Mishneh Torah of Maimonides
29 volumes - Hebrew/English
By Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Moses Maimonides)
Translated and Edited by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - April 1, 2010
This series translates Maimonides' brilliant law code in a very readable fashion.
Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, his code of Jewish law, is exceptionally well organized and rational, but Judaism opted to seek the laws in the later codes of the Tur and the Shulchan Arukh and the codes that were built on their ideas. Why?
The problem with Maimonides' code was that it was rational. The Jews, like the majority of people of other faiths around them, wanted a code of law that addressed the world as they saw it, a world filled with demons and superstitious fears, with magic and practices that protected them from both. While Maimonides' code ignored these superstitions, the Tur and Shulchan Arukh and other codes abound in them from beginning to end. They taught the Jew how to evade and beat and control demons, which they believed appeared and bothered them daily.
For example, the Tur and Shulchan Arukh and other codes instruct the Jew to wash his hands three times each morning when he awakens. He is told to wash over a bowl and later pour it out outside his home. Why?
These codes drew this superstitious idea from the thirteenth century mystical book Zohar, which stated that the washing rids a person's body of the demons that attached themselves to his hands at night. The number three was chosen because it had mystical significance. Many Jewish practices based on mysticism are done three times; three assures success. Thus some Jews sing Shalom Aleikheim three times each Friday night.
At the time when these codes were written, when there were no sinks to collect water and drain it from the home, water was generally poured directly on the ground. Why, then, did these non-Maimonidean codes require that the hands be washed over a bowl that collected the water rather than letting it flow to the ground? If the demon-infected water were allowed to collect on the Jew's floor, demons would be able to escape from the water and reinfect the home with their evil deeds. Thus it was necessary to remove the water from the house.
Needless to say, several other reasons were given to explain the hand-washing practice. One, for example, it that the Jew prepares himself at the outset of the day to serve God, just as the priests washed before they served God in the Temple. This is an obvious later rationalization and not the true reason for the institution of the rite. The rationalization fails to explain the details such as the need for three washings and the bowl. Furthermore, the ceremonies are not at all similar; for example, the priests also washed their feet.
Maimonides' Code does not include such practices.
This series translates Maimonides' great code and has many very useful explanatory notes. It is helpful for people who are unable to read the original Hebrew; however readers may feel that the translation does not always capture Maimonides' rational approach and that the notes have non-rational ideas.