Sunday, 24 November 2019


Rambam (1135-1204)
Rashi (1040-1105)


A perceptive student will notice, very early on, just how diverse the different hashkafot or worldviews within Judaism are. Besides the differences between the various modern movements and trends, it is particularly interesting when such colliding views originate from primary rabbinic teachers such as Rashi (1040-1105) and Rambam (1135-1204).

In this essay, based largely on the writings of Professor Menachem Kellner[1], we will try to show just how disparate the views of Rashi and Rambam are on some of the most fundamental principles of Judaism.

Rashi passed away just thirty years before Rambam was born, yet theologically and philosophically they were worlds apart.



According to Rashi’s very first commentary on Genesis (based on Midrash Tanchuma[2]) the Torah intentionally begins with an account of the Creation - instead of starting at a later section which deals with actual commandments - to show that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jews. Although the Jews conquered the Land from the original inhabitants (i.e., the seven Canaanite nations), the Jews were instructed to do so by the G-d who had created the world and who therefore was entitled to apportion land to, and take from, whomever He deemed necessary. 

Thus, according to Rashi, the Torah starts with the creation narrative to show, essentially, that the Land of Israel was destined for the Jews.

Rashi then continues with another Midrashic interpretation (based on Bereishit Rabbah) that the world was created in the ‘beginning’; 1) for the sake of the Torah, which is (also) called ‘the beginning[3]; – and 2) for the sake of the Jewish People, who are (also) called ‘ the beginning.[4]

Therefore, in Rashi’s view, the universe was created for the Torah and for the Jewish People who would eventually inherit the Land.


Rambam adopts a very different approach. He writes that the Torah specifically opens with an (albeit veiled) account of the story of the creation of the universe, where one thing was built upon another and entities were formed following some logical sequence, to indicate that the study of ‘natural science’ must always precede the study of ‘divine science’ (i.e., religion and theology).

Rambam suggests that knowledge of how the world works (physical science or al-‘ilm al-tiba’i) must always be the prelude to, and basis of, religious theology (al-‘ilm al-ilahi), otherwise, religion will exist suspended in an ungrounded and unnatural void.[5]

Strikingly absent from Rambam’s interpretation of Creation is any mention of Torah, Jews or Land.

As Menachem Kellner puts it:

“It is obvious that Rashi reads the Torah particularistically, Maimonides univeralistically.”

Furthermore, Rambam does not claim, as does Rashi, to know why the universe was created. This he says very clearly when writing about Creation:

“And we shall seek for it no cause or other final end whatever...

For when man knows his own soul...he becomes calm and his thoughts are not troubled by seeking a final end for that which has not that final end”[6]


Another area where Rashi and Rambam disagree is on the matter of whether the patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, kept all the laws of the Torah before it was given at Mount Sinai. Besides his reference to the patriarchs keeping all the Torah laws (such as Avraham observing Passover), Rashi - basing himself on an earlier Talmudic source - writes that even Noah studied the Torah because he already knew which animals were destined to be declared ‘pure’:

Although there are numerous other Talmudic sources which similarly convey this idea that the patriarchs observed all the 613 Commandments,[7] as so far as Kellner can ascertain, Rambam makes no reference to these sources in any of his writings[8].

In a letter from Rambam to one Chasdai haLevi, he explicitly denies that the patriarchs observed the commandments. Unfortunately, many scholars believe this letter to be a forgery,[9] so its accuracy as a support for this notion is moot.

Rambam does, however, admit[10] that certain laws were indeed observed before the Torah was given. Adam kept 6 laws; Noah added one to make the Seven Laws of Noah; Avraham added Brit Millah; Yitzchak added tithing; Yaakov added the prohibition of the sinew of the thigh; and later Amram (Moshe’s father) added a number of others - but it was still only with Moshe and the Sinai experience, that the Torah was completed with all the 613 commandments.

This excludes the possibility, in Rambam’s view, of anyone observing all the 613 commandments prior to Sinai.

Furthermore, according to the way Rambam understands the story of the Garden of Eden,[11] humans were not originally intended to even observe the laws of the Torah, which happened to be given much later, as Kellner explains, as a “concession to human weakness, not part of the eternal divine plan, as it were.

