Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Ramban, Chazal, and the Rainbow


The Ramban in his Torah commentary constantly defers to Chazal and severely criticizes others when they do not. (One must bear in mind the issue of the Ramban identifying a Chazal as the result of a drash rather than peshat, but for the purposes of this post, let's put that aside.)* One sometimes hears the claim that the Ramban himself however, differed with Chazal based upon science, concerning Noach's rainbow: “We see from the mishnah in Ahvos (5:6) that Chazal viewed the rainbow as a miraculous phenomenon that came into existence after the Flood. Ramban, however, says that the scientists say that it is natural and we are forced to accept their words. Thus Ramban rejected the view of Chazal--all because of scientific data!"

This essay challenges this understanding. The fact is, the Ramban (together with the Ibn Ezra before, and Rav Saadia Gaon even previously) has a Midrashic source for his position.

What follows are some key points:

A. The Radak cites a passage in Breishis Rabbah that says

(a) the rainbow existed in actuality (not just potentially) since Creation, and

(b) the reason for saying so is that Hashem never changes nature after Creation. As the Rambam expounds in his writings, while Hashem does indeed enact short-lived aberrations in nature (implanted in latent form at Creation), He does not create new entities that thereon remain in existence forever.

Evidently, although this Breishis Rabbah passage is no longer extant, not only the Radak, but also Rav Saadia Gaon, the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban knew of this passage, and knew therefore that: Even if we were to understood the mishnah as the Rambam did, that the author of the Ahvos mishnah held that the ten things in his list were all miraculous phenomena that did not materialize until long after Creation,

(1) Chazal did not have a single viewpoint on the matter, which left it open to analysis (between the viewpoints offered) for an original suggestion or, better yet, as the Rambam explains, (2) Chazal's principle that "the world follows its natural course," based upon the posuk, "There is nothing new under the sun," is so over-arching that it outweighs the opposing shitta implied in the Ahvos mishnah.

B. The authorities before the Ramban base their discussion on the intended tense of the word “Nassassi.” The Ramban does so as well, and also adds that the expression “My” rainbow indicates that rainbows existed before the Flood. It is simply untrue that the “Ramban rejected the view of Chazal--all because of scientific data!”

C. The Ramban, like the Ibn Ezra, had a skeptical view of Greek “proofs” that indicate ideas contrary to those understood through the mesorah. His remark, “we are forced to agree to the Greek scholars that the rainbow is caused by the sun’s effect on the air [and is therefore a natural phenomenon], must be taken in its context. It is a response to the Ibn Ezra’s remark: “If we were believers in the words of the Greek scholars, that rainbows are the natural result of the sun’s rays, one may say that Hashem strengthened the sun’s light after the Flood.” The Ramban is responding that although we normally do not give credence to the Greek’s “proofs,” his own observations of the sun’s effect on water in a glass, and the thorough reading of the entire posuk, forces him in this case to side with them. He is not saying that science forced him to interpret the Torah differently than Chazal took it.

The Ramban, Chazal, and Noach’s Rainbow

The Nature of Miracles

In B’Midbar 28:28ff. Moshe Rabbeynu asks Hashem to open the earth’s mouth to swallow the followers of Korach:

כח וַיֹּאמֶר משֶׁה בְּזֹאת תֵּדְעוּן כִּי-ד’ שְׁלָחַנִי לַעֲשׂוֹת אֵת כָּל-הַמַּעֲשִׂים הָאֵלֶּה כִּי-לֹא מִלִּבִּי: כט אִם-כְּמוֹת כָּל-הָאָדָם יְמֻתוּן אֵלֶּה וּפְקֻדַּת כָּל-הָאָדָם יִפָּקֵד עֲלֵיהֶם לֹא ד’ שְׁלָחָנִי: ל וְאִם-בְּרִיאָה יִבְרָא ד’ וּפָצְתָה הָאֲדָמָה אֶת-פִּיהָ וּבָלְעָה אֹתָם וְאֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר לָהֶם וְיָרְדוּ חַיִּים שְׁאֹלָה וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי נִאֲצוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים הָאֵלֶּה אֶת-ד’: לא וַיְהִי כְּכַלֹּתוֹ לְדַבֵּר אֵת כָּל-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וַתִּבָּקַע הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר תַּחְתֵּיהֶם: לב וַתִּפְתַּח הָאָרֶץ אֶת-פִּיהָ וַתִּבְלַע אֹתָם וְאֶת-בָּתֵּיהֶם וְאֵת כָּל-הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר לְקֹרַח וְאֵת כָּל-הָרְכוּשׁ: לג וַיֵּרְדוּ הֵם וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר לָהֶם חַיִּים שְׁאֹלָה וַתְּכַס עֲלֵיהֶם הָאָרֶץ וַיֹּאבְדוּ מִתּוֹךְ הַקָּהָל:

The Talmud notes the principle that G-d does not create any new entities after the original Creation. The earth’s mouth was actually already in existence since Creation, and Moshe Rabbeynu only asked Hashem to relocate that opening so that it would be situated specifically under Korach’s followers:

מסכת סנהדרין דף קי.

... דרש רבא: מאי דכתיב "ואם בריאה יברא ה' ופצתה האדמה את פיה"?--אמר משה לפני הקב"ה: "אם בריאה גיהנם—מוטב. ואם לאו--יברא ה'." למאי? אילימא למבריה ממש--והא 'אין כל חדש תחת השמש'! (פרש"י: אין כל חדש תחת השמש--ואי גיהנם לא אברי עד ההוא שעתא הוה ליה חדש).

אלא לקרובי פיתחא...(פרש"י: לקרובי פתחה--שיקרב פתחה של גיהנם ותפתח הארץ במקום שהן [במקום הרשעים]).

The Mishna in Ahvos indeed lists the earth’s opening as having been created during Creation:

מסכת אבות פרק ה משנה ו

עֲשָֹרָה דְּבָרִים נִבְרְאוּ בְּעֶרֶב שַׁבָּת בֵּין הַשְּׁמָשׁוֹת, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן: פִּי הָאָרֶץ, וּפִי הַבְּאֵר, וּפִי הָאָתוֹן, וְהַקֶּשֶׁת, וְהַמָּן, וְהַמַּטֶּה, וְהַשָּׁמִיר, וְהַכְּתָב, וְהַמִּכְתָּב, וְהַלּוּחוֹת וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים: אַף הַמַּזִּיקִין, וּקְבוּרָתוֹ שֶׁל מ שֶׁה, וְאֵילוֹ שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ. וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים: אַף צְבַת בִּצְבַת עֲשׁוּיָה.

However, the Rambam maintains that this aberrational behavior of the earth opening and swallowing Korach’s followers, along with all the other things listed, was merely a latent state in the nature of the earth:

אבות ה:ו

...כבר זכרנו לך בפרק הח', שהם [חז"ל] לא יאמינו בחדוש הרצון בכל עת.* אבל בתחילת עשיית הדברים, שם, בטבע, שיעשה בהם כל מה שיעשה--הן יהיה הדבר שיעשה מאדי [תמידי—מסורת הש"ס, אבל נודע שהראשונים שמשו לשון "מאדי" לענין "טבע—צ.ל.], והוא הדבר הטבעי, או יהיה חדוש לעתים רחוקים, והוא המופת. הכל בשוה. על כן אמרו, שביום הששי שם בטבע הארץ שתשקע קרח ועדתו, ולבאר שיוציא המים, ולאתון שידבר, וכן השאר. ...ואולי תאמר: אחרי שכל הנפלאות כולם הושמו בטבעי הדברים ההם מששת ימי בראשית, למה ייחד אלו העשרה? דע, שלא ייחדם לומר שאין שום מופת שהושם בטבע הדברים רק אלו. אבל אמר שאלו נעשו בין השמשות לבד, ושאר הנפלאות והמופתים הושמו בטבעי הדברים אשר נעשו בם בעת העשותה תחלה. ואמרו, על דרך משל, שיום שני, בהחלק המים, הושם בטבע שיחלק ים סוף למשה, והירדן ליהושע, וכן לאליהו, וכן לאלישע. ויום רביעי, כשנברא השמש, הושם בטבעו שיעמוד בזמן פלוני בדבר יהושע

אליו. וכן שאר הנפלאות, מלבד אלו העשרה, שהושמו בטבעי הדברים ההם בין השמשות.

