Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"Miracles" as Anomalies in Nature - The Will of God at Creation.

Basing himself on the Mishna Avot 5:5, Rambam sees all “miracles” as anomalies in nature. When HKBH put in place the rules of nature, these rules had in them the possibility for rare phenomena to occur under certain conditions. As Rambam explains in his commentary, God created water with the possible ability for it to flow upwards, against gravity. What or who triggers this anomalous phenomenon? Does it require the input of an outside sentient catalyst? Or does it occur naturally when certain conditions serendipitously[1] come together? As I read him, Rambam opts for the latter but with a twist – God’s will.

The concept of will when attributed to God is very complicated. I have discussed it at length in my article on Miracles (link available on sidebar) and I refer the interested reader to it. Summarizing, if we say that God wills miracles as necessary, reacting to human needs, we are lessening His omniscience. We are saying that He does not have the ability to foresee problems and has to step in to adjust His universe as it goes along. We therefore limit will to one time only – at creation – where all future events that require will were willed. Of course, the terms “at creation”, “were willed” are all equivocal terms that we, as humans, use to express ourselves. God is not time bound and to Him past, present and future are the same. It is only from our perspective that we assign time and even the concept of will to HKBH. Taking this into consideration we can say that all natural anomalies and when they will occur, when the proper conditions will come together for any one of them to occur, has been willed and put in place by God at creation.

If anomalies are natural events, what is miraculous about them? This brings us back to our treatise. Rambam the great teacher that he is, discusses in the treatise concepts that at first blush seem to be side issues and superfluous to the present discussion. It is only after reflection that we realize that it is in fact an integral part of the whole presentation. It is in this vein that almost as a throwaway, Rambam ends the treatise with a section about what defines miracles. He divides miracles into two general categories: those that are “naturally impossible” and those that are “naturally possible”.

Examples of the “naturally impossible” are the transformation of the staff into a serpent, the sinkhole at the Korach rebellion and the splitting of the sea.

הוא שהנפלאות פעמים יהיו בעניינים הנמנעים בטבע, כהתהפך המטה לנחש ושקיעת הארץ בעדת קרח ובקיעת הים

It is noteworthy that of these three examples, two, the sinkhole and serpent are mentioned in the Mishna Avot 5:5 as having been created at dusk on Friday of Creation. The third, the splitting of the sea, Rambam explains in his commentary on the Mishna that it was put into the nature of water at creation[2]. The word טבע is therefore not just nature in this context. It means regularly occurring natural phenomena as opposed to rare anomalies. Anomalies are part of the fabric of nature but are seen as “impossible” because they occur very rarely and therefore unpredictable or “impossible” - הנמנעים בטבע.

So what makes them into miracles? It is the timing. When they occur at the proper time and can be taken advantage of by people, they are seen as miracles. The word miracle in Hebrew is נס which can also translate “flag”. Rambam in MN 3:24 in a related discussion about נסיון – test – explains that it is like bringing up a flag on a flagpole, teaching the whole world a specific lesson. When a natural anomaly occurs at the right time for people to take advantage of, it teaches that God willed it at creation and that it is not just a coincidence, thus a miracle – נס. It also teaches that God wills. It reminds us that God willed the world into existence. It did not exist eternally together with a First Cause that had no will. That is the rationale for the Mitzvot, such as Pessach, other Yamim Tovim and those that require Zachor that demand we remember the miracles.

Now we can understand that “miracles”, natural anomalies that occur at propitious times, are not caused by some outside sentient catalyst. We see them as willed by God at creation. This only works if we accept creation from nothing which was willed by God. In an eternal world, where God is concomitant with it and has no will, the only other possible explanation for a propitious anomalous phenomenon would be magic or trickery.

People at that time all belonged to the Sabeans who believed that the world is eternal. They believed that God is the “spirit” of the sphere as we explained in the Moreh. Their belief necessitates the denial of miracles ascribing them to magic or trickery.

For such events to be seen as “miracles” they cannot be long lasting or they will lose their status as anomalies. Rambam makes the point at length here in the treatise and in his discussion of this in MN 2:29.

I said earlier that the fact that these anomalies happen at a propitious time makes us see them as miracles. In my article, I also showed that the ability of a prophet to predict and take advantage of these anomalies, expecting their occurrence and counting on them through intuitive or whatever other prophetic quality that allows for that, is part of this concept of miracles.

Not only anomalies teach us about God’s will. “Naturally possible” miracles do too.

I will discuss this in my next post.

[1] I added serendipitously because of MN 2:29 - For although the rod was turned into a serpent, the water into blood, the pure and noble hand into a leprous one, without the existence of any natural cause that necessitated this. The way I read the underlined is that the conditions that came together to create the anomaly were not necessitated but serendipitous thus attributable to the will of God at creation.

[2] . Rambam bases this on the Midrash Rabah Breishit 5:5

אמר ר' יוחנן

: תנאין התנה הקב"ה עם הים שיהא נקרע לפני ישראל, הדא הוא דכתיב (שמות יד

וישב הים לאיתנו,

לתנאו שהתנה עמו

אמר רבי ירמיה בן אלעזר:

לא עם הים בלבד התנה הקדוש ברוך הוא, אלא עם כל מה שנברא בששת ימי בראשית, הדא הוא דכתיב (ישעיה מה):

אני ידי נטו שמים וכל צבאם צויתי


  1. > וישב הים לאיתנו,

    לתנאו שהתנה עמו

    אמר רבי ירמיה בן אלעזר:

    לא עם הים בלבד התנה הקדוש ברוך הוא, אלא עם כל מה שנברא בששת ימי בראשית, הדא הוא דכתיב (ישעיה מה

    I wonder about this derash. true,the letters of 'eitano' are the same as 't'nao',but by using this method one can "prove"anything..it becomes a word game.
    I suppose one can justify by saying that Chazal had the idea that all miracles were already included at creation,& they looked for an asmachta for this idea,& they found it in the words 'tenao',eitano',even though the 2 words are not related at all.

  2. That is why when the messiah comes there will be no difference in nature. If there would be constant miracles then they would no longer be considerd anomolies and therefore by definition not a miracle. We dont look at the sun rising everyday as a miracle and therefore if the rules of nature were to permanently change by defacto would become a rule of nature and not a miracle

  3. Y.

    Of course all derashot are just asmachtot. Chazal had an opinion and presented in this foramt either to cover up for those who do not understand these concepts or as a mnemonic device.

    Anon 2 - good point.