Consistent with Rambam’s view that the Torah was not observed prior to Sinai, is his interpretation[12] of the story of Yehudah and Tamar (the woman of ill repute) - since prior to Sinai such matters were not restricted by Torah law, as, in his view, there was no Torah law at that stage.


Rashi maintained that in addition to the patriarchs observing the entire Torah before it was given, the Torah actually pre-existed the creation. This is because, as we saw above, the world was created so that the Torah would be given to the people of Israel. Since the Torah was the reason for creation, it had to have been in existence (in whatever form) beforehand.

This concept does have some possible biblical antecedence,[13] where G-d is said to have founded the earth on ‘wisdom’:
The pre-existence of the Torah is also referenced in Midrashim[14] where G-d is said to have used the Torah as a ‘template’ to create the world. This notion became very popular in later rabbinic and particularly Kabbalistic writings where it is said that “G-d looked into the Torah and created the world.[15] 

Along similar lines, Ramban (Nachmaindes), considered the father of Jewish mysticism, was later to write that Torah cannot be separated from the natural world because both are intrinsically connected and, in fact, were one and the same thing.

However, Rambam (Maimonides), following from Rav Saadiah Gaon entertained no such notion. For Rambam, it made no sense even in speaking about ‘before’ creation - as ‘time’ itself was a creation.

According to Rambam, to believe that anything, besides G-d, existed prior to creation is “infidelity beyond any doubt.”[16] Rambam also calls the rejection of such a notion a fundamental “foundation of the Torah.”[17]

Kellner writes:

“It is likely that his strong language reflects his abhorrence of the idea that anything might be co-eternal with God.”

Rambam had no time for any belief in a G-d requiring assistance from any ‘holy objects’, ‘energies’, or 'texts' (in whatever form). He writes:

“I have seen a of Rabbi Eliezer[18], which is the strangest statement I have seen by one who follows the Law of Moses our Master[:]...

’Wherefrom were the heavens created? From the light of His garment. He took some of it, stretched it like a cloth, and thus they were extending continually...’”

Rambam also rejected the notion that G-d has personal ‘attributes’. This idea of attributes or sefirot and levushim (garments) was also to become even more popular after the publication of the Zohar about 50 years after Rambam’s passing.

It should be noted that while many criticize Rambam for his rationalist views as if they were anti-spiritual, it could be argued that his belief in an unknowable and unfathomable G-d was a deeper and purer form of monotheism than that of the mystics. One of the areas where we see this is in his unapologetic rejection of G-d co-existing with any co-eternal attributes or entities.


Clearly Rashi, as well as most other rabbinic sources, consider the Jews to be the Chosen People. Rambam, however, had some interesting definitions of, and opinions on, this matter.

Kellner describes Rambam’s view of history as following a pattern of 'natural randomness':

“According to Maimonides, God’s choice of the Jews as the chosen people was actually a consequence of Abraham’s discovery of God and not a historically necessary event.”

This is borne out by the way Rambam describes[19] how idolatry started out simply as a way of showing respect to G-d through lauding His creations, such as the moon and stars which were a testament to their Creator. This idea, however, became corrupted over time when G-d no longer featured anymore and the agents took on an independent power of their own. It was believed that certain cult-like practices, which claimed to harness the spiritual energy of such entities, would bring prosperity and avoid punishment. Various temples were constructed and specific rituals were adopted to appease these self-governing gods.

Eventually, Avraham was born into that idolatrous environment, and he discovered the One G-d, despite the fact that “[h]e had no teacher, nor was there anyone to inform him.”

Conspicuously absent from Rambam’s entire narrative of Avraham’s discovering G-d, is any mention of interference or intervention by G-d Himself[20].

In Rambam’s account, G-d does not choose Avraham but Avraham, absolutely independently, chooses G-d!

[This is reminiscent, in some strange way, of the famous anti-Semitic slur by British journalist and possible Russian spy, William Norman Ewer (d.1977) known also as Trilby, who said: “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” This prompted many responses[21] including: “It’s not so odd, the Jews chose God.”]

Thus, according to Rambam, G-d did not seek out Avraham as part of some cosmic plan. If, hypothetically, the person who discovered G-d amidst a world of idolatry, had been someone else from any other nation or culture, the commandments of the Torah would have reflected the norms and 'cultural authority' of that people.

