Communal Chanting and Swaying in Prayer

Book II of the Cuzari, passages 69 to the end of the book, are considered by some to be the most difficult section of the book. Halevi speaks about the Hebrew language, tying together matters of grammar with cantillation, bodily movement, rhythm, and so forth. The new translation by Prof Schwarz refers to some detailed studies by modern specialists which I hope to be able to consult, and maybe also to understand… The Nazir’s comments are also rich, with references to medieval Hebrew grammarians who dealt with the issues.

My main interest, and the topic of this post, are some historical insights—I mean, remarks of Halevi that are observations from the world in which he lived. First, this exchange on communal chanting:

(76) The Haver said: Haven’t you seen a hundred people reciting Scripture as if they were a single person. They pause at one moment and then they resume together.
(77) The Khazar said: Yes, I have thought about this. I have not seen anything like it among the ‘ajam [here, Christians; see Schwarz, p. 123 n. 553] nor among the Arabs…

It is clear to me that Halevi has in mind communal chanting, which, as far as I know, is still maintained only by the Jews of Yemen; for a sample, listen to this video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wLXUNchwgw

One can now hear something similar in Sufi prayer vigils. However, Halevi does not know of this, though he is quite familiar with Sufism; hence the practice may not have begun yet among the Sufis, at least those of al-Andalus. Don’t forget, Halevi is reporting here on a social reality; the theorizing will come later.

In passage 80 Halevi turns to another practice. Again, we are speaking of a practice that was apparently widespread and thought to be particularly Jewish; in passage 79, which sets up a long essay by Halevi, the Khazar king asks about “the movement (taḥarruk) of the Jews when they recite in Hebrew”. Indeed, Halevi is not the first to attempt at an explanation for this practice. Halevi first informs us that it has been suggested—unfortunately, he does not tell us by whom—that this is done “in order to arouse the innate heat”. However, Halevi has a different explanation, in which the practice began with a group of Jews crowding around a Torah scroll, and bending down and then rising up, almost seriatim, as each person tried to get a look at the book that all had to share. This practice—without the swaying—is again now attested from Yemeni Jews, who would sit around a table, and each person would learn to read from a different angle. Swaying is now very widely practiced in many communities; hasidim are usually the most vigorous swayers.

I am very interested in gathering sources on actual practices such as these in the medieval synagogue, especially in the Iberian peninsula. If any of the chosen few who read this blog knows of additional sources, please leave a comment.

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What language(s) did Abraham speak?

What language, or languages, did our forefather Abraham speak? Here is what Halevi has to say in Cuzari II, 68:

“… Abraham was a suryāniy in Ur of the Chasdeans. Suryāniyya is the language of the Chasdeans. Hebrew was for them a special language, a sacred tongue, whereas Suryāniyya was the mundane language…”

Clearly, Halevi identifies Suryāniyyaa with Chasdean. In antiquity it seems that this name merged with Chaldean; the Talmud mWhat language, or languages, did our forefather Abraham speak? Here is what Halevi has to say in Cuzari II, 68:

“… Abraham was a suryāniy in Ur of the Chasdeans. Suryāniyya is the language of the Chasdeans. Hebrew was for them a special language, a sacred tongue, whereas Suryāniyya was the mundane language…”

Clearly, Halevi identifies Suryāniyyaa with Chasdean. In antiquity it seems that this name merged with Chaldean; the Talmud mentions “the Chaldeans”. What I find interesting, though, is the way Hebrew translators of the Cuzari handled the name of the language. Ibn Tibbon naturally enough translated Suryāniyya by Aramaic. Rav Qafih chooses “Surit”, which would literally mean “Syrian”. I doubt that he recognized “Syriac”, the now standard translation for the Arabic term, and which in Hebrew is called Surit. Syriac refers to a specific dialect of Aramaic is important as the language of some Middle Eastern Christian churches. There is a very rich literature in Syriac, comprising both original works of Christian thought as well as translations from the Greek of books by Aristotle and other philosophers and scientists. Even-Shmuel follows Ibn Tibbon in using “Aramaic”; Professor Schwarz chooses a hyphenated form, “Aramaic-Syriac””. He certainly knew about the Syriac language, its role in Arabic culture.

Rav Qafih has a caustic note, directed at Even-Shmuel (n. 23 on p. 81). Inter alia, he writes: “Maimonides also distinguished between Suryāniyya and Armāniyya (Aramaic in Arabic) … It seems to me that Chasdean was the language used by the people, and Aramaic the language of the nobles.” I have not been able to locate the passage where Maimonides distinguishes between the two languages (or dialects of the same language); nor can I confirm the distinction he draws between the two dialects, though it is reasonable that there was an “official” language for the chancery.

