Maimonides in Oxford: A commentary on the Oxford Manuscript of the Mishneh Torah

Thursday, 22 September, 2011 - 1:35 pm


Maimonides in Oxford: A commentary on the Oxford Manuscript of the Mishneh Torah


The manuscript of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Ms Hunt. 80) in the Hebrew collection at the Bodleian library in Oxford is one of the most important Hebrew manuscripts in existence. In 1693 the Bodleian library purchased the collections of Dr Robert Huntington and Professor Edward Pococke, the Regius Professor of Hebrew, and among the books bought from Dr Robert Huntington is Maimonides' Mishneh Torah with the author's signature, attesting that the text had been corrected against his original, as he writes (fol. 165r) "corrected against my own book, I Moses, son of Rabbi Maymun of blessed memory".


This manuscript is supremely important both for historical reasons and for the accuracy of its text; it is treated with great reverence by scholarly readers. Huntington bought it while acting as chaplain to the English merchants in Aleppo. For this reason many leading Jewish scholars have sought out this manuscript as a reference to verify the authenticity of their versions.


Incidentally, a second Maimonides manuscript, this one in his own handwriting throughout, was among the 420 manuscripts bought from Professor Edward Pococke. It is the Commentary on the Mishnah, containing the tractates Nezikin and Kiddushin.




The manuscripts of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah originate from three regions, giving rise to the Yemenite, Ashkenazic and Sefardic versions. These three categories were used in their respective communities and are of various degrees of precision.


The Yemenite manuscripts are most authentic, as the Yemenites were known to be most meticulous in preserving the traditional texts of Maimonides. The problem however with the Yemenite manuscripts are that they are believed to be the older version of the Mishneh Torah written by Maimonides and superseded by corrections and changes made by Maimonides himself. They therefore do not reflect the final edition of the Mishneh Torah.


The Ashkenazic manuscripts were the ones used by the Germanic sages and communities. While this version reflects the later edition of Maimonides’ work, after he had edited it , they are known to have many inaccuracies. The Germanic sages had apparently taken the liberty to correct the manuscript based on their rationale where they thought changes were necessary. While their changes may be correct in reflecting the Halakhic decisions, their versions are considered less accurate.


The Sefardic manuscripts of the Mishneh Torah came from Spain, used by the Sefardic communities and are considered most accurate. These were the manuscripts that seemed to have arrived at the Bodleian library. They reflect the later edition of the Mishneh Torah with the changes made by Maimonides, unlike the Yemenite manuscripts, and they are more precisely copied from Maimonides’ original that the Ashkenazic manuscripts.


In addition, one of the Sefardic manuscripts found in the Bodleian library (Hunt. 80) appears to be authenticated by Maimonides himself. This particular manuscript does not contain the entire Mishneh Torah but the first two books of Mada and Ahava. The book of Mada includes the laws regarding belief in G-d, ethics, Torah study and repentance, and the book of Ahava includes laws concerning prayers, ritual objects, blessings and laws of circumcision. These combined contain some of the most basic aspects of Judaism relevant on a daily basis.


In this essay, we will examine the Oxford manuscript (Hunt. 80) of Mada and Ahava that Maimonides authenticated and compare it with other copies. We will aim to explore the significance of these differences and attempt to offer insight into a rationale behind them.




The topics that will be analysed include a variety of subjects and some will shed light on the fact that Maimonides may have had a rare edition of the Talmud that is not generally used today as his source for his Mishneh Torah. This may have allowed for the distinct wording that he had chosen in various places. Other idiosyncrasies of this manuscript compared to other manuscripts include missing key words, entire paragraphs and substitute letters with important implications regarding the meaning of the particular law.


An outline of the ideas discussed in this essay include the principle of incorporeality of G-d, relating to whether it’s possible to imply that G-d is awake or can one only not say that G-d wakes up, which would mean there is the concept of sleep concerning G-d. Other issues include astronomy, the definition of an apostate under duress when one is able to flee if so desired to avoid conversion; what constitutes a name of G-d that cannot be erased, whereby Maimonides’ Oxford manuscript includes a name that is generally not included in other editions; the criteria of a true prophet; authenticity of the prophecies of Moses; the ethics concerning purchasing a merchandise and not paying for it  immediately; the glaring omission in the Oxford manuscript of a minor being exempt from the study of Torah, and a few other variations.


Does G-d sleep?


An important subject in Maimonides’ works is the principle of the incorporeality of G-d. In Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed (Vol. 1 Ch. 26), he dedicates the first volume to this principle. His main point is that despite the fact that much of the Torah describes G-d in corporeal terms, as in ‘G-d hears the cries of the Israelites (Exodus 6:5)’ or ‘G-d smelled the pleasant aroma (Genesis 8:21)’, the Torah merely speaks of G-d in human language. It does not indicate that G-d has human senses or any kind of bodily form.


In the Mishneh Torah, Yesodei Hatorah (1:11), Maimonides clarifies this point. He writes, ‘Since it has been clarified that G-d does not have a body or corporeal form, it is also clear that none of the functions of the body are appropriate to Him; neither connection nor separation, neither place nor measure, neither ascent nor descent, neither right nor left, neither front nor back, neither standing nor sitting. He is not found within time, so that He would possess a beginning, an end or age. He does not change, for there is nothing that can cause Him to change. The concept of death is not applicable to Him, nor is that of life, within the context of physical life. The concept of foolishness is not applicable to Him, not is that of wisdom in terms of human wisdom. Neither sleep nor waking, neither anger nor laughter, neither joy nor sadness, neither silence nor speech in the human understanding of speech are appropriate terms with which to describe Him. Our sages declared: Above, there is no sitting or standing, separation or connection.’


