Here's a great tip:
Enter your email address and we'll send you our weekly magazine by email with fresh, exciting and thoughtful content that will enrich your inbox and your life, week after week. And it's free.
Oh, and don't forget to like our facebook page too!
Printed from
Contact Us

Who Came Up With Tikun Olam?

Who Came Up With Tikun Olam?

Don’t surrender. Don’t escape. Fix the world.


Maybe you’ve heard of tikun olam. It’s a phrase thrown around a lot in Jewish circles.

Olam means “world,” and tikun—well, it means all sorts of things. But in this sense, it means “repair.”

So tikun olam means “repairing the world.” Which is what we’re here to do.

Because, in case you didn’t notice, the world is broken. Even the stuff that looks great isn’t anywhere near what it’s supposed to be.

So some people say, “That’s just the way things are. Live with it.”

Others say, “Let the One who made it fix it.”

And yet others say, “Escape it.”

But Jews say, “Fix it. Whatever you can. Because that’s what you’re here for.”

Where did we get such a crazy idea?

Maybe it’s from Genesis, where it says we were “placed in the garden to serve it and protect it.”

Or from the ancient Midrash that says, “Everything G‑d created in His world was designed to be improved.”

And then there’s an entire chapter and more of Mishnah Gittin discussing rabbinical legislation for tikun olam. Basically, the rabbis ingeniously employed Torah’s headlights to prevent human society from driving itself off a cliff. (Strange, but societies tend to do that.)

But, for the most part, The way we think of tikun olam today is the end-product of a chain with three crucial links.the way we think of tikun olam today is the end-product of a chain with three crucial links—three Jewish revolutionaries of the spirit: Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.

Each answered a question. Each answer brought us closer to how we think now.

How was it broken?

© Baruch Nachshon
© Baruch Nachshon

Ari means “lion.” That’s the title universally granted to Rabbi Yitzchak Luria. He taught for less than three years in Tzfat, in the Galilean hills of northern Israel, before his early passing in 1572. Few people have had such impact in such a brief time.

The Ari taught in esoteric terms, employing rich metaphor in complex detail. But if we distill it down, through many distillations, we can tell a story something like this:

In the beginning there shone an infinite light. But within an infinite light there can be no finite world.

So the light receded, remaining infinite, but creating a vacuum. Absolute darkness.

And then, from the infinite light beyond and into the darkness within, burst a fine, measured beam of light. A ray of conscious thought. An idea. A ray which held everything—

—all of time and all of space, all wisdom and all understanding of that wisdom, all greatness and might, beauty and glory, wonder and creativity—

—every voice that would ever be heard, every daydream that would ever fleet through a distracted mind, every furious wave of every stormy sea, every galaxy that would ever erupt into being,
every gravitational field of every mass, every charge of every electron, the frantic ant running across the pavement beneath your feet, the basket some kid scored in a park somewhere just now—everything that ever would be and could be—

—all cocooned within a single, deliberate and conscious thought.

And then that thought exploded.

Now there was a world.

You’ve heard of a primal explosion before—the Big Bang. But here we are talking about more than matter and energy.

The universe contains conscious beings, such as ourselves. From where does that consciousness emerge, if not from the very fabric of the universe itself?

So Think of a primal, singular, deliberate and conscious thought, too intense to contain itself. What happens when such an idea explodes?think of a primal, singular, deliberate and conscious thought, too intense to contain itself. What happens when such an idea, rather than gradually developing and expanding, chaotically explodes?

Imagine taking a book and casting the words and letters into the air.

Imagine an orchestra where none of the musicians can hear one another, and the conductor is nowhere to be found.

Imagine a movie set without a director, each actor speaking lines without a clue of their meaning.

That is our world. A book in search of its meaning, an orchestra in search of its score, actors in search of their playwright and director.

Awaiting us to rediscover that meaning. To put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

The fragments of that shattered origin are called sparks. They are the divine meaning of each thing—their place and particular voice in the great symphony.

Each spark is trapped within a shell. They are the noise and dissonance that shrouds those sparks when they are thrown violently from their place.

Our job is to see past the shell and discover the spark within. And then to reconnect that spark to its place in that grand original vision.

We call that purification. And the result is called geulah—liberation.

The liberation of humankind is intimately tied to the liberation of those sparks of meaning. Your personal liberation is tied to the particular sparks assigned to your soul.

