Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, or the Alter Rebbe as he is affectionately know by his chassidim (followers of the chassidic movement), succeeded Rabbi Dovber, the Maggid of Mezritch, as the leader of the movement founded by the Baal Shem Tov. As a child prodigy, the Alter Rebbe astounded all with his phenomenal memory and deep grasp of all aspects of Torah study. As a young man he was attracted to Mezritch where he became one of the foremost students of the Maggid and absorbed the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. The Maggid instructed him to write a Code of Jewish Law which would incorporate the code of law of Karo, and yet also give the reasons for the law in brief. The work was universally accepted as a masterpiece, and the Alter Rebbe’s genius in Torah scholarship was undisputed.

After the demise of the Maggid, the vast majority of Russian chassidim chose the Alter Rebbe as their leader. Thousands flocked to him for guidance and blessings and the Alter Rebbe started to write essays which answered their spiritual questions and dilemmas. These essays became the basis of the book Tanya.

Tanya is regarded as the “Written Law”—Torah Shebichtav—of Hassidism. The first section of the work, Likutei Amarim (Collection of Sayings), deals with the human condition and the struggle to improve one’s character and thereby fulfilling the purpose of creation. The second section, Shaar HaYichud Ve’haemuna (Gate of Unity and Faith), deals with creation ex nihilo, and the third section, Igeret HaTeshuvah (Letters on Repentance), with the dynamic of Teshuvah (repentance). The fourth section, Igeret HaKodesh (Holy Letters), is a collection of letters sent by the Alter Rebbe to his followers, many soliciting funds for the chassidic community in Israel, which was impoverished at that time. The fifth section, Kuntres Acharon (End Pamphlet), is an in-depth explanation of many intricate Kabbalistic texts.

The Alter Rebbe revolutionized Hassidism by blazing a new path called ChaBaD. ChaBaD is an acronym for Chochmah— wisdom, Binah—understanding, and Daat—knowledge. It is a rational approach that intellectualizes mystical concepts using parallels and parables drawn from the human psyche and experience. The esoteric teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and Maggid were delivered in fiery cryptic capsules, whereas the Torah of the Alter Rebbe was cool, calculated, and easily digested by the average mind.

The Alter Rebbe emphasized Avodat Hatefillah, the “Service of Prayer,” as a meditative process and encouraged his followers to learn and then meditate before prayer. Unlike the previous Kabbalists whose meditations were upon Divine names or Yichudim, the Alter Rebbe encouraged meditation upon concepts such as Sovev Kol Almin , Memale Kol Almin (concepts we shall explain in a later chapter), purpose of creation, soul descent, and others. What he managed to achieve was to create a movement that was totally committed to Jewish Law, had intellectualized the most profound esoteric concepts, served G‑d with joy, and focused on the love of a fellow Jew.

His teachings took on new force after his famous arrest and release from Soviet jail in S. Petersburg on the 19th of Kislev. Superficially, he had been arrested on charges of treason for sending money to Israel in support of the chassidic community.

Israel was then under Turkish rule. The Turks were enemies of the Russians, and the money being sent was seen as supporting the enemy. However, the Alter Rebbe records that the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid appeared in his cell and informed him that his arrest was in fact due to a accusation in Heaven that he had revealed too much of the Torah. He inquired whether he should cease disseminating his teachings.

They replied that not only should he should not cease, but he should increase.

Upon his release, there was a definite change in his style of teaching. His “discourses,” or maamarim, were much more in-depth with additional explanations. Finally, the deepest Kabbalistic ideas were being presented in such a way that the ordinary mind and soul could appreciate. In Kabbalistic terms, it was a revelation of the infinite Light distilled into human intellect.

He wrote extensively, including his famous works known as Torah Or (Light of Torah) and Likutei Torah (Torah Anthology), which are discourses on the weekly Torah “portion” explaining the weekly Sidra in its inner dimension. He also initiated a chain of seven leaders of the ChaBaD movement, each of which developed and expanded the Alter Rebbe’s teachings. His son, Rabbi Dovber, took every one of his father’s discourses and extended them with much more explanation. Rabbi Dovber also took up residence in a small town called Lubavitch, a name which means “city of love” in Russian. Soon, this town became synonymous with ChaBaD teachings and the love of one’s fellow Jew.

The third Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, also known as the Tzemach Tzedek, took the teachings of Hassidism and showed how they are totally incorporated and are at one with the revealed parts of the Torah.

The fourth Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, started a system called Hemsheichim. Under this system, he would develop a discourse on one particular occasion explaining a certain theme, and he would continue to develop that theme in further public addresses.

His son, Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneerson, the fifth Rebbe of ChaBaD, developed this system even further and produced the most sophisticated, systematic, and profound chassidic tracts that explain all the most esoteric concepts in Kabbalah.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe and son of Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneerson, followed in the footsteps of his father and started to translate Hassidism into other languages. Living in Communist Russia under great oppression, he also managed to spiritually fuel his followers to be able to withstand the great obstacles that blocked the path of observance and spiritual survival.

However, it was his son-in-law; the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who took all the previous generations’ teachings and applied them perfectly to the modern condition. The Rebbe’s talks (sichot) and discourses (maamorim), of which over 200 volumes are published, are treasure houses of chassidic and Kabbalistic thought made totally relevant to modern life. The Rebbe would farbreng (conduct chassidic “gatherings”) at his headquarters in 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn and would talk for hours about a host of subjects spanning the entire spectrum of Jewish life, philosophy, and thought. He also inspired his followers to reach out to fellow Jews through Mitzvah campaigns, which today are world famous. Much of the material in this book has been culled from the Rebbe’s vast teachings. Most of all, he encouraged every Jew to prepare for the coming of Mashiach, in whose days we shall all hear profound new teachings of Torah. Hassidism is a mere taste of teachings yet to come.