Maimonides' Code - The Book of Knowledge

 The Fundamental Laws of the Torah

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By the grace of G-d 
Copyright © 1997, 2014 Nathaniel Segal 

The content of all the commandments [laws] in these [ten] chapters [of "The Fundamental Laws of the Torah"], [begins] —

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

To know the One G-d,* to love Him, and to fear Him are the opening fundamental laws of the Torah as presented by Maimonides in his Code.  The first two chapters of this section deal primarily with what is called the "Structure of the Divine Chariot" (Ma'aseh Merkavah *).  The chariot is the Divine throne of glory in Ezekiel's prophecy.  The most that we can know about the Almighty is like the deductions one makes about the owner of a vehicle by studying the vehicle and how it is driven.

Chapter 4

Chapters 3 and 4 expound upon the physics of the cosmos.

Therefore the masters of the topics in these four chapters only passed the tradition on to uniquely qualified individuals who had purified their hearts and mastered the practical aspects of Torah first.

So why then does Maimonides teach the rudiments of the "Structure of the Divine Chariot" and the "Structure of Creation" in his Code?

One reason is to encourage Torah study by showing that every topic which philosophers and scientists have wrestled with is in the Torah.  Secondly, these topics in the Code promote humility and discipline in the personalities of Torah scholars by reminding them that there is so much that they have yet to understand.

The Talmud relates an occasion when four Sages entered the Pardeis [to tour the mysteries of the Torah and attain a true knowledge of G-d]  (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Hagigah 14b;  also see the Tosefta, Tractate Hagigah 2:3-4).

The outcome was that only one of the four Sages remained intact after the experience.  Ben Azzai lost his life.  Ben Zoma lost his mind.  Acher lost his faith, rebelled against the Torah, and became an informer for the Romans.  Rabbi Akiva alone entered in peace and left in peace.

Even though they were the greatest of the Jewish people and greatly wise, not each of them had the strength to know and grasp these topics fully.

So therefore I (Maimonides) say that only someone who has filled himself with bread and meat [what we would call "meat and potatoes"] is fit to tour the Pardeis – Orchard of the Torah.

Translator's Notes:

Chapter 1, Law 1

6. [5.]  In European printed editions, this halacha begins number 6. However, in a Yemenite manuscript, this halacha is the conclusion of number 5 (Bluming, Rabbi Y. 2001. Rambam Ha'aruch. "Sefer HaMada." Series, Volume 1. pp. 4-5).

to know that there is one First Being . . .  - It is not enough to believe.  We are obligated to follow Maimonides' instructions in order to know G-d's unity, to know that it is not possible to discuss anything that is before His being, to know that He brings into being everything that exists, and to know that there is nothing outside of Him.

To believe is an opening for knowledge, but Maimonides does not call this faith a form of wisdom.  The human place in the universe is to acquire wisdom.  Individual animals know some things, but they are not wise.  Moreover, they are not aware of their Creator.

Furthermore, an implicit belief when studying Maimonides' Code is that he is qualified to teach us.  This is hinted at, I believe, in a verse with which he opens his entire work.  To rephrase this verse, "When I look at all Your commandments" – which Maimonides has done and has assembled in the Code – "I will not be ashamed" – not be falsely humble or be embarrassed to present himself as someone who can help us "look at all of G-d's commandments," to study them and to learn them from him.

Another feature of humility is patience.  Maimonides' style of composition demonstrates the patience of a qualified teacher.

“Then I will not be ashamed, when I look at all Your commandments.”
(Psalms 119:7)

everything that exists - things that exist.  We speak about how the Almighty exists, but His existence is perfectly unlike anything in His universe that exists.  "He was before the creation of things, He is unchanged while the universe of things exists, and He will be as He always was if for some reason He brings an end to creation.  He was, He is, He will be." (adapted from the prayer Adon Olam).

Nothing in the universe was, is, and will be.  On the human scale we all know this.  Someone makes something and it begins to fall apart, whether slowly or quickly.  Scientists teach us about the large scale of solar systems and galaxies.  Stars, for example, are born, they shine for a long while, and then they die.  We are taught that the heavier elements in the universe (heavier than hydrogen and helium) are "recycled" byproducts of galaxies and stars which have exploded and ceased to exist.

Chapter 2, Law 10

To know the One G-d - Maimonides' Code is a book of laws – halachot (hah lah KHOHT).  The translation of halachot is "ways of going" – the laws of the Torah to follow and observe at their time and in their place.  Maimonides rarely addresses the ease or difficulty of fulfilling a law.  But since "the greatest of the Jewish people and [the] greatly wise" like the four Sages who entered the Orchard of the Torah did not have the soulful strength to gain a true knowledge of G-d, it is a legal ruling that it was an inappropriate behavior even for them.  All the more so for us ordinary people.

"Most people do not have a well enough developed mind to grasp the meaning and explanation of these subjects without distortion."  According to the Code, though, the soul's thirsting and the body's longing to love the Almighty is fulfilled "when a person meditates on the topics explained in the first four chapters."

