Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How The Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages
By Rabbi Zvi Lampel
Current academia depicts the world as having existed for eons, rather than
merely six millennia, and to man as a creature evolved from others. Although
many Torah scholars object that these claims are in contradiction to the
teachings of the Mesorah, others have claimed that one can find support among
the earlier Torah authorities for accommodating the Torah to academia’s
depiction. This essay takes issue with this claim.
It is not implausible that despite someone’s endeavors to make a point
clear and simple─despite his striving to expunge any ambiguities and to
prevent any misconstruing of what he means─there still will be some who
will construe from [his very words] the very opposite of the point he
wished to convey.
This has happened even with the words of Hashem Yisborach: He stated
that He is One and that there is no other; and, in order to remove from
our souls the corrupt ideas believed by the Dualists, He clearly stated in
this regard, “Hear O Israel, Hashem our G-d, Hashem is One.” Yet the
Christians use this very verse as a “proof” that the Alm-ghty is a trinity,
and they say, “It says, ‘Hashem,’ and then, ‘our G-d,’ and then,
‘Hashem.’ Behold: these are three Names; and it then says ‘is One’─a
proof that they are three and the three are One”!
Rambam, introduction to his Ma’amar T’chiyyas HaMeisim
The Rambam wrote the above lines in response to accusations that in his Mishneh
Torah he denied the principle of techias ha-meisim, the future resurrection of the
dead. Despite his teaching this very concept as a fundamental of Judaism, some
took his statements in other contexts to be “hinting” that he “really” did not
believe in it. Some attacked him for this phantom position, while others gleefully
cited him as an authoritative source for their kefira, their denial of a fundamental
doctrine of Judaism. The Rambam reacted by pointing out that even the Torah’s
clear words cannot escape distortion by those whose agendas contradict the
Torah’s intended message.
His response comes to mind when one is confronted by the strange interpretations
people suggest to avoid the clear premise Hashem sets up for us in the Torah─the
premise that the world was created in six days.1 Hashem details this in Breishis.
He repeats it in Sh’mos 20:11 (“For, six days G-d made the Heavens and the
Earth”), and again in Sh’mos 31:17 (“Between Me and B’nei Yisrael this will be a
sign forever, that in2 six days Hashem made the Heavens and the Earth...”),3 and
Chazal have instituted our referring to this fact every Shabbos and Yom Tov.
What could Hashem or Chazal say to make this intent clearer? Yet despite all this,
some suggest that we ignore these clear words in deference to an ever-morphing
alternative to Creation.4
How The Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages
As we will detail below, our mesorah insists that the six days of Creation were six
literal days.5 One cannot insert the allegedly natural evolutionary process into the
p’sukim by claiming that the days were actually billions of years, and legitimately
claim allegiance to the mesorah.
The very idea that Creation was anything less than a totally miraculous process,
not conducted through natural processes at all─accelerated” or otherwise─is
rejected by the Maharal (Ba’er HaGolah, p. 83, Ba’er Four):
Know that He, May He be blessed, brought out these creations, all of
them, to physical reality during the six days of Breishis by Himself, in His
Own Glory─not by means of an agent, i.e. Nature. Creation was contrary
to the way things are after the conclusion of the six days of Breishis,
wherein Hashem Yisborach conducts His world by means of the agent, i.e.
As the Rambam explains in Moreh Nevuchim,
We, the community following in the footsteps of Moses and Abraham,
believe that the world came into being in such-and-such a form, and
became such-and-such from such-and-such (haya kach mi-kach ), and such
was created after such. Aristotle comes to uproot our words, bringing
proofs against us based upon nature in its stabilized, perfected and active
state. We ourselves admit to him [Pines translates: As for us, we declare
against him] that this is legitimate after nature’s having settled down in its
fully developed stage; but in no way does this correspond to something’s
characteristics at its being brought into existence, and produced out of
absolute non-existence (MN 2:17).
None of the things mentioned above [the creation of Eve from Adam, the
tree of life, and the tree of knowledge, the history of the serpent and the
events connected therewith] is impossible, because the laws of Nature
were then not yet permanently fixed (Ibid. 2:30).
The Maharal remarks that if anything bothers Chazal, it is the mesorah
attributing the extra steps Hashem took (and time involved) in creating the world
through His “ten ma’a’maros (declarations”), instead of creating everything
instantly and simultaneously in one “ma’a’mar” (and in one fraction of a
second).6 a
Regarding Hashem’s intent by His use of the word “day” in the Creation
narrative, the Talmud (Chagiga 12a) sets the record straight:
How The Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages
Said Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav: Ten things were created on the first day:
Heaven and Earth, tohu va-vohu (Emptiness and Formlessness), Light and
Darkness, Ruach and Mayyim, middass yom and middas layla (the characteristics
of day and night).6 b
This talmudic passage clarifies two things regarding our subject:
1. Even if the sun, moon and stars were not yet operating as they do at
present, whatever conditions necessary for time passage to occur were
already functioning normally the first day (—or certainly for the days
following the first), which saw the creation of Heaven and Earth, Earth’s
condition of tohu va-vohu, and Light and Darkness.
2. The characteristic length of day and night was determined and put in
effect that first day. Without the Talmud itself expressing any further
qualifications, it is obvious that the characteristics of the day and night
(beyond the already listed characteristics of Light and Darkness) it refers to
include the length of day and night to which we are accustomed (—certainly
for the days following the first). Indeed, Rashi explains, “the characteristic
of day and the characteristic of night”: 24 hours combined.” (Ramban on
Chumash Breishis 1:5 says that when it says Hashem called the Light,
“Day,” it means He created Time and the characteristics of night and day.)