Had that been the case, Kellner continues, then:

“[t]he inner meaning of the Torah...would all be equivalent to...the Torah as it was indeed revealed to Moses at Sinai, but its outer garment would be dramatically different...

Maimonides is not shy about adopting the implications of this position. The specific laws of the Torah reflect historical circumstances which could have been different.”

This stark view of Rambam will surprise many as it indeed startled many of Rambam’s contemporaries. R. Yehuda haLevy[22] (1075-1141), for example, held a typically polar opposite view. Jews, he said, were specifically chosen by G-d. He believed that it was only because of their “inyan Eloki” or unique G-dliness which was an inherent feature of the Jew, that Jews were chosen by G-d. [23] 

Later, the Kabbalists declared that a Jew's soul was "a part of  G-d", and even later the Chassidim added,  "Truly a part of G-d." 

Rambam, however, held fast to his position because of the primary role the notion of freedom of choice played in his theology. He called freedom of choice ‘the great ikkar’ or great principle. History, according to Rambam, was not absolutely preordained and therefore G-d did not specifically choose Avraham.

For Rambam, G-d did not choose the Jews because they were so special - rather, they were so special because they chose G-d.

The most notorious example of Rambam's view of history as being a process of ‘natural randomness’ is his view of the sacrifices. He taught that sacrifices were not G-d’s first choice but rather given as a concession to those spiritually primitive Israelites who were not yet fully weaned from their previous idolatrous practices where sacrifices featured supreme.

This is clearly a most audacious claim especially considering how much of Judaism is comprised of laws relating to sacrifices and laws of ritual purity – including the future hopes of the restoration of the sacrifices in Messianic times.

However, Rambam did not accept the general rabbinic view of ‘yeridat haDorot’ where the nation was said to have regressed spiritually since Sinai, but instead he firmly believed in exactly the opposite – that spiritual and intellectual evolution and progression only occurs within the fullness of time.

This is why, according to Rambam in his Guide, it appears that we will not bring sacrifices in the Third Temple because by then we will have been fully weaned from the ancient and less profound necessity to do so. 

However, because Rambam in his Mishneh Torah does speak of the sacrifices being reinstated, there is much controversy over which was his true position. Considering that the Mishneh Torah was written around 1170/80 and the Guide at around 1190 one could argue that the Guide reflects his stronger view. Nevertheless, the mainstream view is that the sacrifices will indeed be restored in the future.


The theological implications between those who follow Rashi and those who follow Rambam on these matters are immense.

Describing Rashi’s position, Kellner writes:

“If the Torah pre-exists creation, if in some sense or other it serves as blue-print of the universe, then quite obviously, the laws of the Torah bear some sort of constitutive relationship to the cosmos and fulfilling those laws can (or must) have some sort of impact on that cosmos.

From here, full-blown theurgy [i.e., a magic-like or quid pro quo spiritual manipulation][24] is but a short step...

[a]nd Israel’s obedience to the laws of the Torah can be construed as the key to the continued proper functioning of that universe.

Getting Jews to fulfil the commandments becomes a matter of cosmic concern.

For a person holding such is literally inconceivable that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the pre-ordained progenitors of Israel from before creation, did not obey all the commandments of the Torah, both Sinaitic and rabbinic.”

This position has become the de facto position almost universally followed by most groups of religious Jews to this day.

Enter Rambam and everything changes:

“From Maimonides’ account it appears that Abraham, the self-taught philosopher par excellence, had no need of Sinai. Sinai is a concession to the sad fact that the root planted by Abraham was on the verge of being uprooted.

In order to preserve the philosophical core of the Torah, it had to be hedged about by laws and ceremonials, which do not accomplish anything in themselves, but were instituted in order to serve moral, social, or philosophical ends.

For a person holding these views, it is literally inconceivable that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob observed laws and ceremonials later given at Sinai in response to the degeneration of the Jews in Egypt.”

- These two doctrinal hypotheses of Rashi and Rambam could not be in any further tension!


Both Rashi and Rambam - while accepting the Revelation at Sinai - interpreted that event in ways that were ecclesiastically worlds apart.

For Rashi, the Sinai experience was a cosmic continuum of the pre-creation era, while for Rambam it was a necessary concession in response to the historical reality of the time, in order to cement the threatened tradition begun by Avraham.

