The letters that comprise Iggeret HaKodesh were written over many years and assembled in their present order by the sons of the Alter Rebbe after his passing, as they explain in their introduction (“Approbation”) to Tanya (Vol. I, p. 19ff., in the present series). It is clear from internal evidence, as the Rebbe notes, that they were not arranged chronologically. Epistle XX, for example, was written just before the Alter Rebbe’s passing in the year 5573 (1812), while Epistle XXVII was written after the passing of R. Mendel of Horodok, about the year 5549 (1789).

Instead, the Rebbe suggests, one can sometimes seek thematic connections to explain the sequence of letters. The present letter, for example, manifests the following connection with Epistle XXV, the preceding one:

After the previous letter discussed how the Shechinah can sometimes be vested in kelipot, the present letter explains that this state of exile brings the Torah, too, to a state of concealment, as kelipot obscure its radiance. It is the task of the Jew to remove this concealment by toiling in the study of the Torah.

The above form of divine service in Torah study supplements another form — separating good from evil, the permitted from the prohibited, and the kasher from the pasul. For the Torah, too, is vested within good and evil, and it is the task of the Jew studying Torah to separate and purify the positive element from each of these dual compounds, and to elevate it to the holy “side” of the universe.

Accordingly, the Alter Rebbe begins the present letter by explaining a statement of Ra’aya Mehemna in the Zohar, which can give the mistaken impression that the revealed portion of Torah stems from the Tree of Good and Evil, while the esoteric portion of Torah, which in the main will be revealed in the Time to Come (with the arrival of Mashiach), derives from the Tree of Life.1

The Alter Rebbe explains how this is truly not so, for the entire Torah is called the Tree of Life. The intent of Ra’aya Mehemna is that the revealed portion of Torah descended and was vested within good and evil, and hence speaks of kasher and pasul, permitted and prohibited, and the like. With the study of Torah, a Jew separates the good from the evil, and elevates it.

ברעיא מהימנא, פרשת נשא: והמשכילים יזהירו כזהר הרקיע

On the verse,2 “And the wise shall shine like the radiance of the firmament,” Ra’aya Mehemna on Parshat Nasso3 comments:

בהאי חבורא דילך, דאיהו ספר הזהר

“With this work of yours, i.e., of R. Shimon bar Yochai, which is the Book of the Zohar (lit., ‘the Book of Radiance’)

מן זוהרא דאימא עילאה: תשובה

from the radiance of Imma Ila’ah, which is teshuvah,

Imma Ila’ah (lit., “the Supernal Mother”) is another name for the Sefirah of Binah in the World of Atzilut. This Sefirah relates to teshuvah ila’ah, the higher level of repentance, as explained at the end of ch. 8 of Iggeret HaTeshuvah,4 quoting the Zohar and Tikkunim.

באילין לא צריך נסיון

with those [who study this work] no trial is needed.

The Zohar previously states that at the time of the final Redemption the Jewish people will be put to the test; those who belong to the “good side” of the universe will withstand it, while those who belong to the “side of evil” will not. As it is written,5 “Many will be refined and bleached and chastened, but the wicked will act wickedly; none of the wicked will understand, but the wise will understand.”

The Zohar then states (as above) that those who study the Tree of Life, the Zohar, which is “from the side of Binah” (lit., “understanding”, alluding to the perception of the mystical essence of the Torah), will not be put to the test.

ובגין דעתידין ישראל למטעם מאילנא דחיי, דאיהו האי ספר הזהר, יפקון ביה מן גלותא ברחמי

Because eventually the Jewish people will taste of the Tree of Life, which is this Book of the Zohar, they will go out of exile with it, in mercy.

ויתקיים בהון: ה׳ בדד ינחנו, ואין עמו אל נכר

For them shall be fulfilled the verse,6 ‘G‑d alone will lead them, and there is no strange god with Him.’

In seeking their Redemption they will not have to resort to the favors of the gentile nations, whose patron angels are known as “strange gods.” Rather, G‑d Himself will lead them out of exile and redeem them.

ואילנא דטוב ורע, דאיהו איסור והיתר, טומאה וטהרה, לא שלטא על ישראל יתיר

And the Tree of [Knowledge of] Good and Evil, i.e., prohibition and permission, impurity and purity, will no longer dominate Israel.

