Reading Maimonides' Mishneh Torah

BookReading Maimonides' Mishneh Torah

Reading Maimonides' Mishneh Torah

The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization


January 8th, 2015

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In this highly original study, David Gillis demonstrates that the Mishneh torah, Maimonides’ code of Jewish law, has the structure of a microcosm. Through this symbolic form, Maimonides presents the law as designed to perfect the individual and society by shaping them in the image of the divinely created cosmic order. The commandments of the law thereby bring human beings closer to fulfilling their ultimate purpose, knowledge of God. This symbolism turns the Mishneh torah into an object of contemplation that itself communicates such knowledge. In short, it is a work of art.
Gillis unpacks the metaphysical and cosmological underpinnings of Maimonides’ scheme of organization with consummate skill, allowing the reader to understand the Mishneh torah’s artistic dimension and to appreciate its power. Moreover, as he makes clear, uncovering this dimension casts new light on one of the great cruxes of Maimonides studies: the relationship of the Mishneh torah to his philosophical treatise The Guide of the Perplexed. A fundamental unity is revealed between Maimonides the codifier and Maimonides the philosopher that has not been fully appreciated hitherto.
Maimonides’ artistry in composition is repeatedly shown to serve his aims in persuading us of the coherence and wisdom of the halakhic system. Gillis’s fine exegesis sets in high relief the humane and transcendental purposes and methods of halakhah as Maimonides conceived of it, in an argument that is sure-footed and convincing.


‘David Gillis proves, not that Mishneh Torah 'also' contains philosophy over and above its halakhic content (as is often claimed), but that the very structure of the entire work reflects both Maimonides’ Neoplatonism and his artistry. This work will surely force a paradigm shift in the way in which Mishneh Torah is read and studied. It is written with the confidence of a mature and seasoned scholar, and with the verve of a master stylist: just as Gillis shows that Maimonides brought artistry to bear on the composition of Mishneh Torah, so does Gillis himself bring artistry to bear on the writing of this exciting book.’
Menachem Kellner

‘Novel, fresh, and creative as well as cogently argued. It is an original contribution to the study of Maimonides in particular and of medieval Jewish thought in general . . . shows how philosophy informs the entire Mishneh Torah from beginning to end in an exquisite structure that is Aristotelian in number and Plotinian in order . . . Gillis does not just present purely theoretical theses but applies them in order to resolve some of the problems that have engaged both scholars and the rabbinic world in making sense of various anomalies, inconsistencies, and contradictions in the Maimonidean corpus.’
James A. Diamond

‘A brilliant piece of work . . . it will have a major impact on the study of Maimonides and on the larger realm of Jewish and cosmopolitan scholarship . . . Gillis pries open a window that affords broad vistas of forests, valleys, mountains, and the heavens themselves.’
Lenn E. Goodman

Author Information

David Gillis is an independent scholar and author, with Menachem Kellner, of Maimonides the Universalist: The Ethical Horizons of the Mishneh Torah (Littman Library, 2020).

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
Half Title2
Title Page4
List of Tables13
Note on Transliteration14
Note on Sources and Conventions15
INTRODUCTION: A Portrait of the Artist18
The Cosmic Model18
Aggadah in Mishneh Torah24
Mishneh Torah as Art: The History of an Idea29
Defining Art32
The Poet in Maimonides’ Republic37
Necessities and Literary Invention46
Art as Imitatio Dei52
Maimonides and Modern Literary Theory65
Literary Models: Hebrew as Genre67
Structures of the Commandments82
Summary: Philosopher, Statesman, Artist95
1. In God’s Image97
Two Scholars99
Man as Microcosm110
Man as Microcosm in the Guide of the Perplexed114
Intellectual Virtue and Moral Virtue117
Moral Virtue’s Two Phases in Mishneh Torah122
Self-Knowledge and the Knowledge of God127
In Maimonides’ Workshop151
Virtue Ethics and Command Ethics: Abraham and Moses161
Portrait of Perfection167
2. The ‘Great Thing’ and the ‘Small Thing’: Mishneh Torah as Microcosm173
The Divide in Mishneh Torah175
How Many Spheres Make a Universe?179
The Spheres and the Commandments182
The Commandment as Form187
From ‘Knowledge That’ to ‘Knowledge Of’196
Origin of the Commandments205
Performance of the Commandments and Immortality207
Some Contrasts212
3. Emanation225
Maimonides on Emanation227
‘According to Greatness and Degree’228
First and Second Intention237
The Love–Awe Polarity239
The Hierarchy of Holiness241
The Flow of Form from the Book of Knowledge256
The Sacrifice Paradox277
Mikveh as Metaphor279
4. Return286
The Ladder of the Commandments and the Ladder of Prophecy289
From Dystopia to Utopia295
Loss and Restoration302
Rationalizing the Commandments: Mishneh Torah versus the Guide308
Why Is ‘Laws of Mourning’ Where It Is?336
5. From Theory to History, via Midrash: A Commentary on ‘Laws of the Foundations of the Torah’, 6: 9 and 7: 3343
The Problem of ‘Laws of the Foundations of the Torah’, 6: 9344
How to Read353
The Problem of ‘Laws of the Foundations of the Torah’, 7: 3360
Theory and History in the Prophet’s Epiphany363
Mishneh Torah as Prophecy376
6. Conclusion: Mishneh Torah as Parable385
The Lost Language of the Commandments385
A Jacob’s Ladder389
Literary Devices390
The Problem of Obsolescence392
Silver and Gold393
APPENDIX I. The Books and Sections of Mishneh Torah404
APPENDIX II. The Philosophical Background408
Outline of Neoplatonism408
The World According to Alfarabi and Avicenna411
Index of Citations442
Index of Subjects450