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W ithout R ed S tr ings
or Holy Water:
Ma imonides’
Mishneh Torah
Judaism and Jewish Life
G e o f f r ey A l d e r m a n (U n ive r si t y of B u ck i ng h a m, Eng la nd)
M e i r B a r - I l a n (Ba r- I la n U n ive r si t y, Isra e l)
H e r b e r t B a s s e r (Q u ee n’s U n ive r si t y, Ca na d a)
D o n a t e l l a E s t e r D i Ce s a r e (U n ive r si ta La Sa p i e nza, Ita ly)
S i m c h a Fi s h b a n e ( To u ro Co l leg e, N ew Yo rk), Se ri e s Ed i to r
A n d r e a s N a c h a m a ( To u ro Co l leg e, B e rl i n)
I r a Ro b i n s o n (Co nco rd ia U n ive r si t y, M o ntrea l)
N i s s a n R u b i n (Ba r- I la n U n ive r si t y, Isra e l)
S u s a n St a r r S e r e d (Suf fo l k U n ive r si t y, B os to n)
Re ev a S p e c t o r S i m o n ( Ye sh iva U n ive r si t y, N ew Yo rk)
Without Red Strings
or Holy Water:
Mishneh Torah
H . Nor m a n Str ick m a n
B o s t o n | 2011
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A catalog record for this title is available from the Library of Congress
Copyright © 2011 Academic Studies Press
All rights reserved
ISBN 978-1-936235-48-3
Book design by Ivan Grave
Published by Academic Studies Press in 2011
28 Montfern Avenue
Brighton, MA 02135, USA
[email protected]
Dedicated to Zahava
on our fiftieth wedding Anniversary.
Words cannot express my thanks for a half a century
of love, patience and devotion.
Table of Contents
Chapter One. The Mishneh Torah
Chapter Two. God
Chapter three. the commandments
Chapter four. magic: demons and evil spirits
Chapter five. Dangerous practices
Chapter six. astrology
Chapter seven. medicine
Chapter eight. communicating with the dead
Chapter nine. The messianic era
Chapter ten. The oral law
Appendix. another look at the mishneh torah 148
About the author
In December 1989 I delivered a lecture at the Twenty-First
Annual Conference of the American Association for Jewish Studies,
entitled “Judaism Without Superstition: Maimonides’ Mishneh
Torah.” The talk dealt with Maimonides’ attitude to astrology,
medicine, evil spirits, the evil eye, amulets, magic, theurgic practices,
omens, communicating with the dead and the like. Ever since then
I have delivered a variant of that lecture to assorted audiences.
A number of people found the topic fascinating and liberating.
They apparently were bothered by some of the issues raised or
alluded to, and were gratified to learn that one of Judaism’s greatest
minds apparently at some level shared some of their concerns.
A number of them asked me for copies of my talk. Others requested
that I publish it.
I of course am not the first to discover in the Mishneh Torah a rational version of Judaism. In fact when I showed a copy of my
lecture to a colleague he noted that the late Dr. Yitzchak Twerksy of
Harvard had made some of the very same points. I then came across
important works on this topic by Dr. Marc Shapiro of University
of Scranton, Dr. Menachem Kellner of Haifa University and Rabbi
Marc Angel of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue. Nevertheless
I decided to go ahead and publish this paper. The Rabbis say, en beit
midrash le-lo chiddush:1 there is no study without something new.
I hope that the same applies to my work and leave it to the reader
to judge.
Ever since Rabbi Saadiah Gaon composed his Sefer Emunot
Ve-De’ot two approaches to Scripture and Rabbinic texts have
been wrestling with each other in traditional Jewish literature,
1 Chagigah 3a.
the rational and some variation of that which Rabbi Nachman of
Breslav called “simple faith” (emunah peshutah). In all honesty the
aforementioned is an oversimplification. One can find examples of
simple faith in Rabbi Saadiah Gaon and rational interpretations of
classic texts in the works of those who championed some form of
emunah peshutah.2 However, the above dichotomy among Jewish
thinkers is certainly true as a working hypothesis.
