The Book of Tanya תניא: The collection of statements

The name Tanya תניא comes from Aramaic and means “what was taught”, this word is the first present in the Jewish mystical text Likkutei Amarim (ליקוטי אמרים “collection of statements”) written in 1797 by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad movement.

Content

Tanya deals with spirituality and psychology from the point of view of Hasidic philosophy and Kabbalah, but unlike other mystical books in the Jewish tradition, this text is not a collection of sermons or stories but a systematic exposition of the author’s believer thinking. The Hasidim (from the Hebrew ḥăsīd, or “pious”) are those who follow the Hasidic philosophy and identify their ideology with the one of the master (rabbi) Yisrael ben Eliëzer (1698-1760), known as Ba’al Shèm Tov (literally “owner of the good name”). The essence of Hasidism lies in the conviction that GOD is present in every manifestation of creation, and that neither study nor renunciation of the wealth of life can bring us closer to the CREATOR, but as much as good deeds performed with love and peace of mind.

Tanya tries to show the believer that the knowledge of GOD is available to everyone, that spiritual growth at higher levels is real and achievable if one is willing to face a path of growth. The Tanya classifies man into five levels:

  • The true tzadik (“right person”, “the righteous one who prosper”) has transformed his animal and earthly spirit to the point of being able to achieve intense joy in his connection with the Divine and hates worldly pleasures.
  • The incomplete tzadik (“the righteous one who suffers”) no longer desires evil in a way that expresses itself outwardly, even at the level of thought, but there remains within him a small part of desire for evil.
  • The beinoni (“the intermediate”) possesses an animal spirit that still desires evil but is able to control himself constantly from committing sins through actions, words and even thoughts; however, this requires constant tension and conflict. It is not simply a clash between good and evil but rather a persistent confrontation between our two souls, the animal and the Divine, one attracted by materiality and the other aspiring upwards.
  • The rasha in part (“wicked”, “the evil one who prosper”) who commits sin without repenting (teshuva) but who also does good deeds.
  • The total/complete rasha (“the wicked one who suffers”) who sins so frequently that none of his thoughts, words or actions are controlled by the divine soul. They are exclusively controlled by the animal soul, but even on this last level there is a possibility of redemption.

Read the FULL BOOK of Tanya

Nobody is perfect

Not even the greatest among the faithful will forever be immune from error or temptation. There are days when the believer is full of faith, inspired and moved by the Spirit towards holiness, and others when he feels useless or bored. There are days when nothing seems more important than the study of the Holy Scriptures or prayer, and others when nothing is better than television or social media. Nobody is perfect, this is an exclusive attribute of the CREATOR, but that doesn’t mean that we have a weak faith or that we’re not honest and true in the way we believe, we just need to know ourselves better to handle the down moments when they come up, because they certainly will. Tanya guides us through the double personality that, although in a different way, lies within every man and woman. We need to know and fully understand ourselves in order to overcome the constant daily challenges that life brings us, and although we have a Code of Law that teaches us how to behave in all circumstances, it is often impossible for us to put into practice what we read. Other times we do not understand which precepts among all must be absolutely fulfilled, and which are of secondary importance in our lives, we must be able to understand for ourselves which right behaviors positively affect our lives, and which wrong ones harm us and those around us, our neighbors. Knowing the different impact they have on our lives, so the better we behave correctly, the more justice and grace we receive, and this is a natural law, we don’t need theology to explain it because it is the experience of life itself that does it. One makes a big mistake when one thinks that the righteous suffer and sinners prosper:

11 Don’t be jealous of a sinner’s success; you don’t know what kind of disaster is in store for him. 12 Don’t take pleasure in the things that make ungodly people happy; remember that they will be held guilty as long as they live.
(Sirach 9, 11-12)

 

No one can deceive GOD, the behavior may be impeccable in following the Commandments, but if this is not “our true being” the space between man and the CREATOR will become further apart. The Tanya teaches to restrict this space, to create unity between my “spiritual being” and my “earthly being”, making the teachings of the Law (mitzvot) become a deep part of one’s personality.

Structure

Shneur Zalman published his Likkutei Amarim anonymously in 1797. The latest version of the work dates back to 1814 and includes five parts:

Sefer shel Beinonim (“The Book of Ordinary Man”). It describes how a believer who contemplates the greatness of the CREATOR and who decides to follow the commandments of the Bible can experience the love and reverential fear necessary for sincere worship. This leads the believer to an emotional refinement, but this emotion must arise from an intellectual understanding of the mystical and spiritual aspects of the divine service. This is why the movement is called Chabad (C-B-D), the initials of the three intellectual Sefirot, the intellectual forces of divine creation: Chochmah (Wisdom), Binah (Knowledge), Da’at (Understanding).
Sha’ar ha-Yichud ve’Emunah (“The Door of Unity and Faith”) describes how, although creation is different from the CREATOR, they are nevertheless interconnected.
Iggeret HaTeshuvah (“Letter of Repentance.”) This section is also known as the “Tanya Katan” (“Short Tanya”). It describes the mystical aspect of repentance that not only leads to the forgiveness of sins but also the repentant person to a higher spiritual locus than he or she was before committing sins. Learning and improving oneself from one’s mistakes.
Iggeret HaKodesh (“Letter of Holiness”). This section was not published until 1814, after the death of Shneur Zalman. It is a collection of letters, which the author wrote to his disciples and various other Hasidic communities, where he spoke about the mystical aspects of certain commandments (such as charity, the study of the Torah or, in general, all the commandments concerning material acts).
Kuntres Acharon (“Last Thesis”), also published after Zalman’s death, consists of a series of letters where the author solves some apparent controversies of the Kabbalah.