This reading seems to follow the manuscripts that state that the concepts of sleep or waking are not applicable to G-d. The Hebrew word for waking, which implies the action of waking from being asleep, appears to be hakitzah with a Hebrew letter yud making the word sound hakitzah rather than hakatzah.


This word follows a similar word that can be found in Psalms (Ch. 17:15) ‘As for me, in righteousness I behold Your presence; I will be satisfied when I awake with Your likeness’. The Hebrew word for ‘when I awake’ is b’hakitz, similar to hakitzah.


This translation in Psalms of b’hakitz meaning ‘awaking’ is the opinion of 11th century Biblical commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki and others. They interpret this verse in Psalms to be saying that when the dead will wake up from their sleep they will be satisfied with G-d’s countenance, referring to the time of the resurrection of the dead. Accordingly, b’hakitz refers to the action of waking up from being asleep. Similarly, then, the word hakitzah can be understood in the same way, as awaking from being asleep.


Grammarian Ibn Ezra, however, explains this verse in Psalms differently. The verse is saying ‘I am satisfied from the delight of G-d not when G-d is revealed to a person in a dream but when He is awake’. Thus, according to Ibn Ezra, the word b’hakitz means ‘when awake’ rather than the action of awaking. Accordingly, one can explain that in the text of Maimonides, the word hakitzah can also mean the passive state of being awake rather than waking.


With this distinction, the Oxford manuscript (Ms Hunt. 80 fol. 35a) can be understood. The word it uses for the negation of G-d waking is Hakatzah, which means the action of waking from being asleep, as shown according to Ibn Ezra. What is the distinction between these two versions and why might the Oxford edition be more justified?


The manuscripts that negate G-d being awake in the passive sense in fact follow other descriptions by Maimonides also structured in the passive rather than active form. The word ‘sleep’ for example is in the passive form rather than the process of falling asleep, as are ‘standing’ and ‘sitting’. They refer to the position of standing and sitting rather than arising and sitting down.


It therefore would make sense that the term should be similarly ‘awake’, Hakitzah, according to Ibn Ezra, rather than as written in the Oxford manuscript ‘waking’, Hakatzah. Why then would the Oxford manuscript be justified?


The justification is that while theologically one cannot apply sitting or standing literally to G-d, the state of being awake may in fact be applied to G-d, even if not to the same form as one would apply it to human beings.


This will be similar to the term ‘wisdom’ and ‘life’ attributed to G-d. Maimonides does not say that one cannot describe G-d as ‘wise’ or ‘alive’, even though these are applied also to humans. For this reason, Maimonides qualifies these descriptions by adding the words ‘in terms of human wisdom or life’. In other words, wisdom and life do apply to G-d but in a different or loftier form, whatever form that might be.


Similarly, one can say, the state of being awake can also apply to G-d albeit not in the same form of being awake as by human beings. Perhaps for this reason, the Oxford manuscript is more justified in writing the active form of Hakatzah, as the action of awaking certainly cannot be applied to G-d in any form and needs to be negated. The idea of G-d being awake and conscious, however, will not be negated to the same degree.


Awake35a.JPGThe anthropomorphism of sleep


While in the literal sense, one cannot theologically say that G-d sleeps, we find that anthropomorphically one can use the terminology of sleep and awaking regarding G-d.


The Talmud (Megillah 15b) quotes the book of Esther, ‘On that night the sleep of the king was disturbed’ and interprets it to mean, according to Rabbi Tanhum that ‘the sleep of the King of the Universe (G-d) was disturbed’. This verse is in fact considered the turning point in the story of Haman and his plot to kill the Jews in the Persian Empire and marks the beginning of his downfall.


The idea of sleep in reference to G-d is further illustrated by the Talmudic teaching (Sotah 48a), ‘Rehabah said, The Levites used daily to stand upon the dais of the Temple in Jerusalem and exclaim, Awake, why do You sleep, O Lord? He said to them, Does, then, the All-Present sleep? Has it not been stated (Psalm 121): Behold, He that guards Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep! But so long as Israel abides in trouble the words ‘Awake, why do You sleep, O Lord?’ should be uttered.’


This however does not contradict the view of Maimonides above. The Talmud is referring to G-d as being in a state of sleep only in the sense that G-d allows Himself to appear unaware of suffering. It does not indicate any corporeal meaning of sleeping and awaking in a literal sense regarding G-d. 


Astronomy37bW.JPGAstronomy in Maimonides


In another place in the Oxford manuscript of Mishneh Torah an entire word appears missing. In Yesodei Hatorah (3:7) it discusses the nine heavenly spheres: the closest is the Hebrew word for moon, the second is the sphere that contains the planet Kochav, referring to Mercury, the third contains the planet Nogah, which refers to Venus, the fifth Ma’dim, referring to Mars, the sixth Tzedek, referring to Jupiter, the seventh Shabbtai, referring to Saturn, the eighth contains all the stars which are seen in the sky and the ninth sphere is the sphere which revolves each day from east to west and surrounds and encompasses everything.


Maimonides continues that the ninth sphere, which encompasses all the others, was divided by the Sages of the early generations into twelve sections, called Mazalot or constellations. They gave each of these sections a name based on the shapes that appeared to be formed by the stars below it in the eighth sphere, which correspond to it. These names of the Mazalot, based on the shape of the stars, include the lamb, ox, twins, crab, lion, virgin, scales, scorpion, bow, goat, bucket and fish.


Maimonides qualifies that these twelve forms corresponded to these divisions only at the time of the flood and then they were given these names. However, at present they have already moved slightly, because all the stars in the eighth sphere move, as the sun and the moon do. It is just that these stars move more slowly.


It would take any of these stars approximately seventy years to move the same distance which the sun and the moon move in one day.


