Don’t Say the Bar Mitzvah Is Being Held in a “Hall”

With Rabbi Levi Wineberg‘s Bar Mitzvah on Motzei Shabbos, his father, Rabbi Yosef Wineberg, wished to broadcast his weekly radio shiur from the celebration. The Rebbe agreed, but told him not to use the word “hall.”

Here’s My Story

Rabbi Levy Wineberg has been serving as a Chabad emissary in Johannesburg, South Africa, since 1983. He was interviewed in December 2019.

My Bar Mitzvah was on Shabbos, at the very beginning of 1967, with the celebration set to be held in a local Crown Heights shul the night after Shabbos. On the Thursday night before, I went with my parents for an audience with the Rebbe.

The first thing that struck me during the audience was the respect the Rebbe gave me when he asked: “What have you accepted upon yourself to learn and say over at your Bar Mitzvah?”

I told the Rebbe about the pilpul and the ma’amar – the Talmudic discussion and the chasidic discourse – that I had been preparing to deliver. The Rebbe tested me on both, and then he proceeded to give a blessing to my parents and to myself.

But I was taken aback at the way he had put the question: What did you accept upon yourself? I had simply studied the material that my father gave me to study! The way the Rebbe phrased the question made it as though my speech was my own doing. It had the effect of bolstering the self-esteem of a young Bar Mitzvah boy.

Now in those days, every Motzaei Shabbos, my father would teach a half-hour class live on the radio. The class had two segments: fifteen minutes dedicated to the study of Tanya, the seminal work of Chabad philosophy, and fifteen minutes reviewing the Rebbe’s latest Torah teachings. Although the Tanya segment could be prerecorded, since the second segment came from the Rebbe’s most recent talks, it had to be broadcast live. And since my Bar Mitzvah was being celebrated in Crown Heights, it was impossible to get to the radio station in Midtown Manhattan and back in time. Instead, together with the studio technician, he came up with what was, at the time, a pioneering solution. He would link up the radio station to the location of the Bar Mitzvah and broadcast directly from there.

Since the Rebbe also paid for a portion of the expenses of the radio broadcast personally, he was literally my father’s partner in the show. And so, in addition to relating this plan, my father also asked the Rebbe during the audience whether he could mention, in the broadcast, that the class was being delivered “from the hall where we are celebrating the Bar Mitzvah of my son Levy.”

The Rebbe listened to all this intently, his head slightly tilted as he took in every word. “It is all good,” he said at the end, “but don’t use the word ‘hall.’”

In general, the Rebbe was against people splurging on Bar Mitzvahs, and even on weddings. Hearing that my Bar Mitzvah was being held in a “hall,” might give someone the impression that we were at the Waldorf Astoria, rather than the hall at Young Israel of Eastern Parkway. So the Rebbe was concerned that this might normalize spending a lot of money on a Bar Mitzvah. Quoting the Talmudic dictum, he added: “The Torah is sparing with the money of Jewish people.”

It was an amazing lesson, and one I have shared many times. Besides the advice about not wasting money, with his sensitivity to the nuances of even a single word, the Rebbe was teaching how careful we ought to be to ensure that our words are not misunderstood in a harmful way.

In 1975, while still a yeshivah student, I was sent to Australia with a group of my peers on a two-year mission, to learn and teach in the Yeshivah Gedolah in Melbourne. Before we left, the Rebbe called us into his office to speak with us.

In addition to speaking about our task in Australia, the Rebbe also had some instructions for us before we got there. To get to Australia, we would be traveling around the world – through Europe, then Israel, Iran, Hong Kong – and although all these places were only stopovers, the fact that we were on a mission meant that each place had a special significance, and should be treated as such. To take one example, for every stopover on our itinerary, the Rebbe gave us some of the local currency to distribute to charity – except for Iran, which he didn’t have, so he gave American dollars instead.

This was still in the days of the Shah, before the takeover of the country by Ayatollah Khomeini, and for the Jews of Tehran it was a boom time. The local community had long led an insular, shtetl-like existence, but now that they were earning more money than they knew what to do with, they were starting to look around. Although they had been brought up with a very traditional Judaism, when we visited we learned that they were starting to drift away.

“Please ask the Lubavitcher Rebbe to send emissaries to Tehran!” the local rabbis – known as “chachamim” – asked us. “The people are going off track, so we need his shluchim.”

We sent a report to the Rebbe about each place we visited, and we included this request in our report on Tehran.

But Iran was one of the few places in the world where the Rebbe did not want to send shluchim. He sent several yeshivah students, for a few months at a time, but declined to send a couple to move there permanently. Once the revolution broke out in 1979, it was clear that Iran was indeed not a feasible place for Chabad shluchim.

Once in Australia, I would write an Aerogram letter home every Thursday night, and I asked my parents to hold onto them so that I would have a record of everything we were doing in Australia. When I came back home, after the two-year mission was over, I was shocked to find my letters with the Rebbe’s handwriting in the margins!

That was when my father revealed to me that whenever I had written something that he thought the

Rebbe would be interested in hearing, he would mark the relevant part and pass on those pages to the Rebbe. He explained to me that the Rebbe preferred to get his information from indirect sources, rather than relying on official reports that might embellish things or gloss over certain faults.

One of the stories that my father showed the Rebbe was from the first Rosh Hashanah I spent in Australia. I was only used to being in 770 with the Rebbe on Rosh Hashanah, so it was with a heavy heart that I came to pray that day in the Chabad shul in Melbourne. When they began auctioning off the opportunities to be called up to the Torah, which I had never seen before, I thought that raising money like this was out of keeping with the spirit of Rosh Hashanah and I became withdrawn.

But when it came time for one of the winning bidders to go up to the Torah, he didn’t take the aliyah for himself, and instead pointed toward the back of the shul. There sat a simple and unassuming fellow who eked out a living as a barber. In his wildest dreams, he had never imagined that he would be honored to go up to the Torah on Rosh Hashanah, and at first he was convinced that there had been a mistake. But he was who the buyer had been bidding for all along.

I included this story in my letter home, and my father decided to show it to the Rebbe. When I came home, I discovered that the Rebbe had written: “Thank you, thank you, for the nachas.”

For the Rebbe, hearing about one Jew doing a favor for another Jew – that was nachas.

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