Monday, May 30, 2011

The Meaning of Time

In this recent post, Rabbi Slifkin continues his critique of Rabbi Meiselman’s article "A Question of Time". Before we begin it is important to reiterate that our objective is not to defend the opinions found in Dialogue. Rather, it is to provide critical analyses of Rabbi Slifkin’s views as expressed on his Rationalist blog.

Rabbi Slifkin takes Rabbi Meiselman to task for what he considers a theologically faulty position. Before we address Rabbi Slifkin’s issue, let’s synopsize Rabbi Meiselman’s view. In a nutshell, Rabbi Meiselman maintains that the laws of nature which obtained during the six days of creation differ fundamentally from the laws of nature which govern the post-Creation universe. Scientists are limited in their descriptions to a reliance on currently operating laws. Thus science, by definition, is incapable of contributing anything significant to the question of the origin of the universe.

Rabbi Slifkin poses the following problem with this thesis. If indeed the currently operating laws find no parallel at all to those that functioned during the Creation event, in what way is it meaningful to assign six regular days to maaseh bereishis? Once we’ve dispensed with the current laws of nature, anything is possible. Why not interpret six days as six epochs, or six hierarchal categories? In fact, why not dispense with the doctrine of recent Creation entirely and adopt the scientific view of an ancient universe? As Rabbi Slifkin puts it, we have "gained nothing" with this approach, meaning that this approach (seemingly) does not possess any explanatory power; it seems incapable of resolving anything…

Good question…

Here’s the answer.

On page 32 of the Dialogue journal, Rabbi Meiselman supports his thesis from non other than the Rambam himself. He quotes the Moreh 2:30 as follows (my translation):

And all the wise men concur that this episode (Adam and Chava in Gan Eden) occurred on the sixth day of Creation and that nothing (of the laws of nature) will change after the six days of Creation. And therefore it [the episode of Adam and Chava in Gan Eden] is entirely plausible because the laws of nature had not yet solidified…

Here’s what Rabbi Meiselman probably meant. The Torah says that the universe and all which is contained within it was created in six days. The Torah then goes on to describe the details of this creation. It is obvious from the Torah’s description that the physical processes which occurred during this period differed fundamentally from those which obtain today. But does this mean that there are no parallels at all between Creation and post-Creation periods; no, of course not.

When Hashem suspended the sun in the heavens on the fourth day, surely photosynthesis began functioning. When Hashem created animal life on the sixth day, surely animal metabolism began to function. Nevertheless, it remains obvious that when the Creative Process employed by Hashem during maaseh bereishis first initialized the laws of nature, this process was not subsequently bound by the laws it created. Thus we find fish suddenly filling the oceans, vegetation suddenly sprouting from the ground, and animals emerging suddenly from the earth etc. Does this mean that a maaseh bereishis cow was different than a cow in the year 5771? Probably not. But the creative process which was responsible for bringing about all of the phenomena of the beriah and their attendant laws was a one time phenomenon which finds no expression whatsoever in the current laws of nature. It was the progenitor of these laws, and subsequently receded from activity "kisheh-amar l’olamo dai". But in no way was the creative process limited to those laws. Accordingly, any number of violations of the currently operating laws of nature was possible during the period when the "creative process" was still in force. This then makes it impossible for scientists to extrapolate backwards with any authority since anything could have happened during maaseh bereishis.

I don’t know if this is what Rabbi Meiselman meant. But if it is, then to my mind his approach is logically consistent and Rabbi Slifkin’s questions fall away.

I believe I have responded to Rabbi Slifkin’s issue adequately. Comments are encouraged.

To be continued…

20 comments:

  1. First of all, I don't think that you are representing his approach accurately at all. I don't think that he would say that photosynthesis, animal life etc. functioned as it does today. After all, if everything from atomic vibrations to the speed of light was radically different, why would those have been the same?

    But more fundamentally, I don't see how you even think you have addressed the question. With so much in the natural order being radically different, and even R. Meiselman saying that a completely different system of time was operating, then how is it meaningful to describe it as taking six days? What is the barometer of time?

    By the way, I don't think that Rav Avigdor Miller would have accepted R. Meiselman's approach at all.

