Shneur Zalman is the founder of the intellectual movement in Hasidism, the systematic exponent of the basic ideas of Hasidism with a strong emphasis on theory, contemplative prayer, and detaed study of the kabbalistic principles in their Hasidic interpretation. The movement he founded within Hasidism is known as Chabad, a word formed from the initial letters of Chokhmah, Binah, Deah (Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge). These are technical terms referring in the first instance to the Sefirot of these names, and then to the intellectual processes in man which mirror the processes on high.
Shneur Zalman was born in Liozna in Russia. From the year 1760, when he journeyed to the Maggid of Meseritch, whose fame as a spiritual leader had spread to distant Russia, Shneur Zalman became a member of the Maggid’s circle of close disciples. He became the particular target of the Mitnaggedim after he had become a Hasidic master in the town of Liady. Accusations were brought against him that he was plotting the downfall of the tsar, and in 1798 he was arrested and imprisoned in Saint Petersburg. He was acquitted on the nineteenth day of the month of Kislev (December 1798), and to this day yat Kislev (“the nineteenth day of Kislev”) is celebrated as a major festival by the Habad Hasidim. Shneur Zalman was succeeded by his son Dov Baer (whom he named after his teacher, the Maggid of Meseritch) in the year 1813. Dov Baer became the head of the movement with his center in the town of Lubavitch; hence the Habad Hasidim are called the “Lubavitcher Hasidim.” Dov Baer was succeeded by his son-in-law and nephew (the son of Shneur Zalman’s daughter), Menahem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866). The Habad Hasidim call Shneur Zalman the “Alter Rebbe” (“the Old Rabbi”), Dov Baer the “Mittler Rebbe” (“the Middle Rabbi”), and Menahem Mendel, after the title of his magnum opus, “the Tzemah Tzedek.” The Habad dynasty has many ramifications, and an immense literature has been produced by the various masters of the group. The present Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York is the great-great-grandson of Menahem Mendel.
Shneur Zalman’s major Hasidic book is Tanya (It Has Been Taught). The meaning of the title is that the book begins with the word Tanya, quoting from a passage in the Talmud, and books were frequently called after the opening word or words. Another name for the book is Likkutey Amarim (Collected Sayings), i.e., an anthology ot Hasidic ideas. A third part, called “The Letter on Repentance” (Iggeret Ha-TeshuvahJ was added in Shklov in 1806. Finally, the fourth part was added: Iggeret Ha-Kodesh (The Holy Letter), letters of the rabbi, in the Shklov edition of 1814. The standard edition of the Tanya was published repeatedly by the famous printing house of Romm in Vilna, 1900, etc. This is the edition used here. So high is the regard of the Chabad Hasidim for the Tanya that many of them keep it in the same bag as their tallit and study it regularly. One of Shneur Zalman’s contemporaries is reported to have said when he read the book, “What an achievement, to contain such a great God in such a small book!”
I HOW CAN MAN REJOICE IN THE LORD?
Tanya, part 1, chapter 33, pp. 82-85
Here is another way to make the soul glad, especially when a man senses, from time to time, that his soul needs to be refined and illumined by rejoicing in the heart. He should then engage in deep contemplation, depicting in his mind and understanding the idea of God’s true unity, blessed be He. That is to say, He fills all worlds, those on high and those beneath them, and even the fullness of this earth is His glory, blessed be He. In relation to Him everything is really nothing at all. He alone is actually in the upper and lower worlds, just as He was alone before the six days of creation.
Shneur Zalman gives here his typical Chabad exposition of the Maggid’s views on the immanence of God. His grandson Menahem Mendel states in one of his works that the idea of God’s unity has passed through three distinct stages. In the Bible and Talmud the unity of God means, chiefly, that there is only one God and that there are no other gods. For the medieval Jewish philosophers the doctrine of God’s unity meant not alone that He is one but that He is unique, that none of His creatures can in any way be compared to him. The disciples of the Baal Shem Tov deepened the idea still further, teaching that the unity of God means that God is the only ultimate reality, that there is no world at all because all is God. In that case, why do we see a world, and how can we ourselves exist? The Chabad answer is that the divine light is screened so that we appear to enjoy existence, and so does the world. But the man who contemplates long on this version of God’s unity comes to realize that, in reality, God is the same, “filling all,” even now that there seems to be a world, just as He was “before the six days of creation.” Shneur Zalman is here developing the thought that this idea brings joy into the soul.
