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Living with the Times: Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s Oral Teachings

Living with the Times: Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s Oral Teachings


Part One—An Overview


Scholarship is usually associated with literacy and text, but in the Jewish tradition, oral discourse has always played at least an equal role. Text is static. It is both limited and limiting. But a conversation is fluid and the possibilities are endless. The canonized books of the Torah are the foundation of Judaism, but the oral teachings, as redacted in the Mishnah, along with the dialogues and debates transcribed in the Talmud, provide an ongoing conversation that ensures the Torah’s relevance for eternity.

While the five parts of the Tanya fit comfortably into a single book, the full set of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s oral discourses fills no less than twenty-eight volumes.

The same holds true with the works of Chabad. The Tanya is undoubtedly Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi’s magnum opus, and the foundational text of the Chabad school of chasidism.1 But this text has a monumental oral counterpart: While the five parts of the Tanya fit comfortably into a single book, the full set of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s oral discourses fills no less than twenty-eight volumes.2 In his own times, the primary medium through which Rabbi Shneur Zalman taught, and through which his followers assimilated and perpetuated his teachings, was the orally delivered discourse. In subsequent generations too, these oral teachings provided the seminal impetus for Chabad learning and life to develop and flourish.

In the two hundred years since the passing of Rabbi Shneur Zalman much has been added to the Chabad literary canon. All of it, however, is well rooted in his teachings—especially his oral discourses. Subsequent Rebbes of Chabad were themselves the disciples of Rabbi Shneur Zalman. They studied his teachings, contemplated them deeply, developed innovative explanations, and broke new ground. The different styles and perspectives of each left a unique mark. But in relation to the teachings of Rabbi Shneur Zalman they are all as rays of light to the sun itself. To delve into the oral teachings of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi is to immerse oneself in the spring from which the pure waters of Chabad flow.

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The Transcripts and their Scribes

Rabbi Shneur Zalman formulated the Chabad doctrine and begun instructing young men in the service of G‑d in the early 1770s.3 In 1783 he was appointed to the position of Magid (preacher) in the town of his birth, Liozneh, and began delivering public discourses on a regular basis.4 Over the next thirty years several thousand of these orally delivered discourses (called derushim or maamarim) were memorized and transcribed by Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s closest disciples. These transcripts were copied and distributed for study amongst a wide network of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s disciples. Many of them have survived until today, and are preserved for posterity in the Central Library of Agudas Chasidei Chabad in New York.

Transcript of a discourse delivered by Rabbi Shneur Zalman, in the handwriting of Rabbi DovBer.
Transcript of a discourse delivered by Rabbi Shneur Zalman, in the handwriting of Rabbi DovBer.

During the period that Rabbi Shneur Zalman lived in Liozneh (1783-1801) the foremost transcriber of his oral teachings was his brother, Rabbi Yehudah Leib of Yanovitch.5 Towards the end of this period, Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s oldest son, Rabbi DovBer (b. 1773), began transcribing discourses too.6 The vast majority of his transcripts, however, date from after the second imprisonment of Rabbi Shneur Zalman and his move to Liadi (1801-1812).7 Discourses transcribed by Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s younger son, Rabbi Moshe (b. 1779), are extant from the year 1802 and on. The only extant transcripts by someone outside Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s immediate family, are those of Rabbi Pinchos Reitzes, mostly dating from 1807 and on.8

Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s grandson, Rabbi Menachem Mendel (later the third Rebbe of Chabad, called the Tzemach Tzedek, b. 1789), began transcribing his grandfather’s discourses as early as 1807, but the vast majority of his transcripts date from the very last years of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s life 1811-1812.9

Rabbi Schneur Zalman passed away in the winter of 1812. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 1837 that his grandson, Rabbi Menachem Mendel published the first anthology of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s oral teachings, titled Torah Ohr. A second volume, titled Lekutei Torah, was published in 1848.10 This year (2012), Kehot Publication Society completed the publication of all extant transcripts in honor of the two hundredth anniversary of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s passing.11

* * *

The form of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s oral discourses certainly evolved over the course of the years. Initially, they took the form of intense bursts of inspiration, expressed as brief and pithy interpretations of a biblical verse or Kabbalistic statement. Over time these expositions became longer and more explanatory, and in later years we find that many discourses are supplemented by an “elucidation” delivered a day or two later, which further articulates the concepts mentioned in the initial delivery.12

While this evolution was gradual, Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s 1798 and 1801 imprisonments in St. Petersburg are seen as a pivotal catalyst in this process. As the fifth Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavitch, related, “It is known amongst chasidim, and it is true, that before Petersburg the chasidic discourses (divrei elokim chaim) would burn the world due to their transcendent nature; no one could hear a discourse from him and remain in their previous condition. However, after Petersburg it changed and was no longer so, because when he returned from Petersburg the chasidic discourses began to be orientated toward internal assimilation specifically (התחיל הדא”ח להיות מצד הפנמיות דוקא). This was especially so after he returned from Petersburg the second time. It is difficult to say, but such is the truth; just as an olive releases its oil when crushed, so through the persecutions in Petersburg specifically the interiority [i.e. the intellectual aspect of chasidism that allows divinity to be assimilated and internalized] was revealed.”13

The style of Rabbi Shnuer Zalman’s teachings evolved, and the transcripts vary. But the essential nature of his teachings, and the central themes of his message, are constant and clear.