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  2. Rabbi Slifkin,

    First of all, I don't think that you are representing his approach accurately at all.

    You might be right but that’s why I specifically wrote that my purpose was solely to deal with your question, not to defend Rabbi Meiselman.

    But more fundamentally, I don't see how you even think you have addressed the question. With so much in the natural order being radically different, and even R. Meiselman saying that a completely different system of time was operating, then how is it meaningful to describe it as taking six days? What is the barometer of time?

    Let me ask you a question. When you learn the Rambam in the Moreh 2:30, and he states that after the six days the laws of nature were fixed but on the sixth day itself they had not yet solidified thus accounting for aberrations in the order of nature such as Kayin and Hevel being conceived and born all in one hour, what does this mean to you? It obviously means that there was a real Adam and a real Chava, they probably both breathed thus using standard respiratory systems, we know they both ate, thus using standard metabolic systems etc. etc. However, when it came to their kilei holada, the process was miraculously accelerated. What this means is that since the Creative process was still in effect, any violation of what we would normally call the laws of nature was possible. But that doesn’t mean that all, the laws of nature were violated during the six day period. When I learn the pesukim, I take them k’pshutam. Hashem created a real sun, a real moon, real plants, real vegetation, real fish, real birds and real animals. They were all exactly the same as we have today with all of their attendant laws. I see no reason to say differently.

    By the way, I don't think that Rav Avigdor Miller would have accepted R. Meiselman's approach at all.

    Rav Miller didn’t need this approach. He felt that science did not possess anything beyond pure speculation for the antiquity of the universe. But one thing is for sure; he would have accepted the idea that the creative process which functioned during the shehses yimey bereishis was meta-natural and transcended the laws of nature we have today.

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  3. When you learn the Rambam in the Moreh 2:30, and he states that after the six days the laws of nature were fixed but on the sixth day itself they had not yet solidified thus accounting for aberrations in the order of nature such as Kayin and Hevel being conceived and born all in one hour, what does this mean to you?

    Rabbi Coffer, you need to understand that the Rambam is only useful to Rabbi Slifkin for statements he makes that can be used to damage the mesorah's integrity. Otherwise, his teachings are to be laughed at.

    “As for quoting Rambam that there was no mesorah on astronomical matters - first of all, the idea of my opponents taking Rambam as the final word on mesorah is quite funny. Rambam, who claims that the mesorah of Judaism is largely identical to Greco-Muslim philosophy?!"
    (Sunday, November 28, 2010 Rationalist Judaism The Firming and Flattening of the Firmament)

    Zvi Lampel

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  4. Rabbi Lampel, where did I ever say that Rambam's teachings are to be laughed at? Certainly not in that quote you bring. Nor with regard to Moreh 2:30 - which, along with the commentators on the Moreh, I learn quite differently from Rabbi Coffer.

    I am really surprised at you. I know that our views are very different, but in the past, I never took you for someone who would engage in blatant motzi shem ra. It should really be beneath you.

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  5. Rabbi Slifkin,

    Nor with regard to Moreh 2:30 - which, along with the commentators on the Moreh, I learn quite differently from Rabbi Coffer.

    Hmm… My interpretation of this line in the Rambam differs with that of the commentators? Which ones pray tell? Crescas and Efodi don’t say anything. Shem Tov says exactly the same thing I said. Besides Ibn Tibbon, I have another two Hebrew translations of the Moreh, Kapach and Kaufman, and both render the Moreh exactly as I have. Furthermore, I have Pine’s English translation and he renders the Moreh exactly as I have (the green volume, Volume 2, page 355). I’m not sure what you mean by “I learn [the Moreh] quite differently from Rabbi Coffer”. What is there to “learn” differently?

    The Rambam there is making a simple point, one which is entirely clear and unambiguous. After the six days of Creation, the laws of nature are unchanging (see Rambam’s shita on this in Avos 5:5). The problem is, the parsha of Adam and Eve in the Garden refers to phenomena such as the Tree of Life, The Tree of Knowledge, the Snake etc. which have no physical counterparts in our current world. To this the Rambam responds that since the laws of nature were not yet fixed, it is not surprising that there were aberrations. This is what the Rambam says. How can you “learn” any different than me?