These vastly disparate positions of Rashi and Rambam are irreconcilable.

They have far-reaching implications which, of necessity, will inform one’s theological and spiritual perspective.

It is extraordinary, though, that on such fundamental issues, whichever view one subscribes to, the other position will continue to remain unacceptable, untenable even objectionable if not blatantly abhorrent - yet they all curiously fall within the vast umbrella of rabbinic thought. 


[For some insight into the story behind the Rashi texts as we have them today, see And What Does Rashi Say?

[1] Rashi and Maimonides on the Relationship Between Torah and the Cosmos, by Menachem Kellner.
[2] This was a compilation of three aggadic works on the Torah with only two extant. According to Samuel Berman "earliest manuscript of this text was compiled in late 8th or 9th century.”
[3]The beginning of His way,” Proverbs 8:22,
[4]The beginning of His crops,” Jeremiah 2:3.
[5] Part of Rambam’s text reads:

“Do you not see the following fact? God...wished us to be perfected....
Now this can only come about after the adoption of intellectual beliefs, the first of which being His apprehension...according to our capacity.
This, in its turn, cannot come about except through divine science and this divine science [i.e., religion and theology] cannot become actual except after a study of natural science [al-‘ilm al-tiba’i].
This is so since natural science borders on divine science [al-‘ilm al-ilahi], and its study precedes that of divine science in time as has been made clear to whoever has engaged in speculation  on these matters.
Hence God...caused His book to open with the ‘Account of the Beginning,’ which, as we have made clear, is natural science.
And because of the greatness and importance of the subject and because our capacity falls short of apprehending the greatest of subjects as it really is, - which divine wisdom has deemed necessary to convey to us – we are told about these profound matters in parables and riddles and very obscure words.”
[Introduction to Moreh Nevuchim (Guide of the Perplexed)]

[6] Guide III,13.
[7] Mishna Kiddushin 4:14, Yoma 28b, Nedarim 32a,
[8] I did notice, however - in Rambam’s Hilchot Avodat Cochavim, ch.3 - a reference to Jacob’s son, Levi, being appointed to teach in the ‘yeshiva’ and entrusted with the perpetuation of the ‘mitzvot of Avraham’.  Read through modern filters it would seem that Levi taught the 613 mitzvot in a modern yeshiva in Bnai Brak, but the question, of course, is whether one can equate the ‘mitzvot of Avraham’ (which were most likely, primarily of an anti idolatrous nature) with the 613 ‘mitzvot of G-d’ as we came to know them after Sinai?  
[9] See A Maimonides Reader, by Isadore Twersky (1972), p. 478.
[10] Hilchot Melachim 9:1.
[11] Guide I, 2 and II, 30.
[12] Guide III, 49.
[13] Proverbs 3:19 and 8:22.
[14] Bereishit Rabbah 1;1 and 4.
[15] Zohar, Terumah, II, 161,1.
[16] See also Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva, III, 7; and Guide II,13.
[17] Guide I, 68.
[18] Pirkei de’Rabi Eliezer was an Aggadic- Medrashic work retelling many biblical stories, and may have been written in Italy around 830CE.
[19] See the opening chapters of Rambam’s Hilchot Avodat Cochavim.
[20] Other than, of course, being the object of Avraham’s inquiry and subsequent discovery.
[21] Such as “Not odd of God, Goyyim annoy’im,” and “How strange of man, to change the plan.”
[22] Although not technically a contemporary or Rambam as he passed away when Rambam was just six years old.
[23] Kuzari 1:48.
[24] Parenthesis mine.

Sunday, 17 November 2019


Many are familiar with Chasdai Crescas' work, 'Or haShem' - but his vision of a new Halachic Code is even more interesting.


R. Don Chasdai Crescas (1340-1410) was a philosopher and halachist from Catalonia in the north-eastern region of Spain. His teacher was Rabbeinu Nisim of Gerona, also known as the Ran, and his most well-known student was R. Yosef Albo.

In his philosophical work, Or haShem, Chasdai Crescas tries to show how Maimonides’ rationalism, a century and a half earlier,  was overly influenced by Aristotle; and he attempts to rescue Judaism from that type of rationalist Greek thought.

It is Crescas’ approach to Halacha, however, that is so fascinating because he wanted to re-evaluate and reframe the way we write our codes of law - particularly Rambam’s famous code known as Mishneh Torah. 

