Interestingly, the work was originally published under another title: Likkutei Amarim, “Collected Discourses” (Slavita, 1796). The author humbly refers to his masterpiece as simply a collection of works and teachings of earlier rabbis, disclaiming any originality for his work. It was subtitled Sefer shel Beinonim, “Book of the Intermediates,” indicating that the Tanya is intended for the average Jew, the intermediate person whose moral position is between the tzaddik (“righteous”) and rasha (“wicked”).
Yet the book was simply referred to as the Tanya (“we have learned”), which is the first word of the text. The second time it was published (Zolkiew, 1798), it was done so under the title Tanya, with Likkutei Amarim as the subtitle.
Why is the book referred to as the Tanya? How does this title encapsulate the essence of this holy work? To further complicate things, tanya does not even seem like the appropriate word with which to begin the text.
Generational Terminology in the Talmud
Every beginning student of Talmud is taught that when the Talmud uses the term tanya, it is introducing a baraita, a teaching from the Tannaim, the rabbis of the Mishnaic age. These sages flourished in Israel during the era of the Second Temple and approximately 200 years afterward.
The Tanya opens with such a quote from the Talmud:
Tanya [It has been taught] (in the end of the third chapter of Tractate Niddah): An oath is administered to him [i.e., the soul before birth, warning him]: “Be righteous and be not wicked; and even if the whole world tells you that you are righteous, regard yourself as if you were wicked.”
But if you open a Talmud to Niddah 30b, you’ll find that this teaching is actually attributed to Rabbi Simlai, who lived in the 3rd century, after the period of the Tannaim had ended. In fact, when the Talmud introduces this teaching, it does so with the words darash Rabbi Simlai, “Rabbi Simlai taught.”
It appears as though Rabbi Schneur Zalman specifically chose to start his work with the word tanya, and he underscored this intention by introducing the Talmudic teaching in a nonstandard way.2 The third Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, known as the Tzemach Tzedek (and grandson of Rabbi Schneur Zalman), gives two explanations as to why this could be.
In explaining why a special section of the Zohar, known as the Idra Rabbah3 (“The Great Assembly”),starts with the word tanya, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (“the Arizal”) explains that tanya is also the name of an especially strong negative spiritual force. This force specifically targets Torah scholars by trying to convince them that “it is enough to learn the revealed aspects of the Torah, and there is no need to delve into the mystical.” However, it is specifically through learning the deeper mystical aspects of the Torah that one breaks this negative force.4
Eitan: More Power to You
In his work Likkutei Torah, Rabbi Schneur Zalman writes that every Jew has a level called eitan, i.e., “might,” which stems from the essence of the soul and gives us the strength to serve G‑d even in the face of adversity.7
The Tzemach Tzedek explains that by beginning his work with the word tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was hinting that through learning Tanya, we arouse the eitan of our souls, strengthening us in our service of our Creator.8