People have always wanted to understand the various natural, physical phenomena via reason, as far as is possible. Amongst other ways, they have sought the connections between the multitude of objects in the physical world, including flora and fauna. In other words: they sought the foundations upon which the world is built. Thus, the ancient Chinese accepted the theory that the world is made up of five elements: earth, wood, metal, fire, and water. Ancient Greek philosophers often suggested similar solutions. The theory of the"four elements" was first suggested by Empedocles, a Greek philosopher who lived in the fifth century BCE. According to this theory, thephysical (material) world is made up of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. These elements cannot be dismantled, and the various materials in the world are different from each other in the relative amounts of the four elements which comprise them. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived in the fourth century BCE, adopted the theory of the four elements and added a fifth,"ether," the sacred element from which, he believed, the heavens are formed. Similarly, he added to the four elements the following characteristics: cold, hot, moist, and dry, as presented in the diagram below.
This theory was also accepted as likely because of its symmetry. The manner in which Aristotle added characteristics created a square within a square which shows the connection between the elements and the additional characteristics. We obtain the following combinations: warm and dry complement fire, which lies between them. Moist and cold complements water, which lies between them, etc.
The theory of four elements served as a scientific theory which was meant to explain the physical world. But in practice, this theory explains hardly any natural phenomena. Even so, it was seen as true and everyone clung to it until the 18th century CE, for two thousand years! The influence this theory had was so strong that the idea of four elements penetrated into many fields. Support for this theory was seen to lie in the appearance of fours in many areas of life, like four seasons, four winds, and the four organs of the body: heart, kidneys, lungs, and liver (the brain does not feature here because according to Aristotle its only purpose was to cool the blood), etc.
Therefore it is no surprise that throughout this long period the theory of four elements also penetrated into the Jewish world. For example, because it is the way of theologians to suit the scientific outlook of their times to the Holy Writ, Josephus (who lived in the first century CE and was commander of the Galilean forces during the Great Revolt -- History of the wars of the Jews and the Romans, book 5, chapter 5:4) explains why the covering which divided the sanctuary from the Holy of Holies in the Temple was made of four threads of color: blue, purple, scarlet, and white. He claimed that the four colors represented the four elements in order to show a model of the world. Blue, the color of the skies, represents air, scarlet represents fire, purple is produced from a mollusk and represents the water from which it came, and white linen comes from the earth and represents it (see diagram above).
Thus, too, do all Medieval commentators explain the Scriptures based on their own understanding of reality. "The earth is full of the Lord's faithful care [earth element]. By a word of the Lord the heavens were made[fire element], by the breath of His mouth [air element], all their host. He heaps up the ocean waters like a mound [water element], stores the deep in vaults" (Psalms 33:5-7). In these verses all four elements are mentioned,for the word "heavens" hint at the element of fire, in "thebreath of His mouth" is a hint to air, and earth is hinted at in both verses (Radak on Psalms 33:7).
The theory of four elements is found in the basic books of Kabbalah,such as Sefer Yetzira and the Zohar. In Sefer Yetzira (written sometime between the second and fourth centuries CE) it is found as a component of the ten sefirot(Sefer Yetzira chapter 1:8). This is the oldest version of the ten sephirot as we know them. In the Zohar we find that Man was created from the four elements: fire and wind and dust and water (Zohar -- Secrets of the Torah volume 1(Genesis), portion of Lech Lecha page 80a; see also Zohar Chadash volume 2 on the Scroll of Ruth, page 41a).
Thus, for example, did Recanati (R' Menachem Recanati, b. Italy,1250-1310, religious arbiter and kabbalist) explain the march of the 12 tribes through the desert divided into the four winds, three tribes to a side (south, north, east, and west), as related in the book of Numbers chapter two. "They shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house" (2:2). "I have already told you that all lower matters correspond to upper matters, and as is done below, so above…Israel was divided under four standards, and under each standard were three tribes…It can be said that the four standards are for the four elements, the four camps of the Shechinah, the four animals who bear the Chariot, and as we ascend higher we can say that all these represent the four attributes of the holy One, blessed be He: mercy, strength, glory, and kingship, as it is written (Song of Songs 2:4) 'His banner of love was over me.' This hints at the four standards, and the camp of the Shechinah was in their center like an eye from above, for the drawings of the Sanctuary were examples of the holy One, blessed be He's glory. The scholars have said [see Zohar part three, page 225a] that the Holy One, blessed be He, created earthly representations of the four elements in the form of man, and they are Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael. Gabriel is the element of water and combines the upper waters with the lower waters of mercy, for he is the High Priest of above and forgives, for mercy forgives sin [Proverbs 16:6], and so he is on the right. Gabriel represents the element of fire, and so he is on the left, and he is the chief of the angelic guard. Uriel represents the element of wind. Light issues from him to the world, for he is on the east. Raphael, in the west, represents the element of dust. The Sages have said that he is charged with the dust stuck beneath the Seat of Glory, which is the primordial material. When we go even higher its is said that the four camps of the Shechinah are influenced by the four attributes we have mentioned, Michael by the mercy, Gabriel by the strength, Uriel by the glory, and Raphael by the Shechinah" (Recanati on Numbers 2:2). The commentators on the Scriptures, both the kabbalists and the plain-text exegetes amongst them, were influenced by their own knowledge about reality when writing their commentaries.
