Creation Ex-Nihilo

The Metaphor of Keeping a Ball in the Air

Belief in creation ex-nihilo – something from nothing – has been a bedrock of Jewish belief throughout the ages. In fact, many Jewish commentaries explain that implicit in the meaning of the verb bara – which is used in the first verse of Genesis, and is commonly translated as "create" – is the idea that something totally new and unprecedented has been produced; i.e., creation ex-nihilo.1 This is very different than human creations, which are crafted of materials that already exist.

The difference also expresses itself in the "created" product. An entity created ex nihilo can never be independent of its creator, as opposed to an object crafted from pre-existing substances.

For example, a carpenter takes wood, cuts it to the right dimensions, attaches legs to it, and produces a table. Once the table is made, the carpenter can move on to his next project, and the table will continue to exist. In the case of creation ex-nihilo, on the other hand, the created thing needs to be constantly recreated.

This can be understood by considering the case of someone who wants to fight gravity and keep a ball from touching the ground. Since there is a natural tendency for the ball to fall, the only way it can be kept off the ground is if there is an opposing force – someone either holding it or throwing it – to keep it from touching the ground.

Similarly, the very idea of something (apart from G‑d) existing, is a novelty. Creation's true state is non-existence. The only way a created being can exist is if there is something continually creating it, to counter its natural state of non-existence.

Continuous Creation by G‑d's Word

The Metaphor of an Electric Lamp

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, explained the process by which G‑d creates something from nothing. Like many of his teachings, it is revolutionary at the same time that it merely elucidates traditional, age-old teachings.

The Mishnah states: "With Ten Utterances the world was created."2 The biblical support for G‑d's utterances being the method of creation3 is the verse: "By the word of G‑d the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth, all their host."4

Further citing the verse, "Forever, O G‑d, Your word stands in the heavens,"5 the Baal Shem Tov explains that unlike human speech – which once spoken is gone – G‑dly "speech" is everlasting. This means that the Ten Utterances used to create the world continue to stand, constantly re-creating the world.6

This can perhaps be illustrated by using an electric lamp as an example. When one flips the switch of a lamp, one creates a circuit, causing electrons to flow back and forth through the circuit, and the light to go on. But merely flipping the switch is only half the story. In order for the light to stay lit, there must be a constant renewal of energy, for the moment the energy runs out – poof – out goes the light.7

The same is true of creation. In order for the world to continue to exist, G‑d's words of creation need to constantly fuel its existence.8

Just as when one looks at a lamp, the separate bursts of energy that are constantly lighting it are not apparent, so too, when one looks at the world, the separate acts of creation that put it into existence are not readily discernable, and existence seems to be flowing in a steady stream, the product of a single act.

Since the world's existence is solely dependent upon its constant re-creation, there would be no need for any Armageddon or disaster of cosmic proportions to destroy the world and cause it to revert to nothingness. All that would be needed is a cessation of its re-creation.

The World Is G‑d's Word

Analogy from Modern Physics

We look around us and we see tables made of wood, chairs made of metal, and cups made of glass. Everything appears to be made up of its own unique materials. Nowadays, however, we know that the difference between these items is really only in the way that various subatomic particles have been put together to form atoms, and various combinations of atoms have been put together to form molecules of different materials. From a wooden table to a metal chair, everything is made up of a bunch of electrons, protons, and neutrons jumping around together in various formations—essentially, everything is made of the same stuff.

The same is true in a spiritual sense. The building blocks of all of creation, in all its variety, are the same Ten Utterances.

This does not only include the creation of those things that are specifically mentioned in the Ten Utterances in Genesis (such as the sun or the moon), but also all items not explicitly mentioned (such as a rock).

Rabbi Isaac Luria9 explains that in every single thing, whether it is an animal or plant or an inanimate substance like stones or water, there is a spiritual life-force, a soul. The soul of each thing is made up of the letters of the Ten Utterances.

Some creations, like the sun or moon (which are mentioned explicitly in the Ten Utterances), are able to receive their life-force directly from the actual Ten Utterances recorded in the Torah. Other specific creations, like a rock, can only receive their life-force after it descends and is progressively diminished.

This takes place through a process of substitutions and transpositions of the letters that make up the Ten Utterances, until the life-force is condensed enough so that the particular creation can be brought into existence.

(This system of substituting and exchanging the letters of the Utterances is known as the "231 gates, backwards and forwards." Each letter of the Hebrew Aleph-Bet can be combined with any other letter. For example, an aleph can be combined with a bet, gimmel, or daled etc. There are 22 letters in the Aleph-Bet which gives us 462 possibilities (22x21=462). However, since each one can be read backwards or forwards (for example, aleph bet or bet aleph) we are left with 231 possibilities (462/2 = 231). In turn, the various combinations of these substituted letters make up different words, thus leaving us with an almost infinite set of possibilities.10

Each substitute further diminishes the brightness of the Ten Utterance in their original form, thus enabling the more mundane and coarse creations to be created.)

Divine Providence

This understanding of creation leads us to another famous teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, which is that everything that happens in this world is due to hashgachah pratit, "divine providence": not even a leaf falling is a result of mere happenstance.11

For if every detail of creation is constantly being put into existence by the custom-mixed and substituted letters of the Ten Utterances, this means that every single facet of the world is constantly being created afresh for some specific purpose.


When we keep this in mind, we have the power to overcome any obstacles that we may come across in life. Knowing that G‑d constantly re-creates the world gives us the fortitude to trust that even if things may seem bad, all can change in an instant for the good. Reality has no independent existence.

Furthermore, the knowledge that every moment is being recreated from nothingness by the Creator also changes the way we view the present, and allows us to be joyous even when things don't seem to be going well. After all, this circumstance that we perceive as negative is actually being created anew every moment by a benevolent G‑d. In the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi12:

Now when a man will . . . picture in his mind how he comes into being ex nihilo at every single moment, how can he entertain the thought that he is suffering, or has any afflictions related to "children, life [i.e., health], and sustenance," or whatever other worldly sufferings? For . . . G‑d's wisdom is the source of life, goodness and delight . . . except that, because it is not apprehensible, one imagines that he is suffering, or afflicted. In truth, however, "No evil descends from above"...