What is a "Farbrengen"

By Rabbi Yitschak Meir Kagan



I reach for my Keyboard. I glance at the clock–10:30 p.m. I’m tired. Got to explain what a Farbrengen is. How does one do that with just words? Hand on mouse. Eyes on screen. Judaism. Click. Chassidism. Click. Chabad. Click. OK, what now? Let’s see… History, no. Literature, no. Lifestyle, maybe. Click. Farbrengen… Bingo!


Scrolling down the text on my screen, my eyes pop out. Wow! There’s lots of stuff here. Quotes, quotes and more quotes… Farbrengen. Definition: A chassidic get-together. From the verb “farbreng” (to spend quality time with friends). For an ancient Hebrew equivalent, compare the Midrash on Bamidbar 29:35: Throughout the seven days of Sukkot in the Holy Temple, seventy sacrifices were offered on behalf of the seventy nations of the world. By contrast, on the eighth day only a single ox and ram were offered, representing the lone nation—Israel. This may be compared to a king who invited all citizens of the country to a seven-day feast. After the seven days, the king turned to his beloved friend and said, “We have discharged our obligations to all the people. Come, let us farbreng (bo ne’galgel), just you and I together, with whatever food is left.”


Hmmmm, I like that image of the king saying, “Let’s farbreng, just you and I.” It helps explain the generic dictionary-definition of farbrengen as “spending time”. Because at a farbrengen, it’s just being there that counts. I thought about the two elder chassidim who began their farbrengen by pouring themselves a thimbleful of vodka, then sang soulful melodies and simply gazed at each other to convey their profound emotions, without uttering a word all night. As dawn broke, they poured the two untouched thimblefuls back into the bottle, stood up from the table and went out to meet the day.  


Back to my screen: The farbrengen is where the paradoxes of spiritual and physical, human and G‑dly, are processed into a tenable reality. In a tradition that traces its beginnings to the Ba’al Shem Tov, in the mid-18th century, the farbrengen has served as an informal format to communicate chassidic ideals and explore their practical application [Wellsprings, 1994, Baila Olidort].


Each one comes to the help of his friend [Isaiah 41:6]. Each is concerned with the other’s affairs as he is with his own, sharing the joys of the other with deep sensitivity, and sharing—when necessary, G‑d forbid—in the less joyous, giving strength and encouragement [Rebbe Rayatz].


Helping one another. Friendship. Brotherhood. Warmth. The buzzwords of farbrengen. At first, I didn’t like the definition “spending quality time with friends,” since farbrengens are open to everyone. But come to think of it, once a farbrengen warms up, it’s uncanny how you begin to consider those around the table as dear friends.


I‘m fixed on the screen…. What‘s learned in the classroom is stored in the mind; what’s learned at a farbrengen is engraved in the soul [I. M. Friedman].


Lively discussion, animated by biting wit and dry humor, ensues interspersed by an outpouring of chassidic melodies in moods that shift from melancholic pensiveness to spirited joy. The discussions are typically frank and artless, without concern for conventions of diplomacy. [Wellsprings, 1994, Baila Olidort].  


This is going to be a tough one. I’m going to need more than my writing skills. Farbrengen is a multi-dimensional experience. One dimension is brotherhood/bonding/warmth. Another is education/inspiration. The third is guidance/ reproach. The fourth is self-discovery. The fifth dimension… Struggling to find a word for it, I chuckle to the four walls.  “Let’s call it space launch; escaping earth’s pull.”


At McGill University in the 1960s, Professor Yosef, a Chabad chassid, was holding a gathering for students, trying to explain what a farbrengen is. He recalled his youth in Russia in the 1940s. Although his family was chassidic, he had enrolled in university. However, he continued to frequent the chassidic scene and was straddling both worlds. Once, he pushed his way into the back rows of a crowded farbrengen, trying to escape attention while listening to the elder chassid who was speaking. Too late! The elder chassid spotted him. “Yossel, come here. I need your help. Tell me, how would you translate the Mishnaic phrase: ‘Az panim le’Gehinnom; boshet panim le’Gan-Eden?’ “The hapless Yosef responded quietly, “the brazen-faced is headed for Gehinnom, but the shame-faced is headed for Paradise.”


“Yosef, you’ve got it wrong,” gently intoned the elder chassid. “This is what it means: ‘One who is unabashed and brazen about his yiddishkeit can keep his Jewishness even in Stalin’s hell (Gehinnom). But he who is shame-faced needs a paradise to be Jewish.’“


Thirty years had passed. Yet these words were etched into Professor Yosef’s mind and heart forever [I.M. Friedman].


[A public farbrengen] is an opening and entry-way to the fundamental mitzvah of ahavat yisroel, love of another... (The speakers sometimes reprove). But this reproving at a farbrengen is only for such matters that will not cause any embarrassment whatsoever [Hayom Yom. Tishrei 24].


Great stuff. Great stuff, I thought. I’ve got the first three dimensions of farbrengen covered. Now, about the fourth aspect? My face falls.


Nothing on the screen about self-discovery at a farbrengen. I close my eyes. There is an elusive thought I am trying to catch. In yeshiva, we used to call the L’Chaim sips at a farbrengen “varnish remover.” The idea was that a farbrengen dissolved your social gloss and promoted rigid honesty. Sometimes at the emotional peak of a farbrengen, the thought crosses your mind that you have actually become someone else. But that’s only because you rarely meet the real you. What has really happened is that you have become… you!


Suddenly, I find myself humming a pensive niggun. More than any other aspect of farbrengen, the melodies truly enable a person to transport to another time and place, far above the mundane here and now. This is the fifth dimension—escaping earth’s pull.


My fingers reach for the mouse. Some stanzas of a niggun express an outpouring of the soul in a mode of love and wanting to draw close. Others express that outpouring of emotion in the mode of awe and trepidation. Whichever it is, the niggun and farbrengen uplifted and raised chassidim to new heights [Rebbe Rayatz. Letters. No. 3,385].  


I’m humming again, this time a lively melody. Grabbing the phone, I dial the number. As I wait for my buddy to answer, I turn off the computer. “Mendel! We’re having a farbrengen at my house. Yeah, I know it’s midnight. Yeah, I know I’m crazy. I’ll see you soon.”


More phone calls ensue. In between, I call down the hallway to my wife, “Sarah! A few of the boys are coming over to farbreng. No, it’s not a birthday. I’ll explain another time. Don’t worry, I’ll clean up in the morning.”


The warmth was incredible. I hadn’t felt like this for a long time. One arm around Mendel’s shoulder, we swayed in unison to a niggun which had us wrapped and rapt from head to toe. Eyes closed, eyes moist, we were both at a farbrengen with the Rebbe ten years back, and the Rebbe was smiling.


In a forgotten corner, the computer sat silent on the desk, its screen dark.



Rabbi Yitschak Meir Kagan Obm was Associate Director of  the Lubavitch Foundation of Michigan.