We find an appreciative audience for the theory of four element in Rabbi Saadiah Gaon (Emunot V'Deyot, introduction, section 5 and first essay, section 3), Rabbi Judah HaLevi (The Kuzari, third essay, section 21:60), Maimonides, and the Maharal (Sefer Be'er HaGolah, fifth essay). Maimonides, in particular, often used the theory (Laws of the Foundations of Torah 3:10) and this makes sense, for he often treated Aristotle's philosophy as though it came from G-d Himself.
What is interesting is that the theory of four elements is not mentioned in the Talmud nor in the medrashim.
Towards the end of the 18th century CE Lavoisier of France and Priestly of England discovered that air is a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen, with small amounts of other gasses (water vapor, carbon dioxide, etc.) added in. A shortwhile later it became clear that water, too, is not an element on its own, but rather it is a mixture of the elements oxygen and hydrogen. Similarly, earth is not an element, but a mixture of a great number of compounds, including a small number of elements. The theory of four elements was utterly refuted as a scientific theory. There is no scientist today who would treat it as a theory which could help, even a little, explain the physical world in which we live.
In 1869 Dmitri Mendeleev postulated the periodic table of the elements from which our physical world is composed, including the heavens, which are also built of the same elements. Using the table he could predict the properties of elements which were not yet known. Thus, for example, he correctly predicted the element bromine, which was not known in his days, and that its properties would lie somewhere between those of chlorine and iodine, because it belongs to that group of elements; he prediction was found to be accurate. The periodic table includes some 100 elements, of which about 20 are common in nature (as elements and/or as compounds), and the rest only as traces. Using the periodic table, scientists succeeded in not only explaining an awesome number of natural phenomena and the nature of materials in our world, but also to synthesize millions (!) of new materials, many of which are in use in all areas of our lives, including thousands of medicines, synthetic colors, detergents, plastics, synthetic fibers, and more. It is also important to note that these elements can be broken down into smaller particles under drastic conditions (splitting their atoms) while freeing enormous amounts of energy. This is not the place to expand.
One might think that this spelled the end for the theory of four elements, but it is not so. In our days the "four elements" have become the province of mystics and magicians. Thus, we find "meditation according to the four elements," "the four elements of thetarot," "the four astrological elements," "four elements inthe book of Genesis," and more.
Kabbalists claim that they can give answers to questions touching on our physical world, and this is a great puzzle. The basic kabbalistic literature, like the Zohar and Sefer Yetzira, is supposed to be eternal, yet there we find the theory of four elements as a central motif, as we have seen above, and this theory was meant to explain the physical world.
They find support for the theoretical validity of the four elements in the correlations between their theory and modern physics. They make the claim that the four elements represent the four phases of matter: earth-solid, water-liquid, air-gas, fire-energy. As is written in the Hebrew Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, entry arba'at hayesodot: "There are those who find a correspondence to the four elements in modern science's definition of the three phases of matter: solid (earth), liquid (water), gas (air), and energy (fire) which converts matter from one phase to another." (See also the Imma Adamah site, including the article by Sigal Eliyahu.) Logically, two elements -- water and fire -- should be enough. Water can represent solids (ice), liquids (tap water) and gases (water vapors). We can recall here that in the Talmud (Chagigah 12a) there is a suggestion that the firmament is composed of water and fire. Of course, the whole idea of linking phases of matter (of which there are more than four) as used in physics and chemistry, to material elements is utter nonsense.
In summary, the theory of four elements (earth, water, air, and fire), which at its root was meant to explain the build and behavior of materials in our physical world and which has been utterly refuted, has become the province of magicians and mystics. Indeed, few things refuse to die as steadfastly as the theory of four elements and astrology refuse.
The author is a professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.