh says in a separate place, “through love and fear of God…and of people.” He then relates these two opposite emotions to the two qualities needed to write a bestseller:

If a person is writing a story or script, to be successful, to be interesting, it has to have two essential ingredients: love and courage… Courage is exhibited when there is some challenge to overcome. This brings out the character in a protagonist. If there is no love in a story, the story lacks value. If there is no courage, no heroism, it is not interesting.

Rabbi Ginsburgh continues that the ultimate form of empathy or connection between the reader and the author is when the reader wants to become the hero or protagonist himself:

The stories told about tzadikim are so good because they make us want to be like the tzadik. They make us yearn for the same sense of Divine Providence and meaning that each tzadik projects through the events of his life. If the tractate of Rebbe Dovid of Lelov is good, then anyone reading it will want to be like Rebbe Dovid of Lelov.

To me, this is perhaps the most important lesson to instill in children about Hei Tevet. While it is important to learn from these books, learn from holy books in general, and even learn about the personalities behind these books, to me the most powerful lesson is that learning Torah is not a history lesson. Just like the Torah itself should be viewed as new―as Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi said regarding the weekly Torah portion, that we should live with the Torah, seeing the events of each week as a modern-day reflection of the weekly Torah portion―so too does this relate to the story of own our lives.

Each of us is continually “penning” our own bestseller, and like Rebbe Dovid of Lelov, we should all merit to pen a biography worthy of being read for generations to come.

Photo Credit: “Geulah March” by Carl Braude.

[1]: Disclaimer: I work now as one of the English editors for Rabbi Ginsburgh.

[2] Another, later addition to the Jewish calendar is Lag Ba’omer, which is not even considered a festival.

About the Author: Yonatan Gordon has spent most of his past 13 professional years in the world of Jewish publishing. He was the Marketing Manager at Kehot Publication Society (publishing arm of Chabad) for the better part of six years. He is founder of the website CommunityofReaders.org.  

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