(From ‘Immortality, Resurrection and the Age of the Universe’ – by Aryeh Kaplan)


Chapter 1

The Age of the Universe


The question of the age of the universe has been discussed in Torah circles for more than a century. The Torah seems to teach that the universe is no more than six thousand years old. Indeed, many would say that any opinion stating that the world is more than six thousand years old must of necessity contradict the Torah. However, there appears to be a great deal of observational evidence that the universe is much older than six thousand years.
A number of approaches have been proposed to resolve this problem, some of which were discussed in a book published a few years ago.1 Our concern, however, is not me rely to resolve the question, but to do so in a manner firmly based on Torah teachings. That is to say, we seek a solution that is actually found in the classical Torah literature.


Methodological Principles


Before we can even begin to try to resolve this problem, we must lay down a few methodological principles. The first is the most important. We must be fully aware of what the primary sources say about the issue. Unfortunately, people often put forth their own ideas as Torah principles, claiming the authority of the classical sources for notions to which they are diametrically opposed.

Second, we must keep in mind that there is no one binding opinion in matters that do not involve Jewish law or fundamental matters of faith. One must always come to a final conclusion on a question of halakhah, since one must know how to act, but in regard to a non-halakhic question, such as the age of the universe, any opinion found in a recognized Torah source is acceptable.

This principle is alluded to in a number of Talmudic passages. For example, the Talmud refrains from rendering a final opinion on questions involving Messianic times and tables the matter by categorizing it as a hilkhatha le-meshiha, “a law pertaining to the Messiah” Where there is no practical consequence, a final verdict need not be rendered.

Another example is the Talmud’s use of the expression “Both are the words of the living God.” This phrase appears in two places, once in a non-halakhic context and once with regard to the halakhic disputes between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai.

In the former case the Talmud does not provide a final verdict (pesak), while in the latter it concludes: “the law follows Hillel’s School. Again, on non-halakhic issues, there need not be a final verdict.


Intellectual Corners


In trying to resolve an issue as basic as the age of the universe, it is important not to paint oneself into an intellectual corner, Once the community has taken a stand on an issue— even an erroneous stand—backing down from it is difficult.

One example that immediately comes to mind is that of the existence of extraterrestrial life. Around a decade ago, a number of prominent rabbis expressed the opinion that belief in any life beyond the earth was tantamount to heresy. I recall writing an article in Intercom refuting this idea and demonstrating how giants like Saadiah Gaon had felt that life on other worlds was totally consonant with Torah teachings. What many contemporaries were decrying as heresy was actually a totally acceptable Torah opinion.

Another example would be the question of whether the universe is geocentric or heliocentric. Very few of even the most conservative Torah Jews today would say that belief in a heliocentric universe goes against Torah teachings. But in the very recent past, there were many who maintained that belief in a geocentric world was essential to Judaism.2

I also recall that some thirty years ago, back when I was in yeshiva, there was a discussion about sending a rocket to the moon. A prominent rabbi staunchly maintained that according to Torah teachings there was no way in which this could be possible. His arguments were impeccable—but of course, wrong.
It is very dangerous to paint oneself into an intellectual corner.


Possible Approaches


The danger is apparent in any discussion of the age of the universe, since the question of the world’s age is fundamental to any discussion of science and Judaism. If this issue remains unresolved, science and Torah will remain constantly at loggerheads.

The simplest approach is to ignore the problem. I know an Orthodox biology professor who in synagogue staunchly maintains that the world is less than six thousand years old, but in class teaches the standard scientific chronology. It is as if he had one belief system when among Orthodox people and another when among his professional colleagues. This may be the easiest way out, but it is obviously not a satisfactory approach.

Another approach is taken by the many Orthodox Jews who maintain that science in general is a fraud—largely because of this very issue. For those who hold this view, the moral shortcomings of scientists are taken as evidence of their intellectual dishonesty. However, this too is a totally unsatisfactory approach, as would be evident to anyone even remotely connected with organized science.

Two popular solutions take the problem on squarely.
The first assumes that each day of creation was really millions, or even billions, of years long. The six days of creation, according to this viewpoint, represent the billions of years that the universe took to develop.

There are a number of difficulties with this approach, not the least being that there is no hint of it anywhere in the classical Torah literature.

Another approach is to assume that the universe was created with its “history” as one of its elements. Thus, when God created trees, He created them with rings that seem to indicate that they had an extensive past existence. A scientist living in the first centuries of creation, so the argument goes, would have been able to discuss the “weather conditions” that existed before creation on the basis of the rings of larger trees. (Closely related to this is the question as to whether or not Adam had a navel.)