The form in which the discourses were transcribed also differs substantively from one scribe to another. Rabbi DovBer, for example, tends to expand on the conceptual themes and adds explanatory depth and clarity. Rabbi Menachem Mendel, on the other hand, was concerned to preserve the actual words used by his grandfather as faithfully as possible. In addition, he often adds contextual analysis, notes and references.14

The style of Rabbi Shnuer Zalman’s teachings evolved, and the transcripts vary. But the essential nature of his teachings, and the central themes of his message, are constant and clear.

* * *

Practical Abstraction

The content of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s oral teachings, strongly reflects his project to make the chasidic path of the Baal Shem Tov accessible to the everyman;15 these are profound meditations on the nature of divinity, and yet they are permeated with immediately applicable relevance.16

Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s oral deliveries address themselves to two themes: The first is cognitive (haskalah) while the second is affective and practical (avodah).

In the cognitive domain (השכלה), his focus is primarily upon the two facets of divine oneness: How all that exists is absorbed within that oneness (יחודא עילאה “higher level unity”), and how that oneness can be found within all aspects of the creation (יחודא תתאה “lower level unity”). This oneness is illustrated in discussions that dance between the mystical and the existential. While discussing creation ex nihilo, for example, the perpetually contingent state of all created existence generally arises. Discussions of divine immanence (ממלא כל עלמין), divine transcendence (סובב כל עלמין), divine infinitude (אין סוף, אור אין סוף) and the ten divine modalities or sefirot (ספירות) serve as a platform to discuss the purpose of creation, man’s relationship with his Creator, and the paradox of his own existence. The divine nature of the soul is also a major theme, along with discussions of its descent within the body, its purpose in the physical domain and the travails of its journey. Such concepts are dealt with rigorously so that they can be cognitively assimilated through a prescribed form of profound contemplation and ideation (התבוננות).

The affective and practical domain (עבודה) is where the cosmic existential issues of the cognitive domain become personally relevant. To a certain degree, cognitive engagement with such profound concepts represents a departure (רצוא) from the concrete realm of the here and now. In the domain of avodah, however, Rabbi Shneur Zalman brings heaven down to earth (שוב), entering into intimate discussions of the affective and practical transformation that cognitive contemplation should inspire.

Here, there is a strong tension between the affective and the practical: The nature of the human psyche, Rabbi Schneur Zalman asserts, is such that contemplation of divine truth, oneness, immanence, transcendence, etc. should draw forth varying degrees of love (אהבה), awe (יראה), and longing (כלות הנפש), leading the soul into a state of mystic union (דביקות). While Rabbi Shneur Zalman discusses such experiences in detail, he emphasizes that man’s ultimate purpose is self transformation, and transformation of the earthly realm (אתכפיא ואתהפכא). Indeed, it is specifically through such transformation that man’s existential crisis is finally resolved. Self transformation requires you to recognize your personal role in the cosmic purpose, and your responsibility to play your part. It requires you to set personal aspiration aside (ביטול)—even such spiritual aspirations as love, awe and mystic union. Ultimately, your sole aspiration must be to actualize the divine purpose by transforming the physical realm into a place where divinity is openly manifest. This can only be accomplished through the heartfelt service of G‑d through prayer, Torah study, and the practice of mitzvot.

All of the above requires a rigorous program of introspection (חשבון הנפש), self discipline and commitment (קבלת עול). Such affective and practical issues are discussed with the same rigour and depth as the cosmic issues of the cognitive domain.

Without immersing one’s mind in the true attempt to know G‑d, nothing real and lasting can be achieved. A person might be quite earnest and full of excitement, and yet will lack true integrity and the inner sort of character that chabad strives to instill.

