Isaac Luria & Kabbalah in Safed

After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, the center of kabbalistic study moved to the town of Safed in northern Palestine.

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The key concepts in Lurianic Kabbalah are tzimtzum (contraction)and the “shattering of the vessels.” Luria posits a story of creation in which Creation is essentially a negative act in which the Ein Sof (God’s essential self) must bring into being an empty space in which Creation can occur. The Almighty was everywhere--only by contracting into itself, like a man inhaling in order to let someone pass in a narrow corridor, could the Godhead create an empty space, the tehiru (Aramaic for “empty”), in which the Creation could occur. God retracts a part of the Eternal being into the Godhead itself in order to allow such a space to exist, a sort of exile. So Creation begins with a Divine exile.

After the tzimtzum, a stream of Divine light flowed from the God­head into the empty space the Almighty had created, taking the shape of the sefirot and Adam Kadmon (Primal Man). The light flowed from Adam Kadmon, out of his eyes, nose, mouth, creating the vessels that were eternal shapes of the sefirot. But the vessels were too fragile to contain such a powerful--Divine--light. The upper three vessels were damaged, the lower seven were shattered and fell.

Thus the tehiru became divided into the upper and lower worlds, a product of the shevirah (shat­tering). And so evil came into the world, through a violent separation between those elements that had taken part in the act of creation and others that had willfully resisted, contributing to the shattering of the vessels. The elements that had fought against the creation were the nascent powers of evil, but because they opposed creation they lack the power to survive; they need access to the Divine light, and continue to exist in the world only to the extent that they can gather the holy sparks that fell when the shevirah took place.

Repairing the World

Joseph Dan has noted that the genius of Lurianic Kabbalah is the way in which it unites Jewish mysticism and Jewish ethics. That unification occurs here, in the conception of the way in which mankind can undo the damage done in the Creation, can repair the shevirah--through tikkun olam [repairing the world].

For Luria and his followers, tikkun had a very specific meaning. Every time that a human performs a mitzvah (commandment), she raises one of the holy sparks out of the hands of the forces of evil and restores it to the upper world. Conversely, every time that a human sins, a divine spark plunges down. The day will come, if all do their part, when the entire remaining supply of Divine Light will be restored to the upper world; without access to the Divine Light, evil will be unable to survive and will crumble away to dust.

For Luria and his followers, the commandment of tikkun olam (repairing the world) takes on a highly specific meaning in which it is through Jewish ritual life that we contribute to the reversal of the shattering of the ves­sels, ward off the powers of evil, and pave the way of Redemption. Eth­ical behavior--following the mitzvot, no matter how seemingly trivial--takes on a new, cosmic significance. Forget to say the blessing over bread? You have contributed to universal evil. Put up a mezuzah on the door of your new house? You have helped to redeem the entire world.

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George Robinson

George Robinson, author of Essential Judaism, is the recipient of a Simon Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish journalism from the American Jewish Press Association. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Jewish Week, and The Detroit Jewish News.