The present Epistle deals with a subject that has not been touched upon in the Tanya until now. Though it is one of the most profound and abstract principles of Chassidut, it has a practical application.

It will be recalled that the introduction to Epistle 18 pointed out the benefits of ascertaining the practical lessons in divine service — through the performance of mitzvot in general and the mitzvah of tzedakah in particular — that are to be found in each of these pastoral letters. For, as the Alter Rebbe’s sons state in their Approbation to the Tanya, the purpose of the letters is to “teach the people of G‑d the way by which they should walk and the deed which they should do.” And this letter is especially significant, for the Alter Rebbe wrote it (as the Tzemach Tzedek testifies1) “several days before his demise in the village of Piena.”

What the profundity of this letter ultimately conveys is a renewed and deepened appreciation of the performance of “physical” mitzvot in general (i.e., those involving material things, such as wool for tzitzit and parchment for tefillin) and the mitzvah of tzedakah in particular.

At the core of this letter is the principle that the creation of the physical derives from the Essence of G‑d Himself; it completely transcends the luminous and revelatory levels of G‑dliness from which all spiritual entities and worlds are created. For, as the Alter Rebbe writes, “Only G‑d Himself — Whose Being is of His Essence, and Who is not, Heaven forfend, caused by some other cause preceding Himself — has the ability to create something out of absolute nothingness,” to create a being that seems (to the corporeal eye) to be a wholly independent entity “without any other cause preceding it.”

Everything else that exists is possible and non-essential existence, and consequently is totally dependent upon G‑d as the cause for its existence. By contrast, only G‑d Himself — Whose existence is an imperative and Whose being derives from His own Self, and as such needs nothing to bring about His existence — has the ability to create a being so corporeal that it is entirely unaware that its existence depends on a Creator; indeed, it is satisfied with the delusion that it is responsible for its own creation.

Apart from this grossly physical world, everything created has an apparent causal link with a source of existence. Light, for example, visibly owes its existence to its source — a luminary; speech, being an alul (“effect”), clearly owes its existence to the faculty of thought, which is its ilah (“cause”). When viewing material matter, however, one does not perceive that it derives from and is nullified to something higher than itself; it seems to exist as a wholly autonomous being.

A being such as this, which is infinitely distant from its spiritual source — its source being Divine while the being itself is physical, and hence has to be created ex nihilo (“from nothing”) — can be created only by G‑d Himself, Who is truly without limitation and as such transcends the physical and the spiritual equally. Thus, it is specifically the physical things that were created by G‑d Himself, Who is, of course, infinitely higher than all the illuminations and radiations of G‑dliness that were responsible for the creation of all spiritual beings and entities.

This principle leads us to a newfound respect for the performance of commandments involving physical things — for their creation comes about from G‑d Himself.

This principle is indeed new. It supplements the explanation in Tanya, Part I (ch. 35ff) of the distinctive quality of practical performance alluded to in the phrase quoted on its title page: “that you may do it.” That explanation highlights the superiority of the mitzvot performed in the realm of action over those performed with thought and speech.

This superiority is explained there only in the light of G‑d’s ultimate intent: G‑d desires a dwelling place, i.e., that His Presence be revealed in the nethermost level, in this spiritually dark, physical world, which seemingly does its best to conceal G‑dliness. And this dwelling place is best built through the mitzvot involving action, for through them G‑dliness is drawn down into those aspects of this physical world that are lower than thought and speech.

The same is true with regard to the refinement and elevation of the animal soul and its transformation into goodness and holiness (for which reason the Divine soul first descended into the body): the optimal refinement and elevation of the animal soul is achieved specifically through the performance of these mitzvot — donning tefillin, wearing tzitzit, etc. — for they engage the power of the animal soul to a greater degree than do the commandments that are performed only in thought or in speech.

All this merely expresses the special quality of “action” as it relates to G‑d’s desire and intent; it does not, however, express the superiority of the physical object with which a practical commandment is performed. Seemingly, a commandment performed with one’s loftier soul-powers — such as the knowledge of G‑d-liness, a mitzvah that engages one’s mind, or the love of G‑d, a mitzvah that engages the spiritual emotions of one’s heart — should be inherently superior to a commandment that merely engages one’s hands or feet.