The great medieval Jewish philosopher Rabbi Moses
Maimonides was one of the greatest representatives of the
rational school. Maimonides composed both philosophical and
Halakhic works. There are those who would distinguish between
Maimonides the Halakhist and Maimonides the philosopher.3 In fact
in traditional Jewish circles it is possible to find people who know
“the Rambam”4 as a great authority in Halakah but are hardly aware
of “the Rambam’s” philosophic thought. It will be the purpose
of this paper to show that Maimonides’ rationalistic approach to
Jewish tradition was not limited to his philosophic writings but
also underlay his greatest Halakhic work, the Mishneh Torah. The
paper which follows will not only deal with Maimonides’ approach
to theurgy, magic and the like, it will also deal with Maimonides’
Rabbi Judah Ha-Levi’s Kuzari falls into this category. The latter championed
simple faith over belief based on philosophic proofs. Nevertheless he maintains
that Judaism does not require a Jew to believe in anything that the mind rejects. See Kuzari 1:89.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch believed that Maimonides the Halakhist saved
Judaism while Maimonides the philosopher harmed Judaism. See The Nineteen Letters
of Ben Uziel: “It is to this great man (Maimonides) alone that we owe the preservation
of practical Judaism until the present day. By accomplishing this and yet, on the other
hand, merely reconciling Judaism with the ideas from without, rather than developing it
creatively from within, and by the way in which he effected this reconciliation, he gave
rise to all the good that followed—as well as all the bad.” The World of Rabbi Samson
Raphael Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters. Newly translated by Karin Paritzky. Revised and with
a comprehensive commentary by Joseph Elias (New York, 1965), p. 265.
Maimonides’ full Hebrew name and title was Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon. Traditional
Jews refer to him by the Hebrew acronym of his title and name—Rabbi Moshe ben
approach to a number of Jewish doctrines and beliefs dealt with in the
Mishneh Torah.
I want to express my deepest appreciation to the following
people, whose encouragement and generous contribution made
the publication of this volume possible. May God bestow His
blessings upon them so that they can continue in their support of
Torah studies. I offer my sincere thanks to: Guy & Miriam Alba;
Ari & Deborah Brand; Robert Boriskin & Esther Hakalir; Shelomo & Marylin Chavez; Yossi & Amy Golshan, Reuben & Carol
Greenberg; Moshe & Lori Eidlisz; Eli & Avigail Kohn; Harris & Avital Leitner; Avrohom & Hindy Norensberg; Rafael & Barbara
Steiner; Aviezer & Yael Saperstein; Dovid & Elisheva Teitelbaum;
Aryeh & Michelle Jacobson; Jonathan & Edna Sohnis; Yaakov &
Chani Ugowitz.
I want to thank Re’uvan Greenberg and Shelomo Chavez for
reading my manuscript and encouraging me to have it published.
I similarly offer my deepest thanks to Rafael Steiner and Guy Alba
who played key roles in gathering the funds to make the publication of this work possible.
I would also like to express my thanks to Ms. Sharona Veda
Acquisitions Editor of the Academic Studies Press for the help she
extended in preparing my manuscript for publication.
H. Norman Strickman
Rabbi Emeritus: Marine Park Jewish Center
Prof. of Judaic Studies: Touro College
Ch apter O ne
The Mishneh Torah
Moses Maimonides was one of the greatest personalities
produced by the Jewish people in the middle ages. He was
a Halakhist par excellence and a great philosopher, a political leader
of his community, and a guardian of Jewish rights. He served as
a spiritual guide to Jewish communities and to individual Jews all
over the world, offering them direction in Halakhah, theology and
Moses Maimonides was born on the eve of Passover in Cordova, Spain, in 1138.1 He passed away in Fostat, Egypt, in 1204.
