Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Overview of Mishneh Torah Books 10-14

The last few posts have served to introduce the themes and principles of the first nine books of the Mishneh Torah, identifying the areas of human existence these books address and the general direction in which they coordinate and guide the various aspects of our individual and communal developmental process. We conclude this component of our analysis of the Rambam with this post, which examines Books 10-14 in the same light:


This book includes the mitsvot that pertain to ritual purity, i.e., the state of purity that is a prerequisite for entry into the Temple. The depth and profundity of what the Bet Hamikdash represents would become diluted if we were permitted to access it freely. Inasmuch as true closeness to G-d can only be acquired after a high level of purification in thought and deed has been achieved, some standard of “preparation” must be required of us before we experience the symbolic closeness to G-d that is symbolized in the Temple. Like all aspects of the national avodah, this preparation must be translated into physical rather than spiritual terms so that it can be approached in an official, legal capacity and can be enforced consistently. (Our personal spiritual development and purity cannot be seen, touched, or felt; they defy any quantification or subjection to formal “rules”.)


This book includes mitsvot that pertain to interactions between human beings that in the words of the Rambam, “involve damage from the beginning.” Simply put, this refers to relationships that begin because of a mishap – we may never have interacted with certain individuals had we not gotten into a car accident with them, etc. In this book, we transition from the spiritual aims of the nation to the material dimension of society – just as we transitioned from spiritual to physical at the individual level. This book addresses the problem of damage; the most basic principle of community is to do no physical harm to others. The process of training ourselves to respect the rights of others and not to interfere with or undermine their pursuit of financial success requires a book of its own.


This book includes mitsvot that pertain to the sale and purchase of property of various kinds. In a free market economy, competition for wealth often becomes the focus of a society. This obsession with material possessions holds us back from seeking the true good, i.e., knowledge of and closeness to the Creator. This is similar to the Book of Holiness mentioned above, which addresses our personal biological drives and their potential to supplant our religious strivings. Here, it is the social “impulse” to divide and conquer that must be reckoned with. This book teaches us how to apply Halacha to this aspect of our lives so that the pursuit of money and things does not interfere with our pursuit of the true good.


This book includes the mitsvot that pertain to financial dealings that are independent of damages, such as partnerships, loans, etc. Like the previous two books, Sefer Mishpatim is focused on the economic dimension of our lives. Sefer Kinyan and Sefer Nezikin both discuss circumstances in which individuals operate independently of one another and either (a) simply avoid hurting one another OR (b) trade goods with one another. Sefer Mishpatim, however, addresses situations that involve human relationships by definition, such as loans (where a lender and a borrower create a relationship with one another, rather than simply exchanging money or objects.) The mitsvot in this book teach us how to structure our business relationships with others in ways that are consistent with the principles of justice.


This book includes mitsvot that pertain to the government of Israel, including the Sanhedrin and its Judges, the King and his wars, etc. All of the elements of Jewish living – individual and national – have been dealt with in the previous thirteen books. The complexity of the Torah system can only become an integrated entity through the medium of a strong government that can maintain and balance the personal and national, spiritual and physical components of society, enforcing its laws and structure. This government is specially designed to be an effective institution on the practical level while remaining devoted to and squarely focused upon the philosophical vision of the Torah.

Taken together, the fourteen books of the Mishneh Torah describe every aspect of human life that has the potential to derail our growth as individuals and communities, and teaches us how to calibrate these dimensions of our existence with our understanding of Hashem’s wisdom so we can live fully principled, enriching and productive lives.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Overview of Mishneh Torah Books 5-9

In our previous post we began examining the thematic principles of the fourteen books of the Mishneh Torah, which represent the Rambam's understanding of the broad outlines of the "mitsvah program" and how the laws of the Torah ultimately find their meaning in an interconnected framework of goals and objectives that address the entire range of individual and communal developmental needs. We continue that analysis where we left off:


This book includes the mitsvot that pertain to forbidden sexual activities and prohibited foods. The sexual and appetitive drives are powerful forces in the human organism that have the potential to interfere with and even replace spiritual strivings, substituting the base enjoyments for closeness to Hashem, hijacking the energies that would otherwise be channeled by the values articulated in the Book of Knowledge. The mitsvot in this book teach us how to moderate and balance our physical and intellectual enjoyments in a healthy and fulfilling manner.