    By the way, the point I was trying to make to you originally is that it is possible to have a Creation Period world which is similar to our world in many aspects and yet differs in some. I maintain that when it comes to time, the Creation Period was identical to our own. How do I know this? Is it because I believe it scientifically? No. I can’t bring a ra’aya from currently operating principles of science to the Creation Period. The reason I believe time then was identical to time now is because our unanimous mesorah tells us so. I have a document I wrote about five years ago (when you and I were fighting like cats and dogs… :-) with over 35 sources in the Pesukim, Chazal, Rishonim and Acharonim to support my contention. I outline my shita and yours very clearly. Check it out here… Maaseh Bereishis

    Oh, and also, please let me know what you mean that you are “learning” the Rambam different than me.

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  6. "I’m not sure what you mean by “I learn [the Moreh] quite differently from Rabbi Coffer”. What is there to “learn” differently?"

    This:

    "It obviously means that there was a real Adam and a real Chava, they probably both breathed thus using standard respiratory systems, we know they both ate, thus using standard metabolic systems etc. etc. However, when it came to their kilei holada, the process was miraculously accelerated."

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  7. where did I ever say that Rambam's teachings are to be laughed at? Certainly not in that quote you bring.

    In the quote I brought. I know you can parse it differently. In the end, you are dismissing the Rambam's shitta, no? You say it's "funny" to use it to determine what the mesorah is, since he allegedly "claims that the mesorah of Judaism is largely identical to Greco-Muslim philosophy?!"

    I know you can wiggle your way out of saying that you personally find the shitta laughable, but your choice of words and punctuation conveys otherwise.

    Bottom line, you personally are not accepting the Rambam's "claim" about what is and is not the mesorah, but you do accept things he says that you can "learn" to reject the mesorah.

    So if you now clarify that your dismissal of the Rambam's distinction between what is and what is not the mesorah (which is also the distinction made by all the others you yourself list)was meant in a respectful (although still misguided) way, then fine. I retract my statement that you consider certain teachings by the Rambam as "laughable."

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  8. Furthermore, what you describe as being the "obvious" meaning of Rambam, is exactly what Narvoni, Shem Tov, Akeidas Yitzchak and Abarbanel hold is NOT the meaning of Rambam. Abarbanel is most explicit:

    "[In saying that these events were allegorical, Rambam] was also motivated by the words of Chazal, who said that this all took place on the sixth day. For those shows that their opinion was that it did not actually happen; for it is impossible that on the sixth day, man was created and placed in Gan Eden, and fell asleep, into a deep sleep, and his side was taken, and built [into a woman], and brought to him, and he sinned, and she conceived, and they were punished, and man was driven out - for, without doubt, it is impossible that this could all happen on one dayl but rather, all this was something muskal and machshavii (conceptual)."

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  9. My last comment was to Rabbi Coffer. Here is my response to Rabbi Lampel:

    I wasn't remotely saying that Rambam's teachings are to be laughed at. Why on earth would I say such a thing? What I described as "laughable" was people who are anti-rationalists to the highest degree, and yet quote Rambam as the final word on the nature of mesorah. That was quite clear from what I wrote. (I do reject much of what Rambam writes as being an incorrect import from Greek philosophy - but so does everyone from Ramban to Vilna Gaon.) I find your poor reading comprehension, coupled with your desire to use your mistakes to disparage me, to be rather disturbing.

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  10. Whoops, some typos in my citation from Abarbanel. Here is the corrected version:

    "[In saying that these events were allegorical, Rambam] was also motivated by the words of Chazal, who said that this all took place on the sixth day. For this shows that their opinion was that it did not actually happen; for it is impossible that on the sixth day, man was created, and placed in Gan Eden, and fell asleep, into a deep sleep, and his side was taken, and built [into a woman], and brought to him, and he sinned, and she conceived, and they were punished, and man was driven out - for, without doubt, it is impossible that this could all happen on one day. But rather, all this was something muskal and machshavii (conceptual)."

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  11. What I described as "laughable" was people who are anti-rationalists to the highest degree, and yet quote Rambam as the final word on the nature of mesorah.

    Who are these alleged people? What statements of theirs are you referring to?

