B’reshit bara Elokim et hashamaim v’et haaretz…
In the beginning, God created heaven and earth…
Alternative translation: With two beginnings God created heaven and earth…
*This is an abridged and updated version of my paper “Towards Reconciliation of Biblical and Cosmological Ages of the Universe” Presented at the Third Miami International Conference on Torah & Science in Dec. of 1999 and published in B’Or HaTorah, 13 (2002) p. 19.
Contemporary science places the age of the universe in the thirteen to fourteen billion years range, or 13.787 ± 0.02,  to be precise. This age is derived from both theoretical models as well as experimental data. (For an overview of theoretical and experimental approaches to dating the universe and our planet Earth see my original paper TOWARDS RECONCILIATION OF BIBLICAL AND COSMOLOGICAL AGES OF THE UNIVERSE.)
This number is in stark contradiction to the current year, 5780 that has just started according to the Jewish calendar. The implication of this number is that it seems as the world, from the traditional Jewish point of view, is no older than six thousand years. First of all, let us note that the popular misconception that the Torah begins counting the calendar from the beginning of the creation of the world has no basis. In fact, the calendar begins with the creation of Adam and Eve (Heb. Chavah) – the first humans. Thus, when we say that, according to Jewish tradition, today, for example, is five thousand seven hundred eighty years and 26 days, it is from the date first man and woman were created and not from the date the world was created.
Previous Attempts to Reconcile the Conflict
In his book “Immortality, Resurrection, and the Age of the Universe: a Kabbalistic View” , Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan present an overview of the various attitudes towards this problem and attempts to resolve it. In summary, these attitudes may be categorized as follows:
|Six Days as Six Epochs||Each day represents an entire epoch billions of years long||This interpretation of the biblical text is far from the literal meaning is not based on any classical commentaries|
|Old Earth||If God created the first man fully grown he could have created a “mature” universe which was already billions of years old at the point of creation||Non-Popperian and, therefore, unscientific approach|
|Sabbatical Cycles||Base on the concept of the cosmic sabbatical cycles, the world was 15 billion years old the first man was created||A significant but not widely accepted view expressed by some important kabbalists almost two thousand years ago|
Another approach was enunciated by Nahmanides (the Ramban) who says that the whole chapter Bereshit is a closed book and cannot be interpreted literally.  To this we may add another recent approach expressed by Gerald Schroeder that attempts to explain the difference in ages by means of gravitational time dilation. 
The kabbalistic approach of sabbatical cycles expounded by R. Kaplan presents the most interest for the purposes of our discussion. This section closely follows R. Kaplan’s exposition of this approach. The idea of sabbatical cycles is based on the esoteric interpretation of several scriptural and Talmudic sayings. According to the Talmud, the world will exist for seven thousand years and in the [end of] seventh millennium it will be destroyed. 
According to the Talmudic sage and a great kabbalist of the first century rabbi Nehunya ben HaKanah expressed in his important work Sefer HaTemunah , this seven thousand years period is only one cycle out of total seven. This idea is based on a biblical concept of a Jubilee (Heb. Yovel), which consists of seven sabbatical (seven-year) cycles (Shemita). This leads to forty-nine thousand years as the total age of the universe. According to many later kabbalists, the present cycle is the last of the seven and, therefore, when Adam, the first man, was created, the world was forty-two thousand years old (although, according to the Arizal, the present cycle is the second sabbatical cycle).
This approach is alluded to in some Midrashic sources. Thus Midrash Rabbah on the verse “It was evening and it was morning, one day” (Genesis 1:5) states, “This teaches that there were orders of time before this.” Another Midrash teaches that “God created universes and destroyed them”. This seems to support the concept of sabbatical cycles, as it is explained in another kabbalistic treatise Ma’arekheth Elokuth. Interestingly, the Talmud states that there were 974 generations before Adam.  The idea of sabbatical cycles was expressed and elaborated in the works of such sages of Jewish philosophy and kabbalah as Bahya, Ziyoni, Recanati and Sefer HaChinukh’s commentaries on Leviticus 25:8. This idea is also alluded to in the commentaries of Nachmanides on Genesis 2:3, Yehuda HaLevy  and Ibn Ezra’s commentary on Genesis 8:22.
