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July 06, 2005

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's View On The Age Of The Universe

Because of the renewed controversy over the banning of Rabbi Nosson Slifkin and his works, I thought it would be helpful to again summarize the position of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, z"l on the age of the universe.

Rabbi Kaplan was both an illui (genius) in Torah and an illui in physics, and was arguably the most qualified individual of the previous generation to discuss the interface of Torah and science.

PART 1: Background.

    1. As long as no halakha is involved, there is no reason to paskin on (decide) an issue.
    2. In his Guide to the Perplexed, the Rambam builds several shitot (philosophies) based on da'at yachid, an individual view of a sage that is not upheld by the majority. As long as this is done for hashgafah (philosophy, outlook) and not for legal issues, this is perfectly fine.
    3. One cannot label an idea heretical until one has surveyed the sources. Perhaps Gedolim from earlier generations held the same view. If so, the view is not heresy.
    4. Sefer Temunah, an early kabbalistic work attributed to the 1st century Tanna Nehunya ben ha-Kanah, is a work that discusses the kabbalistic import of the shapes of the Hebrew letters. Sefer Temunah is quoted in many different Halakhic sources (including the Beit Yosef) that deal with sofrut – writing Torah scrolls, mezuzot and megilot.
    5. Sefer Temunah also comments on the Shmita Theory, the idea that sabbatical cycles existed before the creation of Adam, and that those cycles – those years – were actual physical years.
    6. Sefer Temunah states that we are in the 6th 7,000-year sabbatical cycle and that the world is 42,000 years old.
    7. The Shmita Theory became known as the Shitat Sefer Temunah.
    8. Many pre-ARI kabbalists accepted the Shitat Sefer Temunah, including the Ramban, his close student Yitzhak of Akko, and the RADBAZ.
    9. The Ramban's position is difficult to understand if you have not first learned Shitat Sefer Temunah.
    10. The ARI (Rabbi Isaac Luria) rejected Shitat Sefer Temunah and taught that these cycles were not physical years but were instead spiritual, non-physical years. Rabbi Moshe Cordevero agreed with the ARI.
    11. Because of the spread of Lurianic Kabbalah, Shitat Sefer Temunah became less and less known. For the most part, only those few scholars who studied ancient kabbalistic works were aware of it.
    12. In 1838, when the Tiferet Yisrael wrote his essay on the age of the universe  that advocated a universe much older than 6,000 years, his works were banned by some hasidim. Others simply ripped the essay out of the larger work.
    13. The Tiferet Yisrael's 'crime' ? Not accepting the ARI's opinion as binding. (See #1, #2 and #3 above.)

PART 2: Could The World Have Been Created 'Old'?

    1. No Jewish source exists to support this contention.
    2. To make the world appear to be billions of years old when it is really 6000 years old is problematic:

        a. It makes G-d appear to be deceptive.
        b. If one accepts the idea that G-d created an 'old' world, why not say the world was created 5 minutes ago and we with it, with all of our memories, etc. ready-made?
        c. Again, there is no Jewish source for this idea. [It was invented by the 19th century Christian apologist Philip Henry Gosse.]

    3. One can believe it it one desires. Such a belief – even absent Jewish sources to support it – is not heresy.

PART 3: The Shita of Yitzhak of Akko.

    1. He was a student and a colleague of the RAMBAN.
    2. Was one of the foremost kabbalists of his time.
    3. Investigated and authenticated the Zohar, which was then published in his lifetime.
    4. Is often quoted in the Mussar classic, Reishit Hokhmah.
    5. In his work Otzar HaHayyim, Yizhak of Acco writes that, because the sabbatical cycles referred to in Shitat Sefer Temunah existed before Adam, they must be measured in Divine years, not human years.
    6. Therefore, Sefer Temunah is speaking of Divine years when it states that the world is 42,000 years old.
    7. According to midrashic sources, a Divine day is 1,000 earth-years long.
    8. A Divine year would therefore equal 365,250 earth years.
    9. So, according to Yitzhak of Acco, the universe would be 42,000 x 365,250 earth-years old.
    10. That calculation comes out to 15.3 billion years, very close to current estimates for the Big Bang.

Part 4: Conclusion.

    1. There does not have to be a conflict between science and Torah on the age of the universe.
    2. Pre-Ari Torah-teachings have in fact been confirmed by modern science.


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Thanks for posting this summary. It is extremely useful information to have available.

One of my 'nother favorite blogs mentioned this (http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0505/articles/singer.html) link. One of Modern Orthodoxy's brightest minds has published a book of essays that appeal to someone like myself, admittedly more steeped in the secular world than Daf Yomi. The review is very exciting; I look forward to obtaining the book.

Perhaps this link will actually work, with my apologies:

Perhaps this link will actually work, with my apologies:

Glad to know that an expert in Pop-Culture agrees with something Shmarya wrote. It must make sense in that case.

nice post!

Shmarya, according to the historian Scholem, in his last major work, the 1962 "Origins of the Kabbalah" as revised to incorporate his cumulative annotations in 1987, the Sefer Temunah was probably composed about 1300 c.e. He specifically retracts his earlier view that it was pre-Zoharic, in a footnote.

If so – and that is difficult because of manuscript finds *after Scholem's death – all kabbala is "post zohar".

