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My knowledge of Judaism is fragmentary so I would like to ask you not to assume, if possible, that I know anything about it other than what I'm saying in the question.

The Book of Daniel 7:9 speaks about a vision Daniel had of the "Ancient of Days". Who was he? I think it is said that a man cannot look at God and live. So was the person in the vision not God? Or was he some kind of weaker version or manifestation of God, one that doesn't kill you? Or did he see someone or something else?

Please, give sourced answers. If there are conflicting opinions on this, I would like to learn them.

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Hi ymar! Do you know in which chapter of the book this vision can be found? – Double AA Jan 21 '13 at 1:34
@DoubleAA Yes, but I only know the Christian notation and division. Then it's Daniel 7:9. I don't know if it's different in Judaism. – user2300 Jan 21 '13 at 1:35
For historical reasons, the Christian notation has been by and large adopted in Jewish circles as well for referencing specific verses in Tanakh. Here is a link to a Jewish English translation of Daniel 7 mechon-mamre.org/e/et/et3407.htm – Double AA Jan 21 '13 at 2:09
@DoubleAA Aren't all reasons historical? – Charles Koppelman Jan 21 '13 at 15:50
@CharlesKoppelman In the sense that causation usually relates a past event to a future one, yes they are. The sense I used the term in is reasons arising from practical concerns due to historical circumstance, as opposed to an ideological decision that might have been made in a wide variety of historical circumstances. – Double AA Jan 21 '13 at 15:57
up vote 1 down vote accepted

Maimonides (a foremost codifier of Jewish Law) in the first chapter of his Laws of the Foundations of the Torah explains the concept of seeing a vision of G-d:

Behold, it is explicitly stated in the Torah and [the works of] the prophets that the Holy One, blessed be He, is not [confined to] a body or physical form . . If so, what is the meaning of the expressions employed by the Torah: "Below His feet" [Exodus 24:10], "Written by the finger of God" [ibid. 31:18], "God's hand" [ibid. 9:3], "God's eyes" [Genesis 38:7], "God's ears" [Numbers 11:1], and the like? .. All these [expressions were used] to relate to human thought processes which know only corporeal imagery, for the Torah speaks in the language of man.

A proof of this concept: One prophet says that he saw the Holy One, blessed be He, "clothed in snow white" [Daniel 7:9], and another envisioned Him [coming] "with crimson garments from Batzra" [Isaiah 63:1]. Moses, our teacher, himself envisioned Him at the [Red] Sea as a mighty man, waging war, and, at Mount Sinai, [saw Him] as the leader of a congregation, wrapped [in a tallit]. This shows that He has no image or form. All these are merely expressions of prophetic vision and imagery and the truth of this concept cannot be grasped or comprehended by human thought.

[If so,] what did Moses, our teacher, want to comprehend when he requested: "Please show me Your glory" [Exodus 33:18]? He asked to know the truth of the existence of the Holy One, blessed be He, to the extent that it could be internalized within his mind, as one knows a particular person whose face he saw and whose image has been engraved within one's heart. Thus, this person's [identity] is distinguished within one's mind from [that of] other men. Similarly, Moses, our teacher, asked that the existence of the Holy One, blessed be He, be distinguished in his mind from the existence of other entities, to the extent that he would know the truth of His existence as it is [in its own right].

He, blessed be He, replied to him that it is not within the potential of a living man, [a creature of] body and soul, to comprehend this matter in its entirety. [Nevertheless,] He, blessed be He, revealed to [Moses] matters which no other man had known before him - nor would ever know afterward - until he was able to comprehend [enough] from the truth of His existence, for the Holy One, blessed be He, to be distinguished in his mind from other entities, as a person is distinguished from other men when one sees his back and knows the structure of his body and [the manner in which] he is clothed.

This is alluded to by the verse [Exodus 33:23]: "You shall see My back, but you shall not see My face."

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Thank you very much! Does Maimonides say anything about the apparent contradiction between Exodus 33:11 and Exodus 33:23? In the former it is said that Moses spoke to God "face to face", and in the latter that God specifically refused to show Moses his face (because Moses would die). I understand that Maimonides explains that God doesn't really have a face. (Or perhaps I misunderstand it.) But even then, this seems to be contradictory, whatever meaning we attribute to the word "face". – user2300 Jan 21 '13 at 2:46
The Hebrew word panim translated as "face" can also be translated as "presence." That would be like God's very essence. – H3br3wHamm3r81 Jan 21 '13 at 2:54
@H3br3wHamm3r81 Thanks, I didn't know that! But how does this resolve the apparent contradiction? Is the Hebrew word in 33:11 different from the word in 33:23? – user2300 Jan 21 '13 at 3:05
@ymar: They are the same word, but slightly different context. In Exo. 33:11, it says that God spoke with Moshe panim el-panim. This is clarified by the phrase "like a man speaks to his friend." Imagine how you speak with your friend. Thus, He spoke amicably to him, and panim el-panim could essentially be an idiomatic expression. However, in Exo. 33:23, G-d said that Moshe could not see His panim. – H3br3wHamm3r81 Jan 21 '13 at 3:23
@ymar Maimonides does in fact deal with this apparent contradiction in another of his famous works - "The Guide for the Perplexed" (Part 1 Chapter 37, English translation here). – Michoel Jan 21 '13 at 4:26

In the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis were attempting to resolve the supposed contradiction between Isa. 6:2 ("I saw G-d") and Exo. 33:20 ("no man can see Me and live").

In tractate Yevamot 49b, it is written,

"I saw G-d" is [understood] in accordance with what was taught: All the prophets looked into a mirror that is not clear, but Moshe looked into a clear mirror.

ואראה את ה' כדתניא כל הנביאים נסתכלו ב שאינה מאירה משה רבינו נסתכל באספקלריא המאירה

The ancients didn't have glass mirrors as we have today. Rather, they used a polished piece of metal in order to see themselves (e.g., Pliny, Natural Histories, Book 33, §45). In time, a polished piece of metal will dull and oxidize, causing the appearance of the object in the mirror to become obscured. Thus, while the person looking into the mirror is looking at himself, the obscurity precludes him from actually seeing a reality.

Dani'el saw God, but not an absolute and ultimate reality. Rather, he saw a mere semblance. In addition, G-d did not appear to Dani'el in person, but rather, Dani'el had a dream and visions in his head (Dan. 7:2).

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