    (I do reject much of what Rambam writes as being an incorrect import from Greek philosophy - but so does everyone from Ramban to Vilna Gaon.)

    What does that have to do with the Rambam's teaching (shared by many others--including those you listed in your paper) that the nature of the rakia is not a mesorah? Or with the unanimous axiom that the mesorah cannot be rejected? Are the "anti-rationalists to the highest degree" engaging in "funny" behavior when they quote the Rambam on this point?

    I find your poor reading comprehension, coupled with your desire to use your mistakes to disparage me, to be rather disturbing.

    I think my reading comprehension is fine, thank you. It hurts me to see someone of your abilities and background promote the rejection of (any of) the mesorah; and it hurts me to point out your greivous errors.

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  12. Rabbi Slifkin,

    I wrote:

    "I’m not sure what you mean by “I learn [the Moreh] quite differently from Rabbi Coffer”. What is there to “learn” differently?"

    To which you responded:

    This:

    and then you go on to quote me as follows:

    "It obviously means that there was a real Adam and a real Chava, they probably both breathed thus using standard respiratory systems, we know they both ate, thus using standard metabolic systems etc. etc. However, when it came to their kilei holada, the process was miraculously accelerated."

    Before we proceed, I’d like to point out that the Rambam says precisely the same thing several perakim earlier and no one interprets his words allegorically.

    Here’s the quote: (my translation)

    “[and the grammatical context of the word vayanach] is that [Hashem] caused
    reality to perpetuate in the state that it existed on the seventh day. In other words,
    every single day of the six days saw a process which caused new events to come into
    existence, [a process] which transcends the fixed nature which currently obtains in
    the universe in general (Moreh 1:67 - Kapach ed. pg. 111).

    Furthermore, what you describe as being the "obvious" meaning of Rambam, is exactly what Narvoni, Shem Tov, Akeidas Yitzchak and Abarbanel hold is NOT the meaning of Rambam. Abarbanel is most explicit:

    "[In saying that these events were allegorical, Rambam] was also motivated by the words of Chazal… this shows that their opinion was that it did not actually happen; for it is impossible that on the sixth day, man was created, and placed in Gan Eden… But rather, all this was something muskal and machshavii (conceptual)."


    Rabi Slifkin, surely you are aware that subsequently the Abarbanel writes the following regarding the Moreh 2:30: (my translation)

    "Behold you see that the opinion of the Rav (the Rambam) was not that all of maaseh bereishis was an allegory, rather, only a small part of it (some elements in the second chapter of Bereishis, not the first), and that all which is mentioned [in the Torah] regarding the activity of the six days, from the creation of the heavens and the earth, and all of the phenomena, and the creation of Adam and his wife, up until [the passage of] "va'yichulu", have no allegory whatsoever for everything was [understood as] literal to him and therefore you will see that in this very chapter, #30 in the second section, in all which the Rav has explicated regarding the activity of the six days, he did not make [of maaseh bereishis] an allegory or a hint (pirush tzurayi oh remez) at all;”

    This clearly demonstrates that Abarbanel concludes that Rambam maintained that Chapter 1 of Genesis is meant literally, not allegorically. Besides, I can bring you numerous proof texts from the Rambam himself (other than the Moreh) that the Adam and Chava mentioned in the first perek of Bereishis were real people. In fact, I’ve already done so.

    Continued in the following comment…

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  13. Continued from the previous comment…

    But all this is really irrelevant. The words I quoted from the Rambam in the Moreh 2:30 and 1:67 clearly state that the laws of nature were not yet solidified during the six days of Creation and only “came to a rest” on the seventh day. If you want to believe that Adam and Chava were allegorical, so be it. But what are you going to do with the Rambam’s words? He says that there were six literal days of creation. He says that the laws of nature had not yet solidified during that period. He says that they finally became static on the seventh day. None of the commentaries you quote above reinterpret those words. In fact, Shem Tov paraphrases them exactly as they seem. So, are you actually willing to pervert the texts in defense of your position? Are you willing to simply dismiss the pashtus of the Rambam by appealing to authority? Surely not. In my opinion, you need to take the actual words of the Rambam under advisement instead of hiding behind the supposed opinions of Narvoni and Shem Tov. Especially since there are several other instances in the Rambam where he clearly relates to maaseh bereishis in a literal way.

