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The Alter Rebbe

Publication of the Tanya

 
 The Alter Rebbe Introduction


Publication of the Tanya

As early as 5552 (1792) handwritten copies of essays and discourses, which eventually made up the book of Likutei Amarim (Tanya) by Rabbi Schneur Zalman - the Alter Rebbe - began to circulate among the Chasidim. Word spread quickly among the Chasidim that their Rebbe had written a work on practical, religious ethics, as a "guide" for the seekers of religious devotion. "There was a great demand for copies of this work. In various towns, such as Liadi, Haditch, Rudnia, Lubavitch, Dobromysl, Kalisk and Dubrovna, qualified copiers were busy copying the book.

In the course of several years, copies of the book found their way also to Rumania and Galicia. News of the appearance of a written work on Chasiduth and its widespread distribution, also reached various Rabbinic convocations which convened in Vitebsk, Minsk, and other White-Russian cities, as well as in the Ukraine.

Among the opponents of Chasiduth, the news aroused renewed concern about the spread of Chasidic influence. A group of zealous opponents contrived to introduce certain passages into the book and make certain other forgeries, which would raise questions and doubts in fundamental matters of faith, and stamp the book as a work full of heretical tendencies. Such a forged copy was submitted to the Gaon of Wilno, in the year 5555 (1795) for his judgment.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman began to receive inquiries from various places in Galicia and Rumania for elucidation of certain passages in the Tanya. It became apparent that the reason for the inquiries was the fact that many copyists' errors had crept into the copies, or that the copies had been forged by the Mithnagdim of Brisk and Wilno.

Two Chasidim, Pinchas Schick and his brother-in-law Binyamin of Kletzk, attending the Fair at Leipzig, were very pleased to see pamphlets of the Tanya being circulated there. They were soon dismayed, however, when they discovered that the text had been tampered with, and that the pamphlets were forgeries. Further inquiries led them to the distributor. The two Chasidim, presenting themselves as Mithnagdim, won the distributor's confidence. They learned that the man had brought with him six hundred forged copies, of which he had sold about one hundred and fifty. Pinchas and Binyamin bought all the remainder of his stock from him.

Seeing the danger inherent in the widespread copying of the Tanya, and in order to forestall any further tampering with the text by unscrupulous opponents, Rabbi Schneur Zalman finally consented to have the Tanya printed. There were two conditions attached to his consent: (a) The printed edition must have the approbation (haskamah) of both Rabbi Meshulam Zusia of Anipoli and Rabbi Yehuda Leib haKohen, both of them disciples of Rabbi Dov Ber of Miezricz and the author's senior colleagues. (b) The book must appear anonymously.

Towards the end of the year 5556 (1796) the written approbations arrived, and the printing of the Tanya was commissioned to the Slavita printers by Rabbi Shalom Schachne, Rabbi Schneur Zalman's son-in-law, and his partner Rabbi Schmuel Halevi. On the 20th of Kislev (Tuesday, Dec. 20, 1796), the printing was completed. The first edition numbered 15,000 copies. In the following year a second printing, with 5,000 copies, and a year later a third printing with 20,000 copies, came off the printing press. Thereafter, new reprints of the latter edition appeared frequently, as the demand for this Chabad classic continued to grow.

Altogether the Tanya has seen more than sixty editions in print to this day, of which at least eight were printed in the author's lifetime anonymously.

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Schneersohn, of blessed memory, in a letter about this work, makes the following observation:

The Book of Tanya is the "Written Torah" of the teachings of Chabad Chasiduth, in that not only has each sentence been carefully and concisely composed, but also each letter has been carefully chosen. The work is punctilious in every detail so that each word and each letter is meaningful. Among the leaders of Chabad and the early generations of Chasidim the Tanya commanded a reverence second only to the Chumash (Pentateuch).

An interesting tradition in connection with the first publication of the Tanya was transmitted by the Chasid Tzevi of Smilian, known among Chasidim as "Hershel der Waremer" (the "Warm One") or "Hershel Bren" (the "Firebrand"), who heard it in his youth from the Chasid Yaakov of Smilian, one of the Alter Rebbe's prominent Chasidim. But before we tell you about this eyewitness account, you surely wish to know how the Chasid Tzvi received such a strange nickname. So this is how it came to pass:

In the town of Smargon there lived several young Chasidim, followers of the Alter Rebbe. They tried to spread the study of Chasiduth and the Chasidic way in the community. Most active among them was a young man, Eliyahu Zeev. In those days there were many opponents to Chasiduth, because the movement was new and some Rabbis were afraid that it might lead Jews away from Torah study. The most outspoken opponent to Chasiduth in Smargon was an old Talmudic sage, whose name was Rabbi Elyakum Faivush.

On one occasion the old sage was so annoyed by Eliyahu Zeev's success in winning new adherents for the Chasidic movement, that he uttered a curse against him. Ever since then the curse seemed to hang over Eliyahu Zeev's children: one after the other they caught colds and died of pneumonia in their infancy. After losing their several children, the grief-stricken parents were blessed with a boy and they named him Tzevi-Hirsh. The parents were very happy. but they lived in fear that their new son might, G-d forbid, share the fate of their previous children.

