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Parashat Vayera

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Vayera 5762/ November 3, 2001

Don't Feed the Angels
Yonah Bar-Maoz
Department of Bible

Who were the three "men" who visited Abraham? They are indeed called "men" in Chapter 18, men who eat and drink and perhaps even wash their feet. Later, however, it becomes clear beyond a shadow of doubt that these are special beings; they bring tidings of a miraculous event that will take place in exactly one year and, as if by telepathy, they know that Sarah overheard them and that she laughed, even though she did so at a distance.[1] In Chapter 19, even though they are called "angels", the narrator [i.e. the Torah] intimates to us[2] that we are dealing with the very same "men" whom we met in Chapter 18, but now we become aware of the exceptional behavior of two of them. Rescuing Lot and his family, on the one hand, and overturning Sodom and Gomorrah, on the other, justify our impression that we are not dealing with men of flesh and blood, but with supernatural beings capable of any miraculous deed.

This raises a difficulty regarding the beginning of the story: if we are dealing with angels, what were they doing eating and drinking? This question does not arise from our ideas about what angels do and don't, but rather from Scripture itself: in those biblical contexts where figures described as angels are asked to partake of food and drink, they refuse remonstratively and refrain from partaking, even when their hosts insist. This is true in the story of Gideon (Judges 6), as well as with Manoah, father of Samson (Judges 13). In the latter story the narrator even explains how it was that Manoah was so insistent about feeding the angel: "For Manoah did not know that he was an angel of the Lord" (Judges 13:16).

The extraordinary behavior of the angels in Genesis 18 is explained with relative ease by the Midrash:[3] angels can perform many miraculous things, including giving the appearance of eating and drinking. The explanation given by the Midrash, however, did not satisfy later generations, who in their concern with theology abandoned the picturesque language of Scripture and Midrash and strove to understand angels in conceptual terms. Thus when one says that "angels are not corporeal, rather separate forms,"[4] or, in a different formulation, "that the angels are not bodies, ...This is also what Aristotle says....These separate intellects are also intermediaries between G-d...and the existents; and that it is through their intermediation that the spheres are set in motion,"[5] it is still possible to understand the speech of angels as abstract thought, but no sense can be made of their eating, drinking and washing their feet!

Maimonides, in an attempt to unify the philosophical and scientific axioms current in his day with Scripture, interpreted Genesis 18 in a way that evoked the wrath of other commentators who were less devoted to philosophy than he. He related to Genesis 18 in two places. In The Guide of the Perplexed II.42, he took verse 1 as a heading summarizing the contents of the chapter, namely, the revelation of G-d to Abraham, and the rest of the chapter as describing the details of this revelation by means of men-angels:[6]

For in a vision of prophecy or in a dream of prophecy, the prophet sometimes sees G-d speaking to him...and sometimes an angel speaking to him; This is quite similar to the story concerning Abraham, in which it at first informs us in a general way, And the Lord appeared unto him, and so on, and then begins to say in what way this happened.

This interpretation stands in opposition to the one set forth by Rashi, who followed another opinion in the Midrash,[7] according to which this chapter contains two revelations; in the first, G-d was revealed to Abraham, and when He saw him saddened at not having guests, He sent three angels in the form of men to visit him; in his excitement at receiving guests, Abraham asked the Lord to wait for him: "If it please you, do not go on past your servant" (Gen. 18:3).

Maimonides' objection to viewing the chapter as containing two revelations is rooted both in the philosophical foundation of his interpretation and in his tendency towards the plain sense. In the scale which Maimonides built of twelve levels of understanding prophecy in its various manifestations (see Guide 2.45), the revelation of G-d himself in the daytime, when a person is fully awake, is the very acme of prophecy, for then mental awareness has almost absolute sway and the faculties of imagination have no place to create notions that are not true. This, the twelfth level, was attained only by Moses, and that is the basis for the superiority of his prophecy over that of all the other prophets.

Therefore one could not possibly interpret our text to indicate that G-d appeared to Abraham while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent, undoubtedly awake, as the day grew hot, meaning in broad daylight, watching for visitors to arrive. Yet as someone inclined toward the plain sense of the text, Maimonides could not accept an interpretation that presented G-d as being revealed briefly to a human in a revelation that lacked any explanation and was devoid of content and purpose, and then in an abrupt and illogical transition that same person being exposed to another revelation (see his explanation of transitions from one level to another, Guide 2.41).

Likewise, Maimonides could not accept the midrashic interpretation cited by Rashi that "receiving guests is more important than greeting the Divine Presence"[8] as an explanation of the plain sense, even were he willing to accept its lofty moral message, since it does not fit in with the relationship demanded of human beings vis-à-vis the Lord, as clearly expressed in the later halakhah (Mishnah Berakhot 5.1): "Should even the king greet one [while praying] he may not return the greeting to him. And if even a snake be curled round his heel he must not pause" – a person must not interrupt the intimate connection woven between himself and the Lord at a time when he is addressing his G-d, and all the more so when G-d is addressing him!

The second place where Maimonides relates to Genesis 18 is in his ranking of the aforementioned twelve levels. In a few words Maimonides presented a revolutionary way of understanding our parasha (see Guide 2.45): "The tenth degree consists in the prophet's seeing a man who addresses him in a vision of prophecy, as Abraham again by the terebinths of Mamre, and as Joshua in Jericho." Saying that the men spoke with him in a prophetic vision means that the entire story took place in Abraham's prophetic imagination and did not exist in the physical reality outside it.[9]

Nahmanides understood the implications of this interpretation and presented them outspokenly in his commentary (on Gen. 18:1):

The Guide for the Perplexed says this passage is a general statement followed by its details: first Scripture says that the Lord appeared to him in a prophetic vision, but how did this vision occur? For he looked up in his vision, and "he saw three men standing near him..., he said, 'if it please you...'" (Gen. 18:2-3) – this is an account of what he said in the prophetic vision to one of them, the senior of them. If what appeared to him in the vision was none other than men eating flesh, how could Scripture say "the Lord appeared to him"? For here the Lord did not appear to him either in a vision or in thought, and the like does not occur in any prophecy. By what he says, Sarah did not knead cakes and Abraham did not prepare a calf, nor did Sarah laugh; for it was all in a vision. If so, this dream came like most dreams of falsehood; for what was the use of showing him all this?... In his opinion, this need not be said regarding Lot, because the angels did not come into his house and he did not bake for them cakes which they ate; rather, it was all a vision. But if he elevates Lot to the rank of receiving prophetic vision, how could the sinful, evil people of Sodom be prophets? For who told them that men had come to his house? And if it was all a prophetic vision of Lot's, then all the passages, "the angels urged Lot on, saying, 'Up, take your wife'" (19:15), "Flee for your life!" (19:17), "Very well, I will grant you this favor too" (19:21), are all a vision, and Lot would remain in Sodom; but one might think that these things happened of their own accord, and the words said in every regard are an apparition. But such things contradict Scriptures; they must not be heard, and certainly not believed!

In other words, Maimonides' interpretation flatly rules out the possibility that the angels drank and ate, or that Abraham actually ran to greet them and feed them. Further, there is nothing in Abraham's actions which shows that he is dealing with angels; even when they bring him tidings of a miracle for Sarah, Abraham's behavior towards them does not change. Compare this with the behavior of other heroes of the Bible who tried to give food to angels, to wit, Gideon and Manoah; once it became clear to them that they were dealing with angels, they acted accordingly. For these reasons too Maimonides had to turn all the actions that Abraham performed into a prophetic vision rather than actual events, thus solving all his difficulties.

Nahmanides flatly rejected Maimonides' resolution of these problems, offering an alternative solution. Regarding the first difficulty he raised—what was the content of the Lord's revelation?—he responded that we find revelation in the Bible without G-d's speech, but as reward for a mitzvah:

This revelation of the Divine Presence to him was in tribute to him, as happened with the Tabernacle: "When they came out they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people" (Lev. 9:23), since for their endeavors in performing the commandments of the Tabernacle they were rewarded by seeing the Divine Presence. In neither case is the revelation of the Divine Presence in order to enjoin them regarding a commandment, or to speak to them at all; rather it is the reward for a commandment that has already been performed, indicating the Lord's approval of their deeds.

The remaining difficulties Nahmanides resolves by positing a new being, different from the angels. The men that Abraham saw were not angels, yet neither were they normal human beings, rather, they were special creatures:

Wherever angels are referred to by the word "men," as in this passage, the story of Lot, and the verses, "a man wrestled with him" (Gen. 32:25), as well as, "a man came upon him" (Gen. 37:15), according to our Rabbis (Tanhuma Va-Yeshev 2), in all these cases there was a special glory (kavod) created in the angels – called by those who know the mysteries of the Torah a "garment" (ha-malbush) – that can be perceived by human eyes in the purest of souls, such as the righteous and the sons of prophets, although I cannot be more explicit.

The assumption that the narrative refers to special creatures there were created in tangible form to honor Abraham solves two difficulties that perplexed Maimonides: these creatures were devised in such a way as to enable them to eat and drink; and the fact that Abraham stood and fed them without sensing their special nature indicated no flaw in Abraham's prophetic receptiveness, since they were created for this express purpose.

[1] Although the verse reads, "Then the Lord said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh?'" (Gen. 18:13), it is clear from elsewhere in the Bible that emissaries go by the name of the one who sends them. See Exodus 3:2: "An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush," and shortly thereafter, "the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look." Likewise, in Judges 6:14 it says of the angel who appeared to Gideon, "The Lord turned to him and said, 'Go in this strength of yours and deliver Israel.'"
[2] This is clearly intimated in Genesis 18:16: "The men set out from there and looked down toward Sodom, Abraham walking with them to see them off," immediately after which Abraham implores the Lord to have mercy on the people of Sodom. Another indication is the definite article accompanying the word "angels" (hamal'akhim) the first time they are referred to as such: "The two angels arrived in Sodom in the evening, as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom."
[3] Genesis Rabbah (Theodore-Albeck), Ch. 48, s.v. ve-hu omed aleihem ("and he waited on them"): R. Tanhuma in the name of R. Eleazar, R. Avin in the name of R. Meir: The proverb says, "When in Rome, do as the Romans": in the upper spheres, where eating is not done, Moses became like them, to wit: 'I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights, [eating no bread and drinking no water]' (Deut. 9:9); in the lower realms, where eating is done, it is said: 'he waited on them under the tree as they ate' (Gen. 18:8). But were they really eating? They only appeared to be eating..." Also see Bava Mezia 86b.
[4] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 2.3.
[5] Maimonides, Guide 2.6. There are other definitions in Maimonides' works, but this is not the place to discuss them.
[6] This was also the approach taken by Rashbam: " 'The Lord appeared to him' – how so? In the form of three men who were angels." This interpretation is mentioned by R. Hizkiah ben Manoah.
[7] Cf. Bava Mezia 86b, and Shoher Tov 18.29. Thanks to Rashi, this view became more widely known and accepted in the world of Jewish thought.
[8] Shabbat 127a.
[9] See the definition of a "vision" in Guide 2.41.