Let us take things at the face value. G‑d created the world in six days. Adam and Eve are standing around in the Garden of Eden. Now what does that garden look like? Remember, the world is only six days old and grass was created on the third day…

Was it a garden? A field with seeds? Small little buds looking like a nursery? Doesn't seem to exotic or paradise looking!

On that train of thought, when they ate from the tree - how was there fruit if it was only a three-day old tree? How many rings were in that tree? And wait – how did Adam and Eve reach to get it or for that sake even walk, if they were two hours old? And that snake…he was two days old…boy, did they grow up quick.

Throughout recorded history, several cosmologies and cosmogonies have been proposed to account for observations of the Universe. The earliest quantitative geocentric models were developed by the ancient Greeks, who proposed that the Universe possesses infinite space and has existed eternally, but contains a single set of concentric spheres of finite size – corresponding to the fixed stars, the Sun and various planets – rotating about a spherical but unmoving Earth. Over the centuries, more precise observations and improved theories of gravity led to Copernicus's heliocentric model and the Newtonian model of the Solar System, respectively. Further improvements in astronomy led to the realization that the Solar System is embedded in a galaxy composed of millions of stars, the Milky Way, and that other galaxies exist outside it, as far as astronomical instruments can reach.

Universe is an infinite space. I think this true still now has challenged this and i this will change the words. Thank you for such information.

To be honest, this article made me understand the genuineness. I understood many things, Related to the topic. I keep on wondering why people keep on wondering so much on the topic. People should start reading your blog in order to get maximum information on the stuff. Things will become more significant after reading your articles. The way these article are full of information and the comments posted show the popularity of your posts.

Is "hashgafah" the same as "hashkafah" or different from "hashkafah"?

As long as one recognizes the authority of the Rabbinic authorities for Rabbinic decisions....
But Science is a totally different realm.
Science deals in "models".
For example, the model of the atom (150 years ago) was electrons that orbited a nucleus. There were "bands" of electrons, and they formed bonds from atom to atom, forming molecules. This model worked very well in predicting the laws of Chemistry. Since the model works so amazingly well, it is kept. However, now we know it is totally false. Electrons are both wave and particle energy and do not "orbit", as predicted in the earlier model.
My larger point is that Science holds many conflicting models of reality simultaneously, and scientists go about their business nicely.
So, it should be no problem to believe the "model" of reality that the world is 5772 years old for matters of religion, where this model works for us, in religious matters, and to also hold from the 14 billion year old model of reality, for astronomical matters, which also works. The 5772 year old model has value in Bible references, moral teachings, and customs. I keep both models of the universe in mind, and can accept them both. These models are NOT contradictory. Each has its use and place in our conversation.

Where is it written that R' Yitzchak of Acco actually "authenticated" the Zohar? All I've read is either that entire investigative episode is a legend, and ends with Moses of Leon's wife admitting that he wrote it himself.

A bigger question no one seems to ask, is how is it that a talmid (R' Yitzchak) of the greatest kabbalist of his time (Ramban) hadn't heard of the Zohar? This means that the Ramban also didn't know about it. Kind of makes the Zohar seem superfluous at best, and fishy at worst doesn't it?

You wrote:

Could The World Have Been Created 'Old'?
1. No Jewish source exists to support this contention.

The creation story states that (for example) trees were created. De facto they were created with the appearance of age. The same applies for anything created. In fact, creation is not possible without the existence of the appearance of age. Adam was created to appear (as far as I recall the midrash) as age 20.

2. To make the world appear to be billions of years old when it is really 6000 years old is problematic:
a. It makes G-d appear to be deceptive.

This is not logical. Why anything was created the way it was, is a non-answerable question. Why are roses red? is but one of millions of examples. For a tree to appear 3000 years old is acceptable? 6000? 12000? Our narrow partial view of this (calling it deceptive at a point of our choosing) is not logical.

b. If one accepts the idea that G-d created an 'old' world, why not say the world was created 5 minutes ago and we with it, with all of our memories, etc. ready-made?

Daily we recite the Psalm that says, Hamechdesh betuvo bechol yom TAMID maasai beraishis. Explained clearly by many meforshim to mean that all day, everyday (i.e. "tamid" each moment) the world is re-created anew. The questions "why not say . . . ?" although not an imperative to prove anything, happens to, sort-of, point to the way the facts are.

As has been pointed out in another comment, sub-atomic particles behave like waves and particles. Decades ago, it was scientifically demonstrated that wave particles become matter particles ONLY when viewed by HUMANS. Sounds strange, but this is the scientific understanding presently of the universe. Thus, they explain, when a human views anything, and it "becomes" a matter particle, it does so--including all its "history" which heretofore was only in wave form (meaning, it did not really exist). Thus, the science of quantum theory has allowed for the universe to be only as old as the first man, Adam (who's creation was on Rosh Hashana; the first day of creation on Elul 25 is completely absent from the days the Jewish people take note of) and at the same time, have built in its "apparent" past the age as might be claimed by science. In other words, Quantum Theory is clear in rendering non-relevant any claims of science contradicting Torah with regards to the age of the universe.


All leading haredi and hasidic rabbis disagree with you. They all hold the earth and the entire universe are less than 6,000 years old and disbelief in that is heresy.

The issue isn't whether you as an individual can find a way to explain the Torah to fit with science as you see it that makes you feel good.

The issue is haredi and hasidic Judaism reject this.

Past all that, there are many absolutely false claims beyond the age of the universe made by the Torah that cannot be rectified with the truth and with science, your delusion aside.

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