In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And a wind from God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, "Let there be light;" and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. (Genesis 1:1-5)
With these epic words, the Torah, and indeed the world, begins. The beginning is clouded in mystery, perhaps allegory and allusion. The Mishna (Chagiga 11b) dissuades even the sage from attempting to penetrate the unfathomable.1Nonetheless, there are hints about the dawn and predawn -- or perhaps the term should be twilight -- of creation in our tradition.2 When commenting on this Mishna, the Talmud makes an obscure reference:
Rabbi Shimon the Pious said: "These are the nine hundred and seventy four generations who pressed themselves forward to be created before the world was created, but were not created. The Holy One, blessed be He, arose and planted them in every generation, and it is they who are the insolent of each generation." (Chagiga 13b-14a)3
There are those who were created, yet not created, who were "pressed" or contracted, and placed into future generations.4 Rashi explains this passage by presenting a verse in Psalms:5
He has remembered His covenant forever, the word He commanded to a thousand generations, the covenant which He made with Abraham, and his oath to Isaac. And confirmed the same to Jacob for a law, and to Israel for an everlasting covenant.(Psalms 105:8-10)
A cursory reading of this verse might lead to the understanding that the Torah is of limited scope and efficacy, for the verse speaks of a "mere" thousand generations. Rashi, however, explains that the Torah was given, not for a thousand generations, but to the thousandth generation. One could have simply attributed the term to vernacular usage and metaphor, citing other poetic uses of the "thousand years" or "thousand generations" coin of speech:
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"A thousand" is used in a verse in Ecclesiastes describing the futility of man's aspirations:
And though he live one thousand years twice told, yet has he seen no good; do not all go to one place? All the labor of man is for his mouth, and yet the appetite is not filled. (Ecclesiastes 6:6-7)
While we know that God transcends time, the Psalmist nonetheless utilizes this same "thousand" expression to describe Divine time:
A Prayer of Moses, the man of God: Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, before you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, You are God. You turn man back to dust; and say, 'Turn back, O children of men!' For a thousand years in your sight are but like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night. (Psalms 90:1-4)
Apparently, Rashi did not want to allow the possibility of a misunderstanding, of the suggestion that the Torah has an expiration date -- a "shelf life" of one thousand generations. Therefore, Rashi explains that the verse means the word of God was commanded to the "thousandth generation."6
Rashi did not want to allow the possibility of a misunderstanding that the Torah has an expiration date.
Saying that the Torah was given to the thousandth generation does solve the problem of suggesting that the Torah is limited. On the other hand, a separate problem is presented: When one counts the generations in the Torah from Adam until Moses, far less than a thousand are enumerated. In fact, according to tradition, the Torah was given to the 26thgeneration.7
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: "To what do these twenty-six [verses of] 'Give thanks' correspond? To the twenty-six generations which the Holy One, blessed be He, created in His world; though He did not give them the Torah, He sustained them by His love." (P'sachim 118a)
If the Torah was given to the thousandth generation, yet only twenty-six generations are discernible, nine-hundred seventy-four generations are "missing." This, according to Rashi, is the lesson of the Talmud.
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CREATED BUT NOT CREATED
According to this approach, both formulations are true: The Torah was given both to the thousandth generation and to the twenty-sixth generation. The solution lies in those who were "created but not created" before the world came into existence.
While this solution works mathematically, the theological implications seem challenging. The passage from the Talmud offered as an "explanation" is difficult to understand.
These are the nine hundred and seventy four generations who pressed themselves forward to be created before the world was created, but were not created. The Holy One, blessed be He, arose and planted them in every generation, and it is they who are the insolent of each generation. (Chagiga 13b-14a)
Were these people created or not? The entire passage seems paradoxical. An analysis of a series of teachings in the Midrash authored by Rav Abahu may shed light on this mystery.
Rav Abahu addresses a verse in the Torah which reflects upon creation:
These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens. (Genesis 2:4)
Rav Abahu explains this verse with the following cryptic comment:
These are the generations of the heaven ... Rabbi Abahu said: "Wherever 'these are' is written, it disqualifies [rejects] the preceding, [but] 'and these are' adds to the preceding. Here, where 'these are' is written, it disqualifies the preceding. What does it disqualify? Formlessness and void." (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis XII:3)
In this context, the linguistic comment seems strange. What could possibly have preceded creation? The answer provided is equally strange: "Formlessness and void" were now rendered disqualified.
One would have thought that these were non-entities, merely a description of a world prior to creation, or before the completion of creation. One would have understood that "formlessness and void" is the description of the world where the process of creation was incomplete, and not as an entity unto itself.
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FORMLESSNESS AND VOID
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
Apparently, Rav Abahu understands that this reference is an entity, whose existence necessitated an act of creation, and which was subsequently destroyed.
