The Gemara records a dispute between Beis Shamai and Beis Hillel with regard to what was created first, the heavens (Shamayim) or the earth (Aretz). Beis Shamai says that the Shamayim was created first. Beis Hillel says that the Aretz was created first.
This dispute reflects a fundamental difference in ideology between the two schools. Beis Shamai always focuses on the potential ("Ko'ach") inherent in the subject, while Beis Hillel focuses on the part of that potential which is realized through actions ("Po'el") in the physical world.
Beis Shamai considers the primary component of creation to be the potential that it contains, because the ability to do any act in this world comes from that potential, spiritual energy. The source of all Ruchniyus (spiritual energy) is the Shamayim (from which the Neshamah originates). Since the Shamayim is the primary part of creation, it had to be created first.
Beis Hillel maintains that the "Po'el," the actual execution of actions in the physical world, is the primary component of creation. This is because the world was created for the sake of enabling people to accomplish and perfect themselves in the physical world of Olam ha'Zeh. Since the physical world is the primary part of creation, it had to be created first.
This difference in ideology is expressed in other disputes between Beis Shamai and Beis Hillel. In Shabbos (21b), Beis Shamai and Beis Hillel disagree about how the Chanukah lights are to be kindled. Beis Shamai maintains that they are kindled in descending order, with eight lit on the first night and one lit on the eighth night. Beis Hillel says that they are lit in ascending order, with one lit on the first night and eight lit on the eighth night.
This dispute is based on their difference in ideology. Beis Shamai maintains that the "Ko'ach," or potential, has primary importance. Hence, on the first night of Chanukah, the oil which burned in the Menorah in the Beis ha'Mikdash contained not only the miracle for that night, but also the potential to remain lit for the remaining seven nights. Since the oil contained the potential for eight days of miracles, that number of candles is lit on the first night. Beis Hillel, on the other hand, maintains that the "Po'el," the realization of the potential, is most important. Since only one actual miracle occurred "b'Po'el" on the first night of Chanukah, only one candle is lit. By the eighth night, eight miracles had occurred "b'Po'el" and thus eight candles are lit.
Similarly, in Kesuvos (17a) Beis Shamai says that a Kalah is praised with whatever attributes she has ("Kalah Kemos she'Hi"). This is because a Kalah is praised for her potential ability to endear her Chasan, which is measured according to the attributes inherent in her that are visible to the average person. Beis Hillel, however, says that she is praised with generous words of praise ("Kalah Na'ah v'Chasudah") for attributes which are not readily noticeable in her. This is because she is praised not for her potential, but for what actually occurred: her Chasan was attracted to her, and thus he must have seen in her such noble attributes.
Beis Shamai and Beis Hillel also disagree with regard to the text of the blessing recited over the flame during Havdalah on Motza'i Shabbos. Beis Shamai says that the text is "Bara Ma'or ha'Esh," while Beis Hillel says that the text is "Borei Me'orei ha'Esh." Beis Shamai says that the blessing should be made on the original concept of fire which contained the potential for all future fires. The text of the blessing, therefore, should be in the singular form, "Ma'or," since it is a single concept. In contrast, Beis Hillel says that the blessing should be made on the actual fire which appears before us, which can be described in terms of the different colors that comprise it, and thus it may be referred to in the plural form (see Berachos 52b). (M. KORNFELD)
(This approach is related to the approach presented in Insights to Berachos 52:2 in the name of the ROGATCHOVER GA'ON, who explains that the disputes between Beis Shamai and Beis Hillel reflect their ideological difference as to whether an object's Chomer (substance) or Tzurah (essence) is its primary part. The Rogatchover Ga'on elaborates on this in TESHUVOS TZAFNAS PANE'ACH #50 and in many other places; see the eulogy of the compiler of Teshuvos Tzafnas Pane'ach after Teshuvah #255, Rav Zevin's L'OR HA'HALACHAH, chapter on "snow," footnote 11, Rav Menachem Kasher's introduction to TZAFNAS PANE'ACH on the Torah, Parshas Bereishis.)


The Gemara points out that the Torah describes the details of the creation of the land (Aretz; Bereishis 1:2) before it describes the details of the creation of the heavens (Shamayim), even though the Shamayim was created first (Bereishis 1:1). The Gemara explains (through a metaphor) that the reason is because the Aretz is more praiseworthy than the Shamayim, since it is not the normal manner for the Aretz to act with alacrity and it nevertheless responded swiftly at the time of creation. RASHI explains, "All earthly acts are sluggish, while heavenly acts occur swiftly."
The MAHARAL (in GUR ARYEH to Shemos 12:17, and GEVUROS HASH-M, ch. 36) elaborates on this concept when he explains the meaning of the words of the Mechilta. The verse says, "Guard the Matzos from becoming Chametz, for on this very day I took your multitudes out of Mitzrayim" (Shemos 12:17). Rashi there quotes the Mechilta which says in the name of Rebbi Yoshiyah, "Do not read the word as `Matzos,' but rather as `Mitzvos': 'Keep the Mitzvos from becoming Chametz' -- for just as one should not allow Matzos to ferment, so should one not allow Mitzvos to 'ferment.' Rather, when a Mitzvah comes into your hand, do it immediately." The verse teaches that all Mitzvos must be done with Zerizus, alacrity.
The Maharal questions the Derashah of the Mechilta. First, how can Rebbi Yoshiyah change the reading of the word in the verse in order to superimpose his homiletical interpretation? Normally, there must be some indication from the theme or context of a verse which supports such an interpretation; the suggested "change" in the reading of the verse is merely a tool to demonstrate a point which can be learned from the straightforward reading of the verse itself. What, then, is the connection between the simple meaning of the verse and Rebbi Yoshiyah's homily?
