The central theme in Tzava’at Harivash, not surprisingly, is the ultimate of Chassidism’s religious values: deveikut, attachment or cleaving unto God. It implies constant communion with God, a vivid and overwhelming consciousness of the Omnipresent as the sole true reality. It is an all-comprehensive principle, that relates not only to prayer 1 and Torah-study 2, but also to man’s mundane engagements in the daily life. 3 Its pursuit enables man to achieve the level of equanimity by means of which he transcends worldly thoughts and concerns. 4 Little wonder, then, that it is a recurring theme throughout our text. 5


The most frequently mentioned concept in Tzava’at Harivash is prayer. It is the subject of over 40 sections. The predominance of this theme is readily understood in view of the Chassidic emphasis on prayer. For prayer is the most direct and most common occasion for deveikut. It is also universal, relating to the common folks no less than to the saint and scholar. Every individual, without distinction, can and must engage in this form of communion with God. Moreover, R. Isaac Luria, the supreme authority of Jewish mysticism, ruled: in the present era, the period of ikvot Meshichah (“on the heels of Mashiach,” i.e., the period just prior to the Messianic redemption) the primary service of God, and the primary birur (refinement and correction of the world that leads to the Messianic redemption), is expressly through prayer, though Torah-study is in principle superior to worship. 6 Thus we are told that the Baal Shem Tov merited his unique attainment of spiritual perfection and his revelations of supernal matters by virtue of his prayers with great kavanah (devotion), and not by virtue of his extensive study of the Talmud and the codifiers. 7 Tzava’at Harivash is then replete with emphasis on the significance of prayer and guidance for proper prayer and worship:

Prayer is union with the Shechinah. 8 In, and through, prayer, one is to attain the level of deveikut, 9 a deveikut that will then extend beyond the prayers into the daily activities. 10 Thus one must pray with all one’s strength 11 to the extent that the words themselves become alight, 12 and it should be with joy 13 and hitlahavut (fervor; ecstasy). 14 Proper kavanah is possible only with personal exertion. 15 Initially this may necessitate to pray out loud, bodily movements (swaying), and reading from the prayer-book, to stimulate kavanah. 16 The ideal prayer, though, the prayer that is altogether from within, is inaudible and immobile. 17

The focus in prayer is not to be on personal gains, but to serve God and fulfill His Will. 18 This will also avoid being perturbed by alien thoughts in prayer. 19 Unavoidable disturbances from without are Providential, to spur man to greater effort on concentration and devotion. 20

The attainment of the proper state requires gradual stages of ascent. 21 Special effort must be made at the very beginning and that at least part of the prayer is in proper fashion. 22 One is not to be discouraged when it seems difficult to concentrate properly: strengthen yourself and make every effort to overcome the barriers, entreat God for His assistance and you will succeed. 23


The emphasis on deveikut and prayer is not to belittle the significance and central role of Torah-study. Torah-study is all-important. It furbishes the soul 24 and is the essential antidote to the temptations of the yetzer hara (inclination to evil). 25 It must be pursued with all one’s strength and energy. 26 “God and the Torah are entirely one;” the Torah is God’s “garment.” 27 Torah-study, therefore, relates man directly with God. 28 Thus it must be done with joy, awe and love, 29 which also offers the benefit of reducing alien thoughts. 30

When studying one must concentrate on the subject-matter, to understand it properly. 31 To be sure, this means that one cannot simultaneously concentrate on the ultimate goal of deveikut. 32 Nonetheless, one must study because (a)failure to do so leads to cessation of deveikut; 33 (b)by virtue of proper Torah-study one will be duly attached to Godliness; 34 and (c)the time spent on Torah-study is certainly not inferior to the states when conscious deveikut is precluded, as when sleeping or the mind “falls.” 35 Indeed, failure to study Torah is a principal cause of all spiritual harms and defects. 36

