On the Essence of Chasidus, a discourse by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory, is a definitive, systematic exploration of the nature and idea of Chasidic philosophy. The discourse, originally delivered by the Rebbe on the 19th of Kislev 5726 (1965) and subsequently printed as Inyana Shel Toras HaChasidus in 5730 (1970), delves deeply into the essential nature of Chasidic thought, describing the unique role Chasidus plays within Torah and its fundamental connection with the soul.

The discourse was first published in English by Kehot Publication Society on 11 Nissan 5738 (1978) in honor of the Rebbe’s 76th birthday. The current edition contains revisions, clarifications and commentary, and presents both the Hebrew and English together for the first time.

An excerpt from a talk given by the Rebbe on the last day of Passover 5730 (1970), which touches upon matters that are relevant to the ideas discussed in the main text, appears as an appendix.

In addition to the translation of the discourse and the Rebbe’s footnotes, additional footnotes were added to further clarify the text. Also, some of the Rebbe’s footnotes have been elucidated and elaborated upon. The Hebrew text of the discourse has been retypeset with Hebrew vowel marks to further enhance this volume’s usability.

The original Hebrew footnotes appear at the end of the text.1 The original translation was prepared by Rabbi Y. H. Greenberg and S. S. Handelman and edited by Rabbis Zalman I. Posner and A. D. Sufrin. For preparing and editing the current edition, special thanks are due to Rabbis Ari Sollish, Avraham D. Vaisfiche and Yosef B. Friedman.

Kehot Publication Society
14 Iyar 5763
Pesach Sheini

Introduction and Summary

Chasidism, by now, is a familiar phenomenon and a source of curiosity and fascination to many. Though its founders faced many difficult struggles, it has now become universally known and admired. Authors of all varieties of belief and practice have written countless volumes about its origins, history, and philosophy. Anthologies of stories and maxims told by and about Chasidim have been compiled and made available in English for many years.

Yet many of these works have been produced by outside admirers not always steeped in the knowledge of Chasidic philosophy nor familiar with its more intricate and profound teachings. Hence many of these attempts made to define Chasidus, and to describe its precise relation to the rest of the Torah, have not been at all satisfactory. The need of the English reader for a definition of Chasidus from “within,” from Chasidic leaders and thinkers themselves, has long been recognized.

On the Essence of Chasidus is a definitive explanation of the nature and idea of Chasidic philosophy. Indeed, one of the prime aims of Chabad Chasidus is to systematically define and elucidate “general Chasidus” in rational, intellectual terms, as will be explained at great length in the text.

Chasidus has been popularly conceived, especially by outside historians and biographers, as a teaching which primarily emphasizes joy, enthusiasm, emotion, etc.—albeit within the framework of the traditional Jewish Codes of Law, i.e., Talmud, Shulchan Aruch, etc. One who probes more deeply into works of Chasidic philosophy might be surprised, therefore, to find great emphasis placed on the actual, practical performance of mitzvot, on simple deed or action in itself. Though not explicitly referring to the seeming dilemma of whether Chasidus is expressed more in “affect” or in action, the Rebbe answers the question by presenting the concept of Chasidus as one of “essence” and analyzes the various modes in which “essence” comes to be revealed.

Hence, the focal point of the present discourse is the essence of Chasidus. It is a deep and searching inquiry into the central core of Chasidic philosophy and practice, and is not only an introduction to the subject, but also an integral part of classic Chasidic literature.

The Rebbe precisely defines the unique relationship Chasidus has with the other parts of Torah and the traditional forms of interpretation; with Kabbalah; with the various dimensions of the soul; with the concept of Moshiach; and with the Divine attributes (sefirot). He explains the role and function of Chasidus in the world and the imperative reasons for its dissemination.

Furthermore, the Rebbe clarifies and illuminates the nature and essence of Chasidus by selecting one specific topic in Torah, analyzing it in light of the four traditional forms of interpretation, and then exploring the very same topic in the light of Chasidus. He thus proceeds to show how Chasidus vivifies and illuminates each of these four approaches to Torah. The topic, significantly, is the meaning of the first words a person utters when he awakens from his sleep in the morning—the prayer Modeh Ani, which is the fundamental starting point of a Jew’s spiritual service for the entire day. Finally, the Rebbe demonstrates the manner in which all the ideas of Chasidus are reflected in, vitalize, and illumine even the technical and legalistic parts of Torah, using the example of the law of “acquisition through four cubits.”

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This discourse was delivered by the Rebbe on the Chasidic holiday of Yud-Tes Kislev 5726 (1965). It was originally published at the end of the first volume of Sefer Ha’arachim (the Chabad Encyclopedia) in 1970 and reprinted in a separate cover in 1971. A supplementary Appendix, excerpted from a talk given by the Rebbe on the last day of Passover 5730 (1970), was added to the 1971 edition. In it, the Rebbe explains why different parts of the Torah come to be revealed at different times in Jewish history and, in particular, why Chasidus has been revealed only in these latter generations.2 Since the subject matter of this Passover talk is relevant to the ideas discussed in On the Essence of Chasidus, it has also been translated into English and added as an appendix in the present edition.