This book includes the mitsvot that pertain to vows and oaths. Certain individuals may chose to accept additional restrictions upon themselves because they feel – due to some deficiency in their character or make up - that the laws of the Torah are not sufficient for them to achieve holiness. Thus, like a student with special needs who receives individualized instructional support, these individuals need a personalized holiness plan. These individualized plans supplement the program of development that the Torah prescribes for the entire community.


This book includes the mitsvot that pertain to land and agriculture, such as the prohibition of sowing diverse seeds, the laws of charity and gifts to the Kohanim, and the laws of Shemitta. Human society is situated within the natural environment and is ultimately a component of it. Though we dominate our environment to a certain extent, we are, at the same time, small parts of a Divinely created system. The prohibition of sowing diverse seeds reminds us of the scientific order of Nature that transcends all of our “meddling” with it, as does Shemitta. The commandment to give of our produce to the poor, as well as to the Kohanim and Levites, prevents us from relishing our possessions egotistically and encourages us to use our material resources to support the spiritual growth of our nation. All in all, this book addresses the question of how we can replace the fantastic illusion that we are the true masters of our physical environment with a humble, realistic perspective on our position in the universe.

At this point we observe a key transition in the Mishneh Torah, from a focus on individuals and families to a focus on the nation as a whole. Even if Adam and Eve had never reproduced, they would still have had to balance work, biological drives, agricultural development, etc., with spiritual growth. So the first seven books of the Mishneh Torah would have applied to them fully. Now, however, the Rambam shifts to address mitsvot and themes that are national in character and that are relevant to Jewish society as a whole.


This book includes the laws related to the construction of the Holy Temple and the performance of the communal sacrifices. Sefer Avodah should be seen as the first installment of a new series. Sefer Avodah is, in a sense, the symbolic counterpart to Sefer Hamada. The ideas in Sefer Hamada comprise the intellectual foundation for all of our spiritual growth. What the Bet Hamikdash does is translate these profound concepts into symbolic and metaphoric terms that are universally accessible to human beings at all levels. The Temple structure, its Kohanim and its services provide a symbolic picture of Jewish philosophy and ethics as outlined in Sefer Hamada. The Torah recognizes that our individual levels of knowledge and perfection all differ, and that each person’s process of spiritual growth is unique, private and constantly in flux. By contrast, national service of G-d must take place in the public arena, and thus be concrete, formal, measurable and consistent.

In reality, all societies must have their “Sefer Hamada” and their “Sefer Avodah”. At the core of our culture is a set of beliefs, values and ideals that consciously or unconsciously guide our thought and behavior. Our schools and universities transmit these beliefs and values directly to children via the lessons they teach. However, the communication of our cultural ideals in the abstract has a limited impact on our citizens. What the vast majority of people are inspired by is the experience of seeing the embodiment of these values “in the flesh”. As an example, let us consider the tremendous significance our society attaches to wealth, glamour and fame. It is one thing to speak about our striving for the “American Dream” in the abstract; it is quite another thing to watch the Academy Awards on television, where we are given the opportunity to ogle living examples of the “good life” that are showcased before our very eyes. Movies and Awards Shows are powerful sources of inspiration for people because they renew their impetus to continue pursuing the American dream in the context of their own lives. Obviously, Torah values share little in common with the American dream, but the psychological mechanism adopted in Jewish society is the same – in the Bet Hamikdash, our “Hollywood”, we showcase concrete examples of the ideal state of human existence (knowledge of and devotion to Hashem) in order to inspire citizens to move closer to it.


This book includes the laws that pertain to individual sacrifices. If Sefer Avodah is best understood through comparison to our fascination with celebrities, then Sefer Korbanot is best appreciated by drawing from our experience with “fan clubs.” These are forums that afford us the opportunity to participate in “stardom” at our own level, through establishing a feeling of personal identification and connection with the stars we worship. This desire to affiliate oneself with the Divine, most obviously displayed by “groupies”, often expresses itself in the form of “korbanot” of sorts, including fan mail and other outrageous behaviors that are performed with the hope of receiving some kind of positive response or approval from the recipients of the “worship.” In Jewish terms, individual korbanot are our reactions to Sefer Avodah. In Sefer Avodah we are presented with an ideal vision of Hashem’s providence, the creation, and the highest form of excellence in human conduct. Having witnessed this spectacle, it is incumbent upon us to take a step in the direction of those ideals; the offering of korbanot represents our constant striving toward the “stardom” personified by the kohanim – their knowledge of Hashem and imitation of His ways. We thereby seek our own “niche” within the communal service of G-d.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Overview of the Books of Mishneh Torah

