Fixing Our Broken World: Tikun Olam



Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a noted biblical commentator of the 19th century, focused on the deeper meaning of Hebrew words. According to Rabbi Hirsch, the Hebrew word rah - evil - is related to the Hebrew word ra'ah - to shatter, to break. He writes: Evil appears as something “broken” – moral harmony disturbed – where the whole is no longer ruled by a uniform idea (commentary to Genesis 2:9). When there is no longer a unifying spiritual vision, the harmony and wholeness of the world is shattered, and as a result, we live in a broken world.


Dear Friends,


The goal of the Torah path is tikun olam – the fixing of the world. The ancient term tikun olam was rediscovered by a new generation of Jewish social activists who began to explore their Jewish roots during the late 1960's and early 70's. In their desire to connect to Jewish tradition, they began to use this term to describe their own social activism; however, many were unaware of how the tradition itself defines this term.


We will begin to discuss the deeper meaning of tikun olam in order to better understand the process which leads to this noble goal. This term appears in the ancient Aleinu prayer, where it states: “To fix the world through the sovereignty of the Almighty.” The Hebrew word for sovereignty in this phrase is malchus. According to the noted 18th century sage, the Vilna Gaon, malchus refers to a sovereignty that is willingly accepted by the people, unlike a dictatorship which is forced on the people. In the messianic age, explains the Vilna Gaon, all the peoples of the earth shall willingly accept the Divine sovereignty and join together in unity to serve the Divine purpose. (Commentary of the Vilna Gaon to Proverbs 27:27)


My Rebbe, Rav Aharon Feldman, pointed out to me that malchus, according to Hebrew grammar, is a “feminine” word. Rav Feldman explained that the Divine malchus mentioned in this prayer is therefore referring to the sovereignty of the Shechinah - the Divine Presence. As we discussed previously, the Shechinah expresses the “feminine” attributes of Hashem – the Compassionate One. In the teachings of Kabbalah, Rav Feldman added, malchus refers to the sovereignty of the Shechinah on this earth. As the ancient Aleinu prayer reveals, we fix the world through accepting this Divine sovereignty.


To understand this process, we need to remember that the shattered state of the world began when the first human couple forgot that they were only the custodians of the Garden of Eden with the responsibility to “serve and protect” the Garden (Genesis 2:15). They began to imagine that they were the sovereigns of the Garden who were free to consume “all” its fruits. In other words, the concept of “forbidden fruit” would no longer apply when it interfered with their pleasures. Their arrogant and selfish behavior shattered the harmony and wholeness of the world; however, the Torah enables us to repair the damage through acknowledging the sovereignty of the Shechinah.


One of the main ways in which we acknowledge the sovereignty of the Shechinah is through the celebration and observance of Shabbos – the Sacred Seventh Day – for Shabbos represents the Shechinah! As the Midrash states, “When Shabbos enters, the Shechinah comes” (Yalkut Reuveni on Exodus 31:16). We acknowledge the sovereignty of the Shechinah in our Shabbos prayers and songs by addressing the Shechinah as, Shabbos Ha-Malkah – the Shabbos Queen. For example, the Talmud states that Rabbi Chaninah would welcome the arrival of Shabbos by saying, “Come, let us go and greet the Shabbos Queen” (Shabbos 119a). In this spirit, there is a custom in many Jewish communities for people to welcome the arrival of Shabbos before sunset on Friday by saying, “Enter O Bride, the Shabbos Queen!”


In order to fully acknowledge the sovereignty of the Shabbos Queen, we demonstrate that we are not the sovereigns of the earth; thus, the way we relate to other human beings and other creatures undergoes a change on Shabbos. As Hashem – the Compassionate One – proclaimed:


“Six days shall you do your tasks, and on the seventh day you shall cease, so that your ox and your donkey may be content, and your maidservant's son and the stranger may refresh their spirits.” (Exodus 23:12)


Even our animals are to rest on Shabbos. In his commentary on the above verse, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes: “This freeing of all creatures from the mastery of the human being is one of the objectives of the Sabbath - this day of acknowledging Hashem.” In addition, our relationship to plant life and inanimate objects undergoes a change on Shabbos, as it is written:


“And the seventh day is a Shabbos to Hashem, your God; you shall not perform any kind of melacha...” (Exodus 20:10).


