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A recent textually-researched version of Mishneh Torah in one volume

The Mishneh Torah (Hebrew: משנה תורה‎), subtitled Sefer Yad ha-Chazaka (יד החזקה), is a code of Jewish religious law (Halakha) by one of the important Jewish authority Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known by the Hebrew abbreviation RaMBaM, usually written "Rambam" in English). The Mishneh Torah was compiled between 1170 and 1180, while he was living in Egypt, and is regarded as Maimonides' magnum opus.

The work consists of 14 books, subdivided into sections, chapters and paragraphs. It is the only Medieval work that details all of Jewish observance, including those laws which are only applicable when the Holy Temple is in place.

Names of the work

  • Mishneh Torah ("Repetition of the Torah") is an appellation originally used for the Biblical book of Deuteronomy.
  • Sefer Yad ha-Chazaka ("Book of the Strong Hand"), its parallel title, derives from its subdivision in fourteen books. When transcribed into Hebrew letters, the number fourteen forms the word yad (hand).
  • Later sources simply refer to the work as "Maimon", "Maimonides" or "RaMBaM", although Maimonides composed other works.

The books and sections

  1. HaMadda' (Knowledge):
    1. Yesodei ha-Torah: Belief in God and other Jewish principles of faith
    2. De'ot: general proper behavior
    3. Talmud Torah: see Torah study
    4. Avodah Zarah: the prohibition against idolatry
    5. Teshuvah: the law and philosophy of repentance
  2. Ahavah (Love): the precepts which must be observed at all times if the love due to God is to be remembered continually (prayer, tefillin).
  3. Zemanim (Times):
    1. Shabbat
    2. Eruvin, a Rabbinic device that facilitates Sabbath observance
    3. Yom Tov: prohibitions on major Jewish holidays that are different from the prohibitions of Sabbath
    4. Shevitat `Asor: laws of Yom Kippur, except for the Temple service (see Avodat Yom ha-Kippurim, below)
    5. Hametz u-Matza: see Passover
    6. Shofar ve-Lulav ve-Sukkah: see Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot
    7. Hanukah u-Megillah: see Hanukkah and Purim
  4. Nashim (Women):
    1. Ishut: laws of marriage, including kiddushin and the ketubah
    2. Geirushin: laws of divorce
    3. Yibum va-Chalitzah: laws of levirate marriage
    4. Na'arah Betulah: the law of a man who seduces or rapes an unmarried woman
    5. Sotah laws concerning a woman suspected of infidelity
  5. Kedushah (Holiness)
    1. Issurei Biah: forbidden sexual relations, including niddah, incest and adultery. Since intermarriage with non-Jews is forbidden, the laws of conversion to Judaism are also included.
    2. Ma'akhalot Assurot: laws of forbidden foods (see kashrut)
    3. Shechitah: laws of ritual slaughter
  6. Hafla'ah (Separation): laws of vows and oaths
    1. Shevuot: Laws of vows (to refrain from doing an action)
    2. Nedarim: Laws of oaths (to do an action)
    3. Nezirot: Laws of Nazirites
    4. Erachin: Laws of donations to the temple
  7. Zera'im (Seeds): agricultural laws
    1. Kilayim: Laws of forbidden mixtures
    2. Aniyim: Laws of obligatory gifts to the poor
    3. Terumot: Laws of obligatory gifts to the priests
    4. Maaser: Laws of tithes
    5. Sheini: Laws of secondary tithes
    6. Bikurim: Laws of first fruit offerings
    7. Shemittah: Laws of the sabbatical year
  8. Avodah (Divine Service): the laws of the Temple in Jerusalem
  9. Korbanot (Offerings): laws for offerings in the Temple, excepting those of the whole community
  10. Tohorah (Cleanness): the rules of ritual purity
  11. Nezikin (Injuries): criminal and tort law
  12. Kinyan (Acquisition): laws of the marketplace
  13. Mishpatim (Rights): civil law
  14. Shofetim (Judges): the laws relating legislators, the Sanhedrin, the king, and the judges. It also addresses the Noahide Laws and those pertaining to messianic times.

