Maimonides' Eight Chapters


Translation by, Rabbi Dr. Isadore Twersky

Introduction by Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim


We must note that just as God's created world exists and operates through many complex laws, where we grasp but a fraction, God's relationship with man in no way functions on a lesser plane: His providence over us also operates by a precise system. Perhaps this explains why God included in His Torah so many accounts of His relationship with man and the Prophets. The Torah is not a history book, but a guide for our religious lives. God illustrated numerous cases of His providence so we might increase our appreciation for His ways. Case-by-case, our understanding of God's providence grows. There are many factors that determine who, when and where God intervenes. And focus on that word, "intervene". This means God suspends natural law for man's good. 

But many people feel "intervention" is a falsehood, as they assume God is literally willing each activity everywhere, at all times. But I have yet to see a Torah source, or proof for this theory. 

Furthermore, does God wish to fool man? For example, when one ignites a pile of wood in a fireplace with a match, each time he does so the wood eventually ignites. Now, proponents of the view that "God wills each action everywhere" must contend that ignition is a lie, since without God willing a specific act of ignition, the wood would not ignite despite the presence of a flame. If that were the case, one should be able to ignite the wood using sand, since all depends on God's will, not natural law, since nature is a lie. I believe this response might help such proponents see the light.

God does not wish to fool man. As He created a world where fire – not sand – ignites wood, He did so in order that man become convinced of the reality of unique, constant "laws" that govern the universe's operation at all times. Man can then harness these steady laws for his benefit. Knowing laws are constant, man will attempt each day to cook food with fire, not sand. God knew that the intelligence he created in all men and women would accept the truth of "laws". God wants man to accept only truth. 

So we conclude that laws do exist. It is not God that causes the fireplace to ignite, but the flame of my match as I draw it close. Now, since God knows we accept the truth about laws, if He in fact "wills each action everywhere", He would be lying to mankind as He allows us to assume that laws exist. That is impossible. Therefore, we are convinced that God is not creating all actions, everywhere, at all times. 

Of course, God is the ultimate cause for everything. But as Maimonides teaches, God is not willing each leaf to fall from each tree at every moment, everywhere. What type of impression would be made on man, if his god was concerned with such inconsequential activities? Does God also will each falling drop of rain? Or that each drop should have a certain volume of water, a certain shape, color, speed, and land precisely on a certain parcel of earth? Does God desire a specific number of drops to fall, where one extra drop is of importance? 

With this knowledge, we can abandon the approach many take, where they imagine every act in their lives is by "Divine design", "There's a reason for everything", we hear all to often. However, this belief runs contrary to reason. 

What increases and decreases God's relationship with us depends first on our level of perfection in thought and deed; whether the masses are affected; reward and punishment; and many other factors. This is a tremendous study, and man can not obtain but a small fraction of answers. Nonetheless, the patriarchs and matriarchs studied God's ways. The Yeshiva of Shame (Noah's son) and Ever had no Torah scrolls, for Torah was not yet given. They studied God's ways and communications with the Prophets, and pondered His 7 Noahide Laws. We too must study, and we are fortunate to have the words of one of the most brilliant Jewish thinkers, namely Maimonides. 

As a final thought, when Noah left the ark and sacrificed animals to God as thanks for his rescue, we read God's response, (Gen. 8:21-22): "And God smelled the pleasant scent, and God said in His heart, 'I will never again curse the earth for man's sake, for man's inclination is evil from youth, and I will never again smite all life as I have done. Furthermore, all the days of earth, planting and reaping, cold and hot, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease."  

Here, we find God referring to "summer and winter", i.e., "seasons". If God wills everything constantly, as is falsely assumed, what need is there for seasons? It is thereby evident that God Himself testifies to natural laws. 

We now reprint Maimonides' words on this subject.

Maimonides' Eight Chapters: Chap XIII

It is impossible for man to be born endowed by nature from his very birth with either virtue or vice, just as it is impossible that he should be born skilled by nature in any particular art. It is possible, however, that through natural causes he may from birth be so constituted as to have a predilection for a particular virtue or vice, so that he will more readily practice it than any other. For instance, a man whose natural constitution inclines toward dryness, whose brain matter is clear and not overloaded with fluids, finds it much easier to learn, remember, and inclines constitutionally toward a certain excellence is left entirely without instruction, and if his faculties are not stimulated, he will undoubtedly remain ignorant. On the other hand, if one by nature dull and phlegmatic, possessing an abundance of humidity, is instructed and enlightened, he will though with difficulty, it is true, gradually succeed in acquiring knowledge and understanding. In exactly the same way, he whose blood is somewhat warmer than is necessary has the requisite quality to make of him a brave man. Another, however, the temperament of whose heart is colder than it should be, is naturally inclined toward cowardice and fear, so that if he should be taught and trained to be a coward, he would easily become one. If, however, it be desired to make a brave man of him, he can without doubt become one, provided he receive the proper training which would require, of course, great exertion.