For as far as the Divine Will is concerned, since this is fulfilled both by the practical mitzvot and by those observed in thought and in speech, the spiritual result — being united with G‑d — would seem to be the same in both types of mitzvot. With regard to the object with which G‑d’s Will is being fulfilled, the commandments that are performed with one’s more spiritual qualities — comprehending G‑d with one’s mind and loving Him with one’s heart — would seem to be superior to the commandments that merely engage one’s physicality.

However, considering (as in the letter below) the unique standing of physical mitzvot inasmuch as the physical derives from G‑d Himself, it follows that the practical commandments are superior to those performed in thought or in speech by virtue of the physical objects they involve, for these objects harbor energy that is released when they are utilized in fulfilling the Divine intent.

The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe Rayatz, of blessed memory, once related2 that when “those few heavenly soul-words” that appear in the text below were first revealed, pointing out that it is from the infinite Essence of the Ein Sof Himself that physical objects first come into being, the chassidim of the time found that their performance of the practical mitzvot was invigorated by fresh wellsprings of vitality.

איהו וחיוהי חד

“He3 and His life-giving emanations (chayohi) are one;

I.e., the “lights” (orot) of the Sefirot, which (like souls) animate the “vessels” (kelim) of the Sefirot, are not merely connected to G‑d: they are actually one with Him.

איהו וגרמוהי חד בהון

He and His causations (garmohi; lit., “organs”) are one in them,”

I.e., the “vessels” (kelim) which emanate from G‑d, and which (like bodies to souls4) serve as receptors to the “lights” (orot) of the Sefirot, are one with Him — in them, i.e., in the Sefirot,

(פירוש: עשר ספירות דאצילות

(5 that is,6 in the Ten Sefirot of Atzilut.

חיוהי: הן האורות

“His life-giving emanations” — these are the lights, the orot of the Sefirot,

וגרמוהי: הן הכלים

and “His causations” — these are the vessels, the kelim of the Sefirot;

שכולן אלקות

they are all (one with the [infinite] Ein Sof-light, for they are) Divinity.

מה שאין כן בבריאה יצירה עשיה כו׳

This is not the case in the Worlds of Beriah, Yetzirah and Asiyah, and so on.)

In these lower worlds, the kelim of the Sefirot as well as a distinct measure of the orot are not Divinity, but created beings.

וצריך להבין היטב איך האין סוף חד עם גרמוהי, הן הכלים

Now it needs to be clearly understood how the Ein Sof is One with His causations, i.e., with the kelim of the Sefirot.

הרי הכלים הן בבחינת גבול ותכלית, כמו שכתוב בעץ חיים

For the kelim are limited and finite, as is stated in Etz Chayim.7

Each of the Sefirot is not only a distinct entity (Chochmah having a separate identity from Binah, and Chesed from Gevurah, etc.), but in addition each Sefirah is inherently finite. How then can they be One with the Ein Sof, Who transcends any such particular identity (such as Chochmah or Chesed) and is moreover infinite?

The Tzemach Tzedek explains in Or HaTorah8 that the limitation that characterizes the kelim of Atzilut is their function as the Ko’ach HaGvul of the Ein Sof, the Power of Limitation whereby there can emanate from the [infinite] Ein Sof something limited and finite.

For it is stated in Avodat HaKodesh9 that “Ein Sof is the most perfect being of all; just as He possesses infinite powers so too does He possess finite powers, for if you were to say that He can only express Himself in an infinite manner and not in a finite manner, then you are diminishing His perfection.”

This means that in truth “infinity” is also “finite”, if it is limited to infinitude and barred from expressing itself finitely. A power that is only “infinite” and not “finite” lacks the capabilities of finitude. Since the Ein Sof is “the most perfect being of all,” hence possessing all qualities, He must possess a power of limitation and finitude just as He possesses infinite powers.

Avodat HaKodesh concludes that the Infinite One’s first expression of self-limitation is the emanation of the Sefirot — more specifically, the kelim of the Sefirot — which possess Ko’ach HaGvul, the Power of Limitation. As a result, the created beings that result from the enclothement of the “lights” in the “vessels” are limited in nature, even though the creative light that flows from the orot is infinite.