Second, in what way does a Mitzvah become "fermented," or spoiled, if not performed immediately?
The Maharal addresses these two questions by examining the nature of the Mitzvah of Matzah. The Torah says, "Do not eat Chametz...; for seven days you shall eat Matzos... because you left Mitzrayim in haste" (Devarim 16:3). The Torah clearly states that the purpose of the Mitzvah to eat Matzah on Pesach is to remind the Jewish people of the haste with which they left Mitzrayim. They were so hurried that "they baked the dough which they had taken out of Mitzrayim into cakes of Matzah, because they were expelled from Mitzrayim and were not able to delay" (Shemos 12:39; see also Seforno to Shemos 12:17, and the Pesach Hagadah).
Why, though, does the Torah command us to remember that the Exodus occurred so swiftly and suddenly?
The Maharal explains that the lesson of the haste is that Hash-m Himself (as opposed to any natural force) took the Jewish people out of Mitzrayim. Any act done directly by Hash-m takes place instantaneously; there is no element of mass or matter related to Hash-m. A physical object has inertia which it must overcome in order to be set into motion. Hash-m, Whose actions are purely spiritual and are unimpeded by any physical qualities, acts with infinite speed. Furthermore, Hash-m exists outside of the framework of space and time, and, therefore, even when His actions are executed in the physical world they can take place without the passage of time.
This is the key to understanding the Mitzvah of Matzah. The Matzah reminds the Jewish people how rushed the events were at the time of the Exodus. This haste is the mark of a Divine act. It is the sign that the hand of Hash-m was at work, shaping the nation's destiny. "'Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim' -- It was not an angel, Seraph, or messenger, but Hash-m Himself Who took us out of Mitzrayim" (Pesach Hagadah). By requiring that we remember the swiftness of the Exodus, the Torah ensures that the future generations will realize the extent of Hash-m's love for the Jewish people.
This is the meaning behind Rebbi Yoshiyah's interpretation of the verse. The reason why a Mitzvah should be done swiftly is because any act of Hash-m is beyond time. A Mitzvah is the Divine will in this world. When one performs a Mitzvah, he should demonstrate that it is not merely a mundane act. He should show that he is fulfilling the will of the Creator. By performing a Mitzvah with Zerizus, one gives the act the mark of the Creator and shows that the act he is doing is Hash-m's will.
This is also the meaning of the "fermenting" of a Mitzvah. When one performs a Mitzvah slowly, with no eagerness or enthusiasm, he makes it appear as though the Mitzvah is a worldly act ("all earthly acts are sluggish"). In this sense, the Mitzvah becomes "fermented" or "spoiled." In order to prevent a Mitzvah from becoming a fermented, mundane act, one must perform it with the attribute of Zerizus, the attribute of Shamayim, of the spiritual world, to show that it is the will of Hash-m.
QUESTION: The Gemara quotes Rebbi Yosi who says, "Woe to those who see but do not know what they see, and who stand but do not know upon what they stand." He proceeds to describe what supports the world. The world is supported by pillars, which are supported by water. The water is supported by mountains, which are supported by the wind (Ru'ach). The wind is supported by the tempest (Se'arah), which is supported by the mighty arm of the Holy One, Blessed is He.
Why does Rebbi Yosi bemoan the fact that people do not know on what they stand? Why do they have to know what supports them?
ANSWER: The MAHARSHA explains that Rebbi Yosi means that people do not realize that the world depends on the choices they make, and that their proper use of their ability of free choice has a great effect on the state of the world.
1. "The world is supported by the pillars" refers to the pillars of Torah, Avodah, and Gemilus Chasadim, or the pillars of Din, Emes, and Shalom, which sustain the world (Avos 1:2, 1:18).
2. The pillars in turn stand on water, which alludes to the Torah (Bava Kama 17a). It is the Torah which instructs a person how to strengthen the pillars upon which the world stands.
3. "The water is supported by mountains." The mountains refer to the Avos and the Tzadikim (see Megilah 17b). This means that the Torah is supported by the Avos and other Tzadikim, for it is they who choose to use the Torah to create the three pillars that sustain the world.
4. The mountains, in turn, are supported by the wind (Ru'ach), an allusion to the Neshamah (see Bereishis 7:22) which the Tzadikim use to exercise their free choice.
5. The wind is supported by the tempest (Se'arah). "Se'arah" is related to the word "Sa'arah" or "Se'ir" which refers to the Yetzer ha'Ra (which appears as a hair, see Sukah 52a, and is related to Esav, who is also called "Se'ir"). The first step in activating one's free choice is to overcome the Yetzer ha'Ra. (It is the existence of the Yetzer ha'Ra which allows the possibility of Bechirah, free choice.)
6. In turn, the Se'arah stands on the mighty arm of Hash-m, which means that one who desires to overcome the Yetzer ha'Ra cannot do so on his own, but he needs Hash-m's assistance (as the Gemara says in Kidushin 30b).
The dispute between the Tana'im about how many pillars support the world -- twelve, seven, or one -- is based on the Gemara in Makos (24a) which discusses how many primary sets of Mitzvos there are. "David ha'Melech narrowed down the 613 Mitzvos to twelve.... Yeshayah narrowed them down further to six... until Chabakuk came and narrowed them down to one: Emunah, faith in Hash-m." According to the opinion here that there are twelve pillars which support the world, these pillars are the eleven primary Mitzvos plus the Mitzvah of Emunah. According to the opinion here that there are seven pillars, these pillars are the six primary Mitzvos (as Yeshayah counts them) plus the Mitzvah of Emunah. The opinion which says that the world stands on only one pillar is in accordance with the view of Chabakuk who says that there is only one primary Mitzvah, the Mitzvah of Emunah.