Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Stylus, Writing and Tablets - Miracles or nature?

In the seminal fifth Mishna of the fifth Perek in Avos where the Mishna lists the ten things created Friday afternoon at the last moments of Creation, the Mishna lists Hakesav, Hamichtav veHaluchos – the Stylus, the Writing and the Tablets. Rambam understands that all miracles are natural events that occur rarely. The low frequency of an event leads us to perceive it as miraculous. The ten events listed are to our perception unnatural or miraculous yet the Mishna refers to them as Devorim – things - not Nissim like the other Mishnayos in that chapter. Rambam explains that other events such as Kryias Yam Suf are natural events that were set in nature at the time water was created however these ten were at the end of the Creation process. I understand that to mean that they are once in history occurrences or the only such artifact ever created. The only one that does not fit is the Keshet, traditionally translated as the Rainbow, which occur frequently. (I am convinced that the “Keshet” has another meaning but I do not know at this time what it is).

The tablets are called “Ma’aseh Elokim”, the writing is called “Michtav Elokim” (shemos 32:16) and the stylus is called “Etzba Elokim” (shemos 31:18). Rambam notes that nature is called similarly “Mo rabu Ma’asecho Hashem” (Tehillim 104:24), while the heavens are referred to as “Ma’aseh Etzbeosecho” (Tehillim 8:4) and therefore concludes that whatever and however the Tablets were, they were a once in history natural occurrence. The Rambam points out that the Rabbis of the Mishna, unlike the current popular culture, tried to minimize and explain as natural any event that could be seen as miraculous. They explained that God when He created the world, as part of His perfection, having Divine knowledge of all past present and future put into nature all the things that humankind will ever need for its development and made them available at the appropriate time in the future. The Tablets were one of those things.

From a modern perspective I think that the Rabbis were addressing the issue of the obvious difficulty we have understanding what exactly happened there and what the Tablets were. The Rabbis address this head on by saying that this being a once in history occurrence and artifact, there is no way that we will ever know concretely what happened. They however tell us not to fall into the trap of thinking that God runs this world in a miraculous way. Even this difficult to understand event was natural and planned, how much more everything else that is less unique. Miracles would be adjustments in nature which if attributed to God, negates His very existence. The definition of God is perfection, adjustments connote imperfection.


  1. The idea that miracles reflect an imperfection runs counter to the religious mind.

  2. JF - You mean religious emotion. Emotion dictated by mind is avodas hashem, mind dictated by emotion is Avoda zara.

  3. David,

    Granted- Miracles are the exceptions to the rules of nature that God created.

    A) Miracles, as the converse to nature, provide proof to God’s sovereignty over nature for He is the only and supreme being who can alter nature. Thus, the only imperfection implied in nature via the miracle is that nature is not its own boss so to speak.

    B) Can you clarify where the Rambam said that miracles detract from the sovereignty of God?

  4. DG: Good point. What I mean is mind distorted by religious emotion.

  5. Shragie

    A. You are repeating Ramban's approach which is legit but not Rambam's. One day I will discuss the two shitos and what drives each and I have a feeling there will be surprises.

    B.Moreh 2:28 and here it is verbatim Pines:

    Thus he imparts in this verse the information that the world is the work of the deity and that it is eternal a parte post#. He also states the cause of its being eternal a parte post; namely, in his words: nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. For this is the cause of its being forever. It is as if he said that the thing that is changed , is changed because of a deficiency in it that should be made good or because some excess that is not needed and should be got rid of. Now the works of the deity are most perfect, and with regard to them there is no possibility of an excess or a deficiency. Accordingly they are of necessity permanently established as they are, for there is no possibility of something calling for a change in them

    There are more places incluiding Shemona Perakim but that will appear in an upcoming article in Hakirah .

  6. So the stick turned into a snake due to fortuitous timing?

    Removing the supernatural miracles from the Torah violates its text and disrespects its authors and history by artificially replacing its original meaning with your own poorly-fitting but more philosophically palatable alternative. What you're describing is not a traditional Judaism, but a syncretism of Orthodox Jewish practice and Unitarian belief. It's a lofty goal, but any attempt to portray your effort as historically authentic or derived from tradition is patently dishonest. Yes, that applies to the Rambam himself too; just replace Unitarianism and modern philosophy with Aristotle and ancient philosophy.

  7. Mis-nagid, I think we have gone over this many times. You are obsessed with history and historical truths while I see Judaism as an ancient religion that has a document they see as Divine as their guide which directs and influences its evolution through history. This document interprets events ontologically in such a way that as each generation grows further and devlops intelectually it can reinterpret the same events according to its new state. This will go on ad infinitum even after Yemos Hamoshiach, probably accelerating with the help of Sanhedrin which will even further push us along. The whole western world has been influenced by this system and with communications slowly the rest of the world is following. Even you Mis-nagid are influenced by your antagonism to it which is exactly as was intended. Keep it up.

  8. keshet in pirkei avos = the keshet of noach's time

  9. Anonymous - Thank you. How could I miss it?

    However what exactly was that Keshet? I know Ramban et al. but I don't find it convincing. Until I do i will lreave it with a question mark in my mind.