Review of Nefesh HaTzimtzum

Professor Zev Garber, Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies, Los Angeles Valley College.

American Reference Books Annual (ARBA), 2016 Edition, Volume 47

Nefesh HaTzimtzum (two volumes) provides a general yet comprehensive gateway to the teachings and world view of Rabbi Chaim Volozhin (“Volozhiner”), a leading disciple of Rabbi Elijah b. Solomon Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna, as presented in his magnum opus, Nefesh HaChaim (Vilna and Grodno, 5584 [1824]), arranged and published posthumously by his son and successor, Rabbi Yitzchak. The title’s double entendre (“soul of Chaim” and “soul of life”) speaks to the ideology of these volumes: fear of God brings life and intense love of Torah purports its sacred destiny at the highest attainable spiritual level. Following an introduction by Rabbi Yitzchak, the volume is parsed into Four Gateways, containing multiple chapters and additional notes by Rabbi Chaim: (1) God, Soul, and Man created in the image of God can change/repair the world; (2) Prayer, turning upward and inward to the Source of Life; (3) Presence (Makom/Place) of God in, from, about Creation; yetser ha-tov and yester ha-ra’ (good and bad inclinations) in Man; doing Torah lishmah (for its own sake) diminishes evil inclination; (4) Torah study, the ultimate refinement of self-purpose and identity. Avinoam Fraenkel’s research, translation, and commentary are essential components to making this classic of Mitnaged (non-Hasidic) Ashkenazi Orthodoxy accessible to the English reading audience.

The Four Gateways of Nefesh HaChaim are introduced and discussed in Nefesh HaTzimzum, volume one. They speak respectfully of the power of human actions, speech/prayer, and thought in transforming self and world with metaphysical repercussions. Nefesh HaTzimtzum, volume two, is exclusively focused on sections of Gateway Three which discusses God’s Being (essence, existence, metaphysics) as developed in the Kabbalistic doctrine of Tzimtzum, that is, the contractions of the Infinite Being to create, penetrate, and sustain a finite universe. Doctrinal issues embrace experiential and transcendental response. Rationally, can an absolute Infinite Being be contracted to Finite Being; if God’s presence is everywhere in creation then in what way is creation an independent entity and Man’s function therein; if God as God does not contract does this embrace associated attributes, such as God’s Will and Glory, and so on. Of particular significance, Fraenkel’ s attempt by introduction, insightful notes, use of additional writings of Rabbi Chaim and others to adjudicate differences between Mitnagdim and Hasidim on the language, ideology, and salvific role of Tzimtzum as mediator between holy and profane. Nonetheless, the Yeshiva Weltanschauung (Gateway Four) is extant. Rabbi Chaim’s understanding of Torah Lishma is less communion (devekut) and intention (kavvanah) with Heaven than performance of mitzvah lishma done in the context of Torah and halakhah. Historical overview, proper Hebrew-English layout, and intensive index are helpful.

Skip to content