Thoughts on the Theological Value of the Tsimtsum and a Note on its Relationship to Purim

Thoughts on the Theological Value of the Tsimtsum and a Note on its Relationship to Purim

“The Tsimtsum” is the term used to refer to a mystical description of Creation that originates in the teachings of the great Kabbalist R’ Yitzchak Luria, better known as the Arizal. The Arizal described creation[1] as beginning with ‘א’s Infinite Light. Then, ‘א contracted (“Contraction” being a translation of “Tsimtsum”) His light, creating an empty space at the center. It was in this empty space that ‘א made His Creation. The Arizal’s depiction of Creation continues with the creation of a variety of mystical entities, but none of them come close to the greatness of the concept of the Tsimtsum. Before we can discuss that, however, we need to take a look at an essential split in the ways this idea has been understood historically.

Within a century, it began to be hotly debated whether the Arizal had meant this story literally or allegorically, as recorded in the book “Shomer Emunim” (שומר אמונים) by Rav Yosef Irgas (רב יוסף אירגס). This split gave birth to entirely opposite understandings of the meaning of the Tsimtsum. The allegorical approach understood the Tsimtsum as parable meant to teach a particular theological concept, or as a description of human perception rather than divine reality. The upshot of this approach is that the Tsimtsum didn’t literally happen; there is no space empty of ‘א. The literal approach understands the Arizal to have been teaching a historical truth. ‘א literally created a space where He wasn’t in order to enable the creation of things other than ‘א in that space. This approach has been less the less popular of the two, perhaps because of how incredibly bold it is. It talks about ‘א in very real, very human, terms, and makes very absolute statements of the nature of ‘א’s existence. But it is that sense of absolute reality that makes the depiction so compelling, because it flows from an understanding that the Tsimtsum had to be, that Creation could not have happened otherwise, rather than simply being a man-made parable. As this essay is on the theological value of the concept of the Tsimtsum, we will be taking an allegorical approach, but it’s important to keep the sense of existential need for the Tsimtsum in mind.

The basic idea underlying the Tsimtsum is the incompatibility of ‘א and his creation on an existential level. ‘א’s existence and the existence of that which is not ‘א cannot coexist. Therefore before there can be creation there must be a space that is empty of ‘א. This is most strongly felt in the literal understanding of the Tsimtsum, but the ideas and teachings of the allegorical approach flow from this incompatibility as well.

This sense of incompatibility also lies behind the early midrashic concept that the Torah speaks in the human language (דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם). This concept is a limiting force when it comes to interpreting the text of the Torah, stating that the words of the Torah convey meaning the same way that people do and that we should understand the Torah the same way we understand human speech. This idea is built on the sense that divine revelation in the abstract would convey so very much more than people are capable of understanding, that divine communication and human cognition are essentially incompatible. Thus, in order to enable people to understand the Torah ‘א had to limit his revelation therein to within the bounds of human language.

Taking this approach forward to our time, it becomes a valuable model for understanding many contemporary theological issues. Perhaps the most pressing issue for people living in the aftermath of the 20th century is the question of ‘א’s presence in history. The first point to bring up in that discussion is always that human initiative and free will cannot exist in the presence of divine preordination and determination. There is an inverse correlation between the degree to which a historical event can be attributed to man and the degree to which it can be attributed to ‘א. This has actually been used as a method of explaining ‘א’s apparent absence from some of the historical events of the last century, with thinkers like Eliezer Berkovitz and, to a lesser degree, Abraham Joshua Heschel arguing that human initiative is important enough to ‘א that contracts his historical presence instead of intervening in even the most tragic events. Even if we are unwilling to make such a morally and theologically bold statement, this tension is important for the questions we ask and the way we frame them.

