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Moses Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, usually referred to in Hebrew by the acronym "Rambam") was one of the towering figures in medieval intellectual and religious life. In addition to his law code, he excelled in the fields of philosophy, science, medicine, exegesis and communal leadership. Though born in Spain, in his youth his family fled religious persecution, settling in Egypt. Maimonides' literary output includes: a work on philosophical logic; an Arabic commentary to the Mishnah; an enumeration of the 613 precepts of the Torah; the Mishneh Torah law code; the Arabic philosophical treatise The Guide of the Perplexed; and many letters and responsa addressed to various Jewish communities.
Maimonides lived from 1138 to 1204. He spent ten full years compiling the Mishneh Torah, which he continued to revise throughout his lifetime. The term "Mishneh Torah" means "The Second Law" and is the name used in the Bible itself to designate the book of Deuteronomy, which is a kind summary or review of the rest of the Torah. Maimonides's Mishneh Torah was intended to be a summary of the entire body of Jewish religious law.
The Mishneh Torah is sometimes referred to as the Yad Ha-Hazaqah, "the mighty arm." This is a play on the numerological value of the Hebrew word for arm, "yad," which is 14, equal to the number of volumes in this code. Maimonides actually referred to the book as "Sefer Mehoqeq" ("The Book of Legislation"), a title which is rarely employed.
The Mishneh Torah is composed in Rabbinic Hebrew, after the style of the Mishnah. It is divided up into fourteen general sections (similar to the "orders" of the Mishnah), each of which is further subdivided into books (like tractates), and then into numbered chapters and laws. Some of the distinctive features of the Mishneh Torah are the following:
It encompasses the full range of Jewish law, as formulated for all ages and places. Most other Jewish law codes confined themselves to laws that were in force in their own times and lands, thereby excluding rules that apply only in the Land of Israel, under an independent Jewish kingdom, or that could not be observed following the destruction of the Temple.
It completely reorganizes and reformulates the laws in a clear and logical system. Earlier codes had followed the Talmud's sometimes haphazard arrangement with only very few attempts to improve on that order.
It presents the normative rulings without any discussion or explanation of how the decisions were reached.
It contains a section on systematic philosophical theology, derived largely from Aristotelian science and metaphysics, which it regards as the most important component of Jewish law. Most other Jewish codes avoided mixing creed and religious law; and Maimonides' interpretation of Jewish religion in terms of Greek ideas aroused much opposition.
An online version of Mishneh Torah, according to the Yemenite manuscripts, may be found at http://www.mechon-mamre.org/i/0.htm. Immanuel O'Levy's translation of the Rambam's entire Sefer Mada (Book of Knowledge) can be found on Jon Baker's web site at http://www.panix.com/~jjbaker/rambam.html.
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