Hashgacha – Divine Providence

This lesson explores the concept of divine providence. Texts will examine the role of God in the world following its creation, exploring themes including what hashgacha is, natural law, relying on divine intervention and does human behaviour matter.

Resource Ages: 15-18


Maimonides (Rambam), Mishneh Torah, Laws Concerning Idolatry 1:3

(1135–1204) (Moshe ben Maimon) Philosopher, codifier, communal leader, and doctor in Spain and Egypt.

After this mighty one (Abraham) was weaned, while still a minor, his mind began to reflect. By day and by night he was thinking and wondering: “How is it possible that this (celestial) sphere should continuously be guiding the world and have no one to guide it and cause it to turn around; for it cannot be that it turns round of itself.” He had no teacher, no one to instruct him at all. He was submerged, in Ur of the Chaldees, among ignorant idolaters. His father and mother and the entire population were idolaters, and he worshipped with them. But his mind was busily working and reflecting till he had attained the way of truth, apprehended the correct line of thought with his right reasoning, and knew that there is one God, that [God] guides the celestial sphere and created everything, and that among all that exist, there is no other god. He realized that the whole world was in error, and that what had occasioned their error was that they worshipped the stars and the images, so that the truth was lost from their minds. Abraham was forty years old when he recognized his creator. Having attained this knowledge, he began to refute the inhabitants of Ur of the Chaldees, arguing with them and saying to them, “The course you are following is not the way of truth.”

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chullin 7b

Compilation of teachings of 3rd–6th century scholars in Babylonia (amora’im); final redaction in the 6th–7th centuries.

And Rabbi Chanina said, A person does not even hurt a finger below if it were not so decreed from above, as it says, A man’s steps are set by God (Psalms 37:23), what does a person know about their own path? (Proverbs 20:24).

וְאָמַר רַבִּי חֲנִינָא אֵין אָדָם נוֹקֵף אֶצְבָּעוֹ מִלְּמַטָּה אֶלָּא אִם כֵּן מַכְרִיזִין עָלָיו מִלְּמַעְלָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר מֵה’ מִצְעֲדֵי גֶבֶר כּוֹנָנוּ וְאָדָם מַה יָּבִין דַּרְכּוֹ.

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Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How can I experience moments of connection to God?
  • How do Jewish texts help me grapple with questions of life, the universe and everything?
  • How is Jewish text a vehicle to help us access connections to God?
  • What factors shape our values and beliefs?
  • What is the relationship between freedom and responsibility?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What is my conception of God?
  • What role, if any, do I believe God plays in the world on a day to day basis?
  • What role does God play in my life?
  • How does Judaism grapple with the tension between….
  • If God is involved in the world how can we have freewill?
  • If God is involved in the world what responsibilities do humans have for their actions?

Background for Teacher

Maimonides (Rambam), Mishneh Torah, Laws Concerning Idolatry 1:3 Pre-biblical religious belief: In the previous section of his Mishneh Torah, Rambam describes how humankind, in its earliest stages, was monotheistic. Over time, however, an error was committed. People thought that since God created the heavens...

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Maimonides (Rambam), Mishneh Torah, Laws Concerning Idolatry 1:3

Pre-biblical religious belief: In the previous section of his Mishneh Torah, Rambam describes how humankind, in its earliest stages, was monotheistic. Over time, however, an error was committed. People thought that since God created the heavens and the stars and assigned to them lofty tasks, these, too, should be honored and praised. This was considered a fulfillment of God’s will. Afterwards, false prophets arose and asserted that God desires not just the praise of the celestial bodies, but their worship, as well. Then people created objects that were supposed to represent those bodies, and they insisted that God wanted people to worship – referred to as avodah zarah (idolatry) – those objects too. In the course of time, the name of God was forgotten by the masses. This situation continued until the emergence of Avraham, with whom this text begins.

Avraham is the first to re-discover monotheism through philosophical inquiry : In classic midrashic fashion, Rambam imagines Avraham to be very inquisitive from his youth, a supposition based on earlier midrashim. As Rambam was a philosopher, and valued the art of philosophical thinking, it is no wonder he would fashion his image of Avraham in that mold. 