I have entered into this subject so you may not believe the absurd ideas of astrologers, who falsely assert that the constellation at the time of one's birth determines whether one is to be virtuous or vicious, the individual being thus necessarily compelled to follow out a certain line of conduct. We, on the contrary, are convinced that our Law agrees with Greek philosophy which substantiates with convincing proofs the contention that man's conduct is entirely in his own hands. No compulsion is exerted upon man, and no external influence is brought to bear that would constrain him to be either virtuous or vicious. Of course, as we have said above, a man may be by nature so constituted as to find it easy or hard, as the case may be, to do a certain thing; but that he must necessarily do, or refrain from doing, a certain thing is absolutely untrue. 

Were a man compelled to act according to the dictates of predestination, then the commands and prohibitions of the Law would become null and void and the Law would be completely false, since man would have no freedom of choice in what he does. Moreover, it would be useless, in fact absolutely in vain, for man to study, to instruct, or attempt to learn an art, as it would be entirely impossible for him, on account of the external force compelling him, according to the opinion of those who hold this view, to keep from doing a certain act, from gaining certain knowledge, or from acquiring a certain characteristic. 

Reward and punishment, too, would be pure injustice, both as regards man towards man, and as between God and man. Suppose, under such conditions, that Simeon should kill Reuben. Why should the former be punished, seeing that he was constrained to do the killing, and Reuben was predestined to be slain? How could the Almighty, who is just and righteous, chastise Simeon for a deed which it was impossible for him to leave undone, and which, though he strove with all his might, he would be unable to avoid? If such were the true state of affairs, all precautionary measures, such as building houses, providing means of subsistence, fleeing when one fears danger, and so forth, would be absolutely useless, for that which is decreed beforehand must necessarily happen. This theory is, therefore, positively unsound, contrary to reason and common sense, and, by attributing injustice to God (far be it from Him!), subversive of the fundamental principles of religion. 

In reality, the undoubted truth of the matter is that man has full sway over all his actions. If he wishes to do a thing, he does it; if he does not wish to do it, he need not, without any external compulsion controlling him. Therefore, God commanded man, saying, "See I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil…therefore choose life" (Deut. 30:15), giving us, as regards these, freedom of choice. Consequently, punishment is inflicted upon those who disobey, and reward granted to the obedient, as it is said, "If you will hearken," and "If you will not hearken" (Deut. 11:27-28). Learning and teaching are also necessary, according to the commands, "You shall teach them to your children" (ibid. 11:19), "and you shall learn them and observe to do them" (ibid. 5:1), and, similarly, all the' other passages referring to the study of the commandments. It is also necessary to take all the precautionary measures laid down in the Law; such as "You shall make a battlement for your roof, that you bring not blood upon your house" (ibid. 22:8), "lest he die in the battle" (ibid. 20:5,7), "wherein shall he sleep?" (Ex. 22:26), and "no man shall take to pledge the lower or the upper millstone" (Deut. 24:6), and many other passages in regard to precautions found in the Torah and the Prophets.

The statement found in the sayings of the rabbis, "All is in the power of God except' the fear` of. God" is, nevertheless, true, and in accord with what we have laid down here. Men are, however, very often prone to err in supposing that many of their actions, in reality the result of their own free will, are forced upon them, as, for instance, marrying a certain woman, or acquiring a certain amount of money. Such a supposition is untrue. If a man espouses and marries a woman legally, then she becomes his lawful wife, and by his marrying her he has fulfilled the divine command to increase and multiply. God, however, does not decree the fulfillment of a commandment. If, on the other hand, a man has consummated with a woman an unlawful marriage, he has committed a transgression. But God does not decree that a man shall sin. Again, suppose a man robs another of money, steals from him, or cheats him, and then uttering a false oath, denies it; if we should say that God had destined that this sum should pass into the hands of the one and out of the possession of the other, God would be preordaining an act of iniquity. Such, however, is not the case. Rather, all of- man's actions are subject to his free will and undoubtedly comply with or transgress God's commands; for, as has been explained in Chapter II, the commands and prohibitions of the Law refer only to those actions which man has absolute free choice to perform or not to perform. Moreover, to this faculty of the soul (i.e., the freedom of the will) "the fear of God" is subservient, and is, in consequence, not predestined by God but, as we have explained, is entirely in the power of the human free will. By the word "all," the rabbis meant to designate only natural phenomena which are not influenced by the will of man, as whether a person is tall or short, whether it is rainy or dry, whether the air is pure or impure, and all other such things that happen in the world which have no connection with man's conduct.

