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Midrash Tehillim 90:13 says that God created and destroyed 974 worlds before this one. What exactly does that mean?

I've heard it used in defense of a modern understanding of evolution and cosmology but don't really get why God would create a universe and destroy it 600 times, then create a universe and destroy it a couple hundred more times with our solar system, and then create it and destroy it another couple hundred times with slight variations of animal life. And then do the one final creation of everything again. I don't grasp the logic behind that interpretation.

So what exactly does it mean to create and destroy 974 worlds?

Edit: Someone asked for the citation, as they could not find Midrash Tehillim (also known as Midrash Shocher Tov) after 90:10. Sefaria doesn't go past 10 there and perhaps they use a different version of the text, although elsewhere on Sefaria they do reference it, saying, “Other sources, such as Midrash Tehillim 90:13, give the number as 974 worlds, which were said to have been created and destroyed over 2,000 years.” Here is the original text for Midrash Tehillim - Shochar Tov, 90:13 at Hebrewbooks.org.

Relevant sentence from the Midrash there:

אלו תשע מאות ושבעים וארבעה דורות שהיו קודם לבריאת עולם ונשטפו כהרף עין בשביל שהיו רעים.

These are the nine hundred and seventy-four generations that were before the creation of the world and were swept away in the blink of an eye because they were wicked.

It would seem my original question was largely predicated on a mistranslation or misrepresentation of this Midrash (such as by the above-mentioned Sefaria reference).

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    Very related judaism.stackexchange.com/q/15156/759
    – Double AA
    Commented Jul 4, 2013 at 5:13
  • related: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/15889/…
    – Menachem
    Commented Jul 4, 2013 at 6:54
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    @DoubleAA That seems to bring up something in Chagiga that it refers to generations that never were that are scattered out throughout history. Is this the same thing? If so why would anyone point to it as a way of explaining the age of the universe and the presence of fossils?
    – A L
    Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 3:31
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    this is also brought in midrash raba bereishis. with God saying this is not pleasing to Me before destroying it. which is quite puzzling given that He knows the future.
    – ray
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 20:21
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    Just to set the record straight (and this may invalidate several of the answers below), the Midrash here doesn't say anything about 974 worlds. It (and several other places) speak of 974 generations.
    – Meir
    Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 20:12

6 Answers 6

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The question, as other's have correctly noted, conflates two issues, the 974 generations before Adam, and the creation and destruction of worlds before this one. I've come across two sources that shed some light on both issues: one from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, and one from Alexander Poltorak, a Jewish theoretical physicist.

In Rabbi Kaplan's The Age of the Universe, he proposes that according to the Sefer HaTemunah, as it is interpreted in the Sefer Livnas HaSapir (according to Rabbi Kaplan, the "most authoritative interpretation"), we are in the 7th sh'mitah cycle of 1000 years. Under this interpretation, the world was 42,000 years old when Adam was created. Naturally there are many different interpretations of the Sefer HaTemunah, so this answer is only meant as an introduction of Rabbi Kaplan's article, in which he examines many such interpretations. However, Rabbi Yitzchok deMin Acco argues that the years in the Sefer HaTemunah are G-d's years, since they preceded man. This view Rabbi Kaplan combines with the Sefer HaSapira to argue that therefore the Sefer HaTemunah is speaking of 42,000*365,250 years, or about 15 billion years. Meaning the universe existed for 15 billion years before Adam, whatever the nature of these "years."

The second article I would point you towards is here. The premise is quite simple. Quantum Mechanics says the collapse of the wavefunction is caused by observation. Poltorak posits here that it's not the physical observation, per say, but consciousness deriving from the G-dly soul within man (and here he departs from other QM consciousness interpretations that theorize animal consciousness is enough to cause collapse). It's important to note that wave collapse by consciousness is just as valid an explanation empirically as any other interpretation of QM. Under this interpretation, until the first observer with a G-dly soul, Adam, the universe existed in a probabilistic superposition of all possible universes. Therefore, there were an infinite number of potential universes, one for each theoretically possible universe, that were "created [by G-d] and destroyed" when Adam's consciousness limited reality to just one single, tangible universe.

Putting the two together, one possible interpretation of the 974 generations before Adam is that they existed and didn't exist simultaneously. Being animal man, and lacking the Image of G-d and/or the Breath of G-d, they could play no role in the collapse of the universal wavefunction, and therefore where "stuck" in that immaterial state described by the probabilistic wavefunction. Not until Adam was there a conscious observer, and therefore, the age of Creation is counted from Adam, meaning the number of years since he collapsed the universal wavefunction. But since that collapse materialized ~13 billion years of history, the universe has two ages, each representing a different perspective. Naturally, the "truest" one is the number of years since Adam. Under this interpretation, the 974 generations of "wicked" men are the conscious-less homo-sapiens that "existed" before Adam, but were only materialized when Adam first observed the world.

This is not to say that any of this must be correct. That's a task for brighter and more scientifically and Kabbalistically educated minds than me. But seeing your question, and having come across these two Jewish sources from in my own searchings, it would be wrong not to share them.