Language and style

The Mishneh Torah is written in Hebrew in the style of the Mishnah. Maimonides was reluctant to write in Talmudic Aramaic, since it was not widely known[1]. His previous works had been written in Arabic.

The intention was to provide a complete statement of the Oral Law, so that a person who mastered first the Written Torah and then the Mishneh Torah would be in no need of any other book.

The Mishneh Torah never cites sources or arguments, and confines itself to stating the final decision on the law to be followed in each situation. There is no discussion of Talmudic interpretation or methodology, and the sequence of chapters follows the factual subject matter of the laws rather than the intellectual principle involved.

Printed editions and textual accuracy

Over time many textual errors and distortions have appeared in the various editions of Maimonides' "Mishneh Torah". These inaccuracies are in the text of rulings, in the drawings made by the Rambam, as well as in the division (and thus the numbering) of rulings.

There are various reasons for these inaccuracies. Some are due to errors in the copying of manuscripts (before the age of printing) or mistakes by typesetters of later editions. Others are due to conscious attempts to "correct" the text, and yet others to Christian censorship (in countries under its control). In addition, Maimonides himself frequently edited the text of his own autograph copy, such that manuscripts copied from his own book did not preserve his later corrections. Thus the received version may not be the text that Maimonides intended us to read.

Often the distortions in existing versions prompted questions on the "Mishne Torah" which were solved in many creative and different ways by the scholars throughout the generations; many of these questions don’t arise in the first place if the version is corrected based upon reliable manuscripts.

In order to determine the exact version, scholars use reliable early manuscripts (some of them containing Maimonides' own signature), which are free of both Christian censorship and the changes of later readers who tried to "correct" the text on their own, without manuscript evidence. Since the middle of the 20th century there have been five scientific printings of the book:

  • Rabbi Shabsai Frankel's edition includes critical editions of the "classical" commentators on Mishneh Torah as well as the book itself. However, the actual text of Mishneh Torah in this edition is based heavily on the printed editions, rather than the early manuscripts, whose variant readings are relegated to marginal notes and an apparatus at the end of each volume. All the volumes have been published.
  • Rabbi Yosef Qafih's edition is based mainly on Yemenite manuscripts, and includes an extensive commentary by Rabbi Qafih that surveys the discussions of the classical commentaries on Mishneh Torah and includes verbatim citation of previous commentaries in their entirety.
  • The Yad Peshutah edition by Rabbi Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch, Rosh Yeshivat Birkei Moshe in Maalei Adumim, Israel. This edition is based on a number of manuscripts (different ones are used for the different books, according to their reliability) and includes an original commentary on the Mishneh Torah. About one third of the volumes have been printed at this point.
  • "The Exact Mishneh Torah" edition by Rabbi Yitzchak Shelat has no commentary. It compares the printed versions to the fixed version. So far, four volumes have been printed; the publisher expects to print two new volumes each year.
  • A one-volume edition (1000 pages) published by Yeshivat Or Vishua reflects all the editions based on reliable manuscripts, accompanied by surrounding indexes but with no commentary. The text was checked again, based mainly on Rabbi Yosef Qafih's edition. It gives variant readings from the other leading editions only in cases where the changes are meaningful. "The Mishne Torah Project" of the yeshiva also plans to publish a multi-volume pocket edition including vowel diacritics and cross-references to other passages and to Maimonides' other works. The pocket version of Sefer Ha-Madda (The Book of Knowledge) is already in print.

Maimonides' sources

Maimonides sought brevity and clarity in his Mishneh Torah and as in his Commentary on the Mishnah, he refrained from detailing his sources. He felt it sufficient to name his sources in the preface. He drew upon the Torah and the rest of Tanakh, both Talmuds, Tosefta, and the halachic Midrashim, principally Sifra and Sifre. Some believe that he preferred rulings in certain Midrash collections to rulings in the Talmud, which would have been a rare opinion at the time.

