In an answer to a different question, someone asserted that various Rishonim were led by their philosophic beliefs to believe that miracles which violated the natural order would reflect a flaw in the original plan of creation, and that this was why they tended to explain miracles in natural fashion. And that this was a well-known opinion among scholars.

Is this indeed the case? If so, can someone point to any Rishonim explicitly stating this? Or, can someone show (preferably from scholars) how an analysis of any of these Rishonim's explanations of miracles would lead to such a conclusion?

  • 2
    Isn't that someone you? "Various Rishonim were led by their philosophic beliefs to believe that miracles which violated the natural order would reflect a flaw in the original plan of creation, and thus tended to explain miracles in natural fashion." – Double AA Oct 19 '16 at 20:22
  • yes. :) We know that they naturalized miracles. That would be a separate q I think. But the question is, did they do it because of some philosophical belief about how Hashem should operate. Or, because they were natural kofrim and disbelieved miracles. Or, something else... – josh waxman Oct 19 '16 at 20:24
  • I want to take back most of the emendations I made there, because it seems tangential to the central point. I would rather have something to point to on Mi Yodea, and spin off any arguments about that point to the comment section of this question. – josh waxman Oct 19 '16 at 20:26
  • related: my answer here – הנער הזה Oct 21 '16 at 1:39

To start, we can point to an explicit statement of Ralbag to the effect that nature was created flawless, so Hashem will minimize changes from the natural order:

When God wishes to perform miracles, He does so via causes that are the most appropriate according to natural laws…. This is because the natural order of existence was set by God in the most perfect way possible, and when necessity, due to providence, requires a change from this order, it is appropriate that God should divert from this as little as possible. Therefore God does not perform these miracles except via causes that divert very little from nature. (Ralbag, Commentary to Genesis, 6-9, HaTo’eles HaShevi’i)

The Rambam does not say, in this following quote, his reason explicitly, but while believing in miracles, won't ascribe to miracle what can be ascribed to natural law:

…Our efforts, and the efforts of select individuals, are in contrast to the efforts of the masses. For with the masses who are people of the Torah, that which is beloved to them and tasty to their folly is that they should place Torah and rational thinking as two opposite extremes, and will derive everything impossible as distinct from that which is reasonable, and they say that it is a miracle, and they flee from something being in accordance with natural law, whether with something recounted from past events, with something that is in the present, or with something which is said to happen in the future. But we shall endeavor to integrate the Torah with rational thought, leading events according to the natural order wherever possible; only with something that is clarified to be a miracle and cannot be otherwise explained at all will we say that it is a miracle. (Rambam, Treatise Concerning the Resurrection of the Dead)

Rabbi Slifkin, in citing these two, summarizes it as:

One aspect of the rationalist approach is its approach to the natural order. The rationalist approach perceives nature as a superior way for God to run the world than using miracles. Related to this is the rationalist approach of seeing the natural order as being pervasive.

We can also refer to the book History of Jewish Philosophy, in a chapter by Howard Kreisel, where he describes Rambam's position as follows, that the world is a perfect creation which therefore requires no changes:

Maimonides goes to great lengths to show that all the prophecies regarding the end of the world are figurative descriptions of historical events. He regards the order in the world as being immutable, the world being a perfect creation requiring no changes. For this reason he even partially “naturalizes” the phenomenon of miracles. He cites, with apparent approval, the rabbinic dictum that, in the creation of the various elements, God implanted the miracles destined to occur (2.29).

Regarding whether the sun in Giveon actually stopped, Ibn Balaam (who thinks it did) records (page 75) the following argument with R' Moshe ibn Gikatilla:

Ibn Gikatilla believes that [the sun] did not stand still, but only the shadow (al fay') remained behind so that the light would continue.

I once asked him: Is the shadow not the impression of the cause [= the source of the light], that is, the sun? He answered: Yes. I said to him: If the cause ceases to exist, will its impression also not nec-essarily (darfira) cease to exist? And he answered that the miracle here was that the light remained behind, although [the source] illuminat-ing it had set. And I said to him: What has brought you to such an opinion? He said: In my view, a cessation of the permanent motion (al-kharaka al-de bna) is not possible.'