The Oxford manuscript (fol. 37b) omits the words ‘and the moon’ in the last sentence. They are however present in almost all the other manuscripts and printed editions. What is the meaning of this omission and which might be the more correct version?


Maimonides follows the geocentric view of the universe accepted until Copernicus in the 16th century that the sun and the moon orbit the Earth. According to this view the sun circles the earth every 365 days constituting the solar year and the moon circles the earth every 29 and a half days constituting the lunar calendar. Thus, the speed that the sun circles the earth is different from the speed that the moon circles the earth.


This contradicts the text above that indicates that the sun and the moon rotate the earth at the same speed. This problem is indeed rectified in the Oxford manuscript where the words ‘and the moon’ are omitted.


It is interesting to note that this correction is complicated further according to Copernicus’ heliocentric view of the world that sees the sun at the centre of the universe. According to this view the sun does not rotate the Earth at all but rather the reverse. According to Einstein’s view of relativity in the 20th century, however, as mentioned in a lecture in Oxford by NASA Astrophysicist Dr. Jeremy Schnittman, modern science is inconclusive regarding this debate and either model is acceptable, though as a working model for calculations the heliocentric view is more accepted. This once again gives relevance to the discrepancy in the manuscripts and makes Maimonides’ Oxford version consequential.


Apostasy.JPGFleeing from apostasy


In the section of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, entitled Yesodei Hatorah relating to the laws of apostasy (5:4), the Oxford manuscript omits an entire paragraph. It relates to the concept of sanctification of G-d’s name when being forced to violate one’s belief.


Maimonides writes, Jews are commanded regarding the sanctification of G-d's great name, as Leviticus (22:32) states: "And I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel." Also, they are warned against desecrating His holy name, as the above verse states: "And they shall not desecrate My holy name."


What is implied? Should someone arise and force a Jewish person to violate one of the Divine commandments at the pain of death, he should violate the commandment rather than be killed, because Leviticus (18:5) states concerning the commandments, "which a man will perform and live by them." They were given so that one may live by them and not die because of them. If a person dies rather than transgress, he is held accountable for his life.


 The above applies with regard to all the commandments with the exception of the worship of other gods, forbidden sexual relations, and murder. With regard to these three cardinal sins, if one is ordered: "Transgress one of them or be killed," one should sacrifice his life rather than transgress.


Maimonides then discusses the phenomenon of forced conversion to another religion by the threat of death. This was something that Maimonides himself experienced and for which he was forced to flee Spain in 13th century. Although Maimonides fled he was fully aware that many chose not to due to the difficulties involved or were unable to due to infirmity and many converted to Islam.


Maimonides continues to address this sensitive subject in his Code. He first talks about those who are courageous and indeed sacrifice their lives for their faith and then addresses those who do not rise to this challenge and convert. The question arises: how does Judaism view these individuals or communities who convert and do not sacrifice their life?


Maimonides writes: “When anyone about whom it is said ’Sacrifice your life and do not transgress,’ sacrifices his life and does not transgress, he sanctifies G-d's name. If he does so in the presence of ten Jews, he sanctifies G-d's name in public, like Daniel, Chananiah, Mishael, Azariah, and Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues. These were slain by the wicked kingdom, above whom there is no higher level.’


Concerning them, Maimonides quotes Psalms (44:23), which states "For Your sake, we have been slain all day, we are viewed as sheep for the slaughter," and Psalms (50:5) which states: "Gather unto Me, My pious ones, those who have made a covenant with Me by slaughter."

Maimonides then addresses the question about those who do not rise to the challenge and either convert or murder under duress or commit a sexual transgression. He writes, “When anyone about whom it is said: ’Sacrifice your life and do not transgress,’ transgresses instead of sacrificing his life, he desecrates G-d's name. If he does so in the presence of ten Jews, he desecrates G-d's name in public, nullifies the fulfilment of the positive commandment of the sanctification of G-d's name, and violates the negative commandment against the desecration of G-d's name.”


Nevertheless, since he was forced to transgress, he is not punished by lashing, and, needless to say, is not executed by the court even if he was forced to slay a person.


The punishments of lashes and execution are administered only to one who transgresses voluntarily, when the transgression is observed by witnesses, and when a warning was given, as Leviticus (20:5) states concerning one who gives his children to the worship of Molech: "I will turn My face against that person." The oral tradition teaches that we can infer "that person" to exclude one who is forced to transgress, who transgresses inadvertently, or who transgresses because of an error. If, concerning the worship of false gods, which is the most serious of sins, a person who is forced to worship is not liable for excision - karet, nor, needless to say, execution by a court, how much more so does this principle apply regarding the other Divine commandments of the Torah. Similarly, regarding forbidden sexual relations, Deuteronomy (22:26) states: "Do not do anything to the maiden."


At the end of this discussion, in most of the versions of Maimonides, there is an enjoinder. The issue is concerning someone who is forced to convert, commit murder or have forbidden sexual relations but previously had the ability to flee and chose not to. How does Judaism view such a person? Does it constitute a voluntary transgression of a cardinal sin or forced violation?


In most of the editions of Maimonides this question is addressed as follows. It states, ‘One who could, however, escape and flee from under the power of a wicked king and fails to do so is like a dog who returns to lick his vomit. He is considered as one who worships false gods willingly. He will be prevented from reaching the world to come and will descend to the lowest levels of Gehinnom.’


In the Oxford manuscript of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (fol. 40b), as well as the Berlin manuscript, however, this final section about when a person has the potential to flee but chooses not to is completely omitted. The reason for this omission is not clear. Also, which version is more likely to be correct?


