"Moshiach is ready to come now-our part is to increase in acts of goodness and kindness" -The Rebbe

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Studying Chassidus before Tefillah

It is the Chabad practice to study Chassidus Chabad, the intricate Chassidic discourses of the Rebbeim of Chabad, before Tefillah (prayer) daily. In this essay I will explain the sources, reasons, and goals of this practice, and I will conclude with an explanation of the connection between this study and hisbonenus (Chassidic meditation).

The earliest explicit source that I have found for this is in
Kuntres Etz Chaim (pp. 52-53), where the Rebbe Rashab writes: “In general, before Tefillah, there need not be any study other than study of Chassidus” (and therefore “those who rise early should learn Chassidus for the entire time before Tefillah”). Obviously, this study serves as a preparation for Tefillah. The reason for this is not discussed there.

The footnote to these words of the Rebbe Rashab (ibid., p. 52), which was written by the Rebbe (who wrote references and glosses to many works of the Chabad Rebbeim before his succession to the position of Rebbe), references Likkutei Torah, Savo, 53c. There the Alter Rebbe writes:
... The third [preparation for Tefillah (the first two being to donate Tzedakah and immerse in the Mikveh)] is to engage in and study words of mussar [ethical rebuke], and those words of mussar found in the Zohar in particular. For the word Zohar is etymologically related to the word for illumination, for [the Zohar] illuminates the place of darkness; this is the “wisdom of truth” [a term used to refer to kabbalistic teachings]. ... [The Alter Rebbe goes on to speak about the power of this study to arouse simple faith.]
Thus, the Rebbe cites Likkutei Torah as proving the concept of learning Chassidus before Tefillah. The obvious question is: where is Chassidus mentioned there? At first glance, Chassidus is significantly different both from Mussar and from Zohar and “The Wisdom of Truth”—Kabbalah.

In later years the Rebbe explained the connection (Toras Menachem 5713, Vol. 3, p. 17; see also Toras Menachem 5720, pp. 92):
... It is written in Likkutei Torah that one should “engage in and study words of mussar [ethical rebuke], and those words of mussar found in Zohar in particular.”

However, our Rebbeim, our Nesi’im, and elderly chassidim have already said that all the concepts in works of Mussar (such as Reishis Chochmah) and in the Zohar that are needed for one’s divine service were imbued by the Rebbeim into the teachings of Chassidus. Thus, the study of Chassidus contains all these qualities, along the lines of “two hundred includes one hundred” [Bava Kama 74a].
The Rebbe explains that since Chassidus contains teachings of Mussar and Zohar (and much more), it also counts as Mussar and Zohar.

I wish to suggest another, additional and closely related connection between Chassidus and the Zohar. The study of Chassidus, in addition to including numerous actual teachings from the Zohar, accomplishes the same thing as the Zohar. For the Alter Rebbe emphasizes that the greatness of the study of the Zohar is that it illuminates with an intense divine light. Similarly, it is known that the inner dimension of the Torah, which includes both Kabbalah and Chassidus, is known as the “luminary of Torah” on account of the intense divine light that shines through such Torah study. Thus, since Chassidus shares with Kabbalah this quality of providing divine illumination, it also qualifies for the Alter Rebbe’s words in Likkutei Torah.

What indeed is the purpose of this extra divine light that shines through the study of Zohar or Chassidus before Tefillah, by virtue of which it prepares one for Tefillah? This can apparently be explained in light of on an almost identical teaching of the Alter Rebbe (Migdal Oz, p. 426):
I heard from Maharam Halevi Yaffeh, who said in the Alter Rebbe’s name, that there are three methods for warding off foreign thoughts during Tefillah: ... [Tzedakah and Mikveh] Likewise, the language in the book of Zohar has a favorable effect on the soul, even if one does not know what one is saying. Since these three things do not require conscious intent, they are effective in cleansing one of foreign thoughts.
The similarity between this quote and the Alter Rebbe’s words in Likkutei Torah makes it reasonable to assume that it is quoting the same teaching. If so, it emerges that part of the reason for the Alter Rebbe’s recommendation in Likkutei Torah to observe these three practices is in order to ward off foreign thoughts during Tefillah. And since the Rebbe refers to Likkutei Torah as the basis for the custom of chassidim to study Chassidus before Tefillah, it follows that warding off foreign thoughts is also part of the reason for this custom.