Even so, when studying Torah one must be aware that it is God’s Torah, thus “before Whom you are learning” 37 and that God Himself is “concentrated, as it were, in the four cubits of Halachah.” 38 Thus every so often one ought to interrupt the study to remind himself thereof and to attach himself unto God. 39 In this context one is not to limit the curriculum to theoretical studies of the Talmud and its commentaries, but also include works of religious ethics that further fear of Heaven 40-and to study these every day 41-as well as the codes of law in order to know the proper observance of the law. 42


One must be very careful with the fulfillment of the mitzvot (religious obligations). Torah-study, prayer and the other mitzvot must always be observed with the appropriate devotions, lishmah (for their own sake as Divine precepts), “for the sake of Heaven,” i.e., to serve God and to carry out His Will. They must be devoid of any ulterior motives, whether these be material or spiritual. 43

Even so, the lack of ideal intent can never be an excuse for not carrying out any of these obligations. 44 There is an objective validity and value in the very act of a mitzvah; 45 thus do as many mitzvot as you can and eventually you will perform them in proper fashion. 46 The underlying principle of obedience to do God’s Will assures observance of all mitzvot, without distinction whether they are major or minor, for all are equally Divine precepts that must be observed carefully. 47 It is very important that not a single day pass by without performing at least one mitzvah, 48 and that the mitzvot be done with alacrity and zeal. 49


Chassidism is known for its emphasis on joy and a happy frame of mind, and its categorical rejection of sadness and melancholy. This, too, is a dominant theme in Tzava’at Harivash:

Sadness is a repugnant character-trait, 50 a barrier to the service of God. 51 It is a typical objective of the yetzer hara who pretends to seek man’s religious self-improvement by harping on one’s real or imagined shortcomings and failures in order to generate a sense of worthlessness and hopelessness. 52 Thus one must be extremely cautious to recognize this ruse of the yetzer hara and not fall into his trap. 53

Man must be disturbed and upset by wrong-doing and defects. The need of penitence, however, must be in context of correcting these deficiencies and enhancing attachment to God and observance of Torah and mitzvot. Self-improvement and self-correction may even necessitate fasting and self-mortification, 54 with care that it be without ulterior motives, 55 notwithstanding the fact that, generally speaking, fasting and self-affliction should be avoided because they cause feelings of sadness and depression. 56

True teshuvah (return to God) and authentic worship focus on God and not oneself. This implies a joyful pursuit of the service of prayer and the observance of the mitzvot. 57 Thus weeping is bad, unless it is an expression of joy (or in the context of teshuvah at the appropriate times, or when beseeching God in momentary occasions of dire distress). 58 One must be happy at all times, 59 especially when serving God, 60 with prayer 61 and Torah-study. 62

Even so, the constant joy must be tempered by an accompanying awe and fear of God. 63 Love and fear of God must go hand in hand, lest the one turn into carelessness and the other into depression. 64

Religious Ethics in Daily Life

Service of God is not limited to rituals like Torah, mitzvot and prayer. God is to be served in all possible ways. 65 Thus “know and acknowledge God in all your ways,” even in your mundane engagements, i.e., in all involvements with the physical reality of man. 66

The materiality of the body is an obstructing barrier to the soul 67 and its mundane desires must be disregarded and despised. 68 At the same time, however, the soul cannot function on earth without the body. Thus one must safeguard physical health, for illness of the body weakens the soul. 69 One must eat, drink and sleep to maintain health, to be strengthened for the Divine service. 70

Moreover, all physical entities contain holy sparks which are the very vitality sustaining them. The fact that physical objects come your way is a Providential indication that their sparks relate to your soul. Your proper use of these items, in context of the Divine service, redeems and elevates these sparks, thus actualizing the intended purpose of the items. 71 Thus matter itself is sublimated to holiness. Indeed, chomer, matter and physical reality, becomes a direct cause of spiritual gain and achievement. 72

One must be careful, though, not to be drawn after the mundane. It is only a means toward an end, and not an end in itself. Thus do not eat or drink excessively, but only to the extent of maintaining your health. 73 Indulgence leads to spiritual downfall. 74 Likewise, all personal transactions must be conducted with da’at, knowledge and forethought. 75 Even the intent viewing of the mundane desensitizes and brings crudity upon oneself. 76

