Maimonides: Spiritualist or Legalist?

Thursday, 31 July, 2014 - 7:43 pm


An ongoing debate exists among scholars on how to portray Maimonides. Is he concerned only about the legal and rational aspects of Judaism whereby the spiritual and mystical is of lesser or no importance, or does he also emphasise the importance of the spiritual and mystical in additional to the legal and rational? In this essay, I would like to demonstrate that in some of the most fundamental ideas of Judaism it is Judaism as a legal code with concern for the law that is most important to Maimonides. We will then qualify this by arguing that when viewing the philosophical thought of Maimonides more comprehensively this debate becomes more complex demonstrating that the spiritual is also of fundamental importance, as opposed to some scholars who prefer to deny the mystical and spiritual perspectives of Maimonides.


In this essay we will mainly address the approach of Maimonides towards belief in G-d; the construction of the Temple – the focal point of the Jewish spiritual experience, worship and according to many historians the centre of the ancient Jewish civilization for close to nine hundred years; and the coming of the Messiah. The question we would like to pose is: are these principle concepts in Judaism according to Maimonides philosophical and spiritual in nature, or fundamentally legal?


We will start with the building of the Temple. In Exodus (25:8) it states: ‘And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst’. This is the Biblical source for the building of a Temple. We are then told in great length about the many vessels that were contained in the Temple, including the altars, candelabra, ark and table for the show bread.


Rabbi Moses ben Jacob of Coucy, a13th century French Tosafist (Talmudic scholar), writes in his work Sefer Mitzvot Gedolot that the source for the building of a Temple is from Deuteronomy (12:11): ‘And it will be, that the place the Lord your God, will choose in which to establish His Name there you shall bring all that I am commanding you: Your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, your tithes, and the separation by your hand, and the choice of vows which you will vow to the Lord.’


Maimonides explains in Sefer Hamitzvot (Law 20) that the instruction to build the Temple and its vessels consist of a single commandment. Maimonides writes as follows:


The 20th mitzvah is that we are commanded to build a Sanctuary to serve [G‑d]. In it we offer sacrifices, burn the eter­nal flame, offer our prayers, and congregate for the festivals each year, as will be explained. The source of this mitzvah is G‑d's statement (exalted be He), "Make a Sanctuary for Me." The Sifri says, "The Jewish people were commanded three mitzvos upon entering Israel: appointing for them­selves a king, building themselves a Sanctuary and wiping out the descendants of Amalek." This wording ["three mitzvos"] shows clearly that building the Sanctuary is counted as a distinct mitzvah. We have already explained that this general term ["Sanctuary"] in­cludes many parts. The Menorah, the Table, the Altar, etc. are all parts of the Sanctuary, everything together is called by the name, "Sanctuary," even though the Torah gives a distinct command for each indi­vidual element.


Nachmanides (1194-1270) in his commentary on Maimonides Sefer Hamitzvot (Law 20) argues with Maimonides and maintains that the Temple and its vessels are indeed two separate laws. He writes as follows:


I do not find appropriate in my eyes the reason the rabbi writes that he says the vessels are a part of the Temple, because the vessels are not a part of the house but rather they are two commandments and not dependent on each other. One may offer sacrifices in the Temple even when there are no vessels. Therefore, in my opinion, the making of the ark and the ark cover, to place the tablets within, should be counted as a Mitzvah by itself. The reason why the table for the showbread and the Menorah is not counted separately is since there is the commandment to places the showbread before G-d and as a preparation for the fulfilment of this commandment one is commanded to build a table with specific dimensions. The same is the case regarding the Menorah that since we are commanded to kindle the Menorah, as a preparation for this we are commanded to build a Menorah with specific weight and dimensions. This is what is called Tashmishei Kedusha.


A Polish Rabbi, Avraham Gombiner (c. 1635-1682) in his work Magen Avraham justifies the view of Maimonides. He explains that even though the performance of the service in the Temple is not dependent on the existence of the vessels this does not however mean that the vessels when they exist are not considered a part of the building. He supports his argument by pointing to other commandments that also have this similarity whereby their two components are not dependent on each other but they still constitute two parts of the same law. This is the case with the blue coloured dye and the white of the Tzitzit (the Biblical command to wear fringes on four cornered garments). The blue colour and the white are not dependent on each other for the Mitzvah to be performed but still constitute a part of the same singular Mitzvah. One may say that the same is the case regarding the Temple and its vessels: they may not be co dependent but still constitute part of one law.


There is however a problem with this comparison in explaining the view of Maimonides. In Principle of the Mitzvot in his work Sefer Hamitzvot, Maimonides writes (Principle 11 & 12): 


If a mitzvah comprises a number of elements, do not count them separately. E.g. "And you shall take for yourselves on the first day [of Sukkot], the fruit of a beautiful tree, date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree, and willows of the brook" (Leviticus 23:40). All these individual elements come together to create a single mitzvah—the mitzvah of taking the Four Species. As such, they are collectively counted as only one mitzvah. When commanded to do a certain action, do not count each part of the action separately. E.g. "They shall make Me a sanctuary" (Exodus 25:8). There's a general mitzvah to construct a sanctuary for G‑d. For this purpose, it is necessary to construct an Ark, a Menorah, altars, etc.—but these are all details of the overarching mitzvah of creating a sanctuary for G‑d.


