Jews and the Belief in Trinity (Christians believe in the Father the Son and the Holy Ghost, but how about the Jews?)

In the first chapter of the first book of the Mishnah Torah, Maimonides writes that everything Hashem creates in the material world is divided into three parts.

Elaborating on this detail and borrowing from the same novella, in the Chassidic discourse called “Basi L’Gani,” (1950) Yosef Yitzhak Scheerson, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe writes:

המדע והוא היודע והוא הידוע שהוא

Citing the point from the Mishnah Torah’s Yesodi HaTorah, he means that Hashem is the ‘knower’ ‘the subject of knowledge’ and ‘knowledge itself’.

In this we see how the neo-kabbalistic thought of the Chabad spiritual circle is in debt to the neo-platonic and pseudo-Aristotelian thought of Moses Ben Maimon (1135-1204) and before him, Solomon Ibn Gavirol (1021-1058).

It is in the case of knowledge that all three divisions of existence, (form, substance and will), are united “above.”

הידוע – the ‘thing which is known’ = form; היודע or the the knower = will and הדיעה also to be rendered as מדע  or  ידע = knowledge itself, is substance itself.

(Notice the placement of the ‘ו’ between the other letters in the פועל and פעל form of the word).

In Shaar HaYichud from Tanya (1797) the Alter Rebbe writes:

אחד עצמה  הכל אחד שהואהיודעוהואהידועוהואהדיעה

He is saying that the ‘knower’, ‘the knowledge’, and the object ‘known’ are all combined as one, as so too the ‘will’, ‘substance/matter’ and ‘form’ are all united in creation in the Godly realm.

These words are used to describe Hashem and therefore in his Guide for the Perplexed Maimonides refers to them as “descriptive terms.” This is because the substance, ‘the knowledge itself’ is not changeable, it is not created but exists always. As opposed to a similar word that rings true both in linguistic structure as well as concept.

In the Eastern European Rabbinical writing of the 16th century and on, the phrase:

והמושכל השכל והמשכיל

translated as the ‘intellect’ the ‘intellectual’ and the ‘mind’ are occasionally brought forth. For instance, in the work known as Sefero Gavuras Hashem, the Maharal of Prague (1520-1609) writes that it is impossible to describe Hashem in the language written above: “descriptive terms.” You cannot say that השכל והמשכיל והמושכל are all one, and united above. Whereas, in the prior case, you can indeed say that המדע והוא היודע והוא הידוע unite as one.

This is because the substance or the שכל “mind” is corporeal. That is to say, if we call it the ‘brain’ and ‘nerves’ we can see it, touch it and know it in a palpable, physical way. ‘Substance’ or ‘matter’ is defined by Aristotle as “that which in itself is not a this…”

The Tzemach Tzedek (Menachem Mendel Schneerson) the third Rebbe of Chabad Lubavitch expounds upon this in a work known as Derech M’Tzvotecha (1912-1913), in which he explains that there is no end to knowledge as matter, as there is no end to Hashem (the infinite ein sof). ‘The mind’ however, as a matter of substance has a definite ending in physical creation. So the two ‘verbs’ must belong on different levels of creation.

(Linguistically, the Hebrew word for intellect, intellectual and intellectualized are also important because it takes the intellect to begin to grasp the knowledge. However, it is not in the category of the direct creation of Hashem; it exists in man. Again, the ‘mind’ or the ‘brain’ has both ‘limitation’ and ‘definition’.

“Since He is not a body” Maimonides writes of the non-corporeal nature of Hashem, “the circumstances associated with bodies that produce division and separation are not relevant to him. Therefore,” he writes “it is impossible for Him to be anything other than one.”

Therefore, Hashem is not a trinity; unlike the creation itself.

The Maharal of Prague (1520-1609), however, disagrees with this: “Knowledge is the awareness of a concept as it is.” he writes. “Just as to be grasped physically, an object must possess a definite size and form, to be comprehended intellectually, an entity must have a specific definition. Thus, knowledge – even God’s own knowledge – cannot be identified with God or used as a description of him, because he is utterly infinite. He is not merely beyond the limits of human knowledge; He is unknowable in essence…” (Gevurot HaShem).

Therefore, as stated above, שכל or ‘mind’ possesses ‘body’ and ‘form’, it is in essence the ‘brain’; ‘knowledge’ on the other hand possesses body and form when the ‘knower’ היודע is being addressed; but Hashem who has no form or body, is also a ‘knower’ – beyond the faculty of intellect. He is the ‘all-knowing’. Intellect cannot truly grasp him, only his image in the creation.

In the fictional dialogue between pupil and master, ‘Fons Vitaeor ‘The Fountain of Life’, written by the Spanish Judeo-Arab poet Solomon Ibn Gavirol tries to direct the path of knowledge from ‘creator’ to ‘creation’ through the necessary steps of matter (substance) and form, to will.


The creation of all things by the Creator, that is, the emanation of form

from the first source, which is to say, the will, and its overflowing across

matter resembles the upwelling of water flowing from a fountain and descending

. . . And the imprinting of form in matter, when it reaches it

from the will, is like the return of the form of one who is gazing into a mirror…

(Makor [Meayn] Chaim)

As we have above explored the etymological and philosophical concepts of מדע and שכל Gavirol brings up another word-root idea: ספר the word for ‘book’ may be altered by adding a ‘ו’ after the ‘ס’ to form the word סופר which means scribe and then pushing the ‘ו’ down one more letter, after the ‘פ’ to create the word ספור for ‘story’. Again, here we see how we use Hebrew grammar to etymologically jump from matter-substance, to form and will, the ‘original author’. In his startling translation of and essay about Ibn Gavirol, the 20th century playwright and scholar,

Israel Zangwill of London writes:

The active Will of God is analogous to the Scribe; the Form resulting from the action of the Will upon Matter can be compared to the Script, while Matter is analogous to the tablet upon which the writing is engraved.” By שלשה ספרים , therefore, he does not mean literally three books, but the threefold etymological conception that may be attributed to the letters ס-פ-ר , namely סופר , ספור , and ספר . In other words, the three entities which are accountable for the creation of the universe, namely, Will, Form, and Matter, may be compared to the three agencies involved in the writing of a book, the Scribe, Script, and Scroll, an idea which Gabirol very likely borrowed from the Sefer Yezirah.


However, it was his belief in Trinity that made Ibn Gavirol unpopular in Jewish circles. His idea of the ‘scribe’, ‘scroll’ and ‘script’ is taken from the ‘Sefer Yetzirah’, in fact the portion which is read in synagogue during the all-night study session which takes place there during the festival of Shavuot.

These etymological examples are rare, perfect for a poet and in agreement with the version of creation in which Hashem creates the world in a series of alpha-phonic utterances. This version of creation is old as the version where Hashem creates via vessels of light which he place in the sefirot which are found in four worlds. The most light is found in the highest world of ‘atzilut’ and things become contracted increasingly with every world, ‘yitzira’, ‘bria’ and finally on down to ‘asiya’ the world of ‘action’.

The order of the descending worlds is called the “seder hishtalshelut.” The exact translation for ‘histalshelut’ can either be rendered as ‘chain’ or ‘worm’. The word features the root of the word for ‘three’ = ‘shalosh’, so we are still reminded of the ‘trinity’ idea.

It might also be said that ‘knowledge’ exists in the world of ‘atzilut’ and may trickle down into all of the lower worlds, but “intellect” is found no higher than “yitzira,” say. Furthermore, the three forms of each word may be placed on the ‘seder hishtalshalut’.

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle, speaks of four causes in creation. There is firstly a material cause, this is the substance of matter. Secondly, Aristotle speaks of an efficient cause, this is the means of creation, such as the vessels of light found in the sefirot of each work in kabbalah. Then there is a formal cause, this is ‘form’, and lastly there is final cause, this is the same as ‘will’.  But underlying it all, according to Aristotle, God is the root of substance. God exists therefore, according to Aristotle, beyond reason.

Aristotle’s metaphysics does not slightly resemble the trinity concept.

About the Author
Scott Krane has been blogging for The Times of Israel since 2012. His writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Tablet, The Jerusalem Post and the Daily Caller, among others.