One of the unique features of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s oral teachings in comparison to other Chabad chasidic texts is the degree to which these two themes (haskalah and avodah) flow in and out of one another. In Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s oral teachings, mystical concepts are often illustrated with the description of an affective experience, and every theosophical idea is shown to have an affective or practical application. Likewise, every discussion of affective and practical methodology is informed and justified by theosophical principle.17

The manner in which Rabbi Shneur Zalman merges the cognitive and the affective domains (haskalah and avodah) caused the fifth Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Shalom DovBer Shneersohn of Lubavitch, to wonder which preceded which.18 In a lengthy discussion he points out that earlier transcripts of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s discourses imply that his initial concern was avodah, and that haskalah played a secondary role in his teachings. Ultimately, however, he concludes that this was not the case. Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s primary focus was always to engage his disciples in haskalah—cognitive contemplation of divinity, but the purpose of that contemplation was internalization and avodah—affective and practical transformation of the self.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman once told a disciple, “The verse says ‘know G‑d’19—it doesn’t say ‘intellectualize G‑d.’” As Rabbi Shalom DovBer points out, the full verse reads, “Know G‑d… and serve Him with a full heart.” Evidently, Rabbi Shneur Zalman was not interested in abstract intellectualization: Knowledge of the divine is only meaningful if it translates into avodah.

Without immersing one’s mind in the true attempt to know G‑d, nothing real and lasting can be achieved. A person might be quite earnest and full of excitement, and yet will lack true integrity and the inner sort of character that chabad strives to instill. About such a person, Rabbi Shalom DovBer says, “I can’t say what he is. Now he is this, now he is something else... he himself doesn’t know who he is.”20 The focus of Rabbi Shnuer Zalman’s teachings, therefore, must be on the intellectual assimilation and internalization of divine knowledge. Only then can the individual actually achieve the transformative goal of avodah.

Rabbi Shalom DovBer further explained just how deeply intertwined cognitive ideation is with the ultimate goal of inner transformation. If one’s character is receptive, he says, contemplation and cognitive assimilation alone will mold the inner self to reflect the divine concept, illuminating and entirely transforming the natural faculties of one’s character. True, in someone who is not yet so attuned, there must be a stage of bitterness and re-orientation, so that they might become receptive. Nevertheless, it is intellectual immersion that ultimately brings the whole individual—mind, body and soul—closer to G‑d. This intimacy is strongly reflected in the sweeping fluidity with which Rabbi Shneur Zalman interweaves the dual threads of haskalah and avodah.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s oral teachings are theosophical meditations on the nature of divinity. At the same time, they are ultimately concerned with the transformative purpose of humankind upon this physical earth.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s oral teachings, then, are theosophical meditations on the nature of divinity. At the same time, they are ultimately concerned with the transformative purpose of humankind upon this physical earth. Physicality must be emancipated from its veneer of crass banality, and earthly life must be made transparent to the ultimate ineffability of the divine self. A path of earthly ascent and refinement (עבודה מלמטה למעלה),21 reciprocated by divine descent and endowment (המשכה ממעלה למטה),22 empowers humanity to bridge the existential gap between G‑d and creation. Bridging that gap is the ultimate purpose of all existence.23

To some degree, affective and practical guidance itself paves the methodological road to earthly ascent and refinement. Likewise, the cognitive representation of divine wisdom in a form that the human mind can assimilate is itself a descent of the divine into our reality.24 Ultimately, however, this bridge can only be built through the heartfelt service of G‑d, embodied in the study of Torah and the performance of the ritual commandments.

* * *

Living with the Times

In another display of striking fluidity, Rabbi Shneur Zalman often weaves exegetical interpretation of biblical, talmudic and kabbalistic texts (drush) into discussions of haskalah and avodah. The most pervasive and obvious instances of this phenomenon imbue the discourse with an overtly time relevant theme. While many discourses directly address specific concepts, beginning with titles such as “To understand the concept of the tzimtzum…”25 many more begin with a verse from the weekly Torah portion or focus on some other timely issue. Significantly, the discourses published in Torah Ohr and Lekutei Torah were organized not topically, but seasonally. The former covers the period of the year when Bereishit and Shemot are read, and the latter covers the period when Vayikrah, Bamidbar and Devarim are read.

It must be emphasized that even in such discourses, Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s primary goal remains unchanged. His purpose is not to provide a chassidic commentary to the Torah or to explain the chasidic significance of the festivals. His chief purpose is to provide theosophical enlightenment and a practical path of affective transformation. Exegetical interpretation is simply the tool, which Rabbi Shneur Zalman uses to reveal, amplify and explain the theosophical, affective and practical import that is embedded deep within the biblical narrative.26

In Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s oral discourses, more than in other chasidic texts, exegetical interpretation always remains completely transparent to the conceptual, affective and practical message. This is achieved and underscored by the fluidity that marks these teachings: Typically, language borrowed from the current Torah portion will partially replace the kabbalistic or conceptual terminology normally used to articulate such topics. While it may take the form of a commentary on the past, the discussion is completely concerned with cognitive ideation and affective transformation in the present. Consequently, the cognitive, affective and practical efforts of the contemporary chasid are vested with the same epic significance as the exploits of the biblical patriarchs.27

* * *

Torah Ohr, the first collection of Rabbi Shneur Zalman's oral teachings, published in 1837.
Torah Ohr, the first collection of Rabbi Shneur Zalman's oral teachings, published in 1837.