Passover commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from
Egyptian bondage. Moses son of Amram led that liberation. Moses
was not only Israel’s liberator but also its lawgiver. For many
a medieval Jew, Moses ben Maimon was a duplicate of Moses
ben Amram. He, like the Moses of old, was a lawgiver. He gave
Israel the Mishneh Torah. Maimonides, like the Moses of old, was
a liberator. He freed Israel from its religious conflicts and directed
them towards the Promised Land. Scripture tells us that Moses was
so named because he was drawn from the water (Ex. 2:10). Some
of Maimonides’ admirers interpreted his given name Moshe to
mean, the man who drew Israel out of ignorance. Others said: From
Moses to Moses there was none like Moses. The philosopher Joseph
Ibn Caspi (1279-1340) described Maimonides as “the holy” “the
perfect” and “the light of the world.”2 Shlomo Pines, who translated
the Guide For the Perplexed into English, believes that “Maimonides
Earlier works give 1135 as the year of Maimonides’ birth. However, the latest
evidence reveals that he was born in 1138.
Israel Abrahams, Hebrew Ethical Wills (Philadelphia, 1948); Part One p. 129.
T h e M i s h n e h To ra h
is the most influential Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages, and quite
possibly of all time.”3
Maimonides was also referred to as the “Great Eagle.” Sara
Stroumsa, one of his biographers, notes that “This biblical sobriquet
(from Ezekiel 17:3) was meant, no doubt, to underline his regal
position in the Jewish community. At the same time, the imagery
of the widespread wings does justice not only to the breadth of
Maimonides’ intellectual horizons, but also to the scope of his
impact, which extended across the Mediterranean, and beyond to
Christian Europe.”4
The great Hassidic sage Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz (1728-1709)
is quoted as saying, “I thank God every day that I was not born
before the Zohar was revealed, for it was the Zohar that sustained me
in my faith as a Jew.”5 There are and were many who would say the
same regarding the works of Moses Maimonides.
Maimonides was a prolific writer. He composed a work on
logic called the Sefer Ha-Higayon; a commentary on the Mishnah
referred to by posterity as the Maor; a work on the commandments
called Sefer Ha-Mitzvot and a ground-breaking work on Jewish
philosophy called the Moreh Ha-Nevukhim6. All of the above were
written in Judao-Arabic. He also produced responsa on Jewish Law
and composed a variety of medical works. 7
S. Pines in a speech delivered in Paris at UNESCO conference on Maimonides; Dec.
1985 (Time magazine, December 23, 1985).
Sara Stroumsa, Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker (New
York, 2004), p.1.
Louis Jacobs, “The Influence of the Zohar,” in The Jewish Religion: A Companion
(New York, 1995).
Literally, Guide of the Perplexed. Friedlander (The Guide for the Perplexed, translated
from the Arabic by M. Friedlander, New York, 1904) translates it as Guide for the Perplexed.
I have employed Friedlander’s rendition throughout this work.
For Maimonides’ work as a physician see: Suessmann Muntner, Moshe Ben
Maimon: Medical Works (Hebrew); Volumes 1-4 (Jerusalem, 1965).
Fred Rosner, Medicine in the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides (New York, 1984).
Fred Rosner, The Medical Aphorisms of Moses Maimonides (Israel, 1989).
Fred Rosner, The Medical Legacy of Moses Maimonides (New York, 1989).
Chapter One
In addition to the above, Maimonides also composed a work
which he named the Mishneh Torah. The Mishneh Torah was published
in 1180 and was Maimonides’ Halakhic magnum opus.
The Mishneh Torah is without exaggeration the greatest code
of Jewish law to be composed in the post-Talmudic era. It is unique
in scope, originality and language. The Mishneh Torah was the only
work which Maimonides composed in Hebrew. Its language is clear
and concise. The Mishneh Torah is a model of orderly arrangement;
its chapters and paragraphs follow in logical sequence.
Maimonides’ code contains all the laws found in the Pentateuch and Talmud without regard to contemporary relevancy. The
fourteen volumes that comprise the Mishneh Torah deal not only
with laws of prayer, Sabbath and festival observances, dietary
regulations, laws governing the relation between the sexes, and civil
law, but also include Halakhot dealing with the sacrificial system,
tithes, skin eruptions, the construction of the temple, the making of
priestly garments, and laws pertaining to a Jewish monarch.