Rabbi Kaplan’s discovery of a little-known commentary by Rabbi Isaac of Akko sheds entirely new light on the concept of sabbatical cycles. Commenting on the verse, “A Thousand years in Your sight are as a day” (Psalms 90:4), Midrashic sources have stated that one divine day is equal to a thousand terrestrial years. In his kabbalistic treatise, Otzar HaHayim, Rabbi Isaac of Akko states that the first six sabbatical cycles are counted in the divine, not human years. If a divine day is thousand years and, then a divine year equal to 3651/4 divine days is 365,250 terrestrial years. If we multiply this number by forty-two thousand years comprising the first six cycles before Adam, we get fifteen billion three hundred forty and a half million (15,340,500,000) years. Thus, according to one of the greatest Talmudic sages of the first century, Rabbi Nehunya ben HaKanah, as explained by a prominent kabbalist of the 13th century, R. Isaac of Akko, at the time Adam was created, the universe was already more than fifteen billion years old – a number fairly closely correlated with the current estimates of the cosmological age of the universe!
We must note, however, that this approach was strongly contested by Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Arizal, who is considered by many to be the greatest kabbalist of all time. The Arizal maintained that the previous sabbatical cycles did not exist on the terrestrial plane and were purely spiritual worlds. Most of the later kabbalists with rare exceptions accepted the opinion of the Arizal. Apparently there was a difference of opinions between these two (pre- and post-Lurianic) schools of kabbalah whether the first phase of creation which stretched for fifteen billion years took place in the physical or spiritual universe.
In 1923, Louis de Broglie suggested that every particle has a wavelength associated with it.  In 1926, Erwin Schrödinger formulated his famous equation for the wavefunction that now bears his name. 
But what is the nature of the wavefunction? The attempts by Schrödinger and others to interpret it as a scalar potential of some physical field were not successful. In 1926, Max Born noticed that the square of the amplitude of the particle wavefunction in a given region gives the probability of finding the particle in this region of configuration space. He suggested that the wavefunction represented not a physical reality by rather our knowledge of the quantum state of an object.
The wavefunction represents our knowledge of all possible quantum mechanical states of an object. A quantum mechanical state of a physical system is a linear superposition of all possible states of this system. Thus, for example, the state vector for a left circularly polarized photon is a linear superposition of the vertical and horizontal eigenstates.
When a left circularly polarized photon goes through a calcite crystal it is detected to be in either vertical or horizontal polarization states. At the moment of the measurement, the state vector being a superposition of two possibilities – vertical polarization state and horizontal polarization state – is suddenly reduced to one actuality: either vertical polarization state and horizontal polarization state. This is called the collapse of the wavefunction. What actually happens during the collapse of the wavefunction is that the previously amorphous reality existing in an undetermined state of various possibilities suddenly comes into a physical reality in one particular state.
The irreversible (time-asymmetric) collapse of the wavefunction does not follow from the Schrödinger equation.
Introduction of an Observer
The collapse of the wave functions is a serious problem in quantum theory. The trouble is that it doesn’t follow from the Schrödinger equation. Let us consider an experiment in which we collide one elementary particle with another to measure its momentum. Such an experiment is an interaction of two subatomic particles and should obey the Schrödinger equation. However, as we said before, this Schrödinger equation does lead to a collapse of the wave function, which is a necessary result of any experiment. So, what then causes the collapse of the wavefunction?
To resolve this paradox, it was proposed by the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics to attribute the collapse of the wave function to the interaction of a microscopic particle with a macroscopic measurement apparatus. Since the macroscopic object behaves according to the classical Newtonian physics and is not described by a wavefunction, it was thought to cause the collapse of the wavefunction of a microscopic object under measurement. The apparent difficulty with such an explanation is that there is no reason why a macroscopic object should not obey the Schrödinger equation. Indeed, any macroscopic object is composed of microscopic molecules and atoms, which do obey the laws of quantum physics.
