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24 Teves 5765 - January 5, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
"Shilton Hamma'aseh": The Teachings of the Rambam

by Yated Ne'eman Staff

Part I

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 Judaism.

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 Scripture passage.

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 closer.

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 means.

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.

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