The view in current Haredi thought seems to be that Hashem actively runs the world down to the most minute occurrences. I have seen discussions allude to the fact that there are many Rishonim who did not hold of this view. I would like to know which Rishonim did not hold of universal personal providence over every event?

(I know that when discussing such a topic as this the words used must be carefully weighed since the ideas are extremely nuanced and sensitive. Nevertheless, I worded my question in the most general way possible in an attempt to get my point across and not to be precise about the ideas themselves).


3 Answers 3


First, some background information:

The way in which the Creator runs the world is termed in classical Jewish sources as hashgaha (השגחה) which means "supervision." The concept of "supervision" is subdivided into the categories of hashgahah p'rattith (השגחה פרטית), "direct (or, specific) supervision," and hashgahah k'lalith (השגחה כללית), "indirect (or, general) supervision." The former being a direct intervention by HaShem into the events of the world, and the latter being that HaShem has pre-programmed the world - and its various components - to function a certain way and thus they continue in their created path.

It is important to understand that hashgaha p'rattith does not indicate "[something] within God's control/knowledge/domain" and hashgaha k'lalith does not indicate "[something] outside of God's control/knowlege/domain" (has wa-shalom). Rather, the entire world is under HaShem's hashgaha - some things being directly effected and/or managed and others being effected and/or managed indirectly, or it is possible to say "actively" and "passively." However, these are terms used by us in order to facilitate understanding and cannot in their fullness apply to the One Transcendent Creator.

Some common examples of hashgaha k'lalith would be leaves falling from trees, spiders catching flies, bigger fish eating smaller fish, et al. While the Creator is aware of these events and designed the nature inherent in each of them, He does not actively determine which leaf will fall or where it will land, which fly will be caught by which spider, or which fish will be swallowed by another. These are natural events that are a part of the world which He has designed to function in this way. Inherent also in hashgaha k'lalith is the idea of "chance" - which is essentially nature taking its course with the scientific variables being too far beyond conscious human perception for us to know with certainty what will happen next. This concept is expressed by Hazal where it states: "Olam k'minhagho nohegh - the world continues on it's natural course" (b. Avodha Zara 54b).

The cognate to this is when the Creator specifically intervenes in the lives of certain humans, "bending" the course of the natural world to accommodate them in various ways according to His will. The condition for this type of hashgaha is that the individual draw close to HaShem's will in thought, word, and deed. To the extent that a person trusts in and aligns himself with the Creator at any given moment, he is able to "draw" - as it were - the Creator's specific supervising influence into the events of his life. A common example of this is the life of Yosef haSsadiq in the Tora.

The writings on these concepts are vast and intricate, but this should suffice as an introduction which will enable you to understand the following answer.

Now, to answer your question:

Most Rishonim - if not all - limit the scope of hashgaha p'rattith in some way. And according to the majority of those do, the world and the various creatures which it contains, are governed mainly by hashgaha k'lalith and that hashgaha p'rattith is limited in scope to human beings - specifically the righteous among the Jewish nation. This view is expressed by the Rambam (Maimonides, More Nevukhim, III:17-18), Ralbag (Gersonides, Sefer Milhamoth HaShem, IV), Rihal (cf. Sefer Kuzari 1:109), Ramban (Nahmanides, Pirush Al HaTora - Shemoth 13:15), and those Rishonim who are essentially Maimonidean in their philosophical orientation (i.e. RaDaQ, Ibn Tibon, Sforno, Me'iri, et al).

In fact, the Sefer HaHinukh (attributed to the Spanish Rishon, Rav Aharon Lewi HaBartziloni) states this limitation quite succinctly:

שיש כתות בני אדם יחשבו כי השגחת הש״י על כל ענייני העולם בין בעלי חיים או כל שאר הדברים כלומר שלא יתנועע דבר אחד קטן בעולם הזה רק בחפצו ב״ה ובגזרתו עד שיחשבו כי בנפול עלה אחד מן האילן הוא גזר עליו שיפול וא״א שיתאחר או יקדם זמן נפילתה אפי׳ רגע וזה דעת רחוק הרבה מן השכל

Translation: "There are sects of people who think that the hashgaha of HaShem Yithborakh is upon all matters of the world, whether animals or other things, that is to say that not even one small thing in the world moves except by His will, blessed be He, and by His decree, to the point that they think that with regard to the falling of one leaf from a tree that it is [Divinely] decreed upon it that it should fall and that it is impossible that it could have fallen either earlier or later than the [Divinely decreed] time of its falling even by a single moment. Such an understanding is very far from intelligent." (Parashath Tazria, Misswah 169)

The idea commonly espoused in the Jewish world today (expressed above as incorrect by the Sefer HaHinukh), namely that everything in the world and everything which happens in the world is a subject to and governed by hashgaha p'rattith, was virtually unknown until the preaching of the Baal Shem Tov. The adage [apparently] spoken by him varies depending on the source retelling it; at times he said to have attributed hashgaha p'rattith to a turning leaf, a blade of grass in the wind, or to grains of sand falling into a hole. In his estimation, the concept of hashgaha k'lalith either did not exist or was an illusion. L'aniyuth da`ati - in my humble opinion - such a stance is in stark contradiction to centuries, if not millenia, of consistent Tora teaching on the subject (not to mention that such a view leads inevitably to the attribution of absurdity - has wa-shalom - to the Creator, may He be blessed, and a host of other philosophical errors). Therefore, it is to be rejected (cf. Devarim 12-13).

