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Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidic Movement, labored for twenty years to complete the Tanya before it was printed in 1796. The work was immediately embraced by the leadership core of the emerging Chassidic movement. Upon receiving the book the legendary Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev exclaimed, "Reb Schneur Zalman did the impossible--he put so great a G-d in so tiny a book!"
An incisive compilation of Jewish mystical concepts, the Tanya presents a systematic approach, both to an individual's moral and spiritual development, and to a conceptual awareness of Divine immanence. It is no wonder that the work is part of the canon of Jewish texts studied in yeshivas today.
Revealing the Torah's mysteries rendered the Tanya a suspect work in the eyes of the mitnagdim (opponents to Chassidism) who turned in Rabbi Schneur Zalman to the Czarist authorities. In 1798, two years after the Tanya's publication, Rabbi Schneur Zalman underwent lengthy interrogations in a St. Petersburg prison regarding accusations that his book was rife with revolutionary sentiments. Charged with conspiracy against the Czar, he wrote a detailed discourse of refutation.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman's successful defense notwithstanding, the Tanya was still viewed several generations later as a manifesto of rebellion by the Communist government, who exhibited profound paranoia about the Tanya and persecuted its adherents relentlessly.
Many Chabad-Lubavitch chassidim who were arrested by the Soviet authorities for "counter-revolutionary" activities (e.g. running underground Hebrew schools, re-opening synagogues and building mikvahs) related a telling scene, which repeated itself with small variations for each of them. At some point during the interrogation, the secret police official, his face red with anger, would shove a small book into the prisoner's face, screaming, "I know what this is, this is your ammunition!"
Perhaps suspicion of the Tanya by a government vying for control of its people's mind, is not entirely without reason. The Tanya is a powerful book, crafted with an extremely well-defined structure and does what it is designed to do - to motivate and inspire its readers to a Chassidic way of life. The Tanya has had a strong impact even in circles where it was officially opposed."
To date, more than 4,000 editions of the Tanya have been printed in places ranging from Adelaide, Australia to Harari, Zimbabwe. After the Yom Kippur War the Tanya was printed in Alexandria and Cairo. Jews in Guangzhou, China and Havana, Cuba study their local editions of the work. The Tanya has also been translated into nine languages, including Russian, French, Spanish and Arabic.
The Tanya is a key text to bringing the spirituality of pre-enlightenment traditional Judaism into the modern world, and it does so not in the form of an enclave style of mysticism that hides it away, but with a sense of empowerment and purpose.
In his preface to the English translation of the Tanya, the Rebbe, writes that the author's Chassidic teaching "sees the Jew's central purpose as the unifying link between the Creator and Creation. The Jew is a creature of 'heaven' and 'earth'... whose purpose is to realize the transcendency and unity of his nature, and of the world in which he lives, within the absolute Unity of G-d."
The Rebbe describes two ways - correlated - through which this purpose is realized: "...Man draws holiness from the Divinely-given Torah and commandments, to permeate therewith every phase of his daily life and his environment - his 'share' in the world...," and "...man draws upon all the resources at his disposal... as vehicles for his personal ascendancy and, with him, that of the surrounding world."
Today, tens of thousands learn a daily portion of the Tanya, finishing the cycle each year on the 19th of Kislev, date of the liberation of Rabbi Schneur Zalman from Czarist prison.
You can subscribe to receive the daily portion of Tanya via e-mail.