The Tanya was written by the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. In order to get a good idea of his biography, let’s head right to the source: the Chabad official biography. This brief bio was written by Nissan Mendel
Rabbi Schneur Zalman was born on the 18th day of Elul (which is also the birthday of the Baal-Shem-Tov), in the year 5505 (1745), in the town of Liozna, province of Mohilev, in White Russia, which was part of Poland at that time. His parents, Baruch and Rivkah, had three sons, all of whom were outstandingTalmud scholars and Rabbis.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s father was a man of some means. He came from a family that originally lived in Bohemia and directly traced its ancestry to the famed Rabbi Yehuda Lowe (Maharal) of Prague. R’ Baruch was a secret follower of the Baal-Shem-Tov, and when Schneur Zalman reached the age of three years, his father took him to the Baal-Shem-Tov for the traditional haircutting ceremony. That was the only time that Rabbi Schneur Zalman saw the Baal-Shem-Tov in his life, though he was fifteen years old when the Baal-Shem-Tov passed away. It was the Baal-Shem-Tov’s wish that Rabbi Schneur Zalman should find his own way of Chassidus.
Until the age of twelve Schneur Zalman studied under a scholar of noble character, Rabbi Issachar Ber, in Lubavitch. Then his teacher sent him back home, informing his father that the boy could continue his studies without the aid of a teacher.
When Schneur Zalman reached the age of Bar Mitzvah and, in accordance with custom, delivered his first public discourse on the Talmud, he was acclaimed as an outstanding Talmud
scholar. He was thereupon elected as an honorary member of the local Chevra Kaddisha and entered into the pinkas (Register) of the community with titles and honors given only to mature scholars of exceptional merit.
The fame of the young iluy (prodigy of learning) reached Vitebsk, where one of its most prominent Jews, Yehuda Leib Segal, a man of considerable wealth and scholarship, and a leader in the community, desired to have him as his son-inlaw. Rabbi Schneur Zalman was fifteen years old when he married Sterna, Yehuda Leib’s daughter. She proved to be a worthy mate, who stood by him throughout his lifetime. As was the custom in the better families of those days, the young couple was fully supported by the wife’s father for several years, so that the young scholar could dedicate all of his time to the learning of Torah.
Before his marriage, Rabbi Schneur Zalman began to take an active interest in the economic position of his brethren. He had always felt that the towns and cities were too overcrowded to offer many opportunities to the Jews for making a living, and that more Jews should settle on the land and engage in agricultural pursuits. In his younger days he stood up on a wagon in the market place in Liozna, where many Jews had gathered for the local fair, and delivered a talk on the need of settling on the land. Now that he was married and in possession of a substantial dowry, he created a special fund, with the consent of his wife, to help Jewish families settle on the land.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s father-in-law had dealings with the nobles and high officials in and around Vitebsk. Two occasions presented themselves to him to introduce his brilliant son-in-law to these circles. One occasion was when the sun-dial in the garden of the governor of Vitebsk suddenly stopped functioning perfectly. Severa1 scientists whom the governor had called in, failed to solve the mystery. Finally, the young Rabbi Schneur Zalman was invited to take a look at it and he discovered the cause of the malfunction in an obstruction created by trees that had grown tall on a hill at a certain distance away. The other occasion was when he solved a mathematical problem with which the local academy of science had been wrestling for a long time. Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s reputation and acquaintance with the local nobility later stood him in good stead.
II. Turning Point
Being a very ardent student, and gifted with a brilliant mind, Rabbi Schneur Zalman had become proficient in the entire Talmudic literature ,with all its commentaries and early and late poskim (codifiers), before he was eighteen years old. Soon afterwards he decided to leave home in search of a teacher and guide to help him attain a higher degree of Divine service. From wandering scholars that passed through Vitebsk he had heard about the saintly teacher of Miezricz, Rabbi Dov Ber, the disciple and successor of the Baal-Shem-Tov. It was said: “In Wilno you learn how to master the Torah; in Miezricz you learn how to let the Torah master you.” Rabbi Schneur Zalman made the momentous decision to go to Miezricz. This was the turning point in his life.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s father-in-law was vehemently opposed to his going to Miezricz. Like many other Jews at that time, who knew very little of Chassidus and what it stood for, Yehuda Leib Segal was a bitter opponent of the new movement. He threatened to deprive his son-in-law and daughter of any further financial assistance if Rabbi Schneur Zalman did not change his mind. But Sterna stood by her husband and agreed to his leaving home for eighteen months. She sold some of her precious possessions to buy a horse and cart for her husband to make the long trip. Rabbi Schneur Zalman set out for Miezricz together with his brother Rabbi Yehuda Leib. Having made their way to Orsha, a distance of fifty miles, the horse collapsed. Rabbi Schneur Zalman then learned that his brother had left home without his wife’s consent. He urged him to return home, while he himself continued his journey to Miezricz on foot.
His first impressions were not encouraging, but Rabbi Schneur Zalman decided to stay, and before long he realized how saintly and learned Rabbi Dov Ber was, and became his devoted disciple.
Returning to Vitebsk after eighteen months, as he had promised his wife, Rabbi Schneur Zalman met with a great deal of animosity on the part of his wife’s family and other members of the community. But he also gained a number of followers who were eager to learn about the Chassidic teachings and way of life. Soon Rabbi Schneur Zalman went to Miezricz again, and continued to visit his master from time to time, following him also to Rovno and Anipoli, where Rabbi Dov Ber moved towards the end of his life.
For several years Rabbi Schneur Zalman and his wife suffered many hardships. Finally, in the year 5527 (1767), he was offered the position of Maggid(preacher) in his home town Liozna. He accepted this post, which he held for the next thirty years, until he moved to Liadi after his second arrest and liberation (in 1800).
When Rabbi Schneur Zalman was barely twenty-five years old, Rabbi Dov Ber chose him, the youngest of his disciples, to re-edit the Shulchan Aruch. It was 200 years since Rabbi Joseph Caro had written his famous work. During this time much material had been added to the Halachah literature, and it was Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s task to examine and sift all the new Rabbinical material, make decisions where necessary in the light of the earlier codifiers and Talmudic authorities, and finally embody the results into the new edition of the Shulchan Aruch, thus bringing it up-to-date. Rabbi Schneur Zalman superbly accomplished this task, which gave him an honored place among the great codifiers of Jewish Law. The work became known as the “Rav’s Shulchan Aruch,” in distinction from its forerunner.
Several years later he began to work out his Chabad system of Chassidus, which he eventually published in his famous work Likkutei Amarim, or Tanya.’
On the 19th of Kislev, in the year 5532 (1772) , Rabbi Dov Ber passed away. His disciples resolved to continue spreading the teachings of Chassidus in their respective territories. Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s task was to capture the very stronghold of the opposition, the province of Lithuania, with Wilno, the seat of the famed Gaon Rabbi Elijah. During the next three years Rabbi Schneur Zalman visited many important communities, where he preached publicly and won many followers. But the spread of the Chassidic movement only sharpened the opposition. Rabbi Schneur Zalman, accompanied by his senior colleague Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Horodok, went to Wilno in the hope of convincing the Gaon that his opposition was based on misinformation. But Rabbi Elijah refused to see them. Rabbi Menachem Mendel and some other Chassidic leaders and followers left for the Holy Land. Rabbi Schneur Zalman undertook to raise funds for their support. When Rabbi Menachem Mendel died (in 1788) , Rabbi Schneur Zalman was recognized as the chief leader of the Chassidim.
I would encourage you to visit and read through the materials related to the life and works of the Alter Rebbe.