Goals of the Mishneh Torah

In order to make his code categorical and prescriptive, Maimonides deliberately omitted sources and did not reference his predecessors.

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Reprinted with the author's permission from Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles (Jewish Publication Society).

It is hardly surprising that a man such as Maimonides, whose work superbly reflects systematic organization, would make clear, both to himself and to his readers, his motives and objectives in writing his masterpiece. He did so in detail in the Introduction to his Sefer ha-Mizvot [Book of the Commandments], in the Introduction to his Mishneh Torah, and in several responsa and epistles that he wrote to those who sought his guidance or took issue with him.

Maimonides set forth as the background and motivation for his work the familiar reasons that led in all periods to the writing of compendious but concise codes, namely, the vastness of the halakhic material, the difficulty of understanding the sources and of finding one's way in them, and the social and historical milieu:

"At the present time, when dire calamities keep following one another and the needs of the moment brush aside all things, our wise men have lost their wisdom, and the understanding of our astute people is hidden. Hence, the commentaries, the codes of law, and the responsa that were written by the geonim, who strove to make them easily intelligible, have presented difficulties in our days, so that only a few are capable of understanding them properly. Needless to say, this applies to the Talmud itself (the Babylonian as well as the Jerusalem), the Sifra, the Sifrei, and the Tosefta -- works that require wide knowledge, a learned mind, and ample time before one can discern from them the correct practice as to what is prohibited or permitted, and the other laws of the Torah.

Therefore, I, Moses ben Maimon, the Sephardi, bestirred myself and, relying upon the Creator, blessed be He, have made a thorough study of all these books, and have determined to compose a work containing the results derived from all these books concerning what is prohibited or permitted, unclean or clean, as well as the other laws of the Torah."

Similarity to all Legal Codes

One of the goals Maimonides hoped his code would achieve was to make "all the laws -- the rules of each and every commandment, and of all the enactments promulgated by the sages and prophets -- clear and manifest to young and old." This aspiration, of course, is similar to that of all codifiers of any legal system.

One Grand and Bold Claim

The background and purpose of the Mishneh Torah described to this point were not particularly novel; similar motives and aims had led to the composition of books of halakhot in earlier periods. The great innovation of Maimonides involved an additional revolutionary objective for the Mishneh Torah--a completely new approach as well as a novel form for setting forth the authoritative distillation of the halakhah. Maimonides, as usual, expressed this grand and bold objective clearly and without equivocation:

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Menachem Elon

Justice Menachem Elon has had a long and distinguished career as a legal scholar. He is a retired professor of Jewish Law at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a prolific author on Jewish Law. In 1977 Justice Elon was appointed to the Supreme Court of Israel and served as its Deputy President from 1988 until 1993. He lives in Jerusalem.