In biblical Hebrew, the term melacha refers to skilled or creative work. Rabbi Hirsch, in his commentary on this verse, explains that physical exertion is not one of the basic criteria of melacha. He writes:


“The term occurs almost 200 times in Scripture, and among these there is not one single instance of the word being used to denote strenuous activity. Likewise, the slave labor performed by the Children of Israel in Egypt is never described as melacha.”


According to the Torah, if I lift a heavy piece of furniture on Shabbos, I am not guilty of violating the prohibition against melacha, even though such an activity, say the sages, is not in keeping with the Shabbos spirit. But if I pluck a leaf off a tree or plant a seed in the earth, then I have violated the mandate not to perform melacha on Shabbos. For a study of “halacha” – Torah law - reveals that the definition of work on Shabbos is not physical exertion, but an activity whereby the human being transforms anything in the environment for his or her own use such as for food, clothing, and shelter. There are 39 categories of creative work which we are forbidden to do on Shabbos. Some examples are plowing, sowing, harvesting, baking and other constructive uses of fire, dyeing, sewing, building, and catching or slaughtering an animal for food. Through keeping the halacha of Shabbos, we give up our technological control over nature.


The word “halacha” is derived from the Hebrew word “holech” - walking. Halacha is therefore the way we are to walk on this earth. On Shabbos, we are to walk on the earth without asserting our mastery over the earth, in order to acknowledge the sovereignty of the Shechinah.


On Shabbos, we rediscover the path that leads to the true tikun olam.


Much Shalom,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Teachings:


1. My friend and teacher, Yiftach Paltrowitz,  referred me to the following kabbalistic teachings regarding the malchus of the Shechinah: “The essence of Shabbos is malchus”; moreover, “Malchus is called the Shechinah.” (Pardes Rimonim by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Gate 23, chapters 20,21)


2. At Mount Sinai, we were told, “Safeguard the Shabbos Day to sanctify it” (Deuteronomy 5:12). According to tradition, this refers to safeguarding the sanctity of the Shabbos by refraining from 39 forms of melacha. The Torah indicates that this mandate to safeguard the Shabbos is a mandate which was only given to the People of Israel, as it is written:


“The Children of Israel shall safeguard the Shabbos, to make the Shabbos an eternal covenant for their generations. Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever...” (Exodus 31:16,17)


Safeguarding the Shabbos through refraining from all forms of melacha is our way of proclaiming the sovereignty of the Shechinah over all the earth. This message of Shabbos, however, is meant for everyone. In a related teaching, Rabbi Hirsch cites the rabbinic work known as “Pesikta Rabasi D'Rabbi Kahana” (parsha 23), where it states in the name of Rabbi Yudan that the mandate “Remember the Shabbos” (Exodus 20:8) is for all the nations, but the mandate, “Safeguard the Shabbos” - through refraining from all forms of melacha - was only given to Israel (Rabbi Hirsch's commentary to Exodus 20:8). Through this safeguarding of the Shabbos, we, the People of Israel, are to remind all humankind of the universal message of Shabbos. In this way, we will merit the fulfillment of the following messianic prophecy: “It shall be that at every New Moon and on every Shabbos all humankind will come to bow before Me, says the Compassionate One” (Isaiah 66:23).  


3. On Saturday night, we eat a special meal which is called Melava Malkah - the Escorting of the Queen. Just as there is a mitzvah to escort a guest part of the way when he or she leaves your home, so too, there is a mitzvah to escort the departing Shabbos Queen. This meal is often accompanied by singing, dancing, words of Torah, and the telling of stories in the spirit of Torah. We rejoice in the awareness that the Malkah – the Queen – will return to us; moreover, through this celebration, we begin to infuse the week with the spirit of the Malkah.


4. For information on Shabbos hospitality in your area, visit:  . For information on how to celebrate Shabbos, visit:


5. For other letters on the Shechinah, visit the archive of this series which appears on our website.


Hazon - Our Universal Vision