Q. Please explain the difference between Tanya and Zohar?
A. The Zohar (The Book of Splendor) is the central book in the literature of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah). It is attributed to Shimon bar Yoh’ai, a second century Tanna, but modern scholarship has concluded beyond any shade of doubt, that the Zohar was compiled in Spain during thirteenth-century.
Citations from the Zohar first appeared in Kabbalistic writings after 1280, and analysis of the book’s terminology and prose style shows that its real author is Mosheh de León (1240-1305), a Castilian Kabbalist. It was not unusual for scholars in those days to attribute works to long famous dead sages as a means of selling manuscripts for a hefty profit! People have been doing this since the beginning of recorded history; even today, it is not uncommon to see a new book that purports to be written by a famous person who lived in the days of antiquity.
New Testament scholars are especially well aware of this kind of shtick. In Late Antiquity, there is an entire literature scholars now refer to as the “Pseudepigrapha.” Works like “The Life of Adam and Eve” and the “Apocalypse of Moses” are really examples of proto-midrashic writing and the Zohar is another example of that genre of literature.
To add to the mystique of the Zohar, the author creates the existence of a secret organized group of “companions” (havrayya), who kept the secret of the Zohar to themselves. What is ironic, and is certainly a dead giveaway to the real author of the Zohar, are the stories the Zohar weaves from the Talmud pertaining to dead Amoraim who lived centuries after Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The Zohar’s language is written in artificial Aramaic that is replete with numerous grammatical incongruities and Spanish words with numerous citations from other medieval works. Despite the grandiose claim about its purported author, R Mosheh de León proved to be an exceptional promoter. Say what you will about the author, the Zohar is a really a gold mine of mystical insights and treasures.
All and all, the Zohar is essentially a mystical and allegorical commentary on the various books of the Bible. It’s language is shamelessly evocative and uses very human-like similes. Sexual imagery abounds as the author attempted to express the nature and power of God’s erotic love toward Israel. Its work is truly one of the great mystical works of the last 1000 years, and it has inspired countless Jewish mystical texts ever since its first publication.
Many subsequent works of Jewish mysticism were profoundly touched by the spirit ever present in the Zohar. One of the great 18th century works that reflect is the work known as the Tanya which was written by Rabbi Shenier Zalman of Liadi (1745B1813), founder of Habad Hasidism. The Tanya is essentially a spiritual tract pertaining to personal growth and the time-honored teachings of Jewish mysticism. Shenier Zalman of Liadi was the founder of the Chabad school of thought.
The term “Chabad” is an acronym for Chochma (the power of conceptualization) Binah (discernment and understanding) and Da’at (knowledge that is existential and feeling). Of all the early students of the Maggid of Meseritz, Shenir Zalman stressed the most intellectual approach in the service of God. The goal of the Tanya was to help ordinary people become spiritually deep. In the theology of the Tanya, the author did not concern himself with the spiritual welfare of the Tsadik [righteous man] who mastered and transformed his own inner darkness to light. To Sheneir Zalman, his goal was to improve the spiritual consciousness of the Beinoni — the average person.
Keeping with the devotional piety of the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) who founded the Hasidic movement, Shenier Zalman wrote a book detailing how every person may master his own thoughts, speech and actions. Central to the Tanya is the contemplative experience [which he terms hitbonenut] where the worshiper focuses on the Unity of God and the earthly realization of the Heavenly Kingdom. The task of the beinoni is not “to change darkness into light or bitter into sweet,” nor can he be expected to transform evil into good. Shenier Zalman’s goal is quite pragmatic — resist the temptation to do wrong. Sheneir Zalman does not see evil as bad per se, it is there to test our moral character. When the beinoni learns to defy evil, the Presence of God becomes manifest in all spiritual worlds.
Again drawing inspiration from the Baal Shem Tov, the Tanya stresses that within our heart is a profound desire to connect with the Divine, and that all one had to do was to blow the embers that laid dormant in one’s soul to arouse it into a mighty flame. No intellectual awareness was worth its salt unless it had the power to effect a spiritual change in the human personality for the better. The Tanya also stresses the spiritual power that is ever present in the mitzva, and that without love and awe, worship of God was impossible. As is true with all Chassidic teachings, joy is an essential quality we must experience — especially when engaged in prayer.
One of the Tanya’s most beautiful tracts dealing with creation spirituality is his Sha’ar ha-Yihud ve-ha-Emunah — the “Portal to Unification and Faith.” In this tract, Shenier Zalman stresses the hidden power of the Divine that is ever-present within creation. In our desire to get close to God, we must not deny the world and everything that it contains as an illusion. On the contrary, we must learn to see the power of the Divine that is animating all things continuously. Essential in any spiritual growth, is the experience of “bittul hyesh” putting the egoic-self aside i.e., transcending the walls and boundaries of the ego will enable to behold and experience a newer and infinitely grander spiritual landscape. This spiritual surrendering of the self is the only way we will ever be able to build a terrestrial home for the Shekhinah to dwell in. This section has long been one of the great works of Chabad philosophy and invites interesting comparison to Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin’s Nefesh HaChayim, which develops similar themes.