It is certain that Maimonides does not argue with this point itself. This very point is made in Maimonides’ Epistle of Apostasy known in Hebrew as Igeret Ha’shmad. He writes that while he defends Spanish Jewry for converting to Islam under duress, he nevertheless considers Jews who remain in Spain voluntarily under such circumstances bordering negligent abandonment of the Jewish faith. He urges strongly that Jews should leave Spain to a place where Judaism can be practised freely. If Jews feel they must remain in Spain, they should live covertly and stay as much as possible indoors, to avert total assimilation.


At the end of the letter he emphases this point again. He concludes by advising strongly that Jews should flee countries that prohibit Jewish beliefs and escape, even under dangerous travel conditions, to a country where it is permitted to be conspicuously Jewish. One should not be distressed by leaving behind beloved family members, nor should they feel concerned that they are forfeiting their possessions by fleeing the country, as these matters are insignificant when considering the importance of retaining one’s Jewish belief.


Clearly, Maimonides maintains a harsh view of people who voluntarily choose to stay in a country where they are forced to convert to another religion.


It remains therefore unclear why the Oxford and Berlin editions omit this relevant clause. It can be hypothesised that possibly it was not in the manuscript of the Mishneh Torah in the first place and was added from the Igeret Ha’shmad, as a relevant enjoinder to this subject. In fact, in many editions of the Mishneh Torah this section is in a bracket. This would remain however to be proven.


Paying_for_mershandise_41a.JPGBuying a merchandise – an Oxford Talmud used by Maimonides


Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah in Yesodei Hatorah (5:11) continues on the theme above concerning the behaviour of a person that sanctifies the name of G-d or the reverse. Maimonides then proceeds to take this to a more subtle degree. He writes, ‘There are other deeds which are also included in the category of the desecration of G-d's name, if performed by a person of great Torah stature who is renowned for his piety - i.e., deeds which, although they are not transgressions, will cause people to speak disparagingly of him. This also constitutes the desecration of G-d's name.’


The Oxford edition of Maimonides, as others, then gives the following examples (fol. 41a): “…a person who purchases merchandise and does not pay for it immediately, although he possesses the money, and thus, the sellers demand payment and he pushes them off; a person who jests immoderately; or who eats and drinks near or among the common people; or whose conduct with other people is not gentle and he does not receive them with a favourable countenance, but rather contests with them and vents his anger; and the like. Everything depends on the stature of the sage. The extent to which he must be careful with himself and go beyond the measure of the law depends on the level of his Torah stature.”


The first example about ‘a person who purchases merchandise and does not pay for it immediately, although he possesses the money, and thus, the sellers demand payment and he pushes them off’ is found in all the manuscript editions of Maimonides.


The question arises: what is Maimonides’ source for this example? As Maimonides makes it clear in his introduction to the Mishneh Torah that his work is a code drawing on the earlier works of the Talmud and subsequent works until his day, we will try and examine his Talmudic source.


The Talmud (Yoma 86a) states, “What constitutes profanation of G-d’s Name? Rav said: ‘ If, for instance, I take meat from the butcher and do not pay him at once.’ Abaye qualifies this statement and says: ‘We have learnt to regard as profanation only in a place wherein one does not go out to collect payment, but in a place where one does go out to collect, there is no harm in not paying at once.’ Rabina said: ‘And Matha Mehasia, where he lived, is a place where one goes out collecting payments due.’


It appears at first that this seems to be the source of Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah, where it requires a person to pay for merchandise immediately. However, when looking more closely at this Talmudic source it is obvious that Maimonides might have had a different edition of the Talmud. In the above quote of the Talmud it mentions that in a place where they collect payment, one need not pay immediately and it is not a profanation of G-d’s name if one does not do so. Why then does Maimonides write that “a person who purchases merchandise and does not pay for it immediately and the sellers demand payment’ is a profanation of G-d’s name?” If it is a place where the sellers collect payment, he need not pay immediately and it is not a profanation of G-d’s name according to the Talmud!

This question is in fact posed by Rabbi Joseph Karo in his commentary to the Mishneh Torah Kesef Mishneh.


In the Bodleian library in Oxford, however, there is a manuscript of the Talmud that indeed provides for the reading of Maimonides, that even in a place where the custom is to collect payment, it is considered a profanation of G-d’s name if the buyer does not pay immediately.


G-d's_names41b.JPGThe names of G-d according to the Oxford manuscript


In his Mishneh Torah Maimonides describes the names of G-d that cannot be erased. The subject of the meaning of G-d’s names is explained at length in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed (vol. 1 Ch. 62), however in his Mishneh Torah he deals with the legal question - what are the names of G-d that one may not erase due to their sanctity?


In Yesodei Hatorah (6:2), Maimonides states: “There are seven names for G-d: 1) The explicit name of G-d, which is written Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey. This is also written Alef-Daled-Nun-Yud. 2) The name El; 3) The name Elo'ah; 4) The name Elohim; 5) The name Elohai; 6) The name Shaddai; 7) The name Tz'vaot; Whoever erases even one letter from any of these seven names is liable for lashes.”


This is the version according to most editions of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah.


The principle source for this law is the Talmud (Shavuot 35a), which states: “These are the Names which may not be erased, such as the name El; Eloha; Elohim; your God; I am that I am; Alef Daleth; Yod He; Shaddai and Tz’vaot. However, descriptions as Great, the Mighty, the Revered, the Majestic, the Strong, the Powerful, the Potent, the Merciful and Gracious, the Long Suffering, the One Abounding in Kindness may be erased”.


Clearly, the Talmud mentions an additional name ‘I am that I am’ as one of the names of G-d that may not be erased. Why doesn’t Maimonides include the name ‘I am’ that is found in the Talmud?


In the Oxford manuscript of Mishneh Torah (fol. 41b), however, it does in fact include ‘I am’ Ehyeh, as the fifth name of G-d that may not be erased, instead of Elohai.


Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488-1575) suggests in his work Kesef Mishneh, a commentary to Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, that the reason in Ashkenazic editions the name ‘I am’ is not mentioned is because Maimonides may have had another edition of the Talmud that did not include this as one of G-d’s names. However, he concludes that the Oxford and Rome manuscript copies that have the name ‘I am’ mentioned as one of the seven names of G-d are the correct versions of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah in this instance. 


In his code of Jewish law, Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah Ch. 276:9), however, Rabbi Joseph Kairo ignores his validation of the Oxford version in his commentary on Maimonides, that includes ‘I am’ as a name of G-d, and omits it in his code of Jewish law. He merely mentions it as additional opinion but not as his primary opinion. This seems to suggest that, in his view, the Oxford version might not be the correct version after all when it come to the actualisation of Jewish law.


What is then the justification for the Oxford edition that does include this description of G-d’s name, unlike the other editions? In addition, what is the justification of Rabbi Joseph Karo that seems to side with the version that omits this name, when most editions of the Talmud include it?


While this essay might not be able to offer a final verdict on which version of Maimonides is correct in this case, it would be appropriate to explain the rationale behind this debate, which is based on a discussion of the Biblical text itself.


The name ‘I am that I am’ is written in the book of Exodus in response to Moses when G-d sent him to inform the Jews of the Exodus. It states in Exodus (3:13-14), And Moses said to G-d, "Behold I come to the children of Israel, and I say to them, 'The G-d of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they say to me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" G-d said to Moses, "Ehyeh asher ehyeh (I am that I am or as translated by some, I will be what I will be)," and He said, "So shall you say to the children of Israel, 'Ehyeh (I will be) has sent me to you.'


According to Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi (1040-1105), Nachmanides (1195-1270) and Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508), the name ‘I will be’ is not a name of G-d that is being revealed to Moses but rather a reassurance that G-d will be with the Israelites through all times of distress.


What is Maimonides view regarding this Biblical text? Is it a name as it would seem from Moses’ question or a declaration of reassurance, according to Nachmanides and Rashi?


In the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides seems to state that ‘I am’ is indeed a name of G-d. Maimonides explains (vol. 1 Ch. 63) that Moses is not asking what G-d’s name is, as they were aware of the names of G-d through tradition from the Patriarchs. Moses is asking how he will be able to prove the existence of G-d in the universe to the people before announcing to them that G-d had sent him. Maimonides continues that the response of G-d was ‘I am’, a name that is derived from the verb hayah, in the sense of existing, meaning to say that Moses shall explain that G-d’s existence is absolute: there has never been a time when He did not exist, nor will there ever be.


It seems obvious when reading the above chapter in the Guide for the Perplexed that although ‘I am’ is not a name like other names reflecting a particular attribute of G-d, but rather His very existence, it is nevertheless described by Maimonides as a name of G-d!


This then seems to be consistent with the Oxford version of the Mishneh Torah that mentions ‘I am’ as one of G-d’s names that cannot be erased. It, however, compounds the question against Rabbi Joseph Karo who sides with the versions of Maimonides that do not mention ‘I am’ as one of G-d’s names, despite Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed clearly stating that it is indeed a name of G-d.


Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, known as the Rebbe, in his work Likutei Sichot (vol. 26 p. 11), reconciles the opinion in the Guide for the Perplexed with the Mishneh Torah, according to Rabbi Joseph Karo’s opinion. He explains that the nature of this name, as described in the Guide for the Perplexed, reflects the very existence and essence of G-d. This essence of G-d’s existence is of a nature that is necessarily transcendent and beyond reference to the Universe. It therefore can also not be defined in terms of holy or unholy, which are relative terms in reference to our existence – that which is worldly is profane and that which is above is holy. On the level of G-d’s essence, it transcends this distinction. This, according to Rabbi Schneersohn, can possibly explain the opinion of Rabbi Joseph Karo and the versions of Maimonides that do not list the name ‘I am’ as a holy name of G-d that cannot be erased.


As this explanation is founded on Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, it would appear that both conflicting manuscript versions of Mishneh Torah are in fact consistent with his view in the Guide for the Perplexed. The Oxford edition that mentions ‘I am’ as G-d’s name agrees with the Guide for the Perplexed that defines it as a name of G-d, and the opinion of Rabbi Joseph Karo following the other manuscripts will be consistent with the explanation of the name ‘I am’, as a reason why not to list it as a name, due to its transcendence. The correct version however remains elusive


Holy words41b.JPGHoly words


On the same topic of the appropriate treatment of holy texts, we find another difference between the manuscripts, in which the motive of the Oxford edition is apparent. It is pertaining to the names of G-d that cannot be erased and descriptions of G-d that may be erased.


Maimonides writes in Yesodei Hatorah (6:5), ”Other descriptive terms which are used to praise the Holy One, blessed be He - e.g., the Gracious, the Merciful, the Great, the Mighty, the Awesome, the Faithful, the Jealous, the Powerful, and the like, are considered as other holy texts and may be erased.”


The final words ”considered as other holy texts” are an addition to the Talmud mentioned above which only states pertaining to these descriptions that they may be erased. It omits the comparison to other holy texts. The above wording however is problematic; it is not just a superfluous addition that is not found in the Talmudic source.


In the same chapter (6:8), Maimonides makes it clear that holy texts may not be destroyed. He writes, ‘It is forbidden to burn or to destroy by direct action any sacred texts, their commentaries, and their explanations. A person who destroys them by his direct action is given stripes for rebelliousness.’


How then can Maimonides contradict himself a few paragraphs earlier and write that holy texts may be erased?


