Tuesday, November 21, 2006

What have creation and darkness in common?

Rambam in MN 3:10 discusses how to define something that a certain quality has been removed from it. For example some medieval philosophers saw darkness as a substance. Rambam disagrees and sees it as we do - the absence of light. The ramifications from this way of thinking are how one should look at evil or bad when opposed to good. If good is existence then bad is the absence of existence. It is not a state in its own right but only the absence of good. Rambam then makes a statement that at first blush is quite confusing:

Just as we say of him who puts out the light at night that he has produced darkness, so we say of him who destroyed the sight of any being that he produced blindness, although darkness and blindness are negative properties, and require no agent. In accordance with this view we explain the following passage of Isaiah: "I form the light and create (Boreh) darkness: I make peace, and create (Boreh) evil" (Yeshayahu 45:7), for darkness and evil are nonbeings. Consider that the prophet does not say, I make (Osseh) darkness, I make (‘osseh) evil, because darkness and evil are not things in positive existence to which the verb "to make" would apply; the verb Bara "he created" is used, because in Hebrew this verb has a connection with nonbeing e.g., "In the beginning God created" (Bara), etc.; here the creation took place from nothing. Only in this sense can non-existence be said to be produced by a certain action of an agent. In the same way we must explain the following passage: "Who hath made man's mouth? or who makes the dumb, or the deaf, or the seeing," etc.”

Rambam is suggesting that the word Bara or Boreh are used when something is created from nothingness and that is why Yeshayahu chose Yotzer for light and Boreh for darkness, Osseh for peace but again Boreh for evil. He then makes a general statement that the word Bara has a connection with nonbeing. What is he trying to say?

Rav Yaakov Koppel Schwartz in his Yekev Ephraim, (introduced to me by R. D.H to whom I am eternally grateful) an excellent commentary on Ramban on Chumash has a very lucid explanation for this Rambam. When the word Bara is used for creating Yesh Me’ayin, something from nothingness, the image one gets is that something just appeared. Before this instant there was nothing and now there is something. That is in contrast with Yotzer or Osseh where one takes something and shapes it into something else. One takes a piece of wood and makes a utensil or a piece of furniture from it. Darkness happens on its own when one puts out the light. Darkness is not made, it just happens just like creation from nothingness.

Ramban in Breishit 1:1 says: “Ve’ein etsleinu belashon Hakodesh be’hotza’at Yesh Me’ayin ela lashon Bara” – Bara is the only word in Hebrew that refers to creation from nothingness. Harav Schwartz suggests that the above Rambam is his source.
The sefer Yekev Ephraim in general shows that Ramban wrote his commentary on Chumash with Rambam in the back of his mind and that Rambam had an enormous influence on his thought process. Anyone interested in understanding how our great Rishonim related to Jewish theology, how truth was their main concern, will really enjoy the sefer.


  1. >Rambam is suggesting that the word Bara or Boreh are used when something is created from nothingness and that is why Yeshayahu chose Yotzer for light and Boreh for darkness, Osseh for peace but again Boreh for evil.

    perhaps the author of this verse was just being poetic by using two different words for contrast. Rambam seems to be assuming what he is trying to prove.

    ex nilo can have only one instance (the creation of the universe). so the fact that the word 'boreh' is used in two different instances describing two different events seems to show that boreh has no relationship to ex nilo. It seems to me that Rambam is proving the opposite of what he wants to show

  2. That is the point of Rav Schwartz that Boreh is used for situations where things come into being on their own like darkness which happens when light goes out. Darkness is not made but caused. The usage of the word is restricted to such cases.

  3. The example of light would show (if we don't understand it as mere poetics) that "something" caused by the lack of something. This would be similar to the kabbalistic understanding of tzimtzum. Not that "something" is caused from "nothing".

    furthermore, your post claims that darkness has no positive existence, so the parallel would be that our universe is likewise "nothing" or no substance. Is this your view?

  4. BS, Boreh is a term related to an action. Just like darkness results from an action on something else and it just happens so creation from nothingness happened on its own as opposed to other things from then on are always created from something else.

    Creation from nothingness is the opposite of making darkness here is making something to nothing while creation is nothing to something. they both just happen. I hope i made it clear.

  5. yes, you're saying it's an inverse relationship.

    But using the direct relationship between the words would have interesting results leading to the kabbalistic idea of tzimtzum. Just like darkness is caused by the absence of light, likewise the universe is caused by the absence of divine light.

  6. BS, I see what you mean. It is a good idea though tzimtzum per se is quite problematic. It assumes that God takes up a space. That was behind the fight between the Gra and Chassidim. Within Chassidim there were different understanding of tzimtzum.

  7. It should be noted that in Toras Hashem Temima (right next to the discussion on whether it's worth it to study the sciences), the Ramban says explicitly that he believes in yetzira yesh m'yesh and yesh m'ayin -- bara is for yesh m'ayin (the dots of shamayim v'aretz) and the other verbs for yesh m'yesh.

  8. Fermat, it is quite clear that he holds of yesh me'ayin in his pirush al hatorah on Breishit. Interstingly not all members of his school did. His Chaver/Rebbi? Rabbeinu Ezra did not. See his pirush al shir hashirim in Chavel's Kitvei haramban on 2:15 page 494. Chavel in his note tries to mitigate it thus Chochma is the davar nivra yesh me'ayin. That already becomes problematic and gives me a headache as then Chochma is separate from Atzmuto!? It destroys the understanding of attributes.