The Judaic View of Nature

The view of creation that emerges from the Sefer Yetzira is implicit throughout biblical and rabbinical literature. Concepts like those of the Four Elements and the creative power of the Hebrew letters appear in various places throughout the Talmud, Midrash and other later writings.

The Judaic view of nature is expressed with the utmost clarity -- albeit in somewhat different terms from those of the Sefer Yetzira, and without its mystical dimension -- at the very beginning of the Mishneh Torah, the classic fourteen volume compendium of Jewish law by the great Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known as Rambam (or Maimonides, 1135-1204).

As well as being one of the towering Torah scholars of all time, Rambam was well-versed in Greek and Arabic philosophical literature. Yet in the section presented here below, where Maimonides systematically presents the fundamentals of the Torah view of the natural world, all the ideas are rooted in earlier biblical or rabbinical sources.

There has been much discussion about whether Rambam was privy to the kabbalistic tradition, which in his time was still not known outside of various secret circles of scholars and mystics. Whether Rambam was familiar with the details of the kabbalistic system as expressed in the Zohar and other Zohar-related literature is open to question. On the other hand it is quite likely that he knew of the Sefer Yetzira and its contents. The Sefer Yetzira is explicitly mentioned in some manuscripts of the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 7:13 (41a)). The first commentaries on the Sefer Yetzira had been circulating for at least a hundred and fifty years before Rambam's birth, including that of the outstanding sage and philosopher, the revered Rabbi Saadia Gaon.

The Judaic View of Nature

From Rambam's Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah (Laws Relating to the Fundamentals of Torah) Chapters 2-4

Contemplation of God's works

It is a positive duty to love and fear the glorious, awesome God, as written in the Torah: "And you shall love HaVaYaH your God" (Deuteronomy 6:5) and "Fear HaVaYaH your God" (Deuteronomy 6:13).

The way to come to love and fear God is by contemplating God's amazing works and creations and seeing the infinite wisdom expressed in them. This will immediately bring one to love God and want to praise and glorify Him. One will experience tremendous longing and yearning to know God's great Name. In the words of David: "My soul thirsts for ELoKiM, the living Power" (Psalms 42:3). As one contemplates further on these very things, one will immediately recoil in fear and awe, realizing that one is a tiny, lowly, dark creature standing with his flimsy, limited wisdom before the One Who has perfect knowledge....

Form and Matter

Everything which the Holy One, blessed-be-He, created in His universe comes into one of three categories:

What is meant by the prophet's statements that they saw an angel of fire, or with wings? All these are prophetic visions and parables....

Since the angels do not have bodies, what separates the form of the various angels from one another is that each one is below the level of the other and exists by virtue of its influence.

Everything exists through the power of the Holy One, blessed-be-He, and His goodness. By saying one angelic force is below another, we are not talking about physical space and height the way we do when we say one person is sitting higher up than another. Rather, we are talking about their relative spiritual level, just as one might say of two sages, one of whom is greater than the other, "One is on a higher level than the other". Similarly that which is the cause of something else is said to be "above" it....

All of these spiritual forms (TzuRoT, the "angels") are alive. They know the Creator and have the most enormous consciousness of God, each according to its level, though not in proportion to God's true greatness.

Knowing God

Even the highest angel is unable to form any conception of the true essence of God as He really is, since the angel's mind or consciousness is too limited to know or grasp Him. Yet this highest angel does know and experience more of God than the form below it.

All existence except for the Creator -- from the very first form down to the smallest mosquito in the depths of the earth -- came into being through God's truth. Since God knows Himself and knows His true greatness, beauty and truth, He knows everything. Nothing is hidden from Him. The Holy One, blessed-be-He, recognizes His truth and knows it as it is. He does not know with a knowledge that is external to Him the way that humans know. This is because we humans are not one and the same as the knowledge we possess, whereas in the case of the blessed God, He, His knowledge and His life are a complete and total unity.... He is the Knower, He is the Known, and He is the Knowledge itself. All is one. It is beyond the ability of our mouths to explain this or our ears to take it in, nor is man's heart able to grasp this in its entirety....