In making this assertion that obedience or disobedience to the Law of God does not depend upon the power or will of God, but solely upon that of man himself, the sages followed the dictum of Jeremiah, who said, "Out of the mouth of God there comes neither the bad nor the good" (Lam. 3:38). By the words "the bad" he meant vice, and by "the good," virtue; and, accordingly, he maintains that God does not preordain that any man should be vicious or virtuous. Since this is so, it behooves man to mourn and weep over the sins and the transgressions he has committed, as he has sinned of his own free will in accordance with what the prophet says, "Wherefore should a living man mourn? Let every man mourn because of his sins" (ibid. 3:39). He continues, then, to tell us that the remedy for this disease is in our own hands, for, as our misdeeds were the result of our own free will, we have, likewise, the power to repent of our evil deeds, and so he goes on to say, "Let us search through and investigate our ways, and let us return to the Lord. Let us lift up our heart with our hands to God in the heavens" (ibid. 3:40-41).

The theory generally accepted by people and found in rabbinical and prophetical writings, that man's sitting and rising, and all of his movements are governed by the will and desire of God, is true only in one respect. For instance, when a stone is thrown into the air and falls to the ground, it is correct to say that the stone fell in accordance with the will of God, for it is true that God decreed that the earth and all its elements should be the center of attraction, so that when any part of it is, is thrown into the air, it is attracted back to the center. Similarly, all particles of fire ascend according to God's will, which preordained that fire should go upward. But it is wrong to suppose that when a certain part of the earth is thrown upward God wills at that very moment that it should fall. The Mutakallimun are, however, of a different opinion in this regard, for I have heard them say that the Divine Will is constantly at work, decreeing everything from time to time. We do not agree with them, but believe that the Divine Will ordained everything at creation and that all things, at all times, are regulated by the laws of nature and run their natural course in accordance with what Solomon said, "As it was so it will ever be, as it was made so it continues, and there is nothing new under the sun" (Eccles. 1:9). This occasioned the sages to say that all miracles which deviate from the natural course of events; whether they have already occurred or, according to promise, are to take place in the future, were foreordained by the Divine Will during the six days of creation, nature being then so constituted that those miracles which were to happen really did afterward' take place. Then, when such an occurrence happens at its proper time, it may have been regarded as an absolute innovation, whereas in reality it was not.

The rabbis expatiate upon this subject in. Midrash Kohelet and in other writings, one of their statements in reference to this matter being, "Everything follows its natural course." In everything that they said, you will always find that the rabbis (peace be unto them!) avoided referring to the Divine 'Will as 'determining a particular event at a particular time: When, therefore, they said that man rises and sits down in accordance with the will of God, their meaning was that, when man was first, created, his nature was so determined that rising up and sitting down were to be optional to him; but they did not mean that God wills at any special Moment that man should or should not get up, as He determines at any given time that a certain stone should or should not fall to the ground. The sum and substance of the matter is, then, that you should believe that just as God willed that man should be upright in stature, broadchested, and have fingers, likewise did He will that man should move or rest of his own accord, and that his actions should lie such as his own free will dictates to him without any outside influence or restraint, which fact God clearly states in the truthful Law; which elucidates this problem when it says, "Behold, the man is become as one of us to know good and evil" (Gen. 3:22). The Targum, in paraphrasing this passage, explains the meaning of the words mimmermu ladaat tov vara. Man has become the only being in the world who possesses a characteristic which no other being has in common with him. What is this characteristic? It is that by and of himself man can distinguish between good and evil and do that which he pleases with absolutely no restraint. Since this is so, it would have even been possible for him to have stretched out his hand and, taking of the tree of life, to have eaten of its fruit, and thus live forever.

