The Hand of God

A chapter in Rabbinic Anthropomorphism

Meir Bar-Ilan

The end of the story is well known: according to normative Jewish belief, God has no body whatsoever. All the Biblical verses that might be cited against this concept are merely metaphoric. According to Maimonides, anyone who thinks that God does have a body is a heretic. This paper will examine rabbinic beliefs in "God's body". To unpack this belief we will review already known and 'new' rabbinic sources, including the Hekhalot literature. This anthropomorphic belief will be first examined in the Biblical period as a theological background for the later period. Because of the complexity of the subject, the discussion will concentrate on the hand and fingers of God. Some mystic concepts in rabbinic Judaism will be exposed, and it is hoped that this discussion will lead to a better understanding of some aspects of rabbinic theology: anthropomorphism of God.

A. In the Bible

Many verses in the Bible reflect a belief in an anthropomorphic God; in other words, the Lord has a body which has a head, limbs, and so forth. This concept is attested in the whole Bible both explicitly and implicitly. It is clear from early sources that in the biblical period, laymen and prophets believed that God had a figure which can be seen and described. Already in the story of creation it is written (Gen 1:26-27):

And God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness"... So God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created him.1

That is, man was created in the image of God (and other heavenly beings). Thus we see that God has a figure form, a head, etc.2 An anthropologist or a philosopher might say that man was not created in the image of God but vice versa, but this concept - not necessarily modern - is not attested to in the Bible, and even contradicts it.3

It is not surprising, therefore, that the prophet said (Isa 48:13): 'my hand laid the foundation of the earth', since by hand man creates new artifacts. This concept continues, if God has a hand and a body, He has also a bow, as it is written (Gen 9:13): 'I set my bow in the cloud'. Therefore, one who has a bow has also arrows and a sword (Deut 32:42), especially when 'The Lord is a man of war' (Exod 15:3). Not only do the hands of God make war, but they also write as is written that the Tablets of the Covenant were 'written with the finger of God' (Deut 9:10). We also find that God has feet (Exod 24:10), and He stands (Exod 17:6), or sits (Ps 2:4), on His throne (Isa 66:1). It goes without saying that God has a face (Deut 31:17), eyes (Prov 15:3), a nose (Num 11:33), and a back (Exod 33:23). However, according to an ancient belief it was forbidden to see God (Exod 33:20): 'for man shall not see me and live'. In other words, though one is not allowed to see God, He does have a figure like a man.

In sum, there is no reason to confine Biblical attitudes towards an anthropomorphic God to a certain layer of sources in the Biblical literature or to see it influenced by hellenistic concepts.4 There are many phrases that relate to the figure of God, too many to be only to be alluded to on the one hand, or to be discussed thoroughly on the other hand. That is to say that the Biblical heritage of the Sages included not only commandments, deeds, or interpretations of the Bible, but also beliefs. One of these beliefs was an anthropomorphic God.

B. In Rabbinic and Mystic literature

It seems that in Talmudic sources there are fewer anthropomorphic concepts of God in comparison with the Bible. However, it may be said that this is because of the literary difference between the sources. Nonetheless, scholars have already claimed that rabbinic sources reflect anthropomorphic concepts, and this belief was probably shared by the common people in the Land of Israel and in Babylon in the first centuries c.e.5 The large amount of evidence for this belief leads us to consider the hand and fingers of God only.

1 2 In Sanh. 38b, just before mentioning Metatron 'which his name is like the name of his Lord', there is a legend about the creation of Adam.6 According to Rab (3rd century Amora) it was said:

When the Holy One, blessed be He, wished to create man, He [first] created a company of ministering angels and said to them: Is it your desire that we make a man in our image? They answered: Sovereign of the Universe, What will be his deeds? - Such and such will be his deeds, He replied. Thereupon they exclaimed: Sovereign of the Universe, 'what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him (Ps 8:4)?' Thereupon He stretched out His little finger among them and consumed them with fire...

The first man reached from one end of the world to the other... But when he sinned, the Holy One, blessed be He, laid His hand upon him and diminished him, as it is written 'Thou dost beset me behind and before, and layest thy hand upon me' (Ps 139:5).7

In other words, during the creation of Adam, God pointed with His small finger and burned angels, and later on He put His hand on Adam and made him small. So according to Rab, one of the most eminent rabbis of his era, God has a hand and fingers, and He used them during the process of creating Adam. The difference between the two stories is that while the second story - reducing in size by laying on the hand - seems as a development of a Biblical notion by using a common idea (Ex. 10:22; 17:11; 2 Sam 24:16). The first story - burning by means of the small finger - is an independent concept which is unrealistic.8 So it seems that what we have here is not a mere use of the ancient sources, but the creation of new ideas by the rabbis concerning God's hand and small finger.