If trees could have been created with an apparent history, then so could the rest of the universe. Every creature’s genes contain evidence of its ancestry, but the genes would have been created with this “history.” Fossils and ancient-looking geological formations could also have been created no more than six thousand years ago. Even the uranium used for radiocarbon dating could have been created with characteristics that would make it seem billions of years old.

One problem with this approach is that it makes the Creator appear to have perpetrated a fraud. If it is heresy to believe that the world is more than six thousand years old, why would God have created the world in such a manner that an honest observer would be led to a false opinion? This is all the more serious an objection in light of the midrash that states, “There is no falsehood in the works of creation”.3 The above theory seems to make all of creation an act of falsehood.

Furthermore, the argument is arbitrary. If God could have created a universe with a history six thousand years ago, then He also could have done so five minutes ago. There is no question but that an omniscient God could have created us with all our memories, as well as with records and histories going back thousands of years. But then, with an omnipotent God, everything, no matter how illogical, is possible. Still, we generally assume that God gave us reason and created the world in such a manner that it could be understood by the human mind.

Of course, we are all aware that these objections can be re solved. The argument that the world was created with a history is impossible to refute, and if one feels comfortable with it, well and good. However, many might feel that it is an argument that approaches intellectual dishonesty and sophistry, as well as one which might create more problems than it resolves.

But there is an even more serious problem. Nowhere in Torah literature is there even the barest hint of such an approach. If not for scientific discoveries, no one would have even thought about presenting such an argument. Thus, it is both ex post facto and without basis in the Torah.

Actually, this approach was first postulated by a gentile scientist a few years before Darwin published his theory of evolution. At the time, scientists looked upon it as being a silly argument—even before Darwin It does not seem any more convincing today.

There is another issue that must also be dealt with squarely. Many fundamentalist Christian groups have adopted the idea of creationism, a teaching based on the literal interpretation of the Bible. Of course, since gentiles do not take the Oral Torah into consideration, their approach is certain to be very different than ours. Moreover, many of their arguments have been very effectively refuted by some of the best scientific minds. That Orthodox Jews should align themselves with such groups is both dangerous and anti-Torah.


Sabbatical Cycles




The only choice remaining is to look into our classical Torah literature and determine whether there are any pertinent statements regarding the age of the universe, significantly, there is a very important, though not well known, concept that is discussed in the Sefer ha-Temunah, an ancient Kabbalistic work attributed to the first-century tanna, Rabbi Nehunya ben ha-Kanah. The work discusses the forms of the Hebrew letters and is the source of many of the most frequently cited opinions on this subject in the halakhic literature. Thus, Sefer ha-Temunah is not an obscure, unimportant work, but one which is relied upon by most halakhic authorities.

The Sefer ha-Temunah speaks about Sabbatical cycles (shemitot). This is based on the Talmudic teaching that “the world will exist for six thousand years, and in the seven-thousandth year, it will be destroyed.”4 The Sefer ha-Temunah states that this seven-thousand-year cycle is merely one Sabbatical cycle. However, since there are seven Sabbatical cycles in a Jubilee, the world is destined to exist for forty-nine thousand years.

There is a question as to which cycle we are in today. Some authorities maintain that we are currently in the second Sabbatical cycle.5 Others maintain that we are currently in the seventh cycle.6 According to the second opinion, the universe would have been forty-two thousand years old when Adam was created. As we shall see, the implications of this are very important.

Before going any further, it must be mentioned that most of the more recent Kabbalistic texts do not make any reference to these teachings. This is because two of the greatest recent Kabbalists, Rabbi Moses Cordovero (the RaMaK) and Rabbi Isaac Luria (the An) disputed this concept in general. Thus, the author of Vayekhel Mosheh writes, “We can see the greatness of the An, since there was an opinion (regarding Sabbatical cycles) that was accepted by all the early Kabbalists, but was refuted by the An.”7

Here, however, the second principle that was discussed earlier comes into play. Since this is not a matter of’ law, there is no binding opinion. Although the Ari may have been the greatest of Kabbalists, his opinion on this matter is by no means absolutely binding. Since there were many important Kabbalists who upheld the concept of Sabbatical cycles, it is a valid, acceptable opinion.8

According to Sefer ha-Temunah, then, there were other worlds before Adam was created. These were the worlds of previous Sabbatical cycles.

Significantly, there are a number of allusions to this approach in the Midrash. Thus, commenting on the verse, “It was evening and it was morning, one day” (Genesis L5), the Midrash Rabbah states, “This teaches that there were orders of time before this.”9

Another well-known Midrashic teaching also appears to support the concept of Sabbatical cycles. The Midrash states that “God created universes and destroyed them.”10 One of the important classical Kabbalistic works, Ma'arekhet Elokut states explicitly that this passage refers to worlds that existed in Sabbatical cycles before Adam was created. The same source states explicitly that the Midrashic teaching that “there were orders of time before this [creation]” is also speaking of earlier Sabbatical cycles.11

A Talmudic passage seems to support this view of Sabbatical cycles. According to the Talmud, and some Midrashim as well, there were 974 generations before Adam.12 The number is derived from the verse, “Remember forever His covenant, a word He commanded for a thousand generations” (Psalms 105:8). This would indicate that the Torah was destined to be given after one thousand generations. Since Moses was the twenty-sixth generation after Adam, there must have been 974 generations before Adam. The Ma’arekhet  Elokut statesexplicitly that these generations existed in the Sabbatical cycles before Adam’s creation.
The concept of pre-Adamic cycles was well known among the Rishonim (early authorities), and is cited in such sources as Bahya, Recanati, Ziyyoni, and Sefer ha-Hinnukh.13It is also alluded to in the Kuzari, and in the commentaries of the Ramban and Ibn Ezra.14



Tif’eret Yisrael


One of the most recent authorities to speak about the concept of Sabbatical cycles is Rabbi Israel Lipschitz, the author of Tiferet Yisrael on the Mishnah. At the end of the section of Nezikin he includes an essay entitled Derush Or ha-Hayyim. Since this work speaks of earlier creations, and of human beings existing before Adam, it was extremely controversial. Indeed, it was omitted from some editions of the commentary (and torn out of others!). Moreover, because of the Derush, a number of Hasidic groups do not use the T/’ere1 Yisrael at all.15

One of the problems with the Derush is that the author does not cite all the sources. His most important sources are Ibn Ezra, the Ramban, and Bahya, which are also among the most ambiguous, especially if one has not actually seen the presentation in the original source, Sefer ha-Temunah.

Rabbi Lipschitz’s approach is very interesting. He cites the Kabbalistic idea of universes existing before Adam and then concludes, “See how the teachings of our Torah have been vindicated by modern discoveries.” He then cites such discoveries as a mammoth found near Baltimore, as well as dinosaurs. Since such creatures no longer exist, they obviously lived during previous Sabbatical cycles.

He goes on to say that mountain ranges like the Himalayas (mentioned by name) were obviously formed by great upheavals. He concludes that these were the upheavals mentioned explicitly in Sefer ha-Temunah, and that this is a further vindication of Torah teachings. This statement is very significant. Nowadays, many people in the Torah world feel threatened by geological and paleontological discoveries. They regard dinosaurs and other fossils as problems that can only be resolved with great difficulty. Here, on the other hand, one of the leading Torah figures of the last century takes an entirely different approach, seeing these discoveries as upholding an important Torah teaching. While many Orthodox Jews today feel that they must challenge every scientific statement regarding paleontology or geology, the author of Tferet Yisrael saw such discoveries as supporting Torah concepts.


Rabbi Isaac of Akko


The Sefer ha-Temunah establishes the age of the world, at least according to some classical interpretations, at forty-two thousand years. That is, the world was forty-two thousand years old when Adam was created. This teaching was subject to a highly significant interpretation by Rabbi Isaac of Akko (1250-

Rabbi Isaac of Akko was a student and colleague of the Ramban, and one of the foremost Kabbalists of his time. He is quoted often in Rabbi Elijah de Vidas’ great musar classic, Reshit Hokhmah. The Zohar was published in his lifetime, and he is renowned as the individual who investigated (and verified) its authenticity.

Several years ago, as part of a research project, I obtained a photocopy of one of Rabbi Isaac’s important works, Ozar haHayyim. 17In it I discovered an entirely new interpretation of the concept of Sabbatical cycles.18

Rabbi Isaac of Akko writes that since the Sabbatical cycles existed before Adam, their chronology must be measured, not in human years, but in divine years. Thus, the Sefer ha-Temunah is speaking of divine years when it states that the world is forty- two thousand years old. This has some startling consequences, for according to many Midrashic sources, a divine day is 1,000 earthly years long, and a divine year, consisting of 365¼ days, is equal to 365,250 earthly years.

Thus, according to Rabbi Isaac of Akko, the universe would be 42,000 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 other 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 written over seven hundred years ago!

I am sure that many will find this highly controversial. However, it is important to know that this opinion exists in our classical literature; moreover, that one of the most important Kabbalists of seven centuries ago calculated the age of the universe and came to the same conclusion as modern science. As the author of Tif’eret Yisrael would have said, modern cosmological studies vindicate our approach to the Torah (as opposed, say, to the fundamentalist approach).

Fitting It in with the Torah


We must now ask how this fits in with the text of the Torah. Where in the Torah do we find any hint of these 15 billion years, or, indeed, any place in which to fit them? Basically, there are two approaches. The first is that of the Ma‘arekhet Elokut, a work which we referred to above. According to this source, the Torah is silent about events that took place during the period when the earth was “chaos and void” (tohu va-vohu). Thus, the period of “chaos and void” mentioned in the Torah would have lasted 15 billion years.

The difficulty with this approach is that the seven days of creation would then have taken place no more than six thousand years ago. This would pose some of the same questions that were originally raised.

There is, however, another approach, alluded to in the Talmud and Midrash.

One of the puzzles in the Torah involves the two accounts of creation. The first account is recorded in Genesis 1:1 - 2:3, the second in Genesis 2:4 – 23. Several discrepancies between these two versions are noted in the Talmud and the Midrash.

Thus, in the first version, the Torah says, “God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created him” (Genesis 1:27). This would appear to indicate that man and woman were created simultaneously. On the other hand, the second version states explicitly that Eve was created from Adam’s rib. The Talmud raises this question and then explains that God created man and woman simultaneously in thought, but created Adam first and Eve from his rib in actual deed. The two accounts in Genesis conform to these two acts of creation.19

An early commentary employs this concept in resolving a halakhic contradiction. In the Talmud there is a question as to whether the world was created in Tishrei or Nissan The Talmud states that with regard to legal matters, we abide by the opinion that the world was created in Nissan.20 This has practical consequences, such as the fact that Birkat ha-Hamah (the blessing over the sun) is recited in Nissan rather than in Tishrei. Yet the Talmud states explicitly that on Rosh Hashanah we say, “This day is the beginning of Your works,” because we follow the opinion that the world was created in Tishrei.

The difficulty is noted by Tosafot, which states in the name of Rabbenu Tam that in Tishrei the world was created in thought, while in Nissan it was created in deed.21 Significantly, even the Ari upholds the concept that there were two creations, one in thought and the other in deed.22

It would appear, then, that the seven days of creation described in the Torah actually occurred in thought rather than in deed, Of course, God’s thoughts are not the same as ours, and it is possible to say that creation in thought actually refers to the creation of the spiritual counterparts of the physical world. This approach is found in a number of Hasidic sources.23

Thus, it may be that the seven days of creation took place over 15 billion years ago, before the Big Bang. This represented the creation of the spiritual infrastructure of the universe, which the Talmud refers to as “creation in thought” The universe then developed according to God’s plan, guided by the spiritual infrastructure He had created. Finally, less than six thousand years ago, God created Adam as the first of a new type of being. Although human beings may have existed before Adam, he was the first to acquire a special spiritual sensitivity and be able to commune with God (see below, pp. 114-116).

There is an allusion to a separate creation in thought in Rashi’s commentary. Rashi states that the name Elokim is used in the first account of creation because it arose in thought to create the world with the attribute of Justice. Not till later did God employ the Tetragrammaton, indicating that the attribute of Mercy was also in effect. It is significant, however, that the name Elokim isused throughout the entire first account of creation. Some Hasidic sources also associate the “creation with justice” with the worlds that were “created and destroyed”24 The Sefer ha- Temunah states explicitly that the first Sabbatical cycle was one of unmitigated justice.

There is another pertinent Midrashic teaching, based on the tradition that whenever a Torah section begins with the expression “and these” (ve-eleh), it is a continuation of the preceding section, while when it begins with “these” (eleh) alone, it represents a break from the preceding section.

The Midrash notes that the second account of creation (Genesis 2:4) begins with the expression “these” rather than “and these.” Therefore, says the Midrash, this account is not to be associated with what is described in the verses that come before it, since the preceding account deals with “chaos and void.”25 The Midrash unequivocally speaks of the seven days of creation as being “chaos and void.”



