I have been working on an introduction to Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, and thought that I wanted to share what I have done so far with you. It is far from done, for now only being a general introduction to the background and structure of the work, which needs to be edited and have more information added, as well as other parts, such as criticism, commentaries and so on. That’ll come later, BE”H.
Please give share thoughts and reactions.
The Mishneh Torah is a Halachic work, consisting of the 613 Commandments (mitzvoth), the so called Taryag (based on the reading of the Hebrew writing of 613), defined by Maimonides, who is also the author of the book, or books as it is. It consists of fourteen books, each consisting of smaller parts, which again is consisting of chapters, which consist of a number of Mitzvot. The number of books, fourteen, have given the work its other name, yad, hand – from the Hebrew writing of 14, yod:dalet – which was added the adjective “hazaqah”, strong, and hence got known as “Yad haHazaqah”, the Strong Hand.
The name, Mishneh Torah, which means “Repetition of Torah”, was given by Maimonides, since he saw the work as being the only necessary thing to read for the observant, but uneducated, Jew in order to know all of the Commandments of the Torah.
Maimonides points at Moshe Rabenu, A”S, receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:12), as the foundation of Jewish Law. There, we are told, Moshe Rabenu, A”S, was given the “Tablets of Stone,” the “Torah,” and the “Mitzvah.” These are the three parts of the Law, the Tablets of Stone being the two Tablets with the Ten Commandments, the Torah being the Written Law, and the Mitzvah being the Oral Tradition, which Moshe Rabenu, A”S, did not write down, but instead commanded it orally to the elders, to Yehoshu’a, and the congregation. It is in this verse, that we find the hint at the Oral Law, and can learn that the Torah was given both orally and written. Maimonides then goes on to explain the chain of tradition, mentioning the receivers and givers of the Oral Tradition, all the way down to Yehudah HaNasi, Z”L, who found it necessary to write down the Oral Tradition, which became known as Mishnah. He then explains how Rav, who was the disciple of one of Yehudah HaNasi’s disciples, R. Yannai, composed the Sifre and Sifra, two other Halachic works, so called Midrashim, and Rabbi Hiyah composed the Tosefta, Mishnaic material, that wasn’t written down in Mishnah, and how R. Hoshaia and Bar Qapara composed Beraitot, other Mishnaic material, that wasn’t included in neither the Mishnah nor the Tosefta. This material was collected and commented by the following era of Rabbis, called “Amoraim”, which is what is known as Talmud today. This is the basis for Maimonides’ decision, as we find them in his Mishneh Torah, except few cases, where he finds himself in disagreement.
Maimonides felt himself compelled to write this work, based on the situation of the Jewish people of his time. After accounting for the chain of the tradition of the Oral Law, all the way from Moshe Rabenu, A”S, until Rav Ashi, Z”L, who composed Talmud Bavli (according to Maimonides), he began to explaining how the situation evolved from a reality where the masses of the Jews went to the Yeshivot, the religious schools, to study there, to a reality where all the Jewish people were dispersed in “all the countries”, and each country followed the decisions of their local courts. The Talmud got closed for the layman Jew, who – even in Babylonia – didn’t speak the language of the Talmud, Aramaic, and hence didn’t have understanding nor insight in the Oral Law. As he writes in his introduction to Mishneh Torah:
“At this time, we have been beset by additional difficulties, everyone feels [financial] pressure, the wisdom of our Sages has become lost, and the comprehension of our men of understanding has become hidden. Therefore, those explanations, laws, and replies which the Geonim composed and considered to be fully explained material have become difficult to grasp in our age, and only a select few comprehend these manners in the proper way.”
Hence he saw the need to make a compilation, where he would explain the Oral Law, so people would only need to read his work of Halachah, next to the Written Law, in order to understand what was demanded of and prohibited to them:
“To summarize: [The intent of this is] that a person will not need another text at all with regard to any Jewish law. Rather, this text will be a compilation of the entire Oral Law, including also the ordinances, customs, and decrees that were enacted from the time of Moses, our teacher, until the completion of the Talmud, as were explained by the Geonim in the texts they composed after the Talmud.