This situation leads to absurd as clearly demonstrated by the Schrödinger Cat gedanken (“thought”) experiment. If one places a cat in a closed steel chamber, together with a Geiger tube containing some radioactive material, a hammer connected to the Geiger tube and a vial of prussic acid. From the amount of the radioactive material and its half-life, we calculate that there is a 50% chance that within one hour one atom will decay. If an atom decays, the Geiger counter is triggered and causes the hammer to break the vial of prussic acid, which kills the cat. Prior to the measurement, the state vector of the atom is a linear superposition of two possibilities: decayed and not-decayed atom. Accordingly, the state vector of the cat, which is entangled with the rest of the system, is also a linear superposition of two physical possibilities: the cat is alive and the cat is dead. In other words, before the measurement takes place, the cat is dead and alive at the same time! To be more precise, the cat is neither alive nor dead but is in a state, which is a blurred combination of both possible states. 
Role of a Conscious Observer
In 1932 the mathematician Von Neumann published his famous work, Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics , in which he first clearly demonstrated the discrepancy between continuous time-symmetrical wavefunction in Schrödinger equation and a discontinuous time-asymmetrical (irreversible) event of measurement. In this book, Von Neumann made a startling suggestion that it must be a conscious observer who causes the wavefunction to collapse. The reason for this is that the conscious is the only element present in the quantum-mechanical measurement process which is not time-symmetrical and is not required to observe the laws of quantum mechanics. In other words, Von Neumann replaced the dualism of macroscopic-microscopic worlds with the mind-matter dualism. While the former is easily critiqued, the latter is immune to criticism because whatever we mean by the word consciousness it does not have to obey the Schrödinger equation.
Since the mind is to a large degree the product of biochemistry of the brain, once we distill that level of the mind, which is no longer vested in a physical brain and is not a product of biochemical reactions, such non-physical mind has been called by some a human soul, or, more specifically, the intellectual faculty of the soul. Hence, Von Neumann’s approach to collapse of the wavefunction leads us to a classical Cartesian body-soul dualism.
In 1961, Eugene Wigner revisited the hypothesis of a conscious observer.  He posed a question: whose mind exactly collapses the wavefunction? If one considers a gedanken experiment in which an observer relegates the measurement to his assistant and leaves the room. After his return, he inquires of the result of the measurement. Until he learns of the result, as far as he is concerned, the state of the quantum-mechanical system under observation is a linear superposition of all possible eigenstates. However, when he asks his assistant whether he knows definitively the results of the experiment, the assistant answers that, of course, he does. This so-called Wigner’s Friend paradox led Wigner to conclude that it is the very first conscious observer who collapses the wavefunction.
John Archibald Wheeler said that quantum observer is a “participating observer” who creates the reality by the act of observation.
The notion of participating observer resonates with the Chassidic thought. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, said: “the knowledge of the observer creates the reality in the object.” (Likuutei Sichos Vol. 28, p. 63)
One can ask a question at this point, what level of consciousness an observer must possess in order to collapse the wavefunction? Is the cat in the Schrödinger experiment considered a conscious enough creature to collapse the wavefunction and thereby escape the inconvenience of being dead and alive at the same time?
What about the omniscient God? If God knows the eigenstate of all wavefunctions doesn’t He immediately collapse them all?! This question is closely related to the paradox of free will. If God knows everything, and His knowledge must be absolute and true, then how can anybody express free will? Doesn’t God force us into acting in a certain way simply by virtue of Him knowing that we were going to act this way? One possible answer to this paradox, as it is given in Chasidic philosophy, is that God indeed knows everything but He keeps His knowledge to Himself without affecting the actions and decisions of His creations. One may apply a similar rationale here and suggest that, perhaps, God’s knowledge in some peculiar way does not automatically collapse all the wavefunctions of the universe.