דהא פרנסה דלהון לא להוי אלא מסטרא דאילנא דחיי, דלית תמן לא קשיא מסטרא דרע, ולא מחלוקת מרוח הטומאה

For their sustenance will derive only from the side of the Tree of Life, where there is no problematic query, which emanates from the side of evil, and no controversy, which emanates from the spirit of impurity;

דכתיב: ואת רוח הטומאה אעביר מן הארץ

as it is written,7 ‘And the spirit of impurity I shall remove from the earth.’

דלא יתפרנסון תלמידי חכמים מעמי הארץ, אלא מסטרא דטוב, דאכלין טהרה, כשר, היתר

Thus, the Torah scholars will not be sustained by illiterate people, but from the side of the good, who eat that which is pure, kosher and permitted;

ולא מערב רב, דאכלין טומאה, פסול, איסור

nor [will they be sustained] by the mixed multitude, who eat that which is impure, ritually unfit, and prohibited.”

ובזמנא דאילנא דטוב ורע שלטא כו׳

The Zohar continues: “While the Tree of Good and Evil dominates [the world],...

אינון חכמים, דדמיין לשבתות וימים טובים

these Sages, who are likened to the Sabbaths and festivals,8

לית לון אלא מה דיהבין לון אינון חולין

have nothing except what is given to them by those who are called ‘unsanctified ones,’

כגוונא דיום השבת, דלית ליה אלא מה דמתקנין ליה ביומא דחול

just like the Sabbath day, which only has what has been prepared for it on a weekday.

ובזמנא דשלטא אילנא דחיי, אתכפייא אילנא דטוב ורע, ולא יהא לעמי הארץ אלא מה דיהבין להון תלמידי חכמים

However, when the Tree of Life will dominate, the Tree of Good and Evil will be suppressed, and the illiterate people will only have what the Torah scholars give them.

ואתכפיין תחותייהו וכאלו לא הוו בעלמא

They will be subjugated to them, as if they did not exist in the world.

והכי איסור והיתר, טומאה וטהרה, לא אתעבר מעמי הארץ

Accordingly, the prohibited and the permitted, the impure and the pure, will not be removed from the illiterate people.

דמסטרייהו, לית בין גלותא לימות המשיח, אלא שעבוד מלכיות בלבד

As regards them, there will be no difference between the era of exile and the days of Mashiach, except for [the Jewish people’s release from] servitude to the nations.9

דאינון לא טעמין מאילנא דחיי, וצריך לון מתניתין באיסור והיתר, טומאה וטהרה

For they will not have tasted of the Tree of Life, and will require the Mishnayot [which set out the laws] of prohibition and permission, impurity and purity.”

עד כאן ברעיא מהימנא

Here ends the quotation from Ra’aya Mehemna.

* * *

והנה המובן מהשקפה ראשונה לכאורה מלשון זה המאמר לחסירי מדע

Now, at first glance, what the words of this passage imply to those who lack understanding10

שלימוד איסור והיתר וסדר טהרות, הוא מאילנא דטוב ורע

is that the study of [the laws of] ritual prohibition and permission, and the Order of Taharot, where the laws of purity and impurity are found, relates [only] to the Tree of [Knowledge of] Good and Evil.

מלבד שהוא פלא גדול מחמת עצמו

Now this is most surprising in itself, that a particular area within the Torah should be designated as the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, thus relating it to kelipat nogah, which is an admixture of good and evil;

וסותר פשטי הכתובים ומדרשי רבותינו ז״ל, שכל התורה הנגלית לנו ולבנינו נקראת: עץ חיים למחזיקים בה, ולא ספר הזהר לבד

moreover, this contradicts the plain meaning of Scripture and the teachings of our Sages, of blessed memory, that the entire Torah that has been revealed to us and to our children, i.e., the dimension of nigleh, is called11 “A tree of life to those who hold fast to it,” and not only the Book of the Zohar.

