Goals of the Mishneh Torah

In order to make his code categorical and prescriptive, Maimonides deliberately omitted sources and did not reference his predecessors.

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"In brief, a person will not need to have recourse to any other work to ascertain any of the laws of Israel. This work is intended as a compendium of the entire Oral Law, including the enactments, customs, and decrees instituted from the days of Moses, our teacher, until the redaction of the Talmud, as expounded for us by the geonim in all the works composed by them since the completion of the Talmud.

Hence, I have entitled this work Mishneh Torah [Recapitulation of Torah], for the reason that a person who first reads the Torah and then this work will know from it all of the Oral Law, and there will be no need to read any other book [written] between them."

As previously stated, Maimonides did not mean by this statement that his code was to be the authoritative legal source of Jewish law. The very introduction to Mishneh Torah, in which the statement just quoted was made, opens with a description of the "chain of the tradition." It specifies the names of all those who were links in the chain, commencing with the Revelation at Sinai--the seminal event and the source of authority for the Jewish legal system. Indeed, it makes clear that everything set forth in the Written Law and in the Oral Law as handed down in the Talmud "is binding on all Israel."

Consequently, all the prior halakhic literature would remain as material for study and analysis, and as a source for legal pronouncements on new problems arising in the future; but finding and ascertaining the halakhah as crystallized up to Maimonides' time was to be done exclusively by means of his code, for he was fully confident that his code included the entire Oral Law and that there could be no inconsistency between it and the binding halakhic literature up to that time.

Four Basic Objectives

The Introductions to his various works and his responsa indicate that Maimonides set for himself four basic objectives in the preparation and composition of the Mishneh Torah, similar to the guidelines used even today for any type of code in every legal system.

Maimonides' objectives were:

1. To compile the entire corpus of Jewish law from the Torah up to his own day and to rework this material scientifically and systematically.

2. To select and arrange the material topically.

3. To set forth the law categorically and prescriptively, without associating it with particular sages, without mentioning conflicting opinions, and without source references.

4. To achieve a polished literary style that clearly and succinctly expresses the content of the concepts expounded.

Fulfilling these objectives in codifying the law of any legal system calls for superior skills; fulfilling them in codifying halakhah calls for genius of the highest order.

The Problem of Codifying Jewish Law

Maimonides attained his first two objectives through his extraordinary ability to assemble, rework, and classify material. His third objective was attained in consequence of two characteristics to be expected in someone of his stature--a capacity for boldness, and a readiness to pioneer beyond the conventional.

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Menachem Elon

Justice Menachem Elon has had a long and distinguished career as a legal scholar. He is a retired professor of Jewish Law at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a prolific author on Jewish Law. In 1977 Justice Elon was appointed to the Supreme Court of Israel and served as its Deputy President from 1988 until 1993. He lives in Jerusalem.