Abrahamic belief in divine providence: Rambam’s Avraham was battling against a number of different ideas. The first is the idea that the world is eternal in and of itself. If the world would be eternal, how could it be that it keeps on turning? Something has to keep the world, the entire cosmos, spinning. For Rambam, the only force that could keep the world going is God. Keeping the world spinning means being in control of events great and small, in other words, divine providence.

The extent of God’s intervention: Does this necessarily mean that Rambam believes that not even a leaf falls from a tree without God telling it to do so? Or is Rambam ultimately focused on the spheres of the universe – great and small – but of the universe nonetheless, meaning, God will not necessarily interfere with what happens within the spheres, but will only make sure the spheres keep on spinning?


How far does Rambam’s thought on hashgacha go?: For Rambam, God controls the highest spheres. From the previous text alone we are unsure down to what level of detail God is involved in the running of this world in the opinion of Rambam. Suffice it to say for now that it is not clear according to Rambam that God’s providence falls on every last person in the world, let alone on other created things – animate or inanimate. That God controls the highest spheres, and even more than that, is not the sole view of Rambam, it can also be heard in the words of Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi and in the thought of Rabbi Chaim Itzkowitz of Volozhin.

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chullin 7b

A Talmudic approach to hashgacha: Certainly one of the influences on Rambam’s thinking would be the thought of Rabbi Chanina in this Talmudic text. Rabbi Chanina’s approach goes further in involving God in the happenings of this world. For Rabbi Chanina, even stubbing one’s toe is an act guided by the hand of God. Rabbi Chanina even uses the generic term אדָָם (adam), which is usually taken to mean any and all human beings (and not just Jews). Rabbi Chanina bases his thinking on two biblical verses that seem to suggest that God does indeed guide the paths of the human being. (This block will explore in the next few texts, where else in the Tanakh such an approach to God’s providence can be found.) 

God is concerned with every small detail: Rabbi Chanina extends God’s influence beyond the spheres and the major objects of the universe down to the events of a person’s life. He apparently stops there and does not go further. Others, though, did go beyond and so it is said in the name of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov that every leaf blown by the wind is flying through the air on the exact trajectory, and at the exact time, set for it by God. For him, even if this leaf never interacts with any person, God still guides its fall.

Questions raised by this approach: This approach leaves some questions unanswered. If God’s will is the source of everything that happens in nature, including human behavior, to what extent should humans be held responsible for their actions? If God is directing every action in the universe, what is the role of each person in his/her relationship with God and with God’s world?


Bereshit 15:12–15

Divine reward and punishment: This text touches on the topic of divine providence in the sense of divine reward and punishment for human behavior. God informs Avram that his descendants will be enslaved for a period of four hundred years. God further informs him that the nation that will enslave the Hebrews will also be judged (verse 14). For some biblical commentaries, the “also” implies that the enslavement of the Hebrews in the foreign land is not just a matter of happenstance, but that it is the result of judgment passed on the Hebrews, presumably by God.

National vs individual divine providence (Hashgacha klalit/pratit): Did Rabbi Chanina draw his point of view from this text? Maybe not. A distinction can be drawn between events on an individual and nation level. It is clear that this text does not speak of God being involved in every last action at the level of the individual human being. Indeed, from this text one cannot even determine that God is involved at the level of the nation in every single detail of its national existence. But one can discern from this text that God is involved with the nation in some cases, arguably cases of great import, as God is described here as judging the nations. It is also not clear if God is involved in this way in the life of all the nations of the earth or if God only gets involved in the life of some of the nations.

Resulting questions: This text gives rise to a number of questions, though.

  • Does the text imply that since God punishes (and rewards) nations, that the nations are acting out of their own free will, for if they are being guided in their behaviors by God, what room is there for punishment or reward? 
  • If the punishment coming to one nation is brought about through the actions of another nation, why is the latter nation in turn being judged by God given that they are carrying out God’s will? 
  • Some biblical texts, notably verses from Tehillim and Devarim, discussed later in the lesson, seem to indicate that God rewards or punishes as a consequence to how (people or) nations behave. This text, though, makes one pause. How is it that God can know how the people will behave and that they will deserve enslavement? And does the fact that God knows this mean that the future is predetermined and thereby the concept of true free will is negated?

