In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)


The first verse in the Torah is key to understanding the fundamentals of creation. As far as physics is concerned, there are three key words in this verse, which are highlighted in bold:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

According to Nachmanides, these three words—“beginning,” “heaven,” and “earth”—represent, respectively, time, space, and matter. It is easy to see that the “beginning” stands for time, because the “beginning” is clearly a temporal concept that sets off the beginning of time; that “heaven” is a metaphor for space, because the stars and the planets are perceived to be in the sky (i.e., heaven) when, in fact, they are moving in space;[1] and that “earth” is emblematic of matter, because the earth is indeed made of matter, and because this word connotes the only tangible thing in this verse.

While this equating seems very intuitive, it is much less intuitive that all three fundamental concepts—time, space, and matter—have a common denominator and can all be expressed through the idea of change.

In Jewish thought, time is change.[2] For example, the oldest known book of Kabbalah, Sefer Yetzirah, describes this universe as existing in three dimensions: space, time, and spirituality. It is expressed in the original Hebrew as olam (“world,” i.e., space), shanah (“year,” i.e, time), nefesh (“soul,” i.e., the spiritual dimension). As we see, Sefer Yetzirah uses the word shanah (“year”) as a stand-in for time. The word shanah, i.e., “year,” is etymologically related to the word shinui, i.e., change. Because “year” is a code word for time, we see that time is identified with change. It is taught that the very essence of time is change.

Today, we are fixated on measuring time, i.e., on its metric property that makes it analogous to space, that we completely miss the very essence of time that is change. We can measure time just as we measure space. The time interval between two events is analogous to the distance between two points in space. This allows us to model time mathematically as an abstract one-dimensional space—timeline. The ability to measure distance in space is called the metric property of space. After Einstein formulated his special theory of relativity in 1905, his former university professor, Hermann Minkowski,[3] gave Einstein’s theory a very elegant mathematical treatment by unifying three-dimensional space with one-dimensional time within a four-dimensional spacetime continuum. Distance in this four-dimensional spacetime is measured by the Minkowski metric.[4] Although this was a significant step forward, unfortunately, its emphasis on the metric property of time completely obfuscated the essential feature of time—change, a never-ceasing flow, the time-flux. Today, many philosophers and physicists deny that time flows, that anything changes. While here is not the place to critique this erroneous view, suffice it is to say that it is a grave error. Change is the essence of time!

If time is change, what is space? Space is actually the opposite of time; it is the lack of change, the static background against which the dynamics of physics and the drama of life unfold.

So far, we found the common denominator for two words, time (change) and space (the lack of change). But what about matter?

Matter in its every form has one common characteristic: mass. We are not talking here about gravitational mass, the source of gravity. Rather, we are talking about inertial mass as it appears in Newton’s second law.[5] In that law, given a force F, acceleration a is inversely proportional to mass m: a = F/m. The greater the mass m, the less is acceleration a. Mass is the measure of the resistance of a body to change in motion. In short, mass is resistance to change.

Here we have it: time is change, space is the lack of change, and mass is resistance to change. It’s all about change!

This may seem a surprising conclusion. This world seems pretty solid and stable. Why would change be at the center of our existence? It is because this world was created from nothing— yesh m’ayin or creatio ex nihilo. Because the process of creation “started” with the creation of time, the Divine creative force precedes time, as it were (of course, nothing can “precede” time in a temporal sense; we understand “preceding” in terms of a cause-and-effect relationship). We exist in time. Anything that transcends (is “before” or “above”) time relates equally to each moment in time. (Think of a point above the horizontal line—you can draw a line connecting that point to any point on the horizontal line.) Consequently, we perceive things that transcend time as eternal (because they relate equally to any moment in our timeline).

Creation from nothing—creatio ex nihilo—is the first change from nothing to something, the change that “preceded” time (“nothing” means not only no matter, but also no space and no time, either). Thus, for us, creatio ex nihilo is a continuous and eternal process. From our time-bound vantage point, the event of the first primordial change is continuously happening in each and every moment. Stability is an illusion. Even the smooth flow of time is an illusion—time is an oscillation between to and fro, running and returning (ratzo vashov), as Ezekiel described it in his prophetic vision of Ma’ase Merkavah  (Work of the Chariot).

Our hearts contact beating out the rhythm of life; our lungs inhale and exhale; our cells vibrate; atoms jitter in crystallic structures; electrons oscillate in their orbits inside the atom; subatomic particles are but excitations in a quantum field—all is in flux. Existence itself is synonymous with change. That is why change is the common denominator of time, space, and matter—the common denominator of existence. It is all in the first verse of Bereshit.



[1] In Kabbalah the connection between heaven (shamayim) and space is even clearer because the word shamayin is usually a metaphor for the partzuf Zeer Anpin (Z”A), which is the spiritual source of space—Z”A is configuration of six midot (lower sefirotChesed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, and Yesod) that are parallel to the six directions in the three-dimensional space (or six surfaces of a three-dimensional cube).

[2] This is particularly stressed in Kabbalah in Chasidic philosophy. This idea is closely related to the Aristotelian understanding of time as the rate of change.

[3] Hermann Minkowski (1864–1909)—Lithuanian-born German mathematician of Jewish descent. His father, Lewin Boruch Minkowski, built the choral synagogue in Kovno. Hermann Minkowski developed geometrical number theory and pioneered a geometric approach to mathematical physics. He was Einstein’s math professor at the Eidgenössische Polytechnikum in Zurich.

[4] Minkowski metric is ds2 = dx2+dy2+dz2-c2dt2.

[5] The proportionality or even equivalence of gravitational and inertial masses, first discovered by Galileo in his famous experiment with the Leaning Tower of Pisa, is called the Principle of Equivalence, which is at the core of general theory of relativity formulated by Albert Einstein in 1915–1916.

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