God Goes Without Saying


Moshe Ben-Chaim



The following question and answer address a most basic fundamental. Although lengthy, I urge you to read this article in full, and make certain you fully understand the main concept. I thank the writer for his question, as it has answered other questions I recently pondered.



Reader: Inasmuch as many of your recent articles and lectures have related to the issue of faith versus proof, I would like to present the following argument that I believe challenges the strength of at least a portion of your position. Rambam writes in Sefer Ha-Mitzvoth: 


“The first mitzvah is that He commanded us to believe (ba-hamunah) in the Deity, that is, that we ‘believe’ that there is a cause and motive force behind all existing things. This idea is expressed in the statement ‘I am the Lord thy God’.”  


Interestingly enough, and in support of your position, Rambam changed his language from “faith” to “knowledge” in the Mishne Torah, wherein Rambam writes:


“It constitutes the most fundamental of fundamentals and pillar of all science to ‘know’ (le yodeah) that there is a First Cause bringing into existence all existing things, and that all that exists on heaven and earth and between them, exists only through the truth of His existence. The knowledge of this concept constitutes a positive precept, as it said, ‘I am the Lord thy God’.” (Yesodei HaTorah, 1:6)


Rambam later writes in his Guide:


“There is, however, an opinion of our Sages frequently expressed in the Midrashim, and found also in the Talmud, to this effect: The Israelites heard the first and the second commandments from God, i.e., they learnt the truth of the principles contained in these two commandments in the same manner as Moses, and not through Moses. For these two principles, the existence of God and His Unity can be arrived at by means of reasoning, and whatever can be established by proof is known by the prophet in the same way as by any other person; he has no advantage in this respect. These two principles were not known through prophecy alone. Compare, “Thou hast been shown to know that,” etc. (Deut. iv. 34). But the rest of the commandments are of an ethical and authoritative character, and do not contain [truths] perceived by the intellect. Notwithstanding all that has been said by our Sages on this subject, we infer from Scripture as well as from the words of our Sages, that the Israelites heard on that occasion a certain sound which Moses understood to proclaim the first two commandments, and through Moses all other Israelites learnt them when he in intelligible sounds repeated them to the people.” 


Needless to say however, the proofs you have primarily relied upon, to wit, the historical veracity of an event viewed by millions are quite different than those employed by Rambam who relied upon philosophical proofs.

Far more important however is that based upon this Rambam, either the Sinaic transmission of the first 2 commandments, or that the first 2 commandments can be attained by intelligence, the fact remains that the balance of Judaism, i.e. the remainder of the 611 mitzvoth which we did not hear or witness and are not subject to philosophical speculation (e.g. chukim) are entirely based on faith – faith in Moses that all that he commanded constitutes the authentic message of God.


I await your comment,


Nativ Winiarsky



Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Nativ, you raise a most basic question regarding our ongoing address of “Judaism: A Religion of Proof”. Maimonides is renown for his meticulous detail and precision with his words. With others, we might dismiss such inconsistencies, not so with Maimonides. These very differences are intentional, directing his readers and students to delve into his intent. Over the past few hundred years, great minds have written volumes on such inconsistencies and “slight” nuances, unlocking untapped vaults of Maimonides’ genius.

You have accurately shown that in his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides uses “Yideah”, “to know” when discussing the command to know God. However, when describing the very same command in his Book of Commands (Sefer HaMitzvos), he uses the term “Le’ha-amin” commonly translated as “belief”, but more accurately, to “confirm”. So which one is it: are we to obtain “da-as”, “proven” knowledge of God, or are we to confirm God’s existence, having “emunah”? (The translation of “belief” is not totally accurate: “emuna” is derived from “amen” meaning to confirm as true.) Nonetheless, Maimonides does in fact alter his term, using “to know” in the Mishneh Torah, and “to confirm” in is Book of the Commands. Why the inconsistency?

Maimonides again differs when addressing the command to love God. In his Mishneh Torah, (Yesodei HaTorah 2:2) he describes the method as studying His “wondrous creation” alone – no mention of Torah or mitzvos. While in his Book of Commands, he says we must study “His commands and His creation”. Which one is the prescribed method for arriving at love of God: studying creation alone, or also the mitzvos? Why this discrepancy?

Regarding Maimonides’ position on what Moses and the Jews received respectively at Sinai, let us read the beginning of the chapter you quoted from his Guide for the Perplexed, Book II, Chap. XXXIII:


“It is clear to me that what Moses experienced at the revelation on Mount Sinai was different from that which was experienced by all the other Israelites, for Moses alone was addressed by God, and for this reason the second person singular is used in the Ten Commandments; Moses then went down to the foot of the mount and told his fellow-men what he had heard. Compare, “I stood between the Lord and you at that time to tell you the word of the Lord” (Deut. v. 5). Again, “Moses spoke, and God answered him with a loud voice” (Exod. xix. 19). In the Mechilta our Sages say distinctly that he brought to them every word as he had heard it. Furthermore, the words, “In order that the people hear when I speak with thee” (Exod. xix. 9), show that God spoke to Moses, and the people only heard the mighty sound, not distinct words. It is to the perception of this mighty sound that Scripture refers in the passage, “When ye hear the sound” (Dent. v. 20); again it is stated, “You heard a sound of words” (ibid. iv. 12), and it is not said, “You heard words”; and even where the hearing of the words is mentioned, only the perception of the ‘sound’ is meant. It was only Moses that heard the words, and he reported them to the people.”


