Behar: Thinking about the Age of the Universe

Of the various apparent contradictions between Torah and Science, the greatest one, quantitatively, is the age of the universe.  While NASA currently puts the age of the universe at 13.7 billion years, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97a) teaches that the world is to reach the age of 7,000 years, the current year being reckoned as 5,772 years from creation.  This vast discrepancy demands some serious thinking by believers.

An interesting approach to this issue is found in the mystical interpretations of the jubilee introduced in this week’s parsha.  The Torah (Leviticus 25) explains that the land is to be worked agriculturally for six years with the seventh year being a “Sabbath” during which no work on the land may be done.  After seven such cycles, totaling forty-nine years, the fiftieth year is referred to as a jubilee.

And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.

On the notion of sabbatical and jubilee years, Nachmanides (Lev. 25:2) quotes Abraham Ibn Ezra who wrote that “the secret of the age of the universe is hinted at here.”  The secret, notes Rabbi Chavel (Exodus 21, n.23), is a mystical interpretation of the jubilee which holds that “the universe is subject to cycles of seven thousand years; after each six thousand years of growth and activity the seventh thousand is one of ‘rest’ – destruction.  This process repeats itself seven times – representing a total of forty-nine thousand years, the fiftieth thousand being the jubilee when all existence returns to its beginnings.”

As such, depending on which of the seven cycles we are currently in, the age of the universe ranges from nearly 7,000 to 49,000 years.  The mystical text entitled “Sefer HaTemunah”, attributed to Rabbi Nechunia ben Hakaneh, is one of the earliest sources for the jubilee idea, but is ambiguous as to which cycle we are in.  Rabbi Israel Lipschitz (“Drush Ohr HaChaim”) argues that we are now in the fourth cycle.  Rounding to the nearest cycle for simplicity’s sake, the world is almost 28,000 years old.  On the other hand, Rabbi David ben Yehuda HaHasid (“Livnat HaSapir”) reasons that we are currently in the last of the seven cycles.  Accordingly, Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides would estimate our world to be close to 49,000 years old.

Rabbeinu Bechayei, known as “the faithful student” of Nachmanides, echoes the idea of 50,000 years but proceeds to explain that there are actually eighteen thousand jubilee cycles until the world order is complete (Numbers 10:35).  Assuming that we are in the last cycle, this would make our world close to 900,000,000 years old.

Expanding on the jubilee idea in a different manner, Rabbi Yitzhak of Acco explains that the cycles preceding the creation of Adam are composed not of human years, there being no human to speak of, but are made of divine years.  Based on the verse, “A thousand years in Thy sight eyes are but as yesterday” (Psalms 90:4), which equates one divine day to one thousand human years, he deduces that one divine year, composed of 365.25 divine days, is equal to 365,250 human years.  Applying Rabbi David ben Yehuda HaHasid’s position that we are in the last of the seven cycles, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains that our present cycle of seven thousand years actually began 42,000 x 365,250, or 15,340,500,000, years ago.

Now, while the estimates of 28,000, 49,000, 900,000,000 or even 15.3 billion do not match the NASA estimate, they do testify to a tradition that understood the world to have predated the current reckoning within 7,000 years.  It is just such a tradition that may have encouraged Physicist Gerald Schroeder to use modern science as a tool for biblical interpretation and derive the following approach to the subject.

Modern science has established that our universe is expanding as a result of a “big bang” that initiated existence.  This state of expansion effects how we perceive events occurring in our universe based on our point of reference in, what physicists refer to as, “time-space coordinates”.  To understand, let’s first take an example in a non-expanding universe.  If one were to send light pulses every one second in a static universe, then, no matter where one was located, the pulses would arrive at one second intervals.  However, in an expanding universe, since space is stretching, it takes more time to arrive at the intended destination.  How much more time?  Scientists have characterized the relationship between time at the beginning of creation and time today by the ratio of 1×10^12 – meaning that one second between light pulses at the beginning of creation will be perceived today as 1×10^12 seconds, or, 31,687 years.

Applying this to the creation narrative, Schroeder explains that, until man was created, the days of creation are spoken of from God’s point of view (i.e., at the beginning of creation); so when God says “one day”, we perceive it as 1×10^12 days.  According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b), man was created in the middle of the sixth day.  As such, the first five and a half days are described from God’s point of view, and are perceived today, from man’s point of view, as 5.5×10^12days, or 15,058,179,329 years.  After fine-tuning the number to account for non-linear expansion, Schroeder arrives at an estimated age of the universe of 14 billion years – clearly a reasonable approximation of the NASA estimate.

Be that as it may, what is truly of import is not the precise age of the universe but the mere fact that there is an age to the universe.  Until modern times, man held the universe to be ageless.  Upon observing that the universe is expanding, as if in the midst of an explosion, scientists deduced that there must have been an initial explosion, a “Big Bang” – a beginning.  This discovery has profound theological ramification as Stephen Hawking notes, “Many people do not like the idea that time has a beginning, probably because it smacks of divine intervention.”

Uncomfortable with the implications, Hawking recently wrote that a beginning need not imply a creator, for the laws of nature could have been responsible for the Big Bang.  Schroeder counters that the definition of such laws of nature – (a) existing before physical creation and thus non-physical, (b) existing before time and thus not bound by time, (c) having the capacity to create – amount to the very definition of God the creator.  The Torah even has a name for this definition of God – Elokim (see Reflections of the Rav, p.14).

The creator, however, is not only the initiator of creation (Elokim), but the sustainer of the world (Havayah).  God is not a random force of nature, but an involved party to the ongoing creation.  Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits writes that “the cosmos came into being because God willed it… Creation, being an act of will, is motivated by a goal.  God wanted the world for the sake of some purpose” (God, Man and History, p.76).  It is this aspect of creation – purpose – that is of paramount significance.

Rabbi Berkovits explains: “The most far-reaching consequence of [the belief in an involved creator] is that it introduces the concept of value and purpose into the very core of reality.”  And so, while the age of the universe demands that believers do some thinking about the age science gives to the universe, the very fact that science gives as an age, affirming a beginning to the universe, demands that all people do some thinking about the purpose of the universe.

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at
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