To return now to our query, as expressed above: Since the kelim are limited and finite, how can they be One with the Ein Sof, Who utterly transcends all bounds of identity and finitude?

אמנם הכוונה היא לומר, שהן אלקות לברוא יש מאין

However, the intention of the statement that the Ein Sof is One with His kelim is to say that they are Divinity with regard to creating something out of nothing, just as the Ein Sof is capable of doing,10

Creating something out of nothing is a capability hidden only “in the bosom of the Creator.”11 As our Sages, of blessed memory, expressed it,12 “If all the world’s inhabitants were to assemble, they would be unable to create the wing of a gnat and place within it a soul.”

It is with respect to this that the Ein Sof is One with the kelim of the Ten Sefirot of Atzilut: through them something is created out of nothing; in this respect the kelim are Divinity.

ולא בבחינת השתלשלות עילה ועלול לבד

and not merely by way of an evolution from ilah (“cause”) to alul (“effect”), as links in a causal progression wherein a being — the alul, or “effect” — evolves of itself from its ilah, or “cause”.

ומה שכתב הרמ״ק ענין השתלשלות עילה ועלול, וכן הוא בזוהר הקדוש, פרשת בראשית

As for the statement of R. Moses Cordovero13 that creative development in the Sefirot takes place by way of ilah and alul, and so too is it stated in the sacred Zohar, Parshat Bereishit,14

היינו בהשתלשלות הספירות בספירות עצמן

this refers to the evolution of the Sefirot within the Sefirot themselves, whereby one Sefirah evolves from another, e.g., Binah from Chochmah,

(בבחינת הכלים) שנקראות בלי מה, בספר יצירה

(15with respect to the kelim), which are termed beli mah (“without anything”) in Sefer Yetzirah16 (the “Book of Formation”17),

(The text there reads, “Ten Sefirot without anything: their measure is ten....”)

שאינן בבחינת יש ומהות מושג

because they are not in the category of a substance (yesh)18 nor of a nature that is apprehensible to created beings,

וכמו האין סוף, דלית מחשבה תפיסא ביה כלל

like the Ein Sof,19 “Whom thought cannot grasp at all”; so too are the kelim of the Sefirot called beli mah, “without anything” tangible and comprehensible by created beings,

Since the Sefirot are not of an apprehensible substance (they are “without anything”), they evolve from one another as ilah and alul, rather than being created as something from nothing.

The Alter Rebbe will now show that the kelim of the Sefirot are not of an apprehensible nature:

וכמו שכתוב: ופני לא יראו

as it is written,20 “And My face (G‑d’s pnimiyut and inner self) shall not be seen.”

The aspect of Divinity termed “My face,” referring as it does also to the pnimiyut of the kelim, remained hidden even from Moshe Rabbeinu, transcending even his vision and comprehension.

ונבואת משה רבינו עליו השלום והשגתו, היתה מפרק עליון דנצח דז״א

The prophecy and apprehension of Moshe Rabbeinu, peace to him, related to the upper rank of Netzach of Z’eir Anpin.

As mentioned in the previous letter (Epistle XIX), the Sefirot of Netzach, Hod and Yesod are merely the conduits by which the flow of life-giving light reaches the recipient; i.e., they are merely the externality of the Sefirot rather than the internal level called panim.

ובהשתלשלות העלול הוא מוקף מהעילה

And in the evolution, the alul (before it emerges as a distinct entity) is encompassed by its ilah,

ובטל במציאות אצלו, כזיו השמש בשמש

and is in a state of utter self-nullification in relation to it, just as a ray of the sun loses any independent identity and is essentially non-existent when it is within the sun,

This is true even after the alul evolves from the ilah and is revealed as a distinct entity: even then it is essentially non-existent in relation to its ilah. And the same holds true with regard to the manner in which one Sefirah evolves from another: that which is drawn down and revealed is totally nullified to the ilah from which it evolves.

