Sefer Tanya

All Tanya all the time, without Chabad: the sefer itself from an outsider's perspective. I'll be calling this work “Nearly Everybody”: The Inner Life and Struggles of the Jewish Soul

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I only update the Ramchal blog and have abandoned the others, I'm afraid. I do some things now on and . Contact me at feldman AT torah DOT org if you care to.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Ch. 1

“Nearly Everybody”: The Inner Life and Struggles of the Jewish Soul

(Based on “Tanya: Collected Discourses of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi”)

by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman


Ch. 1


The great and holy Rabbah indicated at one point in the Talmud that it’s important for each one of us to know if he or she is truly righteous or not (Berachot 61B). After all, when our lives will be accounted for in the end, we’ll have to admit to our sins and errors, and take credit for the good and bad we’d done. So if we ourselves can’t determine who and what we are on a spiritual and existential level, then we’ll be hard pressed to argue our own case.

Besides, any sensitive soul would want to know where he or she stands in G-d’s eyes if you will, and what he’s made of.

Yet it seems that Rabbah himself didn’t quite know how righteous he was. For while there are various spiritual levels a person can fall under (with an infinite number of nuanced variances), and one would surely expect a towering figure like Rabbah to be on the highest one, he apparently only considered himself to be where we’d expect ourselves to be -- somewhere in the middle.

Now, that’s a striking and off-putting statement. After all, if someone like him is somewhere in the middle, then we ourselves -- who aren’t great, though we aren’t all that bad -- must be somewhere near the bottom by comparison! So what hope can there be for any of us in the end?

We’ll have to explain a lot of things before we can return to Rabbah’s impression of himself, though (which happened to have been correct, by the way, though not in ways we might have thought). But we won’t even begin to clear that up until Ch. 13.


Now, there’s another point to consider (which we also won’t clear up for a long time). We’re taught that we’ll all eventually be assessed by G-d, and that His assessment will be based on how we’d responded to His charge to us to be the best Jews we could.

And we learn that there are five over-arching ethical, spiritual categories of Jews we might fall under: truly or mostly righteous, truly or mostly wrongful (see Berachot 7A), and the category most of us seem to fall under -- somewhere in between (Berachot 61B).

(The Hebrew term for “somewhere in between” by the way is benoni. It’s usually identified as a religious intermediate -- a sort of spiritual middleweight, if you will. We’ll touch upon the term and the concept itself again later on and throughout the work because it will prove to be supremely important for our purposes, and it’s also the one Rabbah considered himself as falling under).

Now, that seems to indicate that we’re to be assessed by our spiritual accomplishments. But Rabbah was a very “accomplished”, devout Jew. He was always and profoundly immersed in Torah-study, for example (Babba Metziah 86A), and was a paragon of virtue. So how could he ever be termed anything other than fully righteous?

Not only is that so, but we’re also taught that it’s virtually impossible to be “somewhere in the middle” at any one time. Since the axis of one’s spiritual stature shifts instant by instant.

For, every time we sin, on however subtle a level, we’re designated a “wrongdoer” right there and then (see Yevamot 20A, Niddah 12A, Shavuot 29B); and each moment we fulfill a mitzvah -- again, on however subtle a level -- or we repent for a sin, we’re designated “righteous” (see Kiddushin 48B). So how could any one of us ever be deemed somewhere in the middle, half accomplished and half not?

It’s also commonly thought that people who are mostly free of sin are righteous, that those who are mostly sinful are wrongful, and that everyone else is a benoni by virtue of the fact that he or she is half-righteous and half-wrongful (see Hilchot Teshuva 3:1) [1]. But, again, we just determined that we’re each either righteous or wrongful at any one time depending on our actions (as well as our utterances and thoughts, as we’ll see). So, how could anyone depict righteousness and wrongfulness so inaccurately?

Well, the answer to this last point is straightforward enough. People who are mostly free of sin are termed righteous, and people who are mostly sinful are termed wrongful only figuratively speaking. For the Hebrew term for righteous (tzaddik) also means innocent, as in “innocent of all charges”; and the Hebrew term for wrongful (rasha) also means “guilty”, as in “guilty as charged”.

