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.