“The basic source of this doctrine is found in an early fragment from the circle of the Sefer ha-Iyyun (a preface to a commentary on “the 32 paths of wisdom” in a Florence Ms.) which speaks of an act of divine contraction that preceded emanation: ‘How did He produce and create this world? Like a man who gathers in and contracts (metzamtzem) his breath [Shem Tov b. Shem tov has, ‘and contracts Himself’], so that the smaller might contain the larger, so He contracted His light into a hand’s breadth, according to His own measure, and the world was left in darkness, and in that darkness He cut boulders and hewed rocks.’ Here the reference is to the creation of Keter, which was thought to evolve from an act of contraction that left room for that darkness which alone was Keter. This was also in fact Nachmanides view in his commentary to the Sefer Yetzirah, but not until Luria was the idea elevated to a basic cosmological principle.
The main originality of this Lurianic doctrine lay in the notion that the first act of Ein-Sof was not one of revelation and emanation, but, on the contrary was one of concealment and limitation…..The starting point of this theory is the idea that the very essence of Ein-Sof leaves no space whatsoever for creation, for it is impossible to imagine an area which is not already God, since this would constitute a limitation of His Infinity…..Consequently, an act of creation is possible only through ‘the entry of God into Himself,’ that is, through an act of tzimtzum, whereby He contracts Himself and so makes it possible for something which is not Ein-Sof to exist. Some part of the Godhead therefore withdraws and leaves room, so to speak, for the creative processes to come into play. Such a retreat must precede any emanation.
Unlike the midrashic use of the word (metzamtzem), which speaks of God contracting Himself into the Holy of Holies in the abode of the cherubs, kabbalistic contraction has quite the reverse significance: it is not the concentration of God’s power or a place, but its withdrawal from a place. The place from which He retreats is merely ‘a point’ in comparison with His infinity, but it comprises from our point of view all levels of existence, both spiritual and corporeal. This place is primordial space, and it is called tehiru, a term taken from the Zohar (1:15a). Luria also answers the question of how this tzimtzum actually took place. Before tzimtzum all the forces of God were stored within His infinite Self and equitably balanced without any separation between them. Hence, even the forces of Din (‘judgment’) were stored there but were not distinguishable as such. When the primal intention to create came into being, Ein-Sof gather together the roots of Din, which had been previously concealed within Him, to one place, from which the power of mercy had departed. In this way the power of Din became concentrated. Tzimtzum therefore was an act of judgment and self-limitation, and the process thus initiated was intended to continue by means of a progressive extraction and catharsis of the power of Din that was left in primordial space, where it was intermingled in a confused fashion with the remnants of the light of Ein-Sof that had remained behind even after tzimtzum, like drops of oil that remain in a vessel after it has been emptied. This residue was called reshimu. Into this inchoate mixture, which is the hylic aspect of the future universe, there descends from the primordial, space-encompassing Ein-Sof a yod, the first letter of the Tetragrammaton, which contains a ‘cosmic measure’ or kav-ha-middah, that is, the power of formation and organization. This power may be seen as belonging to the attribute of overflowing mercy (Rachamim).
Creation, therefore, is conceived of as a double activity of the emanating Ein-Sof following on tzimtzum: the Emanator acts both as a receptive substratum through the light of the reshimu, and as a form-giving force which descends from the essence of Ein-Sof to bring order and structure to the original confusion. Thus, both the subject and the object of the process of creation have their origin in God but were differentiated from each other in the tzimtzum. This process is expressed in the creation of ‘vessels’ (kelim) in which the divine essence that remained in primordial space is precipitated out: at first this takes place still hylically, in the vessel called ‘primordial air’ (avir kadmon), but subsequently it assumes a clearer form in the vessel called ‘primordial man’ (Adam Kadmon) that is created by a raising and lowering of the ‘cosmic measure,’ which serves as a permanent connection between Ein-Sof and the primordial space of tzimtzum. This version of the doctrine of tzimtzum was obscured to a great extent by Vital…..At the beginning of his Etz Chayyim, however, there is a much simpler account. Without mentioning either the gathering out of the roots of Din or reshimu, he describes a process whereby as a result of the act of divine contraction an empty vacuum was formed in the midst of Ein-Sof into which emananted a ray of light that filled this space with ten Sefirot. Since the tzimtzum took place equally on all sides, the resulting vacuum was circular or spherical in shape. The light which entered it in a straight line after the tzimtzum has, therefore, two aspects from the start: it arranges itself both in concentric circles and in a unilinear structure, which is the form of Adam Kadmon le-khol ha-kedumim, ‘the primordial man that preceded all other primordials.’ The form of a circle and a man are henceforth the two directions in which every created thin develops. Just as the first movement in creation was in reality composed of two movements – the ascent of Ein-Sof into the depths of itself and its partial descent into the space of tzimtzum – so this double rhythm is a necessarily recurring feature of every stage in the universal process. This process works through the double heat of the alternately expanding movement of Ein-Sof and its desire to return to itself, hitpashtut (‘egression’) and histalkut (‘regression’), as the kabbalists call it. Every movement of regression toward the source has something of a new tzimtzum about it…..Every stage in the development of the emanating light has not only a circular and linear aspect but also the modes of both an ‘inner light’ within the vessels that are produced and a ‘surrounding light,’ as well as the modes of atzmut ve-kelim (‘substance and vessels’), and ‘direct light and reflected light’…..
…..Our earliest sources for the doctrine of tzimtzum clearly show that Luria did not differentiate between the substance of Ein-Sof and its light, in both of which tzimtzum occurred. Such a distinction was made only when problems arose concerning the harmonization of this doctrine with the idea of God’s immutability. This desire for consistency had two consequences: (1) a differentiation between the substance of Ein-Sof and its light (i.e. its will, which made it possible to argue that the tzimtzum occurred only in the latter and not in its ‘possessor’; and (2) the insistence that the concept of tzimtzum was not to be taken literally, being only figurative and based on a human perspective…..
