“What is Heaven?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The opening parasha of the book of Genesis, parashat Bereshith, contains the dramatic biblical account of the physical creation of the world. It is a most complex parasha, which the sages advise not to delve into too deeply. Seeking to unravel the mysteries of creation, to decipher what came before creation and what will be the future of the world that has been created, was considered by the ancients to be highly inadvisable.

The book of Genesis and the story of creation opens with perhaps the most famous verse in classical literature, Genesis 1:1, “Bereishith barah Eh’lo’heem ayt ha’shah’mayim v’ayt ha’ah’retz,” In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth.

Already in the very first sentence, students of the Bible are confronted with the complexities of creation. Scripture records (Genesis 1:3) that on the first day, G-d said, “Let there be light, and there was light.” But, even though it is never noted that G-d said, “Let there be heaven and earth,” we are told that “In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth.” Where and when did heaven and earth appear? Did heaven and earth always exist, or perhaps, was heaven created on the second day together with the water? After all, on the second day of creation, Scripture records (Genesis 1:6) that G-d said, “Let there be a “Rah’kee’ah,” a firmament, in the midst of the waters, to separate between water and water,” and (Genesis 1:8) G-d calls the firmament “Shah’mah’yim,” heaven.

But when G-d gathers all the waters together on the third day, “Yabasha,” dry land, earth, appears. So what exactly is meant by the statement in the opening verse that G-d created the heaven and the earth on the first day?

Rashi, citing the Midrash, suggests that although the heavens were created on the first day, they were still in a state of flux, solidifying only on the second day, when G-d commanded: “Yeh’hee rah’kee’ah,” let there be a firmament.

The commentators differ regarding the meaning of the word  “shah’mah’yim,” heavens. Some suggest that “shah’mah’yim” is a compound of the Hebrew words “sah” and “mayim” which means to carry water. The Sforno claims that “shah’mah’yim” is a plural form of the word, “sham,” meaning there. This underscores that, from the human perspective, the heavens are an immense distance from earth, perhaps implying that “shah’mah’yim” refers not only to heavens but to the revolving orbits that are beyond the heavens. The Ha’Ktav V’ha’Kabbala suggests that the word “shah’mah’yim” is derived from the root of the Hebrew word, “hish’toh’m’moot, ” meaning astonishment, awe and bewilderment. The human observer is simply overwhelmed by the vastness of the heavenly bodies.

The Talmud in Chagigah 12a suggests that the word “shah’mah’yim” is a compound form of the words “sham” and “mayim,” meaning “the waters are there.” It is interesting to note that although the word “sha’mah’yim” always appears in plural form, it is by definition singular, similar to the Hebrew words “chaim,” which means life, “mayim,” which means water, and “panim,” which means face. Rabbi Mordechai Gifter explains that despite the fact that all these words are singular, they appear in the plural form because they are inherently not singular. Thus, a person’s face has two profiles, water is composed of numerous drops, life is a composite of multiple situations, and heaven is plural because of its vastness.

The Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashana, Chapter 2, cites an opinion that the word “shah’mah’yim” comes from a composite of the words, “aish” and “mayim,” fire and water, implying that G-d brought the competing elements, fire and water, together in order to create “rah’kee’yah,” the firmament. And even though they are diametric opposites, G-d made peace between them. This miraculous creation is alluded to in the statement (based on Job 25:2), “Oh’seh shalom bim’roh’mav,” May He [G-d], Who makes peace in the high heavens, make peace for us and all of Israel.

The Yalkut May’am Loez notes that Rabbeinu Bachya, the Zohar and the Talmud in Chagiga 12a , all cite the different opinions between the philosophers and the sages regarding the number of firmaments in heaven. Rabbi Judah says that there are two firmaments. Raish Lakish argues that there are seven, hence, the colloquial English expression “seventh heaven.”

According to the mystical sources, the first, and purest level of heaven is known as Vilon, a curtain. It provides light for the world. The second level is called Rah’kee’yah, the firmament, where the sun, the moon, the stars and the planets are suspended. The third level, known as Sh’chah’kim, is where the manna is prepared for the righteous in the World to Come. It is also where compassion comes forth in times of distress. The fourth level, called, Z’vul, is where the heavenly city of Jerusalem and a heavenly Temple are stationed, which parallel the city and the Temple that exist on earth below. The fifth level, called, M’ohn, is the dwelling place, where tens of thousands of angels sing to G-d during the night. The sixth level, called, Machon, is the location where there are many chambers with fiery doors. Machon is where the fierce clouds, the harsh dews, and the heavy rain storms reside. The seventh level is called, Ah’ray’vut, pleasantness, where life, peace, blessing, success and the souls of the righteous dwell. Dews that would ultimately restore the dead to life are also found there.

As the cosmology of the universe is explored more deeply, we see that the details become more complex and obscure. We now better appreciate the sages’ warnings, not to delve too deeply into the origins of the world. Let us be content to more fully enjoy the infinite benefits of creation, and commit ourselves to maintaining their purity, so that rather than be perceived as a threat, they may serve as a source of blessing to all of humankind.

May you be blessed.