Tikkun olam (תיקון עולם , “repair of the world”) is a concept in Judaism interpreted as the prospect of overcoming all forms of idolatry, and by other Jewish denominations as an aspiration to behave and act constructively and beneficially. Documented use of the term dates back to the Mishnaic period. Since medieval times, kabbalistic literature has broadened use of the term. In the modern era, among the post Haskalah Ashkenazi movements, tikkun olam is the idea that Jews bear responsibility not only for their own moral, spiritual, and material welfare, but also for the welfare of society at large. To the ears of contemporary pluralistic Rabbis, the term connotes “the establishment of Godly qualities throughout the world”.
The phrase tikkun olam is included in the Aleinu, part of Jewish congregational prayer. The Aleinu beseeches God:
- “לראות מהרה בתפארת עוזך, להעביר גלולים מן הארץ והאלילים כרות יכרתוון לתקן עולם במלכות ש-די”
- “to speedily see Your mighty splendor, to remove detestable (idolatry) from the land, and the (false) gods will be utterly ‘cut off’, to tahken olam in God’s kingdom”
In other words, when all the people of the world abandon false gods and recognize God, the world will have been perfected. Being that we share a partnership with God, humanity is instructed to take the steps towards improving the state of the world and helping others, which simultaneously brings more honor to God’s sovereignty. Some scholars, however, argue that the phrase in the Aleinu prayer is actually not a valid source for the concept of tikkun olam, and that the confusion arises because of the homonym “l’takken” (spelled differently, לתכן) meaning “to establish” rather than “to fix” or “to repair.” There are many sources where the reading of לתכן survives today. This section of Aleinu is fundamentally a prayer for the establishment of God’s kingdom and therefore the reading of לתכן fits much better and makes much more sense. If so, the meaning of the phrase is something like, “to establish God’s sovereignty over the world.”
According to Rabbi Yochanan, quoting Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai, the Jewish people will be redeemed when every Jew observes Shabbat (the Sabbath) twice in all its details. This suggests that tikkun olam will prove successful with the coming of the Messiah and 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. 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. 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.