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Chapter 4

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.

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Chapter 6

 p71  Chapter V
The "Siraj" — Commentary on the Mishnah

The fame of the Siraj has been eclipsed by the maturer works of its author, yet it presents in germ the main ideals which he afterwards developed. Again, the Commentary of Maimonides has not been so popular an aid to the study of the Mishnah as the useful but more commonplace work of a later expositor, Obadiah of Bertinoro. So high a modern authority as Strack pronounces the commentary of Maimonides indispensable for the study of the Mishnah, and at the present time the importance of the Siraj is fully recognised. Maimonides wrote his Siraj in Arabic, and among the contemporaries of the author some actually preferred the  p72 Siraj to the great Code (the Mishneh-Torah), for the very reason that the former was composed in Arabic, the vernacular spoken by a large section of Jews. A good deal of the Siraj was also translated into Hebrew during the lifetime of Maimonides, and the desire for a complete Hebrew version was widely felt.​23 The Siraj has had a great and deserved influence on Jewish theology. "Clearness, method, symmetry," are the qualities which Graetz detects in the Siraj. "The construction of the Talmud," writes the same historian, "seems opposed to an orderly arrangement." But Maimonides demonstrated that this absence of system is a superficial defect. The Talmud readily lends itself to codification, given the qualifications which Maimonides preëminently possessed, an easy mastery over the subject-matter, and a sound conception of logical method. In these respects Maimonides stands supreme. As  p73 Simeon Duran said of him: "His like has not existed for bringing things close to men's understanding."​24 He had a profound reverence for the Talmud, and applied to the Rabbinical tradition the Scriptural text, "Thou shalt not add to it nor take away from it." But he maintained that not everything enshrined in the Rabbinical literature deserves to be taken literally or to be regarded as "traditional." Sometimes he dissents from the Talmudical explanations of the Mishnah, even, according to Weiss, in cases where the halachah, or practical law, is affected.​25 His respect for authority was tempered by a belief in his own powers, especially when dealing with the decisions and explanations of his nearer predecessors. Again, we find Maimonides attaching great importance to the Agadic elements in the Rabbinical literature as sources of ethical and philosophical truth. The process of reading an esoteric meaning  p74 into these elements as well as into certain features of Scripture was carried out more fully in the "Guide of the Perplexed," the last great work of our author. But the idea had already taken firm hold of Maimonides. "In the (allegorical) discourses of the Talmud," he writes in his Siraj, "lies much profound teaching. Let a man get a thorough intellectual insight into these discourses, let him realise the hidden store of true good therein contained, beyond which there is nothing more excellent, then will be revealed to him matters of divine truth, and much that the philosophers have spent their lives in searching for. But the sages hid these things, and desired not to reveal them openly, so that the mind of the student might be sharpened, and so that these matters might remain a secret from those whose intellect was inadequate to receive truth in its purity." Maimonides, with an analysis  p75 which applies also to our own day, discriminates​26 among three classes of those who study the words of "our sages of blessed memory." The first class take everything in its literal sense, and eulogise the sages for the very things which bring them into obloquy; the second class, again accepting everything as literal, pour ridicule on the Rabbis; the third class ("so small," says Maimonides, "that we can scarcely term them a class") hold the Rabbinical utterances in the deepest reverence, but understand that there is an exoteric and esoteric, an open and a hidden sense, in the words of the Rabbis. Thus Maimonides was already preparing himself to take the lead in medieval scholasticism and to found a philosophy of religion on a basis, at first unconsciously, yet in the end essentially, constructed on a syncretism between Greek metaphysics and Hebrew revelation.

Besides gathering into a short compass  p76 the quintessence of the Talmud, he displays his originality, says Dr. Friedländer,​27 "in the Introduction, and in the treatment of general principles, which in some instances precedes the exposition of an entire section or chapter, in others that of a single rule. The commentator is generally concise, except when occasion is afforded to treat of ethical and theological principles, or a scientific subject, such as weights and measures, or mathematical and astronomical problems. Although exhortations to virtue and warnings against vice are found in all parts of his work, they are especially abundant in the Commentary on Aboth, which is prefaced by a separate psychological treatise, called 'The Eight Chapters.' The dictum, 'He who speaketh much commits a sin,' elicited a lesson on the economy of speech; the explanation of olam ha‑ba [the future world] in the treatise Sanhedrin, led him to discuss the  p77 principles of faith, and to lay down the Thirteen Articles of the Jewish Creed." These excursuses, though incidental, were not obiter dicta. The author insists again and again that they are the result of wide research and long and careful thought. He demands of his readers the same diligence in perusal that the author had expended in composition. The general introduction to Tohoroth is pronounced by Frankel a masterpiece.

