I have for a long time been been confused and dismayed that, although our sources -- including kabbalistic ones -- acknowledge frequently, emphatically, and without limitation that לית מחשבה תפיסא בך כלל -- "no thought can grasp [Him] at all," they nonetheless purport to grasp Him, sometimes at the highest levels.

I dare not post the examples that come to mind out of respect for these sources and shame at my own lack of understanding. They are found very frequently, however, in classical texts including Zohar and chassidus.

I understand that this daring and beautiful thing -- to presume we can understand G-d, a little -- is the basis for our whole religion. I understand that along with fear of G-d, we are supposed to have a firm belief that He deals in this world, and has imparted a shadow of His wisdom in the minds of the best people. Still, I am often stunned at the amount of technical detail with which these sources presume they can describe G-d, even in such basic senses as the number of His attributes. I know the answer is that I am not a prophet, so it doesn't make sense to me, and yet it is. --Yet belief in our prophets' unlimited access to Divinity is feels dangerous when one sees how many people in the wider world claim and believe they have prophecy and are entirely, treacherously mistaken.

  • Tikune hazohar daf 17b – kouty Sep 14 at 13:07
  • פָּתַח אֵלִיָּהוּ וְאָמַר, רִבּוֹן עָלְמִין דְּאַנְתְּ הוּא חָד וְלָא בְחֻשְׁבָּן, אַנְתְּ הוּא עִלָּאָה עַל כָּל עִלָּאִין, סְתִימָא עַל כָּל סְתִימִין, לֵית מַחֲשָׁבָה תְּפִיסָא בָךְ כְּלָל – kouty Sep 14 at 13:12
  • This is the basis of the kabslitic thinking win sof , adam Kadmon, sfirot. Ein sof is not merumaz in Tora. – kouty Sep 14 at 13:14
  • @kouty Are you able to translate? – SAH Sep 14 at 13:22
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    Master of the world's, you are one but not as the number one that can be added to one, or one of a multitude, you are the cause of every causes, masked more than every masked things, there is no thinking that can conceptualize you at all – kouty Sep 14 at 14:10
up vote 3 down vote accepted

The quoted passage, לית מחשבה תפיסא בך כלל, is actually the beginning of a description of the Sefiros. The issue of our apparent understanding of Hashem is not unique to Kabbalah, though. We always refer to Hashem as being merciful and powerful, among other descriptions. In the Torah as well, we find: For Hashem your God is a consuming blaze.

The Kuzari explains that our relationship to Hashem is based on our experience with Him. Our description of Hashem is not a description of His essence, of describing what He is. It is a description of our perception of Him.

He explains this with an example. If a distant king sends you wagon-loads of meat and fruits, along with gold and silver. When you want to praise that king, you would not praise his glorious palace, his army, or his rule — because you've never seen all this. You would only be able to praise him for his generosity and his delicious meats and fruits, and by extension, his mastery of farming and luscious pasture. You are praising those aspects of which you are acquainted.

In this vein, at a time when we are benefiting from Hashem's hand, we praise Him for that exact beneficial aspect of which we just experienced. While eating bread we say, 'Who extracts bread from the earth.' While enjoying fruit we say, '[Who] creates fruits of the tree.'

The Rambam famously explains that when we attribute even positive descriptions to Hashem, we don't mean that as a definition of His 'personality', but rather it is meant to be understood that whatever He is, He surely does not exclude this positive trait. For example, when we say that Hashem is kind, this is not a description of His personality, but rather we are saying that He is surely not unkind.

The Kabbalists add one more area of discussion, which is the 'created personality'. Since we do know that Hashem has Middos which are described in the Torah we see that although Hashem is endless, He did narrow down His interaction with His creation to to a finite framwork. This is so that we can relate to Him. The study of the Sefiros is not about describing Hashem Himself. It is an understanding of that framework in which He operates. This 'personality' that was set for the purpose of being understood in some way.

