Parshat Yitro 5

“I am Hashem your Lord that brought you out from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” (Shemot 20:2)

This is the first statement of the Aseret HaDibrot – the Decalogue. It presents the most fundamental premise of the Torah. There is a G-d. Maimonides understands this statement to be a commandment. We are commanded to accept the existence of a G-d who is the source of all reality.[1]

In Maimonides’ introduction to his Mishne Torah, he provides a list of the 613 commandments. In this list, Maimonides places the commandments in the same order that they appear in his Sefer HaMitzvot. The placement of the individual mitzvot on this list does not correspond with the placement of these commandments in the Torah. Instead, Maimonides constructed a hierarchical order. Maimonides’ order reflects the relationship between the various commandments. The very first commandment in Maimonides’ list is the mitzvah to accept the existence of Hashem. Apparently, Maimonides regards this mitzvah as fundamental to the system of Taryag – the 613 commandments.

In contrast to Maimonides, Rabbaynu Chasdia Kreskas argues that acceptance of Hashem cannot even be defined as a mitzvah. He presents a very powerful argument. He argues that every mitzvah, by definition, must engender some obligation or result. A command to accept G-d’s existence could not meet this criterion. Why? To whom is the command directed? If it is directed to a person who is already convinced, then the command engenders no new outcome. This person is already convinced! The alternative is even more absurd. This would require that the command be directed to the non-believer. But the non-believer could not take such a command seriously! Based on this argument, Rabbaynu Chasdia concludes that conviction in the existence of Hashem precedes mitzvot and cannot be counted among Taryag.[2]

How can Maimonides’ position be explained? This issue provides a fundamental insight into Maimonides’ understanding of Taryag Mitzvot. Apparently, Maimonides disagrees with the Rabbaynu Chasdia’s basic premise. This premise is that the mitzvot can be equated to decrees. Maimonides seems to maintain Taryag must be defined in a more inclusive manner. He posits that the mitzvot are the basic blueprint for the complete person and nation. This blueprint includes the guide to achieving personal and national fulfillment as well as the basic description of the behaviors and convictions of the shalem – the complete individual.

Based on this definition of Taryag, Maimonides’ position can be appreciated. The most basic ingredient to human perfection is acceptance of the Almighty, Who is the source of all other reality. No description of the shalem can be construed which does not include this fundamental conviction.

If we consider Maimonides’ position carefully, an important premise emerges. The most basic and fundamental mitzvah of Taryag is not a command to perform any act. It is the description of a conviction that is fundamental to the perfection of the human being. In other words, the most fundamental element of human perfection is our conviction in the existence of Hashem.

Maimonides discusses this issue more thoroughly in his Commentary on the Mishne. He explains that in order to be regarded as adhering to the Torah, we must accept the basic convictions outlined by the Torah. Maimonides outlines thirteen principles – ikkarim – that are the fundamental convictions contained in the Torah. He explains that in order to be regarded as adhering to the Torah, one must accept all of these principles. If a person accepts these ikkarim, he is regarded as adhering to the Torah even if he is not perfect in his observance. In contrast, a person who is scrupulous in observance, but unconvinced of the truth of these thirteen principles, cannot be regarded as a Torah Jew. [3] It is clear from Maimonides’ discussion of this issue that our convictions are essential to our identity as Torah Jews. Without these convictions our actions are hollow and loose their meaning and significance.

Maimonides’ position differs markedly from the view that is popular today. Even many Jews who unequivocally identify themselves as Torah observant give little or none of their attention to clearly understanding these thirteen ikkarim of the Torah. Many Jews – observant and non-observant – do give some attention to the study of Torah machshava – philosophy. But this attention is generally directed to the study of mussar – ethical thought and philosophy. Maimonides’ thirteen principles – which are remarkably devoid of any extensive discussion of ethical philosophy – are almost completely neglected. At most, the thirteen ikkarim are quickly recited at the close of morning prayers with little thought or understanding. The popular view is that actions are more fundamental than convictions. We can hold ourselves responsible for acting properly but we cannot be expected to establish a clear system of convictions. Nonetheless, it behooves us to occasionally break from popular practice and give some serious thought to the thirteen ikkarim that Maimonides identifies as the underpinning of Judaism.

