In their Approbation to Tanya, the author’s sons write that the discourses and open letters together entitled Iggeret HaKodesh (“The Holy Epistle”), as well as the further discourses entitled Kuntres Acharon (“Later Pamphlet”), were all “recorded personally by [the Alter Rebbe’s] own holy hand in his own saintly expression. These discourses are [collectively] entitled Iggeret HaKodesh, being mostly epistles sent by his holy eminence to teach the people of G‑d the way by which they should walk and the deed which they should do.”
Accordingly, the author’s learned sons saw fit to publish them together with the preceding sections of the Tanya.
* * *
The first epistle opens with a reference to the chassidic custom (a custom that thrives to this day) of apportioning the tractates of the Talmud for study among the members of each congregation or community, so that the entire work is completed in the course of a year. The conclusion of the year’s study and the reallocation of tractates are traditionally celebrated on Yud-Tes Kislev, the anniversary of the Alter Rebbe’s liberation from imprisonment and capital sentence in S. Petersburg in 1798.
The Rebbe has noted on a number of occasions that the collective completion of the Talmud by a number of individuals is considered as if each one of the group had completed the entire Talmud himself. He explains that this is similar to the law with regard to performing a prohibited labor on Shabbat: If doing the labor requires the efforts of two individuals, each of them is considered to have performed the entire labor. So, too, since the various individuals partake in the collective study of the Talmud for they cannot complete it single-handed in the course of a year, it is considered as if each one of them had studied the entire Talmud.
* * *
To return to the central theme of this opening epistle. The Alter Rebbe explains here that the study of the laws set out in the Oral Torah elevates a Jew’s soul and assists him in his spiritual service — of meditating upon G‑d’s greatness, and arousing within himself a love and awe of Him.
On the circumstances of its composition, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of blessed memory, has conveyed to us the following: “During a Simchat Beit HaShoevah gathering in the year 5648 (תרמ״ח; 1887), my revered father related that the epistle opening with ‘We begin with a benediction’ was written by the Alter Rebbe in three stages in three different years.
“The first stage: When the Alter Rebbe decided to make the journey to study at the feet of the Maggid of Mezritch, he presented his disciples with a ‘note of arousal.’ It opened with ‘We begin with a benediction,’ and concluded, ‘And these [faculties] are the arms and the body of the soul.’
“The second stage was when the Alter Rebbe returned from Mezritch, having had revealed to him by the Maggid — at the behest of his mentor, the Baal Shem Tov, and with the blessing of his mentor, Achiyah HaShiloni — his spiritual identity, the purpose of his holy soul’s descent into this world, and the great responsibility and danger that his mission entailed. At that time the Alter Rebbe wrote the second part of this epistle, beginning with ‘But what gives the power,’ and concluding, ‘To the extent of pressing out the soul.’
“Speaking to his son, the Mitteler Rebbe, and to his grandson, the Tzemach Tzedek, the Alter Rebbe once described his inner feelings during the first few years after his mentor, the Maggid of Mezritch, had revealed to him the message of the Baal Shem Tov [regarding his soul’s mission].
“These were the Alter Rebbe’s words: ‘The simple faith that we, the disciples of the Maggid, had in him, and our self-sacrificing devotion to him, provided us with the potent strength to obey all his directives with extreme precision, with inner and essential self-sacrifice. In the course of several years, when my young married students settled in various towns and villages, I added three paragraphs to this epistle — from “And now” until “there is no goodness but Torah.” This I did in view of the burden placed upon me by my master, the Maggid, and in order to be able to realize, with G‑d’s help, the inner intent of my soul’s descent into this world.’ ”
פותחין בברכה, לברך ולהודות לה׳ כי טוב
We begin with a benediction, to bless and to give thanks to G‑d, for He is good.
שמועה טובה שמעה ותחי נפשי
My soul has heard and been revived by good tidings —
אין טוב אלא תורה
and “good” signifies Torah, as our Sages state in Tractate Avot.
תורת ה׳ תמימה
More specifically, it signifies “G‑d’s Torah [which] is a perfect whole,” for it is the Torah in this state that the same verse describes as “reviving the soul.”
