In Jewish Mysticism, Tzimtzum (צמצום Hebrew: "contraction" or "constriction") refers to the notion in the Kabbalistic theory of creation that God "contracted" his infinite light in order to allow for a "conceptual space" in which a , seemingly independent world could exist. This contraction is known as the "Tzimtzum".


The function of the "Tzimtzum" was "to conceal from created beings the activating force within them, enabling them to exist as tangible entities, instead of being utterly nullified within their source" [] . The "tzimtzum" produced the required "vacated space" ("chalal panui" חלל פנוי, "chalal" חלל), devoid of direct awareness of God's presence.

Because the "Tzimtzum" results in the conceptual "space" in which the physical universe and free will can exist, God is often referred to as "Ha-Makom" (המקום lit. "the place", "the omnipresent") in Rabbinic literature. Relatedly, "olam" - the Hebrew word for "world" or universe - is derived from the root word עלם meaning "concealment". This etymology is complementary with the concept of "Tzimtzum", in that the physical universe conceals the spiritual nature of creation.

Inherent paradox

A commonly held understanding [] in Kabbalah is that the concept of "Tzimtzum" contains a built-in paradox, requiring that God be simultaneously transcendent and immanent.

*On the one hand, if the "Infinite" did not restrict itself, then nothing could exist - everything would be overwhelmed by God's totality. Thus existence requires God's transcendence, as above.

*On the other hand, God continuously maintains the existence of, and is thus not absent from, the created universe. "The Divine life-force which brings all creatures into existence must constantly be present within them... were this life-force to forsake any created being for even one brief moment, it would revert to a state of utter nothingness, as before the creation..." [] . This understanding is supported by various biblical teachings: "You have made the heaven... the earth and all that is on it... and You give life to them all" (Nehemiah [ 9:6] ); "All the earth is filled with God's Glory" (Numbers [ 14:21] ); "God's Glory fills the world" (Isaiah [ 6:3] ). Creation therefore requires God's immanence.

In a well known articulation, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav discusses this inherent paradox as follows:

This paradox is strengthened by reference to the closely related doctrine of Divine simplicity, which holds that God is absolutely simple, containing no element of form or structure whatsoever. This gives rise to two difficulties. Firstly, according to this doctrine, it is impossible for God to shrink or expand (physically or metaphorically) - an obvious contradiction to the above. Secondly, according to this doctrine, if God's creative will is present, then He must be present in total - whereas the "Tzimtzum", on the other hand, results in, and requires, a "partial Presence" as above.

The paradox has an additional aspect, in that the "Tzimtzum" results in a perception of the world being imperfect despite God's omniperfect Presence being everywhere. As a result, some Kabbalists saw the "Tzimtzum" as a cosmic illusion.

A Chassidic Explanation

In (Chabad) Chassidism, on the other hand, the concept is understood as not meant to be interpreted literally, but rather to refer to the manner in which God impresses His presence upon the consciousness of finite reality [] : thus tzimtzum is not only seen as being a real process but is also seen as a doctrine that every person is able, and indeed required, to understand and meditate upon.

Here Chassidus sheds light on the concept of Tzimtzum via the analogy of a person and his speech. (The source of this analogy is essentially Genesis Chapter 1, where God "spoke" to create heaven and earth.):

In order to communicate, a person must put aside all that he knows, all his experiences, and all that he is, and say only one thing ("the contraction"). This is especially the case when we speak of an educator, whose level of mind and understanding is almost completely removed and incomparable to his student, that has to "find" an idea that is simple enough to convey to the student. However, when he goes through this process and now is choosing to express himself through this particular utterance, he has not in any way lost or forgotten all the knowledge of who he really is ("thus the contraction is not a literal contraction").

(Furthermore, the one who hears his words also has the full revelation of who that person is when he hears those words, though he may not realize it. If the listener understood the language and was sensitive enough, he would be able to pull out from those words everything there is to know about the person.)

So too, God chose to express Himself through this world with all of its limitations. However, this does not mean, as pantheism posits, that God is limited to this particular form, or that God has "forgotten" all He can do. He still "remembers what He really is", meaning that He remains always in His infinite essence, but is choosing to reveal only this particular aspect of Himself. The act of Tzimtzum is thus how God "puts aside" His infinite light, and allows for an "empty space", void of any indication of the Divine Presence. He then can reveal a limited finite aspect of his light (namely our imperfect, finite reality).

(As clarified before, if man were spiritually sensitive enough, we would be able to see how God is truly giving us a full revelation of His infinite self through the medium of this world. To a listener who does not understand the language being spoken, the letters are "empty" of any revelation of the person. In the analogue this means that the world looks to us to be "empty" of Godly revelation. Kaballah and Chassidus, however, teaches one how to meditate in order to be able to understand God's "language" so that one can see the Godly revelation in every aspect of creation.)

Therefore, no paradox exists. The finite Godly light that is immanent within the universe, constantly creating and vivifying it, is only a "faint glimmer of a glimmer of a glimmer" ("Tanya", [ "Iggeret HaKodesh", Chapter 20] ) of God's infinite, transcendent light that has been completely concealed by tzimtzum. (See also Dovber Schneuri, [ "Ner Mitzva Vetorah Or"] , Kehot Publication Society. ISBN 0-8266-5496-7.)

A Mitnaged Explanation

The main objection of the Vilna Gaon to Chasidut was their belief that the ordinary Jews who adhered to Chassidut would, God forbid, come to "worship the twigs and stones" because of an improper understanding of tzimtzum. The Gaon held that tzimtzum was not literal, just as the Chassidim believed, however, the "upper unity", the fact that the universe is only illusory, and that tzimtzum was only figurative, was not perceptible, or even really understandable, to those not fully initiated in the mysteries of Kabbalah. [E. J. Schochet, The Hasidic Movement and the Gaon of Vilna] [Allan Nadler, The Faith of the Mithnagdim]

Some, mostly authors in the Chabad movement, such as Rabbi Nissan Mindel, claim that the Gaon believed in a literal tzimtzum, a removal of God's Essence from some part of His Infinite Self, to create an empty space where the physical (finite) universe could come into being. A vacuole as it were, in the Essence of God. [See Tanya Shaar Hayichud v'ha'emuna chapter 4 where Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi attacks the literal understanding of tzimtzum.]

The Leshem articulates this view clearly (and claims that not only is it the opinion of the Vilna Gaon, but also is the straightforward and simple reading of the AriZal and is the only true understanding).

He writes [Leshem Sh-vo ve-Achlama Sefer Ha-Deah drush olam hatohu chelek 1, drush 5, siman 7, section 8 (p. 57b)]

I have also seen some very strange things in the words of some contemporary kabbalists who explain things deeply. They say that all of existence is only an illusion and appearance, and does not truly exist. This is to say that the ein sof didn’t change at all in itself and its necessary true existence and it is now still exactly the same as it was before creation, and there is no space empty of Him, as is known (see Nefesh Ha-Chaim Shaar 3). Therefore they said that in truth there is no reality to existence at all, and all the worlds are only an illusion and appearance, just as it says in the verse “in the hands of the prophets I will appear” (Hoshea 12: 11). They said that the world and humanity have no real existence, and their entire reality is only an appearance. We perceive ourselves as if we are in a world, and we perceive ourselves with our senses, and we perceive the world with our senses. It turns out [according to this opinion] that all of existence of humanity and the world is only a perception and not in true reality, for it is impossible for anything to exist in true reality, since He fills all the worlds….How strange and bitter is it to say such a thing. Woe to us from such an opinion. They don’t think and they don’t see that with such opinions they are destroying the truth of the entire Torah….

However, the Gaon and the Leshem held that tzimtzum only took place in God's Will (Ratzon), but that it is impossible to say anything at all about God Himself (Atzmut).

Thus, they did not actually believe in a literal Tzimtzum in God's Essence. The Etz Chaim of the Arizal itself, however, in the First Shaar, is ambivalent - in one place it speaks of a literal tzimtzum in God's Essence and Self, then it changes a few lines later to a tzimtzum in the Divine Light (an emanated, hence created and not part of God's Self, energy).

The only person who seems to hold that tzimtzum was literal and also within God Himself is the R' Emanual Chai Riki who wrote in Yosher Levav that God's contraction at the time of tzimtzum was complete even within God Himself. It should be noted, however, that Riki was a Sabbatean, therefore his Kabbalistic ideas may have been influenced by that heretical movement. [Bezalel Naor, Post-Sabbatian Sabbatianism]

These views seems to have fallen by the wayside nowadays. The Chasidic view dominates, partly because of the influence of Rav Dessler (see volumes 4 and 5 of Michtav M'Eliyahu where he explains that everyone agrees that tzimtzum cannot be understood literally)

ee also

*Jewish principles of faith
*Free will in Jewish thought
*Neti neti


External links

*Schochet, Jacob Immanuel, "Mystical Concepts in Chassidism", especially chapter II, Kehot 1979,3rd revised edition 1988, ISBN 0-8266-0412-9
*"Paradoxes", in "The Aryeh Kaplan Reader", Aryeh Kaplan, Artscroll 1983, ISBN 0-89906-174-5
*"Innerspace", Aryeh Kaplan, Moznaim Pub. Corp. 1990, ISBN 0-940118-56-4
* [ Understanding God] , Ch2. in "The Handbook of Jewish Thought", Aryeh Kaplan, Moznaim 1979, ISBN 0-940118-49-1
* [ Tzimtzum: A Primer] ,
*"Tanya", [ "Shaar HaYichud VehaEmunah"] Shneur Zalman of Liadi - see [ Lessons in Tanya] ,
* [ "Shaar HaYichud" - The Gate of Unity] , Dovber Schneuri - A detailed explanation of the concept of Tzimtzum.
* [ "Veyadaata" - To Know G-d] , Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, a Hasidic discource on the paradox of Tzimtzum
*Life of Pi by Yann Martel. "Tsimtsum" is the name of the Japanese ship carrying Pi and his family.

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