Instead of guessing as to the meaning of these words, we can avail ourselves of a second teaching of Rav Abahu, where he explains further.
Rabbi Abahu and Rabbi Hiyya Rabbah were engaged in discussion. Rabbi Abahu said: "From the very beginning of the world's creation the Holy One, blessed be He, foresaw the deeds of the righteous and the deeds of the wicked. Thus, 'Now the earth was formless and void' alludes to the deeds of the wicked. 'And God said: Let there be light' [refers] to the actions of the righteous. I still might not know in which of these He delights, the former or the latter. But from what is written, 'And God saw the light, that it was good,' it follows that He desires the deeds of the righteous, and not the deeds of the wicked." (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis II:5)
Here Rav Abahu identifies the deeds of the wicked with "formlessness and void." Our impression is of some type of time system and a gradual process of creation. The completed world is a monument to the rejected "pre-world" nothingness, which is now identified with the behavior of the wicked.
A third teaching by Rav Abahu will link the first two and help us form an organic whole of Rav Avahu's ideas:
Rabbi Judah b. R. Simon said: "'Let there be evening' is not written here, but 'And there was evening'; hence we know that a time-order existed before this." Rabbi Abahu said: "This proves that the Holy One, blessed be He, went on creating worlds and destroying them until He created this one, and declared, 'This one pleases Me; those did not please Me.'" Rabbi Pinchas said: "This is R. Abahu's reason: 'And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good' (Genesis 1:31). This pleases Me, but those did not please Me. (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis III:7)8
Here, Rav Abahu's ideas are much more daring. The description of "worlds being created and destroyed" certainly dampens our egocentrism. More importantly, these ideas can not be understood in a vacuum; all three teachings should be seen together. Creation as we know it destroyed an entity known as "formlessness and void," identified as the acts of the wicked, which apparently existed in a world prior to ours.9
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A DIFFERENT WORLD
Now perhaps we may understand our original passage from the Talmud: There were an additional 974 generations that existed, but did not exist. They existed in a different "world," not in ours.
It may be possible to discern the existence of this previous world and the wicked people who lived in it from the text of the Torah itself. When the Torah describes man's creation, we are told of a merger of physical and spiritual attributes:
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. (Genesis 2:7-8)
The creation of Adam does not echo the creation of other aspects of the world. God does not simply say "Let there be man!"10 Rather, we witness an amalgamation of two vastly disparate entities -- the dust of the ground and the breath of God.
The breath of God is ethereal, beyond human quantification.
The breath of God is ethereal, beyond human quantification. However, the dust of the earth is wholly of this world.
On a conceptual level, we may say that the creation of man describes the merger of existing material with a Divine endowment. Perhaps this pre-existing material was an earlier form of man, a wicked version which lacked the "breath of God" -- a soul. Such a man could be described as pure physicality, much like the dust of the earth.
This conceptual understanding has a basis in the world of Midrash. The Torah describes the birth of Seth by saying that he was in the image of his father Adam who in turn was in the image of God:
This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day when God created man, in the likeness of God He made him. Male and female He created them; and blessed them, and called their name Man, on the day they were created. And Adam lived a hundred and thirty years, and fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and called his name Seth. (Genesis 5:1-3)
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According to tradition Adam, was estranged from Eve during these one hundred and thirty years:
Rabbi Simon said: "'The mother of all living' means the mother of all life." For Rabbi Simon said: "Throughout the entire one hundred and thirty years during which Adam held aloof from Eve the male demons were made ardent by her and she bore, while the female demons were inflamed by Adam and they bore, as it is written, 'If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the afflictions of the children of man -- Adam'(2 Samuel 7:14), which means, the children of the first man." (Bereishit Rabbah 20:11)
This idea is further elaborated in the Midrash on this verse, This is the book of the descendants of Adam:
These were descendants, while the earlier ones were not descendants. What, then, were they? Divinities! [The answer is as] Abba Cohen Bardela was asked: "[Why does Scripture enumerate] Adam, Seth, and Enosh, and then become silent?" To which he answered: "Hitherto they were created in the likeness and image [of God], but from then onwards Centaurs were created. Four things changed in the days of Enosh: The mountains became [barren] rocks, the dead began to feel [the worms], men's faces became ape-like, and they became vulnerable (hullin) to demons."
Said Rabbi Isaac: "They were themselves responsible for becoming vulnerable to demons, [for they argued]: 'What is the difference whether one worships an image or worships man?' Hence, 'Then man became degraded to call upon the name of the Lord' (Genesis 4:26).'"
