Creation from Primordial Matter: Did Rashi Read Plato’s Timaeus?
How is it possible to speak about the beginning of the world? Possible or not, the first verses of Torah dare to do so. They speak about the “beginning” (reʾshit) of the heaven and the earth and about their Creator (Genesis 1:1-3). Plato (427–347 B.C.E.), in his Timaeus (ca. 360 B.C.E.), also dared to speak about the “beginning” (genesis) of the cosmos (27a) and about its Demiurge (28a).
The Timaeus has been called “the strangest of Plato’s dialogues.” The interlocutors are Socrates, Timaeus of Locri, Hermocrates of Syracuse, and Critias of Athens. Timaeus, a prestigious and cultured visitor to Athens, does most of the talking, which explains the dialogue’s name. Socrates is uncharacteristically tight-lipped. He explains that he spoke yesterday, so today he will listen (20b-c, 27a-b). The dialogue treats of politics, citizenship, peace and war, Egypt, Athens, Solon, Atlantis, mathematics, astronomy, music, zoology, psychology, and sex – but most famously it treats of cosmogony.
In trying to understand the “beginning,” Socrates and his friends make clear that they do not expect to find the “truth,” but only a “likely story” (eikos mythos), that is, a sort of “image” of the truth (29d).
According to their “likely story,” the Demiurge created the world out of primordial material (29b-32c, 48aff, 52aff). The four physical elements—earth, water, air, and fire—were all in existence before the creation of the world (31a-32c, 48bff). The primordial receptacle (Gr. khora = Lat. locus) is defined as “empty of all forms” (50d).
It receives all things in a “wondrous” way (thaumaston = miro), and its connection to the intelligible is “incomprehensible” (50c, 51b). It is not a substance (ousia = substantia) but merely an amorphous “stuff” (ekmageion = mollis cedensque materia) (50c). It is not “tangible” (hapton = tangi, contiguus) and is “in no way perceptible to the senses” (52a, cf. 31b, 32b). The primordial first principles are sometimes identified with letters (48b-c).
Rashi on Two Types of Interpretation
Rashi (= Rabbi Solomon Isaaci [son of Isaac], 1040–1105) lived in what is now France and Germany. He was well versed in the surrounding Christian culture, and had connections with Christian scholars. As we shall see, his Commentary on Genesis 1:1-3 bears some similarity to Plato’s Timaeus.
The opening words of the Torah, Be-reʾshit baraʾ Elohim, are simple, musical, and powerful, but their meaning is not clear. Some theologians might say that they must necessarily be unclear, since it is impossible to speak clearly about the beginning of the world.
Rashi opens his exegesis of the first verses of Genesis with the dictum:
אין המקרא הזה אומר אלא: דָרשני!...
This text says nothing but: Interpret me homiletically!
He then mentions two homiletical interpretations: The “beginning” is the Torah and the “beginning” is Israel. After citing these homiletical interpretations, he suddenly turns to the reader and says:
ואם באת לפרשו כפשוטו, כך פרשהו!
If [nonetheless] you want to interpret [the opening of Genesis] according to its literal meaning [kifshuto], interpret it [parshehu] thus!
In other words, Scripture commands us: “Interpret me homiletically!” However, Rashi commands those of us who are stubbornly interested in the literal sense of the text: “Interpret it thus according to its literal meaning!”
Rashi’s injunction to the exceptional reader interested in the literal sense stands in contrast to Scripture’s injunction to the general run of readers. Rashi seems to be saying that most readers should be satisfied here with homiletical interpretations, but he will help the inquisitive reader who is prepared to struggle with the text in order to grasp its literal meaning.
Rashi’s Literal Interpretation (Peshuto shel Miqraʾ)
Rashi now goes on to interpret the text according what he understands to be its literal meaning.
ולא בא המקרא להורות סדר הבריאה... שאם בא להורות כך, היה לו לכתוב: בראשונה ברא את השמים וגו', שאין לך "ראשית" במקרא שאינו דבוק לתיבה שלאחריו... "בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא"... כמו בראשית בְּרוֹא.
