The Tzimtzum

God's contraction

Gabriele Dessin

     How did this universe, these galaxies and stars, this living Earth, these human beings and the spirit that animates them, come into being? For a long time we have tried to answer these questions – the Question – and many times we have found an idea, a theory, a system capable of making sense of the Whole and its origin. Among these, the Jewish Kabbalah, which was born of wisdom, still has a language to speak of the Mystery.

     It is not easy to define it briefly, but a few words should suffice here. Kabbalah was born in esoteric Jewish circles of Provençal origin (Languedoc) and spread to northern Spain in the 13th century. In 1305, the Zohar The Book of Splendour– appeared, which is the doctrine’s jewel and its main text. The references of the medieval Kabbalah derive essentially from Neoplatonism, Gnosticism and myth.

 It is a creative pang of self-limitation, a withdrawal into oneself to make room for the other. The infinite is compressed into itself in order to give life to the finite.

     This article presents valuable, ancient, profound and long-studied doctrines. Right from their genesis, they have a complex and multifaceted nature, which are full of shades of meaning, lines of reasoning, roads and paths. It would therefore be impossible to give a complete and adequate picture. Therefore, the operation that I have carried out is the following: imagine a large piece of cloth lying on a table; mark two points that are quite far apart from each other; now, if the reader,with the tips of theirfingers,were to bring them closer, a fold would be created, a pocket below the junction. This is exactly what happens here. Fundamental concepts are placed close together, but the great structure that actually joins them remains, unfortunately, hidden. In doing so, I hope to achieve first glimpse at the subject for some, whereas for others a quick summary of something already known – regardless a simple echo of its true greatness. 

     The first great systematiser of Kabbalistic thought was Moshe Codovero (1522-1570). Here creation is in a way an emanation of the Divine. The world evolves (Histalshelut) in sequence from the infinite being of God (Ein Sof). In the beginning is the Being of Ein Sof, and from it emanate the Sephirot – which are its attributes – and act as autonomous forces. They are also the instruments with which God creates and continuously gives life to the lower physical realm and the higher metaphysical realms (Seder hishtalshelus). At the beginning of the Sepher Jetsirah The Book of Formation – we find these words:

Ten Sephirot out of nothing. Ten and not nine, ten and not eleven. Understand in Wisdom [Hochmah] and be wise in Understanding [Binah]. Determine through them and examine (from) them, know, judge, meditate and place the Word [Dabhar] in its light and let the Former [Jotser] sit in his place. For he is the Former and the Creator He alone, nothing without Him, and His measure (are) ten that have no end: depth of beginning, depth of end, depth of good, depth of evil, depth above and depth below, depth of east and depth of west, depth of north and depth of south, and the sole Master and lofty King faithfully governs them all from his Holy dwelling in Eternity forever.[1]

The ten Sephirot are emanated from the infinite being of Ein Sof, they belong to him as his attributes and are the parameter and measure of the finite world’s structure. Through them, wisdom emanates from Ein Sof to the lower kingdoms; whereas wisdom and intelligence through them lead from the lower kingdoms to Ein Sof. But if the latter is infinite, and infinite is his extent, light and essence, where is the finite world outside Him? This question is answered by the second great unifier and systematiser of Kabbalah, Isaac Luria (1532-1572). 

     In Luria’s formulation, the messianic theme is key, together with the concepts of divine ‘exile’ and divine ‘redemption’. A grandiose cosmogony appears here, it is so profound and dense with meaning in its inexhaustibility that it is not enough to describe it.

     In the beginning there is Ein Sof, and his essence and light pervade the Whole, and nothing is outside Him, and He is the Whole. He, then, performs the Tzimtzum – retraction/contraction – within himself. It is as if God were exhaling deeply without inhaling any more, as if he were holding his own light, power, extension and being within himself. It is a creative pang of self-limitation, a withdrawal into oneself to make room for the other. The infinite is compressed into itself in order to give life to the finite. After the contraction of Ein Sof, an empty conceptual space (Khalal Hapanoi) opens, a place that is not a place, since he is every place and every thing. Into this empty space Ein Sof injects a limited ray of his light (Kav) that gives life and spreads the divine light (Ohr) through the ten Sephirot and the secondary Tzimtzumim (i.e. the realms created by the progressive diminishing of the divine light).

     In Luria’s theory the ten Sephirot are in the following order: Chokhmah (Wisdom), Binah (Understanding), Daat (Knowledge), Chesed (Kindness), Ghevurah (Discipline), Tiferet (Beauty), Nezach (Eternity), Hod (Glory), Yesod (Foundation), Malkuth (Kingship). It would be a very long task to analyse and understand every dependency linking these divine attributes and these ‘measures’ of the world. The Sephirot are attributes of Ein Sof, and they are forever eternal. Hence, what does he initially create at the beginning in this empty space? The Hakelim, empty vessels into which he pours the divine Light. These vessels, however, cannot withstand the power of the Light of God; thus the Shevirat Hakelim – the breaking of the vessels –, takes place, and the light of Ein Sof pours out a shower of light over the empty space of the finite. In the finite world, therefore, the divine presence (Sekhinah) is twofold: in the ray (Kav) of light that vivifies by passing through the ten Sephirot, and in the dispersed sparks. The human being’s task is to recompose the divine light: the Mitzvot (Jewish observances) and virtuous actions reunite the sparks of the Ohr of the Sekhinah with their first origin, Ein Sof

     God withdraws his power and his being to enable the existence of the world. This pure idea alone has so much depth in it that it baffles and amazes. Furthermore, the very paradox of God’s presence/absence, of his limitation/emanation, is worthy of being included among the great thoughts of humanity. Even after Auschwitz, the philosopher Hans Jonas conceptually returned to the Tzimtzum to explain God’s absence, to answer the crucial question: can an omnipotent, good and comprehensible God have allowed all this?[2]

     What has been written is – as mentioned above – brief, superficial, lacunose: it is a quick glance taken from a speeding train on the edge of a forest of sense, words, meanings, ideas and wisdom. Perhaps, however, to begin, it is enough.

[1] Given that the text on which the Italian translation is based differs in structure from the text on which the English edition is based, the translator of the Livella has adapted the translation. Therefore from Saadia ben Joseph (al-Fayyumi), Commentaire sur le Séfer Yesira ou Livre de la Création par Le Gaon Saadya de Fayyoum, trans. & ed., M. Lambert, Paris, Emile Bouillon, Editeur, (1891); translated into English from the French & Hebrew by Scott Thompson and Dominique Marson, San Francisco, (1985). And from Sepher Jetsirah, translated into Italian from the Hebrew text with introduction and notes by Savino Savini, R. Carabba editore, Lanciano April 1938, pp. 53-54.

[2] See Hans Jonas, The Concept of God after Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice, in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 67, No. 1 (January 1987), pp. 1-13, The University of Chicago press.

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