In Rambam's negative theology, there is a distinction between descriptions of G-d's essence (which we can only speak about in negative terms, e.g. G-d is not physical, non temporal, non ignorant, etc.), and attributes of action. The attributes of action are "those that do not describe G-d directly, [but] rather His interaction with creation" (per this wiki entry). Some examples of attributes of action are that G-d is merciful, that G-d is mighty, that G-d is a redeemer, etc.

But don't the attributes of action, in fact, also describe G-d's essence? For example saying that G-d is mighty can be interpreted to mean that certain events caused by G-d (like the Exodus) happened in a way/fashion that we humans would ordinarily call "mighty", in the ordinary sense of the word. But we're then also saying that it was G-d who was "mighty" - i.e. those events didn't just happen by themselves, they were caused by G-d, who performed them in a mighty fashion. So then here we have an attribute of G-d's essence, namely that He is or has-the-property-of-being "someone who performs certain events in a certain (in this case, mighty) fashion".

So how is this knowledge of G-d (i.e. the knowledge of certain properties of physical observable events that are attributed to His actions) really different from any other statement about G-d or His essence? According to negative theology, we can't say that G-d exists in space, for example, because G-d is utterly indescribable. And yet, we can say something specific about the way He operates and interacts with the world? If he is utterly indescribable, we should not be able to know anything at all about Him, including any knowledge/properties/restrictions/specifications of His interactions with the world!

  • Well, as you say, they are observations of "physical observable events." Not observations of God himself.
    – Daniel
    Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 19:43
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    By the way, welcome to Mi Yodeya! I hope you stick around!
    – Daniel
    Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 19:43
  • But we are saying that G-d caused those events. So if we say that the events have to have certain properties or structure, then we are making a positive statement about G-d. For example, when we say "G-d created the world, and first He created light, then animals, then humans", we are saying something specific about the nature of the events of creation and their order, etc. We are also attributing these events to G-d. So in saying "light was created before animals" we are saying "G-d operates such that He created light before animals". And that seems like a positive property of G-d. Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 19:56
  • I understand what you are saying, but I think that would only cause an issue if the description gave us some kind of predictive power about what God will do. We don't say that God had to create light before animals.
    – Daniel
    Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 20:01
  • BTW, the Rambam (Moreh 1:30) says that everything was create "at once" -- light, animals, humans, even time! We are not saying something about sequence in time; according to the Rambam (following Aristotle) there is no time without objects to move, no days without a sun. He holds Bereishis 1 is a logical series -- light logically led to the separation of heaven and earth which logically led to... Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 20:28

3 Answers 3


They are not so much something we know about G-d as behaviors we know G-d wants us to emulate. This is the thesis of Moreh Nevuchim 1:54. He then uses this to explain the 13 Attributes of Mercy that Hashem revealed to Moshe and concludes, "We have gone too far away from the subject of this chapter, but we have shown why it has been considered sufficient to mention only these (thirteen) out of all His acts: namely, because they are required for the good government of a country; for the chief aim of man should be to make himself, as far as possible, similar to God: that is to say, to make his acts similar to the acts of God, or as our Sages expressed it in explaining the verse, "Ye shall be holy" (Lev. xxi. 2): "He is gracious, so be you also gracious: He is merciful, so be you also merciful.

"The principal object of this chapter was to show that all attributes ascribed to God are attributes of His acts, and do not imply that God has any qualities."

For authenticity, I kept Fraedlander's translation http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/gfp/gfp064.htm . For accuracy, I believe the other translators who render the quote from Chazal the way we find in Hilkhos Dei'os 1:6 https://he.wikisource.org/wiki/%D7%A8%D7%9E%D7%91%22%D7%9D_%D7%94%D7%9C%D7%9B%D7%95%D7%AA_%D7%93%D7%A2%D7%95%D7%AA_%D7%90 "מה הוא נקרא חנון אף אתה היה חנון מה הוא נקרא רחום אף אתה היה רחום מה הוא נקרא קדוש אף אתה היה קדוש -- Just as He is called Full of Grace, so to you should be full of grace, just as He is called Merciful, so to you should be merciful, just as He is called Holy, so to you should be called holy."

