Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Rambam: Life and
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Rav Eli Hadad
Classifying the Various Opinions Regarding Providence
The Difference between Man and Animals
The Drowning of R. David
Providence by Means of the Intellect
The Laws of Fasting
We saw in the
previous lecture that Maimonides chooses to see regularity as the fundamental
format of world, rather than to view the world as an expression of a free will
that constantly creates it anew. Nevertheless, he does not negate the
possibility of Divine will, but only limits its expression to the moment of
creation and to the few miracles that on rare occasions become necessary.
individual providence possible in a world founded upon regularity and
constancy? By its very nature, individual providence reacts to the individual's
actions and relates to his ways, protects him from sudden calamities and
punishes him for his sins. If the world is based upon regularity and God's
miraculous intervention in the world is limited to a small number of cases, how
does He watch over a person's actions and respond to them?
1. CLASSIFYING THE VARIOUS
OPINIONS REGARDING PROVIDENCE
Maimonides deals with the problem of providence in a series of chapters
in the third part of his Guide of the Perplexed (chaps. 8-24). In chapter
17, he classifies the various views on providence and establishes his own
position, but he emphasizes that these opinions "are all ancient, that is to
say, opinions that have been heard at the time of the prophets." This comment
seems to be alluding that the foundations of the various opinions may be found
already in Scripture, and, indeed, Maimonides sees in Job and his friends
representatives of the different views on providence.
The five opinions presented by Maimonides may be divided into two groups.
The first group is comprised of the opinion of Epicurus that there is no
providence at all, and that everything happens by chance. Maimonides does not
feel challenged by this view, because, in his opinion, the regularity of the
world proves that it cannot have been generated by chance alone. The position of
Epicurus is scientifically unreasonable. The other four opinions accept the
principle of providence, but disagree as to its nature and scope.
Aristotle limits Divine providence to the species, to the exclusion of
individuals. The species are an expression of God's wisdom, and they are
determined by that wisdom, and this in effect is providence. The accidental
aspects of the world express the fact that the particulars of a species do not
absolutely match the general regularity. Each individual exhibits deviations
that are randomly assigned or arbitrarily selected. Therefore, actions that do
not follow from the natural order do not stem from God's providence. Aristotle
establishes his position by reflecting upon the world; therefore repeated and
constant regularity reflects God's wisdom and providence, and unforeseen,
accidental actions point to the fact that they do not derive from His wisdom.
The view of Aristotle will be the focus of Maimonides' rebuttal.
The two other opinions cited by Maimonides are those of the Moslem
philosophers: the Ash'ariyya and the Mu'tazila. The first sees all of existence
as a direct result of God's will; everything is determined by that will,
the free will of man playing no role whatsoever. According to this view, total
providence wipes out all freedom, and leaves no room for man or any other
creature to act of his own volition. Needless to say, Maimonides does not accept
According to the second view, man is able to act of his own volition, and
all of God's actions stem from wisdom and justice. Every injustice in the
world, whether against man or beast, comes to benefit the person or the animal
in the world-to-come. This principle is also unacceptable to Maimonides, though
he recognizes that some Jewish sages agree with it. The issue of providence
relates to this world and not to other worlds. Moreover, the very assumption
that God inflicts harm in order to pay reward is an attribution of "robbery" to
that He is like a person who first robs his fellow man and then compensates him
for what he stole from him.
The last position presented by Maimonides is that of the Torah.
Maimonides does not describe it in simple fashion, but rather he describes the
various positions that developed over the course of Jewish history based on the
Torah. He first describes the view of the Torah itself, then the majority
position among the Sages, the minority position among them, the view of the last
Geonim (apparently that of R. Sa'adya Gaon) and finally his own position. We
shall not describe this development, even though the very assertion that the
Torah's position has undergone development is somewhat novel. Rather, we shall
content ourselves with an analysis of Maimonides' interpretation of this
2. THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MAN
Maimonides' point of departure is the Torah's distinction between man and
animals regarding Divine providence. On this point all the aforementioned
opinions are defective. Neither Aristotle nor the Moslem philosophers
distinguish in any way between man and animals; both are governed by the same
According to Aristotle, God's providence is over the species and not over
individuals. Maimonides comments upon this with cynicism:
instance, if a hurricane or a wind of less than hurricane force should blow, it
would indubitably bring some leaves of this particular tree to fall, break a
branch of another tree, topple a stone from a certain fence, raise up the dust
so that it covers a certain plant and causes its destruction, and agitate great
waves in the water so that a ship that is there would founder and so that all
the people that are on board, or at least some of them, would be drowned.
Consequently, according to them, there is no difference between the fall of the
leaf and the fall of the stones, on the one hand, and the drowning of the
excellent and superior men that were on board the ship, on the other.