Therefore, I have called this text, Mishneh Torah [“the second to the Torah,” with the intend that] a person should first study the Written Law, and then study this text and comprehend the entire Oral Law from it, without having to study any other text between the two.”
The work was written in Mishnaic Hebrew, in order to emulate the Mishnah and, as stated earlier, consists of fourteen books; each separated in sub books and again separated in chapters, representing the Mitzvot, which again are separated in explanations, and definitions of the Mitzvot. Hence the Mishneh Torah is consisting of the following fourteen books, with their respective sub-books:
|Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah
Hilchot Talmud Torah
Hilchot ‘Avodat Kochavim
הלכות יסודי התורה
הלכות תלמוד תורה
הלכות עבודת כוכבים ומזלות וחוקות העכו”מ
|Hilchot Qri’at Shma’
Hilchot T’fillah u’Virkat Kohanim
Hilchot T’fillin uM’zuzah v’Sefer Torah
הלכות קריאת שמע
הלכות תפלה וברכת כהנים
הלכות תפילין ומזוזה וספר תורה
Hilchot Shvitat ‘Asor
Hilchot Shvitat Yom Tov
Hilchot Hametz u’Matzah
Hilchot Shofar v’Sukkah v’Lulav
Hilchot Qiddush haHodesh
Hilchot Megillah v’Hanukkah
הלכות שביתת עשור
הלכות שביתת יום טוב
הלכות חמץ ומצה
הלכות שופר וסוכה ולולב
הלכות קידוש החדש
הלכות מגילה וחנוכה
Hilchot Yibum v’Halitzah
Hilchot Na’arah Betulah
הלכות יבום וחליצה
הלכות נערה בתולה
|Hilchot Issurei Biah
Hilchot Ma’achalot Asurot
הלכות איסורי ביאה
הלכות מאכלות אסורות
Hilchot ‘Arachin v’Harmim
הלכות ערכין וחרמין
Hilchot Matnot ‘Ani’im
Hilchot Ma’aser Sh’ni v’Neta’ R’vi’i
Hilchot Sh’mitah v’Yovel
הלכות מתנות עניים
הלכות מעשר שני ונטע רבעי
הלכות בכורים ושאר מתנות כהונה שבגבולין
הלכות שמיטה ויובל
|Hilchot Beit haB’hirah
Hilchot Klei haMiqdash v’ha’Ovdim bo
Hilchot Biat haMiqdash
Hilchot Issurei haMizbeah
Hilchot Ma’aseh haQorbanot
Hilchot Temidim u’Musafim
Hilchot Pesulei haMuqdashim
Hilchot ‘Avodat Yom haKipurim
הלכות בית הבחירה
הלכות כלי המקדש והעבודה בו
הלכות ביאת המקדש
הלכות אסורי המזבח
הלכות מעשה הקרבנות
הלכות תמידין ומוספין
הלכות פסולי המוקדשין
הלכות עבודת יום הכפורים
|Hilchot Qorban Pesah
Hilchot Mehusar Kipurim
הלכות קרבן פסח
הלכות מחוסר כפורים
|Hilchot Tumat Met
Hilchot Parah Adumah
Hilchot Tumat Tzara’at
Hilchot Metamei Mishkav uMoshav
Hilchot Sh’ar Avot haTumot
Hilchot Tumat Ochalin
הלכות טומאת מת
הלכות פרה אדומה
הלכות טומאת צרעת
הלכות מטמאי משכב ומושב
הלכות שאר אבות הטומאות
הלכות טומאת אוכלין
Hilchot Gezeilah vAvidah
Hilchot Hovel uMaziq
Hilchot Rotzeah uShmirat Nefesh
הלכות נזקי ממון
הלכות גזילה ואבידה
הלכות חובל ומזיק
הלכות רוצח ושמירת נפש
Hilchot Zechiyah uMatanah
Hilchot Shluhin v’Shutafin
הלכות זכייה ומתנה
הלכות שלוחין ושותפין
Hilchot Sheilah uPiqadon
Hilchot Malveh v’Loveh
Hilchot To’en v’Nit’an
הלכות שאלה ופקדון
הלכות מלוה ולוח
הלכות טוען ונטען
Hilchot Melachim uMilhamoteyhem
הלכות סנהדרין והעונשין המסורים להם
הלכות מלכים ומלחמותיהם
The books are ordered in importance and relevance for the individual Jew’s relation and worship of G-D, hence we see that he begins with the Book of Knowledge, where he explains concepts as the foundation of faith, study of Torah and Idol worship, and ends with the Book of Judges, that works with concepts in governing societies.
