Nefesh HaTzimtzum, Avinoam Fraenkel and his translation of Nefesh HaChaim

The famed Yeshiva Etz Hayyim in Volozhin  (founded 1803) stands as an emblem of complete devotion to Torah study. According to Prof. Imamnuel Etkes, the yeshiva had three principle qualities when administered by Rabbi Hayim (d.1821). First, the Yeshiva in Volozhin studied Torah round the clock in mishmarot (watches or shifts) of study because the study of Torah maintains the world. Second, they had an uncompromising approach to the true and simple meaning of the text of the Talmud, avoiding pilpul. Third, was the value of fear of God (yirat hashem) defined as control of one’s passions, Kabbalah, and devotion.  Rabbi Hayim wrote his work Nefesh Hahayim The Living Soul presenting this path.

Nefesh Hatzimzum

Nefesh Hahayim should have been translated into English decades ago as a Torah classic, instead it had to wait until 2015 for its first serious translation by Avinoam Fraenkel, a Hi-Tech professional with rabbinical ordination, currently working as a product manager for a global business management software company. The translation entitled Nefesh HaTzimzum is published in two full volumes for a staggering 1600 pages.  The first volume contains facing Hebrew and English pages as well as copious notes, explanations and an analytic index. The second volume has an entire book presenting Fraenkel’s theory of the concept of Divine tzimzum. It also has 400 pages of translations of almost all related texts written by the Vilna Gaon, Hayyim of Volozhin, Zundel of Salant. These ancillary texts are invaluable for any study of Nefesh Hahhayim.

The work is a labor of love by the translator and its shows. It is a wonderful translation and commentary on a difficult text showing his attention to detail and concern with educating the reader. The new translation should be owned by anyone truly interested in the world of the Mitnaggdim, Lithuanian Kabbalah, or Yeshivish ideologies. I highly recommend the two volumes and they belong in every Jewish library of classic texts. The book has sources, indices, outlines, and background resources forever changing the study of the work. Fraenkel deserves a thank you for his readable and well annotated volume.  I would recommend Nefesh HaTzimzum for both classroom and yeshiva.

The two volumes focus on Rabbi Hayyim’s doctrine of tzimzum and that is why Fraenkel names the two volumes Nefesh Hatzimzum, in that he assumes that this is the major focus of the work. More striking is that according to Fraenkel, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyadi and Hayyim of Volozhim basically taught the same doctrine of Tzimzum and that the greats of the last two hundred years were mistaken in thinking that they seriously differed. To prove this point, the second volume has a 360 page presentation, a book unto itself, on Tzimzum and the world of the malbush. Translating the copious sources from Rabbis Immanuel HaiRikki, Yosef Ergas and Solomon Elyashiv  in this exposition by itself is a major achievement increasing the texts of kabbalah available in English.

Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin’s  Nefesh HaHayim consists of four official parts and an extra unnumbered section.  The first part gives the book its title, in that it shows the amazing power of the human soul to affect the higher worlds. Man is said to be in the image of God, in that he affects the cosmos the way the Divine does.  Mizvot draw down the Divine light and blessing and an influx of supernal holiness. Mizvot maintain the divine realm giving strength the sefirot.  Thought is given precedence over action or emotion.

The second part is on the importance of the words of prayer and that one’s words should cleave above. Prayer should be done to give blessing above in the sefirotic realm and to draw down blessing from above.  R. Hayyim also presents a doctrine in that every word of prayer has deep secrets instituted by the Men of the Great Assembly.

The third part is on tzimzum delineating how the infinite Divine relates to the finite world.  The divine as revealed powers of the Divine name animates the world. However humans cannot access the infinite reaches of the divine, or even the divine in the natural realm around us, rather only the divine as manifest in Torah and mizvot.

The fourth part is on the greatness of Torah study. Torah study does not require a religious experience or emotional enthusiasm.  Torah is divine speech that animates the world. Most of the time, those who open the book only know selected passages in the fourth part.

In addition, there is an unnumbered extra section offering a critique of Hasidic ecstasy and their emphasis of enthusiasm over correct performance of mizvot. While many saw the celebratory nature of Hasidic worship as dangerously reminiscent of Sabbatian excesses. The Vilna Gaon considered Hasidim to be heretics in their doctrine of immanence of God in all things.

