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How Old is the Universe According to Judaism?

How Old is the Universe According to Judaism?

The Jewish View on the Age Old Question

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The Short Answer

We can't tell how old the universe is by examining it, because we don't understand how it got here in the first place.

A Longer Answer

If you met someone on the street and wanted to determine how old this person is, you would have one of two options. You could examine circumstantial evidence. Or you could ask this person, "Excuse me, how old are you?"

Let's start with the first method and do this systematically. We have overwhelming evidence that the universe is currently expanding. All we have to do is measure how fast it is currently expanding, its size, and its total mass, and we can work backwards to when it must have started. The result? The current estimate is fifteen billion years.

Piece of cake, right? Well, not quite. You see, we're missing an important step--the very first one. We've traced our universe back to the starting line, as a single glob about to explode. But what made it explode? How did it get there? What came before?

So now we're left with the job of tracing something back to nothing. That's not so simple. If we want to be thorough, we will need to reconstruct various degrees of nothingness and somethingness in between, and describe how one evolved into the other. All these are things our scientific instruments cannot measure--science deals only with things that are something. Science is lost when discussing something before it became something. To get technical, science can discuss temporal causalities, but not ontological ones. Which means that if you're going to direct the question, "How did our universe come to be?" to a scientist, you might as well direct it to an accountant, an artist or a real estate agent.

The Kabbalists, on the other hand, dealt with just that: A hierarchy of being, starting with an Ultimate Source which transcends the whole system of being and not-being, and working down through a systematic, interlinked chain (evolution) of multiple universes that terminate at our rock bottom, physical world. But none of this is within the domain of the physical sciences, which rely on precise measurements of phenomena or their effects.

On the contrary, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote to Rabbi Dr. Herzog in 19561 (the following is my own free translation from the Hebrew): "According to the conclusions of contemporary science, the annihilation of anything--to return to nothing, or the opposite, creation of something from nothing--are impossibilities within the natural law.

"And further, creation ex nihilo, from a scientific perspective, is more implausible than having a human being appear out of the inanimate mud, just as he is, with no stages in between."

Now we've thrown a wrench in the works. How can science tell how long the world has been around, when it can't describe--or even allow the possibility of description of--the processes by which the world came to be in the first place?

Cosmic Birth

To give an analogy, let's say I examine an alien to determine his/her/its age. I announce to this friendly and cooperative being that by my calculations, he/she/it was born 108 years ago. To which he/she/it responds, "Who says I was born?"

Good point. Maybe our friendly alien gradually took form, passing through a period when it was neither alive nor inanimate. If so, how do we determine the point to begin counting its age? Or perhaps it existed initially as an ethereal being and only yesterday materialized as a fully adult alien.

If you think this puts you at a disadvantage, imagine if we would turn the tables and ask the alien to age us. He may perform a thorough examination of us and our environs and determine that, given the cosmological forces of which his civilization is aware, and given the chemical and energy makeup of our planet, for such a complex bio-system to develop out of the earth would take about 2.5 million years. To which we respond that we humans are actually born with limbs and organs already in place.

Don't be surprised if he flatly rejects such a notion as absurd. Even an earthling, Maimonides, gave 43 reasons why live birth is rationally impossible. If you've ever been in a delivery room, you'll know what he's talking about: In a moment, a new, complete person appears on planet earth. It just doesn't look, well, normal.

Yet, within our biosphere, birth is the standard form of origin. Things tend to arrive on the scene fully assembled. The alien may not have known about this. But the human being has no excuse for failing to integrate this phenomenon into his intuition. Instead, we insist on speculations that over-simplify the cosmos into neat, gradual evolutionary patterns on a single, horizontal plane of existence.

Which is just what we are doing here: When we wind back time to the origin of the universe as a single glob and only then ask the question, "Now how did that get there?" we are arbitrarily breaking a single answer into two steps. We're saying, First it came into being. Then it evolved to its present state. But maybe that's not so. Maybe both processes occurred at once. Perhaps the process was shared over multiple states of being, wherein processes occurred at varying rates?