Once a critical mass of sparks has been reconnected, the entire world is liberated. It becomes a different world. The one it was meant to be.

© Davora Lilian
© Davora Lilian

This was all very counterintuitive for a lot of people.

Both religion and philosophy had allotted human beings a passive role in their world’s destiny. The Creator had made a beautiful world, we had messed it up. It was up to Him to judge, reward, punish and take care of our mess.

And now that was reversed. The Creator was the one who had handed us a mess—so that we could complete the job of perfecting it from within. It is a good world, a very good world—because we are empowered to make it good.It is a good world, a very good world—essentially because we are empowered to make it good.

Effectively, the Ari gave center stage to the actions of human beings.

The idea of tikun seeped rapidly into every facet of Jewish thought and affected every Jewish movement, directly or indirectly. Jews no longer saw themselves as passive servants of G‑d’s judgment, but as active players, whose redemption, and the redemption of the entire world—indeed, the entire cosmos—lay in their hands.

Every mitzvah they did gained new meaning. Every prayer, every word of Torah study—each was now not just a good deed to be rewarded, but another step towards the ultimate geulah of the entire world.

The Ari was a halachist—an expert and authority in Jewish law—and he saw all of Jewish practice as a crystallization of Kabbalah. Tikun in action.

The idea of tikun also spread to the intelligentsia of 17th-century Europe, who were fascinated with all things Hebrew, and especially the Kabbalah. It was at that time that people first began to speak in terms of human progress, of building a better world through social action and advances in the natural sciences.

As historians have pointed out, it is difficult to identify any source for these notions—certainly not in Greco-Roman philosophy, nor in the doctrines of the Reformation—nowhere other than the Kabbalah, and specifically the teachings of the Ari.

The idea of tikun entered the world through the Ari, but it remained the property of mystics and masters. It was widely misunderstood, distorted, and even abused. It took another 170 years before it gained practical application in the life of the everyman.

Who will fix the world?

© Davora Lilian
© Davora Lilian

Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer was popularly known as the Baal Shem Tov (“Master of a Good Name”). He taught that every person is a master of tikun in his or her own world.

Not only the seeker and the scholar, but also the simple farmer and the busy merchant. Even the small child.

By his time, the greatest Talmudic scholars and rabbinic leaders were deeply immersed in the teachings of the Ari. But many of them also believed the only way to fix the human body was by breaking it—by fasting and punishing it. And the way to teach the common people was by breaking their spirit, instilling in them a fear of hell.

The Baal Shem Tov provided a subtle but landmark shift of emphasis. It was less about breaking the shell and more about embracing the fruit—and letting the shell fall away of its own.

To the Baal Shem Tov, tikun meant finding the good wherever it could be found, and celebrating it. His disciples would wander from town to town, observing the heartfelt prayers, the sincere mitzvahs and the good deeds of the simple folk, and telling them how much G‑d cherished them and their deeds.

Wherever Wherever a soul travels in this world, it is led there to find sparks that have been waiting since the time of Creation for this soul to arrive.a soul travels in this world, the Baal Shem Tov taught, it is led there to find sparks that have been waiting since the time of Creation for this soul to arrive. Without realizing it, this precious soul is purifying the world, with its deeds and words.

What does the world look like once it’s fixed?

© Davora Lilian
© Davora Lilian

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi lived—like most Jews of the time—in Eastern Europe. Yet the reverberations of the French Revolution rang throughout his world.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman was also a revolutionary, but a traditional one. More than anyone, he was responsible for conveying the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov into the modern world.

Strange as it may sound, by grounding the teachings of the Ari and the Baal Shem Tov in Midrash and Talmud, and ultimately in the language of Jewish practice, he turned the spiritual quest of humankind on its head.

Our mission in life, Our mission in life is not to get to heaven. It is to bring heaven down to earth.he taught, is not to get to heaven. Or to become heavenly beings. It is to bring heaven down to earth.

Earth—not the worlds of angels or the worlds of souls or some reified, divine world of light—but this material world where darkness reigns and truth is hidden. This is the place where the Grand Artist wants to be found.

From the beginning of creation, G‑d’s presence was principally in our world, the lowest world.

Midrash Rabbah, Shir HaShirim 5:1

Before G‑d created this world, He created worlds and destroyed them, created worlds and destroyed them. He said, “These I don’t like. These I don’t like.” Then He created this world. He said, “This one I like.”