In contrast to Hasidism, Nefesh HaHayyim situates Torah study over prayer and piety (not that it rejects those aspects).The most famous idea from Nefesh HaHayyim is the need to continuously learn Torah day and night. The traditional understanding of the need for Torah study as typified by Maimonides defines Torah study as the ability to teach and transmit, Rabbi S. R. Hirsch defines the need to be involved in Torah day and night as applying Torah to one’s home and family. Here in the Nefesh Hahayim, the definition to learn is measured in time, mandating that one actually maximize the time one learns because one’s learning because of its effect on the cosmos. Most contemporary Yeshiva students do not know that the source for this idea is the Zohar, not the Talmud, as developed by various 17-18th century pietistic works .

In the Volozhin yeshiva, students studied for on the average of approximately three to five years, sometime between the age of thirteen and nineteen, then in most cases off to work. They studied individually, not in chavruta study partners,  mastering several Tractates on Talmudic civil law.  Attendance at the lectures by Rabbi Hayim was optional. They did not study to be rabbis or even to be ordained as a rabbi, for that one would have to go elsewhere., rather for the pure study in the belief that study itself was important. Surprisingly, they did not follow the course of study outline in the Nefesh HaHayyim advocating the inclusion of Halakhic Midrash, Yerushalmi, and Midrash.

The widespread availability of the  Nefesh Hahayyim will correct the widespread mistaken view that he, and Mitnaggdim, advocated Talmud study without concurrent emphasis on kabbalah, musar, and worship. I am glad the second volume has a translation of Rabbi Zundel of Salant, Tract on Prayer, because it shows what was actually practiced for prayer in Volozhin.

The Nefesh HaHayim has not played a large role in American Jewry or in the corpus of the scholar of mysticism Gershom Scholem.  However, the work was translated into French  in 1986 by Benno Gross and has played a large role in the modern French thought; where it is used to derive create Jewish ideas of cybernetics and semiotics.  In several of his essays, Emamnuel Levinas uses Nefesh HaHayyim to present the idea of needed to transcend the self for infinite confrontation with Divine will as opposed to what he considers the self-obsession of Neo-Hasidism.


Fraenkel’s volumes, however, totally avoids anything academic or scholarly, or even historic.  The volumes focus entirely on the Lurianic writings, hence, explicit citations of Rabbi Moses Cordovero and medieval Kabbalists are not treated, the influence of Ramchal is minimized, and the book lacks almost any historical context. I will leave it to others to provide a list of words that could have possibly had better translations, especially since a scholarly translation of the Nefesh Hahayim is planned from Harvard University Press (together with Tel Aviv University Press) as part of the the Hackmey Hebrew Classical Library. But in the meantime, this work is a great resource.

For Fraenkel, the secret of tzimzum is treated as a profound puzzle whose elegant solution is to be worked out with a chevruta. However, he relies heavily on the thought and writings of Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv  (1841- 1926) and his Sha’arei Leshem Shevo V’Achlama. Fraenkel properly rejects the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s mistaken identification of the position of the Vilna Gaon with that of the 18th century kabbalist Immanuel Hai Rikki (who took tzimzum literally) and he equally rejects the approach of R. Yosef Ergas (who treats tzimzum as metaphor). In general, the late 18th and 19th century Eastern European positions agree that  tzimzum is not true withdrawal or not occurring in the essence of God. But they differ on the role of acosmism, the access of the divine in the world, later day revelations, and what an individual can experience. Fraenkel’s harmonizing approach dissolves accepted differences.

The volume has no recognition of the scholarly work of Imamnuel Etkes, Mordechai Pachter, Tamar Ross, and now a wide cast of articles by younger scholars such as Ron Wacks showing the differences between  Rabbi Schnuer Zalman and Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, between the Rabbi Hayyim and Rabbi Elyashiv’s Leshem, and between the Vilna Gaon and Rabbi Isaac Luria. Raphael Shuchat  recently edited an entire issue of the journal Daat on the topic of Lithuanian Kabbalah offering insight into the field and offering the reader bibliography in the footnotes. Elsewhere, Eliezer Baumgarten wrote an insightful article showing that the original plan of the Nefesh Hahayim was a triad of mizvot, prayer, and Torah study as a response to Hasidism, while the section on Tzimzum was needed only as an appendix for the other chapters.

1) What is your background in Kabbalah?

My first exposure to the world of Kabbalah was my introduction to Chabad, Sefer HaTanya and the concept of Tzimtzum at age 15. Since then the Chassidic classics in general and Sefer HaTanya in particular, have been a main area of personal focus for the last 34 years. This background exposed me to many Kabbalistic concepts which I researched further over the years and it provided me with a strong basis with which to approach study of Nefesh HaChaim.