The contents of the books are as follows:
Sefer HaMada’ (The Book of Knowledge)
This book is consisting of five halachot, namely the Laws of the Foundation of the Torah, the Laws of Personal Development, the Laws of Studying the Torah, the Laws concerning Idol worship, and the Laws of Repentance.
The whole perspective of this book, is the individual worship and relationship to G-D, beginning with the understanding of the Laws of faith, then how to evolve as a person, how to study Torah and the laws related to this, prohibition of Idol worship, and what is related to Idol worship, and in the end the laws on repentance.
It consists, in total, of 75 Mitzvot, 16 positive and 59 negative Mitzvot.
Sefer Ahavah (The Book of Love)
This book, the Book of Love, is consisting of six halachot, which is the Laws concerning the Recitation of the Sh’ma, the Laws concerning Prayer and the Kohanitic Blessings, the Laws concerning T’fillin, Mezuzot and Torah Scrolls.
As the name of the book alludes to, Maimonides views these subjects as expressions of love to G-D. Hence the Qriyat Sh’ma’, the recitation of Sh’ma, is said sitting, since “the predominant emotion of [Qriyat Sh’ma’] is love rather than awe.” (R. Jonathan Sacks, shlita, in the Koren Siddur).
It consists, in total, of 11 Mitzvot, all positive. Since the positive Mitzvot is representing love to G-D, and the negative Mitzvot represent awe of G-D, this book only consists of positive Mitzvot.
Sefer Z’manim (The Book of the Seasons)
This book is consisting of ten halachot, namely the Laws concerning Shabbat, the Laws concerning ‘Eruvin, the Laws concerning resting on Yom Kippur (the tenth day of the year), the Laws concerning resting on Hagim (Holy Days), the Laws concerning Hametz and Matzah, the Laws concerning the Shofar, the Sukkah and the Lulav, the Laws concerning the half-shekel, the Laws concerning, the Laws concerning sanctifying the new month, the Laws concerning the Fasts, and the Laws concerning the Megillah and Hanukkah.
The word, “z’manim” (“zman” in singular) actually means “times”, and relates to the fact that this book is about the times and periods in the Jewish calendar, that has value as a holy time. Hence we see that there are rules relating to Shabbat and the haggim, and the circumstances related to them.
It consists of 35 Mitzvot, 19 positive and 16 negative, but also also three Mitzvot d’Rabbanan (of Rabbinic decision).
Sefer Nashim (The Book of Women)
This book is consisting of five halachot, namely the Laws of Marriage, the Laws of Divorce, the Laws of Yibbum and Halitzah, the Laws concerning a non-married virgin, and the Laws concerning Sotah.
Though the title of the book connotes that it is about women, it is not only that, but more specific about sexual relation and the rules related to them. Hence there are laws concerning marriage and what is necessary for marriage, as well as the status of a “Sotah” (a whore), and how this subject is to be treated.
It consists of 17 Mitzvot, 9 of them positive, and 8 negative.
Sefer Qedushah (The Book of Holiness)
This book is consisting of three halachot, namely the laws concerning Forbidden Sexual Relations, the Laws concerning Forbidden Food, and the Laws of Ritual Slaughter.
The title of the book hints at how to be “Holy”, and hence focuses on subjects as (sexual) relations that are forbidden, and of which one should refrain from, as well as it is with the kind foods, that is also deemed “impure” and in such matter would be “unholy” to the Jew. It ends with the subject “Ritual Slaughter”, in order to make it possible for the Jew, to make sure that the kosher animal is slaughtered accordance to the Torah, and hence will be “sanctified”. It is also organized like this by Maimonides, since this is what G-D did to sanctify and separate the Jewish People from the other Nations, as he writes: “[I have grouped the two] (forbidden sexual relations and forbidden foods) [together] because it is in these two matters that G-D has sanctified us and separated us from the [other] nations.” (Introduction to Mishneh Torah, The Division of the Mitzvot According to the Halachot of the Mishneh Torah).