The problem is compounded by the fact that the source of this law about descriptive terms of G-d is from the Talmud tractate Shavuot (35a), where it states ‘However, the great the might, the awesome, the sublime, the strong, the vigorous, the potent, the gracious, the compassionate, the slow to anger, and the abundant in kindness, these names may be erased.’


It is only in the text of Maimonides where it adds the words ‘are considered as other holy texts and may be erased’. However, this poses a question, why does it compare it to holy texts, when holy texts should in fact not be destroyed?


The Oxford manuscript of Maimonides (fol. 41b), as well as the Berlin manuscript, however, seem to rectify this and write “are considered as holy words and may be erased”.


This version seems preferable as there are indeed cases when holy words may have been written by mistake and do not constitute holy texts and can be erased.


Role of a prophet43aW.JPGAn unclear letter regarding the role of a public prophet


In the following source in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah there appears to be confusion over what a particular letter in the manuscript is meant to be and the difference does not necessarily seem to reflect any logical debate but is rather a case of this mistaken identity.


In Yesodei Hatorah (7:7), Maimonides explains that there are two types of prophets, private prophet and public prophet. He writes, “There is the possibility that a prophet will experience prophecy for his own sake alone - i.e., to expand his mental capacities and to increase his knowledge - allowing him to know more about the lofty concepts than he knew before. It is also possible that he will be sent to one of the nations of the world, or to the inhabitants of a particular city or kingdom, to prepare them and to inform them what they should do or to prevent them from continuing the evil which they are doing.”


In this last section, there is the description according to most of the manuscripts of a public prophet whose role is ‘to prepare them’ concerning what they should or should not do. In the Hebrew, the word is lekhonen.


However in the Oxford manuscript (fol. 43a) the word that appears to be written in the margin is levonen, which means that the role of a public prophet is to give them ‘comprehension’ of what to do or what not to do.


It is interesting that this word that seems to have been first left out of the Oxford manuscript and then added in the margin does not appear to be in exactly the same handwriting as the text itself, though the style of the script is similar. As this manuscript was authenticated by Maimonides himself, as mentioned, it is speculative whether Maimonides himself would have added this word when he reviewed the manuscript or instructed it to be added before authenticating the manuscript.


There are also other corrections that have been added to correct this manuscript even on the same page that we are discussing (fol. 43a), as the letter mem in the word mitnave, which means to prophesise, that appears to have been added later on in between the lines.


The difference between the two versions, lekhonen or levonen, seems to be due to confusion between two Hebrew letters which look extremely similar, the letter kaf and the letter bet. It does not necessarily point to anything conceptual between them.


One can argue, however that the Oxford version is more consistent with the qualification for being a prophet and the role of a private and public prophet, according to Maimonides, as being principally intellectual in nature. This is evident from what he writes in this same chapter regarding prophecy.


Maimonides explains (7:1) that “prophecy is bestowed only upon a very wise sage of a strong character, who is never overcome by his natural inclinations in any regard. Instead, with his mind, he overcomes his natural inclinations at all times. He must also possess a very broad and accurate mental capacity. A person, who is full of all these qualities and is physically sound, is fit for prophecy. When he enters the Pardes and is drawn into these great and sublime concepts, if he possesses an accurate mental capacity to comprehend and grasp them, he will become holy.”


Maimonides then continues, as mentioned earlier, to explain the purpose of a prophet (7:7) that “there is the possibility that a prophet will experience prophecy for his own sake alone - i.e., to expand his mental capacities and to increase his knowledge - allowing him to know more about the lofty concepts than he knew before”.


As Maimonides maintains that the qualification for a prophet needs to be primarily great wisdom to expand his knowledge of sublime concepts it therefore also makes sense that a public prophet has a similar purpose to expand public knowledge and to give greater comprehension to people about right and wrong. The correct word to describe this would be indeed Levonen, from the Hebrew word Binah, which means comprehension.


The role of a public prophet as being one who enables comprehension is also evident in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, laws of repentance (9:2), regarding the public prophecy of Messiah. Maimonides writes, ‘These changes will come about because the king who will arise from David's descendants will be a greater master of knowledge than Solomon and a great prophet, close to the level of Moses, our teacher. Therefore, he will teach the entire nation and instruct them in the path of G-d.’


The other manuscript versions of Maimonides that write lekonen, to prepare, seem therefore less consistent with the theme that Maimonides has been trying to explain pertaining to the role of the prophet, as being intellectual and instructive in nature.


Believing in a Prophet 46a.JPGThree further corrections in the Oxford manuscript


In three further sources, there are variations in the Oxford manuscript, which seem to make more sense than their manuscript counterparts of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah.


One is concerning the philosophical question posed by numerous medieval Jewish philosophers how one can determine the truth about Moses’ prophecy. In most manuscripts of Mishneh Torah in Yesodei Hatorah (8:2), it writes, ‘Thus, those to whom Moses was sent witnessed his appointment as a prophet, and it was not necessary to perform another wonder for them. He and they were witnesses in this matter, like two witnesses who observed the same event together. Each one serves as a witness to his colleague that he is telling the truth, and neither has to bring any other proof to his colleague. Similarly, all Israel were witnesses to the appointment of Moses, our teacher, at the revelation at Mount Sinai, and it was unnecessary for him to perform any further wonders for them.’


This version however sounds repetitive, as it says ‘He (Moses) and they were witnesses, like two witnesses who observed the same event (the revelation at Mount Sinai) together. Why the repetition of the word witnesses?


The Oxford manuscript however writes (fol. 44a) ‘He and they were one in this matter, like two witnesses who witnessed one event together.’


