2a. Arizal Teachings
by Rabbi Moshe Miller
question that puzzled Jewish philosophers and theologians alike is how
a finite world came to exist within the infinite being of G-d. Prior
to creation, there was only G-d and His infinite revelation of Himself,
the Or Ein Sof, filling all existence. 1 How did finite being evolve
from the infinite? One cannot argue that creation always existed, nor
that finite being is a mere illusion, since the Torah states explicitly,
"In the beginning of G-d's creating the heavens and the earth"
the Arizal, the prevailing view of how the Creator brought the creation
into being can be summed up as follows: In order for a finite world
to come into existence within the revelation of the infinity of G-d,
a process of self-contraction or self-limitation of the infinite, the
Or Ein Sof, was required. The worlds then came about, according to this
view, by a series of emanations that proceeded in a sequence of cause
and effect, in which the Creator gradually reduced the intensity of
the Or Ein Sof and downgraded it from level to level until the worlds
were created.2 Accordingly, the Or Ein Sof was never actually "removed"
from any given place - it was merely reduced in intensity.
view, however, is problematic: If G-d would have merely reduced the
intensity of His infinite revelation (the Or Ein Sof) in a quantitative
manner, i.e., in a gradual ebb from level to level by means of cause
and effect, a finite world could not have come into being, since in
a causal process "the effect is encompassed by the cause, in relation
to which it is essentially non-existent
so that even numerous
contractions would not bring about physical matter
"3 by way
of an evolution from spirituality. In other words, in the cause-and-effect
relationship, the effect is already contained within the cause, albeit
in an unrealized state. Thus when the final effect is eventually produced,
it is not a newly created entity; it is merely revealed from its former
state of potential or of concealment. Accordingly, the effect always
remains in some way commensurate with the original cause that produced
it. Thus the infinite can never become finite through gradual reduction:
"The creation of the worlds is not by way of a development from
cause to effect
for even myriads upon myriads of dwindling and
evolution from level to level [of the Or Ein Sof] in a causal process
will not bring about the development and being of physical matter
Rather, it is the power of Ein Sof who creates ex nihilo, not progressively,
but by way of a radical 'leap'" (Likkutei Torah, Devarim 46c).
Thus, tzimtzum as contraction or self-limitation precludes the existence
of finite beings, and cannot explain how finite creation came into being.
tzimtzum as contraction or self-limitation also seems to contradict
the important principle of yesh mei'ayin - that the world was created
ex nihilo,4 and not that it evolved from some prior state of being.
the Arizal explained that we must understand the tzimtzum in an entirely
different way - in a qualitative sense - as the total self-exclusion
of the infinite Or Ein Sof from its state of revelation, thereby allowing
finite worlds to exist:
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 (tzimtzem) 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.5
exact nature of the tzimtzum became the subject of disagreement among
later kabbalists. Some viewed the tzimtzum as a metaphorical act of self-limitation
in which the Or Ein Sof was merely concealed,6 rather than removed, while
the essence of G-d remained completely unchanged. Others maintained that
the Or Ein Sof was actually removed, not merely concealed.7 Another opinion
maintained that the tzimtzum was the actual withdrawal of G-d's essence
as well as the removal of the Or Ein Sof.8 A fourth view held that the
tzimtzum consisted of a concealment (but not a withdrawal) of both G-d's
essence and the Or Ein Sof.9
The effect of the tzimtzum (irrespective of which explanation is offered)
is nevertheless clear: it established a radical distinction between Creator
and created (from the viewpoint of the created, although not from the
viewpoint of the Creator10 ), between cause and effect, so that creation
comes about by way of a "quantum leap" rather than by way of
a developmental, evolutionary order.11
. Cf. Etz Chaim, Heichal A"K, anaf 2.
2. See e.g., Eilima Rabbati, Eyn Kol Tamar part 2, chs. 3-5, 11-12; part
3, ch. 1.
3. Tanya, Iggeret HaKodesh, ch. 20.
4. See Maimonides, Letter to Rav Chisadi; Letter to Chachamei Marseilles,
inter alia; Ramban's Torat Hashem Temima; his commentary to Gen. 1:1;
Tosafot Yom Tov to Avot 5:1. Although Ramak clearly accepts the principle
of creation ex nihilo (see Eilima Rabbati, Ein Kol HaAretz, Tamar 1 chs.
6, 7, 15, 19) he does not explain clearly how his theory of emanations
conforms to this principle.
5. Etz Chaim, Heichal A"K, anaf 2.
6. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi in Tanya, Shaar HaYichud v'HaEmunah ch.
7; Iggeret HaKodesh ch. 25; Rabbi Yosef Irgas in Shomer Emunim.
7. Rabbi Yonatan Eibeshutz in Shem Olam.
8. GRA in Likkutim at the end of his commentary on Safra d'Tzniuta; Emmanual
Chai Riki in Yosher Levav.
9. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin in Nefesh HaChaim.
10. See Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the "Tzemach Tzedek," Derech
Mitzvotecha, Achdut HaShem ch. 3; Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, Veyadata
11. See Likkutei Torah, Devarim 46c; Mystical Concepts in Chassidism,
Rabbi J. I. Schochet, Kehot, ch. 2.
Miller, a guest teacher at Ascent when he lived in Israel, was born in
South Africa and received his yeshiva education in Israel and America.
He is a prolific author and translator, with some twenty books to his
name on a wide variety of topics, including a new, authoritative, annotated
translation of the Zohar. He currently lives in Chicago.