Maimonides' Rational Approach to Halakhic Problems
By Leon D. Stitskin, Tradition
Maimonides' responsum to Joseph Ibn Gabir reflects his rational approach to halakhic questions. A resident of Baghdad, Ibn Gabir was exposed to the malicious criticism levelled against Maimonides by the head of the Talmudic Academy of Baghdad, Shmuel ben Ali. Fearful that the Great Code, the Mishnah Torah, by Maimonides would undermine the authority of the Gaonite, Shmuel ben Ali embarked upon a bitter campaign designed to discredit the credentials of Maimonides as a Talmudic
scholar and as a pious Jew, accusing him of repudiating many religious doctrines, such as the belief in resurrection. As an ardent admirer and staunch supporter of Maimonides, Ibn Gabir was determined to answer the objections of Shmuel ben Ali by challenging the latter's misrepresentations. But unfortunately he lacked the education and the skills to undertake this task. He knew no Hebrew and, consequently, was unable to study the Mishnah Torah which was written in Hebrew. He had studied the Commentary on the Mishnah in Arabic and was convinced that the challenge by the zealots of the halakhic competence of Maimonides was false. But he needed further documentation from the magnum opus of Maimonides, the Mishnah Torah, to prove his case. He thus proceeded to put his master serveral direct questions which agitated the minds of the Jews of Baghdad, hoping thereby to respond intelligently to the criticism directed against him and at the same time reveal the malicious motives of the critics.
The responsum by Maimonides was written in Cairo in 1191. It reflects the highest instincts of Maimonides, of combining rational insights with halakhic problems, and treating every question with a sense: of forthrightness by examining alternatives to any supporting evidence of a given proposition before drawing a conclusion.
What follows is my translation of Maimonides' Responsum.
MAIMONIDES' RESPONSUM TO JOSEPH IBN GABIR
I have placed the Lord before me always. The letter of the ...wise and cherished Mar known as Ibn Gabir has reached me. He describes himself as an ignorant man and laments his inabilityto read the work I composed in the Hebrew language, the Mishnah Torah. It is clear, however, from his epistle that he has a great enthusiasm for studying Torah, and that he occupies himself steadily in my Commentary on the Mishnah. He also mentions that he heard that some scholars in Baghdad (may the Lord protect them) are critical of some of my decisions, and requested that I reply in my own handwriting in order to help him with his studies. I hereby. comply with his request.
First of all, I must tell you, may the Lord preserve and increase your welfare, that you are not justified to call yourself ignorant. You are my beloved pupil, and so are all those who are inclined to pursue zealously the study of Torah and attempt to understand even one biblical verse or a single halakhah. It makes also no difference whether one pursues his studies in the holy language or in Arabic or Aramaic, as long as one understands the issues involved. This applies especially to the commentaries and the summaries. The most important thing is to be involved in learning. But of one who neglects his studies, or who has never studied, it is said, "he has despised the word of the Lord" (Numbers 15: 31). This refers also to a man who fails to continue his. studies even if he is. a great scholar, for he thereby neglects the positive precept of advancing his learning which is the highest Commandment.As for your own situation, I would suggest that you do not disparage yourself or abandon the prospect of achieving perfection. There are great scholars who commenced their learning at an advanced age and yet developed into distinguished scholars. It behooves you, therefore, to study the Hebrew text of the volume I composed. It is not diffcult to understand, for it lends itself easily to study. And, in fact, if you master one part you will eventually be able to understand the whole work. Keep in mind, however, that I do not intend to produce an Arabic edition of the Mishneh Torah, as it would lose its specific flavor. Moreover, how can you ask me to do this when I hope to translate even my arabic writings into the holy language. In any event, you are our brother, may the Lord guard you, lead you to perfection and grant you bliss in both worlds.