It is necessary to linger a little over two of the excursuses alluded to in the foregoing excellent summary. Of the psychological excursus, known as "The Eight Chapters,"​28 it may be said that it is the most remarkable instance in medieval ethical literature of a syncretism between Hebraism and Hellenism. It is thoroughly Jewish in thought; it is Hellenic in form. It is a treatise on the health and sickness of the soul; on the means by which the sickness may be  p78 transformed into health. "Ethics are the medicine of the soul," the Greek scientific view, and "All thine actions shall be to the glory of God," the ancient Mishnaic conception, are the texts on which Maimonides discourses. It is in the fourth of "The Eight Chapters" that we come across the famous attempt of Maimonides to apply to Jewish ethics the Aristotelian doctrine of the Mean. As far back as Hesiod, μέτρια ἔργα are the object of praise, and over the temple of Delphi was inscribed the motto, Μηδὲν ἄγαν. In the Greek the moral sense, like the musical ear, is satisfied by harmony. If virtue be harmony, beauty in action, then Aristotle's Μεσότης (Mean) perfectly expresses the principle of virtue. Excess and deficiency lie at the two extremes, and each is evil; between them runs the Mean, which is the Good. Virtuous action is a balance, the virtuous soul is symmetrical, graceful. Thus the principle of Ethics  p79 is the same as that of Art, though, as Aristotle puts it, "Moral Virtue is finer than the finest Art." "That beauty constituted virtue," writes Grant,​29 "was an eminently Greek idea. If we run through Aristotle's list of virtues, we find them all embodying this idea. The law of the Μεσότη, as exhibited in bravery, temperance, liberality, and magnanimity, constitutes a noble, free, and brilliant type of manhood. Extend it also, as Aristotle does, to certain qualifications of temper, speech, and manners, and you have before you the portrait of the graceful Grecian gentleman." The doctrine of the Mean, however, fails to explain the relation of the will to morals. It offers no explanation of the "impulse to truth — the duty of not deceiving." Nor can it be said that the peculiarly Hebraic virtues, unrecognised as such by Hellenism — humility, charity, forgiveness of injuries — are explicable by the theory of the  p80 Mean. In the Jewish "Wisdom of Solomon" the idea of beauty is applied to wisdom, but no Jewish moralist could be content with beauty as a full theory of ethics. If, continues Grant, we ask whether these peculiarly Hebraic (Grant calls them Christian) qualities are mean states, "we find that they are all beautiful; and in so far as that, they all exhibit a certain grace and balance of the human feelings. There is a point at which each might be overstepped: humility must not be grovelling, nor charity weak; and forgiveness must at times give place to indignation. But any seems in them something which is also their chief characteristic, and which is beyond and different from this quality of the Mean. Perhaps this might be expressed in all of them as 'self-abnegation.' Now here we get a different point of view from which to regard the virtues, and that is the relation of Self, of the individual Will, of the moral  p81 Subject, to the objective in the sphere of action. This point of view Aristotle's principle does not touch. Μεσότης expresses the objective law of beauty in action, and as correlative with it the critical moral faculty in our minds, but the law of right in action as something binding on the moral subject it leaves unexpressed. . . . . Μεσότης expresses the beauty of good acts, but leaves something in the goodness of them unexpressed." This criticism, however, does not apply to Maimonides, however effective it be against Aristotle. Maimonides, it is true, describes all virtues as mean states, but his list of virtues is derived not from his metaphysics but from Scripture. Scripture is the ultimate source of well-doing; it is to the Scriptural virtues that Maimonides applies the doctrine of the Μεσότης, not as explaining their intent but as defining and limiting their content. Critics of Aristotle are inclined to  p82 forget that the doctrine of the Mean is at all events an instrument for the analysis of moral concepts, and that such an analysis has real ethical value. It cannot be doubted that to Judaism, at all events, this analysis was salutary and needful. In Maimonides' hands the law of the mean becomes a valuable ethical corrective; he uses it in behalf of a sane piety, and urges the avoidance of those excesses of pietism which tend to convert virtue into a disease. It is no pallid, colourless character that Maimonides conceives as the ideal. His is a strenuous standard; but it is righteousness, not over-righteousness that he preaches. Yet disease may need poison to remedy it. So, he explains, the cure of a spiritual deficiency may consist in a spiritual excess, and for a great moral reformation it may be imperative to pass from extreme evil to extreme good, so that finally the Mean may be recovered and firmly held. The  p83 Greek law of beauty would require, as its correlative, a law of necessary deformity. Morality is not so much harmony as adjustation.30