זו השלמת כל הש״ס כולו ברוב עיירות ומנינים מאנ״ש
[The above remarks] refer to the completion of the whole Talmud, in its entirety, in most towns and congregations of Anash, the men of our [chassidic] brotherhood.
הודאה על העבר ובקשה על העתיד
[So much for] gratitude in respect of past accomplishments. And [now,] a request for the future:
כה יתן וכה יוסיף ה׳ לאמץ לבם בגבורים מדי שנה בשנה בגבורה של תורה
May G‑d thus continue from year to year to grant added strength to your hearts among the mighty, with the might of the Torah,
I.e., may G‑d increase that which He has previously granted — His increase being even greater than the original blessing — so that the hearts of those who study Torah be strengthened to such a degree that they will be considered mighty even among the mighty, with their strength deriving from the Torah.
ולהודיע לבני אדם גבורתה של תורה שבעל פה וכחה עוז
and make known to mankind the might of the Oral Torah and its power which is great.
The might (Gevurah) of Torah relates specifically to the Oral Law. For with regard to the source of the Torah in the Supernal Sefirot, the Written Torah derives from the Sefirah of Chochmah, which is aligned with the “right side” of the universe — the attribute of Chesed, kindness and benevolence; the Oral Torah derives from the Sefirah of Binah, which is aligned with the “left side” of the universe — the attribute of Gevurah, stern judgment and severity. (This relationship between Binah and Gevurah is alluded to in the verse, “I am Binah, Gevurah is mine.”)
פירש שלמה המלך, עליו השלום: חגרה בעוז מתניה גו׳
On the strength that the Oral Law gives the soul of a Jew, King Solomon (peace be to him) explained: “She girds her loins with strength.”
The “woman of valor” lauded by King Solomon at the opening of the relevant chapter is an allegorical allusion to Knesset Yisrael — the Congregation of Israel, which comprises all Jewish souls. In the verse quoted, she “girds her loins with strength.” “Strength” refers to the Torah, as in the teaching, “There is no strength other than the Torah.” Thus, the Torah strengthens the loins of the soul, just as a warrior girds his loins to gather maximal strength. But what is meant by “girding the loins of the soul”?
מתנים הם בחינת דבר המעמיד כל הגוף, עם הראש הנצב ועומד עליהם
The loins are the underframe that supports the whole body, including the head that is positioned over them;
והם המוליכים ומביאים אותו למחוז חפצו
it is they that lead and bring [the body] to its desired destination.
וכמו שהוא בגשמיות הגוף, כך הוא בבחינת רוחניות הנפש האלקית
And just as it is with the corporeality of the body, so it is with the spirituality of the Divine soul.
Just as the loins support the corporeal body and head, so do the soul’s loins support and lead the “body” and “head” of the soul to its desired spiritual destination.
האמונה האמיתית בה׳ אחד, אין סוף ברוך הוא
[The soul’s loins are] the true belief in the One G‑d, the blessed Ein Sof,
דאיהו ממלא כל עלמין וסובב כל עלמין
Who permeates all worlds with a vitality which is indwelling (pnimi), a vitality which is contracted and tailored to the capacity of each individual creature, and Who encompasses all worlds with a vitality that is transcendent (makkif), and which cannot therefore clothe itself within created beings in an indwelling manner,
ולית אתר פנוי מיניה
there being no place or level of existence void of Him,
למעלה עד אין קץ
above to no end, for there is no end to the degree of His exalted transcendence beyond all worlds,
ולמטה עד אין תכלית
and below to no limit, for there is no limit to His ability to descend to the very lowest levels of creation and clothe Himself within the world even to the point that the world conceals the G‑dliness that is within it,
וכן לד׳ סטרין, בבחינת אין סוף ממש
and likewise in all four directions — east, west, north and south — truly in a state of infinitude.
All the above refers to the dimension of space.
וכן בבחינת שנה ונפש, כנודע
The same applies to the dimensions of “year” and “soul”, as is known.
Creation embraces the three dimensions known as “world”, “year” and “soul”, as is explained in Sefer Yetzirah. “World” alludes to space, “year” refers to time, and “soul” denotes life. Just as G‑d is one and infinite within the realm of space, so too is He one and infinite within the realms of time and life.