Resolution of the Conflict
Putting aside any discussion of the merits of Von Neumann-Wigner’s hypothesis of the conscious observer, accepting this hypothesis will allow us to resolve the discrepancy between biblical and cosmological ages of the universe.
Let us consider the wavefunction in the initial moment of time describing all possible eigenstates of the singularity from which, according to the Big Bang theory, the universe is about to be born. One of the eigenstates of this wavefunction represents the possibility of the explosion that we call Big Bang. Another eigenstate represents an alternative – no Big Bang. The state vector of the universe in this instance is a linear superposition of both eigenstates: to be or not to be. Even though the probability of the Big Bang and the subsequent birth of the universe is greater than zero, the state vector of the universe will remain in such superposition of existence and non-existence for billions of years, until such time as a conscious observer enters the scene and collapses the world’s wavefunction, thereby realizing the one and only one eigenstate of the universe corresponding to its existence. The universe is like a giant Schrödinger cat who is awaiting its observer to find out whether it is alive or dead. It is the man who brings the universe into existence from its undefined state of mathematical probabilities. As one of the leading 20-century physicists John Archibald Wheeler famously said, the great paradox of the Creation is that if the universe was ever born, it needed a human for a midwife.
Significantly, the collapse of the wavefunction is retroactive as it brings all past history into reality. According to John Wheeler, “Acts of observer participancy in turn give tangible reality to the universe not only now but back to the beginning.”
Until the first human brought the universe into tangible existence as we know it, it evolved for billions of years in an intangible proto-physical state. This notion finds its support in the Nahmanides commentary on Genesis where he says:
…At the briefest instant following creation all the matter of the universe was concentrated in a very small place, no larger than a grain of mustard. The matter at this time was very thin, so intangible, that it did not have real substance. It did have, however, a potential to gain substance and form and to become tangible matter. From the initial concentration of this intangible substance in its minute location, the substance expanded, expanding the universe as it did so. As the expansion progressed, a change in the substance occurred. This initially thin noncorporeal substance took on the tangible aspects of matter as we know it. From this initial act of creation, from this ethereally thin pseudosubstance, everything that has existed, or will ever exist, was, is, and will be formed. 
Not only did Nahmanides describe here the Big Bang, he clearly states that “The matter at this time was very thin, so intangible, that it did not have real substance.” He further describes this stage of existence as “noncorporeal” and “ethereally thin pseudosubstance” or what we called here a “protophysical” existence.
Therefore, we may say that the universe has two important dates: the date of its conception and the date of its birth. When human observer probes the age of the universe the physics dictated that he or she will arrive at the age when the universe was conceived as a mathematical wavefunction having a probability of existence. The real age of the universe may, by definition, be no greater than the age of the first human observer who collapsed the world wavefunction.
Adam and Eve as the First Observers
According to the biblical account of creation, Adam and Eve were the first fully conscious beings – the first observers. Prior to first humans, the universe existed in a superposition of all possible states, including the states of existence and no-existence. When the first humans looked for the first time at the universe they immediately collapsed the world wavefunction and brought the world from protophysical into physical existence.
It is easy to see now why the Bible begins the chronology of creation with Adam and Eve and not before. Even though the universe could have been already billions of years old, it was the first humans (Adam and Eve) who actualized the creation and brought it from a fuzzy state of existence/non-existence into the definite physical existence.
Perhaps this is why the Bible states:
And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it; because on it He had rested from all his work which God created to make” (Genesis 2:3)
The classical Jewish commentators on the Bible suggest that the meaning of the peculiar expression “God created to make” is that God created a man to complete His creation, to be a partner of God in creating the universe. Now it makes perfect sense. Initially, God created the universe in amorphous spiritual form, and He created a man to complete the creation by bringing the universe from its potential to actual reality.
This approach allows us to rationally resolve the apparent contradiction between the scientific and the biblical ages of the universe.