Judah Moscato, in his commentary on the passage, cites Ramban (Nahmanides) on Genesis 45:12, “It is my mouth that is speaking to you.” The context is Joseph’s dramatic revelation to his brothers, who are in shock and disbelief. In order to convince them that he is really Joseph, he speaks to them in their own language, instead of going through as interpreter, as he did before he revealed his identity. There are textual variants in Nahmanides. However, it is clear that he disagrees with “the commentators” who say that Joseph spoke to them in Hebrew. According to Nahmanides, Hebrew was the language of Canaan, the neighbor of Egypt; many Egyptians spoke it, so Joseph’s speaking it wouldn’t prove anything. He must then have spoken Aramaic, which Abraham brought with him from the east. I wouldn’t be surprised if Halevi’s remarks influenced Nahmanides here.entions “the Chaldeans”. What I find interesting, though, is the way Hebrew translators of the Cuzari handled the name of the language. Ibn Tibbon naturally enough translated Suryāniyya by Aramaic. Rav Qafih chooses “Surit”, which would literally mean “Syrian”. I doubt that he recognized “Syriac”, the now standard translation for the Arabic term, and which in Hebrew is called Surit. Syriac refers to a specific dialect of Aramaic is important as the language of some Middle Eastern Christian churches. There is a very rich literature in Syriac, comprising both original works of Christian thought as well as translations from the Greek of books by Aristotle and other philosophers and scientists. Even-Shmuel follows Ibn Tibbon in using “Aramaic”; Professor Schwarz chooses a hyphenated form, “Aramaic-Syriac””. He certainly knew about the Syriac language, its role in Arabic culture.

Rav Qafih has a caustic note, directed at Even-Shmuel (n. 23 on p. 81). Inter alia, he writes: “Maimonides also distinguished between Suryāniyya and Armāniyya (Aramaic in Arabic) … It seems to me that Chasdean was the language used by the people, and Aramaic the language of the nobles.” I have not been able to locate the passage where Maimonides distinguishes between the two languages (or dialects of the same language); nor can I confirm the distinction he draws between the two dialects, though it is reasonable that there was an “official” language for the chancery.

Judah Moscato, in his commentary on the passage, cites Ramban (Nahmanides) on Genesis 45:12, “It is my mouth that is speaking to you.” The context is Joseph’s dramatic revelation to his brothers, who are in shock and disbelief. In order to convince them that he is really Joseph, he speaks to them in their own language, instead of going through as interpreter, as he did before he revealed his identity. There are textual variants in Nahmanides. However, it is clear that he disagrees with “the commentators” who say that Joseph spoke to them in Hebrew. According to Nahmanides, Hebrew was the language of Canaan, the neighbor of Egypt; many Egyptians spoke it, so Joseph’s speaking it wouldn’t prove anything. He must then have spoken Aramaic, which Abraham brought with him from the east. I wouldn’t be surprised if Halevi’s remarks influenced Nahmanides here.

Divine Vitality

At the beginning of Cuzari II, 62, the ḥaver (Hallevi’s spokesman) says that the Shekhina fucntions for Israel like spirit functions for the human body, “infusing it with divine vitality (ḥayā ilāhiyya)”. Baneth-Ben-Shammai list no variants for the phrase ḥayā ilāhiyya. The Hebrew translations use employ slightly different language in order to render the phrase “divine life”—all except for Professor Michel Schwarz, who has here instead “divine property” or “divine arrangement” (תכונה אלוהית). Since there is no note explaining why Professor Schwarz chose to deviate from the universally accepted text, this must be a misreading; clearly, he saw היאה instead of חיאה. Indeed, I have never seen the phrase hay’a ilāhiyya.  It is an intriguing possibility, which I cannot explore here; nevertheless, I can’t imagine that Professor Schwarz would have emended the text without providing an explanatory footnote.

The phrase ḥayā ilāhiyya, in the sense of “divine vitality”, may have been used earlier in the Cuzari. The question hinges on a difference between Ibn Tibbon’s translation and the unique Arabic manuscript. Surprisingly, it is not marked by Baneth-Ben-Shammai, and the only one to notice it as far as I have seen is Even-Shmuel. It occurs in the long disquisition on animal sacrifices in Cuzari II, 26, right before the citation from Joshua 3:10. The extant Arabic manuscript displays: wa-hākadhā intaẓamat al-milla al-ḥayya al- ilāhiyya, which the modern Hebrew translators render, with varying phrasing, “and in this manner the living, divine, community is arrayed”. Ibn Tibbon, however, has here: וכן נסדר החיות האלהי. Grammatically, the phrasing is problematic; but clearly, he does not account for milla, and so in his version, ḥayā ilāhiyya is the subject of the sentence. Hallevi must be talking about the divine vitality. Which of the two readings makes better sense? In my opinion, that depends on the meaning we ascribe to the verb intaẓama, which is no simple matter. I have already made a blog post and video on Hallevi’s uses of “order”, It would make sense for him to talk about the Jewish people having a higher degree of order. On the other hand, the verse speaks of “living God”. Hmmm…

There is a tradition of viewing life itself as divine; living being partake of the divine just by living.  Let’s add that to the brew and carry on with this inquiry.

New Theology in Cuzari II, 50: Fear, Love, and Joy

 

Hallevi presents in this disquisition of the ḥaver some clear, unambiguous, and innovative principles of his theology which have not attracted the attracted the attention they should have, insofar as he makes them important elements of Jewish belief. The commentators, as is their wont, cite “sources”; and I agree, Hallevi has not here invented anything, what he says can be supported by citations from scripture and the traditional prayers. However, Hallevi’s formulations, and the elevation of his ideas to the level of mandatory belief, are products of his creative mind.

