By way of introduction to Iggeret HaTeshuvah it should be noted that the Alter Rebbe is known as1 “Master of the Tanya and Shulchan Aruch.” The Rebbe once remarked that “Master of the Tanya” means that the Alter Rebbe is2 an arbiter in the esoteric dimension of the Torah, and “Master of the Shulchan Aruch” signifies that3 his halachic rulings are authoritative.

Furthermore, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe once stated in a public address4 that the four parts of Tanya correspond to the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch. In this connection the Rebbe gives an explanation — both according to Chassidut and according to the revealed strata of the Torah — of the relation between the third part of Tanya, Iggeret HaTeshuvah, and the third section of the Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer.

According to Chassidut the relation between the two is clarified by a statement in ch. 4 of Iggeret HaTeshuvah — that the lower and higher levels of teshuvah (which together encompass all the degrees of repentance) are respectively indicated by the lower and higher letters hei of the ineffable Name of G‑d. In terms of their spiritual personality, so to speak, these two letters are feminine: both are receptors, the higher hei (representing the level of Binah) being impregnated by Chochmah, and the lower hei (representing Malchut) being impregnated by the six emotive Sefirot. This feminine element connects Iggeret HaTeshuvah with Even HaEzer, which codifies the laws involving women.

As to the revealed plane of the Torah, we find that the Talmudic Tractate Gittin, which deals with the laws of divorce, precedes Tractate Kiddushin, which deals with the laws of marriage. In the introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah, Maimonides explains this order by quoting the verse,5 “When she leaves his house she may go and marry another man”; here, too, divorce precedes marriage. Historically, as well, the Midrash6 points out that the root of the word used by the Torah to say that G‑d7 banished Adam from the Garden of Eden ( ויגרש ) is the same as the root of the word for divorce ( גרושין). Accordingly, the Sages compare his state to that of “a Jewish divorcee,” who is permitted to remarry her former husband. And indeed, when G‑d later gave the Torah to the Jewish people he8 “sanctified us ( קדשנו) with His commands.” In the Holy Tongue this verb shares a common root with the word for marriage, or betrothal ( קדושין). In this connection the Alter Rebbe said above9 that G‑d’s having “sanctified us with His commands” parallels what a man declares when betrothing a wife: “You are hereby consecrated unto me.”

This dynamic — marriage in the wake of divorce — is echoed in the spiritual use of these terms. The connection to teshuvah is thus readily apparent: A “marriage” is conceivable after a state of “divorce” only when there was teshuvah in the interim. For as the Alter Rebbe stated earlier on,10 “Indeed, it is impossible for the wicked to begin to serve G‑d without first repenting for their past.”

In Scripture, too, we find repentance depicted as the reconcilement of a divorced couple, culminating in remarriage. For sin banishes the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, the Mother of all souls. In the words of the prophet,11 ובפשעיכם שלחה אמכם — “Because of your transgressions was your Mother sent away.” This is the selfsame verb that the Torah uses for divorce:12 ושלחה מביתו — “And he will send her away from his house.” And it is repentance that undoes this spiritual divorce, to the point that G‑d can ask His people the rhetorical question:13 “Where is your mother’s bill of divorce?” — for as a result of His people’s repentance, the divorce is annulled.

In the plainly manifest levels of the Torah as well, there is explicit evidence in the Gemara that repentance resembles remarriage following divorce. R. Yochanan teaches14 that repentance overrides a prohibition stated in the Torah, and cites the following verse:15 “If a man sends away his wife and she leaves him for another man, will he return to her again?.... Yet though you have strayed..., return to Me!” Thus, argues R. Yochanan, G‑d is saying here that repentance overrides the prohibition that16 “her first husband...may not remarry her” [if she married another man in the interim]. Here too, then, remarriage following divorce is a paradigm of repentance.

Thus, there is a clear correspondence between the third part of Tanya, Iggeret HaTeshuvah, and the third section of the Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer, which deals with the laws involving women.

תניא בסוף יומא: שלשה חלוקי כפרה הם

It has been taught in a Beraita at the end of Tractate Yoma:17 There are three types of atonement, varying according to the different categories of transgression,

ותשובה עם כל אחד

and repentance [necessarily] accompanies each of them.

עבר על מצות עשה ושב, אינו זז משם עד שמוחלין לו

If one failed to fulfill a positive commandment and repented, he is forgiven forthwith.

עבר על מצות לא תעשה ושב, תשובה תולה ויום הכפורים מכפר

If one violated a prohibitive commandment and repented, his repentance is tentative, and Yom Kippur atones.

In this instance repentance alone does not suffice to secure complete forgiveness; it only guarantees that he will not be punished until the arrival of Yom Kippur, at which time he is completely forgiven.

