Over 250 years ago, a revolutionary movement arose at the center of the Jewish world. With remarkable speed, the Hasidic movement spread throughout Eastern Europe and White Russia (now Belarus). Hasidism had a profound - and continuing - impact on Jewish spiritual thought and practice, changing it as no other movement has.
What is Hasidism? What is its innovation? Hasidism strives for consciousness of one's inner essence and simplicity - in relation to Torah, man, and divinity - and for this, there are no adequate words or direct definitions. Initially, Hasidism was an all-encompassing approach to life, a distinct way of praying, studying, and living that emphasized cleaving to and serving God with joy. Because it deals with man's inner essence, Hasidism defies easy definition or description. Our understanding is further complicated by the fact that the first generations of Hasidic masters, on principle, wrote little or not at all. Even the few writings we do have tend to be secondary sources, often fragmented and unsystematic, and are idiosyncratic to the specific environment in which they arose. Thus, they provide faint illumination, while essentially leaving us in the dark.
The Tanya does not purport to provide a comprehensive definition or explication of Hasidism. Nevertheless, it is the first - and in many ways, the only - systematic book of the Hasidic movement.
The Tanya is a small book, and it is not encyclopedic, yet it is - in a particularly Jewish sense - all-inclusive. The Written Torah is considered to be the ultimate source of the many details of Jewish thought that continually emanate from the Oral Torah. So, too, the leaders of the Chabad branch of Hasidism called the Tanya "the Written Torah of Hasidism," the repository - in potential, in essence, and in full - of the whole of Hasidism.
About the Author of Tanya
The author of the Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, was born in 1745 in the small town of Liozna in White Russia. At a young age, he became a prominent disciple of Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezherich (1704-1773) - known as the Maggid ("preacher") - who was the successor of the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov (ca. 1700-1760). The Maggid recognized Schneur Zalman's greatness in Torah and his unique talent for systematic organization; he gave him the task of compiling, organizing, and recording all of the Jewish laws up to his day. (The Chabad Hasidim fondly refer to him in Yiddish as the Alter Rebbe.)
Rabbi Schneur Zalman's compilation, known as The Rav's Shulchan Aruch, the first volume of which was published when he was in his late twenties, was such a tremendous achievement that it established him as a great Torah luminary even among Hasidism's detractors. It was only natural for Schneur Zalman to apply these same talents to the elucidation of the fundamentals of Hasidic teachings.
At first glance, the Tanya seems to affect the style of an ordinary book of mussar, practical advice intended to direct people in the path of God's worship and of self-perfection. In fact, it takes an original approach to the basic issues of self-improvement, applying the principles of Hasidism to reveal the root causes of human failings and to devise comprehensive solutions.
The Radical Concept of the Beinoni
The central innovation of the book was the creation of an original conception of the ideal to which a person should aspire: the beinoni. (Indeed, the Tanya is referred to as the Book of Beinonim.) Historically, the beinoni represented a turning away from the predominant ideal of the Jew in the existing mussar literature to something more attainable, if no more closer to the abilities of the average person.
A beinoni is not righteous or evil, nor is he precisely something in between. This state of the beinoni is a condition of ongoing tension and struggle, but this fight - and our ability to conduct our lives within it - are the very purpose of the creation of humankind. As the Tanya explains it, this status is not simply the confrontation between good and evil, but rather the ongoing encounter between the two components of the human soul: the animal and the divine. The tension is between the part of the soul that draws us downward toward the earth and the part that aspires upward toward the divine.
The conflict, then, is not a war of annihilation, in which man seeks to destroy certain parts of his soul; rather, it is an effort to educate all the parts of the human soul, to create within them a consciousness and a feeling - until their aspirations merge with those of the divine soul, so that the person reaches a state of perfect harmony between body and soul, the earthly and the divine.
A companion message of the Tanya is the attainability of this goal. The Tanya seeks to demonstrate to the "average" man or woman that knowledge of God is there for the taking, that spiritual growth to ever higher levels is real and imminent, if one is willing to engage in the struggle. "The thing is exceedingly near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it" (Deuteronomy 30:14).
Why Tanya Needs a Commentary
The Tanya, then, does not create a system; instead, it clothes the essence of the system in structures that bring them to a level that is both higher and more revealed than anything that a story, a Hasidic maxim, a feeling, or a personal relationship could ever do. This, then, is how we should interpret the reaction of Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli, upon receiving this book: "I wonder how he managed to put such a great and awesome God into such a small book!"
Because this book is a "written Torah," it requires, in every generation, an "oral Torah" to accompany it and to serve as an usher and guide. This is especially true in our generation, in which so many people grew up without any contact with the Hasidic world and are unable to access this book.
It is for this generation, and for these people, that this commentary to the Tanya is written. The book contains the precise text of the Tanya as it was written by the Alter Rebbe, along with its authorized translation, and a full commentary that provides source references. I have added extensive explanations of basic Hasidic concepts, theoretical background, metaphors and parables from daily life, and stories from the past and present lives of the Hasidim. The book also contains an expanded Glossary defining and expounding on various important terms and concepts.
This book is intended for all of those who have the mind and the will for it, who desire to access this world and grow through it.