The word Tzimtzum has at least two meanings. The first is an ontological meaning connoting "contraction", "withdrawal", or "condensation." The second is an epistemological meaning, which connotes "concealment" or "occultation". Both the ontological and epistemological senses of the term are necessary to a full understanding of the Lurianic theory of creation.
The doctrine of Tzimtzim gives expression to a series of paradoxical ideas, amongst which is the notion that the universe as we know it is the result of a cosmic negation. The world, according to Lurianic Kabbalah, is not so much a something which has been created from nothing, but rather a genre of nothingness resulting from a contraction or concealment of the only true reality, which is God. Like a film image that has been projected on a screen, the world exists in all its details and particualrs only as a result of a partial occultation of what would otherwise be a pure and homogenous light.
It is also part of the notion of Tzimtzum that the very unfathomability and unknowability of God and His ways is the sine qua non of creation itself. Creation, the doctrine of Tzimtzum implies, is, in its very essence, "that which does not know." God's contraction, concealment, and ultimate unknowability are thus the greatest blessings he could bestow on the world and mankind.
Although a controversy raged for some time between those Kabbalist's who interpreted Tzimtzum naturalistically and their opponents, a physical interpretation of the "contraction" involved in Tzimtzum is really impossible. This is because the Kabbalistic tradition is clear that God or "Ein-sof" does not originally exist within space and time. Indeed, it is only through the original Tzimtzum that space, time, matter and light come into being at all.
Our understanding of Tzimtzum can be clarified through an analogy from the world of mathematics. An infinite perfect mind sees immediately that the arithmetical expressions 21/3, 126/18, 6.72 + .28, etc., etc., are all equivalents of the number 7: it is only from the point of view of a limited intellect that these expressions appear to represent different mathematical ideas. Indeed, as the mathematical philosophers Russell and Whitehead painstakingly demonstrated, all of mathematics is predicated on a very small number of logical principles, and an infinite mind would in an instant intuit the entire world of higher mathematics as an elaboration of the simplest of ideas. So it is with the world.
From the point of view of God, the whole world is subsumable under the simplest concept of the One; it is only from our limited point of view that there appears to be a plurality of virtues, concepts and instantial things. Creation does not involve a limitation in the divine being, which remains completely intact, but rather a limitation in knowledge of the Divine: an estrangement of certain points within the "world" from the knowledge that all is One. God does not change in His being, it is rather that His presence is obscured. He is not completely known in a certain region of Being, and that region of Being becomes our world.
Space, time and matter as well as individual personal existence are the logical consequence of Tzimtzum as concealment or epistemic limitation. For each of these "categories" serve as a vehicle through which knowledge is limited. That which is remote in space or time, that which is concealed in or by material objects, and that which belongs to another person or self is in principle, unknown or only partially known. Space, time, matter and personality are the logical prerequisites for creation, because they are the very principles through which an undifferentiated divine "All" is concealed and hence, paradoxically, manifest as finite, particular things.
Schneur Zalman, the first Lubavitcher rebbe, regards the very act of God revealing himself in letters and words as an act of Tzimtzum, a radical contraction of the divine essence. Each substitution and transposition of words and letters indicates a further contraction of the divine light and life, degree by degree. The sefirotic vessels, which, according to Luria, are the products of the Tzimtzum, are regarded by Schneur Zalman as "letters" whose "roots" are the five letters in Hebrew which always terminate a word, and which no letter can follow. Letters, by structuring and limiting divine thought serve to carry out the function of the divine contraction and are thereby held to be equivalent to the sefirotic vessels.
Tzimtzum is the subject of Chapter 4 of Symbols of the Kabbalah, pp. 12-154. A link presenting a Chabad Chasidic perspective on Tzimtzum appears at Tzimtzum--Creation of the World.
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