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Genesis 18:24ff:

And Abraham... said: Will You [God] also cause to perish the righteous one with the wicked one? ...Will You not spare the place for the sake of [say] 50 righteous ones in its midst? ... [Or 45? 40? 30? 20? 10?]

God may even have gone below 10, but Abraham stopped asking.

Why didn't Abraham simply ask, "How many righteous people does there have to be in that place for you not to destroy it?"

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  • 2
    Rashi says that he’s asking for ten people per city, and Sedom is a metropolis of five cities. He already knew that Hashem wouldn’t go lower than 10. Does that help?
    – DonielF
    Nov 10, 2019 at 23:20
  • 3
    How did Abraham know God wouldn't go lower than 10? Nov 11, 2019 at 0:29
  • 1
    I thing that debating with g-d is near to introspection. Avraham needs to convince himself. So there is a human form for the bargaining.
    – kouty
    Nov 11, 2019 at 7:27
  • 3
    Because it's not a transcription of a literal conversation, but a specifically structured revelation for teaching and meditation?
    – OrangeDog
    Nov 11, 2019 at 11:38
  • Sometimes people just enjoy the conversation. It's usually so short, with G-d you know :)
    – Al Berko
    Nov 11, 2019 at 13:39

4 Answers 4

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We see in Vayeira 18:32

32 And he said, "Please, let the Lord's wrath not be kindled, and I will speak yet this time, perhaps ten will be found there." And He said, "I will not destroy for the sake of the ten."

RASHI

perhaps ten will be found there: For fewer [than ten] he did not ask. He said, “In the Generation of the Flood, there were eight: Noah and his sons, and their wives, but they did not save their generation.” And for nine, together with counting [God] he had already asked, but did not find.

Avraham knew that there had to be ten righteous people because Hashem had already showed at the time of the flood that fewer could not save a society. In the time of Noach, Hashem waited until Mesushelach died before bringing the flood. At that time, Hashem was considered part of the count and Noach, his sons, and their wives totaled eight. Mesushelach was the tenth righteous person who kept the flood from occurring. Avraham realized this and therefore had to stop at ten.

The meforshim do ask why he started at fifty? Rashi explains that Avraham wanted to save all five cities. However, when there were not 50 (10 in each city) or 45 (Hashem being the tenth in each city), then he tried to save as many cities as possible.

Rashi on Vayeirah 18:29

Perhaps forty will be found there: And four cities will be saved, and so thirty will save three of them, or twenty will save two of them, or ten will save one of them. — [from Zohar, vol. 1, omissions, 255b]

Rav Hirsch Vayeirah 18:26 says that the lower numbers might still be considered to show that the society still accepted some righteousness and that they could therefore be allowed to live in the hopes that the next generation might be affected.

God answered: If there are still, in a state like Sodom, fifty righteous men who not only publicly live a moral and just life, but who can even stand up for morality, justice, and humaneness, then not only למענם, not only for the considerationof, for the sake of, these righteous ones, but בעבורם through them, because these righteous ones exist ans are tolerated, the whole city deserves forgiveness.

Their existence and being tolerated would itself be a proof that the degeneration had not yet reached the lowest depth.

Rav Hirsch deals with the continuation of Avraham asking for fewer people and the change in the wording of the answer in verse 28 as follows:

The gradually increasing demand in Abraham's requests and the change in terms used in the replies לא אשחית, לאאשחית, לא אעשה, also seems strange. Perhaps the following suggestions may throw some light. If our assumption of the nature of the incident is correct, then God's reply looks on the saving of the town, if fifty righteous men can be found, from a different point of view from Abraham's supposition. Not out of consideration for them and their feelings but on the ground of their existence, of their being there at all. From the former point of view, of course the cosideration for the righteous would become less and less the fewer their number happened to be, but that could not be the case from the latter point of view. If the number of its members is imposing, it is tolerated out of fear. If it is small enough to be negligible, it is tolerated only because it is overlooked. Only when it consists of a medium number, where it is neither feared nor overlooked, does its existence, its being tolerated, have its full significance. Above this number and below it, its significance lessons.

Perhaps Abraham was seeking clarity concerning this condition and perhaps the change in the expression might correspond to it. לא אשחית, I will not destroy, will not bring כלה, but will perhaps interpose My authority otherwise to effect betterment: אדעה: לא אעשה, I will do nothing at all, there are sufficient moral elements among the masses so that a betterment from within is still not impossible. Hence, with forty five, twenty, and ten, לא אשחית, and only with forty and thirty לא אעשה. Perhaps.