So the point is that while mostly-good people will be assessed more leniently considering the fact that they were mostly good; and mostly-bad people will be adjudged more harshly considering the fact that they were mostly bad, still and all that doesn’t speak to their overall spiritual status. For the commonly understood use of the terms righteous, wrongful, or somewhere in between don’t apply to anyone’s being so much as to his or her over-all legal standing.

For there are known to be very few truly righteous people in the world at any one point in time (see Yomah 38B). So if we accept the idea that people who are mostly free of sin are indeed righteous, then there’d seem to be many, many righteous and not just good, decent people in the world.

But consider this, too. There are a couple of other sources that seem to indicate that we’re to be assessed by G-d according to our spiritual struggles. Which is to say, by whether we’d allowed ourselves to be swayed by our baser impulses, as wrongful people do; if we’d allowed ourselves to be motivated by our higher, G-dly impulses, as righteous people do (Berachot 61B; Zohar 2:117b) -- or if we’d contended with both (Berachot 61B) and had come to allow our higher impulses to prevail, as we’re all capable of doing [2]. This point will come up again as well later on in Tanya.

On top of that we’re taught that each one of us was confronted in Heaven by an angel just before we were born and made to promise a couple of things: that we’d be righteous rather than wrongful, and that we’d nonetheless always consider ourselves basically wrongful even if everyone said otherwise (Niddah 30B).

That’s puzzling. First off, how could we be compelled to be righteous by taking such an oath, when our devotion is open to free choice [3]? Secondly, we’re advised elsewhere to never consider ourselves wrongful (Pirke Avot 2:18); and thirdly, if we did consider ourselves wrongful, then we’d hardly likely serve G-d as joyously and good-naturedly as we’re bidden to (see Deuteronomy 28:47) and we’d likely assume a certain “devil may care” attitude.

So, what is righteousness after all? What’s wrongfulness? What’s that puzzling rank of being somewhere in between called the benoni state, which the great Rabbah considered himself to be a part of? And most especially, what does all of that do to affect our relationship to G-d?

We’d need to explore quite a number of profound things beforehand to get to the bottom of all this, including the make-up of our beings, our connections to G-d, the nature of our mission in this life, and much more.

So, let’s start off with the make-up of our beings (which will take us quite a while unto itself).


Rabbi Chaim Vital was a Kabbalist of the first rank. Indeed, he was the preeminent student of the great and holy Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (known as “The Ari”), the most eminent Kabbalist of all. And R. Vital earned the right to single-handedly disseminate the latter’s oral teachings.

He taught in his teacher’s name that each and every Jew’s being without exception is comprised of two “spirits”, two biases or predilections, if you will: one toward rank animalism, and another toward pure G-dliness (see Shaarei Kedusha 1:1-2, Etz Chaim 50:2) [4, 5].

We’ll lay out the basics of our bias toward animalism here, and start addressing our G-dly bias in the next chapter.

Our “animalistic” spirit is termed that because it’s much like the sort of instinct- and impulse-driven spirit that animals have, too [6].

It’s nestled in our blood, and it’s rooted in two phenomena that call for some explanation of their own: the four “husks” surrounding our inner core, and the “other side” from which our animalism derives. The “other side” is simply another term for unG-dliness; it’s the “side” or realm one faces when he turns away from G-d, if you will. As to the husks, they come to this [7].

Just as there are husks and peels covering everyday, common fruit, there are likewise spiritual “husks” and “peels” overlaying spiritual “fruit”, if you will [8].

Now as we indicated, there are four husks surrounding our spiritual fruit -- i.e., our G-dly spirit: a hard outer one and three inner, successively softer ones, the last of which is rather diaphanous (which is analogous to the thin shell surrounding certain nuts, for example).

The three outer husks are said to be utterly un-G-dly (ch. 6 below) and to act as curtains and partitions between us and G-d Himself (ch. 17 below) as well as our G-dly spirits; and the fourth diaphanous one -- which is contiguous with the fruit itself -- is partly G-dly and partly not, and it also serves to mediate between the other three husks and our G-dly spirit (ch. 7). This last husk and all its implications will prove to be very important for our purposes.