    Here’s my bottom line. It seems clear from the Rambam that the laws of nature were fluid during maaseh bereishis. Does this mean that time differed. No. It may very well have been the same. In fact, I believe it was precisely the same as today. Why, because the mesorah tells us so. But the bottom line remains that the laws of nature were not yet fixed. Whatever Rabbi Meiselman wishes to do with this is his business. You may agree with him, you may not. All I need you to do is concede that according to the Rambam the idea of the non-fixity of the LON during MB is a valid one.

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  14. I would have to research this further, but the Narboni is widely considered a radical Aristotelian who attributed radical interpretations on the Moreh.

    My hypothesis is that being one of the first (if not the first) to wrote a commentary on the Moreh, his interpretations shaped the popular impression of what the Rambam meant; and it was these Narboni ideas that later commentators attributed--if only at first--to the Moreh itself, and sometimes castigated, and sometimes rethought (as is the case with Abarbanel).

    (By the way, the Abarbanel and the Akeida were contemporaries who [some say: communicated with each other, and] often borrowed from each others opinions without attribution.)

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  15. Rabbi Lampel,

    I would have to research this further, but the Narboni is widely considered a radical Aristotelian who attributed radical interpretations on the Moreh.

    Your research would be invaluable to the proper explication of the Rambam. I encourage you to persue it in the most objective way possible and infrom our readers of your conclusions. I for one would be very much interested in the results of your investigation, bein l'tov, bein l'mutav.

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  16. "Rabi Slifkin, surely you are aware that subsequently the Abarbanel writes the following regarding the Moreh 2:30"

    I know that we have differed previously regarding the relationship of the two discussions of Abarbanel regarding Rambam's view on the six days, but that has nothing to do with this. He's certainly not retracting what he writes here about the sixth day; it's all part of the very same piece. The "small part" that he refers to as being an allegory, is precisely the part that he speaks about in the section that I quoted. So you see that, contrary to your claim, Abarbanel holds that Rambam was of the view that time could not have flowed at a different speed, and temporally impossible things could not have happened.

    The words I quoted from the Rambam in the Moreh 2:30 and 1:67 clearly state that the laws of nature were not yet solidified during the six days of Creation and only “came to a rest” on the seventh day.

    First of all, if you ever study the commentaries on the Moreh, you will see that they often interpret Rambam's words esoterically - based on Rambam's own instructions at the beginning of the Guide. I'd rather go with the approach of the commentators and Maimonidean scholars than that of Rabbi S. Coffer. Especially because in this case, I understand their reason for explaining it esoterically.

    Second, none of this is relevant. Even if Rambam did say that the laws of nature were different, so what? It doesn't make it so.

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  17. Rabbi Natan Slifkin is clearly misunderstanding Rabbi Meiselman. Rabbi Meiselman is claiming that during the creation days all was set up except the time scale differed (whatever can be critiqued concerning that view). If we are to believe Rabbi Slifkin, however, Rabbi Meiselman is claiming that after the days of creation God created the laws and nature of the things He created. That would hardly be compatible with the quote he gave from the Rambam as his support. The quote describes the creation period as one in which all was setup, not one in which things were unrecognizable only to be given some new nature later. All was created and setup during the creation period, the Rambam was saying.

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  18. Rabbi Slifkin,

    So you see that, contrary to your claim, Abarbanel holds that Rambam was of the view that time could not have flowed at a different speed, and temporally impossible things could not have happened.

    We seem to be talking past each other Rabbi. I am personally of the view that the period of maaseh bereishis was temporally identical to our post-Creation period. The only thing I am trying to demonstrate from the Abarbanel is that the Creative process which obtained during maaseh berssihis was fundamentally different than the fixed laws of nature which obtain today. As such, we should expect to see violations of the norm during maaseh bereishis, such as animals arising from the earth rather than sexually or plants spontaneously arising from the earth rather than by the process of photosynthesis.

    First of all, if you ever study the commentaries on the Moreh, you will see that they often interpret Rambam's words esoterically - based on Rambam's own instructions at the beginning of the Guide. I'd rather go with the approach of the commentators and Maimonidean scholars than that of Rabbi S. Coffer.