Below ten, not only was the number so negligible as to be ignored, but it was too small for Hashem to be able to use His authority to raise the level of the future generations (as we have seen by Noach).

Rav Hirsch concludes:

Had there been in the purlieus of Sodom and Gomorrah, ten righteous men to be found, God would not have despaired of a better future for all, and would have let them all live for this better future. But where God shows us no reason to despair, we too must courageously preserve an play our part, and unremmitingly and confident of ultimate success stand up for what is right even in it means being in opposition to the whole of our erring contemporaries, and even if this ultimate victory will only dawn long after we are in our grave.

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  • "Avraham knew that there had to be ten righteous people because Hashem had already showed at the time of the flood that fewer could not save a society." But surely what matters here is the fraction of people who are righteous, not their total number. In Sodom we are dealing with far fewer people than in Noah's time. Nov 11, 2019 at 1:05
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    As Rashi says, it was the total number of people. That is why a minyan is ten. Only ten people or more can constitute a congregation. That is why we also learn this from the meraglim. @MauriceMizrahi Nov 11, 2019 at 1:08
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    Terry Pratchett described the error in this though. Humans are fallible, so a righteous person can never consider themselves righteous, because they are aware of their own failings, and they know that God must know. A city full of genuinely good people, to the best of human ability, will condemn themselves to destruction because they do not have the arrogance to lie to their God that they are perfectly righteous, when they know their own imperfection in their hearts.
    – Graham
    Nov 11, 2019 at 11:40
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    @Graham Avraham did not ask that people consider themselves perfectly righteous. He asked if there were sufficient people that Hashem considered righteous enough. Nov 11, 2019 at 13:31
  • @Graham In which science fiction novel did Terry Pratchit make this comment. Nov 11, 2019 at 14:15
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Seems like a standard debating/negotiating tactic. If Abraham asks what amount of righteous people is necessary, he will receive a direct answer. Any further debating/negotiating has to cause a change to the answer.

If he starts with a number that everyone would obviously agree with, and then proceeds to steadily decrease the amount it is much harder to reject the plea. At any point in the discussion the switch from yes to no will seem arbitrary. It may even be possible to get all the way down to 1 by arguing that there is no real difference between 1 and 2, and there is no real difference between 2 and 3, etc. As such, Abrahams’s method may simply have been more conducive to extracting the desired response.

(Whether human debating/negotiating tactics should be used when debating/negotiating with God should perhaps be a separate discussion.)

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    "when debating/negotiating with G-d should perhaps be a separate discussion." But Abraham was debating/negotiating with G-d. Unless you take the Maimonidean approach and say it was all a dream. This would be the case for two reasons: (1) G-d cannot change His mind and (2) a man can persuade G-d? Nevertheless, I think the account in Genesis is a true event.
    – Turk Hill
    Nov 11, 2019 at 3:35
  • @Turk, Rambam says it was a dream and you disagree? On what basis?
    – Mordechai
    Nov 11, 2019 at 14:44
  • @Mordechai There are other commentary. Rambam attempts to minimize miracles and rationalize event. Rambam (as well as me) believed that Abraham existed. If it was not a dream it must have been a vision as G-d tells Moshe that no human sees G-d and lives.
    – Turk Hill
    Nov 11, 2019 at 15:07
  • Whether the story was a true account or a dream does not matter. What matters is the lesson it teaches. Israel means to struggle with G-d. Thus, G-d wants us to be Abraham. Ask questions.
    – Turk Hill
    Nov 11, 2019 at 15:16
  • No one argues that the overturning of Sedom didn't actually happen (I hope). But the Rambam does say that the conversations with the angels were visions. The Ramban and Rashbam disagree. I am surprised that you, @Turk, would not follow the Rambam on this point.
    – Mordechai
    Nov 11, 2019 at 16:00
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Three answers from the Zohar:

  1. Each question Abraham asked teaches something else; each question eliminated that there were any tzaddikim there in terms of the merits taught here in these "numbers."

Zohar I:104b - Midrash ha-Ne'elam

[דף קד ע"ב] מדרש הנעלם: "ויהו"ה אמר המכסה אני מאברהם וגו'" -- מה כתיב למעלה, ויקומו משם האנשים וישקיפו על פני סדום, לעשות דין ברשעים, מה כתיב אחריו, המכסה אני מאברהם, אמר רבי חסדא, אין הקדוש ברוך הוא עושה דין ברשעים עד שנמלך בנשמתן של צדיקים, הה"ד (איוב ד ט) מנשמת אלו"ה יאבדו, וכתיב המכסה אני מאברהם, אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא, כלום יש לי לעשות דין ברשעים עד שאמלך בנשמת הצדיקים, ואומר לה הרשעים חטאו לפני אעשה בהם דין, דכתיב ויאמר יהו"ה זעקת סדום ועמורה כי רבה וחטאתם וגו'.