It consists of 70 Mitzvot, of which only 8 is positive, and 62 are negative, hinting that the subject of being Holy, is related to awe of G-D.
Sefer Hafla’ah (The Book of Utterances)
This book is consisting of four halachot, namely the Laws concerning Oaths, the Laws concerning Vows, the Laws of the Nazarite, and the Laws concerning Endowment Evaluations and Devotion Offerings.
This book is concerned on the oaths, vows, Nazarite commitments, and donations and devotions, for example not to swear in the Name of G-D falsely, when making an oath, to fulfill one’s vow, live up to the conditions for taking the Nazarite vow and what they are, as well as the rules for deeming an endowment value, as well as the rules concerning the devotion offering.
It consists of 25 Mitzvot, 10 positive and 15 negative.
Sefer Zera’im (The Book of Agriculture)
This book is consisting of seven halachot, namely the Laws concerning the Mixing of Forbidden Species, the Laws concerning the Gifts to be Given to the Poor, the Laws concerning T’rumah, the Laws of Tithes, the Laws concerning the Second Tithe and the Produce of the Fourth Year, the Laws concerning the First Fruits, and the Laws of the Seventh and the Jubilee Year.
As the title of the book reveals, the subject is agriculture, or – as the Hebrew title says – “seeds”. Hence Maimonides here teaches about which species are forbidden, that we are not to mix the species, how to contribute to the poor from the fields, and the rules for tithes, and the Sabbatical seventh year, where the fields has to “rest”.
It consists of 67 Mitzvot, 30 of them positive and 37 negative.
Sefer ‘Avodah (The Book of the Temple Service)
This book is consisting of nine halachot, namely the Laws concerning of the “Chosen House” (the Temple), the Laws concerning utensils used in the Temple and the people using them, the Laws concerning the entrance to the Temple, the Laws concerning animals that are forbidden for offerings on the Altar, Laws concerning the procedures of the Offerings, the Laws concerning the Daily and the Special Offerings, the Laws concerning Offerings that are no longer accepted, the Laws concerning the Yom Kippur Service, and the Laws concerning the misuse of Sacred Property.
The title of the book, Sefer ‘Avodah, reveals that the subject is Temple Service, and anything related to it. The term, ‘avodah, which can be translated to “work”, is considered to be understood as “work devoted to G-D” in contrast to the word po’el, which is “normal” work. So even though la’avod and ‘avodah can relate to the work of workers or slaves, here it is meant to signify “holy labor”, mainly done by the Kohanim or the Levi’im.
It consists of 103 Mitzvot, 47 of them positive and 56 negative.
Sefer Qorbanot (The Book of Sacrifices)
This book is consisting of six halachot, namely the Laws concerning the Pessah offering, the Laws concerning the Festive Offerings, the Laws concerning the Firstling Animal, the Laws concerning the Atonement Offerings for Unintended Transgression, the Laws of the Offerings of those whose Process of Atonement is incomplete, and the Laws of Substitute Offerings.
From the halachot in this book, it is clearly a book that is concerned with Sacrifices and Offerings, which the title of the book also claims. Hence we here read about almost all the rules and relations that evolves the Sacrifices, though some are found too in other books of the Mishneh Torah.
It consists of 39 Mitzvot, 20 of them positive and 19 negative.
Sefer Tohorah (The Book of Ritual Impurity)
This book is consisting of eight halachot, namely the Laws concerning Ritual Impurity caused by contact with a Human Corpse, the Laws concerning the Red Heifer (and the Purification Process it is involved in), the Laws concerning Ritual Impurity caused by Leprosy, the Laws concerning Ritual Impurity causing the places of dwelling (both sitting and laying) to be Impure, the Laws concerning other Sources of Ritual Impurity, the Laws concerning Ritual Impurity caused by certain Food, the Laws of Ritual Impurity caused by contact with Impure Vessels, and the Laws concerning Mikvaot (the Ritual Cleaning Baths).