The first of these is his claim that there are three different paths in Judaism for coming near to God; presumably one can choose one, two, or all three. The paths are fear (yir’ah), love (ahavah), and joy (simḥah). Note that in his statement of this principle he will use the Hebrew words, indicating, so I aver, that these are ancient, authentic Jewish concepts; in disquisition that follows he uses Arabic words for joy and love. He says: “Overall, our code (sharī‘a) is divided between fear, love, and joy. You may come near your Lord by means of each one of them.”

Traditional Jewish belief recognizes fear and love as the two paths, or better said, two stances. Maimonides saw them as steps in a process: one begins with fear and progresses to love. Nachmanides saw them reflected in the two categories of commandments: prohibitions (respected out of fear) and positive commandments (performed out of love). Both of these thinkers, however, lived after Hallevi. For his part, Hallevi does not have much to say about the relationship of these paths to each other or to the commandments. He does say that submission on fact days does not bring one nearer to God than joy on the sabbath and festivals. Presumably submission is the path of fear.

Another interesting point is his assertion, made twice almost within the same line of text, that religious joy requires “thought (fikra) and intent (niyya)”. It is thus not spontaneous. Joy—joy that has meaning as a religious act—is induced by the same concentration required of prayer. Moreover, it should be a product of love: “you should rejoice in the essence of the code (nafs al- sharī‘a) out of love for the One who laid down the code (musharri‘).” Love, then, is a prerequisite for joy. Though meaningful religious joy is not in itself a spontaneous reaction, it can transform into singing and dancing, which then become authentic modes of worship “and a link (ṣila) between you and the ‘divine thing’ (al-‘amr al-ilāhiyy).”

Though I have not seen anyone challenge Hallevi’s trifold classification, I have also yet to see anyone acknowledge it as a true innovation.

Another innovation is Hallevi’s elevation of God’s love for us to a principle of normative, mandatory religious belief: “It is what was impressed upon us, and made mandatory for us, to maintain (na‘taqidu), to praise and give thanks for it in [the prayer] ‘You have loved us with an eternal love’”. Love, as Hallevi defines it in the discourse that leads up to the sentence just quoted, is the manifestation of divine light through a people worthy of it, just as the divine light is manifest in the heavens.” The Jew is obligated to believe in God’s love for His people. I do not know of any Jewish thinker who has picked up on this point.

Hallevi and Maimonides on the Tie that Binds (us to God)

I propose to briefly explore here another difference between Maimonides and Hallevi … a choice of words which may possibly have real significance … but maybe not. It is of course only to be expected that each author would choose forms of the verb waṣala to describe the linkage between man and God. Maimonides chooses the noun form wuṣla, Hallevi ṣila. Maimonides uses the word only in the climactic chapter 51 of part three of his Guide, where it figures no less than five times at the beginning of the chapter. It should come as no surprise that Maimonides names intellect (‘aql) as the tie that binds us humans to God.

The passage from Hallevi I have chosen is II, 34. After acknowledging that the present, post-Temple stature of the Jewish people resembles the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision, Hallevi is quick to add that, nonetheless, our linkage to God, or, rather, to “the divine thing”, endures by means of the commandments: “But we have a connection (ittiṣāl) with that divine thing by means of the commandments, which He made into a linkage (ila) between us and Him, like circumcision, of which it is said (Genesis 17:13), “My covenant shall be in your flesh as an eternal covenant.” I have written “He made”, “between us and Him”, because it seems most plausible that God made the commandments into a linkage between us and Him, as the verse cited indicates, or, perhaps between us the “the divine thing”. Strictly speaking, though, the antecedent of “he” is “the divine thing”.

Hallevi’s linkage fixed and unbreakable. This suits his argument that even in the throes of exile, the linkage between Jews and God is stable and steadfast. Maimonides’ linkage, by contrast, can be strengthened and “thickened”—but also weakened and depleted. He warns us to minimize our preoccupation with this world, even with regard to such necessities as eating, lest we cut this bond. Now Professor Blau, in his dictionary of Judaeo-Arabic, gives as the primary meaning of wuṣla, “marriage”. Like a marriage, Maimonides’ bond can be strengthened or weakened, and, if neglected, cut off. I don’t know if Maimonides chose the word with this meaning in mind, but it certainly suits his argument very well.

The amr ilāhiy in Maimonides’ Guide

Maimonides too has room in his system for the concept of amr ilāhiy, in both of its meanings; “divine command” and the more obscure “divine thing”. The phrase occurs five times in his Guide. In one case Maimonides (Guide I, 73; trans. Pines 196-197) is simply citing Galen: “the cleverest philosophers were confused by the question of time (amr al-zamān) and that some of them did not understand its notion—so that Galen could say that it is a divine thing”. This citation is important insofar as it alerts us to the fact that use of the phrase ‘amr ilāhiy ranges far beyond, and much earlier, than Hallevi and his (purported) Shi‘a sources. At times the meaning is unmistakably “divine command”, for example, in Guide III, 34, where he states that religious code (al-sharī‘a) is an amrilāhiy. In III, 49, as well, he is clearly referring to the biblical code when he names the amr ilāhiy as the physician who cures people’s ethical faults.

