Human Knowledge is Limited

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Reader: I am having great difficulty understanding Mishnah Hagigah 2:1 and the oral tradition of its expanding on God's written Law. Any understanding of this text would help me and my friends who are studying Torah and Talmud:

They may not expound upon the subject of forbidden relations in the presence of three. Nor the work of creation in the presence of two. Nor [the work of] the chariot in the presence of one, unless he is a sage and understands of his own knowledge. Whoever speculates upon four things, it would have been better had he not come into the world: what is above, what is beneath, what came before, and what came after. And whoever takes no thought for the honor of his creator, it would have been better had he not come into the world.

Be well, Gabriel Schecter

Rabbi: This mishna formulates parameters for our study: when and where we can inquire. 

Knowledge of Creation’s processes precede Creation itself, and therefore, lie outside the scope of the senses (prior to Creation, nothing yet existed that might be detected). As all human knowledge is tied to the senses, there is no method to observe Creation. Thus, we are limited to the little knowledge of Creation to which God hinted in His opening verses of Genesis.

The chariot refers to metaphysics: ideas about God, abstract truths, angels, and non-physical laws that govern creation. This too is an abstract area and very few can fathom it. 

Next, the mishna refers to Deuteronomy 4:32:

You have but to inquire about bygone ages that came before you, ever since God created man on earth, from one end of heaven to the other…

This verse limits two areas of inquiry. One is, “ever since God created man on earth” and no earlier. This relates to a fixed spectrum of “time” about which man can inquire. Prior to creation, man’s mind does not operate: as stated above, the mind requires sensation to learn. Before the physical universe was created, there was nothing to perceive. Thus, man’s speculation concerning time before Creation, is fruitless.

The verse also limits speculation regarding a second area, space: “from one end of heaven to the other.” Torah prohibits man from inquiry beyond the reach of his perception; observation terminates at a certain distance. Any speculation here too, is fruitless. “And whoever takes no thought for the honor of his Creator, it would have been better had he not come into the world.” This critique teaches that a fruitless endeavor offers man no knowledge of God, and if one does speculate, he fails at his purpose to learn about God. His existence is worthless.