"Every Israelite has a share in the world to come," runs a Mishnah in Tractate Sanhedrin. But who is an "Israelite," and what is the "life to come"? These questions suggested of the Maimonides the desirability of examining current conceptions of immortality, and forced upon him the duty of formulating the ultimate doctrines, belief in which made the Israelite. The essay in which Maimonides attempts to solve these problems in unquestionably the most significant section of the Siraj.​31 He opens with the lament that many take a material view of eternal bliss, conceiving it as a Garden of Eden, where flow rivers of wine and spiced oils; and men, free from toil, inhabit houses built of precious stones, and recline on silken couches. Hell to them is equally  p84 materialised, as a place of burning fires and bodily torments. Others, again, attach their hopes of bliss to the conception of an approaching Messianic Age, in which men will be kings, living eternally gigantic in stature, provided by a bountiful earth with garments ready woven and meats ready baked. A third class rest their hopes on the Resurrection, believing that a man will be in a happy state if, after his death, he live again with his dear ones and household, eating and drinking, but never again dying. Yet others hold that the good derived from obedience to the divine law consists in earthly happiness, and that earthly misery and "captivity" result from disobedience. A fifth class, a very numerous section, combine all these ideals, holding as their ideal that Messiah will come, and will quicken the dead; that they will enter the Garden of Eden, and eat there and drink, healthy throughout eternity. All  p85 of these base their views, in part successfully, on Scripture and Tradition, but they succeed by interpreting literally texts that need to be explained as figures. The real marvel and mystery, the whole conception of a future world, they do not attempt to examine. They rather ask, "How will the dead arise? naked or clothed? attired in the embroidered shrouds in which they were interred, or dressed in simple garments to cover their flesh?" As to the coming of the Messiah, they are concerned with such questions as, "Will all men, rich and poor, be equal then? Or will one be strong and another weak?" Now a wise teacher attracts the child by nuts, and figs, and honey; for the child cannot appreciate the real purpose of his studies. As the pupil grows older, the reward must change, and the nuts having palled, the teacher must charm with fine shoes and dainty apparel. Later he will offer more  p86 substantial bribes, such as money; later still he will say, Study to become a dayan, to win men's respect, that the people may rise before thee as they do before such and such a one. But can a man of character and intellect be satisfied with this? Is the end of wisdom to be found except in wisdom itself? Shall man learn except to win truth, or obey the Law for any motive except obedience? Man must study the Law simply to know it, seeking truth for truth's own sake, and knowing in order to perform. It is unlawful to say, I will follow the good to win reward, and eschew the evil to escape punishment. Maimonides is very forcible in maintaining this view, and cites with affectionate approval the saying of "that perfect man, who reached the truth of things," Antigonus of Socho, whose utterance has ever since been the key-note of the higher Judaism: "Be not like servants who minister to their master upon  p87 the condition of receiving a reward; but be like servants who minister to their master without the condition of receiving a reward." Maimonides follows this up by several apt quotations in which Rabbinical sages inculcated "service from motives of love towards God," especially the famous comment of R. Eleazar on the text, "In His commandments he delights exceedingly," "In His commandments, not in the rewards for them, he delights," and the equally famous saying in the Sifri, "all that you do must be done for pure love of the Lord." What then of the offers of reward and threats of punishment?

