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Space and Place (in Jewish Philosophy)

SPACE AND PLACE (in Jewish Philosophy).


The term "place" has three meanings for *Philo, one physical and two theological: (1) the space taken up by a body, (2) the divine *logos, and (3) God Himself (Som. 1:11, 62–64). The first definition is probably derived from Stoic philosophy and is, in fact, similar to Aristotle's definition. In contrast to the latter, however, Philo's conception is based on the existence of three-dimensional space, which is itself independent of the bodies which fill it. The second definition does not relate to physical space; the place identified with the divine logos is said to be wholly filled by God Himself. On the other hand, it is characteristic of Philo's thought to ascribe a spatial relationship to the place of the third definition: "God Himself is called a place, by reason of His containing things, and being contained by nothing whatever… for He is that which He Himself has occupied, and naught encloses Him but Himself. I, mark you, am not a place, but in a place; and each thing likewise that exists… and the Deity, being contained by nothing, is of necessity Itself Its own place."

Philo's third definition relates to Jewish tradition. Jewish sources often refer to God as "Place" (Makom); a usage which was prevalent before Philo's time. Several Greek writers who preceded Philo, in referring to the God of the Jews, used the term makkif ("containing"), which appears in Philo's third definition. Later midrashic texts (e.g., Gen. R. 8:10) state explicitly that God is "the place of the world and His world is not His place."

In the Muslim world the first Karaite thinkers accepted the atomistic theories of the Mu'tazilites (see *Kalām), according to which not only bodies composed of atoms are inseparable, but there also exist equal and indivisible units of space, of time, of motion, and of the different qualities. Within a unit of motion, the atom passes from one unit of space to an adjoining unit. The existence of void space may be assumed, because (according to the notion also held by Greek atomists) the atoms could not move from place to place in a world which has no void.

Saadiah Gaon

Saadiah's definition of space is "the meeting of two contiguous bodies… each one of them becomes the place of the other. Thus one part of the earth, as it revolves, serves as the locale for the other" (Beliefs and Opinions, 1:4). This definition is probably based on an incorrect reading of Aristotle's conception, and the conclusions which Saadiah derives appear contradictory: at times he uses Aristotle's view as a proof that God, being incorporeal, cannot be in a particular place; at other times he seems to be saying that God is everywhere. In his commentary to Sefer Yeẓirah, Saadiah speaks of two kinds of air which are found everywhere:

(1) tangible air, and

(2) the fine air, which he identifies with the biblical "glory of God" (see *Shekhinah).

Jewish Aristotelianism

Ibn Abī Saʾīd, the first Jewish Aristotelian, appears to have accepted, in general, Aristotle's definition of place as "the limit of the encompassing body." This conception, which was commonplace in Muslim and Jewish philosophy, was totally rejected by Abu al-Barakat Ḥibat Allah (Nethanel) *al-Baghdadi, a Jewish philosopher who converted to Islam in his old age. He held the notion that space is a three-dimensional extension, which can be seen as both void and filled with bodies. The human intellect, according to him, has an image of void space before having an image of filled space. Contrary to Aristotle, whose views he criticizes at length, he believes that space is infinite.

Solomon ibn Gabirol

According to Solomon ibn Gabirol (in his Mekor Ḥayyim), there is a hierarchy of different kinds of place, some of which are spiritual (when the spiritual being is the place of spiritual form, and "will" is the place of both matter and form), and others physical. He refers to the existence of various other types of bodies as the "known place." God (the first agent) is the infinite place (or space).

Abraham ibn Daud

Abraham ibn *Daud attempts (in his Emunah Ramah) to establish the derivation of the three dimensions from prime matter, "which God created in the beginning," and which in itself is apparently non-spatial. The first form which it takes on, the corporeal form, is identified with continuity. This form affords something a certain measure of solidity and allows the three dimensions to come into existence.


*Maimonides accepts the Aristotelian view of physical place. He distinguishes between "particular" and "general" place (Guide of the Perplexed, 1:8): the particular place is the place of every individual body, which is the body referred to in Aristotle's definition; the general place, which contains all bodies, encompasses within its area the upper sphere, and the two are identical since, like Aristotle, Maimonides sees the world as finite. The term "place," when used to refer to God, designates His greatness.


*Naḥmanides recounts the midrashic notion that God is "the place of the world." The sages, in his opinion, meant by this dictum that God is the form of the world, since form is the realization (the entelechy) of the perfection of what is contained in the world, and is also its limit since it prevents the spreading out of the world's dimensions beyond its form.

Ḥasdai Crescas

A basic criticism of the Aristotelian conception of space and place is found in Ḥasdai *Crescas' Or Adonai, whose point of view and opinions are sometimes similar to those of Ḥibat Allah. It appears that Crescas was influenced in this critical attitude by the anti-Aristotelian physical theories of 14th- and 15th-century Christian scholastics. Crescas substitutes for the Aristotelian conception of two-dimensional place the conception of three-dimensional space (using the term makom ("place") to designate both place and space). This three-dimensional space is found within the limits of the world which is full of bodies. Crescas' notion that the world is infinite, however, leads him to reject the assumption that the existence of a void is impossible. It is his opinion that infinite void can exist outside the limits of the world, and even within the world itself. Crescas also assumes the possibility of the existence of more than one world. He maintains, however, that the human intellect is incapable of arriving at well-founded conclusions in regard to this matter. Like Naḥmanides, Crescas holds that referring to God as "the place of the world" means that God is the form of the world.

Apparently under Crescas' influence his disciple, Joseph *Albo, substituted the three-dimensional conception of space for the Aristotelian conception (Sefer ha-Ikkarim, 2:17).


I.I. Efros, The Problems of Space in Jewish Medieval Philosophy (1917); H.A. Wolfson, Crescas' Critique of Aristotle (1929), index, S.V. Place; idem, Philo (19482), index S.V. Place, Space; S. Pines, in: REJ, 103 (1938), 3–64; idem, in: PAAJR, 24 (1955), 103–36; Ch. Touati, in: Archives d'histoire Doctrinale et Littéraire du Moyen Aˇge, 21 (1954), 203–4.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.