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The Speed of Light

The Speed of Light


For thousands of years, information traveled no faster than its human bearer. Beyond the range of the human ear and eye, man could communicate with his fellow only as speedily as the swiftest means he could devise to physically carry a person (or animal) across the miles which separated them.

But a century and a half ago, the very concept of communication underwent a radical transformation: man learned to translate words into pulses of energy surging through a copper wire. Then radio waves were discovered and exploited, even further freeing the flow of information from the limitations imposed by physical distance. Ideas and data could now be transmitted across vast distances in virtually no time at all.

The new communication technologies yielded a vast array of tools which man—imbued by his Creator with the capacity to freely choose between good and evil—could utilize to the betterment of his self and world, or to their detriment. But even more significant is the way these discoveries changed our very perception of the reality we inhabit. For the first time in our history, we experienced timelessness.

As physical beings, we inhabit a world defined by “spacetime”—a virtual grid in whose context all objects and events are assigned a “place” which defines their relationship vis-a-vis each other by placing an X amount of “distance” between them. Bridging this distance “takes time”: to get from event A to event B, one must first pass through the seconds or centuries which separate them, one at a time; for object A to exert an influence upon object B, it must first surmount the millimeters or miles which separate them, one at a time. In other words, getting from point A to point B is a process—a sequence of actions occurring one after the other.

Such was our experience of reality before the advent of electronic communication. But with the invention of the telegraph, telephone and radio, the transfer of information became instantaneous. No longer did it take any longer to communicate across the globe than across the room. No longer was time a meaningful factor in linking two points on earth, regardless of the distance between them.

Of course, it does take time for radio waves to pass through space: ultimately, our world is no less physical (i.e., no less defined by time and space) than it was two centuries ago. But the fact that we experience a link across distances in no perceptible duration of time represents a breakthrough not only in the way we live, but also in the way we think. Perhaps we, living today, cannot appreciate how incredible the notion of instantaneous communication was to the mind of pre-telegraph man. We do know, however, that despite the fact that we never actually supersede time, the concept of “timelessness” has become part and parcel of our idea and experience of reality.

Paradoxically, our newly acquired capacity to experience timelessness has also deepened our awareness of the timebound quality of our lives. As long we lived wholly within time, we could not attain a true appreciation of what time is. Would we know that “light” exists, and be able to study its characteristics, if we never experienced darkness? Would we be aware of the phenomenon of “life” if never confronted by its deterioration and departure? To know a thing and appreciate its qualities and potentials we must first surpass its limits, at least in the realm of the mind.

Why is time necessary? And why is it important that we should understand what time is? Of course, we cannot even imagine what a truly timeless reality would be like (would everything happen at once? or would things not “happen” at all, only “be”?). But no matter: if G‑d would have created a timeless world, that would have been the only comprehensible form of existence, and we would have had no idea of what “time” might be. So is time just one of many possible ways to make our world “work”? Or is there a deeper reason for this particular formulation of reality?

Conversely, we might ask: Having been placed within a timebound reality, why have we been granted the ability to try its limits and advance to the threshold of timelessness? Is this just so that we should better appreciate the significance of time? Or is there some deeper reason why our time-centered lives must also include a glimpse of a reality beyond time’s boundaries?

Spiritual Time

Even G‑d’s creation of the world “took time.”

The Torah relates how G‑d created the world in six days. On a deeper level, the Kabbalistic masters refer to the physical world as the last link of a seder hishtalshelut (“order of evolution”)-a cosmic chain of “worlds” extending from heaven to earth. Kabbalah describes how G‑d began His work of creation by creating all existences in their most sublime and spiritual form, and then proceeded to cause them to evolve and metamorphose, in many steps and stages, into successively more concrete forms, ultimately producing our physical world—the “lowliest” and most tangible embodiment of these realities.

For example, physical water is the end product of a series of more spiritual creations, such as the emotion of love and the divine attribute of chessed (“benevolence”); physical earth is the material incarnation of a string of creations which include concepts such as “femininity” and “receptiveness,” and which originate in the divine attribute of malchut (“regality”). And so it is with every object, force and phenomenon in our world: each exists on the many levels of the seder hishtalshelut, ranging from its most ethereal state to its most corporeal form.

Not only the contents of our physical world, but also its defining parameters—space and time—are “end-of-the-line” products of the seder hishtalshelut.