With regard to the allegation you heard that I deny in my work the resurrection of the dead, this is nothing more than a malicious slander. He who asserted this is either a wicked man who misrepresents my statements, or an ignorant one who does not understand my views of the hereafter (Olam Habah), and confuses it with resurrection. I have composed a special treatise on this subject which should reach you soon in order to obviate any further mistakes or doubts.You mention further an objection made against my judgment, that the rite of circumcision we are commanded to observe is a Mosaic law rather than a tradition of Abraham. My opponents argue that, inasmuch, as on the occasion of that Commandment, the Lord made a thirteen. fold covenant with Abraham, we may assume that the obligation to observe the rite of circumcision dates back to Abraham. The argument is inadmissible and their alleged evidence demonstrates that they do not understand the very foundation of our religion. My judgment, I assure you, is correct without any doubt. Included in the six hundred thirteen precepts that were commanded at Sinai are the injunction of circumcision and the prohibition of the sinew which, although they existed in earlier times as recorded in Scriptures, have ben in force as prescriptions only since the time of Moses. You might ask those blind people-who pretend to be seers and cite as evidence against me the thirteen-fold covenant with Abraham to tell you if Abraham himself had perhaps written the thirteenfold covenant with all the verses contained in that portion, and Moses simply copied them, as some people are wont to copy ancient works of another author, or whether the verses have been composed by Moses for the first time under inspiration? Whoever does not believe that these verses, together with the whole Torah, were composed by Moses under inspiration denies that the Torah is of Divine origin. How would one indeed know what was communicated to Abraham, were it not for the account communicated by Moses. Hence, the foundation and the injunction of that precept, as well as the thirteen-fold covenant stem from Moses. This matter is obvious except to those who do not possess the capacity to reflect and who do not concentrate on the roots of religion but on its branches. The Torah enjoined by Moses is in its totality a revelation of God. If it contains ancient laws, as the Noahide laws and the sign of the covenant, we are not bound by them because they were observed in ancient times but because of the later Sinaitic legislation vouchsafed exclusively to us.
You mention, also, that I am being accused of permitting the crossing on the Sabbath of streams where the waters are deep. Indeed this is surely permissible. And what you contend that some thought I had said that boundaries (Tehumin) are of rabbinic, rather than of biblical origin, it is important to note, that a similar complaint reached me from the head of the Yeshiva (may the Lord protect us), and I was similarly convinced tltat he was greatly mistaken and that he did not adequately scrutinize my work. Failing to understand the issues involved, he produced far-fetched arguments. At any rate, I have already answered him in a lengthy responsum (Teshubot ha-Rambam 126), which my students copied down as a discourse and it has been well publicized. With regard to the first question, you have undoubtedly received the answer and the proofs for permitting the crossing in streams on the Sabbath, as well as the second response concerning the arguments, questions and doubts raised aboùt our position by the head of the Yeshiva. If further proof is required about our decision, then we might argue that only a doubt of rabbinical origin is involved which is always permissible.You mention, further, an objection levelled against me for permitting a menstruant woman to sIt in her house during the seven clean days. I am not sure what you mean by this phrase. If you refer to touching her husband even with her small finger, or partaking of food or drink from one vessel or performing any of the three customary chores, such as washing his face, hands or feet, making his bed in his presence and pouring his cup for him-all these acts are not permitted until the passage of seven days and the proper immersion in a ritual bath (mikvah) takes place. If you allude, however, to other household chores, such as kneading, cooking, touching clothes, spreading out a matthese acts are permitted even during the days of the menstrual period. This is our custom which is followed in all our countries and in France. It is the law of the Talmud and it was the tradition of the people in Israel when we resided there. I found, however, that the people of Egypt were leaning toward the views of the heretics, by following the custom of the Karaites. Apparently, your people have also adopted the ways of the Egyptians and I am not prepared to enjoin you to abandon them, nor would I deceive you by enumerating additional safeguards and stricter separation for the menstruant. These are rules that are not really required obligations provided that the woman goes to the mikvah after counting seven clean days and scrubbing. But if it is your custom to observe these additional safeguards, such as not to touch money and not to step on certain things and then proceed to cleanse herielf by simply washing at sunset without immersing in a mikvah, such practice is abolute heresy, not grounded in any tradition and should be avoided. Our people should be admonished to comply only with the laws of the Talmud as we ourselves have done in Egypt. When we discovered that a warning alone was insuffcient, we issued a ban with Scrolls of the Law in all the synagogues –and recorded attestations on it in Teshubot ha-Rambam 149 – that cursed be any woman who does not count seven clean days or abolishes immersion in the mikvah or simply washes her boy like the Karaites do even with an immersion. We also informed them that it was permissible for them to touch clothes and foods. However, hold on to your custom. And, whoever wishes to be lenient in this matter may do so, and one who is inclined to be strict because of a strong aversion or for the sake of instituting preventive rules, may also do so. If, however, his intention was to make it an absolute prohibition, then