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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Bereshit: The Heavens and the Earth, and the Chicken and the Egg

Updated: Oct 24, 2019

Almost every time the Torah mentions the heavens and the earth, it mentions the heavens first, and the earth second. Our Parsha [weekly reading] contains the first, and perhaps the most famous instance of this pattern:

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
(Genesis 1:1)

But our Parsha also contains an exception; the only one of its kind in the Pentateuch (and, what’s more, I can only find one additional exception in the rest of the Bible, see Psalms 148:13) – the only verse in the Torah in which the heavens and earth are listed together, but in reverse order:

אֵ֣לֶּה תוֹלְד֧וֹת הַשָּׁמַ֛יִם וְהָאָ֖רֶץ בְּהִבָּֽרְאָ֑ם בְּי֗וֹם עֲשׂ֛וֹת יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶ֥רֶץ וְשָׁמָֽיִם׃
Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created, on the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven.
(Genesis 2:4)

This rule of Biblical literature and its exception appear in a Midrash (Bereshit Rabba 1:15), recounting a debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai [the first century academies of Hillel and Shammai].

Beit Shammai argue that the heavens were created before the earth. They appeal to a verse in the book of Isaiah (66:1), according to which the heavens are God’s throne, and the world is his footstool.

So said the LORD: The heaven is My throne And the earth is My footstool...

What would you create first, the throne or the footstool? Which item of furniture here is the accessory and which the accessorised? Moreover, we could offer Bet Shammai another argument. Every single time, bar one, in the Pentateuch, and every single time, bar two, in the entire Bible, in which the heavens and earth are listed in a single breath, the heavens are listed first. The earth is secondary. The heavens are primary.

Beit Hillel isn’t moved by Beit Shammai’s appeal to furniture or to scripture. They bring their own argument from the world of construction. The heavens might be God’s palace, but you don’t build a palace before you’ve built the foundations. Don’t be fooled, they might argue, by the Biblical habit of listing the heavens before the earth. It’s entirely unsurprising. Of course, the Bible is going to draw our attention, in general, to the wonders of the palace before discussing the prosaic functionality of its foundations. But, when the Bible discusses the actual construction of the creation – the day of its making – we’re told that God made the earth and [only then,] the heavens (Genesis 2:4). The palace might draw our attention, but chronologically, and structurally, the foundations come first.

Beit Hillel also draws our attention to a verse in the book of Pslams. The verse in question doesn’t constitute a direct exception to our pattern since it doesn’t mention the heavens and the earth in a single clause, placing the earth before the heavens. Instead, it includes two separate clauses – one about the earth, and one about the heavens – and, in conflict with the general Biblical pattern – the earth comes first. Unsurprisingly, the verse concerns their construction:

לְ֭פָנִים הָאָ֣רֶץ יָסַ֑דְתָּ וּֽמַעֲשֵׂ֖ה יָדֶ֣יךָ שָׁמָֽיִם׃
At first, you founded the earth; and the heavens are the work of your hands.
(Psalms 102:26)

In the continuation of the Midrash, Rabbi Chanin points out that even the first verse of our Parsha, which seems to support Beit Shammai, actually supports Beit Hillel. True, the first verse seems to tell us that, at the beginning of time, God created the heavens and the earth, and that the heavens came first. But, as Rashi would later read it, Rabbi Chanin seems to read this verse differently, not “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” but “In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth”, and then the next verse continues to tell us that, in those early stages of creation, “the earth was unformed and void” - וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ – the implication being that the earth already existed; in the language of the Midrash וְהָאָרֶץ כְּבָר הָיְתָה, the earth already was; it was the first thing to exist.

Having laid out the claims of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, and having explored the arguments presented on their behalf, we have to ask: what’s really going on? What are they really arguing about? Why was this important to them? What was really at stake?

Perhaps the two sides really believed that, quite literally, if you were to rewind time and view the actual creation, you’d see, according to Beit Shammai, the heavens created before the earth, and according to Beit Hillel, the earth created before the heavens. Perhaps that’s true. But, it’s almost inconceivable that this question of cosmological history exhausts the essence of their debate. Did contemporary science vindicate Beit Shammai? In cosmological terms, the earth is very young. The heavens are much older. If Beit Hillel were alive to see these developments, would they concede defeat? Surely not. The debate goes deeper than that.

One plausible interpretation of the debate is that Beit Hillel is playing Aristotle to Beit Shammai’s Plato. According to Plato, the concrete world in which we live is something like a shadow of the real world, the world of Plato’s forms, sometimes called Plato’s heaven. In our world of every day experience, we see shapes and colours and objects galore, but none of them are perfect. A concrete physical triangle will always contain little imperfections. But the triangles we study in geometry are perfect. Those are the triangles of Plato’s heaven. The triangles down here on earth are just a pale reflection.

We’ve got two goldfish at home, but neither of them are perfect specimens of goldfishiness! The ideal form of a goldfish exists in Plato’s heaven – the ones down here are just pale reflections. Plato’s heavenly forms are reality; the denizens of this world are just their shadows. The heavens come first. The earth is second.