We know space as the three dimensions in whose context physical objects are positioned in spatial relation to each other (above, beside, behind, etc.). But there is also a conceptual space: we speak of “higher” and “lower” planes of reality; we describe ideas as “deep” or “shallow.” So spiritual entities also occupy a “space” which defines their position in relation to each other and to the world they occupy. Common thinking is that these “conceptual space” characterizations are merely mental projections of physical phenomena, in an attempt by our physical minds to contemplate and discuss metaphysical abstractions. The truth, say the Kabbalists, is the very opposite: space originates as a wholly spiritual phenomenon, and then “descends” through the seder hishtalshelut to evolve into increasingly more concrete forms. Thus physical space derives from “conceptual space,” which in turn evolved from an even more abstract form of space, and so on. The higher we ascend the chain of hishtalshelut, the more abstract and ethereal is the space of that particular “world.”

Time, too, exists on many levels, as it evolves from its most spiritual form all the way down to “our” physical time. What we experience as a one-way time arrow through the tenses of past, present and future is but the last and most concrete incarnation of the element or phenomenon of time. As it descends through the seder hishtalshelut, time is expressed in many forms: it is the essence of motion, causation and change; it underlies the pulse of life, the processional nature of reason and the pendulum of feeling.

While physical time is chronological—its “past” occurs before its “future”—spiritual time is not so limited. For example, the concepts A (1 + 1 = 2) and B (2 - 1 = 1) occupy different positions in the timeline of logic: A precedes B in logical sequence (i.e., because one plus one equals two, therefore two minus one equals one). But the fact that B “follows” A does not mean that there is a point in physical time at which A exists and B does not. They both always exist, even as the “first” causes the “second.” Or, to take an example from the “world” of emotion: feeling A may cause feeling B (e.g., a feeling of reverence and awe toward a great and magnifi­cent being produces a yearning to approach this being and be touched by its greatness), but the possessor of these two feelings always had them both—they developed simultaneously in his heart, although the “first” (the awe) is the root and cause of the “second” (the craving to come close).

In other words, spiritual realities such as ideas and feelings also exist within “time,” yet theirs is a more abstract, spiritual form of time, transcending the “one at a time” and “one way travel” limitations of physical time.

The seder hishtalshelut itself is a function of spiritual time: the very concept of an “order” and an “evolution” presumes a reality governed by cause and effect. Of course, the evolution of creation from spirit to matter did not “take time” in the commonplace sense of the word—G‑d did not have to “wait” for the successive phases and stages of the seder hishtalshelut to yield their final product. In terms of physical time, the creation of the physical world—the result G‑d desired of the creation process—was instantaneous. But on the conceptual level, “time” is the framework within which the many levels of the created reality unfold.

Thus time may be regarded as the “first” creation. Since creation is a process in which a series of worlds evolve one from (and thus “after”) the other, it is an event which “takes time”—at least in the most abstract sense of the term. On the other hand, G‑d’s act of creation did not take place “in” time, which would imply that there was something (i.e., the phenomenon of time) that wasn’t created by G‑d! So if time did not pre-exist creation yet is a necessary component of it, this means that time came into being as an integral part of the very concept of “creation” (which is itself a created entity).

In other words, time exists because G‑d desired that creation should constitute a process—a chain of worlds extending from heaven to earth, each the product of its “predecessor.” Without time (on the most abstract level) there could not be a seder hishtalshelut; and without time (on the physical level), we, who can relate to spiritual concepts only as abstractions of their counterparts in our physical reality, could not conceive of, much less contemplate, the “order of evolution” linking the Creator’s most sublime works to our own world.

The Parable

Of course, G‑d did not “need” all this. He could have created the physical world in a truly instantaneous manner—not only in terms of physical time, but in the conceptual sense as well, without passing through the stages of the seder hishtalshelut. So, why create an entire chain of universes populated by spiritual versions of our reality, just so that our world could congeal into being as its lowest link? Why not just go ahead and create the physical reality as it is, since this was the objective of His creation?

In any act of creation or development, the method which yields instantaneous results usually represents the most direct and convenient approach—as far as the creator or developer is concerned. But what about those at the receiving end? How is such an approach—as opposed to a phased, evolutionary process—reflected in the nature of the end product? How does it affect its utility for those for whom it is intended?

