For a long time, the intellectual attackers of Judaism
argued that the essential parts of it are the ideas and
philosophy, while the legal codes are of lesser importance.
This essay is written against that view, showing the
importance of fulfilling the practical mitzvos of
The Rambam, who is commonly regarded as the great rationalist
among Jewish thinkers, made what many may regard as an
extraordinary statement at the conclusion of his Sefer
Hamitzvos: "There is no commandment in the Torah which
has not its reason and its purpose; but many of the reasons
underlying the Torah's statutes are deliberately beyond man's
understanding, so as to ensure that he will devote himself to
their fulfillment for their own sake, and will not spend the
time and thought needed for their observance on an inquiry
into their purpose and meaning . . . for in fulfilling the
statutes and observing the commandments, man finds his
highest enlightenment and his greatest rejoicing."
That an understanding of the meaning and significance of the
practical observance of Judaism should take second place to
their active performance, indeed that the performance of the
mitzvos is virtually an end in itself, may seem a surprising
view for Maimonides to take. Yet there need be nothing to
occasion surprise in this attitude of our greatest
philosopher and codifier, if we understand correctly the
character of Judaism as he had learned it from those who
preceded him, and if we examine aright the immense range of
his own writings.
Judaism was seen from the earliest of times to be a code of
conduct rather than just a mere creed or system of beliefs;
its basis is what we are required to do, and not merely what
we are required to believe. Those who study Maimonides' works
— halachic, moral and philosophic alike —
find him affirming and reiterating this view, and see him not
as the teacher of the "supremacy of reason," as he has been
described by some, but as the master exponent of the
"supremacy of action."
For him, as for all the classic teachers of Orthodox Judaism
who went before him or who have come since, the active
performance of the commandments — even those precepts
whose purpose and meaning lie outside human comprehension
— takes primary place as representing the will of G-d.
Their interpretation, if such came within his understanding,
was a secondary matter.
Let Maimonides speak for himself (Yad: Me'ilah 8:8;
and see Guide 3:26) : "It is fitting that man should
understand the laws of our sacred Torah and should know their
underlying purpose, so far as his faculties permit; but if
there should be any commandment whose meaning and
significance he cannot fathom, he should not dismiss it
lightly as he would a secular matter . . . There are
`judgments' (mishpotim) and `statutes' (chukim)
commanded in the Torah; the former are those whose reason and
purpose are revealed and known to us, such as laws concerning
theft, murder, honor of parents and the like: the latter
— the `statutes' — are laws whose meaning and
purpose are concealed form us, such as the dietary laws,
sha'atnez, and so on.
"On the verse (Vayikra 19:37), `And you shall observe
all My statutes and all My judgments, and do them,' the
rabbis comment that both types of command are equal in the
duty they impose on us of `observing' and `doing,' and stress
that we may not criticize, disparage, or belittle those
precepts which it is not given to us to understand. The
Psalmist grieved when detractors mocked at these laws, but
the more they mocked and the more difficult he found it to
offer them rational explanations, the more did he cleave to
the statutes, as he says (Tehillim 119:69): `When the
proud forge a lie against me, then with my whole heart I keep
Your precepts,'" Maimonides underlines his view by calling
attention to the mention of statutes before judgments in the
Throughout his writings, Maimonides repeats this cardinal
principle of the importance of fulfilling the commandments
before even understanding them. Moreover, this must always be
the attitude of the Jew in all ages and in all circumstances.
For the Torah, he reminds us, is immutable and its precepts
transcend time and environment. Thus he remarks, in the
introduction to Sefer Hamitzvos, that the 613 precepts
in the Torah are deliberately divided into 365 prohibitions
to correspond with the days of the year, and 248 positive
precepts to correspond with the limbs and organs of man. This
is designed to teach, he tells us, that all of them remain
binding at all times (for the year will always be of the same
length) and in all man's circumstances — for man's
physical structure will always be as we now know it. And, he
adds, it should be noted that the total includes precepts for
which he finds no rational basis.
These are not the words or thoughts of the rationalist, but
the professions of an intense believer in Judaism as a
religion of conduct and action. Shilton Hamma'aseh,
the dominion of action, is the cry of this greatest
philosopher of Judaism.
If we have this (and much further) evidence of Maimonides'
theoretical views, we have in his writings no less abundant
testimony to his practical application of them. For example,
in a letter to R. Pinchas ben Meshullam, he speaks of himself
as performing the smallest of the customs as well as the
major laws that have been handed down to him, and he says
that he does so because they represent for him the way
revealed by G-d as leading to man's knowledge of his Maker's
will and realization of it. Elsewhere (Yad:
Taanis 9) he records that even so slight a usage as
the kind of food he would eat before fasting received his
meticulous attention, for the practices of Judaism, of which
this is one, must be his constant concern.
Thus we see in Maimonides an outstanding expression of the
fundamental conception that in Judaism the primary system of
religious life is the practical implementation of the mitzvos
— the halochoh.
It is difficult to resist the conclusion that our
forefathers, gathered about Sinai, had a prophetic or
intuitive understanding of this truth which was to guide and
direct the standards and thoughts of their descendants. For
when they made their historic declaration under the impact of
Revelation (Shemos 24:7), "All that the Lord has said
we will do and we will hearken," they gave their undertaking
— "to do" first, "to hearken" second — in an
order which has remained the same to Orthodox Jews ever
since. They touched the very foundations of Torah —
true Judaism: that "doing" leads to "hearkening," that the
active practical performance of the mitzvos is the one path
that leads inevitably to the submission of man's will to that
of G-d; that in proportion as man actively serves his Maker,
his intellectual and emotional contact with Him grows
This profound thought is surely inherent in the verse
(Vayikra 18:5), "You shall keep My statutes and My
judgments which if a man do them, he shall live by them"
— by "doing," that is by actively fulfilling the
mitzvos, man reaches life's highest potential. He then lives
in their spirit, and in nearness to the G-d who commanded
them. And when this service of G-d through the mitzvos
ma'asios is constant and continuous, it brings the Jew to
a knowledge of the nature of G-d and His attributes, which no
theological study can give, and bestows upon him a
spirituality which can never be achieved through any other
To quote Maimonides again (Yad: Hilchos Dei'os 1:7),
"How shall a man conduct himself so that the ideals of his
faith become firmly established within him? He must
repeatedly perform those actions which are required of him by
his faith: he must return to them constantly, until their
performance comes easily to him and is never burdensome
— by such means are the ideals of his faith implanted
in his soul."
Not the least imperative of the mitzvos is the study of the
Torah itself, the inquiry — constant and unwearying
— into its meaning and the nature and teachings of its
precepts; but this very study is directed towards the
practical fulfillment of mitzvos; in the expressive words of
the Rabbis: "Study is great for it leads to action."
The primacy of actions in Judaism — affirmed by our
fathers at Sinai, sung by the Psalmist in Temple times,
expounded by the rabbis in every generation since —
must remain today the keynote to the life of the Jew.
Koheles (12:13) puts it with forceful lucidity: "The
end of the matter, all having been heard: Fear G-d and keep
his commandments, for this is the whole of man."
End of Part I
The yahrtzeit of the Rambam is 20 Teves.