This model is also valuable for discussing the nature of shabbat and the prohibition of melakhah, creative work. If we look at the original biblical shabbat, at the end of the first depiction of creation in Bereisht 2:1-3, it is clear that shabbat concludes ‘א’s “week” of Creation. However, if we look at it from the perspective of man, created on day 6, shabbat would function roughly as the beginning of the “week”. After the “first shabbat” of Bereishit 2:1-3, man is placed into the garden “to work it and to keep it,” thus beginning the creative work of man. Shabbat thus functions as a hinge joining the past week with that to come, marking both the end of ‘א’s work and the beginning of man’s. On shabbat we acknowledge that all the work of the past week should in truth be attributed to ‘א, that none of it should be chalked up to human initiative. As with the work of history, the work of the week can be that of man or that of ‘א, but not both simultaneously. Thus as we begin each week’s work we experience ‘א’s Tsimtsum as he makes room for man to create, and as we enter shabbat man performs a Tsimtsum where he recognizes than none of his work can really be attribute to the strength of his own hand. Tsimtsum is thus not only valuable in terms of the way it can frame the divine, but also in the way it helps us understand the human.

As noted above, some Tannaim saw the text of the Torah as something highly restrained by the limits of human cognition. However, it has long been acknowledged that the content of the Torah, the mitsvot[2] and the narratives[3], should also be understood this way. As humans we are all historically situated. We live in a certain place at a certain time, and that affects the way we understand things. The same is true of the ancient Israelites. Thus the Torah that was given to Bnei Yisrael in the desert had to be fit to the understandings of their specific historical situation, or they would not have been able to grasp it. Therefore ‘א contracted his revelation into the forms relevant to Bnei Yisrael historical situation, resulting in a very human text conveying divine laws and ideas.

Beyond the Torah of Moshe there is a whole realm of prophecy, all of which is subject to this conception of the Tsimtsum. It will be instructive to look at three understandings of the nature of Prophecy. Rambam understood prophecy to be essentially a human faculty. Through the perfection of both their intellect and imagination, a person could connect to the active intellect and draw divine knowledge from there (depending on whether you give more weight to the Mishneh Torah or the Moreh Nevukhim[4] ‘א may or may not be involved in occasionally blocking this connection). In this understanding ‘א remains in His infinite state, and the human individual develops themselves away from their limited human state until they can grasp a much more divine truth. However even this truth is limited by virtue of the prophet’s humanity. At the opposite end of the extreme is the way some people understand the biblical phenomenon of Prophecy, where the prophet essentially becomes an empty vessel through which ‘א speaks. In this understanding the prophets personality and consciousness are entirely overridden in moments of revelation, though they return afterward. In this understanding, the human mind cannot exist in the presence of divine communication and so it disappears during the process of revelation. In the middle is what seems to be more or less the proper understanding of biblical prophecy, where the prophet is a conscious partner in the revelation. The prophets receive revelation and communicate it to the people, a process that inevitably involves the personalization of the message. The same way that no two people explain the same topic in the same way, similarly no two prophets conveyed their prophecies in the same style[5]. In this understanding ‘א has to not only minimize his revelation to within the limits of human cognition in general, but also ‘א allows the prophet to express it within his own specific style. The common thread in all of these understandings is that Humanity and Divinity cannot share the same space, and the more of one involved in prophecy, the less of the other.

Taking a step back from the nature of prophecy to the very fact of its existence as a phenomenon, this too is a function of Tsimtsum. Prophecy involves the relationship between the Infinite (‘א) and the all too finite (the prophet), thus requiring the infinite to work on a finite level. Choosing a nation requires a similar focusing on the finite, as does stepping into history and working within a specific historical framework. That ‘א chose to work within human history means limiting Himself to the tools of human history and experience. All of Jewish history, from Yetsiat Mitsrayim to the Days of Mashiach, and all of the laws and prophecies that shape that history, constitute ‘א opting out of his infinitude in order to work in the finite sphere.


