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.