The purpose of this article to try and understand Chasdai Crescas’ reasoning for wanting to disrupt the popular Halachic process and replace it with a fundamentally new vision of Law.

I have drawn from the research of Professor Ari Ackerman[1], a graduate of Yeshivat Kerem beYavne who is now a professional academic.

NOTE: The Reader is reminded that this is a theoretical exploration of Chasdai Crescas’ views on Halacha, and is not intended to suggest any change to the way we conduct the Halachic process today.


Chasdai Crescas agreed with Rambam on two major principles:

1) Theoretical Talmud study for its own sake had no beneficial value! While this might sound strange to the modern ear - as this type of study is the staple of the modern yeshivot - it was a sentiment well established by Rambam. He claimed in his Mishneh Torah, that it was no longer necessary to study Talmud, because he had already summarised all its salient and practical points.

“In short, outside of this work [i.e., the Mishneh Torah][2] there was no need for another book to learn anything whatsoever that is required in the whole Torah, whether it be a law of the Scriptures or of the Rabbis.”[3]

In fact, in a letter to a student, Rambam went even further:

If one spends time studying commentaries [of the Talmud] and the disputes in the Talmud...  then one is wasting one’s time.”[4]

Crescas concurred.

2) Another area where Crescas agreed with Rambam was in the need for a practical Code of Law, in place of Talmudic dialectics and theoretical legal argumentation.

- But where Crescas vociferously departed ways with Rambam was in the area of the ultimate goal of Judaism: For Rambam it was the Sechel, the rationalist and philosophical mind which led to perfection; whereas for Crescas it was simply the practical fulfilment of the commandments that led to righteousness. This was why Crescas was so concerned about the importance of Codes of Law.


Because Crescas believed that the correct practice of the commandments could lead to human perfection, therefore the entire purpose of Torah study had to be practical, deed orientated and not concerned with intellectual arguments and discussion. This practical knowledge had to be clear, concise and easily accessible.[5] 

In theological terms this is known as praxis (which is defined as the process by which a theory is enacted, embodied, or realized.)

 Ackerman describes Crescas’ emphasis on praxis as follows:

“[The purpose of Torah study should be to] distil the discursive, scattered and indeterminate halakhic traditions into clear and concise legal directives, which could be widely accessed.”

By contrast Rambam placed his emphasis more in theoria, (which is defined as intellectual and rational contemplation). 

By providing a concise Code of Law to free the student from Talmudic dialectics, Rambam allowed more time for the mind to be engaged in rationalist pursuits.

This is a fascinating understanding of Rambam because according to this, he did not write his Code in order to have a Code (as one would have imagined) but he did so in order to free the mind of the student from Talmudic dialectics to allow time for more rationalist endeavours.

As Ackerman puts it:

“Maimonides and Crescas arrived at the same conclusion from antithetical premises.

Maimonides embraced comprehensive codes because he wanted to allow the scholar to devote himself to theoria.

Crescas embraced comprehensive codes because he believed that human perfection is primarily connected to praxis.”


Because Crescas believed in the primacy of praxis and therefore in the supreme significance of the observance of the commandments, he broke from the earlier rabbinic approach, especially that of the Tosafists of Northern France and Germany who had preceded him, who valued “the creative dialectic [theoretical argumentation][6of Torah study over the adjudication of halakhah.

Although Crescas was living in Spain, the Tosafist style of study had already begun to filter down from France and Germany to Catalonia through teachers like Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270).

But Ackerman explains:

“[Crescas] never attributed independent value to the study of Torah.

Consequently, in contrast to Nahmanides and his students, Crescas valued comprehensive halakhic codes, which allowed a Jew to navigate the deep and rough waters of the halakhic


In the Introduction to his theological work Or haShem, Crescas enthusiastically proclaimed his intention to write a new Code of Jewish Law in order to counter the Mishneh Torah of Rambam.

Crescas went on to severely criticise the manner in which Rambam wrote his Code.

1) He began with the fact that Rambam did not quote or reference his Talmudic sources.

2) Then he criticised the fact that Rambam did not offer alternate or differing views from the ones he presented.

3) Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, he criticised Rambam’s omission of broad principles of Halacha and, instead, he simply laid out ‘specific legal conclusions’.

