Tuesday, July 14, 2020

R. Arama is ready to read the first chapter of Bereishit with us (which, conveniently, we just read in shul, so we hopefully have these passages more in mind than we might usually), to find the “10 sayings” a Mishnah in Avot said Hashem used to create the world. As you recall, he has decided the first of those sayings was yehi or, let there be light. Anything the Torah said before cannot count as one of the 10, including the first word of the Torah.

Questioning Creation

In line with the style of his time (Abarbanel prominently structures his commentary the same way), R. Arama raises a series of questions about the section of the Torah before he tells us how he understands it. Some of these questions might be familiar to us; some I have not seen in earlier commentators. As always, I am not going to share all his questions, to save space, only a taste of the issues of concern to him. In our review of his answers, we’ll see more.

He wonders why light came first, since no one needed it yet [note his limiting light to a utilitarian item, valuable only when there are beings who will make use of it]. The verse then presents light’s creation differently than will be true of other items, omitting the phrase va-yehi chen, it happened as Hashem said, before recording the Divine reaction to the light, that it was good.

His next three questions echo ones found in Chazal: how night could come first when night is what happens after daylight goes away; what day and night could mean when the sun, moon and stars did not exist; and why the first day is called yom echad, day one, rather than yom rishon, the first day.

Like light, the Torah veers from its usual pattern when it describes the creation of the rak’ia, the firmament. As Ben Zoma wonders, in Bereishit Rabbah, in most of the creation story Hashem called for an item to come into being, and then it did. Here Hashem says yehi raki’a, let there be a raki’a, and then verse 7 says va-ya’as Elokim et ha-raki’a, Hashem made the firmament. Why?

Let me close with a last question few of us think to ask. R. Arama takes for granted belief in creation ex nihilo, from absolute nothingness, as a belief held by all Jewish thinkers [there’s much discussion and debate about whether that’s true, especially for Rambam, but R. Arama assumed it; one of the important corollaries of this belief is the room it leaves for miracles, as Ramban often stressed. Since Hashem created the system from nothing, Hashem can adjust/play/change it at will].

Here it should mean Hashem could have created the world in any order. Why not create humans first, to witness the process, to transmit this truth to all humanity for all time? [He does not say where these humans would have stood, sat or lived while watching all this unfold.]

So much for questions. Let’s start on some answers.

Why Day One Is Not Described as the Day of Creating Heavens and Earth

Commentators have long struggled with the beginning of the Torah, where the first verse says heaven and earth came first and the story of the first day speaks of light coming first. R. Arama says both are true: heaven and earth were first, but since they are not muchashim, accessible to ordinary human experience, the Torah would not include them in the daily order of creation.

Prophets do feel/sense/have visions of the heavens, which reminds us of his expansive reading of the word shamayim, heavens. Literally, he likely took the word to refer to everything beyond the atmosphere, which to him included the angels who would move those heavenly bodies. Those angels are what prophets saw, with whom they communicated. 

[Let’s repeat the point to embed it in our active memory going forward. Heavens for R. Arama refers primarily to the angels who move the visible heavenly bodies, and it’s their angelic realm prophets visit in their visions.]

He thinks the earth was omitted from the story of the first day for another reason: it’s not yet being complete. In his view, the Torah only describes creation of an item on the day it was completed. The idea, which he asserts many other times as well, alters our reading of the first chapter of Bereishit greatly. There may be items we hear about that actually took more than a day to complete (as he will suggest regarding the sun, moon and stars), and there may be some that started during the six days but finished later (although then we’d have to think about what the description of Shabbat as ceasing creation meant); nor would we know if some items were created over the course of two or more days, since we would only hear about them once they were completed.

Light’s Perfection

The Torah spoke about light first, R. Arama says, because it came out perfect, healing the darkness that preceded it. (Darkness has a tangible reality on its own, he and many other Jewish thinkers assumed; it has a tangible reality and is not just the absence of light.)

The Torah speaks of Hashem seeing the light, that it was good, rather than the more general “Hashem saw it was good,” because the light itself was complete, although the bodies that would transmit light (which R. Arama thinks were created at the same time as light) would not be hung in the sky until the fourth day.

They were, however, already in the process of being created, an example of the Torah speaking only of what’s complete. [He does not say why, and I can think of several possibilities.]

Light also means more than what we call light. By improving darkness, he says, light shows us the possibility of filling lacks, improving them. Kohelet 2:13 compares the advantage of wisdom over foolishness to the advantage of light over darkness, which makes attaining wisdom a sort of bringing light to a dark room. We are born in intellectual darkness, as the world was born dark, and then light comes.

Day and Night

Light cleared darkness from its start, because R. Arama thinks Hashem let the world sit in darkness for the time period of a night, and then created light. (He’ll discuss how time could be calculated in the absence of a sun and moon). For him, va-yehi erev va-yehi boker, there was evening and there was day, reflects literal events; it’s not just how the Torah tells us how to experience the two.

[He does not say more, so I will restrict myself to pointing out there’s much rich symbolism to a world created in darkness that light later comes to dispel.]

I am skipping a discussion of the difference between night and day to use our available space to consider what he says about time.

Keeping Track of Time Without a Sun

Natural philosophers of his era thought time depended on motion, sunrise and sunset, which would leave no way to calculate or track time before those or some other heavenly bodies had been created. R. Arama says the Torah wants us to know they’re wrong, minimally in not noticing other changes or motions that could serve as clocks (he gives the example of people who have always lived in a cave, never seen the sun, yet can find other ways to track time; I might object that those people in some way already know of the tide of time. Barring that, how would they know they wanted to track time?).

Then he broadens his idea of what counts as time. The soul itself notes earlier and later, he says, making it not a matter of external motions or changes. More, he says time is inherent to creation. Part of what Hashem made was a universe of a “before” and an “after.” That’s the true idea of time, events proceeding in order, which can be tracked in some objective way, even without a sun, moon or stars.

Time came with creation, is R Arama’s first way of seeing it. [Scientists today ponder “time’s arrow,” since they do not see any law of physics that requires events to move forward rather than backward, an impression that my limited understanding says has become more significant with advanced physics, since many of the equations seem to work equally well in reverse.]

By Rabbi Gidon Rothstein


Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and nonfiction, most recently “We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong With the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It.” He lives in Bronx, New York, with his wife and three children.

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