"Structure of the Divine Chariot" - A mystical system for gaining a knowledge of G-d which is as true as a human being can achieve.  Also translated as "Work / Operation of the Heavenly Chariot".

The Holy One, blessed be He - A true knowledge of G-d calls for a distinct way of referring to Him.  In English we might say something like the Almighty.  We need a distinct name because idolaters, for example, use the English word 'god' to refer to their idols.  Similarly, the English word 'lord' is so versatile that it appears as a description for anyone who has power over others.

In the system of really knowing G-d, another way to describe Him is to use the expression 'King of the kings of kings'.  A king of kings ordinarily calls himself an emperor (in his own language, of course).  The Holy One, blessed be He, rules over all these emperors.  The essence of true knowledge of the One and only Creator of the universe is to recognize how His qualities are essentially beyond the highest levels of human comprehension.

He is the One Who knows - the One Who knows things, including humans as things.

He is the knowable - by us humans within our limitations.  He already knows Himself.

He is the intelligence itself - the source of intelligence.  Our potential to be intelligent and wise is a dim reflection of Divine intelligence.

all unified - unlike us.  Our intelligence is only in potential – our ability to know.  Without proper education, which comes from outside ourselves, we grow up with an inability to really think clearly.  This clarity of thought is the skill system known as "critical thinking."

What is knowable for us is outside ourselves.  Even self-knowledge comes from outside ourselves.  We generally learn about ourselves from how others see us.  In Maimonides' view in his compositions, wisdom is what people should strive for.  This striving is ongoing study and learning about what it is possible to know.

Our knowing, as such – from study and learning – is an achievement as our intelligence comes out from its potential into actuality.  Our knowing is a result of ongoing effort rewarded with knowledge which cannot be taken away from us.  Then, we can try to pass on our knowledge to others.  Without a doubt, though, we take our knowledge with us to the grave.  (I'm discounting the rewards for the eternal human soul which does retain credit for its achievements during life in a body.  So, by Divine grace, we do take our knowledge with us as souls into the World of Reward.  Please note that when I write "eternal" soul, I am borrowing the word as a reference to how all human souls were created on the Sixth Day of Creation and to how souls exist independently of bodies.)

Chapter 4, Law 10

"Structure of Creation" - based primarily on the first chapter of Genesis and the next three verses in chapter 2.  Also translated as "Work of Creation";  "Activity / Action of Creation"

Chapter 4, Law 13

Pardeis - The four Hebrew letters of the word Pardeis also hint at the four dimensions of Torah study:

[It seems to me that the word Pardeis also hints at the Greek/Latin syllables per and para for 'beside', 'alongside', 'near', 'proximity' and 'experience' fused with the Latin word De-us, G-d Almighty.  These four Sages, Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rabbi Akiva, wanted to elevate themselves as near to the Divine as humanly possible by divesting themselves of their physicality.  See the above five commandments which these Sages wished to experience.  Only Rabbi Akiva left this state in peace, and then he became the pillar of transmission of the Oral Torah for all generations to come, including such secret mysteries as the Book of Formation (Sefer Yetzirah).

[One reason that I am pursuaded to see this hint is that most students of Torah, especially the mature ones, study the above four dimensions of Torah – plain meaning, hints, allegories, and secret mysteries – as a matter of course.  If so, then why focus on these four Sages, who specifically entered the Pardeis as if they were unique?  And why would only Rabbi Akiva leave in peace if it were "a stroll in the park"?

[Therefore, the experience of these four Sages was described as "entering into proximity to G-d" for those who would detect the sound resemblance to Greek and Latin words.  Also, Hebrew is not written with vowels.  A sophisticated student could read the word Pardeis as Paradeis.  However, by saying this expression with Hebrew tonality, the experience of four Sages was couched in a way to divest itself of any association with Roman or Greek ideas about what it meant.  So, the Talmud tells us about this occasion by using a surface metaphor of strolling in an orchard.

[By the way, it is not unusual for the Sages of the Talmud to disguise their full meanings in order not to confuse the ordinary student.]

Pronunciation Notes:

Ma'aseh Merkavah - mah ah SEH mehr kah VAH; MY seh mehr KUH vuh

Ma'aseh Breisheet - mah ah SEH bray SHEET; MY seh BRAY shees

mitzvot - mits VOHT

Pardeis - PAHR dayce; another spelling: Pardes

The Ten Commandments Explained in the Section "The Fundamental Laws of the Torah" *

This section – "The Fundamental Laws of the Torah" – contains ten commands for Jews:

Six positive commandments [what we should do], and

four negative commandments [what to refrain from doing]:

  1. To know that there is one First Being,
  2. To not think that there is another god except for the L-rd,
  3. To unify Him (in speech),
  4. To love Him,
  5. To fear Him,
  6. To sanctify His Name,
  7. To refrain from desecrating His Name,
  8. To refrain from tossing away things that His Name is associated with,
  9. To pay attention to what a prophet says in G-d's Name, and
  10. To refrain from testing him [the prophet].

*  I've only selected excerpts from four of the ten chapters in "The Fundamental Laws of the Torah".

Bibliography of Maimonides' Code in English
A Brief Biography of Maimonides
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