The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s commentary on Rashi and Maimonides: a similar approach

Sunday, 13 November, 2022 - 7:37 pm

On the last day of Passover, 1984, the Lubavitcher Rebbe instituted a new custom: the study of a section of Maimonides daily that was aimed to unite the entire Jewish people by studying the same subject of the Torah daily. With this, also began the second significant commentary of the Rebbe on a classical work of the Torah: the legal work of Maimonides, Mishneh Torah. This initiative came after eighteen years of the development of the Rebbe’s commentary on Rashi, that began in October, 1964, after the passing of his mother, Rebetzin Chana. In this essay, I would like to explore a similarity between these two commentaries: an approach that allowed the Rebbe to develop a unique commentary on two classic works of the Torah, despite hundreds of commentaries already written on these two works.


Three approaches to questions on Rashi


We will present three approaches to the Rebbe’s commentary on Rashi:


1.     The steadfast conviction that Rashi’s entire commentary is based on a single foundational principle, as articulated in his commentary on Genesis 3:8: ‘I, however, am only concerned with the plain sense of Scripture and with such Agadoth that explain the words of Scripture in a manner that fits in with them.’


2.     The second principle is that every word and even every letter in Rashi’s commentary is precise and has significance.


3.     Thirdly, the ability to draw ethical and spiritual teachings from Rashi’s commentary.


The approximately eight hundred studies of the Rebbe are almost all based on lines of questioning derived from these principles. While the principles seem self-evident, many of the great commentators on Rashi in the 16th century, like Rabbis Elijah Mizrachi, Judah Loewe, and David Pardo do not insist that Rashi must be viewed by these principles, preferring to explain Rashi in halachic or midrashic terms. Some go further to argue that the first principle is only a local principle for the particular verse in Genesis that it is addressing.


The idea that a principle articulated by the author provides an absolute foundation to the entire text that ensues, thus allowing for a line of questioning at any point when the text does not seem to be consistent with the said principle, is the methodology of the Rebbe regarding the work of Rashi, and also on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah.


Establishing and persistently questioning based on a single principle




The principle that serves as a reoccurring line of questioning in the Rebbe’s commentary on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah is found in the introduction to the work:


Therefore, I girded my loins - I, Moses, the son of Maimon, of Spain. I relied upon the Rock, blessed be He. I contemplated all these texts and sought to compose [a work which would include the conclusions] derived from all these texts regarding the forbidden and the permitted, the impure and the pure, and the remainder of the Torah's laws, all in clear and concise terms (בלשון ברורה ודרך קצרה), so that the entire Oral Law could be organized in each person's mouth without questions or objections… I saw fit to divide this text into [separate] halachot (הלכות הלכות) pertaining to each [particular] subject, and, within the context of a single subject, to divide those halachot into chapters. Each and every chapter is divided into smaller halachot so that they can be ordered in one's memory.


Although, the above paragraph is referring to the organisation of the work into subjects, the statement that Maimonides aimed to ‘divide this text into [separate] halachot’ is understood, in the view of the Rebbe, to mean that the entire work is only legal in nature. This interpretation of the above passage establishes a principle that allows for a line of questioning throughout the Mishneh Torah, whenever a text does not seem to be a clear halacha.


R. Jacob Emden


The principle that everything in the work of the Mishneh Torah is halacha is in itself not an innovation of the Rebbe. It was articulated earlier by German Rabbi Jacob Emden, known as the Ya-avetz (1697-1776). He writes as follows:


It is known that all his words are spoken in relation to halacha, either laws pertaining to the Messianic era or nowadays. Words that one cannot deduce law from, neither ethics, conduct, or other necessary knowledge, it is not the way of Maimonides to deal with them in his composition of the Mishneh Torah.


Jacob Emden poses a question in the Mishneh Torah based on this principle, in the laws of Beit Habechirah 4:1:


When Solomon built the Temple, knowing that it would at the end be destroyed, he constructed underneath a place where to hide the Ark in deep and winding secret tunnels. At the command of King Josiah, it was concealed in the place which Solomon had built.


This text sides with the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah ben Lakish in the Talmud in tractate Yoma (53b), drawing on the verse in I Kings 8:8: ‘And the ends of the staves were seen from the sacred place before the partition, but they could not be seen without; and they are there to this day,’ as opposed to Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, who say that the ark was exiled to Babylon.


Jacob Emden however poses the question: what is the halachic relevance of this statement in the Mishneh Torah – it doesn’t seem to offer any practical relevance. This text is problematised also by Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, known as Chatam Sofer (1762-1839). The answer given is that the subject is relevant whether there is sanctity today on the Temple Mount, in opposition to the opinion of Judah ha-Nasi in the Talmud in tractate Chullin (7a), who has the view that the sanctity of the land departed when the Jews were exiled into Babylon.[1]


Not only halacha – R. Joseph Karo


Some of the major commentators on Maimonides do not appear to agree with the principle, however. This becomes apparent in the context of the question raised regarding the halacha in the laws of Vessels of the Temple 3:12:


The statements found in the words of the prophets that the priests would wear an ephod of linen does not mean that they were High Priests. For the High Priest's ephod was not of linen [alone]. For the Levites would also wear such a garment, for the prophet Samuel was a Levite, and [I Samuel 2:18] describes him as "a youth, girded with a linen ">and those who were fit to have the Holy Spirit rest upon them to make it known that such a person reached a rung equivalent to that of the High Priest who speaks with the Holy Spirit via the medium of the ephod and the breastplate.


 of linen – more appropriate for biblical commentary – is to reconcile this text with the verse in I Samuel 22:18: ‘Thereupon the king said to Doeg, “You, Doeg, go and strike down the priests.” And Doeg the Edomite went and struck down the priests himself; that day, he killed eighty-five men who wore the linen ephod.’ In a study on Maimonides in 1987, the Rebbe rejects this answer, due to the fact that the aim of Maimonides’ work is exclusive legal.[2]


This line of questioning, while on occasion raised by others, as above by Jacob Emden and indirectly by the Chatam Sofer, is adopted by the Rebbe as a key methodology in his commentary on the Mishneh Torah, insistingthat every line and word in the Mishneh Torah is subject to this line of questioning. This insisting on consistency following a principle for an entire work appears to be the unique approach of the Rebbe in his scholarship, as is the case with his commentary on Rashi. The answer given is consistent with the law in Foundations of the Torah (10:13): ‘The presence of a prophet among us is for no other purpose save that of foretelling things that are to come to pass in the world such as plenty, famine, war, peace and like matters. For, even of private matters he is informed. For instance, Saul when he sustained a loss he went to a prophet to inquire for its whereabouts. Similar matters to these the prophet may tell, not to create another religion, or add a commandment, or diminish.’ For this reason, they wore Ephod of linen, to allow people to know who they ask for their private matters, for which the High Priest was not available for.


Examples of where this line of questioning is raised includes the following:[3]


1. G-d’s existence


In a series of talks that took place on 11th Nissan, Final Day of Passover, and Shabbat Parshat Emor in 1984, and further discussed on Shabbat Parshat Vaera 1985,[4] the text in the beginning of the Mishneh Torah was problematised for its halachic relevance:


1. The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a Primary Being who brought into being all existence. All the beings of the heavens, the earth, and what is between them came into existence only from the truth of His being. 2. If one would imagine that He does not exist, no other being could possibly exist. 3. If one would imagine that none of the entities aside from Him exist, He alone would continue to exist, and the nullification of their [existence] would not nullify His existence, because all the [other] entities require Him and He, blessed be He, does not require them nor any one of them. Therefore, the truth of His [being] does not resemble the truth of any of their [beings]. 4. This is implied by the prophet's statement [Jeremiah 10:10]: "And G-d, your Lord, is true" - i.e., He alone is true and no other entity possesses truth that compares to His truth. This is what [is meant by] the Torah's statement [Deuteronomy 4:35]: "There is nothing else aside from Him" - i.e., aside from Him, there is no true existence like His. 5. This entity is the G-d of the world and the Lord of the entire earth. He controls the sphere with infinite and unbounded power. This power [continues] without interruption, because the sphere is constantly revolving, and it is impossible for it to revolve without someone causing it to revolve. [That one is] He, blessed be He, who causes it to revolve without a hand or any [other] corporeal dimension. 6. The knowledge of this concept is a positive commandment, as [implied by Exodus 20:2]: "I am G-d, your Lord...."


2. Healthy living


In 1983, the question was raised on the text in Laws of De-ot, chapter 4, where it details in great length how one should stay healthy, much of which Maimonides would have been aware that will no longer be relevant in future times and other places, just as things had changed from the times of the Talmud to the 12th century, when Maimonides lived.[5] The Mishneh Torah states:


(1) Seeing that the maintenance of the body in a healthy and sound condition is a God-chosen way, for, lo, it is impossible that one should understand or know aught of the divine knowledge concerning the Creator when he is sick, it is necessary for man to distance himself from things which destroy the body, and accustom himself in things which are healthful and life-imparting. These are: never shall man partake food save when hungry, nor drink save when thirsty; he shall not defer elimination even one minute, but the moment he feels the need to evacuate urine or feces he must rise immediately.


3. Mnemonic


In 1981, the question was raised regarding the end of the following text found in chapter three in the laws of Chanukah:


(12) The custom of reading the Hallel in the days of the early Sages was like this: After the [leader] who reads out the Hallel recites the blessing and begins and says, "Halleluyah" — [then] all of the people answer, "Halleluyah." And he [continues] and says, "Praise, servants of the Lord" — and all of the people answer, "Halleluyah." And he [continues] and says, "Praise the name of the Lord" — and all of the people answer, "Halleluyah." And he [continues] and says, "May the name of the Lord be blessed from now and forever" — and all of the people answer, "Halleluyah." And likewise for each and every thing; until they come out answering "Halleluyah" one hundred and twenty-three times in all of the Hallel. Its mnemonic is the years (lifespan) of Aaron.


