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According to the Rambam, certain parts of the Torah are to be understood metaphorically. While this approach works well in cases where we can imagine that the "first listeners" understood it as metaphors (e.g., "the hand of God," dry bones...), isn't it more complicated to comprehend in cases where the listeners took it literally (e.g., the description of creation)? Isn't it strange to say that the Torah expresses itself not through "metaphors" but through "myths"? I.e. mashals that don't have a nimshal.

Indeed, as I understand that the torah uses methaphors, I find it hard vis a vis "trust" that Hashem would teach us myths, that is, things that us listener would believe as true, but is in fact false (even if the "moral meaning" is of course important and true).

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    If it is meant as a metaphor, Moshe Rabbeinu would have explained it that way.
    – N.T.
    Jul 6, 2023 at 23:40
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    @N.T. how do you know?
    – Double AA
    Jul 6, 2023 at 23:43
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    How do you know which stories the "first listeners" took literally and which they didn't?
    – Double AA
    Jul 6, 2023 at 23:44
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    @N.T. I asked you for a source not to repeat yourself. The Gemara (Megillah 19a) says Moshe even knew about Mikra Megillah, but surely you can accept that it's within the realm of Judaism to think he may not have had the only official understanding of non-halachic matters. (Even if he knew it was metaphorical, did he know that the metaphor was trying to convey that In the beginning, 13.7 billion years ago, the scalar inflation field expanded by 47 orders of magnitude, then began cooling adiabatically into a quark-gluon plasma etc. ? That could be construed as a perush, yet he wasnt omniscient)
    – Double AA
    Jul 7, 2023 at 13:29
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    @NissimNanach That's irrelevant to the discussion at hand (as is your answer below which will hopefully soon be deleted). If you are simply agreeing with me that the actual physical history of how creation went down is irrelevant to the primary goal of the Torah text and wouldn't necessarily have been included in what Moshe taught the people, then I don't think we need both of us explaining that to N.T.
    – Double AA
    Jul 7, 2023 at 15:11

3 Answers 3

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The Rambam doesn't say that the Torah contains metaphors and myths. I do think he says two related things:

1- Parts of the Torah happen, but in a non-physical way. The Abravanel shows that to the Rambam, nevu'ah is an experience of non-physical realities. (Which the Abravanel contrast's to the Ramban's understanding of nevu'ah as the reception of a message from Hashem.) And so, it isn't that the story of the three mal'akhim visiting Avraham was a parable, or that Bil'am's speaking donkey was a parable, or even the Man on the Throne seen by Moshe, Aharon and the Elders was a parable. Rather, these were real experiences that they had of real events. Which, due to human physicality, their minds experienced via familiar visions and sounds.

Or the Six Days of Creation, which he says was a real event, if not in "days" as we generally use the word -- since time itself was created, but in 6 logical steps, each the cause of the next one.

But that isn't a parable. It's the use of words to describe something we don't have sufficient language for.

I think the first listeners understood as much. Especially the actual Sinai generation who were overwhelmed by prophecy once. But they established a culture that knew that words fall short of describing the prophetic experience, or other things that are beyond comprehension.

2- The other oft-quoted idea of the Rambam in thie context is his reuse of R Yishma'el's expression "dibera Torah belashon benei adam -- the Torah speaks in human language". (To R Yishmael, this is an argument against R Aqiva's darshaning necessary words like "akh", "raq", or "es", or normal Hebrew grammar which creates doubling like "aseir ta'aseir.)

The Rambam reuses this idiom to mean just that -- the Torah can speak idiomatically. Just as you wouldn't think that someone who had a "spare tire" actually grew part of a car wheel on their body. And Neil DeGrasse Tyson will talk about "sunrise" even though he knows it's caused by the earth spinning, and not the sun rising over the earth. So too, don't take the Torah's describing Hashem as "flaring His nostrils" in anger as implying He has nostrils.

Or that the use of "yad - hand" to mean "might" or "under his control" to mean that Hashem has a hand. And this "belashon benei adam" really is about the first listeners. "Yad haChazaqah" was used because the people who got the Torah normally used the word "yad" to mean "might", and not always a literal hand.

Here it's even clearer -- the first generations were using these idioms themselves! The idea didn't fly over their heads any more than my saying "fly over their heads" just now made you think I meant ideas sailing through the air at a higher altitude than the people in questions.

