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In size and scope, as well as organization and literary style, Moses Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah ranks among the greatest and most innovative Jewish legal texts of all time. In its own day, the Mishneh Torah was ground-breaking for its novel system of codifying halakhah (Jewish law), and in the more than 800 years since its composition, the Mishneh Torah remains matchless in its lucidity and breadth.
Moses ben Maimon (1135–1204)–physician, philosopher, rabbinic authority–was a towering figure in the world of Jewish scholarship even before he composed his halakhic masterpiece.
As a young man, he wrote a commentary on the Mishnah, commentaries on several tractates of the Babylonian Talmud, and another composition (most of which has been lost) focusing on the legal elements of the Jerusalem Talmud. Later in life, he wrote his philosophical classic, the Guide for the Perplexed. Yet the Mishneh Torah was the work Maimonides himself deemed his magnum opus (“Hibbur Ha-Gadol“). By his own account, Maimonides invested ten years of incessant drafting, revising, and editing in this tour de force, which was finally completed in 1180.
A Halakhic All-Inclusive
The Mishneh Torah (literally, “Review of the Torah”) was conceived as an all-inclusive halakhic compendium, a guide to the entire system of Jewish law. Maimonides was explicit about his reasons for undertaking an encyclopedic work of such magnitude. He noted that the trials and tribulations of life in the Diaspora had deprived scholars and laymen alike of the ability to understand and assimilate the vast talmudic literature and the essential rulings of the geonim (the leaders of Babylonian and North African Jewry); consequently, Jews were unable to discern or properly observe the law. In its comprehensive scope, its pragmatic style, and its systematic classification, the Mishneh Torah was designed to simplify the process of study and to make the law accessible to all.
The Mishneh Torah is introduced by Sefer Ha-Mitzvot (“Book of the Commandments”), which Maimonides actually wrote some years earlier, in preparation for drafting his code. In Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, Maimonides enumerates the traditional 613 mitzvot of the Torah, dividing them into positive and negative precepts, and elaborating upon the rationale behind his system of classification.
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