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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.
One of the Rambam's legacies is what has been come to be called the "13 principles of faith". These are not related to any particular observance; rather, they are intended to map out the borders between Judaism and other belief systems (such as Christianity and Islam). Why is this necessary? There are certain laws that apply to our relationships with "apikursim" (from the Greek "epicurean"), minim (heretics), kofrim (deniers) and mumarim (non observant). The first three are defined by belief, so Maimonides wanted to outline the borders between acceptable belief systems, and people in these three classes. According to Maimonides (see Laws of Repentence 3:6-9), these people, while members of the Jewish nation, aren't believers in Judaism. This has halachic import, such as whether they can be counted toward a quorum (minyan) for prayer; whether one can share their wine, etc. It also has metaphysical import: believers in Judaism (including non-Jews who observe the Noachide covenant) are guaranteed a world to come; these people are not. A min (a term also used in the Talmud to refer to early Christians) is one who diverges on the basics of theology: polytheists, deists, atheists, those who believe one should worship G-d via demigods (middle-men), and those who say that god has a body. [According to the Rambam's Guide, the latter is a form of polytheism. He sees it as just a verbal difference between talking about one god who has parts and one pantheon of multiple gods.] The word apikoreis is the Aramaic for Epicurean, as in "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die" and "nothing exists but atoms and the void". Looking at Maimonides' code, he defines "apikoreis" as one who holds any of the following:
Note that these are related to whether G-d's existance imposes requirements on human behavior (which is why the word relates to Epicurus). Kofrim are those who deny the divine origin of even a single verse of the Torah, or deny the origin of the Oral Torah, and those who say that some part of the Torah was later superceded. So, in summary: the wrong view of G-d makes one a min, the wrong view of how G-d relates to human behavior makes one an apikoreis, and disbelieving part of the Torah makes one a kofeir. Maimonides took these rules and to compose his 13 articles. So, the point of the articles is to give a rational basis to believing that Jewish observance was actually given to us by G-d.
The RAMBAM's 13 principles, as expressed in the Artscroll Siddur (pages 178-180) are as follows:
G-d is a complete and total unity
G-d is not physical
G-d is eternal and the First Source
Prayers should be directed to G-d
G-d communicates with man
Moses' prophecy is unique
The entire Torah is G-d-given
The Torah is unchangeable
G-d knows man's thoughts and deeds
Reward and punishment
The Messiah will come
The dead will live again
Some other places to find a more detailed statement of the principles are as follows:
It would take volumes to explain what these mean, but a good "catechism" of Jewish beliefs is the Handbook of Jewish Thought by R' Aryeh Kaplan.
See Also: Section 3.36. Torah: What is the Mishneh Torah (Yad Ha-Hazaqah , Sefer Mehoqeq)?
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