Maggid Books in association with Steinsaltz Center has published part of the text of one of the two famous books by the founder of Chabad Hasidim, also called Lubavitcher Hasidim, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812). Rabbi Zalman’s other famous book is “Shulchan Arukh Harav,” a book that only partially survived, which deals with Jewish law. This book, a translation and commentary of part of the Tanya, originally published in Hebrew in 1797, is by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz (1937-2020) a Chabad Hasid, the author of over 60 books and more than 100 articles. Not all of Steinsaltz’s writings focus on Chabad mysticism, but this book is about Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s view of mysticism.
This is the first volume of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s commentary on the Tanya published in English. It contains two sections of the Tanya: “The Gate of Unity and Faith” and “Letter on Repentance.” It comprises 542 pages. The series containing the entire Tanya will ultimately consist of six volumes. It contains the Hebrew text and its English translation. The Hebrew text is supplemented with vowels making it easy to read. The back of the Steinsaltz book also has a copy of the un-vocalized original Shneur Zalman text which lacks commas and periods as in the original published volume.
The message of the first of the two sections in this volume is “the constant presence of the Divine in the world. The knowledge that everything we see, the physical, the spiritual, and our very selves, is nothing other than a manifestation of the Divine.” This means that this world was not created and left to run according to the laws of nature that God created. It is a remarkable notion that God is unceasingly busy renewing the world at every moment; what exists at 6:30 AM did not exist at 6:29 AM. So too, the person at 6:30 AM is not the same person who existed a moment earlier because God created the world anew. “The world a moment ago was a totally different world. The present universe is brand new, constructed by God Himself every instant.”
The introduction to the two parts in this volume recognize that Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s text is “esoteric and dense.” The book is filled with mystical concepts that, like the one in the prior paragraph, are alien to rational thinkers. Examples are: God is divided into ten parts each acting separately, the ten parts have become separated and humans need to help God be reassembled, the messianic age will not begin until humans help God to be reassembled, human acts – both good and bad – affect God, people live because the cord of their life extends to its divine source and is woven by 613 strands corresponding to 613 mitzvot – transgressing even one mitzva damages the cord, people are “literally a part of God,” some human misbehaviors are not forgiven until Yom Kippur no matter what the sinner does, sins pollute the human soul, an uneradicated sin will be punished in the fires of Gehenna (Hell), and more. Therefore, besides a comprehensive running commentary of every few lines, Rabbi Steinsaltz adds a detailed preface to each of the two documents, a detailed afterword to each, a summary of each chapter, and occasional gray boxes that offer a deeper look at concepts.
The first of the two selections in this volume teaches readers to apply the principles of Chabad Hasidim to their life for self-improvement. The second selection dealing with repentance teaches that humans are led astray by kelippas, forces of impurity, which like demons pull individuals from the state of holiness. The goal of repentance is not simply to cease misbehavior but to ascend to the state of holiness.
When Napoleon invaded Russia where Shneur Zalman lived in 1812, Rabbi Zalman was one of the fiercest opponents of the French conquest. He feared that French rule would emancipate the Jews and lead to assimilation. He supported Russia as strongly as he could. As the French advanced, he had to flee. He fell ill and died.