Opening the Tanya: Discovering the Moral and Mystical Teachings of a Classic Work of Kabbalah

Opening the Tanya: Discovering the Moral and Mystical Teachings of a Classic Work of Kabbalah




Written by the great Hasidic master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in the late eighteenth century, the Tanya is considered to be one of the most extraordinary books of moral teachings ever written.

A seminal document in the study of Kabbalah, the Tanya explores and solves the dilemmas of the human soul by arriving at the root causes of its struggles. Though it is a classic Jewish spiritual text, the Tanya and its present commentary take a broad and comprehensive approach that is not specific to Judaism nor tied to a particular personality type or time or point of view.

Opening the Tanya is a groundbreaking book that offers a definitive introduction, explanation, and commentary upon the Tanya. As relevant today as it was when it was first written more than two hundred years ago, the Tanya helps us to see the many thousands of complexities, doubts, and drives within us as expressions of a single basic problem, the struggle between our Godly Soul and our Animal Soul.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780787967987
Publisher: Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated
Publication date: 08/08/2003
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.26(w) x 9.36(h) x 1.24(d)

About the Author

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is a scholar, teacher, scientist, writer, mystic, and social critic, and is internationally regarded as one of the most brilliant and influential rabbis of our time. Best known for his monumental commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz is the recipient of the Israel Prize, which is that country’s highest honor. He has been a resident scholar at major academic institutions including Yale University, the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, N.J., and the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. He has been described by Time magazine as a "once-in-a-millennium scholar."

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Opening the Tanya

Discovering the Moral and Mystical Teachings of a Classic Work of Kabbalah
By Adin Steinsaltz

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-7879-6798-X



The author of Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, was born on the 18th of Elul 5505 (1745), in the town of Liozna in White Russia (now Belarus). His father was Rabbi Baruch, a descendent of the famed Maharal, Rabbi Loewe of Prague. From his early childhood, Rabbi Schneur Zalman's genius and prodigious Torah knowledge were widely recognized. A few years after his marriage in 1760, he decided to study Torah at one of the great Torah centers. The two centers he considered were Vilna, home to Rabbi Elijah, the famed Gaon of Vilna; and Mezherich, where the great Maggid ("preacher"), Rabbi Dov Ber, successor to the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement, taught. Feeling that he knew a little about how to study Torah but virtually nothing about how to pray, he decided to go to Mezherich.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman arrived in Mezherich in 1764. Despite his student's youth, the Maggid soon counted him among the inner circle of disciples. The Maggid greatly appreciated his talents and Torah knowledge, giving the young man the task, in 1770, of compiling a new and updated Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law). Rabbi Schneur Zalman labored at this task for many years (parts of it underwent two drafts), but tragically, most of the work was destroyed by fire. Onlya part of it (most of Orach Chaim and a few chapters from the other three sections) survived and was published after his death. The book, which is not a specifically Hasidic work, is known as The Rav's Shulchan Aruch; it is a tremendous halakhic ("relating to Torah law") achievement, adapting and condensing the gist of Torah law up to that time. The author's use of the Hebrew language is outstanding: he explains things concisely and clearly, in depth but without unnecessary complexities. His halakhic approach is similar, in many ways, to that of the Gaon of Vilna. Still, the work has earned an honored status among halakhic authorities all over the Jewish world, and it serves as the basic halakhic source for Hasidim in general and Chabad Hasidim in particular. Were it not for the violent opposition to Hasidism that prevailed at the time, it would doubtless have earned even a more central position in halakhic literature.

In 1767, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was appointed Maggid in his hometown of Liozna; beginning in 1772, highly talented young men began to come to him for instruction in Torah and the service of God. Rabbi Schneur Zalman arranged these disciples in three chadarim ("rooms" or classes), instructing each according to his level. According to Chabad tradition, Rabbi Schneur Zalman began to consolidate his unique Chabad philosophy and approach in this same year, which is thus considered the founding year of Chabad Hasidism.

In 1774, Rabbi Schneur Zalman and his teacher-colleague, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, went as a Hasidic delegation to Vilna in an attempt to come to an understanding with the Vilna Gaon, the leading figure in the opposition against the Hasidic movement. But the Vilna Gaon refused to receive them.

In the same year, following the death of the Maggid, the Hasidic community accepted the central leadership of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk. But in 1777, under the pressure of persecution and excommunication by the opponents of Hasidism, which were directed mainly against the Hasidim of White Russia, Rabbi Menachem Mendel and a large group of Hasidim emigrated to the Land of Israel. Rabbi Schneur Zalman, who was initially in the group, was persuaded to return home and became one of the leaders of the Hasidic community in White Russia, together with Rabbi Israel of Plotsk and Rabbi Issachar Dov of Lubavich. In 1788, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, in a letter from the land of Israel, appointed him as the sole leader of the Hasidim in this region. This, however, was merely a confirmation of the de facto state of affairs, because Rabbi Schneur Zalman's comprehensive educational endeavor, both written and oral, and his impressive success in many public debates with Hasidism's opponents (including the famous disputation in Minsk in 1783), had made him the most important Hasidic leader in White Russia. Moreover, by this time, his teaching had also consolidated into a unique system within Hasidism, the system of Chabad (an acronym for Chokhmah, Binah, Daat; see Chapter 3).

Rabbi Schneur Zalman's influence continued to grow. Copies of his writings on Hasidic teaching circulated widely, and his published works, initially published anonymously, added considerably to the spread of the Chabad approach and to the author's reputation. If his Hilchot Talmud Torah (Laws of Torah Study, published anonymously in 1794) demonstrated his knowledge of halakhah and of Torah in general, his Tanya (published in 1797) was a lucid and systematic articulation of the fundamentals of Hasidic teaching.

His influence spread not only throughout White Russia but increasingly also in Lithuania and even in Vilna itself, to the extent that several community leaders in this bastion of opposition to Hasidism were among his followers. This aroused the wrath of the mitnagdim ("opponents" of Hasidism), who, finding their old recourse of excommunication ineffective, availed themselves of their last remaining weapon: informing against him to the Russian government, which had recently annexed White Russia and Poland. The Rabbi of Pinsk brought a formal complaint to the Russian authorities, accusing a number of Hasidic leaders, and in particular Rabbi Schneur Zalman, of various offenses, both religious and political: sending money to the sultan of Turkey (actually funds he raised for the support of the Hasidic community in the Holy Land, then under Turkish rule) and the creation of a new religious sect, which Russian law strictly forbade. In 1798, as a result of these accusations, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was arrested and brought as a capital offender to Petersburg. After a secret trial, whose details we do not fully know to this day (though a number of authenticated documents and a great deal of legendary material are connected with it), he was exonerated of all charges and released from prison on the 19th of Kislev of that year. This day came to symbolize the public victory of Hasidism over its opponents and was established, in the lifetime of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, as the Festival of Redemption.

Historically, that 19th of Kislev represents a watershed in the development of Hasidism: from that point, it grew stronger, accelerated its spread, and gained tens of thousands of new followers. The date also is said to hold a deeper, spiritual significance. Hasidim came to see Rabbi Schneur Zalman's arrest, trial, and liberation as the earthly reflection of a heavenly trial, in which God was judging his activities and approach. To what extent ought the teachings of Hasidism to be publicized and disseminated? Is the generation capable of receiving these revelations? Would it uplift them spiritually, or would it perhaps cause more harm than good? The Russian authorities' verdict was, in its inner essence, the supernal verdict; the earthly court's decision to free Rabbi Schneur Zalman merely echoed the decision of the heavenly court, expressing the supernal vindication of Hasidism. Thus, Chabad Hasidim celebrate the 19th of Kislev as the New Year's Day for Hasidism to this day.

The 19th of Kislev also marks a new period in Rabbi Schneur Zalman's teachings and works. The period before his imprisonment is known as "before Petersburg," and the period following it as "after Petersburg." Before Petersburg, Rabbi Schneur Zalman did not convey his esoteric teachings openly and clearly, leaving much to allusion. After Petersburg, the trickling wellspring became the great river of Chabad Hasidism, because Rabbi Schneur Zalman then felt that there was no longer any divine impediment to the teaching of Hasidism, and the time had come to elaborate on it and disseminate it without inhibition.

Following further slanderous accusations, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was summoned to a second interrogation in Petersburg in 1800, and after a lengthy imprisonment, though under much easier conditions, he was finally released by command of the new czar, Alexander I. On his return from prison, he moved to the town of Liadi and thus came to be known as the Rav of Liadi.

After Rabbi Schneur Zalman had largely overcome the opposition to Hasidism from without, a bitter dispute broke out within the Hasidic community, mainly over the intellectual nature of the Chabad system. The leader of the dispute, which also involved personal elements, was Rabbi Abraham of Kalisk, a disciple of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, who was later joined by Rabbi Baruch of Mezhibuzh, the Baal Shem Tov's grandson. This dispute caused Rabbi Schneur Zalman deep sorrow, but it did not affect his standing, instead actually highlighting the uniqueness of his personality and his philosophy.

When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was among the fiercest opponents of the French conquest. He feared that French rule would grant emancipation to the Jews and accelerate assimilation; he therefore supported Russia with all his power. As the French army advanced, he was forced to flee behind the Russian army to the interior of the country. He fell ill on the journey and on Tevet 24, 5583 (1812), died in the remote village of Pyern; he was buried in the nearby town of Haditz.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman was among the greatest Jewish personalities of his time: great in Torah, both in its exoteric or "revealed" aspect (that is, Talmud and halakhah) and in its esoteric dimension. He was learned in secular knowledge, a virtuoso of the Hebrew language, a master writer and editor, a born leader and superb administrator-in addition to being a charismatic leader, an ecstatic mystic, and a composer of music. In each of his creative fields, he wrote books of permanent value that have become the basis of the Chabad Hasidism for all generations.


The Tanya is not only one of the fundamental works of Hasidism, it is also one of the greatest books of moral teaching (mussar) of all time. Although the author modestly describes himself as a "compiler," this is a most original work, both in its basic premise as well as in the many ideas and insights it expresses parenthetically. And though the author repeatedly notes that the book is intended for a select audience, for "those who know me personally," it strives to solve the dilemmas with a most broad and comprehensive approach-an approach that is not specific to a particular person, time, or outlook.

Most moral works address themselves to personal problems and to the ways that a person can attain specific goals in specific areas. The advantage in such an individualized approach is that it deals with the specific questions that a person might ask himself; the answers supplied are likewise specific and definitive. On the other hand, the book is limited to the specific problems it raises and is thus of actual help only to specific individuals. Others might be impressed that the book is indeed a great and profound work, yet they will always feel that, as a book of moral teaching, it does not speak to them. It fails to answer their problems or to take into account their specific personalities and circumstances.

Tanya, by contrast, does not, in the main, address specific problems but delves into their root causes, seeking to distill the predicaments of humankind down to their most elementary maxims and to solve them in the most comprehensive way. The crux of the book is an in-depth summation of the workings of the inner soul and an analysis of good and evil in general and as fundamental forces at play in the soul and the primary sources of its dissonance. Tanya trains its students to see the many thousands of complexities, doubts, and drives within them as expressions of a single basic problem: the struggle between the good and evil in the human soul.

Although the book is written with great restraint, it energetically and dramatically depicts human life as an immense battle between good and evil that one endures throughout one's lifetime, a battle between the forces that drag the soul down and the forces that strive heavenward. Each chapter develops from the previous one, and all are interconnected, progressively leading their student to recognize the inner soul, its intrinsic duality, the array of conflicting forces within it and their respective strengths and weaknesses, and the battle's nature and vicissitudes.

In describing this battle, the author offers a completely new approach. The battle in a person's soul is actually not between good and evil (expressions he rarely uses, except when he needs to clarify a point by using the ordinary semantics of these terms) but between the two elements within the human soul: the Godly soul and the animal soul. The Godly soul is that part of the soul that aspires to the divine, in all its connotations. The animal soul is the part that relates to one's physical identity and one's involvement in the material world. These are not merely alternative terms for "good" and "evil" or for "body" and "soul"; they draw a far subtler distinction. The animal soul is not negative in essence, nor is it necessarily hedonistic. The animal soul can become refined and wise and achieve much in the life of the spirit yet remain animal. The animal soul is the soul of a human being as a biological creature, as a specific level of development in the zoological system. Even in this sense, humans are superior to other creatures in our ability to attain great heights in the realms of thought and feeling; still, we remain an animal among animals. It is in the Godly soul, in its aspiration to the divine, that man's uniqueness lies. The Godly soul yearns to cleave to and be absorbed by the divine, and only by this aspiration, by the constant struggle of the Godly soul to transcend its needs and its very self in order to attain identification with the divine light, does one achieve a true identity as a human being.

It is from this definition of the inner struggle of the soul that the appropriate solution emerges. This is not a war to the death, in which a person tries to destroy and obliterate a part of the self. As the animal soul is not fundamentally evil, the battle against it is essentially a battle of education. A person's task is to train the animal soul, to elevate it to a higher level of awareness and understanding, until it is unified, both in its objectives and in its aspirations, with the Godly soul. Thus, one achieves full harmony of body and soul, of earthliness and transcendence.

The perpetual battle in the human soul, which stems from its dual nature, also has moral and pragmatic implications.


Excerpted from Opening the Tanya by Adin Steinsaltz Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

A Note About Gender.
The Title Page.
The Approbations.
Compiler's Preface.
Chapter 1.
Chapter 2.
Chapter 3.
Chapter 4.
Chapter 5.
Chapter 6.
Chapter 7.
Chapter 8.
Chapter 9.
Chapter 10.
Chapter 11.
Chapter 12.
The Author.

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