Some information about Maimonides’ Code of Jewish Laws

 

Many Jews turned to the Talmud to discover what the rabbis felt God desired them to do. The problem was that the Talmud was not composed to teach this. The Talmud is a compendium of the views of a host of rabbis on various subjects, but it does not state which view is the correct one. Generally, the view of the majority became the accepted halakhah, law, but this is not always so. Sometimes the minority view was the accepted one. Also, many disputes were between two individuals, with no majority opinion stated. True, a system was developed to generally, but not always, decide the prevailing view, such as when X disputes with Y, the halakhah is like X. But few Jews knew this system. As a result, the Talmud could not be used to decide behavior.

Maimonides (1138-1204) ever mindful of the needs of the Jewish people, decided to address this problem. He did so by writing fourteen books that contain all the laws that Jews need to know. He called the set Mishneh Torah, the second Torah. He wrote in his introduction that “a person will not need another text at all with regard to any Jewish law.” Instead, “a person should first study the Written Law [the Torah], and then study this text and will then understand the entire Oral Law [the rabbinical enactments] from it without having to study any other text other than these two.”

Some rabbis felt that the rabbinical discussions and the sources that he omitted were necessary. Asher ben Yechiel (c. 1259–1328), for example, disparaged Maimonides’ code by saying, “He writes his book as if he were prophesying from God.”

The fourteen books were composed in beautiful Hebrew, the same Hebrew used in the Mishnah, and not the mixed Hebrew and Aramaic contained in the Talmud. His work is composed in a very logical fashion.

Maimonides was other things besides a compiler of Jewish laws. He was also, among others, a great philosopher. In his first volume of his Mishneh Torah, he mentions some basic concepts of philosophy, which some rabbis, who dislike philosophy, considered a mistake, and besides telling their students not to read Maimonides book on philosophy, the Guide of the Perplexed, they instructed them not to read the first book of his Mishneh Torah. He also lists what he considers the 613 commandments that the rabbis felt were contained in the Torah. The idea that there are 613 biblical commandments was first stated in a sermon by Rabbi Simlai in the third century CE. Many rabbis recognized that the idea was sermonic: there are 365 negative commandments and 248 positive commands which teach that we should do what God wants us to do every day of the year (365) with are parts of our body (248).

Maimonides’ list was his personal idea of what rabbis considered biblical commands. Most of the commands that he lists are not explicit in the Torah. His listing was not accepted by others. Other rabbis decided to go along with the 613 number but they deleted some commands that Maimonides listed and replaced them with others.

 

***

 

About a century after Maimonides’ death in 1204, Jacob ben Asher (1270–c. 1340) composed a code of Jewish law that he called the Tur. Roughly two centuries later, Joseph Karo (1488–1575), compiled his law books, which he named the Shulchan Arukh. More than half a dozen other collections followed, but the Shulchan Arukh, with annotations by the Polish rabbi Moshe Isserles (1525–1572) became the favored code and is used by many Ashkenazic Jews, those from European countries.

The omission of rabbinical discussions and the sources of the laws as well as updating laws were the ostensible, though not the entire reason other rabbis felt they had to write their own codes. This is obvious because if these omissions were what really bothered the rabbis who composed new codes, they should have been satisfied by only adding glosses indicating the sources, opposing views, and new laws.

The true reason, in all likelihood, was the inability of the non-rationalists to deal with Maimonides’ rationalism and his refusal to include superstitious practices, magical conduct, use of omens, mysticism, and other irrational behaviors that were so dear to the general public. These non-rational behaviors were rampant among many Jews – including numerous rabbis. The post-Maimonidean law books codified these types of behaviors.

The Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 179:2, for example, states that it would be good luck if people marry during the full moon. This procedure is not mentioned in Talmudic or gaonic literature or in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah.

Do You Want To Be Notified of New Blog Posts?

Email:

Categories

Archives