he has forfeited his position as a rabbinical authority and may even be considered a denier of the Oral Law. That is all that one could have deduced from our instructions, as they constitute the basic rules one ought to abide by. It is all explicitly true and no one can take issue with it except an ignoramus or an unobservant person who discredits the truth in the eyes of the multitude. If anyone quoted us otherwise, he is one of our slanderers who lied.With reference to your question about those who write verses on fringes, I say that this is not permitted. The verses must be removed and buried. I have already dealt with this question in a separate responsum (Teshubot ha-Rambam, 7), which will undoubtedly reach you.Concerning what you have asked about the nature of immortality in the after-life, we have already said what can be said and elucidated on the subject in our other works. I would caution you to avoid reflecting upon such deep matters, such as the nature of separate intelligences. Even well-known scientists are hard put to apprehend them; thence they deny their spiritual qualities and conceive them as corporeal objects. This surely applies to beginners and to those who have no preliminary training. Accordingly, you should not attempt to apprehend anything other than what your mind can grasp. It wil not harm you religiously to think that there are corporeal beings in the world to come until you can establish rationally the authentic nature of their existence. Even if you think that they eat, drink, propogate in the upper sphere or in the Gan Eden, it will not hurt your faith. There are other more widespread doctrinal follies to which some cling and yet their basic religious beliefs were not damaged. But in refutation of this notion, it is important to project the authentic interpretation of the rabbinic statement "that there is no eating or drinking in the world to come," from which we may deduce that there are no corporeal beings, as we explained in the last discourse which will undoubtedly reach you.Regarding the assumption of a Fast day, one can do it by simply saying, "I intend to fast tomorrow" or by making a similar statement. According to the Yerushalmi it is appropriate to utter the words after the afternoon prayer (minha) or, in the middle of the prayer in Shomea Tefilah, as we indicated in our Book of Adoration (Sefer Ahabah, Hil. Tefilah 2, 14). However, the prayer of Aneinu should be said only on the night of the fast.As to your question about the araba (the willow branch), one should not add to the two required branches, just as it is not proper to add to the one lulav (palm branch) or the one etrog (citron). Other Gaonim do permit the adding of arabot just as additional branches to the myrtle are permitted. However, I do not find their argument sound, inasmuch as permission for additions to hadasim we found mentioned by our sages in the Talmud, but this is not the case concerning the arabot. And anything which is not explicitly indicated by our sages that it is permitted, we assume that it has limits beyond which we cannot go either by additions or diminutions. For, in essence, there is no difference between the adding or subtracting of anything that is limited, and in our view the most desirable way of fulfiling the precept is to use only two willow branches without any additions or diminutions. And whoever wants to follow my opinion may do so.You mention the objection against our ruling of one who experiences a nocturnal pollution on the night of the fast day by maintaining that he requires a ritual immersion. We do not pay attention to the ridicule of the masses nor to popular discourses, but to notions that are validated by logical inference. We have fully elucidated this principle in Hil Kry'at Shema and Tefilah which every scholar can understand.But with regard to the Piyyut (the Yotzer-poetic liturgy), I maintain, that it may be recited by each individual as it is by the Reader (Sheliah Zibbur). Other Gaonim have disputed this ruling, basing it on the principle that an individual worshipper may not recite the Kedusha. However, most of the Gaonim in the West agree with us, inasmuch as the worshipper is simply repeating what the angels recite. As to the Kedusha, which a worshipper may not recite in private, this has reference to the prayer the Reader recites in the middle of the Amidah, nakdishakh v'naaritzakh. Incidentally, this opinion I saw in the book on Prayer by Ibn Gasus, a disciple of Rabenu Nissim which is probably available to you.The affection you have displayed for us should be greatly rewarding, as it is a love for the sake of heaven. It flows from a study of our work grounded in the Torah emanating from God. Hence your love Is actually directed toward God, whom we are enjoined to love with all our hearts and souls. From the strength of His love, we are beckoned to love His commandments and prohibitIons and the people who know them and teach them.Moreover, I have learned – although I do not know whether it is true or not – that there is someone who speaks evil against me and tries to gain honor by maligning me and misrepresenting my teaching. I also heard that you protested against. this and repriinanded the slanderer. Do not act this way! I forgive anyone who opposes me because of ignorance, especially if he derives from his opposition some personal advantage without harming me. For are we not compelled to refrain from adopting the traits of Sodom in cases where one derives a benefit and the other sustains no loss? Moreover, the pleasure he received is worthless in attempting to convince the residents of the community of his perfection and wisdom by virtue of his ability to attack someone of the stature that people rely upon. Even if his criticism were grounded in wisdom and knowledge, abiding by its conclusions will help one only in this world, but we shall benefit both in this world and the next.But what is most disturbing is that you are engaged in useless quarrels and troubles, as I do not need the assistance of other men and I leave it to the people to follow their own will.May the Lord help you according to His Will and direct all your activities and words toward His Name. May your well-being and the well-being of all the elders and disciples be increased. May our God bless you.
