I am at a loss for words to describe how blown away I am by the magnitude of Avinoam Fraenkel’s Nefesh Hatzimtzum.
Nefesh Hatzimtzum is a translation and study guide to R’ Chaim Volozhin’s Nefesh Hachaim. For those unfamiliar, Nefesh Hachaim is the “Shulchan Aruch” of hashkafa and philosophy. The concepts presented by R. Chaim are a basic platform to give us knowledge of the closest that is humanly achievable in relating to God and by extension, our ability to serve Him.
Nefesh Hatzimtzum is simply outstanding. It is a crisp and clear presentation of what has essentially been a closed book. Now Nefesh Hachaim is not only accessible, but in Fraenkel’s two volume set (over 1600 pages!), one also enjoys the benefits of a spoon fed education on the material.
In addition to being the best translation of Nefesh Hachaim that I have yet to see, volume one of Nefesh Hatzimtzum includes the full facing page Hebrew text of Nefesh Hachaim, along with in-depth explanations, and incisive commentary. There is also a comprehensive historical overview of the Nefesh Hachaim and all there is to know about R’ Chaim Volozhin. The extensive table of contents and index is inviting and user friendly.
The second volume is an exhaustive presentation of everything to do with the concept of “Tzimtzum,” God’s “retraction” from the world as He created it. Or, as the author puts it, “the secret of how an infinite God occupies a finite world.” Most importantly, it unequivocally demonstrates that the key kabbalists, including the Vilna Gaon, R’ Chaim Volozhin and the Baal Hatanya, all unanimously agreed on the underlying principles of the concept of Tzimtzum. Contrary to widespread historical misunderstanding, there was no fundamental dispute about the philosophical principles of Judaism between the Hasidim and the Mitnagdim. Based on this, Nefesh Hatzimtzum shows that both Nefesh Hachaim and Sefer Hatanya present the same methodology for serving God which is rooted in their identical understanding of the concept of Tzimtzum.
Nefesh Hatzimtzum is simply mind-boggling. There are few sefarim available today in the English language that offer a thorough education in such an important and lesser known area of Torah. This two volume set is a must have for anyone who values high quality English Torah works. Nefesh Hatzimtzum is for those with an interest in halacha, kaballa, and philosophy. It is for rabbis, laymen, academics, and all those with a thirst for knowledge and a desire to understand the Creator. Nefesh Hatzimtzum is simply a treasure waiting to be discovered and enjoyed. Fraenkel has made an historic contribution to the Jewish people.
This review originally appeared on Torah Book Reviews