Man’s thought must always be focused on God, on the spiritual reality. Involvements with the mundane may be necessary, but only as temporary digressions. They are like momentary departures from your true home with the mind set on returning as soon as possible. 77

The ideal attitude is one of equanimity: total indifference to personal delight or pleasure, and to other peoples’ praise or blame. 78 This is achieved by constant attachment to God, implicit belief in Divine Providence, and total submission to God. 79

In this scheme there is no room for sanctimonious self-satisfaction. 80 Equanimity and spiritual growth require self-negation. 81 Sincere humility, self-deprecation, is the very sign of the true servant of God. 82 When preoccupied with the service of God there is simply no time to think of self, and for pride or other evil character-traits to arise. 83 Self-esteem and arrogance is a most serious offense, the root of all evil, generates alien thoughts, and separates man from God. 84 This applies especially to the self-satisfaction from spiritual activities and assumed achievements. 85

These are some of the central themes in this work. For others, the reader is directed to the index, especially for the extensive treatments of “thought” and “speech.” One more subject, however, does require further elaboration:

Sublimation of Alien Thoughts
Yeridah Tzorech Aliyah

A. The concept of machshavah zara is a frequent theme in Tzava'at Harivash. The literal meaning of this term is “alien thought.” It is often translated as “evil, lustful or sinful thought,” but that rendition is too restrictive. It includes any thought or feeling that is inappropriate to the occasion, whether it be sinful per se or not, thus we used the literal meaning throughout.

Man is often beset by such thoughts or feelings. Their intrusion is especially disturbing when it occurs during prayer or other religious practices. If this should happen, the general advice is hessech hada’at, diversion of attention that would result in the immediate dismissal of the inappropriate thoughts. 86 In Tzava’at Harivash, however, as well as in other early Chassidic works, we find another approach:

Man’s feelings or emotive traits consist of seven categories, corresponding to the Divine attributes known by their Kabbalistic term as the Sefirot: 1) love of something, marked by attraction, and also manifesting itself in terms of kindness; 2) fear of something, marked by repulsion, and also manifesting itself in terms of severity or strictness; 3 )recognition of an inherent quality of status, such as beauty or some achievement, manifesting itself in praise or admiration; 4) the trait to endure, prevail or conquer; 5) the trait of acknowledgment, or of a restraining splendor; 6) the trait of bonding, of establishing a relationship; and 7) the trait of governance in the sense of applying the other traits. (The seventh differs from the others in that it is more passive, dependent on the others, rather than active.) 87

These seven traits are analogous to the Sefirot because they are a reflection, worldly counter-parts, as it were, of the Divine attributes, and rooted therein. For ultimately all things are rooted in the Divine. The Sefirot, however, are altogether holy and good. The human traits, on the other hand, are like man himself: they can be holy and good or manifest themselves as the very opposite. Thus there is a “good love” and a “good fear,” relating to that which ought to be loved or feared, and there is the fall to “bad love” (illicit love, or love of sins) and to “bad fear” (inappropriate fear, or hatred). There is the “good admiration” of the holy and sublime, and there is the fall to “bad admiration” as in pride and self-esteem; and so forth. 88

The concept of the “sublimation of alien thoughts or feelings” is based on this contrariety. The alien thought is bad. Its category, however, has a good side and a bad side. Sublimation would then mean to trace the bad thought to its good source and transform it into a good thought. For example, mundane beauty is rooted in, and a pale reflection of, the source of all beauty on high, in Divinity. Why, then, would one pursue the mere reflection when he can have the all-inclusive source? The inappropriate love of, and attraction toward, something mundane, something that is transient and illusory, thus is to be traced to the ultimate source of love and attraction in holiness and transformed into a love and pursuit of the holy. The same applies to all other categories of thought and feeling. 89 That is how the alien thoughts are elevated and sublimated to become holy, and in the process elevate man himself as well: there was a momentary descent to the depth of the alien thought, culminating in an ascent to a level transcending one’s original status. 90