הנה אמונה זו נקראת בשם בחינת מתנים, דבר המעמיד ומקיים את הראש
Now this faith, this belief in G‑d as outlined above, is referred to as the “loins” which uphold and sustain the “head”,
הוא השכל המתבונן ומעמיק דעת בגדולת אין סוף ברוך הוא, בבחינת עולם שנה נפש
meaning the intellect that contemplates and concentrates on the greatness of the blessed Ein Sof in the dimensions of “world”, “year” and “soul”,
Thus, this faith sustains the “head”, for the foundation of one’s comprehension of G‑d’s greatness is one’s belief in His unity.
וברוב חסדו ונפלאותיו עמנו
and [that meditates] on the magnitude of His loving-kindness and His wonders with us,
להיות עם קרובו, ולדבקה בו ממש
making of us “a people near unto Him” who can truly “cleave unto Him.”
וכנודע ממאמר: יפה שעה אחת בתשובה ומעשים טובים בעולם הזה מכל חיי עולם הבא
Thus it is known from the teaching, “One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world surpasses all the life of the World to Come.”
שהוא רק זיו והארה מבחינה הנקראת שכינה
For [the World to Come] is a mere gleam and reflection of the level [of Divinity] called Shechinah,
which is so called because it is the Shechinah (שכינה) “Who dwells”(השוכן) within created beings, and so on,
Since the Shechinah bears a certain relationship to created beings, it is therefore this level of Divinity that is revealed in Gan Eden — the World to Come, which is but a pale reflection of the Shechinah.
ונברא ביו״ד אחד משמו יתברך כו׳
and [the World to Come] was created by the single letter yud of [G‑d’s] blessed Name, and so on, as explained by the Sages in their exposition of the verse, ביה ה׳ צור עולמים.
אבל תשובה ומעשים טובים מקרבין ישראל לאביהם שבשמים ממש
Repentance and good deeds, however, truly bring Israel near to their Father in Heaven,
למהותו ועצמותו כביכול, בחינת אין סוף ממש
unto (as it were) the very Being and Essence of Him Who is absolute infinitude.
וכמו שכתוב: הודו על ארץ ושמים, וירם קרן לעמו גו׳
As it is written, “His radiance is upon earth and heaven”: heaven and earth derive their life-force from a mere glimmer or gleam of G‑d’s Essence; not so the Jewish people, of whom the following verse continues: “He raises glory upon His nation.”
The word קרן, here translated “glory”, signifies a thing’s essence. The verse thus implies that the Jewish people derive their life-force from G‑d’s infinite Essence.
אשר קדשנו במצותיו וציונו כו׳
Similarly, before fulfilling many of the mitzvot, we say: “Who has sanctified us [unto Himself] through His commandments, and commanded us [to perform the mitzvah at hand].”
By granting us the ability to perform His commandments, G‑d elevates us to His level — to the encompassing level of holiness that utterly transcends the degree of holiness that permeates the worlds.
וכמים הפנים גו׳
And reflecting upon G‑d’s infinite kindness to us, in that He chose us to be “His nation, the people close to Him,” will result in a reaction of “waters reflecting the face.”
להוליד מתבונה זו דחילו ורחימו שכליים או טבעיים
From this contemplation are born the intellectually-generated or the natural awe and love — the awe and love of G‑d that are naturally found within the heart of all Jews and need but be revealed through contemplation,
להיות בחינת צעק לבם אל ה׳
giving rise [either] to (a) a mode of love in which “their heart cried out unto G‑d” in its yearning to cleave to Him,
או בחינת רשפי אש ושלהבת עזה
or to (b) a mode of love characterized by “flashes of fire, a mighty flame.”
The latter mode of love is the first stage of a dual dynamic — ratzo (“advance”), loving G‑d so fiercely and rapturously that the soul almost flees the body;
ואחר כך בבחינת שוב
this longing to expire, to lose one’s independent identity in G‑d’s all-encompassing unity, [must be] followed by the second stage — shov (“retreat”), a sober and self-effacing return to the Divinely-ordained reality of living as a soul enclothed in a body,
להיות פחד ה׳ בלבו
so that there be the fear of G‑d in one’s heart,
וליבוש מגדולתו כו׳
specifically, the superior order of fear whereby [the individual] is abashed by His greatness.
