Thursday, May 27, 2010

Creatio Ex Nihilo in the Zohar

I'm currently reading Isaiah Tishby's The Wisdom of the Zohar (Mishnat ha-Zohar), an excellent anthology of material on different subjects from the Zohar, that key book of the Kabbalah, the predominant form of Jewish mysticism.
For beginners I would probably even recommend this over Daniel Matt's translation. This has the advantage of being organized thematically. Both of course are superb.
The following is a passage dealing with creatio ex nihilo, or creation from nothing. This conception is not quite as straightforward as standard Christian teaching has it. According to this passage there are two forms of creation, beriyah (creation), which is creation from nothing, and asiyah (making), or creation from something substantive. The body comes from nothing, the form from something substantive, i.e. light from above.

Rabbi Tanhum began by quoting: "Thus says God, the Lord who created the heavens, and stretched them forth..." (Isaiah 42:5). When the Holy One, blessed be He, created His worlds, He created them from nothing, and brought them into actuality, and made substance out of them; and you find the word bara (He created) used always of something that He created from nothing, and brought into actuality.
Rav Hisda said: Were the heavens really created from nothing? Were they not created from the light above?*
Rabbi Tanhum said: It is so. The body of the heavens** was created from nothing, but their form from something substantive.*** And so it was with man.**** So you find "creation" used of the heavens, and subsequently "making": "To Him that made the heavens" (Psalm 136:5) - from something substantive, from the light above.
Rabbi Tanhum also said: "Making" is the provision of something with the size, stature, and quantity that it has, as it is said, "And David made a name for himself" (2 Samuel 8:13).

* From the light of the angels.
** The basic matter of the heavens.
*** From the supernal light.
**** Man's body is made from hylic matter, which is brought from potentiality into actuality, but his soul is derived from the light of the Throne of Glory.
-Zohar Hadash, Bereshit 17b, Midrash ha-Ne'elam.

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