As this discussion demonstrates, classical Torah sources not only maintain that the universe is billions of years old, but present the exact figure proposed by modern science. There are two accounts of creation in the Torah, the first speaking of the spiritual infrastructure of the universe, which was completed in seven days. This took place some 15 billion years ago, before the Big Bang. The second account speaks of the creation of Adam, which took place less than six thousand years ago.

What is most important is that there is no real conflict between Torah and science on this most crucial issue If anything, Torah teachings are vindicated by modern scientific discoveries.

Selections from Ozar ha-Hayyim, pp 86b-87b


I, the insignificant Isaac of Akko, have seen fit to record a great mystery that should be kept very well hidden. One of God’s days is one thousand years, as it is written, “For a thousand days in Your sight are as a day” (Psalms 90:4). Since one of our years is 365¼ days, a year on high is 365,250 of our years. Two years on high is 730,000 of our years. From this, continue multiplying to 49,000 years, each year consisting of 365¼ days, and each supernal day being one thousand of our years, as it is written, “God alone will prevail on that day” (Isaiah 2:11). “Who can speak of God’s greatness?” (Psalms 106:2). Blessed be the name of Him whose glorious Kingdom is forever and ever.

All this relates to what the Scripture states. However, no matter how many times this picture is doubled, even thousands upon thousands, it would not even be like a second to [God]... However, with regard to the Infinite One, it is enough that He is called Infinite.

There is clear proof that the world has existed for many years from the verse in Isaiah, “A child, one hundred years old, shall die” (Isaiah 65:20). Today, if a child younger than three years old dies, we say that a baby has died. In the ultimate future, if a hundred-year-old man should die, we will say that a baby has died, because of the extreme longevity people will then enjoy. If people of little faith reject this strange matter, tell them that it has already happened, since Methuselah lived thirty years less than a millennium. Certainly, in the time of Methuselah, a person who died at one hundred years old would have been considered to have died very prematurely.

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 forty-nine thousand years, which is seven Sabbatical cycles.



1 . See Aryeh Carmell and Cyril Domb, eds., Challenge: Torah Views on Science and Its Problems (New York:

            Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, 1976, pp. 132—135).
2. See Ma‘amar Mevo ha -Shemesh, printed together with Sefer ha-Tekhunah by Rabbi Hayyim Vital.
3. Tanna deBeEliyahu Zuta 3, and see Yalkut Shimoni I, r.l.
4. Sanhedrin 97a.

5. See Derush Or ha-Hayyim, translated and annotated in the appendix.
6. See Livnat ha-Sapir
7. Vayak‘hel Mosheh,
8. It is significant that the Radbaz (Rabbi David ibn Abi Zimra)was among those who upheld the concept of

Sabbatical cycles. He also wrote Magen David asa commentary on Sefer ha-Temunah. Although the Radbaz was most famous for his responsa (she’elot u-teshuvot), he was also an important Kabbalist. Indeed, in one place the Ari’s most prominent disciple, Rabbi Hayyim Vital, indicates that the Radbaz was the Ari’s master.

9. Some authorities, such as Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed and the Sefer ha-Ikkarim, give a different

interpretation of this midrash, but it is certainly more easily understood in light of the principle put forth by Sefer ha-Temunah.

10. Sefer ha-Temunah 314.
11 . Here again it is important to note that the Ari presents an entirely different interpretation of the teaching that

“God created universes and destroyed them,” saying that it refers to spiritual rather than physical universes. This is in line with the Ari’s general opposition to the concept of Sabbatical cycles before the creation. Many of the major early Kabbalists opposed the An in this respect.


12. Hagigah 13b.
13. Bahya, Ziyyoni, and Recanati on Leviticus 25:8.
14. See Kuzari l:67, Ramban on Genesis 2:3, Ibn Ezra on Genesis 8:22.
15. The complete text of Rabbi Lipschitz’s Derush will be found below in the appendix to this volume.
16. Derush Or ha-Hayyim 4a (see below, pp. 108-116).
17. The only complete manuscript is in the Lenin State Library, Moscow (Guenzburg Collection, no. 775).
18. Ozar ha-Hayyim, p 86b. See the appendix to this article for the full text.
19. Eruvin 18a, Berakhot 61a.
20. Rosh Hashanah llb-12a.
21. Tosafot to Rosh Hashanah 27a, s.v. ke-ma’an. See also Or ha-Hayyim onGenesis 1:1, no.16.
22. Peril EHz Hayyim onRosh Hashanah service.
23. See No’am Elimelekh, Hayyei Sarah.
24. See No‘am Elimelekh, Bo.
25. Bereshit Rabbah 12.2. 

Last updated on: 03/31/2020
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