Even in the space into which this world was created, heavens and earth and all their hosts, He alone fills this space. And even now He alone is, without any change whatsoever because all creatures are annihilated in Him just as the letters by means of which speech and thought take place are annihilated in their source and root. That is to say, in the real being and essence of the soul, its ten aspects of Chochmah, Binah, Deah, and so forth.
We have seen in a previous chapter that the ten Sefirot (in Habad and other kabbalistic systems, Deah is one of the ten) are mirrored in man’s soul and that therefore man’s nature can be used as an analogy for God’s relationship to the universe. The Sefirot in man’s souls are the potential means of all expression, the pure thoughts and emotions of man. For these to be actualized man has to think or speak, thus bringing his thoughts and feelings into play. For speech (and thought, because one thinks in words) letters are required which are formed into words. These letters are the “garments” of the ten aspects of the soul. But although from one point of view they have a separate identity, from another there are no such things. This is because the letters are simply the means of expressing and were it not for the forces in the soul requiring expression, letters and words would be unimaginable. In Shneur Zalman’s analogy, the letters are “annihilated,” i.e., lose their identity in the forces which resided in the soul and which brought the letters into being. In the same way, God is really all. The world is only the word He uses to express His goodness, and in relation to His Being there is no world because it is “annihilated in Him.” Now Shneur Zalman goes on to illustrate this idea by means of another analogy.
We have also given elsewhere an illustration taken from the physical world for this idea. The shining and the light of the sun are annihilated in the sun itself in the heavens. For without doubt up there, too, its light shines and extends even more so than it extends and shines in space below. Only there it is annihilated in its source and enjoys no existence at all. So by analogy is the total annihilation of existence of the world and the fullness thereof in relation to its source, which is the light of En Sof, blessed be He.
The rays of the sun shine on earth. Logically, there must be sun rays in the sun itself, but so bright is the light of the sun, the source of the rays, that in the sun itself the rays fade into total insignificance. By the same token the whole world is only the ray of the light of En Sof. Now since He is beyond space and time and is present always, this really means that the world and its creatures only enjoy existence by being remote from God to some extent. When man contemplates long on this theme he comes to see that he and the world he inhabits are like the rays of the sun in the sun itself and there is total “annihilation.”
Now when a man contemplates on this idea very profoundly, his heart leaps in joy and his soul is glad, there is abundant joy, and in this belief there is gladness and song, with all the heart and all the soul and all the might. For this is to be near to God quite literally. This is the whole purpose for which he and all worlds were created, that God should dwell among those down below. . . . How great is the joy of an ordinary, inferior person who draws near to a king who has agreed to be his guest and to live with him in his house! How much more so, then, when man is near to the King of the kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, who dwells with him! As it is written: “For who is he that hath pledged his heart to approach unto Me? saith the Lord” (Jeremiah 30:21). This is why it was ordained that we should say each morning when praising God: “Happy are we. How good is our portion and how beautiful our heritage.” This means that, just as a man rejoices when he is left an inheritance of a very large amount of money for which he has not toiled, so, and even more so, should we rejoice over the heritage our fathers have left us, namely, the doctrine of God’s unity in truth, that even on this earth down below there is none else beside Him, and this is the meaning of His dwelling down below.
The verse in Deuteronomy (4:35) says: “Unto thee it was shown, that thou mightest know that the Lord, He is Cod; there is none else beside Him.” In the context, the verse means that there is no other God beside Him. But Chabad understands it to mean that there is only He, there is none else beside Him, i.e., apart from Him, no worlds and no creatures.
This is why the Rabbis (Makkot 23b, 24a) say that 613 precepts were given to Israel, but Habakkuk came and reduced them to one great principle: “The righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). This means that it is as if a man only had a single precept to carry out, that of faith, for through faith on its own a man will come to carry out all the other precepts. For when a man’s heart leaps for joy in his belief in the unity of God, with limitless joy, as if the only command he had been given was this one and that this is the whole purpose for which he and all worlds were created, then this joy he experiences will endow him with such strength and such vitality that he will be able to rise far, far above all obstacles that prevent him from carrying out all the 613 precepts, inwardly and outwardly. This is why the verse says, “The righteous shall live by his faith,” he shall live, it will be just like the resurrection of the dead, so, by analogy, will his soul be revived through this joy he will experience. And it will be a twofold joy, for in addition to the joy his soul will experience when it discerns that God is near and dwells with him, he will rejoice all the more that God rejoices and the great satisfaction this belief provides to Him, blessed be He.