On this reading of the debate, Beit Hillel takes Aristotle’s line against Plato. According to Aristotle, properties like triangularity, or the property of being a goldfish, can’t exist on their own. Triangularity is a property that exists only in triangles. The property of being a goldfish exists only in actual goldfish. A good metaphor for this line of thought would tell you that Plato’s heaven might be a beautiful palace, but it couldn’t stand-up were it not for the foundations provided by concrete objects in a real world.

At this point, we can feather in a third view that appears in the Midrash. Rabbi Yochanan takes issue with both sides of the debate. According to him, the accurate order of creation ran as follows: God started work on the heavens before he started work on the earth, but he completed the earth before he completed the heavens. Genesis 1:1 tells us what God started first, and Genesis 2:4 tells us what he completed first.

If Beit Shammai are fighting in Plato’s corner, and Beit Hillel are fighting in Aristotle’s corner, what is Rabbi Yochanan adding?

Perhaps he’s advocating for a combination of views, he’s telling us that some Platonic properties are primary and, just as Plato would urge, their instances are mere shadows of a more perfect world, but he’s also saying that some Platonic properties depend upon us, just as Aristotle would urge, and couldn’t have come into being before we did.

Some abstract properties are natural, and the natural world merely reflects them – just as our goldfish are mere shadows of a perfect Platonic specimen of goldfishiness. But some properties are socially constructed and couldn’t exist without us. For example, the property of being a high-court judge is not a concept that existed before humanity did. It’s an abstract property that we brought into being. Some would argue that symphonies, novels, and plays would also be good examples of something abstract that came into being only through human agency. The heavens were started before us, but couldn’t be completed without us – Beethoven had to exist before he could put his symphonies up there.

As a professional metaphysician, it’s pleasing for me to think that Beit Shammai, Beit Hillel, and Rabbi Yochanan were also engaged in metaphysics. It’s pleasing for me to read their debate as a reflection of the debate between Plato and Aristotle. But they weren’t just philosophers, nor is the Midrash, despite its philosophical depth, merely a collection of philosophical arguments. Accordingly, it’s unlikely that we’ve got to the bottom of this debate unless we touch upon something of existential import. So, we should try to dig a little deeper.

Theologically, it could be thought that Beit Shammai is taking an extremely conservative line, Beit Hillel an extremely radical line, and that Rabbi Yochanan is trying to find a moderate compromise between the two.

The conservative line of Beit Shammai insists that God has no need of His creation. Our job is, perhaps, to raise and sanctify the earthly, to try to become more like our creator, and to elevate our surroundings until they become more like the heavens. But were it not for God’s overwhelming beneficence, by rights, he and his heavenly hosts would have no interest in anything that goes on down in our coarse and material realm.

The radical line of Beit Hillel, by contrast, claims that there can be no King if there is no Kingdom, and therefore, however exalted God is, we human beings provide some of the grounds for his exaltation. There can be no meaningful Divine law if there are no subjects to stand obligated by it, and so, once again, however supernal the Torah may be, it derives some of its significance from our existence. We might be the craggy subterranean foundations to a beautiful palace, but the palace couldn’t stand without us.

Beit Hillel’s claims skirt too close to heresy for comfort. But there is some precedent, in the Jewish tradition, for talking this way. A Midrash in Devarim Rabba (2:14) states in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:

When the ministering angels gather together before the Holy One, blessed be He, to ask Him when Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur will be, the Holy One, blessed be He, says to them, “Why are you asking me? You and I will go to the terrestrial Rabbinical court."

It is the human courts that intercalate the calendar and cause the festivals to fall out when they do. It is the human courts, and those over whom they have jurisdiction, that give meaning and significance to the Heavenly law.

Having cited this Midrash, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik continues to summarise the “world perspective” of his great-great-great-great grandfather, R. Hayyim Volozhin, in his work, Nefesh Ha-Hayim. Rabbi Soloveitchik summarises:

Rabbi Soloveitchik

[I]t is man who gives life to and constructs the worlds that are above him. The whole of transcendental existence is subjugated to him and under his sway. He creates supernal, exalted worlds and destroys them... All reality higher than our lowly world is from you; it exists by virtue of man’s creative power. [The Rabbis tell us to “Know that which is higher than you” (Avot 2:1). But their words, in the original Hebrew - דַּע מַה לְּמַעְלָה מִמְּךָ - can also be read:] Know that [that] which is higher is from you!

But even if the tradition licenses this way of speaking, it cannot be the full story. Surely the creatures of God have to recognize God’s transcendence, independence, supremacy, and perfection. We are dust and ashes. He is, in the words of the liturgy, אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר מָלַךְ בְּטֶרֶם כָּל יְצִיר נִבְרָא, master of the world who reigned before all of creation was formed. Perhaps it is for this reason that Rabbi Yochanan, the author of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Midrash, steps into our Midrash to tone down the extremes to which Beit Hillel’s position seems to lead. Yes, he tells us, there is some limited sense in which God is crowned king by his subjects, and in which his laws receive substance from the existence of a people to live by them. Some element of Heavenly reality couldn’t have existed before the completion of the earth, but notwithstanding that fact, the Heavens were started first, and they were quite sufficiently Heavenly all on their own.

