Introduction to the Work of Maimonides

Moses Maimonides’ (1138-1204) numerous writings in Arabic and Hebrew include legal treatises and opinions on Jewish religious Law, a text on logic, works exploring the connection between philosophy and Judaism, and medical treatises. He is best known for three monumental, nearly encyclopedic works, the Commentary on the Mishnah, the Mishneh Torah and the Guide of the Perplexed. From the standpoint of political philosophy, it is what Maimonides says or suggests about the relationship between the Law and philosophy that is especially significant.

Commentary on the Mishnah (1168)

Maimonides’ first major work sought to give a clear, accessible and practical explanation of Jewish Law as it is laid out in the Mishnah, the first and most authoritative systematization and reorganization of Jewish Law, probably completed around 200 CE. Maimonides’ explanations, written in the vernacular Arabic, were based largely on the interpretations and developments of the Mishnah found in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds and later writings. These works were not clearly organized, were linguistically challenging (much of the writing is in Aramaic), and spread out in numerous volumes that would have been difficult to access outside of a few major cities. In addition to traditional sources, Maimonides also drew on Plato and Aristotle in the Commentary. Beside the legal discussions, Maimonides included three major introductions in the Commentary. In the first, an introduction to the entire Mishnah, Maimonides argued for the authority of the oral tradition of Jewish Law and of its Rabbinic interpreters as well as for the necessity of exoteric writing. In the second introduction, the introduction to Pereq Ḥeleq (Tractate Sanhedrin, ch. x), Maimonides laid out his famous thirteen principles of faith as necessary beliefs for inclusion in the community of Israel. In his introduction to Tractate Aboth, Maimonides’ Eight Chapters, Maimonides gave an account of proper human conduct, drawing largely from Aristotle’s De Anima and Nicomachean Ethics.

Mishneh Torah (1177)

The Mishneh Torah is a 14-volume, comprehensive compendium of Jewish Law, giving authoritative legal guidance on virtually every aspect of the Law, e.g., the foundations of the Law, ethical qualities, marriage and divorce law, charity, torts, and messianic times. This compendium does not follow the order of the Mishnah, but was arranged to be easy to read and to facilitate memorization and answering specific legal questions. To this end, Maimonides developed a simple legal style of Hebrew, a style he considered accessible to Jews throughout the world. While the Mishneh Torah frequently cites Biblical sources, Maimonides did not cite the Mishnaic, Talmudic and later rabbinic sources he used, except collectively in a list of authorities in the introduction. Such omissions were a radical departure from all other previous Jewish legal works, but Maimonides says that he did this so that the compendium would lay out the law clearly and succinctly, such that anyone, even youths, could understand and implement it and would not need to turn to any other legal compilation, including the Mishnah and the Talmud.

The Mishneh Torah is also radically different from previous Jewish legal works in its inclusion of philosophical concepts. For example, Maimonides begins the compendium with an account of God’s existence and involvement in the world. This account follows from Aristotelian cosmology, as understood by Alfarabi and Avicenna. Overall, the Mishneh Torah depicts a world in which philosophy and the Law are in harmony and, indeed, where perfect adherence to the Law would require philosophical speculation. Indeed, Maimonides envisions the messianic period as one in which the natural order of the world is not altered, and political circumstances are favorable so that Israel can devote itself to the Law and its wisdom and attain an understanding of the Divine to the utmost of human capability.

Guide of the Perplexed (ca. 1191)

While the Mishneh Torah implies a harmony between philosophy and the Law, the Guide of the Perplexed emphasizes the difficulties in any such combination. The Guide presents the Law and philosophy as espousing two different, even contradictory standpoints. The perplexity induced by these two different understandings is Maimonides’ main subject in the Guide. Scholars disagree as to whether Maimonides guides his readers out of that perplexity by demonstrating the validity of one of the two points of view or only guides them within the perplexity toward a kind of equanimity in the face of the limitations of human knowledge. In the introduction, Maimonides asserts that the Guide approaches this perplexity in two ways. One is through interpretation of equivocal terms that appear in the Bible, where literal interpretation would contradict philosophical understanding. The other is through explaining Biblical parables that give rise to perplexity. Maimonides especially focuses on two such parables: Genesis 1, known in Talmudic literature as the Account of Creation, which he associates with natural science, and Ezekiel 1 (and forward, and also parts of Isaiah), known as the Account of the Chariot, which he associates with divine science or metaphysics. In fact, the scope of the Guide is quite broad and its structure loosely parallels that of Aristotle’s works as understood by the Muslim falasifa. Part I of the Guide corresponds somewhat to Aristotle’s logical organon; it is largely dedicated to giving Maimonides’ lexicon and analysis of terminology, along with rules of hermeneutics, as well as a refutation of the Islamic theologians (mutakallimun), whom Maimonides takes to be the Sophists of his day. Part II is Maimonides’ physical treatises, concerning among other things the formation of the world and the perfection of the human soul, corresponding loosely to Aristotle’s Physics, De Caelo, De Anima and Parva Naturalia. Part III of the Guide begins with Maimonides’ theology or metaphysics and then turns to human actions, i.e., ethics, in connection with the divine commandments. The final chapters of the Guide, possibly Maimonides’ political science, discuss the divine city and the ways and actions of the perfect human individual who is inter alia a kind of philosopher-statesman.

Other Works

In addition to his three major works, Maimonides wrote a large number of important short volumes, treatises, legal opinions (responsa) and letters, some of which are either not extant or have not been edited or translated into English. Noteworthy are Maimonides’ treatise on logic (ca. 1160s), his only book without any specifically Jewish content, his “Epistle to Yemen” (1172), urging all Yemenite Jews to take heart in defiance of forced conversions, not to assume that messianic times had arrived and not to follow a false messiah, his “Treatise on Resurrection” (1191), his “Letter on Astrology” (1194) and at least 11 medical works (in the 1190s). Maimonides’ medical writings demonstrate his masterful ability to bring order and simplicity to complex subjects, making the topics useful and accessible in relatively short volumes.

(We would like to thank Professor Yehuda Halper of Tulane University for the kind permission to print his introduction and biography.)

For further introductory readings, see also:

Ralph Lerner, “Maimonides,” in History of Political Philosophy, eds. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey Chicago: 1987.

Perspectives on Maimonides: Philosophical and Historical Studiesed. Joel L. Kraemer, Oxford: 1991.