After counting the mitsvot and clarifying the place of Rabbinic legislation in the framework of Torah, the Rambam proceeds to outline the broad thematic structure of the Mishneh Torah. As mentioned in earlier installments of this series, one of the primary thrusts of the Rambam's organizational scheme is the presentation of mitsvot in their proper conceptual context. In addition to articulating the overarching purpose of the Torah system as a whole, the Rambam identifies fourteen distinct developmental objectives that the mitsvot are designed to achieve and which serve, in turn, as instruments to that purpose. These fourteen objectives are crystallized in the names and "crowning" verses of the fourteen volumes that comprise the Mishneh Torah.

The Fourteen Books of the Mishneh Torah

In essence, the Fourteen Books of the Mishneh Torah represent fourteen areas of human existence to which Hashem’s wisdom must be rigorously applied in order for individuals and societies to enjoy true success and fulfillment. After listing the 613 commandments, the Rambam introduces the fourteen domains within which they will be grouped and organized. He gives us the title of each book and a brief synopsis of its theme, because the full force of its message can only be grasped after we see the mitsvot contained within it and how they are elucidated.

At this point, we will suffice ourselves with an overview of the basic thematic elements of each book. And for the sake of brevity and readability, I will divide the discussion of the books over two or three blog posts.


This book identifies and elaborates upon the core values or principles that we use to orient ourselves to the world and that help us define our own identities. It contains mitsvot that pertain to Hashem’s existence and Unity, the prohibitions against idol worship, etc.


This book includes mitsvot designed to help us “love Hashem and remember Him always”, such as reading the Shema, prayer, tefillin, etc. In our lives, the most powerful experience of love is the love of family and friends. Building upon that analogy, these mitsvot are similar to the placement of family photos in our offices, or phone calls to loved ones that we make throughout the day, simply to “touch base”. We do these things to maintain a connection with the people we value most, even as the pressures of our workaday existence threaten to completely vanquish our attention and energy. In the case of the Book of Love, the beloved being is Hashem rather than another person. Everyday life causes us to lose sight of what is most important, we need to incorporate rituals into our routine that remind us, lest we become disconnected from our core values.


This book includes laws that pertain to Shabbat, Holidays, Fast Days, etc. The main thing that interferes with our ability to grow as human beings is time. We are constantly subject to the demands of the physical world, the need to work and provide for ourselves and our families, etc. As a result, people always seek opportunities for leisure – that is, opportunities to immerse themselves in whatever activity they consider most valuable and desirable. The best example of this is the concept of a vacation – a period of time dedicated to immersion in our choice of pleasures; whether it is sightseeing, drinking, partying, gambling, etc. The essence of a vacation is the removal of the distraction of work in order to facilitate a total involvement with one’s favorite source of enjoyment. Similarly, holidays all have the prohibition of work in common – they all require us to step out of our daily routine and fully devote ourselves to spirituality and the pursuit of deeper understanding for a distinct period of time. Having pictures of a wife and children at the office is no substitute for spending evenings, weekends and holidays with them. In the same way, the periodic reminders of God that are legislated in the Book of Love are necessary for maintaining our connection to Him, but are no substitute for setting aside time to further develop that relationship. We need some quality time with our Beloved.


This book includes the mitsvot that pertain to marriage and divorce. Marriage is oftentimes approached from a selfish standpoint and is misconstrued as an institution designed to provide each partner with physical/emotional satisfaction, financial security, etc. This leads to unhealthy marital relationships for the following reason: Since each member of the couple is out for his or her own benefit, interactions between spouses end up consisting of a series of battles to gain control of the household and shape it in accordance with a particular personal agenda.

This is the meaning of the Midrash that states that the word for “man” in Hebrew (Ish) and the word for “woman” (Isha) each contain one letter of the Divine name (yud and heh, respectively). If you remove the letters yud and the heh, you are left with “fire” (Esh). The Rabbis teach us that when a marriage is based upon a common spiritual mission, when it is a partnership designed to realize a shared vision of truth and to transmit it to the next generation through raising children – simply, if Hashem is found in the marriage – then it will be a successful one. Spouses in such a relationship are not seeking to overpower one another for selfish ends. They are working together for a higher purpose.

