Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Contraction in Action

K.I.D. - The Mystery of Tzimtzum

The Hebrew word tzimtzum means to contract. The Kabbalistic term tzimtzum is used to describe the process of the creation of the finite Universe.

The Chumash describes HaShem creating the Universe by telling different things to come into existence: light, darkness, the Earth, sun, moon, stars, etc… But the Chumash does not describe HOW the universe was created. How did we get from nothing to something? Not only is the Big Bang Theory is a good description of how the Universe was created; but we will also see that there is actually a lot of affinity between the Kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum and the Big Bang Theory.

In the Beginning

Before the Universe came into being there was only HaShem. HaShem is infinite and thus by definition there is no space for anything finite in a Universe with an Infinite Being. This is a philosophical problem that Kabbalah seeks to solve - it is impossible for finite human beings to coexist in the same Universe as the Infinite Being.

(A tangent about inifinity - Simon Singh the author of “Fermat’s Last Theorem” uses the following example to describe infinity. There is the Hotel Infinity [you can check in, but you can never leave!] and it is full of guests. What happens when you come in from the cold and damp and you would like a room at 11:00 pm? The hotel just adds one more room and voila, you have a place to stay for the night. What if 10 busloads of guests came to the hotel? You tell everyone who is staying in an odd numbered room to move one room over and there are now enough vacant rooms for the 10 busloads of guests. Pretty mind-bending stuff. If you are confused and under 40, you may want to find a new blog to read.)

Thus, in order for HaShem to create the Universe - HaShem needed to create a hollow space where HaShem no longer existed. HaShem needed to contract the infinity, in order to allow a finite Universe to come into being. The Kabbalistic term that describes this process of contracting from infinity to finitude is - tzimtzum.

Tzimtzum and the Big Bang

Kabbalah does not merely assert that HaShem contracted in order to allow the Universe to come into being. No, no, no. Kabbalah describes in excruciatingly minute detail every step of the process of creation. In fact, tzimtzum is a series of contractions that moves further and further away from the infinite HaShem. Hopefully, a comparison to the Big Bang theory will help illustrate this idea.

The Rose Center at the Natural History Museum in Manhattan contains an excellent exhibit depicting the Big Bang theory. The main idea of the exhibit is that you walk in a spiral and see illustrations of the unfolding nanoseconds of creation on the floor. You start at a condensed mass and then see the quarks fly and matter expands into the far reaching corners of the universe. (When I last visited this exhibit, I had not yet started learning Kabbalah. I was just a poor youth stumbling through the darkness of physical world. And I missed out on a great Kabbalah u’Madda experience.)

This exhibit is similar to the process of tzimtzum. The finite Universe begins with something similar to a condensed mass of HaShem entering the finite hollow space. This condensed mass of HaShem is directly connected to the uncontracted infinite HaShem. There is then a series of expansions as the universe comes into being. (One way to describe these expansions is called Olamot, which will be explained at a later date.) As time progresses the finite Universe expands more and more until our world is created, as is described in the Chumash.


I realize that this is a very complicated idea and I hope that I have not hopelessly confused you. Hopefully, the idea of tzimtzum will become clearer as we continue our Kabbalistic journey and you may want to reread this post from time to time.

Tzimtzum is the initial contraction of the infinite HaShem to allow a finite Universe to be created. After this initial tzimtzum, HaShem’s finite creations expand into this new created space. This new creation moves away from HaShem and becomes more and more physical (and less and less spiritual) until our world comes into being.

NOTE - This idea of the continuum between the physical and the spiritual is a very important hermeneutical principle of Kabbalah. More on hermeneutics in the next post.

PS - The image is actually The Colorful Demise of a sun like star taken from hubblesite.org.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Israel Diary

I felt a need to give a quick personal account and reaction to the recent strike by the IDF against the Gaza strip. 

I was walking home from shul at 11:30 in the morning when I heard thunder in the distance. I looked up at the sky to try and estimate when it would begin to rain. However, I realized that although it was overcast and cloudy, there were no dark storm clouds. As I continued to search the sky for the source of the thunder I saw some birds very high in the sky. I began to think that I was not hearing thunder, but rather the sounds of rocket explosions. I came home to my wife and asked her if she had heard thunder? She replied yes, and the windows and doors had been shaking. I told her that I thought that the sound was actually explosions related to the Gaza Strip.

On Motzei Shabbat, we looked on the Internet and were half surprised to learn that the IDF had attacked Hamas in the Gaza strip.  I have no training as a military analyst so I cannot comment on the military efficacy of this attack. I hope that progress will be made that will stop the daily rockets and mortars that have been falling in southern Israel.  I hope that a meaningful and lasting cease-fire can be reached with a minimum loss of human life.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Who Were These Chazal People Anyway?