It’s also worth discussing this idea of the Tsimtsum in regards to the recently passed holiday of Purim[1]. The textual basis of the holiday of Purim is from Megillat Esther, a text that is unique in the canon of Tanakh in that it does not once mention ‘א, in any context. It represents the entire story as on of human intrigue and historical causation. The mitsvot of the holiday also markedly focused on the human instead of on the divine. Other than the commemorative reading of Megillat Esther, the mitsvot focus on feasting and building interpersonal relationships. The holiday would seem almost to be a celebration of humanness. However, a look at the Jewish tradition indicates that it is not generally seen this way. Instead, the story of Megillat Esther is seen as an indication of the way ‘א’s hand guides human history. In this respect it is particularly instructive to look at Mordechai’s “pep talk” to Esther in the 4th chapter of Megillat Esther.

Then Mordechai told them to return [with his] answer to Esther: “Don’t think to yourself that you will escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews. For if you keep silent at this time at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish; and who knows, it may be that for this very moment you came to royalty?”

Mordechai’s speech is intended to motivate Esther to save the Jews. This requires a sense that human initiative is what drives historical events, and thus Esther can change the course of history through her actions. However the rest of the speech continues to say that if Esther doesn’t act, “then will relief and deliverance arise for the Jews from another place,” implying that human initiative doesn’t really have any historical impact. Similarly, the speech ends by Mordechai suggesting that the reason Esther came to her position of power was so that she could save the Jews, despite the fact that Mordechai knows that the reason Esther came to power was that the king was looking for a new queen and he took a liking to Esther (Esther 2:1-17). Mordechai is saying that there is a greater will guiding historical events, one that supersedes all human initiative, in the middle of a speech about the importance of the actions of one human, namely Esther. This paradoxical approach is how Jews have often understood the entirety of Megillat Esther. The text itself depicts an entirely human story, but as part of a religious scripture it’s been understood that the divine will guides all of the events of the text. Purim as a holiday is about rejecting the Tsimtsum paradigm. Instead of seeing the human and the divine as incompatible, they are seen to be seen as mutually reinforcing. Esther is supposed to act because the divine plan brought her to the palace in order to act, but if she doesn’t then the divine plan will function anyway. Similarly the mitsvot of purim reinforce human social bonds and worldly experience, but they remain divine commands and ways of fulfilling the divine will. Thus Purim is about looking at the human and seeing the divine, without ever forgetting the fact that you’re looking at something truly human.

[1] דע כי טרם שנאצלו הנאצלים ונבראו הנבראים היה אור עליון פשוט ממלא כל המציאות ולא היה שום מקום פנוי בבחי’ אויר ריקני וחלל, אלא הכל היה ממולא מן אור א”ס פשוט ההוא ולא היה לו בחי’ ראש ולא בחי’ סוף אלא הכל היה אור א’ פשוט שוה בהשוואה א’, והוא הנק’ אור אין סוף. וכאשר עלה ברצונו הפשוט לברוא העולמות ולהאציל הנאצלים להוציא לאור שלימות פעולותיו ושמותיו וכנוייו (אשר זאת היה סיבה בריאת העולמות כמבואר אצלינו בענף הא’ בחקירה הראשונה) והנה אז צמצם את עצמו א”ס בנקודה האמצעית אשר בו באמצע אורו ממש וצמצם האור ההוא ונתרחק אל צדדי סביבות הנקודה האמצעית ואז נשאר מקום פנוי ואויר וחלל רקני מנקודה אמצעית ממש כזה.

~עץ חיים-שער א ענף ב

[2] See Rambam, Moreh Nevukhim 3:32.

[3] See the Hertz Chumash, essays on Parashat Noah,

[4] This is borne out in both the Kapah and Ibn Tibbon translations.

[5] “אֵין שְׁנֵי נְבִיאִים מִתְנַבְּאִים בְּסִגְנוֹן אֶחָד.” ~סנהדרין פ”ט

[6] This article was originally meant to be published before Purim.


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