The Four Elements and the Four Seasons

Rabbi Jill Hammer is a poet, author, ritual-maker, and editor. She is senior associate at Ma'yan: The Jewish Women's Project, where she serves as editor of Journey and as a teacher of text and ritual. She is the founder of Tel Shemesh.

Several years ago, I participated at a week-long festival of drum, dance, and bibliodrama, that celebrated Miriam the prophetess, called, appropriately, the Festival of Miriam. The festival attempted to connect Miriam, famous for her drumming and dancing at the Sea of Reeds during the Exodus, to ancient goddess traditions of drumming priestesses while also exploring her role in the Torah. We structured the week around the four elements of earth, water, air, and fire, using the elements to explore four stages of Miriam’s life—her youth, her maturity as a prophet, her rebellion against her brother’s authority and privilege as an older woman, and her death. I was new to the four-element structure and worried that it was not connected to Judaism—that we were simply adopting a structure belonging to pagan cultures without admitting that that was what we were doing. (I already knew that the four elements, as well as the four directions of east, south, west, and north, were used in Goddess ritual, shamanism and modern paganism.) I asked several teachers if the four elements had any basis in Jewish text or tradition, but none of them could answer me.

The answer to my question was in fact very simple: the four elements have been part of Judaism for centuries. An ancient midrashic source speaks of the four elements giving birth at the beginning of time: “the fire gave birth to light, the water gave birth to darkness, the wind gave birth to spirit, and the earth gave birth to humanity.” This text gives the four elements a role in the world’s creation.

Maimonides, a Jewish legalist and philosopher of the tenth century, speaks of the four elements as follows:

There are four bodies (gufim), and they are fire (eish), air (ruach), water (mayim), and earth (afar). They are the foundation of all that is created beneath the firmament. All that comes from human or beast or bird or creeping thing or fish or plant or metal or precious stones or pearls or other building stones or mountains or the substance of earth, the form (golem) of all things is composed from these four foundations….. They do not travel through knowledge or will, but rather according to the plan (minhag) that has been set for them.

Maimonides sees the four elements as the foundation of all substance, though he makes clear that he does not see them as conscious forces. Maimonides almost certainly got his conception of the four elements from other philosophers of his time, but the idea of the four elements as a sacred foursome is very ancient. The Sumerians, an ancient Near Eastern people that influenced Israelite religion, knew of a divine tetrad, a mother, father, and two sons: the father being An, heaven; the mother Ninhursag being earth; Enki being the god of water; and Enlil the god of fire.

Bachya ibn Pakuda, an 11th century philosopher and sage known as Rabbeinu Bachya, discusses the four elements while explaining the seven marks of God’s wisdom in the universe:

The first [mark of wisdom] is the mark of divine wisdom apparent in the primary and fundamental elements of the universe. The earth, we see, is at the center. Next to it above is water. Next to the water is the air, and above everything is fire—all in a just and unchanging balance and measure. Every one of these elements maintains the proper position appointed for it....

The Sefer Yetzirah, a mystical tract, announces: “Three the Universe are air, water, fire. Heaven was created from fire. Earth was created from water. And air from breath decides between them. “

The Zohar, a mystical text written in the thirteenth century, also sees the four elements as the foundation of the universe, and uses them as part of its mystical language. The Zohar goes even farther with the concept of the four elements, assigning each one to a direction:

Mark well this! Fire, air, earth and water are the sources and roots of all things above and below, and on them are all things grounded. In each of the four winds these elements are found: fire in the North, air in the East, water in the South, earth in the West. The four elements are united with the four winds, and all are one….The four winds of the world united at the place which afterwards was named the House of Holiness.

Fire, air, water, and earth, all are one with one another and connected to one another, and have no division between them.

Here the Zohar imagines the elements as a kind of spiritual navigation system. At the center, where all the elements are found, there is the mishkan, or holy dwelling.

The Zohar also associates the four elements with four angels and with four of the sefirot (the mystical spheres or faces of God), and even with four matriarchs and patriarchs:

Water Fire Air Earth
Michael Gabriel Uriel Raphael
South North East West
Love Strength Balance Shekhinah
Sarah Rebekah Leah Rachel
Abraham Isaac Jacob David
Silver Gold Bronze Iron

I have therefore felt comfortable adopting the four elements as a Jewish, as well as a universal, idea. The four seasons seem organically connected to the four elements. But which season for which element?

Although I could not find a text identifying the four seasons with the four elements, I felt strongly that the winter solstice and Chanukah, the festival of lights, should represent fire, which helped me map out the rest of the seasons: air/spring, water/summer, and autumn/earth. This made sense for multiple reasons. Later on, I discovered that in the Sefer Yetzirah (mentioned above), certain tribes of Israel are identified with certain directions and also certain months: Ephraim/Tishrei (autumn)/west, Dan/Tevet (winter)/north, Judah/Nisan (spring)/east, and Reuben/Tammuz (summer)/south (see Melinda Ribner’s book Kabbalah Month by Month for explication). So my mapping made sense.

