Archive for February, 2017

Sforno and Biological Evolution

February 12, 2017

The Pesach 5776 issue of Jewish Observer, a magazine published by Mizrachi of South Africa, features an article entitled Judaism and Evolution in the Biological and Spiritual Dimensions, by Rabbi Shlomo Glickberg.[1]

In this post, we shall look at two classical sources mentioned by Rabbi Glickberg, and analyse whether his reading of those sources is tenable.


Rabbi Glickberg claims that “[Early] Jewish philosophical sources, which predate by far the evolutionary theorists… show that they considered as possible the feasibility of species’ development.” To substantiate this statement, he quotes the classical Torah commentary of Sforno:

For example, an unambiguous evolutionary statement appears in the writings of Rabbi Ovadia Sforno (Italy, 1476-1550), who brings evidence from the sources (Genesis 1:26; 2:7) that the creation of man in God’s image is in fact the end of a long process, commencing in the creation of a non-cognisant creature, belonging to the animal category. This creature evolved until it acquired a human mind, as well as its physiology of man known to us…

“An unambiguous evolutionary statement”? A long process involving a creature in the animal category?[2] When such extraordinary claims are made, the crucial question is this: are the sources being read in context, objectively, in the manner that their author intended? Or is the contemporary writer projecting his own worldview on words which were intended in an altogether different sense?

This type of citation appears frequently in the writings of Jewish evolutionists, and I dealt with a prominent example in Genesis and Genes. In that case, it was Dr. Gerald Schroeder who was appealing to a statement of Ramban to make precisely the same point as Rabbi Glickberg’s, i.e. that early Jewish authorities supported the notion of a long evolutionary development of man. I will now quote the relevant passage from Genesis and Genes, and then return to Sforno.

[Beginning of Quote]

The view of Ramban/Nahmanides is often brought up in this context. In his Torah commentary, Ramban writes that:[3]

The verse [Genesis 2:7] informs us that God created Adam from the dust of the Earth, and Adam lay there lifeless, as motionless as a stone. Then God blew into him a soul of life, at which point Adam was imbued with motility like that of animals and fish… After this formation, through which Adam became an animate being, God blew into him a supreme soul, over and above the previous formation, and it is at this point that Adam acquired intellect and speech.

Some contemporary authors argue that the transformation from blob of earth to human being can be pictured as taking millions of years. There is nothing in Ramban’s comment that supports this notion. The fact that Man’s creation occurred in three distinct phases – lifeless form; animal vitality; full human being – does not imply an excruciatingly-lengthy evolutionary process any more than the statement that I boiled water, added a teabag and sugar, and stirred implies an experience stretching over decades. This point is made all the more obvious when Ramban insists that the entire creation account be understood as taking six literal days of 24 hours. According to Ramban, Adam’s creation was one event, in which Adam’s body was formed, an animal soul was blown into him, and he was infused with a divine soul… The simplest, most straightforward interpretation of his words does not lend itself to descriptions of Adam’s creation consistent with a lengthy evolutionary account. Ramban insists that “The days mentioned in the Creation account were literally days, made up of hours and minutes. There were six such days, as per a literal understanding of the verses.”[4]


There is no reason whatsoever to believe that Sforno, any more than Ramban, described a brutish beast undergoing a lengthy evolutionary process culminating in ensoulment. There is nothing in his words that suggests an evolutionary process, in any sense in which that phrase is understood nowadays. If you read a description of the work done on an assembly line – “I first welded the beam to the chassis and then tightened the bolt” – would there be any sense in speaking of a lengthy process having taken place?

Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz is the author of Sforno Commentary on the Torah, first published by Mesorah Publications in 1987. Here is his take on Sforno’s commentary to Genesis 2:7:

All living creatures, as compared to the mineral and plant kingdom, needed a special “forming” by God to be brought into being… Now, the process of man’s creation was in two phases. First man was formed as a higher, more advanced living creature, granted a “soul of life.” However, he was not as yet endowed with the “image of God” until God placed him in the Garden of Eden, a place conducive for Adam to receive this image thanks to its unique character. The Sforno interprets this “image” as meaning the flow of reason and intelligence emanating from God.

In contrast to Rabbi Glickberg, Rabbi Pelcovitz did not think that Sforno’s words suggested that the development of man was an eons-long evolutionary process. It was one event that was completed on the very day that Adam was created, when he was placed in Gan Eden.

This is a perfectly sensible reading of Sforno, because it is not taken out of context. Rather than projecting 21st-Century preconceptions onto the writings of a 15th-Century scholar, Rabbi Pelcovitz correctly explains that when classical authorities – like Ramban and Sforno – spoke about distinct stages or phases in the creation of man, they were not making proto-evolutionary statements of any sort.

Now, is it possible to read the statements of Ramban, Sforno, and others so that they conform to your philosophical predilections? Anything’s possible. If you torture the sources, they will eventually confess. You can get the verses to admit that God is a three-fold unity, and you can get the sources to admit that man was not created de novo, but was rather the culmination of a tortuous process. Such methods reveal much more about the contemporary writer than they do about classical authorities…


Rabbi Glickberg also brings up the famous notion of 974 generations:

Thus, for example, it is brought in several statements of our sages that prior to Adam, there were 974 generations which were destroyed because of their sins (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88:2).

Rabbi Glickberg does not use this notion to argue directly for evolution, but rather to substantiate the belief that an ancient universe, on the order of billions of years old, is fully compatible with the Torah tradition. Still, the age of the universe and biological evolution are intertwined, so it is convenient to use the mysterious concept of “missing” generations to see how they play up in the evolution debate. Here is another excerpt from Genesis and Genes.

[Beginning of Quote]

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (1934-1983) was a prolific writer whose contributions in many areas of Torah are of immense value. Besides addressing straightforward matters relating to Torah and Judaism, Rabbi Kaplan also wrote and spoke about esoterica: Kabbala, the age of the universe, extra-terrestrial life and astrology. Of interest to us is the fact that he promoted the view that human-like creatures evolved over millennia into full-fledged human beings. Here are the sources he cites for his contention:

Chagigah 13b, from Job 22:16, Psalms 105:8, Tosefot, ad loc.Tordan,” Maharsha ad loc. Also see Bereshit Rabbah 28:4, Kohelet Rabbah 1:37, 4:4, Tanchuma, Lekh Lekha 11, Yitro 9, Midrash Tehillim 105:3, Tanna DeBei Eliahu Rabbah 13 (70a, 72a), 26 (103a), Tanna DeBei Eliahu Zuta 10 (15a), Sefer Chasidim 1137.

This imposing collection of sources is supposed to substantiate the claim that “around 974 generations before Adam, or some 25,000 years ago, man developed all the physical and mental capabilities that we possess today.”[5] Before that time, then, there were no true human beings; there were creatures that did not possess all the physical and mental capabilities that we possess today. In Rabbi Kaplan’s words, “This man had evolved from ‘the dust of the earth’ (Genesis 2:7), but he still lacked the divine soul that would make him a spiritual being. God then created Adam, the first true human being with a soul.”

Once more, we are presented with the opportunity to apply the adage that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. We will presently take a tour of Rabbi Kaplan’s sources. Many of these sources make the same point, sometimes in slightly different words, so we will not look at all of them. But we will look at sources that cover all the relevant points. Besides translating all the sources that I cite, I will also provide the original Hebrew sources in the endnotes, for the benefit of those who are able to study them independently. A word of caution: our discussion is not about the age of the universe. We are asking whether the Talmudic sages discussed proto-humans who evolved – whether naturalistically or with God’s tinkering – into full-fledged human beings.

Let’s begin. Rabbi Kaplan asserts that a major turning point in the history of humanity happened around 974 generations before Adam. Where does this peculiar notion – 974 generations – come from? The verse in Psalms (105:8) cited by Rabbi Kaplan states that He remembered His covenant forever – the Word He commanded for a thousand generations.[6] The Talmudic Sages took the Word to be a reference to the Torah; they perceived here an allusion to the fact that the Torah was meant to have been given to mankind one thousand generations after Creation. Yet, we find that it was given to the Jewish people after only twenty-six generations: ten from Adam to Noah, another ten from Noah to Abraham, and a further six from Abraham to Moses.[7] What happened to those 974 generations? There are two basic approaches in the classical sources regarding these missing generations: one school of thought holds that the souls which would have constituted these generations were never born; in other words, they never occupied physical bodies. The other school maintains that these souls did eventually land up in physical garb. But instead of being born prior to the Torah being given to humanity, as was God’s initial intention, they were scattered, as it were, throughout history. And no source expresses in detailed and unambiguous terms the idea of humans evolving from proto-humans.

The first midrash cited by Rabbi Kaplan (called Genesis Rabbah or Bereshit Rabbah) comments on the verse (Genesis 6:7) which states that in the time leading up to the Deluge, God decided to blot out humanity. The midrash reveals that not only was God thinking about those humans who already populated the planet, but that He was also referring to generations not yet born. The sages say,

“I will blot out Man whom I have created from the face of the Earth” (Genesis 6:7). One thousand generations were intended to be created [before the Torah would be given]; how many were blotted? Rabbi Huna said, “Nine-hundred and seventy-four generations…”[8]

Several classical midrash-commentators say that these intended generations were never born. Here are two representative statements:

  • The 974 generations were blotted [in the sense] that they were not born.[9]
  • The Torah was given after twenty-six generations [from Creation], so how can the verse [in Psalms] speak of one thousand generations? [Of the one thousand generations], 974 generations were originally intended to be born but were not actually born.[10]

This also appears to be Rashi’s view. He was commenting on the following Talmudic passage, which also invokes the 974 generations:

[When Moses came to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah] The angels said to God, “You have concealed this treasure [i.e. the Torah] for 974 generations before the world was created, and now You wish to give it to flesh-and-blood?!”[11]

Rashi writes,

These [974 generations] were meant to be born in the two thousand years in which humanity was destined to live prior to receiving the Torah. However, God saw that the world would not endure for such a long time without Torah, so He did not [actually] create these generations. He gave the Torah after [only] twenty-six generations; thus, 974 generations fewer than one thousand were actually born.[12]

As we mentioned before, some classical sources maintain that the 974 generations were eventually given a physical existence. A verse in Job (22:16) is cited by Rabbi Kaplan. It speaks of [beings] who were cut down before [their] time, whose foundation was swept away by a river.[13] The Talmudic passage in which this verse is analysed has two variants of the text [this is common in the Talmud]. The text as it appears in most editions of the Talmud reads as follows:

Rabbi Shimon said, “These are the 974 generations that were cut down…; God planted [their souls] in subsequent generations. They are the brazen people in every generation.”[14]

In his commentary, Rashi writes of the 974 generations that God did not create before the Torah was given[15] Tosafos, in contrast, comment

Rashi explained that these [974 generations] were never born… the correct explanation is that they were not born all together; rather, they were born a few per generation so that they would not destroy the world.[16]

Perusal of the rest of the sources cited by Rabbi Kaplan – Kohelet Rabbah, Tanchuma and the rest of them – yields no surprises. They all contain parallel passages to the sources we examined above, mentioning the basic data with which we are now familiar: 1. the Torah was meant to be given after 1000 generations; 2. it was actually given after 26 generations; 3. the 974 other generations are made up of souls that were either never born as human beings or were born throughout history.

What about Rabbi Kaplan’s reference to Sefer Chasidim 1137? Sefer Chasidim is a classic, written by Rabbi Yehuda HeChassid (died circa 1215), a seminal figure in Ashkenazi Jewry. Study of the relevant passage is fruitful for our purposes. Here is some background. The Talmud establishes that the evil inclination (yetzer hara) begins to influence us from birth.[17] Rabbi Yehuda HeChassid writes that that’s true for most people, but that there are exceptions – people within whom the evil inclination is active even before birth. Rabbi Yehuda HeChassid cites a midrash that indicates that the Biblical figure Esau was one of these people. He then refers to a Talmudic passage about a character by the name of Shabbetai. This fellow lived in Talmudic times and earned infamy when he cornered the grain market and drove prices up.[18] Here, too, Rabbi Yehuda HeChassid writes, on the basis of a statement of the sages, that this scoundrel’s evil inclination was active even before his birth. Now comes the crucial part. Rabbi Yehuda HeChassid concludes by writing that these exceptionally wicked people are born from the souls of the 974 generations, and that they are characterised by insolence and a lack of respect for their parents. So it seems that Rabbi Yehuda HeChassid maintained that those 974 generations were eventually granted a physical existence, and that at least one of them was born as late as the Talmudic period (first centuries of the Common Era).[19]

So, has Rabbi Kaplan demonstrated his point? He asserts that around 974 generations before Adam, or some 25,000 years ago, man developed all the physical and mental capabilities that we possess today, and that this was part of an evolutionary progress from soulless proto-humans to true human beings. Given Rabbi Kaplan’s sources, is he justified in claiming that the Sages described how proto-humans evolved all the faculties associated with modern humans about 25 millennia ago?[20] The starting point for such an endeavour is the existence of clear sources. Having reviewed Rabbi Kaplan’s sources, we do not have any clear, detailed and unambiguous expression of his view that the traditional literature contains references to hominids.


