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Jewish Cosmology

Jewish Cosmology

in Ancient cosmologies. Ed. Carmen Blacker & Michael Loewe.
London: George Allen & Unwin, 1975: 66-86.
Rabbi Louis Jacobs
Lecturer in Talmud, Leo Baeck College, London
A study of the Jewish sources demonstrates that the Jews did not develop in any period of their history a special cosmology of their own. They adopted or accepted the cosmologies of the various civilisations in which they lived, but utilised these for the religious purposes with which they were primarily concerned. Judging by the classical Jewish writings, Jewish preoccupation was with the God of the cosmos not with the cosmos itself. There was, to be sure, a profound interest in natural phenomena but chiefly as pointers to God who initiated them and whose glory was revealed through them.

Lift up your eyes on high,
And see: who hath created these?
He that bringeth out their host by number,
He calleth them all by name;
By the greatness of His might, and
for that He is strong in power,
Not one faileth
(Isa. 40: 26)

The heavens declare the glory of God,
And the firmament showeth forth His handiwork

(Ps. 19:2)

The vivid description of the universe and its creatures in Psalm 104 begins with:

Lord my God, Thou art very great;
Thou art clothed with glory and majesty.
It is preferable, therefore, to speak not so much of Jewish cosmology as of cosmologies that have been entertained by Jews. For these it is necessary to examine the picture of the world as portrayed in the Bible and the Rabbinic literature, in medieval Jewish philosophy and the kabbalah, with a glance at later Jewish thought. The consideration of medieval notions in a series of chapters concerning ancient cosmologies is, I think, justified when we observe that many of these notions are themselves ancient. Even when they are stressed particularly by the medieval thinkers, they go back in the main to the period with which this series is concerned.
Although the Biblical writings extend over a period of several hundred years, the cosmological picture in these writings is remarkably uniform. One can, without distortion, refer, therefore, to the 'Biblical' view and quote in its support passages from the different books of the Bible. A moot point first to be noted is whether the Biblical record knows of the concept of a cosmos. T. H. Gaster suggests that to the ancient Hebrews 'the world was not an organic unity but a collection of disparate phenomena individually controlled and collectively disposed at the will and pleasure of their common Creator'. There is, in fact, no word in the Bible for 'universe' or 'cosmos'. The word olam, later (in the Rabbinic literature, for instance) meaning 'world' or 'universe', means, in the Bible, 'eternity', with the possible exception of the use of this word in the late book of Ecclesiastes (3: 11). However, the use of 'very good' at the end of the creation narrative in Genesis (1: 31), as opposed to the simple 'good' in which the details of the creation are described, does suggest that, over and above the excellence of each particular, the writers had a concept of the excellence of the cosmic order as a whole.2 In any event, by the Rabbinic period (i.e. from the beginning of the civil era to c. 500) the idea of a cosmos is well established. God is there frequently spoken of as 'King of the Universe' (melekh ha'olam).
The Biblical picture is clearly geocentric. The earth has the shape of a flat disc so that if one were able to travel far enough, one would eventually arrive at the 'ends of the earth' (Deut. 13:8; 28:64; Isa. 5:26; Ps. 135:7). This term can simply refer to far-distant places, but its use is evidence of the cosmological picture. The 'corners' or 'wings' (kanefot) of the earth (Isa. 11: 12; Ezek. 7:2; Job 37:3) may be a synonym for the 'ends of the earth'. If, on the other hand, the earth is not conceived of as a disc but as a square strip, the 'corners' may be understood literally. It is also possible that the term kanefot refers to the four directions, north, south, east and west. The earth rests on pillars (Job 9:6). Stretched above the earth is the sky, `heaven' (shamayim) or 'firmament' (rakia), a solid substance' (Gen. 1:6-8) resting on pillars (Job 26:11).5 Just as the earth has an 'end' so does the sky (Deut. 4:32). The sun, moon and stars are positioned in, or just beneath,6 the firmament (Gen. I : 14-17) and they move across it (Ps. 19:1-7). Beneath the earth is Sheol, 'the abode of the dead' (Num. 16: 28-34; I Sam. 28:13-15; Isa. 9: 11; Eccles. 9: 10). There are waters above the firmament (Gen. 1: 6-7) as well as beneath it. Some of the waters beneath the firmament were gathered together at the beginning of creation to form the seas (Gen. 1:9-10) but, in addition, these waters flow beneath the earth (Exod. 20:4; Deut. 4:18; Ps. 24:2) where they are connected to the waters of Tehom, the great deep (Gen. 1:2). Fountains, wells and springs flow from these waters beneath the earth. The Deluge was caused by a tremendous outpouring of the fountains of Tehom as well as by the opening of the windows of heaven (Gen. 7: 11). Rain is produced by the clouds (Gen. 9:11-17; Job 26:8; Eccles. 11:3). The water in the clouds comes from the waters above the firmament so that when the heaven is 'shut up' there is no rain (Deut. 1: 17) while when the 'good treasure' of heaven is opened the rain falls in abundance (Deut. 28: 12).
While the word 'heaven' (shamayim) is used of the firmament or sky, it is also used of the area located above the waters that are above the firmament. This area is also known as 'the heaven of heavens' (Deut. 10:4; I Kings 8:27). This is normally the abode of God (Exod. 20:19; Isa. 66:1; Ezek. 1: 1).