  • I got a lot of great answers to this question but am accepting yours because it covers a lot of ground gracefully. Thanks so much – SAH Sep 16 at 18:18

Chassidic thought applies the phrase לית מחשבה תפיסא בך כלל (no thought can grasp [Him] at all) to G-d's Infinite Essence (אין סוף, also referred to as Nothingness or אין) at a level which does not relate to anything else, and to which we cannot relate at all.

What the Chassidic and Kabbalistic masters do attempt to understand and describe are the revelations and emanations (גילוים) that ultimately come from that Infinite and Unknowable Source.

For example, the Alter Rebbe writes in Likkutei Torah on Parshat Pekudei here:

ואמנם בחינת האין שממנו תמצא החכמה הוא בחינה שלפני כל ההשתלשלות דשם הוי' וע"ז אמרו בס"י לפני אחד מה אתה סופר וכמאמר אנת הוא חד ולא בחושבן ושם הוא למעלה משום השגה וגילוי דלית מחשבה תפיסא ביה כלל רק החכמה שמאין תמצא הוא ראשית הגילוי.‏

The concept of Nothingness (אין) from which Wisdom (חכמה) can be found is a concept which exists before the descent (השתלשלות) [symbolized by] the Name HaVaYaH. About this they said in Sefer Yetzirah, "Before one, what do you count?" And like their statement, "You are One but not in number". And there He is above all understanding and revelation, in that no thought can grasp Him at all. It is only Wisdom (חכמה) which can be found [emanating] from Nothingness (אין), which is the beginning of revelation (גילוי).

  • Thank you. This helps a lot. I do get confused by the fact that an awful lot is still said about even the highest levels, such as Atzilut and the Ein Sof. – SAH Sep 16 at 18:17
  • You’re right that a lot is said about Atzilut (which is identified with Chochmah) and even Or Ein Sof. When it comes to Ein Sof itself, however, I think you tend to find significantly less specific descriptions. – Joel K Sep 16 at 18:58

I'm not sure if this will entirely address your question(especially since you mentioned Kabbalah and Chassidus while I am replying with Rambam), but Rambam in Guide for the Perplexed deals at great length with "knowing God". Specifically, there is a passage in the beginning of Book 1, Chapter 59 which might be helpful. Rambam has told us that we cannot know God in any positive way; that is to say that we cannot proclaim any attributes of God. The most we can do is to negate what God is not. In Chapter 59, Rambam explains how this helps us understand God somewhat:

THE following question might perhaps be asked: Since there is no possibility of obtaining a knowledge of the true essence of God, and since it has also been proved that the only thing that man can apprehend of Him is the fact that He exists, and that all positive attributes are inadmissible, as has been shown, what is the difference among those who have obtained a knowledge of God? Must not the knowledge obtained by our teacher Moses, and by Solomon, be the same as that obtained by any one of the lowest class of philosophers, since there can be no addition to this knowledge? But, on the other hand, it is generally accepted among theologians and also among philosophers, that there can be a great difference between two persons as regards the knowledge of God obtained by them. Know that this is really the case, that those who have obtained a knowledge of God differ greatly from each other; for in the same way as by each additional attribute an object is more specified, and is brought nearer to the true apprehension of the observer, so by each additional negative attribute you advance toward the knowledge of God, and you are nearer to it than he who does not negative, in reference to God, those qualities which you are convinced by proof must be negatived. There may thus be a man who after having earnestly devoted many years to the pursuit of one science, and to the true understanding of its principles, till he is fully convinced of its truths, has obtained as the sole result of this study the conviction that a certain quality must be negatived in reference to God, and the capacity of demonstrating that it is impossible to apply it to Him. Superficial thinkers will have no proof for this, will doubtfully ask, Is that thing existing in the Creator, or not? And those who are deprived of sight will positively ascribe it to God, although it has been clearly shown that He does not possess it. E.g., while I show that God is incorporeal, another doubts and is not certain whether He is corporeal or incorporeal: others even positively declare that He is corporeal, and appear before the Lord with that belief. Now see how great the difference is between these three men: the first is undoubtedly nearest to the Almighty; the second is remote, and the third still more distant from Him. If there be a fourth person who holds himself convinced by proof that emotions are impossible in God, while the first who rejects the corporeality, is not convinced of that impossibility, that fourth person is undoubtedly nearer the knowledge of God than the first, and go on, so that a person who, convinced by proof, negatives a number of things in reference to God, which according to our belief may possibly be in Him or emanate from Him, is undoubtedly a more perfect man than we are, and would surpass us still more if we positively believed these things to be properties of God. It will now be clear to you, that every time you establish by proof the negation of a thing in reference to God, you become more perfect, while with every additional positive assertion you follow your imagination and recede from the true knowledge of God. Only by such ways must we approach the knowledge of God, and by such researches and studies as would show us the inapplicability of what is inadmissible as regards the Creator, not by such methods as would prove the necessity of ascribing to Him anything extraneous to His essence, or asserting that He has a certain perfection, when we find it to be a perfection in relation to us. The perfections are all to some extent acquired properties, and a property which must be acquired does not exist in everything capable of making such acquisition.

