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Mishneh Torah

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The Mishneh Torah or Yad ha-Chazaka is a code of Jewish law by one of the most important Jewish authorities, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides or by the Hebrew abbreviation RaMBaM (usually written "Rambam" in English). The Mishneh Torah was compiled between 1170 and 1180 CE, and may be regarded as Maimonides' magnum opus.

The work consists of fourteen books, which subdivide into sections, chapters and paragraphs. To this day it is the only work that details all of Jewish observance, including those laws which are only applicable when the Holy Temple is in place.

Contents

Names of the work

  • Mishneh Torah ("Repetition of the Torah") is an appellation originally used for the Biblical book of Deuteronomy.
  • Yad ha-Chazakah ("The Strong Hand"), its parallel title, derives from its subdivision in fourteen books. When transcribed into Hebrew letters, the number fourteen forms the word yad (hand).
  • Later sources simply refer to the work as "Maim", "Maimonides" or "RaMBaM", although Maimonides composed other works.

The books

  1. Madda' (Knowledge): Jewish principles of faith, the nature of God, the way to study Torah, and the prohibition against idolatry.
  2. Ahavah (Love): the precepts which must be observed at all times if the love due to God is to be remembered continually (prayer, tefillin).
  3. Zemanim (Times): laws which are limited to certain times, such as the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays.
  4. Nashim (Women): laws of marriage, divorce, levirate marriage and conduct between the sexes
  5. Kedushshah (Holiness): forbidden sexual relations, forbidden foods, and the method of ritual slaughter
  6. Hafla'ah (Separation): laws of vows and oaths
  7. Zera'im (Seeds): agricultural laws
  8. Avodah (Divine Service): the laws of the Temple in Jerusalem
  9. Korbanot (Offerings): laws for offerings in the Temple, excepting those of the whole community
  10. Tohorah (Cleanness): the rules of ritual purity
  11. Nezikin (Injuries): criminal and tort law
  12. Kinyan (Acquisition): laws of the marketplace
  13. Mishpatim (Rights): civil law
  14. Shofetim (Judges): the laws relating legislators, the Sanhedrin, the king, and the judges.

Language and style

The work is written in a clear Hebrew in the style of the Mishnah. Maimonides was reluctant to writing in Talmudic Aramaic, since it was known only to those who were specially interested in it (Preface to the "Mishneh Torah"). His previous works had been written in Arabic.

Maimonides' sources

Maimonides sought brevity and clarity in his Mishneh Torah and as in his Commentary on the Mishnah, he refrained from detailing his sources. He felt it sufficient to name his sources in the preface. He drew upon the Torah and the rest of Tanakh (the Old Testament), both Talmuds, and the Midrashic literature. On occasion he preferred rulings in certain Midrash collections to rulings in the Talmud, which at the time was a rare opinion.

Later sources include the responsa (teshuvot) of the Geonim. The maxims and decisions of the Geonim are frequently presented with the introductory phrase "The Geonim have decided" or "There is a regulation of the Geonim", while the opinions of Isaac Alfasi and Joseph ibn Migash (his immediate teacher apart from his father Maimon) are prefaced by the words "My teachers have decided".

Maimonides likewise refers to Spanish, French, and Palestinian rabbinic authorities, although he does not name them, nor is it known to whom he refers. He drew from non-Jewish sources, and a great part of his researches on the calendar was based upon Greek theories and reckonings. Since these rules rested upon sound argument, he thought that it made no difference whether an author was a prophet or a Gentile. In a like spirit he adopted principles of Aristotelian Greek philosophy in the first book of the Mishnah Torah, although no authority for these teachings was to be found in Talmudic or midrashic literature.

A number of laws appear to have no source in any of the works mentioned; it is thought that Maimonides deduced them through independent interpretations of the Bible.

Omissions

Maimonides did not surrender his independent judgment even when his views were in conflict with other authorities. It was impossible, in his opinion, to renounce one's own reasons or to reject recognized truths because of some conflicting statements in the Talmud or the Midrash. Thus he made a ruling on his own authority and based upon his medical knowledge without being able to establish it by any statement of the older authorities.

He likewise omitted many regulations contained in the Talmud and Mishnah, such as those precepts which depended on superstitious views or on the belief in demons. In a similar spirit he passed over much that was forbidden in the Talmud as injurious to health. The exact reasons for these omissions have been the subject of much speculation.

Opposition

Critics and criticism

The Mishneh Torah was bitterly attacked almost as soon as it appeared. Major sources of contention were the absence of sources and the fact that the work appeared to be intended to supersede study of the Talmud. Some criticisms appear to have been less rational in nature.

The most sincere but influential opponent, whose comments are printed parallel to virtually all editions of the Mishneh Torah, was Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquières, France, 1100s, (Raavad III).

Many critics were especially bitter against the new methods which he had employed, and the very peculiarities which he had regarded as merits in his work failed to please his opponents because they were innovations. Thus they reproached him because he wrote in Hebrew instead of in the customary Talmudic idiom, because he departed from the Talmudic order and introduced a division and arrangement of his own, and because he dared to decide according to the Tosefta and the Jerusalem Talmud as against the Babylonian Talmud.

