Shliach Rabbi Yosef Posner tells how he became engaged while he was fast asleep in the days after the Rebbe suffered a massive heart attack on Shmini Atzeres 5738.
Rabbi Yosef Posner has served as a Chabad emissary in Skokie, Illinois, since 1981. He is currently the president of the Chicago Rabbinical Council (cRc). He was interviewed in November 2022.
It is a long-standing custom in Chabad for a young couple to seek the Rebbe’s approval and blessing before getting engaged. Even once they have decided on marrying, and their families are happy with the match, that blessing from the Rebbe is what couples wait for before making their engagement official.
My father, Rabbi Leibel Posner, often describes how when he and my mother decided to get married in 1950, they first called the Rebbe from a pay phone to ask for his blessing. Of course, when my wife, Zeesy and I got married in 1978, it was important to us to do the same.
Actually, the Rebbe’s involvement in my match started even before then – though I didn’t know it at the time. I was a yeshivah student learning in Crown Heights, and one day my father told me about a potential match for me, and then gave me the name of a young lady, suggesting that I meet her. Of course, I did as I was told, confident that my parents had done their homework.
Only later on, did I find out how the match had come about. My future father-in-law, Rabbi Yisroel Gordon, had written to the Rebbe to ask him about a suitable match for his daughter. In his letter, he included the names of several young men and, although I never learned who my competition was, the Rebbe chose my name.
My wife and I ended up meeting shortly thereafter, and soon we decided that we were ready: We wanted to ask the Rebbe for his blessing for our engagement.
Now, all of this was happening a few weeks after Shmini Atzeret. On that day in 1977, the Rebbe had suffered a serious heart attack, and had been in recovery since. He was staying in 770 – his office was converted into a hospital room – and he would not appear in public for a few more weeks. The yeshivah in 770 was still functioning just across the hall from the Rebbe’s office, but after 9 or 9:30 in the evening, the upstairs part of the building would be locked. The Rebbe’s secretaries didn’t want anyone to be there so that the Rebbe could have some quiet at night.
Of course, this didn’t stop the Rebbe himself from working nights. Since I was involved with the team responsible for publishing the Rebbe’s talks, this was something I witnessed myself: Just two days after the heart attack, the Rebbe delivered an evening address to the community from his room. This talk was immediately transcribed and submitted to the Rebbe, who then reviewed, edited, and – to our shock – sent it out of his office at 3 AM that same night! The local printer was woken up, and the publishing team quickly had the revised draft typeset and submitted again for final approval. A few hours later, the Rebbe had already signed off on it. Somehow, he was still working at all hours, and since he was living in 770, we received his responses even faster than usual.
But, when my future wife and I wrote to the Rebbe for his blessing, we did not expect an immediate response. Earlier that day, we had traveled to her home in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I met her parents, and then returned to Brooklyn. By the time we had submitted our notes asking for the Rebbe’s blessing, it was getting close to 9:30 PM, and we brought them to the secretariat in 770 before they locked up for the night. Then, because it had been a long and tiring day, I went to my dormitory and went to sleep.
At around 12:30 in the morning, one of my friends came into my room: “Mazel Tov!” he exclaimed. According to my friend, Rabbi Binyomin Klein, the Rebbe’s secretary, was looking for me, in order to pass on the Rebbe’s blessing for our engagement.
The thought that the Rebbe had already responded to my note, and that his secretary was now looking for me in the middle of night, just didn’t seem possible. Still half asleep, I decided to disregard my friend’s congratulations and go back to sleep.
But, for the next half hour, the thought kept on nagging me: Could it be? Finally, I got out of bed and headed to 770. With the doors locked, I went around the courtyard on the side of the building, and found an open window leading into the study hall. I climbed in the window and managed to find Rabbi Klein.
“Where have you been?” he scolded me. “Your fiancé has already been waiting for the past hour for you to come!” They couldn’t believe that I had gone to sleep. Meanwhile, despite the recent heart attack, the Rebbe had sent us his blessings, without regard for day or night.
Several weeks later, my father-in-law, Rabbi Yisroel Gordon, wrote a letter to the Rebbe. He was a Chabad emissary in Worcester, where he worked as a teacher while also serving as the chazan in a local shul. This meant that there were a lot of people to invite to the wedding, especially since my wife’s parents were quite popular. However, living on a modest salary, he was concerned about what they would be able to afford. And so, in that letter to the Rebbe, he wrote about the issue of “making a large wedding.”
In reply, the Rebbe took this question and continued the sentence: “Make a large wedding – spiritually.” He went on to explain that generally speaking, a more spiritual celebration is “associated with decreased emphasis on materialism and worldly excess.” Besides, he added, “the Torah is opposed to wasting money.” That is, the spirituality of a wedding is inversely proportional to the effort you put into meeting the high material standards people often expect. We were to make it spiritually big, and to minimize the physical.
“It would be a great merit for you and the bride and groom,” the Rebbe wrote, “to reintroduce the guidelines Jewish leaders have traditionally given for wedding celebrations, within our community and among all Jewish people, by happily showing an example in this regard.”
In that spirit, we cut back on quite a few typical wedding expenses. We had one person playing music, Eli Lipsker, without a backing band or an orchestra. I had a friend who was just starting out as a photographer and I made a deal with him; he would come and get the experience of taking pictures and we would just get the negatives. There were no flowers other than a bouquet for the bride, and the food was served on disposable plates. The wedding reception was held in an exquisite historic concert hall in Worcester called Mechanics Hall, which agreed to host a chasidic wedding without charge, as one of several unique events arranged to celebrate its recent rededication. We sang, we danced, and at one point, we spontaneously all marched around the balcony that wrapped around the hall as the music played.
And so, just as the Rebbe had said, we maximized the spiritual, cut back on the physical, and it turned out to be a very spirited wedding that left a great impression on everyone there. Some of them still talk about it to this day.