Similarly he does not differentiate between an ox that defecates upon a host of
ants so that they die, or a building whose foundations are shaken upon all the
people at their prayers who are found in it so that they die. And there is no
difference, according to him, between a cat coming across a mouse and devouring
it or a spider devouring a fly, on the one hand, or a ravenous lion meeting a
prophet and devouring him, on the other.
According to the Ash'ariyya, everything results from God's will, whereas
according to the Mu'tazila, even animals are treated justly in the same way as
humans, and they too will merit the world-to-come for their actions. Here too
Maimonides relates with cynicism to this position:
when a flea and a louse are killed, it is necessary that they have a
compensation for them from God. They say in the same way that if this mouse,
which has not sinned, is devoured by a cat or a hawk, His wisdom has required
this with regard to the mouse and that the latter will receive compensation in
the other world for what has happened to it.
Later in the chapter, Maimonides presents his own view:
do not by any means believe that this particular leaf has fallen because of a
providence watching over it; nor that this spider has devoured this flea because
God has now decreed and willed something concerning individuals; nor that the
spittle spat by Zayd has moved till it came down in one particular place upon a
gnat and killed it by a Divine decree and judgment; nor that when this fish
snatched this worm from the face of the water, this happened in virtue of a
Divine volition concerning individuals. For all this is in my opinion due to
pure chance, just as Aristotle holds.
Regarding animals, Maimonides agrees with Aristotle: Divine providence is
limited to the species, to the exclusion of individuals. God established the
fundamental order of the world, and animals and plants are subject to this
order. Human beings, in contrast, are subject to Divine providence, each person
according to his level.
According to me, as I
consider the matter, Divine providence is consequent upon the Divine overflow;
and the species with which this intellectual overflow is united, so that it
became endowed with intellect and so that everything that is disclosed to a
being endowed with the intellect was disclosed to it, is the one accompanied by
divine providence, which appraises all its actions from the point of view of
reward and punishment. If, as he states, the foundering of a ship and the
drowning of those who were in it and the falling-down of a roof upon those who
were in the house, are due to pure chance, the fact that the people in the
ship were on board and that the people in the house were sitting in it is,
according to our opinion, not due to chance, but to Divine will in accordance
with the deserts of those people as determined in His judgments, the rule of
which cannot be attained by our intellects.
DROWNING OF R. DAVID
Before trying to explain Maimonides' position, I would like to focus
attention to one of the many examples that he offers. I refer to the example
marked above in bold regarding the foundering of a ship and the drowning of
those aboard, including important and distinguished people. Maimonides asserts
that even if the ship foundered due to pure chance, it was not by chance that
specific people had boarded it.
In light of the above, it is difficult not to recall a most traumatic
event in Maimonides' life, the drowning of his brother, R. David.
In 1177, R. David drowned in the Indian Ocean, after having set out to sea on a
business trip aboard a ship that also carried property belonging to Maimonides.
Maimonides painfully describes the incident in a letter to R. Yefet the
the great evil that has befallen me of late, which is worse than any other
evil that has ever befallen me to this day, namely, the death of the
righteous man, of blessed memory, who drowned in the Indian Ocean, together
with a great fortune belonging to me, to him, and to others, leaving a young
daughter and a widow with me. And I remained for about a year following the
arrival of the evil tiding, prostrate in bed, with a festering eruption, with
inflammation, and with astonishment of heart, and I almost perished. From
then until today, almost eight years, I grieve and find no consolation. What
should console me? Surely he was a son, growing up on my knees, and he was a
brother, and he was a student. And it was he who engaged in business in the
marketplace, earning a livelihood, while I lived in security. He was swift in
his understanding of the Talmud, he had a keen grasp of language, and I had no
joy outside of his company. All joy has turned gloomy, he has departed for
eternal life, and he has left me frightened in a foreign land. Whenever I see
something written in his hand or one of his books, my heart turns over and stirs
my sorrow. To summarize: "I will go down to my son mourning into She'ol." Were
it not for the Torah which is my delight, and the words of wisdom through which
I forget my sorrow, I should have perished in my affliction.
We are certainly dealing here with the drowning of a great and
distinguished person, one whom Maimonides calls "a righteous man" and whose
wisdom he praises. Even if the ship foundered by chance, his brother's boarding
of the ship was not by chance, but rather subject to God's providence. This
providence is connected to the Divine overflow that overflowed onto the
intellect of the righteous R. David. How are we to understand this
4. PROVIDENCE THROUGH THE
It is possible to explain in simple manner that God's providence over
each individual depends upon his level. This understanding, however, will lead
us to the necessary conclusion that the world is full of miracles, by which God
intervenes in the world in order to watch over individual people. This
understanding is negated both by a precise analysis of Maimonides' wording, and
by his overall conception. We shall, therefore, see that this providence watches
over man by way of the intellect itself. A person's intellect is the
overflow by means of which God watches over him as an individual. That is, a
person's considerations that lead him to conduct of one type or another impact
upon the results of his actions, upon his reward and punishment. Thus, in the
end, a person's very decision to board a ship determines his fate.