The other two appearances demand a closer investigation. Near the end of Guide II, 10, Maimonides speaks about the four “sorts of general forces” that proceed from the celestial orbs towards the earth, which have two functions: “the generation of all that is generated or the preservation of what is generated”. Maimonides goes on to say that this system is called “nature” and, after elaborating a bit on its workings, he concludes: “What is intended hereby is the divine decree (amr ilāhiy) from which these two activities derive through the intermediary of the sphere”. This is the only one of the five occurrences of the term where either Shlomo Pines or Michael Schwarz, in their respective translations of the Guide, are stimulated to footnote the phrase. Pines, whose translation I have cited here (p. 272), footnotes “divine decree” with alternative translation” “or: the divine thing”. Schwarz merely refers to the article of Howard Kreisel (“Judah Halevi’s Influence on Maimonides: A Preliminary Appraisal.” Maimonidean Studies 2 (1991): 95-123.). Kreisel, for his part, chooses to discuss this mentioning only in his paper, mildly suggesting that Maimonides’ usage of the term may hint at his rejection of Hallevi’s doctrine, insofar as the “amr ilāhī does not represent a special degree but is identified with the principle responsible for the forces of nature in general.” (pp. 119-120).

I will not comment here on Kreisel’s arguments for Hallevi’s influence on Maimonides. With specific regard to amr ilāhiy, there is no need at all to look to Hallevi for a “source”. We have just seen that Maimonides encountered the phrase in (the Arabic) Galen. But if we set that one reference aside and consider its recognized place in Shi‘a thought, there still is no need to appeal to Hallevi. When Maimonides arrived in Egypt, it was still under Fatimid rule. Those first years in Egypt, before the tragic loss of his brother, were for Maimonides a period of relative ease, in which he had plenty of time to pursue his studies; and the wonderful libraries of Fatimid Egypt would have offered an excellent opportunity to encounter Shi‘a philosophical texts.

The statement in Guide II, 10 can best be understood, in my view, when we look at the account in the following chapter of the way the divine bounty is transmitted and transformed into “forces” that affect our material world. (I discuss this in my paper, “Maimonides’ Repudiation of Astrology,” which follows immediately Kreisel’s paper in the second volume of Maimonidean Studies; see p. 148.) The divine bounty is transferred to the intellects, which then emanate “good things and lights” onto the celestial orbs. In the final stage the orbs send “forces and good things” to our sublunary world. It seems to me, then, that in Guide II, 10, Maimonides is using amr ilāhiy to describe the critical transformation of the divine bounty into a material, or what will eventually be, a material blessing; it marks, one can say, a divine decree that materializes the hitherto immaterial divine bounty.

I have saved the most interesting occurrence for last. In Guide II, 29, Maimonides clarifies some preliminary matters before presenting his theory of prophecy. Although it is forbidden to divulge true knowledge concerning the “Account of the Beginning”, yet anyone who has attained a certain measure of perfection must pass this knowledge on, though only by means of pointers and indications. In this connection he states (trans. Pines p. 347): “However, inasmuch as the divine commandment (al-amr al-ilahiy) necessarily obliges everyone who has obtained a certain perfection to let it overflow toward others—as we shall make clear in the chapters on prophecy that follow…”. Michael Scharz also translates al-amr al-ilahiy here as divine commandment, and, in a note, names II, 37, as the “chapter on prophecy” that Maimonides has in mind.

But what is the nature of this commandment? Is it legislation, a practice made normative by the sharī‘a—and we have already seen that Maimonides calls the sharī‘a an amr ilāhiy? Is it a particular instance of the commandment of “talmud torah”?

I think not. Particularly when one inspects Guide II, 37, the chapter cited by Professor Schwarz in his note, one sees that Maimonides is talking about a sort of law of nature. The divine bounty is after all called fayḍ, literally an overflow. When the secrets are revealed to the person who has attained perfection, they flood out; he cannot restrain them, that is, he cannot restrain himself from diffusing them. So is the bounty passed on from one person to the next, until it reaches someone who receives just enough to reach perfection, but not enough to pass on to someone else. This phenomenon is the “divine commandment”, which the Prophet Jeremiah describes, in the verse cited near the end of II, 37, as a flame burning in his bones, something cannot be held back.

Law and Order in the Natural World: Maimonides vs. Hallevi (early draft!)

Here is a rough draft of a work in progress. I hope to have a slide presentation with audio to post soon. Comments welcome!

Order seems to be the key concept; natural law is not part of Maimonides’ vocabulary and the term should be applied with caution to his thought. A good example is his observation in Guide of the Perplexed II, 19. Aristotle’s chief accomplishment is his bringing order to the sublunar world; the next step would have been to bring order to the celestial region as well. Aristotle, however, could not accomplish this, and he knew it, though he was discrete in disclosing his failure. This shortcoming of Aristotle’s system is the main reason why Maimonides can sincerely claim that Aristotle never proved the eternity of the universe, and, further, that Aristotle knew that he had no such proof. Aristotle cannot provide an explanation for the order of the celestial orbs, though he can do this for the sub-lunar realm:

“… it appears from what he [Aristotle] says that he wished to bring order for our benefit into the being of the spheres, as he has brought order for us into the existence of that which is beneath the sphere. He wished to do this in order that the whole should exist in virtue of natural necessity and not in virtue of the purpose of one who purposes according to his will whatever it be and the particularization of one who particularizes in whatever way he likes. Now this task has not been accomplished by him, nor will it ever be accomplished.”[1]

Further on in the same chapter Maimonides writes, “Now if Aristotle had been able—as he thought—to give us the cause for the differences between the motions of the spheres so that these should be in accordance with the order of the positions of the spheres with regard to one another, this would have been extraordinary.” However, Aristotle cold not do this, and a strong argument for “necessity”–the menacing rival to “creation”–will not hold.