Let us consider the example of a teacher who wishes to convey an idea to his pupil, and thereby create a new mental vista within the mind of the pupil. Our teacher has two possible approaches open to him. He can take the direct approach and simply declaim the idea as he, the teacher, understands it. Or, he can coarsen the idea by means of a parable or metaphor, bringing it down to his pupil’s level by dressing it in terms and concepts from the pupil’s world.

In certain cases, bringing it down just one level would not be enough—even the parable might be too subtle for the pupil’s unrefined mind. In such a case, the patient teacher will dress the parable in yet another layer—or even numerous additional layers—of allegory, until his most abstract idea has been made sufficiently tangible for consumption by the pupil’s mind.

Once this has been achieved, and the concept has been successfully “smuggled” into the pupil’s mind within its allegorical packagings, the pupil can them proceed to ponder the parable and seek its deeper significance. Eventually, the pupil may succeed in his efforts to strip the concept of its outermost layer of tangibilization and reveal the next layer. Knowing that this, too, is but an allegory, the pupil will repeat the process. Ultimately, perhaps only after many years of mental toil and intellectual maturation, the pupil will uncover the innermost kernel of wisdom concealed within.

But why bother? Why not take the direct approach, and simply articulate the concept in all its depth and profundity? Because, were the teacher to do so, his words would be absolutely meaningless to the pupil. The pupil may record his master’s words; he may review them and learn to repeat them verbatim; he may even, if keeps at it long enough, convince himself that he understands them; but in truth, he has not gained an iota of insight into their significance.

Certainly, G‑d could have created our physical reality in an “instantaneous” manner, without “bothering” with a seder hishtalshelut. But where would that leave us? We and our world would exist, but would we be capable of any insight into the significance of our existence? We could be told about our mission in life and our relationship with our Creator, but could we possibly understand it?

G‑d wanted our lives to be a parable (of a parable of a parable of a parable) of a higher reality. He wanted that the world we inhabit should be but the outermost layer of successively more abstract and spiritual realities, each but a single leap of insight from the one within it, so that by beginning with our comprehension of our own reality we may ascend, step by step, in our understanding of whence we come and what and why we are.

The Limitations of Hishtalshelut

Hence the “necessity” for the seder hishtalshelut. This is why the essence of time—the very phenomena of “evolution,” “cause and effect” and “process”—was created: so that our physical existence should not be an island in the void of the incomprehensible, but a connected link in a chain of worlds leading to its sublime origins in the creative energy of G‑d. And because we experience time on our physical level, we can relate to the concept of a seder hishtalshelut in “spiritual time,” and retrace the process of creation by climbing the links of this cosmic chain.

But all this is only one side of the story. The seder hishtalshelut is crucial to our mission in life, which dictates that we not only serve G‑d but also strive to comprehend the nature of His relationship with our existence. But the “chain of evolution” is not only a link—it is also a screen, like the parable which conveys the idea but also simplifies its profundity and coarsens its subtlety. Were our relationship with the Almighty to be confined to the channel offered by the seder hishtalshelut, it would mean that we have no direct connection with the infinite and utterly indefinable reality of our Creator and the divine essence of creation. It would mean that we can relate to these truths only via the many garments in which G‑d has shrouded Himself in order to make Himself and His creation comprehensible to us.

Let us return to our teacher and pupil. If you recall, the teacher is in the midst of expounding a parable (the last and most “external” of a string of parables) which will embody the concept, but will also obscure it and convey only the much-constrained and much-coarsened version of it which the pupil is capable of comprehending. But the teacher also wants to somehow allow his pupil a glimpse of the “real thing,” to accord him a true, if fleeting, vision of the concept in all its sublime purity. He wants the pupil to know that this is not where it’s at; he wants him to appreciate the extent of that which lies buried within. Because although the “multi-parable” approach presents the pupil with the tools with which he can ultimately attain a full and comprehensive understanding of the concept, it is not free of its own pitfalls. There is a danger involved as well—the danger that the pupil will get bogged down in the parable itself (or in its second, third or fourth abstraction) and fail to carry it through to its ultimate significance; that he will come to mistake a shallow and external version of his master’s teaching for the end of his intellectual quest.

So in the course of his delivery, the teacher will allow a word, a gesture, an inflection to escape the parable’s rigid constraints. He will allow a glimmer of unconstrained wisdom to seep through the many layers of allegory which enclose the pure concept within. This “glimmer” will, of course, be utterly incomprehensible to the pupil; but it will impress upon him an appreciation of the depth of the concept within the parable—an appreciation of how far removed he still is from a true comprehension of his master’s teachings.

