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Chagigah 12

Which came first?

On today’s daf, the question is: Which came first? But the subject here is not the chicken or the egg. It is: heaven or earth?

Beit Shammaisays: The heavens were created first and afterward the earth was created, as it is stated: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)

Beit Shammai begins by insisting heaven was created first because it is mentioned before the earth in the very first verse of the Torah. Beit Hillel counters with a verse that reverses the order:

Beit Hillel says: The earth was created first, and heaven after it, as it is stated: “On the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven.” (Genesis 2:4)

To argue more fully for their position, Beit Hillel now explains why Beit Shammai’s reasoning is wrong:

Beit Hillel said to Beit Shammai: According to your words, does a person build a second floor first and build the first floor of the house afterward? As it is stated: “It is God who builds the divine upper chambers in the heaven, and has founded God’s vault upon the earth.” (Amos 9:6)

In the prooftext cited from Amos, Hillel notes that heaven is likened to an upper chamber, and earth to a lower room. It doesn’t make sense, Beit Hillel argues, that one would build a second floor beforeconstructing a first floor. Therefore, earth must have been created first.

Beit Shammai counters with a different metaphor for the relationship between heaven and earth. Drawing in this time Isaiah 66:1“So said the Lord: The heavens are My seat, and the earth My footstool” — Beit Shammai compares the earth not to a lower room in a house, but to a footstool that sits below the throne of God, which is the heavens. One wouldn’t construct the footstool before constructing the throne, so clearly heaven was created first.

So, which was it? 

This discussion reminds me of another text by the 11th-century Spanish Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakuda, Duties of the Heart, which asks another “which came first” question: master or servant? Ibn Pakuda notes that one cannot be a master if one is not being served, and one can only be a servant if one has a master to serve. Each exists only if the other does — therefore they come into being at the same time. 

Back on today’s daf, this is essentially what the rabbis conclude about heaven and earth: 

The rabbis say: Both this and that were created as one, for it is stated: “Indeed, My hand has laid the foundation of the earth, and My right hand has spread out the heavens; when I call to them, they stand up together.” (Isaiah 48:13)

Heaven and earth were created together — yachdav, which comes from the word echad, meaning one. They were created as one and neither could exist without the other.

But why then, the Gemara can’t help but wonder, does Genesis 1:1 mention heaven first, while Genesis 2:4 mentions earth first? Reish Lakish suggests the following explanation: 

Reish Lakish said: When they were created, God first created the heavens and afterward created the earth, but when God spread them out and fixed them in their places, God spread out the earth and afterward God spread out the heavens.

Creation, suggests Reish Lakish, took place in two steps: first heaven and earth were created (heaven first), and then they were affixed in their assigned spaces (earth first). The accounts for the order in which they are mentioned in Genesis 1:1 and 2:4 respectively. 

As a final postscript, a beraita (an early rabbinic teaching) is brought in to support the idea that they were created together:

Shamayim (“heaven”) means esh umayim (“fire and water”) which teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, brought them both and combined them together, and made the firmament from them.

That’s just like the rabbis — to answer an “either/or” question with a “both, together.” 

Read all of Chagigah 12 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 21th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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