Tzimtzum, Divine and Human Constriction: A Meeting-Place Between the Divine and Human

“Whenever I think about God, I am at first saddened, because I realize that in thinking about Him, I distance myself from Him. But then I remember that since He is all, He is also my thought and my distance, and I am consoled,” said the 19th Century Hassidic thinker, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav.[1] Rabbi Nahman’s philosophically and theologically laden statement about thinking about thinking about God embodies within it the concept of tzimtzum, one of the foundations of Hassidic theology. Tzimtzum, or Divine Constriction, is founded upon the questions of how an Infinite God could create a finite world, how a finite world manages to overcome nullification in the face of Infinity, and the nature of the relationship between an Infinite God and a finite world.

The 16th Century Kabalistic scholar, Rabbi Isaac Luria, also known as the Ari-zal, developed the visual model of tzimtum, or Divine Constriction, in response to these questions. Tzimtzum posits that prior to the world’s creation, there was nothing but the Ein-Sof, the ‘Never Ending’. The light emanating from the Ein Sof is called the Ohr Ein Sof, and refers to all power and action deriving from the Ein Sof. Though everything, including finitude, existed within the Ohr Ein Sof, no individual part could distinguishably exist in face of the overwhelmingly infinite light of the Ohr Ein Sof.[2] In order for the distinguishable existence of anything other than the Ein-Sof, there was a Divine ‘withdrawal’ from, or constriction of, the Ohr Ein Sof,[3] which enabled a possibility for creation.[4]

Though the Ari-zal‘s model of tzimtzum was meant as a symbolic illustration of creation, it created further theological questions for his students. Namely, it raised the issues of ‘change’ within a perfect God, a ‘before’ and ‘after’ attributed to a timeless God, and to the possibility of a space devoid of an omnipresent God. These issues led to the development of tzimtzum lo ke-pshuto, or the allegorical interpretation of tzimtzum, first coined by R. Yosef ben Immanuel Irgess[5] and R. Immanuel Chai Ricchi[6] in the early 18th Century.

According to the allegorical interpretation of tzimtzum, rather than describing a literal process of change within God, the concept of tzimtzum establishes a construct through which one can understand the relationship between the world and God. Concealment of an aspect of God’s omnipresence empowers creation with an illusory sense of independence, enabling it to exist in the face of Infinity. As contemporary scholar Tamar Ross writes, “The act of divine tzimtzum was likened by some to the situation of a teacher who conceals the full scope of his knowledge so that some limited portion of it may be revealed to his student. Just as the wisdom of the teacher is unaffected by this concealment, so too all forms of existence gain a sense of their selfhood as a result of the hiding of God’s all-pervasive presence, yet God’s all-embracing monolithic unity remains the same.  All appearances of diversity and particularization – while real enough – are swallowed up by His infinite unity, just as drops of water are contained by the sea and indistinguishable from the surrounding waters.”[7] Midrash Rabbah captures this panentheistic[8] theology in the formulation, “He is the place of the world, and the world is not His place.[9]” In panentheistic terms, the world exists within God, but God exists beyond the world.

While solving earlier theological questions, the allegorical interpretation of tzimtzum posed the threat of undermining the foundations of the entire Halakhic system. The Halakha, and traditional Jewish worship as a whole, are based on distinctions and binaries: Divine and human, holy and profane, pure and impure, permitted and forbidden. To many, the suggestion that these distinctions are only illusions threatens the entire framework of Halakha and Divine worship.

Interestingly, two leaders of opposing movements, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, representing the Hassidic movement, and R. Hayim of Volozhin, representing the Mitnaged (anti-Hassidic) movement, both adopted the allegorical understanding of tzimtzum as an essential part of their philosophies.  Their development of the allegorical understanding of tzimtzum also addresses the questions that the concept itself raises. Both thinkers agreed that according to the allegorical interpretation of tzimtzum, from God’s Divine vantage, the world is not distinct from God. This is likened to the ocean’s perception of a drop of water within it; to the ocean, the drop is a part of the whole. However, it is regarding the human perception of the world, how the drop of water see itself in relation to the ocean, where these thinkers’ views differed.

