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What Is Tsimtsum?

What Is Tsimtsum?

Presence Through Absence

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If you were to create a world, the first thing you would need to master is tsimtsum. Tsimtsum is a way of being present in your absence. Get that one down, along with creating something out of nothing, and everything else is a piece of cake.

Tsimtsum literally means “reduction.” For a Kabbalist, a tsimtsum is a reduction of the divine energy that creates worlds—something like the transformers that reduce the voltage of the electric current leaving the turbine generators, until it’s weak enough for a standard light bulb to handle. So too, the divine energy needs to be stepped down so that the created worlds can handle it.

Tsimtsum is also like turning down the amplification on quality stereo speakers: If they are good speakers, none of the signal is lost, just that much of it becomes inaudible to our ears. So too, the more tsimtsum applied, the less the resulting world will be aware of the divine energy which is creating and sustaining it. Distortion and corruption of the light can also occur—but that’s for another essay.

Kabbalists describe innumerable such tsimtsums (tsimtsumim is the actual plural form) that generate innumerable worlds. Our world is the final stop, since at this point the degree of tsimtsum is so extreme that the divine energy is almost imperceptible. As a result, our world contains created beings that feel they are here just because they are here, no further questions asked. One tsimtsum more, and nothing at all could exist. Existence requires some sort of connection to the initial source of everything—meaning, to the Creator.

There’s another type of tsimtsum, described by the master Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as “the Ari.” It is the primal tsimtsum, and it is unique from all other tsimtsumim.

Much like the irrational number pi, the primal tsimtsum transforms an infinite circle into a measured line. The Ari described an initial, pre-creation state of infinite light, within which there was no place for anything at all to be. Before creating any worlds, the Creator withdrew that energy completely, resulting in a total void within the infinite light. Only then did He extend into this void a metered line of light from the encompassing infinite light, with which He generated an innumerable series of worlds.

Tsimtsum, then, is the way G‑d makes space for us to have our own world. He hides His light from us, so that we can make our own choices. But He remains immanently present within that hiddenness. In a way, He is yet more present in His absence than in His presence.

Tsimtsum is how G‑d makes space for us to make our own choices.

Yes, that sounds quite paradoxical. You can’t expect the Creator, after all, to make perfect sense within the confines of His creatures’ minds. But a parable will help bring the idea at least within the range of human reason. It is a parable about parable itself:

The Sage and the Child

To grasp this parable, imagine yourself as an ancient wise teacher teaching a fresh young pupil. You have deep wisdom to provide, wisdom that you gained through much effort—by sitting at the feet of enlightened sages in your youth, sipping in their every word. By years of contemplation of those words, removed from all disturbance, immersed in serene thought. Through your many travels and experiences. And through those days the sky opened for you, and with sudden clarity you saw how all the pieces fit together as a single, simple whole.

You wish to transmit all of that to your young pupil—but how can you? The youngster lives in an entirely different world than yours, shares none of your experiences, has never tasted the depth of insight achieved through hours of endless meditation on a single theme. Pour out all your knowledge, and your pupil will gain nothing but shock and confusion.

But there must be a way. You begin to think yet more deeply about this wisdom which you wish to transmit, more intensely than you have ever thought before. You seek out its very essence, the point from which it all extends. But to do that, you must transcend the form this wisdom takes in your own mind, shedding the context of your own thoughts and world, so that you are left with only the core, the quintessential, zero-dimensional, simple point.

To find the quintessential point, you need to put yourself aside.

Once you’ve isolated that point, you then look at the world of the pupil—not as the pupil sits there with you, but as the pupil lives in his own world, sees and understand his own world, experiences life from his own perspective.

Only then can you draw a line from the quintessential point you’ve found, down into the pupil’s world. You’ll attempt to think as though you were using this pupil’s mind and not your own. You’ll seek out ways the pupil might grasp the point on his own. Each time you find a mode to express this wisdom, you won’t be satisfied with that. Again and again, you’ll find ways to step it down yet more, bringing it closer and yet closer to the world of your pupil.

But the job is yet incomplete. Problem is, with all that stepping down, it still remains an idea. The pupil does not live within a world of ideas. The pupil lives in a world of things he can touch, people he can know, and happenings with which he is familiar.

So there’s yet another step for you to take: To create a parable. A parable will dress your idea in the artifacts of this pupil’s world. You’ll create a story that the pupil can easily follow and remember, that makes some sense to him right away, and which he feels comfortable to explore. His own space, in which he can experience your ideas, not as ideas, but as elements of a story that could happen in his own life.

When you think through this parable, you see in every detail all that you wish to teach. To you, the teacher, there is really no parable—there are only your thoughts, told in story form.

But to the pupil, there are no ideas, just a story. And that is as it must be. At first.

Now you, the elderly teacher, must leave this student be. If he is a sincere student, he will tell the story to himself again and again. As he gains more knowledge, experience and wisdom, he begins to unravel the story, understanding the parable, reaching into the layers upon layers of insight hidden within it. Until, after perhaps forty years of earnest seeking for truth, he begins to understand this wisdom as his teacher once did.

Indeed, all this time, his teacher was living within him.