This concept has nothing to do with the Sabbatean heresy of engaging in forbidden activities to “elevate” the forbidden and impure. To be sure, the evil and forbidden, too, contain holy sparks that enable them to exist. Those sparks, however, can be released and redeemed only by relating to those objects as prescribed by the Torah, i.e., by rejecting them. The rejection of evil releases the sparks, thus deprives evil of its source of vitality, and that is how evil is subdued and removed. 91 All the best intentions in using them in ways that violate Torah-law will not consecrate or elevate them. On the contrary: any prohibited contact with, or use of, forbidden objects, or engagement in illicit activities, infuses them with greater vitality, thus empowers and enhances the forces of evil and impurity. 92

Chassidic works present the principle of sublimating alien thoughts, but they do so with the warning that it is hazardous. There is a real danger that engaging in sublimation may be counter-productive and lead astray. It requires Divine assistance as a safeguard. 93 Only the enthused person, one praying with hitlahavut, is to engage in sublimation. All others must put their efforts into praying more intensely. 94

These qualifications are reiterated more emphatically in other texts. The Baal Shem Tov states that the sublimation of alien or extraneous thoughts requires hachna’ah, havdalah and hamtakah. Hamtakah, the “sweetening” of the forbidden thoughts (i.e., their sublimation to holiness), can follow only after an initial hachna’ah, “subduing” with total divestment of self or any personal attachment, and havdalah, their complete separation from the kelipot, i.e., a separation from any link with the realm of evil. These initial steps are earmarked by a profound sense of dread, that the person is overcome by a gripping fear of God. 95

In at least two other instances we find that the Baal Shem Tov adds cautionary qualifications to this principle. In one 96 he adds the verse “It is the glory of God to conceal the matter” (Proverbs 25:2), suggesting that this is an esoteric teaching that is not meant for the average person lest it be abused. 97 In the other 98 he adds the conclusion: “To dwell on this at length involves danger, and the wise will be silent!”

R. Yaakov Yossef of Polnoy, who recorded these teachings of his master, the Baal Shem Tov, is more explicit. After explaining the principle of sublimating evil and alien thoughts in context of Divine Providence, he notes: “Sometimes, however, [this] thought must be repelled. You may ask, ‘how will I know which thought must be repelled, and which is to be brought near and elevated?’ [The answer is:] Man must consider [the following]. If the means to correct and elevate the alien thought will arise in your mind immediately as it comes to you, then see to bring it near and sublimate it. If, however, the means to correct it will not arise immediately in the mind, it may be assumed that [the alien thought] came about to disturb man in his prayer and to confuse his thought. It is then permissible to repel that thought, for ‘if one comes to slay you, forestall [by slaying him]’ (Sanhedrin 72a).” 99

R. Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezhirech and successor of the Baal Shem Tov, too, relates the principle of sublimation to the premise of Divine Providence. In one lengthy discussion 100 he traces the occurrence of alien thoughts to one of two sources: a)they may be a reflection of the person’s evil deeds in the past, which now offer an opportunity to be corrected; or b)they are rooted in the cosmic “breaking of the vessels,” independent of the individual. The latter, however, relates only to a tzadik who is to elevate them to their spiritual source. In either case, however, they entered the mind beyond the person’s control. One must never introduce them on his own: “If one will say, ‘I shall intentionally meditate to bring about [an alien thought of] love so that [I may] elevate it,’ of him it is said ‘That you awaken not, nor stir up, love, until it please.’ (Song 2:7; 3:5) Our sages, of blessed memory said of this that ‘he who wilfully excites himself shall be under the ban’ (Nidah 13b), that is, he is distanced from God. He thinks that he is close, but in truth he is removed.”

