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‘Tanya’ provides insight into Chassidic thought

September 22, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Tanya, the Masterpiece of Hasidic Wisdom: Sections Annotated and Explained by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Skylight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, NY (Forward by Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi); ISBN 978-1-59473-275-1, ©2010, $16.99, p. 165, plus appendices,  Available in Kindle edition

By Fred Reiss, Ed.D.

Fred Reiss

WINCHESTER, California — Jews were the middlemen between the gentry and the underclass in seventeenth century Poland. On behalf of the noblemen, Jews, for example, administered estates, collected fees at the grist mills and fishing ponds, and ran the inns that sold liquor. It was only natural that any populist revolt would be directed against the Jews as well as the nobility. Cossack Bogdan Chmielnicki led such a revolt. He defeated the Polish army in 1648. As a result, serfs rose up against the nobility and their Jewish stewards.

With the defeat of the army, Chmielnicki and his rebels continued their ravenous attack on the Jews, massacring thousands in cities like Nemirov, Tulchin, Polonnoe, Zaslov and Ostrog and Pildava. The aggression did not end until the defeat of Chmielnicki in 1651, and the transfer of his allegiance to Russia. Three years later, the Russians invaded eastern Poland, White Russia, and Lithuania, which resulted in a substantial number of deaths as well as expulsion for the Jews. According to historians Margolis and Marx, the lowest estimate of Jewish deaths from these attacks between 1648 and 1658 is one hundred thousand.

The Chmielnicki revolt and its aftermath devastated the Jewish population of southeastern Poland and northwestern Ukraine. The uprisings destroyed Jewish institutions, decimated its intelligencia, and left Jews with only menial jobs and in a constant state of impoverishment.

The title Baal Shem was given to anyone who performed miraculous cures in the name of God. The one most remembered is the Baal Shem Tov, a charismatic figure, who founded Hasidism in Poland during the first half of the eighteenth century. He brought together a group of disciples and taught them by word of mouth. He taught that one did not need a spiritual leader to find God because God is everywhere and in everything. Even a worm serves God. Erudition is not the key to heaven, passion is. Who needs a prayerbook? All one needs to do is to close one’s eyes and spill his heart to God. Capacities to approach God vary from person to person, he said, but everything that one does affects the spiritual world. He also taught that sadness inhibits devotion. Therefore, worship must be cheerful and burning with fervor. Hasidism, steeped in Jewish mysticism, spoke to the people. By the end of the century, Hasidism spread throughout Eastern Europe.

Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezhirech, was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, and Shneur Zalman of Lyady, was a disciple of Dov Baer. Shneur Zalman is the author of Likkutei Amarim, better known after its first word, Tanya. Zalman united Kabbalah, Jewish Mysticism, as taught by the 16th century mystic the Holy Ari (Isaac Lauria) with the Talmud. He shifted the focus for his followers from a spirited encounter with God to a more intellectual one, calling this unification Chabad, an acronym for three highest heavenly emanations in Kabbalah, Chochma (wisdom), Binah (Understanding), and Da’at (knowledge).

For the Chabad Hasidim, also known as Chabad-Lubavitch, the Tanya is second only to the Torah. More than 200,000 Chabad Jews study the Tanya every day. Yet, few outside this movement have heard of this work, and those who have, find it difficult to comprehend its teachings. With the publication of Rami Shapiro’s book, Tanya, the Masterpiece of Hasidic Wisdom, that has changed.

Shapiro provides an introduction that explains the history of Chabad Hasidim and a section that points out some of the philosophical ideas underlying the Tanya—the non-duality of God; the difference between our conception of God (in Hebrew YHVH) and the more mysterious conception in Kabbalah of the One above the One, the Ayn Sof; the five kabalistic worlds; and the Jewish mystical concepts of the kelipot (the shells) and the sitra achra (the other side, meaning the side of evil). Through selections and annotations, Shapiro sheds light on the first section of Tanya, known as Sefer Beinoni, the Book for the In-Betweener. According to Tanya, an “in-betweener” is an individual who is neither all saint, nor all sinner. Someone like most of us.

Tanya, the Masterpiece of Hasidic Wisdom is an excellent starting point for anyone wishing to delve into the beliefs of one of the largest segments of Orthodox Jewry. Through active study, this work is also a good starting point for those who want to fully understand the meaning and guided practices of this monumental work.


Dr. Fred Reiss is a retired public and Hebrew school teacher and administrator. He is the author of The Standard Guide to the Jewish and Civil CalendarsAncient Secrets of Creation: Sepher Yetzira, the Book that Started Kabbalah, Revealed; and Reclaiming the Messiah. The author can be reached through his website, www.fredreissbooks.com.

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