Scripture [in its opening words] is not teaching the order of creation [as it does afterwards]… for if this was what it was teaching, it should have written “first (ba-rishona) he created the heavens,” for the word ראשית in Scripture is always grammatically connected to the word that follows it… [and thus] בראשית ברא… is the equivalent of “in the beginning of his creating.”
Here is the gist of his interpretation: The words, “be-reʾshit baraʾ ʾelohim the heaven and the earth,” cannot properly be translated as “In the beginning, God created the heaven and earth,” as they have been translated by those who presume the heaven and the earth were created ex nihilo. This translation is grammatically impossible because the phrase be-reʾshit baraʾ is in the construct case, i.e., it is a genitive construction.
The opening three verses of Genesis, according to Rashi, might be translated as follows:
בראשית א:א בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. א:ב וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם, וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם. א:ג וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים: יְהִי אוֹר! וַיְהִי אוֹר.
Gen 1:1 At the beginning of God’s creating the heaven and the earth, 1:2 when the earth had been tohu and bohu and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters, 1:3 God said: “Let there be light!” And there was light.
Like Plato, Rashi held that the heaven and earth were not created ex nihilo, but out of primordial materials.
The Preexistent Things
According to Rashi’s reading, various things were in existence before the creation of heaven and earth: tohu and bohu, darkness, the deep, etc. Like Plato, Rashi held that these preexistent things included the four Greek physical elements: earth, water, air, fire.
1) Earth (ארץ)
"וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ". "תהו" לשון תימה ושיממון, שאדם תוהה ומשתומם על בוהו שבה. "תהו" – אשטורדישון בלעז. "בהו" לשון ריקות וצַדוּ.
“The earth had been tohu and bohu,”—tohu means amazement and astonishment; a person wonders [toheh] and is astonished at its bohu. Tohu is estordison in Old French (cf. modern French: étourdissement). Bohu means emptiness and void.
In other words, before the earth achieved its present created form, it was tohu and bohu. The whole phrase “tohu and bohu” is according to Rashi, a sort of hendiadys, meaning “astonishing emptiness” (cf. Jeremiah 4:23). Tohu describes the subjective (“wonders,” “is amazed,” “is astonished”) and bohu the objective (“emptiness and void”). Thus, the primordial earth, which was an astonishing emptiness, preceded the creation of the heaven and the earth.
2) Water (מים)
According to Rashi, “water” is mentioned through two different terms in Genesis 1:2, and both references precede God’s act of creation. First, in describing the primordial world, we are told that וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל פְּנֵי תְהוֹם, “there was darkness upon the face of the deep.” Rashi glosses this phrase with,
על פני המים שעל הארץ.
Upon the face of the water that was upon the earth.
Thus “the depths” (tehom) refers to water (cf. Rashi on Psalms 104:6, s.v. tehom). The next phrase in this verse mentions water explicitly, and in the context of defending his argument that the verse cannot be read as teaching what God created first, Rashi writes:
אם כן, תמה על עצמך שהרי המים קדמו, שהרי כתיב "וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם", ועדיין לא גילה המקרא בריאת המים מתי היתה! הא למדת, שקדמו המים לארץ.
If so, you should be surprised at yourself, since water came before it (= before God’s creation of the heaven and earth), for it is written, “and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters,” and yet the verse has not yet revealed when water was created! From this you learn that water preceded the earth.
In other words, the verse states explicitly that the spirit of God hovered over the waters before the creation of the heaven and the earth. Thus, water preceded the creation of the heaven and the earth.
3) Air (רוח)
Rashi explains the phrase וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם “and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters,”
כסא הכבוד עומד באויר, ומרחף על פני המים ברוח פיו של הקב"ה ובמאמרו, כיונה המרחפת על הקן.
The Throne of Glory was suspended in air, hovering above the waters, by the breath of the mouth of the Holy One, blessed by He, and by his word, as a dove hovers over her nest.
If God’s throne was suspended in the air “upon the face” of the primordial waters, then air too was primordial. The primordial “darkness” that, like air, was said to have been “upon the face” of the waters, presumably refers to air before the creation of light.
