Aaron Koller – Limmud NY Presenter
The fifth chapter of Pirqe Avot is structured by lists, organized according to numbers. First there are the ‘tens’: ten sayings with which the world was created; ten generations from Adam to Noah, and another ten from Noah to Abraham; ten trials by which Abraham was tested; ten miracles in Egypt, another ten at the Reed Sea, and yet a third set of ten miracles in the Temple; ten things that were created at twilight. Following the ‘tens’ come the ‘sevens’, then the ‘fours,’ and then a series of proverbs structured as binary oppositions (‘twos’). Since originally the fifth chapter was the last one in the tractate Avot, the last few mishnayot are conclusions to the book as a whole.
The last of the ‘tens’, as mentioned, are the ten things created at twilight. The mishnah (Avot 5:8) reads:
Ten things were created at twilight:
- the mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korah]
- the mouth of the well [that provided water for the Israelites in the wilderness]
- the mouth of the donkey [that spoke to Balaam]
- and the rainbow
- and the manna
- and the staff
- and the shamir
- and the writing
- and the inscription
- and the tablets.
Some say, also (11) the destructive spirits, and (12) Moses’ burial place, and (13) Abraham’s ram. And some say, (14) tongs are made with tongs.
The mishnah, in reliable manuscripts, does not actually say which twilight is intended here. A parallel text, cited in the Bavli (see Pesahim 54a), makes it explicit that this means twilight on the sixth day of creation. On this understanding, these ten – or up to fourteen – things were the last items created within the narrative of Genesis 1. This seems to reflect the notion that all of time can be divided into two epochs: the time of creation, and the time post-creation. Once the week of creation ended, the world was set, unchangeable. The reality that existed when Sabbath began would have to persist for eternity. So if there was anything that would later need to be changed, God would need to “create” it before Sabbath. At twilight, we find God rapidly creating ten things that need to be in place for later in history.
Maimonides, in the Guide for the Perplexed
2.29, articulates the implication of this: “For they said that when God created the present reality, and encoded within it the nature familiar to us, he established within this nature order that all miracles that have since taken place would take place.” Building on a midrash, Maimonides asserts that the Reed Sea was pre-programmed, so to speak, to reconfigure itself at a precise point in time. The Israelites and Egyptians were, unbeknownst to them, walking into a situation that was already arranged: the waters were going to stop flowing at a certain time, and then begin again soon thereafter. This allows Maimonides to conclude that, in agreement with Aristotle, the world never changes. Although God has the power to change – or even destroy – the world, in fact he never does.
Maimonides even explains that a prophet is, some of the time, much like the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court: he cannot change reality, but knows precisely when these pre-programmed aberrations from the norm will take place. By leveraging this knowledge, the prophet appears to be in control of nature. But in fact, no one is.
According to Maimonides – and if he is correct, this Mishnah – God’s greatness is not revealed in the anomalous and deviant miracles that appear to take place every so often. In fact, this are illusory, in a sense. God’s real greatness is in the regularity, in the laws of nature and the world all around us, that operates so smoothly with so little
need for intervention.
Not all of the things created at twilight are the raw materials of future miracles. Some seem to be simply setting up the world to run smoothly later on. It is hard to know precisely what was intended by “the script and the writing,” but conceivably this is simply a reflection on the miraculous nature of human written communication. (The association with the tablets may suggest that it is specific writing, though.)
The quaintest of the items on the list is the last: tongs. Here we have a solution for what is said to be (again, see Pesahim 54a) a logical conundrum. In order to make tongs, one needs to hold the metal in the fire and then hammer. But with what does one hold the metal in the fire, if not with tongs? So where does the first pair of tongs come from? Our mishnah suggests a simple answer: they were created at twilight. This epitomizes the naturalistic theology presented here. Alongside the mouth of the earth that would swallow Korah, the mouth of the donkey that would speak to Balaam, and the ram of Abraham that would take Isaac’s place on the altar, God created tongs. Thinking ahead, he realized this would be important, and he wanted to give humans a world they could occupy that was ready to go.
In sum, the mishnah presents us with a view of the world which is at turns comforting, terrifying, and empowering. It is comforting because, in a sense, all we will need is there already; of this we can have faith. It is terrifying because we can expect no further interventions. “There is nothing new under the sun,” as Kohelet says, and Maimonides quotes that in this context. Nature will not change for us, even if things are going naturally badly. And it is empowering because God already made the first pair of tongs. With those in hand, we can begin to make more pairs, and truly make the world, which was given to us, a place worthy of God’s creation.
Aaron Koller is an associate professor of Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University, where he studies the ancient world of the Bible and rabbinic literature, especially material culture, language, and intellectual history. His most recent book is Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought (Cambridge UP). Aaron also has a longstanding involvement in the Drisha Institute, where he teaches Talmud and biblical interpretation. He lives in Queens with his wife, Shira Hecht-Koller, and their children.