A simple analogy from geometry: Draw a square. Now make a path from the top right corner of that square to the bottom left corner. Did you first travel to the bottom right, and then over to the left? Or did you make a diagonal straight to your target?

Figure 1: Time & State of Being--choose your path


So, too, here, there are two co-ordinates:

a) The process that led to the design and form of our cosmos.

b) The ontological transition from nothing to something.

Perhaps they occurred simultaneously, in tandem. Or maybe they didn't. That's just the point: We have no way of knowing.

But the answer is crucial to our quest, because there is another unknown: How does time behave in a higher state of being? When form and substance are more loosely defined--as they would be in a pre-material state--can cause and effect occur over a shorter period of time? In truth, is there any sense in talking about time at all at these stages?

G-d's Womb

Before you get the feeling that we are completely lost, let me point out that in truth, we do have some frame of reference. In the form by which G-d created heaven and earth--the macrocosm, so He made Adam--the microcosm. The human being includes processes that match every level of the ontological hierarchy mentioned above. We don't just perform material tasks, we talk about them, we think about them, we have feelings about them, we conceive what those tasks will be somewhere in our consciousness or pre-consciousness, and--even before any of this--we begin with a simple desire for something to be. So, by examining those processes within the microcosm of our own psyche, we can get a picture of how all this works in the grand macrocosm.

And lo and behold, a discovery awaits us: The higher we go up the hierarchy, the more rapidly those processes occur. What takes years to perform may take only hours to describe, minutes to dream about, and a flash of a lightning bolt to desire and conceive.

If the cosmos was conceived and incubated in the womb of G-d's mind, at which stage was it born into the time continuum that we measure with our physical senses? Is it conceivable that geological, chemical and organic processes that would take billions of years in our realm could occur within the equivalent of hours or minutes or even nanoseconds--or perhaps zero time--when occurring at a higher state of being but counted from our realm?

Take the oceans, for example. The account in Genesis begins discussing the Creator's conception of a single ocean and concludes with His actual creation of multiple oceans. Could continental drift have occurred within the gestation period between conception and birth--thereby breaking the great ocean apart? If so, many questions would be answered: Continental drift requires huge expenditures of energy that should melt the earth in a short time.2 Perhaps in a higher ontological realm the process could occur non-destructively, as well as much faster.

How about the origin of life? The Ramban (Nachmanides, 14th century Jewish scholar) understands Genesis as saying that the water, through its movement, metamorphosed into the creatures of the sea. This, then, is a description of a kind of evolutionary process. It's not just G-d says fish and fish are there. G-d directs a natural element to become fish, just as He directs the earth to sprout forth vegetation. But it occurs rapidly and with deliberate direction. The origin of life from inanimate chemicals remains an elusive puzzle for biologists--it is statistically impossible for it to have occurred by chance. Could this synthesis have occurred, as we said, in the womb of G-d's creative mind, at a higher plane of being?

Interestingly, the Kabbalah also describes an incremental process of formation--albeit in terms far beyond the crude mechanics of materialistic evolutionism. Rather than physical organisms transmuting into increasingly complex forms, the ancient Book of Formation describes the letters that form the words of the account of Creation passing through an (almost?) endless series of permutations to recombine and generate all the details of every instance of the cosmos.

The process has been compared to the workings of the human mind: The mind begins with a simple seed of an idea. Then, in gradual stages, it generates vast sets of corollaries, analogies and applications, each with its particular set of words by which the mind articulates these ideas to itself and to others. Certainly, this paradigm provides a coherent alternative to Darwinism to explain the apparent phylogeny of the species.

Once upon a time, scientists assumed they had the keys to absolute knowledge. The last hundred and fifty years has brought us to acknowledge there is no such thing within the realm of standard human perception and reason. When it comes to facts alive and well in the real world, we can make some pretty good stabs at the truth. When it comes to questions of the future, we can make limited speculations. When it comes to knowing the origin of things, empirical materialism is completely out of its realm. Perhaps we are ready today to recognize a place for the inner vision of the prophet and the mystic.


The Alternative Answer

As we said before, there is another method of determining age other than hypothesis and speculation. If the subject is a conscious being, we can ask him/her/it, "Excuse me, do you have a memory of how old you are?"