We will see that not only Rashi, but all the classic mefarshim understand the
Creation days to be 24-hour type days. Whereas in some other instances the word
“yom” may refer to longer periods of time, the meforshim treat such instances as
exceptions, and point out when they occur.7 They do not do so regarding the days
of Creation.8
Rabbeynu Saadia Gaon makes clear what the mesorah teaches about the length
of the Creation process. He states (Emunos V’Dei’os 3:8) that if someone
professing to be a prophet suggests that Hashem took a year to create the world,
he is a false prophet!9
Sefer Tseyda LaDerech, cited in the KPCH edition of Rabbeynu Saadia Gaon's
Chumash Commentary, paraphrasing or quoting (it is unclear exactly) Rabbeynu
Saadia Gaon, writes:
...Breishis teaches... that although you see the heavens possessing vast
dimensions, as is proven by the masters of mathematics, do not think that
it took a long time to create them. “I called to them and they stood up
together” (Yeshaia 48:13). This means that [they were created] in the
Beginning, in the smallest amount of time, without any effort. Likewise it
says “He will not tire nor toil; there is no end to His Understanding” (ibid.,
40:28). And as it says, "'b'hi-bar'am,' -- b'hay bar'am -- at the beginning
How The Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages
of the creation of Time, and in a short period, the mind being unable to
grasp this amount. ...
To the scientists of the past, the fact of the vastness of the Heavens conclusively
"proved" that it took a long time for them to be created. Breishis told us not to be
deceived by such alleged evidence; and it tells us not to be deceived by any other
alleged evidence indicating that Hashem took longer than six plain days to create
the universe.
Rabbeynu Yehudah HaLevy, in HaKuzari (Book One) as well, states clearly
that Judaism has always known that the length of time involved in the production
of the world’s features and inhabitants was relatively short. In opposition to
claims that there are places and buildings millions of years old (see Book One,
par. 62, cited later in this essay), he states:
(43) The Rabbi: ... Our prophet ... revealed the hidden things, and told
how the world was created...
(44) The Khazar King: It is astounding, too, if you have a clear counting
from the creation of the world!
(45) The Rabbi: With it we count, and no Jews exist from Hodu to Cush
who contest this.
(46) The Khazar King: And what is your count today?
(47) The Rabbi: 4,500 years....
Ibn Ezra:
“Yom echad” is a reference to the turning of the sphere ...
Even the Ramban, renowned kabbalist that he was, indicates impatience toward
any tampering with the meaning of the word “day” in the Creation account
(Breishis 1:3):
Know that the days mentioned in Ma’aseh Breishis were, in the creation
of the heavens and the earth, literal days, composed [not of years and
millennia, but] of hours and minutes, and they were six, just as are the six
days of the work-week,
Again, in Parshas B’Har (Vayikra 25:1), the Ramban says he joins the Ibn Ezra
(ibid.) in maintaining that awesome severity of the punishment for not letting the
land rest every seven years is to teach the fundamental fact that the earth’s entire
lifetime is 7,000 years. This could not be possible if the earth’s first days are to be
interpreted as periods lasting billions, or even thousands, of years.
How The Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages
Even those commentators who do not directly explain the length of the Creation
days in their comments on the verses mentioning those days do reveal their
assumption (no doubt based on p’shat and Chazal) that they were 24-hour
type days when they deal with another issue. The question arises: If, as a simple
reading of the verses indicates, Hashem first created the sun on the fourth day,
how could there have been three days beforehand? Without a sun, what
determined the first three days, and how could they be measured? Defending the
mesorah that the first three days of Creation, just as the last four, were regular
days as we know them, the mefarshim offer solutions:
Several mefarshim explain that G-d actually created everything, ex nihilo, all on
the first day, including whatever was necessary to enact and measure the passage
of time. The other days consisted of further miraculous extracting, forming and
positioning of those things, or allowing them to become perceivable from earth.
(This is following one view in the Talmud. The competing opinion in the Talmud
is that G-d created things ex nihilo each of the six regular days.)
Rambam, (Moreh Nevuchim, 2:30) posits this as follows:
If [as appears from the p’shat] there were [as yet, before the fourth day] no
[celestial] sphere and no sun, how was the period of the first day measured
as such?
... The foundation of the entire Torah is that Hashem brought the world
into being from out of nothingness. [This was] not “at the beginning of
Time,” because Time [itself] is a created thing. For, time depends upon the
movement of the [celestial] sphere, and the sphere itself is one of the
things that were created …
[Now, although the Torah speaks, for example, of the sky emerging on the
second day and the sun emerging on the fourth day], our Sages have
explained that … all things [including the celestial sphere actually] were
created together [with heaven and earth on the first day], but were
[merely] separated from each other successively…. According to this
undoubtedly correct interpretation, the difficulty …is removed,
which…consisted in the question as how the periods of the first day, the
second, and the third were determined. [ZL: I.e. the 24-hour revolution of
the celestial sphere or, in our parlance, the 24-hour rotation of the earth,
was in effect from the moment of Creation.] [Indeed,] in Breishis Rabbah,
our Sages, speaking of the light created on the first day according to the
Scriptural account, say as follows: these lights [of the luminaries
mentioned in the Creation of the fourth day] are the same that were
How The Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages
created on the first day, but were only fixed in their places on the fourth
day. And so this approach has already been used as the explanation.
Rashi—whom we already cited regarding the Talmud’s declaration that the 24-
hour length of day was established on the very first day of Creation— in his
Chumash commentary on 1:14 (see also on 1:6, and Sifsei Chachamim ad loc) and
2:4, follows the Rambam’s approach. He too explains that although Hashem
brought out, fashioned, positioned and/or perfected each created thing on the day
He designated for such, He had actually created everything in incomplete or
potential form or placement on the first day.10
Rabbeynu B’chaya gives the same answer:
“Evening” is the declining of light, and “morning” is the shining of light.
Yet the Torah speaks of the first three days experiencing evening and
morning, even though “Let there be light-bearers in the Firmament” was
not stated yet. This is because regarding the first three days, “evening” and
“morning” were not spoken of in the aspect of light, but in the aspect of
the rotation of the sphere. But from the fourth day and on, when the lightbearers
(the sun, moon and stars) were created, it speaks of “evening” and
“morning” with the [effects of] light in mind.
Ralbag’s (first of two answers [Breishis 1] is the same:
How was the period of the first day, second day, and third day measured,
since the light-bearers [sun moon and stars] were not in existence until the
fourth day? The answer is clear according to the first explanation [I had
given, that all was actually created the first day]: The diurnal sphere was
in existence the first day, and each revolution it made lasted about one
day’s time.