…..From the 17th century onward kabbalistic opinion was divided on the doctrine of tzimtzum. Was it to be taken literally? Or was it to be understood symbolically as an occurrence in the depths of the Divine, which the human mind could only describe in figurative language? The question was a bone of contention in the many arguments that took place between the kabbalists and the more philosophically inclined who found kabbalistic speculation distasteful, for all that the concept of tzimtzum was in fact very close to the ideas that later developed in modern idealist philosophies, such as those of Schelling and Whitehead…..many kabbalists were inclined to take the tzimtzum literally, a view that became especially popular among the Shabbateans, whose entire creed made a non-literal interpretation impossible. This position was clearly expressed in the writings of Nathan of Gaza and Nehemiah Chayon. It was Chayon’s determined defence of the literalist interpretation, in fact, that prompted Joseph Ergas to stress even more keenly Abraham Herrera’s view that the tzimtzum doctrine was symbolic…..Ergas greatly influenced chasidic literature, especially the Chabad teachings of Schneur Zalman of Lyady and his pupil Aaron ha-Levi of Staroselye, who devoted a profound dialectical discussion to the subject in his Avodat ha-Levi (1862)…..Aaron ha-Levi’s system is based on the premise of a double tzimtzum. The first tzimtzum, also called beki’ah (‘piercing’), is a contraction in the substance of Ein-Sof which renders possible the appearance of the Infinite in general and which is completely beyond our understanding. It leads to a revelation of the light of Ein-Sof, but is so unfathomable that there is not the slightest mention of it in Chayyim Vital’s Etz Chayyim. It is only after this beki’ah, which is conceived of as a ‘leap’ from absolute Ein-Sof to relative Ein-Sof, that the second contraction occurs, whereby the light of Ein-Sof is made to appear finite. In fact, however, the finite has no existence at all and is made possible only through the emission of a line or a ray from the Infinite. The cathartic concept of tzimtzum mentioned above was developed independently in the writings of Moses Chayyim Luzzatto, who believed the crux of tzimtzum to lie in the fact that the Creator ‘overcomes, as it were, His innate law of goodness in creation, so that His creatures should not be made perfect, even seen from their own point of view, let alone seen from that of God..’ The metaphysical root of evil is inherent in the very privation that the act of tzimtzum involves, and the whole development of created beings depends on their being given an opportunity to perfect themselves according to their merits and to separate the power of evil from the power of good.
In sum we can say that those kabbalists who wrote with one eye on the philosophers tended to stress the non-literal nature of tzimtzum, whereas those kabbalists who had little use for Aristotelian philosophy to begin with presented the doctrine literally and unadorned. …”
–Gershom Scholem Kabbalah (Meridian)
“Luria’s new myth is concentrated in three great symbols, the tzimtzum, or self-limitation, of God, the shevirah, or breaking of the vessels, and the tikkun, or harmonious correction and mending of the flaw which came into the world through the shevirah..
The tzimtzum does not occur in the Zohar. It originates in other old treatises, but became truly significant only with Luria. It is an amazing conception. The tzimtzum ushers in the cosmic drama. But this drama is no longer, as in older systems, an emanation or projection, in which God steps out of Himself, communicates or reveals Himself. On the contrary, it is a withdrawal into Himself. Instead of turning outward, He contracts His essence, which becomes more and more hidden. Without the tzimtzum there would be no cosmic process, for it is God’s withdrawal into Himself that first creates a pneumatic, primordial space – which the Kabbalists called tehiru – and makes possible the existence of something other than God and His pure essence. The Kabbalists do not say so directly, but it is implicit in their symbolism that this withdrawal of the divine essence into itself is a primordial exile, or self-banishment. In the tzimtzum the powers of judgment, which in God’s essence were united in infinite harmony with the ‘roots’ of all other potencies, are gathered and concentrated in a single point, namely, the primordial space, or pleroma, from which God withdraw. But the powers of stern judgment ultimately include evil. Thus the whole ensuing process, in which these powers of judgment are eliminated from, or ‘smelted out’ of, God, is a gradual purification of the divine organism from the elements of evil…..In the Tree of Life, the great work of Luria’s disciple Hayim Vital, the tzimtzum becomes, not a necessary and fundamental crisis in God Himself, but a free act of love, which however, paradoxically enough, first unleashes the powers of stern judgment.
In the primordial space, or pleroma, the ‘roots of judgment’ discharged in the tzimtzum are mixed with the residue of God’s infinite light, which has withdrawn from it. The nature of the forms that come into being in the pleroma is determined by the co-operation and conflict between these two elements and by the workings of a third element, a ray from God’s essence, which subsequently breaks through and falls back into the primordial space…..In the pleroma arise the archetypes of all being, the forms, determined by the structure of the sefiroth, of Adam Kadmon, of the creator God who takes a hand in Creation. But the precarious co-existence of the different kinds of divine light produces new crises. Everything that comes into being after the ray of the light from en-sof has been sent out into the pleroma is affected by the twofold movement of the perpetually renewed tzimtzum and of the outward flowing emanation. Every stage of being is grounded in this tension. From te ears, the mouth, and the nose of the Primordial Man burst forth lights which produce deeply hidden configurations, states of being and inner worlds beyond the penetration of the human mind, even in meditation. But the central plan of Creation originates in the lights which shine in strange refraction from the eyes of Adam Kadmon. For the vessels which, themselves consisting of lower mixtures of lights, were designed to receive this mighty light of the sefiroth from his eyes and so to serve as vessels and instruments of Creation, shattered under its impact. This is the decisive crisis of all divine and created being, the ‘breaking of the vessels,’ which Luria identifies with the Zoharic image of the ‘dying of the primordial kings’…..In Luria the death of the kings from lack of harmony between the masculine and feminine elements, described in the Zohar, is transformed into the ‘breaking of the vessels,’ also a crisis of the powers of judgment, the most unassimilable parts of which are projected downward in this cataclysm to lead an existence of their own as demonic powers. Two hundred and eighty-eight sparks from the fire of ‘judgment,’ the hardest and the heaviest, fall, mingling with the fragments of the broken vessels. For after the crisis nothing remains as it was. All the lights from the eyes of Adam Kadmon return upward, rebounding from the vessels, or break through downward. Luria describes the laws governing this event in detail. Nothing remains in its proper place. Everything is somewhere else. But a being that is not in its proper place is in exile. Thus, since that primordial act, all being has been a being in exile, in need of being led back and redeemed. The breaking of the vessels continues into all the further stages of emanation and Creation; everything is in some way broken, everything has a flaw, everything is unfinished…..
…..And so the vessels of the sefiroth, which were to receive the world emanating from Adam Kadmon, are broken. In order to mend this breach or restore the edifice which, now that the demonized powers of pure judgment have been eliminated, would seem to be capable of taking on a harmonious and definitive form, healing, constructive lights have issued from the forehead of Adam Kadmon. Their influence ushers in the third stage in the symbolic process, which the Kabbalists called tikkun, restoration. For Luria this process takes place partly in God, but partly in man as the crown of all created being. It is an intricate process, for though the powers of evil were cast out in the breaking of the vessels, they were not wholly eliminated. The process of elimination must continue, for the configuration of the sefiroth that now arise still contain vestiges of the pure power of judgment, and these must either be eliminated or transformed into constructive powers of love and mercy…..in the present state of things, the world of Making [Asiyyah] is mixed with the world of demonic powers, or ‘shells,’ kelippoth, which accounts for the crudely material character of its physical manifestation. In essence – and here we have a pure Neoplatonic conception – the world of nature is purely spiritual. Only the breaking of the vessels, in which everything fell from its proper place, caused it to mingle with the demonic world. Thus to separate them once more is one of the central aims of all striving for the tikkun.”
