Shiur 17: Are Miracles Supernatural?

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers

Shiur 17: Are Miracles Supernatural?

By Rav Moshe Taragin

This shiur is dedicated to Dr. William Major z"l.

The sixth mishna of the fifth perek describes ten items which were created during dusk of the sixth day of creation. These items, which figured prominently in various supernatural miracles, include: the chasm which engulfed Korach and his crew, Miriam's well which provided water during the forty year desert journey, Bil'am's talking donkey, a rainbow, the manna, Moshe's staff, the shamir insect used to carve stones for the mikdash (temple) without employing metal, and fonts of the luchot (tablets) which miraculously were visible from either side.

In a famous 'dissertation' the Rambam infers from our mishna that all miracles were preprogrammed into nature. Since God is eternal and unchanging, a miracle cannot constitute a sudden shift in Divinely installed laws of nature. Instead, God already programmed miraculous events, as evidenced by their creation at the margins of the creation week. The Me'iri - in explaining the advantages of the Rambam's position, asserts a second facet which would inspire this position. A system which already contains 'built in' miracles reinforces the sense of Divine justice. God has already predetermined and pre-established reward and punishment - even when this Providence is realized through 'supernatural' means.

In addition to our mishna, the Rambam cites a midrash which describes God creating all natural forces, but conditioning their creation upon their willingness to comply with future miraculous interventions. The Rambam felt that this midrash as well, asserts the pre-encoding of miracles. To be sure, the midrash is not as dramatic as the mishnah; the former speaks of pre-conditioning while the latter speaks of pre-programming. In attempting to defend the Rambam without eliminating the universally accepted doctrine of Divine intervention, the Me'iri slightly emends his doctrine. He reasons that though God already established 'His will' that these miracles should occur, (thereby preserving God’s unchanging nature), the miracles themselves were not actually set into motion but merely existed 'in potential.' In suggesting this compromise the Me'iri aims to preserve the content of the mishna and the Rambam's doctrine, without eliminating the interventional nature of miracles. The miracles were not ACTUALLY PREPROGRAMMED but PREDESIGNED. Either way, the mishna speaks of these designs or programming in a way that the midrash does not.

The Rambam himself questions the listing of these ten items and the omission of other miracle-significant items (the parted waters of the Yam Suf, the stalled sun of Yehoshua) and reasons that indeed these miracles were also preprogrammed to their respective natural forces. During the day in which a particular item was created, (for example the second day of creation during which the waters were created) Hashem encoded that the water of Yam Suf should part during the exodus. The Rambam does not clarify the reason that these ten enumerated miracle agents were scheduled 'after' the completion of the six day creation while other miracles were incorporated within the basic six days themselves.

In an attempt to answer this question and defend the Rambam's position, the Me'iri suggests that most of these miracles concerned ANIMALS, (the talking donkey) or events meant to reward, punish or sustain HUMANITY. As such they were created during dusk of the sixth day during which animals and man were created. This solution would seem to merely raise additional 'questions' as the parting of the Yam Suf was intended to punish wicked humans as well, and, according to the Me'iri's logic, should have also been included during the sixth day during which man was created.

In fact, our version of the mishna states that these items were created during dusk immediately prior to Shabbat, which would echo the fact that these ten elements 'shatter' nature. They were not actually created as part of the six day creation of nature proper, but were nonetheless included within the creation week signifying that miracles are predetermined and preprogrammed. Other versions of the mishna assert that these items were fashioned during dusk – but not necessarily during dusk of the final day. This version would lend even greater credibility to the Rambam's stance – essentially eliminating any potential differences between the enumerated ten and all other miracle agents.

This principle (reiterated in the Moreh Nevukhim 2:29) lodges an astounding claim about miracles. Essentially, God does not INTERVENE in nature but rather pre-establishes changes which occur as part of the basic system. Obviously this position elicited much disapproval as it rejects a basic premise of Jewish theology: that God constantly recreates the world anew in alignment with the rules of nature and periodically intervenes in miraculous fashion in a manner which contravenes nature.

In response to the Rambam, the Me'iri and others interpret the mishna in a less literal fashion. Instead of adopting the chronological connotations of the mishna it should be read as merely axiological. The mishna does not intend that these items were actually created or instituted prior to human history. As needs arose these items were supernaturally supplied by God. However, the entire creation was CONTINGENT upon these events – since each was pivotal in establishing or preserving the Jewish nation. As the world was only created to expose humanity to God, and as the Jewish nation plays a crucial role in this process, the world's existence is conditioned upon the survival of the Jewish people. The mishna is not describing an actual INSTALLATION of miracles, as much as reminding us of the REASON for which this world was created.

By adopting this position, the Me'iri solves the aforementioned question of why these ten were listed and not others. These ten articles play unique roles in the national and religious history of the Jewish people, and they are mentioned as pivotal to our survival and the existence of our world. One could still wonder at the exclusion of the Yam Suf waters, but, alternatively better understand the inclusion of the shamir insect, Moshe's burial site and the ram which Avraham sacrificed at Har Ha-moria. From a natural standpoint these miracles do not surpass more dramatic events which are not listed. However, from a national standpoint, each of these articles figures prominently in the development of Jewish history.