As revealed, the theme of this book is Ritual Impurity, what causes it, and how to relate to it. Hence we read about all the circumstances and contacts, that will lead to Ritual Impurity, as contact with a human corpse. We read about how to relate to Ritual Impurity, as in the case of the leper, who is commanded to make his state known. And we read about how to clean ourselves of the Ritual Impurity, as in the case of immersing in a Mikveh (a Ritual Cleaning Bath).
It consists of 20 Mitzvot, 18 of them positive and two negative.
Sefer Neziqin (The Book of Damages)
This book is consisting of five halachot, namely the Laws concerning Damage to Property, the Laws concerning Theft, the Laws concerning Robbery and returning Lost Objects, the Laws of Personal Injury and Damages caused by direct human action, and the Laws concerning Murder and Protection of Life.
The title of the book reveals that it is focused on the subject of damages, but damages here are understood in a wider sense, not only on things that are damaged or destroyed, but also things that are lost, stolen or robbery, and even with more severe cases, as for example injuries on humans as well as murder, and how we are supposed to relate to these cases. Hence we can read about how to relate to the grazing of animals. We can read that we are forbidden to steal and the laws concerning the punishment of a thief. We can read that we are not allowed to desire the belongings of another man, and that we are not allowed to ignore a lost object seen on the road. We can read about the laws concerning a murder, that he is not to be killed without a trial, that the pursuer [of a man fleeing to one of the cities set of for refuge] should be stopped, and that we are not to show him mercy. And we can read about how we are commanded to guard life, for example by setting up a guard rail on our roofs.
It consists of 36 Mitzvot, of them 16 positive and 20 negative.
Sefer Qinyan (The Book of Acquisition)
This book is consisting of five halachot, namely the Laws Governing Sales, the concerning the Governing the Acquisition of Property and Gifts, the Laws concerning the Relations with Neighbors, the Laws concerning Agents and Partners, and the Laws concerning Slaves.
This is a book, whose theme is the rules and circumstances regarding acquisition things and objects. Hence we can read about the rules of sales and purchases. We can read about the circumstances and rules concerning the relation between neighbors, agents and partners. And we can read about the circumstances of slaves and how to tread them.
It consists of 18 Mitzvot, six of them being positive and 12 of them negative.
Sefer Mishpatim (The Book of Judgments)
This book is consisting of five halachot, namely the Laws concerning the Relations between the Employer and the Employee, the Laws concerning Borrowed or Entrusted Objects, the Laws concerning Lenders and Borrowers, the Laws concerning Disputes between Plaintiffs and Defendants, and the Laws concerning Inheritances.
The title is somehow misleading, since the theme of the book is more concerned with the relations between people who own something to others, and how to protect the weaker part in these relations. Hence it is still a book of judgments, but more about relations than judgment. Hence we can read about the rules concerning a hired worker or a paid watchman, and that we have to pay them their wage when it is due time for it. We can read the rules concerning an unpaid watchman. We can read that we are commanded to lend a poor and unfortunate person money, and not to demand repayment of his dept, and the rules of about this relation. And we can read about the claims and how to deal with them, whether the defendant admits to them or denies them.
It consists of 23 Mitzvot, of them 11 being positive and 12 negative.
Sefer Shoftim (The Book of Judges)
This book is consisting of five halachot, namely the Laws concerning the Courts and the Punishments they have Jurisdiction over, the Laws concerning Witnesses, the Laws concerning the Rebellious Ones, the Laws concerning Mourning, and the Laws concerning the Kings and their Wars.
Being the last book in the Mishneh Torah, this book is focused on the Laws of governing and regulating the society. Hence we can read about the rules concerning the appointment of judges, how to appointment and who to appoint/not to appoint. We can read about the rules concerning their work and jurisdiction. We can read about the rules concerning witnesses, who can be a witness, and how to treat them. We can read about the rules concerning the “rebellious ones”, how to relate to them, how to “spot” them, that we are to honor our parents and not to rebel against them. We can read about the rules concerning for who to mourn and how to mourn. And we can read about the rules concerning whether to appoint a king [over Israel], who are and who are not allowed to be appointed as kings. And we can read about the rules that are related to the wars of the kings, which wars that are obligated, which are volunteering, and the circumstances and rules relating to these wars.
It consists of 74 Mitzvot, of them 27 are positive and 47 negative.