It is clear that this cosmological picture owes much to the general ancient Mesopotamian cosmologies, especially the Babylonian. Here we note that, while in some Biblical passages the mythological elements derived from the ancient cosmologies are still very prominent, in the creation narrative in Genesis there appears to be a conscious effort to suppress them. Possibly, traces of such mythological themes as the battle between the gods and the dragon of chaos in the deep are present even in the Genesis narrative in the use of the word Tehom (= the Babylonian Tiamat) without the definite article for the great deep (Gen. 1:12) and in the use of the plural 'Let us make man' (Gen. 1:26) reflecting the counsel of the gods. But these are largely matters of vocabulary or usage only (cf: the modern use of 'Wednesday' and 'Thursday' for the days of the week). The narrative as a whole breathes the spirit of monotheism. In other Biblical passages (Isa. 27: 1; 30: 7; 51: 9-10; Hab. 3: 8; Ps. 74: 13-14; 89: 10-11; 93; Job 3:8; 9:13) the references to the ancient myths are far more pronounced. The 'myth and ritual' school has even purported to detect an annual re-enactment of the primordial conflict on the New Year festival in ancient Israel.
It has also been suggested that the Temple was constructed on the parallel of the world, e.g. the Holy of Holies corresponds to the heavens, the outer house to the earth, the laver to the sea and so forth. God has provided man with a home and man in gratitude provides God with a place in which He can reside and which mirrors the home of man.
Nowhere in the Biblical record is the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo clearly mentioned. Although the root bara, 'to create', is used only of God's activity, never of man's, it does not in itself imply creatio ex nihilo; indeed, the root meaning seems to be that of 'cutting out' i.e. of an existing material. As Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) pointed out in the Middle Ages, the root bara is used in the Genesis narrative not alone for the original creation (Gen. 1:1) but also for the later creation of the sea-monsters (Gen. 1:21) and of man (Gen. 1:27). The earliest reference in Jewish literature to creatio ex nihilo is in the second book of Maccabees (late second to early first century BC; see 7:28). In the Wisdom of Solomon (first century BC to first century AD), on the other hand, creation is out of 'formless matter' (11: 17).
On the whole the cosmological picture as it appears in the vast Rabbinic literature is not very different from the Biblical picture. The world of nature was thoroughly familiar to the Rabbis and they introduced special benedictions to be recited when a man observes its marvels. There are benedictions on observing the sea, mountains, comets, thunder and lightning, strange creatures and trees in bloom. But side by side with this there is a strong attempt to discourage speculation on cosmic origins and on those cosmic matters that are beyond human experience, in all probability because of the heretical, especially dualistic, views, which could follow from these. Ben Sira (early second century BC) is quoted in the Talmud for his, according to the Rabbis, sound advice: 'Do not pry into things too hard for you or examine what is beyond your reach. Meditate on the commandments you have been given; what the Lord keeps secret is no concern of yours.' (Eccles. 3:21-22). Thus the Mishnah states: 'Whosoever reflects on four things, it were better for him if he had not come into the world - what is above; what is beneath; what is before; and what is after.' In the comment of the Jerusalem Talmud to this passage in the Mishnah it is said that the Mishnah follows the opinion of Rabbi Akiba (c. 50-150 CE) but that according to Rabbi Ishmael (early second century CE) it is permitted to 'expound the work of creation'. In any event there are to be found in the Rabbinic literature discussions on the manner of God's creation and the nature not alone of the terrestrial but also of the celestial realms.

