Like ma’aseh merkavah, ma’aseh bereshit was one of the earliest forms of Jewish mysticism and a predecessor of Kabbalah. Ma’aseh bereshit derived from a close interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis, in which God created the universe. Also like ma’aseh merkavah, ma’aseh bereshit doesn’t exist in one text, but rather in fragments compiled from various literary sources. The ma’aseh bereshit was not compiled until the sixth century, when the Sefer Yetzirah first appeared, bringing together ma’aseh bereshit’s many sources and ideas.
Ma’aseh bereshit’s interpretation of Genesis described a separation between the “upper” world of God and the “lower” world of human beings. It explained that because God encompasses all of creation, humans are by default a part of God. According to many mystics, the human body itself revealed the presence of God.
Jewish scholars forbade any inquiry into what came before the six days God spent creating the universe. Thus, students of ma’aseh bereshit could not speculate whether heaven was created before earth, or explore any other issues regarding the time before creation. Kabbalah grew out of the mystics’ desire to seek answers to questions about the time before God created the universe. Attempts to answer these questions formed the foundation of kabbalistic study from the second century B.C.E. to the present.
Ma’aseh bereshit reveals the tendency of the mystics—and later the kabbalists—to read meaning into every word of the Torah. Rather than merely accept the biblical account of creation as fact, kabbalists delved deeper by asking, for example, what it meant that Eve was created from Adam’s rib. This process of thorough interpretation led kabbalists to form their own account of creation, outlined by ma’aseh bereshit. Though it came from the same source as traditional accounts—the Torah—it differed strongly from the traditional Jewish understanding of the origins of the universe. Ma’aseh bereshit is just one example of the stark contrast between the accepted views of Jews and the more radical mystical views of the followers of Kabbalah.
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