Abarbanel offers another explanation, which still illustrates the presumption that
the days spoken of are 24-hour type days:
How were the first days’ periods timed, if there was still no revolving
celestial sphere? [The answer is that] that first Light was an entity spread
through space through the will of the Creator, for an allocated time, in
which was the day; and it disappeared an allocated amount of time, which
was night; and that Light came in gradations of morning and evening and
noon. Through this, then, were the days timed in hours and minutes [not
years and decades and millennia--ZL] just as the latter, natural days were
[later] timed by the revolution of the celestial sphere. (Malbim gives the
same explanation.)
Seforno combines the two ideas:
How The Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages
Even though He separated the Light and the Darkness, so that that they
would serve at different times without means of the sphere’s revolution,
He still separated them in such a way so that between them there would be
a time of evening [gradually] developing into night, and a time of morning
[gradually] developing into [full] daylight.
Rabbeynu Ovadiah MiBartenuro answers in a way that, contra the Rambam,
presumes time as a reality independent of the movement of objects:
“And there was morning and there was Evening--One Day.”—The causes
of day and night is the movement [or, as we would say, the apparent
movement—ZL] of the sphere. But since the sphere was not created [until
the fourth day], how could the Torah state [already on the first day], that
there was a morning and an evening? Answer: Hashem told Moses that the
amount of time over which this took place was the same amount of time
that [the passage of] morning and evening takes nowadays.
Ralbag’s second answer is the same:
And it is not bizarre to suggest that it was known to Hashem the
measurement of time without the sun and stars. And this is selfexplanatory.
Certainly, by now, one perceives the spirit in which our mesorah approaches the
Torah’s description of Creation. All the commentators, while they certainly
agreed that there are deep secrets and humanly incomprehensible aspects to
Maaseh Breishis, still understood that the Torah does reveal that the creation of
heaven and earth and its flora, fauna and first human beings was a meta-natural
phenomenon that took place in the period of one week. (Again, in the words of
the Kuzari: “Our prophet ... revealed the hidden things, and told how the world
was created.” See also Ramban’s words in the final paragraph of this essay.)
Yes, “not all of the Creation Account can be taken literally.” But one must not be
naive and overextend this principle. All the commentators agree that we must of
course properly understand anthropomorphisms expressed throughout the Torah.
(“The sound of Hashem going through the Garden” refers to the traveling of the
sound Hashem created, not to the sound of Hashem walking.) There is debate
over precisely to what part of the heavens the words “shamayim” and “rakiah”
refer. Some attribute, to the terms Earth, Heaven, Wind and Darkness, the four
elements. As we have seen, many meforshim adopt the talmudic view that
creation ex nihilo of all the universe took place the first day, and that the next
days of the week did not witness additional creations. First-glance impressions are
sometimes modified (as when treating the subject of whether the creation of “the
heavens and the earth” means that the heavens were created before the earth,
rather than after; or the meaning most meforshim prefer, simultaneously;). But, as
we have seen, no talmudic statements or biblical commentators reinterpreted
“days” in the Creation account as periods lasting longer than ordinary days, and
How The Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages
they accept the basic chronology of events as presented.11 We can therefore
anticipate how the mesorah understands the Torah’s meaning of the state of things
between Breishis 1:1, which reports that Hashem created the earth, and the
following verses that speak of the earth’s state of tohu va-vohu (emptiness and
void), the creation of Light and everything else.
The Ramban (ibid.1:4) rejects the suggestion of “some commentators” that the
declaration of “Let there be Light,” took place before the first day, and that this
original Light initially shined bright for one moment, immediately waned to
produce a twelve hour night, and then shined for twelve hours (to explain the
sequence of “Let there be Light,” and then, “And there was evening, and there
was morning…”). This was Rabbeynu Yehuda HaLevy’s explanation in
HaKuzari. The Ramban rejects it “because they would be adding an additional,
albeit short, day, onto the specifically six days of Creation.” The appearance of
light and then its absence would constitute an additional, although short, morningand-
evening day, contradicting the Torah’s report of the creation lasting just one
week. All the less would he tolerate the suggestion that there were billions of
years of days of evening and morning before the first 24-hour evening and
morning period of Day One. (We have already noted that he explains that the
creation of the Light marked the creation of Time itself.) Certainly, he would
object to the proposal of millennia of days and nights witnessing physical
landscapes and creatures preceding the six 24-hour type days of Creation.
So much for the issue of the length of the Creation week and its events. Some
have suggested that our meforshim allow us to understand the eons of time and its
events described by current academia to have taken place before the six 24-hour
days, during the period of tohu va-vohu. However, this is not tenable.
First, all meforshim agree that the tohu va-vohu period existed after, not before,
our earth’s creation. Second, the meforshim agree that Tohu va-vohu was an
activity-less state of the earth upon its creation ex nihilo. And The origins of our
vegetable, animal and human life did not appear until after the tohu-va-vohu
period, those forms thereafter reaching full development, and permanent area of
placement, within the proceeding six regular days. Their explanations void the
suggestion that the period of earth’s state of tohu va-vohu experienced the
creation of landscapes and creatures and prehistorical histories in millennia
untold, preceding the rest of creation over the six 24-hour type days.
Rabbeynu Saadia Gaon (Emunos v’Dei’os, 3:6) dealt with strained readings of
the tohu va-vohu verse used by some in the past to conform to a form of the
Platonic idea of an eternal matter, from which G-d formed the universe. (The
strained reading was: “And the earth had been [something else, originally,
namely:] tohu va-vohu.”). They used that reading to defend the view of academia
How The Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages
of their day that was confident of the eternity of an elemental air and water in
existence from which G-d formed the Earth. (Today, some would use it to defend
the idea that before this world’s inhabitants’ creation, there was an eons-long
period of “simpler forms of life” of swamplands and dinosaurs.) He attacked this
They think water and air always existed, because they imagine “and the
earth was tohu va-vohu” is describing what the earth was before it was
created [the word “created” being used in the sense of being formed int its
present state —ZL]. But one who interprets so is talking utter foolishness.
For the Torah’s statement, “And the earth was…” comes after it already
stated “In the beginning He created […the Earth],” which means that the
Earth, composed of earth, water and air was [already] created [ex nihilo,
before the state of tohu va-vohu, not after and from tohu va-vohu].
