The word "tzaddik", typically translated as "righteous", comes up quite a lot in different Jewish texts. Someone who is righteous would be called a "tzaddik", as a noun. There are often different levels of righteousness, which I am here referring to as the "righteousness hierarchy", for lack of a better term. Generally, this refers to multiple gradations of being a tzaddik, or some level beyond that of a tzaddik. More "normal" people would be either a rasha (wicked) or beinoni (in between).

There is a lot of variation in what exactly the term means, however, depending on the source. For instance, the Talmud (I have no specific page number, but this is what I understand the Talmud to say by other sources) states that a tzaddik is anyone whose good deeds outweigh their bad, and so is written in Sefer Tzaddikim on Rosh Hashanah. The Tanya's first chapter, meanwhile, states that a tzaddik is far above such a level, and in fact not only has no sins, but has no desire to sin at all (and, if I understand the text correctly, may not even have any evil inclination!). The beinoni, meanwhile, has no sins but may still have a desire to do so, that must be overcome. The Tanya explains that the Talmud uses the concept of a "relative tzaddik" when discussing the idea, and does not, as far as I know, discuss any level or gradation above that of the tzaddik. It also says that people are either born with this capability (or at least potential for it), or they are not and so the beinoni is the highest achievable ranking for most.

Mesilas Yesharim, by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, gives a gradation of yeshar < tzaddik < chasid < kodesh, where the first three are attainable by anyone through their own merit but the kodesh requires intervention from Hashem. I am not certain whether all four levels are in fact "tzaddikim" (that is, the whole concept has the name of its second level) or if only the second level is. Meanwhile, one footnote to the Koren NCSY Siddur for weekday and shabbos (page 423) quotes another rabbi, Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin, who places the yeshar's status above that of the tzaddik, and says the tzaddik retains a desire to sin and the yeshar does not. In this formulation, the tzaddik is like that of the Tanya's beinoni, and the yeshar is like the Tanya's tzaddik. (Information is not given as to if or how a normal person can attain these levels).

There are enough commonalities between these different ideas that it seems as though they might be talking about the same phenomenon and simply disagree on the nomenclature, but there are also some notable differences. What exactly are the relationships between the concepts of tzaddik, beinoni, chasid, etc, within these different fromeworks? Do they refer to the same thing but with different words? Are they related but distinct ideas? Or do the sources disagree on what it means to be a tzaddik in a more fundamental way than simply what word refers to what status?

  • The Alter Rebbe also wrote a Sefer Shel Tzadikim which was lost. I think I've heard that the רשע in the latter is the same as the צדיק ורע לו in Tanya.
    – shmosel
    Commented Feb 24, 2023 at 4:35
  • I've heard of the Sefer Shel Tzadikim, albeit only once. The story goes that it was so holy that Hashem sent heavenly fire to destroy the only copy, since it couldn't be allowed to exist. I admit i have not looked into it in any detail, but are we sure it really existed and isn't just a (admittedly pretty cool) fable about the Alter Rebbe?
    – Benyamin
    Commented Feb 24, 2023 at 4:53
  • It seems to be a legitimate tradition. The Rebbe writes in the name of the Rayatz that the Shpoler Zeide told the Alter Rebbe, "You're writing a Sefer Shel Tzadikim, but the world can't handle it. In heaven they decreed it should be burned, and I will go up with its flame to heaven." And he passed away at the time the fire broke out.
    – shmosel
    Commented Feb 24, 2023 at 5:15

1 Answer 1


The tl;dr answer is that the terms are variable, but the concepts are the same (perhaps with some minor debatable differences).

You've done a good job in the question demonstrating this. A comparison between Mesilat Yisharim and Tanya would be a good way to approach this.

In Mesilat Yisharim, the first 3 chapters are about becoming a "Tzaddik". The highest rank of that is a "Naki" and Ramchal confirms in Chapter 13 that he describes a "Naki" as a "Tzaddik". It refers to someone who has completely stopped all sinning, because he has become aware of Hashem to the point where he would be simply too ashamed to sin anymore, even though he could feel temptation.

This matches up with Tanya's "Benoni" practically to a T. In chapter 1, the Rebbe explains with reasoning why he chose that word, after Rabba, instead of Tzaddik. Ramchal didn't go into detail in the terminology in that way, so just uses the more standard "Tzaddik" to explain the idea.

It's the idea, that is the important thing. I.e. that there is a grade which anyone can achieve where one graduates beyond good and evil. Evil no longer exists in a person's range of free-will options. Both sefarim then take the reader to a new place, the first rung in the ladder of being a real mentch, which is to be a Chassid.

After sorting out one's actions and middot, a person now has a new task - to work on their intentions. Once a person is no longer battling their yeitzer hara daily, they have a new job to do, which is overcome self-centeredness altogether. I.e., reach a point where one doesn't spend their time and energy in the pursuit of their own survival and wants (which doing good deeds and avoiding evil can certainly just be an extension of), but spend it serving others, pursuing their survival and wants.

Mesilat Yisharim takes us through three steps in that. The first is perishut, which is the first step in weaning oneself off one's desires and self-service. Then one begins working on one's intentions in "Tahara", so that they are doing good because it's right, not because it's good for me. Then they will move on to working on their heart and mind as a "Chassid", who does good because it pleases Hashem and one's fellow man, and this is their great passion, borne out of a true altruistic love for ones fellow Neshamot, and one's Creator. All of this can be found in Tanya or other Chassidic works. There's no fundamental disagreement on anything.

I have not personally done a good comparative study between "Kadosh" and "Tanya Tzaddik", I wouldn't be surprised to find many parallels, although if they are different, that would also make sense, as there is a lot to discuss in these topics.

The point is, all of these works, which were all produced in a similar time in history, all stand on the shoulders of the giants of old. They build from the same sources: Talmud, Aggadah, Rambam, Chovot Levavot... One can see how they draw from these and produce, remarkably, very similar ideas (using different words) to teach us what Hashem wants. Even though they didn't live in the same countries or lifetimes, they all end up following the Torah to the same place and that's what is our charge to learn and follow, each to their preference and minhag.

I hope that answers your question. Don't worry too much about terminology.

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    To be honest, the Tanya uses the terms "tzadiq" and "beinoni" in new ways, differently than anyone before him did. Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 12:55
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    Well, I know Chabad Chassidim will find the following irritating to read, but... Yes. The Rebbe has a chiddush, and read it into sources no one else had. For someone who didn't buy into Chabad, it sounds like he transvalued those sources to say something their authors didn't intent. Simple peshat is that Rabba was saying he's somewhere in the middle of the righteousness range, and Abayei was saying that Rabba's so far above the rest of us, his words set an impossible standard.... Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 16:53
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    ,... Rewriting the entire lexicon based on the assumption that just because Rabba was immersed in Torah 24x7 he couldn't have thought so little of himself. It's a nice thought, but it's really not proof, never mind evidence of the magnitude necessary for a claim this large. Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 16:53
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    @RabbiKaiim ascribing to someone a chiddush is not an act of disrespect. But we do needto be aware that any answer involving that position is specific to that Rebbe's school of thought. Commented Feb 24, 2023 at 17:14
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    @Benyaminm how do we know Rabba didn't inaccurately assess himself as a beinoni in the usage the Tanya denies? Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai died not being sure which way his soul would then go. So, he thought he was close to balanced when he obviously wasn't; why not Rabba? Commented Feb 24, 2023 at 17:19

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