— Gershom Scholem On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism (Mysticism & Kabbalah)
This excerpt is the easiest to read and understand of all Scholem’s writings on this subject. In this work Scholem draws comparisons between this Kabbalistic doctrine and those of Gnostic thinking, which is worth noting and investigating. The Gnostic teacher, Basilides and the Gnostic teachings referred to in this excerpt were written about in “Fragments of a Faith Forgotten” by G.R.S. Mead. For a great online resource of Gnostic writings and related texts, visit the library of the Gnostic Society at:
“…..the doctrine of Tzimtzum, one of the most amazing and far-reaching conceptions ever put forward in the whole history of Kabbalism. Tzimtzum originally means ‘concentration’ or ‘contraction,’ but if used in the Kabbalistic parlance it is best translated by ‘withdrawal’ or ‘retreat.’ The idea first occurs in a brief and entirely forgotten treatise which was written in the middle of the thirteenth century and of which Luria seems to have made use, while its literary original is a Talmudic saying which Luria inverted. He stood it on its head, no doubt believing that he had put it on its feet. The Midrash – in sayings originating from third century teachers – occasionally refers to God as having concentrated His Shekhinah,. His divine presence, in the holies of holies, at the place of the Cherubim, as though His whole power were concentrated and contracted in a single point. Here we have the origin of the term Tzimtzum, while the thing itself is the precise opposite of this idea to the Kabbalist of Luria’s school. Tzimtzum does not mean the concentration of God at a point, but his retreat away from a point.
What does this mean? It means briefly that the existence of the universe is made possible by a process of shrinkage in God. Luria begins by putting a question which gives the appearance of being naturalistic and, if you like, somewhat crude. How can there be a world if God is everywhere? If God is ‘all in all,’ how can there be things which are not God? How can God create the world out of nothing if there is no nothing? This is the question. The solution became in spite of the crude form which he gave it, of the highest importance in the history of later Kabbalistic thought. According to Luria, God was compelled to make room for the world by, as it were, abandoning a region within Himself, a kind of mystical primordial space from which He withdrew in order to return to it in the act of creation and revelation. The first act of En-Sof, the Infinite Being, is therefore not a step outside but a step inside, a movement of recoil, of falling back upon oneself, of withdrawing into oneself. Instead of emanation we have the opposite, contraction. The God who revealed himself in firm contours was superseded by one who descended deeper into the recesses of His own Being, who concentrated Himself into Himself, and had done so from the very beginning of creation. To be sure, this view was often felt, even by those who gave it a theoretical formulation to verge on the blasphemous. Yet it cropped up again and again, modified only ostensibly by a feeble ‘as it were’ or ‘so to speak.’
One is tempted to interpret this withdrawal of God into his own Being in terms of Exile, of banishing Himself from His totality into profound seclusion. Regarded this way, the idea of Tzimtzum is the deepest symbol of Exile that could be thought of, even deeper than the ‘Breaking of the Vessels.’ In the ‘Breaking of the Vessels’…..something of the Divine Being is exiled out of Himself, whereas the Tzimtzum could come to be considered as an exile into Himself. The first act of all is not an act of revelation but one of limitation. Only in the second act does God send out a ray of His light and begin his revelation, or rather his unfolding as God the Creator, in the primordial space of His own creation. More than that, every new act of emanation and manifestation is preceded by one of concentration and retraction. In other words, the cosmic process becomes two-fold. Every stage involves a double strain, i.e. the light which streams back into God and that which flows out from Him, and but for this perpetual tension, this ever repeated effort with which God holds Himself back, nothing in the world would exist. There is fascinating power and profundity in this doctrine. This paradox of Tzimtzum – as Jacob Emden said – is the only serious attempt ever made to give substance to the idea of Creation out of Nothing. Incidentally, the fact that an idea which at first sight appears so reasonable as ‘Creation out of Nothing’ should turn out upon inspection to lead to a theosophical mystery shows us how illusory the apparent simplicity of religious fundamentals really is.
Apart from its intrinsic importance, the theory of Tzimtzum also acted as a counterpoise to the pantheism which some scholars think is implied in the theory of emanation. Not only is there a residue of divine manifestation in every being, but under the aspect of Tzimtzum it also acquires a reality of its own which guards it against the danger of dissolution into the non-individual being of the divine ‘all in all’…..
…..the doctrine of Tzimtzum played an extremely important part in the development of Lurianic thought, and new attempts to formulate it were made continuously…..Here I must content myself with stressing one more aspect which Luria himself undoubtedly regarded as highly important and for which our source is an authentic remark by himself. According to this, the essence of the Divine Being, before the Tzimtzum took place, contained not only the qualities of love and mercy, but also that of Divine Sternness which the Kabbalists call Din or Judgment. But Din was not recognizable as such; it was as it were dissolved in the great ocean of God’s compassion, like a grain of salt in the sea, to use Joseph ibn Tabul’s simile. In the act of Tzimtzum, however, it crystallized and became clearly defined, for inasmuch as Tzimtzum signifies an act of negation and limitation it is also an act of judgment. It must be remembered that to the Kabalist, judgment means the imposition of limits and the correct determination of things. According to Cordovero the quality of judgment is inherent in everything insofar as everything wishes to remain what it is, to stay within its boundaries. Hence it is precisely in the existence of individual things that the mystical category of judgment plays an important part. If, therefore, the Midrash says that originally the world was to have been based on the quality of strict judgment, Din, but God seeing that this was insufficient to guarantee its existence, added the quality of mercy, the Kabbalist who follows Luria interprets this saying as follows: The first act, the act of Tzimtzum, in which God determines, and therefore limits, Himself, is an act of Din which reveals the roots of this quality in all that exists; these ‘roots of divine judgment’ subsist in chaotic mixture with the residue of divine light which remained after the original retreat or withdrawal within the primary space of God’s creation. Then a second ray of light out of the essence of En-Sof brings order into chaos and sets the cosmic process in motion, by separating the hidden elements and moulding them into a new form. Throughout this process the two tendencies of perpetual ebb and flow – the Kabbalists speak of hithpashtuth, egression, and histalkuth, regression – continue to act and react upon each other. Just as the human organism exists through the double process of inhaling and exhaling and the one cannot be conceived without the other, so also the whole of Creation constitutes a gigantic process of divine inhalation and exhalation. In the final resort, therefore, the root of all evil is already latent in the act of Tzimtzum .
…..Luria regards the cosmic process up to a point, after the Tzimtzum, as a process within God – a doctrine, incidentally, which has never failed to involve its adherents in difficulties of the most complex sort. This assumption was made easier for him by his belief, already mentioned in passing, that a vestige of residue of the divine light – Reshimu in Luria’s terminology – remains in the primeval space created by Tzimtzum even after the withdrawal of the substance of En-Sof . He compares this with the residue of oil or wine in a bottle the contents of which have been poured out. This conception makes it possible to lay stress alternatively on the divine character of the Reshimu, or on the fact that the essence of En-Sof has been withdrawn so that what comes into being as a result of this process must stand outside God. It remains to be added that some of the more decided theists among the Kabbalists have solved this dilemma by disregarding the Reshimu altogether.