This abashedness restrains him from doing anything that G‑d finds displeasing.
והוא בחינת שמאל דוחה
This level of awe, fear and shame [results from] “the left hand that parries,”
The Divine “left hand” represents Gevurah, the Supernal attribute of severity. It holds the worshiper at arm’s length, so to speak, curbing the intense love that would result from his sensation of G‑d’s nearness as represented in the phrase, viyemino techabkeini — “His right hand embraces me.”
כמו שכתוב במתן תורה: וירא העם וינועו, ויעמדו מרחוק
as it is written concerning the Giving of the Torah: “The people saw and they trembled, and they stood from afar.”
The Divine revelation at the Giving of the Torah produced a feeling of awe and self-nullification which found expression in the Jews’ “standing from afar,” fearing as they did to draw close to G‑d.
והן בחינת הזרועות והגוף שבנפש
And these [faculties] — love and fear — are the arms and the body of the soul; love and kindness are the “right arm,” fear and severity are the “left arm.”
* * *
אך מי הוא הנותן כח ועוז לבחינת מתנים להעמיד ולקיים הראש והזרועות
But what gives the power and strength to the “loins” (i.e., faith) to support and sustain the “head” (i.e., the intellect that contemplates G‑d’s greatness) and the “arms” (i.e., the love and fear of G‑d)?
הוא עסק ולימוד הלכות בתורה שבעל פה
It is one’s involvement in — and study of — the laws of the Oral Torah, for the Torah is the food that nourishes the soul’s faith,
שהיא בחינת גילוי רצון העליון
and [the Oral Torah] is the manifestation of the Supreme Will.
Only the Oral Torah manifestly reveals the Supreme Will in all its ramifications; the Written Torah does not elaborate on the detailed laws concerning the performance of the commandments. On the mitzvah of tefillin, for example, the Written Torah merely states that “You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall serve as a reminder between your eyes.” It is not at all clear exactly what shall be bound, how it shall serve as a sign, and precisely where it shall be placed “between your eyes.” All these particulars are elaborated upon in the Oral Torah; it is there that G‑d’s specific intentions regarding tefillin are revealed.
So too with the other commandments: the Oral Torah reveals the Supreme Will, as will be explained in more detail below, in Epistle 29.
The Alter Rebbe now goes on to say that Torah may indeed be said to be the revelation of G‑d’s Will, a level that transcends His wisdom, notwithstanding the fact that “Torah proceeds from Chochmah,” i.e., from Divine wisdom. This is so because:
דאורייתא מחכמה היא דנפקת
Torah [merely] proceeds i.e., unfolds from Chochmah: it is merely revealed through Divine wisdom;
אבל מקורה ושרשה הוא למעלה מעלה מבחינת חכמה
its source and root, however, surpass by far the rank of Chochmah,
והוא הנקרא בשם רצון העליון, ברוך הוא
being that which is referred to as the Blessed One’s Supreme Will, which encompasses and sustains Chochmah.
וכמו שכתוב: כצנה רצון תעטרנו
Thus it is written, — and the following proof text is cited here to illustrate the effect of Torah upon the soul, “As with a shield You crown [the righteous man] with favor.” (The word here translated “favor” is ratzon, the same word that has been rendered as “Will”.)
So, too, the study of Torah encompasses and protects the soul of the Torah student,
כעטרה שהיא על המוחין שבראש
like a crown which is placed above the brains which are within the head.
Since the study of the Oral Torah reveals G‑d’s Will (i.e., the “crown” that transcends the level of wisdom), it is therefore able to strengthen the “loins” (i.e., faith), whose purpose it is to support the “head” (i.e., intellect) and the “arms” (i.e., the love and fear of G‑d — the spiritual emotions that are the fruits of intellect).
וכנודע ממה שכתוב על פסוק: אשת חיל עטרת בעלה
[This teaching] parallels the familiar exposition of the verse, “A woman of valor is the crown of her husband.”
The Alter Rebbe explains below, in Epistle 29, that “a woman of valor” alludes to the Oral Torah. Its numerous laws serve as a “crown” for her “husband” — the intellective faculty of Chochmah.