(פירוש: דאף על גב דלענין קיום, מצות עשה גדולה, שדוחה את לא תעשה

(18This means that though, in terms of fulfillment, a positive commandment is superior, for which reason it supersedes19 a prohibitive commandment,

When positive and negative commands conflict, the positive command takes precedence and overrides the prohibition. (For example: the wearing of tzitzit made of an admixture of wool and linen, despite the prohibition of kilayim, or shaatnez.) Since observing a positive command thus appears to be of more value than observing a prohibition, why do we say that if one transgresses a positive command repentance alone suffices, whereas if one transgresses a prohibition forgiveness cannot be secured by repentance alone, and one must await the advent of Yom Kippur?

The Alter Rebbe will now address himself to this question. His answer will also enable us to understand the spiritual effects of the performance of a positive command and the spiritual blemish that results from transgressing a negative command. Insight into the mitzvot from this perspective will in turn enable us to understand why a positive command supersedes a negative command, and why it is nevertheless more difficult to attain atonement for transgressing a negative command.

Briefly, the answer is as follows: When one performs a positive command he not only fulfills G‑d’s Will, but also draws down a flow of Divine light into the higher spiritual realms and upon his own soul. The reason: each positive command is likened to a bodily organ. (Note of the Rebbe: “As our Sages, of blessed memory, have said:20 ‘The 248 organs correspond to the 248 positive commands.’”)

This means to say that just as a bodily organ is a receptacle for the life-force which it elicits from the soul, so, too, is each positive commandment a vessel that draws down Divine effluence and vitality from the infinite Ein Sof-light. Moreover, just as the life-force of the soul is enclothed within the various limbs, so, too, does the life-force drawn down through the performance of a positive command become enclothed (i.e., internalized) within the worlds.

Fulfilling a negative command — by not committing the transgression — is also a fulfillment of the Divine Will. As our Sages, of blessed memory, have said:21 “If one passively refrains all his days from sin, he is rewarded (Note of the Rebbe: ‘but only’) as though he had actively performed a command.” However, since such performance does not result from any action on his part as in the case of a positive command — he merely fulfills G‑d’s Will by not transgressing — its result is of lesser spiritual value. For the purpose of Torah and mitzvot is to draw down Divine illumination through the performance of the 248 positive commands, and to dispel the spirit of impurity through the observance of the 365 prohibitions (as explained earlier in Part I, ch. 37, p. 492-3).

Thus, in a situation where positive and negative precepts clash and the question is which one is to be set aside, the positive command supersedes the negative. For it is impossible that doing the prohibited deed will impart a spirit of impurity, inasmuch as its prohibition is being overruled because the Torah so dictates. Conversely, (even) if the Torah were to direct that one should neglect the positive command, the action that would draw down Divine illumination would still be lacking.

For this reason a positive command supersedes a prohibition: the deficiency normally wrought by transgressing a prohibition does not result when the Torah commands that it be set aside, while the dividend gained by fulfilling a positive command — the drawing down of the Divine light — is realized.

However, in light of the above, it would seem that the same reasoning should apply with regard to transgressions: a higher degree of repentance should be necessary for violating a positive command than for transgressing a negative command — yet according to the above quotation from the Gemara in Yoma the opposite is true.

The explanation is as follows. The advantage of the positive command — the G‑dly light that it draws into the soul — cannot be won through repentance in any event; all that repentance can now secure is forgiveness for the transgression. Not so with regard to transgressing a prohibition, where repentance can rectify the misdeed entirely. Furthermore, since the misdeed actively blemished the individual’s soul and the celestial realms as well, mere repentance does not suffice: only Yom Kippur can completely obliterate the blemish that it brought about.

This is what the Alter Rebbe now goes on to say:

היינו משום שעל ידי קיום מצות עשה, ממשיך אור ושפע בעולמות עליונים מהארת אור אין סוף ברוך הוא

this superiority of the positive command that makes it supersede a negative command is so because by performing a positive command one precipitates an illumination and flow into the higher worlds from the reflected [infinite] Ein Sof-light

(כמו שכתוב בזהר: דרמ״ח פיקודין, אינון רמ״ח אברין דמלכא)

(22as we find in the Zohar:23 “The 248 positive commandments are the 248 ‘organs of the King’ ”),

The 248 positive commands are equated with the emotive attributes of Atzilut which are collectively termed “the King”. Just as an organ serves as a vessel to the soul-faculty enclothed within it, so, too, is each positive command an organ and vessel for a particular effluence of the emotive attributes of Atzilut that are drawn down through the performance of that particular commandment. Thus, through performing positive commands one draws down G‑dliness into the higher worlds.

וגם על נפשו האלקית

and also through the performance of a positive command one draws G‑dliness on to his Divine soul,

כמו שאומרים: אשר קדשנו במצותיו

as we say in the blessings that precede the performance of many mitzvot, “…Who has hallowed us with His commandments.”

I.e., fulfilling a positive command has the effect of drawing down Divine light and holiness upon the soul, for which reason it surpasses and supersedes conformity to a negative command.

