Forbes and Fifth

Maimonides' Influence on Modern Judaic Thought and Practice


Moses Maimonides, renowned Rabbi, physician, and philosopher, profoundly impacted modern Judaism. The common aphorism, “From Moses to Moses there was none like Moses”, even associates Maimonides with the revered Judaic prophet. Like many other great thinkers, Maimonides (also known as Rambam) made contributions to medicine, philosophy, and Judaism—but perhaps his true legacy lies in his systematization of Judaism that provided an entry point to the more uniform modern Judaic practices. Maimonides wrote at a time when Judaic law (essentially a guide for Jewish life) was dispersed throughout various holy texts, commentaries, and responses. Even though Judaism emphasized praxis over belief, the haphazard organization of Jewish law made it difficult for a common person who was untrained in Jewish texts to interact with the rules to which they were meant to adhere. As one of the first systematizers of Jewish law, Maimonides brought Jewish law to the people primarily by creating the thirteen articles of faith and compounding significant Jewish texts into one book: the Mishneh Torah, or The Repetition of the Torah.

One of Maimonides’ earliest works is his Commentary on the Mishnah, said to have been finished in 1168.i In this seminal contribution to the Jewish canon, Maimonides introduces the tenth chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin with the section, Pereq Heleq, and presents his thirteen articles of faith:ii 1) The existence of the creator; 2) God’s oneness; 3) God’s incorporeality; 4) God’s eternity; 5) God alone is to be worshipped; 6) Prophecy; 7) Prophecy of Moses; 8) Divinity of the Torah; 9) Immutability of the Torah; 10) God’s omniscience; 11) God rewards those who follow the Law and punishes those who do not; 12) The coming of the Messiah; 13) Resurrection.iii

Maimonides devised these principles at a time when Jewish scholars resisted theological dogma, decreeing “that deeds, not creed, were the things for which a person enjoyed the fruits of this world”.iv The issue of doctrine proved to be a difficult problem for Maimonides’ contemporaries. Judaism is a faith rooted in interpretation and debate. If the answers were already elucidated by Maimonides’ thirteen principles, would anyone debate? Would anyone study the sacred texts? What would become of Judaism? These were the anxieties that Maimonides’ peers faced. Yet Maimonides realized that most people did not have the luxury of being able to study or debate the sacred texts; he identified a need among the Jewish people for a set of beliefs that they could live by. For this reason, he strived to clarify the tenets of Jewish faith—especially for those who were solely reliant upon Rabbis for religious interpretation.v 

The thirteen principles of faith were so admired that they were transformed into hymns, Ani Ma’Amin (I believe) and Yigdal (O Loving God), both of which are performed in regular synagogue One of the most commonly used siddurim (prayer books) in orthodox synagogues, The Complete Artscroll Siddur, repeats the thirteen principles every weekday morning after Shacharis; each principle is preceded by the phrase “Ani ma'amin 
b'emuna shelema,” or “I believe with complete faith”.vii Another version Ani Ma’amin was composed by Rabbi Azriel David Fastag during the Holocaustviii and is frequently sung on Yom Ha’Shoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. Inspired also by Maimonides’ thirteen principles is Yigdal, which is included in the daily morning prayers that are to be recited when entering synagogue.ix The short poem translates as follows: “Exalted be the Living God and praised / He exists—unbounded by time is His existence. / He is One—and there is no unity like His Oneness. / Inscrutable and infinite is His Oneness”.x The poetic variations of the thirteen principles are crucial to Jewish worship—especially within Orthodox Judaism.

