Tag Archives: Gravity

The Seven Earths

This week’s parasha, Vayikra, begins outlining all the sacrificial services in the Tabernacle (and future Temple). One category of offerings is called shelamim, “peace offerings”, introduced at the start of chapter 3. Our Sages taught (as cited by commentators like Rashi and Bartenura) that these offerings are called “peace offerings” because they serve to infuse the entire world with peace. The Zohar (III, 9b) picks up on this and opens a discourse on the nature of the “entire world”, and what it is really composed of. The Zohar states that when God created the world, He created “seven heavens above, seven earths [or lands] below, seven seas, seven [great] rivers, seven days, seven weeks, seven years [in a cycle] seven times, and seven thousand years [of civilization] that the world will endure…”

An 1808 Persian illustration of the Seven Heavens

The Zohar here draws from a more ancient Midrash that “all sevens are beloved” (Vayikra Rabbah 29:11). That Midrash expounds on another place in Vayikra that outlines the High Holidays, which are specifically in the seventh month of the year. Why the seventh? The Midrash states that there are seven heavens, and the highest heaven, called Aravot (from Psalms 68:5), is the most beloved. Of the seven earths or lands, the highest is called Tevel (as in Psalms 9:9), which we humans inhabit, and it is most beloved. The seventh generation from Adam was most beloved, for this was the generation of Enoch, who “walked” with God and never died, transforming into an angel. Similarly, the seventh generation of God’s chosen people was most beloved, for Moses was the seventh generation starting from Abraham. The Midrash continues with other sevens, including that the seventh day (Shabbat) is most beloved, as is the seventh Sabbatical year (Shemitah), and the seventh month, Tishrei, which is why the High Holidays are in that month.

Now, the Midrash above seems to suggest that just as the seven heavens are overlayed one on top of another, so too are the seven “earths” overlayed one of top of another. The surface world is our Tevel, and beneath us are six more layers of worlds, respectively called Eretz, Adamah, Arka, Gai, Tziyah, and Neshiya (אֶרֶץ, אֲדָמָה, אַרְקָא, גַּיְא, צִיָה, נְשִׁיָּה). The Zohar first quotes this teaching, tracing it back to Adam himself, and says that the lower worlds are arranged concentrically like an onion. In each subterranean world are distinct creatures that are different than those in our world. However, the Zohar then brings an alternate teaching from the great Rav Hamnuna Saba. This one is absolutely breathtaking because of its precise scientific knowledge, way ahead of its time:

… the entire world spins around like a ball, with some [people] on top and some [people] below. The living beings [across the seven lands] all differ in their appearance because of the different environments in each land, yet are all like other human beings.

When one land has light, another land has darkness, so that when it is daytime for one group [of people], it is nighttime for the other. In one land, it is always daytime, except for a short hour of night. And this is the [true meaning] of what is written in the ancient Book of Adam.

The Zohar here addresses all of our concerns and makes sense of the seven lands. The truth is that the seven lands are all on the surface, just different continents around our globe. The beings in these worlds are not distinct, bizarre creatures, but just like all shar bnei nasha, other normal human beings, but with different skin colours and appearances since they adapt to their environment!

Not only does the Zohar reveal that there are seven continents (something that humans would not uncover for hundreds of more years!) but it also tells us the world is spherical, and that it is rotating “like a ball” (not confirmed by scientists until the 1800s!) The Zohar knows about time zones, too, and says that it is daytime in some continents while it is simultaneously night in other continents. More incredible still, it knows that in the continent of Antarctica (first sighted only in 1820!) it is sometimes entirely day with practically no night, and vice versa. (This is true in the Arctic as well, but the Arctic is not a continent.)

Rav Hamnuna Saba concludes that this is the true meaning of the ancient secret of the seven lands. One should not think that the worlds are subterranean and arranged like an onion, for this is an incorrect interpretation. To help confirm this, the Zohar goes on to relay a story about Rav Nehorai Saba, who rejected the Midrash about the seven lands and did not believe it could be true. It happened that he was once at sea and a terrible storm began to rage. The ship capsized and Rav Nehorai was cast into the depths of the ocean. He washed up on a foreign land, with strange-looking people speaking a language he did not understand. Eventually, a miracle happened and he was teleported back to his home. He would often be found crying in the study halls, and when people asked why, he answered: “Because I sinned against belief in the words of the Sages…” Rav Nehorai would henceforth teach: “Happy are the righteous who labour in the Torah and know the mysteries of the supernal secrets; woe to those who disagree with them and are not believers!”

Rav Nehorai was not alone in his initial doubt. Even the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) living in the 16th century still had a hard time believing in the seven lands, and admitted that it seemed impossible and baffling! He concluded that, like Rav Nehorai, one should accept it on faith alone (see Pardes Rimonim, Gate 6, Chapter 3). Today, we don’t have to be baffled, and we have all the empirical evidence we need to know that Rav Hamnuna Saba was correct all along. Science has finally caught up and confirmed what was once a most profound mystical secret.

Cain’s Children

Elsewhere (I, 9b), the Zohar states that when God banished Cain following his murder of Abel, he was exiled to the land of Arka, one of the “seven lands”. While some erroneously thought this to mean that Cain was somehow sent deep into the nether regions of the planet, the truth is that, as we’ve seen, he was simply banished to another continent. We learn that Cain mated with the people there, and this is where his children came from. This confirms the statement of Rav Hamnuna Saba that the inhabitants of the other lands are human beings, too, and not strange otherworldly creatures. Cain just went to another continent, probably Africa or Asia. (The Torah says in Genesis 4:16 that Cain went to the region of Nod, east of Eden.)

The Zohar above solves another great mystery: if Adam and Eve were the only people, and they only had Cain and Abel, the latter of which died, who could Cain have mated with? The Zohar reveals that there were other, “uncivilized” people, too. Adam and Eve were unique in that they were given a divine intellect, but they were not alone. This also explains why the Torah seemingly mentions the creation of man twice, in both chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis. The inescapable conclusion is that chapter 1 of Genesis describes the creation of mankind, all human beings, while chapter 2, in the Garden of Eden, describes the birth of the first fully civilized man, infused with a unique divine spirit, and given the tools to transform the world. Cain would have been the first to set forth and “civilize” the rest of the world. This may be why the Torah specifically tells us that Cain went and built a city (Genesis 4:17).

In any case, Cain’s descendants all perished in the Great Flood, leaving only the line of Seth, from whom Noah and his children descended. Intriguingly, Rav Yonatan Eybeschutz (1690-1764), in his Tiferet Yonatan commentary on the Torah, held that the Great Flood did not affect the Americas! Only the Old World of Asia, Africa, and Europe were punished. His reasoning is pretty solid: Had the Flood destroyed everyone around the globe, how could Noah’s children have populated the New World? They didn’t have the advanced ships needed to traverse the oceans! We must conclude that America was spared, and the people there, who were not affected by the sins of the Old World anyway, were completely unharmed. (We probably have to include Australia here, too.)

On this note, it is important to mention that some in the religious world think that the continents only split as a result of the Great Flood. Both Torah and science agree that the continents were once joined together (a landmass scientists refer to as Pangea). However, scientists estimate that the continents split long ago, and it could not have happened within the timeframe of human history. Rav Eybeschutz’s statement also confirms that the continents were already split at the time of the Flood. As the Midrash cited above states, God created the world initially with seven lands, so the seven distinct continents surely already existed at the time of Adam’s creation.

How scientists map the development of the continents, which drift about 2.5 centimetres per year. For how to deal with the age of the universe and reconciling it with Torah chronology, see here.

Continental Sefirot

The three upper Sefirot of mochin (in blue) and the seven lower Sefirot of the middot (in red).

When the Zohar speaks of all the sevens embedded in Creation, it implies that these correspond to the seven lower Sefirot. So, how do we connect the continents to the Sefirot? The Old World three of Asia, Africa, and Europe are surely tied to the three main axes of Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet. We generally say that Noah’s sons divided up the three Old continents amongst themselves, with Shem getting Asia, Ham getting Africa, and Yefet getting Europe. The Zohar (I, 73a) tells us that the three sons embody Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet, so we can easily conclude that Asia is Chessed, Africa is Gevurah, and Europe is Tiferet.

Asia is by far the largest continent, and Chessed is also called Gedulah, “largeness”. Asian cultures are known for their warm hospitality and their altruistic, tight-knit communities, a sure sign of Chessed. There is no doubt that hot Africa, with its difficult history, is the severity of fiery Gevurah, also called Din, harsh “judgement”. Tiferet is “beauty”, sharing a close root with Yefet, which means pretty much the same thing.

It is worth briefly exploring the unique case of the land of Israel. Geographically, we consider Israel to be a part of Asia, and those Asian qualities mentioned above are certainly prominent in the Holy Land. Yet, mystical texts typically associate Israel with Tiferet, which is closer to Europe. Indeed, Israel’s history is most closely intertwined with that of Europe, and not only in the present day when Israel is politically closer to Europe than Asia, but even in ancient times during its close encounters with Greece and Rome. Geologically, meanwhile, the land of Israel is actually part of the African continental plate! (This makes a lot of sense, too, since Canaan was a son of Ham, who got Africa.) We have to conclude that Israel, being a special land, is really outside of the seven divisions, and has elements of all the continents and all the Sefirot. (It’s important to note here that the continental plates don’t match up exactly with our divisions of the continents, since Europe and Asia are part of one Eurasian plate, while India and Arabia have their own tectonic plates.)

The “twin” continents of North and South America are undoubtedly the “twin” Sefirot of Netzach and Hod. This explains well the qualities of both: North America is the place that contains history’s most dominant and powerful empire—a fitting aspect of “victorious” Netzach. South America, meanwhile, is best known for its vibrant cultures and colours, and its showmanship in music, dance, and sports—a clear aspect of the “splendorous” Hod.

Australia is best paired with Yesod. An interesting parallel here can be made when we remember that the personification of Yesod was Joseph. He was a prisoner sent “down under” unjustly, but nonetheless emerged from this ordeal into greatness. Australia, too, is infamous for its origins as a penal colony, where the British originally sent their prisoners. (Australia celebrates its national holiday, Australia Day, on January 26th, the anniversary of the day that the penal colony was established in 1788!)

Finally, there is no doubt about the nature of cold and empty Antarctica at the very bottom of the globe. This is the “empty” Malkhut at the bottom of the Sefirot, with little energy of its own to emit and serving only as the receptable for the Sefirot above. We might learn from this that, while Antarctica has seemingly played no role in human history thus far, it has a significant role to play in the future era of Malkhut, when God’s Kingship will be revealed once again—an era which we all hope and pray will be upon us imminently.

Kefitzat HaDerekh: Wormholes in the Torah

This week’s parasha, Vayetze, begins with Jacob setting forth towards his mother’s hometown in Haran. We read that on his way he suddenly “bumped into” a special place (Genesis 28:11) that turned out to be Beit El, the “House of God”. Jacob was surprised to find himself there (28:16), presumably the site of the future House of God, the Temple in Jerusalem. The Sages (Sanhedrin 95b) explain what happened:

“And Jacob went out from Be’er Sheva, and went to Haran…” is followed by “and he happened upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set.” For when he reached Haran, he said: “Shall I have passed through the place in which my fathers prayed, without doing so likewise?!” He wished therefore to return, but no sooner had he thought of this than the earth instantly contracted and he “happened upon” that place.

Our Sages state that a miracle occurred after Jacob had reached Haran. He regretted not stopping by at the site of the future Temple Mount, where Abraham and Isaac had prayed, so the earth beneath his feet seemingly “contracted” and he was suddenly teleported to Jerusalem. In fact, the Sages state that such a miracle occurred for three people in the Tanakh: first was Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, then Jacob in this week’s parasha, and finally King David’s general Avishai. There is Scriptural proof for each one. For instance, when Eliezer had arrived in Haran he declared “I came today to the well” (Genesis 24:42), implying he had set out on his journey that same day. Eliezer was miraculously able to go from Be’er Sheva to Haran, a significantly long journey, in under a day.

This phenomenon would later become known as kefitzat haderekh, “jumping the path”, and would appear in Rabbinic narratives as well. Angels have a similar ability to seemingly teleport across vast distances. In one story, Rav Kahana was once selling some wares and a female customer tried to seduce him (Kiddushin 40a). He quickly fled in distress and ran to the nearest window and jumped! The angel-prophet Eliyahu appeared and caught him, complaining that he had to instantly travel a distance of “four hundred parasangs” to save him. A parasang, or parsa, is the average distance a person walks in 72 minutes—generally thought to be about 5 kilometres. So, Eliyahu flew some 2000 kilometres in a flash to catch the rabbi. Rav Kahana apologized and lamented that due to his poverty he had to resort to being a salesman. Eliyahu gave him a vessel full of money to free him from his job.

Meanwhile, the Zohar (I, 4b-5a) states that the malevolent angel Samael can traverse as much as 6000 parsas in a single moment. This number is not arbitrary, for the Talmud calculates that the Earth’s circumference is 6000 parsas (Pesachim 94a). This is an incredible piece of Talmudic science, considering how little of the globe was known then. Today, we know that Earth’s exact circumference is 40,075 km at the equator, a value close to that of our Sages. In fact, if making the correct assumption that the Sages must have been exact in their knowledge, we might be able to properly identify the length of a Talmudic parsa.

Although it is generally calculated in halakhah that a parsa is between 4 and 5 kilometres, by dividing 40,075 km by 6000 we can conclude that a parsa must be closer to 6.68 kilometres. This is also more in line with the notion that a parsa is a distance of 72 minutes: The average walking speed of humans is 5 km per hour (1.42 metres per second, according to the most precise measurements), so defining a parsa as 6.68 km is much closer to the scientific reality.

Jacob’s Ladder through Spacetime

The Talmud (Chullin 91b) calculates that the distance of the Heavenly Ladder that Jacob saw in his vision was a whopping 8000 parsas, which would be over 50,000 km. The word used by our Sages is rochav, meaning “width”. A superficial reading of the Talmud suggests that each angel is 2000 parsas wide (based on Daniel 10:6), and since Jacob saw four angels, the width of the Ladder must have been 8000 parsas. However, this does not make sense if taken literally, for why would an angel’s form be 2000 parsas wide? And if it was, how could Jacob even capture the sight of an angel in his limited field of view? The Talmud must be teaching something else. The big question here is why use the language of width as opposed to length or height, as might be expected?

When it comes to understanding the cosmos, we always speak of a “fabric of spacetime”. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Albert Einstein is pioneering the science behind it, proving that the three dimensions of space and the dimension of time are not separate, but interwoven together. With this, he was able to explain gravity a lot more accurately, demonstrating that larger bodies make a bigger “dip” in the fabric, pulling objects towards them kind of like a penny rolling around a funnel. And because they are integrated, strong gravitational effects can warp both space and time. We typically visualize spacetime as a flat “fabric”, with celestial objects scattered all over it. In fact, today we know that the universe does indeed appear to be flat (with a margin of error of about 0.4%). This is of tremendous significance.

In the Torah, the term aretz can refer to both Earth proper, and the wider physical universe at large. When we read that in the beginning God created et shamayim v’et ha’aretz, we do not define it simply as the “sky” and the “earth”, for those were not created until Days Two and Three. Rather, God created the entire spiritual realm (shamayim) and the entire physical universe (aretz). Our Sages noted long ago that the root of aretz (ארץ) is the same as ratz (רץ), “running”, since everything in this universe is in perpetual motion. More incredibly, today we know that the universe is constantly expanding, and we see distant stars “running away” from us. As such, when the Tanakh uses an idiom like kanfot ha’aretz, the “corners” or “edges” of the universe, it may be read quite literally. For a long time, there were people who understood these Torah statements as implying a flat Earth, when in reality they could have been alluding to a deeper scientific understanding regarding the “flatness” of the entire universe.

And that brings us back to the precise Talmudic language of rochav, “width”, in a place where we might have expected height. Of course, we do have a dimension of height. However, when zooming out to a “flat” universe, we really only visualize it in terms of width, as if on a two-dimensional plane. Going further, Einstein later showed, together with another Jewish scientist named Nathan Rosen, that it would be theoretically possible to “bend” spacetime and connect two points that are vastly far apart. It would be like folding over the fabric and then poking a hole through both layers. Such an “Einstein-Rosen bridge”, better known as a wormhole, would allow travel across extremely vast distances in a very short period of time. In other words, it would be very much like kefitzat haderekh!  

A wormhole shortens the trip by bending spacetime and forming a bridge.

So, what our Sages may have been secretly implying in describing the width of Jacob’s Ladder is that this wormhole (of sorts) spanned 8000 parsas, or over 50,000 km. This is a distance even wider than the Earth and, scientifically, we would expect wormholes to be very large like this. Such a wormhole was accurately depicted in the film Interstellar, allowing the protagonists to instantly travel to a distant solar system to find a new home for mankind:

It is worth noting that when our Sages described the teleportation of Jacob, they said that kaftzah ha’aretz, again using that term aretz, and implying that it “jumped” or “contracted” for him. So, another term for this phenomenon, truer to the language of the Talmud, would be kefitzat ha’aretz, the warping of the spacetime fabric of this universe. Kefitzat haderekh is accurate, too, implying that one “jumped the path”, finding an alternate shortcut from one point in the universe to another. This appears to have happened at Sinai, as well. Our Sages likened Jacob’s Ladder to the Sinai Revelation, and the Zohar (I, 149a, Sitrei Torah) even notes that the numerical value of “ladder” (סלם) and “Sinai” (סיני) is the same—130. At Sinai, too, a “wormhole” opened up allowing 22,000 angelic “chariots” to descend upon the mountain (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:3).

Theoretical physics aside, can we actually create such wormholes? In 2017, scientists succeeded in producing tiny, microscopic wormholes for the first time. It is certainly possible that in the near future we will have the technology to open up larger wormholes, making rapid travel across God’s vast universe feasible. It appears that God’s angels already employ such a wormhole-style system of travel, traversing thousands of parsas instantaneously. It might help explain the Tower of Babel episode which, as we’ve mentioned in the past, was not simply a tower but meant to “lift off” and “conquer” the Heavens.

Our Sages long ago taught that the people who built the Tower knew the wisdom of the angels and were using angelic powers to accomplish their plans (see, for instance, Zohar I, 76a). God “came down” to confound them. He wiped their memories and jumbled their languages so that they wouldn’t be able to collaborate in such a megalomaniacal way. Today, we live in a world that is once more getting real close to being “of singular language and singular words” (Genesis 11:1), and once again we see science stepping into the dangerous territory of “playing God”. Hopefully this time humanity will get it right and use the astounding abilities that God made possible in His universe only for the good.

Secrets of God’s Ineffable Name

In this week’s parasha, Shemot, God first reveals Himself to Moses. He introduces Himself thus: “I am the God of your forefathers; the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Exodus 3:6) Later on in the conversation, Moses asks God how he should tell the Children of Israel about God, and what name should he use in referring to God? God replies that He is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I will be what I will be”. The simple meaning here is that God is trying to convey that He is not some idol or pagan deity. He has no shape or form; he has no location. He is everywhere and imbues everything. He is everything. He will be whatever He needs to be; wherever, whenever. Only after that introduction, God says:

Thus shall you say to the children of Israel: YHWH, the God of your fathers; the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is My name for ever, and this is My memorial unto all generations. (Exodus 3:15)

God reveals His eternal name: YHWH (יהוה), a term so holy and powerful it is not uttered. It is referred to as God’s “Ineffable” Name, or just the Tetragrammaton (literally the “four-letter” name), and by Jews as Hashem (“The Name”), or Adonai (“My Lord”) in prayers or Torah readings. Some Jews refer to it by rearranging the letters and saying Havaya. (Some non-Jews have transliterated it into English as “Jehovah”.) Whatever the appellation, this name of God carries infinite depths of meaning. Several of these will be explored below. Continue reading