Tuesday 4 October 2016


This is a very complicated and extremely emotive subject. The viewpoints presented here are for academic purposes only and the reader must remember that there is no ‘competition’ as to which theories are more correct than others. The purpose of this essay is simply to point out the diverse array of theological material on the topic of Providence vs. chance as deliberated upon by some of our great Torah thinkers.]


There appears to be an all pervasive perception that Judaism believes in only one model of Divine Providence – namely, that every single event, no matter how insignificant, occurs directly as a result of G-d’s Providence or hashgacha peratit. - ‘A leaf doesn’t fall off from a tree’ and land in a particular place unless it was so ordained by G-d.

Many would be surprised to discover that this view, greatly publicised by Chassidim as a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) was to a large extent an innovation in, and a relatively new contribution to Jewish thought.[1]

We will attempt to explore some philosophical and hashkafic models that are sometimes similar to and other times radically different from this popular view.


The Talmud makes a number of statements that certainly do seem to support the idea of G-d’s Providence extending over all of creation:

G-d is said to provide; “...from the horns of the wild oxen to the tiniest louse.”[2]

“Man does not knock his toe unless it has been decreed so in heaven.”[3]

And; “even if one intended to take out three coins from his purse and two came out instead,”[4] nothing is by chance.

The ‘sea of the Talmud’ is an anthology of many statements on many topics and it was only later, during the periods of the Geonim and Rishonim that these statements were interpreted to form the basis of systematic schools of thought and philosophy.[5] Although these different schools were all generally (although not always) based on Talmudic thought, they often differed dramatically from each other.

RAMBAM (1135-1204):

Rambam, takes the surprising view that there are no definitive sources in either the Torah or Talmud where G-d’s Providence is said to extend to anything other than ultimately relating to human beings.[6]

Thus hashgacha peratit (individual Divine providence) applies only to humans - while hashagcha kelalit[7] (general Divine Providence) would apply to all other creatures and also to inanimate objects.

According to Rambam, G-d takes care of the various species or groups of animals, vegetation and inanimate matter as a whole but not the individual in the cluster.

He writes:

I do not believe that a leaf falls as a result of Divine Providence, not that this spider devours this specific fly as a result of Divine Decree...I do not believe that...when a fish snatches a specific worm floating on a river that such was the will of G-d. Rather this was all through absolute chance, as Aristotle contends.”[8]

Rambam presents four popular models of Divine Providence that were common in his day, and then adds a fifth which he considers to be the most correct view:[9]

1)      The first view is the claim of some people that there is no Divine Providence at all regarding anything in existence, and merely the result of chance...this is pure heresy (or alternately the view of Epicurus).

2)      The second is the view that over some things there is Divine Providence... but other things are left to chance. This is the view of Aristotle.[10]

3)      The third that nothing in existence is the result of chance, not specific individuals nor general groups...This is the view held by the Muslim school known as Asharites.[11]

4)      The forth view is...that all divine acts are a result of Divine Wisdom which can bear no injustice (even in regard to animals and inanimate objects). This is the (Muslim) school of Mu’tzalites[12], where a guiltless mouse that is devoured by a cat will be compensated in Heaven.

5)      The fifth view is the Torah view is completely in control of his actions...and (paradoxically) everything that occurs to man is fitting to occur (as a result of Divine Providence).

Amazingly, what emerges from Rambam is that any belief in the concept of the ‘leaf falling from a tree’ being ordained by G-d - is of Muslim and not Jewish origin!

He continues;

This theory is in accordance with reason and with the teaching of Torah, whilst the other theories either exaggerate Divine Providence or detract from it.”

Rambam also points out that this concept of G-d’s Providence extending only over humans does not mean that G-d is unaware of what takes place in the non-human realms which are governed by chance:

Understand thoroughly my theory, that I do not ascribe to G-d any ignorance of anything or any kind of weakness...”

Rambam makes the point that there is a difference between G-d’s Providence and G-d’s Knowledge.  Accordingly, G-d is fully aware of everything taking place within the animal, vegetation and inanimate realms but has no direct involvement in them other than in terms of General Providence.

And even with regard to Direct Providence within the human realm, the measure and intensity of the Providence is relative to the intellectual comprehension of the recipient. Thus a more intellectual and contemplative person will be privy to a more direct form of Providence.


The Rambam’s radical view as outlined above - which will come as a surprise to many people - may be explained away by virtue of the fact that he is known to be the father of Jewish rationalism.

