Sign up ×
Mi Yodeya is a question and answer site for those who base their lives on Jewish law and tradition and anyone interested in learning more. It's 100% free, no registration required.

How do we reconcile the torah view of four foundations fire, wind, water, and earth with modern science which demonstrates wind, water, and earth are really not much different.

for example, water can be turned into oxygen and hydrogen so air and water are not so different, while according to torah view wind and water are two different, independent elements.

some sources from Midrash, etc found at

"In Midrashic literature, the world is viewed as being constructed of four basic elements: earth, water, air and fire (Bamidbar Raba end of 14:12; Zohar 1:27a, 2:23b-24b; Sefer Yetzirah Ch. 3; Moreh Nevuchim 2:30; Ibn Ezra Tehilim 66:12; Ramban Bereishit 1:1; Ohr Hachayim Bereishit 6:5 and others.) These "elements" closely parallel the three forms of matter -- solid, liquid and gas -- and energy. Earth and water are the "lower" two elements -- gravity causes them to sink -- while air and fire, which are bouyant and rise, are the "higher" elements. Interestingly, the names of the four Angels of the Divine Chariot (Micha'el, Gavri'el, Refa'el, Nuri'el, who represent the various forms of life on this world -- see Parasha-Page, Bamidbar 5756) have the same numerical value (Gematria) as the Hebrew words for these four elements (Aish, Ru'ach, Mayim, Afar), as pointed out by Sefer Hapeliyah (1:23a)."

share|improve this question
Where does the torah articulate this view of four foundations? – Monica Cellio Dec 2 '12 at 22:26
I believe this is Aristotle's view. – Double AA Dec 3 '12 at 0:41
as i note in the comment below, much of Bemidbar Rabba is the latest of the Midrash Rabbas, and was unknown to Rashi. some parts reproduce midrash Tanchuma. does the midrash exist in Tanchuma? if not, then it is a late work, and does not correspond to the beliefs of the Tannaim. – josh waxman Dec 3 '12 at 10:37
as a followup, I looked it up in Bamidbar Rabba, and it is indeed part of the late material. plus, it uses the word teva in the sense of natural force, which is not Chazal's use of the language. – josh waxman Dec 4 '12 at 1:25
related – Double AA Dec 11 '12 at 18:49

3 Answers 3

First, we need to establish whether it is indeed a Torah view.

On the one hand:

What is interesting is that the theory of four elements is not mentioned in the Talmud nor in the medrashim.

However, this is a kabbalistic belief:

The theory of four elements is found in the basic books of Kabbalah,such as Sefer Yetzira and the Zohar. In Sefer Yetzira (written sometime between the second and fourth centuries CE) it is found as a component of the ten sefirot(Sefer Yetzira chapter 1:8). This is the oldest version of the ten sephirot as we know them. In the Zohar we find that Man was created from the four elements: fire and wind and dust and water (Zohar -- Secrets of the Torah volume 1(Genesis), portion of Lech Lecha page 80a; see also Zohar Chadash volume 2 on the Scroll of Ruth, page 41a).

See also Ramban and Seforno, who added a fifth element, from which the heavens were formed.

Now, the Greeks believed in the four elements. And Aristotle added a fifth element, from which the heavens were formed:

Ancient Greek philosophers often suggested similar solutions. The theory of the"four elements" was first suggested by Empedocles, a Greek philosopher who lived in the fifth century BCE. According to this theory, thephysical (material) world is made up of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. These elements cannot be dismantled, and the various materials in the world are different from each other in the relative amounts of the four elements which comprise them. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived in the fourth century BCE, adopted the theory of the four elements and added a fifth,"ether," the sacred element from which, he believed, the heavens are formed.

What we see here is borrowing of the contemporary science, and adaptation and assimilation into (fundamental) Jewish beliefs.

Of course, once something enters the realm of theology, it no longer has to assume its most literal interpretation. Certainly many kabbalistically-oriented people today* don't deny that there is a periodic table of the elements. They would just say that there is a deeper metaphysical level that the Zohar and others are describing.

*(I don't know about in places where they don't learn science and believe all sorts of nonsense, such as geocentrism.)

share|improve this answer and comments – Double AA Dec 3 '12 at 4:16
you mean the footnote, in terms of geocentrism? yes, there are apologetics for that example (which are incorrect, btw, though here is not the place to argue it out). but there aren't in terms of, e.g. number of teeth of Jews vs. gentiles. and the point is that there are rabbis so unaware of science that there is no need for such apologetics. (thanks for the pointer.) – josh waxman Dec 3 '12 at 4:55
if it's in the midrash it means the tannaim accepted the view. so it's torah view. to dismiss it as greek philosophy is wrong – ray Dec 3 '12 at 7:26
From the site quoted in your answer: In Sefer Yetzira (written sometime between the second and fourth centuries CE). Wasn't it supposed to have been written by Avraham Avinu? – b a Dec 3 '12 at 7:34
@RaymondSebag Midrash Rabba on Bamidbar is NOT from the Tannaim. It is the last of the Midrash Rabbas. See here: – josh waxman Dec 3 '12 at 10:35

This is a reply to:

water can be turned into oxygen and hydrogen so air and water are not so different, while according to torah view wind and water are two different, independent elements.

The Rambam in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 4:5 writes that not only can the elements interchange, but that they are constantly doing so.

Also, as a side note, Energy is not a 4th state of matter distinct from the rest, plasma is. All forms of matter are energy, plus many other things too. (And technically there are other states besides those 4, but they are incredibly rare, so can mostly be ignored.)

share|improve this answer
the sharei kedusha holds the 4 elements are independent. he associates the spiritual powers in earth with inanimate objects. spritual of water with plants, of wind with animals, and fire with humans. so for example, a plant has the spiritual powers of earth and water but not of wind and fire, while animals have all except fire. – ray Dec 3 '12 at 11:04
@RaymondSebag You wrote a very general question and then go and complain that each answer isn't in accordance with some other opinion. If you want answers following a certain predisposition of your own please put that in a new question and respect people for answering the exact question that you wrote. – Double AA Dec 3 '12 at 14:03

I recall hearing an answer that, the four elements have nothing to do with the periodic table of elements. If it did then they would have included wood, cheese, potato... But all the periodic table elements will fit into one or more of these 4 categories. So for instance wood is a combination of all 4. HDYK? When you burn it and break it apart you can find all 4,ash is earth, water you can find by quickly covering the burning wood and you will find that the inside of your lid has some moisture on it (even if using totally dry wood), fire because its flammable, and air the smoke.

share|improve this answer
what about different metals, say gold or silver. how are they different according to your answer? thnx – ray Jul 14 '14 at 17:46

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.