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The tzimtzum or tsimtsum (Hebrew צמצום ṣimṣūm "contraction/constriction/condensation") is a term used in the Lurianic Kabbalah to explain Isaac Luria's doctrine that God began the process of creation by "contracting" his Ein Sof (infinite) light in order to allow for a "conceptual space" in which finite and seemingly independent realms could exist. This primordial initial contraction, forming a ḥālāl happānuy "vacant space" (חלל הפנוי) into which new creative light could beam, is denoted by general reference to the tzimtzum. In contrast to earlier, Medieval Kabbalah, this made the first creative act a concealment/Divine exile rather than unfolding revelation. This dynamic crisis-catharsis in the Divine flow is repeated throughout the Lurianic scheme.
Because the tzimtzum results in the "empty space" in which spiritual and physical Worlds and ultimately, free will can exist, God is often referred to as "Ha-Makom" (המקום lit. "the Place", "the Omnipresent") in Rabbinic literature ("He is the Place of the World, but the World is not His Place"). In Kabbalistic interpretation, this describes the paradox of simultaneous Divine presence and absence within the vacuum and resultant Creation. Relatedly, Olam — the Hebrew for "World/Realm" — is derived from the root עלם meaning "concealment". This etymology is complementary with the concept of Tzimtzum in that the subsequent spiritual realms and the ultimate physical universe conceal to different degrees the infinite spiritual lifeforce of creation. Their progressive diminutions of the Divine Ohr (Light) from realm to realm in creation are also referred to in the plural as secondary tzimtzumim (innumerable "condensations/veilings/constrictions" of the lifeforce). However, these subsequent concealments are found in earlier, Medieval Kabbalah. The new doctrine of Luria advanced the notion of the primordial withdrawal (a dilug – radical "leap") in order to reconcile a causal creative chain from the Infinite with finite Existence.
Prior to Creation, there was only the infinite Or Ein Sof filling all existence. When it arose in G-d's Will to create worlds and emanate the emanated ... He contracted (in Hebrew "tzimtzum") Himself in the point at the center, in the very center of His light. He restricted that light, distancing it to the sides surrounding the central point, so that there remained a void, a hollow empty space, away from the central point ... After this tzimtzum ... He drew down from the Or Ein Sof a single straight line [of light] from His light surrounding [the void] from above to below [into the void], and it chained down descending into that void. ... In the space of that void He emanated, created, formed and made all the worlds.
Isaac Luria introduced four central themes into kabbalistic thought, tzimtzum, Shevirat HaKelim (the shattering of the vessels), Tikkun (repair), and Partzufim. These four are a group of interrelated, and continuing, processes. Tzimtzum describes the first step in the process by which God began the process of creation by withdrawing his own essence from an area, creating an area in which creation could begin. Shevirat HaKelim describes how, after the tzimtzum, God created the vessels (HaKelim) in the empty space, and how when God began to pour his Light into the vessels they were not strong enough to hold the power of God's Light and shattered (Shevirat). The third step, Tikkun, is the process of gathering together, and raising, the sparks of God's Light that were carried down with the shards of the shattered vessels.
Since tzimtzum is connected to the concept of exile, and Tikkun is connected to the need to repair the problems of the world of human existence, Luria unites the cosmology of Kabbalah with the practice of Jewish ethics, and makes ethics and traditional Jewish religious observance the means by which God allows humans to complete and perfect the material world through living the precepts of a traditional Jewish life.
In Chabad Hassidism the concept of tzimtzum 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.
In the Chabad view, 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.
Vilna Gaon's view
The Vilna Gaon held that tzimtzum was not literal, 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.
Shlomo Elyashiv 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 Luria and is the only true understanding).
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 Elyashiv held that tzimtzum only took place in God's will (Ratzon), but that it is impossible to say anything at all about God himself (Atzmus). Thus, they did not actually believe in a literal tzimtzum in God's essence. Luria's Etz Chaim 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).
- 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.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslav discusses this inherent paradox as follows:
Only in the future will it be possible to understand the Tzimtzum that brought the "Empty Space" into being, for we have to say of it two contradictory things ...  the Empty Space came about through the Tzimtzum, where, as it were, He 'limited' His Godliness and contracted it from there, and it is as though in that place there is no Godliness ...  the absolute truth is that Godliness must nevertheless be present there, for certainly nothing can exist without His giving it life.
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.
Application in clinical psychology
An Israeli professor, Mordechai Rotenberg, believes the Kabbalistic-Hasidic tzimtzum paradigm has significant implications for clinical therapy. According to this paradigm, God's "self-contraction" to vacate space for the world serves as a model for human behavior and interaction. The tzimtzum model promotes a unique community-centric approach which contrasts starkly with the language of Western psychology.
In popular culture
Tsimtsum is central to the plot of Aryeh Lev Stollman's 1997 novel The Far Euphrates.
"Tsim Tsum" is the title of a collection of vignettes by Sabrina Orah Mark (published 2009).
In Yann Martel's novel Life of Pi and its 2012 film adaptation, a cargo ship called the Tsimtsum sinks at a pivotal point of the plot, despite the name being entirely irrelevant to the Judaic concept of tzimtzum.
- Parshat Vayeitzei: Yalkut Shimoni on the verse "He arrived..." Also, alternate sages in Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 68:9. HaMakom article, inner.org
- Rabbi Moshe Miller, The Great Constriction, kabbalaonline.org.
- James David Dunn, Windows of the Soul, p.21-24
- J.H. Laenen, Jewish Mysticism, p.168-169
- "Tzimtzum: Contraction". Inner.org. Retrieved 2013-12-08.
- Tanya, Shaar Hayichud veHaEmunah, ch.4
- E. J. Schochet, The Hasidic Movement and the Gaon of Vilna
- Allan Nadler, The Faith of the Mithnagdim
- Leshem Sh-vo ve-Achlama Sefer Ha-Deah drush olam hatohu chelek 1, drush 5, siman 7, section 8 (p. 57b)
- see for example Aryeh Kaplan, "Paradoxes" (in "The Aryeh Kaplan Reader", Artscroll 1983. ISBN 0-89906-174-5)
- "Chapter 2 - Shaar Hayichud Vehaemunah". Chabad.org. 2014-07-03. Retrieved 2015-02-25.
- "Rotenberg Center for Jewish Psychology". Jewishpsychology.org. Retrieved 2013-12-08.
- Jacob Immanuel Schochet, Mystical Concepts in Chassidism, especially chapter II, Kehot 1979,3rd revised edition 1988. ISBN 0-8266-0412-9
- Aryeh Kaplan, "Paradoxes", in "The Aryeh Kaplan Reader", Artscroll 1983. ISBN 0-89906-174-5
- Aryeh Kaplan, "Innerspace", Moznaim Pub. Corp. 1990. ISBN 0-940118-56-4
- Aryeh Kaplan Understanding God, Ch2. in "The Handbook of Jewish Thought", Moznaim 1979. ISBN 0-940118-49-1
- Tzimtzum: A Primer, chabad.org
- Tanya, Shaar HaYichud VehaEmunah Shneur Zalman of Liadi—see Lessons in Tanya, chabad.org
- 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 discourse on the paradox of Tzimtzum
- inner.org, "Basics in Kabbalah and Chassidut"