Although the denomination is widely diverse, many Orthodox Jews hold Maimonides’ thirteen principles in particular esteem. For these individuals, the thirteen principles are synonymous with Judaism; they believe that one cannot be Jewish if one does not uphold these tenets. Even more extreme, some believe that any doubt whatsoever bars them from heaven.xi Of course, this position is contested and the debate surrounding Jewish dogma is a significant aspect of Maimonides’ influence. In his Commentary on the Mishnah, Maimonides famously asserts that anyone who doubts the thirteen tenets is a heretic; however, Rabbis Hasdai Crescas, Hayim Hischensohn, Abraham Isaac Kook, and Norman Lamm, among others, disagreed and said that doubt can be natural or unintentional.xii

In spite of this tension, Maimonides’ thirteen principles prevailed and became doctrine for many Orthodox Jews. Scholars postulate that this is due to the principles’ multiplicity, unambiguity, and clear Biblical foundation. Regarding multiplicity, Marc B. Shapiro states:

Had Maimonides never drawn up his Principles, issues of Jewish belief in the popular mind would have developed very differently. In fact, the widespread acceptance of Maimonides’ creed is not so much a function of scholarly approval but rather of popular acceptance…because popular piety prefers more dogmatic statements rather than fewerxiii

The swift adoption of Maimonides’ principles was therefore augmented by popular culture. Islam and Christianity’s belief in doctrine was especially strong by the time Maimonides wrote the principles,xiv and Jews were motivated to embrace their own dogma to “fit in” or prove their religion’s validity. As a perpetual minority, defense of their own beliefs or assimilation into others’ was sociologically, psychologically, and intellectually crucial. Moreover, Maimonides’ principles were easily comprehended, allowing the common people to devote themselves entirely to a “true” Judaism, though they did not study the texts themselves. Some also believe that each of the principles is grounded in obvious and direct evidence from the Torah and easily digestible for the masses. Rabbi Simeon ben Zemah Duran “maintains that Maimonides chose his thirteen principles because they were all explicitly taught by biblical verses and not because they are the thirteen most important principles of Judaism”.xv Thus, Duran implicitly differentiates Maimonides’ summation of Jewish themes versus Jewish criteria of goodness.

Again, it is important to emphasize that this is just one perspective. Maimonides is not a monolith and many Rabbis disagree with the tenants—particularly God’s incorporeality, or formlessness.xvi (His understanding of God was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy—a topic that will be discussed later.) After all, the Torah is filled with anthropomorphizations of God such as, “I HaShem thy G-d am a jealous G-d”,xvii “And G-d created man in His own image”,xviii and “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm”.xix  Meir Bar-Ilan even states that “in the first centuries Jews in the Land of Israel and in Babylon believed in an anthropomorphic God”.xx To Maimonides, however, incorporeality was logically necessary. For God to be one and eternal (his first and second principle, respectively), God could not have had physical form.xxi Seeing that Jews today no longer believe in an anthropomorphic God, Maimonides’ account of incorporeality has certainly made an impact on modern Judaic interpretation of God’s physicality.

Another transformative element of Maimonides’ legacy is his Mishneh Torah, or Repetition of the Torah, written during 1168 to 1177.xxii As a compilation and analysis of Jewish laws from the Torah, Oral Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud, Maimonides endeavored to systematize and simplify Jewish thought. This was not a straightforward task as the laws were entirely—and intentionally—disorganized. Scholar Ruth Birnbaum writes:

Up until this period, the laws of the rabbis had not been arranged in a systematic topical format for several reasons: 1. The laws are scattered throughout different parts of the Talmud; 2. The Talmud is written as an account of discussions appropriately called “the sea” of the Talmud in its successive association of ideas and arguments; 3. The Talmud contains the conflicting opinions of the Sagesxxiii

While it seems inconceivable to us that a religion existed without a compendium of important regulations, this circumstance was encouraged—indeed, designed by Rabbis who valued the study of holy texts above all else.xxiv If an abridged version of the sacred Jewish texts were available, who would study the Torah? This fear instigated much criticism of Maimonides and his work.

