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2a. Arizal Teachings - Creation

by Rabbi Moshe Miller


A 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" (Gen. 1:1).

Before 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.

This 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.

Moreover, 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.

Accordingly, 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

The 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 Moscow 5657
11. See Likkutei Torah, Devarim 46c; Mystical Concepts in Chassidism, Rabbi J. I. Schochet, Kehot, ch. 2.


2b Arizal Teachings - The Jewish Soul

Rabbi Moshe-Leib 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.


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