G‑d in Dark Places

What did you, the teacher, do? You applied tsimtsum. You found a way to reduce and package your wisdom within the world of the pupil. But to do that, the first step was to leave your own self out of the picture. Only then were you able to find a point of wisdom stripped of your own understanding.

Yet, even then, to bring that point into the world of your pupil, you had to put your own mind aside repeatedly, to think with the mind which you desired to reach.

In the presence of your own thoughts, there was no room for the pupil’s thoughts. By transcending yourself, you gave of yourself. So that now, in your absence, you are acutely there.

By transcending yourself, you gave of yourself.

So too, the Creator puts aside His infinite light to make space for a creation. For us, the created beings. Yet the very emptiness of that space is Him as well, and for Him the light shines as intensely as before.

Of course, there are differences. You had a pupil. The Creator begins with nothing. He must conjure up the pupil as well. You gave only of your mind. The Creator gives of His essence and being.

So next time you feel yourself in darkness, having to pick yourself up from the ground and start all over again, to make tough decisions and meet gruesome challenges—at those times, think of all your life and all your world as nothing more and nothing less than a parable. A deep, rich parable. And in that parable, in every detail, hides G‑d Himself.

Most conspicuously, in the dark corners. In the tsimtsum.


Here are two animations that will help you understand tsimtsum even better:

The Secret of the Bagel

eXtreme Bicycle Training

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription.
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Discussion (16)
October 14, 2013
The Ba'al Shem Tov in the first day of creation. Is it Tzim Tzum?
Rav Freeman, from space to space in the Bereshit the day 1 our sages allowed for our benefit, the measure of verses.
An acrostic of Bereshit and Baal Shem Tov is like a RAMBAM for example. The first verse lacks certain letters. The 3rd verse is equal with four of the original letters missing. Beit, Shin and Tav in that order and the tzadi Sofit. could that be a vacating, a tzimtzum of the Ba'al Shem Tov the Tanya exists in?
Alyshja Brogan
October 8, 2013
FEED THE PYRE

So that the sparks of wisdom might go free
God withdrew Himself a while to make more room,
A little while to grant them liberty -
The medieval rabbis called it *tsimtsum*

Or so they said and thought of Him but then
The One who wraps Himself in darkest clouds
Confers volition and yet reins it in -
He is the Master of the meek and proud

This evening the western sky afire
As if the sun had set the sky ablaze,
Many were who stopped to feed the pyre
With their inflammable and precious days
Pavel Chichikov
September 17, 2013
Thank you very much for this wonderful explanation!
Chavah Kwiatkowska
Latvia
August 30, 2013
what if, G_d made the choices for us?
actually, on a cosmic level, G_d does make the choices for us. Otherwise, Divine Providence would not exist, and we know IT does, because many of us, perhaps all of us, sooner or later, experience that WOW of a coincidence that is truly astounding in how IT draws the threads in our lives together. We live on planes of existence, and on this plane, we exercise choice, or have the illusion of choice, in moving up an ethical ladder especially put there, for us. We all have our ladders, and in a cosmic way, we can call it that child's game of snakes and ladders, as in, a well known, Garden Story. This is, truly brilliantly conceived.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
August 29, 2013
Tsimtsum is a concept that God withdrew Himself from a space, so that in it we creation can exist, and not be nullified by his existence. In this place we live and have our being. Yet God is Present but His light veiled, so that we can have some freedom, some decisions, exist, navigate this realm. Yet in this space God is Present even though veiled for our gift of this realm and its purpose.
Marc
Miami Beach
April 30, 2013
Divine Energy Gardener's Eden
It feels like, at this time, Divine Energy in this world is completely apparent, A PARENT, and this is NOT a word game though could be, and some say what I am doing is PUN ish meant ( ISH, man, Hebrew). Actually, in traversing Babel, as I am doing, I am messaging, and totally aware of the Source of all that I bring down, as in being consciously plugged into the same Source that provides the voltage for all that we do, meaning EVERY one, this entire planet. This means every single blade of grass, every grain of sand, is accounted for. This is so beyond awesome it's difficult to articulate, but I know this is true. What is coming, what is so evident and has been, in this small life, is that we are all of us, in a cosmic story, and that the total presence of this Divine Energy, of G_d in all things, great and small will usher in a new era of seeing. I cannot know how this will look but I do know, it's coming. It is very much a Garden Story. It could be, we never left.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, MA
April 29, 2013
This sounds like, and please forgive my ignorance, the Slowing of the Way. At least in some respects. G-d deliberately chooses to restrict His omniscience so that we (and I suppose his Angels) have that freedom of choice or free will. Again, please forgive my ignorance, I have lived a secular life (to my regret) and am new to the Beliefs of my Grandmothers and Grandfathers. I really like what Michael has written on this, a sudden push of "life energy", something I experienced as a child and then lost ( again, to my regret). I am proud of my Jewishness, but I need guidance. A lot of it..
James Bain
Canada
March 13, 2013
Rabbi Freeman,
You are intense. Thank you!
Your pupil,
Masha Chava
Evanston/Skokie
December 5, 2012
G*D vacated a place within HIMSELF
is that why the aleph tav is 1495 and not the Razial 1500? Is that vacated 5 our Chumash?
Alyshja Brogan
December 4, 2012
Tsimtsum
It was fascinating.
Anonymous
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