Sunday 6 May 2018



Ma'aseh Nissim Torah Commentary by Rabbeinu Nissim of Marseilles (1304).

NOTE: To be absolutely clear, the purpose of this article is to neither endorse nor criticise R. Nissim of Marseilles’ approach to Torah commentary but simply to share some of his interesting views.

I have drawn extensively from the academic writings of Professor Howard (Chaim) Kreisel[2] who has researched this commentator extensively. 

Readers who are theologically conservative and sensitive would be advised - even by Rabbeinu Nissim himself - not to read the views of Rabbeinu Nissim of Marseilles.


Rabbeinu Nissim ben Moshe of Marseilles lived sometime around the 1300’s. This places him historically about one hundred years after Rambam. The exact dates of his birth and passing, however, are unknown.

He has remained rather obscure over the years, either by accident or by design, and only merited a small entry in Encyclopaedia Judaica in the 1960’s. About seven manuscripts of his Torah commentary are known to exist in various libraries. Another manuscript was in a private collection, dated 1304, but has somehow vanished.

He is best known for his Torah commentary, Ma’aseh Nissim[3] which departs significantly from many of the other traditional commentaries in that it steers absolutely clear of miraculous and supernatural interpretations.

What is fascinating about R. Nissim of Marseilles is just how far he was able to push the envelope of Torah commentary yet still remain within the parameters of rabbinic Judaism.


In keeping with the views of Ibn Kaspi, Rambam and others, R. Nissim similarly believed that the Torah was written for two streams of readers: the Simple (or as Rambam often calls them, ‘Ignorant’) Masses (Hamon Am), and the Intellectually Elite (Yechidei Segulah).

And like these other rationalists, R. Nissim also suggests that many of the accounts recorded in the Torah were directed toward the simple category of readers - as a kind of dispensation if you like - but that the real intent was on a far higher level only to be perceived by the intellectually elite. In this sense, the original Torah was ‘playing to its base’ which demanded of it certain practices at that time as that was the only way the popular masses could perceive of religion and ritual. See Outspoken Rabbinical Views Claiming That The Torah Recorded Superstitions Of Its Day.

According to Professor Kreisel; “The Torah, in his (R. Nissim’s)[4] view, speaks differently to each class of reader; only upon the elite does it shine its deeper truths...The accounts it presents are not all literally true but nevertheless necessary in order to be effective in impressing upon the average reader the most basic truths.”

And as much as R. Nissim of Marseilles believed that the masses were within their rights to interpret the Torah literally in all its expressions – so too were the elite equally within their rights to apply their minds to deeper interpretations.

R. Nissim was thus well schooled in Rambam’s approach to Torah interpretation but, as we shall see he went much further than Rambam was ever prepared to go.


While it may appear surprising to many, our rabbis have not always believed that G-d is incorporeal (i.e. that G-d has no bodily form). Many of our early Sages believed that G-d did have some form of ‘bodily form’ or corporeality. See The Notion That G-d Has A ‘Body’.

Starting with Rav Saadiah Gaon (882-942), many rabbis began to speak out against the notion that G-d had a ‘body’, even though the Torah, taken literally, refers to G-d’s ‘hand’ and ‘anger’ etc. which had often been taken on face value till then.

Ravad’s comment on Rambam makes it clear that it was not just the ignorant masses who believed in G-d’s corporeality, but even the Sages clung to such a belief. Rabbi  Avraham ben David, or Raavad, was a famous Talmudic commentator and father of Kabbalah 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.[5]

As is well known, Rambam (1135-1204) advocated vociferously against believing in any form of corporeality relating to G-d - yet he makes the point that we do not consider the earlier Sages who held those beliefs to be heretics. In the same way, Rambam continues, we should not have to hold on to the literal interpretation that, for example, the world was created in just six days - and we too should not be considered to be heretical if we believe the time frame was far wider.

Rambam writes: “Nor are the gates of figurative interpretation shut in our faces or impossible of access to us regarding the subject of the creation of the world in time (i.e. more than six literal days)[6]. For we could interpret them as figurative, as we have done while denying His corporeality.[7]

For more on Rambam's views on figurative interpretation see KOTZK BLOG 146.



R. Nissim, in keeping with many other Sages, certainly does not believe in the literal interpretation of the universe being created in 144 hours.


He believes that the story of Adam and Eve and that of Cain and Abel are also not to be taken literally but are instead ‘philosophic parables’.


He interprets the long lives of many of the Torah personalities as being correct in terms of time spans – not for the individual himself, but rather for his descendants who are called after their particular forbearers.