In general, although the first book focuses more on the avodah (emotional divine service), while the other books are more focused on complicated and profound mystical concepts, the author combines abstract Kabbalistic ideas with the importance of the daily service and the emotion that must accompany it.

Tanya Concepts

Many psychologists, counselors and mental coaches can give advice and techniques for better mind control, and each teacher will provide what works for him or her. But in Jewish circles there is a little book called Tanya that acts as a spiritual guide for a tzadik, a rectum of the heart. The text is full of information about how one’s thoughts work and how to achieve great results by learning to control them. Below are some concepts that Tanya deals with.

Thought manipulates our being. Thoughts are not only a window into our brain and heart, but also allow us to manipulate them. These thoughts can be manipulated simply by choosing which thoughts you want to operate on. Control of the mind corresponds to control of the heart, if one claims to be sad, there will be no way to convince him that he should not be sad, because it will not change his emotional state. But if he is offered a happy thought on which to reason, he may soon find himself far from his previous distressed state of mind. You cannot choose how you feel, but you can choose what you think, and what you think has the power to change what you feel.
This is what the Zohar means when he says that the mind innately governs the heart, but not in the way a dictator can command, but rather by explaining that wherever your thoughts travel, there your emotional state will go by nature.

We must consider our thoughts as a kind of clothes for our mind, clothes we can wear, just as you can change your outfit whenever you want, so you can exchange uncomfortable and inadequate thoughts for thoughts that enhance your inner strength and beauty. Because wearing depressing thoughts if they are not “beautiful” and do not make us feel good, better for us will be to wear positive and uplifting thoughts, this means changing and improving.

The flow of thoughts is like the water of a river, it never stops. If you can’t listen to your thoughts, try beginning to listen to your breath. Thoughts flow automatically as well as the breath, you can control them, but if you let go they will continue to “flow”. And it is during this automatic scrolling that thoughts can be more influenced and hijacked. What we think is conditioned by everything we perceive, experience, learn, what we talk about and what we read and so on. A good way to remove negative thoughts is to replace them with good ones, but to do this you must first keep healthy thoughts “at hand”. Get into the habit of keeping a small bag of healthy things so that when toxic thoughts invade our minds, we can replace them with stored positive ones. Even better will be the storage. For thousands of years, Jews have memorized the Psalms, key passages from the Bible, the Mishnah (oral traditions handed down) and other fundamental works, and have repeated them over and over again every day and even during work. To memorize means to engrave the words in your heart, making them a component of your psyche, and when we need them most we will find those words naturally and almost effortlessly in your minds. Baal Shem Tov has taught that where your head goes, is also where we find ourselves. The more we fill our minds with good content, the easier it will be to pull them out when needed.

If we react negatively to a thought, it will grow inside us, but if we can show indifference, the same thought will soon disappear. If some bad thought jumps into your mind and frightens you and you continue to regurgitate on this “negativity” then you are putting that thought on one of your inner “shelves” and soon you will wear it. The only effective strategy to deal with the onset of unwanted thoughts is to act like a detached observer. The thoughts are not you, and you are not your thoughts. Remain impartial to a thought and it will go away, only then can you return to “dressing” one of those healthy, healthy thoughts that you have kept for a moment like this. This strategy will make you stronger every time, and you will be able to thank those bad thoughts for giving you the opportunity to further develop your mental power. Mental exercise is like physical exercise and must be repeated over time.

There is a saying that says, “On an old tree there was an old owl, the more he knew and the more he kept silent, the more he kept silent and the more he knew. Controlling one’s language is a sign of wisdom. If, for example, you are in the company of friends and you feel like saying something that you think might make them laugh, a good exercise will be to hold those words loud, remain silent, and only after a few minutes, if you still think that thing is appropriate to say it, only then should you speak. In this way you are strengthening your mind, it is becoming more powerful, and you are really acting like a master of your mind.

Conclusions

In the preface of Tanya the author writes that anyone who has questions about the meaning or application of Tanya should ask “the greats of their city”. In the common Hasidic terminology Chabad the great (or guides) are known as Mashpia, masters instructed by their predecessors in the correct application of Tanya.

Many books have been written to explain Tanya, in particular: The Reshimos on Tanya by Rebbe Lubavitch, HaLekach VehaLibuv, Shiu’rim BeSefer HaTanya (in his English translation of “Lessons in Tanya”), Maskil Le’Eisan, Biurei Ha’Tanya, and “Opening The Tanya,” “Learning the Tanya,” and “Understanding the Tanya” by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.

The correct study of Tanya requires a teacher who understands the subject, the text is full of mystical terms and topics that are not easy to understand for several reasons. Tanya is not easy to read, and requires concentration and dedication, this book does not provide instant inspiration, does not contain stories, and does not solve questions quickly, it is instead a long journey that requires time and energy.

 


Bibliography

  • HaRav Shneur Zalman di Liadi, Tanya: Likutei Amarim: Sefer Shel Benonim (Fu insegnato – Collezione di detti: Libro degli Intermedi) con note di Rabbi Nissan Mindel Ph.D.& Rabbi Ya’acov Immanuel Schochet, che spiegano i concetti mistici – edizione bilingue (HEEN) , Kehot Publishing.com
  • “Five Stages in the Historical Development of Kabbalah” from www.inner.org. “The Development of Kabbalah in Light of Its Main Texts. In this lecture, the five major texts of Kabbalah (Sefer Yetzirah, Zohar, Pardes Rimonim, Eitz Chayim, and Tanya) are the focus of a summary of its development over the ages”. Retrieved Nov. 2009
  • Overview of Chassidut from www.inner.org. Retrieved Nov. 2009
  • Overview of recent academic study of Habad philosophy (“Contemporary Habad and the Paradox of Redemption” by Naftali Loewenthal, in Perspectives on Jewish thought and mysticism) Google books. Retrieved Nov. 2009
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