In the case of the cosmos, we have asked. Of course, some will call it speculation, or even "primitive imagination." But then, I wonder what scientists a century from now will call the speculations of today's cosmologists? As for me, my understanding of the Torah is that it is not a human voice, but the voice of the essence of the cosmos itself.

So we asked.

The answer at the dating of this writing is 5,761 years.3


NOTES:

To be truthful, the Rebbe's uncompromising rejection of any marriage of Darwinism and Genesis often puzzled me. So many theologians have been quite eager and willing to reinterpret a few lines of the Torah to make room for the scientists, whereas the scientific community is almost universally intolerant of those who step outside the Darwinian catechism. It would have been so much more convenient for the Rebbe to concede to the scientists and thereby please both sides. But then I read an essay of a significant American scientist, Prof. Wolfgang Smith (Cosmos, Bios, Theos , pg. 115, ed. Margenau and Varghese, Open Court, Chicago, 1992). The entire essay is worth reading (as is the book), and I admit to having borrowed some of his terminology in this essay. To quote one succinct paragraph:

At bottom, evolutionism is the denial of transcendence, the desperate attempt to understand life on the horizontal plane of it manifestations. Religion, on the other hand, is perforce concerned with transcendence and the vertical dimension, in which alone the re-ligare or binding back can be effected. The supposed merger, therefore, of these opposed doctrines constitutes one of the most bizarre happenings in these already confused and confusing times.

FOOTNOTES
1.

The entire letter is well worth reading and is published in Ma Rabbu Maasecha page 262, and in Igrot Kodesh, vol. 13, pg. 143.

2.

See Cook, Melvin A. 1966. Prehistorical Earth Models, Max Parrish, London.

3.

This age is according to ancient Jewish tradition, and can be calculated by compiling the chronologies written in the Torah.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription.
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Discussion (313)
January 27, 2014
Creation of the universe.
According to modern science, Everything in the entire universe is made up of matter. Matter is made up of elements, which are made up of atoms, which overall are made of only energy. The first law of thermodynamics, the conservation of energy states- " Energy can be transformed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed." This proves that the universe was created supernaturally.
Anonymous
New York
July 8, 2013
Age of the Uni is best verified in Genesis.
I know of no ancient writings that better alludes to the universe being finite and billions of years old - other than Genesis which lists pre-life actions of separation. We know for a fact the earth was once covered in water and the land was submerged - count how many millions or billions of years it takes to separate the land from the water, so the submerged earth rises as mountains. The same applies to the separation of light from darkness, an action that had to occur. These can account for billions of years before the term billions was yet coined. It is also credible that hours are not listed here, only the Day - hours did not exist at this early phase.
Butseriously
Australia
July 8, 2013
Age of the Universe.
By looking at certain types of celestial phenomena, we can set a minimum age
of the Universe:
1. The cosmic microwave background radiation resulting from the big bang should be on the neighborhood of about 3 degrees kelvin. The measured value
is about 2.7 degrees kelvin, close to the expected value.
2. Type Ia supernova explosions--the explosion of a white dwarf star which
accretes enough material to push its mass over Chandrashekar's limit--are
of a uniform brightness, and have been observed in distant galaxies. We can
use scaling laws to determine the distance of the supernova and hence, its
parent galaxy,
3. Distances of pulsating variable stars called cephids can be determined by their period because there is an exact relationship between the period of its
pulsations and its absolute brightness. We use tha same scaling laws we did
with supernovae; the inverse square law.
Using this data, we come out with an age of 13.8 billion years for the Universe.
Daniel Rosenthal
July 7, 2013
Correction: "Conclusion: there is alternatives to a Creator, based on a finite universe: name one?
I meant to say: " "Conclusion: there are NO alternatives, scientifically or otherwise, to a Creator, based on a finite universe: name one?"
IamJoseph
Australia
July 6, 2013
Earths age
If we go by the age of the people in the Bible starting with Adam can't we figure out the age of the earth by that? I know there will still be something off, because we don't know how many hours were in a day when Adam and some after him were alive and we don't know how many months made a year back then. But it just seems to me that we could get close by looking at the age of the people mentioned in the Bible.
Also I would just like to say no matter how long it took for God to create the earth it is still the same miracle. And I for one will never lose my faith in God.
angela sachs
North Carolina
March 20, 2013
"Shape of Universe" great analogy.
It may even have scientific and mathematical credence as a holistic equation. It seems to have responses of the unknown and should be tested, considering we have no answers to such a pivotal issue.
IamJoseph
MELBOURNE
March 20, 2013
Shape of Universe
We are taught the Torah is the blueprint for creation.
Imagine two alternate shapes to Universe. Both based on shape of Torah. One - An unrolled Torah with a twist and connection to create a Möbius strip. In this Möbius strip you could travel continuously along its edge in one direction and return to your starting point. A rolled up universe that ravels and rolls in same way the Torah is rolled.
If you are on a point in this Universe, like a letter on the scroll, your position relative to other letters changes as the Torah is rolled and unrolled. Perhaps the Universe could even transit between these two stages of formation. As we write letters in Torah to create new ones, so does Hashem, bring elements together to create new stars, new galaxies, planets, etc.
It is enough for us to acknowledge the Creator, and give him thanks. Perhaps we must now unused Internet as the force to be a light onto nations, teach All in World to acknowledge Hashem is Elokim, embrace mitzvot of Ben-Noach.
Anonymous
silver Spring, Maryland
March 15, 2013
Habitation [life] needs critical anticipatory actions.
"Isaiah says the earth was made to be inhabited. So the FACT: in the beginning G-d made the heavens & the earth, clearly indicates that at that time it became "inhabited"