But again, Maimonides prevailed, inspiring a wave of writings on halakha (Jewish law) and providing a basis for Orthodox Judaism; specifically, Maimonides’ identification of the 613 mitzvot (commandments or laws) is highly integrated with orthodox practice. Menachem Marc Kellner contends, “This idea that the Torah contained exactly 613 commandments became widely accepted in the Jewish tradition and gave rise to a whole genre of literature dedicated to identifying and enumerating the 613 commandments”.xxv The 613 mitzvot are organized into fourteen sections based on their purpose: The Book of Knowledge, The Book of Love, The Book of the Seasons, The Book of Women, The Book of Holiness, The Book of Utterances, The Book of Agricultural Laws, The Book of the Temple and its Service, The Book of Sacrifices, The Book of Ritual Purity, The Book of Damages, The Book of Acquisition of Property, The Book of Judgments, and The Book of Judges.xxvi Within each of these categories, Maimonides further classifies the mitzvot as scriptural or rabbinic, negative or positive, and between people, or between an individual and God.xxvii For example, within The Book of Knowledge, there are five halakhot: The Laws of Foundations of the Torah, The Laws of Personal Development, The Laws of Torah Study, The Laws of Idolatry, and The Laws of Repentance.xxviii Within The Laws of Foundations of the Torah, Maimonides describes six positive commandments and four negative ones. An example of a positive commandment is the sixth, which states that one must sanctify God’s name; whereas an example of a negative commandment, the seventh, states that one must not desecrate God’s name.xxix This thorough codification and analysis of Jewish law was the first of its Debates, enumerations, and studies of halakha have since escalated and now incorporate a large portion of Orthodox tradition and practice.xxxi

Maimonides’ ladder of charity is one such feat of the Mishneh Torah that is commonly observed today. In the Mishneh Torah’s Book of Agricultural Laws, Maimonides details “eight rungs in the ladder of charity”,xxxii all of which have been adopted into Jewish culture. A tzedakah box (anonymous donation box), which is often found at synagogues or neighborhood businesses, is frequently in the shape of an eight-tiered pyramid, thereby mimicking Maimonides’ eight-tiered ladder of charity.

The success of the Mishneh Torah is underwritten by Maimonides’ intentions. Namely, he aspired to deliver the difficult, extensive body of Jewish texts to the masses in one painlessly intelligible book. This was crucial for the widespread understanding of Judaism because the common, uneducated person did not have spare time to study the considerable amount of sacred texts, much less understand Biblical Hebrew.xxxiii Consequently, Maimonides decided to write the Mishneh Torah in the overwhelmingly accessible Hebrew. This, in turn, “created a style of elegant Hebrew that serves even today”.xxxiv  Birnbaum writes, “Maimonides wanted those Jews who were not learned in the Talmud to have a clear and open code and not be dependent on the judges”.xxxv Unsurprisingly, the Mishneh Torah amassed a global following within Maimonides’ lifetime.xxxvi

Intentionally or otherwise, Maimonides imbued his Mishneh Torah with many of his own opinions—an action that garnered much criticism. Whereas law was famously debated among Rabbis and scholars, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah presented singular viewpoints, unopposed, and therefore asserted himself as the arbiter of the laws.xxxvii Meanwhile, he incorporated many philosophical viewpoints from sources like Aristotle and Plato; for example, Maimonides refers to God as the “first being”—a distinctly Greek sentiment. In Rabbi Marc D. Angel’s commentary of The Book of Knowledge from the Mishneh Torah, he observes that “Maimonides’s description of God as the ‘First Being who brings into being all that exists’ sounds very much like the God of the philosophers, that is, a Prime Mover who is not necessarily concerned with the ongoing operations of the world”.xxxviii Indeed, Maimonides instills many of his philosophically based beliefs into his Mishneh Torah and thereby begins a Jewish tradition of harmonizing religion with reason.xxxix While discussing The Book of Knowledge, scholar Joel L. Kraemer describes the passage’s eminence in such a way that not only applies to this passage, but perfectly captures Maimonides’ significance as a whole: “It is hard to find words to describe how innovative and radical his beginning is. It transforms Judaism from a religion rooted in history, in great events, to a religion implanted in nature and knowledge of the existent beings, God’s work rather than God’s words”.xl By harmonizing Judaism with reason, Maimonides set a new precedent in Judaism wherein the focus was in existence and not just exegesis.

