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Rav Dessler zt"l



The Slifkin Affair

Misunderstanding of the Rambam in Challenge of Creation (2006)

At the beginning of of his book Challenge of Creation (2006), Rabbi Slifkin writes that his book addresses the challenges provided by the modern scientific enterprise to Torah by following the approach of the Rambam. Thus, Challenge puts the Rambam front and center in the book's attempted reconciliation between Darwin and Torah. However, Challenge manages to do to the Rambam what the Rambam describes was done to God.

It is not implausible that despite one’s endeavor to make a premise clear and simple and, striving to expunge any ambiguities and dispense with any reinterpretations, some will understand from [his very words] the reverse of that premise. This has happened even with the words of Hashem Yisborach" [Rambam, introduction to his Maamar T’chiyyas HaMeisim].

Shema Yisrael -- "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One" -- is a pledge of allegiance to the One unique and transcendent God. The Rambam's point is that despite God's clearest statement to the contrary, Dualists saw in this pledge a hint that there is more than one god.

Likewise, despite the Rambam's clear statements on core Jewish beliefs with respect to Creation, Challenge has managed to arrive at the very reverse of what the Rambam explicitly stated. We start with some relevant quotes from Challenge.

Rambam understood the six days of creation to be describing a conceptual hierarchy of the world rather than a historical account of Creation. … [Rambam] believed that most of the account of Adam in Genesis is not a historical account of an individual but instead a portrayal of the role of man in the world.[1]


Thus the early references to “Adam” are speaking about the fundamental nature of man in general, rather than referring to a particular person who fathered Cain and Abel.[2]


Putting all this together with the Rambam’s and Ralbag’s explanation of the six days, it would seem that, according to this approach the first three chapters of Genesis are for the most part speaking about the archetypical nature of man and his life in this world rather than a historical account of a particular person’s life.[3]

However, contra Rabbi Slifkin, the Rambam (and Ralbag) say no such thing! Consider, for example, the following proof text from the Rambam's halachic magnum opus. 

[Rambam, Yad Hachazaka, Laws of the Temple]: The location of the Altar [in the Holy Temple] is very precise. This location may not be altered in any way. … We have an authentic tradition that the place where David and Solomon built the Altar on the threshing floor of Arona, is the very place where Abraham built an altar and bound Isaac upon it; this is where Noah built [an altar] when he came out from the Ark; this is where Cain and Abel brought their offerings; this is where Adam the First Man offered a korban [an offering to God] when he was created – and it is from [the earth of] this place that he was created.[4] 

For the Rambam, Adam is a real historical figure created on the sixth day in the image of God (no less real than our patriarch Abraham). An explicit prooftext such as this, of course, settles the matter conclusively. There is no allegory. The first man Adam and the first woman Chava are real historical personalities, the ancestors of all mankind.

Rabbi Slifkin quotes an Abarbanel (A1) in which the Abarbanel at first attributes an allegorical  opinion  to the Rambam.  [This attribution can be found in the Abarbanel’s commentary on Chumash Bereishis (1:1) question #9.] However, Rabbi Slifkin omitted to quote two essential subsequent comments of the Abarbanel (see A2 and A3 below). In chapter 2 ( just after question #42), the Abarbanel revisits the issue of allegory in the Rambam, at which point Abarbanel writes as follows:

 A2: "Behold you see that the opinion of the Rav (the Rambam) was not that all of MB was an allegory, rather, only a small part of it (some elements in the second chapter of Bereishis, not the first), and that all which is mentioned [in the Torah]  regarding the activity of the six days, from the creation of the heavens and the earth, and all of the phenomena, and the creation of Adam and his wife, up until [the passage of] "v'yichulu", have no allegory whatsoever for everything was [understood as] literal to him and therefore you will see that in this very chapter, #30 in the second section, in all which the Rav has explicated regarding the activity of the six days, he did not make [of MB] an allegory or a hint (pirush tzurayi oh remez) at all; rather, he did the exact opposite, for he made a concerted effort to support the doctrine of creation ex nihilo and accepted all of the verses literally..." (Abarbanel to Sefer Bereishis page 86, second column, 14 lines down)

 When the Abarbanel wishes to characterize the ‘hierarchal scenario” of creation, he refers to it as tzurayi (i.e form, allegory – see for instance bottom of page 85, left column and top of page 86 right column) and thus when he ultimately states “he did not make [of creation] an allegory or a hint (pirush tzurayi oh remez) at all” he means that the Rambam entirely rejected the hierarchal explanation in favour of a literal reading. The Abarbanel on his actual commentary to the Moreh (Standard Ibn Tibbon edition pg. 64b first column on the bottom) confirms this approach as follows.

A3: And the Rav (Rambam) also meant with this to what he stated at the end of chapter 29 and chapter 30 of this chelek, and this is that the true chiddush (i.e. creation from nothing) is what is described in the verses regarding the six days of creation…and it is entirely literal and therefore the seventh day was the day of rest to demonstrate that after all was completed on the sixth day, nothing more was created…and in order to testify to this great thing, Shabbos was established as the seventh day to hint at and make known that absolutely nothing was created after the sixth day…

The truth is the Abarbanel had no choice in the matter. The Rambam is so clear regarding this issue that it is impossible to think differently. The Abarbanel (A2 above) writes that the Rambam "did not veer from the literal interpretation" of the Genesis verses in response to the following prooftext in Moreh Nevuchim.

The account of the six days of creation contains, in reference to the creation of man, the statement: “Male and female created he them” (1:27), and concludes with the words: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them” (2:1), and yet the portion which follows describes the creation of Eve from Adam, the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge, the history of the serpent and the events connected therewith, and all this as having taken place after Adam had been placed in the Garden of Eden. All our Sages agree that this took place on the sixth day, and that nothing new was created after the close of the six days. None of the things mentioned above is therefore impossible, because the laws of Nature were then not yet permanently fixed [Moreh Nevuchim 2.30]

As we saw, contra the Challenge quotes, the Abarbanel's opinion (A2, A3) is that the Rambam took the whole first chapter of the Torah literally. But the Abarbanel also writes that, according to the Rambam,  some of the events (e.g. the serpent) in the second chapter of the Torah are to be treated in the same way as Jacob's dream about the ladder reaching down from heavens (presumably this means that, like Jacob's dreams, the temptation was real enough but not that there was an actual serpent). However, the above prooftext indicates that the Rambam took the whole second chapter literally as well, as is stated by Rabbenu Crescas in his commentary to the Moreh.

It is clear, according to the opinion of the Rambam, that in the account of Adam and Chava, the matter of the serpent, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge all are possible as literally stated (kemashmayo), since nature was not yet established. New formations not previously in existence came into existence on each of six days of the creation week. So too, the matters mentioned such as Adam, Chava and the other events all happened literally (kepeshutam) because they occurred on day six.

[With respect to Adam and Chava created as a single entity:] Nobody questions the historical truth of the creation of Adam and Chava, the account of Cain, Abel, Seth, the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge. However, the Sages, by way of hint (remez) have enlightened us with [additional] precious insights. The Rambam, who is the Teacher of Righteousness, was drawn after the Sages to expound their meaning [in their comment that the first couple was created a single entity].

The prooftexts (above and below) establish the following important ideas in the Rambam.

  • The first chapter of the Torah is not allegorical at all. Rather it is a historical meta-natural account of the creation of the cosmos. Creation is unable to be duplicated via chance and naturalistic processes which obtain in the post-Creation period without a specialized ma’amar Hashem to activate this process.

  • The meta-natural creative process did not happen all at once. It lasted the entire sheshes yimey bereishis and culminated with Shabbos at which point the creative process was permanently suspended and the laws of nature permanently fixed. The first man was a historical personality, created, supra-naturally in the image of God on the sixth day of creation, precisely as outlined in the Torah.

  • Shabbos is a commemoration of these fundamental principles.


  1. When the Rambam discusses the grammatical connotation of the word va’yanch in the dibra which relates to Shabbos (Shmos 20:10), the Rambam states as follows: “[and the grammatical context of the word vayanach] is that [Hashem] caused reality to perpetuate in the state that it existed on the seventh day. In other words, every single day of the six days saw a process which caused new events to come into existence, [a process] which transcends the fixed nature which currently obtains in the universe in general (Moreh - Kapach ed. pg. 111).
  2. The Rambam states in Moreh Nevuchim that every episode related in the Torah is there for one of two purposes. Either it is there to reinforce a hashkafa which relates to one of the fundamentals of the Torah, or it appears in the Torah as a form of tikun olam, a societal infrastructure which facilitates harmony amongst mankind. If so, asks the Rambam, what is the purpose of all the generations listed between Adam haRishon and Avraham Avinu? Here’s the Rambam’s response: “Since it is a fundamental doctrine of the Torah that the world is newly created and that the first [human] creation was Adam and that the time which elapsed from Adam to Moshe is approximately 2,500 years…etc.” and the Rambam goes on to explain that anyone viewing such a diversified world with so many inhabitants belonging to so many different cultures speaking so many different languages spread out over such large geographical locations, might doubt the recentness of creation and the fact that initially, only one man was created. Therefore, the Torah goes out of its way to list the specific generations which unfolded from Adam to Moshe, who their leaders were, what occurred to them, and that they originally all spoke one language as one would expect from a society which descended from one lone man (Moreh 3:50 - Kapach ed. pg 400)
  3. When the Rambam discusses the mitzvah of shemitta and yovel, he identifies the precise historical year this mitzvah first took place as follows: “When did they first start to count? 14 years after they entered the land…7 years they were involved in conquering, seven years in dividing up the land…it therefore turns out that on the two thousandth, five hundred and third year from the Rosh Hashana of molad Adam haRishon, being the second year of creation (the first 5 days of creation were the last 5 days of the first virtual year of creation - see Rosh haShana 8a Tosfos s.v. Litkufos), they started to count. (Hilchos Shemitta v’Yovel 10:2)
  4. Adam haRishon was commanded to keep six mitzvos…an additional one was added to Noach…until Avraham came who was additionally commanded on milah and davened tefilas shacharis. Yitzchok separated tithes and added another prayer towards sundown. Yaakov added gid haNasheh and davened maariv. In Egypt, Amram was commanded in some additional mitzvos until Moshe came at which point the Torah was completed by him. (Hilchos Milachim 9:1)
  5. “Man was created alone in order to teach the world that whoever destroys [i.e. kills] a human life, it is as if he destroyed the entire world; and whoever maintains a human life, it is as if he maintained the entire world. Behold, all of mankind is created in the form of Adam haRishon and yet each person’s countenance is dissimilar from his friend’s. Therefore, each and every person can say, ‘the world was created specifically for me’”. (Hilchos Sanhedrin 12:3)

[1] Natan Slifkin, The Challenge of Creation, Yashar Books, 2006, page 339..

[2] Ibid. page 340.

[3] Ibid. page 342.

[4] Rambam, Yad HaChazaka, Hilchos Beis Habechira, 2:1-2.