It is interesting that Maimonides places such emphasis on order—not merely order in the sense of an arrangement whose rationale can be discerned and appreciated, but an order to the celestial bodies that makes sense of their motions when considered against their positionings in the celestial realm.

The proper ordering of the planets was somewhat of a conundrum. Aristotle devotes the short tenth chapter of De caelo, book two, to this issue. He avers that this and related questions “may best be studied in astronomical writings, where they are adequately discussed.”[2] Aristotle notes that the slower the motion, the further the star from the earth—but this is true only after conceding, with no evidence offered, that the fixed stars, which participate in the daily motion, are on the outermost heaven. It then becomes “natural” to order the positionings in accordance with the velocities.

Ptolemy was able to compute, on the basis observations of eclipses and lunar parallax, absolute distances for the sun and moon. The astronomical tradition has determined that the fixed stars are the furthest from the earth, followed by Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars. There remains some disagreement about the positioning of Venus and Mercury, a problem which Maimonides refers to in Guide II, 25. Since none of these bodies has an observable parallax, there is no way to order them with any certainty.  However, “there is no other way … to make progress in our knowledge of this matter”; hence, “the order assumed by the older [astronomers] appears the more plausible”.[3]

In brief, neither Aristotle nor Ptolemy can offer a demonstration or even a sound, reasoned argument for the accepted ordering of the heavenly orbs. Both defer to unnamed, older astronomers.[4] Maimonides seizes here upon a gap in astronomical science to score a point against “necessity”; he will do this again in Guide II, 25.

Again, in the summation near the end of the same chapter, Maimonides declares: “…the supposition that all of these things have been ordered in virtue of necessity and not in virtue of purpose is very remote indeed from being conceivable.” “All of these things” refers to “the positions, measures, and numbers of the stars and the motions of the their various spheres” mentioned a few lines earlier.[5] The order or arrangement of these items, in a manner that fits the necessary structure and/or maintenance of the universe, is the desideratum that Aristotle cannot supply. However, some thought or reason must underlie the arrangement; in a universe that is harmoniously arranged, there cannot be (so avers Maimonides) revolting hiccups. Perhaps in the sublunary world, the necessity of matter to take on different combinations will lead to chance monstrosities. However, no such allowance can be made for the heavens. The only explanation is that there is a divine purpose, apparently unfathomable to humans, that drives the particular arrangement that we observe. Establishing the existence of a divine purpose, or divine will, is the crucial move for Maimonides’ presentation of his system.

In contrast to Maimonides’ concern with the specific details of velocities and positionings of stars and planets that do not conform to the anticipated celestial order, Hallevi sees the cosmos as ordered from top to bottom:

“He [the author of Sefer Yesira] informed us that the order (al-niẓām) is one, owing to one Arranger (naẓẓām), High and Sanctified is He. If the existents differ and are distinguished one from the other, then their variety is due to their material substrates, which are different, some higher and some lower, some turbid and some limpid. However, from the part of the giver of forms and the bestower of configurations and order, the wisdom throughout is one. Providence is appropriate and arrayed in a single order, in the macrocosm, in the human, and in the order of the orbs …”.[6]

The same idea comes across even more forcefully in Cuzari II, 6, where Hallevi asserts that the very same “will” (irāda) that is responsible for the perfect order in the cosmos impressed the Ten Commandments upon the atomsphere at Sinai, so that Israel would hear them, as well as engraving them on the tablets. When asked, in the course of a discussion of the divine attributes, how he would respond to the “philosophers” who deny any will to the deity, the ḥaver, Hallevi’s mouthpiece, proclaims:

“We will say to him: O Philosopher, what is the thing (al-’amr) that, in your opinion, made the heavens revolve in perpetuity, while the highest orb carries it all. It [the highest orb] has no place, nor any inclination in its motions,[7] and the sphere of the earth is fixed and immobile at its center, with neither inclination nor support. It [the divine “thing”] fashioned the order (niẓām) just as it is, with regard to quantity, quality, and shapes. There is no escaping recognition of that thing, since the items did not create themselves, nor [did they create] one another. That thing fashioned the air into audible shapes for the Ten Commandments, and fashioned the writing that is engraved on the tablets. Call it will (irāda), command (’amr), or whatever you wish.”[8]

The lasts sentence is no rhetorical decoration. The technical terms of philosophy or theology are not critical. Hallevi insists that whatever “it” is that fashioned the universe also fashioned the air at Sinai and the writing on the tablets. If we were to view the theories under review here as apologetics, then Hallevi and Maimonides would be making the same “apology”: the divine will responsible for making the universe is also responsible for arranging the theophany at Sinai. Hence we should not be surprised that more than one Jewish thinker placed Maimonides and Hallevi in the same camp of defenders of the faith.[9]

