Monday, October 01, 2007

Ramban on Creation - An Aristotelian Interpretation!

In anticipation of Parshat Breishit, I started learning the Parsha and relearned the Ramban on Breishit Bara for the umpteenth time. I finally understood it clearly, so I decided to write it up and add some thoughts that came to mind.

The word Breishit is difficult to understand in the context it is used. Literally, it would translate “At the beginning of, God created the heaven and the earth”. The question is therefore at the beginning of what?

Rashi and most commentators therefore translate the verse as “In the beginning of the creation (or alternatively, of creating) the heaven and the earth, while the earth was [still] Tohu and Bohu, while it [still] was dark over [atop] the depths and the wind of God was hovering on the water, God said let there be light.” The thrust of the story is to give us an idea in what state the earth was in when God created light. The problem with this approach is that we have to ignore the word Bara as it is read [punctuated] by the Mesora and read it Bero. It also leaves us wondering what the point is telling us about the wind hovering over the water. Rashbam tries to address it by explaining that it introduces how the waters were separated on the second day. It is clearly forced. One great advantage of this approach though is that the Torah is not telling us how God created. It just tells us that certain things were created among a multitude of others. The ones mentioned are those necessary to introduce us to the creation of man who is the subject of the rest of the Torah. It also introduces us to the idea that God created the world, which is a fundamental belief in Judaism. We do not have to worry about explaining the verses in light of reality and science. The Torah is describing phenomena rather than explaining them.

Ramban though is bothered by the text. He prefers to stick to it and translates it as “At first God created heaven and earth. In that process, the earth was at first Tohu and then became Bohu. At this stage, there was darkness on the depth [water] and God’s wind was hovering above the water. And God said let there be light…” This approach reads the text as a sequential description of how things came into being and we now have to deal with sciences and reality. Here is how Ramban does it –

God created the world from absolute nothingness by producing first a formless matter [in the Aristotelian sense see my post ]. However in Aristotelian physics the matter that makes up earth is not the same as the one that makes up the heavens, thus God had to create two such entities, the matter of heaven and the matter of earth. Focusing on the matter that makes up earth, the Torah tells us that at first it was so tiny and indiscernible that people wondered if it even existed thus the word Tohu. It is only after being endowed with Form that it could be discerned and pointed to - thus Bohu – a composite of two words Bo {in it] and Hu [it is]. The components of this matter were darkness which, naturally, is located over the depth. As we know, medieval physics saw matter as a composite of earth, water, fire and air which naturally find their place one above the other, because of their specific “heaviness”, in this particular order. In the natural setting, we would have earth first, which is included in the word “Veha’aretz” followed by water which is “tehom” and above it “Choshech” – darkness which is the basic component of fire or light. Ramban and other medieval thinkers, Rambam included, saw darkness as the lack of light and not a separate entity. One does not make darkness – it just is there when light is removed. They therefore concluded that darkness is light in-potentia[1]. [See my post .] Air is on top of fire; however when it is moved by wind – “Ruach” – it insinuates itself between fire and water. Now that this was in place, God transformed darkness – light in-potentia - into light in-actu.

According to this, the verse should be read, “in the beginning God created two matters: the matter of Heaven and the matter of Earth. Earth was at first indiscernible and when it took on form, in its natural state it was composed of earth at the core, water on top of earth on top of which was light in-potentia or darkness. Air was on top of all these but as God made the wind blow, the air moved and insinuated itself between the fire and the water.”

This approach is very similar to the one Rambam presents in MN 2:30 with some variations. One can see it as an interpretation of Rambam read directly into the verses. I find this fascinating. Ramban who attacks Rambam and accuses him of having succumbed to Aristotle and the other Greek philosophers, finds himself interpreting the Torah in light of that same accursed Philosophy!

Ramban, having introduced the concept of “formless matter” that is almost indiscernible, addresses the Gemara in Yoma 54b referring to the Mishna that teaches that in the second Beit Hamikdash, in the Kodesh HaKodashim, there was an Even Shetyiah, which was used on Yom Kippur instead of the Aron, the Ark. The Gemara says that it was called Even Shetyiah because the world was founded from that rock – a play on the words Shetyiah and Nishtat - founded. Ramban suggests that the rock symbolized the first matter, the formless one. The idea is that the purpose of the Beit Hamikdash is to focus us towards our goal of thinking about God and trying to apprehend Him. In the process of looking for His traces in His actions, we arrive at the First Matter, the beginning of material existence. We then acknowledge that there is the Mystery beyond that First Matter, the unknowable God.

This idea of First Matter is very important too in Rambam’s theological world. He explains with that the error of the Princes at Matan Torah. We read there – (Shemot 24:10-11)

י וַיִּרְאוּ, אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו, כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר, וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם, לָטֹהַר.

10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness.

יא וְאֶל-אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ; וַיֶּחֱזוּ, אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאכְלוּ, וַיִּשְׁתּוּ. {ס}

11 And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not His hand; and they beheld God, and did eat and drink. {S}

Rambam understands that they were trying to apprehend God, “they saw the God of Israel”. “Under His feet” is a metaphor for the first object that went from nothingness to existence, or the First Matter. It was transparent like the whiteness of a sapphire and like the cloudless heaven – it was practically indiscernible. These princes confused that First Matter with God. They could not see beyond matter and, like many of our contemporaries, could not accept the possibility of an existence beyond the material. The transcendental escaped them. That is the meaning of the metaphor – “they ate and drank”. They were so steeped in material existence that when they contemplated the Deity they remained in physicality – “eating and drinking”. (See MN 1:5, 1:28)

Moadim Lesimcha.

[1] Rambam in MN 2:30 understands, as I read him, that when God says let there be light, He changed darkness and added to it making it light in-potentia. Until then it was not. That fits with the fact that the sun was only created on the fourth day. It is only then that light in-actu appeared. Ramban had to deviate here as he sees the days as real 24 hours while Rambam does not. But this is for another discussion.


  1. Great post.

    I really like the explanation of Even Shetiya!

  2. What I love about the Ramban's peirush is how he weaves in the idea of bara being an utterly distinct and unique act, in one fell swoop co-opting Aristotlean physics and the idea of Hashem being the singular source of the universe in its entirety. Once matter is created by the KBH, every subsequent action of applying form is yatzar, similar but in a different category from the first act of creation. It is an absolutely fascinating account, even more so because this is where you would expect to see the influence of the Kabbalah (or the midrash of Nehuniah ben Kanah as the Ramban refers to it), not Aristotlean physics.

  3. RJM, Thank you.

    Steve, excellent point and that is the surprising thing that Ramban accepted totally Rambam's approach. However he keeps on commenting that there is a "sod" in the word Breishit which refers to Chochma. He is saying that I am only giving you a part of the story, there is much more that I keep to myself. Clearly that other part was built on the reality as he saw it and understood it. it is only later that kabbalah left reality and took the "division of the waters" literally.