It’s quite likely that you’ve been in a Chabad House. You probably know a Chabadnik, quite possibly are related to one. It’s also likely that you’ve been approached by a Chabadnik to wrap tefillin or light candles for Shabbat. And you are, after all, visiting But what is Chabad?

That’s what we’re discussing here: Not what Chabad does, but what Chabad is.

It would be inaccurate to call Chabad a movement, or an ideology, or even a particular stream within Chassidut. Perhaps the best description is that Chabad is a way of doing Chassidut. As I wrote in the entry on Chassidut, the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings were able to elicit the essence of the Jew and the essence of Torah, injecting vital energy into Jewish life. Chabad takes that power one step further by placing those teachings directly in the hands of each one of us. In a way, Chabad is do-it-yourself Chassidut. The tzaddik still plays a crucial role—perhaps even more crucial—but more as a facilitator than a powerhouse.

Historical background

Each member of the inner circle of the Baal Shem Tov was an expert scholar of Torah before he came to his teacher. Shortly after the Baal Shem Tov passed on, his seat was filled by Rabbi Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezeritch, an expert in both Talmud and Kabbalah and a master of profound metaphor, with penetrating insight into the human psyche. His disciples, in turn, were men of great stature, each with his own background, his own approach, his own way to apply his master’s teachings. Some excelled in ecstasy and joy, others in longing prayer, others in their intense study and profound insight, yet others in their love for every creature, great and small.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi was the youngest member of this inner circle, and also a brilliant scholar—so much so that the Magid asked that he compose a new edition of the Shulchan Aruch (the authoritative code of Jewish law) that would include elaboration and explanation. He too came with his unique approach, one he had developed even before arriving in Mezeritch: Every idea he learned from his teachers had to be internalized through intense, focused contemplation, until it was felt palpably in the heart. In the mind, after all, it was just an idea. Once in the heart, however, an idea has the power to transform a person. It could become real.

Every idea had to be internalized by the mind until it was felt palpably in the heart.

Undoubtedly, the other disciples of the Magid also engaged in deep contemplation. R. Schneur Zalman, however, saw this as the path for every Jew.

Many of the other disciples of the Magid understood Chassidut as a form of leadership. “The righteous man lives by his faith,” goes the verse, but these disciples read it slightly differently: “The righteous man gives life through his faith.” The enlightened tzaddik would be privy to the secret teachings and spend much time in the ecstasy of prayer and mystic union, and thereby that life would emanate to his flock as well.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman sharply took issue with this view. He read that verse in its simple sense, that each person, to be righteous, had to live with that deep faith, that quintessence of the soul that the Baal Shem Tov had made accessible, and make it the driving force of every faculty of his or her own person. The tzaddik was there to facilitate, but each person had to do the work him- or herself. Life, after all, is not something you receive like a puppet, through another’s hand; life is something integral to the person himself.

Only with this approach, R. Schneur Zalman argued, would the Jew truly integrate the vitality of Chassidut into his life. He cited the Talmudic adage of the thief who digs a tunnel beneath the house of a wealthy man. About to break through the floor at night, knowing that he is risking his life and ready to take the life of anyone who stood in his way, he whispers an earnest prayer, “G‑d help me!”1

The thief truly believes in G‑d. Yet his faith is incongruous with his actual life: He knows that G‑d doesn’t approve of his profession, but that knowledge remains in one compartment, his way of life in another. In other words, he has failed to put together his inner convictions with his outer persona. R. Schneur Zalman understood the role of the tzaddik as a healer of this rift, suturing together soul and body, illuminating the outer mind and heart of the Jew with the quintessential spark hidden within.

The Chabad approach took the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings to their logical extent.

The Baal Shem Tov’s G‑d was one who could be found everywhere and in everything, as the Zohar says, “There is no place void of Him.” To say that the knowledge of G‑d could enter only the elevated minds of great tzaddikim, but not those of the ordinary man or woman, was to assert a void of G‑dliness, a place where G‑dly light could not come. The Baal Shem Tov’s teachings, then, could reach their ultimate fruition only once each and every person could take ownership of them.

Who’s praying?

