Thursday, July 06, 2006

Form and Substance (Matter) -

Scholars, when they study Rambam’s philosophical/theological writings, focus on the historical context in which those works were authored. As Rambam based his theology on medieval Aristotelian philosophy interpreted by Muslim thinkers, scholars read him in that context. A man of religion who is looking to Rambam to help him with his beliefs must translate those ideas into contemporary language, for them to have any value. I have attempted to do that with some success, (a personal judgment), enough to give me confidence that, with a lot of hard work, the same is possible in other areas that still seem obscure. One of the difficult ideas that I have struggled with is Form and Substance or Matter, a crucial component in Rambam’s thought process. I am going to try to deal with it in this post and ask for input if anyone can help clarifying further.

One of the basic ideas in Rambam’s thought is that everything physical has two components – Matter and Form. It is a mental construct that helps one understand things. Matter is the Physical component which needs Form to make it what it is. For example water is a combination of the atoms of two gases, oxygen and hydrogen. The idea behind the combination, the amount of each component and the method used to combine them, is what medieval thinkers referred to as Form. The concept that the combination of the two gases will result in water existed before water came into being. The concept itself is seen as an existing non-physical entity. Rambam in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 4:7 explains this as follows: (my translation paraphrased)

לעולם אין אתה רואה גולם בלא צורה, או צורה בלא גולם. אלא לב האדם--הוא שמחלק הגוף הנמצא בדעתו, ויודע שהוא מחובר מגולם וצורה, ויודע שיש שם גופים שגולמם מחובר מארבע יסודות, וגופים שגולמם פשוט ואינו מחובר מגולם אחר. והצורות שאין להם גולם, אינן נראין לעין, אלא בעין הלב הם ידועים, כמו שידענו אדון הכול בלא ראיית עין.

"One never sees Matter without Form or Form without Matter. It is man that separates, the body that he visualizes in his mind, into the two components; Matter and Form. He knows that there are bodies that are composed of four elements while others are simple and composed of only one. Forms without Matter are not visible but are concepts just like we know [of the existence] of the Creator of everything without seeing."

The last words in this Halacha כמו שידענו אדון הכול בלא ראיית עין. as I read them are extremely important and emphasize how crucial it is to understand this concept of Form. It is only if this is clear in our minds that we will be able to grasp Rambam’s ideas about God.

Rambam applies this idea to almost every area of theological exploration. One of those is right at the start of Moreh Hanevuchim where he discusses what makes man different. What the Torah refers to as Tzelem, Rambam explains as follows in Moreh 1:1-

In the phrase" Let us make man in our Tzelem" (Gen. i. 26), the term signifies" the specific form" of man, viz., his intellectual perception, and does not refer to his" figure" or" shape."

The Form of man is what differentiates him from other living things. It is as if when God planned Creation, he prepared a list of the different living organisms He was going to bring about. In that list the characteristic that differentiates man from the others would be his intellectual perception. That concept in God’s mind, so to speak, is the Form or Tzelem in the verse.

In a similar vein one can visualize the laws of physics that govern the Universe as the Form of the world. When a person understands one of these laws his personal Form, the intellect, fuses with that other Form, the particular law of physics and they become one. (Read Moreh 1:68 with this in mind.)

I would appreciate any and all comments and input that would improve my presentation.


  1. I have tried to do the same thing with the treatment in our writings of the "four elements" since such science does not really contribute much to our modern understanding of the physical world.

    I now think of it in terms of the 3 passive forms matter can take (adama=solid,mayim=liquid,avir=gas) and the ability of matter to express its energies onto that which is external to it (eish=combustion).

    Such a formulation often actually fits better into the natual symbolism that those who used it were trying to communicate and allows us to grasp the underlying concepts which they were trying to communicate to us using the physical model available to them at the time.

  2. Chardal, that is excellent. The problem is how do you explain the combimnations of a solid and liquid, or gas ans solid? I therefore prefer not to focus on the specific 4 elements but rather on elements combining. Instead of four there are more just like Galagalim Rambam says the number varies from seven to 54 depending how you look at it.

    I will however keep your idea in mind and play with it.

  3. The problem is how do you explain the combimnations of a solid and liquid, or gas ans solid

    I would figure that the idea is that there exists within the item in question the ideas represented by each of these "elements."

    The underlying symbols are far more important than the physical description of the object.

  4. I love this idea I heard a tape on it from the maharal very cool.

  5. Oh did you hear that matter is compared to men and substance to women hope I didn't confuse the 2. I forgot the rest.

  6. Frustrated Mom - you reversed it. I will write about it. Rambam sees that metaphor in a lot of places. Medieval Maimonideans carried it to the extreme saying that Avraham stands for Form and Sarah for matter. That was one of the sparks that started the controversy and Cherem.

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