By the Grace of G‑d
25 Menachem Av, 5738 [August 28, 1978]
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Greeting and Blessing:

This is in reply to your letter of Av 5th, in which you ask about the apparent contradiction in regard to the matter of "alien thoughts" between Tanya ch. 28, where it is stated, "...This refutes the error commonly held by people, who mistakenly deduce from the occurrence of the foreign thought that this proves their prayer to be worthless.…" and the source in the Testament of the Ribash, to the effect that "the man who is praying... if he is unworthy, he is driven forth: an alien thought is thrown him, whereupon he leaves of his own accord."

The explanation of this apparent contradiction is two-fold:

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Sometimes a "foreign thought" may be provoked by the individual himself, who, while praying, diverts his attention to it. This is the kind of alien thought to which the second of the above sources refers. On the other hand, the foreign thought that occurs to a person during prayer may be the work of the Nefesh Habahamis [evil inclination] to distract and disturb his concentration on the prayer, and this is the kind of foreign thought that the Tanya speaks of, and counsels to ignore it, as if a Goy [gentile] was standing there to distract him.

There may also be a sort of an "intermediary" situation, where the individual has not yet mastered complete control of his thoughts. In such a case, when an alien thought occurs to him, he lacks the strength to dismiss it immediately. Thus, while the alien thought was planted in his mind by the Nefesh Habahamis, he becomes an accessory and is at least partly to be blamed if he allows the alien thought to linger in his mind.

Seeing that you take such on interest in your studies, with attention to detail, etc., I trust that this is expressed also in the practical aspects of the learning, in both quantity and quality, namely, the kind of learning that leads to action, the fulfillment of the Mitzvos with Hiddur [beauty], and the general conduct in actual practice. May G -d grant that you should go from strength to strength in all of this.

With blessing,

M. Schneerson