What’s the halachic relevance of the mnemonic, found in the Jerusalem Talmud tractate Shabbat (16:1)? The answer given is to emphasise that the recitation of all 123 times Hallelukah is a singleconcept, as the singularity of the years of a person’s life.[6]


4. List of many examples of ‘two letters’ on Shabbat


In the Talmud in tractate Shabbat 103b, it states:


Rabbi Yehuda says: One is liable evenif he wrote only two letters that are one type of letter, e.g., shesh [shin shin], tet [tav tav], rar [reish reish], gag [gimmel gimmel], ḥaḥ [ḥet ḥet].


In the Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shabbat 11:10, it cites the same law:


One who writes a letter twice and it is a word – such as dad (breast), tat (below), gag (roof), rar (flow), sas (rejoiced), sas (a moth) and chach (hook) – is liable. And one who writes in any script and in any language is liable, and [likewise] even for two signs.


The question raised is: Since Rambam is Halachot, what is the reason for bringing all the examples found in the Talmud, as well as additional examples that are not cited in the Talmud?[7]


Reason for the precise order


A further line of questioning is the precise order of how things are listed in a halachah. In the above halacha, the premise is that the order must be precise, particularly, as it is different to how it is found in the Talmud.


Unique approach


Recognising the uniqueness of the Rebbe’s approach to the study of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, similar to his approach to the study of Rashi on the Torah, in regards to the line of questioning that is permitted, the Rebbe states: until now I have not found that someone has raised this question, because it is not the kind of questions other commentators concern themselves with.




To a lesser degree, another principle in the introduction also serves as line of questioning: the work of the Mishneh Torah is all in clear and concise terms.’ This precludes the type of convoluted answers that may be given to questions that arise in the text of the Mishneh Torah.


Ethics of the fathers


Incidentally, the same approach is taken in the Rebbe’s commentary on Ethics of the Fathers. The Talmud states in tractate Bava Kamma (30a): ‘Rava said: One who wants to be pious should observe the matters of tractate Avot.’ Pious refers to one who is righteous and goes beyond the letter of law. Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet comments that this refers to the specific teaching in 5:10: ‘[One that says:] “mine is yours and yours is yours” is a pious person.’ The understanding of this premise, in the commentary of the Rebbe, is that every single teaching without exception in the whole tractate, even regarding parts that do not appear to be ethical teachings, but rather narrative, like the opening ‘Moses received the Torah at Sinai,’ must also be understood in the context of one who goes beyond the letter of the law.[8]


Also, classic questioning on Maimonides


In addition to this line of questioning, the more classic line of questioning was also employed in the Rebbe’s commentary. This is the classic methodology of identifying a contradiction in the text from one law to another, either explicitly or by implication. This was done regarding the text in the Laws of prayer. In chapter 4:1, it states that devotion is needed for the entire service:


There are five requisites, the absence of which hinder the [proper] recital of a Service, even when its due time has arrived; Cleansing the hands, Covering the body, Assurance as to the cleanliness of the place where the prayers are recited, Removal of distractions, and Concentration of the mind.


In chapter 10:1, it states that concentration is only required in the first part of the Amidah prayer:


(1) If one has recited the Amidah without devotion, he should recite it again devoutly. If he, however, concentrated his attention during the recital of the first blessing, he need not read the prayer again. If one committed an error in one of the first three blessings, he has to turn back to the beginning of the Amidah. If he made a mistake in one of the last three blessings, he turns back to the blessing relating to the restoration of the Temple Service. If he made a mistake in one of the intermediate blessings, he turns back to the beginning of the blessing in which he made the mistake, and then continues the Service in regular order to the end. The reader, if he makes a mistake when reading the Amidah aloud, follows the same rules.


The answer to this question is presented by Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik (1853-1918) in his commentary on Maimonides and adapted by the Rebbe in his commentary. There are two ideas in devotion: general and particular. In the context the Rebbe rejects a more convoluted answer that the text in chapter 10 (nine chapter later) is qualifying the earlier text. This would counter the statement in Maimonides’ introduction that the work is meant to be clear and price.[9]




In this essay, we have tried to argue that in the two principle commentaries of the Rebbe – on Rashi and Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah – a consistent pattern can be found in the approach to the line of questioning in both works. Despite, one a commentary on the Torah, and the other a work on Jewish law, a similar method is used in analysing the text on many occasions. In both cases, the Rebbe highlights his approach as unique amongst the myriads of commentators on these works. 



[1] Chiddushei Chatam Sofer on Chullin 7a.

[2] Likkutei Sichot 31:156-7.

[3] Another line of questioning is why certain halachot are recorded in the placed the are locatd and not elsewhere. This question is posed in Likkute Sichot 23:233, regarding the laws of Hallel in the Laws of Chanukah. Also, regarding the law of Kiddush in the laws of Chanukah.

[4] Yenah Malchut, vol. 1, p. 48. Likkutei Sichot Yitro 1985.

[5] Likkutei Sichot 23:36.

[6] Likkutei Sichot 23:230.

[7] Yen malchut vol 1, p. 138. Sichat 2nd day Shavuot, 1984.

[8] Introduction (mavo) to Biurim l’Pirkei Avot, p. VIII.

[9]Chiddushei Rabbeinu Chaim HaLevi Al-HaRambam, p. 1.


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