Before going further it may be of interest to point out that this conception of the Reshimu has a close parallel in the system of the Gnostic Basilides who flourished about 125 A.D. Here, too, we find the idea of a primordial ‘blessed space, which can neither by conceived of, nor characterized by any word, yet is not entirely described from the sonship’; the latter is Basilides’ term for the most sublime consummation of the universal potentialities. Of the relation of the Sonship to the Holy Spirit, or Pneuma, Basilides says that even when the Pneuma remained empty and divorced from the Sonship, yet at the same time it retained the latter’s flavor which permeates everything above and below, even as far as formless matter and our own state of existence. And Basilides, too, employs the simile of a bowl in which the delicate fragrance of a ‘sweetest smelling unguent’ remains though the bowl be emptied with the greatest possible care. Moreover, we have an early prototype of the Tzimtzum in the Gnostic ‘Book of the Great Logos,’ one of those astounding remains of Gnostic literature that have been preserved through Coptic translations. Here we are taught that all primordial spaces and their ‘fatherhoods’ have come into being because of the ‘little idea,’ the space of which God has left behind as the shining world of light when He ‘withdrew Himself into Himself.’ This withdrawal that precedes all emanation is repeatedly stressed.
Side by side with this conception of the cosmic process, we find two other important theosophical ideas…..These two ideas are the doctrine of Shevirat Ha-Kelim, or ‘Breaking of the Vessels,’and that of Tikkun, which means mending or restitution of a defect. The influence of these two ideas on the development of later Kabbalistic thought has been as great as that of the doctrine of Tzimtzum.
Let us begin by considering the former. We have to assume that the divine light which flowed into primordial space – of which three dimensional space is a late development – unfolded in various stages and appeared under a variety of aspects. There is no point in going here into the details of this process. Luria and his followers are inclined to lose themselves partly in visionary, partly in scholastic, descriptions of it. It came to pass within a realm of existence which, to use a Gnostic term, might well be called the sphere of Pleroma , or the ‘fullness’ of divine light. The decisive point is that, according to this doctrine, the first being which emanated from the light was Adam Kadmon, the ‘primordial man.’
Adam Kadmon is nothing but a first configuration of the divine light which flows from the essence of En-Sof into the primeval space of Tzimtzum – not indeed from all sides but, like a beam in one direction only. He therefore is the first and highest form in which the divinity begins to manifest itself after the Tzimtzum. From his eyes, mouth, ears and nose, the lights of the Sefiroth burst forth. At first these lights were coalesced in a totality without any differentiation between the various Sefiroth; in this state they did not require bowls or vessels to hold them. The lights coming from the eyes, however, emanated in an ‘atomized’ form in which every Sefirah was an isolated point. This ‘world of punctiform lights,’ Olam Ha-Nekudoth, Luria also calls Olam Ha-Tohu, i.e. ‘World of confusion or disorder’…..Since, however, the divine scheme of things involved the creation of finite beings and forms, each with its own allotted place in the ideal hierarchy, it was necessary that these isolated lights should be caught and preserved in special ‘bowls’ created – or rather emanated – for this particular purpose. The vessels which corresponded to the three higher Sefiroth accordingly gave shelter to their light, but when the turn of the lower six came, the light broke forth all at once and its impact proved too much for the vessels which were broken and shattered. The same, though not to quite the same extent, also occurred with the vessel of the last Sefirah.
This idea of the ‘breaking of the vessels’ was developed by Luria in a highly original manner from a suggestion made in the Zohar. In a Midrash…..mention is made of the destruction of worlds before the creation of the now existing cosmos. The Zohar’s interpretation of this Aggadah is that it refers to the creation of worlds in which only the forces of Gevurah, the Sefirah of stern judgment, were active, and which were therefore destroyed by this excess of sternness. This event in turn is placed in relation to the list of the Kings of Edom in chapter 36 of Genesis, of whom nothing is said but that they built a town and died. ‘And these are the Kings that reigned in the land of Edom.” – Edom signifying the realm of stern judgment untempered by compassion. But the world is maintained only through the harmony of grace and strict judgment, of the masculine and the feminine, a harmony which the Zohar calls the ‘balance.’ The death of the ‘primordial kings,’ of which more is said in the Idra Rabba and the Idra Zutta in the Zohar, now re-appear in Luria’s system as the ‘breaking of the vessels.’
In the description given of this event by Luria’s original disciples, it has none of the characteristics of chaos or anarchy. On the contrary, it is a process which follows certain very definite laws or rules which are described in considerable detail. Subsequently, however, popular imagination took hold of the picturesque side of the idea and gave a literal interpretation, so to speak, to metaphors like ‘breaking of the vessels’ or ‘world of the tohu’; in this manner, the emphasis was gradually shifted from the lawful to the catastrophic nature of the process.
The cause of this ‘breaking of the vessels,’ which releases the whole complexity of the cosmological drama and determines man’s place in it, appears in Luria’s and Vital’s doctrine under varying aspects. In the immediate sense, the event is traced back to certain technical flaws in the structure of the Sefirotic atom-cosmos from which the ‘accident’ follows with necessity. In a profounder sense, however, the event is due to what I propose to term, with Tishby, the cathartic cause. For Luria, the deepest roots of the Kelipot, or ‘shells,’ i.e. the forces of evil, existed already before the breaking of the vessels and were mixed up, so to speak, with the lights of the Sefiroth and the above-mentioned Reshimu, or residue of En-Sof in the primordial space. What really brought about the fracture of the vessels was the necessity of cleansing the elements of the Sefiroth by eliminating the Kelipot, in order to give a real existence and separate identity to the power of evil. The Zohar…..already defines evil as a by-product of the life process of the Sefiroth, and more particularly, of the Sefirah of strict judgment. According to Luria, these waste products were originally mixed with the pure substance of Din (sternness), and it was only after the breaking of the vessels and the subsequent process of selection that the evil and demonic forces assumed real and separate existence in a realm of their own. Not from the fragments of the broken vessels but from the ‘dross of the primordial kings’ did the domain of the Kelipah arise. More than that, the Zohar’s organological imagery is developed to its logical conclusion: the Shevirah is compared to the ‘breakthrough’ of birth, the deepest convulsion of the organism which, incidentally, is also accompanied by the externalization of what might be described as waste products. In this manner, the mystical ‘death of the primordial kings’ is transformed into the far more plausible symbol of a mystical ‘birth’ of the pure new vessels.
This cathartic interpretation of the meaning of the Shevirah was accepted by all the Kabbalists of the Lurianic school. For some of them, however, the idea that the roots of evil lie in the ‘world of points’ remained a stumbling-block, since it seemed to suggest a dualistic conception of God, i.e. one of the most serious heresies. They therefore held to the view that the powers of evil developed out of the scattered fragments of the vessels which have sunk into the lower depths of the primordial space and there constitute the ‘depth of the great abyss’ in which the spirit of evil dwells…..Again the Gnostical character of the doctrine is clearly evident. The mythology of the Gnostical system too, recognizes in the pleroma dramatic processes in which particles of the light of the aeons are driven out and fall into the void. In the same manner, Luria accounts fo the fall of divine ‘sparks of light’ from the divine realm into the lower depths.
