Hashgacha Pratis (Part 1): Even A Leaf From A Tree?

Here begins what I hope will become something of a mini-series on the topic of Hashgacha Pratis. Literally translated, it means “Detailed Supervision”, but it is otherwise known as “Divine Intervention” or “Divine Providence”. The question at hand is how often, and in what way, God intervenes in the world. When does God get involved in our state of affairs? Without getting too involved too quickly, it is enough to say that such a topic is, of course, fundamental to Judaism, and a proper understanding of the topic is of great importance. It is this that we endeavor to achieve in this series.

The Sefer HaChinuch

We begin in Sefer HaChinuch 169, which discusses the laws relating to a metzorah/leper:

משרשי המצוה. לקבע בנפשותינו כי השגחת השם ברוך הוא פרטית על כל אחד מבני אדם, וכי עיניו פקוחות על כל דרכיהם,כמו שכתוב (איוב לד כא) כי עיניו על דרכי איש וכל צעדיו יראה.

Paraphrase: Upon realization that one is afflicted with leprosy, one should check his deeds due to the fact that God’s Hashgacha/supervision is detailed, and sees all actions of all men. “God’s eyes are on Man, and He looks at every step of his.”

It’s clear, then, that the Sefer HaChinuch is stating that God has individual “Hashgacha”/“supervision” in relation to all humans on the planet. But it is not clear what, exactly, that means. Does God control all actions? Or is he simply aware of all actions? The literary definition of the term would imply the latter, but the Sefer HaChinuch has not yet clarified what he means. All we know right now is that God looks and cares.

ולכן הזהרנו לתת לב אל החלי הרע הזה ולחשב כי החטא גרם אותו,

Paraphrase: Because of this, we have been commanded to notice and care about this bad sickness because our actions directly brought them about.

It is important to point out that a jump was just made. We went from God knowing all, to actually intervening at least in this instance. Interesting. Just merely pointing it out for now. But we should note that there is most certainly a difference between God knowing all that we do, versus actually intervening ever — even if from the Sefer HaChinuch right now these two things have not been majorly differentiated between.

וכבר אמרו זכרונם לברכה (ערכין טז ב), כי בחטא לשון הרע יבא ברב ולא נקחנו דרך מקרה,

Paraphrase: In most cases someone is afflicted with leprosy because of the sin of Lashon HaRah — and he quotes a statement of Chazal to that effect.

So this concept that leprosy is some form of Divine punishment, specifically in response to Lashon HaRah, clearly comes from some kind of tradition (which we shall take for granted). The Sefer HaChinuch continues to say that we should not view leprosy as happenstance or chance, because almost always, this is something that comes as a punishment from God.

ויש לנו לבוא אל הכהן, שהוא העומד לכפרת החוטאים, ועם חברת המכפר אולי יהרהר בתשובה ויסגר קצת ימים כדי שישיב אל לבו עניניו במתון ויפשפש במעשיו (ברכות ה א), ולפעמים יסגר שני הסגרים שמא הרהר תשובה ולא תשובה שלמה לגמרי, כאלו תאמר על דרך משל שחשב להחזיר מחצית גזלתו, ואז יחדש בו השם ברוך הוא קצת סימנין שיסגר שנית אולי ישלים תשובתו ויטהר לגמרי.

Paraphrase: So we should come before the Kohein, because his job is to help sinners clean up their act. And once in the company of such a person, you might actually repent. You should be secluded for a few days, thinking about yourself and your actions. There should be a time of introspection. Sometimes only a week, sometimes for two weeks, etc

So far, so good. What we have thus far is clear: God knows what happens in this world as well as intervenes. Thus far, however, we know only about intervention vis-à-vis punishment. So the entire idea of the metzorah is, in a way, putting into your mind that God knows all, intervenes, and punishes. So the concept of onesh/punishment, and God’s knowledge, clearly emerges from these laws.

וכל ענין הסגרין אלו יורה השגחתו ברוך הוא על כל דרכי האדם אחת לאחת. ולפי שהדעות רבות בהשגחת האל על כל ברואיו, יבואו בה הרבה פסוקים במקרא והרבה מצות להורות על הענין מהיותו פנה גדולה בתורתנו. שיש כתות בני אדם יחשבו כי השגחת השם יתברך [על כל המינין בפרט בין אנשים או כל שאר בעלי חיים, ויש מהן כתות יחשבו כי השגחת השם ברוך הוא] על כל עניני העולם בין בעלי חיים או כל שאר דברים, כלומר שלא יתנועע דבר אחד קטן בעולם הזה רק בחפצו ברוך הוא ובגזרתו עד שיחשבו כי בנפל עלה אחד מן האילן הוא גזר עליו שיפל, ואי אפשר שיתאחר או יקדם זמן נפילתה אפילו רגע, וזה דעת רחוק הרבה מן השכל.