In contrast to Sefer HaTanya and the Chassidic classics in general, Nefesh HaChaim is a unique work which substantiates every statement it makes by referencing many traditional Jewish sources in general, and Kabbalistic sources in particular. As a result, the highly structured presentation of Nefesh HaChaim itself is a gateway into the highly unstructured world of Kabbalah. Having now studied Nefesh HaChaim for many years, I discovered that it can only be properly understood by diving deeply into and beyond the sources that it references, and this process has, perhaps more than anything else, given me a point of entry into the diversity of Kabbalistic thought.

2) What motivated you to undertake this project?

There are many factors which inspired me to take on this project. A primary driver among others was a burning desire to more deeply understand answers to critical philosophical questions about life after my father’s sudden passing when I was an impressionable 15 year old.

The primary triggers for it were however practical ones. This project was born 5 years ago, when in preparation for regular study sessions with a study partner, I started preparing detailed outlines of Nefesh HaChaim. In constructing these, I discovered a new way of learning Torah that I had not personally previously encountered and when completed I was enthused to continue with this approach to Torah study by extending the detailed outlines to become a full blown translation and commentary. This became the single most intense and satisfying form of Torah study that I had ever experienced, as it was no longer acceptable to get the gist of what was going on and I had to understand the meaning and implications of every single word employed by Nefesh HaChaim.

After completing an initial draft of the translation, the project just naturally progressed as I had to continue my new found method of Torah study. I researched and translated all of R. Chaim Volozhin’s published writings which shed light on Nefesh HaChaim and on completion subsequently started to write about the concept of Tzimtzum which I identified as crucial.

Looking back, after a very humble start, this project progressed and transformed naturally beyond anything I would have ever dreamed possible. In retrospect, I can palpably see the hand of Divine Guidance which spoon-fed me with critical pieces of information at the specific times I needed to absorb them without being overloaded by them. Had I planned the end result at the outset, I am sure this project would never have happened. If you would have told me five years ago that it would end up becoming a Nefesh HaTzimtzum, I would have simply dismissed such a thought with hearty laughter.


3) How did you know when you were correct about the Kabbalistic concept of Tzimtzum?

Having entered into the Kabbalistic world from Chabad, it was natural for me to first look at the Chabad resources explaining the concept of Tzimtzum. A primary resource for this was a well-known letter, penned by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l in 1939 which delineates a 4 position approach to the concept and presents a picture of stark contrast between the views of the Vilna Gaon, the Baal HaTanya and Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin.

When I started writing about Tzimtzum I had no basis to question the validity of this letter and used it as a primary source to explain what I understood then to be the positions of difference on the subject. This was to the extent that I even constructed an elaborate chart presenting the differences between Nefesh Hachaim and Sefer HaTanya as a result of this understanding.

By the time I had finished this, it transpired that I had written a book on the subject. Although I felt the presentation of difference was correct at the time, I was deeply bothered by the apparent fundamentally different positions between the Mitnagdim and the Chassidim. How could this be? How could the primary concept in Kabbalah, upon which all of the rest of the Kabbalah is based, be subject to such dramatically different interpretation?

To my mind it wasn’t that they were just different views within the boundaries of Judaism (which is how most approach this difference without properly thinking it through), but that difference over this principle of Tzimtzum has to result in different fundamental approaches to viewing Judaism – and this made me extremely uncomfortable.

It was then that through the quirks of Divine Providence, I was introduced to Rabbi Moshe Schatz and started learning with him. About a year after meeting him, during a marathon study session which lasted for 11 hours straight, I watched him suddenly be inspired with a new comprehensive understanding of the various positions on Tzimtzum, one that was generally consistent with both the Mitnagdic and Chassidic worlds. I immediately appreciated its truth and understood its implications, realizing that I had to rewrite my entire exposition on Tzimtzum from scratch as it was then obvious to me that there was no fundamental difference of opinion whatsoever between the Vilna Gaon and the Baal HaTanya.

I then spent the next 3 months rewriting my entire Tzimtzum thesis. It was an extremely painful process as I had to prove to myself that a 180 degree change in my view was indeed justified every step of the way and that it truly agreed with all the details I had amassed. I knew that it was correct when, using the lens of the new understanding, I could clearly see that it was consistently true everywhere I looked across Kabbalistic writings in general and the writings of Chassidut, the Vilna Gaon and the Nefesh HaChaim in particular.

I additionally knew it was correct as having previously held by and invested so much in attempting to understand the positions of difference, I could also now see and fully explain the extensive flaws in that understanding. It was also logically satisfying as it did not make sense in any way whatsoever to suggest that Chassidut had blazed a new separate trail to mainstream Judaism, which in effect is the implication of stating that there were positions of difference.

4) Your essay erases the Chassidic–Mitnagdic divide. How are they saying the same things?

