Bittul: A Tool for Rectifying Rocky Relationships

By Yossi Grossbaum
Essays 2016

MyLife Essay Contest 2016


A couple experiencing marriage problems; parents raising a difficult child; an employer faced with recalcitrant employees. Although very different in nature, they all share a common denominator; the erosion of an integral relationship. And although the specific solutions for each challenging circumstance will differ slightly, they all can be resolved by employing one key tool: Bittul.

This essay will explore the concept of Bittul, as explained in the teachings of Chabad Chassidus. A novel – personal – understanding of the concept, which can be crucial to mending broken relationships, will be proposed.

A number of general areas where Bitul can be instrumental in resolving the problem will be highlighted. Considering the constraints of a short essay, only general ideas will be discussed. However, the reader can effectively employ these principles in a variety of situations.

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A crisis in a relationship results in difficulty and stress. Instead of providing the support and consistency needed to succeed, a relationship in crisis becomes a hindrance; it drains one of the energy and drive needed to maintain a sense of normalcy and accomplish goals.

Consider a scenario in which a couple, after being married a number of years, finds themselves in a rut. They’ve grown apart; she feels neglected and unappreciated and he feels controlled by her constant demands and expectations. Every conversation somehow turns into an argument – they are not bad people; neither of them can explain how they’ve gotten where they are and they definitely can’t seem to find a way out.

At first it seems that they can contain and compartmentalize it, but they soon discover that the personal challenges they are experiencing in their relationship spill into every other area of their lives. They find themselves experiencing less satisfaction in their work and less focus in their study. Before long, everything is affected; something needs to be done immediately. But what?

It’s not only about marriage. All relationships need to be nurtured. Consider an employer who finds that his employees don’t share his vision for the company anymore. Or perhaps, parents who discover that despite their own respectful nature, it’s not so easy to inculcate this respectfulness in their children. All these relationship challenges can be significantly troubling to the lives of all involved.

This essay will explain the principle of Bittul and how it can be a powerful tool to resolve such difficult relationship crises.


Bittul Defined

What exactly does Bittul look like? The Chassidic conception of Bittul is a difficult word to define in the English language. Sometimes Bittul is translated as “self-nullification” or “self-abnegation;” is it someone who has a low self esteem? Does someone with Bittul dress in sloppy clothes and stay away from people? Or is the image of Bittul something more positive?

In truth, the concept is much deeper than simply denying one’s self.

Self-abnegation is powerless; Bittul is powerful. Self-abnegation is inactive; Bittul is fully engaged and energetic. Self-abnegation is unnatural; Bittul is the natural state of the soul.

To incorporate Bittul one must be fully engaged; Bittul is not passive. Bittul is the mindful realization that I have a purpose that is greater than myself. Bittul is tapping into a dimension that remakes a simple individual into a great person – not because of who they are and what they have achieved, but because of what they represent.

Above all, Bittul is not an end state – Bittul is a constant work in progress.

Simply put: Bittul is the shift from a “what do I need” perspective to a “what am I needed for[1]” perspective.


Malchus as a Paradigm of Bitul

The Ten Sefiros are the G-dly tools[2] that are embedded within every aspect of creation; in the spiritual realm and in the physical world too. Similarly, within each individual the essence of the soul is pure, and the expressions of the soul are developed through the Ten Sefiros (known as Midos) within the person.

Each of the Sefiros have a particular message, they each form another expression of G-dly interaction with creation. Malchus[3], the last of the Sefiros, is different from the rest of them. It doesn’t have a particular expression, it is merely a receptacle that is filled with the G-dly energy of the higher Sefiros.

Although Malchus[4] has no revelation of its own and it is merely a vessel for the higher levels, its purpose is to transfer the G-dly energy of the higher Sefiros to the lower realms. In fact, this purpose of channeling the higher levels into the lower realms is the most complete fulfillment of its state of Btitul; it doesn’t only collect the energy of the higher Sefiros – it fulfills its mission by channeling the Divine energy to the correct place. While it has nothing of it’s own, it is Malchus that makes the others complete. And that is the epitome of Bittul.


How To Achieve Bitul

We can come to understand how to achieve Bittul by discovering how wisdom is acquired. Chassidus[5] explains that the Hebrew word for wisdom, Chochmah (חכמה), is made of two words – Koach Mah, ( כח מה); an unidentifiable source. The source of new wisdom is not contained in what we already know, it is contained in the realization that there is so much more to learn. Acknowledging that there is more for us to learn opens us to the possibility of discovering new information.

This Bittul of Chochmah is the reason that the soul resides in Chochmah; the soul, too, understands and appreciates its inconsequential independent nature, in relation to Hashem5. Typically, Chassidus incorporates the Bittul doctrine with regard to serving Hashem; but the fundamental principle of Bittul, that of not viewing oneself as the central point of reference, is the key to successfully negotiating our relationships with others[6].

When we accept that we are not the central point of reference, but rather a small part of something much greater than ourselves, we are then able to begin to overcome difficult circumstances and challenges.

In the following section,  some common mistakes in dealing with relationships in crisis are highlighted. All of them can be brought significantly closer to resolution, or even entirely resolved, by incorporating Bittul.


Constrained by Fear

Just as there are many causes that lead to crisis in relationships, so too there are numerous obstacles that make them difficult to resolve. One of the primary obstacles – and possibly the most insidious – is fear. Nothing is less real, yet more paralyzing, than fear. Some basic, common fears are: 1) The fear of losing face in the conflict, 2) the fear of being embarrassed, 3) the fear of losing the relationship altogether.