וכל השונה הלכות בכל יום כו׳
[This teaching] likewise [recalls the Rabbinic teaching, that] “whoever studies Torah laws every day [is assured of life in the World to Come],” for it is the study of the Oral Torah that enables one to be receptive to Divine revelation in the World to Come, as is explained at greater length in Epistle 29.
וזהו: חגרה בעוז מתניה
This, then, is the meaning of the verse, “She girds her loins with strength”:
אין עוז אלא תורה
“There is no strength but Torah,”
שהיא נותנת כח ועוז לבחינת מתנים החגורים ומלובשים בה
for it gives power and strength to the “loins”, i.e., the faith of the soul, which are girded and embodied in it,
לחזק ולאמץ זרועותיה, הן דחילו ורחימו שכליים או טבעיים
to strengthen and fortify its “arms”, namely the intellectually-generated or innate awe and love
כל חד לפום שיעורא דיליה
in each man according to his measure.
One individual generates a love or awe of G‑d through his own intellectual endeavor, through study and meditation; another merely draws on his inborn reservoir of love and awe; in all cases, however, these spiritual emotions are strengthened by the study of Torah laws.
In the spirit of the above we can understand the metaphor of the verse, “She girds her loins with strength”: Just as a warrior gathers strength by girding his loins, so does the soul become more powerful by being enveloped with the encompassing radiance of the Divine light, which is drawn down upon it from the Supreme Will that is revealed in the laws of the Torah.
(ועל העמדת וקיום בחינת הראש שבנפש, הוא השכל המתבונן כו׳, אמר: טעמה כי טוב סחרה גו׳, ומבואר במקום אחר)
(As regards supporting and sustaining the “head” of the soul, i.e., the intellect that contemplates, [Solomon] said: “She perceives that her trade is good,” [a metaphor which is] explained elsewhere.)
What mainly concerns the Alter Rebbe here is “girding one’s loins” in order to arouse a love and fear of G‑d; as he will soon explain, the ideal time for this is during prayer. He therefore only briefly notes in passing that the intellect is also strengthened through the study of Torah laws.
אך עת וזמן החיזוק ואימוץ הזרועות והראש היא שעת תפלת השחר
However, the occasion and time for the strengthening and fortification of the “arms” (i.e., the spiritual emotions) and the “head” (i.e., the intellect) is the time of morning prayer,
שהיא שעת רחמים ועת רצון העליון למעלה
for Above, that is a time of compassion, a time at which the Supreme Will is revealed.
Since the Supreme Will strengthens the “arms” and “head”, it follows that the time of prayer — an hour of favor when the Supreme Will is manifest — is an especially propitious time to strengthen both one’s intellectual grasp of G‑dliness and one’s spiritual emotions. Prayer is thus the ideal opportunity to meditate upon the greatness of G‑d and to create within oneself a feeling of awe and love of Him.
ולזאת אותה אבקש ממבקשי ה׳
Therefore, says the Alter Rebbe, this is what I would ask of those who seek to draw close to G‑d:
יבינו וישכילו יחדיו, ולהיות לזכרון בין עיניהם, כל מה שכתבתי אליהם אשתקד בכלל
Let them both understand and contemplate, and have as a [constant] reminder between their eyes, all that I wrote them last year in general,
ובפרט מענין כוונת התפלה מעומקא דלבא
and especially with respect to devout concentration during prayer from the depths of their heart.
יום יום ידרשון ה׳ בכל לבם ובכל נפשם
Day after day let them seek G‑d and desire to cleave to Him with all their heart and with all their soul;
ונפשם תשתפך כמים נוכח פני ה׳
let them pour out their soul like water in the presence of G‑d.
וכמאמר רז״ל בספרי: עד מיצוי הנפש כו׳
In this spirit our Sages, of blessed memory, taught in Sifrei, commenting upon the verse, “and with all your soul” — that [prayer should be intense] “to the extent of pressing out the soul”; i.e., until the soul bursts forth and expresses itself in an outpouring of love for G‑d.
The wine that is forced out through the cracks of an absolutely full barrel is no more than a trickle. Yet what forces it through is the very fullness of the entire quantity of wine within. So, too, “pressing out the soul” refers to a state in which the entire essence of the soul is bursting forth with its love for G‑d, yet only a trickle of this love is visible externally.
