This past Sunday marked the 200th anniversary since Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement passed away. A day-long event was organized in Crown Heights by Merkaz Anash—an organization that caters to the global community of Chabad Chassidim—focusing on Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s scholarly works. Known in Chabad as the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman is best known for his authorship of the Tanya—a Chassidic guide to the service of G‑d, and the Shulchan Aruch—a code of Jewish law.

As Rabbi Shimon Hellinger—director of Merkaz Anash—explains, “It is easy to appreciate his contribution to Chassidism, but it is more difficult to appreciate how important and innovative his halachic contribution is. Even less known or understood is the immense significance of his work on the prayer liturgy.” This daylong series of presentations and panel discussions was planned precisely to address this deficiency. “Merkaz Anash,” says Hellinger, “is an organization that focuses inwards; Chabad caters to the whole world, but in order for the movement’s arms and legs to function properly we must make sure the beating heart is alive and well.”

"The Alter Rebbe is actually personified by his double contribution—to mysticism on the one hand, and Jewish law on the other."

Hellinger says that even within the Chabad community itself, not everyone truly understands and appreciates the full weight of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s contribution. “There is always more to learn, and when you grow up with something you sometimes study it with a degree of superficiality,” says Hellinger. “We organised this event because we want people to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of what we have.”

The day began with a presentation by preeminent Chassidic thinker Rabbi Yoel Kahn—chief transcriber and editor of the teachings of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory, and editor of the Encyclopedia of Chabad Thought (Sefer Ha’erchim Chabad). Rabbi Kahn focused on a talk in which the late Lubavitcher Rebbe discussed the significance of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s name. Schneur can be read as shnei ohr, which means two luminaries. “Accordingly,” explained Rabbi Kahn, “the Alter Rebbe is actually personified by his double contribution—to mysticism on the one hand, and Jewish law on the other.” Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s purpose was to combine these two poles, making the most esoteric secrets as accessible and practical as a straightforward legal ruling, and permeating dry legalities and rituals with affective depth and meaning.

A panel discussion focused on Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s oral teachings. Rabbi Eliyahu Matusof—a senior editor at Otzer Hachasidim (a branch of Kehot Publication Society, the publishing arm of Chabad-Lubavitch) and the scholar who oversaw the recently completed publication of all extant transcripts of these teachings—was joined by Rabbi Yehonasan Dovid Reinitz, who also worked on the transcripts, and Rabbi Nachum Grunwald—editor of the Heichel Habesht Journal. Much of the discussion focused on what these transcripts tell us about the expansion of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s leadership in the early 1790s. Previously he had attempted to guide his disciples on a more individual basis, and the Tanya is actually based on the personal advice that he offered during the earlier period of his leadership. But as his fame spread and his popularity grew the public discourse became the chief method of communication and guidance. For more on Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s oral teachings, seehere.

In a session devoted to Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s monumental work of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch Ha-rav, Rabbi Yukusiel Farkash—a recognised halachic authority from Jerusalem—used numerous textual examples to illustrate the depth and precision invested in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s lucid phraseology. “The more you study his words,” he explained, “the more depth and novelty you uncover. Due to the simplicity and the clarity of his prose, that depth is only recognizable to one who studies his words in context of the wider halachic discourse, the opinions and arguments set forth by the great authorities of earlier generations.” In several instances he made comparative readings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s Shulchan Aruch alongside Mishnah Berurah—the popular halachic work of the famed Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan—highlighting the many important details that can be missed if you do not scrutinize Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s words with due precision.

Rabbi Shalom DovBer Levine followed up with a bibliographical survey, demonstrating that Rabbi Schneur Zalman actually composed many varied and distinct works of halacha...