The seasonal element which characterizes so many of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s oral teachings stands in stark contrast to his topical approach in the Tanya, the foundational work whose first three parts are systematic treatments of specific topics. The first and most widely studied section of Tanya, Lekutai Amarim, explains the key components of the Chabad methodological approach to the service of G‑d, along with the relevant mystical concepts. Part two deals with the chasidic doctrine of divine unity and uniqueness, vis-à-vis the apparent existence of other autonomous beings, and part three deals with the Chasidic view of repentance or return to G‑d.28

It would seem that this difference between Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s Tanya and his oral teachings is largely rooted in the difference between the intended audiences of these distinct genres:

The Tanya was intended for the widest possible audience, and was written to speak with eloquence and relevance to people of different levels of scholarship, living in different places and in different times. Each concept appears in its correct context, after the requisite premises have already been explained, so that its place and function in the broader transformative path, or conceptual edifice, is easily apparent. Similarly, Rabbi Shneur Zalman refrained as far as possible from using kabbalistic language. When he does make use of kabbalistic concepts, he explains them using the more accessible language common to books of ethics and philosophy, rather than the mystifying terminology of Lurianic Kabbalah. Indeed, aside from the ten sefirot and the four celestial realms, there are almost no direct references to more esoteric kabbalistic concepts such as keter, tohu v’tikun etc.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s oral teachings, on the other hand, were often intended for a far narrower audience. By their very nature, the content of each discourse is tailored to inform and inspire a particular group of people on a particular day of a particular year. Indeed, many of his discourses were delivered specifically to new followers, who required a more fundamental grounding in axiomatic chasidic concepts, while others were delivered to an elite circle of veteran disciples.29 Many discourses were delivered to wider audiences too, and some were even delivered on the occasion of a wedding or some other celebration.

In all of these discourses Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s purpose is far more localized than in the Tanya, and he is free to enter into intensely concentrated discussions of specific themes and concepts. Consequently, the oral teachings represent a gold mine of rich and detailed insight into a wide range of topics that are often barely alluded to in the Tanya. It is here that one is really able to delve into the mystic core of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s theosophical worldview, and assimilate the full weight of its affective and practical implications.30

* * *

Rabbi Shneur Zalman consistently links contemplation of the divine and its practical application to time relevant themes, so that the discourse is imbued with a strong sense of immediate relevance and urgency.

The sixth Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, related that in the early years of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s leadership he declared, "One must live with the times... One must live with the Torah portion (sidrah) of the week and the particular section (parsha) of the day. One should not only study the weekly portion every day, but live with it.”31 This principle is strongly reflected in the oral teachings of Rabbi Shneur Zalman. He consistently links contemplation of the divine and its practical application to time relevant themes, so that the discourse is imbued with a strong sense of immediate relevance and urgency. The biblical stories of the patriarchs, the various laws of the Torah that are read and studied each week, and the seasonal holidays, are all understood to reflect mystical, affective and practical themes that are reenacted in the daily lives of every Jew.

This results in one of the most striking features of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s oral teachings; even the most abstract concepts are permeated with an intimate sense of urgency and practical relevance. This fluidity with which theory and practice are so intertwined highlights the organic nature of these teachings. They are not mere objects of study but the very fabric of the Chabad chasidic experience. Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s disciples were individuals who lived very much in the world, many were craftsman, innkeepers, or tradesman, yet they were concerned with issues of metaphysical transcendence.32
Service of G‑d, permeated every aspect of their lives,33 and was intrinsically bound up with this tension—with the quest to elevate earthly existence and make it receptive of divinity.

Not only in Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s own times, but throughout the subsequent history of Chabad chasidism, these oral discourses were a mainstay of chasidic learning and life. The custom to study the teachings associated in Torah Ohr and Lekutai Torah with the current Torah portion was so widespread that such discourses are often referred to as “the chasidic Torah portion” (der chasidisher parshah). After the Tanya, no works of Chabad chasidism were more widely studied than Torah Ohr and Lekutai Torah. Furthermore, the ideas articulated (sometimes very briefly) in these discourses formed the basis for the further development of many of the theosophical concepts and doctrines that are so lucidly explained in the teachings of Chabad Rebbes of successive generations.34

* * *

Part Two—A Sample


The primary mode of religious expression is the practice of the ritual commandments mandated by the Halacha... further confirming the paradoxical centrality of earthliness to the Jewish mystical path.