ובפרט שהיה גנוז בימיהם

This is especially so, since [the Zohar] was [still] concealed in their days;

וגם כל חכמת הקבלה היתה נסתרה בימיהם, ונעלמה מכל תלמידי חכמים, כי אם ליחידי סגולה

indeed, the whole wisdom of the Kabbalah was hidden in their days and concealed from all the Torah scholars, except for a select few,

ואף גם זאת, בהצנע לכת ולא ברבים, כדאיתא בגמרא

and even then, [it was studied] in a concealed manner and not publicly, as stated in the Gemara.12

וכמו שכתב האריז״ל, דדוקא בדורות אלו האחרונים, מותר ומצוה לגלות זאת החכמה, ולא בדורות הראשונים

Thus R. Isaac Luria, of blessed memory, wrote13 that it is only in these latter generations that “it is permitted and obligatory to reveal this wisdom” — i.e., the Kabbalah, which illuminates the esoteric dimension of the Torah — but not in the earlier generations.

On this entire subject, see the introduction of R. Chayim Vital to Shaar HaHakdamot, which also appears as the first addendum to Kuntres Etz Chayim by the Rebbe Rashab (in the Kehot edition entitled Otzar HaChassidim), as well as the introduction of the Rebbe Rayatz to this Kuntres.

וגם רבי שמעון בר יוחאי אמר בזהר הקדוש, שלא ניתן רשות לגלות רק לו ולחביריו לבדם

R. Shimon bar Yochai, too, stated in the sacred Zohar14 that permission to reveal [the secrets of the Kabbalah] was only granted to himself and his associates.

ואך גם זאת פליאה נשגבה

Now this, too, is a remarkable wonder.

דלפי זה

For if so, i.e., according to a superficial reading of the above quotation from Ra’aya Mehemna, from which it would appear that only the Zohar is called the Tree of Life, while the revealed plane of the Torah is considered the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil,

לא היה לימוד איסור והיתר, וכל שכן דיני ממונות, דוחין מצות תפלה

then the study of [the laws of] ritual prohibition and permission, and surely [the study of] civil laws, such as litigation on monetary matters,15 should not override the obligation of prayer,

שנתקנה על פי סודות הזהר ויחודים עליונים, ליודעים

which is set out according to the secrets of the Zohar and on the Supernal Unions (of the various Divine Names and Supernal Sefirot), for those who are familiar with them,

כרבי שמעון בר יוחאי וחביריו

such as R. Shimon bar Yochai and his associates.

וזה אינו

But this is not the case. In fact, the study of the laws of what is ritually prohibited or permitted, and even the study of civil law, does override the obligation to pray at fixed times.

כדאיתא בגמרא, דרבי שמעון בן יוחאי וחביריו, וכל מי שתורתו אומנותו, אין מפסיקין לתפלה

As stated in the Gemara,16 R. Shimon bar Yochai and his associates, and likewise any others whose Torah study is their sole occupation, do not interrupt [their Torah study] for prayer.17

ואפילו כשעוסק בדיני ממונות, כרב יהודה, דכולהו תנויי בנזיקין הוי

[This applies] even when one is occupied with the study of civil law, like Rav Yehudah, all of whose studies were in the Order of Nezikin18 (lit., “damages”);

ואפילו הכי, לא הוי מצלי אלא מתלתין יומין לתלתין יומין, כד מהדר תלמודא, כדאיתא בגמרא

nevertheless, in order not to interrupt his studies, he prayed only every thirty days19 when reviewing his studies, as stated in the Gemara.20

ובירושלמי, פרק קמא דברכות, סבירא ליה לרבי שמעון בר יוחאי דאפילו לקריאת שמע אין מפסיקין, כי אם ממקרא ולא ממשנה, דעדיפי ממקרא, לרבי שמעון בר יוחאי

Also, in the Talmud Yerushalmi, in the first chapter of Berachot,21 R. Shimon bar Yochai is of the opinion that even for the Reading of Shema one interrupts only the study of Scripture, but not of Mishnah, the Oral Torah, the study of which is superior to the study of Scripture,22 according to R. Shimon bar Yochai.

ולא חילק בין סדר זרעים ומועד וקדשים, לטהרות ונזיקין

He did not differentiate between [studying] the Orders of Zera’im, Moed and Kodashim, and [studying] the Orders of Taharot and Nezikin.23

He thus holds that even when studying the monetary laws in the Order of Nezikin one should not interrupt one’s studies for the Reading of Shema.

