Sunday 13 March 2016

074) THE NOTION THAT G-D HAS A 'BODY' - In Early and Modern Rabbinical Writings:


The notion that G-d has some form of ‘body’ is today so far removed from most people’s perception and comprehension, that the very concept appears to be somewhat absurd. But, surprisingly, this wasn’t always the case. There were some leading rabbis during both the Talmudic period as well as that of the Rishonim, who did ascribe some type of bodily form and ethereal substance to G-d. This concept was even given a title, namely hagshama[1] or corporeality.


The whole question of corporeality probably has some of its roots in an astounding work known as the Shiur Komah, or ‘Measurement of the (Divine) Height’. This book, attributed to Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva, goes right back to the Tannaic period of around the second century. It is a Midrashic text forming part of the Heichalot and Merkavah literature, the oldest form of post biblical mysticism.

The angel Metatron is said to have revealed these teachings to Rabbi Yishmael, who in turn transmitted them to Rabbi Akiva. The purpose of this book is to ‘measure’ the ‘figure in the form of a man’ which Ezekiel had seen in his vision.[2]

It describes in great detail, the seemingly physical dimensions of G-d, in terms of size measured in parasangs (or parsaot, which is a measure of about three to four miles). The height of G-d is given as 236 000 parasangs.[3]
Here are some other examples: “From His right arm to His left arm is 77 ten thousand (parasangs). From His right eye to His left eye is 30 ten thousand (parasangs). The skull on His head is three and one third ten thousand (parasangs)...The black of His eye is 11 500 (parasangs)...”

The parasangs were divided into miles which consisted of two thousand amot, and each amah comprised three zeratot or fingers. Each finger is a ‘divine finger’ which is from ‘one end of the world to the other’.

The various ‘parts of G-d’ are given names that were seemingly never intended to be pronounced. The right eye for example is called: AZRYYH ATTYTVS.

Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva say that everyone who studies this text and knows it well, is assured of a place in the world to come, but ‘only if they recite this mishna every day’[4].


To the modern western mind these concepts surely must seem rather unusual and surprising. This appears to be anthropomorphism at it crudest, something we do not usually associate with Jewish teachings.

Even the Karaites took umbrage to this book and used it as one of their arguments against the Rabbinites. 
Yet great scholars like Ibn Ezra, Rabbi Moshe Narboni[5] and Yehuda Halevi defended the Shiur Komah maintaining it was not to be taken literally but rather as an allegory for much deeper teachings. 

The Zohar, traditionally said to have been authored by R. Shimon bar Yochai one of Rabbi Akiva’s most eminent students, is said to have been influenced by the work[6].


On the other hand, Rav Saadiah Gaon actually expressed doubt about the authenticity and origin of the text. He writes; “It is not found in either the Mishna or Talmud, and we have no way of knowing whether it was indeed written by Rabbi Yishmael, or by someone pretending to write in his name.” But he also makes the point that if the text were to be authenticated, one would have to understand it allegorically.[7]


Rambam’s response, however, is more direct and is typical of his fierce anti-anthropomorphic philosophy. He was asked whether the book was reliable (or, allegedly, a forgery by Karaites), or whether it contained mystical teachings instead. His response was unequivocal; “I never ever believed it came from the rabbis...It is nothing more than a forgery by the Greek darshanim. It would be best to destroy the work as it nothing but idolatry.”[8]

A Copy of the SHIUR KOMAH


As we have seen, some believe the Shiur Komah is a deeply mystical book to be understood metaphorically. Others believe it to be an outright forgery and clear idolatry. But I have not come across any sources that take the book literally.

What it may have done, however, was to sow seeds that lead to an undeniable thread within Jewish thinking, that was later to embrace a more ‘sophisticated’ or 'elevated' concept of hagshama or corporeality.


The great Tosafist Rabbi Moshe Taku was known to be an opponent to the rationalist thinking of Rav Saadia Gaon, Rambam and Ibn Ezra[9]. He claimed that Rambam had created a ‘new Judaism’ that never existed before.

Rabbi Taku writes in his polemic, Ketav Tamim, that the notion of some form of corporeality relating to G-d, has roots in the earlier Talmudic period. He championed the view that Torah texts describing G-d in human-like  idiom, should be taken on a more literal level.[10]

He believed that three major catastrophes shook Judaism to its roots, Christianity, Karraism and (the rationalism of) Rav Saadia Gaon[11]!

To be accurate, Rabbi Taku himself believed that G-d, while generally non-corporal, can sometimes appear in a human form. He went so far as to say that to deny this thesis would actually be heretical. (Yet he also was among those who considered the Shiur Komah to be a forgery.)

RIVA (1234-1300):

In a similiar vein, the Italian Talmudist, Rabbi Isiah ben Elijah of Tarani, known as Riva, records that there were a number of Torah Sages who believed in a corporal G-d. 
This G-d, although not of human substance, was of spiritual substance, and of enormous human form.

To be accurate again, the Riva himself did not hold of this belief, but amazingly makes the statement that if one did choose to believe in a G-d defined like this, that person would not be considered a heretic because some of the holy sages of the Talmud also believed that G-d had some ethereal form and a huge human shape. [12]  

Thus, according to him, there was some historical precedent dating back to Talmudic times that incorporated a concept of corporeality.


Rabbi Shmuel ben Mordechai of Marseilles wrote that most of the rabbis of northern France were of the belief that G-d comprised some form of corporeality[13]. This opens the fascinating question of whether or not Rashi was indeed a corporealist or not.[14]

RAMBAN (1194-1270):

This report by Rabbi Shmuel ben Mordechai of Marseilles must have been quite prevalent because it prompted Ramban (Nachmanides) to write to the scholars of northern France and censure them for going against Rambam (Maimonides) who declared such corporeal views to be heretical.