Maimonides sums up his words with that last sentence: “It was only Moses that heard the words, and he reported them to the people.” Maimonides is of the position that Moses alone heard real words, while the people heard a sound, and not identifiable words. The statement of the Sages you quoted is not in conflict with Maimonides: “…the Israelites heard on that occasion a certain sound which Moses understood to proclaim the first two commandments, and through Moses all other Israelites learnt them when he in intelligible sounds repeated them to the people.”  I repeat, “when he in intelligible sounds repeated them”. This means until Moses spoke, the Jews did not hear “words”. Thus, both Maimonides and the Sages were of the position that the Jews heard no distinct words at Sinai. What they did hear, Maimonides states, “and the people only heard the mighty sound, not distinct words.”

Nativ, this strengthens your question concerning trust in Moses: Moses transmitted not 611, but all 613 commands. However, we also learn that Moses had no advantage over the Jews regarding the first two commands: I. Knowing God, and II. Refusing Idolatry. Maimonides, quoting the Sages said, “whatever can be established by proof is known by the prophet in the same way as by any other person; he has no advantage in this respect”. What are we to learn from this remark of the Sages?


Let us review the questions, and add a few more:

1.      Why does Maimonides differ between his Mishneh Torah and his Book of Commands, stating that we must “know” God (da-as) in the former, and “confirm” God (emunah) in the latter book?

2.      Why does he differ again regarding the command to love God: one time describing the method as studying creation alone, and the next, as studying both, the commands and creation?

3.      Why did the Sages stress that Moses and the Jews (all mankind) were equal regarding knowledge of God, and refuting idolatry, the first two Commandments?

4.      In his Mishneh Torah (Yesodei HaTorah, 1:6) why does Maimonides state, one not only transgresses the command to know God, but he “denies the fundamental, upon which all stands”? What is this second ridicule, and why is this omitted in his Book of Commands?

5.      In his Mishneh Torah, why does Maimonides not mention the ‘command’ aspect of knowing God, until law number VI? One would assume that he should initially describe the command in his very first law.

6.      If “knowing God” is such a fundamental, why is it not a “formalized” Noachide law, as are the 7 Noachide laws?


When commenting on Maimonides’ Book of Commands (Positive Command I) Nachmanides states as follows:


What is apparent from the Baal Halachos is that the count of the 613 is only His decrees, praised be He, which He decreed on us to do, or from which to refrain. However, confirmation in His existence, praised be He, which He made known to us through signs and wonders and revealing His presence to our eyes, that is a fundamental and root, from which were the commands borne out, [and is] not counted in his calculation [of the 613].”

“He [God] made the acceptance of His reign one independent matter, and His decreed mitzvos from Him, praised be He, another matter.”

“And you will not find in any place a command that says, ‘Know and confirm that I am God who took you out of Egypt and perform My commands.’ All this does not fall under the calculation of the 613. For it [knowledge of God] is the ‘essence’, and they [the commands] are secondary.”


It is clear: Nachmanides distinguishes between knowledge of God, and the commands. Knowledge of God is not counted as a command, according to the Baal Halachos. Nachmanides refers to the knowledge of God, as a “fundamental and root”. What is this lesson?


Nativ, your question generates a new understand to myself, and I am sure to others, of how we must differentiate between “knowledge of God” and our “love of Him”, and between all other issues. What is this difference? T is this: Knowledge of God is not comparable to any other issue, or law. This knowledge possesses the distinction of being the substratum of all other knowledge, for without knowing God’s existence, our knowledge of all else is completely inaccurate. Sure, a scientist who is an atheist may know how to predict phenomena, and how to manipulate creation with great accuracy. However, ignoring God’s existence, he knows nothing about the true purpose of anything. God created the world for man to constantly draw closer to God using his knowledge. The atheist misses this mark. This is Nachmanides lesson with his words, “Knowledge of God is a fundamental and root, from which were the commands borne out” and Maimonides’ lesson with “one denies the fundamental, upon which all stands”. This is the first difference between Knowledge of God, and all other issues. But there is another amazing idea here.

Why did Maimonides not initially describe the “command” aspect of the law of knowing God, but instead, opened his Mishneh Torah describing such knowledge as a “fundamental of all fundamentals and a pillar of all wisdom” omitting all mention of Torah and mitzvos? Why in this work, does he omit Torah and mitzvos as the means of “loving God”, even after teaching of the command? What is Nachmanides’ lesson, that the Baal Halachos does not count Knowledge of God as one of the 613, and that “God is the ‘essence’, and the commands are secondary”? This implies there is something greater than Torah and mitzvos! And this startling discovery is strengthened by Noachides having no ‘formalized’ law to know God, and the 2448-year delay in God giving His Torah to mankind.

