What is the famous argument between the Vilna Gaon and the Ba'al HaTanya in understanding the Sod HaTzimtzum? And what are some ma'areh mekomos in their works where this Machlokes is seen?

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    An important work which discusses this is Alan Nadler's "The faith of the Mithnagdim". And the critiques of this work are also quite fascinating. In the end, it seems there is a big dispute about whether there was any significant theological difference between the two groups at all. So your question already takes sides in some sense.
    – Curiouser
    Jul 12, 2011 at 0:45
  • related torahmusings.com/2013/01/is-chabad-heresy
    – Double AA
    May 8, 2013 at 6:08
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    See also the recent sefer by R. Tzvi Einfeld, Toras ha-Gra u-mishnas ha-chassidim who discusses this question at length
    – wfb
    May 9, 2013 at 2:04
  • rabbisedley.blogspot.co.il/2011/07/…
    – ray
    Nov 12, 2013 at 5:55
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    seforim.blogspot.com/2016/06/… @Menachem these are reviews of a work which dispels the notion that it was the root fight of anything, despite what Chabad believes. Chabad likes to present this sugya very cut-and-dry (bc the most recent Rebbe, who they assume must have been 100% accurate, once wrote such a piece), but it's a lot more complicated in everyone else's eyes.
    – Double AA
    Jun 29, 2016 at 17:38

4 Answers 4


There is a letter by the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt"l (original Hebrew text available online at chabadlibrary.org; an English translation is at chabad.org) in which he discusses this. (He also provides a list of places in Chabad Chassidic writings that talk about tzimtzum.) To summarize:

The two key variables here are:

(a) whether tzimtzum means "contraction" (i.e., something was there before and is not there now), or "concealment" (i.e., it's still there now as it was before).

(b) Whether tzimtzum affects G-d's own Self, or only the Divine energy ("light") that emanates from Him.

These two variables, then, yield four basic possible ways of understanding tzimtzum: as (1) the absence of G-d Himself from a certain space, or (2) of His light, or (3) the concealment of G-d's presence in a certain space, or (4) of His light.

The Vilna Gaon's view is that the approach #1 is the correct one: there are places in our physical world in which G-d is simply not present. The Baal Hatanya's view is the diametric opposite, #4: there is no place void of G-d's presence or of His light, but there are indeed places where it's not evident.

The Rebbe also notes that Nefesh HaChayim (by R' Chaim of Volozhin, one of the Vilna Gaon's star disciples) takes a middle ground, position #3.

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    Alex, the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the one who asserts that it is well known that the misnagdim at the time of the Gra held of approach one. This is simply not true. The language of the proclamations he is refering to was designed for a common populace who was generally not familiar with the language of Kabbalah. A proof from there as to what the belief of Kabbalists was regarding tzimtzum at that time is tenuous at best.
    – Yahu
    Apr 12, 2010 at 18:38
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    Alex, how can he bring a proof what the GRA held from a letter of the Ba'al Tanya?!
    – Yahu
    Apr 14, 2010 at 5:30
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    Because we may assume the Baal Hatanya, who was prepared to debate the Gra on the subject (as mentioned in this letter), would first have "done his homework" to understand what he'd be arguing against.
    – Alex
    Apr 14, 2010 at 19:05
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    Good reasoning. One problem: Those with a tradition from the GRA disagree with the Baal HaTanya regarding the GRA's position. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tzimtzum for the Leshem's explanation.
    – Yahu
    Apr 19, 2010 at 3:59
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    Without disparaging the Rebbe's scholarship or intentions, it would still be interesting to see how this disagreement compares to a presentation of it from the other perspective.
    – Double AA
    May 8, 2013 at 6:14

The argument went much earlier.

There were students of the Arizal who held that Tzimtzum is literal.

For example, Yosher Levav (the author of the Mishnas Chassidim) wrote that it is based on both logic (that it is disgraceful for Hashem to be found in a dirty place) and because it is also what the Arizal taught him.

The Alter Rebbe (Baal Hatanya) disproves in Tanya (In Shaar Hayichud Vehaemuna) and says "It is possible to understand the error of certain scholars in their own eyes (May G‑d forgive them!)" which shows that they made a grave mistake in understanding Hashem's unity and are in need of atonement.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe said a Sicha in Nasso 5743 where he said that there were two legitimate ways of understanding tzimtzum (and says that the simple way to learn tzimtzum is like the Mishnas Chassidim!). Yet, once the law was decided (by both the Alter Rebbe and R' Chaim of Volozhin) that tzimtzum in not literal, nobody has the authority to argue on that decision.