RAMBAM’S MISHNEH TORAH: THE SIGNIFICANCE OF ITS TITLE
By Rabbi Menachem Genack
(Rabbinic Administrator of the Kashrut Division of the Orthodox Union, and a member of Tradition’s Editorial Committee)
Rambam’s Mishneh Torah is the most comprehensive and influential codification of Jewish law in the post-Talmudic era. Its impact on halakhic discourse, whether as a decider of law (e.g., for R. Joseph Karo in his Shulhan Arukh) or as an instrument of interpretation, is both profound and dramatic. Rambam’s audacious program, set out in his Mishneh Torah, to codify the definitive halakha in all areas of Jewish law, was nothing less than awesome, and, as expected, controversial. The name Rambam chose for his magnum opus was equally audacious, for Mishneh Torah is the Hebrew name for Deuteronomy.
The title of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah gives us a glimpse into how Rambam conceptualized the scope of his great work and the function it would play in the Jewish nation. The title at once acknowledges the great influence of the Mishnah, to which Rambam often compared his own work, and also suggests, in numerous ways, what he understood his own project in writing the Mishneh Torah to be. This essay will elucidate four allusions contained in the title of the Mishneh Torah as a means to clarify its structure, style, and purpose.
COMPARISON TO SCRIPTURE
The enormous role the Mishneh Torah has played in Jewish legal thought and practice is well-established: The Shulhan Arukh looked to Rambam’s Mishneh Torah as one of three opinions that would lay the basis for Jewish law. When the Shulhan Arukh decides in accordance with Rambam the language of the halakha is often that of the Mishneh Torah itself. Every generation yields new commentaries to the Mishneh. It is, perhaps uniquely in the Jewish world, universally consulted to clarify continuing legal issues.
And yet Rambam himself had even greater ambitions for his work. Rambam wrote in the introduction to the Mishneh Torah that his work was definitive and sufficient as a repository of the oral law. In calling his work Mishneh Torah, he writes, “for if one reads the Scriptures and then reads this volume, he will know the entire oral law and will not need to read any other book besides these.”1 “Mishneh” in this sense is based on the word sheniyya, or second. The Mishneh Torah would be second to the Pentateuch, the Written Torah. Rambam meant his work to be a companion volume to the written law; the embedded concept of “sheniyya” is the primary reference of the title, Mishneh Torah.
The notion that the Mishneh Torah is a companion volume to the Written Torah is not merely academic; it played a role in the formal composition of the Mishneh Torah itself. At the beginning of the laws of Hanukkah, for example, Rambam relates at length the history of the events of Hanukkah.2 In contrast, in the laws of Purim, no such history is found. There, Rambam notes only that “it is well known that [the reading of the Megillah] was a decree of the Prophets.” I once heard the Rav, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, explain why Rambam does not discuss the history of Purim as he does the events of Hanukkah. The story of Purim is related in the Book of Esther, R. Soloveitchik pointed out, which is a part of the Bible. The Mishneh Torah was intended to supplement the written law, and therefore Rambam found it unnecessary to repeat what had already been stated. But Rambam does record the post-Biblical story of Hanukkah.
