Wisdom From Below
Part 4 – From Axioms to Atoms * In connection with 20 Menachem Av, Yartzeit of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson

By Prof. Shimon Silman, RYAL Institute and Touro College

Wisdom From Below


After having introduced the concept of axioms and how they work in the first three parts of this series, we now delve into the very structure of matter and look at the atom and its parts. We will see how the revelation of Wisdom from Below brought a new view of unity in the physical world. Recall the sicha in which the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach explains that this recognition of unity is a preparation for the absolute unity of Hashem, which will be revealed in the Era of Moshiach (see Part 1).


First let’s summarize the role that the axiomatic method plays in modern science:


1) It shows that no scientific conclusions can be considered absolute. They are only valid relative to the axioms on which they are based.


2) It shows that there is a limit to human knowledge. We can never claim to have penetrated the full depths of reality. All we can ever hope to do is to make observations and state our assumptions based on those observations. The scientific theories that we then develop are “not about some phase of the existing world, but are about whatever is postulated by thought,” i.e., about our assumptions.


3) It brings a high degree of unity to our picture of the physical world as there is now a uniform method for developing scientific theories.





In the famous sicha of Parshas Noach (see Part 1) the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach says that before the fountains of wisdom below broke open people would look at the various forces of nature as being diverse and unrelated forces. One of the best examples of this is what we now call electricity. Many phenomena resulting from electricity have been known for thousands of years, but were not known to be manifestations of electricity per se. They were not even thought to have any connection with each other. For example, as far back as the time of the Greeks people knew of such phenomena as the “marvels concerning the attraction of amber,” as Plato called it. When amber is rubbed with a cloth it attracts small lightweight objects such as straw. Another phenomenon observed was a certain pale glow sometimes seen on the tips of pointed objects such as ships’ masts, especially during thunderstorms. The stunning effect of touching an electric eel was known, and of course, the most well known electric phenomenon of all: lightning. Since the Greek word for amber is “elektron,” these phenomena eventually became known as electricity. But in the time of the Greeks no connection was seen between them.


(At this point we should comment on repeated reference to “the time of the Greeks.” This is a common reference point in the history of science, since their mathematical and scientific writings are available for reference. However, the Greeks were not necessarily the ones who discovered the phenomenon or originated the concept, as the historians of science themselves sometimes indicate. We have already seen that the Greeks learned mathematical astronomy from the Jews [see Part 3]. The Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach once explained that, generally speaking, all of the sciences can be traced back to chochmas Mitzrayim, the science of ancient Egypt. Even those sciences that made their first appearances later in other countries, can be traced back to ancient Egypt. Thus, when the prophet wishes to describe the great wisdom of Shlomo HaMelech, he says that it was even greater than the wisdom of Egypt.)


For thousands of years not much more was discovered about electricity than what was known in the time of the Greeks. Then, in the late 1700’s investigations into the properties of electricity revealed some new information. But it was not until the mid 1800’s, after the fountains of Wisdom from Below broke open, that the real nature of electricity - and magnetism, and, most importantly, the integration of electricity and magnetism - took place.


It should be pointed out that “the 600th year of the 6th millennium” (1840 CE) which the Zohar speaks of is what we might call the breakthrough year. Prior to that year, both in the Wisdom from Above and in the Wisdom from Below, we find what we might call a buildup. Consider the example which the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach discusses in the sicha of Parshas Noach: the publication of the maamarim of the Alter Rebbe. In the year 5597 (1837 CE) the Tzemach Tzedek had prepared two volumes of the Alter Rebbe’s maamarim for publication. They were to be published under the title Torah Ohr. At the time, only the first volume was published; the second was published 10 years later under the title Likkutei Torah. This was the breakthrough of Wisdom from Above.


It is interesting to note, first of all, that the year of publication of Torah Ohr was 1837, three years before 1840. More significantly, however, is the fact that these were maamarim of the Alter Rebbe which had been said over the years 1796-1812 (HaYom Yom, 3 Shevat). The Tzemach Tzedek himself had spent 32,000 hours over a 30 year period (1804-1834) in intense study of the Alter Rebbe’s Maamarim, beginning work on their publication in 1834. Thus, there was a period of buildup prior to the breakthrough year. Indeed, in the case of the flood in the time of Noach, the basis of the statement in the Zohar, there was a preparatory period of 120 years before the flood itself, which was in 600th year of the life of Noach”.


Similarly, in the Wisdom from Below, we find that the following important facts about electricity were revealed in the century prior to 1840:


1) It was found that while, on the one hand, charged pieces of amber attracted small lightweight objects, on the other hand, two such charged pieces of amber actually repelled each other. It was further found that there are two different types of electric charges which came to be called positive and negative. Each of these types attracted the opposite type and repelled its own type.


2) Devices for storing electric charge (such as a battery) and for measuring electric charge were developed. Thus it became possible to talk about electric charge quantitatively.


3) It was determined that lightning was, in fact, an electric charge as was the charge of the eel.



The Unification of Electricity and Magnetism


Magnetism is a phenomenon which has been known for thousands of years. Around the time of the Arizal it was discovered that the earth itself is a magnet, which proved useful in the navigation of the oceans; one could find his direction using a magnetic compass. But while magnetic poles appeared to behave the same way as electric charges, no connection was known between them. Electric charges did not influence the magnets in any way nor did the magnets have any influence on electric charges.


Then, one day in the year 1820, Hans Oersted, a Danish physicist, was walking to his lecture at the University of Copenhagen. On the way, he had an idea. If static electricity did not affect magnets in any way, maybe things would be different if one tried electricity moving through a wire connecting the two poles of a battery. Arriving at the classroom filled with a crowd of young students, he placed a battery on the lecture table, connected its two opposite ends with a platinum wire, and placed a compass needle close to it. The needle, which was supposed to orient itself in the north-south direction, turned around and came to rest in the direction perpendicular to the wire. The audience was not impressed, but Oersted was. The unification of electricity and magnetism had just taken place. The electric current flowing through the wire was generating a magnetic field around the wire, and the magnet turned in the direction of that magnetic field. Electromagnetism, as Oersted called it, had just been discovered.


Oersted submitted his discovery to a prominent French journal of physics whose editors were rather skeptical of the results. They published it, but they did so with a note of apology. They said that they don’t usually publish such extraordinary findings for fear that they are fake. “But in regard to the paper by Mr. Oersted,” they continued, “the results obtained by him, however singular they may appear, are accompanied by too many details to give place to any suspicion of error.” This was a scenario which was to repeat itself several times over the coming century: extraordinary revelations of Wisdom from Below which were to be greeted with skepticism and sometimes ridicule by the scientific community. This may be attributed to the fact that these revelations were not simply the results of the natural progression of scientific research, but rather the result of an infusion of wisdom, a flood of knowledge, that was being forced into the world. And it was coming faster than the world could handle it.


(To be continued.)


In connection with 20 Menachem Av, yartzeit of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson. Questions & comments should be directed to


At the time, only the first volume was published; the second was published 10 years later under the title Likkutei Torah. This was the breakthrough of Wisdom from Above.




These revelations were not simply the results of the natural progression of scientific research, but rather the result of an infusion of wisdom, a flood of knowledge, that was being forced into the world. And it was coming faster than the world could handle it.










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