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  • Maimonides viewed the creation account as a parable. It is unclear what you mean by actual events that were non-physical.
    – Turk Hill
    Jul 9, 2023 at 18:52
  • The early Israelites probably believed that God was a body. When the Torah speaks about “God’s anger” or God’s hand it probably meant what it said, to be taken literally. However, as humans evolve physically, also spiritually. Rambam writes that Jew evolved in their thinking. The Torah must be interpreted in light of philosophy and science and this means we read God’s emotions, speech, or hands metaphorically.
    – Turk Hill
    Jul 9, 2023 at 18:56
  • @TurkHill Where do you get the idea that the Rambam thought Creation was a parable? What I wrote was a summary of Moreh 1:30. Literal, but fundamentally incomprehensible to humans, and not 6 days but 6 causal steps. Jul 10, 2023 at 0:02
  • @TurkHill, I disagree with you on the historical point, nbt that is irrelevant. The question was what the Rambam thought. And he was sure Judaism always taught about an incomprehensible indivisible and therefore incorporeal G-d. Jul 10, 2023 at 0:05
  • We agree that Rambam believed that Judaism always taught that God was incorporeal. Regarding where Rambam calls creation an allegory, see my answer here.
    – Turk Hill
    Jul 10, 2023 at 2:44
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There is no difficulty here at all. Maimonides felt that God is not anthropomorphic or anthropopathic. Regarding the description of creation. This, too, is a metaphor. The Jews did not believe the first chapters of Genesis to be fact. Maimonides explains:

"We ought not to understand, nor take according to the letter, that which is written in the book of the creation, nor to have the same ideas of it which common men have; otherwise our ancient sages would not have recommended with so much care to conceal the sense of it, and not to raise the allegorical veil which envelopes the truths it contains. The book of Genesis, taken according to the letter, gives the most absurd and the most extravagant ideas of the divinity."

Here he declares that the account of the Creation in the book of Genesis is not a fact, and that to believe it to be a fact, especially with respect to the work of four days, gives the most absurd and the most extravagant ideas of God. Maimonides felt that the book of Genesis is not a book of facts. It is an allegory. It shouldn’t be taken literally. It is only a parable.

Regarding the myths. I think you are asking about the first parts of Genesis which appear to be similar to myths. Noah's flood (for example) seems to be drawing from the tale of Gilgamesh. The early chapters of Genesis have many surreal elements (like talking snake, a garden of eden, two creation accounts, etc.) If we understand these stories as myths that serve a purpose, we can add that the Torah's account, unlike pagan mythology, adds a moral twist and changed to reflect monotheistic and teach moral lessons.

The reader will recollect the quotation I have already made from Maimonides, where he says, “We ought not to understand nor to take according to the letter that which is written in the book of the Creation." This implies that there are other parts of the book (the book of Genesis) that ought not to be taken according to the letter, and as the Jews do not adopt the names mentioned in the first parts of Genesis, it is evident that ancient Jews did not believe the first chapters of Genisis to be fact.

It follows, that the characters mentioned in the first parts of Genesis, such as Adam, Enoch, Methuselah, and Noah, are not real, but allegorical persons, and this is why early Jews did not use the names in the first parts of Genesis.

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  • Thanl you for your answer. Can you give the references of the Rambam quote ? But I think I'd disagree with "The Jews did not believe the first chapters of Genesis to be fact." I think it's obvious that they did indeed. Lehavdil, all other cultures believed in their own "myths"; why Jews wouldn't have ?
    – EzrielS
    Jul 9, 2023 at 10:40
  • I do not remember the source but the idea is certainly there. Regarding Genesis. It is possible that the ancient Jews believed in the garden of Eden story literally. It is also possible that they understood it as a parable. I take the latter view but, I admit that you could be right. I’m glad you liked my answer.
    – Turk Hill
    Jul 9, 2023 at 18:44
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Rabbi Tatz deals with this in his works. He brings the school of thought in Torah thinking that holds like you; namely that the Torah's standard of truth should not allow for these non-true metaphors. I will be quoting chapter 13 of The Thinking Jewish Teenager's Guide to Life, and recommend Worldmask for further reading:

If we are forbidden to conceive of any physical or material image when related to Hashem, why does the Torah do so?

We know that Hashem obeys His own rules, as it were; He observes the Torah commandments - why not this one?

He then quotes the Rambam's Yesodei Hatorah, where it is explained that the Torah is written in "the language of men", and therefore describes Hashem in human terms as a metaphor.

In other words, Hashem does not have a hand, but since we can only understand things within our experience, the Torah speaks in terms familiar to us.

Like many of the great gedolim that have dealt with understanding Rambam, he questions this interpretation of Rambam, along similar lines to you:

If the Rambam means that the Torah is using human terms as mashal, analogy, we are faced with two major difficulties. Firstly, how can the Torah speak in terms which are not strictly true? We know that the Torah is true in the very deepest sense possible; every nuance within Torah must be true. Since the Torah is none other than Hashem Himself speaking, even the outermost layers of its expression must be absolutely accurate and true [and he goes on to show how an analogy is not true in itself, and then gives the second reason that it is forbidden to attribute physical properties to Hashem, so how can the Torah].