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    How does the concept of psak apply to metaphysical reality? Did God retroactively go back and do His tzimtzum in the way we ultimately 'ruled'?
    – Double AA
    May 8, 2013 at 6:16
  • "that it is disgraceful for Hashem to be found in a dirty place" - what is the logic in this? just because something is disgraceful doesn't mean its impossible
    – ray
    Nov 11, 2013 at 19:53
  • @ray See the Sicha. The Rebbe points out that there is a level lower than a dirty place - a house of idolatry. And how could there be a command to destroy idolatry (its essence, not just its form) when Hashem is found there in the same level as in the Holy of Holies (which the Rebbe says makes no sense on its own - how can one say that Hashem is in an idol the same way as in the Holy of Holies!) Nov 11, 2013 at 20:39
  • @ray The arguments here are not just about logical possibility, but also about what is reasonable to someone with a brain.
    – Double AA
    Nov 14, 2013 at 0:27
  • @ShmuelBrin the Yosher Levav was born over 100 years after the Arizal had aliyas neshamah.
    – jj2
    Feb 22, 2016 at 15:58

This Mahlokes ultimately seems to stem from an earlier Mahlokes between Rabeinu Yosef Gikatelia (Shaarei Orah) and the Rashash (the Kabbalist). The SO holds that Keser of Atzilus (Keser Elyon) is the Ein Sof Himself and the Rashash holds that Keser of Atzilus is the Ohr of the Ein Sof.

If the K.E. is the Ohr E.S. then He Maintains His presence, but is Mitzamtzeim His Ohr. Those who say it is the E.S. Himself hold that He does withdraw Himself.

If you have no clue what I am referring to then this answer and the question that was asked is not for you.

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    "If you have no clue what I am referring to then this answer is not for you." -- I like that! Though it raises the question whether a website like this is the right medium for this.
    – Shalom
    Apr 19, 2010 at 13:56
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    Shalom, I agree that the way Kabbalah is being "peddled on the streets" is a disgrace and that most of what such people will write or say on the subject is inaccurate. In the same spirit as Ramban, I just wrote some hints to the underlying issues that only the initiated will grasp.
    – Yahu
    Apr 19, 2010 at 17:16
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    See the guiding principle here: lo.yodeya.com/2010/01/guidelines-jargon.html . I think that Yahu's coda is more or less consistent with this. The intent of the jargon policy is to be accessible to newbies, but not preclude discussion of more complex topics. It would be impossible to discuss this topic at all succinctly without jargon, and I doubt that anyone not already familiar with the concept of tzimtzum (for example) would be interested in this question.
    – Isaac Moses
    Apr 19, 2010 at 17:20
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    Replace "not preclude" in my previous comment with "not stilt unbearably." For example, if someone wanted to pose or answer a complex kasha on a Ketzos here, and they tried to link or explain all terms that a newbie wouldn't know, they'd spend all day linking. Further, while it might be a stretch of the policy, I think that it's OK for the case of Kabala in particular to use "someone well-versed in the topic" in place of "someone interested in the topic." I don't think this needs to be formalized into the policy; if anyone disagrees, please let me know.
    – Isaac Moses
    Apr 19, 2010 at 17:42
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    I think that this machloket is also in philosophy between the Or Hashem (& partially Rambam) and the Rabbi Avraham Ibn Daoud & Ralbag. the central subject is the paradox of the bechira.
    – kouty
    Mar 23, 2016 at 1:10

I hope I'm understanding and presenting this correctly; someone please correct me if I'm getting this wrong.

I heard a talk from Rabbi Yaacov Haber about this. If I understand correctly, he contrasted the Tanya with a similar work by Ramchal known as "Adir BaMarom" or "Adir BiMromim." It's well-known that the Vilna Gaon thought highly of Ramchal.

"Tzimtzum" deals with the philosophical quandary that God is infinite, but He interacts with the physical world, which is finite. One side of the coin is that God "makes room" for anything else to exist, or else it wouldn't. The other side of the coin is that He allows some manifestation of Himself in the world as we know it. The question becomes, how real is that manifestation? Tanya believes in "tzimtzum gamur", absolute manifestation. Ramchal and the Vilna Gaon reject that.

If I recall correctly, Ramchal would say something to the effect of "every soul is Godly", but Tanya says "every soul is a piece of God" -- the danger here is the next step becoming "but some are more God than others." In light of the mess of Shabtai Zvi's messianic claims that were still in recent memory, the Vilna Gaon found this too dangerous.

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    "Tzimtzum gamur" would mean "total withdrawal," which is the opposite of what the Baal Hatanya believes in. The Lubavitcher Rebbe zt"l (whose letter I refer to in my answer) calls it "tzimtzum shelo kipshuto, verak ba'or."
    – Alex
    Apr 9, 2010 at 19:52
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    @shalom, Alex is correct. The Baal HaTanya follows "tztimtzum aino k'pshuto". The Gra follows "tzimtzum k'pshuto". Dec 26, 2011 at 2:48
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    After rereading your answer, I see that your error stems from a mistranslation of the word "tzimtzum". Whereas you translate it as "manifestation", it actually means "withdrawal". Other than that you've got the gist. The Baal HaTanya believes that the "tzimtzum" or "withdrawal" that is discussed in kabbalah, is only metaphorical ("aino k'pshuto"). Dec 26, 2011 at 2:57
  • Your answer misses the boat, which is how literal to take the concept of tzimtzum. @HodofHod is really presenting the machlokes
    – robev
    Jun 21, 2017 at 3:15
  • You also didn't cite any sources for each side"s opinion, which is what @Reb-Chaim-HaQoton wanted
    – robev
    Aug 3, 2017 at 13:20

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