In a later generation, Hizkuni dealt with a similar misinterpretation:
This is not to be explained as meaning that before its [earth’s] creation, it
[the universe consisted of matter that] had been [in a state of] tohu vavohu.
(Hizkuni instead explains the verses as follows: “In the beginning, G-d
created”—before all created things, the Creator created the heavens and the
Earth…. “And the Earth was tohu va-vohu”—the earth that is now in full form
had been tohu. When it was first created, it “was tohu va-vohu”—meaning,
desolate and empty, [meaning] that there was no grass, man, beast and animal,
bird and fish, crawling creature, darkness, light and ruach…for water covered the
entire face of the earth….Or, he adds, it may be explained this way: Before the
earth’s creation, the place that the earth was to occupy in the future had been
totally empty.) In both explanations, the Hizkuni is rejecting the Platonic idea of
eternal matter.)
The Rashbam explains the point of the verses as follows:
Do you think that this world has always been endowed as you see it
now—full of all goodness? No, it was not [always] so. [Rather, the Torah
teaches,] B’raishis bara Elokim, etc.”—at the beginning of the creation of
the heavens and the earth, i.e. at the time the heavens above and the earth
[that you see now--ZL] had already been created—then, whether for a
long or short time, the world was tohu va-vohu, meaning that there was
absolutely nothing on it…it was desolate, with no inhabitants….
Whatever the “long or short time” was between the beginning of “tohu va-vohu”
and “Yehi Ohr,” the Rashbam negates the idea that this period witnessed
millennia of evolutionary processes, leaving physical evidence of plant and
animal development which evolutionists have discovered. For the Rashbam, along
with all the others, defines “tohu va-vohu” as a phenomenon that experienced no
How The Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages
developments: Tohu Va-vohu means that there was absolutely nothing on
earth…it was desolate, with no inhabitants…..”)
The Abarbanel makes the same point:
After Scripture clarified the fact of the creation of the heavens and the
earth, it comes to clarify how their situation was now, in their being
created ... and regarding this it says that the earth was tohu...
─as does Rabbeynu B’chaya:
And all these great ikkarim (fundamental principles) are clarified from this
parashah: It tells us first, that the world is created m’chudash, ex nihilo.
After its first being tohu va-vohu, He created all the existing things in six
days, and on the sixth day He created Adam....
—and Seforno on Breishis (1:2) “and the earth was tohu va-vohu”:
And that earth created then was a thing composed of [tohu va-vohu]. (I.e.,
tohu va-vohu was the first state of the universe upon the universe’s
creation. It is not a description of a situation existing prior to the earth’s
creation. No time passed between “Breishis bara” and “V’ha’aretz hayssa
so-hu va-vohu.”)
—and Ibn Ezra:
The meaning is that at the beginning of the creation of the sky and the
land, the earth was uninhabited.
Three strands intertwine among the commentators: the Torah teaches that the
physical world was created less than 6,000 years ago; the first steps of earth’s
development of vegetable and other life immediately followed a tohu va-vohu
period of earth’s emptiness and unproductivity; and the “days” of Creation are
regular 24-hour type days. Each of the meforshim explicitly states one or more of
these ideas, and implicitly vouches for all of them.
Thus, all the commentators speak plainly, if not pointedly, of the absence of any
vegetation or animal life before the first of the six days, and of six days in a
natural sense. There is no basis to suggest that they would accept the p’sukim’s
words mean anything other than a normal day. There is no basis to suggest they
would accept that the tohu va-vohu state consisted of millennia filled with
evidence-leaving, aging, physical entities, wherein existed swamps and evolving
dinosaurs and other forms of. And all agree that and that the origin of the lifeforms
we have today are with life-forms that were immediately created fullyformed.
Contortions of the biblical text to make them consistent with current
evolutionary descriptions of the earth’s’ past do violence against both its letter
and spirit, and contradict the conventional sense presumed and accepted by our
How The Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages
There is yet another approach used to explain evidence of existence of things on
earth longer than 6,000 years that does enjoy some support from Torah sources.
There are talmudic and midrashic passages that, on their face, refer to other
physical worlds preceding ours. Some have therefore proposed that even if G-d
formed this world and its inhabitants within six regular days, He only did this
following His original creation ex nihilo of prior worlds, remnants of which still
remain—thereby explaining the alleged evidence of billions of years of past
activity on earth.
The Rambam sees such statements as predicated on the view of the world being
eternal, and consequently rejects them on the grounds that they contradict a
fundamental principle of Judaism, despite their authorship. We shall see that most
rishonim, if not rejecting the statement altogether, at least reject, shy away from,
or are hesitant about, taking these statement to be referring literally to physical
Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi bar Eliyahu, an early contemporary of the Beis Yosef,
is an exception. He suggests that these statements mean Hashem created a
previous world ex nihilo, and thereby brought time into existence, then destroyed
it, and then created our world (Sefer Maasei Hashem, Cheilek Ma’asei Breishis,
chaps. 3 and 13). However, although his goal is to defend these statements against
the Rambam’s rejection, he does not address the Rambam’s principle that time is
dependent upon the concurrent motion of an existing thing, nor Rabbi Avahu’s
referring to more than one previous world.
Another rishon, Rabbeynu Chasdei Crescas, hesitantly offers these statements
as one way to explain why an eternal G-d would have aberrationally created one
world at an arbitrary point in eternity. He speculates, using these statements as a
basis, that G-d has actually been creating and destroying worlds for all eternity.
He speculates that G-d has been either literally destroying each one before the
creation of the next, or—and this is what may be used to explain alleged remnants
of existence of things over 6000 years ago—that He has been forming each world,
including ours, as a more advanced “outgrowth” of the previous one. He then
adds that whether this world will also be replaced by a more advanced one, or will
last forever, is indeterminable, and concludes, “ החקירה נעולות, והדברים כי בזה דלתי
”.עתיקים למקבלי האמת
ספר אור ה' - מאמר ג ח"א כלל א - פרק ה
אלא שהאמת הגמור כפי מה שבא בקבלה. והוא, שהשם יתברך חדשו והמציאו בעת ידוע,
כאמרו (בראשית א, א), "בראשית ברא" וגו' וכל הפרשה כולה.