Rabbi Shalom DovBer Levine—head librarian at the Central Library of Agudat Chasidei Chabad in New York—followed up with a bibliographical survey, demonstrating that Rabbi Schneur Zalman actually composed many varied and distinct works of halacha, and that three different genres can be identified within the larger edifice of the Shulchan Aruch Ha-rav, Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s code of Jewish law. “The first and largest section of Shulchan Aruch Ha-rav,” explained Levine, “is a standalone work incorporating a comprehensive survey of all relevant laws, along with their reasons and sources.” This section deals with the common functions and obligations of Jewish life (Orach Chaim), and among scholars and laymen alike it is this section that is usually referred to when Shulchan Ha-rav is mentioned. For more on this chief section of Shulchan Aruch Ha-rav see here. Rabbi Levine pointed out that the other sections of this work actually include halachic texts of a different type altogether.

According to Rabbi Levine, the second section (Yoreh De’ah), which covers issues of ritual law, is really a satellite to the great legal codes authored by Rabbi Yosef Karo (Beit Yosef and Shulchan Aruch). “It is designed,” he said, “to offer innovative insight to proficient scholars as they delve deeply into the earlier codes and their attendant commentaries.”

The third genre of haalchic works by Rabbi Schneur Zalman includes no less than twenty three shorter works offering brief overviews of a diverse array of legal issues likely to be encountered on a regular basis. Most of them are devoted to elements of fiscal law, including inheritance law, damages and business law. Other are devoted to the laws of Torah study, synagogues, modesty, charity, and aspects of marriage and family law. Interestingly, there are eight works in this category whose existence can be documented, but no extant copy has yet been discovered.

This session was followed by a panel discussion on the Tanya, the best known of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s works. Rabbi Nosson Gurary—a veteran Chabad Emissary, and a noted scholar and author—began by pointing to the counterintuitive and often overlooked idea that for Rabbi Schneur Zalman, religious life is actually focused primarily on the individual’s baser side, rather than the divine soul. “In chapter thirty-seven he writes that the soul achieves nothing for itself; its sole purpose in inhabiting the body and the physical realm is to elevate the animal soul.” Rabbi Pinchos Korf—a senior faculty member at Yeshiva Oholei Torah in New York—argued that ultimately the divine soul plays a more important role. A lively debate ensued, with R. Gurary arguing that in Tanya Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s central goal is to provide a method for the animal soul itself to come to love G‑d. R. Korf disagreed, saying that this is only possible for truly righteous individuals. “A regular person,” he argued, “can never transform their baser side entirely. What you can do is outshine it and overcome it by bringing the divine soul to the fore, making it master of all your thoughts, words and actions. Tanya teaches you how.”

Rabbi Gedalia Oberlander
Rabbi Gedalia Oberlander

Rabbi Gedalia Oberlander concluded the day with a presentation on Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s liturgical contribution. While Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s prayerbook is used daily by tens of thousands, very few appreciate the beauty and precision that make his liturgical phraseology unique. Rabbi Oberlander explained that this prayer liturgy conforms with great exactitude to both halachic and grammatical considerations on the one hand, and the kabbalistic intentions taught by Rabbi Yitzchak Luria—the great Arizal—on the other. Providing many textual examples along with comparative readings with other versions of the liturgy, Rabbi Oberlander explained the various halachic and mystical considerations relevant to each case. In at least one instance Rabbi Schneur Zalman simply moves a period one word over in order to endow a passage with new life and meaning.

This session was perhaps the most enlightening one of the day, but the numerous technicalities involved prevent me from doing it justice in the present report. The publication of the first Chassidic prayer book is the most underestimated of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s achievements. There are many prayer books, and it is difficult to see what is special about this one. But Rabbi Oberlender demonstrated that it is actually here that we are best exposed to Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s unique ability to combine and balance halachic legalities with chasidic and mystical considerations. “We all know of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s esoteric and exoteric contributions,” said Rabbi Oberlander, “the Shulchan Aruch Ha-rav and the Tanya are two great pillars; the prayer book is the third pillar, which seamlessly fuses the esoteric and the exoteric into a single edifice.”