We have already mentioned to you in the 8th chapter (of the Shemoneh Perakim) that Chazal would not believe in [the idea that G-d operates through] repeatedly willing creation anew.* Rather, at the beginning of His making things, He placed, in nature, everything they will do—whether that thing would be done constantly, i.e., the natural thing, or whether it will be a new behavior at times far between, i.e., a miracle. It is all the same. This is why they said that on the sixth day of Creation He placed in the nature of the earth that it would swallow Korach and his followers, and for the well to provide the water, and for the donkey that it should speak, and so on for the rest….And perhaps you will say, “Since all the miracles were implanted in the nature of things during the six days of creation, why are these 10 singled out? Know, they were not singled out because no miracle was implanted in the nature of things except these [and the other miracles were G-d’s interventions first imbuing them with aberrational conduct at the time of their occurrence]. Rather, they said that these alone were made at twilight [of day six], whereas the other wonders and miracles were placed in the natures of things when those things were initially made. They said, for example, that on the second day, when the [upper and lower] waters were separated, it was placed in nature that thed Red Sea would split for Moshe, and the Jordan for Yehoshua; and likewise for Elijah, and likewise for Elisha. And day four, when the sun was created, it was placed in its nature that it would stand still at a certain time upon Yehoshua’s speaking to it. And so it is with the rest of the miraclulous behaviors, except these ten, which were placed in nature of those things at twilight [of the sixth say].

*If, as the Medabrim (Metukallem—the philosophers of an Islamic sect) posited, nothing has a continuous existence, and every moment G-d creates everything anew, then one cannot be held responsible for past actions. “He” did not do them. The actions had been performed by a different entity—by “someone else.” Furthermore, if G-d creates everything anew every moment, then, as the Medabrim indeed posited, man’s actions are the dictated creations of G-d, not a result of man’s free will.

Judaism does teach that if G-d would remove His will, all would collapse into nothingness; and whatever remains in existence is a result of G-d continuously maintaining the results of what He had created. But this means that whatever He had created and He maintains in existence, exists in a continuous manner, and is not newly recreated each moment. Therefore, the free will He has granted man is operational, and man today is responsible for what he did yesterday.

During the Creation process, Hashem implanted into the nature of things the ability to conduct (specified) aberrational behavior. (This does not mean to say that the actualizing of this potential would be a fatalistic necessity that would occur at a specific time regardless of circumstances. It does mean, however, that G-d decided at nature’s creation that He would bring this potential into actuality when He would deem it necessary, depending upon the need.)

The Rambam repeatedly emphasizes this concept in all his works.

For example in Shemoneh Perakim, Chap. Five:

ועל זה חולקים המדברים, כי שמעתים אומרים:

"החפץ בכל דבר, עת אחר עת תמיד".

ולא כך נאמין אנחנו; כי אם החפץ היה בששת ימי בראשית, והדברים כולם נוהגים לפי טבעיהם תמיד, כמו שאמר:

מה שהיה הוא שיהיה, ומה שנעשה הוא שיעשה, ואין כל חדש תחת השמש (קוהלת א', ט').