How The Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages
אלא שכבר תשאר השאלה, למה המציאו בעת ידוע, אחר שהיחס - אם מצד הפועל ואם מצד
המתפעל - אל כל העתים, אחד?
והנה הספק הזה, ואם הוא עצום מאד, הנה התרו באחד משני פנים. אם שנאמר, שכבר גזרה
חכמתו, לסיבה ידועה, שיהיה לו התחלת הויה מחודשת; ולא תשאר בו השאלה למה המציאו
בעת הזאת, למה שהחדוש בכל העתים יחס אחד.
ואם שנתיר לעצמנו מה שנמצא בקצת מאמרים לחכמינו ז"ל, הביאם הרב המורה, ולא
ראינו חולק עליהם. אמרם (ב"ר פ"ג), "מלמד שהיה בונה עולמות ומחריבן". ומהם אמרם,
"מלמד שהיה סדר זמנים קודם לכן". הכונה מהם לפי מה שיראה - החידוש התמידי; אלא
שהיו הוים בעת ידוע ונפסדים בעת ידוע, [ 1] אם בהתהוות האישים והפסדם, [ 2] ואם
להיות כל אחד מהם הולך מהאחר מדרגת השלמות. ואפשר שזה שאנחנו בו ישאר נצחי,
ואפשר שיפסד ויבוא אחריו עולם אחר, הולך מזה מהלך השלמות, כמדרגת החי מהצומח.
כי בזה דלתי החקירה נעולות, והדברים עתיקים למקבלי האמת.
It is however noteworthy that Rabbeynu Crescas’ own disciple, Rav Yosef Albo
(Sefer Ikkarim 2:18) discusses the statement about a seder z’manim (program of
time-periods) before Creation, but insists that the kind of time spoken of is only
imaginary and conceptual, not actual. He is also conspicuously silent both about
the statement of worlds being built and destroyed, and his teacher’s thesis, above.
In any case, as already mentioned, even taken literally, these statements about
prior worlds do not conform to the model of processes over time espoused by
current academia. For one thing, according to Crescas’ hypothesis, growth of
vegetation and animals still began anew after creation of our stage of the world,
not as descendants of previous beings. In whatever sense these talmudic passages
can be taken to be envisioning this world as an “outgrowth “of a previous one,
they still agree that the present plant life, animal life and human life were forms
that began their development during the six days of the creation of this world—
development immediately preceded by a tohu va-vohu period during which the
earth was empty of all life—and are not biological offsprings of things whose
existence stretched to eons before. So, even if one takes these midrashic passages
literally, the resultant scenario in no way conforms to current academia’s
portrayal of continuous evolutionary development of our present animal,
vegetable and human species. They are hardly consistent with the current views of
Constructing a scenario of prior worlds interrupted by empty periods—with the
biological ancestors of earth’s current inhabitants first appearing less than 6,000
years ago—that would not be as ridiculed by academia as is a 6,000-year-old
world, would be a daunting task, if at all possible. Also daunting and problematic
for someone loyal to Torah methodology is the prospect of using the said
maamarei Chazal to support such a hypothesis, in face of the overwhelming
majority of rishonim who are most reluctant to take these sources literally,
How The Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages
altogether. They see taking the sources as literally speaking of physical worlds
and real time as a support of the thesis of eternal matter and/or other concepts
foreign to the Torah’s presentation of Maasei Breishis. And they reject doing so.
The Rambam’s son, Avraham (Sefer Milchamos Hashem, ed. Margolios,
Mosaad HaRav Kook, pp. 57-58 and 59) writes:
[Reason, which compels us to accept the tradition that G-d is not a
physical entity, is a prerequisite to understanding Torah. Indeed, G-d
created man with reason even millennia before He gave man the Torah.]
The Torah was given to Israel twenty-four hundred years after the creation
of the world12. And if anyone mumbles to you, “Haven't the Chachamim
darshonned that the Torah was created a thousand years before the
world?” ─you should answer him: That drash needs many payrushim to
answer it (l'taretz osso), and it is impossible that it should be understood
literally. And even if it were meant literally, the subject under discussion
is when it [the Torah] was given [and not when it was created].
Now, accepting the thesis of the existence of prior worlds would leave open
the possibility that Hashem did deliver the Torah to some seichel-less
beings. This would demolish Avraham ben HaRambam’s proof that seichel
is a prerequisite to understanding Torah.
Yet, neither the Aggadta about the Torah being created before the world, nor
the Aggadta about Hashem creating and destroying worlds, led the
Rambam’s son to think that any of Chazal held that whatever was initially
created ex-nihilo had physically existed in any form any longer than 2,488
years before Mattan Torah. He did not consider, as a viable explanation, the
possibility that even a minority opinion could have posited the existence of
any literal, physical world before ours within which the Torah could have
We also see that the Rambam’s son l’fi tumo—incidentally—spoke of the world’s
creation ex-nihilo with the specific date of 2448 years before Mattan Torah. This
incidentally illustrates that despite midrashic passages that indicate otherwise, he
held fast to the idea that the creation ex nihilo occurred 2488 years before Mattan
Torah. (I’m assuming that, like his father, he would insist on a non-literal
meaning—or downright rejection—of Midrashim that speak of prior worlds and
Time before Creation, just as he here insists on a non-literal meaning of the
passage about Torah [and Time] existing before Creation ex-nihilo.)
He later states:
Behold, their [the philosophers'] belief is that that world is old (yashan),13
and that it has no beginning. And we disagree with them, through the
emunah of the Torah, and we can present teshuvos and establish many
How The Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages
proofs to make the Torah emunah clear, that the world is new (chadash),
and created; and nothing exists that is rishon and acharon except for
HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
Note that Avraham ben HaRambam rejects not only the thesis that the universe is
eternal (vs. created), but also that it is ancient (yashan vs. chadash). (“Behold,
their [the philosophers'] belief is that that world is old (yashan), and that it has no
beginning. And we [say]… that the world is new (chadash), and created”)
One cannot claim that the meforshim were unaware of these sources, and had they
been aware of them, would not have taken the stand they did. We see that, on the
contrary, the Rambam’s son—and later, we shall see Rabbeynu Yehuda HaLevy
as well—acknowledged the esoteric teaching that if taken literally would posit
time and things preceding our world; but they both did so only reluctantly and
went out of their way to hold themselves aloof from it as a mainstream mesorah
literal, physical depiction of history.
