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Tikkun olam

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Tikkun olam (Hebrew: תיקון עולם‎) is a Hebrew phrase that means, "repairing the world" or "perfecting the world." In Judaism, the concept of tikkun olam originated in the early rabbinic period. The concept was given new meanings in the kabbalah of the medieval period and further connotations in modern Judaism.

In the Mishnah

The expression tikkun olam is used in the Mishnah in the phrase mip'nei tikkun ha-olam ("for the sake of tikkun of the world") to indicate that a practice should be followed not because it is required by Biblical law, but because it helps avoid social chaos.[1] One example is in Gittin 4:2.

At first a person used to convene a Court in another place and cancel it. Rabban Gamliel the Elder enacted in the public interest (mip'nei tikkun ha-olam) that they should not do so. At first a person used to change his name and her name, the name of his city and the name of her city, and Rabban Gamliel the Elder enacted in the public interest (mip'nei tikkun ha-olam) that he should write, "The man so-and-so and every name that he has," "The woman so-and-so and every name that she has."[2]

The rabbis made this rule because they were concerned that a woman might receive a get (divorce document) and think she was divorced when in fact she was not. She might then remarry in good faith not knowing that she was not yet a free woman. In Jewish tradition there are severe consequences if a married woman engages in sexual relations outside of her marriage. She may not marry the man with whom she had sex and her children are ineligible to marry most other Jews because they acquire the technical status of mamzerim.[3]

As an explanation of rabbinic laws, the phrase mip'nei tikkun ha-olam is also invoked for laws about the collection of the ketubah money for a widow (Gittin 4:3), the limit on payments to redeem captives (Gitten 4:6), purchasing religious articles from non-Jews (Gittin 4:6), divorce threatened by vows (Gittin 4:7), and the bringing of first fruits for land purchased from non-Jews (Gitten 4:9). Several additional uses are found in Gittin 5:3.

During Talmudic period, the principle of mip'nei tikkun ha-olam is applied to a very limited number of additional cases. (For example, see Pesahim 88b.) In both the Mishnah (Gittin 4:6) and the Talmud, applications of the principle are contested at times.

In Jewish prayer

The phrase tikkun olam is included in the Aleinu, a Jewish prayer that is traditionally recited three times daily. The Aleinu, said to have been written by the Biblical Joshua, praises God for allowing the Jewish people to serve God, and expresses hope that the whole world one day will recognize God and abandon idolatry. The phrase tikkun olam is used in the longer expression l'takken olam b'malkhut Shaddai, "to perfect the world under God's sovereignty." In other words, when all people of the world abandon false gods and recognize God, the world will have been perfected.

The word tikkun is grammatically in the gerund (meaning "repair" or "perfection"), and olam means "world"; the two words together (tikkun olam) are in the construct (i.e. genitive), and mean "repair of [the] world". By contrast, the word l'takken (meaning "to repair") is in the infinitive, and so l'takken olam in the Aleinu prayer means "to repair [the] world."

The role of ritual mitzvot

Jews believe that performing of ritual mitzvot (commandments or religious obligations) is a means of tikkun olam, helping to perfect the world, and that the performance of more mitzvot will hasten the coming of the Messiah and the Messianic Age. This belief dates back at least to the early Talmudic period. According to Rabbi Yochanan, a rabbi who lived during that period, the Jewish people will be redeemed when every Jew observes Shabbat (the Sabbath) in two consecutive weeks.[4]


Some explain the power of Shabbat by its effect on the other six days of the week and their role in moving society towards the Messianic Age. Shabbat helps bring about the Messianic Age because Shabbat rest energizes Jews to work harder to bring the Messianic Age nearer during the six working days of the week.[5] Because the experience of Shabbat gives one a foretaste of the Messianic Age, observance of Shabbat also helps Jews renew their commitment to bring about a world where love and mercy will reign.[6] Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, focuses instead on the human gap between intention and execution. By giving Jews a foretaste of the Messianic Age, Shabbat helps Jews close that gap. Having a weekly reminder of one's goal makes a person more likely to reach that goal.[7]

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan provides an alternate explanation that focuses on how people will act after the Messianic Age arrives. The Messianic Age will be a time of peace when human beings will be in harmony with nature, each other, and God. Shabbat is a rehearsal for the Messianic Age. Unlike human revolutions which replace one corrupt regime with another, the revolution of the Messianic Age will be permanent. Jews who have practiced for the new regime by observing Shabbat will be able to maintain the peace and harmony of the Messianic Age.[8]