Not all of these questions will be fully explored in this unit, but raising the questions is more important than providing a specific theory in answer to them.

After considering this text, one may wonder how does Bereshit understand God’s providence? The next text will look at another passage from Bereshit in which divine providence seems to be guiding history on an individual level.


Bereshit 45:4–7

Background to the story of Yosef in Egypt: Yosef had been sold by his brothers to a caravan of Ishmaelites. He ends up in Egypt and after ups and downs becomes the second in command in the strongest empire of the times. After some years, there is a famine all across the area and Yaakov sends his sons down to Egypt to buy food. Yosef at first interacts with his brothers without revealing to them who he is. In this text, Yosef is ready to reveal himself to his brothers, but he is well aware that facing him they might become very distressed over their act of selling him and scared for their lives fearing possible retribution. Yosef, possibly intending to calm them down, tells them that it was God who had planned all that had happened so that he could be in Egypt in charge of dispensing food at the time that the family would come from Canaan looking for food that would allow them to survive.

God pulling the strings behind the scenes: The view expressed in this narrative is that every stage of this story was planned by God. God knew there would be a famine (God planned it) and God knew that Yaakov’s family would run out of food. God makes it all work out so that Yosef ends up in the right place at the right time to ensure the survival of the Israelites. 

Resulting questions about human agency: Did the brothers’ decision to throw Yosef down a pit also come from God? Did their jealousy toward their younger brother also stem from God? Assuming that their deeds in this case were wrong, do they not have any responsibility for the actions they chose to undertake? Is there any room for personal choice and for consequences to human actions? Or is everything predetermined by God? And if the latter, how can one reconcile this idea with the Torah’s statement in Devarim (30:15) that seems to imply God putting a choice before the people between life and goodness and death and evil? The next text explores another angle. 

On another level of study of this text, two further points can be considered, both of which make it difficult to extrapolate from this narrative to the lives of ordinary individuals, and thus make it hard to see this text as the source of Rabbi Chanina’s perspective: 

  • Perhaps God became personally involved in this story only because of the righteousness of Yosef. Were Yosef not to have been as righteous as he was, it is possible that God would have allowed a more natural course of events to play itself out. 
  • It is also possible that God became involved in this case not to assist the individual Yosef, but because being involved at this juncture of history would impact the entire Israelite nation. This assumes that God takes action to come to the assistance of an entire nation and not to assist one or even a few  individuals.

These two points are not mutually exclusive and they can both be at play in this narrative of Bereshit.


Tehillim 33:9–19

God created and manages the world: God’s involvement with the world comes to the fore in this psalm. Verse 9 speaks of God as the creator of the world. Verse 10, though, speaks of God interfering with the agendas of nations, and averting their agendas. Verse 11 argues that only God’s agenda will stand firm.

Many speak of God as having a plan for the world and some would like to see that idea in these verses. Such is not necessarily the case. When the verse speaks of God’s agenda (עֵצהָ or “counsel”) in the verse, it is likely referring to God’s law and Torah. In other words, nations may do as they please as long as God’s law is not violated. However, God does get involved when such violations occur, in the view of this psalmist.

God’s involvement (Hashgacha) in the world: The psalm continues and in verse 14 makes use of the root for the term השַׁגְחָּהָ (hashgachah), the term used by the Rabbis to mean “divine providence.” In continuing to describe God’s involvement with the world, the psalm speaks of God “gazing” or “looking,” as the root ש.ג.ח . (sh-g-ch) is literally rendered, upon “all the inhabitants of the earth” from God’s dwelling place. Does God’s gazing upon the inhabitants of the earth necessarily imply that God intervenes in their affairs? Perhaps God is just watching the unfolding of events as a passive observer, without assuming an active role in their outcome? However, as noted in verses 10–11, and as noted in verses 18–19 – in verse 18, God is once again described as having an eye on “those that fear [God], those that hope for [God’s] lovingkindness,” and then in verse 19 it explains that God does that “to save their lives from death, and to sustain them during hunger” – it would strongly appear that this psalm does express the opinion that God remains involved with the world beyond its very creation.

While the verses in Bereshit suggest that God judges nations, presumably for their violations of God’s law, the psalmist adds that God’s providence also comes with benefits. As per the verses in this chapter of Tehillim, God’s providence also entails the blessing of divine protection and sustenance in times of danger and crisis for those who continue to follow in God’s council (Torah). Perhaps these verses influenced Rabbi Chanina. 

Hashgacha in the Torah: Although the Tehillim introduce the root of the word hashgachah (used in only two other verses of the Tanakh – Yeshayah 14:16 and Shir HaShirim 2:9), the concept of God’s providence is not new. Devarim 11:13-17, verses that were incorporated into the second paragraph of the traditional daily recitation of the Shema, outlines the correlation between the behavior of the Israelites and their physical conditions – if they obey God’s mitzvot and serve God with all their heart and soul, God will grant them rain in season and the land will produce crops for them and grass for their flocks and herds. On the other hand, were they to betray God and God’s commandments, God’s will show anger: the skies will shut so that the land will yield no produce, and the nation will “perish quickly from off the good land God gives you.” And there in Devarim too, the verses address the nation and not the individual (certainly no one can argue that rain will fall only on certain select fields but not on others). 

Challenging philosophical questions that result from the concept of hashgacha: An important question can be raised here. The Torah is replete with examples of the principle of reciprocity, מִדָהּ כנְּגֶדֶ מִדָהּ , middah keneged middah (“measure for measure”), on a national and perhaps even on a personal level. Begin with the story of Adam and Chavah in the Garden of Eden, and continue through numerous narratives. One can hardly read a biblical account without coming across the idea that the fate of nations and perhaps even of individuals is determined by their respective religious and moral conduct. Applying this in combination with the teaching of these verses from Tehillim may suggest a sweeping generalization about the way God conducts the affairs of (some) people. Those who follow in the ways of God can expect a measure of divine protection, and those who do not – cannot. Those blessed with prosperity and good health can attribute their good fortune to divine protection granted to them because of their virtues and good deeds. Conversely, those who suffer from poverty and malaise can attribute their condition to God’s punishment inflicted on them as a result of their moral and spiritual shortcomings.

Divine Providence and the Suffering of the Righteous: While some may accept this state of divine affairs at face value, others are deeply offended by it. They claim that the history of humankind is proof of the opposite; that throughout history, and to this very day, the righteous have suffered while the wicked have prospered. How can the Tanakh make a claim that appears to be inconsistent with reality? Can it be that the nation states that are victims of acts of terror or of overwhelming natural disasters and pandemics are being punished for violating God’s law? Were the Jews that died in the Holocaust, or who continued to live in suffering and misery, collectively guilty of violating God’s counsel? Not surprisingly, the writers of the Tanakh raise the same question. The authors of Iyov (21:7–16) and Yirmiyah (12:1–2) were baffled by what appears to be grave injustice in this world. People and nations who commit treachery and violence, who have no interest in God or in God’s Torah, seem to prosper. How can a just God allow this to happen?

On the surface, it would appear that these heart-wrenching questions pose a challenge to one of the fundamental elements of Jewish tradition. After all, how can Jewish tradition still be considered meaningful and relevant if its central claims about God’s relationship with humankind are so problematic? Neither the authors of Iyov or Yirmiyah were able to find an explanation. Instead, they both prayed for the day justice would prevail.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities

The following cartoon (reproduced with permission from Cartoonstock “www.CartoonStock.com”) is a simple way to introduce some of the complex thoughts and questions surrounding the theological beliefs of divine providence.

God’s plan or random occurrences?: In a seemingly light manner, this cartoon reflects a tension that will be seen throughout the texts of this lesson. How much of what happens in this world is a reflection of divine providence, meaning it is the result of God’s desire for something to happen and is part of God’s big plan for Creation? Some Jewish texts, along with some other basic philosophies of the world, propose that not only did God create the world, but God remains intimately involved with it, down to the most minor details, every second of every day. Nothing happens by chance, all was planned and is built into God’s blueprint and building of the universe.

The question of human responsibility: If divine providence does control events in the world, can a human being ever be held responsible for their actions? Do humans have a choice in how they act? Or is a belief in divine providence an intentional way to absolve a person of such responsibility? Take the woman’s perspective in this cartoon – instead of the couple taking control of their spending habits, she sees divine providence as possibly coming to the rescue!

Or are there events that occur outside God’s wishes, things that take place for very mundane, practical, and physical reasons. For example, could it be that the pen is just lousy after all, as the husband argues? Could it then be that God does not have everything planned? And if the answer is yes, does this necessarily redefine God’s role in the world?
As the lesson unfolds, learners will realize that within Judaism, there is room for many different answers and perspectives.

Possible Discussion questions:

1.What two approaches to divine providence are being suggested by this cartoon?

2.How much of what happens in the world and in human lives is determined by God?

3.Does anything happen by chance?

4.What challenges do these positions present?

5.Where would you place yourself in this debate?


Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

We begin this block with arguably the most influential of all Jewish philosophers – Maimonides. He presents here the philosophical journey Abraham embarked upon that ultimately led to his realisation there must be only one God (despite being surrounded by a culture of paganism and idolatry, including among his immediate family). Most importantly, Abraham realized that not only did God create the universe, but he is still involved in its functioning (a belief that was in contradistinction with Aristotelian philosophy of which he himself was influenced by). The following questions will help your students explore this first text:

  • Why do you think the world at the time of Abraham believed in many gods?
  • What does Judaism say about this belief?
  • According to Rambam, how did Abraham come to the realization that there was one God?
  • What role do you think Rambam is saying God has in the everyday running of the world?

The next text presents the opinion of the Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Chanina on the extent to which God plays a role in the world. He believes that God’s influence in the world extends to the smallest events, such as a stubbed finger or paper cut. These questions will help your students to begin thinking through the implications of this approach and form their own questions as a response:

  • How does this approach differ from Rambam (does it necessarily differ)?
  • Does this approach resonate with you?
  • What philosophical problems does this present us that must be thought through?

The next text is God’s covenant with Abraham which contains a promise that while his descendants will be enslaved in the future, they will leave and justice will ultimately be done. This is the origin of “the God of Abraham” Who acts in history – at least at a national level. These questions explore these ideas:

  • Why do you think God decides generations before, that Abraham’s descendants will be enslaved?
  • Is this a punishment?
  • When they leave, are the Egyptians punished? Are the Israelites rewarded?
  • Do the Egyptians deserve to be punished?
  • If God promised this is how history would play out, then how can we blame the Egyptians (and then punish them)?
  • Do you see the hand of God in modern-day history in a similar way?

In the next text, Joseph explains to his brothers (to calm their guilt) that God has been orchestrating the story from above. This is classic Divine providence. But where does human agency stand if this is true? Use these questions as a possible way to encourage your students to consider all the issues:

  • If God decided Joseph was going to be sold as a slave, are the brothers guilty for their actions?
  • Do you think humans have free will? Can you argue both sides to this debate? 
  • If humans do have free will, then can God also be orchestrating the plans He has for the world?
  • Was Joseph special in how God planned his life story, or do you believe every human receives the same divine providence?

Finally, in these verses from Tehillim, the idea that ultimately both nations and individuals are only successful in their endeavours if God desires it and if it is part of God’s plan. This reflects the well known saying “Man plans and God laughs”.  Using these questions may help your students to consider the implications of this belief:

  • Does God’s plan always come about?
  • Can we change God’s mind?
  • Doesn’t this remove human freewill and therefore responsibility?
  • Can we have both at the same time?


  • Divide your class into groups, and ask each group to choose a historical or personal event from the past, and discuss the role of God in a historical or personal life story according to one of two of the texts in this lesson.The three approaches are:
    • Rambam
    • Rabbi Chanina (from the Talmud)
    • The Torah (using the texts in Bereshit and Tehillim) 
  • Possible historical and personal events to choose from:
    • The Purim story
    • The Six Day War
    • My journey to school today
    • How my parents met
  • Ask each group to take one approach and use it to analyze the role of God in a historical or personal life story.
  • Each group should present to the rest of the class (ensure that each of the three approaches are chosen by at least one group)