Resolution of the Dispute regarding Sabbatical Cycles
As we noted before, the dispute related to the age of the universe existed not only between science and religion but also between two main schools of Jewish esoteric philosophy – Kabbalah. According to the ancient school of Rabbi Nehunya ben HaKanah, as explained by Rabbi Isaac of Akko, the universe existed for over fifteen billion years before the creation of Adam, while the Lurianic school of Kabbalah maintained that this took place in the spiritual rather than physical world.
It seems that our approach allows us to resolve this contradiction as well. Indeed, both opinions may be correct at the same time and do not contradict each other. When Rabbi Nehunya ben HaKanah and Rabbi Isaac of Akko along with other early sages of Kabbalah spoke of sabbatical cycles and billions of years in pre-human history they spoke of the universe as originally created by God in general terms. Arizal, however, further clarified the picture by pointing out that the initial phase of pre-human world history was different from the post-Adam phase and existed on a different plane, which he called “spiritual world.” In fact, quantum mechanics confirms that prior to the first human, the world indeed existed on the different (almost spiritual) plain described by purely mathematical constructs such as the wavefunction. This completes the puzzle.
Following the approach advocated by some of the most respected scientists of this century, Von Neumann, Wigner, Wheeler and others, we are able to reconcile the apparent discrepancy in the age of the universe as it is predicted in the biblical account of creation and contemporary cosmology. The history of the universe is comprised of two main periods: pre- and post-human. In the first period, before first conscious observer peered into the universe, the universe was in an amorphous fuzzy state of linear superposition of all possible states. The universe at this stage existed only mathematically, as a distribution of probabilities. This period lasted approximately thirteen billion years. When the first human opened his or her eyes he/she collapsed the world wavefunction and brought the universe into actual existence. From that point on, humanity began counting the new age of the universe.
Perhaps, this is hinted in the very first verse of the Torah:
Bereshit bara Elokim et hashamaim v’et haaretz…
Traditionally, this verse is translated as “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth…” However, all classical commentators, including Rashi, note the grammatical difficulty with this translation. The word reishit means “beginning.” But what does the prefix bet (read as “b”) signify? The letter bet is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet and is also used as digit 2. Rashi splits the word bereishit in two as b’reishis meaning bet reishit – two beginnigns. He interprets it homiletically as “for the sake of two beginnings” – Torah (which is called the beginning of your way) and Israel (which is called the beginning of your plantings). I would like to propose an alternative translation. Literally, this phrase means, “In two beginnings God created heaven and earth…” or “With two beginnings God created heaven and earth…” The first beginning was at the time of the Big Bang when God created the universe in a protophysical state. The second beginning was at the time when Adam and Eve collapsed the wavefunction and brought the universe into tangible physical existence.
- Planck Collaboration (2018). “Planck 2018 results. VI. Cosmological parameters. arXiv:06209. See also, N. Jarosik et al (2011). “Seven-year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Sky Maps, Systematic Errors, and Basic Results”. The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series 192: 14. arXiv:1001.4744
- Kaplan, Aryeh. Immortality, Resurrection, and the Age of the Universe: a Kabbalistic View. (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV, 1993) ch.1, pp.1-16
- Commentary on Torah, Genesis 1:1, Naḥmanides.
- Schroeder, Gerald. The Science of God, (New York: The Free Press, 1997), ch. 3, p.41
- Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a
- Rabbi Nehunya ben HaKanah, Sefer HaTemunah. p.314
- Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 13b
- Ha Levi, Yehuda. Kuzari, 1:167
- De Broglie, L. Annales de Physique. (1925)
- Schrödinger, E. Annalen der Physik. 79, 361. (1926)
- This discussion follows J. Baggott. The Meaning of Quantum Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 5.3, p. 185-194
- Von Neumann, John. Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1955)
- Wigner, Eugene in Good, I.J. (ed.) The Scientist speculates: an anthology of partly-baked ideas. (London: Heinemann, 1961).