ולפיכך הוצרכו החכמים לומר, כי כל המופתים היוצאים מן הרגיל, שהיו ושיהיו על פי הייעוד, כולם קדם להם החפץ בששת ימי בראשית. והושם בטבע הדברים מאותה שעה ואילך, שיתרחש בהם מה שיתרחש. וכשהתרחש בזמן שהיה צריך, חשבוהו לדבר שנתחדש עתה, ואינו כך. וכבר הרחיבו הדברים בעניין הזה במדרש קהלת וזולתו. ועוד להם מאמר בעניין הזה: "עולם כמנהגו נוהג" ותמצאם תמיד, בכל דבריהם, עליהם השלום, שנמנעים מתת הרצון בדבר אחר דבר, ובעת אחר עת

He also offers other insights into the nature of miracles:

מורה נבוכים חלק ב פרק כט

והענין אשר נלך סביבו כבר התבאר, והוא, שהפסד זה העולם והשתנותו ממה שהוא או השתנות דבר מטבעו והמשכו לפי השינוי ההוא - הוא דבר שלא בא אלינו בזה דבר נביא ולא דבר 'חכמים'...ואשר תמצא לכל ה'חכמים' תמיד,... הוא - אמרו, "אין כל חדש תחת השמש", ושאין שם התחדשות בשום פנים ולא בשום סיבה.....אמנם אמרתי שלא ישתנה דבר מטבעו וימשך על השינוי ההוא - להשמר מן הנפלאות; כי אף על פי שנהפך המטה לנחש, ונהפכו המים לדם, והיד הטהורה הנכבדת - לבנה, מבלתי סיבה טבעית מחייבת אותם - הענינים ההם והדומה להם לא ימשכו ולא שבו טבע אחר, אבל כמו שאמרו 'ז"ל', "עולם כמנהגו הולך") עבודה זרה נד ב(.

…[N]o prophet or sage has ever described…a permanent change of anything’s nature and remaining to behave according to that change. …What you will find the Sages always quoting is his [King Solomon's] saying, “There is nothing new under the sun" (Eccles. i. 9), meaning that absolutely no new creation takes place in any way and under any circumstances … However, I said that nothing will ever change its nature and continue to remain with that change, to keep away from miracles. For although the rod turned into a serpent, and the water turned into blood, and the pure and noble hand turned white [with leprosy], without a natural cause necessitating it, those changes and those similar to them do not last, and they [the changed items] do not take on a different nature. Rather, the Sages say “The Universe continues its regular course.”

איגרת\מאמר תחיית המתים (דף שסז)

ואמנם המופת אשר בעניינים האפשריים, הוא כל אשר יתמיד ויאריך יותר ראוי להיותו מופת, ומפני זה נאמין התמדת הברכות

והקללות, הברכות עם העבודה והקללות עם המרי לעולם בזאת האומה ובזה שבו אות ומופת.

וכבר נודע שאנחנו נברח מאוד משינוי סדר בראשית. ואמנם יטעה כל מי שיטעה ממי שקדם או יתאחר, להיותם בלתי מבדילים בין העניינים הנוהגים מנהג המופת [כמו קריאת ים סוף ותחיית המתים]—והם אשר לא יעמדו כלל ולא יתקיימו, ואמנם היו מפני הצורך, או לאמת נבואה—ובין העניינים הטבעיים הנמשכים תמיד שהם מנהגו של עולם, אשר יבארו ז"ל ויאמרו תמיד "עולם כמנהגו נוהג", ואמרו אין מביאים ראיה ממעשה נסים. ואמר שלמה "כי כל אשר יעשה האלוהים הוא יהיה לעולם; עליו אין להוסיף וממנו אין לגרוע". הנה כבר התבאר, שהעניינים הטבעיים נמשכים תמיד על מנהגיהם. וכבר בארנו גם כן זה ב"מורה הנבוכים", בדברנו בחידוש העולם.