The Heavenly Spheres

The heavens are made up of spheres. There are nine spheres. The closest to us is that of the moon. Above it, the second sphere contains the planet Kochav (Mercury). Above this, the third sphere contains the planet Nogah (Venus). The fourth sphere contains the Sun. The fifth contains the planet Ma'dim (Mars). The sixth sphere contains the planet Tzedek (Jupiter). The seventh contains the planet Shabbtai (Saturn). The eighth sphere contains all the stars we see in the sky. The ninth sphere revolves from east to west every day. It surrounds and encompasses everything. The planets and stars all appear to be in a single sphere even though one is higher than another. This is because the spheres themselves are pure and refined like glass or sapphire.... This is why the stars in the eighth sphere may appear lower than the first sphere.

Each of the eight main spheres containing the planets and stars is itself divided into many individual spheres, one above the other like the layers of an onion. Some of these spheres revolve from west to the east, others from east to west..... There is no empty space between any of them.

None of the spheres are light or heavy. They are neither red, black nor any other color. Although we see them as blue, this is only our perception because of the height of the atmosphere. Similarly they have neither taste nor smell, because those qualities are present only in lower forms of matter. All these nine spheres surrounding the world are spherical like a ball, and the Earth is suspended in the middle....

From knowing the daily movements of the stars and planets, their positions north or south in the sky and their distance from or closeness to Earth, it is possible to know the total number of spheres and the way they revolve. This is the science of astronomy. Many books about these subjects were written by the wise men of Greece.

The Zodiac

The ninth sphere, which encompasses all the others, was divided by the sages of the early generations into twelve sections. They gave each of these sections a name based on the shapes that appeared to be formed by the stars in the corresponding section of the eighth sphere just below it. These are the mazalot (lit. sources of influence): the Ram (Aries), the Ox (Taurus), the Twins (Gemini), the Crab (Cancer), the Lion (Leo), the Virgin (Virgo), the Scales (Libra), the Scorpion (Scorpio), the Bow (Sagittarius), the Goat (Capricorn), the Bucket (Aquarius) and the Fish (Pisces).

The ninth sphere itself has no divisions and does not possess any of these shapes or stars. Rather, the larger stars in the constellations of the eighth sphere are seen in the shape of these forms or in a form resembling them. These twelve forms corresponded to these divisions only at the time of the Flood, which is when they were given these names. However at present they have already moved slightly, because all the stars in the eighth sphere move just like the sun and the moon. It is just that these stars move more slowly....

All the stars and spheres possess a soul, knowledge and intellect. They are alive and stand in recognition of the One who spoke and brought the world into being.

According to their size and level, they all praise and glorify their Creator, just like the angels. And just as they are aware of the Holy One, blessed-be-He, they are also conscious of themselves and of the angels above them. The level of consciousness of the stars and spheres is less than that of the angels but greater than of humans.

The Four Elements

Below the sphere of the moon, God created a type of matter which differs from the matter of the heavenly spheres. [This is matter as we know it here on Earth.] He created four forms (TzuRoT) for this lower kind of matter different from the forms of the matter of the upper spheres.

Each of these four forms was fixed in part of this lower kind of matter, and the four parts together make up the totality of matter as we know it on Earth. The first of these forms is that of Fire. When the form of Fire was joined to its portion of the totality of matter, the two produced the "body" of Fire. The second of these forms is that of Air. When this form was joined to its corresponding portion of matter, the two produced the "body" of Air. The third of these forms is that of Water. When the form was joined to its portion of matter, the two produced the "body" of Water. The fourth of these forms is that of Earth. When it was joined to its portion of matter, the two produced the "body" of Earth.

[In speaking of the "bodies" of Fire, Air, Water and Earth, Rambam does not appear to be talking of actual physical fire, air, water -- H20 -- and solid rock and dust the way most people think of them today so much as of four fundamental kinds of energy states underlying all the different solid, liquid, gaseous and radiational phenomena in the physical world.]

