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Letter & Spirit - Personal and Public Correspondence of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Send Us Your Letters Letter & Spirit - Personal and Public Correspondence of the Lubavitcher Rebbe

An analysis of different approaches regarding tzimtzum, the process of Divine self-limitation

An analysis of different approaches regarding tzimtzum, the process of Divine self-limitation


This letter was addressed to Rabbi Yerachmiel Benjaminson, a distinguished Rabbi from London. Reference to it is found in Marbitzei Torah U’Mussar, Vol. III, p. 66.

B”H, 19 Shvat, 5699, Paris

Greetings and blessings,

The letter with the enclosed $28 arrived on time.

With regard to your comments concerning the tzimtzum, [the initial contraction of G-dly light,] and the statement of your acquaintance that all the different approaches [to the concept] flow in a single direction:

I was amazed to hear such a proposition, particularly insomuch as in your letter, you describe that person as one who has studied Kabbalistic texts. Obviously, he does not fit that description at all. Even in the first generation after the AriZal — the one who revealed the secret of the tzimtzum — there were radical differences in opinion among his disciples with regard to the tzimtzum. These are obvious from the texts they composed, and these differences were perpetuated [in the subsequent generations].

The crux of the differences centers around two issues:

a) Should the concept of tzimtzum be understood literally or not, i.e., are we speaking about a withdrawal of the light, or merely its concealment?

b) Did the tzimtzum affect merely G-d’s light, or did it affect also the Source of light, [i.e., that He Himself has withdrawn or is hidden from our world]?

[In dealing with these questions,] it is possible to outline four different approaches:

a) the tzimtzum should be interpreted literally, and moreover, that it affected G-d’s essence. The proof offered in defense of this theory is that it is impossible for the King to be found in a place of filth, Heaven forbid;

b) the tzimtzum should be interpreted literally, but that it affected only His light;

c) the tzimtzum should not be interpreted literally, but it affected the Source of light as well; and

d) the tzimtzum should not be interpreted literally, and it affected only His light.

As is well known, the misnagdim at the time of the Alter Rebbe followed the first approach mentioned. They explained the expression,1 “There is no place apart from Him,” meaning — apart from His providence.2 They said, moreover, that the approach which states that G-d’s essence is found everywhere contradicts the laws applying to [the restrictions against prayer and Torah study] in places of filth,3 as reflected in the notices and proclamations which were circulated at the time of the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe.

See also the references to the issue in Shaar HaYichud VehaEmunah, ch. 7, and Iggeres HaKodesh, the conclusion of Epistle 25. It appears to me that Beis Rebbe also includes a letter from the Alter Rebbe concerning this subject.4

[Reb Chayim of Volozin,] the author of Nefesh HaChayim which you mentioned in your letter, follows the third approach mentioned above. In this, he differs from his master, the Gaon, Rav Eliyahu [of Vilna]. In general, it appears that Reb Chayim of Volozin had seen Chabad texts, in particular, the Tanya, and had been influenced by them. I do not, however, have definite proof of this.

[As chassidim,] we follow solely the fourth approach mentioned which explains that the concept of tzimtzum should not be interpreted literally, and that it affects only [G-d’s] light, but not the Source of light. [Indeed, within the light,] it affects only the lowest level of the light which existed before the tzimtzum, as explained in the texts and manuscripts of Chabad [teachings].

In our time, we have merited the revelation [of Chassidic teachings], and the concept of the tzimtzum has been explained at length — at least relatively so — and in many of its particulars, in the texts of the Chabad Chassidic teachings in print and in manuscript. As such, one who desires to understand the concept of the tzimtzum has no alternative except to study these texts. To corroborate this, it is sufficient to compare the discussion of this issue in other texts — where it appears that for various reasons, these texts shied away from speaking in detail about the matter — to its discussion in the texts of Chabad.

I do not know which texts and manuscripts are available to you to make recommendations. The subject of the tzimtzum is mentioned in Torah Or, in the maamar Pasach Eliyahu (and there are notes on this from the Rebbe Rashab which were printed in lithograph in Otvotzk); Likkutei Torah, in the additions to Sefer Vayikra, the maamar Lehavin Mashekasuv beSefer Otzeros Chayim; Shaar HaYichud; Sefer HaMitzvos, [the maamarim entitled] Mitzvas Haamanas Elokus, and Shoresh Mitzvas HaTefillah (beginning ch. 34); in the Siddur, [the maamar] on the verse Zecher Rav Tovecho. In the maamarim of my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe shlita, that have been printed, [the subject is discussed] in [the maamarim entitled:] Al Yipater Adam [56]89, Dirshu Havayah [5]691, Al Kein Yomru [5]691, [Sichos] Shavuos [5]693, p. 8, and Tov Li [5]697.

I am sure that you have the series of maamarim [beginning in the year 5]666. There the subject is also explained in the maamarim entitled VaYolech Havayah es HaYam and Anochi Havayah Elokecha.

The subject of the tzimtzum also relates to the concepts under discussion in Tanya, chs. 48 and 49, as explained in greater length in the maamarim entitled Yavi’u Levush Malchus in Torah Or and in Shaarei Orah.

I have also mentioned sources of which I am certain you are aware so that a complete list would be included.

With respectful and warm regards,

M. Schneerson

1. [Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 57.]
2. [I.e., that G-d is not found in these places, but that He watches over them.]
3. [See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Kerias Shema, ch. 3, Hilchos Tefillah 4:8-9.]
4. [The letter is printed in Igros Kodesh of the Alter Rebbe, Letter No. 34.]
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