The first two criticisms of Rambam were not just peculiar to Crescas but were widespread criticisms held by many others as well.

The third criticism, however, concerning the absence of a presentation of principles of law from which a Halachic decisor could draw from in the future, was of great concern to Crescas.


By criticizing Rambam’s focus on ‘specific legal conclusions’, Crescas reveals perhaps his greatest difference from Rambam’s Code and probably from all other future Codes as well: 

In Crescas’s view, one cannot produce a Code of Jewish Law that essentially remains a book or a list of laws!

Once one does that, one intrinsically fossilizes halacha forever so that it stagnates and loses its power of relevance. 

Law must be principle based, so that future scholars will not just tick the boxes in the list, but instead, apply their minds to the fundamental Halachic axioms which must always trump the specific detailed conclusions.

For Crescas:

“[Jewish][7] Law was a boundless entity that continued to expand dynamically and infinitely,
and whose particulars could not be confined or encompassed.”


Those familiar with the process of Torah study and analysis would know about R. Yishmael’s Thirteen Hermeneutic (defined as the methodology of biblical interpretation) Principles of Torah Interpretation.[8]

As a general rule (although in truth it’s not so simplistic), one may safely interpret the Torah based on these Thirteen Principles and arrive at an acceptable biblical interpretation. This was already well established a thousand years earlier during Talmudic (Mishnaic) times in the Baraite deRabi Yishmael around the 1st century CE.

In a most audacious move, Chasdai Crescas attempted to formulate a new set of Principles, not for biblical interpretation but rather to derive Halacha from post-biblical legal texts (i.e., Talmud and Midrash Halacha).

This set of Principles of Halachic Interpretation would be used under all circumstances and at all times in order to arrive at appropriate Halachic practice.

Thus Crescas’ new Hermeneutic Principles for Talmud Study would be used to formulate Halacha, just like R. Yishmael’s Hermeneutic Principles for Biblical Study were used for biblical interpretation.

In Crescas’s view, Rambam got it wrong by being ‘overly occupied with concrete cases’ and by presenting a book of laws which essentially fossilized those laws forever. Rather, one needed a book of fundamental Halachic Principles which would dynamically focus ‘on the theoretical grounding of the law’ and rise to meet the changing Halachic challenges of the future.

As Ackerman puts it:

“These bedrock principles of the law allowed for the derivation of new laws from the existing
laws. By grasping the principles, one encompassed the law in its entirety...

According to Crescas, by focusing on the particulars of the law, Maimonides mistakenly conceived of the law as a static system and failed to provide guidance in adjudicating new cases that resulted from the infinite nature of the Torah.

Consequently, in depicting his own code, Crescas asserted that he would compose a compilation, which contains the commandments of the Law with their causes according to the subject matter, with conception of their definitions and their general principles(ha-gedarim ve-ha-klalim).

Crescas believed that at Mount Sinai it was only the principles and not the minutiae of the Law that was revealed. This was not his unique innovation as this idea has its roots in earlier rabbinic literature.[9]  But now he wanted to consolidate those original principles in their purest form, in a new Code.


Crescas’s daring scheme, however, did come with a caveat and condition that his Principles would not be subject to the whims of just anyone, but they were meant only to be interpreted by talmidei chachamim, or scholars, who were familiar with the Talmud.


It’s interesting to see that Crescas’ vision of a completely different Code of Law may have been partially influenced by the French Talmudist, the Ralbag[10] (1288-1344), who passed away when Crescas was four years old.

In Ralbag’s commentary on the legal sections of the Torah, he (also) makes reference to the importance of understanding the roots of the law. In the Introduction to his commentary on the Torah, Ralbag writes:

“We will enumerate the roots (shorshei) of the laws of [each] the most succinct form possible.”

And amazingly, Ralbag added that he (also) wanted to produce a halachic work ‘that would detail the roots of each commandment’.

Ralbag actually developed a system of 22 shorashim, or hermeneutic principles. This means that Crescas was not the first to incubate such a scheme, although he did take the matter even further by referring to an ‘infinity’ and ‘expanding’ of the Law.


The concept of infinity played a significant role in developing Crescas’ theological thinking:

“Infinity looms large in Crescass innovative philosophic, scientific, and
theological approaches.

