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....

1 comment:

Dan said...


Your analogy of family photos and periodic phone calls throughout the day to loved ones REALLY clarified the intent of the mitzvos of Sefer Ahava for me. Could you clarify the function of talis and tefillin in that framework?