Shneur Zalman of Liady

Founder of the Chabad school of Hasidism.

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Shneur Zalman of Liady (1745-1813) was a Hasidic master and the founder of the Chabad school in Hasidism. Shneur Zalman (the name Shneur probably comes from “Señor,” suggesting that the family came originally from Spain) was born in the Belorussian town of Liozno, near Vitebsk. He married at an early age and, with the approval of his young wife but against the wishes of both his father and father-in-law who were suspicious of the new trends, he resolved to journey to Dov Baer of Mezhirech, disciple of the Baal Shem Tov and organizer of the Hasidic movement, in order to learn, as he said, how to pray. In this he was typical of those learned young men who required a more inward and mystical approach.

Victory of Hasidism

Dov Baer arranged for his son, “Abraham the Angel,” as he was called because of his ascetic life, to introduce Shneur Zalman into the mysteries of the Kabbalah while Shneur Zalman would teach the Talmud to Abraham. From all accounts and from his own testimony, Shneur Zalman’s Hasidic philosophy owes much to the ideas of Dov Baer as mediated through the “Angel.” Dov Baer encouraged Shneur Zalman to compile a new Shulhan Arukh, a code of Jewish law that would take into account the latest opinions. This work, published in 1814, is known as Shulhan Arukh Ha-Rav, “The Rabbi’s Shulhan Arukh” and, written with great clarity in a fine Hebrew style, is now a major source for practical decisions even among Rabbis remote from Hasidism.

When Dov Baer died in 1772, Shneur Zalman became a Hasidic master in his own right. He and an older colleague, Menahem Mendel of Vitbesk, awakened the suspicions of the Mitnagdim led by Elijah, Gaon of Vilna. The two Hasidic leaders sought an audience with the Gaon of Vilna to persuade him that Hasidic views were in no way heretical, but the Gaon refused to see them. Shneur Zalman’s teaching and activity were brought, by the Mitnagdim, to the attention of the Russian government, alert to any movement smacking of rebellion, and in 1778 he was arrested, on a trumped-up charge, and imprisoned in the fortress in St. Petersburg. All charges were eventually dropped and Shneur Zalman was released on 19 Kislev. Chabad Hasidism, and other Hasidic groups, saw Shneur Zalman’s release as the divinely sanctioned victory of Hasidism over its opponents. To this day Chabad Hasidim celebrate 19 Kislev as a minor festival.

After his release Shneur Zalman settled in Liady. Shneur Zalman, unlike some other Hasidic masters, wished to see the Czarist forces prevail of Napoleon’s army. In a letter to one of his followers, Shneur Zalman expressed his fears that if Napoleon were to be victorious the spiritual conditions of Russian Jewry would deteriorate, even though they would enjoy considerable material benefits. When Napoleon’s army advanced on Moscow,Shneur Zalman fled to the Ukraine but died on the way. Shneur Zalman was succeeded by his son, Dov Baer of Lubavitch. Chabad Hasidim refer to Shneur Zalman as the Alter Rebbe (“the Old Rebbe”). An often reproduced portrait of Shneur Zalman (painted, it is said, during his imprisonment) shows him to have been, if such can be assessed from a painting, a profound thinker and holy man, a picture amply supported by his writings.

The Tanya

Shneur Zalman’s Tanya (so-called after its opening word in Aramaic, Tanya, “it was taught”) is a systematic treatment of Kabbalistic and Hasidic themes in the Chabad interpretation. The work, in its complete form, was published in Shklov in 1814 since when it has gone into numerous editions. Lubavitch Hasidim often place their copy of the Tanya in the bag in which they keep their tallit and treat the work with a veneration that appears to the non-Hasid to be bordering on bizarre.

The first section of the Tanya deals with the psychology of the religious life. Here the Talmudic division of persons into the righteous, the wicked, and those in between is given a novel interpretation. The righteous man (tzaddik) has “killed” his evil inclination, yetzer ha-ra. He belongs in the ranks of the saints who are no longer tempted by earthly desires. The “in-between” (benoni) is not simply an average person, neither over-righteous nor very wicked, but is the man who does not wittingly commit any sin yet is engaged throughout his life in the struggle between his good and evil inclination. The reason why such struggle is unavoidable for every Jew other than the tzaddik is because a Jew has two souls: the “animal soul,” the basic life-force which sustains the body, and the “divine soul,” conceived of as a mystical divine spark in the Jewish soul, a portion of the En Sof hidden deep in recesses of the psyche. The animal soul drags a man down, the divine soul pulls him upwards towards God. Only Jews, the descendants of the righteous patriarchs, have a divine soul. This and other features of Shneur Zalman’s particularism have been attacked by modern writers but his followers have defended his views, presenting them in a less stark and offensive manner.

The second section of the Tanya deals with mystical theology. Here Shneur Zalman puts forward his acosmic philosophy, according to which the whole universe is “in” God and creatures only appear to enjoy independent existence, just as, Shneur Zalman says, the rays of the sun can be seen and experienced as real on earth but in the sun itself the rays vanish into nothingness. According to Shneur Zalman, improvement of the character cannot be achieved by any direct onslaught on the emotions but only by reflection on the tremendous idea that all is in God. It is when the Jew reflects on the Kabbalistic teaching that the whole universe and man within it are part of a great chain of being reaching back to and included in the En Sof, that his emotions are bestirred and the character refined. As Shneur Zalman puts it, it is the intellect that influences the emotions, not the other way round.

Because of the emphasis it places on intellectual perception, Chabad is often referred to as the intellectual branch of Hasidism. In fact, Chabad is, in a certain sense, a separate movement, differing in important respects from the highly emotionally charged thoughts and practices of other Hasidic groupings. Yet all Hasidism, to whichever Rebbe they owe their allegiance, accept Shneur Zalman as one of Hasidism’s pioneering spirits.

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