The Oxford version makes more sense also due a comparative source. This point of comparing Moses and the people as witnesses together in the prophecy of Mount Sinai is elaborated in the same manner by Maimonides further on in the chapter. Maimonides writes according to all the versions (8:3), ‘This conclusion is reached because the prophecy of Moses, our teacher, is not dependent on wonders, so that we could compare these wonders, one against the other. Rather we saw and heard with our own eyes and ears as he did. To what can this be compared? To witnesses who gave testimony concerning a matter to a man who had observed the situation with his own eyes. He will never listen to them and will know for certain that they are false witnesses.’


First Maimonides unites the vision of Moses and the people regarding Mount Sinai and then proceeds to compare it to witnesses in almost a legal sense. As two witnesses cannot be disregarded, so to the testimony at Mount Sinai cannot be refuted. This similar style seems to point to the version of the Oxford manuscript in this case, although there is no substantial difference between the two versions.


Prophet Commentary 46a.JPGDoes a commentary belong in the actual text of Maimonides?


A known fact regarding Maimonides’ legal code of Mishneh Torah is the fact that it does not contain sources. Indeed, Maimonides received criticism for this and he desired to rewrite the work with all the sources but was unable to fulfil this ambition due to time constraints.


In the following text of the Mishneh Torah it is therefore out of character that it chooses to present a Talmudic source for his view about prophecy. In Mishneh Torah, Yesodei Hatorah (10:4), it discusses a difference between the substantiation of a prophet based on positive prophecy and negative predictions. The failure of the latter does not define him as a false prophet, while the failure of the former to materialise does define him as a false prophet.


The reason is because a negative prophecy can be annulled due to the fact that G-d is ‘slow to anger, abundant in kindness, and forgiving of evil. Thus, it is possible that they will repent and their sin will be forgiven, as in the case of the people of Nineveh, or that retribution will be held in abeyance, as in the case of Hezekiah.’ However a positive prophecy cannot be annulled and thus its failure to materialise can be a cause for him to be condemned a false prophet.


In the text of Maimonides pertaining to this distinction, in many editions, it contains the following in brackets, ‘We find G-d nullifying a positive prophecy only during the destruction of the first Temple. He had promised the righteous that they would not die together with the wicked; however, He nullified this prophecy, as explained in the tractate of Shabbat.’


In the version of Maimonides according to the 15th century Spanish Rabbi Isaac Don Abravenel, the Berlin manuscript, as well as the Oxford manuscript of the Mishneh Torah (fol. 46a), omits this section entirely.


According to the style of this text, it would appear that it belongs to a critic of Maimonides who seems to be pointing out an opposing view stating that it in fact is possible for a good prophecy to be annulled. According to a commentator of the Mishneh Torah, Rabbi Reuven Margolis, it is most likely that this qualification is actually a comment by Rabbi Avraham ben David, who regularly points out opposing views to Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah. For some reason, in this case, the comment got inserted in some of the manuscript copies into the text of Maimonides itself.


The other reason why one can assume this comment does not belong to Maimonides is, as mentioned earlier, it would have been uncharacteristic for Maimonides to have written at the end of the comment ‘as explained in the tractate of Shabbat’, as he does not usually quote sources for the decisions in his legal code.


For these reasons, the Oxford manuscript, as well as the Berlin manuscript, seem to be justified for omitting this comment altogether.


Does belief alone suffice?


There are times when a version consisting of a single letter in a manuscript is of no substantial significance and at times will make a critical difference to a particular idea. In the final section of Yesodei Hatorah (10:5), in the Mishneh Torah, the Oxford manuscript makes a simple but crucial omission of a single Hebrew letter. In the theology of something as important in Judaism as prophecy this particular letter seems to be of great importance.


Maimonides writes in the Oxford manuscript (fol. 46a), ‘Once a prophet has made known his prophecy, and his words have proven true time after time, or another prophet has proclaimed him a prophet, if he continues in the path of prophecy, it is forbidden to doubt him or to question the truth of his prophecy. When establishing the authenticity of a prophet, it is forbidden to test him more than necessary. We may not continue to test him forever, as Deuteronomy (6:15) states: "Do not test God, your Lord, as you tested him in Marah," when the Jews said (Exodus 17:7): "Is God in our midst or not?" Rather, once an individual is established as a prophet, we should believe in him and know that God is in our midst. We should not doubt or question him, as implied by Ezekiel (2:5): "They shall know that a prophet was in their midst."


According to Maimonides then there are two methods to know a true prophet, one is his words having been proven true repeatedly and, secondly, if another prophet proclaims him a prophet. In the Oxford manuscript, the word ‘proven’ is written in the Hebrew v’ha’amnu, which means proven true.


In most of the other manuscripts, however, there is an additional Hebrew letter yud, which alters the word to be read v’he’minu, which means ‘and they believed him’.


This implies that the qualification of a true prophet is the mere fact that the people believed his prophecies repeatedly or if another prophet proclaimed him a prophet. This difference, though determined by just a simple Hebrew letter, seems to be of great significance.


It would appear that the Oxford edition in this case would seem more justified as a reason to authenticate a prophet. It’s logical that an objective confirmation of prophecies coming true should be more a qualification for true prophet status that the subjective belief of albeit many in his prophecies.


Quote.JPGAn extra quote


Maimonides many times supports his laws, although not with Talmudic sources but, with Biblical sources. In some cases his choice of sources or words within a particular source is seen as deliberate.


This is illustrated in the section of Maimonides where he discusses the law of hospitality. It states in Mishneh Torah, laws of mourning (14:2) The reward one receives for accompanying guests is greater than all of the others. This is a statute which Abraham our Patriarch instituted and the path of kindness which he would follow. He would feed wayfarers, provide them with drink, and accompany them. Showing hospitality for guests surpasses receiving the Divine Presence as Genesis (18:2) states: And he saw and behold there were three people.’