Thus, like water and earth, air preceded the creation of the heavens and the earth.
4) Fire (אש)
Rashi did not find fire explicit in the biblical text. However, he concluded that fire is to be counted among the things that existed before the creation of the heaven and the earth, since, according to the Rabbis, heaven was created out of fire and water.
ועוד, שהשמים מאש ומים נבראו...
Moreover, the heavens (shamayim) were created out of fire (ʾesh) and water (mayim)…
Thus, fire preceded the creation of the heaven and the earth as well, and with that, Rashi finds evidence for the preexistence of all of the four elements familiar from Plato and Greek philosophy.
Creation from Primordial Matter in Rashi’s Commentary on the Talmud
In addition to his gloss on the creation story, Rashi discusses creation in a number of places in his commentary on the Talmud.
1) Rashi on the Sefer Yetzira’s Three Elements
Rashi’s doctrine of creation from elements appears in a slightly different form in his commentary on the Babylonian Talmud at Menaḥot 29b:
חילק את שמו [= יה] והטיף מכל אות שלוש טיפין, ומאותן טיפין נעשו מים ואש ואויר וכל העולם כולו, וכן כתוב בספר יצירה.
He divided His name (Yah) and extracted three drops from each letter, and from these drops water, fire, air, and the world in its entirety were created. This is also what it says in the Sefer Yetzirah.
This doctrine is not identical with the view that the four elements preceded the creation of the heaven and the earth, but is similar to it. The four elements are mentioned in Sefer Yetzirah 3:3  (cf. 2:2), also with reference to the creation of the world:
שמים נבראו תחלה מאש, ארץ נבראת ממים, אויר נברא מרוח...
The heaven was created first from fire, the earth was created from the waters, and air was created from spirit.
According to this text, fire, water, and spirit are primordial, but earth is listed among the created things.
2) All Was Created from Tohu
In his Commentary on BT Sanhedrin 91a, when explaining an argument for the possibility of resurrection, Rashi writes:
והכי נמי, הקב"ה יוצר את האדם מטיפה קטנה שאין בה ממש, וכל-שכן שיכול לבראותו מן העפר. אי נמי, כל העולם כולו יצר מתוהו.
So too, if the Holy One, blessed be He, can create a human being out of a small drop [= the sperm] that has no substance [she-ʾeyn bah mammash], He can more easily create him out of dust. Moreover, He created the entire world out of tohu.
This comment imagines tohu as a sort of prime matter, and reflects a text in Sefer Yetzirah 2:5:
יצר מתוהו ממש
Out of tohu He created substance [mammash].
3) Creation from Wisdom (תושיה)
BT Sanhedrin 26b asks why the Torah is called tushiyyah (“wisdom”). Its second answer is based on a wordplay, reading it as composed of “tohu” and “meshuttat” (= founded):
תושיה, דברים של תוהו שהעולם משותת עליהם.
Tushiyah means words of tohu upon which the world is founded.
Rashi explains this answer:
"דברים של תהו". דיבור וקרייה בעלמא. וכל דיבור אין בו גשישה ממש, כתוהו הזה. ואף-על-פי כן, עולם משותת עליהם.
“Words of tohu”—mere speech and word” (see Psalms 50:1), and all speech has no substantial tangibility, like this tohu. Even so, the world is founded upon it.
Primordial Matter and Divine Speech
According to the two passages from Rashi’s Commentary on BT Sanhedrin, God created the entire world out of an insubstantial and intangible primordial material, called tohu. This tohu is identified with the Torah, the divine “speech and word.”
This identification of the tohu with the divine speech and word should be understood together with Rashi’s previously quoted dictum in his Commentary on BT Menaḥot 29b according to which the world was created out of six “drops” extracted from the two letters of the divine Name Yah. It also should be understood together with Rashi’s dicta in his Commentaries on Proverbs 3:19, 8:22, and Job 28:12-28, which affirm that the world was created out of the primordial Wisdom (ḥokhmah), identified with the Torah. 
