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.

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