(hāsh-gā-ḥāh) השגחה root: שגח
Related words: supervision, oversee

What Is Divine Providence?

In Jewish theology, divine providence means that G‑d not only knows what is going on down here, but is engaged in supervising it as well. In Hebrew, the term is hashgacha Elokit. When talking about detailed supervision, the term is hashgacha pratit.

Divine providence implies a kind of two-way interplay between Creator and creation, whereby each one responds and interacts with the other. A form of the word first appears in Psalms: “From His dwelling place He oversees all the inhabitants of the earth.”1

The notion of divine providence is a key distinction between Jewish and pagan cosmologies. The pagan generally also believes in one supreme deity, however, that deity is considered too supreme and exalted to stoop down to supervision of this lowly world. Pagan philosophers such as Aristotle considered G‑d’s wisdom to be engaged only in the ideal, atemporal worlds beyond our own. The narratives of the Torah and its declaration that the one supreme G‑d is the G‑d over all the forces of nature places it in direct confrontation with this way of thinking.

Two Approaches

Although, without exception, classical Jewish thinkers acknowledge G‑d’s thorough dominion and omniscience “from the horns of the wild oxen to the tiniest louse,”2 nevertheless, two distinct approaches to His hashgacha can be discerned within classic Jewish texts:

From the plain meaning of scriptural, talmudic and midrashic texts emerges a view of G‑d intimately involved in every detail of His works, providing even “to the fledgling raven that for which it cries.”3

Jewish philosophers, however, saw G‑d in a more passive role. To them, the degree of divine supervision corresponds directly to one’s transcendence of earthly matters. A tzaddik is wrapped up in G‑d’s supervision in every detail of his life, whereas a coarse, materialistic person is cast into a world of haphazard, natural causes along with animals and flora. In this lower realm, the philosophers see hashgacha applying only insofar as an event affects the divine plan. Yet, even according to this view, “chance circumstance has its source in Him, for everything stems from Him and is controlled by His supervision.”4

The Baal Shem Tov is credited with the reintroduction of the idea of hashgacha pratit—detailed divine supervision of every occurrence and every creature. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, one of the foremost early proponents of chassidic thought, articulated a rational basis for this view, linking hashgacha to another vital theme in Jewish thought, continuous creation.

Where It Takes You

Faith in the Creator’s providence provides the basis for bitachon. Just through your belief in His providence you raise yourself to a level at which G‑d is intimately involved in your life, in an open, beneficial way.

One who believes in hashgacha pratit finds G‑d in all that s/he sees and hears. Every facet of life becomes another opportunity to connect with the Infinite, and thereby another cause for celebration.