When Tzevi was three months old, it happened that the Alter Rebbe, during one of his many journeys, stopped in Smargon for a visit. Eliyahu Zeev took his infant to the Rebbe for a blessing. The Rebbe stroked the child's head, saying, a waremer yingele ("a warm boy"), and blessed him. The boy grew up with the nickname "Hershel der Waremer." Indeed, he used to pray with a great inner warmth, though outwardly he showed no signs of it. Rabbi Hillel of Paritch (author of Pelach haRimon), leading disciple of the Mittler Rebbe, used to refer to him as "Hirshcle Sneh" (alluding to the Burning Bush), while some Chasidim called him "Hirshele Bren."

The story which the Chasid Tzevi of Smilian -"Hirshele Bren" -related, exactly as he had heard it from the said Chasid Yaakov, was as follows: It was the Rebbe's custom to lead in prayer on the Yahrzeit (19th of Kislev) of the Maggid of Miezricz. Rabbi Schneur Zalman acted as Reader during all three of the daily services. After the Evening prayer he usually gave a Chasidic discourse in his own room to a select group, while after Minchah he gave a public discourse.

In the year 5557 (1796), the day of Yahrzeit occurred on a Monday, and the Rebbe observed his annual custom. Some three months earlier, towards the end of the month of Elul (5556), the emissaries Moshe, Pinchas, and Yitzchok Moshe, whom the Rebbe had sent to the saintly Rabbis Yehuda Leib haKohen and Meshulam Zusia of Anipoli, returned with the written approbations of the two Chasidic leaders to be published with the Tanya. Thereupon the Rebbe informed the printers in Slavita to proceed with the printing of the book, requesting that the book come off the press not later than the beginning of Kislev (5557), and that the copies be delivered forth-with to Liozna. He was anxious that the printed copies of the book be in the hands of the Chasidim before the Yahrzeit of the Maggid of Miezricz, so that it could be studied on that day.

Word of the Rebbe's consent to the printing of the Tanya spread quickly among the Chasidim and called forth jubilation of their circles.

However, when mid-Cheshvan came and it was learned that the last print-sheet could not be put into the press in time for the book to be completed on or before the specified date, the Rebbe was visibly upset. During the Morning prayers on the Yahrzeit day, it being a Monday, when the first section of the weekly portion is read from a Sefer-Torah, the Rebbe read from the Torah-scroll himself. The first Aliyah (calling up to the reading) was given to the Kohen, Elimelech of Yanov; the second -to the Levi, Zelig of Ulla, and the third was taken by the Rebbe himself. He read the portion (dealing with Joseph's dreams) with special fervor, emphasizing particularly the last verses, And he related [the dream] to his father and brothers...and his brothers envied him...but his father kept the matter [in his mind] (Gen. 37:18-11).

Completing the reading, he sighed deeply, and as he recited the benediction after the Torah reading, followed by Kaddish, his voice shook with emotion. He remained at the Shulchan (Reading Table) for quite a while, in deep contemplation. All of us present were overawed.

On the second day of Chanukah (26th of Kislev) a special messenger arrived from Slavita, bringing the first 200 copies of the printed Tanya which had come off the press on the previous Tuesday (Kislev 20th). When the first copy was handed to the Rebbe, he looked at it for a long time and then said, "Many are the thoughts in a man's heart, but it is the counsel of G-d that prevails' (Prov. 19:21). It was my desire that the book be completed by the beginning of the month of Kislev, so that it could be studied on the day of my master's Yahrzeit. But G-d willed it otherwise, and the printing was completed on the 20th of Kislev...the 20th of Kislev (he repeated again, and a third time). And all that the Merciful One does is for the good."

None of us, not even the Rebbe's sons, could understand why the Rebbe was so upset by the delay in the appearance of the printed Tanya, a delay of, only some two weeks. Nor could we understand what was significant about the 20th of Kislev that the Rebbe meaningfully repeated the date several times.

In the beginning of the month of Cheshvan, in the following year 5558

(1797) -Yaakov Smilianer continued -I was to leave on my annual round-trip to collect contributions for the support of the Jews in the Holy Land. The Rebbe instructed me to tell all the Chasidim they should study the book diligently, and on the 20th of Kislev (occurring on Shabbos that year) they were urged to learn at least two chapters of the first part, and one chapter of the second part; again, all of us were mystified.

The mystery cleared up, however, the following year, when the Rebbe was released from prison on the 19th of Kislev, after being cleared of the slanderous charges made against him by his malicious opponents. On that occasion he was mistakenly taken into the house of one of the vicious Mithnagdim (opponents), and only late that night of the 20th of Kislev was ht: finally released from his predicament. That is when we realized the significance of the date of the 20th of Kislev.

Subsequently, we heard it from. the Rebbe's son and successor, Rabbi Dov Ber, that the vitality which the printed Tanya had instilled into the Torah study and religious conduct of the Chasidim in the two years since the book's appearance in print, had stood his father in good stead and saved him from certain death, and that the countless myriads of angels which had been created by the reading of the sacred words and letters of the Tanya had intervened for him On High to bring about his triumphant vindication.

Footnotes:

  • Excerpts (with small changes) from a book about the life and work of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, by Nissan Mindel, scheduled to appear on the 24th of Teveth of this year, Yahrzeit anniversary of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, author of the Tanya and Shulchan Aruch, and founder of Chabad.
 The Alter Rebbe Introduction



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