As explained above, Maimonides lists as the first mitzvah of the Torah acceptance of the existence of Hashem. Maimonides also lists this conviction as the first of the thirteen fundamental principles of the Torah. Of course, we need to define what we mean by Hashem. Maimonides explains that when we use the term Hashem or G-d we are required to understand that He is the cause of all that exists. In other words, all that exists is sustained by His will. In contrast, His existence is self-sustained and does not require any external cause.[4]

This principle is often confused with the Torah’s assertion that Hashem created the universe. However, these two concepts are not interchangeable. Maimonides’ first principle does not deal with the origins of the universe. It deals with the dependence of the universe upon Hashem’s ongoing will. This is an important issue. The ancient philosophers – for example, Aristotle – were willing to acknowledge that the universe’s existence is dependant upon G-d. However, they denied that He created the universe. They posited that the universe and

G-d share eternity. These philosophers maintained that although the existence of the universe is dependent on G-d, it is not created. Instead it is an emanation. It can be compared to the shadow of a wall. The existence of the wall causes the shadow. But the wall does not perform an act of creation in order to bring the shadow into existence. Instead, the shadow is a result of the existence of the wall. Similarly, these philosophers asserted that the universe is a result of G-d’s existence but it not a creation of G-d.

It appears that Maimonides first principle does not contradict this perspective. It does not deal with the issue of creation. It merely asserts that the universe’s ongoing existence is dependent upon Hashem.

“For in six days Hashem created the heavens, the earth, the seas and all that are contained in them. And He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, Hashem blessed the Shabbat and sanctified it.” (Shemot 20:11)

Rav Yosef Albo criticizes Maimonides on this issue. He contends that Maimonides neglected to include within his thirteen principles the Torah principle that Hashem created the universe.[5]

We observe Shabbat every week. The above pasuk explains that Shabbat is designed to commemorate creation. It seems obvious that the attention the Torah gives to creation indicates that this is a fundamental element of the Torah. The Torah’s emphasis on creation seems to support Rav Albo’s criticism of Maimonides.

However, a careful study of Maimonides’ thirteen principles indicates that they do include the assertion that Hashem created the universe. Maimonides’ fourth principle is that Hashem is eternal and that no other existence is eternal. Maimonides elaborates on this principle and explicitly states that this principle includes a negation of the Aristotelian position. In other words, according to Maimonides’ formulation of this principle, it includes the assertion that Hashem created the universe and it is not eternal.

It is amazing that Rav Albo criticizes Maimonides for neglecting to include within his thirteen ikkarim the Torah’s assertion that Hashem created the universe. This is simply not accurate. As we have explained, Maimonides explicitly includes this assertion within his fourth principle! How can we explain Rav Albo’s apparent error?

Appreciating Rav Albo’s criticism requires a more thorough understanding of Maimonides’ formulation of his thirteen principles. In order to reach this understanding, it is helpful to begin with a related question.

Maimonides’ second principle is that Hashem is a unity. What is the meaning of the term “unity?” Maimonides explains that Hashem is not subject to division in any sense. This means that we can not view Hashem has having parts or even characteristics. We cannot view Hashem as possessing compassion or mercy. Such a view means that Hashem has attributes. The assignment of attributes to Hashem is inconsistent with the Torah’s assertion that Hashem is one. It is true that the Torah does refer to Divine attributes. However, Maimonides explains that when the Torah refers to Hashem’s mercy or other attributes it is resorting to an allegory and is not to be understood in a literal sense.[6]

Maimonides’ third principle is that Hashem is not material and cannot be described as possessing any of the qualities or characteristics associated with material objects. It would seem that this third principle is superfluous. It is an obvious extension of the second principle. Hashem is a unity. This precludes conceiving of Him as material. All material objects have characteristics – for example dimension and size. It is quite impossible to conceive of a material object devoid of all characteristics. Similarly, Maimonides’ fourth principle is that Hashem is eternal. This principle also seems to be an extension of the second principle. The reasoning behind this argument is somewhat abstract and is beyond the scope of this discussion. But the observation is nonetheless noteworthy. It indicates that the thirteen ikkarim are not independent of one another. They are interrelated and in some cases latter principles are easily derived from earlier principles.