Since it is an essential characteristic of man's makeup that he should of his own free will act morally or immorally, doing just as he chooses, it becomes necessary to teach him the ways of righteousness, to command and exhort him, to punish and reward him according to his deserts. It behooves, man also to accustom himself to the practice of good deeds until he acquires the virtues corresponding to those good deeds; and, furthermore, to, abstain from evil deeds so that he may eradicate the vices that may have taken root in him. Let him not suppose that his characteristics have reached such a state that they are no longer subject to change, for any one of them may be altered from the good to the bad and vice versa; and, moreover, all in accordance with his own free will. To confirm this theory, we have mentioned all these facts concerning the observances and the transgressions of the Law…

There is one thing more relating to this problem about which we must say a few words in order to treat in a comprehensive manner the subject matter of this chapter. Although, I had not intended at all to speak of it, necessity forces me to do so. This topic is the prescience of God. It is with an argument based on' this notion that our views are opposed by those who believe that man is predestined by God to do good or evil and that man has no choice as to his conduct since his volition is dependent upon God. The reason for their belief they base on the following statement. "Does God know or does He not know that a certain individual will be good or bad? If you say He knows, then it necessarily follows that man is compelled to act as God knew beforehand he would act, otherwise God's knowledge would be imperfect. If you say that God does not know in advance, then great absurdities and destructive religious theories will result." Listen, therefore, to what I shall tell you, reflect well upon it, for it is unquestionably the truth.

It is, indeed, an axiom of the science of the divine, i.e., metaphysics, that God (may He be blessed!) does not know by means of knowledge and does not live by means of life. Therefore He and His knowledge may not be considered two different things in the sense that this proposition is true of man; for man is distinct from knowledge, and knowledge from man, in consequence of which they are two different things. If God knew by means of knowledge, He would necessarily be a plurality and the primal essence would be composite, that is, consisting of God Himself, the knowledge by which He knows, the life by which He lives, the power by which He has strength, and similarly of all His attributes. I shall only mention one argument, simple and easily understood by all, though there are strong and convincing-arguments and proofs that solve this difficulty. It is manifest .that God is identical with His attributes and His attributes with Him, so that it may be said that He is the knowledge, the knower, and the known, and that; He is the life, the living; and the source of His own life, the same being true of His, other attributes. This conception is very hard to grasp and you should not hope to understand it thoroughly by two or three lines in this treatise. There can only be imparted to you a vague idea of it.

Now, in consequence of this important axiom, the Hebrew language does not allow the expression Chei Adonai (the life of God) as it does Chei Faraoh (the life of Pharaoh, where the, word chei (in the construct state) is related to the following noun, for the thing possessed and the possessor this case) are two different things. Such a construction cannot be, used in regard to the relation of a thing to itself. Since the life of God is His essence, and His essence is His life, not being separate and distinct from each other, the word "life," therefore, cannot be put in the construct state; but the expression Chai Adonai (the living God) is used, the purpose of which is to denote that God and His life are one.

Another accepted axiom of metaphysics is that human reason cannot fully conceive God in His true essence, because of the perfection of God's essence and the imperfection of our own reason, and because His essence is not due to causes through which it may be known. Furthermore, the inability of our reason to comprehend Him may be compared to the inability of our eyes to gaze at the sun, not because of the weakness of the sun's light, but because that light is more powerful than that which seeks to gaze into it. Much that has been said on this subject is self-evident truth.

From what we have said, it has been demonstrated also that we cannot comprehend God's knowledge, that our minds cannot grasp it all, for He is His knowledge, and His knowledge is He. This is an especially striking idea, but those (who raise the question of God's knowledge of the future) fail to grasp it to their dying day. They are, it is true, aware that the divine essence, as it is, is incomprehensible, yet they strive to comprehend God's knowledge, so that they may know it, but this is, of course, impossible. If the human reason could grasp His knowledge, it would be able also to define His essence, since, both are one and the same, as the perfect knowledge of God is the comprehension of Him as He is in His essence, which consists of His knowledge, His will, His life, and all His other majestic attributes. Thus, we have shown how utterly futile is the pretension to define His knowledge. All that we can comprehend is that just as we know that God exists, so are we cognizant of the fact that He knows. If we are asked, "What is the nature of God's knowledge?" we answer that we do not know any more than we know the nature of His true existence. Scripture finds fault, moreover, with him who tries to grasp the truth of the divine existence, as we see by the words, "Can you by searching find out God? Can you find out the Almighty to perfection?" (Job 11:7).

Reflect, then, upon all that we have said; that man has control over his actions, that it is by his own determination that he does either right or wrong without, in either case, being controlled by fate, and that, as a result of this divine commandment, teaching, preparation, reward, and punishment are proper. Of this there is absolutely no doubt. As regards, however, the character of God's knowledge, how He knows everything, this is, as we have explained, beyond the reach of human ken.

This is all that we purposed saying in this chapter, and it is now time to bring our words to an end and begin the interpretation of this treatise to which these eight chapters are an introduction.