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Chapter 6

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

David Yellin and Israel Abrahams

Jewish Publication Society of America
Philadelphia, 1903

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 8

 p115  Chapter VII
The "Mishneh-Torah," or Religious Code

The most brilliant period in the Moslem rule over Egypt coincides with the twenty-four years of Saladin's domination (1169‑1193).45 But the glory came from without. Like his great rival, Richard I of England, Saladin spent but a small portion of his reign in his capital. He passed but eight years in Cairo; the other sixteen were occupied in campaigns in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Palestine. It was, however, no detriment to Egypt that Saladin's policy was defensive and consolidating by the Nile, and aggressive only in Palestine. Cairo advanced far in spirit and intellect, while war was incessant in the other lands over which Saladin  p116 claimed and exercised authority. While Maimonides was making Fostat the new centre of Judaism, Islam under Saladin also established its headquarters in the old capital of the Fatimids.

Saladin fortified Cairo with a citadel, but like the Rabbinical sage of old, he recognised that the real guardians of a city are not its soldiers but its scholars. The introduction into Cairo of the Medresa, or Collegiate Mosque, was the work of Saladin. The Medresa, with its regular courses of instruction, its comprehensive range of studies, its free popular lectures, was an innovation from Persia. Nureddin had imported the institution into Syria, Saladin carried it into Cairo and Alexandria. The Fatimid "Hall of Science" had to some extent forestalled the Medresa, but the Fatimids had devoted their energies solely to the mysticism of the Shia and to its speculative philosophy. When Saladin captured the treasures of  p117 the Fatimids, he handed over the noble library of 120,000 manuscripts to the Khadi Alfadhel. On his accession to power Saladin not only retained the services of Alfadhel (who had been employed in the secretariat of the Fatimid khalif), but made him Vizir, and it says much for the characters of both, that Alfadhel retained his influence throughout Saladin's reign. Maimonides became one of the Vizir's physicians in or about 1185, and during the last thirty years of Maimonides' life, Alfadhel the Vizir was practically ruler of Egypt. Alfadhel was worthy of his master, who trusted him implicitly. Like many of the statesmen of his day, Alfadhel was not a Turk or a Persian, but a pure Lakmi Arab, born in Ascalon. Notable among the notabilities at Saladin's court, Alfadhel was "sovereign of the pen," who "threaded discourse with pearls of style." His devotion to culture, and especially to the promotion of it  p118 in Cairo, his practical affection for the Medresa46 — he founded one himself — make him of great importance to the career of Maimonides, who received honours and encouragement from the Vizir. Alfadhel, it is true, was often absent in body from Cairo, but never in spirit. "Bear me a message to the Nile," he wrote when engaged in a campaign in Mesopotamia, "tell it that Euphrates can never quench my thirst."

While Saladin was occupied in the conquest of Syria, and was leading up to the capture of Aleppo, Maimonides was winning possession of a citadel mastery over which conferred a diadem more enduring and more honourable than any that rested on Saladin's noble brow. By the might of his genius, Maimonides assailed with friendly hands the fastness wherein lay enshrined the whole Jewish lore. His victory is chronicled in the second part of his great trilogy, in the Mishneh- p119 Torah ("Deuteronomy"), or Yad Hachazaka ("Strong Hand"). This gigantic work, a complete codification and digest of Biblical and Rabbinical law and religion, occupied him for ten years,47 but when he completed it in November 1180, the magnitude of the performance, with its fourteen books and one thousand chapters, bore no relation to the time which he had devoted to it. According to an old tradition, the Mosaic elements numbered 613 (365 negative and 248 positive commands). The Palestinian Rabbi Simlai, of the third century, was the first to make this statement explicit. In the eighth century, Simon Kahira (author of the Halachoth Gedoloth) tabulated the 613 laws, and his list held the field until the epoch of Maimonides. The writers of the Azharoth, or didactic hymns for recital at Pentecost, all adopted Simon Kahira's enumeration. The very popularity of this earlier list made it more necessary for  p120 Maimonides to prepare one of his own. To anticipate criticism of his exclusions and inclusions, as well as to provide himself with a skeleton outline, he compiled his Sefer Hamitzvoth (Book of the Commandments), which though written in Arabic has been thrice translated, and is better known in its Hebrew form.48 The list, afterwards prefixed by the author to the Mishneh-Torah, displays, technical as it is, the best qualities of Maimonides. The Existence of God, his Unity, the duty of loving Him, of fearing Him, of serving Him in prayer, of cleaving to Him, of swearing by His name, of imitating His attributes, of sanctifying His name: these are the first nine entries in Maimonides' list of affirmative precepts. He builds up the ritual laws on these as a basis. His grasp of general principles, his successful search for generalities underlying details, his power to bring to the front the spiritual side of Judaism, of showing  p121 its expression in the ritual side, these characteristics in a catalogue of precepts reveal qualities which do not fall short of genius. To Maimonides the ceremonial law was as sacred and as divine as the ethical law; but the spiritual, doctrinal aspect not only came first, but justified and transfigured the rest.