    Talk about red herrings…

    The Rambam’s “seventh cause” is hotly debated amongst Maimonidean “scholars”. Most modern day academics (e.g. Leo Strauss, Sarah Klein-Breslavy) claim that the Rambam was referring to his secret belief in Kadmus (chs’v), a position that, presumably, you would contest. So, you’re in the same boat as me. You contest the scholars. Big deal. I would take your opinion in this matter over Strauss or Breslavy. Why are you so hasty to dismiss mine in other matters? Let’s debate Rambam based on the text, not on modern-day interpretations.

    As far as the commentators, I specifically noted that Shem Tov renders his pirush of the portion I quoted exactly the same as me. I also noted that as far as I know there are no other commentaries which dispute my rendering of this passage in the Rambam. Also, I noted the Rambam’s text in the Moreh 1:67.

    Let’s treat each other’s opinions with the appropriate measure of deference and respect. Respond to my arguments. Don’t wiggle out by appealing to authority. It’s insulting to claim that you’d “rather go with Maimonidean scholars”.

    Especially because in this case, I understand their reason for explaining it esoterically.

    Really? What’s that?

    Second, none of this is relevant. Even if Rambam did say that the laws of nature were different, so what? It doesn't make it so.

    Agreed. But you’re losing track of the train of argument here. I was suggesting that Rabbi Meiselman possibly meant to say that the general laws of nature today are not necessarily the same as the laws of nature during maaseh bereishis (as opposed to time per se) and my proof was that he quoted this Rambam. Concordantly, I set out to prove that the Rambam indeed does say this.

    You know, in the greater scheme of things, I agree with you. All this really is irrelevant. I have since re-evaluated my assessment of Rabbi Meiselman’s article and at this juncture I confess that I do not fully understand his mehalech. I must speak with him (or his colleague Rabbi Kornreich) first before making any further statements.

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  19. I know I have come to this article late, but I just wanted to offer one thought. I am starting to learn a bit about cell differentiation of a fetus in the womb [emphasis on the word starting in case I make any factual errors].

    How does a singular cell which divides and makes an identical copy of itself end up as trillions of unique cells with highly specified functions? This is where a process called cell differentiation comes in - at some point different cells are assigned different functions. Once they 'receive' their assignment, they are locked into place and don't change to become a different type of cell. They continue to function this way (as do their copies).

    I point this all out as a Mashal of sorts. These cells today have their function - they operate in a certain way. We cannot, though, learn from that function how they were assigned that function. That is a different process which operates according to different rules (or laws, if you will).

    Furthermore, once the process if finished there is no going back - it is set. It is possible to view this as a sort of law of creation - the mechanism by which the cells obtain their function are radically different than the function they perform.

    Furthermore, during this process, the fetus still requires nutrients - it still needs to be fed (albeit in a manner different than we eat).

    In short - the idea of a sort of fluid state can be seen (to some extent) in the fetus. There are similarities and differences in the creation to the post creation reality.

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  20. I thought it would be helpful to note the relevant points of the Abarbanel that Rabbis Slifkin and Coffer mentioned above. It makes it easier to assess what he is saying.

    In terms of what is impossible - this is what he states:

    It can't be that all of the following happened in one day:

    * man was created
    * placed in Gan Eden
    * fell asleep, into a deep sleep
    * his side was taken
    * and built [into a woman]
    * and brought to him
    * and he sinned
    * and she conceived
    * and they were punished
    * and man was driven out

    It seems that creation here is seen as something that man did that day (or an activity that he partook of). In other words, being created takes time and according to the Abarbanel it's impossible that a man can be involved in all of these activities in one single day.


    Here is what the Abarbanel says is not an allegory:

    * from the creation of the heavens and the earth, and all of the phenomena and the creation of Adam and his wife, up until [the passage of] "va'yichulu"

    It sounds like (based on the above two quotes) that what the Abarbanel is saying is the following. The idea that all the activities and experiences that Adam HaRishon went through in Perek 2 and 3 happened in one day is impossible and thus stating that it all happened in one day is a mashal of some sort).

    That he was created in one day is not impossible and does not need to be (or at least is not by the Rambam) taken as a Mashal.

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