Friday, May 27, 2011

A Poetic Presentation of The Active Intellect - A Poetic Description In Mishlei According To Rav Sa'adyah Gaon.

The concept of Sechel Hapoel – Active Intellect is difficult to grasp for us who no longer accept Aristotelian philosophy. I came across a comment of Resag on a verse in Mishlei Chapter 8 quoted in a note by Rav Kafieh on Hanivchar Be’emunot Vede’ot (HBV) which I think is very helpful and also presents the concept in Jewish terms.

כב  יְהוָה--קָנָנִי, רֵאשִׁית דַּרְכּוֹ:    קֶדֶם מִפְעָלָיו מֵאָז.
22 The LORD created me at the outset of His way, the first of His works of old.
כג  מֵעוֹלָם, נִסַּכְתִּי מֵרֹאשׁ--    מִקַּדְמֵי-אָרֶץ.
23 In remote eons I was shaped at the start of the first things of earth.
כד  בְּאֵין-תְּהֹמוֹת חוֹלָלְתִּי;    בְּאֵין מַעְיָנוֹת, נִכְבַּדֵּי-מָיִם.
24 When there were no deeps, I was spawned; when there were no fountains abounding with water.
כה  בְּטֶרֶם הָרִים הָטְבָּעוּ;    לִפְנֵי גְבָעוֹת חוֹלָלְתִּי.
25 Before the mountains were anchored down, before hills I was spawned;
כו  עַד-לֹא עָשָׂה, אֶרֶץ וְחוּצוֹת;    וְרֹאשׁ, עַפְרוֹת תֵּבֵל.
26 He had not yet made earth and open land, and the world’s first clods of soil.
כז  בַּהֲכִינוֹ שָׁמַיִם, שָׁם אָנִי;    בְּחֻקוֹ חוּג, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם.
27 When He established the heavens, I was there; when He set a circle upon the face of the deep,
כח  בְּאַמְּצוֹ שְׁחָקִים מִמָּעַל;    בַּעֲזוֹז, עִינוֹת תְּהוֹם.
28 When He made firm the skies above, when the fountains of the deep showed their might,
כט  בְּשׂוּמוֹ לַיָּם, חֻקּוֹ, וּמַיִם, לֹא יַעַבְרוּ-פִיו;    בְּחוּקוֹ, מוֹסְדֵי אָרֶץ.
29 When He gave to the sea His decree, that the waters should not transgress His commandment, when He appointed the foundations of the earth;
ל  וָאֶהְיֶה אֶצְלוֹ, אָמוֹן:    וָאֶהְיֶה שַׁעֲשׁוּעִים, יוֹם יוֹם; מְשַׂחֶקֶת לְפָנָיו בְּכָל-עֵת.
30 And I was by Him, an intimate; I was His delight day after day, playing before Him at all times,
לא  מְשַׂחֶקֶת, בְּתֵבֵל אַרְצוֹ;    וְשַׁעֲשֻׁעַי, אֶת-בְּנֵי אָדָם.
31 Playing in the world, His earth and my delight with humankind {P}
(Full Disclosure: Though I copied the above from Mechon Mamre, I edited the English translation wherever I thought it would help for clarity using the Robert Alter excellent translation of the Books of Wisdom. I did not accept his suggested alterations to the Masoretic text.)

These verses are part of a series of short essays about Chochma – wisdom.  Resag in his Pirush explains as follows:

“If we consider, as logic dictates and the verses clarify, that the Creator made everything with wisdom and considering that [creation is] complete and perfect, we can accept as true the prophet’s declaration that she [wisdom], must have preceded all creation.”

Resag is explaining that the verse is indeed suggesting that wisdom existed before anything physical. This understanding of the verse conforms to the Midrash Breishit Rabah that illustrates the idea by suggesting that God looked into the Torah using it as a blueprint to create the world.

That is so because everything was created thanks to wisdom and she was there at the first instant of time when it came into existence, for time itself was created through wisdom.”

The science, the concepts that underlie all things that exist can be visualized as a separate entity that must precede everything that comes into being if not in time at least hierarchically. Time itself is one such existent brought into being by wisdom.

