At the beginning of the last century, Albert Einstein conceived two theories that shattered man’s understanding of the world. These were his theory of special relativity publicized in 1905 and his general relativity publicized in 1916. Here are a few ideas that emerged from his theories:
1) General relativity demolishes the heretical notion that the universe is static and eternal; it demonstrates that the cosmos has a definite starting point. 2) General relativity accords with the idea that time came into being at maasei bereshis. 3) According to special relativity, people traveling at different speeds experience time differently. For a fast moving person, time moves slower than for the slowpoke. 4) According to special relativity, light is timeless. Someone traveling along with a light beam (if he could) would experience eternal youth. 5) Einstein was convinced that the dead past and future-to-come are no less real than the present moment.
Now, although some of these ideas are stupendous, none of them is completely new. Some are obvious to us, while others are similar (although not the same) as ideas Torah sages discussed hundreds of years ago.
Perhaps the most important result of Einstein’s general theory of relativity is that it destroyed the heretical consensus dating back to ancient Greece that the world is eternal. At the dawn of the 20th century, most scientists were still convinced that the Greeks were right. Nowadays, thanks to Einstein’s ideas and physical corroboration of these ideas, almost all scientists agree that the universe has a definite starting point.
Initially, Einstein was bothered that his theory suggested that the universe was either expanding or contracting, and therefore not eternal. Unable to believe his own results, he rewrote his equations to get rid of this inconvenient result. As he explained in a letter, “The circumstance of an expanding universe is irritating.”
But ten years later, after Einstein published his general theory of relativity, Californian astronomer Edwin Hubble actually observed the universe expanding (light from distant stars was changing color through being stretched) and Einstein was forced to admit that his modification of his own theory was “the worst blunder of my career.”
The Creation of Time
Once scientists agreed that the universe has a beginning, they also agreed with another long-standing Torah concept: that time did not always exist but snapped into being at the world’s creation.
The Ramban expresses this idea briefly in his Torah commentary (Bereishis 1:4): .We can also possibly say that when the heavens and earth emerged from nothingness to being, as mentioned in the first verse, time came into existence. Even though our time goes according to minutes and hours that depend on light and dark, once existence comes into being, the conception of time came into existence with it.. Similarly, the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 2:13) writes, “Time itself is one of the things that were created.”
One of special relativity’s key concepts is that time can run at different speeds for different people. The faster you move, the slower time moves. The Maharal conceived of a similar concept centuries earlier, we’ll call it spiritual relativity, based on Sefer Yehoshua (chapter 10), which states: He said before the eyes of the sons of Yisroel, Sun, stand still upon Giveon, and the moon in the Ayalon valley. And the sun stood still and the moon stayed until the nation had avenged against its enemies (10:11-12).
Contrary to other meforshim, the Maharal (second introduction to Gevuros Hashem) explains that the sun and moon only stood still for Yisroel and their enemies, but continued in their natural course for the rest of the world. “We can explain,” the Maharal writes, “that the sun stood still for Yehoshua and Yisroel in that place, while for the whole world it did not… You might ask how it is possible for the sun to contradictorily move and stand at the same time… This is because the sun can move according to its natural course and [simultaneously] stand still through a miracle. One object can have two contradictory qualities if they are of two different aspects, nature by itself and the supernatural by itself…”
Like Einstein, the Maharal was not bothered by the different people experiencing the world differently.
Light is Timeless
As explained before, one of special relativity’s tenets is that the faster you move, the slower time moves. According to Einstein, if someone shoots off into space at close to the speed of light and returns after what he conceives as a few days, he might find that people on earth aged decades or centuries in the interim, depending on his speed and the duration of his journey. For someone traveling at 99 percent of the speed of light, one day would pass for every seven days on earth.
Now, taking this idea to its logical extreme, because light travels at the speed of light, it does not experience time at all, and someone traveling along with a light beam (if it was possible) would find himself in the enviable position of experiencing perpetual youth. Not that it would help him much. Frozen in time, he would be unable to budge hand or foot or even to think, since even thinking takes time, a commodity that for him would not exist.
Now, it is actually impossible for a person to move at the speed of light because (according to relativity) the faster something moves, the more energy you need to push the mass faster. This reaches a point just shy of the speed of light where you’d need a shove of infinite power to give it the final boost to the speed of light, and this, of course, is impossible. Sub-atomic particles have been accelerated to well over 99 per cent of the speed of light, but no one has ever given them the final push to the speed of light. Only light can travel at infinite speed because it has no mass.
The Maharal (Tiferes Yisroel second intr. and ch. 14) states a similar idea based on spiritual underpinnings. Citing the verse (Mishlei 6:23), For a mitzvah is a lamp and Torah is light, he asks why Shlomo distinguishes between a mitzvah and Torah and explains that because mitzvos are done in the physical world they are beneath time and only protect a person when he is occupied in doing them. Light, on the other hand, is completely divorced from physicality and above time, and similarly, the Torah is above time. Therefore, because the Torah is pure light, it protects a person from sin even at times when he is not studying at all.
Einstein’s mass-less time and the Maharal’s non-physical light share the startling similarity of being beyond time.
Here Today, Here Tomorrow
Due to the entwining of space and time in special relativity, Einstein came to the conclusion that not only the present exists, but also the past and future.
After the death of a lifelong friend, he wrote to the man’s family, “For we convinced physicists, the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.” According to Einstein, the experience of now is something man somehow experiences as different from the past and future, while in physics such a concept does not exist.
According to Torah sources, too, time is not an ephemeral phenomenon that is here one second and gone the next, but a permanent entity. According to the Zohar (1:224), when Avrohom was old, coming inside days (Bereshis 24:1), this means that Avrohom entered into his days of good deeds after his passing as a person enwraps himself in a garment.
Expanding on this concept, the Reishis Chochmah (Shaar Ha.ahavah 9) writes: “Through this we can understand the verse, Loving days, to see good (Tehillim 34:13). Since days are garments with which one garbs the soul, one should love them. A person loves the garments that garb his body for without them he would be naked. Similarly, relating to the rectification of his soul, a person should love days, for they are garments that garb his soul.”
Rav Eliyahu Dessler (Michtav Me.Eliyahu 2:150-154) compares this concept to a map covered by a piece of paper: “This can be compared to a map of the world whose every dot represents a town that is covered by a piece of paper with a hole. When one passes the paper over the map, one town appears after another and one might think that at the time you see one town, the previous and next towns do not exist. But in truth, all the towns exist except that they are covered. If the paper is removed, they are all revealed simultaneously. “So it is with a person. When one removes from him the covering of time after his death and removes the mask of this world, he will see everything at once. His whole spiritual existence will be revealed with all the points of dark and light in it as one unit. Then one will see that time was only a concealment. Everything was one existence that exists at once. the world of eternity that has no past or future.”
Parallel but Different
It is important to realize that similarities between Torah and scientific ideas do not mean that they are necessarily the same. As the Maharal writes (Be.er Hagolah, be.er shishi), the sages’ goal is not in giving physical reasons for the world’s phenomena but rather their spiritual underpinnings, which are “the reason of the reason.” Despite this reservation, it is fascinating to see how concepts once unknown to any scientist in the world were familiar to the Torah sages of yesteryear.
(Partial source: Yisroel Lauberbaum, Hamemad Hanosaf, Jerusalem: Feldheim, 2007.)