The Mishneh Torah

Maimonides' halakhic magnum opus.

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Determined to combat widespread neglect of the theoretical and non-functional branches of the Oral Torah, Maimonides incorporated these "academic" topics into his code, in the hopes that their simplification would inspire renewed interest. Indeed, a striking feature of the Mishneh Torah, which was presumably intended as a guide to practical knowledge and observance, is the inclusion of entire realms of halakhah not applicable in the post-Temple era or outside the Land of Israel, such as the laws of sacrifices and those of agriculture.

In drafting the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides purposefully omitted bibliographic citations and excised all traces of talmudic debate. Although every paragraph of the Mishneh Torah draws upon a multitude of relevant biblical, talmudic, and geonic sources, Maimonides referenced none of these, choosing instead to present the law as a uniform whole. He similarly neglected to attribute legal opinions to their talmudic authors, even when he himself ruled in accordance with one position over another, preferring to create the impression of an undisputed legal tradition. The goal of this unconventional approach was to simplify, condense, and increase accessibility, yet it drew harsh and unforgiving criticism from Maimonides' opponents.

Opposition to the Mishneh Torah

Indeed, despite his renown as a God-fearing Torah scholar and intellectual giant, Maimonides encountered fierce opposition to his publication of the Mishneh Torah, mainly in response to its innovative halakhic methodology.

Rabbi Abraham ben David (RaBaD) of Posquières was his most passionate opponent; his critique centered on Maimonides' failure to cite his sources or to preserve the names of talmudic sages. Others accused Maimonides of attempting to supplant the Talmud and of weakening the chain of tradition. The Mishneh Torah elicited controversy not only during the course of Maimonides' own lifetime but for several generations thereafter.

Influence of the Mishneh Torah

That is not to say that Maimonides' work went unappreciated. The Mishneh Torah was widely disseminated throughout the Jewish world within years of its publication, and it drew immediate praise from many quarters.

Maimonides merited the sort of acclaim reserved for the champions of the ages, eliciting comparisons to the heroic Rabbi Yehudah the Prince, redactor of the Mishnah, and to Moses himself. Few who encountered the work remained unaffected, and the Mishneh Torah inspired the composition of more commentaries than almost any other piece of halakhic literature.

Although the Mishneh Torah did not achieve the status of a definitive code or displace the classics of Jewish scholarship, it undeniably changed the landscape of halakhic study and practice. Virtually no subsequent halakhic work neglects to reference Maimonides, and the influence of his masterpiece on the field of Jewish law can hardly be understated.

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Rachel Furst is a Talmud teacher and a graduate student in medieval Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.