In the Mishneh-Torah the same spirit prevails. His Code is not only a unique monument of industrious compilation from Bible, Talmud, and the whole Rabbinical literature. The claim of the Code to esteem rests on its manner as much as on its matter. Graetz, comparing the Talmud to a "Daedalian maze in which one can hardly find his way even with the thread of Ariadne," likens the Mishneh-Torah to a "well-contrived ground-plan, with wings, halls, apartments, chambers, through which a stranger might pass without a guide." There is some hyperbole in this description of the intricacies  p122 of the Talmud, but there is no exaggeration in its eulogy of Maimonides. Judaism was in danger of losing itself in detail. The Mishneh-Torah omitted none of the details, whether significant or trivial; but on the one hand it systematised them, and on the other it brought them into relation with the fundamental postulates of Judaism. Maimonides is never weary of referring the student back to the starting point, to the nature and attributes of God, to man's duty to imitate his divine exemplar and to act always with the love of God consciously present as his sole motive and reward. The marvel of the book is that this golden thread of the spirit runs unbroken through all the ritual details with which the Code abounds, and thus in the Mishneh-Torah we have the completest justification of the Jewish conception of the relations between letter and spirit, for the letter does not and cannot kill, while the spirit gives it life. This  p123 was the Talmudic spirit, and Maimonides in this respect, as in many others, is a true son of the tradition. In many respects, but not in all. For his very systemisation of the Talmud destroyed one of its best features. Maimonides wrote his "Code" in the first instance for "his own benefit, to save him in his advanced age the trouble and the necessity of consulting the Talmud on every occasion."49 His plan, however, soon carried him beyond his own immediate needs, and he ended by compiling a complete digest, which in the language of the Mishnah and without discussion should offer a clear-cut decision of every question touching the religious, ritual, moral, and social duties of Jews. Had he succeeded in winning for his Code unquestioned supremacy in Israel, tradition instead of retaining its vitality must have become petrified, rigid unto death. As it is, the effect of Maimonides' Code, and of the later Code (Shulchan Aruch)  p124 modelled on it, has not been altogether beneficial from this point of view. Hitherto, in all legal works, opinions had been stated in the name of the original authorities, decisions had been weighed in the balance. Maimonides certainly discriminated in theory between dicta meant literally and figuratively, final decisions and individual views; between "traditions" and "deductions"; between Rabbinical and Biblical laws intended for all time and those restricted to a particular occasion or locality. But in practice he did not allow these distinctions their due weight. Maimonides simply formed his own opinion (mostly on the basis of sound authority, it is true), and dogmatically announced it without reference to the nature of his authority. Not only did he render himself specially liable to attack when he fell into error, but there can be no doubt that Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquières, in his over-virulent  p125 criticism (hassagoth) on the Code, placed his finger on a real and fundamental fault when he stoutly objected to the dogmatism of the author.50

But Maimonides was bound to incur the censure. His fault was the correlative of his merits. To have reproduced the Talmudic pilpul (dialectics) would have been to defeat his main object. "If," he said, "I could summarise the Talmud into one chapter, I would not use two for the purpose." He feared, too, that devotion to Talmudic dialectics left no place and no leisure for the pursuit of those other studies which he held of equal importance. He wrote, moreover, for laymen as well as for experts, and simplicity and system were the first requisites. Alone of his three great works, the Code is written not in Arabic but in Hebrew. He chose a simple, lucid Hebrew akin to the Mishnaic dialect; not the "prophetic style," for that would not harmonise with  p126 his subject, and not the philosophical manner, for that would be unintelligible to the "general reader." He even refused to translate the Mishneh-Torah into Arabic.51 He did not employ the Aramaic idiom of the Talmud because of its difficulty. It is too much to assert, as some of his opponents asserted, that he desired the supersession of the Talmud; but he certainly did expect, though vainly, as the sequel proved, that his compilation would be accepted as the quintessence of the Talmud, self-sufficient and thus independent of its source.