MODELED ON MISHNAH
Although a work with the scope and the ambition of the Mishneh Torah was in fact unprecedented, Rambam nevertheless worked from a very definite model, the Mishnah of Rebbe, R. Judah the Prince 3—which brings us to the second allusion in the title. It’s not accidental that Rebbe’s work figures so prominently in the title of Rambam’s magnum opus: Rambam himself extolled Rebbe at length and writes often of the parallels between Rebbe’s work and his own. Rambam, generally circumspect, is anything but that in his admiration for Rebbe:
And . . . the time came for our holy teacher, peace be upon him, who was singular in his generation and unique in his time, a man within whom was found all things that were desirable and good attributes until he merited being called by the people of his generation, “our holy teacher,” and his name was Judah. And [he] was perfect in his wisdom and exaltedness—as they said from the days of our teacher, Moses, until Rebbe, we did not find Torah and greatness in one place (Gittin 59a). He was the ultimate in piety, humility, and abjuring of any pleasures, as they said, when Rebbe died, humility and fear of sin were not to be found (Sotah 49b).4Prominent among the explicit connections Rambam drew between his own work and Rebbe’s was style. Rambam expressed his admiration for Rebbe’s clarity in the introduction to the Commentary on the Mishnah: “His [Rebbe’s] eloquence and facility in the Hebrew language exceeded all others to the point that the Rabbis would learn the meaning of Biblical phrases which they had difficulty with from the words of his slaves and servants.” In his introduction to Sefer ha-Mitsvot, Rambam noted that, because of the clarity of mishnaic Hebrew, he would use only that language in his own work:
I also found it advisable not to compose [this work] in the language of the Holy Scriptures, since that sacred language is too limited for us today to write the whole complex of the law in it. Nor would I compose it in the language of the Talmud [namely, Aramaic], since only a few individuals among us understand it today, and the erudite in the Talmud find many of its words foreign and remote. Instead, I would compose it in the language of the Mishnah, so that it should be easily understood by most of the people.5Furthermore, Rambam mentions that he contemplated organizing the Mishneh Torah around the categories of the Mishnah:
I began thinking about how the division of this work, and the arrangement of its parts, were to be done. (I wondered:) Should I divide it in accordance with the divisions of the Mishnah and follow in its footsteps, or should I divide it in some other way, arranging the subjects at the beginning or at the end of the work as logic will dictate, since this is the proper and easier way for learning?6Rebbe’s influence on Rambam was not limited to style. One of the most distinctive elements of the Mishneh Torah is its lack of attribution. Rambam, even when codifying the law according to a specific opinion, did not attribute that position to a specific sage. It was this aspect that Rabbi Phineas ben Meshulam, a prominent judge in Alexandria and a contemporary of Rambam, objected to in a letter to Rambam. In response, Rambam offered a lengthy excursus on the distinction between the method of the Mishnah and the method of the Talmud—a distinction between a hibbur, a monolithic code, and a perush, a commentary. The Mishneh Torah, he said, was modeled after the method of the Mishnah, of a hibbur. In response to R. Phineas’ concern that the authors of the particular opinions would be forgotten, Rambam explains:
I have only followed the style of Rabbi Judah here. He, too, did this before me, for every halakha that he recorded without qualification and anonymously was originated by other scholars; yet even these other rabbis had not originated the halakhot themselves but had received them from still others, and these others from others, all the way back to Moses our teacher. . . . What advantage would there be in [citing the names of the Sages]? Indeed, it is mentioned explicitly in several places that Rabbi Judah adjudicated the law according to the opinion of a certain rabbi which he favored and nevertheless recorded his opinion anonymously; this is clear proof that whenever Rabbi Judah recognized a law which seemed to him to be the correct halakha, and therefore worthy of being implemented, he always recorded it without qualification and anonymously.”7In both style and organization Rebbe’s Mishnah informed Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. In his introduction to the Mishneh Torah, Rambam draws a further connection between these two codes that clarifies his purpose in writing the Mishneh Torah. Both his work and Rebbe’s, Rambam observed, were written during periods of decentralization and instability. Rebbe wrote the Mishnah, Rambam writes,
because he saw that the number of students was continuing to go down, calamities were continually happening, the wicked government was extending its domain and increasing in power, and the Israelites were wandering and emigrating to remote places. He thus wrote a work to serve as a handbook for all, so that it could be rapidly studied and would not be forgotten. . . .”8Rambam paints a similar picture of the chaotic affairs in his own time and the decline of Torah scholarship:
In our times, severe troubles prevail 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 settled laws, and the responses to questions that the Geonim wrote, which had once seemed clear, have in our times become hard to understand, so that only a few properly understand them. And one hardly needs to mention the Talmud itself, the Babylonian Talmud and 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.9 For this reason, I, Moses son of Maimon the Sephardi, became so stirred to action and, relying on the help of the Rock Blessed be He, intently studied all of 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.10Perhaps the most profound parallel between Rebbe and Rambam, in the latter’s own view, is that both found themselves in periods of transition, periods that threatened, or were perceived to threaten, the integrity of the oral tradition. As a result, both sought to comprehend and record the entire Oral Torah and thus secure it for the future. Rebbe wrote down what was until then an oral tradition. Masterfully, Rebbe safeguarded the oral tradition despite transforming it into the written word. Rambam also sought to integrate the entire oral law into one legal text.