Later Kabbalists have lavished a great deal of further speculative thought on this point. According to some of them, the Breaking of the Vessels is connected, like so many other things, with the law of organic life in the theosophical universe. Just as the seed must burst in order to sprout and blossom, so too the first bowls had to be shattered in order that the divine light, the cosmic seed so to speak, might fulfill its function. At any rate the Breaking of the Bowls, of which we find exhaustive descriptions in the literature of Lurianic Kabbalism, is the decisive turning point in the cosmological process. Taken as a whole, it is the cause of that inner deficiency which is inherent in everything that exists and which persists as long as the damage is not mended. For when the bowls were broken the light either diffused or flowed back to its source, or flowed downwards. The fiendish nether-worlds of evil, the influence of which crept into all stages of the cosmological process, emerged from the fragments which still retained a few sparks of the holy light – Luria speaks of just 288. In this way the good elements of the divine order came to be mixed with the vicious ones. Conversely the restoration of the ideal order, which forms the original aim of creation, is also the secret purpose of existence. Salvation means actually nothing but restitution, re-integration of the original whole, or Tikkun, to use the Hebrew term…..”
–Gershom Scholem Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
“…..Isaac Luria Ashkenazi (1534-1572), the greatest of the luminaries of Safed, wove a fascinating theory concerning the hiddenness of God. His ideas appealed to his contemporaries perhaps because of their intimate familiarity with exile and dislocation. Many of them were the children of the Spanish exiles.
Luria portrayed creation as intrinsically imperfect although man, paradoxically, was invested with the capacity to perfect the world and thus complete the process of creation. The perfection of God, Luria taught, was unique, and the attempt to replicate His own perfection and to embody it in creation could not be accomplished without producing disruption and chaos. In attempting to communicate something of His own essence to the world, God overwhelmed the world’s capacity to serve as a vessel for divine perfection. The overload led to a fracture in the process of creation and produced a world in which pain, evil, exile, and disorder predominate. The suffering and moral failures of human life are real features of existence and not primarily the result of human sinfulness.
Luria explained the process of the beginning of all existence as the limitation of the infinite being of Eyn Sof. Eyn Sof, portrayed metaphorically as boundless light, is all that exists:
‘Know that before emanated things were emanated and the created things were created, the pure, divine light filled all existence. There was no empty place resembling a void or vacuum. Everything was permeated by that simple light of Eyn Sof. There was neither beginning nor end. There was just one simple light, static, in equanimity. It was called the light of Eyn Sof.’ [Hayyim Vitale, Sefer Etz Hayyim (Jerusalem, 1910) 11b]
The only attribute of the infinite being is His will. His will is to create something other than Himself, to allow something other than Himself to exist. The purpose of allowing another existence is to make it possible for His own existence to be known. The other is created for His own sake. But since His existence is infinite, it cannot be known except through the Sefirot. The Sefirot are the finite actions, names, and attributes of the infinite being.
‘God’s simple will was moved to create worlds, to radiate emanations, to bring to light the perfection of His actions, names and attributes, for this was the cause of His creating worlds.’ [Hayyim Vitale, Ibid.11b]
Eyn Sof initiated the process of bringing other existences into being with an act of self-limitation called contraction (tzimtzum). How did Eyn Sof restrict His own infinite being? Luria explains the solution to this great philosophical conundrum with a metaphor drawn from his knowledge of medieval geometry and physics. The infinite created a void within its boundless existence by contracting itself into a premordial point. It went from unbounded infinity to unbounded finity. The universe that existed before the contraction was not a physical universe of space and matter. It was entirely Eyn Sof. With the contacting of infinity, the universe became finite but still unbounded in the sense that it has no edge or boundary. Physicists today would call such a phenomenon a hypersphere. Within the unbounded hypersphere Eyn Sof created a boundary by contracting Himself into a point. The being of Eyn Sof is thus infinitely shrunken into a point that has an edge and boundary. This is what modern physics call a singularity.
After contracting Himself into a singularity, Eyn Sof expanded away from the point to the periphery of the hypersphere. By this He created both space and matter. He created space within the bounded universe by defining a finite center and an infinite perimeter. The unbounded perimeter must be spherical because he withdrew from the center in equal measure in all directions. The area left within the sphere is His primordial space. At the same time, since Eyn Sof has traversed from the center to the periphery, the space that He left behind is within Himself and must have a residue of His being. This is the primordial essence of God out of which all existence is formed.
Everything within the world shows traces in its being of the original essence of Eyn Sof, which withdrew in order to allow for other beings to exist:
‘Then Eyn Sof contracted Himself into a central point with His light in the middle. He contracted this light and then removed Himself to the sides encircling the point at the center. This left an empty place, an ether, and a vacuum around the point at the center.
This contraction, equidistant all around the point at the center, formed a void in such a way that the vacuum was spherical on all sides in equal measure. It did not form a cube with right angles because Eyn Sof contracted Himself into a sphere in equal distance on all sides. He intended that the light of Eyn Sof should be in absolute equanimity. This necessitated that He contract Himself in equal measure on all sides no more on one side than any other.’ [Hayyim Vitale, Ibid.11b]
According to Luria this act of contraction within and without is an act of self-restriction. Such a limitation gives measure and definition to the undefined and unbounded. This is described as ‘revealing the roots of judgment,’ the measure of Din:
‘The purpose of contraction is to reveal the roots of divine judgment, that is to be able to give the measure of Din Later on to the worlds.’ [Hayyim Vitale, Ibid.11b]
Within this hypersphere existence comes into being. The hypersphere appears to the human imagination as a vacuum, as empty space. This space, however, is not really a vacuum since it contains a residue of Eyn Sof, the roots of Din and the potentiality of all existence.
‘And after this contraction, there was only the vacuum, ether and empty space in the midst of the light of Eyn Sof. There was now place for the emanations, creations, formations and actions.’ [Hayyim Vitale, Ibid.11b]
Eyn Sof then began to create within this primordial space. He began to act directly within this vacuum to create the ideal prototypes of existence. First He sought to radiate the ten Sefirot as the ten attributes of the prototype of a human being. Eyn Sof radiated His light in a straight line from one point on the periphery of the hypersphere through the point in the center to another point on the periphery.
‘Then, one straight line descended from the light of Eyn Sof from the top to the bottom of the sphere of light. It unfolded downwards through this void.
Into the space of this vacuum, He emanated, created, formed and acted upon all the worlds.’ [Hayyim Vitale, Ibid.11b]
A straight line could not penetrate the hypersphere. Since the hypersphere is unbounded, everything within it is unbounded and has no edge. A straight line cannot travers the space without conforming to its spherical shape. The light of Eyn Sof was refracted from a line into a curve that formed the shape of a concentric circle within the hypersphere. The straight line, however, before it was refracted, served as a connecting link between the boundless hypersphere of Eyn Sof and the first bounded sphere within it.