Another interpretation: These are descendants, but the earlier ones were not [human] descendants. What, then, were they? Demons. For R. Simon said: "Throughout the entire one hundred and thirty years during which Adam held aloof from Eve the male demons were made ardent by her and she bore, while the female demons were inflamed by Adam and they bore, as it is written, 'If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the afflictions of the children of man -- Adam' (2 Samuel 7:14), which refers to the children of the first [primeval] man.
(The reason for the view that house- spirits are benevolent is because they dwell with him [man], while the opinion that they are harmful is based on the fact that they understand man's evil inclinations. He who maintains that the spirits of the field are benevolent does so because they do not grow up with him; while as for the view that they are harmful, the reason is because they do not comprehend his evil inclinations.)
These are the descendants of Adam, but the earlier ones were not descendants of Adam. Why? Because they were destroyed by the flood. (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis XXIV:6)
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CHILDREN WITHOUT SOULS
In this amazing passage, we are told of other "offspring" of Adam and Eve, offspring who did not possess the Divine image -- children without souls. In this Midrash these offspring are described as demons, who were destroyed in the flood.
In the "Guide for the Perplexed," Maimonides restates this Midrash, with one critical difference. According to the Rambam, demons do not exist; rather, the passage describes children of Adam who did not possess the Divine image. They were human in form and animal in spirit, lacking the divine endowment their father possessed.
You already know that anyone who does not have this form which we have described is not a "man", rather an animal in human form and build. (Guide for the Perplexed 1:7)11
The question is, if Adam had progeny who did not possess a Divine soul, could he have had ancestors who also were similarly spiritually challenged?12
Could this refer to people who "existed yet never existed"?
When the Torah describes a part of Adam's core as the dust of the earth, could this refer to people who "existed yet never existed"? Could it describe an existence that may have had a physical effect on this world but no spiritual effect? Could Adam have physically had a mother while spiritually the breath of God served as an impetus for a new world?13
There is a least one opinion in the Talmud that may reject such a possibility:
Rab Judah further said: "The bullock which Adam sacrificed had fully developed horns before it had hoofs, as it is said: 'And it shall please the Lord better than a bullock that hath horns and hoofs'; the verse first says: 'that hath horns' and then 'hoofs.'" This supports Rabbi Joshua b. Levi, who said: "All the animals of the creation were created in their full-grown stature, with their consent, and according to the shape of their own choice, for it is written: 'And the heaven and the earth were finished, and all the host of them (tzeva'am)' Read not tzeva'am but tzivyonam (their character). (Chullin 60a)
If man is to be included in this statement, then man, too, was created as a fully-grown being. On a deeper level, this source need not contradict our thesis. Adam, too, was "created" by virtue of receiving his soul, after he was physically full-grown.
If there were previous generations, which "existed yet did not exit" -- existed physically yet not spiritually -- what happened to them? Are there any references to their existence?
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The Torah apparently refers to different species of man coexisting, but just barely:14
And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them. That the sons of Elohim15 (the powerful) saw the daughters of men, that they were pretty; and they took as wives all those whom they chose. And the Lord said, "My spirit shall not always strive with man, for he also is flesh; yet his days shall be a hundred and twenty years." There were Nefilim in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of Elohim came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them, the same became mighty men of old, men of renown. (Genesis 6:1-4)
The introduction to the flood story includes a description the forced relations between the sons of Elohim and the daughters of man-Adam: powerful brutes taking innocent, refined women. The result was the flood, and the eradication of the brutal species. The only survivors are Noach and his descendants. These verses clearly outline the strained co-existence of two types of people. Were these other "men" descendants of Adam, or vestiges of an earlier world?
The Torah is a book of truth, not a history book. Only ideas spiritually relevant to us are recorded.
The Torah is a book of truth, not a history book. Only ideas spiritually relevant to us are recorded. Our world begins with Adam; whether Adam had physical precursors in worlds destroyed is not really the issue.16Our story begins with Adam, with the capacity of man to relate to and emulate God. This is our legacy.
However, the Talmud traces the effects of these earlier generations: The Holy One, blessed be He, arose and planted them in every generation, and it is they who are the insolent of each generation.17 The question we are left to ponder is whether they existed in fact or in thought alone.