The Ramban, however, born 60 years later and often known as his philosophical adversary, was a great mystic.

Nonetheless, as counter intuitive as it seems, Ramban quoted from and established his theology of Providence directly upon Rambam’s position!

והענין הזה בארו הרב זצ"ל ביאור יפה בספר מורה הנבוכים

And this matter was explained beautifully by Rambam in his book ‘The Guide For The Perplexed’” (from which we quoted from above).

Ramban, like Rambam, maintains that Direct Providence is only the preserve of human beings, while all other creatures and objects are subject to a more general form of Collective Providence.

Ramban clearly agrees that only humans are subject to Providence, as opposed to; “the fish of the sea, towards which G-d does not exert providence...”

“We follow the Greeks who say that the rainbow appears naturally when the sun shines through moist air (instead of as a result of Divine Intervention). This concept (of nature taking care of itself) is borne out by the verse; ‘And I placed (past tense, i.e. from the time of creation) my rainbow in the cloud.’”[13]

Accordingly, the world continues to maintain itself based on the natural first principles endowed upon it during the creation process. He also agrees that there is no Scriptural basis for Individualized Providence outside of human beings:

ולא בא בתורה או בנבואה שיהיה האל משגיח ושומר אישי שאר הבריות שאינן מדברות
 השמים וצבאם רק שומר את הכללים בכלל

We have not found in all of the Torah that God will oversee anything that does not speak. Instead, for such things, He preserves only the principles of science, or the “natural order” of things.”[14]

He further agrees with Rambam that Providence amongst human beings is commensurate with their spiritual (Rambam says intellectual) comprehension; “He directs His providence to his righteous that His watchfulness will always be on them.”[15]

Then Ramban (in a possible departure from Rambam) adds the caveat that Providence is applicable only to the extremes of either the truly righteous or wholly evil person (who will alternately be rewarded or held accountable respectively). Most other human beings who fall into a category somewhere in the middle will be subject to randomness and chance!

RALBAG (1288-1344):

Rabbi Levi ben Gershom writes: “When one understands that evil does not stem from G-d it becomes clear that Divine Providence does not extend to all individual members of the human race. (i.e. the evil prevalent amongst humans must come from ‘chance’, because it certainly does not come directly from G-d). ”[16]

CHASDAI CRESCAS (1340-1411):

Rabbi Chasdai Crescas, a halachist and rationalist, takes issue with the notion that G-d’s Providence is commensurate with the stature of the person. Instead he maintains that all human beings, regardless of their righteousness or lack thereof, are subject to Direct Providence.[17]

RABBI YOSEF ERGAS (1685-1730):

Rabbi Yosef Ergas, the great Italian mystic and kabbalist writes in his Shomer Emunim;
Nothing occurs by accident, without intention and Divine Providence. This is learned out from the verse; ‘And I will walk with you in chance (be’keri).’ From this we see that even the state of apparent ‘chance’ is actually Providence.[18]

But then, in uncharacteristic language for a mystic, he continues;
But that does not apply to the non-human species...whether this ant will be trodden upon or saved. There is no special Providence for animals and certainly not for plants and minerals, as they are governed by species and not individuals. Whatever occurs to individual animals, plants and objects is purely by chance, and not by Divine Decree – unless it is ultimately connected to humankind.”


For the Chassidic movement which developed post the mid 1700’s, these ideas were a blasphemous anathema. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (also known as the ‘spiritual grandson’ of the Baal Shem Tov) explains in his Tanya, that creation was not just a onetime historical event. Rather the world is constantly and continuously being re-created by G-d because that is the only way the Divine life-force can sustain it. Were that energy to be removed even for an instance, the entire universe would resort immediately to nothingness as it was prior to creation.

Thus by definition Providence of the highest order is present in every single aspect of creation from the most lofty even to a rock or sand.

Much of these teachings were derived from Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the Ari (1534-1572) who wrote that; “Every leaf contains a soul that came into the world to receive a rectification.”

Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz said; “A man must know that even a piece of straw lying on the ground facing a particular direction is a result of Direct Divine Providence.”


It is strange to see that such a basic and fundamental concept like Providence is subject to such variant and diametrically opposed views.

Rambam and the rationalists claim there is no Torah or Talmudic basis for Divine Providence extending to anything beyond humankind.

He accuses those who follow the view that G-d directs the affairs of non-humankind to be following an Islamic theology.

