Sunday, June 21, 2015

Jewish Thought: Chomer and Tzurah

Note: This post has been incorporated into a book called "The Neshamah: A Study of the Human Soul."  It can be purchased on Amazon by clicking here.  

Rav Aryeh Leibowitz

We have explained that man is created with tremendous potential.  When cultivated, this potential empowers man to acquire an elevated existence, as he uses his neshama to perceive the truths of reality and to influence his lower forces to practice good deeds and live an elevated existence.   We have also noted that man’s transcendent potential is the “breath of God” that was breathed into man at the time of creation.  

The Rambam refers to this potential as man’s “tzurah,

The extra level of intellect that is found in man is his tzurah, when he is complete in intelligence… [Man’s true tzurah] is not the life forces that are found by other living creatures, through which they eat, drink, procreate, feel, and engage in [lower-level] thought.  Rather it is man’s intellect.  This is his true tzurah.  And it is this tzurah that the verse refers to when it says [that man was created] “In our image.”  (Rambam, Yesodei ha-Torah, Chapter 4)

To understand the Rambam and deepen our appreciation of man’s need to earn his humanity, let us explore briefly the basic principles in Jewish thought of chomer (חומר) and tzurah (צורה). 

Early Jewish thinkers write that every being in our physical world is made up the same basic building blocks.  This primary matter was created on the first day of creation and is the “stuff” that makes up everything in creation. 

To explain: In general, we assume that creation was ex nehilo – from nothing.  However, the Ramban explains that this is only true regarding the very initial stages of the world.  On the first day of creation God created “matter”, and it was through this “matter” that all other things were formed.  Hence, only this primary “matter” was created ex nehilo.  All other things in creation were formed out of this matter.

This is what the Torah teaches in the very first verse (Bereshis 1:1), “In the beginning, God made the Heavens and the Earth.”  The Ramban explains,[1]

Now listen to the simple and proper explanation of the verse.  God created all creations from nothing… [yet] not everything that is found in Heaven and Earth was originally from nothing.  Rather God first created out of absolute nothingness a very fine matter, which had no tangible element to it.  It was simply potential that could be formed into something.  It was something that was ripe to accept form, and to thus be actualized.  This matter was the first thing created, and is called Hiyuli by the Greeks.  After the creation of this matter, God did not create anything else ex nehilo, but rather formed things… (Ramban, Bereshis 1:1)

However, if everything on earth is made from the same matter, what accounts for all of the diversity we find in creation?  Why does everything in creation not look the same? 

The answer is “form,” referred to in Hebrew as tzurah (צורה, or צלם).[2]  Let us use modern terms and concepts to better understand the idea of tzurah.  For arguments sake, let’s assume for now that all atoms are identical and contain the same exact number of protons, neutrons, and electrons (they don’t).  We could then think of the primary chomer we have been discussing thus far as “atoms.”[3]  When we look at our world we know that atoms are the building block for all the diverse things we see in the world.  This diversity is due to the fact that atoms are not simply lumped together to form different shapes and beings.  Rather, there are intricate combinations of atoms that result in different molecules.  These molecules then combine and interact with one another in unique ways to produce diverse results.  What accounts for these unique combinations and interactions?  There is a force, a code, a blueprint that outlines and dictates these sophisticated bonds and complex reactions.  This force or code is similar in concept to what we are referring to here as tzurah.

Tzurah is the architectural plan, the DNA, that manipulates the chomer to create things in this world.  The force of tzurah as it acts upon the chomer is what causes diversity in creation.  Tzurah is what makes a piece of wood a piece of wood and a stone a stone.

The Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei ha-Torah 3:10-11 and 4:1) and Ramban (Bereshis 1:1) explain that there is a multi-step process to get from the original chomer to what we see today.  They explain that the original chomer – called Tohu (תוהו) – was originally given tzurah – called “Bohu (בוהו).  The result of this union of chomer and tzurah yielded a product that itself needed to be acted upon by a higher tzurah.  In relation to this higher tzurah, the product of the original union is considered chomer, albeit a more elevated chomer as it already underwent an initial union with a tzurah.  Hence we see that there can be multi-staged unions of tzurah with chomerfor a union of tzurah with chomer, can itself become chomer in relation to a higher tzurah.[4]

Tzurah is not only that which gives form to chomer, but it also sustains that form.  That is, within each creation, its tzurah is constantly acting upon the chomer in order to maintain the individual essence and makeup of the creation.  From a certain perspective we can think of tzurah as the meta-physical glue that keeps an object “together.”