The more a person expands his knowledge and comprehends the world in a
more perfect manner, the more he will conduct himself in accordance with his
intellect and reduce the injury he will suffer due to chance circumstances of
the world. Absolute knowledge of the world and conduct that matches such
knowledge will lead of necessity to absolute providence. Since, however, there
is nobody who is not limited in his intelligence, there is nobody who is not
subject in some degree to chance. We are accustomed to see God's providence over
individuals in the exceptional and surprising events of our lives, but according
to Maimonides the basis of providence is the natural order, on the one hand, and
man's intellect which recognizes this order and coordinates himself with it, on
the other. This intellect is not sealed inside a person's personality, but
rather it is fed by the Divine overflow that reaches it, and this, therefore, is
God's providence over him. God watches over a person by way of the overflow that
overflows his intellect. The greater a person's wisdom, the more he is watched
over by his intellect.
In his Guide (III, 12), Maimonides asserts that there is more good
in the world than evil. He divides the evil found in the world into three
The evil due to the materiality of nature. These evils harm man by way of
natural processes, such as great natural catastrophes, earthquakes and floods,
or by way of congenital deformities and illnesses. These evils are the rarest
evils in the world.
The evils that men cause one another. These evils include wars between
nations and crimes committed within a country. These evils are more numerous
than those caused by nature.
The evils that are inflicted upon a person by his own actions. The
majority of evils befalling a person are self-inflicted. These evils are far
more numerous than all the other evils in the world. These evils are caused by a
person's impulses that lead him to excessive eating and pursuit of luxuries, to
the absence of self-control and the like.
three principal ways of dealing with these evils: science, politics, and
ethics. The evils of the first type can be reduced through science and
technology. The evils of the second type can be reduced through proper
government and proper conducting of foreign relations and the defense
establishment. The evils of the third type can be reduced by way of self-control
and perfection of a person's character traits. All of these means are in man's
control and all of them are dependent upon man's intellect and the way he
conducts his life in accordance with it. Obviously, there are many limitations
that a person must overcome, and they cannot be resolved all at once, but only
by way of a continuous process of development. The evils of the first and second
type do not depend upon the individual, but upon the state of science and the
political regime to which he is subject. Since, however, most evils are of the
third type, each individual can deal with most evils on his own, this too by way
of personal processes of development and great effort. This being the case, a
person's actions determine the level of personal providence over him; God
watches over the individual primarily by way of his
relates to the last two types of evil: perfecting the state and perfecting the
character traits of the individual. The messianic king is supposed to impose the
political regime of the Torah and deal thereby with the evils of the second
type. As Maimonides asserts, "the sole difference between the present and the
messianic days is delivery from servitude to foreign powers."
The Messiah's political regime, according to the Torah, will draw in its wake
desirable consequences: "At that time, there will be no famine or war, no
jealousy or competition, for good will profuse greatly and all delights will be
as common as dust."
There will be economic abundance and political security, that will lead also to
internal social justice, without envy and competition, and without crime. Most
of the other mitzvot are meant to perfect the character traits of the
individual and educate him. This education is meant to lead each person,
according to his level, to a reduction in his subjugation to evils of the third
5. THE LAWS OF
It is interesting to note that in the course of illustrating the evils of
the third type, Maimonides mentions once again the dangers involved in setting
out to sea aboard a ship in pursuit of luxuries.
whereas all necessary things are restricted and limited, that which is
superfluous is unlimited. If, for instance, your desire is directed to having
silver plate, it would be better if it were of gold; some have crystal plate;
and perhaps plate is procured that is made out of emeralds and rubies, whenever
these stones are to be found. Thus every ignoramus who thinks worthless thoughts
is always sad and despondent because he is not able to achieve the luxury
attained by someone else. In most cases such a man exposes himself to great
dangers, such as arise in sea voyages and the service of kings; his aim
therein being to obtain these unnecessary luxuries. When, however, he is
stricken by misfortunes in these courses he has pursued, he complains about
God's decree and predestination, and begins to put the blame on the temporal and
to be astonished at the latter's injustice in not helping him to obtain
great wealth, which would permit him to procure a great deal of wine so as
always to be drunk and a number of concubines adorned with gold and precious
stones of various kinds so as to move him to copulate more than he is able so as
to experience pleasure - as if the end of existence consisted merely in the
pleasure of such an ignoble man.
Did Maimonides believe that his brother's voyage was inappropriate?