The trouble with Jewish evolutionists – Rabbi Kaplan, Dr. Schroeder, Lord Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Glickberg – who so desperately want the Torah to be up to date with the latest paradigms – is that rather than reading the sources, they read into the sources.

We’ve been there before. In a different age, for example, there were those who insisted that the Torah be interpreted in a manner consistent with an eternal universe, to ensure that it conformed to Aristotelian dogma. We can only imagine what they would have felt had they lived long enough to learn of Big Bang cosmology.

Eventually, the truth wins out. It’s only a question of how many casualties fall along the way.



Last accessed 5 February 2017.


פירוש רבי עובדיה ספורנו לספר בראשית (ב, ז) ד”ה וַיִּיצֶר ה’ אֱלֹהִים: אמנם להווית בעלי חיים לא הספיק זה, אבל הייתה יצירת היוצר יתברך על אופנים מתחלפים, וזה כי ליצירת האדם בירר עפר מן האדמה חלק נכבד ממנה. שם ד”ה וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים: נפש חיונית מוכנת לקבל צלם אלהים, כאמרו (איוב ל”ב, ח) וְנִשְׁמַת שַׁדַּי תְּבִינֵם. מכל מקום וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה, היה עם כל זה חיה בלבד בלתי מדברת עד שנברא בצלם ודמות


פירוש רמב”ן לספר בראשית (ב, ז): … והכתוב הזה כפי משמעו ירמוז כן, כי יאמר שיצר השם את האדם עפר מן האדמה והיה מוטל גולם כאבן דומם, והקב”ה נפח באפיו נשמת חיים, ואז חזר האדם להיות “נפש חיה” שיתנועע בה כמו החיות והדגים… וזה טעם לנפש חיה, כלומר ששב האדם להיות נפש בה חיים… אבל אונקלוס אמר והות באדם לרוח ממללא. נראה שדעתו כדברי האומרים שהם בו נפשות שונות וזאת הנפש המשכלת אשר נפחה השם באפיו היתה בו לנפש מדברת… ואם כן יאמר הכתוב וייצר ה’ אלהים את האדם יצירת תנועה שהיה האדם נוצר, כלומר בעל תנועה, כי היצירה היא החיות וההרגש, שבהם הוא אדם לא גבול העפר… ואחרי שיצרו בהרגשה נפח באפיו נשמת חיים מפי עליון להוסיף הנפש הזאת על היצירה הנזכרת, ויהי האדם כולו לנפש חיה, כי בנשמה הזאת ישכיל וידבר, ובה יעשה כל מעשה


פירוש רמב”ן לספר בראשית א, ג ד”ה ויהי אור: ודע כי הימים הנזכרים במעשה בראשית היו בבריאת השמים והארץ ימים ממש מחוברים משעות ורגעים והיו ששה כששת ימי המעשה כפשוטו של מקרא.

Ramban’s commentary on Genesis 1:3: The days mentioned in the Creation account were literally days, made up of hours and minutes. There were six such days, as per a literal understanding of the verses.


Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation, Redwheel/Weiser LLC, 1997, Revised Edition, page 187. The sources are cited in note 67.


תהלים קה, ח: זָכַר לְעוֹלָם בְּרִיתוֹ דָּבָר צִוָּה לְאֶלֶף דּוֹר


עץ יוסף על מדרש רבה סדר בראשית פרק כ”ח אות ד [ו, ז] (ד”ה זו התורה): והתורה ניתנה בדורו של משה שהוא דור כ”ו שעשרה דורות מאדם עד נח ועשרה דורות מנח עד אברהם וששה דורות מאברהם עד משה.