The first answer he gives is similar to the answers given by Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim, e.g. Hashem's "hand" and "eye" are referring to Hashem's actions in the world etc. He challenges this from the deeper sources, which would say that this doesn't solve the problem, because it indicates that it is only true in this world, and not intrinsically true.

In other words, if the Torah talks of Hashem's hand, it must mean that He has a hand, intrinsically and most literally.

So at this point, he introduces the Kabbalistic answer to this question, based on Shaarei Orah, Shelah et al. When we call what the Torah says a mashal, we don't mean that His hand is a mashal, and ours is real. The opposite, our hand is the mashal and His is real.

But the secret which answers our question is this: Hashem's hand is a real hand and our human hand is a mashal! When the Torah talks of the Divine hand it is referring to that which is real in the deepest sense; that which is infinite and no contradiction to the absolute Oneness of the Creator. Every nuance of meaning in Torah is absolutely true; Hashem indeed has a hand - but that hand transcends human understanding no less than any other Divine attribute which is expressed in Torah, and no less than what we refer to as Hashem Himself.

Of course this means that we cannot begin to understand any of the Divine attributes mentioned in the Torah. Since they all exist in that realm of Oneness which has no parts they do not contradict the idea of the Oneness of the Creator. And no human mind can begin to imagine the meaning of that which is described as specific or particular yet does not contradict the idea of Oneness...

...The Torah talks of reality, the highest reality. The Torah describes things as they actually are; but it uses human language - it uses language that refers to things in our world, things with which we are familiar so that we can begin to relate to those things that are above our world, those things that are real in the highest sense.


Here's an early source for this idea, by Rabbi Yosef Gikatillah in Shaarei Orah (c.1260-1300 CE). In the introduction to this early Kabbalistic sefer, he writes:

אם כן כל אותם העניינים שאנו קורים בתורה, כגון יד ורגל, אוזן ועין, ושאר כל כיוצא בהם, מה הוא? דע והאמן כי כל אותם העניינים אף על פי שהם מורים ומעידים על גדולתו ואמיתתו, אין כל בריה יכולה לדעת ולהתבונן מהות אותו הדבר הנקרא יד ורגל ואוזן וכיוצא בהם. ואם אנו עשויים בצלם ודמות, אל יעלה בדעתך, כי עין בצורת עין ממש, או יד בצורת יד ממש, אבל הוא עניינים פנימיים ופנימים לפנימיים באמיתת מציאות י"י יתברך, אשר מהם המקור והשפע יוצא לכל הנמצאים בגזירת השם יתברך. אבל אין מהות יד כמהות יד, ולא תבניתם שווה, כמו שאמר ואל מי תדמיוני ואשוה (ישעיה מ, כה).

So, what is the meaning of all these concepts we learn about in Torah regarding [Hashem's] hand, foot, ear or eye? Know and believe that no created being is able to understand or conceive of the thing called "Hand", "Foot" or "Ear" etc, even though they do teach and testify to Hashem's greatness and truth. Yes, we are made in His image and likeness, but don't get it in your head that the Torah means that it is actually an eye in the form of an eye, or hand in the actual form of a hand. Rather these are concepts that are the deepest of the deepest of the deep truths about the existence of Hashem, may He be blessed, that from which come the source and influence to all that exists, according to Hashem's decree, may He be blessed. However, the very existence of that Hand is not what this hand is; their form is not alike, like it is written: "Whom can you compare Me to, to whom would I be equal?" (Yeshayahu 40:25).

See also שני לוחות הברית, תולדות אדם, בית אחרון יג׳ for more (best to be learned with a Rav). If you can't find a Rav to learn this with, and hebrew is not your thing, then please do try and get a hold of Worldmask for a deeper treatment of the topic in english by Rabbi Tatz, compared to the above.

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  • Thank you ! It's interesting, but I fill like this answer is typically a (like you said) kabbalistic one, and I am more interested by the "rationalist" approach to this question.
    – EzrielS
    Dec 18, 2023 at 11:05
  • @EzrielS I included the rationalist approach as the middle approach, I can try to elaborate on it. Either way I recommend part 1 of Moreh Nevuchim
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Dec 18, 2023 at 11:07
  • Yes, but I think that answer only for "hand" and "eye". For me, it is not a problem to think that the torah uses those idioms, as I think that the first listener understood them. (at least, its possible they did). My problem is not really Rav Tatz's : "Firstly, how can the Torah speak in terms which are not strictly true? ... every nuance within Torah must be true." - I dont think it's a problem, as I said in my original question: i just find weird to think that the torah used metaphores that the first listener probably didn't understood. (maybe I didnt fully understand your answer)
    – EzrielS
    Dec 18, 2023 at 11:20
  • @EzrielS it seems I failed to understand you, although FWIW, I think the first listeners understood it like the Shalah. Hopefully this answer will be handy for others. Good luck finding the knowledge you seek!
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Dec 18, 2023 at 11:26

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