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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As has been seen, the codification of Jewish law involves a fundamental problem: Can the Jewish legal system, which is, by its very nature, a continuous chain of tradition harking back to the Torah, tolerate a code containing only a definitive and categorical statement of each law, with no citation of differing opinions and without source references?

Maimonides' New Genre

The codificatory literature reviewed to this point has shown that until the time of Maimonides no work had been written that briefly set forth the laws without stating the names of those by whom the laws were transmitted or the talmudic sources of the laws.

In Maimonides' view, this tended to make it more difficult to arrive at a legal conclusion and made the existing codes difficult to understand and of limited utility. He therefore created a new genre of codificatory literature--a systematic halakhic work presenting legal rules categorically in prescriptive form, with no reference to sources or contrary opinions. Maimonides explained his method and motives:

"I decided to put together the results obtained from all those [previous] works, as to what is forbidden or permitted, [ritually] pure or impure, together with the other laws of the Torah, all in plain and concise language. Thus, the entire Oral Law, systematically arranged, will become familiar to all, without citing arguments and counterarguments -- one person saying one thing and another something else.

Rather, [the law will be stated] clearly, pointedly, and accurately, in accordance with the conclusions drawn from all these compilations and commentaries that have appeared since the time of Moses to the present, so that all the laws, whether [biblical] precepts or enactments adopted by the sages and prophets, will be accessible to old and young alike."

Opposition to Maimonides' Method

Maimonides' code was faithful to this approach, nearly always stating the law categorically, prescriptively, and without reference to contrary opinions. The only exceptions are the more than 120 halakhot which Maimonides himself added on his own (indicated by such expressions as: "It appears to me," "I say," "It seems likely to me") and about fifty halakhot where he determined the law himself on the basis of his review of the opinions of the geonim and rishonim who preceded him. Only in these instances does the Mishneh Torah give any indication as to the sources of the law and the method by which it was determined.

This was the most revolutionary aspect of Maimonides' code, and it aroused the strongest opposition. Rabad, who was among Maimonides' severest critics, rendered the following assessment:

"Abraham [Rabad] says: He [Maimonides] sought to improve but he did not improve, for he has forsaken the method of all authors who preceded him; they adduced proof and cited the authority for their statements. . . This is simply overweening pride in him."

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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.