Rabbi Shlomo Cohen

Having surveyed the arguments against evolution, we are left with only one approach which science, per se, is unable to deal with, being outside the realm of scientific inquiry- a Prime Mover, Hashem. We have quoted eminent scientists who have remarked on this problem.  Accepting Hashem, the orthodox Jew must either:

  • deal with the discoveries of the last hundred or so years,
  • refute them
  • or ignore them entirely.

Ignoring has never solved a problem. It is also difficult, at best, to refute many scientific discoveries or their implications. It would appear that on some level we must face the topic head on. This leaves several questions that must be answered. I) How do we, or do we even need to, account for the vast amounts of time required by scientists?  II) How do we account for the extensive fossil record? Long periods of time have a very specific record. This is related to the time spans involved. III) What explanations do we offer for hominids or “prehistoric man”?  IV) Geologic evidence of plate tectonics, ancient volcanic activity, several eras of massive glaciation, crustal upheavals, magnetic pole switches, direct hits by massive meteorites, eroded mountain ranges all require time. V) Light from the Sun takes 9 minutes to reach the Earth. Light from the nearest stars takes 4 or more years. The light from distant stars takes millions of years to reach Earth. We see this light whereas we should only see light from stars within 5761 light years. How do we account for the time?

Initially, it would appear that science and Torah are too far apart to even consider any form of synthesis. Let us keep in mind that the general evolutionary pattern is the same as in the Torah. Appearance of light, formation of mass, then water, followed by plants, then animals culminating in man. The major difference is causation.

To even enter into a meaningful discussion of these issues requires at least minimal awareness of the fundamentals of biology, botany, zoology, organic and inorganic chemistry, astronomy, cosmology, physics, archaeology, paleontology, geology etc. All of this would need to be synthesized into a cohesive philosophy. Generally speaking, the more vociferous the speaker the less he tends to know about any of these areas. Ignorance may be bliss but it is also dangerous.

Generally, Orthodox Jews lean toward the literal meaning of the verses in the Creation saga. This is known as Emunah P’shuta, simple faith. This is not fundamentalism. We do not agree with “Creationism” as espoused by Christian Fundamentalists. Their belief stems from a translation of the Bible, which is inexact at best, misleading at worst. Without the benefit of an oral transmission their belief system suffers from an almost childlike misunderstanding of the Torah’s intent. To align ourselves with the Christian right amounts to Chukas Goyim and Al Tailaich B’Derech Itom.

Nonetheless, many Seforim mention other approaches, which bear analysis. Keep in mind that each of these statements was made long before the questions they satisfy were even raised.  As a whole, Chazal have satisfied all of the questions. The vast time frames have been accounted for, the fossil record explained and even prehistoric man is included.  We are left puzzled as to why Chazal even raised the issues before science developed to its present state, but glad they did so our Emuna is not touched.

Those who do not accept anything beyond Emuna P’shuta may base their opinion on the Mishna Chagiga 2;1, which tells us that we may not teach about creation to two students. We must limit ourselves to teaching only one student at a time to prevent misunderstanding. Thus, any lecture on these issues is suspect. Secondly, we are taught to not delve into “what came before, what will come after, what is above and what is below.” (Ibid.) Certainly, “that which came before” would include any discussion of cosmology, the age of the Earth and the universe, Big Bang theory, prehistoric man etc. thus limiting our ability to raise these issues, study these sciences or attempt to resolve the problems involved. We could not begin to discuss these topics at all were it not for the fact that eminent Gedolim of every generation have already done so.

To assume that nothing “came before”, as Emuna Pshuta does, raises an interesting series of questions. What is it about the act of creation that Chazal felt should not be taught to more than one student at a time? Assuming as we do that there is an “after” an “above” and a “below”, why are there those who adamantly protest the existence of a “before”? One may assume that the answer is wrapped up in the nature of the act of creation. The average student will find the information virtually incomprehensible. The numbers involved are mind-boggling. Creation itself is beyond human ken. Few secularists today have any real grasp on their theories. Even they recognize that at some early point the laws of physics break down entirely.  Presumably, Chazal felt that delving into these waters would be an exercise in futility for all but the few who are able to comprehend the information within the matrix of sound Hashkafa.