3 It was not only Rab who related to the hand or fingers of God but earlier Tanaim as well as Biblical verses, treated the hand of God. In the Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, on Exod 12:2 we read as follows:

'This month shall be for you the beginning of months'... R. Ishmael says: Moses showed the new moon to Israel and said unto them: In this manner shall ye in coming generations observe the new moon and fix the beginning of the month by it. R. Akiba says: This is one of the three things which were difficult for Moses to understand and all of which God pointed out to him with His finger. So also you interpret: 'And these are unclean to you' (Lev 11:29). So also you interpret: 'And this was the workmanship of the lampstand' (Num 8:4). Some say, Moses found it also hard to understand the ritual slaughtering, for it is said: 'Now this is what you shall offer upon the altar' (Exod 29:38).9

That is to say that R. Akiba's opinion (in rabbinic, not in mystic sources), was that God has a finger, with which God used to explain to Moses issues that he did not understand. It should be pointed out that it was convincingly shown not only that the text is correct, but that in some places the text was 'corrected' by scribes who preferred not to relate anthropomorphic ideas to God. So, instead of writing that the Lord showed Moses something with His finger, the text was transmitted with 'as if with a finger', to 'purify' the text.10 That is to say that a theological concept motivated the rabbis to 'correct' the texts. In a number of instances the exact rabbinic idea concerning the figure of God was dismissed.11

4 After we have found that R. Akiba believed that God used his finger to show three things to Moses, it is no surprise to realize that R. Ishmael - R. Akiba's colleague - argued that not only did God reveal to Moses by pointing with His finger, but also that four of these times was with a different finger. This is explicit in Midrash Hagadol to Genesis 6:15:

'This is how you are to make it' - it teaches that God pointed out to Noah with His finger, and told him 'like this you shall make'. Tanya: R. Ishmael said: five fingers in the right hand of God - all are a great secret; the little finger - with it God showed Noah what to do, as it is written 'This is how you are to make it' (Gen 6:15). The second finger, next to the little, with it God smote the Egyptians, as is written 'And the magicians said to Pharaoh: "This is the finger of God"' (Exod 8:19). The third finger, the middle one, with it God wrote the tablets, as is written 'tables of stone, written with the finger of God' (Exod 31:18). The fourth finger, the index, with it God showed Moses what Israel should give to save their souls, as is written 'Each who is numbered in the census shall give this' (Exod 30:13). And the whole hand, with it the Lord will ruin the children of Esau that are His foes, and to destruct the children of Ishmael that are His enemies, as is written 'Your hand shall be lifted up over your adversaries' (Mic 5:9), and it is written 'In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time'.12

This midrash is not known from early rabbinic sources, though it looks very authentic. That is, from the fact that this midrash is known from Midrash Hagadol and Pirkei R. Eliezer, there is no reason to conclude that this is a late midrash, which means, apparently, that relating it to R. Ishmael is pseudepigraphy. It is more likely that R. Ishmael here had the same concept as R. Akiba had concerning God's fingers, and the tradition goes back to Talmudic times. However, the reason this midrash is not in the 'rabbinic corpus', is due to the fact that the text was eliminated, for one reason or other as will be considered later.13

It should not be overlooked that with his midrash R. Ishmael continued the Biblical heritage, by quoting verses to establish his argument. While he possibly perceived the word ze (this), in a too realistic and anthropomorphic way, he was fully aware of the Biblical verses that speak of the fingers and the hand of God. The sage did not invent an anthropomorphic God, but R. Ishmael chose to connect different verses to elaborate a coherent system of the hand of God in the Bible.14

That is to say that both R. Akiba and R. Ishmael continued with the Biblical concept of an anthropomorphic God, teaching how God used His hand and fingers for different tasks, 'and this is a great secret'.15

The R. Ishmael midrash which has no exact parallel in Tannaitic sources (Mishna, Tosefta or Midrashei Halakha), lead the modern scholar to conclude that its omission from Tannaitic sources is not a coincidence but rather due to some kind of interior censorship. That is, post-Talmudic sages and scribes were unhappy with an anthropomorphic concept of God, and therefore they refrained from copying such texts as the one under discussion. Indeed, it is not easy to prove such a censorship, but S. Lieberman has already shown such a phenomenon with examples.16 So it seems that certain issues that were part of the dispute of the Karaites with the rabbis were not copied or even were erased in the centuries after the texts were composed. It goes without saying that this assumed censorship does not reveal easily the real anthropomorphic concept of God of the Talmudic sages.