“Although wisdom itself does not really exist independently, it is however a necessary component of every creation that God created. [The prophet] then lists the actions [of the seven days] of creation. He describes the first day with מִקַּדְמֵי-אָרֶץ and בַּהֲכִינוֹ שָׁמַיִם – [the creation of heaven and earth]. The separation of the waters [on the second day is alluded to] with בְּחֻקוֹ חוּג, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם. Let the waters gather creating the seas [of the third day] with בְּשׂוּמוֹ לַיָּם, חֻקּוֹ. Let there be lights in the vaults of the heaven [of the fourth day] with בְּאַמְּצוֹ שְׁחָקִים מִמָּעַל…. Wisdom now declares with pride and saysAnd I was by Him, an intimate” for she is the tool He uses to innovate all that He innovates, using her to create, bring forth and into existence everything. [The prophet] also depicts metaphorically that wisdom rejoices daily, because she is present for everything that is created on a daily basis, renewing herself and rejoicing with every moment of time as it continuously comes into existence. That is so because she is the essence of every creation and every split moment of time.”        

As the prophet contemplates the world around him, he perceives the boundless wisdom that underlies every little component of that world. He marvels at how they all interact with each other insuring their collective continued existence. Even time itself, the measurement of change of the physical world, is essentially a function of that same wisdom. The prophet sees that wisdom as the connector between the world and its Creator as it is His wisdom that underlies every bit of existence. He metaphorically describes wisdom as basking in the results of its plans, seeing itself as an intimate of both the Creator and His creations.

She [wisdom] then deciphers the metaphor. She says, “When I suggested that I rejoiced, I did not mean I myself did so for I am not an entity. I was talking about my friends and surroundings - Playing in the world, His earth”. When I said that I was playing, I did not refer to my own essence for I do not have any essence; I was talking about those who deserve me and possess me namely humankind”. All this is an expression of praise and glory of the wise men, for their deeds are deeds that [perpetuate] existence.”    

Wisdom is the connector between man and God through God’s creation. God’s wisdom permeates everything including man, and the wise man in his self-awareness, perceives that wisdom, internalizes it and acts according to that wisdom in a constructive manner.

I think that this is a beautiful and masterful description of the Sechel Hapoel – the Active Intellect.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. To give a concrete example. A Jewish farmer, based upon generations of experience, has a deep sense of the ecosystem underlying food. He recognizes the natural interdependence of water evaporation, rain fertility of Earth and growth capacity of seed and plant.

    The farmer further has a sense of the natural capacity of this ecosystem to sustain a vast array of creatures, including man.This system is reflective of an underlying wisdom, the chochma of the sechel hapoel pointed to by Mishelei.

    The farmer internalizes the lesson that he himself is nourished by the same system sustaining all creatures - a fact he reminds himself of in Birkat hamazon- Hazan et haolam kulo, bituvo...

    This self recognition of man as a functioning part of the natural food providing ecosystem, is also a result of the sechel poel.

    Seeing a person in need, such a farmer would recognize his own role as a distributor of Tuvo. He would give food to the poor person, as an application of his internalized sense of the Creators food giving ecosystem. Poteach et yadecha umasbiya lichol chai ratzon.

  2. Speaking about Sechel Hapoel, the Abarbanel takes the Ralbag to task for suggesting that the miracle of the sun standing still for Yehoshua at Givon was not a miracle from hashem but rather the sechel hapoel at work. Who's sechel hapoel caused the sun to stand? Yehoshua's or the sun's? What does it mean that the sechel hapoel caused the sun to stop (or slow down)?

  3. Abravanel seems to understand that Ralbag held that the sun and the moon slowing down was a natural event however rare it was and the prophet - yehoshua - knew about it through connecting with the sechel hapoel.

    Ralbag himself however says something different. He says that the battle went so fast that it felt as if the sun and moon slowed down.

    Ralbag is a little confusing in that piece and I have not seen his discussion in Milchamot hashem where he may say something closer to Abravanel's understanding.