‘He spread the straight line bit by bit. At first, the line of light began to spread and, then, it spread out, descended and became a type of sphere round about. This sphere did not cling to the light of Eyn Sof which encompassed it…..The connection and bond between the emanating sphere of Eyn Sof and the emanated sphere is that very same straight line.’ [Hayyim Vitale, Ibid.11b]
The first bounded sphere within the hypersphere is the first Sefirah, Keter. It is also the first aspect of the ideal prototype of man and so is called the ‘Keter of primordial man.’ This same process was repeated within the hypersphere. Each penetration of the straight line of the light of Eyn Sof was refracted into another concentric circle within the previous one. Each one represented another stage in the unfolding of the Sefirot as ideal prefigurations of the human being:
‘This first concentric sphere which adheres closely to Eyn Sof is called Keter of primordial man. Then, the straight line continues briefly, then retreats and forms another concentric sphere within the other. This sphere is called Hokhmah of primordial man. That which joins all the spheres together is the subtle thin line which spreads out from Eyn Sof, traversing, descending and jo0ining each sphere to another until it reaches the very last.
Next, the line spreads out in a straight way from the top to the bottom, from the highest point of the highest sphere to the very lowest and last of the spheres. It consists of the ten Sefirot arranged mysteriously in the image of an upright human figure.’ [Hayyim Vitale, Ibid.12a]
Each Sefirah formed in this way was a receptacle for the divine light:
‘Through the contraction and diminution of the light, it was possible for a receptacle to come into being and become apparent.’ [Hayyim Vitale, Ibid.13a]
As each concentric circle formed it became more remote from the original light of Eyn Sof. Within this shrinking universe the light remained strong although the vessel became increasingly weaker. Finally, under the impact of the powerful light of Eyn Sof the vessels collapsed and exploded, destroying the original prototype:
‘When the light becomes too strong, the receptacle disintegrates due to its limited capacity to its limited capacity to contain the powerful light.’ [Hayyim Vitale, Ibid.13a]
Luria describes this catastrophe as the breaking of the vessels (shevirat ha-kelim). The light of Eyn Sof and the matter of the Sefirot were dispersed throughout the universe. On one hand the primordial scene of creation had turned into chaos and disaster. On the other hand the light of Eyn Sof was now diffused randomly throughout the hypersphere. Then Eyn Sof radiated a second and weaker light that did not overwhelm the structure. This light slowly penetrated the universe and created time, matter, and the world as we know it.
Within this colossal and violent explosion, the birth of the universe took place. The residue of the catastrophe provided the elemental stuff of creation. Luria describes the aftermath of this ‘big bang’ as having produced sufficient ‘sparks of light’ and ‘shards of vessels’ to produce a world. word. The world might have been formed by dross, but it was divine matter.
The outward manifestation of the universe is chaotic and distorted. The explosion frustrated God’s effort to create a perfect world. In its wake the world was shaped from the remnants and shards of the primeval chaos. The abyss between Eyn Sof and the world appears insurmountable. But because the underlying nature of the matter of the world is divine, the world is not so much devoid of divinity as it is a mask concealing divinity.
The world contains within it deeply hidden and embedded shards of divine light. The very chaotic state of the universe also inherently contains the possibility of its own perfection. All existence is paradoxical in that it appears distorted and corrupt, yet it contains the seeds of holiness. For Luria, the world contains the seeds for its own renewal. This is the possibility of restoration (tikkun)……”
—David Ariel & Daniel Matt Kabbalah: The Mystic Quest in Judaism
CONCEALING AND REVEALING
“When powerful light is concealed and clothed in a garment, it is revealed. Though concealed, the light is actually revealed, for were it not concealed, it could not be revealed. This is like wishing to gaze at the dazzling sun. Its dazzle conceals it, for you cannot look at its overwhelming brilliance. Yet when you conceal it – looking at it through screens – you can see and not be harmed. So it is with emanation: by concealing and clothing itself, it reveals itself.” [Moses Cordovero (sixteenth century), Pardes Rimmonim 5:4, 25d]
“With the appearance of the light, the universe expanded. With the concealment of the light, the things that exist were created in all their variety. This is the secret of the act of Creation. One who understands will understand.” [Shim’on Lavi (sixteenth century), Ketem Paz (Jerusalem: Ahavat Shalom, 1981), 1:124c).
TSIMTSUM: CREATIVE WITHDRAWAL
“Wisdom is the end of what you can ponder in thought, for Keter, the highest sefirah, fills more than the mind can conceive. It contracted the essence of its presence into a handbreadth, and darkness appeared over everything, for the absence of light is darkness. Then from the source of all, it emanated the bright light of Wisdom in thirty-two paths, each path penetrating the darkness. With them the engraver engraved the darkness.” [Moses Nahmanides (thirteenth century), Commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, ed. Gershom Scholem, in Qiryat Sefer 6 (1929) 402-3]
“Before the of the world, Ein Sof withdrew itself into its essence, from itself to itself within itself. It left an empty space within its essence, in which it could emanate and create.” [Shabbetai Sheftel Horowitz (sixteenth-seventeenth centuries), Shefa Tal (Lemberg, 1859), 3:5. 57b]
TSIMTSUM AND SHEVIRAH: WITHDRAWAL AND SHATTERING
“When the supernal emanator wished to create this material universe, it withdrew its presence. At first Ein Sof filled everything. Now, still, even an inanimate stone is illuminated by it; otherwise the stone could not exist at all – it would disintegrate. The illumination of Ein Sof clothes itself in garment upon garment.
At the beginning of creation, when Ein Sof withdrew its presence all around in every direction, it left a vacuum in the middle, surrounded on all sides by the light of Ein Sof, empty precisely in the middle. The light withdrew like water in a pond displaced by a stone. When a stone is dropped in a pond, the water at that spot does not disappear – it merges with the rest. So the withdrawn light converged beyond, and in the middle remained a vacuum. Then all the opacity and density of judgment within the light of Ein Sof – like a drop in the ocean – was extracted. Descending into the vacuum, it transformed into an amorphous mass, surrounded in every direction by the light of Ein Sof. Out of this mass emanated the four worlds: emanation, creation, formation, and actualization. For in its simple desire to realize its intention, the emanator relumined the mass with a ray of the light withdrawn at first – not all of the light, because if it had all returned, the original state would have been restored, which was not the intention.
To fashion pottery, the potter first takes an unformed mass of clay and then puts his hand inside the mass to shape it. So the supernal emanator put its hand into the amorphous mass, that is, a ray of light returned from above. As this light began to enter the mass, vessels were formed. From the purest light, Keter; next, Hockhmah, then, Binah; and so on through all ten sefirot. Since Keter was the purest and clearest of all the vessels, it could bear the light within it, but Hockmah and Binah, though more translucent than those below, were not like Keter. Not having its capacity, their backs broke, and they fell from their position. As the light descended further, six points appeared – six fragments of what had been one point of light. Thus the vessels shattered. Their spiritual essence – the light – ascended back to the mother’s womb, while the shattered vessels fell to the world of creation.
