Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at sacred-texts.com
IN the famous chapters known as the Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer, I find R. Eliezer the Great saying something more extraordinary than I have ever seen in the utterances of any believer in the Law of Moses. I mean the following passage: "Whence were the heavens created? He took part of the light of His garment, stretched it like a cloth, and thus the heavens were extending continually, as it is said: He covereth Himself with light as with a garment, He stretcheth the heavens like a curtain" (Ps. civ. 2). "Whence was the earth created? He took of the snow under the throne of glory, and threw it; according to the words: He saith to the snow, Be thou earth" (Job xxxvii. 6). These are the words given there; and I, in my surprise, ask, What was the belief of this sage? did he think that nothing can be produced from nothing, and that a substance must have existed of which the things were formed? and did he for this reason ask whence were the heavens and the earth created? What has he gained by the answer? We might ask him, Whence was the light of His garment created? or the snow under the throne of His glory? or the throne of glory itself? If the terms "the light of His garment" and "the throne of glory" mean something eternal, they must be rejected; the words would imply an admission of the Eternity of the Universe, though only in the form taught by Plato. The creation of the throne of glory is mentioned by our Sages, though in a strange way: for they say that it has been created before the creation of the Universe. Scripture, however, does not mention the creation of the throne, except in
the words of David, "The Lord hath established his throne in the heavens" (Ps. ciii. 19), which words admit of figurative interpretation; but the eternity of the throne is distinctly described, "Thou, O Lord, dwellest for ever, thy throne for ever and ever" (Lam. v. 19). Now, if R. Eliezer had believed that the throne was eternal, so that the word "throne" expressed an attribute of God, and not something created, how could anything be produced of a mere attribute? Stranger still is his expression "of the light of His garment."
In short, it is a passage that greatly confuses the notions of all intelligent and religious persons. I am unable to explain it sufficiently. I quoted it in order that you may not be misled by it. One important thing R. Eliezer taught us here, that the substance of the heavens is different from that of the earth: that there are two different substances: the one is described as belonging to God, being the light of His garment, on account of its superiority; and the other, the earthly substance, which is distant from His splendour and light, as being the snow under the throne of His glory. This led me to explain the words, "And under his feet as the work of the whiteness of the sapphire" (Exod. xxiv. 10), as expressing that the nobles of the children of Israel comprehended in a prophetical vision the nature of the earthly materia prima. For, according to Onkelos, the pronoun in the phrase, "His feet," refers to "throne," as I have shown: this indicates that the whiteness under the throne signifies the earthly substance. R. Eliezer has thus repeated the same idea, and told us that there are two substances--a higher one, and a lower one; and that there is not one substance common to all things. This is an important subject, and we must not think light of the opinion which the wisest men in Israel have held on this point. It concerns an important point in explaining the existence of the Universe, and one of the mysteries of the Law. In Bereshit Rabba (chap. xii.) the following passage occurs: "R. Eliezer says, The things in the heavens have been created of the heavens, the things on earth of the earth." Consider how ingeniously this sage stated that all things on earth have one common substance; the heavens and the things in them have one substance, different from the first. He also explains in the Chapters [of R. Eliezer], in addition to the preceding things, the superiority of the heavenly substance, and its proximity to God; and, on the other hand, the inferiority of the earthly substance and its position. Note it.