||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. (Etz Chaim, Arizal, Heichal A”K, anaf 2)
Tzimtzum (Hebrew צמצום ṣimṣūm “contraction” or “constriction”) is a term used in the Lurianic Kabbalah teaching of Isaac Luria, explaining his concept that God began the process of creation by “contracting” his infinite light in order to allow for a “conceptual space” in which a finite and seemingly independent world could exist. This contraction, forming an “empty space” (חלל הפנוי) in which creation could begin, is known as the Tzimtzum.
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 thephysical universe conceals the spiritual nature of creation.
In Lurianic thought
Isaac Luria introduced three central themes into kabbalistic thought, Tzimtzum, Shevirat HaKelim (the shattering of the vessels), and Tikkun (repair). These three are a group of interrelated, and continuing, processes. Tzimzum 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.
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.
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. (Likkutei Moharan I, 64:1)
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.
In Chabad Hassidism, on the other hand, 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.
Here Chassidut 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.)
Vilna Gaon’s view
The 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.
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 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 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. 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).
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.
- ^ 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
- ^ see for example Aryeh Kaplan, “Paradoxes” (in “The Aryeh Kaplan Reader”, Artscroll 1983. ISBN 0-89906-174-5)
- ^ Yosef Wineberg, Commentary on Tanya, Shaar Hayichud veHaEmunah 
- ^ 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)
- ^ Rotenberg Center for Jewish Psychology
- 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