Rashi and Plato’s Timaeus
Rashi’s description of Creation is reminiscent of the description found in Plato’s Timaeus in the following ways:
Like Plato, Rashi held that the world was created from primordial material.
Like Plato, Rashi held that the four physical elements, earth, water, air, and fire, were all in existence before the creation of the world.
Like Plato, who defined the primordial receptacle as “empty of all forms,” Rashi defined tohu and bohu as “emptiness and void.”
Like Plato, who held that the primordial receptacle was “wondrous,” Rashi taught that the tohu and bohu arouses wonder, amazement, and astonishment.
Like Plato, who described the primordial receptacle as “stuff” not “substance,” Rashi described it as “insubstantial” (ʾeyn mammash).
Like Plato, who described the primordial matter as “intangible,” Rashi described it as “intangible” (ʾeyn geshishah).
Like Plato, who identified the primordial principles with letters, Rashi identified them with the letters of the Torah and of the divine Name.
The Latin Translation of Calcidius
In 11th-century Christian Europe, the Timaeus was a popular book among the Scholastics (i.e., Christian theologians). It was, in fact, the only Platonic work then available in Latin. It was read in the translation of Calcidius (c. 321), which included only the first part (until 53c), and was studied with his Commentary.
It is not known if Calcidius was Christian or pagan, but his Commentary contains a comparison of the account of Creation in the Timaeus with that in the Book of Genesis, which he calls Moses’ De Genitura Mundi. In the course of his comparison, he quotes three Greek Bible translations: the Septuagint, Aquila, and Symmachus, as well as Philo of Alexandria, and an otherwise unknown Rabbinic midrash that was quoted in a now lost work by Origen.
Medieval Christian theologians used Plato’s Timaeus as an aid in interpreting the Creation narrative in the Book of Genesis. If Rashi was interested in the Timaeus, it was very likely for exegetical reasons, not philosophic ones.
Rashi could have read Calcidius’ translation, if his Latin was good enough; or he could have read quotations from it in popular Christian theological literature in Old French; or he could have received oral reports on its doctrine from Christian colleagues.
Greek Philosophy in Rabbinic Texts
The proposition that Rashi knew the Timaeus is controversial. Some scholars admit that Rashi’s interpretation of Creation was influenced by ancient Greek philosophic ideas, but they argue that all those Greek ideas are found already in early Jewish literature.
For example, the Greek notion that the world was created out of preexistent elements is found in Genesis Rabbah 1 [#9 in Vilna ed.].
פילוסופוס אחד שאל את רבן גמליאל. אמר לו: צייר גדול אלוהיכם, אלא שמצא סממנים טובים שסייעו אותו: תהו ובהו וחושך ורוח ומים ותהומות. אמר ליה: תיפח רוחיה דההוא גברא! כולהון כתיב בהן בריאה: תהו ובהו, שנאמר "עושה שלום ובורא רע" [ישעיה מה:ז]; חושך, "יוצר אור ובורא חושך” [שם]; מים, "הללוהו שמי השמים והמים...כי הוא ציוה ונבראו" [תהלים קמח:ד-ה]; רוח, "כי הנה יוצר הרים ובורא רוח" [עמוס ד:יג]; תהומות, "באין תהומות חוללתי" [משלי ח:כד].
A philosopher asked Rabban Gamliel, saying to him: “Your God is a great artist [tzayyar = Demiurge], but He found good ingredients [samemanim] which helped Him: tohu and bohu, darkness, ruaḥ [spirit, wind, or air], the waters, and the deep.” He replied to him: “Blasted be whoever says that! With regard to all of those things, it is written in Scripture that they were created: tohu and bohu, as it is written ‘I make peace and create evil’ [Isaiah 45:7]; darkness, as it is written ‘I form light and create darkness’ [ibid.]; the waters, as it is written ‘Praise Him, ye heavens of heavens and ye waters… for He commanded and they were created [Psalms 148:4-5]; ruaḥ, as it is written ‘for, lo, He that formeth the mountains and createth the wind’ [Amos 4:13]; the deep, as it is written ‘When there were no depths, I [Wisdom] was brought forth’ [Proverbs 8:24].
