A Proper Understanding of Jewish Law

A statue of the Rambam in Cordoba, Spain, his birthplace.

Back in the 12th century, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1138-1204), better known by his initials as the “Rambam”, set out to clarify and codify the vastness of Torah law. The Rambam was highly educated, and along with being a renowned rabbi, was a distinguished philosopher and sought-after physician. He was the personal doctor of the famed Sultan Saladin of Egypt. His integration of Biblical wisdom with Aristotelian philosophy would launch a new era of theological studies and inspired many scholars, most notably Thomas Aquinas. The Rambam also wrote several influential medical treatises. To the non-Jewish world, he was known by his Latin name, Maimonides.

The Rambam was troubled by the confused state of Jewish law (halakhah) at the time. While there were some legal texts, most rabbis still resorted to extracting Torah law straight out of the Mishnah and Talmud. The issue was that the Mishnah presents multiple opinions of Jewish law, and the Talmud debates them in long discussions that often don’t come to clear conclusions. Moreover, the Talmud is a complicated, abstract text, that also includes lots of non-legal information intertwined with stories, parables, mystical wisdom, scientific arguments, health advice, humour, history, and all kinds of other topics. The Rambam wanted to make Jewish law as clear and straight-forward as possible.

At the same time, the Rambam saw a trend of Jewish law becoming increasingly more difficult and stringent. To add to that, new customs were emerging and becoming mainstream – and some of those customs were not even Jewish in origin! Finally, mystical teachings were beginning to influence Jewish law, too. While each Jew may wish to take upon themselves additional stringencies or live according to deep mystical wisdom, that is not the way for the majority. So, the Rambam set forth to produce a standardized legal text, one that was clear and concise, and without the excess stringencies, mystical additions, or new customs. The result was the Mishneh Torah.

The Mishneh Torah remains the only code of Jewish law that covers the entire Torah and Talmud. It also covers the foundations of Jewish belief, includes a list of all 613 commandments, and provides important historical explanations where necessary. While other codes of Jewish law would emerge in the centuries after the Rambam, it can be argued that the Mishneh Torah remains the “purest” code of law. Incredibly, the Rambam stated in his Introduction that a Jew need only read the Torah of Moses and the Mishneh Torah to understand just about everything there is to know about Judaism and Jewish law! He boldly stated that a Jew will never need any other law code, and the Mishneh Torah should suffice as the perfect halakhic manual.

The Rambam himself was compared to Moshe Rabbeinu, and it is famously stated that “From Moshe [Rabbeinu] to Moshe [ben Maimon] there arose none like Moshe!” From a mystical perspective, it has even been suggested that the Rambam was the reincarnation of Moses. He was called “the Great Eagle”, and became among the most renowned Jewish sages of all time. (Read more about his fascinating life here.) His Mishneh Torah came to be called the Yad HaChazakah, “the Strong Hand”. This alludes both to the Torah’s description of how God took the Jewish people out of Egypt with a “Strong Hand” (Deuteronomy 4:34), as well as to the fact that the Mishneh Torah has 14 sections, the numerical value of yad (יד) being 14.

Our Sages taught (Sanhedrin 98a) that when all of the Jewish people properly adhere to God’s Law, the Final Redemption would come immediately. It is therefore appropriate to call the Mishneh Torah the Yad HaChazakah, for through its observance we will merit to once again be redeemed by God’s Strong Hand. That said, the purpose of this website is to elucidate and spread the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah far and wide, and to inspire the Jewish people to return to a pure observance of God’s Law, free of both unnecessary excesses and inappropriate leniencies. A code of law based solely on the divine wisdom of the Torah and Talmud, with the rational and logical approach of the Rambam.

We hope to cover the entire Mishneh Torah over the coming years, with regular posts to summarize and provide insights into each passage.

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