Nevertheless, other sources look at this differently: the Sefer Yetzirah places fire in the summer, water in the winter, and air in the spring and fall. Gershon Winkler places fire in the summer, earth in the autumn, water in the winter, and air in the spring. Contemplating these two systems, I came to feel that there were two wheels of the seasons; an outer one and an inner one. On the inner wheel, which correpsonds to the element we most need at each season, fire (the fire of the hearth) is the spirit of winter and water (the quencher of thirst) the spirit of summer, earth (the spirit of harvest) is the spirit of autumn and air (the freshness of the breeze) the spirit of spring. On the outer wheel, which corresponds to the element we have most abundantly at each season, fire (heat of the sun) is the spirit of summer, air (the call of the shofar, the storm, and the coolness of wind) the spirit of autumn, water (rain, snow and ice) the spirit of winter, and earth (growing and planting) the spirit of spring. This outer wheel matches with the Talmud's statement that the winter months are the "days of rain" and the summer months are the "days of sun."

The Jewish calendar is organized around mythic-historical events of creation (Rosh haShanah, Passover), revelation (Yom Kippur, Shavuot), and redemption (Sukkot, Chanukah, Purim), but it also follows the natural calendar. Arthur Waskow in his book Seasons Of Our Joy discusses a very beautiful theory relating the seasons of the earth and the different life-stages of human beings to the historical cycle of the year, and his work has influenced me in my thinking. For example, he connects Passover to birth, Shavuot to maturity and relationship, and Sukkot to fulfillment and old age. My own sense of the calendar is that the earth-season, the autumn, is a time for reflection and retreat, a time when life/divinity is underground/within. The fire-season, winter, is the time when we and God begin to grow, as a seed does, and prepare for emergence. The air-season, spring, is the time when we and the Divine emerge into our full glory. The water-season, summer, is the time when drastic change overtakes us and we face death, to return again into the season of earth. Yet each season is balanced by the opposite element: in winter we receive life-giving water to water the seed, in spring we receive earth to shelter us even as we go forth into the world. In summer we receive warmth to comfort us in our time of change, and in autumn we receive fresh air to inspire and lift us even as we reflect on weighty things.

Since the time of the kabbalist Isaac Luria, Jews also associate the four elements with the four worlds: earth with the corporeal world called assiyah, water with the emotive world called yetzirah, air with the intellectual and creative world called beriyah, and fire with the world of pure spirit called atzilut. Rabbi Nachman of Tiktin, a Chasidic master, wrote:

“The first room in the Kingdom of Assiyah—its halls are made of Earth. The first room in the Kingdom of Yetzirah— its halls are made of Air. The first room in the Kingdom of Beriyah—its halls are made of Water. The first room in the Kingdom of Atzilut—its halls are made of Fire.”

We move through the levels of our soul as we move through the seasons—the inner sensations of the body, the will of the spirit to grow, the flowering creativity of the mind, and the sensitivity and depth of the heart.

The elements mark the different layers of our existence and the different stops along our spiritual journey as we move through the year. We hold the four elements in common with cultures as diverse as the ancient Greeks, the Celts, the shamans of Peru, and the Goddess traditions of the United States. As I learned at the Festival of Miriam, the elements can be a powerful tool for structuring sacred space and finding balance in ourselves. An ancient rabbinic midrash says: “The angel Michael is of snow, and Gabriel is of fire. A person should admit both angels into his heart.” Letting the four elements into our heart is one way to allow nature—the wind, the waves, the stone and the lightning—to teach us Divine wisdom.

Some Jewish Rituals Relating to the Elements:

Jewish Fire Rituals:

Lighting Sabbath candles or festival candles
Havdalah candle, marking the end of the Sabbath
Memorial candles for the dead (yahrtzeit candles)
The Chanukah menorah
The menorah in the Temple (a replica is often found in the synagogue)
The eternal light above the Ark of the Torah
The bonfire of Lag B’Omer
Carrying candles at a wedding
Burning leaven before Passover

Jewish Air Rituals:

Blowing the shofar (ram’s horn) in the month of Elul and on Rosh haShanah
Blessing spices at the end of the Sabbath
Building a booth with an open roof on Sukkot
Noisemakers on Purim
Singing or chanting as part of prayer
Dancing on the Sabbath and on Simchat Torah

Jewish Water Rituals:

Immersing in a ritual bath after menstruation, after birth, for conversion, or before a sacred occasion
Washing the hands before eating bread
Washing the hands upon returning from a cemetery
Washing the dead before burial
Putting a Cup of Miriam on the Passover seder table
Dipping greens in salt water on Passover
Throwing bread into water to represent sins on Rosh haShanah
Washing the feet of a newborn baby girl or immersing her in water (a modern naming custom)

Jewish Earth Rituals:

Bread and salt or bread and honey on the Sabbath
Blessing wine on the Sabbath (this could also be a water ritual)
Carrying a citron, willow branches, myrtle branches, and a palm branch on Sukkot
Eating fruit on Tu B’Shevat
Decorating the synagogue with flowers on Shavuot
Planting a tree in honor of a child’s birth (cedar for a boy, cypress for a girl)
Burying the foreskin of a circumcised child
Placing earth from the land of Israel in a coffin
Burying damaged sacred texts
Helping to bury a loved one by shoveling earth into the grave

more earth wisdom

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