Shiur #15: Tzimtzum

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

The theological discussion that was opened in the previous shiurcan be better understood against the background of a fundamental Kabbalistic teaching of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the interpretation of which was a subject of dispute between the Chassidim and the Mitnagdim. I refer to the concept of tzimtzum, "contraction." This is certainly an exceedingly elevated idea, and the very encounter with it requires, first and foremost, fear of God and extreme caution.


It is said about God that "no human thought can have any grasp of Him at all." Chazal in the Midrash and the Kabbalistic authorities speak of the Creator in terms that present us with a visual image, but we must reiterate the principle, that is often emphasized by Chazal and the Kabbalists, that these statements were uttered using metaphorical language.


Let us examine, for example, the statement that: "The Holy One, blessed is He, is the place of the world, but the world is not His place." What we have here is a positive assertion and a negation. The negation, "But the world is not His place," means that God is not found within this world. He does not require the physical frame of a place; in this He stands in contrast to material beings who exist only within some space. In other words, the Creator is "above space" – He exists outside the three spatial dimensions with which we are familiar.


When we move to the positive assertion in this statement, "He is the place of the world," we encounter something that might be misleading. Here, too, we find the term "place" in relation to God, as if the idea of "place" is somehow relevant to Him. But we must understand that the term "place" as a positive attribute of God, is something abstract, and different from real and concrete place, which is denied in the second half of the statement. Here, we are not dealing with place that has the physical dimensions of length, width and depth. Rather God maintains a relationship with the world that is similar to the relationship that the "world" itself – the three dimensions of existence – maintains with all that exists within it. The location of an object is that which encompasses it, bears it, and allows it space to exist. God too is encompassing, that is, He bears the world and allows it space to exist. He allows for the very phenomenon of physical place – the phenomenon which is the only framework in which the amazing concrete reality as we know it can exist.


It is not by chance that I chose the statement of Chazal dealing with "the place of the world" to exemplify metaphorical meaning. The idea underlying that statement is directly connected to the concept of tzimtzum.


Creation: Precise Divine Planning or a “Surprise?”


On the face of it, the creation of the universe is an unparalleled expression of God's greatness, ability and control. Upon closer examination, however, we are liable to wonder whether indeed this is true. Does not the very existence of the universe challenge the exclusivity and uniqueness of God? Prior to the world's creation, God was the sole reality; He had unlimited power and freedom. However, once the world was created, His options were already closed, as it were, and God was no longer free to decide not to create this world; and this world itself conducts itself with a certain degree of autonomy. Furthermore, the very existence of the world is only possible if the Creator shares with it the crown of existence. It would seem then that creation, which is the loftiest revelation of God's lordship, eats away at the principle of Divine being that fills all. This is a paradox, and thinking about it is likely to make us uncomfortable, to say the least.


It is interesting to note that this problem is already reflected in the ancient sources. On the face of it, the creation story in the book of Bereishit introduces us to a king who oversees the formation of the world, whose commands are precisely fulfilled in accordance with His plan, ex nihilo, without effort. "For He spoke, and it was; He commanded, and it stood." Nevertheless, the plain sense of Scripture also has another subtle, but clear, note.


Following the creation of light, we read: "And God saw the light, that it was good." How are we to understand this discovery concerning the goodness of the light? The Creator designed the light from the outset, and presumably also its superior quality. Why does the Torah tell us that only at the second stage did God discover that the light was good, as if this were a surprising development, for which He was not the architect? The puzzle grows as we become more aware of this phenomenon over the course of the creation story, and especially at its end: "And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good." The use of the word "behold" magnifies the feeling that this assessment of creation could not necessarily have been predicted; it is as if the grace and charm of creation were not part of the technical specifications of the original plan. God withdraws, and from the sideline He beholds the spectacular vision with astonishment, and enjoys His creation, so to speak, like a parent who derives satisfaction from his children's achievements.[1]


This thin filament in the creation story thickens in an early Kabbalistic work, Sefer ha-Bahir, which presents us with a picturesque account of the creation of the world:


Rabbi Rachumai sat and expounded: What is the meaning of the verse (Devarim 33:23): "And full with the blessing of the Lord; possess you the sea and the south"? This means that wherever we find the letter bet it is blessed. This is the fullness referred to in the verse: "And full with the blessing of the Lord." From there it nourishes those who need it. It was from this fullness that God sought advice. To what may this be likened? To a king who wanted to build his palace among great cliffs. He mined into the bedrock and uncovered a great spring of living water. The king then said: "Since I have flowing water, I will plant a garden. Then I will delight in it, and so will all the world." It is therefore written (Mishlei 8:30): "Then I was by Him, as a nursling; and I was day after day all delight, playing always before Him." The Torah is saying: For two thousand years I was in the bosom of the Holy One, blessed is He, as it is stated: "Day after day." Each day of the Holy One, blessed is He, is a thousand years…

What is a blessing? To what can this be likened? To a king who planted trees in his garden. It may rain and water them, and the ground may be wet and provide them with moisture, but still, he must water them from the spring, as it is stated: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all they that do thereafter" (Tehilim 111:10)… (Sefer ha-Bahir, sec. 5-6)


What is stated here is not completely clear. In any event, we read here about a king who planned to build a palace, but while he was digging the foundations, he discovered a great spring. What stands out here is the element of surprise, as a result of which the king withdrew from his original plan: Instead of building a palace – a structure that emphasizes his ability and uniqueness – he decides to enjoy the blessing of the spring by planting a garden in which He and the world can take delight. In the continuation we learn that the spring is the Torah, which appears here as the force that gives life to the universe.


Instead of the King demonstrating His incredible power through creation ex nihilo, we hear of creation "something from something," of a king who discovers a reality that is full of the grace and charm of blessing that issues forth by itself. The King is not portrayed here as having planned this reality, but rather as one who allows it to grow, and it brings Him pleasure and amusement. "And He saw that it was good."


These allusions can be seen as the early roots of the principle of tzimtzum, which the Ari turned into an explicit foundation for understanding creation. According to this teaching, the creation of the world necessitated God's withdrawal in the ontological sense. According to the writings of the Ari's students, the Ari used a certain graphic description to describe the event of tzimtzum, a description that gave rise to many disagreements about how to understand what he is saying. It is not our intention to discuss this issue. We will suffice with the accepted understanding that the words of the Ari in this matter should be understood as a symbol and allegory, but in any case, the picturesque nature of the description emphasizes the daring that underlies the idea of tzimtzum.


After the theory of tzimtzum became widely accepted, Rabbi Yaakov Emden wrote that even one who is not a Kabbalist must agree to it; for otherwise it is impossible to understand creation: "This mystery, while it is exceedingly awesome, who can contain it, nevertheless it is included among the rational principles. For all the philosophers of all times maintain that God is the place of the world, but the world is not His place. Therefore, the principle of tzimtzum is necessary, as it is impossible to imagine creation any other way… In my opinion, this knowledge does not require a prophet, an angel or the soul of a righteous man in the Garden of Eden to reveal it, because human reasoning attests to it as if it were comprehended by the senses."[2]


The Problematic Nature of the Concept of Tzimtzum


Rabbi Yaakov Emden understood that the idea of tzimtzum comes to describe the creation of the universe as we know it through our ordinary senses, and to explain how our amazing world came into being and became a living and breathing reality, without it being a contradiction to the infiniteness of Divine reality. His appreciation of the idea of tzimtzum is rational on the one hand, but on the other hand, he argues that the mystery is "exceedingly awesome, who can contain it," as befits a profound Kabbalistic teaching. Once again we encounter the discomfort that arises from the need to attribute some significant limitation to God. According to our faith, God is immeasurably beyond the concepts of time and space; hence the idea that the existence of our world which is subordinate to these dimensions requires contraction of any kind on the part of God certainly provokes confusion.


It seems, however, that consideration of these matters from a more modern and existential perspective is likely to ease the distress. When we contemplate these matters in human terms (which are the only terms available to us), and try to imagine the greater perfection, it is difficult to decide which is better – independent perfection, or perfection that includes the power to relate to some other being and make room for it. For example, a person who is perfect in his knowledge and his character traits and lives on a desert island or in an ivory tower, is perfect in himself, but he is detached from the world that surrounds him, he is irrelevant to it, and he is not influenced by nor does he exert any influence on it. Is this called perfection? Is there any substitute for the contribution of rich and dynamic relationships? While there may be tension here, and perhaps even a contradiction, between two definitions or two models, yet it is not at all clear that we impair our admiration of Divine perfection, when from our perspective we attribute to God the two aspects that rise from and grow out of the examples that were mentioned.