Lurianic Kabbalah

Lurianic Kabbalah has also been used to explain the role of prayer and ritual action in tikkun olam. According to this vision of the world, God contracted part of God's self into vessels of light to create the world. These vessels shattered and their shards became sparks of light trapped within the material of creation. Prayer, especially contemplation of various aspects of the divinity (sephirot), releases these sparks and allows them to reunite with God's essence.[9]

According to Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, an influential 18th century interpreter and systemic philosopher of Lurianic Kabbalah[10], the physical world is connected to spiritual realms above, and these spiritual realms in turn influence the physical world.[11] In his view, as developed in his Derech Hashem, Jews have the ability, through physical deeds and free will, to direct and control these spiritual forces.[12] These spiritual forces include tikkun (rectification, good; the presence of Divine light) and kilkul (damage, evil; not merely the absence of goodness and Divine light, but its own force that is strengthened by the absence of goodness and Divine light).[13] God's desire in creation is that God's creations ultimately will recognize God's unity and overcome evil; this will constitute the perfection (tikkun) of creation.[14] Jews have the Torah now and are aware of God's unity, but when all of humanity recognizes this fact, the rectification will be complete.[15] Only the actions of Jews further creation; the deeds of non-Jews do not.[16] Instead, God gave non-Jews the Noachide Laws so that they may obtain individual portions in the Olam Haba (afterlife).[17]

The role of ethical mitzvot

In Jewish thought ethical mitzvot as well as ritual mitzvot are important to the process of tikkun olam. Some Jews believe that performing mitzvot will create a model society among the Jewish people, which will in turn influence the rest of the world. By perfecting themselves, their local Jewish community or the state of Israel, the Jews set an example for the rest of the world. The theme is frequently repeated in the sermons and writings of across the Jewish spectrum: Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox.

Also, the mitzvot often have practical worldly/social effects (in contrast to mystical effects as held by Lurianic Kabbalah).

Building a model society

Some Jews believe that performing mitzvot will create a model society among the Jewish people, which will in turn influence the rest of the world. This idea sometimes is attributed to Biblical verses that describe the Jews as "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5-6) and "a light of the nations" or "a light to the nations" (Isaiah 42:6 and Isaiah 49:6). The philosophies of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch[18][19][20] and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook are prominent in this field, the former rationally and in terms of a kehilla (community) of Jews in galut (the diaspora) influencing their non-Jewish neighbors, and the latter mystically and in Zionist terms of a Jewish state influencing the other nations of the world. Some other Orthodox rabbis, many but not all of them Modern Orthodox, follow a philosophy similar to Hirsch's, including Joseph H. Hertz,[21] Isidore Epstein,[22] and Eliezer Berkovits.[23] The philosophy of Religious Zionism follows Kook in his philosophy.

Practical Physical/Social/Worldly Effects of Mitzvot

In Modern Orthodox philosophy (which often is interwined with Religious Zionism, especially in America), it is commonly believed that mitzvot have practical this-worldly sociological and educational effects on those who perform them, and in this manner, the mizvot will perfect the Jews and the world.

According to the rationalist philosophy of Hirsch and others, the social and ethical mitzvot have nearly self-explanatory purposes, while ritual mitzvot may serve functions such as educating people or developing relationships between people and God. As examples, prayer either inculcates a relationship between people and God or strengthens beliefs and faith of the one who prays, and keeping kosher or wearing tzitzit serve as educational symbols of moral and religious values. Thus, the ultimate goal of mitzvot is for moral and religious values and deeds to permeate the Jewish people and ultimately the entire world, but the ritual mitzvot nevertheless play a vital role in this model of tikkun olam, strengthening what is accomplished by the ethical.

Hirsch's Horeb is an especially important source, as his exposition of his philosophy of the mitzvot. He classifies the mitzvot into six categories:

  • (1) toroth (philosophical doctrines);
  • The ethical mitzvot fall under (2) mishpatim and (3) chukim (commandments of justice towards (living) people and the natural world (including the human body itself) respectively) and (4) mitzvot (commandments of love);
  • The ritual mitzvot under (5) edoth (educational symbolic commandments) and (6) avodah (commandments of direct service to God).