He accepts the historicity of the Patriarchs but interprets the miraculous aspects of their lives figuratively.


The destruction of Sodom and Gomorra was the result of an earthquake.


The plagues of Egypt and the parting of the sea were natural events, foreseen or brought about by Moshe and Aharon, due to their knowledge of the natural order, for their strategic purposes.


Some of the other miracles, such as the talking donkey and the burning bush, according to R. Nissim, never occurred in reality but were prophetic visions or dreams. As Professor Kreisel puts it: “What is crucial in both cases is the content of the revelation, not whether the events described actually happened outside of the prophet’s soul.”


The binding of Isaac was also not taken literally by R. Nissim but rather as occurring in a prophetic vision.


Reward and punishment are not miraculously visited upon us but instead the result of a harmony in the social order when a kind deed is done - and the opposite occurs when a moral act does not take place. In this sense, a society reaps what its constituents sow.

According to Professor Alan Verskin, R. Nissim of Marseilles acknowledges that belief in an angry G-d of vengeance would be beneficial to keeping the followers within the straight and narrow, however;

“...a person who is taught to behave ethically because of the natural consequences of his actions will have a more consistent and dependable source of motivation. A person who believes in naturalistic reward and punishment, he (R. Nissim)[8] concludes, will be better able to maintain his faith in the face of the vicissitudes of fortune. He will not be led to deny the laws of right and wrong because of a feeling that G-d neglects their enforcement. Lest his view seem impious...citing a passage from the Talmud...he...argues:

‘[The Sages] of blessed memory indicated that nature’s activity is not suspended or changed for the sinner, for they said: ‘Suppose a person stole a measure of wheat and sowed it in the ground; it is right that it should not grow, but the world pursues its natural course.’”[9]

R. Nissim knew that this view of natural consequential reality would not be acceptable by the masses and “ view of the circumstances prevailing at any particular time and place, it is better for the multitude to understand reward and punishment according to the literal meaning of scripture...The teacher...must be very sensitive to the needs of his audience so as not to harm them and his society.” [10]

R. Nissim writes; “Because religion is given to all – sage, fool children and women – it is necessary that it speak with each person in a way which is appropriate and useful to him.”[11]


Many will find R. Nissim’s interpretation of the laws of Kashrut as unacceptable as he maintains that they were instituted for health reasons!


Here is an example of a commentary from Ma’aseh Nissim, as translated by Professor Kreisel (based on ms. Paris 720, folio 81r):

'You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan’[12]

If they do not practice judgement in the land, but the mighty exploit the powerless and devour them with greedy mouths, and the strong rob the hapless weak, continuously afflicting them, then the political community will be destroyed.

There will exist no agreement among them, only incessant quarrel, strife and contention. It will be easy for enemies to defeat them... Conceivably, this is also said because the robbed and oppressed may rise up against the oppressor, ambush and kill him.

There is an allusion to this – i.e., that the punishment will be meted out by the oppressed who can no longer bear the burden of affliction – in what is said. ‘I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to me’[13].

If [the oppressed one] does not cry out and does not feel affected, [the oppressor] will not be punished.”

This is a fascinating and unusual commentary as it offers transactional, social and political reasons for not taking advantage of the widow and orphan. It reads like something written in the 1960’s or a part of some socialist manifesto.


R. Nissim writes, unapologetically, about those who always just follow the literal and miraculous meaning of the Torah without any understanding:

They are like a burden-carrying mule that knows nothing of the purpose of its labours and the utility of its activity. The rationalists observe the commandments with the requisite scrupulousness because of their purpose and utility. They observe the commandments with their limbs, and even more with their thought and heart, for every practical commandment comes either in order to teach a correct opinion or to reject a false opinion; to help a person to acquire a noble quality or distance the person from an opprobrious one.

Just as it happens that the masses, due to their fear, do not sin and are scrupulous in their observance since they do not know anything, it happens at times that they perform the less significant commandments, abandon the more precious ones and are lenient in their observance the weighty ones because of their limited discernment...

In reference to the masses they say that they are the ones committed to the practical commandments and they are the pious ones (hasidim). How mistaken are those who say this. For our sages have already maintained: “The ignorant one is not pious (hassid)[14]


R. Nissim of Marseilles’ very strong views come time and again with a warning that these views are not to be shared too openly as they would undermine the spiritual comfort zone of the masses.