It is worth noting that the Mitnaggedim, unlike Shneur Zalman, held it to be spiritually dangerous to dwell on this idea that God is all. The reason for their opposition was either that they did not understand the doctrine of God’s unity in this way and thought it to be heresy, or they did. believe in it but thought that if man reflects too much on it, it will tend to obliterate all distinctions between good and evil, for it would seem to follow that Cod is in evil as well as in good. Shneur Zalman, therefore, now goes on to state that evil does not really exist at all. The belief in God’s unity in the sense he has described the doctrine reduces evil to nothingness or, in the kabalistic language Shneur Zalman uses, the “Other Side” (the demonic side of existence), and the kelipot (“shells” or “husks”) are vanquished.
For [the belief in God’s unity] will cause the Other Side to be vanquished and darkness will be converted into light, that is to say, the darkness of this material world which obscures and conceals His light, blessed be He. So will it be until the end of days, as it is said, “He setteth an end to darkness” (Job 28:3), referring to the end of days when God will remove the spirit of impurity from the earth and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it. Shneur Zalman refers to the messianic age. In that time all the darkness shall vanish and all men will see the truth that God is all— “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” The job passage really seems to mean: “Man sets an end to darkness,” but as the text only says “he,” Shneur Zalman feels free to say it is God who will do so.
This applies especially in the lands of the idolaters, where the very atmosphere is unclean, full of kelipot and the “Other Side,” and there is no greater joy to God, blessed be He, than the light and joy which stem from darkness, especially from darkness (i.e., when the joy comes even in a place where there had been deep spiritual darkness). This is the meaning of the verse: “Let Israel rejoice in His deeds” (Psalms 149:2). That is to say, whoever is from the seed of Israel should rejoice that God rejoices and is glad that He resides among those here below, which is called “deeds,” which are physical. And that is why it uses the plural deeds. For this material world full of the kelipot and the “Other Side” is called the public domain and the mountains of separation. But they are turned into a private domain, to the unity of God through his belief.
The rabbinic term for “public domain” is reshut ha-rabbim, literally, “domain of the many,” while the term for “private domain” is reshut ha-yahid, literally, “domain of the one.” Hence Shneur Zalman remarks that this world in which there is evil and separation is the domain of the many forces of impurity and the domain of multiplicity and separation, but through belief in God’s complete unity all division and multiplicity and evil disappear and the world becomes “the domain of the One.” He is again forcing a translation, for the Psalm really says: “Let Israel rejoice in Him that made him,” but Shneur Zalman can’t resist a broad leap that allows this interpretation.
II HOW CAN SCHADENFREUDE BE AVOIDED?
Tanya, Iggeret Ha-Kodesh, 2, pp. 206-7
This noble letter was sent originally to all his followers by Shneur Zalman after he had returned from his imprisonment in Saint Petersburg. This was a great victory for Hasidism, and he sensed that some of the Hasidim would take the opportunity to hit back at the Mitnaggedim, so Shneur Zalman here warns his followers to repay hatred with love and not to gloat over the discomfiture of their opponents.
“I am unworthy of all the favors” (Genesis 32:11). The meaning of the verse is that for every mercy shown by the Holy One, blessed be He, to man, he should be all the more humble. For mercy is the “right hand” and “His right hand embraces me” (Song of Songs 2:6). This is the category of the real nearness of Cod to a far greater state than ever before. Now the nearer a man is to God and the greater his elevation, the more is he required to be exceedingly humble, as it is said: “From afar the Lord appeared unto me” (Jeremiah 31:3). Now it is well known that everything before Him is as nothing so that the more one is before Him the more he is as nothing.
There are a number of kabbalistic allusions in this passage. First, the saying, “everything before Him is as nothing,” is in the Zohar. In the context this refers to the insignificance of creatures before God. But in Chabad, and to some extent in the Maggid’s school in general, this became a favorite text for the view that all creatures are literally “nothing” in relation to God, since all is God in reality. It follows that the nearer one is to God, the nearer to true reality, the less of selfhood will there be. Hence Shneur Zalman’s interpretation of the saying, “Everything that is before Him [i.e., near to Him] is as nothing.” When Cod shows mercy (the term used is Hesed, the Sefirah Lovingkindness, the source of all mercy), He embraces man, as it were, with His right hand (the Sefirot of Mercy are described as belonging to the right, those of Judgment to the left). So when man is shown mercy and God has “embraced” him and thus brought him near, it must follow that he feels all the more unworthy. The verse in Genesis means literally: “I have become small because of the mercies,” i.e., I feel all the more inferior because God has shown so much mercy to me. The conclusion is that the Hasidim, to whom Cod has shown special favors, now have to be very humble.