Especially sharp was the blame heaped upon Maimonides because he neglected to cite his sources; this was considered an evidence of his superciliousness, since it made it difficult, if not absolutely impossible, for scholars to verify his statements, and compelled them to follow his decisions absolutely.

Maimonides' Reply

Maimonides defended himself. He had not composed this work for glory; he desired only to supply the necessary but lacking code, for there was danger lest pupils, weary of the difficult study, might go astray in decisions of practical importance (Letter to Rabbi Jonathan of Lunel, in which he thanks the latter for certain corrections; Responsa of Maimonides, 49).

He noted that it had never been his intention to abolish Talmudic studies, nor had he ever said that there was no need of the "Halakot" of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, for he himself had lectured to his pupils on the Gemara and, at their request, upon Alfasi's work (Responsa, No. 140).

He said that his omission of his sources was due solely to his desire for brevity, although he regretted that he had not written a supplementary work citing his authorities for those halakot whose sources were not evident from the context. He would, however, should circumstances permit, atone for this error, however toilsome it might be to write such a supplement (Responsa, No. 140).

Raavad was forced to acknowledge that the work of Maimonides was a magnificent contribution (note on Kilayim 6:2), nor did he hesitate to praise him and approve his views in many passages, citing and commenting upon the sources.

Later works (e.g. Yosef Karo's "Kesef Mishné") set out to find sources for Maimonides' decisions, and to resolve any disputes between him and the Raavad.

Yonah of Gerona

Special mention should be made of Yonah of Gerona, a nephew of Nachmanides, who was initially a member of the vocal opponents of the "Yad". He was involved in the burning of a number of copies of the work in the 1240's. Regret followed, when he saw the Talmud being burnt in Paris in 1244, which he interpreted as a sign from Heaven that he had been mistaken. He set out to the Land of Israel, composing a classic work on penitence (titled Shaarei Teshuva, "The Gates of Repentance") during his soul-searching.

Influence

Decisors

Thus the work of Maimonides, notwithstanding the sharp attacks upon it, soon won general recognition as an authority of the first importance for ritual decisions. According to several authorities ("Yad Mal'akhi" rule 26, pg 186), a decision may not be rendered in opposition to a view of Maimonides, even though the latter apparently militated against the sense of a Talmudic passage, for in such cases the presumption was that the words of the Talmud were incorrectly interpreted. Likewise: "One must follow Maimonides even when the latter opposed his teachers, since he surely knew their views, and if he decided against them he must have disapproved their interpretation" (ibid, rule 27).

Even when later authorities, like Asher ben Jehiel (the Rosh), decided against Maimonides, it became a rule of the Oriental Jews to follow the latter, although the European Jews, especially the Ashkenazim, preferred the opinions of the Rosh in such cases. But the hope which Maimonides expressed, that in time to come his work and his alone would be accepted, has been only half fulfilled. His "Mishneh Torah" is indeed still very popular, but there has been no cessation in the study of other works.

Ironically, while Maimonides refrained from citing sources out of concern for brevity (or perhaps because he designed his work to be used without studying the Talmud or other sources first), the result has often been the opposite of what he intended. Various commentaries have been written which seek to supply the lacking source documentation, and indeed today the Mishneh Torah is sometimes used as a sort of an index to aid in locating Talmudic passages. In cases where Maimonides' sources or interpretation thereof is questionable, the lack of clarity has at times led to lengthy analyses and debates - quite the opposite of the brevity he sought to attain.

Codes and commentators

Mishneh Torah itself has been the subject of a number of commentaries: Kesef Mishné by Yosef Karo, Mishné la-Melech, Lechem Mishné, Radvaz and Hagahot Maimoni (which details Ashkenazi customs). Most commentators aim to resolve criticisms of the Raavad, and to trace Maimonides' sources to the text of the Talmud, Midrash and Geonim.

Later codes of Jewish law, e.g. Arba'ah Turim by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher and Shulkhan Arukh by Rabbi Yosef Karo, draw heavily on Maimonides' work, and in both whole sections are often quoted verbatim.

Present day

The in-depth study of Mishneh Torah underwent a revival in Lithuanian Judaism in the late 19th century. Prominent authorities who have written recent commentaries on the work are Rabbis Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (Ohr Sameiach), Chaim Soloveitchik (Chiddushei Rabbi Chaim), Isser Zalman Meltzer (Even ha-Ezel) and, more recently, Elazar Menachem Shach (Avi Ezri).

Mishneh Torah is often one of the first post-Talmudic sources consulted when investigating a question of Jewish law. Likewise, many scholary speeches (e.g. the traditional Rabbi's speech on the Shabbat preceding Pesach and Yom Kippur) often revolve around a difficulty between two passages in Maimonides' work.

Today, thousands of Orthodox Jews, particularly Chabad Hasidim, participate in one of the annual study cycles of Mishneh Torah (1 or 3 chapters a day).


English translations

  • The Yale Judaica series edition of the Mishneh Torah is almost complete.
  • Moznaim Publishing Corp. (http://http://www.virtualgeula.com/moznaim/) also has an English translation - all 27 volumes are now available.

See also

External link

nn:Misjné Torá

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