Welter and Waste, Nothingness and Naught
“Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: Ten things were created the first day: heaven and earth, תֹּהוּ (tohu) and בֹּהוּ (bohu), light and darkness, wind and water, the quantity of day and the quantity of night. Heaven and earth, as is written, In the beginning Elohim created heaven and earth (Genesis 1:1). Tohu and bohu, as is written, And the earth then was tohu, welter, and bohu, waste (ibid., 2). Light and darkness: darkness, as is written, And darkness over the face of the deep (ibid.); light, as is written, And Elohim said, ‘Let there be light’ (ibid., 3). Wind and water, as is written: And Elohim’s breath hovering over the waters (ibid., 2). The quantity of day and the quantity of night, as is written, And it was evening and it was morning, first day (ibid., 5). It is taught: Tohu—a pale line, encompassing the whole world, from which darkness issued, as is said, He set darkness His hiding-place (Psalms 18:12). Bohu—these are the slimy stones sunk in the abyss, from which water issues, as is said, And He shall stretch over it the line of tohu, welter, and the weight-stones of bohu, waste (Isaiah 34:11)” (BT Ḥagigah 12a).
“There were four exiles [Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, see Vayiqra Rabbah 13:5], three corresponding to three shells of the nut. First: ‘תֹּהוּ (Tohu), welter—a pale line [encompassing the whole world…]’ (BT Ḥagigah 12a)—pale shell of the nut. Second: ‘בֹּהוּ (Bohu), waste—these are the slimy stones’ (ibid.)—strong boulders from which Masters of Mishnah legislate various decrees. They cling to them for they yield waters of Torah; called ‘slimy stones from which water issues’ (ibid.). Third: The thick shell, a third exile which was short—darkness (Genesis 1:2). Fourth: A great abyss, which is the cavity of the nut: And darkness over the abyss (ibid.)” (Zohar 3:227a, Ra’aya Meheimna Ki Tetse, cf. Bereshit Rabbah 2:4–5).
For thus said YHWH, Creator of the heavens, He is the Elohim, Fashioner of earth and its Maker, He founded it. Not for תֹהוּ (tohu), nothing, did He create it, to dwell there He fashioned it (Isaiah 45:18).
“Out of tohu, nothing, He fashioned מַמָּשׁ (mamash), something, making what is not into what is” (Sefer Yetsirah §20 [MS S]).
“Rabbi Berekhiah said: It is written, And the earth was welter and waste (Genesis 1:2). Was—what does it mean? Welter, already was. What is תֹהוּ (tohu), welter? A thing הַמָתְּהֵא (hamatehe), bewildering, the sons of man, returning to waste. What is בֹהוּ (vohu), waste? A thing which possesses מַמָּשׁ (mamash), substance, as is written, [vohu]—בּוֹ הוּא (bo hu), it is in it [i.e., bohu clothes tohu, see Rabbi Avraham bar Ḥiyya, Hegyon ha-Nefesh, 2b]” (Bahir §2).
“What is, One against the other ha-Elohim has set (Ecclesiastes 7:14)? He created בֹהוּ (vohu), waste (Genesis 1:2), and its place is in peace. He created תֹהוּ (tohu), welter (ibid.), and its place is in evil. Bohu is in peace, as is written, Who makes peace in His heights (Job 25:2). Teaching that Michael, the prince to the right of blessed Holy One, is water and hail. Gabriel, the prince to His left is fire. And the prince of peace holds the balance between them: Who makes peace in His heights. But how do we know it is bohu? Making and creating evil (Isaiah 45:7)—evil, is from tohu, and peace, is from bohu. He created tohu, and its place is in evil, as is written, making peace, and creating evil [on the association of matter with evil, cf. Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, Introduction; 1:18; 3:8]” (Bahir §§11–12, cf. ibid., §163).
“תֹּהוּ (Tohu), welter, from which the evil emanates that מְתָהֵה (metaheh), bewildering, the sons of man. And what is it? It is that of which is written: And YHWH’s fire came down and consumed the offering and the wood and the dirt, and the water that was in the trench it licked up (I Kings 18:38). It is also written For YHWH your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God (Deuteronomy 4:24)” (Bahir §135).
“A certain philosopher asked Rabban Gamaliel, saying: Your God was indeed a great artist but surely He found good materials which assisted Him. He said: What are they? תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ (Tohu va-vohu), welter and waste (Genesis 1:2), darkness, water, wind, and the deep. Woe to that man, of all of them creation is mentioned: Tohu and bohu: He fashions, light and creates darkness (Isaiah 45:7); water: Praise Him, utmost heavens, and the waters above the heavens (Psalms 148:4)—why? For He commanded, and they were created (ibid., 5); wind: He fashions the mountains and creates the wind (Amos 4:13); the depths: When there were no deeps I was spawned, when there were no wellsprings, heavy with water (Proverbs 8:24)” (Bereshit Rabbah 1:9).
“One bull from the herd, one ram, one yearling ram for the burnt offering. [One goat for an offence offering] (Numbers 7:15–16)—you have here three kinds of burnt offerings, corresponding to heavens, earth, and sea….
Why three kinds for burnt offerings and one for an offence offering? Corresponding to four elements from which the blessed Holy One created the world, three of them being of a supernal [nature], one higher than the other, and the fourth the lowest, heaviest of them all [see Aristotle, Physics]. They are as follows: The earth is the heaviest of them all, and corresponding to it the goat was offered [cf. Leviticus 16:21]. Water is above earth; air, from which the wind is formed, is above earth, and fire is above air, for fire is lighter than all the others, rising up to the firmament. And a sign for the matter: When a flame escapes from the coal it flies upwards. And so [the Greeks] they say that fire surrounds the entire world above the firmament. Corresponding to fire, wind, and water, which are עֶלְיוֹנִים (elyonim), of a supernal [nature], three kinds of הָעוֹלָה (ha-olah), burnt offerings, were made” (Bemidbar Rabbah 14:12).