Maimonides’ code differs from its predecessors and
successors in that the latter were limited to those Halakhot that
were currently in force. Thus in Isaac Alfasi’s eleventh-century
code of Jewish Law the Halakhot was mainly based on the laws
found in the Talmudic orders of Mo’ed (festivals), Nashim (women),
and Nezikin (damages), plus the tractate Berakhot (blessings) from
the order Zera’im (seeds) and Niddah (the menstruous women)
from the order Tohorot (cleanliness). Similarly, today’s universally
accepted compendium of Jewish Law, Rabbi Joseph Karo’s (14881575) Shulkhan Arukh, contains only those laws that have practical
application. It mainly deals with civil law, marriage and divorce
law, festivals, prayers and dietary rules. It does not concern itself
with laws pertaining to the Holy Temple or laws relating to a Jewish
The Mishneh Torah consists of fourteen books. They are:
Book 1. The Book of Knowledge (sefer ha-mada).
The Book of Knowledge deals with: The basic principles of
the Torah; correct beliefs; the study of Torah; the prohibition of idol
worship; pagan practices; repentance.
T h e M i s h n e h To ra h
Book 2. The Book of Love (sefer ahavah).
The Book of Love deals with: The reading of the shema; prayer;
the priestly benedictions; tefillin; mezuzah; the Torah Scroll; tzitzit;
blessings; circumcision.
Book 3. The Book of Seasons (sefer zemanim).
The Book of Seasons deals with: The Sabbath; eruvin; Yom
Kippur; work prohibited on the Festivals; chametz and matzah; the
shofar; the sukkah; the lulav; The half shekel; sanctification of the new
moon; fast days; the reading of the Megillah; Chanukah.
Book 4. The Book of Women (sefer nashim).
The Book of Women deals with: Marriage; divorce; levirate
marriage (yibbum); release from levirate marriage (chalitzah); laws
pertaining to a virgin maiden; laws dealing with women suspected
of adultery (sotah).
Book 5. The Book of Holiness (sefer kedushah).
The Book of Holiness deals with: Prohibited sexual relations;
forbidden foods, laws of slaughtering.
Book 6. The Book of Promises (sefer hafla’ah).
The Book of Promises deals with: Oaths; vows; the Nazarite;
valuations; devoted property.
Book 7. The Book of Seeds (sefer zera’im).
The Book of Seeds deals with: The prohibition of planting
different seeds together (kilayim); charity; heave offerings (terumot);
tithes; the second tithe; plants of the fourth year; first fruits; gifts to
be given to the kohanim outside of the sanctuary; the Sabbatical year;
the year of Jubilee.
Book 8. The Book of Service (sefer avodah).
The Book of Service deals with: The Holy Temple; the vessels
of the Sanctuary and those who serve in it; laws of entry into
the Sanctuary; things forbidden on the Altar; laws of sacrificial
procedures; the daily offerings; the additional offerings; sacrifices
that become unfit; the Yom Kippur service; use of consecrated
Book 9. The Book of Sacrifices (sefer korbanot).
The Book of Sacrifices deals with: The Passover sacrifice;
pilgrimage festival sacrifices; laws of the First-Born; unintentional
Chapter One
sins; incomplete atonement; substitution for consecrated animals
Book 10. The Book of Purity (sefer tohorah).
The Book of Purity deals with: The laws of uncleanness
issuing from a dead body; the red heifer; leprosy; uncleanness with
regard to a bed or seat; uncleanness of foods; laws of vessels; laws
of ritual baths.
Book 11. The Book of Torts (sefer nezakim).
The Book of Torts deals with: Monetary damages; theft;
robbery; lost property; injury to person or property; murder;
preservation of life.
Book 12. The Book of Acquisition (sefer kinyan).
The Book of Acquisition deals with: Sales; acquisition of
ownerless property; gifts; neighbors; agents; partners; slaves.
