The Mishna (11b) taught that ma’aseh bereishit – the secrets of creation – can be taught only to a single student, while ma’aseh merkava – the secrets of the supernatural – can only be taught to a single student if he is a scholar who has the ability to understand on his own. How are the terms ma’aseh bereishit and ma’aseh merkava to be understood? The Rambam interprets ma’aseh bereishit as the study of science generally, and ma’aseh merkava as the study of the supernatural. Tosafot and the Bartenura suggest that these involve the study of shemot – use of the holy names of God in an attempt to understand the secrets of creation and Godly intervention in the workings of the world. The Tosafot Yom Tov argues that what is limited is not merely the study and analysis of these secrets, but their use in performing supernatural acts.
Our Gemara brings teachings of the Sages that touch on these areas of study. One example is the dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel about the order of creation. Beit Shammai argues (based on the passage in Bereishit 1:1) that the shamayim – the sky, or firmament – was created before the earth, while Beit Hillel points to a later pasuk (Bereishit 2:4) that seems to indicate that it was the earth that was created before the heavens. Beit Hillel also argues from a logical perspective, that the attic of a house is built only after the foundation and building are complete (see Amos 9:6), while Beit Shammai views the heavens as God’s chair and the earth as His footrest (see Yeshayahu 66:1), and argues that the chair should precede the footrest. A compromise position is laid out by the Hakhamim, who point to another passage in Sefer Yeshayahu (48:13) as indicating that the heavens and earth were created simultaneously. One explanation of this position is that the heavens and earth can be compared to a clay pot and its cover that are placed in the furnace so that they will harden. It is only if they are placed in the furnace together that the potter can be certain that the cover will be a perfect fit to the finished pot.