Sunday 26 May 2019


12th-century Tosafist Rabbeinu Yosef Bechor Shor of Orleans, Northern France.


In this article, we will look at some Tosafist rabbis who stood out from their colleagues as being exceptions because they refused to believe that G-d has a body!

I draw, once again, from the scholarly research of Rabbi Professor Ephraim Kanarfogel[1], who has shown how the Tosafist rabbis - who lived in Northern France and Germany between the 12th and 13th centuries[2] - were largely mystics and were heavily influenced by the German pietists known as the Chasidei Ashkenaz.


Already from around the late 1100s, the Chassidei Ashkenaz were reviving an older form of mystical literature known as Heichalot literature[3] which flourished in the post-Talmudic period.

This mystical literature, according to Professor Kanarfogel, preceded the appearance of works like the Zohar and Bahir and was not yet familiar with the system of the Ten Sefirot.

There were a number of Tosafists who got involved with this theurgical[4] (magical) system of Kabbalah and used Divine and angelic names in an attempt to achieve higher spiritual states and manipulate certain outcomes.

Many Ba’alei haTosafot got involved in what Professor Kanarfogel refers to as ‘white magic’.
This revelation is quite astonishing as the Tosafists were generally regarded as the more sober and legally precise of the Talmudic analysts and commentators, and are not usually associated with this type of mysticism. [For more, see here and Mystical Forays of the Tosafists.]


Perhaps more surprisingly, the Tosafists indulged extensively in anthropomorphism. This means that they attributed some type of form or shape to G-d. Put differently, they were corporealists who believed that G-d has a body. [See The Notion that G-d has a Body – In Early and Modern Rabbinic Writing.]


As to be expected, it was Rambam (1135-1204) who severely countered this belief of many of the Tosafists that G-d has a body. According to Rambam, G-d could only be perceived in the mind and imagination of the beholder, but He could never manifest in any physical form. 

Rambam maintained similar views with regard to the Angels, which also could only be perceived in the mind or in a dream or vision but not in reality. [See Angels in Rabbinic Literature.]

Interestingly, no one is quite sure where to position Rashi in the spectrum of debate between corporealism and non-corporealism.

On the other hand, Rabbi Avraham ben David or Raavad (1125-1198), was a famous Talmudic commentator and father of Kabbalah[5] who frequently argued with Rambam. He clearly 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.[6]

Although Rambam lived (in Egypt[7]) during the period of the Tosafists, it took some time for Rambam’s rationalist writings to penetrate the region of Northern France and Germany where the Tosafists lived. And when his views were eventually known by the Tosafists, they were largely met with fierce theological hostility.


However, although Rambam and the Tosafists often crossed swords, R. Kanarfogel points out that:

“...contrary to some of the assumptions...a number of northern Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries plainly assert that the Divine presence cannot be characterized or defined through anthropomorphic terms of physical dimensions.”


One such exception was the northern French Tosafist (who studied with Rashi’s grandson Rabbeinu Tam) namely, R. Yosef ben Yitzchak of Orleans (d. 1171).

Besides his valuable computations regarding the Jewish calendar, he wrote many Selichot, and also a commentary on the Torah according to the peshat (plain, literal and non-Midrashic interpretation) under the name Yosef Bechor Shor.

R. Yosef Bechor Shor begins his commentary on Genesis 1:26:

“Let us make man in our image and form.”

To which he comments:

“This [verse] does not mean that these [G-d and man] actually have a comparable physical image, for no physical conception or image can be attributed to the One above.”

This simple and rather benign interpretation or commentary, which wouldn’t really attract our attention if read today, would have been taken as somewhat subversive during his time and in his place. 
Through this simple sentence he was distancing himself from, and challenging, a core belief of the vast majority of his Tosafist colleagues who did believe that G-d had a form.

Although a peshatist or literalist, he interprets all the various scriptural references to G-d having eyes and hands etc., as a means of expressing lofty concepts to the average man in a way that he can understand and relate to. He refers to the prophet Ezekiel’s visions, where G-d and other heavenly figures appeared, as occurring only within the ‘prophet’s mind’ and not as appearing in reality.

He continues that the same may also be said also for the Talmudic sages who, according to the Talmud, recorded how G-d and the angels appeared to them.


On reading Yosef Bechor Shor’s commentary it is very tempting to think that he may have been acquainted with the writings of Rambam. Although they lived at the same time and although it is possible that Rambam’s writings may have penetrated from Egypt to Northern France before R. Yosef died[8], Kanarfogel suggests that this is highly unlikely. Instead, Kanarfogel understands Yosef Bechor Shor to be:

“a clear-thinking rabbinic scholar who had to confront the vexing but obvious dilemma...How can God, who is essentially non-corporeal, appear to man in seemingly human form?”

Furthermore, he points out that R. Yosef Bechor Shor’s commentary on Genesis “is not expressed in authentic philosophical terms”, as perhaps one would expect from a Maimonidean student or reader.
If Kanarfogel is correct, it is astounding how Yosef Bechor Shor intrinsically and naturally came up with so many other rationalist ideas which also correspond to Rambam.

These include Yosef Bechor Shor’s view on the sacrifices, which also happen correspond with Rambam’s view that they were granted to a people who had just emerged from idolatrous practices and were familiar with a primitive system of sacrifices, as a type of temporary concession - until they advanced intellectually, weaned themselves off the practice, and developed a more ethereal form of communicating with G-d. [See Outspoken Rabbinical Views Claiming that the Torah Recorded Superstitions of its Day.]

Similarly, Yosef Bechor Shor held a belief consistent with Rambam that many details of Kashrut were incorporated into the Law for hygienic reasons.[9]


Whichever way one chooses to explain the similarities between the Yosef Bechor Shor and Rambam - Yosef Bechor Shor appears to have been an exception among the Tosafists who generally were mystics who took Midrashim and anthropomorphisms quite literally.

This is borne out by a statement (in a letter) of R. Shmuel ben Mordechai of Marseilles, a scholar from Provence (Southern France) and a great supporter of Rambam during the Maimonidean Controversies, who wrote quite tellingly:  

“[T]he majority of the rabbinic scholars in northern France [accept] anthropomorphism.”[10]

Lest one be suspicious of this letter from a supporter of Rambam - in another letter from a mystic and opponent of Rambam, the Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270) to the rabbis of Northern France (around 1232) -  he mentions that the Tosafists insisted that Rambam was mistaken in believing that G-d has no shape or form.[11]


Kanarfogel, however, goes on to cite a number of other Tosafists who also seemed to rebel against the prevailing anthropomorphic view. These Tosafists include:

a) Rashbam.

b) R. Aharon ben Yosef haCohen and his Sefer haGan[12]

c) R. Yitzchak ben Yehuda haLevi and his Pa’aneach Raza[13] which included quotations from Rambam himself!

d) R. Avraham ben Azriel of Bohemia[14] and his Arugat haBosem.

e) R. Isaiah di Trani[15] (or Rid, 1170-1240) and his peshatist Torah commentary Nimukei Chumash, which quotes at length, on three occasions, from Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed)! 

In his commentary on Genesis 1:26 he writes about how he encountered some Magshimim (anthropomorphists) who believed that G-d had a body - and he used the Moreh Nevuchim to challenge that approach!


Kanarfogel’s concludes by referring to the letter of Rambam’s supporter, R. Shmuel of Marseilles - mentioned earlier - claiming that most of the Tosafists of Northern France were corporealists:

“Such a claim about the ‘rabbis of northern France’ as a whole now appears to be exaggerated, certainly with respect to leading northern French Talmudic scholars or the rabbinic elite...In any case, the overall spiritual outlook of the Tosafists appears to be much more variegated than we are accustomed to thinking and the non-anthropomorphism strain has a number of distinguished adherents.”


It is fascinating, for a searcher of the truth behind the Hashkafic views of the various rabbinic movements, to see just how difficult it sometimes is to arrive at that truth.

My impression, and I may be wrong, is that Rabbi Professor Kanarfogel experienced just such intellectual angst. In a sense, it was he who pioneered the notion that the Tosafists were not just Talmudic commentators but were also mystics. Not many scholars were previously aware of this.

Yet his intellectual honesty brought him to a counter-intuitive conclusion, through this research, that yes they were mystics but many Tosafists also had a rationalist streak, certainly when it came to the question of whether G-d has a form.

Consider the fact is that we have descriptions like this:

“A letter written from Narbonne to Spain in the 1230s severely ridicules the ‘great men of Israel among the Zarefatim [French] and their scholars, their heads and men of understanding,’ for their magical uses of Divine Names, angels, and demons through conjuration, referring to them as ‘madmen full of delusions’ and the like.”

Yet at the same time we now know that some important Tosafists sailed very closely to Rambam when it came to opposing Hagshama (corporealism or anthropomorphism).

How exactly, then, do we define the Tosafists when our spectrum starts with ‘madmen full of delusions’- incorporates Kabbalistic traditions - delves into ‘white magic’ - runs through complicated Talmudic commentary - and ends somewhere close to Rambam’s rationalist Guide for the Perplexed?

Furthermore, a great irony exists:

Many of the Tosefists who were influenced by the depths of mysticism, somehow imagined the concretization of the Infinite - while those under the influence of Rambam and the breadth of the rational mind, would not allow the Infinite to be constricted within the physical.

[1] Anthropomorphism and Rationalist Modes of Thought in Medieval Ashkenaz: The Case of R. Yosef Bekhor Shor, by Ephraim Kanarfogel.
[2] Essentially the Tosafist period encompassed the two centuries between Rashi (1040- 1105) and R. Meir of Rothenberg  (d. 1293). Many of the Tosafists were either the family or students of Rashi.
[3] Not to be confused with Merkava literature which is mysticism dating from a much earlier period.
[4] Theurgy is defined as: ‘the technique of compelling...a supernatural power to do or refrain from doing something.’
[5] 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.
[6] See Raavad’s commentary on Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuvah 3:7.
[7] Because he lived in Egypt, he was not regarded as a Tosafist.
[8] R Yosef passed away in 1171 and Rambam passed away in 1204.
[9] Cf. Perushei R. Yosef Bechor Shor Deut. 18:22 and Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim 3:48.
[10] MS Neofiti 11, fol. 210v.
[11] Kitvei haRamban, Chavel, vol. 1, 345f.
[Interesting, it seems that Ramban may have actually sided with Rambam on this issue because he also writes:
 a) The important Tosafist R. Yitzchak ben Avraham, who also studied under Rabbeinu Tam and commented on several Talmudic treatises, endorsed Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. And Ramban mentions this in the context of Hagshama or anthropomorphism.

b) Ramban cites from R. Eleazar of Worms (one of the last major members of Chasidei Ashkenaz, which - as mentioned earlier - was instrumental in influencing the Tosafists towards mysticism) who also did not concur with the prevailing views regarding anthropomorphism.

c) And Ramban mentions that there were ‘right-minded’ (although unnamed) Chachmei Tzarfat (rabbis of northern France) who did not concur with the prevailing view either.]

[12] Gan has the numerical value of 53. Sefer haGan is a Torah commentary on the 53 weekly Torah portions.
[13] Pa’aneach Raza was composed around 1280 which places it at the end of the Tosafist period.
[14] R. Avraham was a student of R. Eleazar of Worms and compiled Arugat haBosem in 1235.
[15] Also known as Yeshaya haAshkenazi.


  1. Why would some medieval rabbis adopt anthropomorphic beliefs?  Were they and their communities under duress from surrounding Dominicans scrutinizing their teachings? 
    Was the Crusades fight against Moslems as well as Islamic orientations?  On which side did the Christian clergy view Judaism? Would some communities need to distance from rational Maimonidean teachings which were seen as closely related to Islamic and tend to a more Torah literalism approach common with pious Christians? Was the boundary of belief pushed and somewhat blurred to protect Jewish lives against flared uprisings by their close Christian neighbours?
    Will Durant on the Maimonidean conflict in his book "The age of faith " says: The Maimonidean war divided the Jewish communities of southern France precisely when orthodox Christianity was waging there a war of extermination against the Albigensian heresy. And as Christian orthodoxy defended itself against rationalism by banning books of Aristotle and Averroes from the universities, so Rabbi Solomon ben Abraham of Montpellier - perhaps to forestall Christian attacks upon Jewish congregations as harbouring rationalists-  took the unusual step of anathematizing the philosophical works of Maimonides, and excommunicating all Jews who should study profane science or literature, or who should treat the Bible allegorically.

  2. Thank you for your response. And your awesome articles/Blog! One point I feel worth mentioning it seams Rav Kook understood the Rambam's view of redemption as a natural process. As evidence by many of his writings and of R'Tzvi Yehudah ect.. Either way keep up your great work!