“Water from wind: He engraved and hewed in it תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ (tohu va-vohu), welter and waste (Genesis 1:1), mud and muck (Isaiah 57:20). He engraved them like a sort of garden-bed. He erected them like a sort of wall, and he wove them like a sort of roof. And he poured out snow over them and it became dust, for it is said: To the snow He says: ‘Become earth’ (Job 37:6) [cf. Pirqei de-Rabbi Eli’ezer 3]. ‘Tohu—a pale line, encompassing the whole world…. Bohu—these are the slimy stones sunk in the abyss, from which water issues’ (JT Ḥagigah 77c; BT Ḥagigah 12a)” (Sefer Yetsirah §13 [A]).
“Know that the Creator (may He be blessed) created the human being; He created him in image and form, arraying him from four distinct substances—from fire, air, water, and earth, as is said: The earth was chaos and void, with darkness over the face of the abyss, and the wind of God (Genesis 1:2). These are the four substances previously mentioned. As is said: There is a place among the coastal towns where they call fire תֹּהוּ (tohu), chaos—this is the first element; וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ (va-vohu va-ḥoshekh), void and darkness—they are water and earth. How do we know that darkness implies earth? As is said: its name is covered with darkness (Ecclesiastes 6:4), and they have explained that this refers to a clod of earth; and רוּחַ (ruaḥ), wind, is air itself” (Zohar Ḥadash 6d).
“The earth was תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ (Tohu va-vohu), chaos and void (Genesis 1:2). Was, precisely, previously. Snow in water. Through the potency of snow in water emerged slime. Blazing fire struck it, refuse came to be, and תֹּהוּ (tohu), chaos, was produced—abode of slime, nest of refuse. וָבֹהוּ (Va-vohu), And void—sifting sifted from refuse, settling upon it. חֹשֶׁךְ (Ḥoshekh), Darkness (ibid.)—mystery of blazing fire. That darkness covers tohu, over the refuse, and thereby it is empowered.
וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים (Ve-ruaḥ Elohim), And a wind of God (ibid.)—רוּחַ קוּדְשָׁא (Ruaḥ Qudsha), Holy Spirit, emerging from the living God, hovering over the face of the waters (ibid.). Once this wind blew, one fine film clarified from that refuse, like filthy froth flying off, clarified, refined again and again, till that filth is left lacking any filth at all. So was tohu clarified and refined, from it emerging a great, mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks (1 Kings 19:11), the one seen by Elijah. Bohu was clarified and refined, from it emerging an earthquake, as is written: After the wind—an earthquake (ibid.). Darkness clarified, embracing fire within its mystery, as is written: After the earthquake—fire (ibid., 12). Wind clarified, and embraced in its mystery was the sound of sheer silence (ibid.)
תֹּהוּ (Tohu)—a colorless, formless realm, not embraced by the mystery of form. Now within form—as one contemplates it, no form at all. Everything has a garment in which to be clothed, except for this: though appearing upon it, it does not exist at all, never did.
בֹּהוּ (Bohu)—this has shape and form: stones sunk within the shell of tohu, emerging from the shell in which they are sunk, conveying benefit to the world. Through the form of a garment they convey benefit from above to below, ascending from below to above. So they are hollow and moist, suspended in the air—sometimes suspended in the air, sometimes concealed on a cloudy day [cf. BT Ta’anit 8b], generating water from the abyss to nourish tohu, for then frivolity and folly prevail as tohu spreads through the world…” (Zohar 1:16a).
Your wonder known in the darkness, Your bounty in the land of נְשִׁיָּה (neshiyyah), oblivion (Psalms 88:13).
“תֹּהוּ (Tohu), Chaos—this is נְשִׁיָּה (Neshiyyah), because no image at all can be seen within it, so that אִתְנְשֵׁי (itneshei), it is forgotten, entirely; so it is called Neshiyyah, Oblivion. בֹהוּ (Vohu), Void—this is אַרְקָא (Arqa), Earth, a site not forgotten” (Zohar 1:40a, Heikhalot Be-Reshit).
“בֶּן מְנַשֶּׁה (Ben menasheh), son of Manasseh (Numbers 27:1)—the Cause of Causes who is called מְנַשֶּׁה (menasheh), Forgetting. Why is the Cause of Causes called Forgetting? Because He is a place to which forgetting and נִשָׁיוֹן (nishayon), oblivion, pertain, as in the expression כִּי נַשַּׁנִי אֱלֹהִים (ki nashani Elohim), For God has made me forget (Genesis 41:51).
Why? Because concerning all the rungs and causes one should search for their reality from the depth of supernal Ḥokhmah. From there it is possible to understand one thing from another. However, concerning the Cause of Causes there are no sides anywhere to search, to probe; nothing can be known of Him; for He is hidden and concealed in the mystery of הַאַיִן וְהַאֶפֶס (ha-ayin ve-ha-efes), Nothingness and Naught.
Therefore forgetting pertains to Him, as regards comprehension of this place. So open your eyes and see this great and awesome mystery. Happy is he whose eyes shine from this mystery, in this world and the world that is coming” (Rabbi David ben Yehudah he-Ḥasid, Sefer Mar’ot Ha-Tsove’ot, 227:15–23, adapted from Matt, The Book of Mirrors, p. 21–22).