Thus below the heavens there are four different states of matter, one above the other, each encompassing the one below on all sides like a sphere. The first of these physical "bodies", which is closest to the sphere of the moon, is that of fire. Below it is the air. Below this is the water and below this the body of the Earth. There is no empty space devoid of all matter between them.

[Rambam's above statement may be more comprehensible if we think of a panoramic land- or seascape and consider how the earth is at the bottom, above it stand the waters of the seas and lakes, above this the air, and above the air the light, heat and other radiations ("fire") coming down from the sun, planets and stars.]

These four "bodies" do not possess a soul, nor are they conscious or self-aware. They are more like dead bodies. Each possesses its unique characteristics, but not consciously. They are unable to change their characteristics.

This does not contradict David's words (Psalms 148:7-8): "Praise God from the Earth, sea-monsters and all the depths, fire and hail, snow and vapor..." The verse means: Men, praise God for His might, which is visible in the fire, hail and other creations seen in the realms below the heavens, because their power is always visible to both the great and the small.

Fire, Air, Water and Earth

These four "bodies" -- fire, wind, water and earth -- are the fundamental elements or foundations of all the creations below the heavens. Anything that exists -- man, animal, bird, crawling insect, fish, plant, metal, precious stone, diamond, rock, mountain or lump of earth -- is a specific body composed of some combination of these four basic elements.

Thus all the specific bodies found below the heavens (with the exception of these four underlying physical elements) are combinations of form and matter in which the matter consists of a combination of these four basic elements. The four basic elements themselves are a combination of matter and form. [The word "form" (TzuRA) here refers to the spiritual qualities and structure of an entity and not merely its physical shape.]

The tendency of Fire and Air is to rise upwards from the depths of the earth out towards the sky. The tendency of Water and Earth is to go downwards from the sky towards the midpoint of the earth. These inherent tendencies stem not from conscious volition on the part of the basic elements but are functions of their natural make-up.

The nature of Fire is warm and dry. It is the lightest of these basic elements. Air is warm and moist, Water cold and moist, while Earth is dry and cold. Earth is the heaviest of the four elements. Water is lighter than earth, which is why it is found above it. Air is lighter than water, which is why it hovers above it. Fire is even lighter than wind.

Combinations of the elements

Since these are the fundamental elements, the matter constituting every single individual body -- man, animal, bird, fish, plant, metal or stone -- is a combination of fire, wind, water and earth. When any one of them combines with the others it undergoes a change. For this reason the various visible combinations of elements are not like any of the elements as it would be if it were to stand alone. In any given combination you will never find even the tiniest portion of pure Fire, pure Air, pure Water or pure Earth. In combining to form a single body they all change.

Any body made up of a combination of these four basic elements will have some combination of cold and warmth, moistness and dryness. Some bodies have a higher proportion of Fire -- for example, creatures with living souls. Accordingly, they have a higher temperature. Conversely, there are some bodies with a greater concentration of Earth -- for example, stones. Accordingly, they are very dry. Similarly, some bodies have a higher concentration of Water, and accordingly they are moist.

One body may be warmer than another that is itself warm, or one body may be drier than another body that is itself dry. Some bodies are markedly cold, others particularly moist. In some bodies, coldness and dryness are equally noticeable. The proportion of a given element in the combination making up a particular body will express itself in particular characteristics found in that body.

Decomposition of matter

Every entity that is a combination of these four basic elements will ultimately decompose and separate back into them. Some will decompose after a mere few days, others only after many years. But it is not possible for something made out of some combination of them not to decompose in the end and separate back to them. Even gold and ruby have to decompose eventually and return to their basic elements, part of them becoming Fire, part of them Water, part of them Air and part of them Earth.