Here’s a story that illustrates the distinction between the two schools of thought:

Rabbi Schneur Zalman had one disciple who was a merchant, as were many Jews at the time. In chassidic parlance, a disciple is called a “chassid” and his teacher is called his “rebbe.” This chassid would travel on occasion to the large markets together with a friend, a disciple of Reb Chaikel, one of R. Schneur Zalman’s colleagues. Eventually, this Chabad chassid merchant came to his rebbe with a complaint:

“Each morning, at the inn where we stay, he rises early and I rise early,” described the chassid. “If there is no mikvah, he immerses in a nearby river or stream, and I do the same. Then he begins to say his prayers with such excitement and enthusiasm—every morning the same, without failure!

“And I? I review a teaching of the rebbe. I try as hard as I can to focus my mind, to remove all thoughts of the journey, the market, the merchandise, the dealings—and to focus only on the thoughts of that teaching, to visualize it in my mind’s eye. Then I struggle to say my prayers. Some mornings, I can eke out a little inspiration. Other mornings . . .”

“But my friend? Every morning, the same fervor, the same fire aflame—in an instant, he prays effortlessly!”

To which R. Schneur Zalman responded flatly, “He prays? Reb Chaikel prays!”

The Book for Everyone

To this end, R. Schneur Zalman presented his approach in two short works, combined into one volume that he called “A Collection of Sayings,” modestly stating in the frontispiece that these were collected “from books and from scribes.” Today it is generally called “The Tanya,” after the first word of the first chapter. The first part of this book is aptly titled “The Book of the Everyman.”

Admittedly, that’s a loose translation, but it carries the gist of the book’s focus: Rather than a guide for the pure soul to find its path to enlightenment, R. Schneur Zalman speaks to the down-to-earth Jew who wrestles daily with his basest impulses. He provides him a restructured self-concept and plain advice, showing him how he too can serve G‑d with love and joy, at least to the degree that he can keep winning those wrestling matches. Most radically, he provides this ordinary man glowing encouragement, telling him that his constant battle with those incessant urges brings a pleasure to G‑d that the tzaddik cannot provide, for the tzaddik lives in a world of light, while he faces the darkness head-on and elicits a light that transcends anything to which the tzaddik can reach.

The Tanya and psychology

The approach in Tanya bears a strong resemblance to what psychologists nowadays call “cognitive reframing”—helping a person adjust his concept of himself and his place in the cosmos until he effects a change in attitude and behavior. R. Schneur Zalman described it as “the longer-shorter way.” Longer, because you have to do the work yourself, step by step opening your mind to the light of your soul until it can awaken the heart. Shorter, because it brings you directly in contact with that light.2

Most of the teachings of R. Schneur Zalman, however, were oral. These came to be called maamarim (plural form of maamar), and were memorized and committed to writing by his students (including his own son and grandson) and later published, often with much elaboration and explanation. They served as the material which a Chabad chassid would contemplate before and during his prayers, as instructed in the Tanya. With each generation, each successive rebbe would expand upon these maamarim, creating the vast library of Chassidut Chabad we have today, with which a Chabad chassid occupies himself on a daily basis.

In his scholarly work on Chabad, Roman Foxbrunner sums up the harmony of character traits that R. Schneur Zalman and his successors cultured within their chassidim:

Scholarly yet sociable; reticent, yet a capable singer of Hasidic melodies and relater of Hasidic tales and traditions; austere and somewhat ascetic, yet possessing a refined appreciation of this world’s pleasures; earnest but not humorless or somber; deeply religious but not unctuous or pietistic; modest but self-confident; devoted to RSZ [R. Schneur Zalman], but fully capable of thinking for himself: this Hasid personified the profound and paradoxical system that came to be known as Habad Hassidism.3

Why the name Chabad?

Other disciples of the Magid emphasized the enthusiasm and excitement of prayer. R. Schneur Zalman emphasized the contemplation before and during prayer that could spontaneously generate that enthusiasm. He therefore distinguished his school of thought by calling it Chabad:

stands for . . . common translation refers to . . .
Ch ח Chochmah Wisdom conception of an idea
B ב Binah Understanding cognating an idea
D ד Da’at Knowing realizing an idea

The cognitive approach proved its potency in more ways than one. In late nineteenth-century Czarist Russia, Jews were rapidly being exposed to the secular thought of Western Europe. Jewish youth were ignited by the ideals of social reform, spurning religion as backward, irrelevant and silly. Rabbi Shalom Dovber, the Chabad rebbe of that time, responded by opening a yeshivah in which young men would study Chassidut Chabad alongside their Talmudic studies, but with the same revolutionary spirit as those who were studying Marx and Engels. Later, in Poland, his son was to encourage young women to form societies to do the same.