Current Yeshiva education leaves a great deal to be desired. Science is usually the orphan of the curriculum. The more right wing the Yeshiva the more this holds true. Even those Yeshiva graduates who go on to college generally go into medicine, dentistry, accounting, computers, education. Few go into the hard sciences. Of those few, many will live in a split world espousing one set of values at home and in Shul and a totally different set amongst professional colleagues. The values seem to go on and off with their yarmulkes. Ba’alei Tshuva come to Frumkeit from an altogether different direction. Many do have backgrounds in the hard sciences. They have been exposed to a wider range of information. They often have a greater need to synthesize their two worlds. The information is no longer in the hands of a few. It is widely disseminated. In the most right wing Yeshivos grade school children are aware of dinosaurs and those bugaboos of Emuna Pshuta, the M and B words (millions and billions of years ago) found in every textbook printed. The Yeshivos, unwisely, choose to ignore the references rather than have workshops to train the Rabbeiim in approaches that preempt future problems.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s article on “The Age Of The Universe” makes the point that while many people do not want to even deal with this whole subject, and consider those who do as Apikorsim, they should be made aware of the fact that our system of thought requires a definitive approach only in areas of Halacha. In areas of Hashkafa there is room for widely diverging opinions and we say “Eilu Va’eilu, Divrei Elokim Chaim”, both are valid. Furthermore, since the topic, in its secular guise, is so widely disseminated even amongst the Frum world it is incumbent on us to present a Torah approach which at least offers a palatable alternative to Emuna Pshuta for those who need the alternative. Additionally, the Ba’al Tshuva movement has forced the Torah world to develop many approaches to attract people back to the fold. Zealots do not usually make good front-line Kiruv workers. Their message is often too stark to be swallowed easily and is usually a turn off to one who is hearing a Torah approach for the first time.


Stating the problem

The present Jewish year is 5761. This is not the age of the Earth. It represents an internal dating system developed by the Sages in the time of the Mishna utilizing the dates given in Tanach and working backward to Adam HaRishon. Thus, the true age must be stated as 5,762 years plus the six days of creation. Exactly what are the six days? Does the Torah mean six days of 24 hours? If we are to define days as occurring as a result of the Earth’s rotating on its axis alternately facing the sun and then away we are faced with the problem that the sun and moon were not positioned until creation day 4. Minimally, days one, two and three had to have some other definition.

A further question develops which I have not seen addressed by any commentator. “And it was evening and it was morning day _____” must only refer to one specific line of longitude at any given moment presuming a sun. Creation all at once could have occurred, then, only on days one, two and three. Did creation proceed as the world turned on days four, five and six? Our first problem arises concerning the first Shabbos. Did it begin simultaneously the world over or did it begin at each point Eastward at sunset? The location of the Jewish “International dateline” rests on this question and has very real ramifications in Halacha. The only other possibilities are: 1) That animals, for instance, were created at sunrise in Israel, for arguments sake, while they appeared in America at 12 midnight the previous evening which is, of course, absurd. 2) That the animals were created at 12 noon in Israel with the rest of the world achieving creation simultaneously. 3) That creation occurred just prior to sunset in Israel with creation occurring retroactively across the rest of the world. 4) That creation occurred only in Gan Eden and the plants and animals spread out from there. Those who maintain that everything was created at the outset of day one and merely put into place the rest of the week would not have any problem. Those who say that creation continued all week would need to put forth a scenario that allows for creation to be spread out over time, a different schedule for each location.  The problem this poses is quite subtle.

Going a step further, the Torah tells us that nothing was growing until a mist went out to water the plants. If so, than we must assume that the idea of plants was conceived in Creation day one, the seeds were planted in Creation day three but that nothing actually grew until the plants were watered. The Torah tells us of this happening in Perek 2 Pasuk 4 with no indication of chronology. We know, of course that there is no chronology in the Torah. Nonetheless, the order in which these two facts are presented raise a question. Beyond the obvious is the additional question of why the water cycle was not yet operating since the waters had been there from Day one and collected on Day two?