Arguably, although it appears that Rambam’s project was even more ambitious than that of Rebbe, as the Mishneh Torah, unlike the Mishnah, almost completely lacks attribution of opinions, Rambam himself viewed his approach to codification as a continuation of the tradition of Rebbe. For, even though Rambam, as we saw in his letter to R. Phineas, dispensed entirely with recording disputes within the tradition along with his elimination of attribution, he merely applied the logic of the compilation of the Mishnah.
I had already decided to follow the methodology of the Mishnah, and the Talmud has already adjudicated every single halakha either ad hoc or by applying the various principles of adjudication, and there are no two ways of implementing one law. What then would have been the use in citing either the name of a Rabbi who is mentioned in the Talmud, like the names of Abaye or Raba, if in fact he is not the author of the halakha and it had been received by many from many? Because of this, I chose not to give any possible opportunity to the heretics to prevail, for they contend that we base our observance of the law upon the opinions of individuals, which is entirely false, since we follow the laws which we received from multitudes who themselves had received the same laws from earlier multitudes.11Unlike Rebbe, Rambam recorded the oral tradition without referencing the original rabbinic authorities. Still, Rambam viewed his role as a continuation of that of the great codifier, Rebbe. In a period of displacement and instability in Jewish life, Rambam, in writing the Mishneh Torah, intended to codify and fix the law and establish a steadier underpinning for Jewish social life. In doing so, Rambam intended to produce a work that would transcend his own time and, possibly, the entire diaspora experience of the Jews. Although Alfasi, among others, sought to codify halakha, nowhere besides the Mishneh Torah—and including the later Shulhan Arukh itself—is there as detailed a treatment of the halakhot pertaining to the building of the Temple, the reestablishment of the Temple Service, or the laws governing a King of Israel.
That unique feature of the Mishneh Torah brings us to a third allusion in the title. Deuteronomy, 17:18 states, “And you shall write this Mishneh Torah. . . . ” The Mishneh Torah referred to in the verse is the additional Sefer Torah that the King of Israel must write besides the Sefer Torah that each Jew must write, and which he would consult when regulating the affairs of a Jewish nation restored to its land and its proper status.12 We can only speculate whether Rambam intended his Mishneh Torah to be the Mishneh Torah that would guide the King of Israel in conducting affairs of state. It is certainly true that the Mishneh Torah was meant to operate as a kind of constitution—complete, eternal, and transcendent— for the Jewish people.
NAME OF DEUTERONOMY
Finally, as I mentioned in the beginning of this essay, the name Mishneh Torah is the name Hazal give Deuteronomy (Megillah 31b). The implicit comparison, a fourth allusion in the title, is striking.13 What is the nature of this comparison? Hazal call Deuteronomy “Mishneh Torah” because it is, in a sense, Moses’ own review, or repetition of the Torah itself. Hazal comment, “Moshe mi-pi atsmo amran (Moses himself said it),”14 because Deuteronomy was in Moses’ own language and not, so to speak, a direct transcription of God’s word.15 Therefore, Mishneh Torah also has characteristics of the Oral Torah.16 By simultaneously serving as the close of the Written Law and the beginning of the Oral Torah, Deuteronomy is both the transition between the two and the beginning of the Torah. In a similar moment of transition, Rambam, in the Mishneh Torah, as outlined at the beginning of this essay, sought to codify the entire oral law, thereby serving as a closure to the process begun with Moses’ Mishneh Torah. Although the above comment by Hazal was made with reference to Moses, it applies equally well to the Mishneh Torah of Moses, son of Maimon. While codifying and compiling the Oral Torah, Rambam nonetheless finds his own voice in his Mishneh Torah. Although he presents the views of others, he is able to leave his personality and stamp upon the entire work.