The School of Shammai (first century CE) held that heaven was created first and the earth afterwards. The School of Hillel (first century CE) held that the earth was created first and afterwards the heavens. But the Sages held that heaven and earth were created simultaneously. We are told that a philosopher said to Rabban Gamliel (first century CE): 'Your God is a great craftsman, but He found good materials to help Him in the work of creation, namely, Tohu and Bohu, darkness, wind, water and the deep', to which Rabban Gamliel retorts that these, too, were created by God and he quotes scriptural verses in support. This is the Rabbinic equivalent of the discussion concerning creatio ex nihilo. As late as the third century, however, the Palestinian teacher Rabbi Johanan could say that God took two coils, one of fire and the other of snow, wove them into each other and created the world. According to one Rabbinic theory all things were created simultaneously on the first day of creation but made their appearance at different stages in the other six days, just as figs are gathered simultaneously in one basket but each selected in its time. The opinion that the primordial light was a garment with which God wrapped Himself before creation is probably a reference to a theory of emanation which became especially prominent in the kabbalah. The idea is found that God created several worlds and destroyed them before creating this one. God is, as it were, proud of the world He has created. He declares that His creation is 'very good' (Gen. 1:31). If the Creator praises His wonderful works who would dare to criticise them ?
There was a belief in Rabbinic times that originally the sun and the moon were the same size but that because the moon protested that 'two kings cannot wear the same crown' God told her to make herself smaller. The fondness of the Rabbis for descriptions of the immense size of the universe has undoubtedly an apologetic motivation. The aim is either to praise God or to defend Israel's worth in creation. It is, in fact, difficult to know how far these statements were intended to be taken literally. For instance, a sage declares, in opposition to his colleagues, who say that the world rests on twelve or on seven pillars, that the earth rests on one pillar and its name is 'Righteous', for it is said: 'But Righteous is the foundation of the world' (Prov. 10:25).
Similarly, a heavenly voice is made to taunt Nebuchadnezzar when he says: 'I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the Most High' (Isa. 14:14). The heavenly voice replies: 'Man has only seventy years in which to live.' But the distance from the earth to the firmament is a journey of five hundred years, and the thickness of the firmament is a journey of five hundred years, and likewise the distance between one firmament and the other. Above them (the seven firmaments) are the holy living creatures:

'The feet of the holy living creatures are equal to all of them together; the ankles of the living creatures are equal to all of them together, the legs of the living creatures are equal to all of them; the knees of the living creatures are equal to all of them; the thighs of the living creatures are equal to all of them; the bodies of the living creatures are equal to all of them; the necks of the living creatures are equal to all of them; the heads of the living creatures are equal to all of them; the horns of the living creatures are equal to all of them. Above them is the throne of glory: the feet of the throne of glory are equal to all of them; the throne of glory is equal to all of them. The King, the Living and Eternal God, High and Exalted, dwelleth among them. Yet thou didst say: 'I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High!' (Ezek. 5 )

Again, when Israel is apprehensive that God has forgotten her, He replies (significantly in terms taken from the Roman army):

'My daughter, twelve constellations have I created in the firmament, and for each constellation I have created thirty hosts, and for each host I have created thirty legions, and for each legion I have created thirty cohorts, and for each cohort I have created thirty maniples, and for each maniple I have created thirty camps, and to each camp I have attached three hundred and sixty-five thousands of myriads of stars, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and all of them I have created only for thy sake, and thou sayest, Thou hast forgotten me and forsaken me.'

