Maimonides (Rambam)

The greatest medieval Jewish thinker, Talmudist and codifier.

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Commentary to the Mishnah

Maimonides’ Arabic commentary to the Mishnah is part commentary proper, elucidating the meaning of each Mishnah in the collection, part philosophical reflection. Occasionally, Maimonides’ comments are at variance with the explanations given in the Talmud, in the belief, evidently, that the Mishnah, like the Bible, can be interpreted on its own terms, although Maimonides never bases his later Halakhic decisions on anything other than the Talmud.

His philosophical asides are important as an early attempt at reconciling Greek philosophy with the Jewish tradition; For example, he prefaces his comments to Ethics of the Fathers with eight short chapters in which he compares Greek ethical standards with those of the Talmudic rabbis.

His formulation of the thirteen principles of faith occurs in his commentary to tractate Sanhedrin, chapter 10, where he discusses the question of dogmas to Judaism, referred to indirectly in this section of the Mishnah. In his introduction to this work he provides a history of the Oral Torah and a discussion of the relationship between learning and practice in Judaism.

The Mishnah Torah

The Mishnah Torah (“Second to the Torah”) is Maimonides’ great code of Jewish law, written, unlike the other two works considered here, in Hebrew, of which he was a superb master. The implications of the title are that the work contains all that is necessary for the Jews to know of the Oral Torah as found in the Talmudic literature and is thus a supplement to the written Torah, the Bible.

thinkers and thought quizThe whole legal system of Jewish law is presented without reference to the numerous debates and discussions found in the Talmud. Maimonides never records the names of the debaters, only the final ruling as this appears in the Talmud. His older contemporary, Abraham ben David, known as the Rabad, is very critical of this methodology, arguing that Maimonides has reduced the openness and flexibility of the Talmudic halakha to a bare, uniform series of categorical decisions with no room for legal maneuver. The Rabad is similarly critical of many other statements in the Mishnah Torah and his strictures accompany the text in most editions of the work.

Later scholars called the Mishnah Torah the Yad Ha-Hazakah (“Strong Hand”) adapting the verse: “And for the strong hand and awesome power that Moses [i.e. Moses Maimonides] displayed before all of Israel” (Deuteronomy 34:12). There is a pun here on the word yad, which has the numerical value of 14, since the work is divided into fourteen books.

Unlike other codes, the Mishnah Torah does not only include practical law for the guidance of Jews after the destruction of the Temple but also laws that were in operation in Temple times, such as the whole sacrificial system, in the Messianic hope that these laws, too, will one day come into operation.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.