[Avodah] Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim (2:29), A Strange Passage about Miracles

H Lampel via Avodah avodah at lists.aishdas.org
Tue Jul 7 14:44:16 PDT 2015

In Moreh Nevuchim, 2:29, the Rambam seems to disparage a talmudical
position about miracles that he had endorsed in his prior works
(Commentary on Avos 5:6 and Shmoneh Perakim chapter 8). This, despite
the fact that in the Moreh, he refers the reader to these former works to
understand his position about miracles. And to further confuse matters,
in the Moreh itself, within just a few sentences, he goes on to laud
the proponent of that very positionfor maintaining it!

The position is that already during the Creation week, G-d instilled,
in objects and forces of nature, the potential for the aberrant behaviors
that He would unleash when appropriate. (I.e. the aberrant behaviors were
not changes G-d first decided upon, created and imposed upon things at
the time the miracles were witnessed.)

The Moreh Nevuchim introduces the concept with the words: "Our Sages said
things zarrim m'od as regards miracles." "zarrim m'od" is Ibn Tibbon's
Hebrew translation. Narboni and Schwartz use the similar "muzarrim, and
likewise, Friedlander and Pines, in their English translations, translate,
"very strange." KPCH translates, "temuhim" (astonishing). They all seem
to indicate that the Rambam shunned the idea.

Yet, as I noted, just a few sentences later, the Rambam lauds the Tanna
who expressed the thought:

    [T]his text...demonstrates the [high] level of the speaker, and
    its being very difficult in his eyes that Nature could change
    after Creation, or that G-d's Will would change after it had been
    established. He therefore reasons, for example, that G-d instilled,
    in the nature of Water, the [property of] sticking together and always
    flowing in a downward direction, except for that time in which the
    Egyptians would drown in them; those specific waters would split.

    I have already enlightened you as to the main idea of the [talmudic]
    statement [KPCH in a footnote sees this as a reference to the Rambam's
    commentary on the Mishnah and Shemoneh Perakim], and that it is all
    meant to flee from [the idea that, after Creation, G-d would bring
    about] the new creation of anything.

    It says there: R. Yonathan said, G-d placed stipulations on the sea,
    that it should divide before the Israelites. Thus it says, "And the
    sea returned, when the morning appeared, l'ay-sa-no [to its strength,
    or to its stipulated nature]"(Sh'mos 14:27). R. Yiremiyah ben Elazar
    said: Not only with the sea did the Holy One, blessed be He, place
    stipulations, but with all that has been created in the six days
    of Creation. "My hands stretched out the heavens, and all their
    hosts I commanded" (Yishayahu 45:12): I commanded the sea that it
    will divide, the fire that it should not harm Hananiah, Mishael,
    and Azariah, and the lions that they should not harm Daniel, and
    the fish that it should spit out Jonah."

The same is to be applied to all the other miracles.

The surprising solution to this problem is really quite simple. I
noticed that in Moreh 1:70 (p. 106 in the classic version, line 2),
Pines translates a certain phrase as "strange but true."But both Ibn
Tibbon and Schwartz translate it, "ha-inyanim ha-mufla-os ha-n'chonos,
("matters wondrous but true/correct").

Hmmm. One Arabic scholar translates a word as "strange," while others
translate it as "wondrous." I began to sense how the same word could
be used both ways, and I suspected it might also be the same word as in
our passage in 2:29.

Without mentioning my problem about the Rambam's self-contradiction
(to keep the issue unbiased), I asked R. Yakov Wincelberg, translator of
Avraham ben HaRambam's Sefer HaMaspik from Arabic to English, what the
actual Arabic word there is, and if it's the same word in our passage
in 2:29.

Here is his reply:

    In both cases, the word griva is used. It doesn't mean specifically
    "weird," but something that stands out. It could be: extraordinary,
    wondrous, amazing, rare, peculiar, uncommon, obscure, etc. It even
    is used for emigrating from one's country, as one is separating from
    the people.

In other words, the word means "outstanding." So, true, one tends to
understand the translation "zar" or "strange" to be meant in the sense of
"weird," or "foreign," indicating that in the Moreh the Rambam considered
the "front-loaded" miracle an idea to be shunned--contra the Gemora,
his Avos commentary, and his Shemoneh Perakim. But the simpler truth is
that the Rambam consistently endorsed this view, and considered it to
be an outstanding one.

One need only realize that Ibn Tibbon titles his dictionary of unfamiliar
philosophical terms,appended to his Moreh Nevuchim translation, "Payrush
Me'Hamillot Zarot," The word Zar indicates something unfamiliar, but
not necessarily "strange" in the sense of "weird." And it can also mean
something that is wondrous and true.

Zvi Lampel

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