On the face of it, Hallevi has no reply to Aristotle’s tenet that the universe exists of necessity, with no beginning in time. Despite his being in the eyes of many the anti-philosopher par excellence, on the issue of the perfect ordering exhibited by the cosmos he seems to be very much in concert with “the philosophers”.[10] Won’t this stance lead him to difficulties in defending the doctrine of creation? In fact, Hallevi is far less troubled than Maimonides with the issue of creation. For Maimonides, Aristotle’s “necessity” forces him into an uncomfortable stance: either reject Aristotle on grounds of faith, tradition, or scripture, and fatally damage his fundamental belief that Judaism does not force one to reject scientific truths; or accept “necessity” and deny miracles, including the miraculous theophany at Sinai. Maimonides approaches the question carefully and with so much discretion that many believe that he is hinting at his acceptance of Aristotle and “necessity”; I believe that to be a mistake, but it is not our topic here. In the end, Maimonides’ course is the one outlined above: to show that Aristotle had no proof for “necessity”. The Stagirite’s failure to give a rational for the ordering of the spheres supports Maimonides’ claim.

Hallevi for his part does not feel pressed at all by the issue of creation, as one can see from the shallow and cavalier fashion in which he shakes off the issue in book I of the Cuzari. One ought to believe that the world was created at a certain point of time ex nihilo; but if one cannot bring oneself to do this, it is also acceptable to hold the view of endless cycles of creation and destruction, so long as one accepts that the present cycle began with anno mundi 0, according to the Jewish reckoning. As it seems to me, Hallevi expected his readers to see the issue of creation come up in any serious discussion between a Jewish sage and a potential convert. He obliges by having the king ask and the haver respond—but without any deep probing. As we shall see, this is characteristic of pre-Maimonidean Jewish thought. There is a perceived need for arguments in favor of creation, and arguments against eternity; but no one before Maimonides saw how critical it was to provide a complete, or at least, serious solution, which shows what is meant by divine will or purpose, how such a concept has never been shown to be scientifically impossible, and why it is so critical for Judaism.

I would like to suggest, as gingerly as I can, a fine point of distinction between Hallevi’s choosing niẓām Cuzari II,6 and his choice of intiẓām in II, 17. The former describes the order that God has impressed upon the universe, as relayed by Hallevi’s spokesman; the latter describes the order that the Khazar king sees in the Land of Israel, as described by Hallevi in the preceding paragraph. According to Blau’s dictionary, p. 704, column, the eighth form, intiẓām, is used in literary theory to describe “ the final arrangement of the verse, the virtual meaning of the sentence”. Transposing this meaning to our texts, it seems to me that Hallevi is saying that there is order in the universe, but there is a higher, more sublime order, in the Land of Israel, as manifested in the special virtues of the Jewish people when they reside there and are able to perform all the rituals.

I call attention to Hallevi’s appellation of the deity as naẓẓām, “Orderer” or “the One Who orders”. Maimonides uses a similar designation, nāẓim, near the end of Guide II, 13, in the specific context of criticizing “Epicurus, his following, and those like him”. This group denies that there exists an entity “who governs and orders being”.[11] Interestingly enough, the very same pair of epithets, mudabbir or “one who governs” and nāẓim, or “one who orders”, reappears at the beginning of Guide III, 17. Here Maimonides adds another feature of Epicureanism, which clearly stands as a polar opposite to order: their atomism, and their doctrine that generation is the product of chance meetings and conglomerations of atoms.[12] Though his insight into Aristotle’s failure to provide a rationale for the ordering of the celestial orbs is of critical importance, order is nonetheless a central feature of Maimonides’ cosmology. There is a rational order, transparent to human reason, in the sublunar world. The heavens are not disorderly; the motions of the heavenly bodies are certainly not random. The order of the planets is somehow a function of their velocities; but precisely how is not known. Moreover, some streaks of the divine will have left their imprint on the distribution of stars in the heavenly dome. We might have expected them to be distributed evenly; their uneven distribution is not evidence of random clustering, but of divine will. The Aristotelians have erred in ascribing perfect order to the cosmos; the Epicureans are mistaken in denying any order. Maimonides insists that there is impressive order, and so one cannot deny divine providence in the running of the system. However, some features cannot be explained in any orderly fashion; they are the trace-marks of divine will.

Qānūn, “law” or “rule”, refers to an overarching rational principle, rather than a concise description of the behavior of a specific class of objects under certain conditions. For example, in Guide II, 18, Maimonides avers that there is some rule guiding the design and maintenance of the universe (if I may employ some harmless anachronisms),  but adds that “We are completely ignorant of the rule of that wisdom and of the decision made by it.”[13]