When the light emanated once again – regenerated, arrayed anew – it extended only to the end of the world of emanation. ‘Emanation’ denotes this extension of the light of Ein Sof during the time of regeneration. Emanation consists of five visages. These visages are reconfigurations of the points of light, capable now of receiving the light, so that no shattering occur, as at first. Below these visages the light of Ein Sof appears only through a screen. As when you sit in the shade though the sun does not shine on you directly, it illuminates the shaded area. In a similar manner, the light of Ein Sof illuminates the world of creation through a screen, indirectly.” [Hayyim Vital (sixteenth-seventeenth centuries), “On the World of Emanation,” in Liqqutim Hadashim (Jerusalem: Mevaqqeshei ha-Shem, 1985), 17-23.]
SHATTERING AND GROWTH
“The supernal vacuum is like a field, in which are sown ten points of light. Just as each grain of seed grows according to its fertile power, so does each of these points. And just as a seed cannot grow to perfection as long as it maintains its original form – growth coming only through decomposition – so these points could not become perfect configurations as long as they maintained their original form but only by shattering.” [Menahem Azariah of Fano (sixteenth-seventeenth centuries), “On the Tehiru,” printed at the beginning of his Yonat Elem]
“Traces of the light adhered to the shards of the shattered vessels. This may be compared to a vessel full of oil. If it breaks and the oil spills out, a bit of the liquid adheres to the shards in the form of drops. Likewise in our case, a few sparks of light adhered. When the shards descended to the bottom of the world of actualization, they were transformed into the four elements – fire, air, water, and earth – from which evolved the stages of mineral, vegetable, animal and human. When these materialized, some of the sparks remained hidden within the varieties of existence. You should aim to raise those sparks hidden throughout the world, elevating them to holiness by the power of your soul.” [Israel Sarug (sixteenth-seventeenth centuries), Limmudei Atsilut (Munkacs, 1897), 4d]
—Daniel C. Matt (The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism)
“There is so much misinformation on the Tzimtzum that it is important to quote from the Etz Chaiim itself, which contains one of the clearest statements of this important concept. The word Tzimtzum means ‘constriction,’ and refers to the process by which God ‘withdrew’ His light in order to create the universe. The Ari describes this process as follows:
‘Before all things were created…..the Supernal light was simple. It filled all existence. There was no empty space which would be space, emptiness or void. Everything was filled with the simple Or-Light of Ain Sof. There was no category of beginning and no category of end. All was one simple undifferentiated Infinite light.
When it arose in His simple Will to create all universes, He constricted His infinite light, distancing it to the sides around a center point, leaving a vacated space in the middle of the light of Ain Sof…..This space was perfectely spherical…..
After this constriction took place…..there was a place in which all things could be brought into existence (Atzilut), created (Beriyah), Formed (Yetzirah), and completed (Asiyah). He then drew a simple concentrated ray from the Infinite light into the vacated space…..The upper extremity of the ray touched the Infinite light of Ain Sof that surrounded the space and extended towards its center. It was through this ray, serving as a conduit, that the light of Ain Sof was brought down to spread into the entire vacated space [Etz Chaiim 1:1:2 (p. 27f)].
In its literal sense, the concept of Tzimtzum is straightforward. God first ‘withdrew’ His light, forming a ‘vacated space’ in which all creation would take place. In order for His creative power to be in that space, He drew into it a ‘ray’ of His light. It was through this ‘ray’ that all creation took place.
Virtually all the later Kabbalists warn that the Tzimtzum is not to be taken literally, since it is impossible to apply a spatial concept to God. Rather, this is speaking in a conceptual sense. God’s simple light filling all existence alludes to every possible concept of perfection being included within His absolutely simple essence. The Tzimtzum and resulting vacated space or negative space mean that God constricted His infinite perfection and created a concept of lack or darkness which would allow a ‘place’ for man’s free will and accomplishment. The ray of light that fills the vacated space is the perfection that man is able to draw down into the world as a result of life awakening from below. Because this perfection is earned, the purpose of creation is fulfilled and God’s light is revealed in the vacated space without overwhelming it.
Originally, then there is Or Ain Sof, the light of Ain Sof. The difference between Ain Sof and Or Ain Sof could be put in the following manner: we have no perception of Ain Sof. It is, by definition, not perceivable. Rather, at that level, everything is included in God’s absolute unity. Thus, if a person would want to enter into Ain Sof, he would completely cease to exist.
Or Ain Sof, on the other hand, is referred to as light because it represents what can be perceived in Ain Sof. It is the highest conceptual category we have to relate to that which is beyond all categories. It is a totally homogeneous and simple light that God brought into existence for the purpose of creating the world. The problem with Or Ain Sof is that it partakes of the infinity of Ain Sof. Thus, as long as this light fills all existence, nothing else can be created. Although it contains enough energy to produce an infinite number of possible and impossible universes, nothing can be added to it or subtracted from it. This might be related to the mathematical concept of infinity. Just as infinity cannot be broken into parts and every piece of infinity is infinite, so this light, by definition, does not allow for the existence of anything else. This is the meaning of the Ari’s statement that ‘it filled all existence, there was no empty space.’ To say that a physical object occupies no space is equivalent to saying that it does not exist. Similarly, in the Or Ain Sof there was no conceptual space and therefore no possibility of independent existence.
The next step, therefore, was the creation of a concept of ‘lack’ or a ‘negative light’ which would act as a barrier against God’s own light. This is the Chalal HaPanui, the ‘Vacated Space.’ The Zohar refers to this concept as Botzina de Kardenuta , the ‘Lamp of Darkness.’ The constriction that takes place in Or Ain Sof thus creates something like a negative field. It is a ‘lamp,’ but it radiates ‘darkness,’ i.e. it blocks out everything that could possibly exist but does not.
Translated into more familiar terms, the Or Ain Sof represents the level of Yod-Chockmah, the basic axioms of creation existing in a completely undifferentiated state. The Vacated Space is the level of Heh-Binah, which denotes the power of separation and differentiation. Like Binah, the vacated space is the womb of the universe that provides an environment and allows for the existence of finite independent concepts.
The Kav-Ray parallels the six Sefirot of Zer Anpin. As opposed to Or Ain Sof which surrounds the vacated space, and contains an infinite number of possible and impossible universes, the Kav is a measure or concentrated ray of light that enters into and permeates the vacated space. While the Or Ain Sof is everything that can and cannot exist, the Kav is everything that can possibly exist. Corresponding to the Vav of the Tetragrammaton, it is God’s arm extending towards us and limiting existence in order to allow us to receive it.
Finally, the original point at the center of the vacated space corresponds to the last Heh of the Tetragrammaton. Like Malkhut, it is the focal point or final receptacle for the light of Ain Sof entering the vacated space through the Kav. Because it is the initial ‘point’ which God began to ‘distance His light to the sides,’ however, the center point also represents the actual beginning of the Tzimtzum process. In this sense, therefore, it embodies the idea of ‘the final deed contained in the first thought.’