Dr. Dov Shṿarts, in Central Problems of Medieval Jewish Philosophy (linked above), writes about this:

Moreover, Ibn Balaam ignores Gikatilla's last, rational argument, namely, that the laws of nature are absolutely inviolable. Underlying this argument, probably, was Gikatilla's belief that nature as created by God was perfect, and violation of its laws was inconsistent with the perfection of divinely created things.

Shmuel ben Chofni Gaon records his dispute with contemporary Jewish rationalists, where he had heard them propound naturalist interpretations of the event at Giveon:

People have in the past denied this, saying, Had the sphere stood still, the earth would not have remained in its place; and they said that [the earth] stands in the middle only through the motion of the sphere, so that if [the sphere] had stood still, [the earth] would not, therefore have remained in its place. It may therefore be said to them: Do you not admit that the Ancient One, may He be exalted, is able to make everything stand still? And if they should say, Yes, they must admit that such a standstill is logically possible, and that the standstill is necessitated by the true tradition. And [even] if they say otherwise, they are after all speaking of confirmation of the fact that die Creator is capable on His own [= omnipotent]. And if that be confirmed, what the Bible says of Joshua's situation is not impos-sible, and Scripture has said, "He it is who stretched out Zaphon over chaos, who suspended earth over emptiness" (Job 26:7). And others have desired to explain the biblical account of this episode in such a way as to reconcile themselves to the laws of nature.

Both Shmuel ben Chofni Gaon and his anonymous disputants agree with Hashem's omnipotence. What underlies their naturalist interpretation? Dr. Dov Shṿarts (page 78) gives two possibilities:

However, R. Samuel's major theological argument relics on the attribute of divine omnipotence ("The Creator is capable on His own"). Since God's abilities are unlimited, nothing prevents Him from making the sun stand still, while at the same time maintaining the Earth's position. Since we do not know the precise arguments of the anonymous commentators mentioned, the debate may be aimed at either of two alternatives (or at both): (i) one theological argument (omnipotence) versus another (the perfection of God's creation); (ii) a theological argument (omnipotence) versus a rationalist, philosophical argument (the universality and permanence of the laws of nature). It would appear, therefore, that the theological argument of divine omnipotence has won out over all other arguments.

Ibn Ezra also, based upon the perfection of Hashem's creation of the natural order, is of the belief that miracles will not violate the natural order. Dr. Dov Shṿarts writes (pg. 80):

Ibn Ezra penned an enigmatic comment on the verse, "The Rock His deeds are perfect, yea, all His ways are justice/law" (Deut. 32:4), which was a crucial stimulant for philosophers discussing the sun's standstill. He first explains the term "justice/law" (Heb. mishpat) and then considers Joshua's miracle:

"Yea, all His ways are law"—for they do not vary, but they obey one single law, and that is the praise. For the actions of all created things vary according to their needs, but the actions of the Lord (were performed) for His Glory with might, in accordance with [divine] wis-dom, [and are therefore unchangeable]. And you cannot argue from the sun standing still, for its secret is clear from the words "and the moon in the valley of Aijalon" [Josh. 10:12], as I have explained in its place.

The overall intent of the passage is clear: The laws of nature are fixed and stable, and the fact that the sun stood still for Joshua does not contradict this principle.

  • 1
    I don't think Ralbag (as quoted here, anyway) says exactly what you asked about in the question. You asked whether violations of nature would reflect a flaw in nature. Ralbag says there is no flaw in nature [so nothing would reflect such a flaw], and violations of nature are themselves flaws so should be minimized in degree. – msh210 Oct 20 '16 at 0:05
  • good point. I agree, that is a good distinction. – josh waxman Oct 20 '16 at 16:41
  • @msh210 perhaps the quote I just put in about the Rambam can stand in its place? – josh waxman Oct 20 '16 at 18:35
  • Regarding the Kreisel quote one must be cautious of employing secondary or tertiary sources it is to easy, especially when dealing with a writer like rambam, to project oneself on the writer. mimah nafhakh; if he quotes sources, utilize them (with a hat tip for intellectual honesty). If he doesnt cite sources, then he's not overly valuable in demonstrating rambams view. – mevaqesh Oct 20 '16 at 18:49
  • regarding ralbag, from my experience, he was well to the left of rambam, or even meiri, or even ibn ezra, so one must be wary of projecting him on others. – mevaqesh Oct 20 '16 at 18:50

Maimonides refers to the existence of miracles: In his “Guide for the Perplexed” III:17, he discusses how people without intellectual perfection are left to nature, while those who gain intellectual perfection are in some way recipients of God’s providence (providence: divine guidance; i.e. the way that God acts in the world on the behalf of individuals). This leads readers to believe that Maimonides believes in supernatural miracles. However, while he uses the words “miracle” and “providence”, he has special definitions for those words.