This is the category of the right hand of holiness and “mercy to Abraham” (Micah 7:20), who said: “I am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). And this was also the quality of Jacob. That is why he apologized for fearing Esau and not relying on God’s promise to him: “And, behold, I am with thee” (Genesis 28:15). For since Jacob had become so very small in his own eyes because of God’s great mercies to him, “For with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two camps” (Genesis 32:11), and he thus thought that he was unworthy to be saved from Esau. This is what the Rabbis mean when they say (Berakhot 4a) that Jacob feared that sin may have been the cause of the promise being unfulfilled, i.e., Jacob thought he was a sinner.
Abraham, in the Kabbalah, is called the “pillar of Hesed,” i.e., he represented on earth God’s mercies on high. On the basis of Shneur Zalman’s analysis we can see why Abraham, in particular, said that he was dust and ashes. Now the Rabbis ask why Jacob was so afraid of Esau. After all, God had promised to be with him and to protect him. The Rabbis say that Jacob feared he might have sinned and so forfeited his right to divine protection. Shneur Zalman gives this a novel turn. Cod had led Jacob and enriched him so that from a poor wanderer with his staff he had become a rich man with “two camps.” Cod had been very good to him and this caused him to feel even more inferior. Hence, even if he had not really sinned, in his new great humility he thought he was a sinner and had forfeited divine protection.
“God has made one as well as the other (Ecclesiastes 7:14). So it is quite the opposite with regard to Ishmael, who represents the Hesed of the kelipah. With him the more mercy he is shown the more he is puffed up with pride and the more ambitious he becomes. The verse, “Cod has made one as well as the other” is interpreted in the Kabbalah to mean that whatever there is found in the realm of holiness is also found in the realm of the demonic. That is to say, there are unholy Sefirot. i.e., profane love, terror, pride, and so forth. Ishmael is the symbol of unholy Hesed. When Hesed manifests itself to the unholy man, instead of being humble like Jacob was, he thinks that he deserves even more goodness and becomes proud and demanding.
Therefore, I come to inform you, in an important proclamation to all the members of our fraternity, of all the kindness which the Lord has wrought for us. It is right, therefore, to seize hold of the quality of our father Jacob, “the remnant of His people” (Isaiah 11:11), “the remnant of Israel” (Jeremiah 6:9), so called because he treats himself like a- remnant, like something useless that is left over. Do not, therefore, exalt yourselves over your brethren and do not speak in haughtiness against them and do not hiss at them, Cod forbid. Let such a thing never be mentioned. I give you a strict warning. You should therefore be very humble in spirit and heart, seizing hold of Jacob’s quality in the presence of all men, with a lowly spirit and the kind of gentle answer that turns away wrath. And have a restrained spirit, etc. Perhaps, after all this, God will put it into the hearts of your brethren to behave likewise: “As in water face answereth to face, So is the heart of man to man” (Proverbs 27:19).
When a man gazes into water he sees his own face reflected. So, too, if the Hasidim will behave well toward their opponents, there is a possibility that the latter will also respond with love.
III WHAT IS THE EXTENT OF MAN’S GENEROSITY?
Tanya, Iggeret Ha-Kodesh, 9, pp. 226-28
In this letter to his followers, Shneur Zalman urges them to be generous. The background is the extremely difficult time in Russia when many Jewish communities were impoverished. There is an element of extremism in Shneur Zalman’s complete negation of family love, but it has to be realized that he was addressing Hasidim whom he suspected of placing the family before anything else to the extent that the needy were overlooked. From another version of this letter, however, it seems that his appeal was on behalf of the Hasidim in the Holy Land.