When the individual places themselves at the center of everything, i.e. the opposite of Bitul, these fears seem real and are difficult to overcome. With a simple, albeit monumental, shift in focus to a Bittul “what am I needed for” mindset, the fear dissipates. No longer is the person consumed with their personal calculations and the fear associated with them. Their entire purpose is to find a solution for the relationship.


Think Twice and Seek Advice

Difficulties and challenges are part of life. Expecting to be able to live without facing them is naive and a recipe for disaster. While people tend to be experts at resolving other people’s problems, they seem to have the solutions for everyone else, but not for themselves. Finding themselves personally face-to-face with a bump in the road, an unexpected challenge, their sight – once so clear when viewing the challenges of others – is now compromised. They cannot come to a resolution, they are stuck.

In these cases one must heed the advice of our Sages[7]; when in doubt, don’t stick it out – discuss it with someone else. Sometimes it is enough to discuss the matter with a friend or relative, their unemotional and objective point of view can help one see alternative ways to resolve the problem. Sometimes, though, the challenge is more complex and it may be necessary to consult a professional.

Either way, people who find themselves in this situation often hesitate. They feel like they have failed, and seeking assistance from someone else is a public admission of this confronting fact.

The reality is that everyone faces all sorts of challenges in life. No matter what it is that one is facing, others have been there before. Shying away from discussing the matter with another is due to being caught up with oneself, the antithesis of a Bittul mindset. When one adopts a Bittul mindset, this hesitation falls away.


Allowing Vulnerability

Many tend to avoid any sense of vulnerability, sometimes due to previous experience[8] and sometimes for other reasons. But these hesitations tend to operate when one approaches one’s life without a Bittul mindset. The point of reference against which they measure all choices is “will this be better for my persona, for the image that I’d like to portray to others.” When one works from this position, allowing any sense of vulnerability is threatening and downright scary.

However, when one operates from the Bittul mindset, “what am I needed for” is the question that is asked. The question is, what will bring the best resolution in this situation, rather than what is better for me. With Bittul, one can approach any given situation with a clear mind and without being afraid of being vulnerable. After all, it’s not about myself; it’s about finding a solution.



Without Bittul, one can get trapped into viewing even the most significant relationships from a win/lose perspective. When one incorporates Bittul, it is possible to discover the win/win in all situations, because the central point is not the individual, rather it is the relationship.

The bottom line? Don’t think what do I need; think what am I needed for. This will allow you to navigate even the most challenging situations[9], in a most powerful and fully engaged manner.





[1] See Igros of the Previous Rebbe Vol. 9 Page 274. The famous story of the Alter Rebbe who told a chassid who was bemoaning his financial state “You state all that you need, yet regarding what you are needed for, you make no mention.” See also Hayom Yom 5 Tammuz.

[2] See Tanya Igeres Hakodesh Siman 15. The sefiros system, generated by G-d, are the means through which creation is implemented. They include chochmah, binah, daas, chesed, gevurah, tiferes, netzach, hod, yesod and malchus. Loosely translated as: Wisdom, understanding, knowledge, kindness, strength, beauty, victory, splendor, foundation and royalty.

[3] For more on the Bitul of Malchus see Basi Legani 5716, Chapter 5 and on.

[4] Within a person, Malchus is speech. (As it says in Posach Eliyahu ”מלכות פה”, “Malchus, the mouth.”) Just like Malchus itself doesn’t originate, it only channels the higher Sefiros; so too speech simply communicates the information that already exists in the person’s intellect.. And just like Malchus is influential in its effect on the lower realms, so too speech is highly effective and critically important when communicating with others. See Basi Legani 5716 Chapter 5, Yechayenu Miyomayim 5659.

[5] See Tanya Chapter 18

[6]  Although not the focus of this essay, another important point regarding Bittul as it is incorporated into our personal life (i.e. not only religious life per se) is that it accomplishes a key aspect of creating a Dirah Betachtonim.

The well known principle of Dirah Betachtonim is championed in Tanya (Chapter 36) as the very purpose of creation. When one does a mitzvah, transforming a physical item into something holy, this demonstrates the true nature of reality: completely included in Hashem’s existence, not (G-d forbid) some sort of separate existence.

Living with Bittul is acknowledging that Hashem – not the individual – is the central point of existence, thus creating the space for personal and professional relationships to flourish. Therefore, when we incorporate Bittul in our interpersonal relationships, we advance the goal of Dirah Betachtonim. (See Tanya Chapter 35).

[7] See Hayom Yom of 25 Sivan

[8] If someone previously had a particularly traumatic experience, it may be necessary to seek professional guidance to overcome the deep wounds that remain.

[9] A relationship crisis involves two (or more) people. An obvious contention to the central position of this essay is that although one may be approaching the matter with Bittul, this is not necessarily the case with the other party. Wouldn’t Bittul weaken my side?

This thought process is only possible from someone who is still thinking without Bittul. They still have a win/lose mindset and haven’t come to appreciate that their goal is not to preserve their personal position, rather to preserve (and enhance) the relationship.

Furthermore, approaching the matter with Bittul will necessarily cause the other to soften their opposition and become more open to resolving the crisis. After all, much of their hostility is simply a defense mechanism to save them from being hurt. When they see the change in approach, this will create the space for them to react in a healthier manner.

Finally, being that this involves others, it is possible that no matter how much effort one invests – with Btitul the other party may already be too hurt and demoralized to still be open to reconstructing the relationship. This doesn’t negate the recommendation of this essay, it simply demonstrates how important it is to confront these problems – employing Bittul – before they become insurmountable.