The name of the addressee was not released.

B”H, 16 Shvat, 5709

Greetings and blessings,

[In response] to your note concerning the quotation in the beginning of the first chapter of Tanya, “Rabbah said: ‘I, for example, am a beinoni.’” I will write my humble opinion of how the statement of the Tanya is to be interpreted, as you requested:

a) The standard published text of the Talmud, the Ein Yaakov, the Yalkut Shimoni to Tehillim, ch. 36, the manuscript copies of the Talmud and the Ein Yaakov cited in Dikdukei Sofrim to Berachos (61a), the commentary of Rabbeinu Chananel (printed in the addenda to [the anthology of] Otzar HaGeonim to Berachos) all employ plural terms [in the Holy Tongue or in Aramaic]: “We are beinonim.” I have not yet found any other text that uses the wording employed by the Alter Rebbe: “I, for example, am a beinoni,” with the exception of the implication arising from Rashi’s commentary: “If you are one of the beinonim....” It appears to run contrary to the commentary of Rabbeinu Chananel: “If we are beinonim, the master deprives....”1

b) Rashi’s statement “If you are one of the beinonim, then there are no perfect tzaddikim in the world,” should not, in my opinion, be interpreted as you interpreted it in your letter; i.e., that there is not even one perfect tzaddik in the world. For how could Abbaye unequivocally come to the conclusion that none of Rabbah’s colleagues surpassed Rabbah?

This is particularly true since Rabbah’s colleagues included Rabbi Zeira who was called “the singed thighs” (see Bava Metzia 85a which elaborates [on Rabbi Zeira’s piety]; see also the end of the maamar of Purim, 5708, which identifies Rabbi Zeira with the Sefirah of Chochmah,and Rabbah with Binah), and [was blessed with an] extended lifetime (Megillah 28a). Also [among them was] Rav Yosef (see the end of Berachos which [equates his positive qualities] with those of Rabbi Zeira, [describing Rav Yosef as] Sinai,2 and [ascribing to him] superiority [on that basis]), who led a life of suffering (Pesachim 113b), was extremely humble (the end of Sotah), and became blind because of his fear of Heaven (see the entry concerning him in Seder HaDoros; [the gloss of] Rabbeinu Nissim on Kiddushin, ch. 1). Besides, there were many [eminent] Sages in Eretz Yisrael at that time, while Abbaye was in Babylonia. How could Abbaye have made such a definitive statement concern­ing their spiritual standing?

[Instead, it appears that] Abbaye’s intent (even according to Rashi’s commentary) is simply that if Rabbah and those on his level (as indicated by the pronoun “we,” which does not refer to the Jewish people as a whole) are beinonim, then how many perfect tzaddikim could there be?

c) From your letter, it appears that you interpret [the conclusion of Abbaye’s statement], “[If so,] master, you make it impossible for any creature to live,” [as follows]: Since the tzaddik is “the foundation of the world,”3 if there are no tzad­dikim in the world, it becomes impossible for any creature to live. I don’t know what compels you to [interpret it] in this [indirect] way. I understand it simply, as a parallel to the identical expression employed in Bava Metzia (92b): “Issi makes it impossible for any creatures to live!” There the intent is that [if his teaching had become law], most of the owners of the fields there would suffer. There is a similar intent here.

From my revered father, I heard the following interpreta­tion of “Master, you make it impossible...” based on our Sages’ statement (Rosh HaShanah 8b) that [the verdict of] the righteous is sealed for life immediately [on Rosh HaShanah]. If there are no righteous men in the world, no created beings are included in this category. This teaching is supported by the parenthetical interpretation found in Rashi’s commentary to [the above-mentioned passage from] Ein Yaakov, that [Rabbah’s statement] causes everyone to be deemed wicked. Thus all are included in the category of those whose [verdict] is immediately sealed for death (Rosh HaShanah, loc. cit.).

d) On the surface, the inference Rashi [draws from Abbaye’s statement], “[If so,] there are no perfect tzaddikim in the world,” is problematic. [It seems that] if Rabbah is a beinoni, there would be no tzaddikim in the world, not even an imperfect tzaddik. A resolution can, however, be offered, based on the above. According to Rashi’s approach, at least in this passage, the term tzaddik signifies an individual whose merits exceed [his transgressions]; it does not mean that he has no evil inclination at all.4 (See Rashi, [Berachot, loc. cit.,] s.v. Libi, who interprets challal as meaning that the individual “has the potential to subdue [his Evil Inclination].”) And a perfect tzaddik is one who has no sins at all. If so, the difference between a beinoni and an imperfect tzaddik is merely a hairsbreadth. It is therefore obvious to Rashi that it is not appropriate to say definitively, “[If so,] master, you make it impossible for any creature to live” [if Rabbah was only an imperfect tzaddik]. Hence, he under­stands Abbaye’s statement as referring to a perfectly righteous man who has never sinned. This surely stands to reason.

e) On the surface, it is problematic why the Alter Rebbe in Tanya quotes Abbaye’s reply: “[If so,] master,....” Seemingly, [the Alter Rebbe’s] question is based [only] on Rabbah’s statement, “I, for example, am a beinoni.”

It is possible to explain that [Abbaye’s statement] reinforces the question [in the following manner]: Even if one were to propose the tenuous argument that Rabbah erred in his self-evaluation because of his humility (in a manner similar to the explanation in Chiddushei Aggados [of Maharasha]) or because he did not want to reveal his [true] level, the question5 still exists with regard to Abbaye. Why did he challenge Rabbah based on [the consequences that would affect] the created beings? It would have been appropriate for him to raise a question based on Rabbah’s [Divine service]: How could [Rabbah] say that he was [merely] a beinoni when he never ceased studying [the Torah]?

f) In Tanya, the Alter Rebbe states: “[If so,] master, you make it impossible for any creature to live, etc.” What is meant by the addition [of the word] “etc.”? For Abbaye’s statement was already completed.6 And if there is an allusion [to some­thing else] implied, why doesn’t he explain it as he explained the other questions?

It is possible to resolve [the question] based on several ver­sions of the passage (Ein Yaakov, Rabbeinu Chananel, and see also Chiddushei Aggados) which, after Abbaye’s words, continue as follows: “Rabbah replied, ‘With regard to his own self, a person knows whether he is a tzaddik.’” This is a response to Abbaye’s question. Its intent is that a person cannot clearly know the status of another person, but he can only know his own.

According to the original supposition in Tanya, that a tzad­dik is one whose merits exceed his transgressions, there is a difficulty. For Rabbah himself — and Abbaye who attended to him and was raised in his household — knew that he never ceased studying [the Torah]. If so, how is it possible for Rabbah to answer, “With regard to one’s own self, a person knows...”? How could he be aware of the direct opposite of what both he and Abbaye clearly observed?7 [For this reason, the Alter Rebbe alludes to Rabbah’s reply by adding the expression “etc.” Nevertheless,] the Alter Rebbe does not quote [Rabbah’s] reply explicitly, because it could be argued that (i) this version of the passage is not definitively [accepted], and (ii) because ulti­mately, this is [the point of] the question raised afterwards: “How is it possible for Rabbah to have erred with regard to himself?” The latter argument is the stronger one.