Two paths or one and the same?

Is Tanya Kabbalah?

Kabbalah is focused primarily on spiritual concepts beyond the five senses, Chassidus, by contrast, deals with this world, Tanya is a book about humans, not angles.

There is a danger in studying Kabbalah, and losing connection to the physical world, but this danger simply does not apply to studying Chassidus. For Chassidus’s primary focus is the essence of Hashem which is accessible only in the physical world. One mustn’t leave the physical reality to find G-dliness, because it is only here that we can find Him in physical mitzvos .


Dear Principles,

I’m a Yeshiva bachur in twelfth grade, and I read in your past issue the review about the Tanya and was inspired to begin studying this holy sefer, as it seems to have answers to many of my and my friends’ life questions. When I brought up the idea to my chavrusa that we begin learning Tanya at Seder Mussar, he refused, maintaining that Tanya is a Kabbalah sefer. He claimed that in order to be allowed to study Tanya, one must master the entire Shas and adapt to a holy lifestyle, which we are still far from. He said that we should stick to the classic Mussar sefarim. What do you think?

Mordechai, Lakewood, NJ


Dear Mordechai,

It is so refreshing to see and hear about young bachurim like you and your friends taking their ruchnius seriously. This is just another exhibition of the fact despite all the hardships and challenges Am Yisrael is facing, “Netzach Yisrael lo yeshaker!”

Essentially your question touches upon a very important topic: Where does Chassidus stand in the world of Jewish thought? If Chassidus is the study of P’nimius Hatorah (the inner realm of Torah), then how does it differ from Kabbalah? Moreover, just as there are certain restrictions and prerequisites of age, previous knowledge and behavior , regarding the study of Kabbalah, shouldn’t these guidelines apply to Chassidus as well?

To answer your question, it is true one of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s great world-shattering innovations was to make Kabbalah accessible to the masses of people who were not educated enough to understand it on their own. Although this is indeed was one of the things Chassidus did, this alone is not was Chassidus is all about. Just like P’shat (the simple level of interpretation in Torah) and Remez or D’rush (the allegoric or homiletic levels of interpretation) are totally distinct and separate areas of  interpretation – so too, the focus of Sod (the esoteric level of understanding the Torah, otherwise known as Kabbalah) and that of Chassidus are completely different in nature.

Although Chassidus quotes many sources from Zohar and the Arizal’s writings, just as it references numerous passages from Gemara and Midrashim, this does not mean studying Tanya can be considered learning Kabbalah. Just as the Shulchan Aruch and Poskim, which also cite sources from the Kabbalah (which is in fact an inseparable part of the Torah, as will be explained below), can certainly not be classified as works of Kabbalah, rather Halachahhso too, Chassidus is simply a different realm of Torah study.

So just what is this radical difference between Kabbalah and Chassidus?

Let us first explain what Kabbalah is, why is it intrinsically a part of Torah, and why there are prerequisites to its study.

Kabbalah” literally means “receiving” and “tradition” and although the entire Torah actually comes as a Kabbalah from Moshe at Sinai, the name “Kabbalah” is associated with the “hidden” and esoteric sections of Torah, because when the Mishna and Gemara were composed, the information of the Torah Sheb’al Peh was made available to all to be studied directly from the books, and the need for a teacher was evident to master how it should be studied.

The hidden part of Torah remained in a large part not written, but passed down to a few outstanding sages throughout the generations. Even when the time came for it to become manifest, and the writings such as the Zohar were revealed – it was explicit the study of these writings was to be done under the guidance and tutelage of a proper and authorized teacher. Another defining aspect of Kabbalah tells us why this is so:

Nigleh” – the revealed parts of Torah, primarily Gemara and Halachah, are instructions on how to live in this world,  on how we should conduct our life, be it in  business, family life and even how we eat and sleep. Its terms and language are clear to us, as it teaches us how the life we live should be conducted according to Hashem’s rules. It is like the “body” of Yiddishkeit. But a “body” needs a “soul” to give it life. And that is what the “Nistar” of Torah does.

Everyone understands a soul exists, because we know what a body without one looks like… but what exactly the soul is remains a mystery. The “hidden” part of Torah tells us what the soul of Torah is in one sentence: Torah and mitzvos are a medium to connect to Hashem and to draw down to the world Divine energy from upper worlds.

To sufficiently explain this, Kabbalah is full of explanations about Hashem: His attributes, the upper worlds and what they contain. This area of Torah study gives life to the revealed parts of the Torah. So just like P’shat, Remez, and D’rush, are all essential areas in Torah study – so too, Sod is an inseparable and integral part of the Torah, and the soul of Torah study.

However, there are dangers associated with this esoteric level of interpretation:

To properly pursue even the study of the revealed part of the Torah – a guide to practical living – one needs to obtain a degree of separation from worldly pleasures. This is more important in pursuing Kabbalah, a spiritual teaching by nature. The more a person is involved in materialism, the less he can understand and appreciate spiritual themes. This is why students of Kabbalah were involved with many forms of fasting and self-affliction, a holy practice indeed, but one that should only be pursued by those who feel these activities wouldn’t affect their concentration on the basics of Yiddishkeit. Moreover, intense involvement in spirituality may cause the expiration of the soul from the body, which ultimately isn’t the aim of Torah.

Because Kabbalah is focused primarily on spiritual concepts beyond the five senses, it uses metaphoric terms so we can relate. Hence, there always remains a concern that the mashal may be understood as the nimshal itself and the Divine ideas which are essentially removed from any corporal meaning, might be tragically understood in a physical sense.