Aside from the fact that by perfecting themselves, the Jews set an example for the rest of the world, there is thus the additional distinction that mitzvot have practical, worldly effects — for example, charity benefits the poor materially, constituting tikkun olam by its improvement of the world physically or socially, in contrast to the mystical effects of mitzvot as held by Lurianic Kabbalah.

Reaching out to the world at large

For some Jews, the phrase tikkun olam means that Jews are not only responsible for creating a model society among themselves but also are responsible for the welfare of the society at large.[24] This responsibility may be understood in religious, social or political terms and there are many different opinions about how religion, society, and politics interplay.

Tikkun magazine,[25] edited by Rabbi Michael Lerner, articulates a two-fold vision of the relationship between religion and social justice. First, they believe that social justice efforts must balance advocacy of economic and political rights with spiritual needs. They understand spiritual needs as follows:

We in the Tikkun Community use the word "spiritual" to include all those whose deepest values lead them to challenge the ethos of selfishness and materialism that has led people into a frantic search for money and power and away from a life that places love, kindness, generosity, peace, non-violence, social justice, awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation, thanksgiving, humility and joy at the center of our lives.[26]
Second, their vision of social justice is rooted in the Jewish commandment to remember the experience of slavery and the Exodus from Egypt. From this they infer that "we are all harmed by oppression directed at any group or individual".[26]

The positions of Tikkun magazine generally fall on the political left. But some advocates of a political and social vision of tikkun olam fall on the political right as well. For example, Michael Spiro, a Reconstructionist Jew, argues for the validity of a conservative politic of tikkun olam. He contends that the perception that tikkun olam requires leftist politics is based on two myths: (a) conservatives uniformly value self-interest over society and (b) conservatives uniformly are against the rights of women and homosexuals. In response to the myth of self-interest he observes that Adam Smith and the conservatives after him emphasized free markets precisely because they believed that was the path to the greatest public good. In addition, conservatives have always emphasized the importance of private efforts of gemilut chasadim (benevolence) and tzedakah (charity or philanthropy). The conservative position is that individuals and communities should not use government efforts as a substitute for the individual and collective responsibility for these mitzvot. In response to the second myth, he argues that the right's position on family values is fundamentally a question of process, not content: changes in the right to abortion and gay marriage should be pursued using legislative rather than judicial means. Spiro views the concern for process as fundamentally Jewish.[27]

Application of Lurianic Kabbalah to Ethical Mitzvot

In recent years Jewish thinkers and activists have used Lurianic Kabbalah to elevate the full range of ethical and ritual mitzvot into acts of tikkun olam. Not only does prayer lift up divine sparks, but so do all of the mitzvot, including mitzvot traditionally understood as ethical. The application of the Lurianic vision to making this world a better place can be seen in Jewish blogs,[28] High Holiday sermons[29][30] and on-line Jewish learning resource centers.[31]

The association between the Lurianic conception of tikkun olam and ethical action assigns an ultimate significance to even small acts of kindness and small improvements of social policy. However, this association can be a double-edged sword and has begun to trigger critique even within the social justice community. On one hand, seeing each action as raising a divine spark can motivate people to action by giving them hope that their actions will have long term value. On the other hand, if this is done in manner that separates the concept of tikkun olam from its other meanings as found in rabbinic literature and the Aleinu prayer, we run the risk of privileging actions that have no real significance and represent personal agendas.[32]

The application of Lurianic Kabbalah to ethical mitzvot and social action is particularly striking because Lurianic Kabbalah saw itself as repairing God and the world to come rather than this world and its social relations. Lawrence Fine points to two features of Lurianic Kabbalah that have made it adaptable to ethical mitzvot and social action. First, he points out that a generation recovering from the tragedy of the Holocaust resonates with the imagery of shattered vessels. Second, both Lurianic Kabbalah and ethical understandings of tikkun olam emphasize the role of human responsibility and action.[33]