Maimonides writes that God’s actions are never mediated by a violation of the laws of nature. Rather, all such interaction is by way of angels. Maimonides states that the layman’s understanding of the term “angel” is ignorant – to the wise man, Maimonides writes, one sees that what the Bible and Talmud refer to as “angels” are metaphors for the laws of nature, or the principles by which the physical universe operates, or even kinds of platonic eternal forms.

In "Maimonides' Thirteen Principles: the Last Word in Jewish Theology," Torah U-Madda Journal, Marc B. Shapiro (Modern Orthodox) writes :

“One wonders whether any of the Orthodox spokesmen who have advocated acceptance of the Thirteen Principles are really aware of Maimonides’ view of reward and punishment, which goes against mainstream rabbinic tradition. Without going into detail, let it simple be stated that according to Maimonides there is no heavenly reward for the observance of mitzvot!"

Similarly, one wonders whether Orthodox spokesman are aware that according to Maimonides, God never interrupts the set laws of nature – ever.

In “Miracles in Rambam’s Thought—a Function of Prophecy”, David Guttman writes:

….”Following our understanding of Rambam we have defined miracles as properties present in nature that require certain convergences of cause and effect to occur. They are seen as miracles because of the way they occur either rarely or fortuitously. In reality they are preset and would occur with or without human (prophetic) intervention. It is up to the prophet to learn about them and use them where necessary. Depending on the circumstances and stakes involved, the level of certainty allows the prophet to act on his information. Moshe’s level of prophecy afforded him the courage and certainty to act even when the stakes involved put the future of the nation at risk.”

  • Welcome to mi yodeya IndipendentThinker. This answer is interesting, if I remember, Maimonides in his comment on Avot explained Kriat Yam Suf as a whole miracle, But Gershonides on Tora explained it as a natural phenomenon – kouty Oct 21 '16 at 4:58

Ralbag is a good example that comes to mind. For example, Gersonides writes that Joshua did not perform this miracle since to perform this miracle would be greater than Moses, and Moses never performs this miracle. In other words, it would contradict Deuteronomy 34:10–12. Therefore, Gersonides felt that Joshua was speaking figuratively; that the army defeated the five nations while the sun was still in the sky. Maimonides agreed, writing that is it a song about the longest day of the year (Guide of the Perplexed 2:35).

In short, the Rishonim felt that G-d created the world as the Bible states, “very good;” and therefore, there is no reason to alter natural law. Natural law is fixed and needs no change. Miracles are explained as natural phenomena that G-d created.


By the Talmudic era (200 – 600 CE), the idea of miracles that contravened the laws of nature were harder to accept. Some rabbis of the Talmud taught that miracles were natural events that had been set up by God at the beginning of time. When the walls of Jericho fell, it was not because God directly brought them down. Rather, God planned that there would be an earthquake at that place and time, so that the city would fall to the Israelites.

When the plagues struck the Egyptians, these were natural events that had been timed by God to happen just then. Biblical miracles thus are not violations of the laws of nature; they are part of God’s planning.

This view assumes that God knows the future. How can man have free will, while God knows the outcome of each situation? The Talmud never attempted to produce a systematic theology. The sages were affirming that God is involved with the world, but were not concerned with reconciling philosophical implications.

This view is held by the iconoclastic Hasdai Crescas (1300s CE), who was nearly alone in writing that free will is an illusion. Creascas held that all that happens is the will of God. This idea is rejected by most Jews, except for some of the Hasidic community, for instance some within Lubavitch (Chabad) movement.

Instances where rabbinic writings say that God made miracles a part of creation include Genesis Rabbah 5:45; Exodus Rabbah 21:6; Ethics of the Fathers/Pirkei Avot 5:6.


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