You must bear in mind, that by affirming anything of God, you are removed from Him in two respects; first, whatever you affirm, is only a perfection in relation to us; secondly, He does not possess anything superadded to this essence; His essence includes all His perfections, as we have shown. Since it is a well-known fact that even that knowledge of God which is accessible to man cannot be attained except by negations, and that negations do not convey a true idea of the being to which they refer, all people, both of past and present generations, declared that God cannot be the object of human comprehension, that none but Himself comprehends what He is, and that our knowledge consists in knowing that we are unable truly to comprehend Him.(Friedlander translation)

In other words, while we can never truly understand what God is, we can get closer and closer by understanding what God is not.

(If I've misunderstood your question, let me know.)

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    Clearly nails it! – Al Berko Sep 15 at 20:15
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    @Alex Thanks; this is great. However, it seems that later and even earlier sources really do attempt some kind of a positive understanding of G-d. I wonder what Rambam would think of these. – SAH Sep 16 at 18:13
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    @SAH Later on in the chapter he writes: Thus far the opinion of the pious rabbi. Consider, first, how repulsive and annoying the accumulation of all these positive attributes was to him; next, how he showed that, if we had only to follow our reason, we should never have composed these prayers, and we should not have uttered any of them. – Alex Sep 16 at 21:26
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    @SAH It's from a Talmudic passage that he quotes immediately prior: You must surely know the following celebrated passage in the Talmud--would that all passages in the Talmud were like that!--although it is known to you, I quote it literally, as I wish to point out to you the ideas contained in it: "A certain person, reading prayers in the presence of Rabbi Haninah, said, 'God, the great, the valiant and the tremendous, the powerful, the strong, and the mighty.'--The rabbi said to him, Have you finished all the praises of your Master? The three epithets, 'God, the great, the valiant – Alex Sep 16 at 22:27
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    and the tremendous,' we should not have applied to God, had Moses not mentioned them in the Law, and had not the men of the Great Synagogue come forward subsequently and established their use in the prayer; and you say all this! Let this be illustrated by a parable. There was once an earthly king, possessing millions of gold coin; he was praised for owning millions of silver coin; was this not really dispraise to him?" – Alex Sep 16 at 22:27

There is a way in which we can understand some of attributes of HaShem. Of course, we as finite beings in the physical world can't fully understand the full magnitude of the Creator, but that doesn't mean that there isn't some capability to understand at least a fraction of what our connection to G-d means.

  • How do you explain the OPs source "no thought can grasp [Him] at all," – Double AA Sep 14 at 19:07
  • @Kagan Thanks for your answer and welcome to the site. I look forward to reading more of your answers – SAH Sep 16 at 18:14

I think my answer is the simplest one - so we are commanded to.

  1. G-d's act of giving the Torah and commanding us to study it perpetually implies His desire to be known, at least to a certain extent.

  2. One aspect (probably the most important one) on studying the Torah is not actually "knowing" or "remembering" it, but "being constantly engaged" in studying the Torah as the process itself is called דעת as in "ואדם ידע את חוה אשתו" - and the process of trying to understand G-d is what G-d really desires. (THe Ariz"L's Kabbalah talks extensively about that process).

  • This is a really fine answer, thank you. – SAH Sep 16 at 18:15

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