Being they focus primarily on the spiritual themes of the Torah and may lead to a false perception, the physical observances of the mitzvos are just symbolic of something greater and spiritual, while the truth is in fact that “the deed is the main thing.”

Seeing these dangers arousing from Kabbalah, Gedolei Yisrael set some prerequisites  for its study through the ages :

One must first prove sufficient fluency in this knowledge and behavior according to the revealed aspect of Torah, using the famous analogy that before one eats fruits and delicacies he must fill himself with the staples of bread and meat. This is to ensure he has the basics and fundamentals of Torah straight and  is dedicated to traditional Yiddishkeit before he can proceed further.

He must be well-grounded, of proper age, married etc to ensure a balanced and mature approach to dealing with material of such nature. (see Shach on Yoreh Deah 246:6)

He must be taught these great secrets by a teacher with the proper training from his teacher, up to Moshe Rabbeinu, ensuring that he won’t err in his understanding , and that his teacher may correct and direct him if he does.

The above caveats do not apply to Chassidus. Although Kabbalah is indeed explained through the study of Chassidus, they are two entirely separate areas of Torah study with profoundly different viewpoints. While Kabbalah deals largely with metaphoric terms demarcating various intricate levels of G-dliness, Chassidus is concerned with the essence of Hashem Himself and how to connect to Him.

Chassidus approaches spirituality simply as a means to recognize Hashem’s essence, not merely to identify “levels” and attributes of G-dliness. His essence is beyond our understanding, and the recognition of Him at this degree is like a child who is not capable of grasping any deep and lengthy explanations. All he knows is that Hashem is always there, watching and caring. Although this metaphor is simplistic and unsophisticated, we may say that ultimately it’s the “truest” perception of Hashem, because Hashem is really beyond any philosophical definition or Kabalistic sefira.

Chassidus only references these Kabalistic terms in order to facilitate the recognition of Hashem and to recognize that Hashem is in fact way beyond these “levels”, that the very essence of every Jewish soul is in fact a part of Hashem, and that His essence is expressed solely in the lowest level of creation, which is the world of action. In other words, the practical and physical fulfillment of mitzvos is the primary focus of Chassidus, for this is where the essence of Hashem can be accessed and revealed.

So Chassidus is deeper than Kabbalah, for it is focuses on something much deeper than defining spiritual levels. An example of this is found in the difference between, l’havdil, the study of human anatomy and the study of medicine or healing. Being proficient in anatomy means knowing the exact terminology to identify every organ in the body. However, one must study medicine to understand how everything actually works together.

Similarly, when someone studies Kabbalah, there is the fear he could get too caught up with these metaphoric levels and other distractions, losing sight of the real purpose like an anatomist might be able to identify the body parts but have no idea how to treat the patient.

There is a danger in studying Kabbalah, and losing connection to the physical world, but this danger simply does not apply to studying Chassidus. For as mentioned above, Chassidus’s primary focus is the essence of Hashem which is accessible only in the physical world. One mustn’t leave the physical reality to find G-dliness, because it is only here that we can perform mitzvos to connect to His essence.

This is  why there are no prerequisites to studying Chassidus, like full knowledge of Shas and Poskim, etc., for as the Ba’al Shem Tov taught, Hashem’s essence can be accessed from the essence of every Jewish neshama. Every Jew, man and woman, old and young alike, regardless of his knowledge, is dear to Hashem and his mitzvos are important to Him, because the essence of a Jew is a reflection of the essence of Hashem. Studying Chassidus will surely encourage the Jew to reveal this by being even more meticulous in the performance of mitzvos, and studying  Torah at every level, including first and foremost, Shas and Poskim.

The great and holy tzadikim who introduced the study of Chassidus, like the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Ba’al Hatanya, urged that Chassidus is for all Jews, regardless of background or knowledge. It is under their guidance one studies the mystical concepts in their manuscripts, and it is they who stated emphatically that there is no danger involved therein. On the contrary, it is incumbent upon everyone in these final generations of galus to be involved in this study.

In conclusion, one can generally judge any particular study by the effect it has on its disciples and it is impossible to describe the positive effect studying Chassidus has on one’s adherence of Torah and mitzvos. This is evident from historical trends of the Jewish people during the past two centuries and how Chassidus fortified the religious observance of those Jews who studied it. And this is true today as well – Chassidus enhances one’s Yiras Shamayim.

This point is summed up in the following story. When the Rabbi Shalom Dovber of Lubavitch was in Wurzburg, Germany, for health reasons, he befriended some assimilated Jews and taught them Chassidus. Upon hearing some of these, they posed the following question to the Rebbe:

“This is a deep philosophy of G-d, what makes it different that Chakirah (Jewish philosophy)?”

The Rebbe responded: “When one pursues Chakirah, he ends up removing his yarmulka and tzitis, while when someone studies, Chassidus he ends up adding another head covering and an overcoat.”

The methods and even ideas might be similar, but the vantage point shapes the results. Chassidus is not the pursuit of wisdom, even G-dly wisdom, but the pursuit of connecting to Hashem’s essence. .

So go ahead and share the content of this letter with your chavrusa and friends, and experience this first hand.

Based on the discourse “On The Essence of Chassidus” by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and on a letter printed in “Igros Kodesh” vol. 7 pg. 368.

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