Later sources include the responsa (teshuvot) of the Geonim. The maxims and decisions of the Geonim are frequently presented with the introductory phrase "The Geonim have decided" or "There is a regulation of the Geonim", while the opinions of Isaac Alfasi and Alfasi's pupil Joseph ibn Migash are prefaced by the words "my teachers have decided" (although there is no direct source confirming ibn Migash as Maimonides' teacher). According to Maimonides, the Geonim were considered "unintelligible in our days, and there are but few who are able to comprehend them." There were even times when Maimonides disagreed with what was being taught in the name of the Geonim.


A number of laws appear to have no source in any of the works mentioned; it is thought that Maimonides deduced them through independent interpretations of the Bible or that they are based on versions of previous Talmudic texts no longer in our hands. Maimonides himself states a few times in his work that he possessed what he considered to be more accurate texts of the Talmud than what most people possessed at his time. The latter has been confirmed to a certain extent by versions of the Talmud preserved by the Yemenite Jews as to the reason for what previously were thought to be rulings without any source.

Opposition

Critics and criticism

The Mishneh Torah was strongly opposed almost as soon as it appeared. Major sources of contention were the absence of sources and the belief that the work appeared to be intended to supersede study of the Talmud. Some criticisms appear to have been less rational in nature.

The most sincere but influential opponent, whose comments are printed parallel to virtually all editions of the Mishneh Torah, was Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquières, France, 1100s, (Raavad III).

Many critics were especially bitter against the new methods which he had employed, and the very peculiarities which he had regarded as merits in his work failed to please his opponents because they were innovations. Thus they reproached him because he wrote in Hebrew instead of in the customary Talmudic idiom, because he departed from the Talmudic order and introduced a division and arrangement of his own, and because he dared to sometimes decide according to the Tosefta and the Jerusalem Talmud as against the Babylonian Talmud.

Especially sharp was the blame heaped upon Maimonides because he neglected to cite his sources; this was considered an evidence of his superciliousness, since it made it difficult, if not absolutely impossible, for scholars to verify his statements, and compelled them to follow his decisions absolutely. Yet despite all this, Maimonides remained certain that in the future the Mishneh Torah would find great influence and acceptance. This is boldly expressed in a letter to his student Rabbi Yoseph ben ha-rav Yehudah:

"And all that I've described to you regarding those who won't accept it [the Mishneh Torah] properly, that is uniquely in my generation. However, in future generations, when jealousy and the lust for power will disappear, all of Israel will subsist [lit. "we be satiated"] on it alone, and will abandon all else besides it without a doubt, --except for those who seek something to be involved with all their lives, even though it doesn't achieve a purpose."

In all fairness to Maimonides, he did mention Talmudic study (oral law), as required learning for 1/3 of a person's day (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1.11).

Maimonides' response

Maimonides defended himself. He had not composed this work for glory; he desired only to supply the necessary but lacking code, for there was danger lest pupils, weary of the difficult study, might go astray in decisions of practical importance (Letter to Rabbi Jonathan of Lunel, in which he thanks the latter for certain corrections; Responsa of Maimonides, 49).

He noted that it had never been his intention to abolish Talmudic studies, nor had he ever said that there was no need of the "Halakot" of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, for he himself had lectured to his pupils on the Gemara and, at their request, upon Alfasi's work (Responsa, No. 140).

He said that his omission of his sources was due solely to his desire for brevity, although he regretted that he had not written a supplementary work citing his authorities for those halakot whose sources were not evident from the context. He would, however, should circumstances permit, atone for this error, however toilsome it might be to write such a supplement (Responsa, No. 140).

Raavad was forced to acknowledge that the work of Maimonides was a magnificent contribution (note on Kilayim 6:2), nor did he hesitate to praise him and approve his views in many passages, citing and commenting upon the sources.