כמו שכתוב בפרדס מהרמ״ק

as stated in Pardes21 by R. Moses Cordovero.22

It would thus be impossible to create a substantive being, a yesh, that has a sense of existence independent of its source, through the process of ilah and alul.23

ואף גם צמצומים רבים מאד לא יועילו להיות גשם עב כעפר, מהשתלשלות הרוחניות משכלים נבדלים, אפילו של המלאכים

Thus even numerous contractions, even enough to make the screened light utterly dissimilar to the original light, will not avail to bring about matter dense as earth, by way of an evolution from the spirituality of abstract intelligences, not even [by way of an evolution from the spirituality] [Insertion by the Rebbe: “of the abstract intelligences”] of the angels.

Angels, too, are composed of matter and form. However, since even their matter is composed of spiritual elements, coarse matter such as earth will not result, even after a multitude of contractions, for in the evolving and descending chainlike progression called Hishtalshelut, the lowest link remains connected — i.e., retains some qualitative relationship — to the highest link.

אלא להיות רוח הבהמה מפני שור

There will only come into being — as a result of this gradated evolvement — the spirit of an animal, that derives from the “Face of the Ox” of the Celestial Chariot,

Although the spirit that animates the body of an animal can in no way be compared to its spiritual source in the “Face of the Ox” of the Chariot, by means of Hishtalshelut the “soul” of an animal can eventually evolve from there, since this “soul” too is spiritual in nature. Hishtalshelut, however, cannot result in the innovative creation of a physical entity from something spiritual,

כמו שכתוב במקום אחר, ועיין שם היטב

as explained elsewhere; examine it well.

The Rebbe notes that this may be referring, for example, to the discourse entitled Yaviu Levush Malchut24 in Torah Or.

The Alter Rebbe explains there that in a certain sense even the Supernal Chochmah of Atzilut is an entity, inasmuch as it is designated as Chochmah, as opposed to ayin, the state of “nothingness”. Therefore, it too cannot come into being by means of evolvement from the Ein Sof; it too must come about through the process of “something from nothing.” Indeed, as the verse states,25 “Chochmah derives from ayin” — Chochmah emerges from its source in a manner of “something from nothing.”

Here, however, we are not speaking of creation as it comes about from the Ein Sof, but rather as it results from spirituality in general, even from a spiritual level such as that of the abstract intelligences, i.e., the angels. It is with regard to this that we say that Hishtalshelut can only result in the soul of an animal deriving from the “Face of the Ox” of the Celestial Chariot; it cannot bring into being the physical body of an animal.

ויש מאין נקרא בריאה בלשון הקדש

The coming about of substantiality ex nihilo (yesh me’ayin) is in the Holy Tongue called beriah (“creation”).

As the Ramban points out in his commentary to the Torah,26 beriah is the only term in the Holy Tongue for absolutely innovative creation, creation ex nihilo.

In any progression from ilah (“cause”) to alul (“effect”), the alul existed previously as well, albeit in a distinctly different state. The term “creation”, by contrast, describes the coming into existence of something that until now did not exist, for, as mentioned earlier, it is impossible for yesh (“created substantiality”) to be found within ayin (“nothingness”). Were it to be otherwise, the ayin itself would cease to be ayin and would itself become yesh.

The Alter Rebbe now goes on to anticipate a query. In point of fact, created substance is also truly nullified to the G‑dliness that creates it, for “All is before Him as naught.” Why, then, do we say that creation ex nihilo cannot result from ilah and alul because the effect — the created substance — would be nullified to its source, when in truth even as the substance exists as a yesh, created ex nihilo, it is in any event nullified to the Divine source that is responsible for its creation and that continuously vests itself within it to constantly create it anew?

The Alter Rebbe goes on to explain that while the above is indeed true, nevertheless, this is so only “before Him,” i.e., as it exists in G‑d’s knowledge (for G‑d, of course, views things as they truly are, so that created beings are “before Him as naught”: they are “like the non-existence of the sun’s rays while they are still found within the orb of the sun”).

A created being itself, however, regards its own existence in an entirely different light: it “knows” and “feels” beyond any shadow of doubt that it enjoys true and independent existence. This (entirely fallacious) view can only come about when it is created ex nihilo as a yesh. Were it instead to be created by a process of ilah and alul, it would be impossible for it not to be fully cognizant of its Creator; in its own view as well, it would exist in a state of bittul bimetziut, a state of utter self-nullification.