מדרש רבה סדר בראשית פרק כ”ח אות ד [ו, ז]: אֶמְחֶה אֶת הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר בָּרָאתִי (בראשית ו, ז) אלף דור עלו במחשבה להבראות וכמה נמוחו מהם רב הונא בשם רבי אליעזר בנו של רבי יוסי הגלילי אמר תשע מאות ושבעים וארבעה דורות מאי טעמא (תהלים קה, ח) דָּבָר צִוָּה לְאֶלֶף דּוֹר זה התורה


ביאור מהרי”פ שם (ד”ה ומלאו את כל המדינות סריות): שנמחו תתקע”ד דורות ולא נבראו… [מהרי”פ הוא מורינו הרב רבי יחזקאל פייוויל, מורה מישרים דקהילת קודש וילנא].


 אשד הנחלים שם (מובא בליקוטים במדרש בהוצאת וגשל ד”ה זה התורה): והיא ניתנה לכ”ו דור ואיך יאמר לאלף דור אלא ודאי תתקע”ד דורות עלו במחשבה אך לא נבראו


 מסכת שבת דף פ”ח: … אמרו [מלאכי השרת] לפניו חמודה גנוזה שגנוזה לך תשע מאות ושבעים וארבעה דורות קודם שנברא העולם אתה מבקש ליתנה לבשר ודם


 רש”י שם (ד”ה תתקע”ד דורות): באלפים שנה שקדמה תורה לעולם היו עתידין דורות הללו להבראות שנאמר (תהלים קה, ח) דבר צוה לאלף דור וראה הקב”ה שאין העולם מתקיים בלא תורה כל כך והעבירן ולא בראן ונתנה לכ”ו דורות הרי שחסרו תתקע”ד מאלף


 איוב כ”ב, ט”ז:  אֲשֶׁר קֻמְּטוּ וְלֹא עֵת נָהָר יוּצַק יְסוֹדָם


 מסכת חגיגה דף י”ג: תניא אמר רבי שמעון החסיד אלו תשע מאות ושבעים וארבעה דורות שקומטו להבראות קודם שנברא העולם ולא נבראו עמד הקב”ה ושתלן בכל דור ודור והן הן עזי פנים שבדור


 רש”י שם (ד”ה על אשר קומטו): על תתקע”ד דורות שהעביר מן העולם קודם מתן תורה ולא בראן כדקתני לקמן ונתנן בגיהנם ועליהם נופל


 תוספות (מסכת חגיגה דף י”ד ד”ה וטרדן) ואיכא למאן דאמר ושתלן. פירש רש”י לפי לשון ראשון נתן נשמתן בגיהנם ולא נבראו ותימה הוא וכי עביד דינא בלא דינא כי מה פשעו להיות בגיהנם ונראה לפרש וטרדן שלא נבראו ביחד כי אם מעט לכל דור ודור כדי שלא יחריבו העולם


מסכת סנהדרין דף צ”א


מסכת יומא דף פ”ג


ספר חסידים תתשל”ז: הנפש נבראת שתהא זכה וטהורה מעון שהרי אין יצר הרע שולט עד שיצא מרחם אמו כמו שאמר (אנטיגנוס) [אנטונינוס] בפרק חלק לפתח חטאת רובץ וכן כתיב כי יצר לב אדם רע מנעוריו משננער לבא בעולם א”כ עשו הרשע שעקר מיטרון של אמו כדאמרינן בבראשית רבה ושיחת רחמה וכן אמר ביומא פרק יום הכיפורים אילחישו לה ולא אילחישת קרי עליה זורו רשעים מרחם אלא אלו שבבטן יש להן יצר הרע הן אותן שנבראו מן תתקע”ד דור שבבטן יצרם הם עזי פנים שממרין באביהן ובאמן

Loose translation of Sefer Chassidim:

The evil inclination (יצר הרע) does not dominate until one emerges from the womb, as mentioned in Tractate Sanhedrin. Two exceptions to this rule are Esau and the person mentioned in Tractate Yoma [שבתאי אוצר פירי] whose mother ate on Yom Kippur when she was pregnant with him. Those who [unlike most people] have an evil inclination before they are born were born from [the souls] of the 974 generations; they are insolent, and rebel against their parents.


Rabbi Yisroel Lipchitz (1782-1861), (author of the classical mishna commentary תפארת ישראל/ Tif’eres Yisroel), invoked the 974 generations in his famous דרוש אור החיים. His discussion depends on his approach to certain Kabbalisitc statements. It therefore does not constitute a clear, detailed and unambiguous expression of Rabbi Kaplan’s idea. Perhaps that is the reason that Rabbi Kaplan did not include it in his sources.