Inhabit kicks off after the pre-life actions occured, to anticipate & sustain a vast variety of life forms: namely separation of light from darkness, water from land, etc; without these no life can exist.

"if the "beginning Creation" was complete how come it got dark."

At this point the heavens & earth were already created [V1]; however there was no form - namely, the dark was not identifiable because the word 'now' opens V2 ['at this point']. The dark became identifiable after it was 'separated' from the formless. Creation was not 'complete' till the end of this chapter's text. E.g. the essence of pineapples existed but it became a pineapple in V11; this makes sense because it shows order & logic, as with building a house - the essence which one uses to build a house existed [water; wood, pebbles] - how else?
IamJoseph
MELBOURNE
March 15, 2013
Re: Ern Wigzell
Shalom,
All this you say here is a very interesting opinion of yours, but because it is not stated in the Torah, it is not a Torah FACT barring any evidence.

As far as the 4th day. 1v16 Elohim made the 2 great lights... could be interpreted as positioned them, but on the same day before He did so He created the lights they gave forth. As we see in 1v14 Elohim said "Let there be lights in the canopy of heaven to divide between the day and the night....etc."

"What we are Not told", means it is only someone's opinion.

Shemos 20v11 states, "For 6 days God made the heaven and the earth." it does not state, within 6 days. And there is nothing in the Torah that indicates these were 24 hr days, The Rambam said the 6 Days meant 6 Eras.

There are many opinions and theories that can be considered, and are OK if we see them for what they really are, but until the evidence rolls in on them, they will remain as such.

If you reply, please do so with a literal quote from the Torah. Shalom
Isaac
Brooklyn
March 14, 2013
"the earth is NOW (V2 time) "waste & empty".

The word empty does not appear; all ws already created in V1, else the verse becomes superfluous. My reading is that everything was one mush, nothing was identifiable, there were yet no products like stars, pineapples, etc. The next verse then tells of the first products, by way of 'separating' them from the mush, the first products being darkness & then light ['And He separated the darkness from the light']; of note there is nowhere else but the mush [void; without form] these could come from. Once, there was no darkness or light. Of note the word 'created' is not used here, only the word 'separated'.

"My comments are that it was a punishment on a former creation of 'people'."

Punishments must be merited; how can one be punished before being born or created? Perhaps you mean 'foretelling of things to come', as in Abraham being told his seed will be in bondage - even before his seed [Israel] was yet born, before Isaac was also yet born.
BUTSeriously
MELBOURNE
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