Tzimtzum According to the Author of the Tanya


Our purpose here is to examine how the concept of tzimtzum became a key element in the dispute between the Chassidim and the Mitnagdim. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi deals with this issue at length in Shaar ha-Yichud ve-he-Emuna in the Tanya. I wish to bring here one central idea mentioned there and relevant to our discussion.


Shaar ha-Yichud ve-he-Emuna opens with the verse: "Know this day, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord, He is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath." What is the novelty in this verse, asks Rabbi Shneur Zalman. On the face of it we are dealing with a simple fact, that there is no God other than the Holy One, blessed is He. Why is especially deep reflection on this idea ("And lay it to your heart") necessary?


From here the author develops a broad and deep approach, which claims that God's creation of the world is essentially different from all human creation as we know it. When a person creates something, he detaches himself from the finished piece, and from that point on his creation stands on its own. This is not the case with the world, which even after it was created by God in a one-time act, continues to exist by virtue of God's active involvement in it. From here Rabbi Shneur Zalman arrives at a far-reaching ontological assumption which is connected to the idea of tzimtzum:


Now, the name Elohim is the name which indicates the attribute of gevura and tzimtzum, hence it is also numerically equal to the word hateva (nature), for it [Elohim] conceals the supernal light which brings the world into existence and gives it life, and it appears as though the world exists and conducts itself in a natural way. And this name Elohim is a shield and a covering for the name Hava'ye, to conceal the light and life-force which flows from the name Hava'ye and brings creation into existence from naught, so that it [the light and life-force] should not be revealed to the creatures, who thereby would become absolutely nullified. (Tanya, Shaar ha-Yichud ve-he-Emuna, chap. 6)


The name Hava'ye (the Tetragrammaton) and the name Elohim represent two of God's attributes which find expression in the creation of the world. The name Hava'ye denotes the light that gives life to the world, while the name Elohim denotes the attribute of gevura, which is the attribute of tzimtzum. The light of the name Hava'ye appears to be the lovingkindness of the life-force, but gevura is also lovingkindness, for without it all created beings would be nullified by the power of that intense light which is meant to give them life. This is a known paradox in Kabbalistic thinking, but it should be noted that the result of this tzimtzum is formulated by Rabbi Shneur Zalman in a special way. After activating the attribute of gevura, "it appears as though the world exists and conducts itself in a natural way." Tzimtzum "conceals the light and life-force so that it [the light and life-force] should not be revealed to the creatures, who thereby would become absolutely nullified."The role of gevura is not to regulate the amount of abundance reaching God's creations, so that they not drown in and fall apart from the overflow. Rather it is to conceal the light from their awareness, so that they should be able to continue the illusion, as if they maintain an autonomous existence.


God's tzimtzum is meant to conceal, but a distinction must be made between two possible interpretations of this "concealment." One can understand that God really diminishes His presence in order to make room for independent existence outside of Him. This is the classical understanding of the concept of tzimtzum,[3]and so it was understood by Rabbi Yaakov Emden. But Rabbi Shneur Zalman understands this concealment in the sense of concealing a certain truth from others. The universe, with all its creatures and people, lives in the illusion of its self-existence, thanks to tzimtzum.


Rabbi Shneur Zalman continues to explain the verse: "Know this day":


Since this is so, you will consequently know that "in the heavens above and on the earth below,en od — there is nothing else [besides God]." This means that even the material earth, which appears to the eyes of all to be actually existing is naught and complete nothingness in relation to the Holy One, blessed is He. For the name Elohim conceals and contracts [the light and life-force] only for the lower [creatures], but not for the Holy One, blessed is He, since He and His nameElohimare One. Therefore, even the earth and that which is below it are naught and complete nothingness in relation to the Holy One, blessed is He, and are not called by any name at all, not even the nameod(else) which is an expression indicating a secondary, subordinate status… 