In Judaism, the primary mode of religious expression is the practice of the ritual commandments mandated by the Halacha. This further compounds the tension between the earthly and the sublime, and confirms the paradoxical centrality of earthliness to the Jewish mystical path. The need to justify this paradox, and explain why divinity can best be approached through the apparent banality of concrete ritual, is a central theme in Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s oral teachings.35 In taking a closer look at Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s approach in these discourses it is instructive to describe one instance in which the mystical doctrine of tohu and tikun—first articulated by Rabbi Isaac Luria (“the Arizal,” 1534-1572)—is used to illuminate this issue. Throughout his discourses, Rabbi Shneur Zalman makes use of many concepts borrowed from kabbalistic works and the Jewish philosophical tradition, applying them in many new and innovative ways. It is beyond the scope of this article to attempt a broad survey of such varied, rich and complex material. Instead we will focus on the following sample, opening an illustrative window on the actual content of a classic discourse.

* * *

The Flood

The discourse in question36 opens with the biblical story of Noah’s flood, which Rabbi Shneur Zalman reframes in contemporary terms as a flood of mundane concerns, threatening to extinguish the soul’s ecstatic love for G‑d:

Today, every individual is encumbered with the toil and burden of making a living. One is obliged to become involved in the dealings of this physical world... The overwhelming financial concerns so engross the individual, that they rise like a flood, and threaten to drown the divine soul. It is these flood waters that are yet referred to as ‘pleasant waters’ (mei noach)…because by means of immersion in these flood waters, the soul is raised to a spiritual station far loftier than it could attain prior to its investment in the terrestrial realm…37

When the individual toils the entire day in physical concerns and the burden of making a living, which is called darkness, and afterwards contemplates during prayer, that…all the terrestrial and celestial beings receive their existence from malchut [the last of the ten sefirot]…38 which creates all realms ex nihilo, and that malchut is only a limited reflection in relation to the essence and being of divinity, which is absolutely infinite, and eternally unchanging39…after contemplating all this with depth of mind, one’s soul will be aroused with awesome love and desire like flaming fire to leave the darkness and hiddenness of physicality and only to cleave to blessed divinity, as it is written, ‘Whom do I have in heaven, and with You I desired nothing on earth’40...

In this discourse, Rabbi Shneur Zalman takes the student on a course that seems terribly counterintuitive: The optimal climate in which the soul might attain such unbound ecstasy, he asserts, is not the celestial realm of Gan Eden where divinity is openly manifest. It is rather the banal realm of mundane physicality that best impels the soul to seek out and achieve its real purpose and fulfillment. More specifically, it is via the battle with the animal soul, and via the performance of the divinely mandated rituals, that the soul achieves true union with divine essentiality. In this discourse, this paradoxical idea is justified by the doctrine of tohu and tikun, first taught by the great Arizal, and a cornerstone of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s oral teachings.

This discourse provides us with a striking example of how Rabbi Shneur Zalman uses a mystical concept in order to demystify the practicalities of the chasidic path of divine service. Rabbi Shneur Zalman is not concerned with metaphysics, he is concerned with the here and now. He articulates the kabbalistic concept of tohu and tikun in extraordinarily lucid terms, so that it can be properly understood and assimilated intellectually. But his purpose is that this knowledge should be translated into practical action; that the concept should be reflected in human character, and be implemented in mundane reality.

A section of the discourse concerning tohu and tikun from the new edition of Torah Ohr.
A section of the discourse concerning tohu and tikun from the new edition of Torah Ohr.

* * *


What is tohu?

Essentially, tohu41 and tikun42 are two alternative blueprints for the inner workings of reality. While these two systems are very different, they both are composed of the the ten modalities (sefirot) via which G‑d chooses to be manifest. Moreover tohu and tikun actually function in tandem; the physical world that we inhabit exhibits much of the divisive chaos that results from tohu, and yet can be subjected to a regime of order and cohesion that stems from tikun.

Paradoxically, the divisive chaos of tohu actually represents a more intense manifestation of divinity. Here, each of the ten sefirot is manifest with such intensity that no other form of divine manifestation can be tolerated. As Rabbi Shneur Zalman explains in the present discourse, “The illumination and vivification is manifest with great intensity... Therefore the different modalities [of the ten sefirot] did not harmonize with one another... the one could not be balanced in accord with its opposite, and each was isolated onto itself...”