Even before compiling the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides knew it would be met with harsh criticism. However, Maimonides writes, “In the time to come, when envy and ambition disappear, all Israelites will be satisfied with it alone”.xli In the words of Birnbaum, this is “a rather audacious claim”,xlii especially given that this was the first compendium of its kind. Yet Maimonides was undeniably correct; his works have transformed modern Judaism in ways that no other scholar has done. His thirteen articles of faith are recited or contemplated daily by the orthodox and held as the foremost account of Jewish belief. Furthermore, his Mishneh Torah instigated the entire project of halakha—and accordingly Orthodox practices—and inspired others to integrate philosophy with religion. And although he was certainly contested, he has stood the test of time. And so the aphorism stands undisturbed: “From Moses to Moses there was none like Moses.”


Angel, Marc, and Moses Maimonides. Maimonides' Essential Teachings on Jewish Faith and Ethics: The Book of Knowledge and the Thirteen Principles of Faith: Selections Annotated and Explained. Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Pub., 2011. Print.

Birnbaum, Ruth. "Maimonides, Then and Now." Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought 54.1-2 (2005): 66. Academic OneFile. Web. 19 Dec. 2015.

Dorfman, Yitzchak. "Ani Ma'amin." Chabad. Chabad-Lubavitch, n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2015.

Kellner, Menachem Marc. "Introduction." Introduction. Principles of Faith (Rosh Amanah). By Isaac Abravanel. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickenson UP, 1982. 17-50. Print.

Maimonides, Moses. Mishneh Torah. Trans. Eliyahu Tougar. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Chabad. Chabad-Lubavitch. Web. 19 Dec. 2015.

Scherman, Nosson, and Meir Zlotowitz. The Complete ArtScroll Siddur: Weekday/Sabbath/festival: A New Translation and Anthologized Commentary. 1st ed. Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1985. Print.

Seeskin, Kenneth. "Maimonides." Stanford University. Stanford University, 24 Jan. 2006. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Shapiro, Marc B. The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004. Print.

Shapiro, Marc B. "Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles: The Last Word in Jewish Theology." The Torah U-Madda Journal 4 (1993): 187-242. Web.

Tanakh. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1917. The Tanakh. Jewish Virtual Library. Web. 19 Dec. 2015.


i Seeskin “Life and Works”.

ii Kraemer, 171.

iii Kraemer, 179.

iv Birnbaum, 67.

v Kraemer, 178.

vi Shapiro, The Limits, 3.

vii Scherman, 97.

viii Dorfman.

ix Scherman, 14.

x Ibid, 15.

xi Shapiro, The Limits, 2

xii Ibid, 10.

xiii Ibid, 14.

xiv Kraemer, 176.

xv Kellner, 37.

xvi Shapiro, The Limits, 47.

xvii Tanakh Ex. 20:5.

xviii Tanakh Gen. 1:27.

xix Tanakh Ex. 6:6.

xx Shapiro, The Limits, 50.

xxi Shapiro, “Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles”, 7.

xxii Kraemer, 316.

xxiii Birnbaum, “Maimonides, Then and Now”, 69.

xxiv Kraemer, 325.

xxv Kellner, 42.

xxvi Maimonides, “Listing of Mitzvot”.

xxvii Kraemer, 317.

xxviii Angel, xvi.

xxix Maimonides, “Listing of Mitzvot”.

xxx Angel, xiv.

xxxi Angel, xvii; Kraemer, 317.

xxxii Kraemer, 347.

xxxiii Kraemer 318.

xxxiv Ibid.

xxxv Birnbaum, 70.

xxxvi Kraemer, 325

xxxvii Angel, xiv.

xxxviii Angel, 2.

xxxix Kraemer, 18.

xl Kraemer, 326.

xli Kraemer, 322.

xlii Birnbaum, 70.

previous | art gallery

Volume 10, Spring 2017