And finally, we’re also taught that our untoward character traits come from our animalistic spirit (see Shaarei Kedusha 1:2) -- as well as some of the more admirable traits our people are famous for, interestingly enough [9].

Now on to our G-dly bias.


[1] The benoni could very well be depicted as half-righteous and half-wrongful in a certain way. For as we’ll see later on, he’s equally drawn toward G-dliness and to wrongfullness, and is thick in a struggle between the two all the time (Likut Perushim 13:1). But that’s beside the point now.

[2] RSZ offered some rather recondite notes to his work at several points that either raise questions about his own assertions in the body of the text itself or offer insight from other, usually Kabbalistic sources. His notes often seem to obfuscate his main points to most readers, so we'll do our best to explain them here in our notes rather than in the text itself, and we’ll point out some of their ramifications when that’s called for, too.

His note in the text here sets out to indicate the fact that our righteousness isn't determined by the quantity of our righteous deeds so much as by the quality of our struggles (as the text illustrates). But he then acknowledges that the Zohar seems to say the opposite at a certain point (see Zohar 3 p. 231), which would be a strong contradiction of his point. RSZ contends, though, that the Zohar's remark isn't a definitive statement so much as a legitimate proposal made on the spot that will be rejected later on; and that the definitive statement is in fact the one he quoted above (from Zohar 2, p. 117B) to the effect that we will in fact be judged by the quality of our struggles.

[3] An interesting aspect of this pre-birth vow is the fact that we're thus asked to shore up everything we have within us before we enter our physical beings, and to be righteous in life -- even when we're not sure we can, and despite the fact that we could never foresee the circumstances we'd be under (and would thus seem to be absolved of our oath), simply because we swore we would.

The point is that G-d apparently has such great faith in our abilities and is so sure that we can live out our spiritual potential that He asks us to sign such a blind "contract", that He Himself will sign on to it as well, if you will, and help us to succeed. (That final point will be illustrated later on.)

[4] R. Vital uses other terms for our two spirits, like our “bad” and “good” spirits, or our “pure” and “defiled” spirits. And he also refers to our G-dly spirit as our “angelic” and “Asiyatic” spirit (referring to the cosmic level which that spirit occupies). But we’ll use the terms laid out above.

[5] It’s important to note that we use the term spirit here rather than “soul” (unlike others who have translated and commented upon Tanya). The Tradition speaks of five levels of the soul over-all (which correspond on an esoteric level to the five spiritual levels spoken of in section 1 above). They’re termed the “Nephesh“, “Ruach“, “Neshama“, “Chaya“ and “Yechidah“, and they can each legitimately be translated as “spirit” or “soul”. We’ve chosen to refer to the lower aspect (the “Nephesh”), which is the part of it that manifests itself in the body and in the world and is the term used in the text here -- as the “spirit”; and to refer to the higher aspect (the “Neshama”), which will be discussed later on, as the “soul”.

It’s also notable that while not everybody has a “soul”, everybody indeed has the two aforementioned “spirits” (Chinuch Katan). RSZ will point out later on that we each also have a third “spirit”: our rational mind (see ch. 42, Iggeret HaKodesh 15), which mediates and chooses between our animalistic side and our G-dly one (also see Likut Perushim 1:37). R. Vital terms it our “very selves” while we’re in this world (Shaarei Kedusha 1:1).

We should be aware as well of the fact that everything in the world has what’s referred to as an “animating” spirit or what’s known as an elan vital -- some electric, immaterial element in its bosom that keeps things intact and self-contained (See Shaar HaYichud v’Ha’emunah ch. 1). But we won’t be addressing that here.

Our use of the terms “biases” and “predilections” is based on the idea that our spirits are in fact expressions of just those things, since they’re the media through which we express our will (see Likut Perushim 6:19 for the correlation between spirit and will).

[6] In fact, both our’s and animalkind’s animalistic spirit are hewn from the same source, as it turns out. The difference is, though, that our’s is rooted in a deeper, more interior and choice part of that source (which is why we, rather than animals, are able to speak [Etz Chaim 50:2]).