A kabbalistic tradition maintains that, in the days of the Messiah, the halakha will follow Beit Shammai. This implies that there’s something ultimately right about Beit Shammai’s general outlook, but that the world somehow isn’t ready for it. Contrastingly, it implies that there’s something ultimately not quite right about Beit Hillel’s outlook, but that despite its shortcomings, it’s an appropriate guide for our imperfect world; a more appropriate guide than the more sublime teachings of Beit Shammai.

Hassidic philosophy tends to teach that the world can be viewed from two perspectives. From the perspective of God, the world is almost non-existent. Indeed, from the self-sufficient, perfect, and unchanging perspective of God, there is nothing else but God (and His thoughts). But from our perspective, things are very different. Indeed, from our perspective, God is often all too distant; all too absent. All that’s real is us.

I often liken these two perspectives to the perspective of a novelist and the perspective of the characters in a novel. From the novelist’s perspective, the characters, their lives, and their tribulations are not ultimately real. From the characters’ perspective, however, their lives and tribulations couldn’t be more real. In the story, the characters are not mere fictions, even if, from a perspective outside of the story, that’s all that they really are. But once again, in the story, the characters are real. Sometimes, it’s the author who isn’t real, since the author isn’t always a character in his own stories.

Beit Shammai is taking the perspective of the author. They’re saying that our world, from the perspective of the author, is just a shadow of reality, an accessory, a footstool. And Beit Shammai is right. Beit Shammai, with its messianic Torah, is expressing an ultimate reality. But we don’t live in an ultimate reality. We live inside the story. And Beit Hillel’s Torah is what expresses the truth from our perspective.

From our perspective, God the author is also a character in the story that He tells; our story. We meet him. He commands us. We have a relationship Him. He is King. He is Almighty. But, again, from the perspective of the story, this religion called Judaism, and its commandments, and precepts, and mission, would make no sense if we didn’t exist. In the story, we might be coarse characters with few redeeming features, but the story’s heavenly realm is built upon our foundations. The story wouldn’t make sense without us in it. In the story, we give substance to that which is higher than us. That, as I understand it, is Rabbi Soloveitchik’s point.

When we consider the heavens and the earth, and our relationship to them, two conflicting verses from the book of Psalms come to mind. According to the first:

לַֽ֭יהוָה הָאָ֣רֶץ וּמְלוֹאָ֑הּ תֵּ֝בֵ֗ל וְיֹ֣שְׁבֵי בָֽהּ׃
The land and all that it holds belongs to the Lord, the world and all of its inhabitants.
(Psalms 24:1)

According to the second:

הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם שָׁ֭מַיִם לַיהוָ֑ה וְ֝הָאָ֗רֶץ נָתַ֥ן לִבְנֵי־אָדָֽם׃
The heavens belong to the LORD, but the earth He gave over to man.
(Pslams 115:16)

Which one is it? Does the world, and all that’s in it, belong to God, or has it been given by Him, to man? There are many ways to answer this question and thereby reconcile the conflict between these verses. The suggestion favoured by a number of Hassidic masters is that both verses are true, but only from different perspectives, and that the first verse reflects a more ultimate reality than the second.

From God’s point of view, we creatures barely exist at all, so, of course, everything belongs to Him. From that perspective the Heavens come first. The earth is just a shadow. This is the Torah of Beit Shammai.

But from our perspective, as characters in the story that God’s telling, we certainly do exist and we have been given a stage upon which to live our lives, to acquire our own possessions, and to express our individual natures in the service of God. From our perspective, the heavens belong to God, but the earth He gave over to man, and – indeed – the earth provides the very foundations for the heavens. This is the Torah of Beit Hillel.

According to our Midrash, both of these perspectives, both of these layers of reality are reflected in our Parsha. Beit Shammai’s view is expressed by the parsha’s first verse, in which the heavens proceed the earth. Beit Hillel’s view is expressed in the second chapter, in which, for once, the earth proceeds the heavens.

Beit Shammai’s position may reflect a more fundamental reality, but Beit Hillel’s position reflects the reality in which we live. In this world, the halakha accords with Beit Hillel, but perhaps we’d do well to live that way whilst recognizing the existence of a deeper reality; a reality according to which God is all there really is.

What came first, the heavens or the earth?


Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Peshischa (1767-1827) carried a slip of paper in each pocket. On one he had written, in accordance with the saying of the Mishna (Sanhedrin 4:5): ‘for my sake was the world created.’ On the other, he had written the words of Abraham (Genesis 18:27): ‘I am dust and ashes.’ Both were true.

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