Infinity...served the lynchpin of his halakhic philosophy.”


It must be remembered that one cannot discount the Kabbalistic influence on Crescas who was born 80 years after the publication of the Zohar around 1260.

No biblical or earlier rabbinic sources explicitly discuss the idea of an infinite Torah in the way Crescas does because “the notion of the infinite Torah was introduced only by the kabbalisic tradition.”

Clearly, the Zoharic influence would have helped shape his notion of Infinity which would have included an infinite Torah with infinite Halachic possibilities.

According to Ackerman:

The kabbalistic notion of the infinite Torah concerned the possibility of unlimited interpretations of the Written Torah. Thus, kabbalistic sources conceived of the infinite nature of the Torah as a hermeneutic principle that governs the exegetical possibilities of the text.

According to Crescas, the infinite nature of the Torah determined the infinitude of the law; halakhah was boundless and the particulars of Jewish law could not be confined within a finite work.”


As we have seen, Chasdai Crescas’ bold perception of Halacha - which he based upon Ralbag and the recently surfaced Zohar - opened up other and variant avenues of possible Halachic discourse.

In his view, Halacha was no longer a stagnant list of do’s and dont’s which were forever to be memorialized in a legal compendium. Instead, Halacha was to be something organic and infinitely alive and yet still within the boundaries of Torah Judaism, as long as his set of Hermeneutic Principles were upheld.

- Unfortunately, though, Chasdai Crescas’ Halachic writings are no longer extant.  

To what extent they were put to writing in the first place, remains a mystery. But he openly shared what he was intending to write (and that’s how we know so much about his approach to Halacha), but that’s all we have; essentially his principles about his Principles.

If he did commit his Principles to writing, considering their controversial nature it is not unlikely that they may have been destroyed. If they burned Rambam’s books they surely would have burned his too.

One thing is certain though, and that is that if we ever do find his actual Halachic writings, they would make for some very interesting reading.


Three hundred years after Chasdai Crescas, many of the new Chasidim began to teach (controversially) that if the ‘principle’ or ‘purpose’ of prayer, for example, is to cleave to G-d, then if one does not feel ready to pray at the established prayer times, one may delay the prayer in pursuit of that original principle.

Five hundred years after Chasdai Crescas, Rav Kook (1865-1935) wrote about Kavanah or intent with regard to the commandments. Normally, in rabbinic literature, Kavanah refers to concentration and focus but Rav Kook “refers to the ideal or purpose towards which the commandments point.”

In a brilliant examination of Rav Kook’s various writing on the reasons for the commandments, Professor Don Seeman writes:

 “In fact, R. Kook insists that the subordination of kavanah (intention) to maaseh (normative practice) is dependent on the moral development of the nation as a whole and may be reversed when circumstances warrant.

With respect to the Talmudic opinion that ‘mitzvoth will be nullified in the future’ (Niddah 61b), R. Kook insists that this does not mean that the commandments will be discontinued but only that the reasons for the commandments which are now secondary to practical performance will be made primary, conditioning the shape of future practice on better appreciation of their intent[11].

In some passages, he suggests that the commandments will be observed more willingly in the future, through a better-integrated (and possibly prophetic) identification with their purpose, rather than through external imposition of authority, as they are today.[12][13]

In this sense, it appears that Rav Kook took over from where  R. Don Chasdai Crescas left off.

[1] Hasdai Crescas on the Philosophic Foundation of Codification, by Ari Ackerman.
[2] Parenthesis mine.
[3] Rambam Sefer haMitzvot, 2021. (Translation from Twersky, A Maimonides Reader, 425427.)
[4] Igrot haRambam; Isaac Shalit edition, vol. 1, 312.
[5] Or haShem 2-3.
[6] Parenthesis mine.
[7] Parenthesis mine.
[8] These are often included in many prayer books during the morning services.
[9] Shemot Rabbah par. 41:6 and  Midrash Rabbah (Vilna: Ahim Rom, 1885), vol. 1, 69ab.
[10] R. Levi ben Gershon, also known as Gersonides.
[11] Pinkas haDapim1 par. 61.
[12] Linevuche haDor, ch. 8, pp. 54-55.
[13] See Evolutionary Ethics: The Ta’amei Ha-Mitzvot of Rav Kook, by Don Seeman.