C.A.T. - Common Ambiguous Terms

It seems that I have a relentless affinity for acronyms and alliterations. Thus, I have created a new category in my blogs, C.A.T.’s. These are terms that can be commonly heard in a variety of Jewish settings, but alas they are not precisely defined. It is a little like meeting new people, and then forgetting their names. After a couple of weeks it seems to rude to admit that you forgot their names, but it also makes conversation awkward. (An extreme example of this was immortalized in Seinfeld - hamavin yavin)

Similarly, let’s say that during the course of your Jewish education you did not learn exactly the term Chazal means. Now as an adult it can be embarrassing to admit this fact, since everyone else seems to know what the term means. For example, someone might say, “I was just reading Chazal the other day, and it was really interesting.” As you will see in a moment, this type of sentence actually does not make sense.

Chazal Defined

Chazal is an acronym (hurray!) which stands for Chachameinu Zichronam L’Vrachah - Our Rabbis of Blessed Memory. More specifically it refers to the Rabbis who were active during the period of the Mishnah and the Gemara. The Rabbis of the Mishnaic period lived from roughly 200 BCE to 200 CE and are also referred to as the Tannaim. The Rabbis of the Talmudic (Gemara) period lived from roughly 200 CE to 600 CE and are also referred to as the Amoraim. Collectively, these are the authors of the Mishnah, Gemara, and Midrash; more precisely their statements were collected and redacted in different legal and homiletic works.

In short, the term Chazal refers to Rabbis or sages who lived between the years of 200 BCE and 600 CE. And that is the C.A.T. of the day.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

It's All Greek To Me

Since it is now Chanukkah, I feel an obligation to discuss a Chassidic insight into the chag. I am discussing a piece that appears in the Pri Tzaddik, which is R. Tzaddok of Lublin’s (1823-1900) commentary on the Parshah and the Moadim. (For the remainder of Sefer Bereshit, most of my Chassidut entries will come from this sefer because it is one of the few Seforim that I have actually unpacked.) R. Tzaddok primarily focuses on explaining the connection between the Torah sh’Baal Peh and Chanukkah. He relies on the well known drashah that connects the light of the Channukkah candles to the light of the Torah.

The Lvush and others have pointed out that the Greeks did not want to physically destroy the Jewish people, but rather they wanted to spiritually eliminate Judaism. Thus, they sought to eliminate the study of the Torah from Judaism, because it is the spiritual source of Judaism. When the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks, they also defended Judaism against Greek culture. The miracle of the light of the menorah is also the miracle of the victory of the Torah against Greek culture. All of this is the background for the chidush and insight of R. Tzaddok. (By the way, I am planning to make a separate post about why it is legitimate to discuss one idea disconnected from a long drasha. But a friend told me, “Oh yeah, I’ll look at your blog when you actually say something new.” I admit to being a little obsessed with introductions.)

R. Tzaddok states that Channukah also highlights the dichotomy between Greek philosophy and the Torah sh’Baal Peh. (zot leumat zot) In other words, the Oral Torah can be described as the act of interpreting the written Torah. Thus, when we learn Torah we are engaging in the following process: we use our God-given intellectual ability to legally and philosophically understand and apply the Torah to our world. (The legal application is controlled by the Rabbinic “we”.) Greek philosophy engages in the same process; however it is creating a legal and philosophical framework which is completely devoid of (and contradicts) the Torah. Thus, according to R. Tzaddok the holiday of Chanukkah and the mitzvah of lighting the menorah celebrates the intellectual victory of the Torah sh’Ba’al Peh over Greek philosophy. Finally, R. Tzaddok emphasizes that Channukah is the time of the year which renews our connection to the Torah sh’Baal Peh.

Channukah Sameach

Thursday, December 18, 2008

And These are the Blog's Generations

Safe Study of Kabbalah

All of you out there in the blogosphere might be asking the following question: Am I old enough to read this blog? There is a well known halakhah that you must be over 40 to study Kabbalah. I will discuss this halakhah (more like advice) in depth in a later post. However, the short answer is - no you do not have to be over 40 to read this blog. Studying Kabbalah is not for everyone; some people will find Kabbalistic ideas to be antithetical to their conception of Judaism. Those people should not read this blog because they will find it to be disconcerting.

The study of Kabbalah is certainly an esoteric area of the Torah and is not suited to everyone. Most of you will be able to self-select; if you find the blog entries to be boring or somewhat absurd - then this is a good sign that the study of Kabbalah is not for you. Some of you may find yourselves feeling uncomfortable because of these ideas and I will try and help you as much as I can. Kabbalah is a definite paradigm shift from the mainstream approach to Judaism. I have found that my study of Kabbalah has had a very positive impact and I hope that you will also find reading this blog to be a positive experience.

Blog style

A note about the style of this blog - I have already discussed that the goal of this blog is to discuss interesting ideas from Kabbalah and Chassidut. I assume that you, the reader, have a general familiarity with basic Jewish terms and concepts; but you do not have any knowledge about Kabbalah. (And thus you are reading this blog!) I will explain Kabbalistic terms and concepts, but not necessarily other Jewish terms and concepts. For example, I will explain what the meaning of the word Olamot, but not the meaning of Mishnah or Gemara.

