The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit
Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers
Shiur 17: Are Miracles
By Rav Moshe Taragin
This shiur is dedicated to Dr. William Major z"l.
The sixth mishna of the fifth perek describes ten items which
were created during dusk of the sixth day of creation. These items, which
figured prominently in various supernatural miracles, include: the chasm which
engulfed Korach and his crew, Miriam's well which provided water during the
forty year desert journey, Bil'am's talking donkey, a rainbow, the manna,
Moshe's staff, the shamir insect used to carve stones for the
mikdash (temple) without employing metal, and fonts of the luchot
(tablets) which miraculously were visible from either side.
In a famous 'dissertation' the Rambam infers from our mishna
that all miracles were preprogrammed into nature. Since God is eternal and
unchanging, a miracle cannot constitute a sudden shift in Divinely installed
laws of nature. Instead, God already programmed miraculous events, as evidenced
by their creation at the margins of the creation week. The Me'iri - in
explaining the advantages of the Rambam's position, asserts a second facet which
would inspire this position. A system which already contains 'built in' miracles
reinforces the sense of Divine justice. God has already predetermined and
pre-established reward and punishment - even when this Providence is realized
through 'supernatural' means.
In addition to our mishna, the Rambam cites a midrash which
describes God creating all natural forces, but conditioning their creation upon
their willingness to comply with future miraculous interventions. The Rambam
felt that this midrash as well, asserts the pre-encoding of miracles. To be
sure, the midrash is not as dramatic as the mishnah; the former speaks of
pre-conditioning while the latter speaks of pre-programming. In attempting to
defend the Rambam without eliminating the universally accepted doctrine of
Divine intervention, the Me'iri slightly emends his doctrine. He reasons that
though God already established 'His will' that these miracles should occur,
(thereby preserving God’s unchanging nature), the miracles themselves were not
actually set into motion but merely existed 'in potential.' In suggesting this
compromise the Me'iri aims to preserve the content of the mishna and the
Rambam's doctrine, without eliminating the interventional nature of miracles.
The miracles were not ACTUALLY PREPROGRAMMED but PREDESIGNED. Either way, the
mishna speaks of these designs or programming in a way that the midrash does
The Rambam himself questions the listing of these ten items and
the omission of other miracle-significant items (the parted waters of the Yam
Suf, the stalled sun of Yehoshua) and reasons that indeed these miracles were
also preprogrammed to their respective natural forces. During the day in which a
particular item was created, (for example the second day of creation during
which the waters were created) Hashem encoded that the water of Yam Suf should
part during the exodus. The Rambam does not clarify the reason that these ten
enumerated miracle agents were scheduled 'after' the completion of the six day
creation while other miracles were incorporated within the basic six days
In an attempt to answer this question and defend the Rambam's
position, the Me'iri suggests that most of these miracles concerned ANIMALS,
(the talking donkey) or events meant to reward, punish or sustain HUMANITY. As
such they were created during dusk of the sixth day during which animals and man
were created. This solution would seem to merely raise additional 'questions' as
the parting of the Yam Suf was intended to punish wicked humans as well, and,
according to the Me'iri's logic, should have also been included during the sixth
day during which man was created.
In fact, our version of the mishna states that these items were
created during dusk immediately prior to Shabbat, which would echo the fact that
these ten elements 'shatter' nature. They were not actually created as part of
the six day creation of nature proper, but were nonetheless included within the
creation week signifying that miracles are predetermined and preprogrammed.
Other versions of the mishna assert that these items were fashioned during dusk
– but not necessarily during dusk of the final day. This version would lend even
greater credibility to the Rambam's stance – essentially eliminating any
potential differences between the enumerated ten and all other miracle agents.
This principle (reiterated in the Moreh Nevukhim 2:29) lodges
an astounding claim about miracles. Essentially, God does not INTERVENE in
nature but rather pre-establishes changes which occur as part of the basic
system. Obviously this position elicited much disapproval as it rejects a basic
premise of Jewish theology: that God constantly recreates the world anew in
alignment with the rules of nature and periodically intervenes in miraculous
fashion in a manner which contravenes nature.
In response to the Rambam, the Me'iri and others interpret the
mishna in a less literal fashion. Instead of adopting the chronological
connotations of the mishna it should be read as merely axiological. The mishna
does not intend that these items were actually created or instituted prior to
human history. As needs arose these items were supernaturally supplied by God.
However, the entire creation was CONTINGENT upon these events – since each was
pivotal in establishing or preserving the Jewish nation. As the world was only
created to expose humanity to God, and as the Jewish nation plays a crucial role
in this process, the world's existence is conditioned upon the survival of the
Jewish people. The mishna is not describing an actual INSTALLATION of miracles,
as much as reminding us of the REASON for which this world was created.
By adopting this position, the Me'iri solves the aforementioned
question of why these ten were listed and not others. These ten articles play
unique roles in the national and religious history of the Jewish people, and
they are mentioned as pivotal to our survival and the existence of our world.
One could still wonder at the exclusion of the Yam Suf waters, but,
alternatively better understand the inclusion of the shamir insect,
Moshe's burial site and the ram which Avraham sacrificed at Har Ha-moria. From a
natural standpoint these miracles do not surpass more dramatic events which are
not listed. However, from a national standpoint, each of these articles figures
prominently in the development of Jewish history.