Book 13. The Book of Judgments (sefer mishpatim).
The Book of Judgments deals with: Hiring; borrowed
and deposited items; creditors and debtors; claims and denials;
Book 14. The Book of Judges (sefer shofetim).
The Book of Judges deals with: The Sanhedrin; evidence;
rebellion; mourning; Kings; war; the Messiah.
Maimonides gave his code the name Mishneh Torah Omit
(Deuteronomy). The term Mishneh Torah is replete with meaning.
It is the Talmudic term for the Book of Deuteronomy,8 which
contains Moses’ repetition of the Torah and functions as Moses’ last
will and testament to the Jewish people. Maimonides believed that
his work was the final statement on Jewish law. The term Mishneh
Torah has the connotation of Companion to the Torah, or Second to the
Torah.9 In his introduction to the Mishneh Torah Maimonides writes:
“When one first studies the Written Torah10 and thereafter reads the
Mishneh Torah he obtains here-from a complete knowledge of the
See Berakhot 21b; Megillah7a.
See Gen. 41:43; 1 Sam. 23:17; 2 Chron. 28:7; Esther 10:3.
The Pentateuch.
T h e M i s h n e h To ra h
Oral Torah and he has no need to read any other work between
A person in Maimonides’ view can be a Jew in deed and in
creed by studying the Mishneh Torah and following its dictates.
In his introduction to the Mishneh Torah Maimonides gives his
reason for composing this work. He notes that God revealed both
the Written Torah and the Oral Torah to Moses at Sinai.
Scripture states: And I will give thee the tables of stone, and the
law (Torah) and the commandment, which I have written that thou mayest
teach them (Exodus 24:12). Maimonides explains that the law refers to
the Written Torah and the commandment to its interpretation.12
Maimonides notes that originally the interpretation of
the Written Law was passed on from generation to generation
by word of mouth. The dissemination of the Oral Law in
written form was strictly prohibited. However, eventually
a time came when because of the calamities that befell Israel
there was a danger that the Oral Torah would be forgotten. The
sage Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi (second century) sensed the danger
and composed a work containing the essence of the Oral Torah.
He named his work the Mishnah. The Mishnah contains, “all the
traditions, enactments, interpretations and expositions… of the
Torah, that had either come down from Moses or had been deduced
by courts in successive generations.”13 According to Maimonides,
copies of the Mishnah were widely circulated and studied. The Oral
Torah was thereby preserved.14
Maimonides notes that the sages in the Land of Israel and in
Babylonia commented on and explained the Mishnah. Eventually
these comments and additional material produced by the sages
Book of Mishneh Torah, translated by Simon Glazer (New York, 1917). Introduction,
with some changes.
See Berakhot 5a.
Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Introduction. See Isadore Twersky, A Maimonides Reader (New York, 1972), p. 36.
Chapter One
were set down in the Talmuds produced in the Land of Israel and
Babylonia. The Talmudic tradition also preserved a number of other
works of the Oral Law, such as the tosefta, the sifra and sifre.15
Maimonides emphasizes that without a thorough knowledge
of Talmudic literature one cannot understand and observe the Written
Maimonides writes:
The sages who arose after the Talmud was composed and
studied it deeply… are called the Geonim. All the Geonim
who arose in the Land of Israel, the Land of Babylon,
Spain, and France taught the way of the Talmud, clarified its
obscurities, and explained its various topics, for its way is
exceedingly profound. Furthermore, it is written in Aramaic
blended with other languages: for that language had been
clear to all in Babylon, at the time when it was written;
but in other places as well as in Babylon in the time of the
Geonim, no one understood that language, until he was
taught it.
Many questions were asked of each Gaon of the time by
the people of various cities, to comment on difficult matters
in the Talmud, and they answered according to their wisdom;
those who had asked the questions collected the answers, and
made them into books for study.
The Geonim in every generation also wrote works to
explain the Talmud: Some of them commented on a few
particular laws, some of them commented on particular
chapters that presented difficulties in their time, and some of
them commented on Tractates or Orders.
