The title page written by the Alter Rebbe reads as follows:
ספר של בינונים
מלוקט מפי ספרים ומפי סופרים קדושי עליון נ״ע
מיוסד על פסוק כי קרוב אליך הדבר מאד בפיך ובלבבך לעשותו
לבאר היטב איך הוא קרוב מאד בדרך ארוכה וקצרה בעזה״י
LIKUTEI AMARIM (“A Compilation of Teachings”)
SEFER SHEL BEINONIM (“The Book of the Intermediates”)
Compiled from sacred books and from teachers of heavenly saintliness, whose souls are in Eden; based upon the verse,1 “For this thing is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it”; explaining clearly how it is exceedingly near, in both a lengthy and a short way, with the aid of the Holy One, blessed be He.
* * *
This verse on which the Tanya is based speaks of the obligation to fulfill G‑d’s commandments, saying that it is very “near”, i.e., accessible, to every Jew to do so — through three channels, which are here alluded to by the three phrases, “your heart,” “your mouth,” and “to do it.” These phrases represent, respectively, the three faculties of thought, speech and action. These are, as it were, the functional organs of the soul; the soul vests itself in them in order to implement its wishes.
In a deeper sense, “your heart” refers to the emotions — experienced in the heart — of love of G‑d and awe of Him.
When one fulfills a mitzvah out of his love of G‑d, knowing that the only way to unite with Him is by fulfilling His commands, he will do so with an inner vitality and pleasure, just as one does when he fulfills the wishes of a dear friend. The love of G‑d is thus a channel for the performance of the positive mitzvot. On the other hand, one’s awe of G‑d will prevent him from acting in violation of His wishes. He who is pervaded by this sense of awe will be most vigilant in avoiding any transgression of the prohibitive mitzvot.
The verse thus declares that acquiring these two emotions of love and awe of G‑d, so that they motivate one’s observance of the mitzvot, is likewise “very near to you.”
This declaration is the basis of the Tanya. The Alter Rebbe now sets out to explain, in both a lengthy and a brief way, how it is very near.
By nature, man’s heart desires material things. To develop a love and a desire for G‑dliness is actually to shift one’s natural desire from one extreme — worldliness, to another — G‑dliness. Nor is awe of G‑d easily attainable. As the Gemara attests, “Is awe of G‑d such a small matter” How then does the verse state that it is, indeed, “very near to you”
The Alter Rebbe will explain two ways by which the attainment of love and fear is very near: one “lengthy”, and the other “brief”.
The lengthy route is contemplation; by pondering deeply on the greatness of G‑d and His kindness, one will generate within himself a love and awe of Him. The shorter route consists of arousing and bringing to the surface the hidden love and awe of G‑d inherent in the soul of every Jew; it is “short” because in this case he does not create these feelings but merely reveals them.
This, then, is the basis of the Tanya.
In his modesty, the Alter Rebbe named the book Likutei Amarim — “A Compilation of Teachings,” claiming that he did no more than collect teachings “from books and teachers.” Chassidic tradition understands “books” as a reference to the works of the Maharal, and theShelah, and “teachers” as the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch.
The book is popularly called Tanya, for the word with which it begins.
Concerning the approbations of the tzaddikim, Rabbi Yehudah Leib HaKohen2 and Rabbi Zusya,3 the previous Rebbe4 cites a tradition originating with the Mitteler Rebbe, the son of the author of the Tanya, as follows.
For twenty years the Alter Rebbe wrote the Tanya, revising, adding and deleting,5critically examining every word and even (literally) every letter, so that in the final manuscript there was neither a missing nor a superfluous letter, not even the seemingly optional letter vav.Only then did he permit it to be copied and distributed to the public. As a result of the many copies and copyists, however, a great many errors found their way into the text. (It is recorded elsewhere that there were those who intentionally corrupted the text in order to ascribe to the Alter Rebbe heretical views, so that they could later attack him.)6 At that point the Alter Rebbe sent messengers7 to the aforementioned tzaddikkim, to confer with them on the printing of the Tanya and to request their approbations.
Both his colleagues expressed their enthusiasm over the book. R. Yehudah Leib HaKohen said: “The Tanya is an incense to counter all the spiritual plagues besetting the generations just before the arrival of Mashiach.” R. Zusya predicted: “With the Tanya the Jewish people will go out to greet the righteous Mashiach.”
Both indicated in their approbations that they were writing in the week of Parshat Ki Tavo(“when you enter the Land”). One of the emissaries, R. Moshe Vilenker, gave two reasons for this: Firstly, by studying the Tanya thoroughly one “enters the Land” in a spiritual sense, meaning that he makes the essential will of his soul manifest — for the word רצון (“will”) is related to ארץ (“land”).8 Secondly, the ways of serving G‑d taught in the Tanya serve to transmute the curses enumerated in Parshat Ki Tavo into blessings.
Both tzaddikkim, R. Moshe Vilenker went on to explain, similarly indicated their esteem for the Tanya in the way they dated their approbations. R. Yehudah Leib HaKohen wrote “the year תקנ״ו,”9 which is an acrostic for תניא קטורת נשמה ורוח — “Tanya is the incense for the spirit and soul” — in keeping with his comment quoted above; R. Zusya wrote the date as שנת פדותינו— “the year of our Redemption” — indicating, as above, that the Jewish people will greetMashiach with the Tanya.