I recently attended a class in Kabbalah and Chassidic Thought. The rabbi was talking about the "four elements"--earth, water, air and fire—as they are found in the human soul. I recognize this idea from ancient Greek and medieval philosophy, but it seems there's been some progress since then: my periodic table has 117 elements. Isn't the Torah view outdated?


I've seen two written responses on this topic from the Rebbe, one a letter written originally in English, the other, a cryptic note in Hebrew. First, the letter, Dated 18th of Tevet, 5720 (January 16, 1960):

…you ask my explanation of the reference to the four "basic elements" (yesodot) mentioned in chapter one of the Tanya, and you ask me how is it possible to reconcile this with modern chemistry which recognizes over one hundred elements.

Prefatorily, I must make at least two corrections in your letter. One, the origin of that statement in the Tanya is not as you write, but it is to be found in Midrash Rabba, Bamidbar 14,12, טבעים, and at greater length and in greater detail in many parts of the Zohar, and further explained in other books of Kabbalah. Two, modern chemistry does not recognize over one hundred basic elements, but a considerably fewer number if matter is to be reduced to its basic components or particles. For the so-called elements are themselves made up of atoms, which are the smallest particles into which an element can be divided and yet retain its properties and characteristics. But the atoms themselves are further made up of smaller particles, such as electrons, protons, neutrons, etc.

Thus, the answer to your question already lies in the proper definition of the terms under discussion. For, as indicated above, a so-called element is not the most basic particle of matter. Even the term "atom" which originally meant something indivisible, is an archaism now employed only for convenience, as it no longer corresponds to its original meaning. Similarly, when we speak of an individual as being an element of society, this does not mean that the individual himself is not a composite.

This should be borne in mind when we consider the term Yesodot in the Zohar, Midrash Rabba, Kabbalah, etc., and, of course, in the Tanya and other Chabad sources. This does not mean something which under normal circumstances is indivisible or unchangeable, but the actual so-called "bricks" or components which make up everything that exists in the world. I might also mention that there is another school that conceives these four Yesodot, not in their physical aspects but rather qualitatively, that is to say, "fire," in the sense of the properties of hot and dryness; "water," in the sense of coolness and humidity, and so on.

In the cryptic note1, the Rebbe says much as above, but adds a fascinating idea:

"Some hypothesize that they are four basic elements: positive, negative, antimatter, matter."