Philosopher Rabbis

The truth is that Scripture mentions the heavens and the earth because they form one globe, with the heavens like the circumference and the earth like the point at the center. Now the earth was covered with water from all sides, as it is written “they will not return to cover the earth” (Psalms 104:9), and the wind surrounds the waters. These are the four elements, namely, the heavens, earth, wind and water, for the heavens correspond to fire. Similarly we find “To make a weight for the wind and He counted the waters by measure” (Job 28:25), “For He gazes to the edges of the earth, under all the heavens He sees” (ibid. 28:24). Similarly, “Who measured the waters with his fist and counted the heavens with a span, and all the dust of the earth in a measure… who counted the wind of God” (Isaiah 40:12–13). Again, “Who ascended to the heavens and descended” (Proverbs 30:4), and the other three follow the word “heavens.” Also, “The sun shines” (Ecclesiastes 1:5) corresponds to the heavens, “and the earth remains forever” (ibid. 1:4), “round and round goes the wind” (ibid. 1:6), “all the rivers go to the sea” (ibid. 1:7). Since the circumference, which is the heavens, and the center, which is the earth, were created, so too all that is between them was created.

From Ibn Ezra’s Sabbath Epistle (composed in London, 1159 AD).

If you will take a good look at this paragraph and at the paragraphs following them, you will realize that there is an overall pattern to the sequence in which they have been written. They correspond to the four basic elements of the universe which we explained in connection with Genesis 1,2. Here the Torah proceeds in an ascending manner. You are aware that in Genesis they appeared in a descending manner. The four basic materials of terrestrial earth are: fire, wind (atmosphere), water, earth. This is also the order in which Solomon arranged these four basic components of our terrestrial universe in Proverbs 30,4. He writes: “Who has ascended heaven and come down? Who has gathered up the wind in the hollows of his hand? Who has wrapped the waters in his garment? Who has established all the extremities of the earth?”

From Rabbeinu Bahya on Vayikra 11:2 (i.e., Lev 11:2) by Rabbi Bahya ben Asher (1255-1340 AD, Spain).

Discovered these bits of medieval Jewish commentary while I was researching Proverbs 30:4 the other day. Fascinating to see how these medieval rabbis marry ideas from Greek philosophy (stoicheia, i.e., the four elements) with their interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in ways that would probably not occur to us. Ibn Ezra was born and educated in Muslim Spain so his approach to everything from grammar to astronomy was influenced by the Greeks through the Arabic Jewish tradition. Same with Bahya ben Asher.


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