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.

  • 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
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    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
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    @DoubleAA Aren't all reasons historical? – Charles Koppelman Jan 21 '13 at 15:50
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    @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

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."

  • 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. – user2088 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
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    @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. – user2088 Jan 21 '13 at 3:23
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    @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

I would think this is the same question as identifying the Man on the throne in Shemos 24:10, "“And they saw Elokei Yisrael, and under His Feet was something like sapir (sapphire or a blue marble) brick-work which was like the middle of heaven in purity.”

What exactly did they see? We have a number of textual problems. Moshe later asked “Please show me your Kavod (Glory/Honor)" (Ibid 33:18) and is told, “a person can not see Me and live.” (Ibid v. 30) But if our verse were describing a vision of Hashem, Moshe already saw Him so why the request? Additionally, of course, none of those who went up the mountain died because of the vision. Furthermore, at the conclusion of the Torah we are told that no prophet other than Moshe ever encountered Hashem “face to Face.” (Devarim 34:10) Therefore, we cannot understand this vision in a way that the others who shared it actually did have such an encounter, thereby contradicting an explicit statement in Devarim.

And, of course, there is a fundamental problem in Jewish thought with this reading: G-d has no body, no feet, no image to be seen.

Rashi says that they saw something like the Ma’aseh HaMerkavah, the chariot that Yechezkel saw. “And above the firmament which was over [the chayos’] heads looked like sapir stone, the image of a throne; and on the image of a throne was an image that looked like a person upon it above it.” (Yechezqeil 1:26) And, in fact, Targum Onkelos on our verse inserts the word “yeqar” to say that they saw the “glory of the G-d of Israel”. This parallels Yechezkel’s description of seeing something that “looked like the image of Kevod Hashem, the glory of Hashem”. (Ibid v. 28)

According to Rav Sa’adia Gaon (Emunos veDei'os 2:10), there is a kavod nivra – kavod as a created thing. The vision at Mount Sinai and that of Yechezkel were not of Hashem, as that is logically impossible. Rather, they saw this kavod. The Rambam’s approach is similar to Rav Saadia’s, except that he writes (Moreh Nevuchim 1:64) that the phrase “Kevod Hashem” is a synonym; it could refer to either Hashem Himself, in all His glory, or it could be used to refer to the kavod nivra. In our case, the text means that they saw the kavod nivra. However, in Moshe’s later request, he was asking to see Hashem Himself, which is why he was unable to have his desire granted.

Rav Sa’adia Gaon writes that the shechinah is indeed part of the physical world, but that it is a kavod nivra. In fact, Rav Sa’adia Gaon holds that the term “shechinah” refers to any miraculous thing that reminds the viewer that Hashem is shochein beqirbo, dwelling with him. Thus, the pillars of fire and of cloud were the shechinah, as were the vision of Mount Sinai and of the Merkavah. Rav Sa’adia Gaon’s notion of kavod nivra can be a physical object. Therefore this vision could occur through regular, physical sight.

This is where the Rambam’s opinion diverges. He holds (Ibid 2:6) that the kavod nivrah could only be seen prophetically. It is different in kind to the pillars of fire and of smoke, which were physical entities created miraculously.

The Ramban disagrees with both. In his commentary on the verse where Hashem promises Yaaqov that He will descend with him to Egypt (Bereishis 46:1), the Ramban says that “Sh-echinah” is a name of Hashem, not a created thing (nor a class of them). However, this does not mean that Mosheh and the elders actually saw Hashem in human form. The Ramban on our verse explains that the vision was prophetic. It would seem that in the Ramban’s view, a prophecy can be a vision of something that cannot truly exist.

We find an instance of a similar debate in their understandings of the beginning of Parashas Vayeira. According to the Rambam, any narrative that involves people seeing mal’akhim must be the retelling of a prophecy. Mal’akhim do not have physical substance; they cannot be physically seen. Therefore, the Rambam holds that the parashah opens by telling us that Hashem visited Avraham, and then elaborates by telling us the substance of the visit, the prophecy that Avraham received. In other words, Avraham did not interrupt Hashem’s visit to welcome what he thought were three people. Rather, the visit itself was the vision in which Avraham hosted the three mal’akhim.11

The Ramban takes issue with this understanding. After all, did these mal’akhim not then proceed to Sodom where they saved Lot? Was Lot not really saved? According to the Ramban, the story physically occurred. Avraham saw the mal’akhim in the regular sense, actually fed them food, etc…12

What does the Rambam do with the Ramban’s question? The Abarbanel, in his commentary on the Moreh Nevuchim, writes that according to the Rambam, things seen in prophecy really occur. They are visions of events happening in higher planes of reality. The prophet’s mind and pen may make sense of the vision by interpreting its contents as things familiar from normal sensory experience, but the event seen is both non-physical and real. This is consistent with the Rambam’s position on our verse in Mishpatim. They saw something real. And since G-d does not have a body in any plane of existence, mot even a metaphysical “body”, their vision had to be of kevod Hashem, something created to be a metaphor for them to see.

The Ramban, on the other hand, understands prophecy to be the relaying of a message by the medium of a metaphor. The message relays a truth, but the vision is not of something real, it is a kind of communication. He, therefore, is not bothered by the idea that the metaphor they were given the message in was an anthropomorphic one, that of Hashem sitting on a throne.

The common point, though, is that the description in the verse is a metaphor. Rav Sa’adia Gaon and the Rambam write that the metaphor was a created object for the prophet to experience. The Ramban says that it was revealed within their minds as a means to communicate deeper truths.

So what did Daniel see? Either (Rashi / Ramban) a symbol G-d used to represent Himself in a message about the future, or (R Saadia Gaon / Rambam) the spiritual entity that is the Glory of G-d as it is causing the historical progression the prophet then tells us about.

  • Furthermore, at the conclusion of the Torah we are told that no prophet other than Moshe ever encountered Hashem “face to Face.” Why is that a problem? Shemos 24:10 just says that they saw a person; not that they saw his face || And, of course, there is a fundamental problem in Jewish thought with this reading: G-d has no body, no feet, no image to be seen. While I assume you have in mind Deut. 4:15, adding in a textual source would make this argument much more compelling. – mevaqesh Nov 24 '16 at 20:33

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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