By the same token, G‑d did more than make us creatures in time: He also empowered us to contemplate its limits, and even experience a semblance of “timelessness” in our daily lives. And our complex relationship with physical time mirrors our souls’ relationship with time’s spiritual counterpart and predecessor. Even as G‑d relates to us via the seder hishtalshelut, which dictates that our experience of Him be filtered through a chain of intellectual, emotional and spiritual processes, He also grants us moments of direct and unfiltered contact with Himself—moments of “instantaneous” connection that transcend the order of creation.

From an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; translation/adaptation by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email
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Yitzchak Chaim November 5, 2014

speed limits in universe I became a much more faithful Jew since G-d revealed certain things to me during my study in physics. Learning Einstein's theory that the speed of light is the maximum velocity possible in the universe put a splinter in my heart. Through prayer and meditation, I found my heart and Einstein were both correct. "c" is the constant that governs our perception of light and energy. However, we cannot see everything because we are held in this lower, slower dimension of reality. Scientists have determined that the observable universe in made up of over 95% dark matter- which emits no measurable radiation. This means that we are blind to over 95% of G-d's universe. This is because the 7 dimensions of heaven are governed by different speeds of light and therefore each have a completely different energy. "Energy=mass*speed/light^2" G-d alone perceives without constants, in infinity, so that He retains complete control and sight that occupies all existence. Reply

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein via October 21, 2012

To Mr. Datz The limit of the speed of light is indeed meaningless in the spiritual realm, since time as we experience it is a facet of physicality. However, every physical thing is a metaphor for its spiritual source/counterpart, as this article has expressed. So whatever is referred to as light, even if spiritual, also has an implied limitation of some kind which would be its version of the speed of light. Every radiation, even a spiritual one, is an evolution, beginning with its state within its source before it is radiated, through its own identification as light or expression of that source, down to how it reveals itself and its source to its recipients. This evolution is the definition of time. Reply

Anonymous NY, NY October 13, 2012

Stuff 1. The speed of light does not limit Gd. In fact, it doesn't even limit man (sometimes).
2. Gd is infinite. With Infinities, we find that 1 + 1 does not equal 2. Usually, 1+1=1. Hmm, Gd is one. Now that makes sense.
3. No, I am neither stupid nor ignorant. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma October 12, 2012

The Book of LIFE Life is like an onion in that we traverse layers of meaning, pulling away at those layers, and often in so doing we weep, for joy, and, for its sting. As life contains both, an eternal bipolar weave. It seems we could not have the one, without, the other. And yet, they do fold together as one, and perhaps this is a metaphor for time itself:As elastic snaps together. As one. As even, the concept of the Big Bang, as a period at the end of a sentence then enlarges to become, the sentence.

Coarse? Perhaps the core in coarse. I see the use of metaphor as the key, as in truly the ability to do this, to explicate in this way, is pointing to the eternal one ness of all Creation. We can do it, because IT works, and IT works because it's beautiful. Perhaps the IT in emit itself, which is time spelled backwards. As light emits. Surely EMET which is truth in Hebrew is close to emit, for a reason. Our aleph bet contains deep truths.

As stories have beginnings, middle and ends, this is a STORY. Reply

Anonymous hamden, Connecticut October 11, 2012

religion meets physics wonderfully explained. Reply

Anna Owosso, MI October 11, 2012

Terminalogy I was wondering if the movement from the spiritual to its end product in the physical may best be called "devolving" rather than "evolving." There seems to be a downward or decaying process rather than an upward progressing process. Reply

Mr. Benedict Frank Datz via October 11, 2012

speed of light? Isn't there spiritual light that is not governed by a speed limit? Reply

Anonymous October 11, 2012

source I would like to know on which talk of the Lubavitcher Rebbe this article was based. Reply

Mr. ronald levine via January 13, 2012

I believe in scientic fact Thanks for the info. Reply

alex lexington, ma November 20, 2010

The true moment So what is that moment of "direct connection that transcends the order of creation"? Perhaps it is a moment of no time and no philosophy, but pure awareness. Reply

Ari Blinder via December 31, 2004

Thank you for this wonderful article. For a long time I have wondered about the significance of the Seder Hishtalshelut and you explained it beautifully. Reply

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