Moshe Ben-Chaim




Marc: I was wondering if you had any thoughts about the following...

As I recall, Rambam teaches that Divine providence is in direct proportion with one’s level of perfection. In light of that, how do we reconcile the comments of Chazal in Archin 16b regarding one who puts his hand in his pocket intending to pull up three coins and pulls up two...and the Talmud states this is an “affliction”; and Chullin 7b that states that man doesn’t stub his toe unless it was decreed in heaven? 

If all is as Rambam states, that in many cases an individual is not under any Divine providence due to his lack of perfection, how are these Talmudic areas understood, which both imply that everyone suffers Divine afflictions, and in even the most inconsequential matters? Any help would be appreciated.



Rabbi: You are correct. Rambam states the following in Book III chap. xviii of his “Guide”:

“…the greater the share is which a person has obtained of this Divine influence, on account of both his physical predisposition and his training, the greater must also be the effect of Divine Providence upon him, for the action of Divine Providence is proportional to the endowment of intellect, as has been mentioned above. The relation of Divine Providence is therefore not the same to all men; the greater the human perfection a person has attained, the greater the benefit he derives from Divine Providence. This benefit is very great in the case of prophets, and varies according to the degree of their prophetic faculty: as it varies in the case of pious and good men according to their piety and uprightness. For it is the intensity of the Divine intellectual influence that has inspired the prophets, guided the good in their actions, and perfected the wisdom of the pious. In the same proportion as ignorant and disobedient persons are deficient in that Divine influence, their condition is inferior, and their rank equal to that of irrational beings: and they are “like unto the beasts” (Ps. xlix. 21). For this reason it was not only considered a light thing to slay them, but it was even directly commanded for the benefit of mankind. This belief that God provides for every individual human being in accordance with his merits is one of the fundamental principles on which the Law is founded.”

“Those who approach Him are best protected, and” He will keep the feet of his saints”; but those who keep far away from Him are left exposed to what may befall them; there is nothing that could protect them from what might happen; they are like those who walk in darkness, and are certain to stumble. The protection of the pious by Providence is also expressed in the following passages: “He keepeth all his bones,” etc. (PS. xxxiv. 21): “The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous” (ibid. ver. 16): “He shall call upon me and I shall answer him” (ibid. xci. 15). There are in Scripture many more passages expressing the principle that men enjoy Divine protection in proportion to their perfection and piety.



I wish to mention that I base my words on a lecture given by a wise Rabbi many years ago, as he addressed this case in Archin. Now let us examine those words of the Talmud. But first, we must define our term “affliction”. In Torah contexts, this refers to pain or suffering intended to correct a person, or people. But many times, people err in assuming that an affliction is ordained by God at a specific time and intended for an individual. I intend to show this is not necessarily the case. It is vital that we not simply read, but “study” the words of the Rabbis. Talmud Archin 16b states:


“What is the most minimal form of affliction? Rabbi Eliezer says, ‘One who wove a garment, but it doesn’t properly fit’. Zeyerah or some say Rav Shmuel stated, ‘Greater than this first case, is one who wished to mix a hot drink but erred and used cold water, or the opposite.’ Mar said, ‘Even if one put on his shirt inside-out’. Rabbi Isaac said, ‘Even if one reached into his pocket for three coins and only pulled up two. But if he desired two and pulled out three, this is not an affliction to place back the extra coin’.” [The Talmud then asks] “But what is the relevance of all this? [The answer as learned in a braissa] It was taught in the house of Rabbi Ishmael, ‘Anyone who goes 40 days without any affliction, he has received his reward [on Earth]. And in the West they said of such a person, ‘Punishment awaits him’ [in the next world]’.”


Let's first understand the opening question of “What is the most minimal form of affliction?” Evidently, the Rabbis were of the opinion that not all negative events are to be viewed as "afflictions". Meaning, they felt that some events are too miniscule in their negativity to be viewed as afflictions. So they wished to draw the line, and therefore discussed what criteria determine some negative experiences to be afflictions. 

What strikes us next is that in none of these cases, do we find evidence of any “Divine” intervention. The person caused all these afflictions in every case. Either he was careless when measuring his shirt size in the first case; or grabbed the wrong water container in case 2; in case 3 he didn’t turn his shirt outside-out before putting it on; or he didn’t properly feel for the desired number of coins in case 4. Now, if the person erred in all cases, how can the Talmud call all these cases “afflictions”?  Ahhh…therein lays the answer. Who ever said “affliction” equates only with “Divine” matters?


The Talmud is teaching us that there is such a thing as natural inconveniences, annoyances or frustrations – matters that God does not directly will that occur to each of us, but are part of natural laws. We get stuck in traffic; we cross the street and get splashed; and all the cases above. But if these are all natural, why do they safeguard our afterlife? As we read, one who experiences no afflictions in 40 days, has been given his reward on Earth, and he will not receive the afterlife!  The explanation is as follows.