—Midrash Rabbah, Kohelet 3:14

Since the time the world was created, G‑d desired that He should have a home among us, the lower beings.

—Midrash Tanchuma, Nasso 7:1

Why would an omnipotent G‑d will to dwell in darkness? What desire could He have in a place where He is found only through painful struggle and dogged effort?

The answer is in the process of tikun itself:

What happens as we succeed, as we collect those letters and string them back together to form their original words and sentences?

Their collective meaning begins to reappear. A story begins to unfold. An underlying harmony, a symphony—not of our invention, but of our discovery.

What happens when the darkness opposes us? When we persist despite all the lies it spews at us? When we refuse to surrender because we have faith in a deeper truth?

Then a yet deeper light is revealed. One the Author could not say. One that could be discovered only through our stubborn faith and toil.

That is the ultimate light, a greater light than shone at the very beginning. Because we have grabbed the darkness by its neck and forced it to shine more truth than any light could shine.

In effect, The primal thought from which this world was conceived has dissected itself, discovered itself, and put itself back together again.the primal thought from which this world was conceived has dissected itself, discovered itself, and put itself back together again.

Tikun, then, does not mean merely repair. In fact, throughout early Jewish literature it rarely does. It means to improve. To fix up.

Because in that process, the story discovers not only its own meaning, its own beauty. It discovers its Author. The very essence of its Author that could not be expressed in any spiritual world.

Where? Within itself. Its darkest self.


When you trace tikun olam back to its source, you get a whole new picture of what it means. It turns out to be far more revolutionary than you would have imagined.

Tikun olam is about much more than justice and an end to suffering. Those are symptoms. Tikun means to fix the cause.

The cause is that we don’t know where we are.

We think we are in a world that just is. Or some dark hole to escape.

The first and last step of our tikun is to awaken to the realization that we are actors in a great drama, players in a master symphony. That we are here with a mission, a responsibility to a Higher Consciousness that brought this place into being.

With that awakening alone, the world would be redeemed.

With With that awakening alone, we would discover that we never left the Garden.that awakening alone, we would discover that we never left the Garden. We only lost awareness of where we stand.

We stand within infinite light. For even the darkness is light.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, 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. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with's copyright policy.
Join the discussion
1000 characters remaining
Email me when new comments are posted.
Sort By:
Discussion (32)
January 19, 2017
Much as I wish to be happy and to delight in the Lord (as Craig claims), my personal situation is one that tells me that the way to achieve this state is by doing something useful. The thing that I may be able to give to the world as a tikkun hopefully will then cause me to find this delight, but it's a bit slow in arriving! May I suggest that the somewhat distant views shown here about simply following the Torah and Law are not sufficient and nor is Hillel's claim about not causing offense to a neighbor. It is necessary to make a positive contribution.
David Chester
Petach Tikva, Israel
January 17, 2017
Re: Pete WA
G-d wants us to delight in His Law. Delight is the key ingredient to Torah service that can bring about the age of Moshiach in full.
This is what Tikkun Olam is about: Psalm 37:4, “So shall you delight in the Lord, and He will give you what your heart desires.”
In return for joyful Torah service, the Lord promises us everything!
Delighting in what is good of the Lord brings reward. Likewise, delighting in the Law brings reward because the Law is good.
We can agree on this; “It doesn't even have to make sense,” because in the act of delighting, we don’t have to understand everything.
Craig Hamilton
Sandwich, MA
January 16, 2017
Love and The Law
Don't be deluded into believing that the law is anything but our protection. There is no sentiment or affection in the Law, no concern for moral judgements or choices. It is simply a guide to what is permitted or allowed and what is not. It doesn't even have to make sense.

The love will flow from our hearts. And the Laws have no relevance on that love.

But when our love fails, and it always fails to some degree while we live in this world, then we incline our minds and our ears to the Law.

It takes a lot of courage sometimes to follow the laws too, and I believe this is what is suggested by "giving your heart to the Torah of Hashem."

