From Raki’a to Animals, Sayings of Creation Two Through Seven

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Third Sha’ar (Continued): From Raki’a to Animals, Sayings of Creation Two Through Seven

The second statement of creation in R. Arama’s count called the raki’a into existence, which we translate as the firmament. R. Arama notes the view of R. Isaac Israeli, an early fourteenth century Spanish astronomer, whose Yesod ‘Olam defined raki’a in a way R. Arama considered both convincing and most faithful to the text.

Atmosphere as Raki’a

He said the raki’a is the atmosphere around us, which ends near the moon, and separated the upper beings (as you will recall, people in R. Arama’s time assumed the planets beyond the moon reflected and were guided by angels). To explain why the Torah would care to let us know about Hashem differentiating types of water, R. Arama cites many verses which use the metaphor of water for both people and angels.

He thinks the raki’a also came to convert the water over which Hashem’s spirit hovered [the second verse of the Torah says the earth was tohu va-vohu…and the spirit of Elokim hovered over the waters] into the four elements [until modern times, people believed the world consisted of earth, wind, fire, and water, which combined to produce all the materials of our world].

The raki’a took the not yet fully formed angels [like stem-cell angels], and set up some to be the causes of heavenly activity and motion and others to guide the workings of the four elements. He again reminds us the word “water” can signify physical and metaphysical objects, which is why R. Akiva (Chagigah 14b) warned his students (in their ascent to the upper realms) against saying “water” when they encounter marble stones (which look like water).

R. Akiva was concerned his students would confuse metaphysical “water” with actual water, and would run afoul of Tehillim 101;7, which says one who tells untruths cannot stand before Hashem. When “up there,” as it were, truth is vital, including making sure not to treat as physical that which is completely non-physical.

Different Realms and Their Realities

He seems to me to be separating the physical from the metaphysical in a way we do not usually stop to consider. The non-material upper realm will include something the verse can refer to as water. (At this point in the discussion, also, R. Arama expands the raki’a; since the verse speaks of va-ya’as Elokim, Hashem made, he says Hashem got more involved in the raki’a, as it were, and it spread to include all the geramei ha-shamayim, all the beings which cause the movements of all the heavens.)

There are three worlds, in his reading, ours, the upper, completely non-physical one (where falsehoods are not tolerated), and the raki’a,, made up of all the beings which move the heavens. For him, the rak’ia separates upper from lower in the sense of the passage from physical to not, a more profound differentiation than the simple reading of the verse.

I am skipping much of the rest of his discussion of this statement, including a great deal about when the verse will say ki tov, Hashem saw it was good. In R. Arama’s view, Hashem only says those words about an item created with some lacks which has now achieved its completed form. He also disputes others’ view of the raki’a, but seeing as how this view of the universe is no longer much in vogue, and I struggle with the length of this work anyway, let’s move on.

The Elaborated Waters

The third ma’amar, of creation in R. Arama’s count comes when Hashem says the waters under the heavens should come together and allow the land to be seen. R. Arama notes the text’s silence, from here on, about the waters above the raki’a, because—as Ramban said–the Torah does not tell us how the world was created or how it works, exactly.

The upper waters, which signified the angels who run the heavenly spheres and bodies, are part of ma’aseh Bereshit, the fundamental workings of Nature, which we are not told. The Torah moved on to the lower waters, because Hashem’s dealings with the lower world teach us lessons about how to inhabit the earth properly and productively.

Yeshayahu 45;18 declared Hashem’s interest in the world being settled [Chazal see the verse as establishing a universal obligation to have children]. To foster such settling, Hashem had the waters gather—R. Arama thinks tohu va-vohu, null and void, meant earth and water were mixed together in a way which left none clear to be seen—to reveal dry land, where people and animals could flourish.

His casual phrasing might lead us to miss two non-obvious implications of his idea. First, he thinks the Torah omitted parts of creation we did not need to know or could not understand. The Torah made a single reference to the upper waters, perhaps because we can see the heavenly bodies and infer the existence of angels. Once we had all we needed to know, the Torah said no more.

[I find the reminder important, since thousands of years of people have questioned what the Torah omits. R. Arama provides one part of the answer, we’re only told what we need to know].

Second, he sees tohu va-vohu as water and earth mixed together rather than a completely different substance, which I think again shows him to assume the Torah is not interested in giving us all the details of Creation.

The separation of the water and earth, for R. Arama, rid the world of tohu.

The Grasses

On the same day, Hashem has the earth bring forth three kinds of plant life, grasses and other non-produce growth, produce which is planted and harvested one time each (vegetables and grains), and plants whose trunks stay from year to year (trees).

When the ground produces all these forms of plant life, it banishes vohu and fulfills its potential. The idea of potential fulfilled also explains why the Torah attributes the plants to the earth itself. For fish and animals, for a counterexample, Hashem says the seas or earth should bring them forth, then the verse says Hashem actually created them.

Here, Hashem says the earth should bring forth these kinds of plant life, and the verse says the earth does. Because that’s what it was meant to do, and in completing its purpose, it earned another mention of ki tov, Hashem seeing that it was good.

The Stars and Planets

R. Arama cares a great deal about the stars and other heavenly bodies, and takes the fifth saying of creation (about the sun, moon, and stars) to speak about it at length, in great detail. The only part which seemed to me relevant enough to contemporary concerns to share is his explanation of why the Torah says these bodies were placed in the sky on the fourth day. After all, he thought the creation of these bodies happened earlier, with the creation of light itself.

He says the Torah mentions it here because the fifth day will discuss animals, fish, and birds, whose body temperature (he thinks) depends on the heat from the sun. Now that the heavenly bodies were needed, the Torah tells us they were placed in the sky [I guess one reason I found it interesting was because he assumes plants do not need the sun, when we today equally clearly assume the opposite].

Of course, heavenly bodies started the beginning of measurable time as well.

Creating and Giving Life To Water Creatures

The sixth statement of creation (in R. Arama’s count) comes when Hashem calls for the water to bring forth living creatures (verse 20), although we’ve already pointed out the next verse says Hashem created them. The verses teach us an important esoteric truth, says R. Arama [and whose truth would be much debated today] only Gd can create or instill a living spirit. It’s why Yeshayahu 57;16 says spirit comes from before Gd, and He created all souls.

Nor could prophets bring creatures to life on their own. In chapter 37 of Yechezkel, the prophet was told to tell the bones to develop flesh, skin, and spirit, but the life had to come from Hashem. When Elisha and Eliyahu each resuscitated a boy, they had to pray to Hashem to provide the actual life, even though they each performed many wonders without any need to call to Hashem. To bring people back to life, they need to pray.

R. Arama does not push the point, but he’s drawing a distinction which could apply to technological innovations as well. For all the wonders produced by scientific advances, R. Arama would assume (as do I, truth be told) a bright line between what human beings can do and the production of actual life.

The Evening Creation of Animals

R. Arama does not say much about the seventh statement of creation, where Hashem calls for the earth to produce animals. He does think they are better-formed than the creatures in the water, which is why the verse says va-yehi chen, and it was so (for R. Arama, only a creation without lacks earns the words, “and it was so.”)

He also says the animals were created in the evening of the sixth day, with people going to come during the following day. He does not elaborate on any reason why they would be created during different periods of the sixth day [an obvious candidate would be to see humans as more essential or important in some way, so they would take up the daylight, the more important part of the day].

The next step was the creation of human beings, which we’ll see next time.

About Gidon Rothstein

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