Maimonides answers by the theory which he subsequently developed in explanation of the Sacrifices. A concession was necessary to the average man, who is incapable of such pure devotion, but needs a specific stimulus, just as the schoolboy does from his teacher; but the concession  p88 was a means to an end, the end being the attainment of such a spiritual exaltation in which love of good will be the sole stimulus to good, and the idea will be realised in a perfect knowledge of the divine truth. Let men, said the Rabbi, serve God at first for reward; they will end by serving Him without any such motive. Thus the concession is educational. But Maimonides carries the argument farther. The material rewards prescribed in Scripture were aids to virtue rather than payment for it. "When a man is sick, hungry, thirsty, or at war, he cannot obey the ordinances of God. The object of reward for obedience is not that the land shall be fat, and men live long and healthily, but that these blessings shall help them to perform the law, while the penalties of disobedience are penalties only in this, that man by his very sin is rendered incapable of serving God. "If (Maimonides puts this into God's mouth)  p89 thou performest part of a single ordinance from love and desire, I will help thee to perform all ordinances, and will ward off all obstructive ill; but if thou leavest one thing undone from motives of contempt, I will bring on thee consequences which will prevent thee from obeying the whole law." Now it may be that Paradise will give to the righteous all that men dream of delight, and more; and Gehenna may be a fiery torture for the wicked. The days of the Messiah will fulfil all that the prophets have prophesied, and Israel will regain the sovereignty and return to their land. But our hope in the Messiah is not made up of dreams of wealth or hopes of Eden — a dream of bliss to spur us to righteousness. Eternal bliss consists in perfect spiritual communion with God. "He who desires to serve God from love must not serve to win the future world, but he does the right and eschews the wrong because he is man, and  p90 owes it to his manhood to perfect himself; and this effort brings him to the type of perfect man, whose soul shall live in that state which befits it, viz., in the world to come."

Maimonides follows up this striking pronouncement by a formulation of the thirteen fundamental principles of Judaism: (1) Belief in the existence of a Creator; (2) Belief in His Unity; (3) Belief in His Incorporeality; (4) Belief in His Eternity; (5) Belief that all worship and adoration are due to Him alone; (6) Belief in Prophecy; (7) Belief that Moses was the greatest of all Prophets; (8) Belief in the Revelation of the Law to Moses at Sinai; (9) Belief in the Immutability of the Law; (10) Belief that God knows the acts of men; (11) Belief in Reward and Punishment; (12) Belief in the Coming of the Messiah; and (13) Belief in the Resurrection of the Dead. "The great majority of Jews," says Professor Schechter,32  p91 "accepted the Thirteen Articles without further question. Maimonides must indeed have filled up a great gap in Jewish theology, a gap, moreover, the existence of which was very generally perceived. A century had hardly passed before the Thirteen Articles had become a theme for the poets of the Synagogue. And almost every country where Jews lived can show a poem or a prayer founded on these Articles. R. Jacob Molin (1420) of Germany speaks of metrical and rhymed songs in the German language, the burden of which was the Thirteen Articles, and which were read by the common people with great devotion. The numerous commentaries and homilies written on the same topic would form a small library in themselves." Though, however, the Thirteen Articles have been received into the Synagogue ritual in two separate forms,​33 they have not been accepted without criticism. Maimonides apparently considered  p92 the Articles as dogmatic tests, and in a very peculiar sense. "If a man believes these Articles," he writes, "he is included in the category of Israelite, and it is a duty to love him. Should he be led to commit transgressions by the urgency of his lust and the dominance of his lower nature, he will be punished for his offences, but he has a share in the future world. If, however, he rejects any of these Articles, he has withdrawn himself from the category of Israelite; he has denied the principles of Judaism, he is a heretic and unbeliever, a lopper of the tree, and it is a duty to hate him and destroy him." Maimonides was the first Rabbanite Jew to attempt such a formulation of the creed of Judaism, and he did it at a period when the Jews had long ceased to possess any central authority qualified to promulgate dogmatic tests. Neither Papacy nor Church Council was available, but Maimonides was not free  p93 from the intolerance which sometimes presided over both. Chasdai ibn Crescas in his "Light of God" (1405) contended that "Maimonides confounded dogmas or fundamental beliefs of Judaism, without which Judaism is inconceivable, with beliefs or doctrines which Judaism inculcates, but the denial of which, though involving a strong heresy, does not make Judaism impossible." But much of the criticism of Chasdai is really irrelevant. Maimonides himself was far more tolerant in spirit than he represents himself. When Chasdai objects that Reward and Punishment, Immortality and Resurrection, "must not be considered as the basis of Judaism, since the highest ideal of religion is to serve God without any hope of reward," he is only repeating the remarks of Maimonides cited above. Again, Chasdai points out that the Immutability of the Law is not a dogma, for "the perfection of the Torah could only  p94 be in accordance with the intelligence of those for whom it was meant; but as soon as the recipients of the Torah have advanced to a higher state of perfection, the Torah must also be altered to suit their advanced intelligence." Maimonides, as we shall see, practically held the same view, for he claimed the right so to explain certain words of Scripture as to convert them into a new Scripture. Hence, though at the first blush it would seem that Maimonides set up rigid dogmatic tests to be applied with intolerant severity, yet in effect he placed no heavy trammels on the Jewish intellect and conscience. He did a real service to Judaism by re-establishing belief as the basis of conduct, and his words, "inlaid with pearls," made the spiritual conception of the divine nature and the divine law predominant for all time in Jewish theology.

