Rabbi Bernie Fox



“And Hashem appeared to him in the plains of Mamre and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent when the day was hot.  And he lifted his eyes and he saw that three men were standing before him.  And he saw and he ran from the opening of his tent to greet them. And he bowed towards the ground.”  (Beresheit 18:1-2)

Hashem sends three messengers to Avraham.  Avraham greets the messengers and prevails upon them to partake of his hospitality.  The Torah describes Avraham’s elaborate efforts on their behalf.  The messengers reveal to Avraham and Sara that they will have a son.  Sara is astounded by this news and expresses her disbelief.

Avraham accompanies the messengers as they resume their journey.  Hashem speaks to Avraham and tells him that He will destroy Sedom.  Avraham appeals to Hashem to spare Sedom for the sake of the righteous among its population.  Hashem agrees to spare Sedom if ten righteous people can be found among its inhabitants.

The messengers continue on their journey to Sedom.  There they encounter Lote, Avraham’s nephew.  Like his uncle, Avraham, Lote persuades the messengers to be his guests and brings them to his home.  The people of Sedom surround Lote’s home and demand that he turn over to them these visitors.  They plan to mistreat them.  Lote refuses.  The people of Sedom threaten to take the visitors by force.  The messengers bring blindness upon their assailants.  They reveal to Lote that they have come to Sedom to destroy the city and to rescue him and his family.  The messengers rescue Lote and destroy Sedom.

This incident is the focus of a major dispute between Maimonides and Nachmanides.  Maimonides begins his analysis of the incident with a simple question.  The narrative begins with Hashem appearing to Avraham.  It seems that Avraham was receiving a prophecy from Hashem.  However, the Torah does not seem to communicate the substance of this prophecy.  Instead, the narrative continues with Avraham’s encounter with the messengers.  Maimonides question is obvious:  What was the nature of the prophecy received by Avraham and why does the Torah not reveal the contents of this prophecy?

Maimonides responds that – in fact – the Torah does communicate the substance of the prophecy.  The encounter with the messengers was not an actual event.  It was a prophetic vision.  Prophets generally receive prophecy in the form of a vision.  The vision is constructed in a manner similar to a dream.  The message of the prophecy is interwoven into the dream-vision.  The Torah does not always reveal the dream-vision that communicates the message of the prophecy.  Often, the Torah reveals the substance of the message and does not indicate the details of the vision into which it is interwoven.  Nonetheless, this dream-like vision is the vehicle through which the prophetic message is communicated.[1]

Nachmanides strongly opposes Maimonides’ interpretation of the passages and the narrative.  He insists that Avraham was not having a vision.  He saw actual material forms.  Nachmanides raises a number of objections to Maimonides’ thesis.  He argues that if these messengers were merely elements within a vision, then we must assume that these same messengers were also only a prophetic vision when they were beheld by Lote.  This is difficult to accept.  These messengers interacted with Lote and the people of Sedom.  They struck the people of Sedom with blindness and destroyed their city.  They rescued Lote and his family.  How can figures in vision produce all of these effects?

Maimonides does not provide a response to this objection.  There is little comment on this issue among commentators on his work. 

Nachmanides raises a second objection.  According to Maimonides, all of the details of the vision were merely a fabric into which the message of the prophecy was woven.  Nachmanides argues that this means that most of the content of the prophecy was simply the product of Avraham’s imagination.  The description of Avraham greeting the messengers and his hospitality were only meaningless details added to create the framework of a vision through which the actual message was communicated!  Nachmanides rejects the suggestion that these details – most of the narrative – are meaningless. [2]

Rabbaynu Yom Tov ben Avraham Isbili – Ritva – responds to this issue. He explains that according to Maimonides, most prophecies are visions.  Their form has much in common with dreams.  The vehicle through which the prophecy is communicated uses the same imaginative processes through which more common dreams are constructed.  The Sages refer to these facilities as the ko’ach ha medameh – the imaginative force. However, the prophetic dream is radically different from the common dream.  The substance and message of the prophetic dream is divinely constructed and are a message from Hashem.   The prophetic dream is not merely the product of the dreamer’s imagination.  The prophetic dream takes advantage of the imaginative force to construct the vehicle through which the message is communicated.  But unlike the common dream, the fundamental content and message is not the product of the imagination.  It is provided by Hashem.[3]