God created the physical universe in a manner that is perfectly imperfect. I mean, that it is a perfect plan, that the physical is imperfect. For if man could find 100% satisfaction in the physical pursuits, lusts and enjoyments…he would never seek out the greater existence of pursuing wisdom. In order to frustrate man from total immersion in physical gratification, God purposefully created the physical world with shortcomings. For example: we don’t have perfect sensation in our fingertips, so when we grab for coins, we might come up short. And that frustration – how ever miniscule – is an “affliction”. Meaning, it serves to limit how far we indulge in the physical. We rush to make a drink, and unintentionally grab the hot water and not the cold. Again, our own shortcomings, i.e., carelessness are part of God’s design. We cannot measure perfectly, so we weave garments that do not fit exactly. As we go through life, we are conditioned day-by-day, year-by-year, to remove our energies from the expectation of complete fulfillment in the physical…so that we might redirect our energies, find God’s plan of immersion in wisdom, try it, and then gain the greatest reward.

However, there is one Divine element cited in the Talmudic portion: the man who goes 40 days without any affliction. It is impossible that during 40 days, someone won’t get a splinter, never miss a train, never spill food on his clothing, make every green light, catch every elevator, etc…. when one does find that he has experienced no afflictions at all for 40 days, this is Divine. It is impossible to avoid otherwise. Thus, the Rabbis teach that this person is evil, and is receiving his reward on Earth in the form of perfect, physical serenity where literally all works in his favor. This is God’s justice: even a wicked person who performed some good, receives reward for that good. But at the cost of his afterlife; his Olam Haba is lost.

The Talmud also follows a sequence of cases to illustrate a progression. These Rabbis debate what qualifies as afflictions. Weaving a shirt that doesn’t fit is no catastrophe, but it is irreparable. That’s the first definition of affliction. Pouring hot water instead of the desired cold water can easily be redone, but something is lost, the first glass is wasted. So even something that can be repaired is affliction, provided one suffers some waste or loss. The next case is not irreparable and there is no waste, he simply takes off his shirt, turns it outside-out, and puts it back on again. It’s an “inconvenience”. Finally, pulling up 2 and not the desired 3 coins is so easy to correct, there is no waste, and it takes less time than the previous case. Nonetheless, there is some psychological anguish in the disappointment of not grabbing what he desired. The cases progress from greater loss to lesser, and on to inconvenience and simple anguish. Each provides insight into a lesser level of frustration or affliction, but also teaches us wherein precisely lays the frustration, be it irreparable, waste, time or minor anguish.

The intentionally, imperfect physical world – in combination with unavoidable human error – helps deter us from seeking physical satisfactions alone as a sole means towards happiness, which it cannot provide. Through these natural frustrations – although not Divinely “targeted” at anyone at anytime – God redirects us to another area so we might attain true happiness…God’s wisdom.

I would add that the mitzvah of circumcision targets this very notion: it demonstrates that physical gratification is not God’s plan. Therefore we are commanded to minimize the pleasure from sexual intercourse for both parties through this command. (Rambam)



Marc, you also cited Chullin 7b:

“Rabbi Chaninah said, ‘Man doesn’t stub his toe below [on Earth] unless it was decreed above [in heaven] as it says, ‘From God are man’s steps, and man does not understand his path’. (Mishley 20:24)” 


On the surface, this appears it might be a similar lesson. However, let’s examine the clues.

This lesson centers only on one’s toe, or foot, in contrast to the first Talmudic portion that addressed woven garments, drinks, and coins. And the quote too deals only with man’s “steps”, the path of his foot. Now, is Rabbi Chanina truly saying that matters of the foot alone are decreed? That would be quite odd! In truth, “foot” here, is used to connote man’s “path” in life. And the verse states, man’s “steps”. So what this portion addresses according to Rabbi Chaninah, is man’s plans, his steps towards an objective or the next road he travels.

We are taught that God will guide man’s plans. Why? Because in this area – the future – man is blind. Regarding choosing sin or mitzvah, man has all the knowledge he needs to act, and God does not interfere with free will. But regarding the future, man cannot predict or plan for all that will befall him, if he were to take a certain route, accept a certain job, or marry a certain woman. God alone knows what might befall him years down the road. And King Solomon teaches us here that God in His kindness will step in to protect man from a poor decision. Malbim teaches that man might feel frustrated as he “stubs his toe” (labors in vain) which is what these words mean; “man does not understand his path”. When God foils our plans, it is because He knows that another course will prove beneficial.


We conclude that these two portions address two separate concepts. Talmud Archin addresses how God designed the natural order to cause metal to rust, people to age, man to measure inaccurately, things to break, and all other phenomena that frustrate us…all in order to redirect man away from physical gratification and towards wisdom. And these frustrations are not Divinely intended for “Jack” or “John”, but are part of nature, whether these two people lived or not. Nature follows God’s design of imperfection.

Talmud Chullin address a single area of man’s plans, that God kindly steers us away from future harm, which we cannot predict or avert, and towards paths of benefit. 


Applying Rambam’s lesson above to Chullin, God will only assist man in his path, provided he or she is on the level to deserve such providence. “For those who God loves, does He rebuke”. (Mishley 3:12) However, regardless of man’s perfection or sin, Archin teaches that God has already created the world with imperfections as lessons for those who wish to follow God. And this design occurred before the first man lived. Imperfection in nature is unrelated to individuals. In either case, Rambam and the two Talmudic portions are in harmony.