וממה שראוי שנבארהו הנה, ואע"פ שהוא עיקר יותר נכבד מכוונת זה המאמר, הוא: שהנפלאות--פעמים יהיו בעניינים הנמנעים בטבע--כהתהפך המטה לנחש, ושקיעת הארץ בעדת קרח, ובקיעת הים. ופעמים יהיו בעניינים האפשריים בטבע--כבא הארבה, והברד, והדבר במצרים--כי מדרך מיני אלו הדברים, שיארעו במקצת העתים במקצת המקומות. וכמו קריעת מזבח ירבעם במאמר איש הא’, זה המופת אשר דבר ה' "הנה המזבח נקרע" וגו'--כי מדרך הבניינים שיבקעו, וכל שכן הנבנים מחדש. וכרדת המטר הסוחף בזמן הקציר על יד שמואל. והברכות והקללות הנזכרות בתורה--כי כל אחת מהן אפשר בכל ארץ ובכל זמן, והם כולם מכת האפשר כשיסתכל האדם בהם. *


*See also:

מסכת ברכות דף נט/א

... שבשעה שהקב"ה בקש להביא מבול לעולם נטל שני כוכבים מכימה, והביא מבול לעולם. וכשבקש לסתמה, נטל שני כוכבים מעיש, וסתמה. וליהדר לה! אין הבור מתמלא מחוליתו. אי נמית אין קטיגור נעשה סניגור. וליברי לה תרי ככבי אחריני! אין כל חדש תחת השמש. א"ר נחמן עתיד הקב"ה להחזירן לה שנאמר ועיש על בניה תנחם.

Both Gemora passages are referring to the proposition of Hashem creating wholly new entities—Gehinnom, or stars, that did not yet exist. The Rambam extends the principle to include aberrational nature within already created things.

In the above passage from Ma’amar HaTechiya, the Rambam explains that there are five kinds of miraculous events:

(1) Those that involve changing the nature of an entity (such as the staff turning into a snake), and

(2) Those that do not involve changing the nature of an entity. The latter events are miraculous in

· their unusual intensity (such as the lice plague of Egypt), and/or in

· their timing (such as rainfall during a drought at the word of a prophet), and/or

· their unnatural exclusivity to a specific population or locale (such as the plagues of Egypt that did not effect the Israelites or their land), and/or

· their repeated coinciding with other events without a natural connection that would explain it (such as the rewards for righteousness and punishments for evil acts).

Those that are essential changes in the nature of an entity are non-permanent, and the entity soon reverts to its original form and nature.


*** The Ramban and the Rainbow

Let’s now focus on one of the ten things the Mishnah in Ahvos describes as having been created at twilight of the sixth day: the rainbow. The issue I will discuss involves two questions: (a) Did rainbows appear in actuality before G-d’s covenant with Noach, or was this the first time in history there was a rainbow, and (b) is the rainbow a miraculous phenomenon or a natural one?

The Ibn Ezra cites, and disagrees with, Rav Saadia Gaon:

אבן עזרא בראשית ט:יג

את קשתי. הנה נתתי עתה קשת בענן. ואין פירושו כאשר אמר הגאון כי בתחלה היתה:

“My rainbow”—Behold I now placed a rainbow in the cloud. The meaning is not, as the Gaon [Rav Saadia] said, that it existed at the beginning [of the world].

Rav Saadia held that rainbows already appeared before Noach’s time. This fits better with the primary grammatical reading of “ונתתי,” which is past tense, but evidently, the Ibn Ezra holds that the context indicates that the rainbow first appeared now, despite the standard meaning of the grammatical form. (It is not infrequent in biblical Hebrew for the past tense verb, especially in first person, as here, to be meant as present tense—as in “ידעתי, בני, ידעתי"—“I know, my son, I know.”)

The Ibn Ezra goes on to consider the opinion of the Greek philosophers that rainbows are natural phenomena, but notably expresses a generally skeptical view of their enterprise:

פסוק יד

ונראתה הקשת. אילו היינו מאמינים בדברי חכמי יון שמלהט השמש תולד הקשת. יש לומר כי השם חזק אור השמש אחר המבול והיא דרך נכונה למבין:

If we were believers in the words of the Greek scholars, that rainbows are the natural result of the sun’s rays, one may say that Hashem strengthened the sun’s light after the Flood. This is the proper way for one who understands things.

We see he concludes that nevertheless, even if they are correct that rainbows are natural phenomena, he can maintain that the rainbow never appeared before the Flood. He posits that the rainbow still first appeared after the Mabul, due to a quantitative change in the sun’s power that first took place then.