Judah Hallevi applies qānūn in a similar fashion but in a radically different context. In Cuzari, I, 109, he contrasts qānūn ṭabī‘iy with [qānūn] irādiy, natural law with (divinely) willed law; or the rule of nature with the rule of the divine will.[14] Qānūn in this context is synonymous with ‘amr, ‘thing” or “command”, and one of the signature concepts of Hallevi’s world-view. We have already seen that Hallevi is not icky at all about terminology. ‘Amr ilahi stands in contrast to ‘amr tabi’i, exactly as [qānūn] irādiy stands in opposition to qānūn ṭabī‘iy. When the rule of divine will, or the divine command, is in effect, terrestrial phenomena such as rainfall, falling prey to wild beasts, or victory in battle do not follow their natural course but are in effect the result of Israel’s obedience or disobedience, as reward or punishment. The rule of nature, the natural command, or the natural course of events, describes the governance of other nations, as well as that of Israel when it is out of divine favor. The contrast is similar to the distinction drawn by Hallevi’s colleague, Abraham Ibn Ezra, between being ruled by the stars and ruled by a force higher than the stars.[15] The rule of divine will or command ranks higher than that of natural law. Hallevi’s concept is the forerunner of the two-tiered system that has been very much in favor in “Orthodox” circles, a miraculous governance (hanhaga nisit) and natural governance (hanhaga tiv’it). The miraculous governance is no less lawful than the natural alternative, insofar as it obeys certain rules. The miracle consists not in a one-time violation of natural law, but in the removal of the Jewish people from the natural course of events and their placement under direct divine control.

Let us return to Maimonides and sum up this first section. Herbert Davidson dubs Maimonides line of argument “a peculiar form of teleological argument”:

“Having established a purposeful particularizing agent for the universe, Maimonides adds the familiar proposition that whereas necessity and eternity are mutually implicative, the exercise of purpose by a voluntary agent is the contrary of necessity and implies creation. He thus completes a peculiar form of teleological argument. Instead of evincing phenomena that are so well designed and ordered that no human observer can deny a plan behind them, Maimonides’ argument evinces phenomena that no human observer can organize into an orderly pattern. The reasoning is cogent only because it rests on an earlier demonstration of the existence of God.”[16]

In fact, Maimonides argues as well that there is a design and order that cannot be denied, and, as we have seen, he calls his God “the One who puts things in order”. The particularization lies in deliberately and willfully allowing a certain minor disorder—more precisely, a feature whose orderliness cannot be apprehended by humans. Features of this sort do not impair the smooth functioning of the universe.

“Necessity”, the handmaiden of eternality, as it functions in the Aristotelian system was, according to Maimonides, the chief threat to Jewish belief. It was for this reason that he put so much effort into showing that eternality had not been demonstrated. The earlier Jewish philosophers, beginning with Saadiah, provided briefer and less sophisticated replies which could reassure the faithful that there was a fitting response to any denial of creation. Maimonides, however, was not interested in just any response, but one that confronted head on the most serious objections to creation; and, no less important, he chose only those refutations that he could, in all intellectual honesty, feel comfortable with.

[1]                            Trans. Pines, 306.

[2]                            Trans. Guthrie, 198-199.

[3]                            Trans. Toomer, 419.

[4]                            The pre-Ptolemaic sources are discussed by Otto Neugebauer, A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy, vol. 2 (Berlin-Heidelberg-New York: Springer, 1975), 690-693.

[5]                            Trans. S. Pines, 310.

[6]                            Kuzari, IV, 25, my translation from the edition of D.H. Baneth-H. Ben-Shammai, 176. In this part of the Kuzari Hallevi provides a commentary on Sefer Yesira, which he like all the other commentators of his time took to be a book of science. Providence is “appropriate” (mutafaqqa) in the sense that each creature receives the attention due to it.

[7]                  The word is in the plural; but as far as I know, the highest orb has only one motion, namely the daily rotation from east to west.

[8]                  My translation from the edition of Baneth-Ben Shammai, p. 46. On the two different meanings of ‘amr, “command” and “thing”, see …, and my blog post on <https://cuzari.wordpress.com/?p=279>. Paul Walker, “Universal Soul and Particular Soul,” Neoplatonism and Islamic Thought, p. 151, al-Nasafi, the first to introduce neoplatonic ideas into Ismailism, taught that between Intellect and God there stood al-ibda’, which has other names, including al-kalima, al-’amr.

[9]             See Langermann, “Science and the Kuzari”.

[10]            Indeed, some regard Hallevi’s al-’amr al-ilāhiy, “the divine command” or “the divine thing” as his version of Philo’s logos.

[11]                          Trans. Pines, 285.

[12]                          Trans. Pines, 464; the term “order” appears three more times in this chapter on providence.

[13]                          Trans. S. Pines, 302.

[14]                              (trans. M. Schwartz does not take iradi to modify qanun but apparently ‘amr in ‘amrukum—but I don’t think that this is correct)

[15]              Y.T. Langermann, “Some Astrological Themes”

[16]                             H.A. Davidson, “Arguments from the Concept of Particularization in Arabic Philosophy,” Philosophy East and West 18 (1968), 299-314, on p. 313; Davidson refers to the paper by his teacher, Harry A. Wolfson, “Hallevi and Maimonides on Design, Chance, and Necessity,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, XI (1941),

Hallevi appropriates Talmudic visibility theory for his own Sabbath theory (Cuzari II, 20)

The Babylonian Talmud, Rosh ha-Shana 20b makes a problematic statement about the first possibility sighting of the lunar crescent at the beginning of the lunar month:

נולד קודם חצות בידוע שנראה סמוך לשקיעת החמה לא נולד קודם חצות בידוע שלא נראה סמוך לשקיעת החמה