What if they learn the fifty Torah portions?

אמר רבי אבהו, הנשמה עומדת במקומה, והיא יראה להתקרב אליו ולומר לפניו כלום, עד שאומר למטטרו"ן שיגישנה לפניו ותאמר מה שתרצה, הה"ד ויגש אברהם ויאמר האף תספה צדיק עם רשע חלילה לך וגו', אולי יש חמשים צדיקים וגו', הנשמה פותחת ואומרת, רבונו של עולם שמא נתעסקו בנ' פרשיות של תורה, ואף על פי שלא נתעסקו לשמה, שכר יש להם לעולם הבא, ולא יכנסו לגיהנם, מה כתיב בתריה, ויאמר יהו"ה אם אמצא בסדום חמשים צדיקים וגו', והא (תנינן) יתיר אינון נ"ג פרשיות הוו, אלא אמר רבי אבהו, חמשה ספרים הם בתורה, ובכל אחד ואחד נכללים עשרת הדברות, עשרה מאמרות שבהם נברא העולם, חשוב עשרה בכל חד מנהון הם חמשים.

If not, then what if they're ashamed and therefore reckoned as if having been punished (40 lashes)?

עוד פותחת הנשמה ואומרת, רבונו של עולם אף על פי שלא נתעסקו בתורה, שמא קבלו עונשם על מה שחטאו בבית דין ונתכפר להם, שנאמר (דברים כה ג) ארבעים יכנו לא יוסיף, וממה שנתביישו לפניהם דיים להתכפר (לפניהם) להם שלא יכנסו לגיהנם, מה כתיב אחריו לא אעשה בעבור הארבעים.

What if there are tzaddikim who have attained the thirty attributes?

עוד פותחת ואומרת, אולי יש שם שלשים, אולי יש ביניהם צדיקים שהשיגו שלשים מעלות הרמוזים בפסוק (יחזקאל א א) ויהי בשלשים שנה, והם כלולים בל"ב נתיבות שהם כ"ב אותיות, ועשר ספירות ולפעמים הם כלולים לשמונה.

What if they'll raise children to learn Torah thus receiving the reward of the Ten Commandments twice per day (=20)?

עוד פותחת ואומרת, אולי ימצאון שם עשרים, שמא יגדלו בנים לתלמוד תורה, ויש להם שכר כאילו קבלו לעשרת הדברות שתי פעמים בכל יום, דאמר רבי יצחק, כל [דף קה ע"א] המגדל בנו לתלמוד תורה, ומוליכו לבית רבו בבקר ובערב, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו קיים (עליו) התורה ב' פעמים בכל יום, מה כתיב ויאמר לא אשחית בעבור העשרים.

What if they're of the first ten in synagogue? ... All this, the soul of the Tzaddik ought to say about the wicked. Since they had none of it, what's written? "And H' departed as He ended talking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place." What's "to his place?" The place of his level that is known (see #2 below).

עוד פותחת ואומרת, אולי ימצאון שם עשרה, אומרת, רבונו של עולם שמא היו מאותם העשרה הראשונים של בית הכנסת שנוטל שכר כנגד כלם שבאים אחריהם, מה כתיב (ביה) ויאמר לא אשחית בעבור העשרה, כל זה יש לנשמת הצדיק לומר על הרשעים, כיון שלא נמצא בידם כלום, מה כתיב וילך יהו"ה כאשר כלה לדבר אל אברהם ואברהם שב למקומו, מהו למקומו, למקום מעלתו הידועה.
אמר רבי, מצוה לו לאדם להתפלל על הרשעים כדי שיחזרו למוטב, ולא יכנסו לגיהנם, דכתיב (תהלים לה יג) ואני בחלותם לבושי שק וגו', ואמר רבי, אסור לו לאדם להתפלל על הרשעים שיסתלקו מן העולם, שאלמלא סלקו קודשא בריך הוא לתרח מן העולם כשהיה עובד עבודה זרה, לא בא אברהם אבינו לעולם, ושבטי ישראל לא היו, והמלך דוד ומלך המשיח, והתורה לא נתנה, וכל אותם הצדיקים והחסידים והנביאים לא היו בעולם. אמר רבי יהודה כיון שרואה הקדוש ברוך הוא שלא נמצא ברשעים כלום מכל אותם העניינים, מה כתיב ויבאו שני המלאכים סדומה וגו' (עד כאן מדרש הנעלם).

