By Shlomo Riskin
“And God completed on the seventh day the creative work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His creative work which He had made.” (Gen. 2:2)
On Rosh Hashana we began counting the 5,775th year since the creation of the world; this calculation is predicated upon the primordial first week of creation as having consisted of seven 24-hour days during which God made everything there is, from light to vegetation to animals to the human being.
Now, this biblical notion is in clear opposition to all accepted scientific data, which claim the earth to be millions of years old. Carbon testing of fossils proves this contention, at least from a scientific perspective.
Is the acceptance of science over the literal reading of the biblical text to be considered heretical? A good friend of mine (an upstanding Orthodox rabbi of an Orthodox congregation) was recently informed by a hareidi rabbi that a conversion he had performed several decades ago was to be invalidated unless he would declare on oath that he believes the world to be no more than 5,775 years old. Is the age of the earth a cardinal article of Jewish faith to which every believing Jew must subscribe?
Literal belief in the seven days of creation is not included in Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles of Jewish faith or even in Rabbi Yosef Albo’s three principles (Sefer Ha’ikarim). So why does the Bible express itself in terms of six days of creativity culminating in one day of Sabbath rest? Why would the Bible utilize the Hebrew word for “day” (yom) with any meaning other than a 24-hour period?
The truth is that from the usage of the word “yom” it is possible to conclude the very opposite of the hareidi dogma just cited. The Bible is not interested in conveying literal and chronological facts in its story of Creation. After all, the sun and the moon were not created until the fourth day, and it is specifically their movements which are the determinants for our 24-hour day. Beyond any doubt, then, the word “yom” in the context of the seven days of Creation cannot mean a literal 24-hour day.
Furthermore, Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed, interprets all of the early biblical stories until the advent of Abraham as allegories, whose purpose is to convey moral lessons rather than historical fact.
And this certainly leaves the door open to maintain that “one thousand [or one million] years in Your eyes is like one day just passed” (Psalms 90:4). Each biblical day in the Creation story may well represent an epoch of thousands or millions of years.
But then why does the Bible convey the story in terms of primordial “week”?
In order to understand, I believe we must ponder a question raised by the commentary of Rashi on the very first words of the Bible: “Rabbi Yitzhak said the Torah ought not have opened with anything other than the first commandment ordained to the Israelites, which was to make the month [of the exodus from Egypt] the first month of the Hebrew calendar. So why does the Torah begin with the Creation story?”
Rashi’s assumption is that the Torah is first and foremost a book of God’s commands, and so it should have opened with the first commandment. Rashi’s answer takes the most universal verse of the Bible (all other ancient peoples spoke of local deities; only our Bible opens with a God of the Universe) and transforms into a very particularistic (and prophetic) one: “If the nations of the world charge Israel with stealing by conquering and occupying the land of the ‘seven nations’… Israel can respond: All of the earth belongs to the Holy One Blessed be He, who created it…, He has given the Land of Israel to us.”
Nahmanides provides another answer, based on a different assumption. The Bible teaches theology and historiosophy, not only laws and commands.
It is important for us to know that God owns the world and owns us, by virtue of the rights of the Creator to His creation,
and God ordains the punishment of exile for transgressions of His Commandments (Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, Israel from the Promised Land).
My revered teacher Rav Soloveitchik gives a third response: this first verse is a commandment, the very first commandment of the Torah. It is based upon the principle of Imitatio Dei, that we must walk in God’s ways: “Just as God created a world, so must you humans create worlds. You must re-create the incomplete, imperfect world which God made. You must remove the darkness, leaving only the light; you must remove the evil, leaving only the good; you must remove the chaos, leaving only order.” (J.B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith 1, D). This is the linkage between Rosh Hashana and Bereshit, our mission to perfect the world in the Kingship of the Divine.
Hence God describes His original creation of the world as having taken place in one Divine week of six days of creativity and one day of rest; so must we model ourselves after Him, with each week of our lives being dedicated to six days of proactive change and re-creation of the world and one day of rest and appreciation of what it is.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr TorahStone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.