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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Creation & The Big Bang

I have trouble reconciling my reading of Genesis with current scientific theory. When I read the beginning of creation, is seems clear that God created the world complete, as well as the rest of the universe. But physics says that there was a primordial speck which exploded in what is known as the Big Bang, and from this expansion the universe came to be.

Is there a way to integrate the two versions of the story?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

In most translations, the first verse of Genesis reads something like this: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth, and the earth was astonishingly empty…” This translation, which alludes to God creating heaven and earth directly and as a complete entity as you mentioned, is a flawed translation.

The correct translation, as explained by Rashi, the most classical of commentaries, is “In the beginning of God’s creating of the heaven and the earth…” The difference is a great one; it is simply introducing the story, not referring to anything yet created.

The continuing statement, “and the earth was astonishingly empty,” also loses its meaning in translation. Another classical commentary, Nachmanides (13th century) points out the difficulty implicit in the words “tohu vavohu,” which do not literally form the phrase “astonishingly empty.” Tohu indeed means astonishing. Bohu, however, means “all is in it.” Nachmanides explains as follows:

God created all creatures from absolute nothingness (ex nihilo), which is described by the term, “Bara.” Not all creatures in the spiritual realm or below the heavens were created ex nihilo, rather God brought into being from absolute nothingness a very tiny basic material, which seemed as though it didn’t exist at all, but it had within it the power to bring forth other creations, prepared to receive shape, to develop from the potential to the actual… and all was created from it. This matter…is called in Hebrew “tohu”… because if we would attempt to assign it a name, we would be astonished… because it had no form to accept a name. The form, which cloaked this matter, is called in Hebrew “bohu,” meaning “all is in it.” In other words, God created from complete “Tohu” and made from nothing something.”

We see from Nachmanides that the verse from Genesis is precisely in line with Big Bang! For the past 700 or more years, we were not able to understand the meaning of Nachmanides in physical terms. It defied human understanding to imagine all the vast mass of the universe compressed into an infinitesimally small speck of matter which could not even be observed. One could not even imagine compressing a cup of water into a smaller cup! Only after Einstein discovered relativity and the relationship between matter and energy, could we understand this in physical terms.

According to Stephen Hawking, this original, primordial speck is called a singularity, with infinite energy pulling in upon itself, not allowing any energy to escape. This was the ultimate “black hole.” This was considered a monumental discovery, but something that we have known, although not totally understood, from Torah literature for thousands of years!

One thing Hawking does not explain is how the Big Bang was possible. If there is an infinite amount of energy holding the singularity together, from whence is the even greater energy to pull it apart?!

He indeed does say that until after the point of the Big Bang, all science and mathematics breaks down, and time and science have their beginnings only after the Big Bang. Our answer to all this is that the Creator, who was the architect of the very concept of infinity, had the energy beyond infinity to bring about the Big Bang.

As science progresses, we see much more clearly how the physical world and the spiritual world of Torah are one.

Grandpa's Bar Mitzvah

Many years ago, my grandfather turned 83 and decided to have a second Bar Mitzvah. This was held in conjunction with our oldest son's Bar Mitzvah. My grandfather said that when you turn 83, it is like 13, since Torah gives a man's life span as 70 years.

My question is, was my gramps putting one over on us, or was he correct?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Firstly, your grandfather's interest in reaffirming his commitment to Judaism at the age of 83 is quite commendable.

Although we commonly use the phrase "I am going to have my Bar Mitzvah," or "I had my Bar Mitzvah when I was 13," this is really incorrect. Because Bar Mitzvah is really a state of being. I'll explain:

At the age of 13 (or 12 for girls) one becomes Bar Mitzvah and remains Bar Mitzvah, no matter the actual level of observance. That is because the real meaning of the words "Bar Mitzvah" is "one who is obligated to do mitzvahs," since at 13 one is mature enough to follow the Torah.

So although technically it is impossible to have a "second Bar Mitzvah" (since when one becomes Bar Mitzvah they remain that way forever), this term really refers simply to an aliyah to the Torah, and a celebration.

Of course, there is no limit to the number of aliyahs a person can have to the Torah. And as for celebrations – it's always good to celebrate one's Judaism and belief in God.

Having said all that... The concept of having a second Bar Mitzvah at age 83 is not a bad idea. King David lived to age 70, and in the ancient book of Jewish wisdom, "Ethics of Our Fathers" (5:25), Rabbi Yehuda Ben Tema states that the age of 70 is considered a "ripe old age."

Similarly, the composer of Psalms 90, Moses, poetically spoke of a person's life as being on average 70 years.

I suppose your grandfather was onto something. In fact, when the actor Kirk Douglas turned 83, he celebrated with – you guess it – a second Bar Mitzvah.

May we all merit to live that long!

Don’t Miss a Word

I see many people in synagogue who bring their own Megillah scrolls for the reading. Is there any reason for that? I mean, shouldn’t they be quietly listening to the reader the entire time? Isn’t the reader’s scroll sufficient?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Very good question, first of all! Yes, everyone present for the reading of the Megillah should be silently listening to the reader. One of the rabbinically-ordained mitzvot of Purim is to recite the Megillah, both at night and at day (Talmud Megillah 4a), and this must be done from a kosher scroll (Mishna Megillah 2:1). We fulfill our obligation by listening to the reader in the synagogue. Even someone who has his own scroll should preferably hear the Megillah from the reader rather than recite it himself. The codifiers learn this from the verse “in a great multitude is the glory of the King” (Proverbs 14:28; see Mishna Berura 687:5). It is a much greater sanctification of God and publicizing of the miracle of Purim telling over the story in a large crowd rather than for a single person to recite it himself.

So why do many try to bring their own scroll? In case they miss a word. We are obligated to hear every word of the Megillah. What happens if a person loses concentration or cannot hear a few words from the reader as a result of noise – especially as a result of the children banging at Haman’s name during the reading? Technically, a person can read up to half the words of the Megillah from his own (printed) edition if he missed them (Mishna Berura 690:7). However, ideally, he should read every word from a scroll. Therefore, people will generally bring a scroll if they own one. In case they miss a word, they will be able to make it up from a kosher scroll.