Tanya/Iggeres Ha’Kodesh - The Holy Epistle, Epistle 1, Class 1
In their Approbation to the Tanya,1 the author’s sons write that the discourses and open letters together, entitled Iggeret Hakodesh2 (“The Holy Epistle”), as well as the further discourses, entitled Kuntres Acharon (“Later Pamphlet”), were all “recorded personally by [the Alter Rebbe’s] own holy hand in his own saintly expression…. These discourses are [collectively] entitled Iggeret Hakodesh, being mostly epistles sent by his holy eminence to teach the people of G‑d the way by which they should walk and the deed which they should do.”
Accordingly, the author’s learned sons saw fit to publish them together with the preceding sections of the Tanya.
The first epistle opens with a reference to the Chasidic custom (a custom that thrives to this day) of apportioning the tractates of the Talmud for study among the members of each congregation or community so that the entire work is completed in the course of a year. The conclusion of the year’s study and the reallocation of tractates are traditionally celebrated on Yud-Tes Kislev, the anniversary of the Alter Rebbe’s liberation from imprisonment and capital sentence in Leningrad in 1798.
The Rebbe has noted on a number of occasions that the collective completion of the Talmud by a number of individuals is considered as if each one of the group had completed the entire Talmud himself. He explains that this is similar to the law with regard to performing a prohibited labor on Shabbat: If doing the labor requires the efforts of two individuals, each of them is considered to have performed the entire labor.3 So, too, since the various individuals partake in the collective study of the Talmud, for they cannot complete it single-handedly in the course of a year, it is considered as if each one of them had studied the entire Talmud.
To return to the central theme of this opening epistle: The Alter Rebbe explains here that the study of the laws set out in the Oral Torah elevates the soul of the Jew and assists him in his spiritual service of meditating upon G‑d’s greatness and arousing within himself a love and awe of Him.
On the circumstances of its composition, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of blessed memory, has conveyed to us the following: “During a Simchat Beit Hashoevah gathering in the year 5648 (תרמ"ח ;1887), my revered father related that the epistle opening with ‘We begin with a benediction’ was written by the Alter Rebbe in three stages in three different years.
“The first stage: When the Alter Rebbe decided to make the journey to study at the feet of the Maggid of Mezritch, he presented his disciples with a ‘note of arousal.’ It opened with ‘We begin with a benediction’ and concluded, ‘And these [faculties] are the arms and the body of the soul.’
“The second stage was when the Alter Rebbe returned from Mezritch, having had revealed to him by the Maggid at the behest of his mentor, the Baal Shem Tov, and with the blessing of his mentor, Achiyah Hashiloni, his spiritual identity, the purpose of his holy soul’s descent into this world, and the great responsibility and danger that his mission entailed. At that time, the Alter Rebbe wrote the second part of this epistle, beginning with ‘But what gives the power’ and concluding, ‘To the extent of pressing out the soul….’
“Speaking to his son, the Mitteler Rebbe, and to his grandson, the Tzemach Tzedek, the Alter Rebbe once described his inner feelings during the first few years after his mentor, the Maggid of Mezritch, had revealed to him the message of the Baal Shem Tov [regarding his soul’s mission].
“These were the Alter Rebbe’s words: ‘The simple faith that we, the disciples of the Maggid, had in him, and our self-sacrificing devotion to him, provided us with the potent strength to obey all his directives with extreme precision, with inner and essential self-sacrifice. In the course of several years, when my young, married students settled in various towns and villages, I added three paragraphs to this epistle from “And now” until “there is no goodness but Torah.” This I did in view of the burden placed upon me by my master, the Maggid, and in order to be able to realize, with G‑d’s help, the inner intent of my soul’s descent into this world.’”4
We begin with a benediction, to bless and to give thanks to G‑d, for He is good.5
פּוֹתְחִין בִּבְרָכָה, לְבָרֵךְ וּלְהוֹדוֹת לַה' כִּי טוֹב.
My soul has heard and been revived by good tidings—
שְׁמוּעָה טוֹבָה שָׁמְעָה וַתְּחִי נַפְשִׁי,
and “good” signifies Torah, as our Sages state in Tractate Avot.6
"אֵין טוֹב אֶלָּא תוֹרָה",
More specifically, it signifies “G‑d’s Torah [which] is a perfect whole,”7 for it is the Torah in this state that the same verse describes as “reviving the soul.”
"תּוֹרַת ה' תְּמִימָה" –
[The above remarks] refer to the completion of the whole8 Talmud,9 in its entirety,10 in most towns and congregations of Anash, the men of our [Chasidic] brotherhood.