Whether or not he was attempting the impossible or the undesirable when he proposed to place the Law, defined and dogmatic, in the hands of all his brethren, his conception of law was a great one. He thought not only of the law of conduct. Conduct was the spreading crown of branches; but reason, faith, spirituality were the roots of the tree. The truth  p127 won by Greece through philosophy was also a truth belonging to Judaism. The principles of faith and love were the founts from which it drew its life. The Scriptural precepts were not arbitrary laws, but "judgments of righteousness flowing from a deep Well of Wisdom." "Is it just," he asked, "to treat only of the branches and to neglect the roots of the tree;" to explore the river and neglect its springs? Thus the opening section of the Code is the famous Sefer Hamada᾽ ("Book of Religious Philosophy"), famous intrinsically and for the fierce controversies to which it gave rise. His Code begins with these words: "The foundation of foundations and the pillar of all Wisdom is the recognition that an original Being exists, who called all creatures into existence; for the recognition of this thing is a positive command, and is the great principle on which all things hang." This strikes the keynote, and nobly the  p128 Mishneh-Torah proceeds on its way, codifying the "philosophical, the ethical, and ceremonial sides, and also the emotional side of Judaism as expressed in its Messianic ideals," until it culminates in its inspired close, speaking of the time when "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea."52

In a celebrated passage of the Code, at the end of the Hilchoth Melachim, he writes thus of the mission of Christianity and Islam: 'The teachings of him of Nazareth (Jesus) and of the man of Ishmael (Mohammed), who arose after him, help to bring to perfection all mankind, so that they may serve God with one consent. For in that the whole world is full of the words of the Messiah, of the words of Holy Writ and the Commandments — these words have spread to the ends of the earth, even if many deny the blinding character of them at the present day. And when the Messiah comes, all will return from their errors."

 p129  It is hard to say where Maimonides is at his best in the Mishneh-Torah: as a careful collator, "bringing together," to use his own words, "things far off, scattered among the hills"; as a legal specialist, clearly formulating a technical decision on a marriage law; as an astronomer compiling an original treatise on the Calendar; as an historian, prefixing to the "Laws concerning Idolatry" a rapid yet masterly sketch of the origin and development of nature-worship and pagan religion, and protesting against allowing any taint of superstition to stain Judaism; as the moralist, writing of ethical theory and the Law of the Mean, establishing principles of charity of man to man, of Israelite to those outside the pale; as the intense believer, urging the love of God with mystic thirst, speaking of Atonement with a combination of the divinest yearnings and consummate good sense; as the theologian, denying to miracle its claim as a test of divine truth, asserting  p130 man's free will as the metaphysician, peering behind the veil of first things. Part by part the work was issued as it was completed, and little wonder that those who obtained a portion longed for the whole. There was no vanity in the titles that he chose for it, Mishneh-Torah and Mighty Hand, derived from the opening and the close of the fifth book of Moses. It was a repetition, or rather a renewal of the law that Moses Maimonides presented to his people. The sage of Cairo, the second Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, had performed again in the same land by the Nile "the signs and the wonders which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt." He had once more revealed the "mighty hand" with whose aid the first Moses had "wrought in the sight of all Israel." Verily, as the contemporaries of Maimonides said of him, "From Moses unto Moses, there arose none like Moses."

The Authors' Notes:

45 Lane-Poole's History of Egypt, p190.

46 Ibid., p204. The whole of chapter VII in Professor Lane-Poole's History has been much utilised.

47 Maimonides himself states (in his Letter to Jonathan of Lunel) that he was occupied for ten years with the Code. See Hebrew Graetz, IV.353, notes 1 and 2, and pp462, 466. One of the grounds for selecting the title Yad Hachazaka for the Code, was the numerical coincidence of the Hebrew letters of the word Yad (10 + 4) with the number of the books (14) into which the Code is divided.

48 The translators of the Sefer Hamitzvoth were Abraham ibn Chasdai, Moses ibn Tibbon, Solomon ibn Ayyub. See Steinschneider, Hebr. Uebersetz., p927. The Arabic text was published by Bloch, and much help has been derived from his introduction. His edition bears the title: Le Livre des Préceptes par Moïse ben Maimoun dit Maimonide publié pour la première fois dans l'original arabe et accompagné d'une introduction et de notes (Paris, 1888). Peritz had previously published a portion of the Arabic in 1882. The Hebrew translation of Ibn Tibbon is the most often printed.

49 Maimonides' Letters to Aknin and to Jonathan of Lunel; also the introduction to the Code. In his Letter to Phineas ben Meshullam of Alexandria (Resp., 148) Maimonides disclaims any desire to suppress the study of the Talmud in the original.

50 On the Rabad see Weiss, op. cit., IV p300, and Hebrew Graetz, IV p415.

51 But an Arabic commentary was written on it. See A Muhammedan Commentary on Maimonides' "Mishneh Torah" by G. Margoliouth (Jewish Quarterly Review, XIII.488, cf. Steinschneider, ibid. XII p500). The Mohammedan origin of this Commentary is open to question.

52 This characterisation, together with a good deal more in the course of the present book, is taken bodily from Graetz.

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