This distinction appears again in the Maggid’s interpretation of “Ikvotecha (Your footsteps; lit. ‘the mark of your heels’) were not known” (Psalms 77:20): eikev (heel) refers to the lowest levels. Sometimes, however, these can ascend, as in the case of an alien thought in the midst of prayer. This, however, is an aspect of hora’at sha’ah (a temporary decision or dispensation). The term sha’ah is an expression of “let them not pay attention to false words” (Exodus 5:9; see Rashi there). This means that in the case of sublimation there was a time when that thing had to be elevated, analogous to Elijah on Mount Carmel: he brought offerings there in spite of the prohibition of sacrificing on bamot (altars outside the Holy Temple in Jerusalem), 101 because he had to elevate the whole generation that worshipped idolatry. It is crucial, though, that one do not think the alien thought intentionally. That is the meaning of “ikvotecha were not known,” i.e., they are without intent. 102

The Maggid identifies those to whom the principle applies, as opposed to all others. They are pious people immersed in Torah-study, continuously ascending from level to level with deveikut and hitlahavut to the point of their thoughts being attached to a level that transcends all worldly matters. They merit Divine assistance in purifying even their physical and material aspects. Alien thoughts occur to them in their prayers or studies (when they are immersed in, and attached to, holiness) in order that they may be sublimated to that holiness. Of these people he says: “You are not like the other people whose alien thoughts come to them from their own thought that is not purified from physical matters. You who walk in my statutes, when you are beset by an alien thought you can elevate it to holiness.” 103

The Maggid’s disciples spell out these warnings in most explicit terms. R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes: “If there occur to [man] lustful imaginings or other alien thoughts at the time of worship, in [the study of] Torah or in devout prayer, he is not to take notice of them but immediately avert his mind from them. He should not be a fool and engage in the elevation of the traits of the alien thought, as is well known, for those things were meant only for tzadikim to whom alien thoughts do not occur of their own making but those of others. But he, to whom [an alien thought] occurs of his own making, i.e., from the aspect of evil in his heart ... how can he elevate it when he himself is bound [there], down below!” 104

R. Meshulam Feivish of Zborez writes: “This should be your rule. Surely you understand this on your own, but the writings of that holy man, R. Dov Ber, of blessed memory, have become disclosed to various people, and there are but few who can compare themselves to him and act as he did, even minutely. They see there that he writes in a number of places.. that from the evil love that occurs in man he can attach himself to the love of the Creator.. and likewise with evil fear, base self-glorification, sense of triumph etc. This derivation can be applied only by one who is stripped of materialism. For if one is attached to materialism and desires, and willingly derives pleasure from them, then it is most certain that he knows nothing of the love of the Creator, nor of the fear and glorification of [God] etc. ... Heaven forbid, he will fall into a deep pit if he will not watch himself very much. Only he who is divested of materialism and none the less it happens occasionally that an evil love or an evil fear awakens in his heart ... he is counseled to extract the precious from the vile… and will thereby be bestirred to a greater love of the Creator and fear of Him.” 105

R. David Shelomoh Eibeshitz 106 quotes at length this principle as taught by the Baal Shem Tov and reconciles it with the seemingly contradictory ruling of Maimonides 107 and the Shulchan Aruch 108 which ordains immediate dismissal of evil thoughts and directing the mind to words of Torah: “Both are true. Man must examine himself. If he guards himself very carefully not to blemish the aspects within his control, i.e., never to blemish by speech or act ... then evil thoughts will never occur to him.. The thought that will yet come to him [in spite of himself] occurs for the sake of correction, thus it is not to be repelled, as stated by the Baal Shem Tov, of blessed memory. But he who is not guarded in his spirit and soul, i.e., with his words and deeds, imaginings will occur to him on account of his own evil: they are altogether evil and will not be corrected. Heaven forbid for him to dwell on these thoughts even for a moment. He must push off and kill [that thought], as stated by Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch.” 109