5 This understanding of the rabbinic texts, according to S. Lieberman, might be demonstrated once again with a new example. To realize this method one should study not only the Talmud but also post-Talmudic sources and commentators on the issue in hand. In b. Erub. 21a the text states:

R. Hisda, Mary b. Mar made the following exposition: It is written 'I have seen a limit to all perfection, but thy commandment is exceedingly broad' (Ps 119:96)? This statement was made by David but he did not explain it; Job made a similar statement and did not explain it; Ezekiel also made a similar statement and did not explain it, [and the exact magnitude remained unknown] until Zechariah the son of Iddo came and explained it... for it is written 'And he said to me "What do you see?" I answered "I see a flying scroll; its length is twenty cubits, and its breadth ten cubits", (Zech 5:2) and when you unfold it [its extent] is twenty by twenty [cubits], and since it is written 'and it had writing on the front and on the back' (Ezek 2:10), what will be [its size] when you split it? Forty by twenty cubits. But, as it is written 'Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span' (Isa 40:12), it follows that the entire universe is [equal to] a three thousand and two hundredths part of the Torah.17

In other words, the Amoraim tried to calculate the gigantic size of the Torah by taking into account certain verses. They measured the scroll that Zechariah the prophet saw by cubits, and calculated these cubits by the 'span', literally: the small finger, that is mentioned in Isaiah, and came into some conclusion (40 x 20 x 4 = 3200).

At first glance this text has nothing to do with the issue in hand, the anthropomorphic God, since in none of the Biblical verses cited above is any hint of the body of God. However, if we examine the commentaries on this pericope we reveal a much different understanding of the text. Rashi, ad loc., comments as follows: 'Twenty cubit - according to the cubit of the Holy one, Blessed be He'. It is quite clear that Rashi is correct in his interpretation since the sage based his calculation on the small finger with which God created the universe, that is the the small finger of God was the span of the 'sky' (or universe). In other words, the whole universe is like the small finger of God, but the heavenly Torah is 3200 times bigger than the universe.18

This interpretation might be taken as a mere exaggeration since its core (the Lord's finger), does not appear in the Talmud. However, there are traditions found in Middle Ages texts that express the same idea very explicitly. This exegesis stated by Rashi is found to be authentic, as will be seen below, and this in turn raises the question whether the text under discussion was once prey to some internal censor.

It is plausible that an ancient midrash was later incorporated into a letter that was preserved in the Cairo Geniza, in which there is a long discussion concerning the mathematical calculations in the text in hand.19 For the purpose of this study only part of that letter will suffice:

The total [measure] of the Torah which Zechariah saw: 1600 cubits that make 3200 small fingers, in the finger of God.

In another excerpt that was written by another sage it is stated: is found that the Torah is 1269 and a third small fingers in the finger of the Holy one, Blessed be He, and the whole universe is one small finger, in the finger of the Holy one, Blessed be He, as is written: 'Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span' (Isa 40:12).

It is not easy to determine exactly when this midrash was written: is it really a Talmudic midrash, or was it composed by a later Gaon, one of the heads of the Babylonian Talmud academies. In any event, it seems that what the 'later' source said in several words, Rashi succeeded in interpolating into his commentary in one word. There is no real difference between Rashi and the other source, except that Rashi was thinking of God's hand and cubit, and the other source of God's small finger. Both commentators are equal in reading in the Talmudic text some measurements of God's form, data that on a first examination do not exist. It might even be argued, although with uncertainly, that the text under discussion was once 'edited' by removing from it any connection with the figure of God.20

It should not be overlooked that this gigantic figure of God is not a new idea, and was not first suggested in the days of the Talmud. It has already been stated above that according to the Bible God has a bow; that is, the rainbow. Since that is unquestionably gigantic, it is only reasonable that God who shot with it is a giant as well. The same idea is derived from the prophet who spoke the words of God: 'Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool' (Isa 66:1). It is clear that if the colossal sky is the throne of God, the size of God who sits on it is beyond any imagination. Thus it is clear that the gigantic figure of God which is known from a relatively late period is not such a great innovation. The fact is that there is no evidence of speculation as to the size of God in Biblical times, but rather a phenomenon that is known from the Talmudic period where rabbis claimed to know the exact measurements of God. These measurements even turned out to be exaggerated (millions of miles), exceeding the great figure of God in Biblical times.21 However, the core of the idea of a gigantic figure of God was well known in ancient times, and the interpretation of the sages based on a God who 'marked off the heavens with a span' go hand in hand with the same assumption. That is, the sky is as big as the small finger of God, so it is logical that the full figure of God is many times bigger than the whole sky.22

6 In Mishnah Bekorot 7 certain bodily defects are discussed, relating to those priests who are forbidden to work in the Temple. In Bek. 7:4 it states that disproportions in the body are also defects that disqualify a priest to work in the Temple. An example was given 'his body (of the priest) is (proportionally) bigger than his parts, or smaller than his parts; his nose is bigger or smaller than his parts', etc. Concerning this Mishnah, in Talmud b. Bek. 44a a Beraita is quoted: 'like a small finger'. This puzzling statement can be explained that if one wants to know whether someone's nose is bigger or smaller than its parts, there is a simple way to check it: to measure the small finger and the nose since both are supposed to be of the same length. It is not known how the Tanna concluded this idea of measuring the body's proportion: was it based simply on one's life experience, or did he hear of that proportion from a hellenized artist who was aware of body proportions through drawing figures or making sculptures? However, this idea: equality between one's small finger and nose is a human proportion.

