In the second verse of the Torah, which deals with the creation, we find the expression “והארץ היתה תהו ובהו” – The earth was in utter chaos. The problem I have with this statement is that I don’t feel that I fully appreciate the meaning of the expression “Tohu vaVohu.”
The roots of the two words, Tahah (תהה) and Bahah (בהה), make it all even more difficult, having Tahah meaning to wonder, to be amazed, to be dumbfounded, to ponder or to reflect, while Bahah means to stare into space, to daydream, or to gaze. The thing is, the expression “Tohu vaVohu” has always been understood as utter chaos, or without form, and still is. If we look at the four most used English Jewish translations, we will see the expression being translated as follows:
‘Astonishingly empty’ (Judaica Press and Artscroll), and ’unformed and void’ (Soncino and JPS)
Checking a number of Christian translations, we reach the same understanding of the words, meaning without form, empty, or void.
This is also the sense left us when we relate to various commentators, e.g. Rashi who writes that Tohu “is an expression of astonishment and desolation, that a person wonders and is astonished at the emptiness therein.” This is an interpretation which leans on the meaning of Tahah, though he doesn’t relate to the second part of the expression, Bohu. Ibn ‘Ezra understands the expression as “empty waste,” while Nahmanides states that the “lower prime matter, after its creation from nothingness, was completely prime matter, that is matter without substance.” So also here are we dealing with understandings of the expression as something without form or, as Nahmanides express it, substance. Contrary the other commentators Nahmanides attempts to translate Bohu on its own, explaining that it consists of ‘bo’ and ‘hu,’ that is “is in him,” relating to the idea of a being. I would suspect that he somehow attempts to relate it to Bahah, ‘seeing’ something that will be in ‘it,’ that which still is without form.
Onkelos, the Aramaic Targum found with any Hebrew Bible, which was written in the beginning of the second century, translates the expression as “צדיא וריקניא” –Tzadya w’Reqanya, meaning something desolate and empty, also dealing with the same meaning. The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah) takes another approach, relating the Tohu vaVohu to evilness and wrongdoing, though still in the negative understanding of void and waste.
When we look at other Biblical passages using the words, then we find Tohu ten places, all relating to something being vain, void or confusion, while Bohu is found three times, relating to emptiness.
So by now we have established that the understanding of Tohu vaVohu means something astonishing/confusing emptiness, void, desolate being without form or something in that regards. For me, when I read this expression, I get the idea of a world still not being formed or ‘expressed,’ sort of speaking. Something has to be added, we are still viewing something not yet decided on.
That said, I still don’t feel that I have the full understanding of the expression itself, nor of the words. They escape me, my full understanding of them. I need to approach them closer, but how? Also their relations to their roots, how can they change their meaning like that? Do they change meaning at all? Something I’m sure of is that this isn’t the last time I’m going to deal with this subject.