They also wrote collections of laws as to what is forbidden
and permitted, liable and exempt, according to the needs of
the time, so that they could be easily learned by one who is
not able to fathom the depths of the Talmud. That is the work
of the Lord that all the Geonim of Israel did, from the time the
Talmud was written to the present day, which is 1108 years
from the Destruction of the Temple (1177 C. E.).16
Ibid. It is noteworthy that Maimonides omits Aggadic Midrashim.
Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, introduction. Rendition based on Book of
Mishnah Torah: Yod Ha-Hazakah; Volume 1; Translated by Simon Glazer (New York, 1927),
T h e M i s h n e h To ra h
Maimonides believes that another critical juncture in the
transmission of the Oral Torah has now arrived.
He points out that:
In our times, severe troubles come one after another,
and all are in distress; the wisdom of our Torah scholars
has disappeared, and the understanding of our discerning
men is hidden. Thus, the commentaries, the responses to
questions, and the settled laws that the Geonim wrote, which
had once seemed clear, have in our times become hard
to understand, so that only a few properly comprehend
them. One hardly needs to mention the Talmud itself—the
Babylonian Talmud, the Jerusalem Talmud, the Sifra, the Sifre,
and the Tosefta—which all require a broad mind, a wise soul,
and considerable study, before one can correctly know from
them what is forbidden or permitted and the other rules of
the Torah.
For this reason, I, Moshe son of the Rav Maimon the
Sephardi, found that the current situation is unbearable; and
so, relying on the help of the Rock blessed be He, I intensely
studied all these books, for I saw fit to write what can be
determined from all of these works in regard to what is
forbidden and permitted, and unclean and clean, and the
other rules of the Torah: Everything in clear language and terse
style, so that the whole Oral Law would become thoroughly
known to all; without bringing problems and solutions or
differences of view, but rather clear, convincing, and correct
statements, in accordance with the legal rules drawn from all
of these works and commentaries that have appeared from
the time of Our Holy Teacher17 to the present.
This is so that all the rules should be accessible to the small
and to the great18 in the rules of each and every commandment
and the rules of the legislations of the Torah scholars and
prophets: in short, so that a person should need no other work
pp.15-16; Isadore Twersky, A Maimonides Reader (New York, 1972) p. 38-39; and Moses
Hayamson, Mishneh Torah: The Book of Knowledge (Israel, 1962), p. 4a-4b.
Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi.
Hebrew, la-katan ve-la-gadol. Some (Glazer, Twersky, Hayamson) translate,
young and old.
Chapter One
in the world in the rules of any of the laws of Israel; but that this
work might include the entire Oral Torah, including the positive
legislations, the customs, and the negative legislations
enacted from the time of Moshe Our Teacher until the writing
of the Talmud, as the Geonim interpreted it for us in all of the
works of commentary they wrote after the Talmud. Thus, I have called this work the Mishneh Torah, for when one first studies
Scripture and thereafter reads the Mishneh Torah he obtains herefrom a complete knowledge of the Oral Torah and he has no need to
read any other work between them.19
One of the outstanding features of the Mishneh Torah is its
omission of its sources. Earlier codes had always given the sources
of the halakhot codified therein. Maimonides does not explain how
he arrived at his decisions. He does not discuss other opinions.
Maimonides’ code lays down the Halakhah ex cathedra.
The great twelfth-century provincial sage Rabbi Abraham
ben David of Posquierres (henceforth Ra’abad) severely criticized
Maimonides for omitting his sources. Ra’abad writes:
He abandoned the path of all authors who preceded him;
they supported their contention by quoting authority, so that
one derived a great benefit, as when a member of a court is
about to render a decision, either to forbid or permit, supporting
his contention upon one authority, if he finds a higher authority
who reverses him, he still can retract; whereas, now, with this
work before me, I know not why I should abandon my tradition
or my supporting authority simply on account of the work of
this author; if the one who reverses me is greater than I it is
well, but if I am greater than he, why should I annul my opinion
because of his? Moreover, there are matters concerning which
the Gaonim disagree, comes this author and selects the opinion
of one in preference to another; why should I rely upon his
choice, when the opinion does not please me, or when the
contending authority is unknown to me, even whether or not
he is competent to contend aught against another? This is none
else, save … a spirit of arrogance.20
Glazer, pp. 17-18.