Paraphrase: And this concept of “Hashgacha” applies to all people. And there are many opinions, and many different posukim and mitzvos, that elaborate on these ideas. There are some people who believe that God’s providence applies to every living species at a singular/particular level — all humans, and all animals. And there are some people who believe that every single thing that occurs in this world — even when it comes to non-living, inanimate things — that nothing moves in this world without a direct, specific decree from God. So much so that even a leaf falling from a tree was directly decreed by God to happen at just that moment, and that there was no way for it to fall a moment earlier or later, because that is when God wanted it to fall. This view is very far from intelligence.

ויש כתות רעות יחשבו שלא ישים השגחתו ברוך הוא כלל בכל עניני העולם השפל, בין באנשים או בשאר בעלי חיים, והוא דעת הכופרים, רע ומר.

Paraphrase: And there are sects that think that God does not intervene in this world at all, whatsoever. Wether it be with people, or non-living things. This is heresy.

So, as follows: To believe that God intervenes with animals is inaccurate; to believe that God intervenes when it comes to even intimate objects is idiotic; and to believe that God never intervenes at all is heretical.

ואנחנו בעלי הדעת האמיתים לפי מה ששמעתי נשים השגחתו ברוך הוא על כל מיני בעלי חיים בכלל, שכל מין מן המינים הנבראים בעולם, יתקיים לעולם, לא יכלה ויאבד כלו, כי בהשגחתו ימצא קיום לכל דבר.

Paraphrase: But we, who posses the correct view, based on what we have heard through tradition (so this is now a major Rishon speaking of his received tradition), know that when it comes to entire species that exist in this world, they will continue to exist by God’s will. A species’s extinction is under God’s Hashgacha/supervision.

So an entire species of animals yes, but inanimate objects, no. If something inanimate ceases to exist, that is simply an outgrowth of the scientific course of nature. If a specific, say, cat ceases to exist, the same. If an entire species of animals, however, ceases to exist — that God does care about, and would only allow if He so chooses or decrees.

ובמין האדם נאמין כי השגחתו ברוך הוא על כל אחד ואחד בפרט, והוא המבין אל כל מעשיהם (תהלים לג טו). וכן קבלנו מגדולינו, וגם נמצא על זה הרבה כתובים יורו כי הענין כן.

Paraphrase: When it comes to human beings, now, we believe that God’s Hashgacha/supervision applies to every person. He understands all actions that we do. We received this from our great teachers.

ולכן הזהירתנו התורה כי בהגיע אל האדם החלי הרע, והוא הצרעת, שלא יקחנו דרך מקרה, רק יחשב מיד כי עונותיו גרמו וירחיק מחברת בני אדם כאדם המרחק מרע מעשיו, ויתחבר אל המכפר המרפא שבר החטא ויראה אליו נגעו, ובעצתו ובדבריו ובפשפוש מעשיו יוסר מעליו הנגע, כי האל ברוך הוא שמשגיח עליו תמיד יראה מעשה תשובתו וירפאהו, וזהו ענין ההסגרין כמו שאמרנו.

Paraphrase: Therefore, we must all be careful with what God has commanded us in the Torah. When one is inflicted with leprosy one should not think that it is only by chance. Instead, one should immediately think that it was his sins that caused the disease. He should walk away from the sight of people, and he should walk away from his evil actions. He should connect to those that give him kaparah, and he will heal the rupture created by the sin, and show his affliction to the kohein. With the counsel of the kohein he will be taught, he should sit in introspection, and when God, who sees and knows all, sees the repentance, He will heal him.

Conclusion (Thus Far)

Now, we know that the Sefer HaChinuch was, essentially, written as a primer, of sorts, for children. It was written, specifically, for the (anonymous) author’s son. So we are mostly talking in broad strokes here. But, in essence, it is very clear that the Sefer HaChinuch is teaching the following:

  • We should not believe in Divine Hashgacha/supervision by inanimate objects.
  • We should only believe in a general Hashgacha/supervision (also known as Hashgacha Klalis) when it comes to animals.
  • Individual Hashgacha/supervision very much applies to human beings (but only to human beings). This includes that fact that God cares about, knows, and punishes/rewards all of our actions.

What is the scope of the supervision? Where and how does it overlap with “intervention”? Does it apply to all humans equally? What is the depth of the intervention? And when does this intervention occur? These are all key questions that the Sefer HaChinuch does not deal with here.

We will hopefully deal with them, and other Hashgacha-related topics, in essays to come. But for now, the most basic of information in relation to this topic has been established.

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