The first scholar who drew attention to the comparison between this small Beraita in the Talmud and Shiur Qoma was S. Lieberman, and hereafter this issue will be discussed. The Shiur Qoma is part of Hekhalot literature, deals with the measurements of God, and modern scholars disagree to the book's origin in time and place. In this book there are all the measurements of the figure of God, and certain mystic formulae that appear on each of the divine parts. In comparison with the Biblical world, the innovation here is not of an anthropomorphic God, or His gigantic measurements. It seems that what is new in this book is the mystic's systematic pre-occupation with all parts of God's body, and giving each of these parts precise measurements.

After R. Ishmael reports what Metatron had told concerning the measurements of God, i.e. the measurements of God's limbs, legs, head, eyes, etc., the book states (Schaefer, # 483):23

R. Nathan, a student of R. Ishmael said: he gave me also the measurement of the nose... and the measure of the forehead is like the measure of the neck, and the neck (?) has the length of the nose, and the length of the nose is like the length of a small finger, and the height of the jaws is half of the (whole) circle of the head, and this is the measure of every man.

It is evident that the same words that appear in the Talmud appear in Shiur Qoma as well. However, in the Talmud the statement relates to a defect in a human body, while in Shiur Qoma it relates the measurements of the body of God. On this issue of the double appearance of the same text in different sources S. Lieberman wrote as follows: 'it is likely that there was a common (external?) source to the Beraita in Bekorot and Shiur Qoma.24

This cautious explanation seems to be more reasonable than the claim that the author of Shiur Qoma copied these words from the Talmud, or that the author of the Talmud took these words from Shiur Qoma though this is possible as will be shown below. All this teaches that the rule that says that the size of the nose equals to the measure of the small finger of a man, is apparently true for God too. This rule suggests a rule of proportions that was known to artists in antiquity. The facts that support this understanding can be recognized in the other rules that are in the same text: 'the measure of the forehead is like the measure of the neck'. Subsequently the text states: 'the height of the jaws is half of the (whole) circle of the head... the measure of the eyebrows is the measure of the eyes... the height of the ears is like the height of the forehead.25 That is to say, we are concerned with not one rule, but rather six rules of the same type.

It is evident now that the issue here is not mystic but very much mundane. Going back to the source of the citation, it should be pointed out that the Talmud knows one rule only, while the author of Shiur Qoma recognizes six rules of the same type. In other words it is impossible to see in the Talmud a source for Shiur Qoma and what is left to be considered are two possibilities only: either the Tanna took his rule from Shiur Qoma or both, the Tanna and the author of the Shiur Qoma took from a common source, a text or an oral artistic (non-Jewish) tradition.

It is interesting to note that in Shiur Qoma just before the text under study concerning the length of God's nose, states the following (Schaefer, # 482):

and this is the account of the parasangs: each parasang is eight miles, and each mile is 4000 cubits, and His cubit is His four small fingers and his small finger is from end to end of the universe, as is written: 'Who... marked off the heavens with a span' (Isa 40:12).

This text is very similar to the text in Erubin discussed earlier, and especially to the 'late' midrash. That is, three sources use the same verse: 'marked off the heavens with a span' in a same way, showing that the measurement of the whole universe is like the measurement of God's small finger. So in two consecutive paragraphs in Shiur Qoma there is some allusion to the Talmud. These relationships do not reveal more than what is in it though nonetheless, it strengthens the connections between Talmudic normative text on the one hand and mystic esoteric text on the other hand.

7 This consistency among the sources shows that in the first centuries c.e. the Jews in the Land of Israel as well as those in Babylon believed in an anthropomorphic God, as is evident in both Talmud and Hekhalot literatures. Not only that but this Jewish belief is attested also in the writings of the church fathers: Justin Martyr, Origen, Basil the Great and Arnobious of Sicca.26 That is to say that whatever sources are consulted - either Jewish or Christian authors about the Jews - all agree upon the anthropomorphic concept among the Jews in late antiquity.

8 Finally, an artistic evidence should not be overlooked. One of the walls of the famous synagogue of Dura-Europos described the bones' vision of Ezekiel the prophet. On the wall were depicted four hands that come from above.27 It is very probable that those hands are nothing else but the hand of God which the prophet saw few times (Ezek 1:3; 2:9; 3:22; 8:3; 37:1 and more). That is to say that here is a case where there is a consistence of opinions in regard of the a theological issue in Jewish sources (of two different types), as well as paintings and even Christian sources.

In sum, it has been proved that in the first centuries Jews in the Land of Israel and in Babylon believed in an anthropomorphic God, and discussed His fingers as well. This ancient belief was elaborated as could be seen in Shiur Qoma and in the words attributed to R. Ishmael, R. Akiba, Rab, and R. Hisda. Apparently, not only sages, but laymen also were of the same opinion of God who has a physical form.