- The [subject of] forbidden relations may not be expounded in the presence of three, nor the work of creation in the presence of two, nor [the work of] the chariot in the presence of one, unless he is a sage and understands of his own knowledge. Whosoever speculates upon four things, a pity for him! He is as though he had not come into the world, [to wit], what is above, what is beneath, what before, what after. And whosoever takes no thought for the honor of his Maker, it were a mercy if he had not come into the world. (Chagiga 11b) (return to text)
- The Torah describes the creation as twilight:
And there was evening and there was morning, one day. (return to text)
- The Talmud in Shabbat also makes reference to these 974 generations:
R. Joshua b. Levi also said: "When Moses ascended on high, the ministering angels spoke before the Holy One, blessed be He: 'Sovereign of the Universe! What business has one born of woman amongst us?' 'He has come to receive the Torah,' answered He to them. Said they to Him, 'That secret treasure, which has been hidden by Thee for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created.'" (Shabbat 88b) (return to text)
- According to mystical tradition recorded in the Sefer HaBahir section 195, the souls of the 974 wicked generations are transmigrated into new bodies, who are then judged for deeds performed in the previous life. This is the Bahir's explanation for theodicy. However, based on the Bahir's context it sounds as if these people are presently righteous, while the Talmudic version makes these people sound presently wicked. See notes of Rav Reuven Margoliot in the Mosad Harav Kook edition, for other references in Kabbalistic literature. (return to text)
- Rashi is based on Kohelet Rabba 1:35. (return to text)
- This explanation is aided by the verse which follows:
And confirmed the same to Jacob for a law, and to Israel for an everlasting covenant.(Psalms 105:10) (return to text)
- See Berishit Rabbah 1:4, 1:10, 21:9, Vayikra Rabba 9:3, Midrash Rabbah - The Song of Songs 2:6,5:13:
The mystics saw great significance in the Torah being given to the 26th generation, the number 26 is the numerical equivalent of the Divine name: Yud=10, heh=5,vav=6, heh=5 -- equaling 26. (return to text)
- This idea may also be found in Bereishit Rabbah 9:2. (return to text)
- The Kabbalist Rav Shlomo Elyashiv in the "Leshem" identifies these missing generations with a world which existed in God's mind but not in actuality. This approach follows the Ariz"al and may be based on the Midrash in Kohelet Rabbah 1:35, where the missing generations are described as only existing in the "Divine plan."
A thousand generations were included in the Divine Plan ("Alu BiMach'shava") to be created, and how many of them were eliminated? Nine hundred and seventy-four. What is the proof? It is written, The word which He commanded to a thousand generations (Ps. cv, 8). To what does this allude? To the Torah. (return to text)
- The description of man's creation in the previous chapter is equally challenging but beyond the scope of this essay:
And God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.' So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female He created them. (Genesis 1:26-27) (return to text)
- The Rambam proceeds to explain the capacity for evil which such creatures possess. Also see Pirkei D' Rebbi Eliezer, chapter 22.
Mystical literature speaks of the possibility of a person losing their divinity, their image of God, their soul. See Zohar Bereishit 94a. (return to text)
- I once asked this question to Rav Yaakov Weinberg, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisrael, who responded that such a possibility is "hashkafically" acceptable, so long as there is a qualitative spiritual distinction between Adam and his predecessors. This distinction is imparted by God, as described in the verses of Parshat Bereishit. This does not necessarily mean that Rav Yaakov accepted this idea, though he agreed that it is a valid opinion. I did not press him as to his understanding. My precise formulation was, "Is it possible that Adam had parents and grandparents who did not possess a soul?" (return to text)
- When modern people speak about such ideas they are often motivated by polemical or apologetical considerations, but could such a charge be waged against Rav Abahu or Rambam, who predate Darwin by millenia? (return to text)
- The Mishna does make an obscure reference to something called Adnei Hasadeh,an ape-like being that walks upright, looks like man, but is a beast:
Wild man-like creatures are deemed as belonging to the category of hayyah. Rabbi Yose said: "[When dead] they [or part of their corpses] communicate uncleanness [to men and to objects susceptible thereto which are] under the same roof, as does [the corpse of] a human being." (Mishna - Kil'ayim Chapter 8:5)
See the commentaries to this Mishna.(return to text)
- It is unlikely that the term "Elohim" implies a divinity in this context, rather it means "powerful". In other cases in the Torah the word is used to refer to judges. (Shmot 22:27) See Onkelos and Rashi on the verse in Bereishit quoted above (6:2). (return to text)
- For a discussion of the time issue, namely, how can the world be older than the nearly-6000 years which Judaism so often speaks of. (return to text)
- The Talmud likewise teaches that the righteous of previous generations effect subsequent generations:
Rabbi Hiyya ben Abba said in the name of Rabbi Johanan: "No righteous man dies out of this world, before another, like himself, is created, as it is said: 'The sun also rises, and the sun goes down' -- before the sun of Eli set, the sun of Samuel of Ramataim rose." Rabbi Hiyya ben Abba also said in the name of Rabbi Johanan: "The Holy One, blessed be He, saw that the righteous are but few, therefore He planted them throughout all generations, as it is said: 'For the pillars of the earth are the Lord's, and He has set the world upon them.'" (Yoma 38b) (return to text)