On the other hand, once such a transcendent motivation is lost – once Hashem is taken out of the marriage – we are left with fire, a substance that consumes and destroys. The “raging flames” of unceasing battles for control and dominance will no doubt devour the household. This is why the Book of Women begins with a discussion of the sanctity of marriage – the Jewish union is not a fly-by-night relationship, it is consecrated to a holy objective and cannot be easily created or dissolved.

An obvious question that presents itself is why this book precedes the Book of Holiness, which deals with sexual prohibitions and forbidden foods. After all, from a chronological perspective, the laws of holiness come into effect sooner, as they apply to us even before marriage. We see from this another proof that the Rambam follows a conceptual, and not necessarily a practical or chronological order in the Mishneh Torah. The Torah deems a human being’s existence incomplete without companionship. We are social animals by nature; therefore, the complete “human entity” is a man and a woman united. The first three books of the Mishneh Torah address a person’s internal intellectual and spiritual development, a matter that is totally private and individualistic. In the fourth book, the Mishneh Torah begins to discuss the physical existence of human beings, something that they share. Once we look at the material side of humanity, we find ourselves dealing with partnerships, not individuals, for “it is not good for man to be alone.” As such, the book which focuses on the creation of the marriage relationship precedes the book that speaks of particular areas of biological function.

This discussion will be continued in the next installment with an examination of books 5-9....

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Concept of Rabbinic “Mitsvot”

We continue our examination of the introduction to the Mishneh Torah. After counting the 613 commandments, the Rambam proceeds to discuss the status of laws and practices that are not included in the 613 but the observance of which is nonetheless binding on the Jewish people. The Rambam notes that the comprehensiveness of the Mishneh Torah demands that it include the Rabbinic mitsvot and customs as well as Biblical laws. Rabbinic commandments, like their Biblical counterparts, require a great deal of elucidation and clarification, and the Rambam promises to provide this in his “textbook”.

At this point, the Rambam addresses the apparent contradiction between the prohibition of adding onto the Torah and the concept of Rabbinic commandments. If we are forbidden to formulate new commandments, how can the Rabbis enact new laws?

The Rambam introduces an important distinction to resolve this problem. He states that it all depends upon the way in which the Rabbinic institutions are presented to the people. Were the Prophets or Rabbis to claim that the laws they promulgate – such as the reading of the Megillah or washing hands before eating bread - have a Biblical source and that they had been revealed by G-d Himself, they would be guilty of violating the injunction against adding to the commandments of the Torah. However, since they honestly admit that these commandments are of Rabbinic origin and that the force of these laws derives from rabbinic authority alone, they are considered to be adding onto the mitsvot at all.

Finally, the Rambam concludes with a fascinating paragraph:

“…Rather, we say that the Prophets, together with the Court, instituted and commanded that the Megillah be read in its proper time – in order to make mention of the praises of the Holy One, Blessed is He, and the salvation he wrought for us, and the fact that He was near when we called out to Him – so that we should bless and thank Him, and in order to make known to future generations that the Torah was accurate when it promised that ‘what other great nation is there, to whom G-d is close, whenever we call out to Him.’ And along the same lines should we understand every Rabbinical commandment, whether it is positive or negative.”

Three fundamental difficulties must be addressed here:

First, why does the Rambam incorporate this discussion – i.e., the resolution of the apparent conflict between the creation of Rabbinic mitsvot and the prohibition of adding to the Torah - into his Introduction? Shouldn’t this kind of abstruse discussion be located somewhere else in the Mishneh Torah? (In fact, the Rambam revisits this issue in the Mishneh Torah when he addresses the authority of the Bet Din in the Book of Judges).

Second, it seems as if the Rambam is using doubletalk to resolve the contradiction he identifies. After all, what difference does it make whether the Rabbis characterize their commandments as Biblical or not; the fact is that they are increasing the number of laws that we are religiously required to observe, thereby adding onto the corpus of Torah legislation. The honesty and forthrightness of the Rabbis in presenting their commandments, although important, does not seem to be relevant to the question of whether they should be viewed as adding to the Torah or not.