זוֹ הַשְׁלָמַת כָּל הַשַּׁ"ס כּוּלּוֹ בְּרוֹב עֲיָירוֹת וּמִנְיָנִים מֵאַנְשֵׁי שְׁלוֹמֵנוּ,
[So much for] gratitude in respect of past accomplishments; and [now,] a request for the future:
הוֹדָאָה עַל הֶעָבָר וּבַקָּשָׁה עַל הֶעָתִיד,
May G‑d thus continue from year to year to grant added strength to your hearts among the mighty,11 with the might of the Torah,
כֹּה יִתֵּן וְכֹה יוֹסִיף ה' לְאַמֵּץ לִבָּם בַּגִּבּוֹרִים מִדֵּי שָׁנָה בְּשָׁנָה, בִּגְבוּרָה שֶׁל תּוֹרָה.
I.e., may G‑d increase that which He has previously granted—His increase being even greater than the original blessing12—so that the hearts of those who study Torah be strengthened to such a degree that they will be considered mighty even among the mighty, with their strength deriving from the Torah.
and make known to mankind the might of the Oral Torah13 and its power, which is great.
וּלְהוֹדִיעַ לִבְנֵי אָדָם גְּבוּרָתָהּ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה שֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה וְכֹחָהּ עוֹז;
The might (gevurah) of the Torah relates specifically to the Oral Law. For with regard to the source of the Torah in the supernal sefirot, the Written Torah derives from the sefirah of chochmah, which is aligned with the “right side” of the universe—the attribute of chesed, kindness and benevolence; the Oral Torah derives from the sefirah of binah,14 which is aligned with the “left side” of the universe, the attribute of gevurah, stern judgment and severity.15 (This relationship between binah and gevurah is alluded to in the verse, “I am binah; gevurah is mine.”16)
On the strength that the Oral Law gives the soul of a Jew, King Solomon (peace be to him) explained:“She girds her loins with strength….”17
פֵּירֵשׁ שְׁלֹמֹה הַמֶּלֶךְ עָלָיו־הַשָּׁלוֹם "חָגְרָה בְעוֹז מָתְנֶיהָ כוּ'" –
The “woman of valor” lauded by King Solomon at the opening of the relevant chapter is an allegorical allusion to Knesset Yisrael, the Congregation of Israel, which comprises all Jewish souls. In the verse quoted, she “girds her loins with strength.” “Strength” refers to the Torah,18 as in the teaching, “There is no strength but Torah.”19 Thus, the Torah strengthens the loins of the soul, just as a warrior girds his loins to gather maximal strength; but what is meant by “girding the loins of the soul”?
1. See Vol. I of the present series, p. 12.
2. The Rebbe remarks that one would have expected this anthology to be entitled Igrot Kodesh (“Holy Epistles”), in the plural. The Rebbe goes on to suggest that a possible (and not entirely satisfactory) explanation might be an intended parallel to the preceding component of the Tanya, which is entitled Iggeret Hateshuvah (“Epistle on Repentance”), in the singular.
3.Shabbat 93a; see Likkutei Sichot, vol. 18, p. 267.
4. In a talk on 2 Nissan 5708 (Sefer Hamaamarim5708, p. 170; Sefer Hasichot 5708, p. 191).
8. Note by the Rebbe: “This indicates that the tractates apportioned should include those that [consist only of Mishnah and] are lacking Gemara.”
9. Note by the Rebbe: “The intent [of the seemingly superfluous word כולו, here translated ‘in its entirety’] is to negate the possibility of covering the Talmud nearly enough to have it considered completely covered, in the spirit of the principle of רובו ככולו (cf. Taz and Acharonim, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 582:7). I.e., the apportioning of the Shas is to include those tractates in the Orders of Zeraim and Taharot (as mentioned above [that consist only of Mishnah and are lacking Gemara]) as well as [the tractates of] Tamid and Middot (which do no more than describe [the Beit Hamikdash and related subjects]; cf. the Commentary [of the Rambam] on the Mishnah, cited in Tosafot Yom Tov, ad loc.).”
10. Note by the Rebbe: “It is then ‘whole’ in this [literal] sense as well.”
11. Note by the Rebbe: “Perhaps this phrase is intended to point out that this public study intensifies the learning of each individual participant, insofar as he is part of a multitude and intensifies its effect upon him by fortifying his heart.”
12.Bereishit Rabbah 61:4.
13. Note by the Rebbe: “This being the subject at hand, the [study of the] Talmud.”
14. Note by the Rebbe: “In accordance with the conclusion of Epistle 29 of Iggeret Hakodesh.”
15. Note by the Rebbe “The following interpretation appears to be preferable: The Written Torah and the Oral Torah correspond respectively to the six middot and to the attribute of malchut. The former sefirot are predominantly chasadim; the latter sefirah is dominated by gevurot.”
17. Ibid. 31:17.
18. Note by the Rebbe: “See Torah Or (and Or Hatorah) at the conclusion of Parashat Yitro.”