  1. Whereas only Moshe did perfectly, persisting and asking mercy when both (Yisrael and their instigators the Erev Rav) had sinned, and not turning back, and Noah did nothing (not praying for the wicked nor the righteous) - Abraham was only demanding proper justice (that any righteous not perish with the wicked, thus) starting with 50 and stopping after 10 ("because he said, I do not want to demand reward for my actions") [perhaps this means to say above 50 would not need his counting, and below 10 would be beyond justice proper] -- but by Moshe (Ex. 32), immediately "And Moshe besought H' his God" etc. until he said, "And now, if You'll forgive their mistake, and if not, wipe me out from Your book that You've written."

Zohar I:105b

"ויגש אברהם ויאמר האף תספה צדיק עם רשע" -- אמר רבי יהודה, מאן חמא אבא דרחמנותא כאברהם, תא חזי בנח כתיב (בראשית ו יג) ויאמר אלהי"ם לנח קץ כל בשר בא לפני וגו', עשה לך תיבת עצי גפר, ואשתיק ולא אמר ליה מידי, ולא בעא רחמי, אבל אברהם בשעתא דאמר ליה קב"ה זעקת סדום ועמורה כי רבה וגו', ארדה נא ואראה וגו', מיד כתיב ויגש אברהם ויאמר האף תספה צדיק עם רשע.
אמר רבי אלעזר, אוף אברהם לא עבד שלימו כדקא יאות, נח לא עביד מידי לא האי ולא האי, אברהם תבע דינא כדקא יאות, דלא ימות זכאה עם חייבא, ושארי מחמשים עד עשרה, עבד ולא אשלים, דלא בעא רחמי בין כך ובין כך, דאמר אברהם לא בעינא למתבע אגר עובדי, אבל מאן עבד שלימו כדקא יאות, דא משה, דכיון דאמר קב"ה (שמות לב ח) סרו מהר מן הדרך וגו', עשו להם עגל מסכה וישתחוו לו, מיד מה כתיב ויחל משה את פני יהו"ה אלקיו וגו', עד דאמר ועתה אם תשא חטאתם, ואם אין מחני נא מספרך אשר כתבת, ואע"ג דכלהו חטו, לא זז מתמן עד דאמר ליה סלחתי כדברך, אבל אברהם לא אשגח אלא אי אשתכח בהו זכאי, ואם לאו לא, ועל דא לא הוה בעלמא בר נש דיגין על דריה כמשה, דאיהו רעיא מהימנא.

  1. "And Abraham approached" - He prepared himself to demand this - "what if there are fifty" - he started from fifty which is the beginning of Knowledge, and went to ten which is the Tenth, end of all levels. Said R' Yitzchak, Until ten - these are the ten days from R"H to Yom haKippurim...

(Zohar, continued)

"ויגש אברהם ויאמר" -- אתקין גרמיה למתבע דא, אולי ימצאון שם חמשים, שרא מחמשים דאיהו שירותא למנדע, עד עשרה דאיהו עשיראה סופא דכל דרגין, אמר רבי יצחק, עד עשרה אלין עשרה יומין דבין ראש השנה ליום הכפורים, בגין כך שרא מחמשים עד עשרה, וכיון דמטא לעשרה, אמר מכאן ולתתא לאו הוא אתר דקיימא בתשובה, בגיני כך לא נחת לתתא מעשרה.

-1

Leon Kass suggested a novel idea. He felt that Abraham questioned the verdict in Genesis 18 on the grounds of objective justice, and of course, for his nephew Lot. While he was concerned for Lot, he was equally concerned for other good people who may be residing in the city in general. Leon Kass then reveals a novel idea. Abraham had to stop at ten because if he “reduced the argument to (will you save the city for) one (person) it would have been too obvious that he was asking G-d to save Lot.”[1]

Abraham was concerned for all peoples, indeed he taught the truth to whoever he met in his tent. But he couldn't make G-d think that he only cared, selfishly, for Lot alone. Of course, G-d is not oblivious[2], but I think Leon Kass answered this well.

[1] See Peshat Isn’t so Simple by Rabbi Hayyim Angel

[2] Ralbag, as well as Abraham ibn Ezra, felt that G-d only knows the general things but not the particular

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