Rabbi Yerucham Fishel Perla (Warsaw, 1846-1934) draws on the above idea in his commentary to the Sefer Hamitzvot of Rabbi Sa’diah Gaon (882-942) and argues that in fact an important distinction needs to be made. When a single Mitzvah is explicitly mentioned in the Torah, then its components, even when not dependent on each other, constitute the same Mitzvah. This is the case regarding the singular Mitzvah to wear the Tzitzit. However, this would not be the case, he argues, pertaining to the Temple and its vessels where it does not explicitly define them all contained in one law, therefore as long as they are not independent on each other for the performance of the Mitzvah they should constitute two separate commandments. This then poses a challenge to the view of Maimonides, who views them as two parts of a single law, although they are not defined explicitly as such and the two components of the building and its vessels are not inexorably linked.


There are a number of explanations one can give for the view of Maimonides. We will present three given explanations for Maimonides: 1. We may possibly have misunderstood the view of Maimonides and if this is corrected then the problem is resolved. 2. The dispute between Maimonides and Nachmanides, whether the Temple and its vessels are one concept or not can be traced back to an earlier dispute in the Mishna of the 3rd century. 3. A third approach, which is most relevant to our discussion, is that Maimonides has a fundamentally different view of the primary function of the Temple. We will proceed to detail these three approaches.


Rebbe Chanoch Henach Dov Mayer, known by the title of his work Lev Sameach, disputes the very notion that the Temple and its vessels in the view of Maimonides are not inexorably connected. He suggests that Maimonides’ view is that they are in fact connected to each other and one cannot be performed without the other. For this reason they are considered a single Biblical law. According to this view, Maimonides would maintain one would be unable to offer sacrifices if the vessels are not present.


A second approach, similar to the above, is that of Rabbi Joseph Rosen, known as the Rogatchover Gaon, author of Tzofnath Paneach, and one of the most prominent Talmudic scholars of the early 20th-century. He writes in his comment on Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot: ‘In truth this is hanging on the argument in the Jerusalemite Talmud tractate Shekalim (3:3).’ Rabbi Rosen is referring to a dispute between Rabbi Meir and the Sages of the Mishna. Rabbi Meir says that the table, the candelabra, the altars and the covers are all need to be present for the offering of sacrifices. The Sages maintain that the only item that is necessary is the basin and the base. Accordingly, the proposition goes, Maimonides would be following the view of Rabbi Meir, who appears to be saying that the vessels are necessary for the sacrifices, thus implying they are all part of one commandment – the law to build a Temple. However, the Sages will be the source for Nachmanides, who maintains that they are not part of one legal concept, implied by the permission to offer sacrifices even when the vessels are not present.


A third approach is that both Maimonides and Nachmanides agree that one may offer sacrifices in the Temple even without the vessels present. The reason why Maimonides considers the law to build the Temple and its vessels as one law, and Nachmanides as two laws, has more to do with the philosophy of building a Temple than a legal dispute pertaining to its function. This brings us to the broader question, what is the primary purpose of the Temple, is it spiritual or legal? To be sure, one must concede there are two components which cannot be mutually exclusive. The source for building the Temple is, as Maimonides mentions (Sefer Hamitzvot ibid), the verse in Exodus (25:8): ‘And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst’. This clearly points to the resting of the Divine presence among the Jews in the desert – a spiritual concept. The focal point of this spiritual ideal is the Ark in which rested the Tablets of the law.


However, other components of the Temple are the service of the daily sacrifices, the pilgrimage sacrifices and the many other services that were performed in the Temple. These are primarily specific duties and laws pertaining to the Jewish people centred on the Temple. The fundamental question, therefore, that may be asked is what is the primary function of the Temple? Is it for the purpose of the resting of the Divine presence, which by definition cannot be considered a law in itself, or is the primary function of the Temple building a place where the laws pertaining to the Temple - i.e. the sacrifices – can be fulfilled? Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe (1902-1994), argues in Likutei Sichot (vol. 11 p. 120) that according to Maimonides the primary function of the Temple is legal, whereas Nachmanides would view is as spiritual.


The Rebbe suggests that if one views the purpose of the Temple building as a whole as a place where the laws of the Temple can be performed, centred primary on the sacrifices, it would be logical to say that all the components of the laws that are performed in this building are defined as a single concept. If however, the purpose of the Temple is the spiritual resting of the Divine, this can be found to be relevant only regarding the Ark, which is the focal point of the Divine presence. The other aspects of the Temple may be viewed as separate components for different purposes.


The outcome of this approach is that Maimonides is seen to be arguing that the primary purpose of the Temple is as a place where the laws of the sacrifices can be performed and for this to happen the law to build a Temple with all its components was issued. As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, this does not negate Maimonides’ view of the Temple also as a spiritual place for the resting of the Divine, as he indicates with the Scriptural source he brings for the building of the Temple (Exodus 25:8): ‘And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst’, a verse implying the spiritual indwelling of the Divine. It is however clear that Maimonides is interested to emphasise that the primary purpose of the Temple should be viewed as legal rather than spiritual.


This emphasis by Maimonides on law as the primary foundation to fundamental concepts in Judaism pertains to the coming of Messiah and the concept of belief in G-d, as will be demonstrated in further essays in this series.



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