The following is excerpted and adapted from the childhood reminiscences of the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn.
Pesach was fast approaching. By now, thank G-d, I knew many of the laws of Pesach orally and knew where to find them in the Shulchan Aruch. At the baking of shemurah-matzah I was already taking my share of responsibility and word had even reached me that this had caused my father pleasure. I now hoped that when it came to the baking of matzas mitzvah on erev Pesach I would be at my best.
One night, about three days before Pesach, I could not fall asleep. I was busy with happy thoughts about all the upcoming events - drawing water at dusk towards the end of the thirteenth of Nissan for matzah- baking; the Search for Chametz [the following evening]; the siyum [in the morning ] which would mark my completion of Tractate Megillah by heart; the baking of matzas mitzvah [that afternoon]; and reading the description of the offering of the Pesach Sacrifice [after Minchah].
A year earlier, in 5650 (1890), my father had also taken me to draw water with him, to stand next to him while he pronounced the blessing over the Search for Chametz, to help him as he inspected the rooms, and to accompany him early in the morning of the fourteenth to hear the completion of Tractate Zevachim. At that time, however, I was a mere participant. I drew water without understanding its meaning; I stood and listened to the blessing over the search without understanding the obligation involved; I listened to the siyum without knowing the meanings of the terms involved, such as bamah gedolah and bamah ketanah, pigul and linah. I only recalled how struck I had been by the fact that in such a short time, from when the tractates of the Talmud were apportioned on Yud-Tes Kislev until the fourteenth of Nissan, my father had managed to study 120 double pages of Gemara with the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafos....
That year, which was the first year in which I cracked walnuts for the charoses which recalls the mortar [used in the Egyptian bondage], my father called me to his study.
"Early in the morning prayers," he said, "we read: 'Master of the worlds! You have commanded us to offer the daily sacrifice at its appointed time ... Therefore, may it be Your will... that the prayer of our lips be regarded and accepted by You....' Tell me, what is the meaning of this prayer?"
By that time my studies had reached a point at which I knew the meanings of the prayers, as well as of the Mishnayos and the psalms [quoted there], almost perfectly. I was thus able to translate this prayer [into Yiddish], including all the details of the sacrifices mentioned there.
"On the fourteenth of Nissan," my father began, "the Pesach Sacrifice used to be offered. For there are two separate times: on the fourteenth it was offered, but it was eaten at night, on the eve of the fifteenth, for the fifteenth is the time of our Exodus from the Egyptian exile. It was offered after the daily afternoon sacrifice, which could be offered from plag haMinchah onwards, which on our clock is 1:25 p.m. We read the laws of the offering of this sacrifice after praying the Minchah service which stands in place of the daily sacrifice of the afternoon.
"In order that you should understand what this signifies I shall study it with you. You will then review it alone two or three times, and after Minchah you will come to me and we will read together the description of the offering of the Korban Pesach." 17.
While we are on this subject, let me mention that every year, from 5650 (1890) to 5679 (1919), my father called for me and we read the Order of the Korban Pesach together. (The only exceptions were 5661 (1901), when my father was in Verishoffen, and 5667 (1907), w hen he was in Lubavitch but my family and I were in Wurzburg.) In honor of the reading he would wear his round Yom-Tov hat and Yom- Tov clothes as well as a gartl. He always read it standing, and facing south.
He read it in a happy frame of mind, taking careful note of every one of its words and discussing the laws they conveyed. From the year 5656 (1896) onwards, he used to explain one of its aspects from the perspective of Chassidus, and from the year 5668 (1908) onwards, he also explained one of its aspects from the perspective of the Kabbalah.
Unlike the years of my earlier childhood, this year - 5651 (1891) - I knew all about the drawing of the water and its proper time, and like wise the details of the Search for Chametz, and especially the concluding passage to be studied aloud for the siyum. I was so excited that I did not sleep all that night, but I knew what I had learned and I knew how happy my father would be when I explained the last page of the Gemara, whose topics included the Reading of the Torah and the blessings recited over it, and the raising and binding of the Sefer Torah.
Before dawn I washed my hands for netilas yadayim and dressed, and then walked up and down my room. There was more than an hour to wait, for on erev Pesach my father was accustomed to rise at five. The day's tasks passed smoothly and successfully - not only the siyum, which went very well, but I also made myself useful at the baking of the matzas mitzvah. Part of the time I stood next to the oven and changed the rods with which the matzos were placed inside, and part of the time I stood at the place where the individual portions of dough were handed out to the people rolling them flat. Most of the time I was supervising wherever someone was missing.
This year's reading of the Order of the Korban Pesach was also different from that of the previous year. I stood at my father's right like a well-practiced veteran, just as I had done the previous year, except that this year I knew the relevant laws and procedures from their source in the Mishnayos of Tractate Pesachim which I now knew by heart.
