Does God Protect Us? The Boy Who Fell from the Tree

by Yitzchak Sprung

There are many approaches to the concept of Divine Providence which have found their place among Orthodox Jews. These range from the opinion that there is no such thing as chance[1], because God takes part in all actions and reactions, to radical positions in the other direction, which maintain that God has minimal to no involvement in our world[2]. The former outlook is a lot more popular, while the latter barely seems to come up in conversation, but they’re both there, and there are plenty of views and opinions in between the two[3]. One such approach emerges from the famous Talmudic story about the boy who fell from the tree.

The Talmud[4] tells us of a boy whose father asked him to climb a tree and send away the mother bird so that they might enjoy her eggs[5]. Fulfilling “Honor thy father”[6], the boy climbs the tree to send the mother bird away, which he does successfully. Unfortunately, before he could make his way safely down from the tree, the boy lost his balance and fell to his death.

I’ve always been fascinated by this story because it never fails to make me think, and whenever it (somehow invariably) came up on Shavuot when I was younger, it brought about a lot of interesting discussion and questions, even late into the night.

The story is actually brought as kind of explanation for the opinion of Rabbi Yaakov, who holds that “there is no reward in this world for (the performance of) Mitzvot.”The boy died then, because he can only expect his reward in the World to Come, whereas in this world there is none. As Marvin Fox once said [7], “The pain of an innocent child is no less a challenge to faith, in principle, than the pain of the millions whose agonies form the melancholy history of our age”. This must be what was bothering Rabbi Yaakov, and brought him to his conclusion.

The Talmud subjects this opinion to a series of challenges, including one brought from an obviously opposing Rabbi Elazar, who tells us : “Ones sent (to perform) a mitzvah are not harmed on their way (to do it), nor on their return (from its performance)”.

“Well”, you might be thinking,” if Rabbi Elazar is correct that one who has just completed the performance of a commandment will not be harmed on his way back (down a tree, say), then how do you explain the fact that this boy experienced serious harm -to the point of death -on his way back from the performance of a commandment?[8]

Really, the Talmud might say back, your question is a good one, but there is an exception to the rule. You see, we do not rely on miracles or providence in an inherently dangerous situation, even if we are performing a mitzvah. In our case, the ladder the boy was using to climb down was a rickety one, which means that the boy was in an inherently risky situation, and so the exception applies.

This then, is the opinion of Rabbi Yaakov. He accepts the maxim of Rabbi Elazar as true, but with a certain exception in mind.

So, we might ask, if, according to Rabbi Yaakov, providence cannot be relied upon to save us from a dangerous situation, when exactly can we expect providence?

I suppose there are several ways we might try and explain this, and I’ll list some of the more obvious ones.

1)  The Talmudic discussion applies to a layman, who may not rely on a miracle, but a tzadik, or an especially righteous person, may in fact do so.

This doesn’t really help most of us, and we can learn from this that most of us receive no divine providence whatsoever. Bummer.

Still, this is probably not the Gemara’s opinion, because the Talmud seems to be discussing regular people and makes no indication otherwise. The boy who died was doing a mitzvah, but (as one suggestion goes) maybe the reason he died was because he was thinking idolatrous thoughts while in the tree, thus voiding the protection of these commandments. So, if the Talmud does not assume that a person has to be a tzaddik to be protected by God, then one must merely steer clear of paganism while doing the mitzvot.  After all, is that really too much to ask?

Therefore, R. Elazar’s maxim applies to anyone doing a mitzvah, not just the righteous elite, and we are forced to seek another explanation[9].

2) Maybe the Talmud believes that while providence should not be relied upon to save us from danger, it may be relied upon to improve situations that are not inherently dangerous. Intuitively, I do not think this is a simple reading of the text, since I don’t think the rest of R. Elazar’s maxim (if he were still alive) would be “but in all other situations you may rely on a miracle to make your life better”. Still, we won’t look into whether or not we can answer this question decisively one way or another right now.

3) Rabbi Yaakov may hold that God does not tend to get involved in our lives one way or another, but you never know. He is, after all, a personal God[10], and you may pray to Him. Providence or a miracle is always a possibility, if one that should not be relied upon.

This last option does seem to me to be the simple explanation of R. Elazar’s maxim, since the Sages believe in providence, but seem to want to limit our reliance on it[11].

My brother has recently assured me that blogs must have contemporary relevance to be interesting, so here’s my bit on how this all relates to you:

In the times of planes, trains, and automobiles[12], that’s a lot time spent in inherently risky situations, not to mention all the other dumb things we do like eat unhealthy foods and inhale an incredible amount of second hand smoke. So, I suppose that this little exception to the rule is some pretty good information to have. In dangerous situations we don’t rely on a miracle, even if we’re in the middle of a mitzvah. If we are constantly in the middle of at least somewhat risky situations, we should be extremely careful, since God will not be careful on our behalf[13].

Now that we’ve analyzed (if very shortly and in a basic way) this Talmudic story, and even spoken a little bit about a ramification or two, I feel like I should justify our discussion on a broader level. After all, not only is this but one of an almost endless seeming list of approaches in the Talmud to this and similar questions, but do we really think that this kind of question is solvable at all?

Without trying to answer those questions, because I think they probably deserve a lot of thought, I want to offer two justifications[14].

I think there’s value in showing that the sages had nuanced opinions on these issues, and didn’t see things in purely stark[15] terms. They were complex people with complex opinions, and if we remember this we will also remember that our tradition is a complex one, and cannot be fit into a neat box with one answer for each question.

Furthermore, if Rabbi Yaakov did indeed believe that providence should not be relied upon in a risky situation, then I think he was trying to teach us an important lesson as well. We might experience an apparent absence of God’s involvement in our lives, and so we might come to reject the classic Jewish belief in a personal God. In order to affirm the belief in a personal and present God the Sages chose to use the particular phrasing of “reliance”. Indeed, one may not rely on providence according to this story, however, one may ask for it, since these Sages believe that God will either accept or reject our petition to Him.

Of course, this isn’t the only opinion in the Talmud, which we can see by continuing down the very same page…


[1]I was informed of this recently by a book seller in Bnei Brak, but it’s actually something people around me have been saying my entire life as far as I can remember. I have often heard people treat the idea of coincidence or chance as somewhat insulting to God.

Rambam lists this in the Guide (3:17) as a mistaken opinion of the Ashariya, but lists no Jews who might have held this opinion.

I assume this belief  is one of the things Menachem Kellner is referring to when he says the world favored by “Maimonides’ opponents” is an “enchanted” one (‘Science in the Beit Midrash: Studies in Maimonides’ (Academic Studies Press, 2009) on page 357.).

[2] While even Gersonides holds that there is divine providence for some individuals, he holds that it is in correlation to how close a person is to the “Active Intellect”, which the individual reaches a sort of unity with. (For this see “Providence in the Philosophy of Gersonides” by J.D. Bleich (Ktav), especially his translation of Mihamot Hashem treatise 4.) At any rate, this is apparently a natural process, and not “a conscious act of God” (Bleich, p. 40), so that beyond the nature that God has already put into place, it would appear that He does not interfere in our affairs.

Bleich also mentions (p. 39 and translation on 65) that species receive providence in the form of “organs” and “natural instincts” so providence for species is accomplished in a similarly naturalistic manner.

[3] See, for example, the very interesting opinion of Radbaz that man has the free will to live an ethical life, but providence determines his wealth. This is brought and translated in L. Jacob’s “Theology in the Responsa” (Littman Library), page 113.

[4]BT Kiddushin, 39b. The following discussion from the Gemara is also from there.

[5] Deut. 22:6

[6] Ex. 20:12

[7] ‘Collected Essays On Philosophy and On Judaism Volume Two, Some Philosophers’, page 93. (Binghamton University, 2001)

[8] The Talmud in fact assumes that Rabi Yaakov must prove his point does not contradict Rabbi Elazar’s, who is presumably correct.

[9] We could say that the Talmud moves on from this assumption though, and proceeds to assume in the following discussion that providence is only for the righteous.  For now, we’ll have to leave that question unsolved.

[10]See for example Psalm 146, Daniel 2:20-24, Deut. 16:2, these being 3 places I opened a TaNaKh to at random.

[11] The reason I’m not discussing the opinion of Gersonides and Maimonides here is because I do not assume a simple explanation of the text includes that Rabbi Yaakov is an Aristotelian. However, see Milhamot treatise 4 for a discussion of this particular Talmudic discussion according to Gersonides.

[12] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093748/. I actually never watched the whole movie.

[13] One area we might discuss in relation to this point is regarding the risk of not having a job, or a full time job, or even a college education. This seems to me to be a ramification of Rabbi Yaakov’s view. If relying on charity is to be regarded as inherently risky, then the Talmud is telling us not to rely on God to raise our standard of living. However, there are those today who look unfavorably on working, going to college, etc., and this is a dividing line between many in the Orthodox community. Presumably, people who believe that having a job is B’diavad will affirm “God will provide” if we simply have enough faith, or perhaps, as others say, “if I put in my hishtadlus (effort), then God will provide”. The first approach is at odds with this particular opinion in the Talmud, though they could marshal their own sources.  As for the second approach, I have a hard time defining exactly what people mean when they say to put in “hishtadlus”, but it sounds a lot like “prepare for things properly and you’ll succeed”. That’s certainly not advice I would argue with generally speaking, but I do not think the Talmud here would agree with that opinion either. It is just that sort of guarantee that Rabbi Yaakov wants to inform us we will not be getting from God.

Marc B. Shapiro mentioned recently that “While it is true that the numbers of people who currently follow this approach (ie:looking unfavorably upon working) is much larger than ever before in history, it must be noted that even in previous years there were those who acted in the same fashion.” here http://seforim.blogspot.co.il/2012/06/taliban-women-and-more.html.My thanks to Rami Schwartz for sending me this link.

[14] Not to the exclusion of many others that might be offered, such as those, for example, listed in Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s  “Why Learn Gemara?”, pp. 1-17 in his ‘Leaves of Faith: Volume 1’ (Ktav 2003)

[15] Tony.

5 Comments

Filed under Miscellaneous, Rationalism

5 responses to “Does God Protect Us? The Boy Who Fell from the Tree

  1. Anonymous

    According to the author, God is willing to provide some of His well-known divine providence to those in need. This idea necessitates the discussion of the contradiction between divine providence and the gross amount of suffering in the world. Is God just lazy, capricious, or sadistic? Or might we just throw our hands up in the air and say, “God’s ways are beyond our understanding.” This contradiction was briefly touched via the opinion of Rav Yaakov, whose opinion, at least to me, is the only one that is honest about the state of the world.

  2. Yitzchak Sprung

    Thanks for reading!
    Your question is a classically difficult one, which is why it has been addressed in the TaNaKH, through the Talmud, and down to your comment.
    I’ll try and discuss aspects of your question and some suggested answers in a post some time in the future, since it’s way too much too much to get to in a comment. Deal?

  3. Pingback: Why Is There Evil in the World? | ThinkJudaism

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