The key point is that the Vilna Gaon, like the Chassidic masters, saw that the arena within which the Tzimtzum process occurred as only being in the level of malchut of any world level, including that of the highest level called the Ein Sof. The level of malchut is the lowest part of any world level and in fact is in a different dimension to it. This means that any change in the level of malchut of any world level as a result of the Tzimtzum process, does not impact the world level itself in any way. Therefore the first instance of the Tzimtzum process which occurred in the level of malchut of the Ein Sof, did not impact the Ein Sof in any way. Therefore, by extension, the Tzimtzum process does not change God in any way.

Once this is understood, key statements in the Vilna Gaon’s writings can be related to properly and in particular, it becomes very clear that when the Vilna Gaon refers to a removal of God as a result of the Tzimtzum process he is only referring to the removal occurring within the level of malchut, leaving all the levels above malchut intact and unchanged in any way.

On further study I also realized that key parts of likkutim (collected writings) of the Vilna Gaon and his students were also to be understood in this way. One prominent follower and expositor of the path of the Vilna Gaon is the Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv (1841- 1926), author of the Leshem Shevo V’Achlama, who was revered by the Chafetz Chaim and the Chazon Ish and was referred to by his student, R. Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, as “the greatest Kabbalist of the generation”. Amazingly, the Leshem, who notwithstanding the fact that he very strongly expresses his position in the historic debate on Tzimtzum which appears to be very much against the general Chassidic camp, on careful analysis of what he actually says on the topic it is abundantly clear that he most definitely agrees with the Chassidic understanding.

5) How did people not see this for 200 years, only to be discovered by you? Are you questioning those who came before you?

Most people, including some very great individuals, have been severely misled and confused by a smokescreen of difference which was contributed to by two key factors. Firstly, by terminology used by some key Kabbalists, whose historic context was misunderstood. Secondly, by a famous letter forged in the name of the Baal HaTanya which explained the Vilna Gaon’s position on Tzimtzum as arguing with the view of Chassidut.

Those who were severely misled spanned the entire Mitnagdic-Chassidic divide for the last two centuries and more recently included no less than the last Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rabbi Yoel Kluft, a prominent Mitnagdic Kabbalist who was the head of the Haifa Bet Din. They also included all positions that I had seen in the academic world, where most would present convoluted theories built on an inaccurate perception of difference around the concept of Tzimtzum.

However, not all were misled. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, among many other prominent individuals, understood that the argument between the Chassidim and the Mitnagdim was not about the fundamental principles of Judaism. He wrote on the topic of Tzimtzum in 1938 that “in this generation in which there is a need to unite…it is fitting to publicize the fact that there are no differences of opinion in the essence of these issues”.

Unfortunately however, those who were severely misled, such as the Lubavitcher Rebbe in his 1939 letter mentioned above which was responding to Rabbi Dessler’s position, were much more vocal and their voice became the mainstream view which misinformed both the Jewish World and also the academic world.

6)  What do you make of the dozens of authors who wrote about the difference between the two approaches?

This is explained by the Kabbalistic concept of “The Exile of the Torah”. As God, the Torah and the Jewish People are Kabbalistically referred to as being in Unity, therefore just as the Jewish People are in exile, so too is the Torah. This means that there is confusion and difference of opinion over all Torah concepts. It is the reason why there is so much debate and difference between the positions of our Rabbis over every conceivable minute detail of both the revealed parts of the Torah, such as Talmudic law, and also of the inner deeper parts of the Torah, Kabbalistic thought.

While the Jewish People is in exile and until the times of the Messiah, difference in all areas of Jewish Law and Thought will prevail, however as we draw closer to the times of Messiah, many of these areas will be gradually clarified. Ultimately in the times of the Messiah, there will be a “New Torah”, as the Vilna Gaon puts it, meaning that it will be new to us as a result of it having been fully clarified from all confusion and doubt.

The confusion of dozens of authors on the topic of Tzimtzum was therefore meant to be and has no bearing whatsoever on the stature of those individuals who were caught out by it. The current clarification of this topic is just a very small part of an enormous historic process.

7) What happened to the Ramak, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero? The Lithuanian Kabbalistic literature at many points clearly labels the views of the Vilna Gaon and R. Hayyim as the Ramak, you make that disappear.

My understanding is that there is no contradiction between the Ramak and the Arizal. In many respects the Ramak is a stepping stone to advance to the Arizal. The Ramak deals with the conceptual concept of difference of perspective as denoted by what is referred to as the World of Tohu and the concept of the sefirot. In contrast the Arizal builds on this and additionally deals with the concept of a unified perspective as denoted by what is referred to as the World of Tikun and the unity and wholeness of the concept of partzuf. The sefirot and partzuf views are not contradictory; they are just different ways of viewing the same underlying reality.