B. The selfsame distinction applies also to the concept of “Yeridah Tzorech Aliyah-descent for the sake of an ascent.” This concept relates to the principle of sublimating alien thoughts: “‘Many waters cannot extinguish the love.’ (Song 8:7) Alien thoughts are referred to as ‘many waters,’ the waves of the sea: ‘those who go down to the sea’ (Psalms 107:23), into the depths [of the sea], thus lowering themselves from their level in order that they may ascend, which is called a descent; but this descent is for the sake of an ascent, ‘they do [their] work in many waters, they have seen the deeds of God…’ (ibid.), for God is present even in those deeds.” 110

More often, however, this principle is cited in the more delicate context of the tzadik’s “fall” to levels, situations or behavior that seems removed from, and inconsistent with, deveikut in general and his status in particular. He appears to engage in idle talk and inconsequential actions like the average person:

“The tzadik will sometimes fall from his level. This, however, is not a real ‘fall,’ as it is written, ‘For a tzadik falls seven times and rises up again’ (Proverbs 24:16): his very fall is but for the ‘rising,’ i.e., that [as he re-ascends] he will raise additional sparks along with himself. This is the meaning of ‘he crouched and lay down like a lion’ (Numbers 24:9), as it is said 111 that a lion goes down (crouches) only to seize prey [that he smells from afar]. So, too, the tzadik falls only for the sake of ascending, to raise sparks along with himself.” 112

“The tzadik, who is in a continuous state of deveikut, sometimes experiences a cessation of the deveikut. He should not be afraid [that this means] that he is removed from [God], because this may possibly happen to him in order to attain a level that is yet higher and excelling. The descent is for the sake of an ascent, the being distanced is for the sake of coming closer.” 113

This concept appears in our text as well. 114 It should be quite obvious that it is filled with serious implications. The Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid were fully conscious of these, thus found it necessary to voice caution and qualifications:

“The ultimate intent in man being created with matter and form is to refine the matter, so that matter is transformed into form. This is the meaning of ‘That man do [the mitzvot] and live by them’ (Leviticus 18:5), as Nachmanides comments (ad loc.) that this relates to various levels and aspects. One aspect is that after ascending on high one descends again in order to elevate the lower levels. Every descent, however, requires caution to re-ascend, lest he remain there, Heaven forbid, as the Baal Shem Tov said that there are many who remained [below].” 115

There is a clear emphasis in practically all references to this principle that it applies only to the tzadik, the spiritually accomplished person who is firmly fastened to Above to assure that he will ascend again after the “fall.” 116

Moreover, the consistent expression of “when he falls,” or “sometimes falls,” indicates passivity. In other words, as in the case of alien thoughts that are to be elevated, it is not an intentional fall or descent, but just happens by Divine Providence. The very same qualifications relating to the sublimation of alien thoughts apply equally to the general principle of yeridah tzorech aliyah.

The Maggid spells this out in sharp and unequivocal terms:

“In all matters one is to serve God continuously [in a mode of] avodat gevohah (‘for the sake of Above;’ exclusively for the sake of God without any ulterior motives). One is not to be, Heaven forbid, like those licentious ones who say that man must make himself descend to the lowest level and then ascend from there, i.e., yeridah tzorech aliyah. This must not happen [among the people of] Israel. A number of people left the faith on account of such! 117

“It follows that man must be continuously attached unto [God], blessed be His Name. If he should fall from his level, Heaven forbid, he must quickly restore himself to the higher level.

“These matters are too lengthy to be explained. But it is beyond human ability, and if he were to do so he will fall and not rise. Thus it is explained in the Zohar (I:117a), with reference to “‘I shall go through Egypt’ (Exodus 12:12)-i.e., I [God Himself], and not an angel, ‘and I will smite ...’ (ibid.)-i.e., I, and not a seraph.” 118: Egypt was a place of impurity to the point that that if an angel had gone there he would have [become and] remained defiled, Heaven forbid. The light of the Holy One, blessed is He, however, penetrates everything, and nothing can interpose before Him. This, however, is not in the power of man.

“Thus ‘You shall be only above’ (Deuteronomy 28:23), i.e., to serve God on the level of ‘above’ (the high level), ‘and you shall not be below’ (ibid.), i.e., on the level of ‘below’-i.e., on the lower level, as stated ...” 119