With the rise of Stalin’s totalitarian regime, practice of any religion became a life-endangering matter. Again, the self-empowering approach of Chabad came to play. Chabad chassidim, in particular those who had studied in the Chabad yeshivahs, refused to surrender their religious observance under the most oppressive conditions. One after another was executed or sent to Siberia for “counter-revolutionary activities.” As virtually every other Jewish establishment crumbled beneath the persistent pounding of the Yevsektsia and the KGB, Chabad remained a stalwart force, with a wide underground network that kept the coals of Judaism glowing through the darkest years of religious persecution.

The Chabad approach proved itself invincible and potent under every sort of crucial challenge.

When the sixth rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, arrived in America during the Second World War, he carried with him that same indefatigable spirit. Almost immediately upon arrival he declared, “America is no different!” His son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, took over the helm in 1950, yet even beforehand he was involved in making Chabad a worldwide agency, a lifeline for the Jewish soul.

Upon accepting the mantle of leadership by reciting his first public maamar, the Rebbe immediately reaffirmed the Chabad approach. “In general, in Chabad,” he announced, “each one is expected to do his own job on his own, not relying on the rebbes.” The Rebbe then went on to describe the difference between the two interpretations of “A tzaddik lives by his faith,” as described above. He then continued:

But us, Chabad, each one of us must do his job himself, with every limb and every sinew of his body, and every limb and every sinew of his soul.

I am not saying that I will not help, G‑d forbid. I will help as much as I am capable. But, since “all is in the hands of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven,” therefore, without the work you do on your own, what will it help that I give out writings, sing melodies and say with you ‘l’chaim’?”4

Chabad today

As the Chabad approach proved its strength in the traditional shtetl, against the cynicism of revolutionary Russia and under the religious persecution of the Bolshevik regime, so too it has demonstrated its viability in the secular, mobile and interconnected modern world. The externalities adjusted for each period, but the inner thrust remains the same: Chabad is an approach that has faith in the spark that lies within each of us without any doubt, and empowers us to find that spark and fan its flames. Not through coercion, not through guilt or tirades from the pulpit, nor by promises of instant enlightenment does Chabad reach the Jew, but by facilitating each one in his or her own path.

“Each Jew has a mitzvah to which he or she finds an affinity,” the Rebbe would say. “Don’t argue with a Jew. There is no need to convince him or her of anything. Just find that mitzvah and help the Jew get it done.”

And then, as the Mishnah promises, “One mitzvah pulls along with it yet another mitzvah.”

The same idea was expressed in the Rebbe’s words to another rabbi who complained about the obstinacy of American Jewry. The Rebbe insisted that they were nevertheless good Jews. “You can’t make them do anything,” the Rebbe admonished him. “But you can teach them everything.”

“You can’t make them do anything, but you can teach them everything.”

Just as the approach is essentially the same, so too the objective has not changed: to elicit that essence-light of the Jewish soul and of our holy Torah, to let it shine from within the hearts of each one of us with such intensity that the rest of the world, as well, will be moved by that light, until all the world is filled with its splendor.

At the end of the entry on Chassidut, I described the Baal Shem Tov’s experience of the Moshiach telling him he would come “when your wellsprings spread to the outside.”

Just as Rabbi Schneur Zalman stuck to the simple meaning of “A tzaddik lives by his faith,” so the Rebbe, the Chabad leader of our generation, stuck to the simple meaning of the Baal Shem Tov’s words, explaining: “It is not the water of the wellsprings that must spread to the outside, it is the wellsprings themselves. Each one of us, no matter how distantly outside we consider ourselves, must become one of those fountains of the waters of life of the Baal Shem Tov.”

For classes in Chassidut Chabad, contact your local Chabad rabbi. We also have a selection of classes in Tanya here on our site. Or browse our collection of classic chassidic texts. Throughout our site, you’ll find essays, videos and audios that are presentations of Chassidut Chabad in a contemporary style.