R. Nissim of Marseilles adopted a similar understanding of Midrashic literature as did Rambam. He too believed that the Midrash was often a coded message to the intellectually elite yet so cleverly disguised that the masses could still interpret it on a more literal level.
Here is an example of this ‘Midrashic code’:

[ז] מה כת' למעלה מן העיניין, בפרשת משכן, כאשר צוה י"י את משה למה הדבר דומה, למלך שהיה מצוה את עבדו ואמר לו בנה לי פלטין. על כל דבר ודבר שהיה בונה היה כותב עליו שמו שלמלך. היה בונה בכתלים והיה כותב עליהם שמו שלמלך. היה מעמיד בעמודים והיה כותב עליהם שמו שלמלך, היה מקרה בקורות וכותב עליהן שמו שלמלך. לימים נכנס המלך לתוך פלטין, על כל דבר ודבר שהיה מביט היה מוצא את שמו כתוב עליו. אמר כל הכבוד הזה עשה לי עבדי ואני מבפנים והוא מבחוץ, קראו לו שיכנס לפנים. כך בשעה שאמר לו הקב"ה למשה עשה לי משכן על דבר ודבר שהיה עושה היה כותב עליו כאשר צוה י"י את משה. אמ' הקב"ה כל הכבוד הזה עשה לי משה ואני מבפנים והוא מבחוץ, קראו לו שיכנס לפנים. לכך נאמר ויקרא אל משה.

The Midrash[15] records that G-d commanded Moshe in principle to build a Tabernacle. Moshe did indeed build such a Tabernacle and the Torah commends Moshe by saying that he did: “As G-d had commanded Moshe.”

The Midrash continues by creating an analogy between Moshe and a servant whom the king commanded, in principle, to build a palace - but without specifying the details of the construction.

The servant was so eager to fulfil the desire of the king that he wrote the king’s name on each brick and item of the palace. The king, of course, was very pleased with his servant and when the palace was completed he called his servant to come inside the palace. Similarly, G-d was pleased with Moshe, who also wrote, ‘As G-d had commanded Moshe’ on every item of the Tabernacle - and when it was completed He called Moshe inside.

On the surface this seems to be a typical and rather innocuous Midrash. However, R. Nissim of Marseilles interprets this Midrash as follows:

העירו בזה זל לסוד גדול נמשך למה שרמזנו אליו בזה הפרקוזה כי הצואה בכלל היתה מהשם יתברך לשכל משה. והשמיע לו הדברים דרך כלל לכל מוסרי התורה וצוויה ואזהרותיה  לחלק השכלי, ליסד החלק הגופני ולהנהיגו, ושיכוון אל הנאות והמועיל תמיד, וירחיק המזיק לגוף ולנפש. ומשה היה כותב על כל פרט ופרט: “כאשר צוה יי את משה לכבוד השם, ולהגדיל הדברים בעיני ישראל, למען תהיה יראת השם על פניהם לבלתי יחטאו.

The sages alluded to a great secret (in this Midrash)[16]...namely – that the command in general was to the intellect of Moses. G-d communicated the matters in general – namely, all the commands of the Torah to the rational faculty (of Moses)[17] in order to govern the corporeal side, directing it always to the salutary, and to abolish what is harmful to the body and the soul. And Moses would write by each detail: ‘As the L-rd commanded Moses’, in order to honor G-d and to increase the significance of these matters in the eyes of the Israelites in order that they fear G-d and refrain from sin.”[18]

Thus in effect, we have what appears to be quite a subversive Midrash in sheep’s clothing: 

The Torah clearly states that Moshe built every item according to G-d’s specific command – yet the Midrash says that only the general command was given by G-d, but that Moshe independently ascribed every detail to G-d!

Professor Kriesel writes:

R. Nissim maintains that the Talmudic Sages, the keepers of the Oral Law, secretly shared this approach and communicated it by means of midrashim. He saw himself as part of a historical chain of possessors of truth beginning with Abraham and including the prophets and Sages, but interrupted in the Middle Ages and only re-established by Maimonides...”

Thus neither the Midrash nor R. Nissim’s interpretation is really subversive at all, as he continues:

For him (R. Nissim)[19] this does not detract one iota from the truth of Judaism, from the Torah being the Word of G-d, and from the binding nature of all of its commandments...

R. Nissim serves as an example of how far the group of radical rationalists to which he belonged were prepared to go in their reinterpretation[20] of the Torah, while still considering themselves to be loyal rabbinic Jews...

The Torah in all its details is perfect and ‘Divine,’ in R. Nissim’s view, though he does not view G-d as personally and directly communicating every word.”