C. In the Middle Ages

Though it is not for me to analyze the history of Jewish thought in the Middle Ages, is seems to me that it will not be out of place here to follow this ancient anthropomorphic belief in later centuries. This task is extremely important since the Talmudic concept, which we have argued to be merely anthropomorphic, was understood in post-Talmudic periods differently. This change in attitude towards the body of God and especially the change in the understanding of the authentic Talmudic anthropomorphic belief will be discussed below.

It seems that Jews of the post-Talmudic period looked at Talmudic texts with embarrassment because of two major changes in their world view: one was theological and the other was philosophical. To the best of my knowledge, in no polemics between Jews and heretics mentioned in the Talmud, is there any reference to the anthropomorphic concept. However, Christian sources on the one hand, and Zoroastrian sources on the other condemned Jews for this belief.28 To this external polemic, the Karaites joined internally by condemning Rabbanism per se, and an anthropomorphic God in particular.29 So it seems that post-Talmudic rabbis found themselves between an external and internal war. These attacks, coming from different theological and philosophical attitudes made, apparently, the rabbis withdraw from this religious belief, especially when it was not considered fundamental to Jewish belief (or might even cause damage to it).

It seems that not only did these theological attacks on Jews change the Jewish concept concerning an anthropomorphic God, but it also influenced the Talmudic text. Without this hypothesis it will be very difficult to explain medieval citations from Talmudic literature, concerning this belief, that are not found in our text. It was S. Lieberman who demostrated this phenomenon of non-existing citation from the Talmud, and claimed nevertheless that the citations relate to an authentic text. However, since the Jews did not want to be ridiculed by their neighbors some texts were erased from the Talmud corpus. That is to say that Talmudic texts relating to an anthropomorphic God, as they are known today (and even from manuscripts), are only the few that survived internal Jewish censorship. Some of these texts were removed from the corpus for the sake of not supplying ammunition to all those who fought Jewish religion (especially apostates). This assumption might explain why Shiur Qoma was denied to be part of 'normative' Jewish thought, why that Beraita of R. Ishmael is not in the Talmud (but survived in a later midrash), why the Talmud does not explain the measurements of the Torah, and so forth.

To this theological argument a philosophical argument was added, especially when Jews were under the reign of Islam. After Islam became a 'state religion' in the most of the East the difference between theology and philosophy became indistinct on the one hand, while sects of Islam were arguing whether God has a body or not on the other. In other words, in the seventh and eighth centuries, the majority of the Jewish people (or at least the majority of sages), found themselves in a religious atmosphere where at least most people were of the opinion that God has no body, and it was heresy to believe in an anthropomorphic God. Apparently, this theological and philosophical reality influenced Jews to look differently upon Talmudic sources.

This background explains, at least partially, the relatively late Jewish attitude towards one Talmudic source that seems to demonstrate the 'authentic' Rabbinic denial of any phrase of anthropomorphism. The only book attributed to rabbis of the Talmud period (circa 1-6 centuries), where God has no body is the Aramaic translation attributed to Onkelos. As is quite known there are many cases in that Targum (and in others as well), where the translator refrained from a literal translation, especially when the Hebrew text speaks of an anthropomorphic God. The claim that emerged from this Targum was that Onkelos demonstrates the 'real' meaning of the Biblical text (and the correct theology), where God has no body, and many Biblical verses are mere figures of speech that do not convey real meaning. The first scholar to claim this was R. Saadya Gaon (died 942), in his Book of Beliefs.30

The claim of R. Saadya Gaon was based, inter alia, on the Talmudic assumption 'the Torah spoke in the language of people' (b. Ber. 31b). That is to say that Biblical phrases attributing to God figure and parts are nothing but literal phrases conveying to ordinary people heavenly matters in daily talk, and therefore the Torah spoke anthropomorphically. It did not take long to claim that this attitude was common in all Rabbinic sources, including Talmud and Midrash, and the conclusion was that Talmudic sages did not believe in anthropomorphism at all. This new concept was held by a later rabbi and philologist, R. Jehuda b. Quraysh,31 and was taken by Maimonides as a religious truth.32

However, one who studies the issue without any theological bias will easily find the problematics of this concept. First, this rule that 'the Torah spoke in the language of people' was said in connection with the Biblical Hebrew style that expresses many verbs by using the same verb twice. This Hebrew style was learned by some sages as revealing new halakhot while others were of the opinion that the Torah used common Hebrew, just as people talked (those days), and therefore there is no ground for such a new halakha.33 In other words, there is no express Talmudic objection any anthropomorphic concept. Second, it seems that there is no reason to attribute to Onkelos anti-anthropomorphic concepts for the simple reason that there is no consistency in his translation, and he does attribute to God parts of the body on many occasions.34 That is to say that Targum Onkelos did not reject an anthropomorphic theology, and his use of words demonstrates Aramaic linguistic capability that is different than the Hebrew.35

Most of all, Talmudic sources, as well as Shiur Qoma testify that Jews in the Talmudic period, just as their Biblical predecessors, did believe in anthropomorphic God. Not only that, but this belief stayed with Jews that were not influenced by philosophic rationalism. In other words although Jewish philosophers condemned an anthropomorphic God, those Jews who were not living in a 'philosophic' atmosphere continued with their ancestors' belief in an anthropomorphic God.

