“Tikkun olam” (literally, “world repair”) has come to connote social action and the pursuit of social justice. The phrase has origins in classical rabbinic literature and in Lurianic kabbalah, a major strand of Jewish mysticism originating with the work of the 16th-century kabbalist Isaac Luria.
The term “mipnei tikkun ha-olam” (perhaps best translated in this context as “in the interest of public policy”) is used in the Mishnah (the body of classical rabbinic teachings codified circa 200 C.E.). There, it refers to social policy legislation providing extra protection to those potentially at a disadvantage–governing, for example, just conditions for the writing of divorce decrees and for the freeing of slaves.
In reference to individual acts of repair, the phrase “tikkun olam” figures prominently in the Lurianic account of creation and its implications: God contracted the divine self to make room for creation. Divine light became contained in special vessels, or kelim, some of which shattered and scattered. While most of the light returned to its divine source, some light attached itself to the broken shards. These shards constitute evil and are the basis for the material world; their trapped sparks of light give them power.
The first man, Adam, was intended to restore the divine sparks through mystical exercises, but his sin interfered. As a result, good and evil remained thoroughly mixed in the created world, and human souls (previously contained within Adam’s) also became imprisoned within the shards.
The “repair,” that is needed, therefore, is two-fold: the gathering of light and of souls, to be achieved by human beings through the contemplative performance of religious acts. The goal of such repair, which can only be effected by humans, is to separate what is holy from the created world, thus depriving the physical world of its very existence—and causing all things return to a world before disaster within the Godhead and before human sin, thus ending history.
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