As mentioned, R. Nissim was deeply influenced by the rationalism of Rambam. But he was also influenced by the translator of Rambam’s writings from Arabic to Hebrew, namely, Shmuel Ibn Tabbon (1160-1232) who wasn’t afraid to publicise his own views on this issue:

It is a time to act for the L-rd.[21] 

– I see that the truths that have been hidden from the time of our Prophets and the Sages of the Torah are now all well known to the nations of the world. In most places, they interpret the esoteric doctrines found in the Torah, the words of the Prophets and those who speak with the Holy Spirit, in accordance with these truths.

Our nation is so completely ignorant of them to the point that we have become subject to their scorn as a result of our ignorance.

They shame us by saying that we possess only the shells of the Prophets’ words.”[22]

R. Shmuel Ibn Tabbon was quite militant in issuing his rally cry for the rationalists to unite and speak out before they lose the theological battle to the non-rationalists, and the direction of future Judaism tends more towards the emphasis on the mystical experience.


It is interesting to note that Rabbeinu Nissim of Marseilles was probably more radical in his aversion to the supernatural than Rambam and Ibn Tabbon, yet (unlike the others) he went out of his way on many occasions to have his views downplayed so as not to offend the mainstream. 

He practised a live and let live approach to theology and realized that what he was saying was not for everybody.

Of the two most intelligent people I know, one is a rationalist with a healthy dose of scepticism, and the other is a  scholarly mystic - yet ironically their reaction to this article was not what I expected: The rationalist felt that Rabbeinu Nissim was too clinical because: 'there is a point when even the ultra-rationalist has to concede that it is irrational to explain everything in purely rational terms.

And the mystic confessed that ultra-non-rationalist writers were able to get away with some of their more extreme views with unfair impunity: 'Whereas paperbacks which popularise mystical ideas which saw their progenitors excommunicated and made to leave town, are freely available in orthodox Jewish bookshops - works by serious orthodox writers representing orthodox rationalism cannot be bought under the counter. The strand of Jewish orthodox rationalism - with a demonstrated history of Torah giants behind it - is thus denied.'

For many, Rabbeinu Nissim's views will be offensive at best - for others they may be meaningful and provide a lifeline to a Torah they would otherwise completely reject.

Either way, the classical tensions between the mystics and the rationalists really tested the outward parameters of Jewish theology in all its directions and broadened the playing fields of authentic Judaism. At the end of the day 'radical theological differences could be accepted as long as a Halachic commonality could be found.'

Perhaps all this is just a way of preparing the groundwork for a future era when no Jew will be left behind.

[1] The Medieval Period is also known as the Middle Ages, encompassing the period from the 5th century to the 15th century. We refer here particularly to the period of the Rishonim which spanned 1038-1500.
[2] The Torah Commentary of R. Nissim ben Mosheh of Marseilles: On a Medieval Approach to Torah u-Madda, published in the Torah u-Madda Journal of Yeshiva University10/2001. See also: Some Observations on Ma’aseh Nissim by Howard Kreisel.
[3] Edited by H. Kreisel, Mekeitze Nirdamim, Jerusalem 2000. The work is also sometimes called Sefer  haNissim and Ikkarei haDat.
[4] Parenthesis mine.
[5] Hilchot Teshuva 3:7
[6] Parenthesis mine.
[7] Guide of the Perplexed, 2:25 (Pines translation).
[8] Parenthesis mine
[9] Avodah Zarah 54b.
[10] Teaching Philosophy to the Multitude: An Introduction to the Educational Philosophy of Nissim ben Moshe of Marseilles, by Alan Verskin.
[11] Ma’aseh Nissin Ch 9. 112.
[12] Shemot 22:21
[13] Shemot 22:22
[14] Ma’ase Nissim 116.
[15] Vayikra Rabbah 1:7.
[16] Parenthesis mine.
[17] Parenthesis mine.
[18] Ma’aseh Nissin 178.
[19] Parenthesis mine.
[20] As will become apparent in the next few sentences, rabbis like Shmuel Ibn Tabbon would take issue with the use of the word ‘reinterpretation’ – and would be happier with ‘interpretation’ as they believed this was, in fact, the way the Torah was originally to be understood. It was the ‘traditionalists’ who, in their view, were the ‘re-interpreters’.
[21] Psalms 119:126. This verse was always used whenever the Sages felt compelled to come up with an innovation they believed was urgent for the future continuation of Judaism.
[22] Maamar Yikavu haMayim 173.


  1. Sorry, I'm not too sure where you could get one from today. I'd imagine its not a best seller in the bookstores.

    Here it is online