The evidence for the persistence of an anthropomorphic God among Jews is found in a letter of Bishop Agobard of Lyons stating that Jews in his time, the ninth century, believed in an anthropomorphic God.36 Some three centuries later in Egypt Maimonides wrote in his code (Teshuva 3:7): 'Five people are called heretics... and one who says that there is one God but He has a figure'. On this matter there was a dispute. R. Abraham of Posquieres in his commentary ad loc. wrote:

for what reason had he (Maimonides) called that one a heretic since greater and better people than he went on that way, according to which they had seen in the writings (apparently: the Bible), and above that, in the legends that spoil opinions.

In other words, in 12th century Provence (even) learned rabbis did not see anything wrong in believing in an anthropomorphic God.37 A century or so later when R. Moses of Taku, who lived in Ashkenaz (southern Germany) began a theological polemic supported by Biblical verses and Midrash, that things are to be understood simply as they are written, for example, there is an anthropomorphic God.38 That is to say that Jews in France, Provence and southern Germany, which means under the reign of Christians, continued to believe in an anthropomorphic God, just as their own forefathers of Biblical and Talmudic periods. Centuries later this belief was erased from the religious world of Jews in the East.


Ancient Jewish belief attributed to God a figure and all its parts, such as hands, fingers etc. This gigantic figure had no measure in Biblical times but was an issue of speculation in the Talmudic period when sages began to identify His precise size. The only difference between Shiur Qoma and Talmudic sources is that Shiur Qoma shows a highly systematic and more intensive calculation of God's sizes. This difference does not necessarily reflect any assumed gap in time between these sources.

In the post-Talmudic period Jews were under theological and philosophical pressure that made them reject anthropomorphic beliefs by reshaping old texts or even by not copying them. Needless to say that this polemic led to the blurring of the anthropomorphic God in Talmudic texts. However, the ancient belief did survive, mostly not under Muslim rule, in Provence, France and southern Germany. In those places many sages, and probably laymen as well, thought that there was nothing wrong in believing in an anthropomorphic God as their forefathers did.


1 The Biblical verses are cited from: The Holy Bible - Revised Standard Version Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger, Oxford University Press, New York 1962.

2 J. M. Miller, 'In the "Image" and "Likeness" of God', JBL 91 (1972), pp. 289-304 (and see below).

3 Hans W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament SCM Press, London 1974, pp. 159-165; E. Shapira, Selem Elohim we Am Segula Zemora - Bitan - Modan, Tel Aviv 1981 (Hebrew); A. Altmann, Panim shel Yahadut Am Obed, Tel Aviv 1983, pp. 11 ff. (Hebrew).

4 M. Smith, 'The Image of God', Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 40 (1958), pp. 473-512; Jarl E. Fossum,, The Image of the Invisible God: Essays on the Influence of Jewish Mysticism on Early Christology, Universitaetverlag Freiburg, Schweiz - Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Goettingen, 1995, pp. 13-39; Stephen D. Moore, 'Gigantic God: Yahweh's Body', JSOT, 70 (1996), pp. 87-115.

5 A. Marmorstein, The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God II, London 1937, (rep. Ktav, New York 1968.

6 A. Altmann, Panim shel Yahadut pp. 31 ff.

7 The translation follows: I. Epstein, The Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nezikin, Sanhedrin The Soncino Press, London 1935, pp. 242-243.

8 In Sefer Hekhalot (3rd Enoch), burning angels by the little finger of God seems to be a daily event. See: Peter Schaefer, Synopse zur Hekhalot-Literatur JCB Mohr, Tuebingen 1981, #67 (Hereafter: Schaefer). [English translation by P. Alexander in: James H. Charlesworth (ed.), The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Doubleday & Company, New York, 1983-85) I, p. 300].

9 Hebrew text in: H. S. Horovitz - I. A. Rabin (eds.), Mechilta d'Rabbi Ishmael 2nd ed., Wahrmann Books, Jerusalem 1970, p. 6. The translation follows: Jacob Z. Lauterbach, Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia 1949, I, p. 15-16.

10 Harry Fox, '"As if with a Finger" - The text history of an expression avoiding anthropomorphism', Tarbiz, 49 (1980), pp. 278-291 (Hebrew).

11 See also Fox's interpretation, though made from the philological and not from the theological point of view. Fox dealt with other texts that might be analyzed here. However, his conclusion is questionable: 'it seems that the Tannaim and Amoraim did not see the finger of God in the midrash as anthropomorphism of the creator'.