This is usually taken to mean that if the new moon is “born”, i.e., moves out of conjunction with the sun, before mid-day, then it can be seen around sunset; but if it is born after mid-day, then it will not be seen around sunset. One can interpret this in many ways, but on the face of it, it states that six hours suffices for the moon to be distant enough from the sun so as to be visible at sunset—something which is patently not true. I believe that Hallevi was aware of this fact, and he brilliantly appropriated it for his own purposes, which is to have the Sabbath centered on Jerusalem, in line with his Land-of-Israel-centric ideology. He cites the Talmudic passage correctly, but adds, “it is as if it said (ka-‘annahu qāla)”; and he then reproduces the statement in Hebrew, but with some significant additions:

נולד קודם חצות יום שבת בירושלים בידוע שנראה ביום שבת  סמוך לשקיעת החמה

Some astute commentators saw that Hallevi is in fact “correcting” the Talmud so as to allow 24 hours for the moon to distance itself from the sun, which is a reasonable value; they are cited by Michael Schwarz, p. 84 note 182: “ Since, according to the Sages, the moon is not visible until about 24 hours have passed since its “birth”, then, if the moon is “born” around noon in Israel, which is a little before the beginning of the Sabbath in China, it will be seen there [in Israel] around the time that it [the Sabbath] ends there [in China]”. I found it necessary to identify the pronominal suffixes in the Hebrew passage. The idea is that we take the 24 hours to be measured from the beginning of the Sabbath in China, after which time—if the moon left conjunction at the beginning of the Sabbath in China, which is noon in Israel—it will be visible in Israel around sunset—that is, sunset on Sunday evening, meaning that we have given the moon 30 hours to move away from the sun, thus greatly increasing the chances of it being visible.

In short, Hallevi has totally appropriated the Talmudic discussion of visibility theory for his own doctrine of the centrality of Israel. He is not talking at all about visibility theory, though, as I understand him, he clearly sees the need to allow thirty hours to pass from conjunction. His concern is with the Sabbath; he says this over and over again. His highly original appropriation of the Talmudic passage led him to make one of the first and most important statements about the date line in Jewish literature.

Where was the sun “hung” on Day 4 of the Creation?

Cuzari II, 20 is rightly considered to be one of the most difficult passages in the book. The Haver is in the midst of describing the special character of the Land of Israel, the Promised Land to the Chosen People. In this passage he speaks mainly about the special significance of the Land of Israel for the calendar. As part of this exposition he remarks:

“Do not raise an objection on the basis of those who begin the day at local mean noon, at the western extremity of civilization. For that corresponds to sunset in Israel. That [i.e., the western extremity] was where the first light was created, and afterwards the sun. It shone and then set, all in a moment; and then it was dark in the civilized world. Things continued in that order, that is, with the evening preceding the day…” This state of affairs agrees with the repeated statements in Genesis, that it was evening and then it was day; and it agrees with Jewish practice in having the day begin at sunset.

I have cited the translation I published (but with one correction) in “Science and the Kuzari,” which appeared in Science in Context 10.3 (1997), 495-522. My translation differs significantly from almost all others. Where I gloss, “ That [i.e., the western extremity] was where the first light was created,” most would gloss, “ That [i.e., the Land of Israel] was where the first light was created.” Apparently the feeling is that Hallevi must have assigned this point, that is, the point where light was first created and the sun “hung” on Day 4, to the Land of Israel, whose virtues he is extolling here. But this simply cannot be the case. The idea is that after being “hung” the sun immediately set for the entire civilized world, so that the order will be first night and then day, as in Genesis and in Jewish practice.

Just to refresh our medieval geography: the earth is a sphere—yes, a sphere, not flat—but civilization extends only over about half the circumference. According to Hallevi, the Land of Israel is at the center of this band of 180 degrees. When the sun sets at the western extremity, the entire civilized world plunges into darkness. This would not be the case if the sun had been “hung” over the Land of Israel.

The philologists fret over whether the pronominal suffix is masculine or feminine, fīhi or fīhā, but seem sure that either way, it refers to the Land of Israel; see Michael Schwarz’ note 160 on page 82 of his translation. However, there is no reason to reject the masculine, nor to reject Kassel’s remark that it refers back to maghīb al-shams, “the setting of the sun”. Only this reading makes sense.

Schwarz refers also to Nahmanides, who may have referenced the Cuzari—and the correct interpretation of the passage—in his commentary to Genesis 1:4. (Note that Nahmanides rejects this interpretation because it would add a “small day” to the six days of creation.) However, Nahmanides cites an anonymous source, and it adds something of great significance that is not in the Cuzari. Nahmanides writes:

Some [or: one] commentators say this light was created before (לפניו, literally “to the face”) of the Holy One Blessed is He, that is, in the west, and then set immediately for the length of a night, and the shone for the length of a day.”

This passage adds a tremendous cosmic significance to having light (the primordial light, and then sunlight) being created first in the west. The west is before, or facing God; clearly this evokes Jewish tradition that the shekhina, usually rendered “divine presence”, is in the west (Bava Bathra 25a)—a feature that has ramifications for ritual as well as “sacred geography”. Hallevi says nothing about this, and Nahmanides may have had some other source in mind; or else he may have had reason to think that this cosmic implication of having light first appearing in the west was not lost on Hallevi,