Lastly, the Rambam’s final description of the reason for “All Rabbinical commandments, whether positive or negative”, doesn’t seem to be correct. Clearly, not all of the rabbinic laws are related to the idea that G-d responds to us in times of trouble. Laws like the requirement to wash our hands before consuming bread, or make an eruv tavshilin before a holiday, have nothing at all to do with G-d’s providential intercession on our behalf throughout history.

In order to resolve these problems, we must revisit and reflect upon an essential aspect of the Rambam's approach to mitsvot in general. One of the key messages that the Rambam is trying to convey to the readership of the Mishneh Torah is that the mitsvot are meant to be understood in the context of a principle-based conceptual framework and not in superficial or purely concrete terms. This requires looking beyond the practical implications and sensible manifestations of halakhic thought that preoccupy most Jews and considering the abstract structure that is accessible to the mind's eye alone.

Just as the Rambam felt compelled to formulate the lines of demarcation between individual commandments among the 613 in order to preserve the conceptual clarity of the mitsvah system, so too must he emphasize that there is a fundamental difference between rabbinical and biblical mitsvot – the rabbinical mitsvot are not components of the 613 at all, and must not be confused with them. Although they add more material to our religious lives, rabbinical injunctions and commandments are not part of the conceptual structure of the Torah’s legislation – they must be understood separately from it.

Herein lies the Rambam’s unique approach to the problem of “adding on” to the Torah. In his view, this prohibition relates to the study and comprehension of the commandments, not to our practical observance of them. As long as the purity and clarity of the 613 mitsvot is preserved, the additional of countless rabbinical commandments will not impact it. Only when the rabbinical commandments are not clearly identified, and begin to confound and distort our picture of the biblical laws, does their existence become an issue. Provided that they are introduced as rabbinic legislation and are distinguished from the laws of the Torah, they do not come under the rubric of “addition” to Torah law.

(The issue of the Rambam's understanding of the prohibitions of adding to and subtracting from the Torah is an intriguing one that deserves its own post in the future. However, the discerning reader may discover that in the previous paragraph lies the roots of a more elaborate explanation of the Rambam's view and his disagreement with the position advocated by most other Rishonim; see his treatment of these subjects in Hilkhot Mamrim and the commentary of the Raavad for more details.)

The Rambam, however, did not want to leave us with the impression that Rabbinical legislation is promulgated in a vacuum and that, as long as they are honest, the Rabbis can arbitrarily generate as many new laws as they wish. This is why the Rambam makes reference to the “reason” for some of the rabbinic mitsvot. He wishes to illustrate and thus to emphasize that the rabbinic mitsvot are developed based upon Biblical themes that the Rabbis believe need to be underscored, expanded on, etc.

The Rambam exemplifies this with the case of the Rabbinic holidays, which are based upon the Biblical concept of recognizing G-d’s response to prayer in times of national distress. So too, Rambam states, with all of the Rabbinical legislation – it is rooted in the philosophical ideas and directives contained in the Torah itself. Put simply, Rabbinic mitsvot are based upon Biblical themes but are not themselves “Biblical.”

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Organization of the Mishneh Torah

This post is a continuation of the ongoing series of introductory posts on the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam. It goes without saying that, in order to understand this installment, one should be familiar with those that preceded it. Unfortunately, the last post was published several months ago, but in reality most of the material is already prepared and, with a bit of dilligence, a more consistent pace of posting can be maintained from hereon in.

Rather than following the order of the Talmud or even his own list of mitsvot, the Rambam organized the Mishneh Torah conceptually or topically. He divided the entirety of the Oral Torah into fourteen books, each of which addresses a broad theme. Within each book are subdivisions or “Halakhot” that discuss component parts of the broad theme in question. Finally, each subdivision is further broken down into chapters and individual laws. A given subdivision may include any number of mitsvot, provided that those mitsvot tie into its specific motif.

By way of example, Rambam mentions that under the heading of “Laws of Idolatry”, which is included in the Book of Knowledge, he has categorized commandments related not only to the actual worship of idols but also to magic, superstition, shaving of the corners of the beard, etc., since all of these commandments are conceptually related to the subject of removing idolatry from our midst. Each one of these commandments, in its own right, targets a highly specific aspect of our attachment to the idolatrous worldview. However, the objective of eliminating idolatry is not an end in and of itself. Ultimately, the purpose of efforts to distance ourselves from materialism, primitivism and supersition is to replace such distorted notions with the true intellectual paradigm of the Torah – hence, the Laws of Idolatry form a part of the Book of Knowledge.