(The Ibn Ezra’s position is not quite that of the Rambam’s understanding of the Mishnah in Ahvos that the rainbow is an aberration of nature created only in potential, and not the result of natural phenomena. True, no rainbow appeared before; but its appearance was due to natural causes, not any aberration of nature. Rav Saadia Gaon’s position is all the less consistent with the concept the Rambam attached to the Ahvos mishnah. Rav Saadia Gaon evidently held that rainbows are phenomena that nature had regularly exhibited since creation.)

The Ramban shares Ibn Ezra’s general skepticism about the findings of the Greek philosophers, as can be seen from his remarks elsewhere:

רמב"ן בראשית פרק א פסוק ט

יקוו המים מתחת השמים. היה התהום--שהוא מים ועפר--כעין המים העכורים, וגזר על המים שיקוו במקום אחד מסובב כל הפאות, וגזר על העפר שיעלה עד שיראה על המים וייבש, ותהיה יבשה שטוחה ראויה לישוב, וכן כתוב לרוקע הארץ על המים (תהלים קלו ו). או שמא שתהיה כדורית מקצתה מגולה ורובה משוקעת אשר ידמו היונים במופתיהם הנראים או המפתים


“Let the waters from under the heavens gather…”—The “Deep”—which was water and sand—was like muddy water. G-d decreed upon the waters that they should gather in one place …and He decreed upon the dirt to rise until it would be visible over the waters, become dry, and become spread out dry land fit for habitation. “Give praise…to the One Who spread the earth over the waters” (Tehillim 136:6). Or perhaps [He decreed] that it should be spherical, part of it visible and most of it sunk, as the Greeks would imagine with what are their proofs—evident or misleading.

The Ramban, in his dismissive attitude towards the Greeks’ “proofs” for things (at least when they apparently contradict Jewish sources) creates a play on the words, mofess—proof, and mefatim—misleading things.

Nevertheless, in our particular case the Ramban reluctantly accedes to their theories—based upon his own observations. In response to the Ibn Ezra’s skeptical “אילו היינו מאמינים בדברי חכמי יון שמלהט השמש תולד הקשת...,” “If we would believe the words of the Greeks, that rainbows result from the sun’s rays [shining on moist air]…” the Ramban (on Braishis 9:12) responds:

ואנחנו על כרחנו נאמין לדברי היונים שמלהט השמש באויר הלח יהיה הקשת בתולדה, כי בכלי מים לפני השמש יראה כמראה הקשת.

We are forced to believe the words of the Greeks, that rainbows naturally result from the sun’s rays shining on moist air—because a rainbow-like image can be seen in a container of water placed in front of the sun.

With this observation in mind, the Ramban notes that although

המשמע מן "האות הזה" שלא היה קשת בענן ממעשה בראשית, ועתה ברא ה' חדשה לעשות קשת בשמים ביום ענן

“this sign” implies that from the time of Creation rainbows had never before appeared in clouds, and now Hashem created a new phenomenon, making a rainbow in the sky on cloudy days,


וכאשר נסתכל עוד בלשון הכתוב נבין כן, כי אמר את קשתי "נתתי" בענן, ולא אמר "אני נותן" בענן--כאשר אמר זאת אות הברית אשר "אני נותן". ומלת קשתי מורה שהיתה לו הקשת תחלה. ולכן נפרש הכתוב, הקשת אשר נתתי בענן מיום הבריאה תהיה מן היום הזה והלאה לאות ברית... ובין שתהיה הקשת עתה בין שהיתה מעולם בטבע, הטעם באות שבה אחד הוא.

[not only does observation indicate that rainbows are natural phenomena, but when we go on to more closely examine the verse’s language, we [see that we must] explain it in this way [that rainbows also already appeared before the Flood—contra the Ibn Ezra, and like Rav Saadia Gaon]. For Hashem said, “I placed My rainbow in the cloud," and He did not say “I am placing [My rainbow] in the cloud." And the wording “My rainbow” [also] indicates that He had the rainbow before. Therefore, we explain the verses: “The rainbow that I had placed in the cloud from the day of the Creation, shall be, from this day on, a sign of a covenant.” But regardless of whether the rainbow was something that first came into existence now [not through natural causes, but miraculously], or had always been a natural phenomenon, the idea of the sign it contains is one and the same.