It is very clear that the Vilna Gaon and R. Chaim are both heavily invested in the concept of partzuf and the Arizal’s Kabbalah as evidenced, e.g. from the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Sifra DeTzniyuta and Sefer Yetzirah. I would very respectfully suggest that those who differentiate the Ramak as a separate school which is distinct from the Arizal lack the bigger picture.

It is of interest to note that among a number of sources to support this there is a comment of R. Chaim Vital in his Sefer Hahizyonot (Mosad Harav Kook, 1954, entry 17, p.57) which describes a dream where he sees and questions the Ramak about the true path of the Kabbalah between him and the path of the Arizal.  The Ramak answers him saying “the 2 paths are true but my path is the simple one for those entering into this Wisdom and the path of your master [the Arizal] is the inner and main one. I also now only study your master’s way in the [world] above”.

Avinoam at Aish                                Avinoam Fraenkel speaking at Aish-LA

8) What happened to the Likkutim of the Vilna Gaon, many of them are clearly relevant to understand your sefer? Is your sefer, in the end, just according to the Leshem?

Of the Likkutim of the Vilna Gaon, the most important one which relates to the concept of Tzimtzum is arguably the one dealing with this topic which is published at the end of the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Sifra DeTzniyuta. While many misunderstood this piece, on carefully reading it, it is very clear that it also only relates to the removal by the Tzimtzum process exclusively occurring in the level of malchut (as mentioned above). This is demonstrated in my Tzimtzum exposition where a detailed explanation is provided of how the Lubavitcher Rebbe misunderstood this piece.

In connection with the Leshem, I specifically chose to begin my Tzimtzum exposition with his explanation for two reasons. Firstly, because he provides the single most in-depth and extensive explanation of the Tzimtzum process that I have ever seen. Secondly, as mentioned above, as a result of explicit statements that he makes he was historically thought to have taken a strong anti-Chassidic approach to this topic and by fleshing out the detail of his explanation it becomes crystal clear that what he says is identical to the Baal HaTanya’s approach even though it seems that he may have personally thought otherwise. If I have done my job properly, anyone reading through my Tzimtzum exposition in detail should clearly see that the Leshem, Vilna Gaon, R. Chaim and the Baal HaTanya all very much independently entirely agree with each other.

9) What value does this have in a technological age? How do you relate this cosmology to the one that you work with in technology?

The process of coming out of exile in the run up to the imminent Messianic times as mentioned above, involves the clarification of all aspects of the Torah as the Torah also comes out of exile. The Leshem explains that every piece of information in this world, whether it is a new insight in Torah or even details of the scientific understanding of the world around us, has its specific time to be revealed. Until that designated time for each topic, confusion reigns and there is a lack of clarity.

It is common in the history of science for a topic to be suddenly discovered simultaneously and independently by a number of individuals. The concept of Tzimtzum is no different. Every concept, both in Torah and of the natural world around us has its designated time for reaching clarity, and it appears that we have now reached the time for the clarification of a major part of the concept of Tzimtzum.

As we progress towards Messianic times, the Zohar famously predicted that there will be progressive explosive growth in both Kabbalistic and scientific knowledge from around 1840. The current clarification of the concept of Tzimtzum together with an increasing momentum in the awareness of general Kabbalistic thought is therefore no accident. So too, it is no accident that there is an explosion in our understanding of the world around us in this technological and information age.

The technological revolution has caused a tectonic shift in the way mankind views the world over the last 170 years or so. Working full time, as I do, in the burgeoning world of Israeli Hi-Tech, it is amazing to see first-hand, the wildly disproportionate contribution that the Jewish People in their Israeli homeland, the “Start-Up Nation”, is making to this accelerating process of wider technological development across the world stage – which is also no accident. The most significant part of the changes that are occurring is within human awareness of the nature of the world around us which has been enabled through scientific and technological advancement.

The development of a proper and deeper understanding of Kabbalistic thought also drives human awareness allowing mankind to be in tune with the nature of the Divine reality all around us. As the Zohar highlights, these areas of awareness are intrinsically interlinked and go hand in hand with one another. The increasing awareness of the nature of the world around us automatically provides tools for more deeply understanding the Kabbalah. As demonstrated in detail at the end of my Tzimtzum exposition, the Vilna Gaon’s outlook is that proper engagement in the scientific and technological understanding of the world around us as it develops, is a pre-requisite to be able to properly relate to and understand the inner depths of Torah and Kabbalistic thought as the world draws ever closer to Messianic times.

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