We see, then, that a mitzvah can be “explained” on a number of levels. We can discuss a mitzvah and its interpretation separately from any other commandment. For this, we simply need to know that it is one of the 613 commandments (ex., not shaving the corners of the beard), not a part of one or more than one, so we are sure that we are addressing a complete topic.

The second level is “explaining” the mitzvah in terms of a more general theme into which it fits (ex., the uprooting of idolatrous tendencies, the Laws of Idolatry), together with other mitsvot.

The third level is seeing how those themes are themselves only instruments that operate harmoniously toward the achievement of a grander objective (ex., the establishment of the knowledge-based worldview as the foundation of society, the Book of Knowledge).

Finally, the fourth level is perceiving how the book in question is really only one of the fourteen components of the overall system of Torah and Mitsvot which aims at demonstrating the unity of God's design throughout Creation and enabling mankind to live in accordance with the Divine plan. This overarching goal is articulated most clearly and elegantly in the crowning verses of the Mishneh Torah, which represent the purpose of the 14-Volume work as a whole and were elucidated in great detail in the first installment of this series.

An analogy to the design of the Mishneh Torah can be found in the area of physical wellness. Let us imagine that a doctor provided us with a set of orders encompassed all kinds of different activities: various exercises, specific foods to consume and to avoid, types of music to listen to, books to read, etc. If we wanted to organize this regimen into a “Mishneh Torah” of good living, we would need to analyze the prescribed activities on a variety of levels.

One level of understanding the orders would be grasping the meaning of each individual instruction in its own right. For example, we may examine a particular physical exercise and see that it is designed to increase muscle tone in our biceps (this is analogous to studying a specific mitzvah).

The second level would be seeing how this exercise, together with other routines and proper diet, fits into the broader category of “establishing and/or maintaining physical health” (this is analogous to viewing mitsvot from the vantage point of an “inyan”, or subject, like Laws of Idolatry).

The third level would be understanding how physical health combines with emotional health (which has its own subdivisions and “mitsvot”) to generate “wellness” in the holistic sense of the term (this is analogous to viewing mitsvot from the level of a “sefer” or book, like the Book of Knowledge).

The fourth and final level would be seeing how achieving and maintaining wellness is really only one of the many components of a satisfying human life. There also need to be routines that develop intellectual potential, social skills, etc. (This is analogous to viewing mitsvot from the perspective of the Mishneh Torah as a unified whole).

As we have seen in previous posts and can perceive even more clearly now, the purpose of Mishneh Torah is to explain the mitsvot, not simply catalogue the specific rules and regulations of Judaism. Therefore, before the Mishneh Torah can be understood, one must be able to identify the mitsvot clearly and accurately. Once this has been accomplished, the process of interpretation and classification at all four ‘levels’ can begin. The result of thorough understanding of the mitsvot will be consistent, meaningful and valid halachic practice.

Friday, May 02, 2008

When I finally started posting on this blog last year, I began by presenting a series of mini-lectures on the Mishneh Torah in which I discussed its importance and distinctiveness as a guide to understanding the Oral Torah. With gratitude to Hashem, I continue that series with the current post.

I would encourage interested readers who are unfamiliar with the three posts from 2007 to take a few minutes to explore them. I would also encourage those who did read the initial posts to review them, since much of what will be discussed here and in future installments will be building upon that foundation.

What's In A Count?

In order to ensure that the Mishneh Torah would be comprehensive, the Rambam needed to compile a list of the 613 commandments of the Torah. This would enable him to incorporate each and every mitzvah into the Mishneh Torah in its proper place. When he approached the task of listing the mitsvot, though, he revisited a subject that had greatly pained him for a long time; namely, that all of the popular books that claimed to present the 613 mitsvot had done a terrible job of counting them!

In particular, he criticizes the methods of the Baal Halachot Gedolot (“Bahag”), who committed blatant and grievous errors in his count but was nonetheless followed, more or less, by all subsequent authors on the subject. Rambam laments the failure of the Bahag to count the mitsvot properly, characterizing it as a fulfillment of the prophecy that one day “a book will be given to a knowledgeable person and he will be told ‘please read this’ but he will respond “I cannot, for it is sealed’.

