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    5. Historical Perspectives on the Role of Oxygen in Photosynthesis

    Table of Contents


    The basic formula for photosynthesis is as follows:

    6CO2 + 12H2O + sunlight <-> C6H12O6 + 6H2O + 6O2 Equation 1

    Historically, the first investigations into the exact formula for photosynthesis presumed that the oxygen generated by the photosynthetic process (the right side of Equation 1) had its source in the carbon dioxide that entered through the leaf (the left side of Equation 1). However, in the 1940s, with the help of radioactive tracing techniques, it was discovered that the oxygen actually originates from the splitting of water that enters the plant through its roots.


    The major components of the photosynthetic process, light, carbon dioxide and water, can be grouped into what we might call uppers and lowers, in accordance with their site of absorption in the plant (the leaves or the roots). The uppers are carbon dioxide and light, while the lowers are the molecules of water. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 12:3) states as follows:

    When G-d created the world, he decreed, saying: "The heavens are heavens for G-d, and the earth He gave to the sons of man." When He sought to give the Torah, He nullified the original decree and said: "The lower realms shall ascend into the upper ones, as the upper realms shall descend into the lower".

    The very presumption that the oxygen produced through photosynthesis has its source in the upper molecules of carbon dioxide and not in the lower molecules of water reflects the mindset associated with G-d's initial decree which divorces the upper realm of Creation (oxygen) from the lower realm (water). The discovery that the oxygen was originating from the water absorbed through the plant's roots, affirms G-d's annulment of that decree, hence 'allowing' the upper and lower realms to intertwine.

    The above correspondence demonstrates that the Torah does not distinguish between the cognitive categories-as scientific, rational and objective as they may seem to be-and moral values (sometimes referred to as ethics) adopted by the observer. The same metaphysical archetypes used by the inner dimension of the Torah (as expressed through Kabbalah and Hassidism), describe (and guide) both our moral and spiritual development, and the growth of our scientific knowledge.

    Or in other words, it is possible to analyze and understand the progressive expansion of our scientific understanding of the physical world using as models the developmental processes of the soul dealt with in the Torah.


    Revisiting our earlier discussion, we find three input ingredients in the process of photosynthesis: light, water, and gas (carbon dioxide). The oxygen atoms in the water convert into oxygen molecules (gas) by the end of the process, while the oxygen atoms in the carbon dioxide (gas) end up as part of the newly generated carbohydrate molecules.


    The three input components of photosynthesis-light, water and carbon dioxide-correspond to the three basic components of Creation as highlighted in Kabbalah: light, water (mayim, mayim), and the firmament (rakia., rakia). The firmament is that element which separates G-dliness (or light) from the lower world (or water). The relationship between these three elements is figuratively depicted in the letter alef, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which comprises an upper point (light), a lower point (water) and a diagonal line separating them (the firmament)[See the explanation of the Torah Science Logo].

    Hence it can be said that photosynthesis manages the interaction between Divine energy and the world. This is expressed both by the descent of carbon dioxide and oxygen atoms into carbohydrates (the source of sweetness in the world), as well as by the ascent of the oxygen atoms of water (the source of earthly pleasure, as taught by our sages: water propagates all manner of pleasure) as the oxygen gas released by the plant (enabling the Divine pleasure of the soul, the 'breath' of G-d).

    This connection between the upper and lower realms finds its most noticeable expression in what the Zohar refers to as 'the union of the upper and lower waters'. According to the commentary Ashmoret Haboker on the Zohar, this union represents the unification of Torah knowledge (higher wisdom) and worldly knowledge (lower wisdom)- or the wisdom of the nations (see "The wisdom of King Solomon"). The hour that best reflects this coming together of the upper and lower realms is that of the third meal on Shabbat afternoon, whose messianic character makes it conducive for contemplating the significance of the plant (tzemah), the symbol of the Mashiah.


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