The Will is Man’s Only Property: A Reading of a Short Passage from Mr. Shoshani

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David Lang, Yoel Finkelman, and Admiel Kosman


This article is dedicated to the memory of Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, who passed away as we were completing the final edits.

Monsieur Shoshani isn’t even his real name, but that name has become synonymous with one of the most obscure, mysterious, brilliant, and unconventional figures in postwar Jewish thought. An itinerant teacher who shunned social convention, he wandered around the world teaching some of the most important and influential Jewish minds of the 20th century, including Elie Wiesel, Emmanuel Levinas, André Neher, and the late Shalom Rosenberg. He would leave them unexpectedly without saying goodbye, while traveling from place to place―teaching, studying, and gathering students from far and wide. Until quite recently, many more legends and stories were known about the mysterious Shoshani than the content of anything that he taught.

Young portrait of Mr. Shoshani, courtesy of

Recently, however, the National Library of Israel received from Rosenberg nearly 100 notebooks in Shoshani’s own handwriting, which have been digitized and are now available to the public inside the library’s building. In addition, a new website has posted even more material. The notebooks are as obscure as the man who wrote them. Tiny, barely legible handwriting hugs the edges of the pages. Numerous idiosyncratic abbreviations dot the pages, as do long tables of seemingly random numbers. Topics range from current events, Spanish grammar, history, nutrition, and of course Talmud and Torah. But they are not the kind of thing that one might sit and read. They need to be deciphered, and even then, much guesswork and speculation will inevitably be involved.

The notebooks have received a great deal of attention, though almost nothing has yet been published about their content. This essay will offer close reading of one very short passage, serving as a model of how one might read and unpack other passages. The passage appears in a tattered student notebook without a cover that includes 72 pages. The number “37” appears in red letters on the first page, apparently added by someone other than Shoshani. (The notebook appears here as 1CH15.) Due to the short length of the passage, which appears on the first page of the notebook, we cannot address how one might connect the dots between this passage and longer thematic issues nearby or scattered elsewhere in the notebooks. That will have to wait for another time. Suffice it to say that there are such connections.

Because this essay is an attempt to model how one might unpack the notebooks, we want to make explicit the method we used. We began by transcribing the passage. Naturally, experience reading Shoshani’s cryptic handwriting helps, as does experience with understanding his abbreviations, symbols, and ways of referencing sources.

After transcribing, we would review each word and phrase. Sometimes Shoshani identifies biblical texts by chapter and verse. More often, references are implicit. Sefaria and other searchable databases were helpful. We searched for keywords that appeared close to one another in the Shoshani passage, and this helped us identify other sources that were being referenced. In addition, our own memories were sometimes helpful in finding other connections and references.

Finally, we made an attempt to weave the quotes, references, and their implications into a relatively coherent narrative. This was a slow and painstaking process, and it required a fair amount of imagination to fill in the gaps in his cryptic prose. We present this reading as a possible sense of the passage, rather than a definitive one.

In this passage, Shoshani uses a discussion of “Servants of God” to speak about the role of human beings in a fatalistic, if not deterministic, universe. Ultimately, God’s plan will be fulfilled. All the individual can change is his or her own tiny role in that plan, perhaps only the attitude with which the individual faces the predetermined fate. This paragraph is embedded in a longer discussion over the following few pages of metaphors for human relations to God, including “servant,” “son,” “messenger,” and others. In the longer passage, he breaks down each metaphor into various levels, one higher and more advanced than the other.

Page 1 of notebook 1CH15, courtesy of

Below you will find our transcription, meant to be as precise and literal as possible. After that, we offer a translation and make explicit the references that we found. In addition, we offer our interpretation of the passage sentence by sentence. A literal transcription appears first, and our somewhat neatened and smoothed-over translation appears in bold italics.

We have transcribed the few lines of texts, which include words, letters, symbols, and underlines, all of which appear in the original.

ב) מובני עבד 1) ידו כיד רבו =  יכלתו לא שלו אלא בכוח רבו 2) הרבה שלוחים למקום. לגלגל חובה ע”י חייב. למשפטיך עמדו כי הכל (צפרדע, עקרב ואף אדם רשע שהוא בן בחירה) עבדיך (בכחך פועלים, ושליחותך עושים. ∴אין תימה. נ”נ ל”כ עבדי. רק בע”פ מפורש עבדא בישא ∵ לגלגל חובה בא. אבל בכתב נקרא עבד סתם) 3) לעבדו = זו תפלה ומצות = קבלת עמש תחילה  ∵חוץ מד”א זו מין. –-ב) עול מצות בלי לכונם למי שציוה. לא מקדשם ג) מקבל עמ”ש להיות עבד, ואז מקבל עליו עול מצוות, לבטל רצונו מפני רצון  שולחו אפי’ תאותיו, צרכיו, וחייו – כי הרצון = רכושו היחידי של אדם. ובזה נבדל רשע מצדיק. וזהו עניין פתחו לי כחודו של מחט. ובזה נעשה עבד נאמן

 The Meaning of the Term Servant:

In this passage, Shoshani suggests four meanings of the term “servant” (or even “slave”), used as a metaphor for the human relationship with God. The four meanings seem to be in ascending order, from the least ideal to the most ideal.

I.          The Servant as an Extension of the Master

1) His hand is like the hand of the master = his ability is not his own but by means of the power of his master.

The expression “his hand is like the hand of the master” is a paraphrase of the Talmud in Bava Metzia 96a, which suggests that even under conditions that a person cannot appoint an agent to perform an act, a slave can be appointed. The slave is not an agent or messenger, but simply an extension of the master. The master uses the slave exclusively for the master’s ends.

Shoshani does not identify explicitly who is the slave whose actions are an extension of God’s, but from context of the paragraph’s concerns with servants and messengers of God, he seems to be referring to the ways in which nature and inanimate objects are the tools of divine providence. They have no free will and power of their own, and to the extent that they act, they are governed by nature and God’s will. God accomplishes His providential plans through nature, whether the day-to-day existence of the world or perhaps even divine reward and punishment in the form of rain or natural disasters.

II.          The Servant as Fulfilling God’s Tasks

2) God has many messengers. He arranges punishments through sinners. And they stand today to Your judgment, for everything (the frog, the scorpion, and even the evil person who has free choice) are Your servants.

Making sense of this cryptic passage requires beginning with the Talmud in Shabbat 32a and the notion of arranging punishment through sinners (מגלגלין חובה על ידי חייב). The Talmud is concerned with solving a syntactical feature of the verse that commands homeowners to build fences around their rooftops in order to prevent people from falling off the roof. The verse explains that one is to build a fence on a roof so that “you do not bring bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof” (Deuteronomy 22:8). This English translation does not do justice to the original Hebrew, כי יפול הנופל ממנו, which could be translated in a hyper-literal fashion as “when the one who falls, falls from it.” The word כי translated as “when,” rather than “if,” seems to echo the odd term in the verse for the hypothetical victim, who is described as the “one who falls.” The Talmud asks of this phrase: if you do as you are told and build the fence, then nobody at all will fall―there would be no “one who falls” and therefore no “when” someone falls. What should we make of this locution?

The Talmud uses this linguistic feature as an opportunity to reflect on divine providential punishment. One does not merely fall off a roof by accident. One who falls off a roof was destined to do so as part of the divine calculus of reward and punishment. There is no safety measure that any homeowner could take that would protect the victim from what God has in store for him. The homeowner builds the fence not to prevent suffering to the one who falls, whom the Talmud deems as destined to die—as “already falling from the six days of creation.” Instead, the homeowner builds the fence so that the homeowner does not him- or herself become a pawn in the chess game of divine providence. If the homeowner builds a fence, God, who prefers His providence to be hidden, will be forced to find another breach in safety protocols in another home to kill the victim. If the homeowner sins and does not build the fence, the homeowner becomes guilty. God can use the guilty homeowner as a tool to punish the victim. God, as it were, arranges punishment through sinners.

Shoshani then quotes an entire verse from Psalms (119:91), which here should be read together with the previous two verses: “Forever, O Lord, Your word stands fast in the heavens. Your faithfulness endures for all generations. You have established the earth, and it stands firm. They continue this day according to Your ordinances, for all are Your servants.”

There are several interpretive wrinkles in this passage, but one possible reading is that creation of heaven and earth was done through God’s word. Heaven and earth are consistent and everlasting because they are all God’s servants. Both the forces on earth and those astronomical forces in heaven are all God’s servants. As Ibn Ezra explains the verse: “Heaven and earth stand as slaves to do Your bidding.” Nature is itself a reflection of God’s plan. Moreover, according to many medieval rabbis, the astronomical forces have direct influence on the sublunar world, in what could be referred to as a kind of “scientific astrology.”

Shoshani interrupts the verse to describe a curious frog and scorpion. The reference is to a series of parallel midrashim that, like the discussion of the fence on the roof, deal with divine providence. The midrashim explain that God uses all of nature to fulfill His will, “sometimes through a snake, sometimes through a frog, and even through a scorpion or mosquito” (Leviticus Rabbah 22:3). The snake bites the victim because God commands it. Frogs attacked the Egyptians during the second of the ten plagues as God’s messengers. In Nedarim 41a, Shmuel witnesses a scorpion sent on a divine mission to sting a sinner. The scorpion floats across a river on the back of a frog but refuses to sting the frog, because the scorpion is (with apologies to John Belushi) on a mission from God (see also Numbers Rabbah 18:22). Shmuel sees this as a fulfillment of the very verse in Psalms Shoshani had just quoted: “Forever, O Lord, Your word stands fast in the heavens.”

In a related midrash, the mighty General Titus, responsible for desecrating and destroying the Second Temple, was ultimately killed when a lowly insect, who was sent by God on a vengeful mission, burrowed into Titus’s brain, eating it from the inside (much as Titus entered the Holy of Holies, desecrating it from the inside; see Leviticus Rabbah 22:3). If the verses suggest that nature, going about its normal business, fulfills God’s will in the normal course of events, these midrashim suggest that God can command nature to deviate from its typical workings in order to accomplish God’s mission.

In the next step, Shoshani moves from nature to human beings, particularly evildoers who have free will but―through their evil choices―still end up doing God’s will. Shoshani, not fully explaining the paradox, seems to raise a religious and theological challenge that goes back to the Bible itself (and has parallels in Greek myths of fate): God knows the future and predicts it. Human beings go about their business, and even though those people act in their own interests, God’s will comes to fruition. Ultimately, everyone is a servant of God, in the sense of being a tool in the providential plan.

The next sentence brings examples and clarification of the notion that evildoers make their evil choices but still push forward the divine plan. Brackets in the translations here and below are our additions for clarity; parenthesis are in the original.

(They act through Your power and they do Your mission. Ergo, there is no question [regarding] Nebuchadnezzar [who is referred to as God’s] servant. Only the Oral Law refers to him as an evil servant. Ergo, he comes to arrange punishment. But in the verse he is referred to as a regular servant.)

The lowly insect of Leviticus Rabbah is God’s tool in broader matters of geopolitics and Jewish history―smiting Titus, the enemy of Israel. In this parenthetical passage, Shoshani extends the theme. Readers might get a sense that God uses His providential tools for the benefit of the Jewish people, punishing only Jewish enemies. Shoshani suggests otherwise. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed Jerusalem and the First Temple, was a manifestation of divine providence. The frog and scorpion have no free will and are tools in God’s plan, but Nebuchadnezzar has free will and is still a manifestation of God’s plan.

Shoshani expressed this by a reference to verses in Jeremiah (25:9): “‘Because you have not heard My words, behold, I will send and take all the families of the north,’ says the Lord, ‘and Nebuchadnezzar the king of Bavel, My servant, and I will bring them against this land, and against its inhabitants.” (Nebuchadnezzar is referred to as God’s servant again in Jeremiah 27:6.) Shoshani wonders why the verse would speak of the evil king as God’s “servant,” an accolade that would seem appropriate only for the most pious. He explains that the verse refers to the king as a servant, in line with the notion that all of the world is acting out God’s will.

But Shoshani adds that although Nebuchadnezzar might be a servant, he is not a good one. He points to the language that the Oral Torah (Kohelet Rabbah 12:7) uses to describe Nebuchadnezzar, namely a “bad servant” (עבדא בישא). The midrash explains that for 18 years Nevuchadnezzar had heard a heavenly voice commanding him to destroy the Temple, but he was reluctant to do so. The midrash seems to be criticizing Nebuchadnezzar for not responding more quickly to that heavenly voice.

Pointing out that the distinction between the good and bad servant only appears in the Oral Law might be a way of blurring the distinction between the “good” and “bad” servants. God’s will shall be done with or without an individual’s cooperation. In that sense, whoever happens to do what God had planned is “really” good. What makes Nebuchadnezzar bad is not that he acted in a destructive way toward the Jews but that he was reluctant to do what God wanted him to do in the first place.

An individual can do nothing to change the outcome. But a person can learn to use his or her own free choice in the best way possible―to switch from a bad to a good servant of God―without an expectation that it will change the larger outcome. Shoshani may be already hinting at what will appear shortly: the idea that all the individual has is his or her own attitude toward God’s will, his or her own free will. This brings Shoshani to the third of his four categories of servants of God.

III.          The Nonideal, Self-Serving Servant

3) To serve Him = this is prayer and [fulfillment of] commandments = accepting the yoke of heaven first, ergo except for one matter, this is heresy. b) The acceptance of the yoke of commandments without focusing on the One who Commanded. They are not sanctified.

The Shema prayer is considered in Judaism the locus classicus on the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven and the yoke of the commandments. The Jew recites the Shema prayer day and night in order to reemphasize the commitment to accept these yokes. The first paragraph of Shema focuses on love of God and following Him intensely. Traditionally, this has been seen as a higher motivation for a relationship with God than what is described in the second paragraph. There, the focus is on reward and punishment, a lower level of motivation. Here, Shoshani quotes the word “לעבדו” from the second paragraph (Deuteronomy 11:13-21), where one follows God not out of love but due to self-interest.

Shoshani links the Shema passage with the larger notion of service of God through prayer. He explains: לעבדו=זו תפילה, To serve Him = this is prayer. The verse in the second paragraph of Shema commands the Jew to “serve Him with all your heart and soul” (Deuteronomy 11:13). On the first page of Tractate Ta’anit, the Talmud wants to know what service of God with the heart is, and it answers that “this is prayer” (Taanit 2a).

The context of Tractate Ta’anit is about prayer in cases of drought, exactly what these verses see as the punishment for turning away from God. In that context, the prayer in question refers primarily to petitionary prayer, prayer for something, prayer as request. The following line of the Talmud addresses the next verse of the second paragraph of Shema, “And I shall give the rain of your land in its due time” (Deuteronomy 11:14). The Talmud learns that it is appropriate to request rain while praying, and indeed that rain is one of the three locks for which God Himself holds the key. These keys, the Talmud says, “were not transmitted to a messenger.” Shoshani, no doubt, expects us to pick up the reference to “messenger” in that longer Talmudic passage and connects it to the notion of the “messengers of God” discussed above. God may use unprotected roofs or frogs and scorpions as His messengers, but sometimes God intervenes directly to bring about His desired outcomes.

Prayer, then, brings the person in closer to proximity to the divine, in which providence is not through a messenger. But Shoshani is not satisfied with this kind of divine service, for it is, as Leibowitz would also teach―and there are several parallels here to Leibowitz―petitionary prayer is ultimately self-serving.

Here, Shoshani echoes two other kinds of nonideal servants of God, at least partially self-serving, both of which are discussed in Hazal. The first is one who accepts the yoke of Heaven but does not translate that into a complete commitment to mitzvot. Instead, the person refuses to accept one specific commandment. Here, the key passages stem from Bekhorot 30b: “A gentile who comes to convert and takes upon himself to accept the Torah except for one matter―he is not accepted.” But the Talmud makes it clear that this is relevant not only to a potential convert, but even to Jews struggling to improve their overall level of observance: “An am haaretz [i.e., one who is not normally careful about ritual impurity and tithes] who accepts upon himself [the commitment to observe] the matters associated with a haver [i.e., taking on observance of ritual purity and tithes].” If that person subsequently acts suspiciously, i.e., is seen not to observe even “one matter,” then suddenly that person, according to one Talmudic opinion, becomes suspect about violating every other commandment.

Shoshani seems to extend the logic not only to converts and amei haaretz―that is, those who want to change their formal status. He claims that one who accepts the yoke of Heaven with even one exception is, in effect, a heretic. That person’s observance is conditional: he or she will follow God’s commandments if―and only if―it is convenient enough, moral enough, logical enough, or sensible enough. The one exception proves the rule. The individuals’ commitment to God is contingent.

Shoshani refers to this individual who accepts all but one of the commandments as a “heretic,” and here he is echoing another Talmudic interpretation, this one about the third paragraph of the Shema. That paragraph (Numbers chapter 15) commands one to place fringes, tzitzit, on the corners of one’s garments as a reminder not to be tempted to follow “after one’s heart” (Numbers 15:22). The Talmud (Berakhot 12b) explains following one’s heart with the expression zo minut―“this is heresy.” Shoshani uses the term zo min, “this is a heretic,” a slight variation on the expression. While the Talmud suggests that one’s heart might be tempted by a heretical idea, Shoshani is suggesting that making one’s commitment to God contingent on anything—the service of God described in the second paragraph of Shema—is itself a kind of heresy.

Toward the end of this passage, we find an obscure expression, lo mekadsham, “they are not sanctified.” On the surface, Shoshani is suggesting that one who performs commandments for these nonideal reasons does not reach true holiness. In addition, he is also continuing to reference the above Talmudic passage about the convert. The Talmud distinguishes between a rejected convert, who is not accepted since he or she refuses to commit to all of the commandments, and a convert who accepts all of the commandments and later is suspected of violating one of them. According to the Talmud’s conclusion, once the person has converted, if he or she later rejects or violates commandments, that person is a meshumad, a Jewish person who consistently transgresses.

The distinction matters in the case of marriage, referred to in Talmudic terminology as kiddushin, sanctification. The rejected convert who attempts to marry a Jewish woman will legally fail to do so. The wedding ceremony is invalid, and the couple are not married, since the man was never Jewish. The convert who was accepted but later went on to sin can initiate a marriage. We suspect that Shoshani is echoing this passage about the convert to make a larger point about the commitments of born Jews as well. The rejection of the potential convert tells us something more general about the nature of commitment to commandments: a born Jew who rejects commitment to even one commandment is the kind of person who, were he or she not born Jewish, would not be accepted into the Jewish fold. The technicality―perhaps even the accident―of being born Jewish keeps the person in the fold, but that person is not really sanctified and would not be accepted as a Jew otherwise.

We are left to explain Shoshani’s concern with one who accepts the yoke of commandments without focusing on the One who Commanded.” The lack of focus on the One who Commanded is a reference to Guide for the Perplexed 3:51. Maimonides describes a person who performs commandments “only with the limbs,” one who prays without concentrating on the meaning of the words, one who studies Torah while thinking about “building of our house.” That person has not “reached the highest perfection.” This is particularly true of one who fulfills the commandments without attention to “One who Commanded.” Shoshani shares the criticism of rote or unthinking performance of commandments.

But what of accepting the yoke of heaven first? As will become clear below, Shoshani is concerned about the order in which a person adopts two religious stances: accepting the yoke of heaven, and becoming a servant of God. According to Shoshani, accepting the yoke of commandments first is a lower level. This stems from the Talmudic discussion of the order of recitation of Shema. According to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karhah (Berakhot 13a), the first paragraph of Shema refers to acceptance of the yoke of Heaven, while the second refers to acceptance of the yoke of the commandments. Shoshani, then, is hinting at one who confuses the order, reading the second paragraph before the first, or at the very least remaining committed only to the lower-level second paragraph. That person may perform commandments but does not have a commitment to God Himself. Shoshani links this notion of commitment to commandments without commitment to God to the one who only accepts the religious task conditionally or in a rote fashion.

IV.          The Ideal Servant of God

c) One who accepts the yoke of heaven to become a servant, and then accepts the yoke of the commandments. He negates his own will before that of the One who sends him. Even his desires, needs, and life are for his Master. For the will = the only possession of a man. This is what distinguishes an evil person from a righteous person. This is the matter of the eye of the needle. This is how he becomes a faithful servant.

This passage begins by discussing the correct order for reciting the paragraphs of Shema, specifically that one recites the first paragraph of Shema―what Shoshani refers to as acceptance of the yoke of Heaven―first. Then, that person recites the second paragraph, which Shoshani refers to as accepting the yoke of commandments. Accepting these religious commitments in the right order is the key to the proper religious life, leading to dedication, renunciation, and submission. Negating his own will before that of the One who sends him is certainly meant to contrast with the lesser servant of God from the previous paragraph, who accepts all but one of the commandments. That one rejected commandment is a fly in the ointment of his or her religious commitment, a fly that poisons its entirety, turning the person into an “evil person,” despite performing all the other commandments.

The reference to the eye of the needle stems from a well-known passage in Song of Songs Rabbah 5:2. If the penitent opens an opening the size of an eye of a needle, God will open an infinitely wide entrance to penitence. That is to say, the commitment to negate one’s own will before the divine imperative is a momentary, small commitment, one which is ultimately transformative of every other aspect of religious life. Lack of commitment to one commandment makes one an evildoer, but one seemingly small commitment opens up great possibilities.

Here, Shoshani pushes further in what may well be a combination of existentialist religious psychology and Spinozistic acceptance of whatever the divine inevitably has in store. In a statement that Shoshani leaves tragically unglossed, he claims that For the will = the only possession of a man. All a person possesses is his or her own will, that internal choice to either accept the divine will or not. It seems, in context, that that decision will not change the outcome, perhaps of anything at all, since there are so many messengers for the divine. All that one can do is to change one’s willingness to accept God’s will and the inevitableness of the outcome.

No doubt, this is a kind of theodicy of a man granted enormous intellectual gifts whose life had been overturned by the Holocaust, an autobiographical religious statement by a self-imposed vagabond who carried all of his material possessions in a small suitcase around the world, consciously rejecting any value material possessions or appearance. Perhaps his personality and lifestyle are themselves reflections of a passive acceptance of the inevitable fulfillment of God’s will along with an active attempt to focus his energies only on his own will.

A tentative interpretation of this short passage―a single paragraph in one of over 100 notebooks―is meant to set a model for reading and interpretation, as well as to open a conversation about the larger meaning of Shoshani’s thought. The passage reveals a remarkable virtuosity in use of sources, linking passages throughout the Jewish canon through the use of single words and phrases. In fewer than 150 words, it addresses perennial religious questions: purity of motivation, divine providence, determinism, mitzvah, suffering, the problem of evil, and obedience; it furthermore glosses the Shema, one of the siddur’s most prominent passages. Finding other layers in this or other passages, explaining how this passage fits with the broader content of the notebooks, and understanding how Shoshani’s thought is related to the larger arch of post-Holocaust Jewish thought, is surely the work for decades to come.

David Lang is an archivist who studies the writings of Mr. Shoshani at the National Library of Israel. Yoel Finkelman recently completed his tenure as curator of the Judaica collection at the National Library of Israel. Admiel Kosman is Professor of Jewish Studies at Potsdam University, Germany.