So the Ramban prefers to say as Rav Saadia Gaon, that rainbows are natural phenomena, and the Ibn Ezra tolerates that position as well (although he still maintains that even so, the natural phenomenon first occurred after the Flood.)

We are therefore faced with a problem: None of these commentators, in discussing the issue of whether rainbows are natural and whether they ever appeared before Noach’s Flood, make any mention of the mishnah in Ahvos that

  • lists the rainbow as a special phenomenon among the nine other phenomena that
  • the Rambam treats as miracles, that
  • do not conflict with the principle of "מה שנעשה יוא שיעשה, ואין כל חדש תחת השמש" only because they were implanted in nature at Creation as latent aberrations to be triggered into actuality at later times.. One may answer that, for all we know, they may interpret the mishnah in Ahvos differently from how the Rambam does. E.g., one may point out that the mishnah may simply be read that these ten things were created in actuality at the sixth day’s twilight,* and propose that the common factor among them is something other than anything to do with the miraculous.


*Rabbi Dovid Kornreich has pointed out that:

· According to Rashi, the Manna existed since Creation in actuality (not merely potential, ala the Rambam), but was located in heaven and only descended later when the Jews came to the midbar

· Moshe Rabbeynu’s staff may have existed in actuality at Bereishis, only to be discovered later

· Rabbeinu Yona to Avos identifies the kesav with the text of the primordial Torah that Chazal say existed at, if not before creation

· The michtav may well have merely emerged at Mattan Torah, but existed since Creation

· The luchos were discovered at Mattan Torah, but may have existed since Creaiton

· The shamir worm may have been created at Bereishis, only to be discovered later

· The mezikin existed since Creation. Rabbeinu Bachya quotes a Midrash which says this quite clearly.

If, contra the Rambam, the ten things listed were not all miraculous phenomena planted in nature in latent form, to emerge in actuality only later, what common factor is there that brings them together in the mishna’s list? Perhaps the unique characteristic these ten things is that (whether miraculous or natural) they were non-human conveyors of special messages from Hashem--even the מן was to teach וַיְעַנְּךָ וַיַּרְעִבֶךָ וַיַּאֲכִלְךָ אֶת-הַמָּן אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַעְתָּ וְלֹא יָדְעוּן אֲבֹתֶיךָ לְמַעַן הוֹדִיעֲךָ כִּי לֹא עַל-הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם כִּי עַל-כָּל- מוֹצָא פִי-יְהוָֹה יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם: --and the use of the שמיר to cut the stones into shape for use of the altar, taught the lesson that bloodshed—associated with blades —was not to be associated with the altar. =========================

In fact, although the Meiri supports the Rambam’s principle, he indeed rejects the position that this idea is the intention of this mishnah, precisely because the list contains things that are not miraculous at all, including, he says, the rainbow:

ראוי לתמוה מה ענין לזאת הכונה הרבה דברים שהוזכרו כאן שאין בהם מופת ודבר יוצא מדרך הטבעי, כגון הקשת, ואילו של אברהם, וקברו של משה רבנו, וכן השמיר אחר שהיה בטבעו או בסגולתו שיחצוב האבן.

He therefore finds a common thread among the ten things other than anything to do with the miraculous (see his commentary).

A Solution

But perhaps the best explanation emerges from the fact that the Radak on the posuk וקשתי נתתי cites a passage in Breishis Rabbah that says "נתתי--מימי בראשית, לפי שאין כל חדש תחת השמש” (“I placed [the rainbow]”…—since the days of Creation, for “there is nothing new under the sun.”)