We have, then, a continuum of four steps: the undifferentiated light, the constriction around a center point, the ray and the center point itself. The center point corresponds to the level of Asiyah, Nefesh and Malkhut. The ray corresponds to Yetzirah, Ruach and the six Sefirot of Zer Anpin. The vacated space corresponds to Beriyah, Neshamah and Binah. The light corresponds to Atzilut, Chayah and Chokhmah.
These four levels can be described in terms of Adam Kadmon. The center point represents the Nefesh of Adam Kadmon. The ray represents the Ruach of Adam Kadmon and is called Adam Satum, the Hidden Adam. The vacated space is the Neshamah of Adam Kadmon and is called Avir Kadmon, the First Space. The light is Chayah of Adam Kadmon and is called the Universe of the Malbush-Garment, or…..the Universe of the Tzachtzachot-Splendors. Beyond this is Yechidah of Adam Kadmon, which is the absolute unity of everything in Ain Sof.
From the fact that Or Ain Sof is called the Universe of the Malbush, it is clear that Or Ain Sof is not God, but rather the ‘garment’ that he created to hide Himself. The Psalmist refers to this when he says, ‘God wrapped Himself with light like a garment’ (Psalms 104:2). When He then constricted this light, further concealing Himself, He created the Vacated Space. This is alluded to in the verse: ‘He made darkness His hiding place’ (Psalms 18:12)…..
…..in order for man to be close to God he must emulate Him by overcoming barriers. This would be the source of the greatest possible good because the greater challenge, the greater the pleasure in overcoming that challenge. The highest spiritual parallel to this idea is the Tzimtzum-Constriction that resulted in the vacated Space. The reason for the Tzimtzum stems from a basic paradox. God must be in the world, yet, if He does not restrict Himself from it, all creation would be overwhelmed by His essence. The paradox is that since God removed His light from the vacated space, it must be empty of His essence. Still, God must also fill this space, since ‘there is not place empty of Him’ [Tikuney Zohar 57 (91b)]. This is expressed most lucidly by Rabbi Nachman of Breslav:
‘The Constriction, which resulted in the Vacated Space, cannot be understood or comprehended at all. [The only time we will be able to grasp its concept is in] the Ultimate Future. This is because we must say two contradictory things [about the Vacated Space], namely, existence and nonexistence.
The Vacated Space came into being as a result of the Constriction, from which (to the extent that we can express it,) God constricted His own Essence. Therefore God’s Essence does not exist [in this Space]. If His Essence were there, this Space would not be vacated and there would be nothing besides the Infinite Essence. If this were true, there would also be no place whatsoever for the creation of the universe.
The actual truth, however, is that God’s Essence must nevertheless [still] be in this Space. We know for certain that nothing can exist without His Life Force. [Therefor, if God’s Essence did not exist in the Vacated Space, nothing else could exist there either.]
Thus, it is impossible to understand the concept of the Vacated Space, except in the Ultimate Future.’
The paradox, as elucidated by Rabbi Nachman, is actually very basic. Since God created all things in this Vacated Space, we must say that His creative power exists there. Since God is an absolute Unity, He cannot be separated from His creative power, and therefore, we must also say that He also exists within the Vacated Space. This, however, contradicts the basic principle that this space is vacated and that by definition, God constricted His essence from it. [The paradox of the Tzimtzum thus develops because of our double vision. When we look at God through the lens of ‘attributesof action,’ we see Him as Creator, and therefore, we must say that He removed Himself from the Vacated Space in order to create the world. On the other hand, when we look at God through the lens of ‘negative attributes,’ we cannot say that He is absent from any place. It is only in the Ultimate Future that we will no longer have to look at God through lenses, and therefore, all dichotomies and paradoxes will be resolved. Regarding this, it is written, ‘Your eyes shall behold your Master’ (Isaiah 30:20)].
The main point brought out by this paradox is that this space is is only ‘dark’ and ‘vacated’ with respect to us. The Lamp of Darkness mentioned in the Zohar is ‘darkness’ to us, but in relation to God, it too is a ‘lamp.’ With respect to God, it is actually light, since for Him, it is as if the Tzimtzum never took place. This is expressed by the Psalmist in the verse: ‘Even darkness is not dark to You. Night shines like day – light and darkness are the same’ (Psalms 139:12).
According to Rabbi Nachman, only a Tzadik-Righteous person on the level of Moses could enter the Vacated Space safely. The reason for this is that this is a place where one who does not know how to look will say that God is not there. There is no greater danger than going into a place where God does not appear to be present. Moses, however, was able to enter the Vacated Space, symbolized by Pharaoh’s palace, and rectify this by showing that God was there as well. Going into the Vacated Space would mean understanding the paradox as to how God is there even though He is not.
We can ask an obvious question at this point: if the Vacated Space is now filled with God’s light, where is God not to be found? In the text of Etz Chaiim quoted above, the Ari says, ‘It was through this Ray (Kav), serving as a conduit, that the light of Ain Sof was brought down to spread into the entire Vacated Space’ [Etz Chaiim 1:1:2 (p. 28f)]. Technically speaking, this indicates that the Vacated Space is really no longer vacated. True, before the Constriction there was no place empty of God’s light, whereas now there is a ‘place’ and God’s light fills it. In addition, by virtue of the Constriction, the light was measured and greatly reduced in intensity. Nevertheless, the question remains, where is God not to be found?
In order to understand this, we will briefly review the process of creation as the Ari describes it. Immediately after the Kav entered the Chalal, light extended away from it in all directions and created a round concentric sphere that filled the entire Vacated Space. This light was then constricted leaving the Vacated Space empty again. Now the Kav could extend further towards the center point and another concentric sphere was emanated within the previous one (which again filled the entire Vacated Space). This process of constriction and expansion continued a number of times until the Kav reached the center point and the entire Vacated Space was filled with numerous universes one within the other.
Now, according to this, the entire Chalal is filled with concentric spheres of God’s light. We might conjecture, however, that in between each of these concentric spheres there is a kind of no-man’s-land where God is completely hidden, and where one who does not know how to look would say that God is not there. [This is alluded to by the Ari himself. He explains that when the Or Ain Sof entered the Chalal through the Kav, the first sphere that was emanated did not touch the circumference of the Chalal. A separation (no-man’s land) was thus necessary in order to distinguish between the light that filled the Chalal and the Or Ain Sof that surrounded it. If this were not so, the inner light would have been overwhelmed by the surrounding light and all would have returned to a state of absolute oneness.]
This would clarify how every prophet had to experience the godlessness of the Chalal HaPanui at his own level of prophecy….the prophetic experience involved moving from one universe to another in order to perceive God’s Glory. The prophecy of Moses was on the highest level; therefore, his experience of the Vacated Space was most frightening. The other prophets, including Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, experienced the Vacated Space as well.
This would also explain why any spiritual advancement is so difficult and fraught with pitfalls. Rabbi Nachman describes the experience of standing on the threshold of a new level and feeling completely abandoned and alone. Making it through such an experience is apparently a prerequisite for any kind of serious growth.”