Thursday, February 12, 2009

CAT (Commonly Ambiguous Terms) - Mishneh Torah (Part I)

I am currently reading, A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, and it is a wonderful book. However, when he discusses Albert Einstein (Chapter 8) and his General Theory of Relativity (of E=MC2 fame) - he quotes C.P. Snow. Mr. Snow made the following observation about Einstein’s theory: 

‘Without it (the General Theory of Relativity),’ wrote Snow in 1979, ‘it is likely that we should still be waiting for the theory today.’

In other words: if Einstein had not discovered this theory, no one else would have.

I have no idea how anyone can make this type of statement. There are plenty of examples of similar ideas and theories having been discovered by different people all the time. It is a little like the Top 100 People in the History of the World - how do you actually decide who is number 5 and who is number 50? I honestly find these types lists and exaggerated statements to be a source of significant irritation.

Nevertheless, I am going to be a hypocrite and go against everything I just said! Rambam’s Mishneh Torah is one of the greatest works of Rabbinic literature from the period of the Rishonim. And I am pretty sure that this is not an exaggeration.

The Mishneh Torah is a law code, which attempts to posken every halakhah from the Gemara. It is a milestone in the history of the development of psak halakhah because it is the first law code since the Gemara that attempted to claim to be a book of authoritative psak halakhah for all of the Jewish people. (The earliest law code is the בעל הלכות גדולות (BeHaG), but it was not meant to be as authoritative over all the Jewish people.)

However, the reason that I am awed by the gadlut of the Mishneh Torah is because of its modern literary flexibility. In simpler words, it is amazing how the Mishneh Torah becomes a subject for almost all of the types of Torah learning.

o        Halakhah - A bit obvious, I guess.

o        Gemara - Thanks to R. Chaim and the Briskers, Rambam is just as much a part of learning Gemara as Rashi and Tosafot. (maybe more, gasp!)

o        Machshava - Certainly Sefer Madda was actually written as much a work of Machshava as Halakhah. There are also many other pieces throughout the Mishneh Torah which have become cornerstones of Machshava.

o        Parshanut - This is a little bit of a stretch, but even the Ramban will quote the Mishneh Torah from time to time.

Alas, I was recently convinced that the Rambam is not a kabbalist and thus the Mishneh Torah has nothing to add to Kabbalah. (I have not even looked at the cover of Menachem Kellner’s book on this subject. Also, you do not have to go much farther than the first chapter of the Tanya to see that he quotes Rambam. So maybe some of you out there in the blogosphere will disagree with me.)

As you can see from the title of this post - there is still more to come concerning Rambam. Stay tuned!

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