A letter written by R. David to his brother, Maimonides, has been
uncovered in the Cairo geniza. The letter was sent from the port city of
Idav in the Sudan before R. David sailed off for the Indian Ocean. We are not
dealing with the same trip mentioned above, but rather with a voyage that took
place in 1171. R. David tries to calm Maimonides, so that he not worry about
him. The letter implies that this is the first time that R. David is setting
sail for the Indian Ocean.
An autobiographical note attributed to Maimonides mentions various dates
related to his flight from Spain to Eretz Israel. One of the dates recorded
there is the date of his brother's return, safe and sound, from his first
Tuesday, the twelfth of Sivan,
God saw my afflictions and my brother returned safely, and I made it a
day of charity and fasting.
Maimonides' great anxiety concerning his brother is clearly evident here.
Moreover, before recording this date, he writes about his flight from Spain to
Saturday night, the fourth of Iyyar, I set out to sea. On the Sabbath, the tenth
of Iyyar, in the year 4925 to Creation,
a great wave almost drowned us, and the sea was raging. I took a vow that on
these two days I would fast, and conduct myself as on a full-fledged communal
fast, myself, my family, and my entire household. And I will instruct my
children to do the same until the end of generations, and to give charity in
accordance with their ability. My vow included that I would sit in seclusion
on the tenth of Iyyar, I would not see anybody, but rather I would pray and read
all day to myself. Just as on that day at sea I found nobody but the Holy One,
blessed be He, so will I not see anybody or sit with him, unless I am
compelled to do so.
on Saturday night, the third of Sivan, I safely disembarked and arrived in Acre,
and I was saved from persecution, and we reached Eretz Israel. That day I
vowed to be a day of gladness and joy, feasting and presents for the poor,
for me and my family until the end of all generations.
The dangers posed by the sea familiar to Maimonides through personal
experience belong to the first class of evils, the evils of nature, which man
cannot overcome with his intellect. But a person's entry aboard a ship is
certainly dependent upon his decision, which is an agent of Divine providence.
Even if Maimonides thought it was necessary for him to board the ship in order
to escape persecution, he may not have thought the same about his brother's
voyage that was undertaken for business purposes.
But what is the meaning of marking those days by way of vows as fast days
or as days of feasting and celebration? How can this be integrated into
Maimonides' fundamental understanding that providence operates through the
regularity of nature and the human intellect?
beginning of the Laws of Fasting, Maimonides writes that there is a Torah
commandment to fast over a misfortune that befalls the community, and in the
continuation he notes that the individual must also fast over his personal
misfortunes. He explains this mitzva as follows:
This is one of the paths to repentance. When misfortune arrives and people cry
out in prayer and sound the trumpets, they will all know that evil befell
them because of their evil actions, as it is written: "Your iniquities have
turned away…" (Jeremiah 5:25). This will cause them to remove the calamity from
However, if they do not cry out and do not sound the trumpets, but rather they
say: "This is just a natural occurrence, the problem is mere happenstance,"
this is cruelty which causes them to cling to their evil ways and will bring
about more misfortune. This is what the Torah means when it says: "If you remain
indifferent (be-keri) to me, then I will be indifferent to you in fury
(chamat keri)" (Vayikra 26:27-28). In other words, when I bring misfortune
upon you so that you should repent, if you say that it is mere chance
(keri), I will add to it the fury of that chance.
A fast must
cause a person to change his ways and improve his character traits. Indeed,
Maimonides did not suffice with fasting, which even by itself has value with
respect to the improvement of morals, but he also committed himself to give
charity and designated the day for seclusion that includes prayer and study.
In that way, Maimonides turned the fast into a vehicle for repentance and
self-improvement. The question remains, however, what is the meaning of the
argument that one should not relate to such misfortunes as accidents. Surely,
according to the Guide, evils of the first type are due to chance that by
necessity governs the material world!
asserts that attributing chance to the world leads a person to cruelty, that is,
to hardening of the heart, and this is certainly an evil trait. But the question
remains whether, according to Maimonides, there is no truth to the argument that
the misfortune befell the person by chance.
It may be
suggested that a person always determines his actions; nothing is by chance, but
they depend upon his level. Maimonides' fundamental insistence on allowing room,
not only for Divine wisdom, but also for Divine will in His relationship to the
world, must, however, leave a person in constant doubt as to the cause of a
specific event. It is true that in the great majority of cases, what happens to
a person results from his material nature, but perhaps this one time he merited
that God should relate to Him by way of His will, and not only His
wisdom. This uncertainty must lead a person to exhaust this possibility and
embark upon the path of repentance.
(Translated by David Strauss)
This series is posted in
conjunction with the Maimonides Heritage Center, http://www.maimonidesheritage.org.