Friends, brothers, and companions whom I love as myself! I come now to recall you to your duty, to awaken those who sleep the heavy slumber of vanity of vanities, to open the eyes of the blind that they should see. Let all their desire, longing, and ambition, with all they have, in their innermost being, be for the Source of Life, all the days of their life, whether in things spiritual or material. 1 mean that they should not engage in worldly things and in earning a living solely with self in mind. They should not be like the idolators who work for, support, and have regard for their wives and children out of their love for them. For it is written (1 Chronicles 17:21): “Who is like Thy people Israel, a nation one in the earth.” This means that even when attending to earthly matters they should not be separated, God forbid, from the truly One. They should not be guilty of testifying falsely, God forbid, when they recite the Shema daily, saying, with their eyes closed, “The Lord is One,” and He alone reigns in all four directions, in heaven above and on the earth beneath, and yet, no sooner do they open their eyes, than it has all vanished, God forbid.
It is the practice, when reciting the Shema, to close the eyes and concentrate on the belief that God alone reigns above and below and in all four directions of north, south, east, and west. Shneur Zalman takes this to mean that the true Hasid does everything for God. He only loves his wife and children because this, too, is what God would have him do. But no sooner has he opened his eyes, after affirming it in the Shema, that he forgets all about it and thinks only of earning a living for his family
Through this alone can we be acceptable to God, in that all our efforts in worldly things should be with the motive of reviving souls, portions of God, and to satisfy their needs in pure love. In this way we resemble our Creator, the Lord who is One, whose lovingkindness is all through the day a true lovingkindness, wherewith He revives the world and the fullness thereof at every moment. Only, it so happens that according to the Torah a man’s wife and children take precedence over others.
Shneur Zalman means that man is expected to resemble his Maker. Now Cod’s love is entirely untainted by self-interest, for He lacks nothing. It is pure, unadulterated goodness. So, too, man should be entirely disinterested in the good he does. He should not have any self-interest. His aim should be to keep souls alive, i.e., to help others because they have immortal souls (in Chabad, as in Levi Yitzhak’s thought, they have an actual portion of Cod in their souls). Strictly speaking, there ought to be no difference whether a man supports others or his own family. It is only that the Torah demands that he give precedence to his family. Thus his special care for his family should be because the Torah has so commanded.
Therefore, my beloved brethren, consider these things stated here very briefly (please God when we meet face to face, I shall elaborate on them) that the main way of serving God in these times, the times of the “heels of the Messiah,” is to give charity. As the Rabbis of blessed memory say (Sanhedrin 98a): “Israel will only be redeemed through charity.” The Rabbis only said (Peah 1:1) that the study of the Torah is equal to acts of benevolence in their day when the study of the Torah was their main way of serving God, and that is why they were such great sages, Tannaim, and Amoraim. It is quite different during the time of the “heels of the Messiah,” when the Tabernacle of David has fallen to the stage of “heels” and “feet,” which represents action. There is no other way of converting darkness into light except through action, namely, the act of giving charity. For those who are wise know that the category of “action” with regard to the divine realm is the category of the influx of divine grace down below to those who have nothing of themselves.
Everything on earth mirrors the divine processes. Consequently, just as in the sefirotic realm there is wisdom and action so, too, in the progress of human history. Now the aspect of “action” in the divine realm is that God acts in His mercy to sustain the world, giving of His goodness to those who have nothing. Similarly, as mankind progresses toward the messianic age, raising the Tabernacle of David that has fallen, there are stages. In the days of the Rabbis the stage was that of thought, mirroring the stage of thought in the divine realm. But now we have to mirror the stage of action in the divine realm by giving charity. The reference to the “heels of the Messiah” is to this expression found frequently in the rabbinic literature, where it means the time when the “feet” of the Messiah are heard, i.e., just before he comes. But in the Kabala the meaning is that man has, as it were, worked his way downward from the head (the thought of the Tannaim and Amoraim) and has now to put right things through the “heels,” which denotes action, i.e., the lowest stage of the divine processes, when Cod’s thoughts are being realized. The Tannaim are the rabbis of the Mishnah, the Amoraim of the Gemara.
Whoever sacrifices his evil inclination in this matter and opens his hand and heart will cause the “Other Side” to be vanquished and will convert darkness into the light of God, blessed be He, who dwells among us in the category of “action” at the time of the “heels of the Messiah.” And he will be worthy of seeing God eye to eye when He returns to Zion.
Reading between the lines of this epistle, it would seem that some of the Hasidim tried to find an excuse for their lack of generosity in that they served Cod by studying the Torah, which is just as good as being benevolent. They could quote the passage in Peah in their support, so Shneur Zalman hastens to disabuse them.