The shul that evening was full of light. A new chandelier had been brought there by one of the worshipers who spent the whole year in Moscow and Petersburg, because he worked for the well-known Minister Poliakov, returning to his home in Lubavitch only twice a year, for the month of Tishrei and for Pesach. This time he had brought a gift for the shul, which was suspended by gilt chains.
The shul walls were whitewashed, the windows sparkled, the benches were clean. A red silk cloth covered the table from which the Torah was read and the aron kodesh was draped over with a paroches of green and red. The amud was covered by a little red silk cloth which had been embroidered by my mother. The Western Wall was depicted in the middle, and its four corners showed the Tomb of our Mother Rachel, the Tomb of the Prophet Samuel, the Tombs of the Davidic Dynasty, and the Tomb of R. Shimon bar Yochai.
A fresh white towel hung on a ring near the entrance to the shul, and the lamps made everything bright. A noble spirit rests upon every corner of this House of G-d. The faces of the local householders are lit up likewise. Over at the northern corner sits old Zalman Leib, surrounded by a knot of listeners with whom he shares his recollections of long ago. Not too far from him, Yitzchak Shaul the Liar is recounting wild and wondrous adventures from the war against the Turks. Near the Reading Table, Bere the Shammes is talking to Yitzchak Gershon the Chazzan, who proudly tells the music-lovers who buzz around him that even Nisse the Belzer was impressed by his wonderful voice. Near the south wall sits Zalman Munkes, who is holding forth about his father's medical expertise. His friend Yeshaya Kastier counters with stories about his own grandmother's father, who was such a great mathematician that using his fingers alone he could count up to 10,000 in two hours. Zalman Beshes and Zalman the Deaf Guy lean eagerly over them, overawed.
At the southwestern corner near the old clock, two hoary chassidim - R. Chanoch Hendel and R. Shmuel Chayim from Poland - are discussing what Chassidus teaches about the particular sanctity of this night. Listening in are Uncle Leibele's Reb Zalman, Reb Shlomo Chayim the Shochet, and a number of other chassidim. Among them, listening wordlessly, sits the aged R. Abba, who from time to time raises his eyes aloft.
R. Abba was at least 80 years old. He was born in Tchashnik, where he had taught in his youth, and as a child had twice seen the Mitteler Rebbe. In the years 5595 (1835) to 5600 (1840) he had taken an active and decisive role in the controversy involving Strashelye. He was completely at home in the works of the Alter Rebbe and the Mitteler Rebbe and in Likkutei Torah. Throughout the lifetime of the [Tzemach Tzedek] he visited Lubavitch by foot every two years. In 5635 (1875) he retired from teaching and settled in Lubavitch. He was - in the chassidic sense - a maskil, an advanced scholar in the literature of Chassidus, who made his own notes of maamarim [that were delivered orally]. He refrained altogether from talking and spent his whole day in shul praying, studying and writing.
At the east wall, to the northern side of the aron kodesh, sat the local rav, R. David, next to R. Meshullam, R. Nissan the Melamed and R. Shalom the Melamed. Together they were debating the laws of Pesach. If I was not so tired I would have been able to join in, but at that moment I felt that weariness was about to close my eyes. I shuddered to think how awful it would be to be overcome now by sleep. Within a few minutes the southern side of the east wall began to fill up. My uncles R. Zalman Aharon and R. Menachem Mendel had already taken their places and at the appointed time for Maariv my father arrived.
When the davenen was over, the rav and all the householders converged on the southern side of the eastern wall to wish [my father] a gut Yom-Tov.
All were dressed for the occasion and all faces were radiant. People gradually left, and within an hour we were all seated in my grandmother's home and conducting the Seder.
The excitement of preparing to ask the Four Questions and the pure light that rested on my father's holy countenance banished sleep from my eyes.
Thanks to G-d's never-ending mercies, I too found myself seated at the table like one of the grown-ups. Every activity I handled with the self-assurance of a veteran - washing the hands, karpas, breaking the middle matzah, covering and uncovering the matzos, holding the cup of wine in hand as we sang VeHi SheAmdah, and so on. All this gave me the strength to fight off the desire to sleep.
Thank G-d, I held my own until the exultant declaration, "Next year in Jerusalem!" I then looked forward to going to sleep in a few minutes' time with a glad heart.
The whole festival passed like just a few days. Then it was time for work days, days of study. The impressions left upon me by the festival and the marks of closeness that my father had shown me made a positive imprint on my increasingly conscientious study.
This spirit prevailed throughout the next six weeks until Shavuos, which was the first Yom-Tov during which I had ever stayed awake all night. I read the Tikkun Leil Shavuos and before daybreak I too immersed in the mikveh. The truth is that I had wanted to stay awake on the night of the Seventh Day of Pesach, too, but then sleep overcame me. This time, however, I won.