(וסותר דעת עצמו ברעיא מהימנא בכמה מקומות, דמשנה איהי שפחה כו׳

(24Actually, he [here] contradicts his own opinion, given in a number of instances in Ra’aya Mehemna,25 that Mishnah (relative to Scripture) is termed a “handmaiden” (Heb.: shifchah), and so on;

והמקרא, שהוא תורת משה, ודאי עדיפא מקבלה, דאיהי מטרוניתא ברעיא מהימנא שם

and Scripture, the Torah of Moses, is surely superior to the Kabbalah, which is termed a “queen” (Aram.: matrunita) in the above-quoted passage in Ra’aya Mehemna,

ותורה שבכתב הוא מלכא

while the Written Torah is termed a “king” (Aram.: malka).

Thus, according to the last-quoted set of terms from R. Shimon bar Yochai, Scripture is superior even to Kabbalah and surely to Mishnah. From the previous passage, however, as cited in the Talmud Yerushalmi, it would seem that he maintains that Mishnah is superior to Scripture, for one does not interrupt one’s study of Mishnah in order to read Shema at its prescribed time, though one does interrupt one’s study of Scripture.

Here the Alter Rebbe interpolates a Kabbalistic definition of the term malka (“king”):

(דהיינו יסוד אבא, המלובש בזעיר אנפין, כמו שכתב האריז״ל))

(26This is the Yesod of Abba vested in Z’eir Anpin, as stated by R. Isaac Luria, of blessed memory.27))

To resume the discussion of R. Shimon bar Yochai:

וגם פלפול הקושיות ותירוצים, דמסטרא דרע ורוח הטומאה, אשכחן ברבי שמעון בר יוחאי, דעסק ביה טובא

Moreover, we find that R. Shimon bar Yochai dealt considerably (not only with the mere statements of law in the Mishnayot, but) also with the argumentation of problems and solutions, which (according to the original quotation from Ra’aya Mehemna) derive from the side of evil and from the spirit of impurity.

גם בהיותו במערה

[This he did] even when he was in the cave, where legal adjudication, especially in civil suits, was obviously uncalled for.

ואדרבה, בזכות צער המערה זכה לזה

Indeed, the very fact that he underwent anguish [when forced to hide] in the cave made him worthy of these attainments.

כדאיתא בגמרא, דאמר לרבי פנחס בן יאיר אכל קושיא, כ״ד פירוקי

For, as stated in the Gemara,28 he countered every problematic query posed by R. Pinchas ben Yair with twenty-four solutions,

ואמר ליה: אלמלא לא ראיתני בכך כו׳

and [R. Shimon] said to him: “If you had not seen me like this,” in this sorry state in the cave, [“you would not have found me like this”].

(וגם באמת, על כרחך עיקר עסקיהם במערה היה תורת המשניות, ת״ר סדרי שהיה בימיהם עד רבינו הקדוש

(29In fact, their principal occupation in the cave — the principal occupation of Rashbi and his son, R. Eliezer — must have been with the teachings of the Mishnayot, i.e., the six hundred Orders extant in those days30 until the time of our holy Master, R. Yehudah HaNasi, who compiled the Mishnayot in six Orders.

דאילו ספר הזהר והתיקונים היה יכול לגמור בב׳ וג׳ חדשים, כי בודאי לא אמר דבר אחד ב׳ פעמים)

For he could have completed the Zohar and the Tikkunim, the Tikkunei Zohar, in two or three months; for surely he did not repeat the same subject twice.31)

Surely, then, he was occupied almost the entire time with the study of the six hundred Orders of the Mishnah.

גם אמרו רבותינו ז״ל: מיום שחרב בית המקדש אין לו להקדוש ברוך הוא אלא ד׳ אמות של הלכה בלבד

Moreover, our Sages, of blessed memory, have taught32 that “Since the day the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One, blessed be He, has only the four cubits of Halachah.” The study of Torah law thus takes the place of the Holy Temple.

How, then, can we possibly say, as the above passage from Ra’aya Mehemna might superficially indicate, that the study of the laws of ritual permissibility, and the like, is designated as the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and thus related to kelipat nogah, which is an admixture of good and evil?