Since the incorrect view of the Bahag was so popular, the Rambam could not simply present his own list. Therefore, he composed the Sefer Hamitsvot, in which he describes, proves and applies his own method of counting the mitsvot.

The key question to deal with is this - what difference does it make how we count the mitsvot? As long as we have a catalogue of all of the laws and regulations we must observe, and we can differentiate between laws that carry Biblical authority and those that are Rabbinical, what significance does identifying the 613 commandments really have?

The Uniqueness of Rambam’s Approach

Here we find an aspect of the Rambam’s work as an expositor that is truly unique. As he states in the very beginning of the Introduction to Mishneh Torah, the Oral Torah is an explanation of the mitsvot. When we study Torah, our objective is to comprehend the commandments fully and accurately. For this purpose, it is not sufficient to have the right practical conclusions if our conceptual knowledge remains incomplete.

In order to explain the mitsvot, we must first identify them. If we group several activities together as one “mitzvah” when they are in reality more than one, or, conversely, if we separate one mitzvah into multiple ones, then our understanding of the principles of the mitsvot in question will necessarily be flawed.

By way of analogy, imagine you were presented with a box full of puzzle pieces and instructed to put them together. Unbeknownst to you, the box actually contains pieces from two different puzzles, or perhaps one whole puzzle and half of another one. Your attempt to fit the various pieces together will either be very forced or totally futile. The same insurmountable challenge would face you if only a half or three quarters of the puzzle pieces were available and you assumed that you had all of them in front of you.

When it comes to mitsvot, the same is the case. We all know that it is forbidden to perform creative activity (melacha) on Shabbat, and that there are thirty-nine distinct categories of behavior that are classified as melacha. If we were to suppose that the prohibition of work on Shabbat is in fact 39 separate commandments rather than one commandment with 39 categories of violation, then we would end up trying to explain each one of the melachot independently of the others as its own system of law with its own principles and objectives. This would lead to a complete misunderstanding of how the laws of Shabbat actually work. The same would be true if we tried to explain each one of the four species of Sukkot as an independent commandment rather than viewing all four as component parts of a single performance.

Combining separate mitsvot is also an error because it blurs the distinction between different commandments. This would be the case if we, for example, adopted the view that the teffilin of the arm and the teffilin of the head are two parts of the same mitzvah rather than two separate commandments. In summary, our understanding of how a mitzvah works and what its purpose is will be impaired if we fail to count the mitsvot properly.

(We see analogies to this situation in the world of science all the time. Scientists often discover that forces, entities, etc., that they once believed to be unrelated are in fact two aspects or dimensions of one thing. Alternatively, they may realize that a phenomenon they thought was simple is in fact the product of multiple forces operating in a given set of circumstances. If we believe, as most did before Isaac Newton introduced his theory, that the principles of gravitation are unique to this planet and that the sun, stars, etc., follow different laws of physics, then we will be forced to devise two separate sets of scientific explanations: one for the motions observed in the heavens and another for those observed on earth. By contrast, when we study psychology, we find that one behavior can actually represent multiple ‘forces’ within a personality; in other words, what seems to be a unity is actually the result of the convergence and confluence of separate factors. Someone unaware of this fact might try to find a single motive that will explain a person’s actions rather than taking the time to consider the complex web of emotions and interests that might be at work below the surface. Put simply, the number of things we think we are explaining will influence the kinds of explanations we offer.)

The Difference Between Mishneh Torah and Shulhan Aruch

This attitude of the Rambam highlights the difference between his code and the Shulhan Aruch of R’ Yosef Karo. Both Rabbis, sensing the problem of the multiplicity of Jewish legal opinions, sought to simplify and systematize the laws of the Torah in a single text. The Rambam envisioned his objective as primarily conceptual – that is, he intended to present a complete understanding of the mitsvot in the Mishneh Torah. This required him to tackle philosophical and purely theoretical subjects with the same seriousness and care as issues of practical law. For the Rambam, consistent, correct practical application is a natural result of proper comprehension.

By contrast, R Yosef Karo aimed at providing an exclusively practical guide to Jewish observance. For this reason, he didn’t involve himself in issues such as counting the mitsvot or addressing areas of Torah that are not applicable in the modern world (ex., matters related to the Temple or sacrifices).

In the next installment of this series, we will explore the structure of the Mishneh Torah and what it reveals about the Rambam's approach to Torah study in general.