  1. Sacks, Jonathan. "Tikkun Olam: Orthodoxy’s Responsibility to Perfect G-d’s World", Orthodox Union West Coast Convention, December 1997.
  2. Gittin 4:2, in English translation, and in the original Aramaic. Note: The parenthetical phrase does not appear in the translation, but has been inserted here to illustrate the use of the phrase tikkun olam.
  3. Jacobs, Jill. "The Talmud is not a Code of Law",
  4. Shabbat, 118.
  5. Scheinerman, Amy. "Shabbat (The Sabbath)", Jewish Ideas and Ideals.
  6. Enron, Lewis. "Purim: Purim's Messianic Message", Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, February 24, 2006.
  7. Sacks, Jonathan. "The Sabbath: First Day or the Last?", Covenant and Conversation: Thoughts on the Weekly Parsha from the Chief Rabbi, Office of the Chief Rabbi, February 26, 2005.
  8. Kaplan, Aryeh. Chapter 2, "Sabbath Rest", Sabbath: Day of Eternity, 1974.
  9. Fine, Lawrence. "Tikkun in Lurianic Kabbalah". Reprinted from "Tikkun: A Lurianic Motif in Contemporary Jewish Thought," in From Ancient Israel to Modern Judaism: Intellect in Quest of Understanding--Essays in Honor of Marvin Fox, Vol. 4, ed. Jacob Neusner et al. (Scholars Press).
  10. Jewish Virtual Library
  11. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Derech Hashem I:5:3. For all the following references to Derech Hashem, cf. also the same author's Ma'amar haIkkarim (Essay on Fundamentals), s.v. baTorah u'baMitzvot (Torah and Commandments), translated in Feldheim's English translation of Derech Hashem (The Way of God, trans. Aryeh Kaplan, Feldheim, 1997.)
  12. Derech Hashem I:5:4-5.
  13. Derech Hashem I:5:7-8.
  14. Derech Hashem, IV:4:1,6.
  15. Derech Hashem, IV:4:3,7.
  16. Derech Hashem, II:4:9.
  17. Derech Hashem, II:4:6-7.
  18. This is a central theme in his philosophy of Torah im Derech Eretz and a common thread in all of his writings, especially The Nineteen Letters, Horeb, and his Pentateuch.
  19. Rabbi Shelomoh Danziger, "Rediscovering the Hirschian Legacy", Jewish Action 5756/1996, p. 23 (accessed October 23, 2008) quoting Rabbi Hirsch's Commentary on Genesis 9:27: "[T]hese spiritual pursuits ... are meant to lead to proper action, to the right response to the ever-changing conditions of life, in order 'to prepare the world for the kingdom of G-d', as we put it in our daily prayers." The phrase "prepare the world for the kingdom of G-d" is a translation of l'takken olam b'malkhut Shaddai ("to perfect the world under God's sovereignty"; see In Jewish prayer). Thus Hirsch explicitly relates tikkun olam to practical sociological rectification of the material world.
  20. Dr. Judith Bleich, "Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: Ish al Ha'edah" Jewish Action, issue unknown, p. 28 (accessed October 23, 2008): "[Hirsch aimed at n]othing less than transformation of the entire Jewish community and ultimately, the molding of society at large in its moral image (tikkun olam)."
  21. The Pentateuch and Haftorahs (London: Soncino Press, 1937).
  22. The Faith of Judaism (London: Soncino Press, 1960).
  23. God, Man, and History (Jerusalem: Shalem Press, 1959).
  24. Blidstein, Gerald J. "Tikkun Olam" in Tikkun Olam: Social Responsibility in Jewish Thought and Law (Orthodox Forum Series). Edited by Nathan Jay Diament. (Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc, 1997), p. 18.
  25. "Tikkun {tē-kün} to heal, repair, and transform the world",
  26. 26.0 26.1 Tikkun magazine: Core Vision.
  27. Spiro, Michael. "Being a Politically Conservative Reconstructionist", Reconstructionism Today, Spring-Summer 2004, Volume 11, Number 3.
  28. Ben Moshe, Ariel. Tikkun Olam: Connecting Social Action and Spirituality, JSpot, February 21, 2007.
  29. Schwartz, Julie. Sermon for Yom Kippur morning, 5767, Temple Emanu-El, Dunwoody, Georgia.
  30. Shill, Scott. Rosh Hashana, 2005, Kol HaNeshama, Seattle, Washington.
  31. Kolel:Books and Links. Kolel is an online Jewish learning center sponsored by the Bathurst JCC in Toronto, Canada.
  32. Jacobs, Jill. "The History of Tikkun Olam", Zeek, June 2007.
  33. Fine, Lawrence. "Tikkun Olam in Contemporary Jewish Thought". Reprinted from "Tikkun: A Lurianic Motif in Contemporary Jewish Thought," in From Ancient Israel to Modern Judaism: Intellect in Quest of Understanding--Essays in Honor of Marvin Fox, Vol. 4, ed. Jacob Neusner et al. (Scholars Press).

Further reading

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Tikkun olam. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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