Then, counter intuitively, great and fearless mystics like Ramban and Rabbi Yosef Ergas side with the rationalists on the issue.

Amazingly, only in the last 300 years with the advent of Chassidism, did the hashgacha pratit concept of infinitely detailed Divine Providence take hold of the religious Jewish psyche. To the extent that many are mistakenly under the impression that this has always been an intrinsic part of mainstream Torah theology.[19]

Although everyone’s personal view on this highly emotive matter must be respected, nowadays the Chassidic view does seem to have become the new mainstream approach.

Whatever position one takes, it’s difficult to deny that the history, development, and theological debate behind a concept we all take so for granted is indeed as intricate and divergent as it is fascinating.

[1] Some would rightly argue that The Baal Shem Tov’s ‘innovation’ was based on echoes from some earlier (and even Talmudic) teachings which do imply a similar idea. What the Baal Shem Tov did, though, was to crystallize these teachings into a sophisticated and at the same time popular philosophical system. Some would challenge the use of the word ‘innovation’ and instead would say ‘re-introduction’.
[2] Avodah Zarah 3b
[3] Chulin 7b
[4] Erchin 16b
[5] Besides hashkafa (philosophy) a similar process occurred with halacha (law) as well, where many halachik views were expressed in the Talmud, but systematic codification of the law only took place in post Talmudic times.
[6] Moreh nevuchim 3:17-18
[7] Also referred to as hashgacha minit (Providence of the species).
[8] Ibid. See also 3:22-3 and 3:51
[9] Ibid.
[10] Rambam himself appears to agree in principle with the position that humans are subject to divine providence but not animals or inanimate objects, as we have seen above. He expands on this in point 5.
[11] Founded around 945 by Abu l’ Hasan al-Ashari.
[12] Founded in Basra in the 700’s.
[13] Ber. 9:13
[14] This is significant because it is similar to Rambam who likewise maintains that there is no Torah source or precedent for Providence extending beyond humans.
[15] Ramban to Iyov 36:7 Although very similar, there is a subtle difference between the Rambam's and the Ramban's formulations. Rambam refers only to intellectual achievement while the Ramban refers to piety and not intellectual achievement. 
[16] Sefer Milchamot haShem.
[17] See Or HaShem II 2:4
[18] Shomer Emunim 2:81
[19] Some have attempted to reconcile Rambam with the Baal Shem Tov, and also Rambam in the Guide with Rambam in Mishne Torah. This way they try show that the Chassidic view was not so much an innovation as it was a re-introduction of older ideas.


  1. If everything is ordained by Hashem then we can sit back and make no effort. One may think so and be dangerously led astray. Hashem knows all but we need to know that we need to take action and make things happen. In this way we use the physical to reach the spiritual hopefully. And then we emulate Hashem in creativity and thought. Fatalism has no place therefore. Take action and see what happens.

  2. Thanks for the thought provoking study. There are so many different ideas to explore on each opinion.
    The recent (200 - 300 years or so) incease in scientific discoveries and knowledge of nature as well as humanities population have enabled us to interact with the world on many new levels.

  3. This is an amazing post. When I converted to Judaism, I found myself very attracted to the Jewish philosophy that I like to call the "Does it really matter?" question. Does it matter why the leaf fell? It's there on the ground now. Deal with that.
    I love the Jewish commitment to study and argument. I love that we want to study and know everything. And I think it works so well because while we love to wonder why, in the end we deal with the reality in front of us. Whether G-d has a finger in every little moment or whether He set up the Universe and left us to our own, I have a responsibility to my family, my community, and G-d to take my life and do the most good that I can. If G-d has a plan for me, my knowledge or lack of it, makes no difference. Same if G-d isn't watching. I honor G-d with every kindness. It shouldn't matter if He set up the situation or not.

  4. Thanks for this post; its just incredible. wow! I cant believe Rambam or Ramban position! wow.
    In studying history I saw for instance, that a particular night in Jerusalem there was a storm, and because there was a storm, one of the groups entered the city and afterwards took the temple, and afterwards the destruction of the temple. If would have not had that storm on that particular night, the history of humankind would have been so different. How can Rambam, Ramban, etc would think that there are some things left to chance? or hashgahat klalit. Its just incredible. Thanks

  5. The Ralbag's position is mind boggling. Sounds somewhat similar to the author of "Why Bad Things Happen to Good People"