          -An early reference to our problem is written in the Kabbalist work Sefer HaTemuna attributed to the first century Tanna, Rav Nechunia Ben HaKana. [Others attribute the work to Rav Yitzchok of Acco. See below] In discussing Shmitta (Sabbatical cycles) he states that the world will exist for six thousand years and be destroyed in the 7,000th year. However, since the Sabbatical cycle is a part of a larger Jubilee cycle of seven Sabbatical years, he avers that the world will last for 49,000 years. Far more than what Emuna Pshuta allows. It always helps to have a Tanna on your side.

-The Gemora devotes some discussion, which is germane. Chagiga 11b contains a Mishna that states, “One may not lecture about the acts of creation before two students… Anyone who delves into four things it would be better had they not been born: What is above, what is below, what came before and what will come after.” The Gemora then proceeds to discuss these issues over several Dafim. There are various opinions regarding the meanings involved. Many commentators clearly state that the concern is in understanding what preceded creation. The Rambam in his Pirush HaMishnayos refers to this as does the MaHarsha. The Rashi on this Mishna contains a Tosfos. The Tosfos asks an insightful question. Is it not so that the “above”, “below” and “after” refer to actualities? Ergo, the before must also refer to an actuality, that there was something before!

The Ramban states clearly that at the beginning everything was reduced to a single point.

-Aryeh Kaplan quotes a “highly significant interpretation” of the Sefer HaTemuna by Rabbi Yitzchok of Acco, a student and colleague of the Ramban. He is often quoted by the Raishis Chachma and is known as the person who investigated and verified the authenticity of the Zohar, which had just been published at that time. Rabbi Kaplan states that he had obtained a photocopy of Otzer HaChaim, one of Rav Yitzchok’s works, and discovered a novel interpretation of Sabbatical cycles. The relevant quote is: “I, the insignificant Yitzchok of Acco, have seen fit to record a great mystery that should be kept very well hidden. One of G-d’s days is one thousand years, as it is written, “For a thousand days in Your sight are as a day” (Tehillim 90:4). Since one of our years is 365 ¼ days, a year on high is 365,250 of our years. Two years on high is 730,500 of our years. From this, continue multiplying to 49,000 years….” “Behold, our eyes see that the world has existed for a very long time. This is to refute the opinion of those who say that the world has not existed more than 49,000 years, which is seven Sabbatical cycles.”[Note the Rav Yitzchok does not even mention refuting the 4,900 year figure that would have been in vogue in his time! It is also noteworthy that he uses the solar, rather than the lunar year. What stands out is his statement that this needs to be kept a secret, yet he writes it down for dissemination]. Rabbi Kaplan completes Rav Yitzchak’s equation by doing the math. “Thus, according to Rav Yitzchak the universe would be 49,000 x 365,250 years old, this comes out to be 15,340,500,000 years, a highly significant figure. From calculations based on the expanding universe and the cosmological observations, modern science has concluded that the Big Bang occurred approximately 15 billion years ago. But here we see the same figure presented in a Torah source over seven hundred years ago!” (Immortality, Resurrection, and the Age Of The Universe: A Kabbalistic View- Aryeh Kaplan , Ktav Publ. 1993) {See this article for other cogent arguments presented by Rabbi Kaplan.}

The Medrash Braishis Rabba contains several statements that apply to our discussion:

Perek I sif 4. “Six things preceded the creation of the world. There were those that were created in deed and those created in thought.” The Ran on Nedarim 39 states that the world was impossible without them.

Perek 3 sif 4 tells of a discussion between R’ Shimon Ben Yehotzedek and R’Shmuel Bar Nachman regarding the origin of the light created on the first day. R’Shmuel tells R’Shimon that he received the information “B’Lichisha” silently (i.e. in secret) and would pass it along the same way. It is not for public dissemination.

Perek 3 sif 7. Rebbe Yehuda says that the verse does not say “Yehi Erev” but “Va’Yehi Erev”. The extra Vav telling us that there was a period of time prior to Creation. Therefore, Rebbe Abahu taught that He created worlds and destroyed them until He created this one.

 Perek 3 sif 9 alludes to Hashem building worlds and destroying them

Perek 8 sif 2. is an interesting Drasha comparing merchants going to market, asking those who are returning what the market is like, to the days of creation, each new day asking the preceding day “What things has Hashem already created?”.  This works well for each day except the first. The Medrash asks “:And who did the first day inquire from?” Answers the Medrash, “From the Torah which preceded the world by 2,000 years.” “A day of Hashem’s equals 1000 years.” (According to this Medrash one of Hashem’s years is 365,250 years for us. Multiplied by 2,000 we find that the Torah preceded the world by 730,500,000 years.)

Perek 11 sif 2 is a very esoteric discussion of the first Shabbos and Hashem’s use of the original light in Gan Eden even though the Sun and moon had already been created. The Medrash then alludes to the fact that this light shone for 36 hours and it wasn’t until Motzei Shabbos that the darkness of night was known.

Perek 12 sif 3. The commentators say that this Medrash is referring to worlds which preceded this one.

                -The Zohar talks about seven times that the Earth will be destroyed and recreated.

Rabbeinu Bachya to Bamidbar 10:35, as well as Vayikra 25:8, alludes  to the series of cosmic Shmittos and Yovelos and vast amounts of time. He ends his discussion with the warning that these are matters that are best minimized and that we are not to dwell on them as being included in “that which is above and that which is below”.

-The Kuzari (1;67) says clearly that a belief in prior worlds is not a defect in faith to the Ba’al Torah who needs to believe they existed! “V’im  Mitztareich Ba’al Torah L’Ha’amin B’Hiyuli, B’Chomer Kadmon V’Olmos Rabbim Kodem HaOlam HaZeh Lo Haya B’Zeh P’gam B’Emunaso” {Hiyuli is a Greek work used by Chazal to define material which existed prior to the creation of this world.}. Both the Otzer Nechmad and the Kol Yehuda, commentators on the Kuzari, discuss this point at length. Neither raises any objection to the statement.

It is fascinating to note that scientists have found proof of six prior massive extinctions on Earth. Since the Zohar gives no clue as to the process of destruction and re-creation, we may be free to speculate that these extinctions are what the Zohar may mean. As in many other instances, it is remarkable that Chazal have come up with a number that science subsequently verifies. We continually ask “Why did they make the statement in the first place? What issue did it resolve? and secondly, “Where did Chazal get their information from?“ These numbers go well beyond coincidence or lucky guesses. 

The Ari z’l  (Rav Yitchak ben Shlomo Luria d.1572) speaks of long periods of time during the six days of creation. The MaHarShach (Rav Shmuel Saton HaCohain d.1719), on this Ari z’l says, “ the nights were not as our nights, the days were not as our days, the years not as our years” and he further quotes the Pirush Yonasan (Braishis Perek 1 Pasuk 16) referring to great amounts of time during the first six days of creation. 

The Alshich (Rav Moshe Alshich M’Tzefas d.1573), amongst many others, comments on the possibility that there was a considerable period of time at the very beginning of Creation. (Braishis, Hakdama Bais)

-One of the earliest Seforim we have in our possession is Pirkei D’Reb Eliezer.  In discussing the number of animals Noach took into the ark in Perek 23, Pirkei D’Reb Eliezer mentions that there were 32 species of birds and 365 species of insect. The Radal, Rabbi Dovid Luria, interprets this Medrash in Pirkei D’Reb Eliezer to mean that there were an original 365 species of animal and 365 species of birds which then needed to adapt to the environment as they spread across the globe. He states that this adaptation occurred as a result of differences in climate and food.  Hashem showed Noach which of all the species were the originals. These were taken on the ark. After the flood the process repeated itself resulting in the thousands of species we see today.  All animals today are derived from those original, basic species. [A very similar notion is presented by Leakey in The Sixth Extinction.( pg. 27) “All these thirty odd modern body plans trace their origin back to the Cambrian, back to that orgy of innovation that took place in the interval of 530 to 525 million years ago. If a potential phylum was absent in the Cambrian it was doomed to be absent for all time.”]  {See also above Part I #26}. 

-We also find, in Pirkei D’Reb Eliezer, several other highly interesting points.

– He references seven things that were created prior to the creation of the world. (Perek 3).

– In Perek 5 we find that the Earth was featureless until Hashem commanded the waters to be gathered to one place. Hashem folded the Earth’s crust so the water could flow to the lowest spots. This not only provides us with dry land it also explains mountain ranges and plateaus and could well explain crustal upheaval and stress which in turn explains earthquakes and volcanic activity. If we are to understand “one spot” to be literal it may explain why scientists think that originally all the continents were joined into one super-continent they call Gondwanaland or Pangea which leads to plate tectonic theory, magnetic pole switches crustal upheaval and volcanic activity.

Rav Tzvi Hirsh Chajes (d.1855) comments in his notes to Nidda 23a on the Talmud Yerushalmi Nidda 3b on the Gemora that mountains were not included in Creation but formed later. He finds that this may explain why we find remains of plants and animals in the depths of the Earth which are no longer found.

-See the Tiferes Yonasan by Rav Yonasan Eibshutz on the very first Pasuk in Braishis.

-See the Drush Ohr HaChaim in the Tiferes Yisroel (Rav Yisroel Lifshitz  (d.1860) at the end of Nezikin Aleph in which he discusses these issues at length.  There he quotes the Braishis Rabba, the Rabbeinu Bachya and the Ramban that the Earth has been created and destroyed seven times (although he indicates that we are in the fourth cycle). He also writes that Breishis begins with the very beginning and skips the prior worlds “as they make no difference to us at all”. He claims that fossils and the geological record help substantiate what the commentators had long since proposed. Because of the stance he has taken on this one issue there are some groups which refuse to use any of his many works. Others have torn the offending pages out of his Sefer. It is worthwhile noting that he was not the first to note these things, only the most specific.

Rav Eliyahu Dessler (d.1953) discusses these issues in Michtav Me’Eliyahu Vol.II p.151. He begins ”The days referred to here relate to the period before the completion of creation, when the concept of time was different from that which applies now.” He continues with a discussion of the Ramban’s commentary to Breishis 1:3.

-Even the inestimable Rashi on his comments to the first Pasuk of Braishis tells us that “The verses do not come to tell us the order of creation as if to say this came first…..(he then brings examples to back up his point) perforce the verses do not come to tell us the chronological sequence of events at all.”

-Everyone agrees that the Jewish dating system begins with the Creation of man. The previous six days are not included in the count. Rav Shimon Schwab Zt’l writes a long dissertation attempting to show the possibility of massive events compressed to occur all within those six days.

Alternatively, seeing that the sun, by which man measures time, was not put in place until Creation Day four, one may view Creation “days” as occurring on Cosmic time which may, or may not, be synchronous with our measurements or our understanding. Even today, cosmologists theorize that there are places in the Universe where time does not exist (inside a black hole or anything moving at the speed of light) or where time moves at a different rate (the event horizon surrounding a black hole as well as any matter moving near the speed of light). “Up to the beginning of this century people believed in absolute time. However, the discovery that the speed of light appeared the same to every observer….. one had to abandon the idea that there was a unique absolute time. Instead each observer would have his own measure of time…… To someone high up, it would appear that everything down below was taking longer to happen.” (Stephen Hawkings, A Brief History of Time pg. 143) 

Rabbi Menachen Kasher, in his magnificent opus “Torah Shleima”, devotes several pages to a lengthy discussion (Braishis 1 sif katan 422) on the Medrash which states that the verse does not state “Yihi Erev” but “VaYihi Erev”. R”Yehuda Bar Simone says this is to teach us that there was an order of time prior to creation. The first part of his discussion centers around the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim  The Rambam devotes some space to the question of when time began and whether time existed prior to creation or was actually an integral part of the creation. Rabbi Kasher then proceeds to utilize a second set of proofs regarding the Medrash that the Torah preceded creation by 2,000 years.  From there he enters into a survey of the views surrounding the 974 pre-Adamite generations and the Midrashim about the 7, or 10, things which were created beforehand. He cites several sources establishing the existence of periods of time between the creation of time and the creation of the heavens and the Earth. His last statement revolves around the Drush Orech Chaim of the Tiferes Yisroel synthesizing current scientific knowledge with the words of Chazal.

Rabbi Kasher proceeds, in the following Medrash, (simen 423) to discuss the idea of Hashem creating worlds and destroying them until He created this one. He starts with several P’sukim and then cites the relevant quotes from the Zohar followed by the argument between the Rambam and the Kuzari. The following paragraph is devoted to the view of several Mekubalim. One is of special interest. Sefer Ma’Areches HaShulchan authored by Rabbeinu Peretz, a Cohain of Barcelona, an early Rishon, writes that we are unsure of which Shmitta cycle we are in presently. He brings proofs as to why we are certainly not in the first.

-The book “Challenge” edited by Cyril Domb contains a whole section devoted to this question Several writers bring a variety of viewpoints attempting to synthesize current scientific knowledge with classical Jewish thinking.


-The Gemorah speaks of 974 generations prior to Adam. (Shabbos 88b, Chagiga 14a, Zevachim 116a) The Machlokes there centers around whether these generations are to be understood allegorically, however, since at least one Amora is of the opinion that these generations actually lived we can rely on that Amora. Seforim point out that the Gematria of the word Braishis is 974.

Rabbeinu Bachya, the Tzioni and Recanati all make reference to pre-Adamite generations on the Pasuk Vayikra 25:8. The Sefer HaChinuch speaks about them as well.

-The Rambam, in Moreh Nevuchim says that any scientific statement made by Chazal is not necessarily Torah. Their statements may only reflect the scientific knowledge current in their day.  (Chelek Shlishi Perek 14 at the very end). This is a fascinating position for the Rambam to take. Certainly, most frum people today would be very uncomfortable with this little known position and without the Rambam’s imprimatur it would smack of heresy.

          -Rav Shamshon Refoel Hirsch (d.1889) dealt with this issue as well when evolutionary theory was first gaining credence in Europe. In “Collected Writings” Vol.7 pg.263, Rav Hirsch recognizes that the theory is no more than a “vague hypothesis still unsupported by fact”. He goes further to postulate that even if the theory would somehow be proven correct, the Orthodox Jew would “give even greater reverence than ever to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus and one single law of ‘adaptation and heredity’ in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was a very definite order…..”. He concludes that the concept of L’Meeno (according to their species) can even accommodate this theory of the origin of life.

We have quoted Tannain, Amoraim, Rishonim and Achronim.  We have quoted Midrashim, Gemora, mainstream commentators and great Mekuballim. This overview of the literature should bring us to the conclusion that both early Chazal and Gedolim of later generations have seen fit to record opinions which are in direct contrast to that of Emuna Pshuta. The first several chapters of Breishis are Sodei Sodos. To be able to plumb the depths of wisdom hidden behind a cosmic veil of secrecy is left to the brilliance of the Mekubalim .The issue, for us, is of import only on the level of a person’s Hashkafa. There are no direct consequences or ramifications in one’s faith or practice. Hashem, by definition, has no constraints. He can have chosen to create the world in an instant, in a week or in 15 billion years. For Hashem, who is above time, it is all one and the same. He may also have chosen to tell us about it in the most esoteric terms to be understood by only the few who spend their lives delving into His mysteries. For those whose Emuna is strong enough,or conversly, not strong enough, Emuna Pshuta will suffice. Others may need explanations which do not clash so jarringly against their upbringing, education and Weltanschauung .  For them we say Yaish Al Mi Lismoch, they may climb on the shoulders of giants. Ailu V’Ailu Divrei Elokim Chaim, one stance is not a total contradiction to the other. Both may abide side by side. Ultimately, of necessity, since there can be only one truth to be revealed by Eliyahu HaNavi, Zachur L’Tov, it is probable that the process of science and the classical thinking of normative Judaism coming to the same conclusions will continue apace. One hundred years ago they were worlds apart. Fifty years ago the media declared G-d dead. Today, science is discovering things we have known to be true all along.

Other sources:

– Chagiga 12. re: first moments

– Brachos 32: re: configuration

– MaHaRal in Gur Aryeh  Parshas Bo beginning “K’derech She’ain Machmitzin” re: time

– Chagiga 11b “incumbent to inquire from the end of the heavens to the end of the heavens”

– Shabbos 78a on the obligation to study astronomy

First Perek of Avoda Zara on 18,000 worlds





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