* * *
ועתה הפעם הנני יוסיף שנית ידי בתוספת ביאור ובקשה כפולה, שטוחה ופרושה לפני כל אנשי שלומים הקרובים והרחוקים, לקיים עליהם
And now once more I put forth my hand a second time with an additional explanation and a twofold request, extended and proposed to all men of the chassidic brotherhood, those who are near and those who are far, to undertake the following:
שכל ימי החול לא ירדו לפני התיבה הבעלי עסקים, שאין להם פנאי כל כך
On all weekdays, businessmen — who do not have so much time — should not step down before the Ark [to lead the congregation in prayer].
רק אותם שיש להם פנאי, או המלמדים או הסמוכים על שולחן אביהם
Only those who have the time [should lead the prayers], such as teachers or those who are supported by their parents,
שיכולים להאריך בתפלת השחר ערך שעה ומחצה לפחות, כל ימות החול
who at the morning service are able to pray at length for at least about an hour and a half on all weekdays.
מהם יהיה היורד לפני התיבה, על פי הגורל או על פי ריצוי הרוב
One of them should step down before the Ark, chosen by lot or by consent of the majority [of the congregants].
והוא יאסוף אליו בסביב לו כל הסמוכים על שולחן אביהם או המלמדים, שיוכלו להאריך כמוהו
He should gather around him all those who are supported by their parents, or teachers, who are able to pray at length like himself, and will thus not be distracted by the haste of others.
בבל ישונה, נא ונא
[This arrangement is] not to be changed, I beg and beseech you!
* * *
אך בשבתות וימים טובים, שגם כל בעלי עסקים יש להם פנאי ושעת הכושר להאריך בתפלתם בכוונת לבם ונפשם לה׳
On the Sabbaths and festivals, however, when all the businessmen, too, have the time and opportunity to pray at length, devoutly concentrating their heart and soul to G‑d, —
ואדרבה, עליהם מוטל ביתר שאת ויתר עז, כמו שכתוב בשולחן ערוך, אורח חיים
moreover, their duty to do so is much greater, as is stated in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim,
וכמו שכתוב בתורת משה: ששת ימים תעבוד גו׳, ויום השביעי שבת לה׳ אלקיך
and as is written in the Torah of Moses: “Six days shall you work and the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the L‑rd your G‑d,”
דייקא: כולו לה׳
stating clearly that the Sabbath is to be devoted wholly unto G‑d, —
Unlike the festivals which are “partially unto G‑d and partially unto you,” the Sabbath ought to be wholly dedicated to spiritual matters. Since the reason for this is that it was preceded by six mundane days of labor, it follows that those who were engaged in this labor during the weekdays — businessmen and the like — should surely utilize the Sabbath “wholly unto G‑d.”
ולזאת גם הם ירדו לפני התיבה בשבת ויום טוב
on Sabbaths and festivals, therefore, they too can step down before the Ark,
על פי הגורל או בריצוי הרוב, כמו שכתבתי אשתקד
according to lot or by assent of the majority, as I wrote last year.
* * *
וכגון דא צריך לאודועי שבדעתי, אם ירצה השם, לשלוח לכל המנינים מרגלים בסתר
Moreover, it should be made known that, G‑d willing, it is my intention to send spies secretly to all congregations,
לידע ולהודיע כל מי שאפשר לו וכל מי שיש לו פנאי להאריך ולעיין בתפלה, ומתעצל
to find out and to notify about anyone who has the ability and the time to worship at length and to meditate while at prayer, but is slothful.
יהיה נידון בריחוק מקום, להיות נדחה בשתי ידים בבואו לפה לשמוע דברי אלקים חיים
He shall be punished by estrangement, being distanced by both hands when he comes here to hear chassidic teachings.
ומכלל לאו אתה שומע הן
And from the negative you may infer the positive — that those who are more generous in the time they devote to their prayers will be assured of a warm welcome.
ולשומעים יונעם, ותבא עליהם ברכת טוב
Pleasant be the lot of those who hearken; may the blessing of goodness light upon them,
ואין טוב אלא תורה וכו׳
— and “there is no ‘good’ but Torah.”
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