Even In The 13th Century, Some Jews Believed The Earth To Be 15 Billion Years Old

Modern religious Creationists of both Haredi Jewish and, especially, Christian fundamentalists persuasion (the Young Earth Creationism types) would have us believe that the earth and universe is about 5,500 years old (and no greater than 10,000 years). Modern scientists tell us that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old and the universe is about 13.8 billion years old. Now, jump back 700 years to the 13th century, wherein Isaac ben Samuel of Acre and other Orthodox Jewish kabbalists concluded that the earth is actually 49,000 years old and that the universe is 15 billion years old. What?! Did you just ask? Would you like to know how they arrived at this conclusion?

“Rabbi Tanhuma said: In its due time the universe was created. It was not appropriate to be create before then, but it was created in its time, as it is said ‘He made everything beautiful in its time.’ Rabbi Abbahu said: From this we learn that the Holy One, blessed be He, kept on constructing lands and destroying them until he constructed the present one and said, ‘This pleases Me, the others did not.’ Rabbi Eleazar said: This is a door which is opened to the depths, as it says, ‘And God saw everything that He had made and, behold, it was very good.’” – Kohelet Rabbah 3:14, written in the 7th Century C.E./A.D. (Hmmm, so no Jurassic or Cretaceous period for us, then? Shucks.)

Anyone who says that Jewish religious tradition is at odds with modern scientific studies is woefully ignorant of Jewish religious tradition. Most Jews accept the theory of evolution and do not see it in contradiction to our mythic accounts of creation. Sure there are those modern sects of traditional Judaism (the ultra-fundamentalists, like the Haredi) that have taken a Christian-like literalist interpretive approach to Jewish “biblical” texts, but they are actually not in-line historically with Jewish contemplations on the relationship between Jewish religious myths and the (pre-)scientific age objective-made observations of the world around us. Jewish religious thinkers and community leaders had already begun to come to the conclusion centuries before the rise of modern science that the myths of Torah (the Jewish Bible) had hidden times frames by which to reveal the “true” age of things and the order of their developments. And, some of these conclusions and imagined beliefs are quite creative! It is no wonder, then, that so many breakthrough scientists have been Jewish. But, on to the question above. How did the 13th century Jewish kabbalists come to the conclusion that the earth is 49,000 years old and that the universe is 15 billion years old? Are you curious to know?

The 13th century’s Sefer HaTemunah’s take on the Sabbatical cycles and the age of the universe

One of the main concepts in Sefer HaTemunah is that of the connection of the Sabbatical year (Hebrew: Shmita) with sephirot and the creation of more than one world. The author of Sefer HaTemunah believed that worlds are created and destroyed, supporting this theory with a quote from the Midrash, “God created universes and destroys them.”[1] The Talmud (Sanhedrin 97a) states that “Six thousand years shall the world exist, and one [thousand, the seventh], it shall be desolate”.[5] Sefer HaTemunah asserts that this 7000-year cycle is equivalent to one Sabbatical cyle. Because there are seven such cycles per Jubilee, the author concludes that the world will exist for 49,000 years.[1]

According to some sources, the author of Sefer HaTemunah believed that the world was currently in the second Sabbatical cycle, corresponding to Gevurah (Severity), which occurs between the cycles Chesed (Kindness) and Tiferet (Adornment).[6] Sefer HaTemunah offers a description of the final Shmita, Malkuth (Kingdom), as “distinctly utopian” in character. This may explain why the book was widely embraced by Kabbalists.[7]
According to Kaplan[8] the Sabbatical cycles in Sefer HaTemunah can be used as a basis for calculating the age of the universe. While Sefer HaTemunah sees the world as existing in the second cycle, others[9] say it is in the seventh cycle.[1] If so, Adam was created when the universe was 42,000 years old, and six worlds were created and destroyed before the creation of Adam.[1] This thesis was laid out by Rabbi Isaac ben Samuel of Acre, a 13th-century Kabbalist, who said that when calculating the age of the universe, one must use divine years rather than physical years.
“ I, the insignificant Yitzchak of Akko, have seen fit to write a great mystery that should be kept very well hidden. One of God’s days is a thousand years, as it says, “For a thousand years are in Your eyes as a fleeting yesterday.” Since one of our years is 365 ¼ days, a year on High is 365,250 our years.[10] ”

Rabbi Yitzchak of Akko then goes on to explain a value of 49,000 years, but does not proceed with the multiplication, nor the reduction of 49,0000 to 42,000, which is Kaplan’s own interpretation. Kaplan calculates the age of the universe to be 15,340,500,000 years old.[1][11] His reasoning was as follows: as the Midrash states, “A thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday” (Psalm 90:4); a physical year contains 365 ¼ days, which, if multiplied by 1000 would give the length of a divine year as 365,250 physical years; if we are living in the last, 7th Sabbatical cycle, that would mean that the creation as it described in the Bible happened 42,000 divine years ago; to convert this figure to physical years it should be multiplied by 365,250; this gives the result 15,340,500,000 years.[1]

In 1993, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan wrote that the Big Bang occurred “approximately 15 billion years ago”, calling this “the same conclusion” as the 13th century kabbalists.[1] According to a 2013 estimate by ESA’s Planck project, the age of the universe is 13.798 ± 0.037 billion years.[12] Kaplan also relates to Sefer HaTemunah the idea that Torah teachings are compatible with other areas of modern science. According to Kaplan, Orthodox Jews often challenge the findings of paleontology and geology as conflicting with Torah concepts. But in an “extremely controversial” essay, Israel Lipschitz drew on the writings of Abraham ibn Ezra, Nahmanides, and Bahya ibn Paquda to argue the opposite conclusion: “See how the teachings of our Torah have been vindicated by modern discoveries.” Lipschitz wrote that fossils of mammoths and dinosaurs represent previous Sabbatical cycles in which humans and other beings lived in universes before Adam, and that the Himalayas were formed in a great upheaval, one of the upheavals mentioned in Sefer HaTemunah.[1]

Sourced from World Heritage Encyclopedia™ licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

To read the full article and cited references – http://worldheritage.org/article/WHEBN0028009518/Sefer%20HaTemunah

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