The Talmud in tractate Shabbat (127a) is the source for this teaching about the greatness of welcoming guests and brings the source from a different verse in the same story (18:3), ‘And he said, "My lords, if only I have found favour in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant.’


In this case, although the quote of Maimonides is from the same story when Abraham gave precedence to the guests over the Divine presence but it is significant that Maimonides takes the liberty to choose the earlier verse relating Abraham seeing the three guest-angels rather than when Abraham actually excuses himself from G-d in order to welcome the guests.


In Likutei Sichot (vol. 25 p. 70), it suggests the reason for this diversion of Maimonides is to emphasise the importance of welcoming guests is from the time the host sees the guests. In the sight of the guests it should evoke a feeling of openness and warmth. Maimonides is suggesting that the virtue of welcoming guests is not just to feed the guests but to shower warmth of hospitality on the guests in addition to serving their physical needs.


However, in the manuscript under discussion it is unlikely that we will be able to read any significance in to this Oxford version. Maimonides writes in Mishneh Torah, laws of Yesodei HaTorah (10:4), ‘We can conclude from this that a prophet should be tested on the basis of his positive prophecies. This was what Jeremiah meant by his reply to Chananiah ben Ozer, when he was prophesying doom and Chananiah was promising a glorious future. He told Chananiah: If my words are not fulfilled, this will not lead to the conclusion that I am a false prophet. If your promises are not fulfilled, however, it will be proven that you are a false prophet," as implied by Jeremiah (28:7,9): "Hear, now, this word... As for the prophet who prophesies for peace, when the word of the prophet shall come to pass, it will be known that God has truly sent this prophet."


In the Oxford manuscript (fol. 46a) the final quote from Jeremiah verse 9 is shortened and the only words quoted are ‘Hear, now, this word’ followed by the words ‘and etc.’


While it is unlikely that there is any change in meaning due to the shortened quote, it is a significant amount of words that are added in all the other printed editions of Maimonides, when the Oxford manuscript has the verse 9 omitted all together. It’s not clear when the entire relevant section of the verse would have been added to source the difference between a positive and negative policy and what the reason for the omission would have been other than for convenience not to have to write in the manuscript more words that necessary.


Study of Torah and minors 57a.JPGAre minors exempt from the study of Torah?


In the Mishneh Torah, laws of Talmud Torah (1:1), Maimonides writes, ‘Women, slaves, and minors are free from the obligation of Torah study. Nevertheless, a father is obligated to teach his son Torah while he is a minor, as Deuteronomy (11:19) states: "And you shall teach them to your sons to speak about them."


Maimonides then continues (1:6), ‘At what age is a father obligated to teach his son Torah? When he begins to speak, he should teach him Torah tzivah lanu Moshe (Deuteronomy 33:4) and Shema Yisrael (ibid. 6:4).’


In the Oxford manuscript there are two changes from the above text. Firstly, the Oxford manuscript (fol. 57a) omits the word ‘minors’ as being one of the three categories who are free from the obligation of Torah study.


Another minor and seemingly less significant variation is the additional descriptive words ‘and the first verse of the portion of’ Shema (the prayer from Deuteronomy declaring the unity of G-d), instead of just ‘And Shema Yisrael’ when mentioning the verse that one should teach one’s child as soon he is able to speak.


We will examine primarily the justification of the first variation and then try and give consistency to the second variation also. The principle question that appears to be of great significance is, is a minor free from the obligation of Torah study according to the Oxford manuscript copy of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah?


In the commentary Migdal Oz, 14th century Spanish Rabbi Shem Tov ben Abraham ibn Ga’on, who was one of the first scholars to systematically identify the sources for Maimonides’ rulings in the Mishneh Torah, in addition to defending the Mishneh Torah from attacks by critics, especially by Rabbi Abraham ben David, known as the Ra’vad, also omits the category of minor in relation to being free from the obligation of Torah study.


The reason for this omission seems to be, not because minors are in fact obligated to study Torah, but the opposite. It is unnecessary to state that they are not obligated, since minors are not obligated to perform any of the commandments. It would therefore be superfluous to state the obvious that they are not obligated to study Torah, which demands intellectual maturity.


According to the reasoning of the Oxford manuscript, the text concerning a minor and Torah study can really then be read as if it states the following rationale, that ‘even though minors are free from the obligation of all the commandments, nevertheless, a father is obligated to teach his son Torah while he is a minor’.


This in fact stated in the laws of Torah study by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, published in 1799, where he rewords the text of Maimonides and seems to in fact follow the Oxford edition. Furthermore, he doesn’t just follow the Oxford edition regarding the first variation, the omission of the word minor concerning being free from the obligation of Torah study, but also the second minor variation, the addition of the words ‘and the first verse from the portion of the Shema’.


Rabbi Schneur Zalman writes in laws of Torah study (1:1), ‘Even though a minor is exempt from all the Divine commandments and also a father is not obligated to educate a child Biblically (Talmud Nazir 29) but rather Rabbinically, nevertheless there is a Biblical positive commandment for a father to teach one’s son Torah (Talmud Kiddushin 29), even though the minor is not obligated himself (Maimonides Mishneh Torah laws of Talmud Torah 1:1), as it states, And you shall teach your children to speak in them.’


He then continues, ‘From when is a father obligated to teach his son Torah? From the time a child is able to speak (Talmud Sukkah 42), his father shall teach him the verse Torah Tzivah Moshe, etc. and the first verse of the portion Shema Yisrael’.


It seems obvious from Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s text, by the opening ‘even though a minor is exempt from all the Divine commandments’ and the end of the text ‘and the first verse of the portion Shema Yisrael’ that he may have had access or knowledge of the Oxford manuscript or followed the view of the Migdal Oz that endorses the Oxford version.

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