Therefore, it was necessary for Scripture to warn: "And know this day and lay it to your heart…," so that it should not enter your mind that the heavens and all their host and the earth and all therein are separate entities in themselves… For their very being and essence was brought into existence from naught and absolute nothingness, solely through the word of God and the breath of His mouth, may He be blessed. And the word of God still stands forever [in all created things], and flows into them continuously at every instant and continuously brings them into existence from nothing, just as, for example, the coming into existence of the light from the sun within the very globe of the sun. Hence, in reality, they [heaven and earth] are completely nullified in relation to the word of God and the breath of His mouth… Yet these are His restraining powers, to hide and conceal, through the attribute of gevura and tzimtzum, the life-force which flows into them, so that heaven and earth and all their host should appear as if they were independently existing entities.


The idea of tzimtzum does not come to explain how the world can exist apart from God. This question is not really a question, because such a reality is in fact illusory. On the contrary, tzimtzum explains how the situation came about that this question bothers us. The existence of the world is a phenomenon that exists in an imaginary space, which exists only in the eyes of the viewer. That viewer, when the real truth illuminates his eyes, sees how everything is nullified by the one Divine reality, like – Rabbi Shneur likes the metaphor – the rays of the sun are "really" nullified by the very globe of the sun.[4]


If we go back to the Besht's parable involving the king who surrounds himself with illusory walls, we will understand how the idea of tzimtzum gives it, following the interpretation of Rabbi Shneur, depth and strength. God appears to be distant from us in every possible sense: "no human thought can have any grasp of Him at all." But in actuality man has no choice or escape from Gods' life-giving and immediate presence, to the point that it nullifies all other existence, since God is everything, "really." All the barriers are dissolved, for the entire world (including man himself) enjoys illusory existence. It should be noted that Rabbi Shneur Zalman does not stop with this statement of principle. According to him, the Torah expects and demands of us conceptual awareness and contemplation of this truth. "Know this day, and lay it to your heart," he argues, "it was necessary for Scripture to warn… so that it should not enter your mind that the heavens and all their host and the earth and all therein are separate entities in themselves…." The Torah itself instructs us to consciously detach ourselves from the chains of this cosmic illusion.


The Mitnagdim rose up against this line of thinking. We have already seen that that Rabbi Shneur heard from the Gra's disciples that in his eyes this idea is "heresy." So too it would seem from what he writes in his letter written in 5557 (1797):


A generation that has raised its eyes, and spoken words against the most High,[5] This is your God, Israel, in every tree and every stone. And they pervert the verse: Blessed be the glory of the Lord from His place (Yechezkel 3:12), and the verse: And you give life to all of them (Nechemya 9:6).


Apparently, the Gra protests the Chassidic concept of radical immanence, which claims that God "gives life to all of them," not only through His will and providence, but also through His presence which nullifies all other existence.


We must continue to clarify the nature of this controversy. From our discussion thus far, it may be understood that we are dealing here with a disagreement about some theological position, or a debate about the principles of faith. But it turns out that this understanding is only part of the truth. This conflict about principles had far-reaching ramifications regarding the nature of the service of God, and it is in these ramifications that the main struggle between the opposing camps may lie. We will elaborate on this in the next shiur.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] A similar phenomenon was already mentioned by the prophets in a different context: "Thus says the Lord of hosts, If it be marvelous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days, should it also be marvelous in My eyes, says the Lord of hosts" (Zekharya 8:6).

[2] Mitpachat Seforim, no. 64.

[3] It must be repeated that this discussion is in any case on the ontological plane, and it does not refer to a contraction of a large three dimensional volume to a small one. Rabbi Shneur Zalman attributes a position to his opponents that borders on understanding the idea of tzimtzum in a way that it is connected to the physical world, but we will not discuss this issue in this context. In any event, the ramifications of Rabbi Shneur's position – the obligation to be aware of the nullity of worldly existence – goes far beyond rejection of the aforementioned view.

[4] The source of the parable is found in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 39a), in Rabban Gamliel's words to the "heretic."

[5] The original wording here, which constitutes an accusation of audacity and arrogance toward God, is taken from Mishlei 9:13 and Daniyel 7:25.