Title: Reb Yoel: The Rebbe’s Chozer
By Rabbi Chaim Dalfin
On July 16, the world of Chabad chasidim was a little sadder. Reb Yoel Kahn, known universally as Reb Yoel, passed away. To the larger world, the name Reb Yoel Kahn does not evoke a sense of reverence or memory. To chasidei Chabad, Reb Yoel was known universally as Reb Yoel the Chozer.
Rav Yoel Khan was the link in the chain of transmission of Chasidus from the Rebbe to his chasidim and the rest of the world. More than an abstract philosophy and a bibliography of collected works, Chasidus is a path in avodas Hashem. It is a repository of wisdom and its crystallization into daily practice. Since there have been chasidim, the younger chasidim have looked to the elders of Chasidus for living examples of how a person lived in the world of chasidic teachings and life. Rav Yoel was one of the Elders of Chabad, and taught thousands of bochrim at 770 Eastern Parkway, the ideas of chasidic thought and the ways of chasidic action. He was known to have a fantastic memory and a tremendous ability to explain the profound and intricate dictum of chasidic thought, as well as how to unpack the concise aphorisms which also fill the chasidic lexicon.
Rav Yoel did not constrain his time to Chabad chasidim alone. He gave shiurim in Chabad Chasidus in Boro Park and Lakewood. He was determined to spread Chasidus, believing in its power to uplift a person.
He was the person responsible for transcribing the Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe’s eight- hour-long farbrengens, consisting of learned discourses (called sichos) spanning topics from halachah, mysticism, parsha and Rashi, to chasidic maamarim (in depth explorations of chasidic philosophy). In printed form, this output comes to around 54 volumes (including the 39 Volumes of Likutei Sichos, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s collected talks, and the sefer Maamarim Melukatim, the selected chasidic discourses). He was also tapped by the Rebbe to write an encyclopedia of chasidic thought, which currently consists of nine volumes, each book several hundred pages, called Sefer Erechin.
Rabbi Chaim Dalfin’s latest offering, Reb Yoel, the Rebbe’s Chozer, introduces us to Reb Yoel’s life and world. Rabbi Dalfin was a talmid of Rav Yoel, and was in contact with him for his entire life. (R. Khan was the kohen who redeemed him at his pidyon haben.) He shares many first-hand conversations, experiences and stories depicting this great chasid of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Rabbi Dalfin has interviewed contemporaries and other students, mining their memories in order to introduce us to Reb Yoel.
Rabbi Dalfin discusses R. Yoel’s family history, how a Russian-born Israeli ended up in New York. You’ll read how R. Kahn came at the behest of the Sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rav Yosef Yitzchok, who passed away before R. Kahn arrived in New York. The Seventh Rebbe, seeing a moment of destiny, understood that R. Yoel was summoned to New York in order to have a large role to play in the generation of the Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Rabbi Dalfin discusses excerpts from Rav Yoel’s diary during the charged year in between the passing of the Sixth Rebbe and ascension of the Seventh Rebbe. We hear what Crown Heights was like in those days, and share in Rav Yoel’s excitement as the Rebbe accepts the office of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
We get the opportunity to understand some of Rav Yoel’s methodology, and to experience his Shabbos table, which was frequented by many bochurim. We visit the reviews of the Rebbe’s farbrengens, where R. Yoel conducted and oversaw the transcription of the sichos and maamarim. Rabbi Dalfin brings us into R. Kahn’s locked room as he labored to produce the Mamarim Melukatim, for hours on end, locked in a room with a table piled high with seforim.
After the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s histalkus (passing,) on the third of Tammuz, as much as Reb Yoel’s life and job changed, it also stayed the same in some ways. He was entrusted with one of the greatest repositories of chasidic knowledge, and tasked with passing it to the rest of the world and the next generation.
You’ll find this volume has the flavor of a farbengen – a chasidic get-together, in which the speaker shares stories – and mines them for meaningful life lessons. This is not a history book. It is a portion of chasidic oral history, in which Rabbi Dalfin is leading the get-together. The speaker draws you into his memories, where the past and present meet. Rabbi Dalfin begs our apology as he opens the book, sliding from the past tense of one recounting a memory to the present tense of experiencing the story.
Reb Yoel, the Rebbe’s Chozer could use an index of topics, as trying to find a specific conversation or concept in the 300-page book can be challenging.
Additionally, in order to open the book up to a greater audience, I feel that certain terms and concepts should be explained earlier, in order to give proper background to the concepts that Rabbi Dalfin is sharing with us.