This suggests a question. What are these principles? We would have assumed that they are similar to a postulate system. In a postulate system, each element is independent of the others. Postulates are basic building blocks. One cannot be derived from another. It is easy to understand the role of postulates in a postulate system. They are the fundamental principles. All other elements of the system are derived from the postulates but the postulates cannot be derived from one another. The postulates are the foundation. The remaining elements of the system are derived and built upon this foundation. But Maimonides’ thirteen principles are not independent of one another. In fact, they are interrelated. If one principle can be derived from another, on what basis is a principle defined as fundamental?

The implication of this question is that Maimonides’ thirteen ikkarim are not a system of postulates. Instead, they are Maimonides’ outline of the basic theological framework of the Torah. They describe a structure of concepts. These concepts are interrelated. But in their totality they depict the basic outline of the Torah’s theology. They are a basic sketch of the Torah’s outlook. They are an abstract of the elements that compose the Torah’s perspective. They can be compared to an architect’s preliminary drawing of a structure. The architect begins with an outline that includes the basic elements of the structure. These elements give the structure its form and function. Later the architect adds additional detail to his drawing. But the basic form emerges from the preliminary drawing. It contains all of the elements that give the structure its basic form and function. Similarly, Maimonides’ principles are such an outline. The basic form and structure of the Torah’s outlook is contained in this outline. The Torah adds much more detail. But the fundamental structure is contained in these thirteen principles.

Now, Rav Albo’s question can be appreciated. As Maimonides notes, the Torah’s assertion that the universe is created can be derived from the fourth principle. But this does not mean that this assertion should not be treated as a separate principle. Rav Albo argues that certainly creation is a fundamental element of the Torah’s outlook. It deserves to be treated as such and enumerated as a separate principle. It is not adequate to include creation within another principle!

What is the basis of this dispute between Maimonides and Rav Albo? This is a difficult question to answer. However, it is possible to present an approach or hypothesis. Rav Albo maintains that creation is a fundamental proposition of the Torah. According to Rav Albo, the Torah directs us to regard the word as a creation of Hashem and not as coexistent with Him. We must recognize that the universe that we know is not eternal and is a result of an act of creation. Our relationship with and understanding of the universe must be predicated on this acknowledgement.

In contrast, a survey of Maimonides’ thirteen principles reveals that they deal primarily with our relationship with and understanding of Hashem. It seems that according to Maimonides, the essence of the Torah is the perspective it provides on Hashem and our relationship with Him. A fundamental element of this understanding and relationship is that we are required to appreciate Hashem’s uniqueness. He is eternal. In His eternity, He is unique. Nothing else partakes of eternity.

Maimonides’ understanding of the role of creation in Torah thought is predicated on his contention that our understanding of and relationship with Hashem is the most fundamental element of the Torah. The Torah’s assertion that the universe is created is important because this assertion confirms Hashem’s uniqueness. If we fail to accept creation, we do not appreciate the uniqueness of Hashem’s existence and His central role in all other existence. Without creation, we cannot regard Hashem as the most fundamental reality and the most central element of all reality.

Based on this perspective, Maimonides does not enumerate creation as an independent principle. Instead, he includes it in his fourth principle. We are required to acknowledge that Hashem is eternal. Hashem’s eternal existence is unique. Nothing else partakes of this eternity. Therefore, we must accept that the universe is created and not eternal.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 1

[2] Rabbaynu Chasdai Kreskas, Ohr Hashem, Introduction (HaTza’ah).

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1.

[5] Rav Yosef Albo, Sefer HaIkkarim, volume1, chapter 1.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 1:9.