Likewise, Reb Aizik of Homil writes (Choneh Ariel, Shemos, p. 64):
... As we heard explicitly from the Alter Rebbe in Liozhna, when there is a blockage of the brain [“timtum ha’moach”—i.e., the mind is spiritual dulled and not receptive reflection on holy concepts], [in order to counteract this] it is effective to read the words of the holy Zohar, even if one does not know what one is saying.
Here it refers to timtum ha’moach and not foreign thoughts, but the two are clearly related, for one whose mind is blocked up is also more likely to be beset by foreign thoughts. Learning Zohar and the like elicits a powerful light that significantly cleanses one’s mind of negative forces (known as “kelipos”) and thereby also repels foreign thoughts.

(Similar teachings can be found in non-Chabad Chassidic traditions. For example, Rabbi Shlomo HaCohen Rabinowitz of Radomsk interprets (Tiferes Shlomo, Rimzei Purim) the following verse concerning Esther and Achashverosh in a similar manner “ובבואה לפני המלך אמר עם הספר ישוב מחשבתו הרעה”—“But when she came before the king, he commanded via letters [lit., “he said with a book”] that his wicked device [lit., “wicked thought”] should be rescinded.” When one “comes before the king,” the King of all kings, in prayer, one should employ “the book,” i.e., Torah study, in order that “the wicked thought will be rescinded,” i.e., to dispel all foreign thoughts, enabling one to pray with clarity and purity.)

Thus, it emerges that the study of Kabbalah or Chassidus illuminates a Jew with a G–dly light, which cleanses him significantly of negative forces in preparation for Tefillah. This is what is typically known as an “Ohr Makif,” an “encompassing light,” a divine revelation that has a general positive effect but does not change the person on an individual, personal level, which is called an “Ohr Pnimi,” an “internal light.” This explanation is also consistent with the Alter Rebbe’s words further in the above quote from Likkutei Torah that the study of Zohar arouses the Jew’s simple faith, for faith is an Ohr Makif quality.

However, it should be pointed out that study alone is not sufficient to bring one to love and fear of Hashem during Tefillah. Indeed, learning Chassidus before Tefillah exerts a positive effect, both in terms of illuminating the person with an Ohr Makif and developing the soul’s faculty of Binah, abstract intellectual knowledge. However, this does not change one’s emotions, for (as explained at the end of Tanya ch. 3) the only way to arouse true feelings of love and fear of Hashem is through the soul’s faculty of Da’as. One can only tap into this faculty through hisbonenus—lengthy meditation upon Hashem’s greatness before and during Tefillah.

Accordingly, the study of Chassidus before Tefillah may also accomplish the goal of providing the person with material for reflection during his hisbonenus. Thus, the Rebbe writes (Igros Kodesh, Vol. 12, p. 241) that since there is an obligation to reflect upon “the greatness of Hashem and the lowliness of man” before Tefillah (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 98:1), one should learn Chassidus before Tefillah in order to enable one to engage in such reflection. 

However, what I understand this to mean is that one who has for whatever reason not studied sufficient material in order to engage in
hisbonenus at the time of Tefillah must learn Chassidus beforehand in order to attain this knowledge. However, this is not to say that one must engage in hisbonenus on the same subject matter that one studied before Tefillah; one may reflect upon other topics as well, as long as the concepts that one wishes to reflect upon are clear in one’s mind. Conversely, learning Chassidus before Tefillah still has value regardless of whether one goes on to use the knowledge then gained for hisbonenus, on account of the Ohr Makif that it elicits, as explained above.

It should be noted that it is in fact not desirable to make a habit of engaging in
hisbonenus on the same topic one studied that morning, for the goals of learning and hisbonenus may not coincide: When learning, one learns in order to cover ground, and the maamar (Chassidic discourse) that one learnt that morning one may have learnt for the first time. It is not appropriate to select such a maamar for hisbonenus, for one cannot truly grasp a concept without having studied it thoroughly and reviewed it several times (see Kuntres Etz Chaim, p. 52), and until the concept is fully grasped, one cannot truly use it for 
hisbonenus (see Igros Kodesh, Vol. 20, p. 52; cf. Kuntres HaTefillahp. 12, line starting veaf).

In summary, learning
Chassidus before Tefillah, along with immersing in the Mikveh and giving Tzedakah, illuminate the Jew’s soul with a divine light that prepares him for Tefillah. However, in order for one to arouse true love and fear of Hashem during Tefillah, these preparations need to be followed by hisbonenus.

Note: See also Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 35, p. 296. Kesser Shem Tov #120Sefer HaMa’amarim 5700, p. 140.

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