Later works (e.g. Yosef Karo's "Kesef Mishné") set out to find sources for Maimonides' decisions, and to resolve any disputes between him and the Raavad.

Yonah of Gerona

Special mention should be made of Yonah of Gerona, a grandson of Nachmanides (Ramban) who was initially a member of the vocal opponents of the "Yad". He was involved in the burning of a number of copies of the work in the 1240's. Regret followed, when he saw the Talmud being burnt in Paris in 1244, which he interpreted as a sign from Heaven that he had been mistaken. He set out to the Land of Israel, to ask forgiveness on the Rambam's grave in presence of ten witnesses, composing a classic work on penitence (titled Shaarei Teshuva, "The Gates of Repentance") during his soul-searching.

Influence

Decisors

Thus the work of Maimonides, notwithstanding the sharp attacks upon it, soon won general recognition as an authority of the first importance for ritual decisions. According to several authorities ("Yad Mal'akhi" rule 26, pg 186), a decision may not be rendered in opposition to a view of Maimonides, even though the latter apparently militated against the sense of a Talmudic passage, for in such cases the presumption was that the words of the Talmud were incorrectly interpreted. Likewise: "One must follow Maimonides even when the latter opposed his teachers, since he surely knew their views, and if he decided against them he must have disapproved their interpretation" (ibid, rule 27).

Even when later authorities, like Asher ben Jehiel (the Rosh), decided against Maimonides, it became a rule of the Oriental Jews to follow the latter, although the European Jews, especially the Ashkenazim, preferred the opinions of the Rosh in such cases. But the hope which Maimonides expressed, that in time to come his work and his alone would be accepted, has been only half fulfilled. His "Mishneh Torah" is indeed still very popular, but there has been no cessation in the study of other works.

Ironically, while Maimonides refrained from citing sources out of concern for brevity (or perhaps because he designed his work to be used without studying the Talmud or other sources first), the result has often been the opposite of what he intended. Various commentaries have been written which seek to supply the lacking source documentation, and indeed today the Mishneh Torah is sometimes used as a sort of an index to aid in locating Talmudic passages. In cases where Maimonides' sources or interpretation thereof is questionable, the lack of clarity has at times led to lengthy analyses and debates - quite the opposite of the brevity he sought to attain. On the other hand, this only became an issue for students and scholars who dialated on the Mishneh Torah's sources. According to Maimonides himself, deducing law from the sources had already become a precarious proposition (for a number of reasons) - even his own times. This necessarily relates to different subjects - like the influence of the exile, language skills, lack of time, censorship and alternate versions of the Talmud.

Codes and commentators

Mishneh Torah itself has been the subject of a number of commentaries: Kesef Mishné by Yosef Karo, Mishné la-Melech, Lechem Mishné, Radvaz and Hagahot Maimoni (which details Ashkenazi customs). Most commentators aim to resolve criticisms of the Raavad, and to trace Maimonides' sources to the text of the Talmud, Midrash and Geonim.

Later codes of Jewish law, e.g. Arba'ah Turim by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher and Shulchan Aruch by Rabbi Yosef Karo, draw heavily on Maimonides' work, and in both whole sections are often quoted verbatim.

Present day

Study

The in-depth study of Mishneh Torah underwent a revival in Lithuanian Judaism in the late 19th century. The Lithuanians did not use it as a source book on practical halakha, as they followed the Ashkenazi authorities such as Moses Isserles and the Aruch ha-Shulchan. Instead they used it as a guide to Talmudic interpretation and methodology. Given the fact that the Mishneh Torah entirely omits these topics, this reading seems paradoxical and against the grain. Their method was to compare the Talmudic source material with Maimonides' final decision, in order to reconstruct the rules of interpretation that must have been used to get from one to the other.

