By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
By popular request we are resuming our discussion of the 13 Principles of Jewish belief.
Before we discuss the fourth principle, let’s take a look at the Hebrew word used by Maimonides for all 13 key principles, which is “ikar.” The literal meaning of the word ikar is “root.” Maimonides teaches us an important lesson by selecting this particular word in that the principles are not, by a long shot, the entirety of what Jews believe. They are, however, the roots, ikarim, of all we believe. Much like the majestic towering sequoia grows out of its subterranean roots which attach it firmly to the ground and provide its very life, the 13 ikarim form the foundation from which flow the vast, myriad rich concepts that form the grand and magnificent tree, with all its branches and fruit, which we call Judaism.
Now let’s move on to the fourth principle, as promised. Maimonides writes in his commentary: “The fourth principle involves the absolute eternity of the One whom we call God. Nothing else shares His eternal quality. This is discussed many times in Scripture, and the Torah teaches it to us when it says “The eternal God is a refuge (Deut. 33:27).”
The Yigdal song explains the following: “He preceded all things that were created; He is first, yet without beginning.”
Maimonides further expounds on this principle in his work “Guide to the Perplexed”: “Everything was created by God out of absolute nothingness. In the beginning, God alone existed. There was nothing else. … He then created everything that exists from absolute nothingness. It all followed his will and desire.”
“Even time itself is among the things created by God,” Maimonides goes on to write. “Time depends upon motion. In order from motion to exist, we must have things that move. And all things ere created by God (Moreh Nevuchim 2:13).”
This principle is deeply connected to the one preceding it, the incorporeal or non-physical nature of God. Only someone or something that has no physical nature can exist in the realm of forever or infinity.
This concept of a non-physical nature is one that our minds have difficulty grasping. As we live in a finite world in which all things have a beginning, our intellect cannot truly fathom something that “always was.” We are troubled by the question of what was before that the beginning; how did God come into existence? The answer that He always was. But that He created the concept of “creation” is truly difficult to ponder.
As such, the final statement quoted from Maimonides is a keyhole into this idea; part of our difficulty in understanding the idea of “always” stems from our living within the realm of time. In other words, within time there is always a before and an after (and a beginning). Time itself, however, is also a creation of God! He does not exist in the same realm we do. Therefore the entire enterprise of “before, now and after” does not exist in relation to God. This is, therefore, one of those situations in which we need to realize the limitations of our understanding. We are exhorted to believe that which God has informed us through the Torah although we do not, and cannot, truly grasp the depths of the concept.
This corollary, the creation of time, is in itself an amazing revelation, (also mentioned by other early commentaries such as Nachmanides and R’ Eliyah of Vilna) and has its source in the Kabbalah. Until recently, the creation of time ran contrary to thousands of years of accepted scientific thought which assumed that time is a given, a constant, within which all else existed. It was only with the advent of Einstein’s theory of relativity that time became redefined as something relative to the mass and movement of the objects in question. Space-time, time warps and time slowing down, time’s relation to the movement of objects, all became the accepted new norm. Interestingly enough, these are concepts that have existed in our holy writings for thousands of years. And, as such, can help ease our understanding of God, who has no beginning or end, but who always has been.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.