Counterintuitive as might otherwise seem, it is precisely due to the intense illumination of tohu that it fails to communicate the full panorama of divine manifestation. Instead of presenting a unified projection of divinity, the intensity with which each individual modality project itself is translated as an opaque identity that has lost its transparency to the divine source. The physical world as we know it is filled with a multiplicity of apparently discordant beings, each of which asserts its individual presence, autonomy, power and importance, and tries to grab our full attention. All of this immense diversity stems from the failure of tohu, and yet holds within it all the vast potential that tohu embodies. Tohu is intense illumination and unity masquerading as intense darkness and discord.43

* * *


Tikun is the antidote to tohu. As Rabbi Shneur Zalman explains, “In order for creation to survive there must be tikun—limited streams of illumination, different forms harmonized and tempered with one another... The illumination and vivification is not manifest with intensity... therefore... it is manifest with tolerance and, contrary to tohu, two complete opposites can coexist.” Each of the sefirot must recognize and validate the other forms of divine manifestation, though in doing so its own intensity is minimized. Divinity cannot be manifest in a manner that fully projects the infinite, absolute and eternal potency of G‑d’s most essential being.

Counterintuitive as might otherwise seem, it is precisely due to the intense illumination of tohu that it fails to communicate the full panorama of divine manifestation.

Ultimately, however, the purpose of tikun is to repair tohu, and allow the true intensity of the divine self to be fully manifest. This can only be achieved in the physical realm. It is here that the the soul of man—an agent of tikun—can turn the failure of tohu around.

When the soul struggles with the burden of making a living, and other worldly endeavors, it is brought into direct contact with a more intense expression of divinity than it could ever have experienced in the celestial realms. This intensity is often perverted, giving rise to the banalities and profanities of earthly existence. But through prayer, acts of charity and the performance of the ritual commandments, the soul unleashes the vast reservoir of divine potential that lies dormant or misused in the mundane realm, and gives full expression to the absolute intensity of divine essentiality. It is we—agents of tikun—who can bring order to the terrestrial realm, allowing the complete panorama of divine revelation to shine forth in all its diverse glory.

It is in response to this repair (tikun) of tohu that G‑d says, “this is to me as the waters of Noah—this is to me as waters of pleasantness.”44 It is via the turbulent floodwaters of this earth that the celestial soul can truly be united with the infinitude of the divine self. This form of divine union, achieved via the performance of the ritual commandments, is described here (and elsewhere) by Rabbi Shneur Zalman with the Zoharic phrase “to be absorbed into the body of the king.” It is in this world that the existential gap between G‑d and creation is bridged and the ultimate purpose of existence is achieved.

* * *

As taught by the Arizal, the doctrine of tohu and tikun represented a theosophical revolution—a rewriting of the cosmic narrative. The imperfections of reality are attributed to divine design, rather than to the follies of humankind, and the key to repair and redemption is placed squarely in human hands. Ultimately, however, tohu and tikun yet represent a transcendentally mystical revolution. The esoteric path to redemption was accessible only to those initiated in the byways of kabbalastic intention, and remained beyond the reach of the everyman. We are told we have the keys, but how are we to use them if we don’t know where the door is? Here, Rabbi Shneur Zalman shows the way, opening the gates of illumination not only to the mystic but to the everyman.

In this discourse Rabbi Shneur Zalman is addressing himself to people who are “encumbered with the toil and burden of making a living.” His message is not that they should abandon their mundane obligations, but that they should realize the vast spiritual potential embodied specifically in the most mundane aspects of life. This is a classic example of how Rabbi Shneur Zalman uses an esoteric mystical doctrine to pave the practical path of affective and practical transformation. He teaches his disciples to embody the tikun of tohu by harnessing the diverse elements of the spiritual and the mundane - that otherwise so confuse life - synchronizing them so that they are all equally transparent to their divine purpose. For Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the Torah and its commandments chart a life of tikun, enabling man to successfully communicate the full spectrum of divine glory via the earthly intensity of physical reality.


The differences between Tanya and Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s oral teachings will discussed in more detail below. For an overview of the content and composition of the Tanya see Nissan Mindel, What is the Tanya? An Introduction to the Tanya, its Sources and its Composition. For a wide range of written and audio-visual resources on the Tanya see


See below, note 11.


See Introduction to Igrot Kodesh Admur Ha-zaken (Kehot Publication Society 2012), p. 41.


Ibid., p. 42.


See the title pages of Torah Ohr and Lekutei Torah, where it is stated that the most of the discourses printed in those anthologies are drawn from the transcripts of Rabbi Yehudah Leib.


Most of the discourses published in Maamari Admur Ha-zaken Et’halech Liozneh (Kehot Publication Society 1957, Second Printing 2012) fall into this category. This volume was prepared for publication by the seventh Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson


See the relevant discussion in Torat Shalom—Sefer Ha-sichot (Kehot Publication Society 1983), p. 214.


Many of these are published in Maamari Admur Ha-zaken Hanachot Ha-rap (Kehot Publication Society 1957, Third Printing 2012). This volume too was prepared for publication by the late Rebbe.


See Skirah klalit al dvar ha-maamarim ha-katzarim, in Maamarai Admur Ha-zaken Ha-katzarim (Kehot Publication Society 1981, third printing 2012), p. 607-609.


See Igrot Kodesh Admur Ha-rayatz Vol. 4 (Kehot Publication Society 1983), p. 560-564. This letter also appears as an apendix to both Torah Ohr and Lekutei Torah. See also below note 14.


The twenty-six volume set, which does not include Torah Ohr or Lekutei Torah, is available for purchase here.


See Skirah klalit al dvar ha-maamarim ha-katzarim, in Maamarai Admur Ha-zaken Ha-katzarim (Kehot Publication Society 1981, third printing 2012), p. 589-208. See also Igrot Kodesh Admur Ha-rayatz Vol. 2 (Kehot Publication Society 1983), p. 320-322.


Torat Shalom—Sefer Ha-sichot (Kehot Publication Society 1983), p. 26.


See Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson, Reshimot Ha-yoman (Kehot Publication Society), p. 282. See also Rabbi Nochum Grunwald, Ayin Bet as the Culmination of a Conceptual Renaissance (video). When Rabbi Menachem Mendel published Lekutai Torah, the chasidim beseeched him to publish his own supplementary material along with the original text of his grandfather. At first he was reluctant, but ultimately he agreed to do so. Igrot Kodesh Admur Ha-rayatz, Ibid.


On the essential relevance of Chabad Chasidic teachings, in contrast to Kabbalistic esoterica, see Rabbi Yoel Kahn, What is Chasidus? An Introduction to Chasidic Mystical Thought (Hebrew / Video).


In the teachings of latter Chabad Rebbes, the different themes are usually kept separate. In the classic structure, a discourse will generally begin with an analysis of a biblical text, continue with a lengthy discussion of the relevant mystical, affective and practical themes, and then return to reinterpret the biblical text in light of the concepts and themes explained. Some discourses are occupied with exploration of mystical concepts specifically, and others with affective and practical issues. In these texts any random selection can be identified as belonging either to the domain of haskalah, or avodah, or exegetical interpretation. In the oral teachings of Rabbi Shneur Zalman it is usually far more difficult to classify a text selection so neatly.


Torat Shalom—Sefer Ha-sichot, p. 214-218.


Divrei Ha-yamim 28,9.


Ibid, p. 218.


Referred to in kabbalistic terminology as אתערותא דלתתא.


Referred to in kabbalistic terminology as אתערותא דלעילא.


For more on the purpose of existence according to Chabad chasidic teachings, see Communicating the Ineffable: Manifestations of the Chasidic Innovation.


Chabad teachings are replete with references to Torah in general, and chasidic teachings in particular, being a manifestation of divine descent and endowment. The seventh Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn wrote in his definitive essay Inyannah Shel Torat Ha-chasidut, that “the essential core of chasidism is… the manifestation of a new revelation… drawn from… the infinite that is found in the beginning that cannot be known (ain sof ha-nimtza be-RaDLAh),” i.e. the ineffable core of divinity. Inyannah Shel Torat Ha-chasidut has been published in English as On the Essence of Chassidus, (Kehot Publication Society: Brooklyn 1986). A newer edition is available for purchase here.


An entire volume of discourses belonging to this genre has been published, titled Maamarei Admur Ha-zaken Inyanim (Kehot Publication Society 2007, Second Printing 2012).


This approach resonates strongly with the statement often cited in the name of Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1565-1630) in his work Shnei Luchot Ha-brit (SheLaH), “The Torah speaks of supernal realms and hints to the lower realms.” See Shnei Luchot Ha-brit 13b, and Rabbi Menahem Azariah daFano (RaMEh Mi-pano) in Asarah Maamarot, Maamar Chikur Ha-din 3:22.


For an explicit discussion in this vein, see Torah Ohr, 23c , and 55a.


See the article cited above, note 1


See Ra’mach O’ti’ot, Section 81, and Shmuzen Mit Kinder #372, p. 3.


For an example of a concept that is almost absent from Tanya, but discussed countless times in Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s oral discourses, and which is particularly relevant to contemporary religious discourse, see below, Part-Two and below, note 43.


The amplification and explanation of the initial statement was conveyed at a later date by Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s brother, Rabbi Yehudah Leib of Yanovitch. See Kuntres Bikur Chicago (Kehot Publication Society 1944), p. 7-8.


Several stories about R. Binyamin Kletzker, a leading disciple of Rabbi Shneur Zalman illustrate this point:

Once, while overseeing the preparation of timber to be floated down the river from Riga, R. Binyamin Kletzker became engrossed in contemplation of chasidic teachings and for several hours was oblivious to his surroundings. The onlookers were astounded, but he said, “Why are you surprised? I am astounded that one can say the word “one” in the recital of the Shemah (“Hear O Israel, the Lord our G‑d the Lord is one”) and yet think about timber on the bank at Riga...” When Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavitch told this story (Torat Shalom—Sefer Ha-sichot (Kehot Publication Society 1983), p. 6-7), he added that Rabbi Shneur Zalman said of R. Binyamin that he fulfilled the command, “You shall know him in all your ways.” (Proverbs 3, 6.) Rabbi Shalom DovBer continued, “In truth commerce is not an impediment is not contradictory to service of G‑d.” For other stories about R. Binyamin in a similar vein see sources cited in Chasidim Ha-rishonim Vol. 1 (Kfar Chabad 2005) p. 8-14.

It is often said of the same R. Binyamin Kletzker that upon concluding a reckoning of his accounts he filled in the space marked net total (sach ha-kol) with the verse "There is nothing else but Him." (Deuteronomy 4, 35.) See the discussion and sources cited in Sefer Ha-sichot 5680-86 (Kehot Publication Society 1992), p. 100.


A story is told about the chasid R. Yukusiel Liepler, that once Rabbi Shneur Zalman blessed him that he should have a long life, and R. Yukusiel exclaimed, “but not the years of a peasant, who has eyes but does not see and ears but does not hear! They do not see divinity and they do not hear divinity.” The seventh Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, wrote in his essay, Inyannah Shel Torat Ha-chasidut (linked to above, note 24), Section 12, that R. Yukusiel was not demanding an additional blessing from Rabbi Shneur Zalman, “but rather that the long life should actually be life. For it was simply axiomatic to him that whole being of life is to see and hear divinity... days and years without seeing or hearing divinity were not considered by him to have any value at all...”


See Sefer Ha-sichot 5749 Vol. 1, p. 41 n. 29.


It is this paradox that Prof. Rachel Elior refers to in the title of her book, The Paradoxical Ascent to God: The Kabbalistic Theosophy of Habad Hasidism.


The first discourse for Noach (and the explanation (biur) appended to it) in Torah Ohr, 8c-10b. I have not reproduced the entire discourse here, but have instead summarized and explained the central points.


Here, Rabbi Shneur Zalman is alluding to the oft discussed question of the descent of the soul from its celestial origin to inhabit a corporeal body in the physical world (lamah yardah ha-neshamah letoch ha-guf). The classic answer that is is a descent for the sake of ascent (yeridah le’tzorech aliyah).


Literally translated as kingship, malchut is the aspect of divinity that actually interfaces between the divine self and the created other. As a king who is an individual of personal wisdom and depth of character, but who also interfaces with his subjects in real political, economic and legislative terms, so G‑d’s own self wholly transcends the aspect of kingship, i.e. the creation and ministry of the universe. See below, note 34.


See above, note 33. Here, Rabbi Shneur Zalman points out that it while malchut is vested with the infinite potency requisite for the act of creation ex nihilo, it remains a most external and limited reflection, which does not at all communicate the true qualitative nature of the divine self.


Psalms 73, 25. This verse is frequently cited by Rabbi Shneur Zalman to illustrate the soul’s desire to enter into direct union with the divine essentiality. The verse echoes the principle that such an ecstatic state that is best achieved via immersion in worldly pursuits, and the desired union is best actualized via the fulfillment of the ritual commandments.


Literally translated as “chaos” this term is borrowed from Genesis 1,2.


Literally translated as “correction.” As will be explained, the function of tikun is to correct the chaos of tohu.


In a recent post on the New York Times Opinionater BlogThe Stone,” Yoram Hazony discussed the question, “Is G‑d perfect?” While I didn’t find the article as a whole particularly compelling, I did find his discussion of the problems of perfection illuminating. The following passage gives us a very accessible way to visualize the failure of tohu:

“What would we say if some philosopher told us that... a perfect horse would bear an infinitely heavy rider, while at the same time being able to run with perfectly great speed? I should think we’d say he’s made a fundamental mistake here: You can’t perfect something by maximizing all its constituent principles simultaneously. All this will get you is contradictions and absurdities. This is not less true of God than it is of anything else.”

Indeed, tohu is the simultaneous maximization of all the constituent principles of existence. The result of such perfection is the contradictory absurdity of the terrestrial realm.


Isaiah 54, 9.

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Rabbi Eli Mallon, M.Ed., LMSW NY January 4, 2013

Tanya and Hitbonenut I liked this article very much. I'd heard that originally, the Alter Rebbe planned for the "Sha'ar ha-Yichud..." (the 2nd part of Tanya) to be the first part -- i.e. begin the entire teaching by presenting the specific material for contemplation -- but that he later decided to "introduce" it by what's now the first part. Reply

The life, teachings and works of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad.