At What Age Did Avraham Avinu Discover Hashem? by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


The Debate – age 3 or age 40?

The Midrash (BeReishit Rabbah 64:4) records a debate regarding the age at which Avraham Avinu recognized Hashem’s existence. One opinion believes it was at the age of three, while one (according to Rambam’s text[1]) believes it was at the age of 40. This dispute continues to rage on amongst the Rishonim as Rambam and Ra’avad debate this issue as well (Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 1:3).

This dispute is most peculiar. Why does it matter if Avraham Avinu discovered Hashem at age three or age forty? Regarding such issues, the Gemara (Yoma 5b) usually comments “Mai DeHavah Havah,” what occurred, occurred, and it is simply not worth the time and effort to debate the past if there are no ramifications for the present or future.

 One may suggest, though, that these opinions are debating the ideal type of Emunah, belief in Hashem. The opinion that Avraham Avinu’s epiphany occurred at age three teaches that Emunah Peshutah, simple and straightforward faith, is the ideal model of faith. The truth of Hashem’s existence is so obvious that it is apparent even to a young child. According to this approach, any further investigation is unnecessary and even counterproductive. Is there a need for a child to prove the existence of his loving mother?

The other opinion believes that such Emunah, while representing a good beginning, hardly represents the ideal form of belief in Hashem. Emunah Sheleimah, full and proper Emunah, requires careful, thorough, and mature reasoning. Only when one reaches the age of wisdom [2] is he capable of attaining proper Emunah, at least according to our second opinion.

Rambam’s Compromise

Interestingly, Rambam presents a compromise approach to this issue. He argues that Avraham began to recognize Hashem at the age of three but did not reach a conclusion until he reached the age of forty. Rambam sees great value in the Emunah Peshutah of the very young child. However, Emunah is able to reach its climax only when one reaches the age of forty.

It is most surprising, even downright shocking, that the arch rationalist Rambam attaches great significance to the Emunah of a three year old child. One would have expected Rambam to unreservedly embrace the opinion that Avraham Avinu arrived at his conclusion at age forty[3]. Rambam, however, teaches us the enormously important lesson that highly meaningful Emunah is accessible to all. One need not be able to formulate well-structured and logical arguments in order to be considered a proper Ma’amin, believer[4].

My wife Malca is fond of explaining Hashem to young children in the following manner: When visiting a park one sees people flying kites. They hold the string at the bottom and slowly let their kites out so that the kites go higher and higher until they are so high that the top of the kites can no longer be seen. They have ascended high into the clouds. One sees only people holding strings. How do the kite-flyers know that the kites remain in the sky if they are no longer visible? The answer is that they can feel the tug of the kite as it flies in the clouds. The kites cannot be seen, but they are felt. Similarly, although we cannot see Hashem, we feel His tugs letting us know He is always there. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik describes this phenomenon as “the metaphysical pull” that Hashem implants in all of us allowing us to connect with Him (Abraham’s Journey p. 42).

The Gemara (Berachot 48a) in fact speaks of young children who may be counted towards a Zimmun, since they comprehend that their Berachot are directed to Hashem. Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yechaveh Da’at 4:13) rules that Sephardic Jews may count a child from the age of six as the third or tenth person for a Zimmun[5]. In this context, the Gemara recounts a most charming and instructive story that illustrates this point. The Gemara relates that when the great Abayei and Rava were children, they met Rabbah, and Rabbah asked them to whom we recite Berachot. Rava responded that we recite Berachot to “Rachmana,” the All Merciful One. Rabbah then asked Rava where Rachmana is, to which Rava pointed to the ceiling. Abayei in turn went outside[6] and pointed upwards[7].

When learning this Gemara in the Morasha Kollel in the summer of 1978, our Rebbe, Rav Yitzchok Cohen, conducted an experiment on his very young son Ya’akov, then aged three, to see if he knew to whom he recites Berachot. Just as Rava did, the young Ya’akov pointed to the ceiling. I have even seen developmentally disabled children who are able already at very young ages to grasp the role of Hashem in their lives. As Hashem promises Bnei Yisrael (Devarim 30:14), He is available to all, as Torah observance is democratic and accessible.

What If One Does Not Feel the Tug?

What can one reply to somebody who argues that he cannot feel the tug of Hashem or experience the metaphysical pull? One may answer based on the Gemara (Sotah 47a) which states that “Chein Ishah Al Ba’alah,” husbands find their wives attractive and charming. Rav Ben Tzion Shafier relates that a Talmid complained that he did not find his wife attractive. Rav Shafier found this attitude to be puzzling in light of Chazal’s teaching that Hashem has implanted in the nature of husbands to find their wives attractive. Upon exploring further, he discovered that the husband had gotten into the destructive habit of looking at pornography. This ugly psychological baggage had polluted his Neshamah and ruined his appreciation for his wife and the great gift Hashem had bestowed upon him.

Similarly, Hashem has implanted within us a natural inclination to connect to him[8]. However, poor habits and exposure to negative influences create a barrier that clogs the natural feelings that should exist. Psychological challenges such as an abusive experience with a parent or religious figure may also disable the natural attraction one should feel for Hashem. The strength of this attraction is described by David HaMelech in Tehillim (42:2 and 3): “KeAyil Ta’arog Al Afikei Mayim Kein Nafshi Ta’arog Eilecha Elokim,” “As a ram pines for water so too my soul pines after you Hashem,” and “Tzam’ah Nafshi LEilokim,” “My soul thirsts for Hashem.”

David HaMelech beautifully writes “Mi Ya’aleh BeHar Hashem... Neki Chapayim… Asher Lo Nasa LaShav Nafshi,” “Who can scale the mountain of Hashem, one with clean hands, who has not taken my name in vain” (Tehillim 24:3-4). One who has sullied his Neshamah will find it difficult to scale the mountain of Hashem. Proper spiritual and even psychological guidance is likely to be necessary to remove the grime clogging his spiritual portals to Hashem.

Negative influences from one’s environment and family can also stunt one’s spiritual development. Rambam writes of the spiritual negativity which surrounded Avraham Avinu before he fully recognized Hashem. This likely explains the long delay from the age of three until the age of forty when Avraham Avinu finally recognized the Ribbono Shel Olam, the Master of the Universe.

Unfortunately, some people who have much exposure to secular society (including television programs and advertisements, lyrics of popular songs[9] and the behavior of less than positive people who are regrettably regarded as role models by secular society) have much of their personality and thought patterns influenced and even formed by it. This poison needs to be removed from one’s Neshamah in order for one to form a proper relationship with Hashem. This idea can be learned from Avraham Avinu, who was able to receive Nevu’ah (prophecy) only after he separated from Lot (Rashi to BeReishit 13:14 states “as long as the Rasha was with Avraham, Hashem separated from Avraham”)[10].

A Third Opinion – Avraham Avinu Discovered Hashem at Age 48

Finally, we need to analyze a third opinion presented in the aforementioned Midrash (according to our text) that Avraham Avinu first recognized Hashem at the age of forty eight. One might reasonably ask what would have prompted Avraham Avinu to recognize God specifically at age 48. The choice of this age seems rather random and without a basis in the Chumash.

However, Rav Menachem Leibtag explains (in an essay archived at – Parashat Noach) that “Avraham Avinu reached age 48 on the same year that Peleg died (see Rashi on 10:25), which according to Chazal corresponds to the precise year of Migdal Bavel – 1996 to Creation. Recall that Avraham was born in year 1948!”

In other words, Avraham Avinu’s transformation was as a result of his witnessing (or at the very least upon hearing about) Hashem’s dramatic intervention in the disruption of the construction of Migdal Bavel (the tower of Bavel). Hearing of the occurrence of this astounding miracle radically changed Avraham Avinu and drew him closer to Hashem.

TABC student Tani Greengart cogently asked then why many more people did not react in the same manner as did Avraham Avinu. One could possibly answer that there were indeed many who shared Avraham Avinu’s reaction and that these are the people whom Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu deeply impacted in Charan (as described by Rashi to BeReishit 12:5 s.v. Asher Asu VeCharan).

Alternatively, one may answer that it is hardly a surprise that only Avraham Avinu reacted to this miracle. Chazal teach that the entire world heard about the great miracles of Egypt and the revelation at Sinai, yet Yitro was the only non-Jew who joined Am Yisrael as a result. For everyone else, life went on as usual without these miracles motivating them to draw closer to Hashem.

 In our times, how many people became religious as a result of the miracles of the 1948 and 1967 Arab wars against Israel? These were undoubtedly miraculous events, acknowledged as such even by many avowedly non-observant Jews. As recently as the summer of 2014 when hundreds of rockets fell on Israel and caused relatively little damage, how many people made dramatic changes as a result of an incredible manifestation of Hashgachah Peratit, divine intervention?

Don’t Bother me with Inconvenient Facts

Most people are not interested in hearing facts which make them uncomfortable, especially if they call for one to radically change his lifestyle. Avraham Avinu is characterized by intellectual honesty and flexibility and the courage to act on the truth when it is revealed to him. Chazal (BeReishit Rabbah 38:13) present a remarkable dialogue between Nimrod and Avraham Avinu that epitomizes the phenomenon of people flippantly dismissing an inconvenient truth.

When Nimrod ordered Avraham to worship fire, Avraham Avinu responded that it would be more logical to worship water which extinguishes fire. Nimrod accepted this logic and responded that he would worship water instead. Avraham Avinu then explained that it would be more logical to worship clouds from which water falls. When Nimrod accepted this, Avraham Avinu explained that it would be better to worship the wind, which moves the clouds. After Nimrod accepted this, Avraham asked Nimrod why he does not worship man, who can withstand the wind. Nimrod, realizing that Avraham Avinu had proven that worshipping fire was senseless, responded “You are playing word games with me.” Even after witnessing Avraham Avinu’s miraculous survival in the fire, Nimrod did not change his lifestyle. In fact, he threw Avraham Avinu’s brother Haran into the fire for expressing support for his brother’s stance.

Nimrod simply dismissed the inconvenient truth that Avraham Avinu convincingly and cogently demonstrated. Such is the intellectual dishonesty or intellectual slumber of those like Nimrod who lack the courage to face up to and live up to the truth. Others come up with incredibly far-fetched answers to escape the “inconvenience” of living a Torah lifestyle. For such people, demonstrating the truth is insufficient; they must also be shown and taught how a Torah lifestyle is the best lifestyle possible and a divine recipe for leading the most spiritually and psychologically satisfying lifestyle.

The Bad Example of Haran

The aforementioned Midrash records that Haran was watching and was unsure as to whom to support – his brother or Nimrod. He reasoned that if Avraham was to emerge unscathed, then he would tell Nimrod that he supported Avraham. If Avraham died, then Haran would claim to support Nimrod. Avraham was thrown into the furnace and emerged unscathed. When Nimrod demanded that Haran pledge his allegiance, he said that he supported his brother. Nimrod threw Haran into the furnace, and Haran was burned to death.

It is puzzling why Hashem did not save Haran, as He saved Avraham Avinu moments before from Nimrod’s fire? After all, Haran did express his support for Avraham Avinu. The answer is that Hashem expects proper commitment, just as a potential and actual spouse demands and deserves a full commitment, not a commitment born simply of crass opportunism. Haran hardly deserved a miracle due to his shallow commitment that was preceded by an expression of agnosticism.

People have asked how the Torah evaluates observing Jewish law based a calculation known as Pascal’s Wager. In the “Jewish” variation of this idea, one reasons that is unsure as to whether the Torah is true. He reasons that if the Torah is true then he will receive considerable punishment in the afterlife if he fails to observe it. If on the other hand, the Torah is not true, then there is no considerable downside in keeping it, since the Torah lifestyle is meaningful and enjoyable.

It is possible to argue that one who lives an Orthodox lifestyle due to this calculation is better off than one who does not observe Torah at all. After all, we believe in the potential of Mitoch SheLo LiShmah Ba LiShmah (Pesachim 50b), that one’s observance of the Torah due to flawed reasoning may eventually lead to his child’s observance of the Torah due to noble reasoning.

Nonetheless, Haran’s tragic death sounds an alarm for those who observe Torah out of doubt. Such an attitude did not save Haran from Nimrod’s fire and will quite possibly not motivate children, who will inevitably notice their parents’ shallow commitment, to live an observant life as adults.

A healthy connection with a spouse cannot emerge when one marries due to a Pascal’s Wager type of reckoning. So too a healthy and life-affirming relationship with Hashem is possible only when one is fully committed to the relationship.

It is for this reason that Eliyahu HaNavi at Har HaCarmel (Melachim II Perek 18) expresses that “until when you vacillate between the two poles. If Ba’al is the true god then worship and if Hashem is the true God then fully commit to him.” Eliyahu HaNavi teaches that from a certain perspective, it is preferable to worship Avodah Zarah (idolatry) rather than serve Hashem out of doubt.

There is ample and abundant reasoning and logic to vigorously support a full commitment and a life of Mitzvah observance. There is no need for doubt, since the evidence is so clear for one who is ready and able to make the proper choice. A Torah life lived in doubt will ultimately fail, as did Haran’s brand of vacillating spiritual commitment[11].


Avraham Avinu set a powerful lesson of boldly following the truth and fully committing to unconditional and wholehearted adherence to Hashem’s commands. The hugely important principle of Ma’aseh Avot Siman LaBanim (the forefathers set the standard for the behavior of future generations) teaches that we are expected to follow in the footsteps of our forefathers and live highly satisfying lives as fully committed to Hashem and observance of His Torah.

[1] See the Kesef Mishneh to Rambam’s Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 1:3.

[2] Chazal (Avot 5:22) teach that one achieves Binah, wisdom, at the age of 40.

[3] Rambam expresses a similar idea in Hilchot Geirushin 2:20 where he states that every Jew pines to fulfill Hashem’s Mitzvot, but that the Yeitzer HaRa (evil inclination) sometimes restrains this natural desire.

[4] This, in part, is the lesson of Chazal (Berachot 63a, see Ein Ya’akov) who write that even a thief calls out to Hashem right before he engages in theft. The natural connection to Hashem emerges in stressful situations, as commonly noted, “There is no atheist in a foxhole.”

[5] Ashkenazic practice, based on Tosafot (Berachot 48a s.v. VeLeit) and Rama (Orach Chaim 199:10) does not allow for a pre-Bar Mitzvah child to count towards a Zimmun.

[6] Echoing BeReishit 15:5 when Hashem instructs Avraham Avinu to go outside and gaze at the stars.

[7] Rabbah predicted that these two children would grow up to be rabbis. This childhood Machloket (dispute) reflects the many Machlokot that Abayei and Rava would have as adults.

[8] Rav Solovetichik writes in Abraham’s Journey that “There is a natural desire, a natural yearning in every human being, Jew and gentile alike, who were all created in the image of God, to come as close as possible to the Master of the Universe.” Rav Soloveitchik cites the Tanya (Likkutei Amarim chapters 12, 19 and 38) which calls this drive “Ahavah Tiv’it,” the natural love for God.

[9] See Chagigah 15b which states that the fact that Elisha ben Avuyah was steeped in Greek music led to his spiritual downfall.

[10] Rav Soloveitchik (Abraham’s Journey p. 59) writes that there are those who “repress the drive for God or are not cognizant of it due to the environment or friends who smother the still, small voice of the human personality.”

[11] Ramban to Devarim 6:16 (the prohibition of Lo Tenasu, testing Hashem) similarly writes “it is improper to serve Hashem ‘Al Derech HaSafeik,’” in a manner of doubt.

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