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Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters

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Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters

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Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters
By Marc B. Shapiro
Bilingual Edition: 172 pages in English, 33 in Hebrew
University of Scranton Press, 2008
ISBN: 1589661656

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - January 27, 2009

Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) has been considered to be the greatest Jewish philosopher and codifier, a man with a highly unusual intellect. The popular adage, repeated by many sages since Maimonides' death, is that "from Moses to Moses there has been no one like Moses." The accolade recognizes that all of the rabbis, sages and philosophers who lived during the two millennia from the time that the first Moses led the Israelites from Egypt including the writers of the Mishnah, Talmuds and Midrashim failed to approach the pinnacle of wisdom and leadership of Moses Maimonides. Thus, to suggest that he had human frailties such as forgetfulness and that he made mistakes borders, in the minds of traditionalists as gross heresy.

Marc B. Shapiro, who holds the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Scranton, recognizes this fact in his excellent and well-researched and annotated Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters. Yet, he distinguishes the traditional and the academic approach. The leitmotif of the former is: "All of Maimonides' words are exact," there are no mistakes. The latter, on the other hand, see many instances where Maimonides depended upon his memory, without consulting the original source, and quoted statements erroneously. Dr. Shapiro catalogues more than 210 instances, many noticed by traditional rabbis, where Maimonides "made a careless error," misquotes biblical, talmudic and midrashic texts. These include mistakes in spelling, missing words, and even, rarely, the quotation of one verse when another was clearly intended. He notes that Maimonides himself admitted that his memory became faulty as he aged.

Academics have long recognized that Maimonides frequently inserts contrary views into his writings, one statement for educated intellectuals who are capable of understanding and accepting his view of life, and a contrary notion for the more traditionally-minded populace who are incapable of accepting them because they need to believe in the untruthful notions to feel content with their lives. His statements for the masses of people could be called a "noble lie" or a "necessary belief." The belief in resurrection is generally understood to be a Maimonidean teaching that was a "noble lie" because Maimonides felt that life after death was so enjoyable that no one would want to be resurrected to a lesser condition.

Many scholars are convinced that talmudic rabbis, or at least some of them, also used this methodology. They spoke about the existence of demons as a practical "necessary belief" or aveirah lishmah, "a sin committed to accomplish a good," to protect large generally uneducated segments of the Jewish population from harm, such as prohibiting entering an old dilapidated ruin because of the presence of demons, when the true reason is to protect foolish people from a dangerous situation.

Dr. Shapiro goes beyond this. He points out that Maimonides stated in a letter to R. Pinchas of Alexandria that whenever he cites a law in his code, his Mishneh Torah, a reader can be assured that the law was derived from explicit traditional rabbinic teachings in the Talmuds, Midrashim, or Gaonic teachings. He wrote that if he was presenting his own view of the law he would say explicitly, "it appears to me." Yet there are a host of instances where he presents a law that is not found in former sources and even more where "his originality is seen in the way he reworks various talmudic halakhot, emphasizing some aspects at the expense of others, and offering reasons of his own devising."

A prominent example among many is laws that relate to superstition. Maimonides omits all such "flawed" laws either by leaving them out entirely from his Code or by subtly altering the law to remove all superstitious elements, especially the belief in the truth of astrology and the existence of demons and magic.

Dr. Shapiro cites more than fifty examples where Maimonides omits laws that are mentioned in the Talmuds connected to superstition or "cleanses" them. These include the law from the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 43b, that people are forbidden to leave their houses on Wednesday or Saturday night because 180,000 demons wander about on these nights looking about to wreak destruction. Also Shabbat 12b and Sotah 33a that people should not pray in Aramaic because angels do not understand Aramaic (and their help is needed to assure that G-d receives the human petition).

Dr. Shapiro does not discuss in any detail the reintroduction of superstition into the codes written after Maimonides' death or speculate upon whether one of the reasons for writing the new codes, other than to present sources for the halakhot and divergent opinions, was the need to give the masses the superstitions they felt they needed. Examples of the multiple superstitions introduced into the later codes include putting on and taking off shoes in the morning and evening in a prescribed order because of the superstitious value of starting everything on the right side, and not pouring water with which one washed after awakening on the floor because the water spreads demons throughout the house.

Dr. Shapiro should certainly not be criticized for this omission, for the examination of the introduction of superstition into the post-Maimonidean code is an independent study and not the purpose of this excellent volume.

In summary, this book on the generally unknown methodology of Maimonides is filled with insightful information about Judaism's greatest sage, and is essential reading for people who want to understand him.


Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of seventeen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides. The Orthodox Union (OU) and Yeshiva University publish weekly chapters of Drazin and Wagner's book Let's Study Onkelos on www.ou.org/torah and on www.yutorah@yutorah.org. His website is http://booksnthoughts.com.

The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
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