A universal idea, which surpasses this first one is this: a “command” to know God, belittles the obvious reality of God’s existence. So obvious is it that a world requires a Creator, that any command to recognize this point, implies the “need for this command”. However, to suggest a “need” for such a command is as if to say, without this command, a human might remain ignorant of this. However, such ignorance is so from reality that no initial command was given that we must know God. This statement is absurd as telling someone “You are commanded to know that you exist”. Commands are ‘external’ impositions on our initially blank minds, whereas the reality that the world requires a Creator is the most evident phenomenon that human intelligence from youth is designed to deem mandatory.

Without training, a human mind functions according to “Cause and Effect”. One need not be taught this reality. If an infant sees a new toy on a table, not there a second ago when he last looked, he knows “someone” placed it there, and he looks for that someone, for he knows someone else is in the room. Its new presence was “caused” and he intuitively knows this. Similarly, one need not be taught the idea of “equality”; every infant feels unfamiliar when seeing a stranger. But, how does it know this is a “stranger”, unless its mind naturally compares this face, with his recollection of his mother’s face? Comparison and equality are not ‘taught’ concepts, but are with us from birth, synonymous with our intellect. “Cause and Effect” is no different.

To embellish this idea of the inescapable truth of God, the “Creator”, we find a universal omission of this command in many areas: Maimonides omits this command from his first 5 laws to display its fundamental nature outside of Torah commands; in his Mishneh Torah Maimonides says love of God is derived from creation, and not via studying His commands; the Baal Halachos does not count knowledge of God as a command at all; Maimonides refers to this truth as a fundamental, prior to referring to it as a command: and Noachides were not commanded in knowing God. The position our minds must have of “Knowledge of God” should naturally be one that surpasses ‘imposed’ law (mitzvah) and realized as a self-evident. This explains why Moses and the Jews were equal with regards to the first to Commandments: Knowing God and denying others. Amazing, we learn such a fundamental, by its omission.

Now although the Torah’s 613 includes this command to know God, the Noachide laws do not. This is because, as a Rabbi taught, Noachide laws are not laws mandating perfection, but a minimum set of laws entitling the observer to continued life. The reason why the Torah’s 613 commands do include an obligation to know God is because a system of perfection must include the most primary truth. In contrast, the Noachide laws govern man from deviating too far, deserving death. But aside from those Noachide laws, there were no “laws”: Adam, Noah and all mankind were to live in accord with “reality”, and God created this world with a most evident reality of His existence, and not mandated: “The whole universe is filled with His honor”. This means that God’s design of the world precisely directs all intelligent life towards the truth of the Creator.

This now explains why Maimonides alters his language regarding the command of loving God. In his Book of Commands, he says one fulfills the obligation to know God through studying both: creation, and Torah. For in this work, Maimonides formulates the system of Torah: the 613. But his Mishneh Torah addresses a broader spectrum, also addressing philosophy. As such, he offers us the true philosophy of life and commands, seen in his philosophical summations in each book, and in his commencing chapters of “Fundamentals” and “Personality Traits” (Yesdodei HaTorah and Dayos). Therefore, in the Mishneh Torah, he describes loving God as achieved not through mandated laws, but through studying creation: for this reality exists above and prior to the Torah system.

This brings us to your initial question:  Maimonides’ discrepancy between “knowing” God, and “emuna” or confirmation, as I wish to translate it. Again, the Book of Commands’ (Sefer HaMitzvos) focus is the post-Sinaic Torah system of laws. As has been demonstrated, the Jews received not 611, but all 613 laws from Moses. This means, they must “trust” Moses’ transmission as truly Divine in origin. This trust or emuna applies to all laws, including the command to know God, and that God exists and commanded this law. Thus, in his Book of Commands, Maimonides uses the precise term “emuna” when describing the commands from Sinai: Torah adherence is based on our trust in, and receipt of Torah from Moses. But in his Mishneh Torah, when describing absolute reality, Maimonides changes his word to “da-as” teaching that “knowledge” of God is available through the intellect and proof, aside from Torah. This is not subject to trust or emuna, but each of us must use out intellect to comprehend it. We learn from Maimonides’ distinction that knowledge of God straddles both realms: 1) it is a command we must confirm based on our receipt of this command from Moses, in whom we trust communicated God’s words truthfully, and 2) aside from the Torah system, we can most definitely arrive at knowledge of God through intellect.

Again, Maimonides stated that one who does not admit of God, “denies the fundamental, upon which all stands”, aside from violating Torah law, for there is this second, meta-Torah and more primary realm of truth. A commentator on Proverbs who I cannot recall stated that the Torah system is a “formulation”. And that which is formulated, is secondary to He who always existed. God’s existence is most primary, while a formulated system “comes after the fact”. For this reason, Maimonides omitted his ridicule that “one denies the fundamental” in his Book of Commands. For this book is reserved for the realm of the Torah system, and not absolute reality.

The very omission of Knowledge of God as a Torah command by the Baal Halachos highlights this central concept: God is a self-evident truth grasped without a commanded, imposition on man. The fact we are commanded to know God is due to the need of a system, not due to any need of this truth itself.

Omission teaches mankind that “God goes without saying.”