Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Miraculous Signs: Imagination or Reality?

Professor Chaim Kreisel a few years ago published a “lost” (censured?) book by Rabbi Nissim of Marseilles, a 14th century Provencal Rabbi, called Ma’aseh Nissim. The book main thrust is to explain the miracles that we find in the Torah so that they make sense in their context. The book has 14 introductory chapters (note the number 14, an important number for the Maimonidean which he was, as it is the number of books Mishne Torah has), which discuss fundamental theological issues. The author has a fabulous ability to understand allegorical verses and Midrashim and is apparently from the same school as an earlier contemporary, the author of Livyat Chen, Rabbi Levi ben Avraham (see the labels on the sidebar). The main part of the book follows the Parshyot, explaining the apparently unnatural events or laws discussed in them.

Here is a translation of a small segment in the 14th chapter of the introduction which I saw over the weekend in passing while researching a subject I am working on. I thought it to be quite interesting and I hope you will agree.

Rabbi Nissim’ style is to organize miracles into classes and categories. One class is composed of things that occur between God and the prophet and the second class is composed of those that involve the prophet with other people. Each of the two classes can be divided into two categories: Actions taken by the prophet as instructed or knowledge of a future event. He also assigns a different class and category for each homonym used in Scriptures for miracles. The following is his understanding of a sign – Ot.     

Regarding the first category of the first class, which are the miracles and wonders that occur only between God and the prophet: Every intelligent person who pictures [in his mind] and understands the essence of how God’s speech and His instructions to the prophets [truly] work, must believe that these [miracles] are prophetic and do not happen outside the mind.  They are not really happening and cannot be experienced by our external senses while our internal senses do experience them. If at times, our external senses also experience them, that experience is not real. It is imaginary. An example of such a miracle is the sign given to Avraham when the torch passed between the pieces [of the animals he cut up][1] and Gideon with the fleece of wool[2] and other similar ones. The theme is that the whole episode, the asking of a sign and the answer – the sign itself – all that was in a prophetic vision or a dream.  Namely, as the prophet [in his contemplation] had a revelation about some of future events via the riddles and parables of prophecy, his continuing cogitations trigger doubts. He now at times believes the revelation [as true] and at others doubts it to the point that he asks for a sign. The prophetic experience now becomes even stronger within him and [he apprehends] another parable [which makes him feel] as if a sign occurred in front of his eyes. As this theme repeats itself, it strengthens his convictions that the revelation is indeed true and God is indeed ready to make it happen.

I have thus removed from your rational [soul] the veil that envelops it regarding this class [of miracles] revealing its esoteric meaning. You will therefore no longer be surprised by these extreme wonders and the impossible, strange and improbable occurrences according to your rational mind will no longer confuse you. They after all do not retell real happenings but imaginary ones brought about by the imaginative faculty which composes things whether possible, wondrous or impossible. This too is possibly, how we understand the wonders Moshe experienced in the exchange between him and God such as the staff turning into a snake and the clear hand becoming white[3], namely they happened in a prophetic vision. This [vision] was meant to impress on him the obligation to free the Jewish people from Egyptian oppression, possibly by suggesting that Pharaoh who in parables is seen as the crocodile that stands between the rivers will be to Moshe like a staff at the hand of its owner and his [Pharaoh’s] strong arm will become leprous.”

The general idea in this segment is that Rabbi Nissim holds that when the Scriptures report what seems to be an occurrence involving a prophet, if it was something that does not involve others, that occurrence should be interpreted as a vision rather than an actual physical occurrence. It is important to note that the strategy Rabbi Nissim uses is not to force his interpretation as the only possible one but rather to give a variety of interpretations including literal ones, leaving it up to the reader to decide which makes more sense. He does not impose his opinions just presents them and lets the reader make up his mind. Thus, he offers literal explanations too to Moshe’s experience at the beginning of his journey into prophecy. However, his more esoteric explanations are daring and creative, taking a seeming fantasy and turning it into a rational and important teaching.

He then shows how the rabbis in the Midrashim, were addressing the same story in a similar manner. Discussing the difference between a dream or fantasy and a prophetic vision, he points out that dreams always contain irrelevant parts while in a prophetic vision every detail counts.

Our Rabbis explain, “and it [the staff] became a snake – because he [Moshe] spoke Lashon Hara on Israel, emulating the tradecraft of the snake [as in Adam and Eve].” They also explain regarding the hand turning leprous, white as snow, [that it is a punishment] for saying “behold they will not believe me” and “when someone suspects innocent people he is punished bodily” (Shabbat 97a). We follow the Rabbis approach, namely, being that this was a sign [Ot] to Moshe for his request [for answers] from God, the sign contained these details to make Moshe aware and teach him certain points. It also possibly may indicate to Moshe that if he should throw the staff on the ground it will become a snake, pointing out that , Moshe’s rational mind which when used properly is his staff and support, should he let it become polluted by earthly matters it will turn on him and become a poisonous snake and kill him. On the other hand, should he then lift it from the ground, and use it for lofty purposes thus strengthening his rational faculty, his mind will again be a support and something he can rely upon.

Rabbi Nissim understands that the Rabbis, by trying to interpret every detail in the story, are telling us that the story is a prophetic vision and as such, every detail has meaning. This understanding is an expansion of Rambam in his introduction to MN where he also points out that prophecies at times, every detail is important while at others not. In the case of Yaakov and the ladder, it describes a prophetic vision where every detail counts. A chapter in Mishlei which uses a parable of a prostitute to discuss the human mind and its potential, details are unimportant and needed to fill in lacunae in the parable.

As this translated segment refers to a variety of verses and stories spread all over the Scriptures, I have decided not to copy each verse but just to references where the verse Rabbi Nissim refers to can be found. It will be a worthwhile exercise to look at them after reading this piece. It is an eye opener.


[1] Breishit 15:17.
[2] Shoftim 6:11-40.
[3] Shemot 3:1-8.


  1. Isn't this the same opinion as the Rambam, that prophecy is really just in the prophets head and not happening in real life. For example, Rambam says the three melachim visiting Avraham didn't actually happen, but was a "dream", I believe.

  2. yes but i think RAMBAM also understands that the prophecy is *happening* for real on another plane[ at least according to abravanel's explication of the moreh]. it seems to me that this is why rambam states that the content of the prophecy needs to be "real", while the ramban allows for fantastic visions [metaphor]

  3. E-man
    yes just an added interpretation of specific cases. the big chiddush to me was a better understanding of the introduction to MN regarding the two types of parables.

    Nachum, why is it so important that things told in Tanach really happened in the physical? We were bought up with that because children have a hard time understanding abstract ideas but must we remain so for the rest of our life? The greatness of Torah is as it name implies - a teaching and not a historical recounting of events.

  4. i think for abravanel it's important to differentiate the rambam's nevua from ramban's nevua . so, he makes it 'real' and he makes it parallel the navi's reality [ eg no flying ]

    personally i have no problem with the akeda being completely a chalom nevua