Isaiah quotes G-d as saying that the entire world 'for My Glory/Honor I
have created it, I have made it, I have done it'. The four terms are
taken to imply that each step of creation had four parts, or perhaps,
was felt by the created in four different ways.
Since, as it says in Pirke Avos, the world was created with 10 utterances
by Hashem, we get 10x4 = 40 acts of creation.
Using this source, R. Aryeh Kaplan finds significance of the 40 se'ah of water
required in a mikvah [ritual bath]. In addition, it explains why the letter
mem, named for mayim, water, is the one with a numerical value of 40.
in a mikvah is a symbolic rebirth.
Using this notion of rebirth we get the already mentioned 40 days of rain
in the days of Noach, 40 years in the desert, etc...
Also, if we eliminate one of these 40 acts, since creatio ex nihilo can't
be done by people, we get 39 acts of creation that can be imitated by
man. Compare this to the 39 prohibited categories of work that may not
be done on Shabbos. We rest from the human equivalents of these 39
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