Prominent recent authorities who have written commentaries on the work include Rabbis Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (Ohr Somayach), Chaim Soloveitchik (Chiddushei Rabbeinu Chaim), Yitzchok Isaac Krasilschikov (Tevunah), Isser Zalman Meltzer (Even HaEzel) and, more recently, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Hadran al HaRambam), Elazar Shach (Avi Ezri) and Rabbi Yosef Kapach. See also: List of commentaries on Mishneh Torah

Today, thousands of Orthodox Jews, particularly Chabad Hasidim, participate in one of the annual study cycles of Mishneh Torah (1 or 3 chapters a day).

Mishneh Torah is often one of the first post-Talmudic sources consulted when investigating a question of Jewish law. Likewise, many scholarly speeches (e.g. the traditional Rabbi's speech on the Shabbat preceding Pesach and Yom Kippur) often revolve around a difficulty between two passages in Maimonides' work.

In November 2006 Rabbi Meir Alter Halevi Horowitz announced that his prestigious A.F.M.B. publishing house "The Nesher Hagodol Legacy" Foundation had begun an epic journey of translating, illuminating and explaining the Sefer HaRambam, the Mishneh Torah, entitled "Perush HaMeir".[2]

Practice

As for halakha l'maaseh (practical application of Jewish law), although the majority of Jews keep Jewish law according to various other Rabbinic codes organized around the Shulchan Aruch, an increasing number of Yemenite Jews, as well as various other individuals, are being attracted to the Mishneh Torah as their choice code of Jewish law by which to live. The reasons for this attraction may range from a personal desire to return to the original ways of their ancestors, as is possibly the case with many Yemenite Jews, to a desire for keeping Torah in a way that, from their perspective, is more in line with historical Talmudic Judaism, more rational, and less influenced by Kabbalistic innovations.

One individual who contributed to this phenomenon was Rabbi Yihhyah Qafahh, the founder of the Dor Daim movement in Yemen. The Mishneh Torah had always been a leading authority in the Baladi (local, traditionalist) Yemenite community - as a matter of local custom. Scholarly work in this vein has been continued by his grandson, Rabbi Yosef Qafahh (also spelled Gafah, Qafih or Kapach). Rabbi Yosef Qafahh is credited with the publication of an almost encyclopedic commentary to the entire Mishneh Torah, including his own insights, set to a text of the Misheh Torah based upon the authoritative hand-written manuscripts preserved by the Yemenite Jewish community. The introduction to his edition of the Mishneh Torah is well known in itself as a defense for the keeping of halakha according to the Mishneh Torah [1].

During his lifetime Rabbi Yosef Qafahh was a leading figure in the Baladi Yemenite community as a whole, as well as the Dor Daim or strict "Rambamists". After Rabbi Yosef Qafahh died, Rabbi Rasson Arusi [2] has largely filled his place as the leading public representative of the Baladi and Rambamist communities.

Rabbi Rasson Arusi is founder of 'Halikhoth Ahm Yisroel' and Makhon Mishnath haRambam [3], and head of the marriage department of the Rabbinate of Israel, as well as chief rabbi of city of Kiryat Ono in Israel. Rav Arusi and the organization Makhon Mishnath haRambam have published several books filled with commentary on various parts and aspects of the Mishneh Torah as well as topics related to the Yemenite Jewish community. Besides the works of Rabbi Yosef Qafahh and Rabbi Rasson Arusi, there are a number of other commentaries to the Mishneh Torah written by leaders of the Yemenite Jewish community.

English translations

  • Feldheim has published an edition of the first two books based on the Oxford manuscript, with the translation of Moses Hyamson. As the translation was made from the traditional printed texts, it does not always match the Hebrew.

See also

References

  1. Preface to the Mishneh Torah
  2. Horowitz, Meir Alter Halevi, Rabbi (2006), "English Edition of the Rambam: with Perush HaMeir", The Nesher Hagodol Legacy Foundation Publications 1 (1): 32 pages 

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