Buenos suerte. Have courage. Live in peace with all men.
January 15, 2017
Re: Pete WA
Hashem prefers that we not just follow His laws, but more importantly that we also take them to heart ~ see Psalm 119.
Judaism teaches that if we take Torah to heart, then the resources and prosperity will come. It is as you say, Pete, “The world will be restored and repaired.”
If there is suffering, Gd cries with us, because although His world is perfect, and its state of disorder is due to our own incompetence; something that we can overcome. Don’t give up! Don’t forget to rest!
We are not created sinful, but it is that we were created with the purpose of healing the sins of our surroundings, such that our very existence is evidence that Gd has not abandoned us.
Out of mercy He promises that He will supply the resource of Divine reward provided that we give to Him ourselves, especially in absolute surrender.
Craig Hamilton
Sandwich, MA
January 11, 2017
Study the laws. Obey them. The world will be restored and repaired.
January 11, 2017
Repair by Better Sharing
In this article there is no satisfactory explanation about how the world got to be broken, but every good explanation about how it can be repaired! Without knowing the cause of the damage we cannot get to the heart of its rectification.

The damage we ourselves are doing should be eliminated--both of what are aware and that of which we are not. It is not due to being driven from the Garden of Eden, but to our incapacity to accept the prescribed necessary work and pain. When we individually and deliberately avoid these burdens, others will have to carry an unjustified greater amount. This situation clearly needs repair.

We need to better share the opportunities of access to natural resources, so that the greed and monopolistic restriction of earthly resources is stopped. Basically this is about understanding how our society should work, but fails to properly share. Socialism was not the answer, which instead is related to sharing the means for earning and not the results of doing it.
David Chester
Petach Tikva, Israel
November 13, 2016
What we (reform Jews) don't learn as kids in Hebrew school is that each person is a world unto himself. Jewish kids who stop studying after Bar or Bat Mitzvah and become political radicals seem to be think Tikkun Olam means their right--and duty--to change other people, not themselves. As tmana expressed so beautifully, we repair the world when we lead by example, not authoritarianism. The Hero's journey ultimately brings the hero back home (T'shuvah), where he experiences it as though for the first time because the hero has changed, and in doing so, has changed the world. As Michael Jackson put it, if we want to make the world a better place, we need to look at ourselves and make a change. That's what I think Tikkun Olam really means.
calabasas, ca
September 30, 2016
Prologue to the Hero's Tale
Beautiful piece. While I agree with posters JamieM and chuck that the concept has been co-opted by the Reform & sociopolitically-liberal movements for "progressive" purposes, I also see parallels in the "darkest depths" and the strength I see in many in the chronic disease communities in which I participate.

What I see is that in every person, every people is a Hero Tale of many stories. Each story starts with a requirement or quest (or diagnosis), bring the Hero through the depths of {war, grief, poverty, learning about one's health condition}, seeking out the seemingly unreachable through a long, perilous, and personally-dangerous path, and end with the successful and (to outsiders) triumphant retrieval of the {object, therapy, remission or cure, or other "improvement"} that is the purpose of the quest.

In the process, our determination to continue - and, if we are successful, our success - inspires others and gives us the insight to help them through their quests.
North Plainfield
September 27, 2016
Return: tshuvah
Thank you for this succinct and beautiful explanation of tikkun olam, exactly what I have been sharing everywhere for a long time. Yes, we never left the garden. And in English if you listen closely, there is guard in garden, the guard at the garden gate. This is an orchard story, as Pardes, means Orchard, and the layering interpretation of text, not just Biblical exegesis is part of a story that is intensely about bloom and blooming. I am teaching a course for seekers of all religious persuasions, and many are seeking the spiritual well, that is beneath, as in as it is said, in the Zohar, the is a spring runs through Eden. Eternal spring. If not now, then when? being the gathering of the sparks. I downloaded this for my course, as it is beautifully rendered, and a truth that is coming at us all, from all parts of the globe, and you might say, as I do, since I am teaching King David and Solomon's language of the birds, in crossing Babel, something amazing happens: hear! Shana Tova!
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
September 27, 2016
Repairs to the World
Tikum le Olam means a lot more than simply following prescribed law. Of course by changing these laws to suit us today, one can include the tikun part too, but that is not its essence. When we notice something that is not right and needs to be corrected, our first instinct is to get involved but then when we begin to look at it in practical terms we make excuses for not doing anything about it. This is where we are making a big mistake--we should at least try to introduce some small kind of improvement, like walking instead of driving so as to reduce pollution. Less directly, better education can also help because it will allow our students to more clearly see what needs to be repaired too. So when I put emphasis on macroeconomic theories and their new science (in my recent book) I do believe that my indirect repair program is also relevant. There are so many things that need improvement including the approach to our religion today and the basic Hillel call for not offending a neighbor.
David Chester
Petach Tikva, Israel