Question 3: Tzelem Elokim: Part 1

What does it mean for man to be created in the image of God(tzelem Elokim)? This question has been pondered by Bible readers everywhere for many generations.

Traditional rabbinic commentators interpret the image of God is the gift of human speech, and as of human intelligence. Interestingly, these are two definitions of humanity which once held sway in secular – even scientific – circles as well, hence the experiments on intelligence and communication abilities of animals, in order to define the boundary between animal and human intelligence and language, thereby defining humanity itself.

Others took a different tack.

The Shadal explains: “Let us make man in our image means: Let us make man such that it will be justified to call him “tzelem Elokim”” Shadal explains that “tzelem” means something that is similar to something else – since in this case the similarity is to God, the human is thus “tzelem”, similar to, “Elokim”, God. Shadal then goes on to define this similarity: “In what matter is man similar to God? It seems to me, that just as God has the powers of everything, and that is the meaning of the word Elokim, so too, man was set aside from the other living creatures, for each type of animal has its own power and is  inclined towards a certain trait, but only man is inclined towards and has the power to do any type of measure or action in the world.”

Note: The Hebrew word koach, which means power, strength, potential, control, or some combination of all four, is extremely hard to translate. I translated it as power above, but wanted to inform you of other meanings as well. Shadal is not saying that man is omnipotent, but rather, that humanity’s ability to engage in such a diverse set of skills, talents, thoughts, and actions, is resemblant of God’s ability in its diversity of forms – for God, too, has a diverse set of powers, – yet while man’s diversity of powers is a limited set, God’s is infinite.

The Meshech Chochmah, however (1843-1926), puts a news spin on things: Like many of his predecessors, he acknowledges human intelligence as a component of tzelem Elokim, but links this intelligence to human choice:


The “tzelem Elokim” is the freedom of choice, that man can make decisions based on his own will and intelligence. The knowledge of God does not inhibit this free will, because His knowledge is not like human knowledge that comes from contact with external stimuli, but rather, from within Him Himself – and as Maimonides wrote, it is not within our capabilities to understand how this works, however, we do know that freedom of choice is a result of Divine contraction – tzimtzum – that God leaves room for his creations to do what they choose…thus, God said to Himself: “We will make man in our image”. The explanation of this, is that the Torah speaks in the language of man* when it says: We will leave space for human choice, that he will not be coerced in his actions and in his thoughts, and will have the freedom to do good or bad as his soul wishes, and will be able to do things against his nature, and against what is right in the eyes of God”.


* a rabbinic concept, that the Torah will adjust not only its language, but sometimes its metaphors as well, in order to make it more readily comprehensible to the human readers that are its target audience, despite being a Divine document.


The Meshech Chochmas’s concept of tzelem Elokim as a result of tzimtzum is related to a general Kabbalistic theory that the creation of the Universe is essentially God’s contracting himself to make way for humanity;  religion is then humanity’s way of making way for God, se, a tax this is “fixing the universe” – a fixing composed primarily of social justice. In the article, “Tzelem Elokim and the Dialectic Morality”,  Eugene Korn writes of the Meshech Chochmah:





Some of the sources on this page have been taken from a source sheet by Nechama Leibowitz, available here:


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