This is an opposing shitta to that gleaned from the mishna in Ahvos. It says not only that

(a) the rainbow existed in actuality (not just potentially) since Creation, but that

(b) the reason for saying so is that Hashem never changes nature after Creation. As the Rambam expounds in his writings, while Hashem does indeed enact short-lived aberrations in nature (implanted in latent form at Creation), He does not create new entities that, like rainbows, thereon remain in existence forever.

Thus, we have found a Midrash that states that the rainbow, which is a recurrent phenomenon, is a naturalnot miraculous—phenomenon that must have existed since Creation.

Evidently, although this Breishis Rabbah passage is no longer extant, not only the Radak, but also Rav Saadia Gaon, the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban knew of this passage, and knew therefore that: Even if the author of the Ahvos mishnah held that the ten things in his list were all miraculous phenomena that did not materialize until long after Creation,

(a) Chazal did not have a single viewpoint on the matter, which left it open to analysis (at least between the viewpoints offered, if not even for an original suggestion) or, better yet, as the Rambam explains,

(b) Chazal's principle that העולם כמנהגו הולך, based upon the posuk אין כל חדש תחת השמש, is so over-arching that it outweighs the opposing shitta implied in the Ahvos mishnah.

*A major part of rational inquiry regarding understanding the Torah is taking in factors such as the words of the Torah and the insights of Chazal. If there are conflicts between these factors and observable facts or deductions therefrom, they must be dealt with somehow, and simply ignoring or dismissing any of the factors is inadequate. It's not a matter that can be solved with simplistic answers, and my essay is attempting to address it seriously.

Rishonim in their payrushim on Tanach often take sides in machlokos Chazal without (to our frustration) mentioning either Chazal. The absence of citing a Midrashic/Talmudic source does not contradict the likelihood that the rishon had that source in mind. This is why rishonim, including the Ramban will sometimes defend their peshat by saying that a Chazal in apparent contradiction to it is a daas yachid or meant in a drash sense but not peshat sense, and criticize those who they sense fail to adequately make their case. If it seems that a rishon is actually contradicting a position that Chazal unanimously take—and in this case based upon an observation that was as accessible to Chazal as it was to the Ramban—it is something to deal with.


  1. Although it is off the topic of this post, I would like to ask in general if this blog is still really needed. I have always believed that if Rabbi Slifkin was given enough rope he would hang himself. I believe that with his recent brain death series has has lost whatever credibility he had left outside of the extreme left wing Modern Orthodox community and effectively "hung himself" as far as most others are concerned. He did this in three ways with the brain death articles.

    1) His constant refrain of Chazal made their decisions on the conditions of death based on the mistaken science of the day, particularly relating to his bizarre claims about the role of the kidneys has turned many people off.

    2) Those that weren't turned off by his disrespect for Chazal, I think were then turned off by his posting allegations of mental illness against some of his opponents.

    3) In addition I believe he has been severely damaged by his poor showing with Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhoffer. Rabbi Bechhoffer has managed to quite clearly show the flaws in Rabbi Slifkin's arguments.

    The bottom line is that Rabbi Slifkin has more clearly fallen into what is effectively Conservative Judaism. In general the regular frum world does not bother disputing Conservatives and their close allies the LWMO academics. It is clear to anyone with a proper Torah hashkafa that they are wrong. At this point, six years plus after the original ban, I think it is clear that RNS is simply wrong.

  2. Foow,

    Shalom Aleichem. Welcome to our blog and thank you for writing.

    As I’m sure you can imagine, the authors of this blog have been agonizing over the very issue you bring up in your comment for quite some time. You may very well be correct. Nonetheless, the Blog is here. The obvious question is, why?

    I am not speaking on behalf of anyone else but here is why I am involved.

    1) Our responses provide chizuk for people with proper hashkafic attitudes who are unfamiliar with science and lack a rigorous training in deep hashkafa.

    2) Every once in a while we manage to be mikarev a yid to the truth of the Torah.

    3) Responding to RNS helps me solidify my approach to things I may very well not have thought about.

    These are some of the reasons I continue to maintain a presence on this blog. I acknowledge the fact that notwithstanding the above your ta’anos still possess merit.

    Simcha Coffer