Rabbaynu Saadia Gaon (Sefer Emunah V'Dei’os, end of first chapter) is very
clear about his understanding of how long the universe has existed:
And the third opinion [is] the opinion of the fools... [who] say, 'How can
the intellect accept that the world has existed for only 4,693 years?' And
we will answer [in defense of that] that once we establish that the world
was created, it is impossible for it not to have had a beginning...[be it 200
years ago or 4,693 years ago]."
Rabbeynu Yehudah HaLevy, in HaKuzari (Book One) as well, states clearly
that Judaism has always considered the world to have existed merely thousands of
years. We will repeat the short quote from the Kuzari we cited before, and
continue with his further statements:
(43) The Rabbi: ... Our prophet ... revealed the hidden things, and told
how the world was created...and the years of the world from Adam until
(44) The Khazar King: It is astounding, too, if you have a clear counting
from the creation of the world!
(45) The Rabbi: With it we count, and no Jews exist from Hodu to Cush
who contest this.
(46) The Khazar King: And what is your count today?
(47) The Rabbi: 4,500 years....
How The Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages
(60-62) The Khazar King: Does it not weaken your belief if you are
told that the Indians have places and buildings which they consider to
be millions of years old?....And what will you say of the philosophers
(read: scientists--ZL) who, as a result of their careful researches, agree that
the world is without beginning? This is not a matter of tens of thousands
of years, nor even millions of years, but of something that has no
beginning or end at all!
(63) The Rabbi: The philosophers─we can’t blame them. Being Grecians,
they inherited neither wisdom nor Torah....
(64) The Khazar King: Does this obligate us not to rely on Aristotle’s
(65-67) The Rabbi: Yes. Since he did not possess a kabbala through the
reporting of a person he could trust, he exerted his mind, deliberated about
the beginning and end of the world, and found it difficult to envision it
[both as] having a beginning as well as it being infinite. However, through
his unaided thought processes, he concluded by accepting his logical
structures that inclined towards the theory of a world with an infinite past.
He did not see fit to ask about the correct count of years from anyone who
came before him, nor about the chronology of the human race. Had the
philosopher lived among a people possessing widely known traditions,
which he would be unable to dismiss, he would have applied himself with
his logic to strengthen the viewpoint that the world came about through
...Heaven forbid that the Torah would contain anything that actual
proof or demonstration would be able to contradict! But the Torah
does record, in its account of Creation, the occurrence of miracles
and different behaviors in nature, and the changing of one thing to
another, to demonstrate that the Creator of the world is able to
accomplish what He wants, when He wills it. The question of
eternity and creation is deep; the [philosophical] arguments for
both claims are of equal weight; but the prophetic tradition of
Adam, Noah and Moses—which is undoubtedly more reliable than
logical arguments—settles the issue in favor of Creation [vs. the
eternal existence of the universe].
And if a Torah-person would find himself compelled to believe and
concede that matter is eternal, and [to believe in] the existence of many
worlds prior to this one, this would not be an impairment to his belief. For
he would [still] believe that this world was created from a certain time,
and that Adam and Eve were the first human beings.
How The Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages
Again, we see that Rabbeynu Yehuda HaLevy, similar to the Rambam’s son—
acknowledged the esoteric teaching about time and worlds preceding our world;
but both did so only reluctantly and went out of their way to hold themselves
aloof from it as a mainstream mesorah literal, physical depiction of history.
The last paragraph as translated from the Arabic by Rav Kapach even more
clearly portrays Rav Yehuda Halevy as far from endorsing the idea of prior
ורחוק הוא שיזדקק הדתי להניח ולהודות בהיולי קדום ועולמות רבים לפני העולם הזה. ואין בכך
פקפוק באמונתו שהעולם הזה מחודש מאז זמן מוגדר.
And it is far-fetched [to say] that a religious person would be forced to
accept and concede to [the belief in] a past-eternal prime matter and many
worlds [existing] prior to this world. And [anyway] there is nothing in this
that should shake his belief that this world was created in the past at a
certain, definite time.
Rabbeynu Saadia Gaon, the Rambam, (Moreh Nevuchim), the Ramban, and
Rav Yosef Albo (Sefer Ikkarim), all make it clear that as a rule one must not
interpret Aggadic statements in a sense that contradicts the p’shat and/or reason.
When it comes to Aggadta whose simple sense assigns the concept of physical
time to “before” Creation, the ba’alei mesorah all explain them in a way
consistent with the simple understanding that all physical activity involved in our
world’s formation, from the empty state of tohu va-vohu, began and ended within
seven literal days.11 (And, as mentioned, the Rambam himself therefore even goes
so far as to reject the statement altogether, without even attempting to give it a
non-literal reading.)
Maharal (Gevuros Hashem, chap. 70, p. 322; Derech Chaim chap. 2, p. 76;
Nesivos Olam II, p. 227; Chidushei Aggados, II, p. 14; III p. 76; IV p. 12), like the
Rambam (MN 2:30) and many others, teaches that Time could not exist before
creation. The reason he and they give is that Time is dependent upon the
revolutionary motion of things that are themselves created. (The earth-centric
view of academia in their times that they embraced envisioned celestial spheres;
in the modern view, we envision the earth’s rotation relative to the sun).
All this is of course referring to Time and things in the physical sense relevant to
our issue—the sense in which they interacted in the original development of the
physical world. One would therefore anticipate that the Maharal too explains that
the talmudic and midrashic statements about things and worlds “existing” during
“a time before Creation” are referring only to esoteric, conceptual types of Time
and things. And one would be correct, as can be seen in Maharal’s Tifferes
Yisroel p. 12a regarding the Torah’s “creation 974 generations before the world’s”
[Zevachim 116a] and in Ba’er HaGolah, Amud 82-3, Ba’er HaR’vi’vi regarding
Nedarim 39b’s list of things created before the world.