One problem with learning a new body of knowledge is that there is a group of basic ideas that need to be learned before you can understand the big picture. In Kabbalah there are a number of core concepts that are interdependent and you cannot fully understand one without understanding the others. (ie. You cannot understand A, until you understand B. And you cannot understand B until you understand A.) But you must start somewhere!? What I recommend is to reread the Kabbalah entries every couple of weeks in order to fully understand the ideas. (Feel free to make as many comments as you want as you reread the blog again and again!) The blogs about Chassidut are tangentially related to the Kabbalistic weltanschauung (love that word!) and will not be designed to help you understand the basic ideas of Kabbalah.

Kabbilistic Idea of the Day (K.I.D.)

I realized that I have spent so much time talking about the blog, that I haven’t actually said anything Kabbilistic yet. So here it goes. Koach and Po’al are two important ideas that are connected. Koach means potential, and Po’al means to actualize that potential. In simpler words, I can make a plan to write a book. And then there is the actualization of that plan, when I physically type in Microsoft Word. The planning of the book - is the Koach of my book. The writing of the book - is the Po’al of my book. The entire process of writing the book can be described as: going from the Koach to the Po’al. The movement from the Koach to the Po’al is a concept that appears in many different contexts in Kabbalah. If you are familiar with the famous Chabad table metaphor, that is also an example of this concept. If not, then you will have to wait until I post about it. Or you can ask your LCR (local Chabbad Rabbi).

In the Beginning...

Introductions and Salutations

I have decided to throw in my two cents and yet another Modern Orthodox blog to the ever expanding blogosphere. The burning question is: what niche can I exploit? How can I possibly get five people to read my blog on a regular basis? Of course the answer would be Kabbalah. It is increasing in popularity by the day and I can always get a few laughs by mocking Madonna. Also, I was talking with one of my neighbors about career crises and Torah learning. I came up with the following writing process: Blog to Article to Book. So here is the first step in my process of eventually writing a book. (Actually I have no interest in writing a book, but it is still a good story.)


But Kabbalah is not enough of a niche - I needed a topic more obscure and esoteric than Kabbalah. And then in a flash of brilliance (possibly Ruach haKodesh) I came up with the idea of, Kabbalah u’Madda. This is not the scientific/academic study of Kabbalah - there are plenty of PhD’s out there who have covered this topic. Rather my goal is to approach Kabbalah from a 21st Century perspective in order to enhance our understanding of Judaism, and bring us closer to HaShem.


I would like to be able to make an analysis of society and explain why Kabbalah has gained in popularity over the past few years. Alas I cannot and I am resisting (barely) the temptation to make a number of ignorant conclusions about the compatibility between our society and Kabbalah. I am not even going to discuss the ever-popular concept of Post-Modernism (and I really, really want to.) Rather, I will discuss Kabbalistic ideas which I feel are relevant to goal of enhancing our understanding of Judaism.



What is Kabbalah? Simply, Kabbalah is the study of the relationship between HaShem and the world in which we live. The Nefesh HaChaim states (1:2) that without a constant connection to HaShem and the Torah, then the world would return to the primordial substance of the second pasuk of Bereshit (tohu v’vohu). This is an axiom of any branch of Orthodox Judaism: HaShem is in constant contact with our world.


How is our world connected to HaShem? One of the goals of Kabbalah is to analyze and explain the nature of that connection. Kabbalah also addresses the nature of doing mitzvot and aveirot. What happens to me when I do a mitzvah or an aveirah? What happens to the Jewish people, the entire world, or all the heavens?


Kabbalah u’Madda?

What is Kabbalah u’Madda? Most of you are probably familiar with the concept of Torah u’Madda. (Until recently it was the motto of a university in upper Manhattan. Actually it is still the motto, but they were considering changing it at one point.) A rudimentary definition of Torah u’Madda is: to use the scientific world to enhance my understanding of the Torah world. So too, a rudimentary definition of Kabbalah u’Madda is: to use the scientific world to enhance my understanding of the Kabbalistic world.


Kabbalah, Chassidim, and Mitnagdim

One last thought before I sign off. I also plan to discuss interesting Chassidic ideas that I come across. Many people make the mistake of identifying Kabbalah with Chassidut. It is true that the foundations of Chassidut rely heavily on Kabbalah and Kabbilistic texts like the Zohar. However, the main source of my knowledge of Kabbalah comes from the school of the Vilna Gaon, who was a staunch opponent of Chassidut. In the 18th century there were many non-Chasidim who also learned Kabbalah. The Nefesh HaChaim was written by the closest student of the Vilna Gaon, R. Chaim of Volozhin. The other Kabbalistic sefer that I learn is the Ba’al HaLeshem, who was the grandfather of R. Elyashiv. Thus, when I discuss Kabbalah and Chassidut, I am presenting both the Mitnagdic and Chassidic Kabbilistic views of Judaism.