Yud-Tes Kislev, the date on which the discourse was originally given, celebrates the day upon which the founder of Chabad Chasidus, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, was released from a Russian prison. He had been arrested and falsely accused of subversive political activities and treason because of his leadership of the Chasidic movement. On the 19th day of Kislev 5559 (1798), he was completely exonerated and freed on express orders of the Czar. This date ever since has been celebrated by Jews the world over, and especially among Chabad Chasidim, for among other reasons, it marks the decisive turning point toward victory in the struggle to spread Chasidus. Hence, Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavitch called it the “Rosh Hashanah” of Chasidus.3

Thus, the Rebbe’s choice of On the Essence of Chasidus for his discourse on this special day is deeply connected to the meaning and inner significance of the holiday itself; for it was Rabbi Schneur Zalman who specifically brought the teachings of “general Chasidus” (as expounded by its founder, the Baal Shem Tov) into systematic, intellectual comprehension.

The Baal Shem Tov is well known for his emphasis on and practice of the great principle of Ahavat Yisrael (the commandment to love a fellow Jew as oneself), even to the extent of self-sacrifice, and for his affection for, encouragement, and teaching of the poor, unlettered, and oppressed masses of Jewry, who at that time were separated by a vast gulf from the scholarly elite by whom they were regarded as inferiors. The Baal Shem Tov emphasized the holiness of every Jew, stressing that everyone can serve G‑d no matter what his or her background or knowledge. He also re-emphasized the importance of joy in Divine service and performance of mitzvot. Furthermore, he taught the deepest doctrines of the “esoteric” part of Torah in a manner that could be understood even by the simplest Jew, expressing these profound ideas through parables, stories, and aphorisms.

It was Rabbi Schneur Zalman, as has been said, who formulated the general Chasidus of the Baal Shem Tov into a systematic, comprehensible, intellectual philosophy. Among his numerous and lengthy Chasidic works, Likkutei Amarim, or Tanya, is the best known and most widely read, and has been translated into English and many other languages. This classic is a concise outline of his philosophy, written in a manner which enables people of all levels of understanding and knowledge to grasp and more deeply understand Chasidus.

Each of the six leaders of Chabad succeeding Rabbi Schneur Zalman have continued to expand and disseminate Chasidus—not only through their discourses and theoretical writings, but through their life example, with their self-sacrificing work for the good of all Jews everywhere. They have intensely fought and resisted the efforts of oppressive governments to destroy Judaism, G‑d forbid, placing themselves in great personal peril. The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, was imprisoned in 1927 and brutally treated by the Soviet government for his refusal to stop teaching Torah in Russia. After his arrival in the United States in 1940, he proceeded to establish Torah centers, determined to reawaken the flame of Torah and Judaism in America. Upon his passing in 1950, he was succeeded by his son-in-law, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, who continued and intensified this monumental task of spreading the light of Torah and Judaism throughout America and the entire world, to every Jew wherever he or she may be, and who has inspired countless Jews everywhere in love for G‑d, Torah, and one’s fellow man.

Note on the Translation and Hebrew Text

In vowelizing the Hebrew words in this edition we have followed the grammatical rules of the Holy Tongue, which occasionally differ from the traditional or colloquial pronunciation.

In the original Hebrew text, 135 footnotes were added by the Rebbe—some citations of sources, and others quite lengthy and detailed explanations of ideas discussed in the text and their ramifications. These footnotes contain ideas of such profundity and importance that all have been completely translated. The reader is urged to make full use of them. In addition, the original Hebrew notes appear at the end of the text.

The translators have also added their own attempted clarifications, explanations of terms, concepts, names, etc. It should be understood that these commentaries and explanations are tentative and by no means an exhaustive or complete understanding of this text. They are meant to make the text clearer and more accessible to readers of all backgrounds. The text is a free translation, and the translators have attempted to make the language as clear and simple as possible. Nevertheless, the beginner may find some parts of the notes quite complex and perhaps difficult, but they are meant to be of aid to those who also already have some knowledge of Chasidus. Some of these notes develop independent topics and may be studied separately.

In addition, the translators have researched the Rebbe’s references and included summaries of the contents of those which they felt would be of invaluable aid to the reader, thus alleviating the reader of the task of looking up this information.

To facilitate distinguishing between the words of the Rebbe and those of the translators, minor variations in the text and notes have been made. All brackets are uniformly used to denote additions, remarks, and clarifications of the translators; parentheses are used for the words of the Rebbe. Footnotes added by the translators are enclosed in brackets. All chapter titles are the translators’.