Ritva offers an amazing proof of his understanding of prophetic visions.  However, before we can consider this proof we must review another objection raised by Nachmanides.  Nachmanides observes that this is not the only instance in which Maimonides treats a narrative in the Torah that seems to describe an actual event as a prophetic vision.  Yaakov encounters a man who engages him in battle.  Yaakov defeats his adversary.  However, the opponent succeeds in delivering a blow that temporarily cripples Yaakov.[4]  Maimonides contends that this narrative is communicating a prophetic vision granted to Yaakov.  The battle in which Yaakov engaged took place in his mind.[5]  This vision was designed to communicate to Yaakov that he and his descendants will struggle with Esav and his descendants.  In this battle the forces confronting Bnai Yisrael will achieve temporary victories.  But ultimately Bnai Yisrael will triumph.[6]  

Nachmanides argues that if this narrative describes a vision, then Yaakov was not really struck.  He only imagined his struggle.  Why was he temporarily crippled by a blow that was merely an element of a vision?  Nachmanides responds that obviously this was not just a vision.  Yaakov engaged in an actual physical struggle and the blow he received was very real.[7]

Ritva responds to this objection.  As explained above, Ritva asserts that the prophetic vision utilizes the same imaginative forces that are used in the construction of a common dream.  The narrative concerning Yaakov actually supports this thesis.  Often a dreamer responds to the imagined events in a dream with physical activity. The dreamer may thrash in his dream or exhibit other physical manifestations of the experiences that are taking place within the confines of his mind.  The imaginative forces are very strong and the dreamer’s experience seems very real.  A dreamer may awake from a dream feeling pain or other sensations.  These sensations are the residue of an experience that took place in the dreamer’s imagination.  Yet, these sensations are very real!  Yaakov’s prophetic dream utilized these same imaginative faculties.  The struggle took place in his mind but it felt very real.  The limp that Yaakov acquired after the vision actually proves that the vision utilized the same powerful imaginative forces that create the common dream.   Nachmanides’ question actually supports Ritva’s contention that the prophetic vision relies heavily upon the faculty of imagination![8]

This discussion only touches upon the many aspects of this dispute and these two opposing interpretations of Avraham’s encounter.  However, this discussion illustrates a fundamental difference between Maimonides’ and Nachmanides’ understanding of the mechanism of prophecy.

It does not seem likely that Nachmanides completely rejects the presence of imagery and allegory in prophetic vision.  TaNaCh describes many prophecies and it is not uncommon for these descriptions to include such elements.  However, according to Nachmanides, these elements are designed to communicate the message of the prophecy.  Through the use of allegory and figures, the prophecy communicates to the prophet a message from Hashem.  But any figure or image included in the vision is designed to communicate a message.  The prophecy is a compact message.  Every element of the vision has prophetic meaning. This is the fundamental difference between the prophetic vision and the common dream.  The common dream contains nonsensical elements.  These nonsensical elements distinguish the dream from waking thought.  The prophetic message does not contain any superfluous elements.  Every aspect and element of the vision is designed to communicate the message of the prophecy.

Maimonides opposes this understanding of prophecy.  The common dream and prophecy have much in common.  Both utilize the same imaginative faculty.  They differ in the function of this imaginative faculty.  In the common dream the content is wholly the product of the imagination.  A prophetic dream uses the imaginative faculty in the manner a thoughtful writer uses words.  The writer composes a story designed to deliver a message.  The novel must be cohesive and intelligible.  But the author is using the story to communicate a message and lesson.  Similarly, the prophetic vision uses the imaginative faculty to construct the story, or vision, through which the message is communicated.  The prophecy is not the product of the prophet’s imagination.  It is the product of Hashem’s communication.  But the communication is delivered through the vehicle of the imaginative faculty.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 2, chapter 42.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 18:1.

[3] Rabbaynu Yom Tov ben Avraham Isbili (Ritva), Sefer HaZikaron, Parshat VaYerah.

[4] Sefer Beresheit 32:25-33.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 2, chapter 42.

[6] Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 3.

[7] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 18:1.

[8] Rabbaynu Yom Tov ben Avraham Isbili (Ritva), Sefer HaZikaron, Parshat VaYerah.