Rambam’s grave in Tiberias bears the enigmatic epithet, “From Moses to Moses there arose none like Moses.”17 Certainly the intention of that phrase is not that there were no scholars of equal status to Rambam during that long span of time. After all, that period includes the era of the Bible, the Tannaim, and the Amoraim. Rather the epithet, I believe, means to convey that, like Moses who wrote his own Mishneh Torah, so too Rambam wrote in his voice his own Mishneh Torah, which would revolutionize Torah study and serve as a basic text of halakha.
In honor of Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, whose wit, erudition, and eloquence are legend. The author thanks Rabbi Gabriel Price for editorial comments and suggestions, as well as Rabbi Yonatan Kaganoff for further technical assistance.
1. Introduction to Mishneh Torah.
2. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik noted the unusual recording of the history of Hanukkah in the Mishneh Torah in what is a purely halakhic work, a compilation of laws without historical references. He suggested that, given that the lighting of the Hanukkah candles is an expression of thanks and praise to God, it is essential that one know the reason for which one lights the candles—thanks to the Almighty.
3. See Isadore Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. 29, 239.
4. Introduction, Commentary on the Mishnah.
5. Introduction, Sefer ha-Mitsvot.
6. Introduction, Mishneh Torah.
7. Responsa of Rambam, 140, letter to R. Phineas ben Meshullam. Translation, Twersky, Introduction, pp. 34-35.
8. Introduction, Mishneh Torah.
11. See n. 7; Twersky, p. 35.
12. The potential ambiguity of the term Mishneh Torah is demonstrated beautifully by R. Soloveitchik. He notes, in a letter, that Bereishit Rabbah 6:9 states that “when God appeared [to Joshua], He found him [Joshua] with the Mishneh Torah in his hand.” R. Soloveitchik commented that the Mishneh Torah referred to is that of the King, for Joshua had the status of King, and it was this Sefer Torah upon which the verse in the Book of Joshua comments, “this Sefer Torah should never leave your mouth”(Joshua 1:6). See Letters of the Gaon Rabbi Joseph Dov HaLevi (Riverdale, NY: Morasha Foundation, 2001), p. 269 (Hebrew).
13. I once heard R. Soloveitchik comment why, in the parlance of the bet midrash, people generally refer to Rambam’s magnum opus as Yad Hazakah or “Rambam” but not, typically, Mishneh Torah. The name Mishneh Torah, he suggested, since it also refers to Deuteronomy, was almost too ambitious. Similarly, he pointed out, Shenei Luhot ha-Brit is called more humbly the She’lah, and Torat Moshe is simply called the Alshikh. When a sefer claims, even implicitly, to have the status of the Torah itself, the name does not seem to stick.
14. Megillah 31b. Cf. Ramban’s introduction to Deuteronomy, the Vilna Gaon’s comments in the Dubnow Maggid’s Ohel Ya’akov, beginning of Sefer Devarim, and Peninim mi-Shulhan ha-Gra, p. 193, and Zohar, vol. 3, 263a. Also see the discussion of R. Tsaddok ha-Kohen of Lublin on this topic, Tsidkat ha-Tsaddik, no. 183; Resisei Laila, no 54; and Dover Tsedek, no. 4.
15. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Divrei Hashkafah, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem, 1994), p.95; Herschel Schachter, Nefesh ha-Rav (Jerusalem: 1994), p. 55.
16. Although a Sefer Torah is typically not read publicly at night, on the night of Hoshanah Rabbah many communities do read Deuteronomy. It could be that because Deuteronomy has many elements of Torah she-be’al peh that this exception is made. On the Rav’s perspective on the dual nature of the book of Deuteronomy, see Schachter, Nefesh ha-Rav, pp. 54-56.
17. Also note the obvious allusion to Sotah 49b (quoted above), further emphasizing, for both Rambam and the author of the epithet, the connection between Rebbe, author of the Mishnah, and Rambam.