Since every entity must eventually decompose and separate into these four basic elements, why was Adam told: "You will return to dust," [implying that man will turn back into the Earth element alone]? The reason is that earth is the major component of man's physical body. Just because an entity decomposes, this does not mean it separates back into the four basic elements immediately. Rather it will decompose and change into another entity, which will then change into another entity, and so on, until eventually it turns back into the four basic elements. Thus all entities are constantly returning to their elemental state in a cyclical manner.

The four basic elements are in a constant state of flux, with a certain portion of each one -- though never the element in its entirety -- changing into another element every day and every moment. For example, part of the Earth closest to Water dissolves and actually becomes Water. Similarly, part of the Water closest to the Air evaporates and becomes Air. Part of the Air closest to the Fire changes and turns into fire. Similarly, part of the Fire closest to the Air changes, contracts and turns into Air. The wind closest to the Water changes, contracts and becomes Water. And the Water closest to the earth changes, contracts and becomes Earth.

This cycle of change proceeds little by little over the course of time. It will never happen that one of the basic elements will change completely into another. For example, the Water will never all turn into wind Wind, nor will all the Air turn into Fire, because it is not possible for one of the four basic elements to entirely cease to exist. Rather, a portion of the Fire will change to Air, and a portion of the Air to Fire.

There is an unremitting cycle of interchange between each pair of the four. This cycle is caused by the revolution of the sphere, which causes the four basic elements to combine to bring into being the matter of which humans, animals, plants, stones and metals are constituted. God gives each individual body the form appropriate to it.

Mind and Matter

You will never actually see matter without form or form without matter. It is the human mind that thinks about bodies and understands that they are combinations of form and matter. The mind grasps that some bodies consist of matter that is made up of a combination of the four basic elements, that other bodies (the planets, stars and spheres) are constituted of matter that is simple and uniform, and that there also exist pure forms (TzuRoT) that have no matter and cannot be seen by the physical eye. These last can be discerned only by the eye of the heart. We can know that they exist just as we know that God exists even though we do not see Him with our eyes.

When we speak of the soul of any living creature [such as an animal] we are referring to the form (TzuRaH) this creature was given by God. The extra dimension found in the soul of man is TzuRaT HaADaM, the Form of Man. Concerning this form, God said: "Let us make man in Our image and in Our likeness" (Genesis 1:26). Man has been given a form that is capable of knowing and communing with forms and ideas that are not material, like the angels, which are form without body, until man himself can be like them. When we speak of "form" (TzuRaH), we are not referring to the physical form of a body as seen by the eye -- the mouth, nose, cheeks and other parts of the body. In Hebrew that is called the To'AR ("shape").

This Tzurat HaAdam or Soul in man is not to be identified with the animal soul that causes it to eat, drink, reproduce, feel and think. Rather it is experienced in the higher consciousness of the inner soul. It is this inner soul or form that is referred to in the verse "in Our image and in Our likeness". Frequently this form is referred to as Nefesh or Ruach [in Kabbalistic terminology, the Nefesh Eloki, Godly Soul, or Neshamah].

This Soul is not a combination of the basic elements such that it must ultimately decompose and separate back into them. Nor is it merely a derivative of the animal soul such that it would need on the animal soul the way the animal soul needs the body. The Soul comes from God, from Heaven. For this reason, even after the body, composed as it is of the four basic elements, decomposes, and even after the animal soul ceases to exist (for the animal soul can only exist in conjunction with the body and needs the body for everything it does), even so, the Divine Soul will never cease to exist, for it does not need the animal soul in order to act.

Rather, the Divine Soul knows and comprehends realities that are above matter, it knows the Creator of all things, and it exists forever. Solomon said in his wisdom: "The dust will return to the Earth as it was and the Spirit will return to God who granted it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

Rambam concludes:

All the ideas we have explained in this connection are like a mere drop.... They are very deep and profound.....

When a person meditates on them and comes to recognizes the different orders of creation -- the angels, the spheres, man and so on -- and appreciates the wisdom of the Holy One, blessed-be-He, in all these creations, his love of God will grow, his soul will thirst for God, and his very flesh will crave with love of God.



Back to "The Mountain: Abraham" / Course Guide