  • Outstanding answer (and +1), but your translation of Sefer haChinukh (which, for the record, might have been attributed to Rav Aharon of Barcelona by some, though certainly not by all) is off the mark. "Such an understanding is very far from intelligent"!? That's not what he says! He says that וזה הדעת רחוק הרבה מן השכל - that such a conception is far from comprehension. I have never seen anybody refer to an idea or a concept as "intelligent" or "stupid"; they refer to those who hold these ideas in such a fashion, and judge the ideas on how easily they are to be understood.
    – Shimon bM
    Commented Dec 8, 2013 at 11:49
  • Thank you for your compliment and encouragement. It is very much appreciated. As for the translation of the SHH you mentioned, I compared my translation with several others and they all said "intelligence." I admit that sekhel does not literally mean "intelligent" (this would be along the lines "muskhal" or something similar), but I do not think that either context or vocabulary could support your reading of "comprehension." The Rambam (whom is a strong influence on the SHH) frequently uses harsh language about ideas and people with whom he philosophically disagrees. Kol tuv.
    – user3342
    Commented Dec 8, 2013 at 15:41
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    “Chaos theory” and the associated “Butterfly Effect” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterfly_effect in which eventual outcomes display a “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” may make it easier to envisage a situation in which the flapping of a butterfly’s wings or another apparently “inconsequential” event can have important effects. Commented Dec 8, 2013 at 21:30
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    @Maimonist, you wrote "hashgaha p'rattith is limited in scope to human beings - specifically the righteous among the Jewish nation. This view is expressed by ... Ramban". I think in your zeal to argue with the Ba'al Shem Tov you generalize too much as if the Rishonim held one shitta with no distinction. Sources are in the link in my answer.
    – Yishai
    Commented Dec 9, 2013 at 10:00
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    Many comments did not serve to improve or clarify the question (or were rendered obsolete by subsequent comments that were not deleted or by having value only as responses to comments deleted by their authors) so were deleted. Please take chat to the chat room.
    – msh210
    Commented Dec 9, 2013 at 19:52

In a letter written in 1943, The Lubavitcher Rebbe (before he became Rebbe) discusses this issue, from the various points of view.

The most restrictive view on the question is the Rambam, who holds that Divine Providence is limited to according to a person's connection to G-d. So not all things, just people, and not even all people. There is some discussion if that exclusion should be taken at face value, or if it refers to revealed Divine Providence, but Hashem's control of the world happens in a hidden way to all humans. The Rebbe finds that latter view difficult to read into the Rambam.

The most expansive view is the Ba'al Shem Tov, who asserts that all things even among non-humans (animals, vegetation and the inanimate) is by Divine Providence, and is part of the Divine intention for the world. Other views are in between those two ends.

That is as much of a summary as I feel safe giving, but you can see the whole letter for more details. It is translated here.

  • sichosinenglish.org/books/led-by-hashems-hand/03.htm <-- english translation. The whole book discusses Hashgacha Pratit
    – Menachem
    Commented Dec 8, 2013 at 5:25
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    Is the Baal Shem Tov basing himself on any Rishonim?
    – Double AA
    Commented Dec 8, 2013 at 7:30
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    @ray How are you answering my question? Is that a Rishon? If you are really telling me that the Baal Shem Tov changed millenia of Jewish philosophy based on his own reading of Iyov (of all books), then I'm not really sure why anyone should pay much attention to his claims. (I am not asserting that this is the case. Just explaining why my initial question has not been answered.)
    – Double AA
    Commented Dec 9, 2013 at 5:34
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    @DoubleAA, that would seem to be Rashi's reading as well (see 38:35 and :41), which is kind of the Rebbe's point in the letter I linked - there are Rishonim that don't discuss it outright and in detail, but just leave things as literally understood in Chazal [except of course, the Rebbe is referencing Chazal, not pesukim]. (But I'm not disagreeing with your comment to ray).
    – Yishai
    Commented Dec 9, 2013 at 14:23
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    @Yishai The Misrash to Tehillim 119:89 that I'm seeing just talks about the heavens being still propped up by God's word. Is this what you referred to? Is there a different Midrash I'm missing?
    – Double AA
    Commented Dec 9, 2013 at 15:16

Maimonides would answer "no." According to Maimonides, the world functions according to the laws of nature that G-d created. Maimonides explains:

I agree with Aristotle...I do not believe that it is through the interference of Divine Providence that a certain leaf drops [from a tree], nor do I hold that when a certain spider catches a certain fly, that this is the direct result of a special decree and will of G-d in that moment; it is not by a particular Divine decree that the spittle of a certain person moved, fell on a certain gnat in a certain place, and killed it; nor is it by the direct will of G-d that a certain fish catches and swallows a certain worm on the surface of the water. In all these cases the action is, according to my opinion, entirely due to chance, as taught by Aristotle.[1]

[1] See Guide, 3:17 and 18

  • This was said already.
    – Mordechai
    Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 4:09
  • The Rambam is only discussing divine providence regarding animals and inanimate objects here. What about people?
    – Gavriel
    Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 6:02
  • @Gavriel Doesn't the question ask about animals and inanimate objects?
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 18:04
  • Yup, you're right.
    – Gavriel
    Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 18:06

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