According to R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Divinity in this world, which was drawn through successive constrictions,[10] is qualitatively lesser. Therefore, from the human point of view, God’s reality is both greater than, and distinct from, the reality of the world. Though this distinction is only perceived by humanity, and not by God, it creates a sense of separation from God, enabling a human relationship with God.[11] This sense of distinction, accompanied by the knowledge that it only exists from the earthly perspective, serves as the basis of Hassidic thought. Hassidic thought demands of humanity to overcome this illusory sense of separation. Torah learning and Halakhic fulfillment are integral tools in achieving this goal. However, according to R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, prayer and meditation, which can transform a person’s consciousness, are also integral tools in overcoming a sense of separation from God.[12] At the same time, the Hassidic approach also embraces the tension between Divine transcendence and immanence. It is only through a sense of separation that one can create a relationship with God, where a person can relate to God as “Other,” as a King, Father, or Lover. Yet, simultaneously, it is the knowledge of God’s immanence, of the reality of one-ness with the Divine, which drives a person to overcome this sense of separation.[13] The Hassidic understanding of tzimtzum establishes this duality by positing that from the human perspective, the world is qualitatively distinct from God, while also maintaining that from the Divine perspective, there is no such distinction.

According to R. Hayim of Volozhin, even from the human perspective, there is no distinction between the human and Divine. Unlike the Hassidic approach, which inspires one to overcome an illusory sense of separation, R. Hayim’s approach inspires one to fully embrace the reality of this world. Rather than striving for transcendence, the Jewish person’s mission within this already transcendent world is only to learn Torah and fulfill the Halakhah. However, R. Hayim of Volozhin adamantly cautions against thinking too much about the one-ness of this world with God. He compares the knowledge of God’s immanence, and the unity of the world within God, as “embers of fire; as background warmth, such knowledge can serve a positive function in fueling our devotion, but if approached too closely we face the danger of being consumed.[14]” This approach serves as the basis for Mitnaged thought, which rejects the Hassidic emphasis on overcoming the illusory separation from God.  According to the Mitnaged approach, the emphasis of Divine worship should be in the concrete actions of Torah study and Halakhic fulfillment.[15]

Importantly there exists a plausible alternative to the aforementioned understanding of the respective positions of R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi and R. Hayim of Volozhin.[16] According to this alternate understanding, both thinkers agree that from the human perspective as well as Divine perspective, this world bears no separation from the comprehensive Divinity. However, limited human perception prevents people from recognizing this reality. Thus, the Hassidic approach attempts to overcome the confines of limited human reality to perceive the larger reality of one-ness. The Mitnaged approach, on the other hand, acknowledges the larger reality of one-ness, while also embracing its limited human perception, claiming that this larger reality shouldn’t impact one’s religious worship. However, this alternative understanding does not affect the distinction between Hassidic and Mitnaged approaches of overcoming separation versus embracing it.

Whether one identifies with the Hassidic or Mitnaged implications of tzimtzum, or perhaps with both, the allegorical interpretation of tzimztum serves as a powerful model within Jewish thought. It provides a foundation for the concept of Divine immanence. It also portrays the Divinity inherent in our world. If Divinity perceives no separation between itself and the world, everything of this world is brimming with Divinity. And this Divinity unites all things.

Much in this vein, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes:

Is this Lurianic doctrine of tzimtzum just a Kabalistic mystery, without any moral relevance for us; or is it the very foundation of our morality? If God withdrew, and creation is a result of His withdrawal, then, guided by the principle of imitatio Dei, we are called upon to do the same. Jewish ethics, then, requires man, in certain situations to withdraw.”[17]

Perhaps one of the human “withdrawals” that Rav Soloveitchik’s words allude to is the Halakhic framework itself. The Halakhah constricts the boundless freedom, or Infinity within people, enabling them to create a unique space within themselves. It is this space, empty of the overwhelmingly boundless “I,” that serves as the dwelling place of the Divine. This human reflection of tzimtzum serves as the ultimate act of imitatio Dei. Just as the Ein Sof constricted itself to create a space for humanity within itself, humanity too, constricts itself to create space for the Divine within its being. It is this dual process of tzimtzum that allows for a meeting place between the “I and Thou,”[18] between a person and the Divine.

Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav described human tzimtzum as a process of intellectual, emotional, and character refinement within a person. He writes:

Just as the tzimtzum process on the Ein Sof forms the worlds which are created with God’s Characteristics,[19] similarly, the mind, through the tzimtzum of the enthusiasm of its thoughts, forms and reveals worlds, a process which is equated with revealing a person’s characteristic traits.[20]

Just as the different elements existing within the Ohr Ein Sof were individually indistinguishable from the whole, the unique talents and abilities of a person can be originally undistinguishable from the boundless “I” of the person’s being. And just like the Ohr Ein Sof withdrew and concealed its overwhelming Infinity in order to reveal the individual parts within it, Rabbi Nahman writes that through withdrawing and concealing the boundless “I,” people can reveal the originally indistinguishable elements of their characters. Perhaps, Rabbi Nahman is alluding to the human power of creation, the ultimate act of Imitatio Dei. Tzimtzum explains how God created our world. Yet, it also can explain how people too are capable of creating and revealing worlds within themselves and their surroundings.

Though the allegorical interpretation of tzimtzum may initially seem to be an abstract concept, its integration into one’s life can be deeply meaningful. Tzimtzum simultaneously defies, delineates, and blurs the boundaries we live with. It points to the unity between all kinds of people, between people and nature, and even between people and God. It serves as the philosophical and theological foundation for the idea that “earth is crammed with heaven,”[21] and perhaps, that heaven is crammed with earth.


[1]  Rabbi Nahman is cited as the author of this articulation by Tamar Ross in “Orthodoxy and the Challenge of Biblical Criticism”.

[2]  This explanation of the Ohr Ein Sof is an adoption of Nissan Dovid Dubov’s article titled “Tzimtzum” on

[3]  According to most understandings, one cannot speak of the constriction of the Ein Sof. Rather, it is the Light of the Ein Sof that successively constricted through the emanation of the Divine Characteristics, or Sephirot.

[4]  Tamar Ross compares this to a living being which must first inhale in order to exhale. See Youtube video “Tamar Ross on the Allegorical Interpretation of Tzimtzum”.

[5] Author of the work Shomer Emunim. R. Yosef ben Immanuel Irgess was a leading proponent of tzimtzm kipshuto, the literal understanding of the doctrine of tzimtzum.

[6] Author of Yoshar Levav.  R. Immanuel Chai Ricchi expounds upon tzimtzum lo ke-pshuto, the allegorical interpretation of tzimtzum.

[7]  Tamar Ross, “Orthodoxy and the Challenge of Biblical Criticism”

[8] Panentheism is “the belief that God is greater than the universe and includes and interpenetrates it” according to Google’s Dictionary.

[9] Genesis Rabbah 68:9

[10] The light of the Light of the Ein Sof was constricted through the emanation of Sefirot, and thus its quality is weaker and lesser than the original light

[11]  Tamar Ross Orthodoxy and the Challenge of Biblical Criticism

[12] Tamar Ross Orthodoxy and the Challenge of Biblical Criticism

[13]  Rabbi Norman Lamm discusses the centrality of this duality in The Religious Thought of Hassidism. He writes, “Theism must embrace these two opposite notions, immanence and transcendence, and allow for the tension between them to be played out both in the history of God’s relationship with mankind and in the individual’s religious experience and consciousness. It is for this reason that Judaism…has always embraced both immanence and transcendence in its conception of God.”

[14] Nefesh HaTzimtzum pp. 101-102, and Tamar Ross Orthodoxy and the Challenge of Biblical Criticism

[15] Tamar Ross, Orthodoxy and the Challenge of Biblical Criticism

[16] This understanding of the distinction in approaches between R’ Shneur Zalman of Liadi and R’ Chaym of Volozhin is described in a chapters 4, 5, and 10 of the book Nefesh Hatzimtzum Vol II: Understanding Nefesh HaChaim through the Key Concept of Tzimtzum and Related Writings

[17] Majesty and Humility, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, pp. 35, 36.

[18]  See “I and Thou” by Martin Buber

[19] Within Lurianic Kabbalah, this refers to the ten sefirot, or Divine Characteristics which successively descend into the formation of the physical reality we inhabit.

[20] Nefesh Hatzimtzum pp. 133, footnote 6

[21] Excerpt from Elizabeth Barret Browning’s poem Aurora Leigh. “Earth is crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes.  The rest sit round and puck blackberries.” Additionally, in Hassidic thought, the burning bush represents the Divinity within this world. For example, the book “Open to Me the Gates of Righteousness”: The Pursuit of Holiness and Non-Duality in Early Hassidic Teaching by Seth Brody.