Ibid., p. 18.
T h e M i s h n e h To ra h
Maimonides’ retort to Ra’abad would most probably have
been: I did not compose my work only for Talmudic scholars. I also
wrote the Mishneh Torah for the average literate Jew who cannot on
his own master the Talmud and arrive at a Halakhic decision. There
is no sense in confusing such a reader with a panoply of opinions.
In fact Maimonides more or less expresses these very sentiments
in a letter to Rabbi Yehonatan Ha-Kohen of Lunel. He writes: “My
intention in composing this work was primarily to clear the roads
and to remove the stumbling blocks from before the students so that
they do not tire themselves [in the Talmudic] give and take and thus
err in deciding the Halakhah.”21
Rabbi Judah Al Harizi (1170-1230), the translator of the Guide for
the Perplexed and parts of Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishnah,
praised Maimonides for precisely what Ra’abad criticized him for.
Al Harizi writes that Maimonides eliminated confusion in
Talmudic studies, for he removed from the Mishneh Torah the
names of commentators, Halakhic and Aggadic Midrashim and novel
interpretations.22 He sorted the Talmud and produced pure flour.
Whereas Israel had previously sat in the dark there was now light
in the home of all of Israel. 23 In the words of Al Harizi:
He (Maimonides) sifted the Talmud through his wondrous
brain, lifted the choice grain….the children of Israel fed on
manna. No longer had they need to limp or lurch about,
search in vain through the Talmud’s vast domain, for he rid
his composition of the names of sage and commentator,
earlier or later, of fancy , of homily, of Aggadic explication…
He straightened all the Talmud’s winding ways, he turned to
the exile and did his voice loud raise: Enter these gates with
thanksgiving, these courts with praise. 24
Letters of Maimonides, quoted by Ben Zion Dinur, Yisrael Ba-Golah (Israel in the
Diaspora); Vol 2, Book 4, (Israel, 1969), p. 68
The reference is probably to farfetched new interpretations. See The Book
of Tahkemoni, translated by David Simha Segal (Oxford, 2002), p. 337.
Tahkemoni; Chap. 46.
Ibid. p. 337.
Chapter One
Today’s world is afloat with books explaining the Mishnah and
Talmud both in Hebrew and the vernacular. Few such works were
available to Jews in Maimonides’ era. One who wants to experience
what a student of the Talmud faced in Maimonides’ era should pick
up a medieval manuscript of the Talmud and try to make sense of
it. He most probably will have great difficulty in deciphering it.
Some of the post-Talmudic sages tried to solve these difficulties.
Commentaries were written to the Talmud to help the student
analyze and understand its text. One of the most famous of these
was the one composed by Rashi (1040-1105). However, before the
advent of printing, hand-written manuscripts were very expensive
and hard to come by. Furthermore, as great, useful, and helpful as
Rashi’s commentary is, it does not eliminate all difficulties. Even
with the aid of Rashi’s commentary one still requires a great amount
of skill to decipher many of the Talmud’s sugyot.25
Deciding the Halakhah presents further problems. A given topic
is often discussed in various tractates of the Talmud. Maimonides
himself notes that,
It is beyond the ability of any person to know the entire
Talmud by heart—and certainly not when a single law in
a given Mishnah requires four or five pages of Talmudic
explanation. Topic follows topic. One encounters so many
arguments, questions and answers that only an individual
who is an expert in Talmudic dialectics is able to choose the
correct interpretation of the Mishnah under discussion. If so,
what can one do with a law that is not fully explained, and for
which a final decision cannot be reached without the study of
two or three tractates?26
The Mishneh Torah solves the above.
There are those who playfully interpret the acronym Rashi
which stands for Rabbi Solomon ben Yitzchak, as standing for Rabban
shel Yisrael, the teacher of Israel. That title can equally be applied to
Talmudic sections.
Moses Maimonides, Commentary on the Mishna, Introduction.
T h e M i s h n e h To ra h
Maimonides. In fact Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel refers to Maimonides
as Ha-Rav Ha-Moreh, the Rabbi the teacher, or the Rabbi the Guide.27
Following in Abarbanel’s footsteps, an Israeli scholar, Meir Orayin,
composed a work on Maimonides some years ago called Ha-Moreh
Le-Dorot, or The Teacher (or Guide) for All Generations.28 Maimonides
was a great educator. He tried to make the teachings of Judaism
available to all Jews.
The Mishneh Torah was an immediate success. It obviously
served a great need. The Mishneh Torah quickly spread from Egypt
to the Land of Israel, Syria, Babylonia, Yemen, Spain, Provence, and
ultimately to France and Germany.29 Indeed, Maimonides spoke of
the Mishneh Torah’s fame all over the Jewish world.30 There were
places where the Mishneh Torah was studied in place of the Talmud.31
Aside from its comprehensiveness, the Mishneh Torah also
differs from its predecessors in that Maimonides reworked the
Talmudic material. Whereas the codes that preceded the Mishneh
Torah excerpted the relevant Halakhic material from the Talmud and
in some cases added notes thereto, Maimonides rewrote all of his
source material in a beautiful Hebrew. He thereby often gave new
meanings to his rabbinic sources. For example, the Talmud explains
the significance of Chanukah as follows:
The eight days of Chanukah start on the twenty-fifth of
Kislev,... When the Greeks entered the Holy Temple, they
defiled all the oils in it. When the Hasmonean dynasty
overcame them, they conducted a search and found only
one cruse of oil with the seal of the High Priest. However,
it contained oil sufficient for only one day’s lighting.
Ha-rav Ha-Moreh is a play on Maimonides’ work the Moreh Ha-Nevukhim (Guide
for the Perplexed).
Mosad Ha-Rav Kook, 1957.
Isadore Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (New Haven, 1980), p 518. Also see Jeffrey Woolf, Maimonides Revised: The Case of the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol in
The Harvard Theological Review (1997).
Ibid., Twersky.
Ibid., 527.
Chapter One
A miracle occurred and they lit the menorah therewith for
eight days. The following year these days were established as
a festival with the recital of Hallel and thanksgiving.32
Maimonides rewrites the Talmudic passage as follows:
During the days of the Second Temple the Greeks ruled
over Israel. They issued evil decrees against the Jewish
people. They prohibited their religion and did not allow
them to study the Torah and to observe the command­ments.
They seized their property and their daughters. They entered
the Sanctuary and ravaged it. They defiled that which was
pure. As a result, Israel suffered greatly and underwent great
persecution. This lasted until the God of our fathers took pity
on them, and saved and delivered them from the hands of
the Greeks. Ultimately the Hasmonean family of high priests
gained the upper hand. They slew the Greeks, and saved
Israel from their hands. They crowned a king from among
the priests, and restored Israel’s kingdom for a period of
more than two hundred years—until the destruction of the
Second Temple.
The day on which the Israelites defeated their enemies
and destroyed them was the twenty-fifth day of Kislev. When
they entered the Temple, they found within its precincts only
one jar of ritually pure oil. However, the jar had only enough
oil for one day. Yet they kindled the lights of the menorah
with it for eight days, until they pressed olives and produced
new ritually pure oil.
As a result, the sages of that time ruled that the eight days
beginning with the twenty-fifth of Kislev should be days of
rejoicing on which the Hallel is to be recited, and that on each
one of the eight nights lamps should be lit at evening over
the doors of the houses, to display and publicize the miracle.33
Aside from elaborating on the historical events of the
Chanukah period Maimonides adds something that is not mentio-
Sabbath 21b (Soncino translation, with some changes).
Mishneh Torah; Hilkhot Purim Ve-Chanukkah 3:1-3. Based on the translation in A Maimonides Reader, p. 118.