How The Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages
In view of the above, it is not surprising that later authorities were quite vehement
against understanding the statements about prior worlds to be speaking of
physical worlds, and/or previous physical stages of this world, and/or a method to
interpret the Torah as consistent with the theories of billions-of-years-exisitng
earth accepted by modern academia. It is a questionable effort to reconcile the
two. Perhaps it’s a clever kiruv tactic by which to calm down those not yet
schooled in Torah methodology. It may be useful for kiruv personnel to use such
approaches while winking at each other and hoping that their charges will
outgrow their feelings of inferiority of the mesorah to current academia.
However, when it turns into something that they themselves actually believe, it is
tragic. (It is reminiscent of when heterodox movements begin as leniencies for
those who find it hard to take regular halachic standards upon themselves, but end
up insisting that the leniencies are the true ways, and criticizing those who avoid
The mesorah we have is a reliable, historical transmission from Adam, Noach and
Moses of the factual account of how the world came to be. It is more reliable than
speculations based upon the assumption that nature always ruled, always acting as
it does now.
Indeed, Midrash Shemos Rabbah (30:9) records Onkelos’ marveling the fact
that the youngest Jewish children know “how the Holy-One-Blessed-be-He
created the world.─They know what was created the first day and what was
created the second day, how much [time] there is since the world was created,
and what [good deeds] sustain the world. And their Torah is true.” And the
Ramban cites this Midrash to illustrate that “the Torah ‘opens one’s eyes,’
for it reveals to us the secret of the Formation, the subject of Maaseh Breishis,
the Creation and Formation of the Universe.”
May our eyes be opened to the truths taught by the Torah.
How The Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages
1 The literature of Jewish Torah thought, including Rabbeynu Saadia Gaon’s Emunos V’dei’os
and Rav Yosef Albo’s Sefer HaIkarrim, teaches us that a word’s primary conventional meaning is
the proper way to initially understand a given word in the Torah. Only if contradicted by sensory
perception, logic, or other verses—data available to the reader since the time of the Torah’s
revelation—are we to understand the Torah’s intent by the word in a less conventional usage.
Thus, as will be demonstrated in this article, Chazal and the commentaries all understood the word
“yom” in our context to be a 24-hour type day.
2 Actually, the word “in” is omitted in the Hebrew, indicating the drash-level kabbalistic teaching
that Hashem created the world to last beyond the moment of Creation for six millennia, with each
future millennium’s history represented in the six 24-hour days of creation. Nevertheless, the
commentaries (Ibn Ezra on Tehillim 45:5 and 3:8; Daas Zekeinim on B’midbar 10:33; Rabbeynu
Bachaye on Sh’mos 20:11) explain that the peshat of the posuk teaches the fact that Hashem
created the world in six days. The word “in” is to be understood, as is the case in other verses.
3 Note that the testimony we are commanded to declare is focused not on the implicit Creationfrom-
nothing, but on the time period of six days.
4 They fail to recognize the circular nature of their thinking: Evolutionary explanations of how the
world came into existence are propelled by a discipline which, in principle and by self-definition,
arbitrarily refuses to accept the possibility of a meta-natural (outside-of natural, i.e., miraclebased)
explanation of the world’s origins. But meta-natural processes are the very bedrock of the
six-day Creation our testimony, as explained by our mesorah.
5 And the mesorah is not beginning its count just from the time of Adam’s creation, a suggestion
some have made in order to permit an insertion of millennia of our world’s existence before his
creation. Nor, in a rather odd interpretation sometimes touted, is it beginning its count just from
Adam’s “ensoulment,” after his having been a soul-less creature born from a millions-of-years-old
line of creature ancestors. For “all of creation was created fully formed.”─At ma’aseh b’raishis
the ox was created not as a calf but as an adult [Rashi in Rosh HaShonna 26a s.v. shor sheh-hu
par]; and Adam was likewise created as an adult, the Talmud reports, within the same 24-hour
period─standing erect.
6 a Pirkei Ahvos (5:1). The Rambam, however, interprets this differently, as referring to the
number of statements through which the Hashem depicted His step-by-step Creation.
6 b See Brachos 12a and end of Rashi ' ד"ה אלא כיון דאמר וכו on use of term .מדת הלילה
7 For example, Maimonides’ son, Avraham, comments on the verse (Breishis 2:4) reading “…the
day Hashem fashioned the Heavens and the Earth.” He says that here the word “day” cannot be
taken in its conventional way, because the fashioning of the Heavens and Earth took place over a
period lasting six days, not just one. (Needless to say, if he thought the six days of Creation were
themselves not meant as conventional days, the contradiction would not have arisen.)
The Ralbag is an exception, in that he understands “days” of Creation to be “categories.” But one
must bear in mind that by saying this he shortens the duration of Creation. And even more
important, one must bear in mind that his interpretation is a result of loyalty to Chazal, who make
specific statements he understands to mean that all of the creative acts (besides vegetation
production) were performed at one moment simultaneously, and instantaneously produced the
results in fully-developed form. It would be discombobulating to interpret “days” as categories
whose events took eons.
How The Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages
8 The Ramban elaborates on the first created thing, the “tohu,” being the equivalent of the
formless matter of Greek fame. He assigns no time frame to the phase of “tohu,” but there is no
basis to suggest that he disagrees with the Gemora that explicitly includes the “tohu” phase
among those things created within the first day (of 24 hours), as the poshut reading of the posuk
9 The phrase in the Arabic is פי סנה בלא תאויל . My translation follows Rabbi Kapach’s. Ibn Tibbon
renders the sentence, “If the person claiming to be a prophet says "He made it known to me that
He created the heaven and earth in his sleep without consciousness," he is a false prophet.”
Rabbi Yaakov Winselberg of Miami (translator of Rabbeynu Avraham ben HaRambam’s Arabic
ספר המספיק לעובדי ה' ) quoted by Rabbi Shapiro (JewsWithQuestions.com, (posted 24 November
2011 - 08:59 AM), writes:.
There are two phrases here: פי סנה and בלא תאויל . I will start with the second one,
because it is a fairly common term. The word תאויל refers to an allegorical way of
explaining a text, as opposed to the literal sense. Since it is בלא תאויל , that is the
same thing as saying דברים כפשוטן . I don't read this as בלי מחשבה or
"thoughtlessly," because that would refer to Hashem's thought. The word ,תאויל
though, is not used for thought in general, but about interpreting a text or a
nevu'ah. So I think this can only be explained according to the first version you
brought, which is " כפשוטן ," or even better, the way he [Rabbi Kapach] writes it in
footnote 58.
