Originally published in Tzvi M. Rabinowicz (ed.), The encyclopedia of Hasidism (1996), pp. 74-5.
Hasidic thought follows the kabbalistic understanding of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing, yesh me’ayin) in terms of the emanation of the Sefirot and the universe (of yesh, that which is) from Ein Sof (the Limitless, the Ground of Being), known as ayin (nothingness), because this aspect of deity is utterly beyond all comprehension.
In some versions of Hasidism, notably in Habad, this doctrine sometimes results in a thoroughgoing “acosmism.” That is, from the point of view of God, as it were, there is no created universe at all. Since the universe emerges out of nothingness, its nature is to revert to nothingness so that its continued existence is possible only through the supernatural act of God that keeps it in being. Suspended over the void, the universe has to be created anew at every moment of time (Tanya, part II, chap. 1-7). Because creation involves the emergence of “somethingness” (yesh) from the divine nothingness (ayin), it is the task of the tzaddik to reverse the process by acknowledging God in all he does and thinks, thus restoring the somethingness of things to the nothingness whence they come (Menehem Mendel of Vitebsk, Pri HaAretz, pp. 3-4, commentary to Genesis 1:16).
To the old question about why God decided to create the world at the time when He did rather than beforehand, Pinhas of Koretz replies that the question is meaningless because God can be known only through His manifestations in Creation (Midrash Pinhas, no. 51, pp. 30-31). Not only that question but any other as well cannot be asked about the Deity before the stage of Creation since here no thought has any grasp at all. Similarly, the tremendous mystery behind Creation, concerning how the Infinite could have produced the finite, is stressed by Israel of Kozienice, who remarks that all that can be said has been said by Maimonides in connection with the nature of God (Avodat Yisrael, beg., commentary to Genesis 1:1). The human mind is utterly incapable of grasping the marvelous wisdom of the Creator.
Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev begins his Kedushat Levi (commentary to Genesis 1:1) with the following typical hasidic understanding of the doctrine of Creation:
The principle is that the Creator, blessed be He, created all and He is all and His flow of grace is unceasing. For at every moment He allows His grace to flow to His creatures and to all worlds, all heavenly halls, all angels and all Holy Hayyot. That is why we refer in our prayers to God as: “He who creates” (yotzer), not: “He who has created” (yatzar). For at every moment He infuses vitality into all. All is from Him, blessed be He. He is perfect and His Being embraces all.
The hasidic teachers refused to accept Maimonides’ idea that God’s providence extends only over the species of animals. All things are created by the divine wisdom, and by that wisdom every blade of grass lies exactly where it is.
I. Stern, Introduction to Shomer Emunim, by Joseph Ergas, pp. 31-34.