What is the source of this force we call tzurah?  What causes tzurah to act upon chomer and result in the diversity we find in creation?  What provides the “power” to tzurah to sustain the existence of the being formed through the union of tzurah with chomer?
The Rambam (Yesodei Ha-Torah, Chapter 4) writes that Hashem himself is the source of every creation’s tzurah“God grants to each and every body mass an appropriate tzurah.”[5]  God does not grant an object its tzurah on a one time basis at the time of its creation.  Rather, He continually provides an object with its tzurah, for without its tzurah an object will cease to exist as a unique object.[6]

It is important to note that Tzurah does not simply provide the physical form of an object, or simply account for differences in appearance.  Tzurah is what provides an object will all of its properties, both physical and meta-physical properties. 

Tzurah is also strongly associated with the purpose of a being.  The unique tzurah of a creation is specifically suited to its intended purpose in creation.  Every creation is unique because it serves a unique purpose in the world.  Hence, every creation has tzurah that gives form to its chomer and equips it with capabilities to achieve its purpose.  Obviously, the sophistication of a being’s tzurah is dependent on the nature of the being.  For instance, the tzurah of an inanimate object only needs to dictate a physical form, such as shape, color, etc.  With more sophisticated and advanced beings, such as animals, the tzurah not only provides physical form, such as shape and color, but must also provide the many living properties that exist in an animal, such as its’ circulatory and respiratory systems.  Moreover, the tzurah also provides the blueprints for producing its non-physical properties, such as an animal’s instincts and emotions.  The tzurah of a limestone is what makes a mass of matter into a limestone, a rose into a rose, and a horse into a horse.

[1] This introductory verse to creation demands explanation, for it says that God created the Heavens and the Earth.  However, a few verses later we are told that the Heavens were created on day two and the Earth on day three.  Hence, R. Nissim (Derashos Ha-Ran, 1) explains the verse that on the first day of creation God made “the Heavens”, i.e. the “primary matter” for the Heavens, and “the Earth”, i.e. the “primary matter” for Earth. Ramban also explains that the Hebrew word ברא means to create from nothing, while יצר and עשה mean to create from something.  Only the “matter” was made from nothing, at is says in Bereshis 1:1 – בראשית ברא אלקים..., afterwards everything else was formed from that matter.   See Ibn Ezra. 

[2] Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim 1:1 says that צלם is synonymous with צורה.

[3] In truth, it would better use quarks, or even the “strings” of modern string theory, as a better analogy, but more people are familiar with atoms.  

[4] In the language of the Rambam and Ramban the result of the tzurah acting on the original chomer was the emergence of “Four Primary Elements.”  Once these four elements were in existence, they became the operative chomer and were ready to receive tzurah to create everything that exists in our world.  To summarize and clarify: The four primary elements were the result of an initial merging of chomer with tzurah.  The resulting primary elements in turn became the chomer for another merging of chomer and tzurah, which led to many of the created things in the universe. 

[5] The Rambam (Yesodei HaTorah Chapter 4) writes that God maintains each creation’s tzurah via a force (or in the classic term, an “angel”) called אישים

[6]It has been suggested that part of the intent of our daily prayer Elokai Neshamah is to praise God for his continuous gift of tzurah.  In that prayer we state that God “does great wonders (מפליא לעשות).”   In explaining this line, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 6) notes the miraculous phenomenon that man’s spirit does not depart from his physical body.  In the Sefer Meor Eynayim, the Rebbe of Chernobyl further explains,
There is tzurah and chomer in every creation.  And behold, chomer and tzurah are two opposites in one.  Who is it that unites them?  God.  As is found in Shulchan Aruch – “He does great wonders,” He unites a spiritual entity with a physical entity.  (Meor Eynayim, Shir HaShirim)
Perhaps we can also use this to understand the concept found in daily prayer that God “recreates the world daily.”  This does not necessarily mean that he creates the chomer of the world each day, but instead that he wills the tzurah of each being to continue to exist.    

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