The Authors' Notes:

23 A Hebrew version of the general introduction and the first five tractates was made by Charizi, and of the "Eight Chapters" by Samuel ibn Tibbon, but the translation of the whole Commentary was not complete till a century had elapsed (Steinschneider, Hebräische Uebersetzungen, p923). Since 1523 the Commentary has been printed in numerous editions of the Talmud. Surenhusius translated the Commentary into Latin (1698‑1703). Of the original Arabic many parts have now been edited. See Pococke, Porta Mosis (1655), Barth (Makkoth, 1879‑80), Dérenbourg (Tohoroth, 1886‑92), Baneth (Aboth, 1890), Friedländer (Rosh Hashanah, 1890), Weil (Berachoth, 1891), Bamberger (Kilajim, 1891), Zivi (Demai, 1891), Weiss (Sanhedrin, 1893), Herzog (Peah, 1894), Wohl (Chullin, III‑V, 1894), Wiener (Abodah Zarah, 1895), Bamberger (Challah, 1895), Beermann (Eduyoth, I.1‑12, 1897), Löwenstein (Bechoroth, 1897), Fromer (Middoth, 1898), Holzer (Introduction to Chelek, 1901), Behrens (Megillah, 1901), Kroner (Bezah, 1901), Kroner (Pesachim, 1901), Hirschfeld (Joma, 1902), Sik (Taanith, 1902), Kallner (Taanith, I‑II, 1902), Nurock (Kiddushin, 1902), Hamburger (Introduction, 1902), J. Simon (Moed Katan and Sabbath, V‑VII, 1902), M. Fried (Tamid, 1903).

24 In his Introduction to his Magen Aboth, a commentary on Mishnah Aboth.

25 Weiss, Dor Dor Vedoreshaw, IV.293; but contrast the remarks of Rabbinowitz, Hebrew Graetz, IV p341. Frankel's appreciation of Maimonides' Commentary may be found in Darche Hamishnah, p320. Frankel holds that Maimonides only dissents from the Talmud where the practical law is not affected.

26 Introduction to Chelek.

27 Preface to Guide of the Perplexed, p. xx.

28 On the Shemoneh Perakim ("Eight Chapters"), see Steinschneider, Hebr. Uebersetz., § 254. A Hebrew translation was made by Samuel ibn TIbbon; the original was edited with a German translation by Wolf (1863). The Hebrew has been often edited. An English translation appeared in the Hebrew Review (1835).

29 Grant, Ethics of Aristotle, vol. I p261.

30 Just as Maimonides sought to give an Aristotelian form to Jewish ethics, so Professor M. Lazarus, in his "Ethics of Judaism," has endeavoured to read into the same ethics the principles of Kant.

31 The latest edition is J. Holzer's Mose Maimuni's Einleitung zu Chelek, 1901.

32 Studies in Judaism, 1896, chapter on "The Dogmas of Judaism."

33 In the prose summary and in the hymn Yigdal. See Singer, Authorised Daily Prayer-Book, pages 2 and 89.

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