The first phrase is not as simple. The word פי means "in." The word סנה is usually
"a year," but it could also be "sleep." The Arabic is close to the Hebrew here, with
both meanings שנה and שינה possible. I prefer "year," though, for two reasons: If it
was "while He was sleeping," it should say something like “in His sleep," not "in
sleep." In other words, it wouldn't say סנה alone, but סנתה , or something like that.
Also, Rav Saadiah Gaon in Chumash for שינה doesn't use the word סנה but the
word נום , related to the Hebrew תנומה . So here too, I prefer the first reading, במשך
שנה , but I see why the one might write wrote [sic.—ZL] "while asleep" and the like.
I would add that the context of Rav Saadia’s statement is regarding claims that differ from points
that biblical verses explicitly make. The other examples given are the claim to permit adultery or
theft, and the claim there will be another [global] flood. Therefore, it is obvious that the “shana”
refers to a "year-duration of Creation," a contrast to the explicitly stated six days, not to any notion
of G-d sleeping during Creation as opposed to being awake—a weird issue not entertained in the
verses at all. He means that a prophet who claims Hashem took a literal year to create the universe
is as false as one who claims that Hashem will once again bring a global flood. Rabbeynu Saadia
Gaon has a very entertaining passage where he ridicules allegorizing the mitzvos and narratives of
the Torah by showing the absurd conclusions that one could reach by such methodology.
One should also note that the allegorizing RSG entertains regarding the professed prophet’s claim
of a year-long duration of Creation is on the prophet's part. I.e., the alleged prophet would be safe
if he makes it clear that his reference to a "year" is only an allegory, or a poetic flourish, in
reference to what were actually six days. (Needless to say, if RSG thought six creation days can
mean six epochs or six pairs of months, why would he accuse this poor man of being a false
Also noteworthy is the comment in Sefer Tseyda LaDerech, cited above in our text.
10 Some have made much ado about Rashi’s comment on verse 1:1, where he states that we must say
that the mikreh is not describing the chronological order of events. They translate “mikreh” as
“Scripture [in general]” and take Rashi to mean that throughout the entire account of Creation,
Scripture does not intend to describe the chronology. This posits the absurd idea that when
Scripture says one thing happened on day two, and another on day one, it does not mean to tell us
the order of occurrence, and it may really have happened in a different order. The Rashi on 1:14
How The Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages
shows this is wrong. “The light-bearers [sun, moon and stars] were created from the first day, but
on the fourth He commanded them to be hung in the sky. Likewise, all the tolodos of the heavens
and earth were created back on the first day, and each one was set in its permanent state on the day
decreed for it. This is why [when describing their creation on the first day,] “ess” is written before
the word shamayim and before the word “ha-aretz”— to include their “offsprings.”
Rashi’s comment about the mikreh not describing chronological order is in reference to the first
verse (see Radak Breishis 1:1: " וכן דעת רבינו שלמה ז"ל שלא בא לזכור סדר הבריאה בזה הפסוק ..."). The
focus of this mikreh, this verse, is not to tell you the chronology of the creation of the earth in its
narrow sense (i.e., sans water and the other elements) in relation to heaven or the elements. Rashi
holds that, based upon grammar and information we have from Midrashim, the first verse must be
read not, “The first thing G-d created [before water or fire or Light or the vegetation and creatures]
was the heavens and the earth.” It must be read, in conjunction with the following verse, “During
the start of G-d’s creating heaven and earth…G-d said, ’Let there be Light!’”
11 As we noted in endnote 7, the Ralbag understood Chazal to be maintaining that Hashem
created virtually everything simultaneously and instantaneously on the first day, all in their fully
developed form, with the exception of the growth of vegetation of the fifth day. This means that—
except for the vegetation—there was no creative or formative activity remaining to be done
following the first day. Thus, he concludes, Chazal were telling us that the report of events on the
ensuing days, until Shabbos, is not meant literally, but is meant to relay the hierarchical
relationships between all created things.
Some have understood the Ralbag to be saying that this was the Rambam’s view as well, but this
is untenable. The Ralbag himself states that none of his fellow rishonim before him “realized” that
this was what Chazal were saying. (And he demonstrates he was well acquainted with the
Rambam’s writings on the subject.) We also noted in the text that the Rambam in Moreh
Nevuchim (2:30), just as other rishonim [such as Rashi—see note 10], cites the Chazal teaching
that most things created the first day still needed to be extracted, more fully formed and
permanently positioned on the following days. There he also invokes the fact that Nature was not
yet fixed on the sixth day, in order to defend the possibility of so many events occurring on that
one day.)
However, at any rate, the Ralbag’s position (dismissed by the Abarbanel and other commentators)
would not be helpful to those who would like to extend the existence of the world to billions of
years. On the contrary, according to the Ralbag the world and all its inhabitants were created in
full form instantly and simultaneously, and have therefore existed six days less than the time
stated by the other commentators! (Although he also maintains that the created vegetation did not
begin to grow above ground until a chronological third day.) And, as just demonstrated, the
approach of the Ralbag is to build the understanding through the teachings of Chazal, and not
through rejecting them on the basis that they differ with the science of the day.
12 Rabbeynu Avraham ben HaRambam is talking about time since the beginning of Creation, not
just from its climax with Adam HaRishon. Had R. Avraham ben HaRambam found it acceptable
to think that thousands of years had passed between the initial creation of the world and the
appearance of Adam, what would have been his problem with the idea that the Torah was created
2,400 years before Adam? Obviously, by "Creation," Rabbeynu Avraham is talking about the
initial creation, and he understands that the Torah was given 2,400 years after that.
13 Note that, as in the Kuzari’s citing allegations of ancient civilizations and their
buildings, combating the claim of the world’s being “yashan” (old—versus
“chadash,” new/young) is an additional concern of the rishonim to that of the
world’s being “kadum”(the philosophical term for “eternal,” versus “created”).