אבל לענין תשובה

But concerning repentance, which would seek to rectify the transgression of a positive command,

אף שמוחלין לו העונש על שמרד במלכותו יתברך, ולא עשה מאמר המלך

though through repentance the punishment for rebelling against G‑d’s rule and not fulfilling the King’s word is commuted,

מכל מקום האור נעדר וכו׳

nonetheless, the illumination which would have been drawn down through the performance of the positive command is lacking — even after repentance, so that the sin remains only partially rectified.

וכמאמר רז״ל על פסוק: מעות לא יוכל לתקן, זה שביטל קריאת שמע של ערבית או וכו׳

On the verse,24 “A crookedness that cannot be corrected,” i.e., even through repentance, our Sages accordingly comment:25 “This relates to one who neglected the evening [or morning] reading of Shema, or [the evening or morning prayer].”

דאף שנזהר מעתה לקרות קריאת שמע של ערבית ושחרית לעולם

For though he be scrupulous henceforth about reading the morning and evening Shema forevermore, thereby demonstrating his regret,

אין תשובתו מועלת לתקן מה שביטל פעם אחת

his repentance is ineffectual in correcting what he once neglected.

For after all is said and done, the world will forever be lacking the unique gift of Divine light that he could have drawn down through reading the Shema on that particular occasion. Thus, all that repentance can accomplish he is now able to accomplish through repentance alone. No other steps can secure him any further atonement.

So much for him who transgressed a positive precept.

והעובר על מצות לא תעשה, על ידי שנדבק הרע בנפשו, עושה פגם למעלה בשרשה ומקור חוצבה

If one violates a prohibition in thought, speech or action, since thereby evil cleaves to his soul, he [also] impairs its Supernal root and source

(בלבושים די׳ ספירות דעשיה, כמו שכתוב בתקוני זהר: לבושין תקינת לון, דמינייהו פרחין נשמתין לבני נשא וכו׳)

(26in the garbs of the Ten Sefirot of Asiyah; as Tikkunei Zohar writes,27 “You have fashioned garbs for [the Sefirot], from which fly forth souls for man...”).

We thus see from Tikkunei Zohar that it is from the “garments”of the Sefirot that souls emanate; when a soul is blemished through sin, these garments are blemished as well.

לכך אין כפרה לנפשו, ולא למעלה, עד יום הכפורים

Therefore there is no atonement for his own soul nor Above until Yom Kippur,

As will be explained a little later, “atonement” means cleansing that which was blemished. This requires not only repentance, but in addition Yom Kippur:

כמו שכתוב: וכפר על הקדש מטומאות בני ישראל ומפשעיהם וגו׳, לפני ה׳ תטהרו

concerning which it is written,28 “He shall atone for the holy place because of the impurities of the Children of Israel and because of their sins...; before Havayah shall you be purified.”

לפני ה׳ דייקא

Before G‑d” is stressed.

I.e., the purification granted by Yom Kippur emanates from a level that transcends the Divine Name Havayah, and can even atone for a blemish that resulted from transgressing a prohibitive command.

At any rate, we have seen that in certain respects transgressing a positive command has more serious consequences than transgressing a negative command.

ולכן אין ללמוד מכאן שום קולא, חס ושלום, במצוות עשה

Hence, one should not (G‑d forbid) infer any leniency in the positive commandments from this Beraita which states that one is immediately forgiven after repenting for having transgressed a positive command, while transgressing a negative command requires in addition the atonement of Yom Kippur;

ובפרט בתלמוד תורה

particularly ought one not infer any leniency in Torah study.

ואדרבה אמרו רז״ל: ויתר הקב״ה על עבודה זרה וכו׳, אף שהן כריתות ומיתות בית דין, ולא ויתר על ביטול תלמוד תורה)

On the contrary, our Sages assert,29 “G‑d has in certain instances glossed over [even] idolatry, [incest and murder], though excision and capital punishment are involved, but did not excuse the neglect of Torah study.”)30

The Beraita with which this chapter opened is now resumed:

עבר על כריתות ומיתות בית דין, תשובה ויום הכפורים תולין, ויסורים ממרקין

If one commits a sin [punishable by] excision or execution, repentance and Yom Kippur are tentative, so that the individual is not punished, and sufferings scour

(פירוש: גומרין הכפרה, והוא מלשון מריקה ושטיפה, לצחצח הנפש

(31i.e., they complete the atonement. [The verb] memarkin denotes the final stage, namely, scouring and rinsing, in order to “polish” the soul,

כי כפרה היא לשון קינוח, שמקנח לכלוך החטא)

for kaparah (“atonement”) is the term for the preceding stage of cleaning, removing the uncleanness of the sin),

Sins punishable by excision or execution are not cleaned away through repentance and Yom Kippur alone: the soul must also be scoured and rinsed through suffering, heaven forfend.

שנאמר: ופקדתי בשבט פשעם, ובנגעים עונם

as it is written,32 “With a rod shall I remember their sin, and with afflictions their iniquity.”

עד כאן לשון הברייתא

Thus far the Beraita with which this chapter opened.