Rabban Gamliel agrees that the world was created out of primordial elements or archai, but insists that those elements were all created by God.
As noted above, the Greek notion that certain physical elements (fire, water, and spirit) existed before Creation is found in Sefer Yetzirah. Or again, the Greek idea that the primordial matter is insubstantial may be readily deduced from a text already quoted from Sefer Yetzirah 2:5: יצר מתוהו ממש, “Out of tohu He created substance.” As for the idea that the world was created out of letters, Rashi himself, as we have seen, attributes it to the Talmud and Sefer Yetzirah.
The Hebrews’ Beliefs about the Primordial: Calcidius’s Testimony
In his Commentary on the Timaeus, Calcidius devotes three chapters to the opinions of the Hebrews on primordial matter. He reports that the Hebrews described the tohu and bohu as “invisible,” “formless,” “colorless,” “lacking any quality,” “void,” and “nothing” (nihil). Citing Proverbs 8:22, which Rashi cited centuries later in the same context, he writes that the Hebrews considered Wisdom to be “the primordial origin of the universe.”
As for the preexistent “building materials” that were used in the Creation of the world, he states that the Hebrews taught that they were all created, since “nothing is prior to God.” This is the view of Rabban Gamliel in Genesis Rabbah quoted above, and it is also arguably the view of Rashi, although it is not certain, for example, if he held that the primordial Hebrew letters were created.
Did Rashi Use the Timaeus?
Rashi’s views on Creation were based primarily on ideas found in the Talmud, Midrash, Sefer Yetzirah, and other Jewish works. There are, however, some motifs in his Commentary that are reminiscent of Plato’s Timaeus, and do not seem to have precedents in the early Jewish literature.
Intangible tohu—One example is the intangibility of the primordial tohu. The Hebrew word “geshishah” (tangibility), used by Rashi in the phrase “eyn bo geshishah mammash” (“has no substantial tangibility”), does not have a Rabbinic pedigree, and he may have coined it himself. This suggests that he did not have a Hebrew or Aramaic source for his notion of the intangibility of the primordial tohu.
Plato uses the Greek word hapton (“tangible”) when distinguishing between the intangible primordial khora (place = locus) and the tangible created world (Timaeus, 31b-32c; 52a-b). Calcidius translates this term by the Latin tangi or contiguus. In his Commentary, he discusses the subject of tangibility at length and gives it much importance.
Wondrous tohu—A second example is the wondrousness of the primordial tohu. Rashi was not unique in connecting the word tohu with the verb toheh (to wonder). Genesis Rabbah 2:2 (on Genesis 1:2) says that כך ישבה לה הארץ תוהה ובוהה, “the earth sat, wondering [tohah] and astonished [bohah],” and complained that God preferred the heaven to it.
I noted above that Calcidius reported of an otherwise unknown Rabbinic midrash which he found in a now lost work by Origen. It is said there that “the earth was in a certain state of dumb admiration” (tohah and bohah), awed by the greatness of the Creator.
However, Rashi’s notion that the primordial material aroused great wonder is absent in the old Jewish sources, but it is emphatically present in Plato’s Timaeus. The term for wonder used by Calcidius is usually “mirus” (“wondrous,” “wonderful,” “mysterious”).
What Is the Verdict?
Did Rashi read Plato’s Timaeus? This is an intriguing historical question. It cannot be answered definitively on the basis of our present knowledge, but I am inclined to think that Rashi, in his exegesis of Genesis 1:1-3, interprets the Talmud, Midrash, and Sefer Yetzirah in the light of Plato’s Timaeus, and Plato’s Timaeus in the light of the Talmud, Midrash, and Sefer Yetzirah. From this perspective, Rashi is not only one of the most interesting interpreters of the Torah’s cosmogony, he is also one of the most interesting interpreters of the Timaeus.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
October 24, 2019
August 29, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Warren Zev Harvey is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he has taught since 1977. He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Columbia University (1973) and is the author of many studies on medieval and modern philosophy, including Physics and Metaphysics in Hasdai Crescas (1998). Harvey is an EMET Prize laureate in the humanities (2009).
Essays on Related Topics: