Saturday 29 May 2021



 Three angels, Senoy, Sans(m)enoy and Semangelof, tasked with protecting newborn babies. 


In this article, we examine the debate between the rationalist, Maimonides (Rambam, 1135-1204), and the mystic, Nachmanides (Ramban, 1195-1270) on the nature of the angels.  Our starting point is the episode in Genesis 18 describing the “three men” who visit Abraham by the oaks of Mamre.

There are a number of questions one could ask on the basic structure of the well-known text: G-d appears to Abraham in verse 1 and the three men, apparently unrelated to the initial vision, appear in verse two. Abraham leaves G-d and attends to the men. Then verse three suddenly changes from the plural to the singular: “My lord, if I find favour with you.” And in verse thirteen, G-d unexpectantly enters the conversation asking why Sarah laughed.



According to Rambam:

“Know again that in the case of everyone about whom exists a scriptural text that an angel talked to him or that speech came to him from G-d, this did not occur in any other way than in a dream or in a vision of prophecy.”[1]

On the view of Rambam, the angels did not manifest in any physical form whatsoever but were, instead, perceived in the imagination or in some type of vision. This addresses with the problem of the apparent disconnect between verse one and two. Now the three men were part of Abraham’s vision of God and not an unrelated event. This also ties in with the expression of Abraham “lifting his eyes” (spiritually as it were) to see the men. The ‘chief’ of the angels in the vision becomes the representation of God, and this explains the shift to the singular. The entire episode becomes a single account of one spiritual encounter with no bearing on physical reality.

Rambam was a rationalist, an anti-corporealist (God did not, in his view, have a physical manifestation or form) and he did not believe in angels manifesting in physicality. This Maimonidean interpretation of Abraham’s angels was similarly extended to all the other biblical references to angels.



Ramban, on the other hand, adopts a very different approach. He puts forward a mystical interpretation where he agrees that angles are essentially incorporeal, but that they can clothe themselves in a physical “garment” from time to time and manifest in physical realty. This interpretation fits in more readily with the literal reading of the biblical texts which reference the angels. Ramban challenges Rambam by asking why were so many details recorded in the story of Abraham and his visitors. Ramban asks rhetorically: “Sarah did not knead cakes and Abraham did not prepare a calf, nor did Sarah laugh?” Ramban suggests that, on his opponent’s view, Genesis 18 is recording falsehood and all that needed to be recorded should just have been the announcement of the future birth of Isaac. Ramban continues to adduce further support for his argument by bringing in the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis 32:25 where “Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” If that wrestling was nothing but a mere vision as Rambam would have it, then why was Jacob limping after the event?

To quote Ramban who writes almost mockingly against Rambam:

“And why did Jacob say, ‘For I have seen a deity face to face and my life was preserved’? The prophets would not fear that they might die from a prophetic vision! ...

According to …[Rambam][2], he would be forced to say the same thing in the matter of Lot – that the angels did not come to his house and he did not bake for them ‘Mazzot that they ate,’ for it was all a vision …

[I]ndeed, the entire chapter, was a vision. In which case, Lot remained in Sodom!”[3]

Rambam’s equally mocking, if not sarcastic, retort to this challenge is to define the imprecise nature of all spiritual visions where facts merge with imagination, and:

 that it is not prudent to always seek out profound significance in every minute detail of prophetic discourse.”



This debate highlights the tension between the rationalist and the mystical approaches towards the nature of spirituality. In the rationalist worldview there is no space for omnisignificance. R. Yaakov Elman (1993:1) in his study on Ramban informs us that the term omnisignificant was coined by James Kugel, and Elman uses it to best describe the approach of Ramban where, citing Kugel (1981:103-4):

the slightest details of the biblical text have a meaning that is both comprehensible and significant. Nothing in the Bible … ought to be explained as the product of chance … Every detail is put there to reach something new and important, and it is capable of being discovered by careful analysis.”

The Maimonidean rationalist rejects outright any notion of omnisignificance even within the biblical text, while for the Nachmanidean mystic it become a veritable cornerstone and foundational belief.



In our debate, the mutual volleying and mocking soon stops and Ramban drops his theological bombshell:

“Such words [of Rambam][4] contradict scripture. It is forbidden to listen to them, all the more to believe them!”

Essentially, the mystic was banning a reading of the Torah as put forth by the rationalist. This occurrence was to repeat many times throughout Jewish history, as in the Maimonidean Controversies[5] (Silver 1965:1-199) and continues to this day, as with the Slifkin affair[6] (Rothenberg 2009).

Nevertheless, the implications of both views are significant to the biblical scholar. This debate exposes some crucial questions about the approaches of both Rambam and Ramban, revealing a gaping chasm between the mystics and the rationalists. Dr David Frankel asks:

“[M]ight Rambam have believed that the entire narrative of Genesis 19, including the very destruction of Sodom, occurred only in a prophetic dream? Might it even have been the continuation of Abraham’s dream of Genesis 18 rather than a separate dream of Lot?”

On Rambam’ reading, it is possible that large swathes of biblical text - which are often assumed to be historical narrative - could fall under the rubric of some form of prophetic vision and there is no claim to these descriptions as having occurred in actuality. Furthermore, other important and well-known biblical narratives would also be subjected to Maimonidean interpretation. Rambam writes:

“[I]f the fact that an angel has been heard is only mentioned at the end, you may rest satisfied that the whole account from the beginning describes a prophetic vision…”[7]



R. Don Yitzchak Abravanel (1437-1508) comes to Rambam’s defence and writes in his commentary on Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim, or Guide of the Perplexed:

“[W]e may concede to Ramban that Sarah did not knead and Abraham did not prepare the bull and Sarah did not laugh. We affirm, however, that the vision was not consequently like false dreams, for there was a need for all the things he showed him[8]… Ramban thinks that that which occurs in a prophetic vision is made up and imaginary, whereas that which occurs in physical reality is more dignified. This is the opposite of the truth. For that which appears to the intellect of prophecy is more dignified (נחבד) than that which appears to the senses. It is astonishing that Ramban should state that it is forbidden to hear this!”

Frankel interprets Abravanel’s defence of Rambam and attack on Ramban as follows:

The issue at stake between Rambam and Ramban lies in their interpretation of “events”. For Ramban, the most “dignified” and important (נחבד) events are those which occurred in history. For him, the truth of the Torah rests on its perceived historiography. If all the events recounted in the Torah did not actually take place in reality, then the integrity of the Torah is severely compromised. This holds true especially for the ‘main’ narratives such as the ones we have discussed. Rambam, on the other hand, is less concerned about historiography, and for him the most important (נחבד) aspects of Torah are philosophical, ethical truths and of course the mitzvot, or commandments we derive from the text. Perhaps the tradition that it was Passover when the angels visited Abraham and that the visitors were served milk before meat would attest to some form of Halachic, as opposed to historical significance.  



 Perhaps the most striking issue, however, is something that Rambam touched upon - in passing - in our earlier reference to Moreh Nevuchim. Here it is again:

“Know again that in the case of everyone about whom exists a scriptural text that an angel talked to him or that speech came to him from G-d, this did not occur in any other way than in a dream or in a vision of prophecy.”

What is Rambam saying?

Is he saying that every time the Torah records “that speech came to him from G-d”, then this “did not occur in any other way than in a dream or in a vision of prophecy”?

The most oft-repeated phrase in the Torah would probably be “And G-d spoke to …” and “And G-d said …”. Is Rambam’s view that each of these “sayings” fall under the same category of angelic encounters and that these also took place “in a dream or in a vision of prophecy”?

It appears that the answer is in the affirmative because, according to Alfred Ivry (2010:314) Rambam believed that:

"[A]ll prophecy is a function of the prophet's divinely inspired imagination. Every appearance of God and His surrogates in Scripture is to be understood as an imaginative construction, not to be taken literally. The events depicted did not occur other than in the prophet's imagination." 

Ivry continues to explain that the Torah is the legacy of Moses’ prophecy which differs from other prophecy as it was an “intellectual experience, without involving Moses’ imaginative faculty whatsoever”. Whether this distinction changes anything in the nature of the historicity of the biblical events, or whether it remains solely prophetic, philosophic or religious, is, as Ivry puts it “another subject entirely”.

This was why Ramban forbade us to listen to Rambam’s words on this matter.





Kotzk Blog: 104) PRAYING TO ANGELS?

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




Elman, Y., 1993, “‘It Is No Empty Thing’: Nahmanides and the Search for Omnisignificance,” The         Torah U-Madda Journal, vol. 4, 1–83, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, an affiliate              of Yeshiva University.

Frankel D., “Torah Narratives with Angels Never Actually Happened: Heretical or Sublime?”, in The, Online source:              never-actually-happened-heretical-or-sublime. Accessed 23 May 2012.

Ivry, A.L., 2010, “The Weight of Midrash on Rashi and Maimonides,” in Ephraim Kanarfogel and          Moshe Sokolow, eds., Between Rashi and Maimonides: Themes in Medieval Jewish Thought,  Literature and Exegesis, Yeshiva University Press, New York, 301-318.

Kugel, J., 1981, The Idea of Biblical Poetry; Parallelism and Its History, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.

Rambam M., The Guide of the Perplexed, Translated by Shlomo Pines, 1963, The University of              Chicago Press.

Rothenberg J., 2009, “The Heresy of Nosson Slifkin: A young Orthodox rabbi is banned for his views on evolution”, Online source: October 2005-The Heresy of Nosson Slifkin (               Accessed 23 May 2012.

Silver, D.J., 1965, Maimonidean Criticism and the Maimonidean Controversy, 1180-1240, E. J. Brill, Leiden. 

[1] Rambam Guide of the Perplexed, 2:41-44, Pines translation.

[2] Parenthesis mine.

[3] Ramban’s commentary on Genesis 18:1.

[4] Parenthesis mine.

[5] For at least a century after Rambam, the Jewish world was thrown into turmoil as a result of conflict between the rationalist supporters of Rambam and his mystic detractors.

[6] Dr Rabbi Natan Slifkin, a young contemporary rationalist rabbi, had his books banned and was essentially excommunicated by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinic leadership in 2004.

[7] Rambam Guide of the Perplexed, 2:42, Pines translation.

[8] My understanding is that this would not be regarded as omnisignificance as the details have no material significance. The story as a whole has a religious, philosophic or pedagogic message or lesson, but the details have no bearing on reality.

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