As for the time the universe will endure, Rabbi Kattina (third century CE) said that the world will endure for six thousand years and it will be desolate for a thousand, but Abaye (early fourth century) said that it will be desolate for two thousand years.
The Rabbis believed in the possibility of miracles happening, seeing in miracles not a suspension of natural or universal law (of which there was no such conception in their thinking) but, as they put it, a 'change in the order of creation'. They believed that miracles did not only occur in the past but occur also in their own day, although there are differences of opinion whether it was praiseworthy or otherwise for a miracle to be performed on behalf of a contemporary. Revealing in this connection is the bizarre anecdote about a man whose wife died, leaving him with a babe for whom he was unable to afford a nurse. A miracle was performed for him and his breasts became as a woman's that he might suckle his child. One of the Rabbis said: 'How great this man must have been that such a miracle was performed for him!' But another Rabbi said: 'On the contrary! How unworthy this man must have been that the order of creation was changed on his behalf!'

In a well-known Rabbinic passage it is said that ten things were created on the eve of the first sabbath of creation in the twilight, among them: the mouth of the earth (Num. 16:32); the mouth of the well (Num. 21:16); the mouth of the ass (Num. 22:28); the rainbow, the manna, and the rod (Eea xod. 4: 17). Similarly, it is said that when God created the sea He imposed a condition on it that it be divided before Israel, as He did with the fire that it should not harm the three young men, with the lions that they should not harm Daniel, and with the fish that it should vomit out Jonah. With the exception of the remark about 'universal law', which, as we have noted, is anachronistic when applied to the thought of the Rabbis, Zangwill's explanation comes close to the meaning of these passages: 'The Fathers of the Mishnah, who taught that Balaam's ass was created on the eve of the Sabbath, in the twilight, were not fantastic fools, but subtle philosophers, discovering the reign of universal law through the exceptions, the miracles that had to be created specially and were still a part of the order of the world, bound to appear in due time much as apparently erratic comets are.'
It is extraordinary how the ancient creation myths reappear in the Rabbinic, especially the Midrashic, literature. Thus, while it is stated that the Leviathan was created on the fifth day, together with the other fishes, the fins of the Leviathan are said to radiate such brilliant light as to obscure the light of the sun. The Leviathan is said to be the plaything of God. There are references to a male and female Leviathan, God slaying the female. But, interestingly enough, the conflict with the Leviathan is projected into the future. At the end of days the angels will engage the Leviathan in combat without success and eventually it will be slain by Behemot, and its flesh will be fed to the righteous. The mythological motif is similarly pronounced in the legends which tell of the rebellion of the Prince of the Sea at the time of creation. The astonishing feature in all this is that the mythological passages are late, dating from the Amoraic period (third century onwards) not from the earlier Tannaitic period. It would seem that the Mesopotamian creation myths lived on among the people and were at first refused any recognition by the official Rabbinic teachers. Mythological motifs of very ancient vintage similarly re-emerge in the Kabbalistic literature from the thirteenth century.
Medieval Jewish cosmology, generally speaking, is the standard Greek cosmology in its Arabic garb. The central problem for the Jewish thinkers in this area was the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. All the Jewish thinkers reject the Aristotelian view that matter is eternal but while Maimonides (1134-1205) and the majority of these thinkers have an unqualified belief in creatio ex nihilo, considering this to be a cornerstone of the Jewish faith, Gersonides (1288-1344) adopts the Platonic view of a formless matter, existing from all eternity, upon which God imposed form.
Maimonides devotes the opening sections of his great Code to a description of the universe in his conviction that man's contemplation of the vastness and the marvels of God's creation would evoke his sense of awe and lead eventually to the love and fear of God.42 For Maimonides43 there are three types of being in the universe: (1) beings having both form and matter but who suffer decay, such as humans, animals, plants and minerals; (2) beings having form and matter but which do not suffer decay, such as the spheres and the heavenly bodies attached to them; (3) beings that are non-corporeal, having only pure form, such as the angels. There are in all nine spheres. The nearest of these is the sphere to which the moon is attached. In ascending order there are then the spheres of Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Above these is the eighth sphere to which all the other stars are attached and above all these is the great ninth sphere which revolves each day from east to west and through its revolutions the other spheres revolve. The spheres are translucent so that when seen from the earth all the stars appear to be attached to a single sphere. But each of the eight lower spheres is subdivided into many other spheres 'like the layers of an onion' (the comparison is made by Maimonides), some of these revolving from east to west, others from west to east. The spheres are both colourless and weightless. The blue appearance of the sky is an optical illusion.44 The ninth sphere is divided into twelve sections each named after the planet situated beneath it. These are the twelve signs of the Zodiac.45 Some of the stars seen in the sky are smaller in size than the earth, some of them larger. The earth is forty times larger than the moon but the sun is 170 times larger than the earth. The smallest of the stars is Mercury and none of the stars is larger than the sun.46 The stars and spheres are intelligent beings who offer praises to their Creator.47 All sublunar beings are composed of the four elements, fire, air, water and earth." Maimonides concludes:

`When man reflects on these topics and comes to recognise all creatures, from the angels and the spheres to human beings like himself, and when he observes the wisdom of the Holy One, blessed be He, as manifested in all things and in all creatures, his love for God grows, his soul thirsts and his flesh longs to love God, blessed be He. Such a man is filled with awe and dread at the thought of his own lowliness, poverty and insignificance when compared with one of the great and holy bodies to say nothing of one of the pure, disembodied spirits, so that he becomes aware of himself as a vessel full of shame and confusion, empty and lacking.'

Although the medieval Jewish thinkers believed in miracles there is a marked tendency to interpret these as uncommon but natural phenomena. For Gersonides, for example, the regularity of nature is itself the most powerful evidence of God's work. Miracles only occur when there is a special and pressing need to demonstrate God's power. All miracles are the result of the Active Intellect, the mediator between the higher Intelligences, which move the heavenly spheres, and the human intellect. The Active Intellect only operates, therefore, in the sublunar world. Furthermore, miracles are only a temporary, never a permanent, interruption of the natural order, which latter is guaranteed by the orderly movements of the heavenly bodies not subject to the influence of the Active Intellect. It follows that no miracle can ever occur in the realm of the spheres and hence the Biblical passages which seem to say that the sun stopped for Joshua and the shadow moved back for Hezekiah have to be understood otherwise than appears on the surface.50