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  • For further reading about the 974 generations: link
    – John
    Commented Jun 6, 2022 at 18:40
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    Interesting that R Kaplan would consider the 7th shmita as being the right reading of Sefer HaTemunah. As far as I was aware, the author believed we were in the 6th shmita. To be completely honest, given the estimate of the age of the universe when Kaplan came up with this calculation, and given how the scientific estimate was only later narrowed down to exclude Kaplan’s result, I’m very skeptical of the entire approach. Besides the fact that it involves cherry picking from many possible opinions and mixing them, and it’s disputed if it was ever meant to refer to physical reality.
    – A L
    Commented Jun 13, 2022 at 1:25
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    At any rate, though I appreciate the interesting suggestions, it doesn’t really address the 974 generations. It’s a related discussion, but it doesn’t directly answer it.
    – A L
    Commented Jun 13, 2022 at 2:08
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    Very interesting sources, thank you for bringing them. One question though: where did the number 365,250 come from? How is that determined to be a Divine year? Commented Oct 2, 2023 at 2:48
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    @EthanLeonard Rabbi Yitzchok (from Rabbi Kaplan's essay), uses the Midrashic references to Psalms "G-d's Day is a thousand years" (paraphrase) and multiplied the 1,000 years by 365 1/4 days to get 365,250, or a G-d Year. On a related note, Gerald Schroeder wrote several books about the Age of the Universe. He makes the interesting argument that, since universe expansion is related to time-dilation, you can calculate the time "experienced" by a photon existing at the moment of creation. It works out to be about 6 days. This being said, I don't know enough physics to verify it
    – John
    Commented Oct 4, 2023 at 1:12
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My rabbi, who is now passed put it as follows: (he was also a physicist back in the day)

this reply was given when he was asked about the nature of teshuva, and whether it is akin to having ones bad deeds simply erased from ones book of history? No, said he, "teshuva is Gd recreating your individual world anew from day one of creation, which includes that individual life story, minus the sin event"

which sparked a debate about how Gd can do such a thing-recreate the universe. and among other topics this came up as well:

the 974 destroyed and recreated worlds is not only an event which happened back in time, but an ongoing immense fission reaction of unimaginably massive proportions, which occurs constantly, to buffer the infiniteness of Gd and allow the finite universe to exist at all.

This mind bending concept is variously described in human terms in many ways, but all attempts to describe a physical action are too large to fathom, except by pure meditation on how Gd did and does create the universe, and sustain it.

The kabala talks of the tsimtsum-constriction, and various commentators describe this visually, but in order to fully appreciate the gravity of such a concept one must first attempt to attempt to appreciate how large Gd is, if at all possible.

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  • A very interesting answer, I would be glad for more information to read about this concept of Him recreating the 974 generations
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented Oct 2, 2023 at 14:08
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The Tiferet Yisrael (translated at some length towards the bottom of this article) suggested that dinosaur fossils are from these previous worlds.

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Yes, there are many Jewish legends that say other worlds ended and were followed. Rabbi Kaplan felt that there were other worlds before Adam and Eve.[1]

As it turns out, there are many midrashim with these imaginative tales such as G-d creating other cultures before the present one and destroying them, almost a kind of science fiction. However, Maimonides explains in his essay called Chelek that Midrashim are parables designed to teach people about proper behavior, not literal facts.

[1] See Kabbalistic book, Sefer ha-Temunah (Book of the Figure)

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    This is not an answer. The question was "what is this midrash teaching us?" You say "it's a parable that is meant to teach us something."
    – Heshy
    Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 19:26
  • @Heshy Yes, that's correct. It is only a parable.
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 19:44
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    So you didn't answer the question
    – Heshy
    Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 21:35
  • @Heshy I did. Scroll up or see my answer here.
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 21:46
  • Second @Heshy. The question is, what does the midrash teach us? you only wrote that it teaches something, but didn't explain what that something is.
    – Harel13
    Commented Feb 6, 2021 at 16:49
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I think this use of 974 is faulty, as confused the true teaching how we received Torah 974 generations early. in 26 vs 1000 = 974 Reference and reference in volume I 'the recent complex creation framework' in the YeC Moshe Emes series for Torah and Science alignment. Either way there was never 974 physical generations prior to Adam. If anything physical existed prior to day one, it reverted to absolute physical nothing by the start of day one. There is no scientific reason anything should have existed prior, once one understands all the applicable science. also volume III book one 'Adam to the Exodus' for the alignment of Torah testimony and ancient civ.

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    Roger, welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thanks for your first answer! If you haven’t done so already, you should take a look at the tour. I hope you'll look around and find other Q&A of interest and stay learning with us.
    – mbloch
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 18:45
  • It's not "Medrish," its Midrash. The phrase "the Medrish says" is incorrect also since there is no one single version of Midrash, most of them differ.
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 3:23
  • True, in many places it's explained that the Torah prefacing the world "2000 generations", is metaphorical, since time only started 5783 years ago; rather it means "2000 spiritual levels", referring to chochmah and Bina. Maybe here also there's a similar metaphorical reason Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 17:22
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I thought it explained how Noach could find favor in the eyes of Hashem when was about to blot out man from the face of the earth, since Psalms 105:8 states that Torah would given to the 1000th genearation -- for if God would have blotted out mankind after 974 + 10 = 984 generations there would have been just 16 generations left to 1000, not enough to make his name (= 26) known.

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  • That verse says that God remembers the promise for the Jewish people to have the land promised to the forefathers for a thousand generations. It doesn’t say that the Torah would be given to the 1000th generation after creation.
    – A L
    Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 7:14
  • Psalms 105:8 as interpreted in Bereishit Rabbah 28:4 Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 10:43
  • But is is also in this translation chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/16326 'He remembered His covenant forever, the word He had commanded to the thousandth generation" זָכַ֣ר לְעוֹלָ֣ם בְּרִית֑וֹ דָּבָ֥ר צִ֜וָּ֗ה לְאֶ֣לֶף דּֽוֹר Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 12:02

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