Friday, October 16, 2009

Ramban, the Greeks, and Parshat Bereshit

There are a number of perushim by the Ramban on the Torah which have achieved the status of "world-famous" within the Yeshiva world. However, in the world of the Kabbalists there is one perush of the Ramban which is so famous and so fundamental to Kabbalistic philosophy, that I am inclined to refer to it as "Biblical". I am going to discuss the Ramban's "Biblical" comment about how the world was created. Nevertheless, since I do not want to confuse anyone, I will just refer to this comment of the Ramban as "world-famous", but we will know the real truth.

The "world-famous" Ramban in Parshat Bereshit concerns the first pasuk in the Torah
- בראשית ברא אלוקים. In reality, this is an extremely difficult phrase to translate accurately. The complex nuances of the Biblical grammar are barely within my grasp (hat-tip to Profs. Steiner and Eichler) but much too difficult to explain here. המבין יבין.

Nevertheless, the word בראשית is generally translated as, "beginning" - as in, "In the beginning blah blah blah." However, Chazal treat the letter "ב" at the beginning of the word as a preposition and translate the word as, "with ראשית." Now don't get lost because we are almost at the end - ראשית is generally translated as, "the best". Chazal translate the first phrase in the Torah as, "Elokim created with the best." Take a look at Rashi on this pasuk and you will see some suggestions for meanings of ראשית: B'nei Israel and the Torah. (Truthfully, Rashi translates the "ב" as, "for the sake of" - so Rashi would translate this phrase as, "HaShem created for the sake of the Torah".)

Ramban the Kabbalist is struggling to reconcile the first pasuk of the Torah with the Kabbalistic concept of creation ex nihilo. That is to say יש מאין, or something from nothing. The word ראשית refers to the very first "stuff" that was created by HaShem in the finite universe. Ramban explains that Greek philosophy has a similar idea of the first "stuff" that was used to create the universe - "hiyuli". (My Greek is a little rusty if not non-existent, so I welcome any help from any blog-like people out there.) According to Ramban, there was a single act of something from nothing creation, and the Torah calls the created stuff ראשית. All of the olamot and sefirot, and molecules and quarks are all made from this ראשית. And there you have it, Ramban uses a little Greek philosophy to help explain how the first phrase in the Torah actually refers to the fundamental Kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum.

Photo Credit -


  1. Combining Ramban and Rashi, we can read bereshit as "In principle", in the main, principally - forming the earth was the principal act of creation.
    Ramban had a bigger problem with bara, actually, as the word cannot denote ex nihilo creation, but shaping something.

  2. Neither Rashi nor Ramban translate the preposition "ב" as - in. They both follow Chazal's translation of the "ב" as - with.
    Your translation of "In principle" is quite thought provoking.
    The bigger grammatical problem is that the second word should be ברוא and not ברא. (See Breshit 5:1, sorry can't get nekudot on blog)

    Also, I don't know how many examples of verbs in the Tanakh which are used to express the idea of ex nihilo creation.

    In summation, I would say that Ramban is bothered by both the Grammar and Philosophical implications of the phrase: בראשית ברא אלוקים.

  3. Since you mentioned Eichler, if I remember correctly, he favors Rashis understanding of the grammer.

  4. Yona - I will have to trust you since I have not yet had the chance to unpack my Revel notes. I remember the English being something like, "At the beginning of the process of creation." Sounds like Rashi.

  5. Hiyuli is a compound word of Hy and Heliu., hydrogen and helium. The original stuff after the Big Bang and the condensation of matter, with electrons being bound to nuclei was a universe of approx. 90% hydrogen and 10% helium. I may be slightly off by the percentages, but you get the drift. The amazing thing that the Ramban says is that angelic beings in Shamayim are made of the same stuff.