[7] The concept of the husks is based upon a phenomenon known as “The Account of the Chariot”, related in the Book of Ezekiel. At one point the prophet Ezekiel experienced an astounding and wondrous vision in which he saw “a stormy wind..., a great cloud, and a fire flaring up“ in the Heavens, with a certain “luminousness round about it“ (Ezekiel 1:4). There’s a wealth of things to be said about all that, but suffice it to say for our purposes that those four features -- the wind, cloud, fire, and luminousness -- are depictions of the four husks. And that the last one, “luminousness”, is the one rooted in part-goodness, as we’ll soon discover.

[8] Suffice it to say that just like everyday fruit, it’s the “spiritual fruit“ that’s to be enjoyed rather than the shells. it’s also important to realize that spiritual “husks and peels” both protect the spiritual fruit and they prevent us from getting to it sooner (much the way commonplace husks and peels affect everday fruit).

[9] The animalistic spirit is said to incorporate four basic elements, known classically as the elements of “earth”, “air”, “fire”, and “water”. We in modernity would refer to them as the four states of solidness, gaseousness, energy, and liquidness. The three denser, unholy husks are said to foster the untoward traits, while the other one is said to foster the (usually but not always) admirable ones. Needless to say, our unarguably noble and holy traits are rooted in our G-dly spirit, as we’ll see.

Thus the three unholy husk’s earth (or solid) state is said to encourage the traits of laziness and melancholy (which are weighty, sluggish, dry traits) for example. Their air (or gaseous) state is said to foster flippancy and cynicism, slander, lying, and hypocrisy (which are vacuous traits rooted in airy, and fleeting impressions). Their fire (or energy) state is said to stoke up our anger and arrogance, as well as impatience, animosity, aggression, and the need for acclaim (which are emotions that singe and sear). And their water (or liquid) state is said to feed hedonism as well as the traits of envy and jealousy (all of which expand outward and fatten quickly).

And the fourth husk is said to be responsible for Jewish compassion and altruism (which as every subtle soul knows, can be alternatively good or bad depending on circumstances).

The idea is that our emotions and our reactions to the world are largely rooted in animalistic predilections, and that it would do us well to know that rather than assume that we usually act and react intelligently and reasonably.

(c) 2006 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

Sunday, March 26, 2006


“Nearly Everybody”: The Inner Life and Struggles of the Jewish Soul

(Based on “Tanya: Collected Discourses of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi”)

by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman


The first eight chapters of Tanya form the book's first unit; chapters 9 through 15 form the second; 16 through 25, the third; 26 through 34, the fourth; 35 through 40, the fifth; 41 through 50, the sixth; and 51 through 53 form the seventh and final unit. We'll offer the essence of each unit in the form of a prologue before we come upon the text itself, which this is the first of.

Part One begins by introducing the idea that while some of us Jews are utterly wrongful by nature and others are fully righteous, the great preponderance of us are somewhere in between. And it behooves us each to know just where we stand on that continuum. Before we can do that, though, we'll have to understand our spiritual makeup.

RSZ's first insight for us into that is his statement that we're each comprised of two antithetical "predilections" or spirits: one toward rank animalism and another toward pure G-dliness.

The G-dly spirit, we're taught, is a veritable portion of G-d and is comprised of ten elements in all: three “mind" and seven “heart" elements. And that it dons three "garments" at any one time: thoughts, speech, and actions.

We also learn that our G-dly spirit is elevated when its garments are used to fulfill mitzvot; that our mind is united with G-d's very will and wisdom when we study Torah; and that our hearts come into play when we infuse the love and fear of G-d into all that.

Our animalistic spirit is also comprised of ten mind and heart elements, and also has three garments. But they’re all derived from the four "husks" and from the "other side" rather than directly from G-dliness. Those four husks are themselves comprised of two subsets, though: three utterly impure husks, and a single "luminous” one that straddles both holiness and unholiness.

Now, since the luminous element of our animalistic spirit can function in either holiness or unholiness, and since we have it within us to determine in which one it will, it stands to reason that there'll be times when we lapse into unholiness (since we nearly all fall sway to the animalistic spirit's urgings). So how do we rectify things when we do?

And what's the difference between what we do when we lapse into outright unholiness and when we succumb to more subtly wrongful things, like partaking of perfectly acceptable things to excess?

(c) 2006 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

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