The idea, which goes back to the Greeks, of a close correspondence between man, the microcosm, and the universe, the macrocosm, was utilised by some of the medieval Jewish thinkers but was virtually ignored by others.51 In the kabbalah the theory of emanation is the central feature. Creatio ex nihilo means, for the kabbalah, the emergence of 'somethingness' out of God's nothingness. Remarkably reminiscent of Far Eastern cosmogonic theories is the Zoharic comparison of the way in which the sefirot, the creative powers or potencies in the Godhead, emerge from Ein Sof, the Limitless, the unknown and unknowable Ground of Being, to the silkworm which spins its cocoon out of itself.52 In Hasidic thought, strongly influenced by the kabbalah, the simile is changed to that of the snail 'whose garment is from itself' and applied to the world which is God's garment.53 In some versions of Hasidism this results in a completely acosmic view. From God's point of view, as it were, there is no cosmos at all. The cosmos only enjoys existence from the point of view of God's creatures.54
The main concern of the kabbalah is, in any event, not with the physical universe but with the 'upper worlds'. Thus the Rabbinic saying regarding God creating worlds and destroying them is referred, in the Lurianic kabbalah, to the creative processes in the Godhead in which the 'vessels' of the sefirot were at first shattered because they were too weak to contain the splendour of the light of the limitless (Ein Sof). In fact, for the kabbalah, the details of the cosmic order as perceived by man are no more than a pale reflection in the physical world of the spiritual entities and their various combinations on
high.55
The ancient theory of cosmic cycles (shemitot) won much support in the early kabbalah but was eventually repudiated. The theory, as it appears in the kabbalah, runs that there are time cycles each lasting six thousand years followed by a thousand year sabbath. There are seven of these cycles in all, culminating in the great Jubilee after 49,000 years have passed. In one version the whole process begins afresh after the Jubilee. Again in some versions the daring view was put forward that each cycle has its own Torah. Thus we are now living in the cycle governed by the sefirah 'Judgement' and the Torah we have is one that is adjusted to such a situation. Therefore our Torah contains negative as well as positive precepts. But in the cycle of 'Lovingkindness' a different Torah prevails containing only positive precepts. It was this idea, in flat contradiction to the dogma of the immutability of the Torah, that caused the later Kabbalists to reject the whole doctrine.56 But the doctrine was resurrected by more recent post-Darwinian thinkers in a somewhat forlorn attempt at coping with the problems raised for believers by the evolutionary theories and the new picture of the great age of the earth.57
Modern Jewish thinkers, with few exceptions, adopt the view that the nature of the physical universe is to be investigated by the methods of science and that it is not a matter of religious faith; so that for these thinkers there is no Jewish cosmology any more than there is a Jewish mathematics. Even a completely traditionalist thinker like Rabbi A. I. Kook accepts, for example, the theory of evolution in his contention that the creation narrative in Genesis belongs to the 'secrets of the Torah' and hence must not be taken literally. With a strong resemblance to the views of Teilhard de Chardin, Kook believes that an evolutionary theory is in the fullest accord with the basic optimism of the kabbalah of which he was an adherent.58
The new picture of the universe revealed by modern science has produced hardly any new theological speculations among Jews but some little consideration has been given to the problems raised by space travel and the possibility that there are intelligent and moral beings on planets other than earth. In the encyclopedia of human knowledge compiled by Rabbi Phineas Elijah Hurwitz of Vilna (d. 1821), entitled Sefer haberit,59 there is speculation on this theme as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century. Hurwitz6 believes, on the basis of Isa. 45:18, that there are creatures on planets other than earth. He refers to the Talmudic passages in which, according to one opinion, Meroz (Judges 5:23) is a star and yet, says Hurwitz, Meroz is cursed for not coming to the help of the Israelites, which indicates that it is inhabited. Hurwitz goes on to admit that the creatures on other planets may have intelligence but refuses to believe that they are endowed with free will, for this, he argues, is only possible for creatures with a human constitution. More recently Rabbi Gunther Plaut62 asks: 'Will the possibility that there are intelligent creatures on other planets impose any strain on our religious beliefs?' He replies: 'The modern Jew will answer this question with a firm "No". An earlier generation, rooted in beliefs in an earth-centered universe, might have had some theological difficulties, but we have them no longer. That God should, in His vast creation, have caused only one earth and one manlike genus to evolve is in fact harder to believe than that His creative power expressed itself in other unfathomable ways. This does not in any way diminish our relationship to Him or His to us. Just as a father may love many children with equal love, so surely may our Father on high spread His pinions over the vastness of creation.63 A more detailed and acute examination of the problem is that given by Rabbi Norman Lamm under the title: 'The Religious Implications of Extraterrestrial Life." Among other matters, Lamm discusses whether Judaism holds the doctrine of man's cosmic significance to be a cardinal principle of the Jewish faith.

To sum up, the Jews never invented a cosmology of their own. Still less has there been any official Jewish cosmology dictated by Jewish orthodox belief. But certain cosmological themes, deriving from Babylonian, Greek or Arabic sources, have been stressed or rejected according to the doctrinal bent of individual Jewish thinkers in the various periods of their history.

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