FROM BOOK TWO, MYTHS OF CREATION
90. PRIOR WORLDS
Before the world was created, God alone existed, one and eternal, beyond any boundary,
without change or movement, concealed within Himself. When the thought arose in Him
to bring the world into being, His glory became visible. He began to trace the foundations
of a world before Himself, and in this way God brought a heaven and earth into
being. But when God looked at them, they were not pleasing in His sight, so He changed
them back into emptiness and void. He split and rent and tore them apart with his two
arms, and ruined whole worlds in one moment. One after another, God created a thousand
worlds, which preceded this one. And all of them were swept away in the wink of
God went on creating worlds and destroying worlds until He created this one and
declared, “This one pleases me, those did not.” That is how God created the heaven and
the earth as we know it, as it is said, “For, behold! I am creating a new heaven and a new earth”
The verse These are the generations of the heaven and the earth when they were created
(Gen. 2:4) suggested to the rabbis the creation of prior worlds, while the verse You
carry them away as with a flood (Ps. 90:5) was also interpreted to refer to the destruction
of these prior worlds. The Zohar (1:262b) suggests that God did not actually build
these prior worlds, but only thought about building them.
That this world was not the first that God created was believed to be indicated by
Isaiah 65:17: “For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth and the former shall not be
remembered nor come to mind.” Zohar Hadash identifies the prior worlds as totaling 1,000,
as does Or ha-Hayim 1:12, which states that before God created this world, He created
a thousand hidden worlds. These hidden worlds were created through the first letter,
aleph. That is why the Torah, in the report of the Creation of this world, commences
with the second letter, bet. The existence of the 1,000 worlds is linked to the verse You
may have the thousand, O Solomon (S. of S. 8:12).
Other sources, such as Midrash Tehillim 90:13, give the number as 974 worlds, which
were said to have been created and destroyed over 2,000 years. Sefer ha-Zikhronot 1:1
suggests that when it entered God’s mind to create the world, He drew the plan of the
world, but it would not stand until God created repentance. Thus repentance is the
key element that made our world possible.
Rabbi Yitzhak Eizik Haver (1789-1853) found evidence of prior creations in the fact
that the Torah starts with the letter bet, the second letter, rather than with an aleph, the
first letter. “The verse begins with the letter bet to hint that Creation was divided into
two realms—that God created two beginnings.”
Although a great many prior worlds are said to have been created and destroyed,
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev insisted that “Everything God created exists forever,
and never ceases to be.” And in Esh Kadosh, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira identifies
the creation and destruction of the prior worlds with the Shattering of the Vessels.
Furthermore, he states that God made the present universe out of those broken vessels.
See “The Shattering of the Vessels and Gathering the Sparks,” p. 122.
The belief that God destroyed the prior worlds implies that God’s creations of these
worlds was somehow in error. Some Christian apocryphal sources, such as The Gospel
of Philip 99a, describe even the present world as an error: “The world came into being
through a mistake. For he who created it wished to create it imperishable and immortal.
He did not attain his hope.”
Genesis Rabbah 3:7, 9:2, 28:4, 33:3; Exodus Rabbah 1:2, 30:3; B. Hagigah 13b; Midrash
Tehillim 90:13; Midrash Aleph Bet 5:5; Eliyahu Rabbah 2:9; Zohar 1:24, 1:154a, 1:262b,
3:135a-135b, Idra Rabbah; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 3; Sefer ha-’Iyyun Ms. Hebrew
University 8330; Zohar Hadash; Sefer ha-Zikhronot 1:1; Rashi on Shabbat 88b; No’am
Elimelekh, Bo 36b; Kedushat Levi; Or ha-Hayim 1:12; Esh Kadosh; Otzrot Rabbi Yitzhav
Yitzhak Eizik Haver, p.1.
The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the
Warsaw Ghetto by Nehemia Polen.
103. WHAT DOES THE EARTH STAND ON?
Once, when Aaron the Priest, brother of Moses, was offering sacrifices on Yom Kippur,
the bull sprang up from beneath his hands and covered a cow. When that calf was born,
it was stronger than any other. Before a year was out, the calf had grown bigger than the
God then took the world and stuck it on one horn of that bull. And the bull holds up the
world on his horn, for that is God’s wish. But when people sin, their sins make the world
heavier, and the burden of the bull grows that much greater. Then the bull grows tired of its
burden, and tosses the world from one horn to the other. That is when earthquakes take
place, and everything is uncertain until the world stands secure on a single horn.
So it is that the bull tosses the world from time to time from one horn to the other,
causing earthquakes and other catastrophes. And if people only knew of the danger, they
would recognize how much they are dependent on God’s mercy. For if they would only
observe the commandments and sanctify God’s name, the bull would stand still and the
world remain quietly on its horns.
This Moroccan myth about God putting the world on one horn of a giant bull demonstrates
that myths, as well as folktales, can be found among the abundant tales
collected orally in Israel by the Israel Folktale Archives. While many of these myths
are found in earlier texts, sometimes, as here, a myth is passed down orally and is not
to be found in the written tradition. This myth reminds us of myths from other cultures
about what the world stands on, such as the widespread belief in South Asia and
among North American Indians that the earth rests on the back of a turtle. Not only
does this myth explain what the world stands on (since it appears to be standing still),
but also provides an explanation for earthquakes and other disasters. Note the genesis
of the bull that grows to be bigger than the world—it is born from the unplanned
copulation of a bull about to be sacrificed on Yom Kippur. What the myth does not
address is the obvious contradiction that the world already existed at the time of Aaron,
brother of Moses, the first High Priest.
159. ADAM THE GOLEM
When God decided to create Adam, He gathered dust from the four corners of the earth,
rolled it together, mixed it with water, and made red clay. Then God shaped the clay into
a lifeless body, the first golem, stretching from one end of the world to the other, and
brought it to life. So large was it, that God’s hand rested upon it. So large was it, that
wherever God looked, He saw it. That is the meaning of the verse Your eyes saw my golem
(Ps. 139:16). So huge was it, that the angels mistook it for God Himself, and they wanted
to say “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts.” So God caused sleep to fall upon him, so
that all knew he was but a mortal man.
While the golem of Adam lay sleeping, God whispered in his ear the secrets of Creation,
and showed Adam the righteous of every generation, and the wicked as well, until
the time when the dead will be raised. Indeed, God showed him every righteous man
who would ever descend from him, every generation and its judges, scribes, prophets,
and leaders. So too did God show him every generation and its saints and sinners. And
as God spoke, Adam witnessed everything as if he were there. Some of the righteous
hung on Adam’s head, some hung to his hair, some to his forehead, some to his eyes,
some to his nose, some to his mouth, some to his ears, some to his teeth.
And later, when Adam did come to life, he dimly remembered all that God had revealed
when he was only a golem. And at night, in his dreams, he still heard God’s voice
recounting mysteries, and telling of all that would take place in the days to come. In
those dreams Adam would travel to those places and see the events firsthand, as a witness.
And since there is a spark of Adam’s soul in every one of his descendants, there are
a few in every generation who still hear the voice of God in their dreams.
“Golem” means “a formless body.” In shaping Adam’s body out of clay, God created
the first golem. There are stories in the Talmud and medieval Jewish lore that describe
the creation of golems, one a calf that was eaten on the Sabbath, one a man of clay
animated by the fourth century Rabbi Rava, and one a woman golem that Ibn Gabirol is
said to have made out of wood. Later the famous legend of the golem of the Maharal
recounted how he created a man out of clay in much the same way that God did, using
the powers of what is known as practical kabbalah. The fact that the golem of the Maharal
is mute and cannot reproduce demonstrates that man’s creation is less perfect than God’s.
It also demonstrates man’s desire to take on the powers of God and act in a godlike
fashion. The righteous who cling to the golem of Adam represent the qualities that the
each of the righteous emphasized. See “The Golem of Prague,” p. 281.
According to Midrash ha-Ne’elam, Zohar Hadash 17c-d, God gathered the dust for
Adam’s body from the site where the Temple in Jerusalem would be built in the future,
and drew down his soul from the celestial Temple.
One of the important questions about the creation of Adam asks whether God created
Adam by Himself, or if the angels played a role in his creation. Many midrashim
describe Gabriel’s role in gathering dust from the four corners of the earth. In contrast,
4 Ezra insists that God created Adam entirely by Himself: “Adam was the workmanship
of Your hands, and You breathed into him the breath of life, and he was made alive in
Your presence. And You led him into the garden which Your right hand had planted
before the earth appeared” (4 Ezra 3:4-6).
Midrash Tanhuma, Bereshit 28; Genesis Rabbah 8:1, 8:10, 24:2; Exodus Rabbah 40:3;
Ecclesiastes Rabbah 6:1, 10; 4 Ezra 3:4-6; Avot de-Rabbi Natan 31; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer
12; Pesikta Rabbati 23:1; Eliyahu Rabbah 1:3; Midrash ha-Ne’elam, Zohar Hadash 17c-d.
“Imagery of the Divine and the Human: On the Mythology of Genesis Rabbah 8:1” by
David H. Aaron.
The Idea of the Golem by Gershom Scholem.
Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid by Moshe Idel.