Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745 – 1812) was a mystic, a communal activist, a philosopher, a halachic authority, a composer, an Orthodox Rabbi, and the founder of Chabad, then based in Liadi, Imperial Russia (Chabad is an intellectual-mystical school of thought and a branch of Hasidic Judaism). Rabbi Zalman was also the great-great-grandson of the mystic and philosopher Rabbi Judah Loew, the “Maharal of Prague”.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman displayed extraordinary talent even as a child. By eight years of age, he wrote an all- inclusive commentary on the Chumash (one of the five books of the Torah) based on the works of earlier Jewish philosophers. Until the age of 12, he studied under Rabbi Issachar Ber, in Lubavitch, at which point Zalman had distinguished himself as a Talmudist and was sent home by his teacher to continue his studies unaided. At his Bar Mitzvah celebration, Zalman delivered a discourse about the complex laws of Kiddush Hachodesh (blessing of the new month), after which the people of his town gave him the title “Rav”.
As the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Zalman was a spiritual guide who created a practical path that helps people to approach divinity. Rabbi Zalman was the author of many works, and is best known for Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Siddur Torah Or, and Tanya, which expounds on such profound themes as the Oneness of God.
In his commentary on the Siddur, Rabbi Schneur Zalman stated that in mystical union, the existence of souls is “annihilated and they are comprised in the aspect of Nought in the source wherefrom they were extractred in the beginning…exactly as in the parable of the extinction of the wick in the fire that lies just beside it.” According to Moshe Idel and Bernard McGinn, the authors of Mystical Union in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: An Ecumenical Dialogue, “God as the consuming fire is the major metaphor in this parable….the soul is here conceived as consumed by the divine flame that is apparently envisioned as surrounding it, just as the fire surrounds the wick. In accordance with the parable, the wick nourishes the flame while it is at the same time consumed by it.”
Rabbi Schneur Zalman wrote the following of the state of mystical consciousness, a description which presumably described his experience:
“When man cleaves [i.e., adheres] to God, it is very delightful for Him [God], and very savorous for Him, so much so that He will swallow it into his heart, etc., as the corporeal throat swallows. And this is the true cleaving, as he [man] becomes one substance with God in whom he was swallowed, without being separate [from God] to be considered a distinct entity at all. That is the meaning [of the verse] ‘and you shall cleave to Him’ – (to cleave), literally.”
Quoted from Mystical Union in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: An Ecumenical Dialogue by Moshe Idel and Bernard McGinn.
Photo Credit: Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi from www.shturem.org.
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