12 Midrash Hagadol to Genesis M. Margaliot (ed.), Mosad Harav Kook, Jerusalem 1967, p. 159. A parallel in Pirkei R. Eliezer 48, D. Luria (ed.), Warsaw 1852, 116a.

13 Compare to 3rd Enoch towards the end (Schaefer, # 68): 'R. Ishmael said: Metatron said to me: Come and I shall show you the right hand of the Lord that is behind (His back) because of the destruction of the Temple... at that moment the hand of God began to tear, and five rivers of tears were pouring out of each of the five fingers, and the rivers fall down to the great sea and make the whole universe quake... five times corresponding to the five fingers of His great right hand'. On the God's right hand bound behind (according to Lam 2:3), see M. Bar-Ilan, Sitrey Tefilah veHekhalot, Bar-Ilan University Press, Ramat-Gan 1987, p. 30 (Hebrew).

14 An example for that is a midrash which speaks of four children, a famous midrash from the Haggadah shel Pesah. In that particular midrash the sage connected four different verses that speak of 'your son' into a coherent system. See: J. Z. Lauterbach, Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael I, 166 (de Pisha, 18).

15 In Pirkei R. Eliezer instead of 'great secret', it is written: 'all are a foundation of redemptions'. However, this is an inferior text based on assumed wrong reading of yesod instead of sod. If that is the case, then the midrashic text attributes anthropomorphism to God, and this is believed to be 'a great secret' like Ma'ase Merkabah.

16 S. Lieberman, Shkiin 2nd ed., Wahrmann Books, Jerusalem 1970, p. 7 (Hebrew), and see below.

17 The translation follows I. Epstein, The Babylonian Talmud: Seder Moed, Erubin The Soncino Press, London 1938, pp. 147-148.

18 This gigantic Torah goes hand in hand with the gigantic scroll on which the heavenly scribes write. See: Schaefer, # 29.

19 S. H. Kook, Iyyunim uMehqarim, Mosad harav Kook, Jerusalem 1959, I, pp. 108-119 (Hebrew).

20 An example for this reshaping of the old text, just like Tiqun Soferim (=correction of scribes), may be seen in Fox' work (above, n. 10), where it is shown that in the original text it was written that God pointed out 'with His finger', while in later text it was changed into 'as if with a finger'. that is to purify the texts of any anthropomorphic allusion.

21 More on the gigantic figure of God in Talmudic and Hekhalot literature, see: Schaefer, # 728 (and passim); Sitrey Tefilah we Hekhalot, p. 43: 'and the thickness of heaven is (like the distance of) walking 500 years... above them are the Holy Beasts... the legs of the Throne of Glory are like all of them'. Now, a throne whose size is measured in centuries and even millennia of walking must reflect the gigantic size of God who sits on it. In y. Ber. 9:1, 13a:

Levi said: (the distance) from earth to heaven (is like) 500 years walking... and R. Berekhya and R. Halbo said in the name of R. Abba from Samoqa: the hoofs of the (Holy) Beasts are also (distance walking of) 515 years, in gimatria: yeshara'. In b. Hul. 91b: '"And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth" (Gen 28:12) - Tanna: what was its width? 8000 parasang, since it is written "and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it'... and concerning the angel it was said "His body was like beryl" (Dan 10:6), and it was concluded that tarsis is 2000 parasangs.

Similar to that is Aleph-Beth de R. Akiba, in: A. Yellinek, ed., Beit Hamidrash, 2nd ed., Jerusalem 1938, III, p. 31: 'and how will God resurrect the dead in the world to come? it teaches that God will take a big horn in His hand, 1000 cubits in the cubits of the Holy one, Blessed be He, and will blow it'. Though the measures are different in the various sources, they all reflect old traditions of a gigantic God, and His beasts, ladder, throne, Torah and horn, and all these gigantic items must have served a giant. More on gigantic angels see Schaefer, # 862, 869 and passim. Compare also the gigantic angel (and a she-angel) seen by Elchasai (his height 96 miles, his circumference 16 miles, his width from shoulder to shoulder is 24 miles, his foot 14 miles). See: Gerald P. Luttikhuizen, The Revelation of Elchasai, JCB Mohr, Tuebingen 1985, pp. 45, 65, 205.

22 See now: J. Dan, The Ancient Jewish Mysticism, Ministry of Defence, Tel Aviv 1989, pp. 48-58 (Hebrew). Compare his claim that Shiur Qoma is a 'polemic against a simplicity in anthropomorphic concept' (pp. 56, 92). More on the text see now: K. Herrmann, 'Text und Fiktion', Frankfurter Judaistische Beitraege, 16 (1988), pp. 89-142.

23 Hereafter from Schaefer compared with Herrmann. It is obvious that Schaefer's text is inferior to the various synoptic manuscripts published by Herrmann.

24 S. Lieberman, Shkiin p. 12; idem. 'Mishnat Song of songs', Appendix D in: Gershom G. Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition, 2nd ed., New York 1965, pp. 118-126.