RAMBAM (1135-1204):

Rambam writes on the first page of Moreh Nevuchim that the words used in Genesis describing man as being created in the ‘image’ of G-d, have led many to believe that G-d has a “figure and shape and therefore was corporeal.. they believed that to deny that would be heretical.. they conceded though, that G-d was not made of flesh and blood (but of some other ethereal substance).”[16]  

Rambam, however, made his view very clear that belief in any form of corporeality would be totally against and antithetical to the Torah ethos and would be absolutely heretical.

He writes; "You know very well how difficult it is for men to form a notion of anything non-material and devoid of any form of corporeality, except after much training." (M.N. 1:49)

RAAVAD (1125-1198):

Rabbi  Avraham ben David, or Raavad, was a famous Talmudic commentator and father of kabbalah [17] who frequently argued with Rambam. He disagreed with Rambam’s position that believing in a form of corporeality was against the Torah, because ‘many people even greater and better than Rambam’ did espouse of some form of corporeality.[18]

RAV KOOK (1865-1935):

In a fascinating piece of modern day rabbinical writing, Rav Kook says; “We are probably closer to the view of Raavad than Rambam in this regard. As long as a person who believes in some form of corporeality does not physically make an idol, he is still within allowable spiritual limits, and would not be considered a heretic.”[19]

Rav Kook writes further; “With regard to the faiths that originated from Judaism, like Christianity and Islam, the problem is not so much their theology of G-d, but the fact that they departed from observance of the commandments.”[20] 
Amazingly, he is not too concerned about theology of G-d incorporating aspects of corporeality.

These do not bother him as long as they remain within the ‘realm of theory’[21] and do not degenerate into open and tangible idolatry.


The hagshama concept is fascinating, controversial to the extreme if not offensive, highly provocative if not spiritually unsettling. Yet one cannot but conclude that, contrary to popular perception, there have always been elements within Torah thinking, that describe G-d differently to the way most of us probably perceive G-d today.

[1] See Moreh Nevuchim, vol 1, ch 31, where Rambam refers to hagshama as a common but mistaken affliction of the masses.
[2] Ezek. 1:26
[3] A reference to Tehillim 147:5 which can be read as; ‘the height of G-d is 236’ (Gadol Ado-neinu veRav Coach). VeRav Coach has the numerical equivalent of 236.
[4] Shiur Komah 1:2
[5] See Iggeret Al shiur Komah, where he explains the book as writing in metaphor. He based much of what he wrote on ibn Ezra’s commentary to Shemot.
[6] Such as the concept of partzufim or ‘divine configurations’.
[7] See Perush Sefer Yetzirah, Berlin 1885, p. 21
[8] Teshuvot HaRambam 117, p. 200
[9] Rabbi Moshe Taku, besides being against rationalism, was also ironically against the mysticism of Chasidei Askenaz and the followers of Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid (not to be confused with the chasdism of the 18th century). This duel opposition placed him in an unusual theological position, possibly making him one of the early ‘centrists’.  He is known for his view that Rambam was not original but only copied the teachings of Rav Saadiah Gaon.
[10] Perhaps this is alluded to in his title Ketav Tamim or ‘pure writings’. Rabbi Taku did deny the authenticity of the Shiur Komah. He writes; “Regarding the Shiur komah... there are books that heretics forged and they used to bury them in the ground to make them look ancient and mislead the world.” (Ketav Tamim 3a)
[11] Rav Saadiah Gaon’s work, Emunot VeDeot (written around 933 CE) was the first systematic presentation of the philosophies and principles of Jewish theology. Written originally in Arabic and translated later into Hebrew by Rabbi Yehudah ibn Tibbon in 1186. Like Rambam who followed after him, he defended rabbinic Judaism against the Karaites who rejected the Oral Tradition. He described how his heart was grieved when he saw how unenlightened religious people commonly perceived of their faith, and how so many others were drowning in a sea of religious doubt. He also wrote about the absolute purity of the monotheistic concept of G-d, denying any notion of any form of corporeality, saying that all scriptural references to ‘G-d’s hand’ etc. were to be understood allegorically.

[12] See Was Rashi a Corporealist by Rabbi Natan Slifkin, Hakirah, The  Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought, cited by Yisrael M. Ta-Shma, Sefer Nimukei Chumash leRabbi Yeshayah di Trani, Kiryat Sefer (5753) 64, p. 752.
[13] “rov chachmei tzorfat magshimim”
Note: Some argue that Rabbi Shmuel ben Mordechai did not intend to state a fact but rather recorded his perception (being a great follower of Rambam’s philosophy) that most French rabbis were corporealists. See Hakira, The Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought, ‘No, Rashi Was Not a Corporealist’ By: Saul Zucker.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Kitvei Ramban, vol. 1 p. 345
[16] Moreh Nevuchim 1,1
[17] Raavad is credited with drawing up the diagram of the Etz Chaim, Tree of Life with the positions of the kabbalistic Sefirot. The actual drawings were done by his son, Yitzchak the Blind.
[18] See his comment to Hilchot Teshuvah 3:7.
[19] Shemona Kevatzim vol. 1, 31
[20] Ibid. 32
[21] Ibid. 30 ‘omed be’tzurato ha’mufshetet’ 

1 comment:

  1. Any connection between Hagshama and the various bodies "of God" mentioned in Indian traditions? Brahma doesn't have a body I think, so might it be Atman, Vishnu ...?