G-d isn't even being described as Graceful, Merciful and Holy, He is described as being called these things. These are appearances Hashem presents us. In truth, we cannot ascribe motives to why Hashem's Will was for X and not Y.

(I should add that there are other approaches to the question of attributes. As a quick example, R Saadia Gaon posits three classes: negative attributes, His Action's attributes, and attributes of the Creator-Created relationship. Also, there are problems with this thesis internal to the Rambam, such as integrating it with His discussion of Divine Knowledge and the unity of Knower-Knowledge-Known. But to do more than alert you to this would turn this answer into a book.)

  • The answer that G-d's attributes of action are something that he wants us to emulate only applies to attributes such as "G-d is merciful", "G-d is gracious", etc. But what about attributes of action that are not seemingly of that type, such as when we say "G-d created xyz". There, the attribute "created" is of a declarative and historical nature, and seems to state something concrete about what G-d did, not a moral quality we should emulate. Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 0:20

The problem of defining God is that a definition is a border that describes the object of being only from here and until there. Every definition is giving boundaries. When you "grasp" a concept, you surrounded it with boundaries and you know where it comes in, where it ends, what is before, and what is after.

God is endless, and therefore indescribable. He does not have any boundaries and therefore no definition. However, He does interact with the finite, definable creation. What gets done to the creation has a description and by extension, a boundary.

Putting these two contradictory ideas together we say that although we are seeing finite behaviors, it doesn't define God, because these are only a segment of the rest of His endless possible actions and attributes.

This is different from when we discuss a person. If we see someone behaving a certain way we can describe his very nature by this.


God exists in a different way than we do. Imagine in your mind a blue elephant. Now lift that elephant in your mind. Is that considered an act of might? maybe to the elephant, but to you it is not.

so too, every attribute we ascribe to God is relative to our plane of reality, not His.

this elephant analogy is not so far off as the Tanya Shaar Yichud v'Emuna ch. 7 says: "God's Thought and Knowledge of all created beings encompasses each and every creature, for this is its very life-force and that which grants it existence from absolute nothingness."

here's a relevant quote from the chovos halevavos shaar yichud ch.10

This plurality in the Creator's attributes does not, however, exist in His glorious essence but is due to inadequacy of language on the part of the speaker to express the conception in one term. You must understand that, regarding the Creator, there is none like Him, and whatever attributes we speak of regarding Him, you are to infer from them the denial of their opposite. As Aristotle said "negating attributes of G-d gives a truer conception of Him than affirming attributes". For all affirmative attributes ascribed to G-d must necessarily ascribe properties of Etzem (essence) or Mikre (incidental properties), and He who created etzem and mikre has not the properties of His creatures in His glorious essence. But the denial of such properties to Him is undoubtedly true and appropriate to Him. For He is above all attributes and forms, similarity or comparison. Therefore, you must understand from these attributes that they refer to the negation of their opposites.

(Marpe Lenefesh commentary: It is better to negate ascribing to the Creator attributes which are lackings on Him. For example, it is more correct to say that the Creator is not plural, not non-existent, not created, which are opposites, and which are more true than saying and affirming on Him that He is the "true Unity", "permanently existing", "eternal", because we are not capable of understanding what is true Unity,...)

....Therefore, you should exert your mind until you know the Creator through the evidences of His works and not strive to know Him in His glorious essence. For He is exceedingly close to you from the side of His deeds but infinitely remote in any representation of His essence or comparison with it.

  • Right, every attribute we can possibly ascribe to Him is relative to our plane of our reality, expressed in our language, and using our (limited) logic and intellect. However, can't that be said of all things we attempt to understand and ascribe attributes to? For instance, when we make claims about regular things (cars, rocks, humans, numbers, etc.) we do not know truly know their 'essence' - we speak only in terms of abstractions, models of these concepts that we have in our minds, and theories that allow us to link our models to observable reality. Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 0:27
  • In other words, we speak about them on our plane of existence. So the statement that we can ascribe attributes to G-d only on our plane is a tautology, since it applies to anything we try to understand. What makes statements about G-d unique then? Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 0:27
  • cars, rocks are created things like us so we can relate to them and grasp them to some extent due to their being similar to us somewhat. but we cannot say this for God
    – ray
    Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 5:35

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