25 The text is according to Herrmann. The scribe of Ms. Muenchen 22 from which Schaefer published, mistakenly omitted the 'jaws' and there are other minor readings.

26 Gedaliahu G. Stroumsa, 'Form(s) of God: Some Notes on Metatron and Christ', HTR, 76 (1983), pp. 269-288.

27 E. L. Sukenik, The Synagogue of Dura-Europos and its Frescoes, Mosad Bialik, Jerusalem 1947, pp. 116 ff. Compare to the divine hand from the sky (of the angel?) in the synagogue of Beth Alpha).

28 Christian sources are dealt with by Stroumsa. Concerning Zoroastrian sources (though relatively later), see: J. Neusner, 'Is the God of Judaism Incarnate?', Religious Studies, 24 (1988), pp. 213-238.

29 See: I. Davidson (ed), Salmon Ben Yeruhim, The Book of the Wars of the Lord, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York 1934, pp. 114 ff. (Hebrew). The text include some citations from Shiur Qoma, some of which concern the measure of the hands and the fingers of God (and some do not appear in the manuscripts). See also M. Bar-Ilan, 'The Idea of Crowning God in Hekhalot Mysticism and the Karaite Polemic', J. Dan (ed.), Early Jewish Mysticism: Proceedings of the First International Conference on the History of Jewish Mysticism, Jerusalem 1987, pp. 221-233 (Hebrew).

30 S. Rawidowicz, 'The Anthropomorphic problem for Saadya and Maimonides', Iyyunim Bemahashevet Yisrael, Rubin Mass, Jerusalem 1969, I, pp. 171-233 (Hebrew); [Revised shortened English version: 'Saadya's Purification of the Idea of God', E. I. J. Rosenthal (ed.), Saadya Studies, Manchester 1943, pp. 139-165].

31 M. Kats, Iggeret R. Jehuda b. Quraysh, Dvir, Tel Aviv 1950, pp. 38-43, LVIII-LXV (Hebrew); this rabbi lived after R. Saadya, see: D. Becker, The Risala of Judah ben Quraysh, Tel Aviv University Press, Tel Aviv 1984, p. 11.

32 Maimonides' opinion was expressed in his responsa, in his code Mishne Torah and in The Guide of Perplexed. See the citations in Rawidowicz (above n. 29); M. Fishbane, 'Some forms of Divine Appearance in Ancient Jewish Thought', J. Neusner, E. S. Frerichs, N. M. Sarna, (eds.), From Ancient Israel to Modern Judaism, Intellect in Quest of Understanding, Essays in Honor of Marvin Fox, Scholars Press, Atlanta 1989, II, p. 261-270.

33 This explanation was already noticed by I. S. Reggio in Osar Nehmad, 1 (1856), p. 128.

34 This is the case also in other Aramaic translations. See: R. Weiss, 'The Translation of Anthropomorphic Expressions in Targum Job', Tarbiz, 44 (1975), pp. 54-71 (Hebrew). It should be noted that Weiss was fully aware of the fact that whenever the parts of God's body are mentioned: hand, paw, heart, eye, mouth (and more) - there is no hesitation in translating those words literally. It seems, that Weiss preceded his opinion (the assumption that Onkelos was against anthropomorphic ideas), to his own minute evaluation of the text he himself collected.

35 A vast literature has been devoted to this subject, and here only several examples will be mentioned: Y. Komlosh, The Bible in the Light of the Aramaic Translations, Dvir, Tel Aviv 1973, pp. 103-119; A. Chester, Divine Revelation and Devine Titles in the Pentateuchal Targumim, JCB Mohr, Tuebingen 1986, pp. 265-292. However, if this view is rejected the question will still have to be confronted, to what extent Targum Onkelos reflects the opinions of the Talmudic sages, especially when there are some diversities between the Targum and the Talmud.

36 R. Bonfil, 'The Cultural and Religious Traditions of French Jewry in the Ninth Century, a Reflected in the Writings of Agobard of Lyons', Studies in Jewish Mysticism Philosophy and Ethical Literature, Presented to Isaiah Tishby The Magness Press, Jerusalem 1986, pp. 327-348 (Hebrew).

37 See also: A. Altmann, 'Moses Narboni's "Epistle on Shiur Qoma"', idem., Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1967, pp. 225-288.

38 J. Dan, Prolegomenon to: R. Moshe Taku, Ketav Tamim, Ms. Paris H711, Merkaz Dinur, Jerusalem 1984 (Hebrew).

This papaer first appeared as: M. Bar-Ilan, 'The Hand of God: A Chapter in Rabbinic Anthropomorphism', G. Sed-Rajna (ed.), Rashi 1040-1990: Hommage a Ephraim E. Urbach, Congres europeen des Etudes juives, Paris: CERF, 1993, pp. 321-335.

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last updated: October 30, 2003