The Rambam and Sefer HaMitzvot:An Introduction by Rabbi Avroham Franklin
Volume 2 , Issue 5 (June, 1989 | Sivan, 5749)
Of the many sages who undertook enumerating the 613 mitzvot of the Torah, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, The Rambam, of blessed memory. was most influential. Not only did he compile a version of the mitzvot, Sefer Hamitzvot, but he used this compilation as the foundation and basis of his magnum opus. the Mishneh Torah.
The uniqueness of the Sefer Hamitzvot is that it is an original, systematic classification and detailed enumeration of all the 248 positive and 365 negative commandments. The Rambam did not satisfy himself with the conventional classifications of previous sages, but rather described and utilized fourteen rational guiding principles. These principles were used to define the differences between Biblical and Rabbinic commandments, general exhortations and specific commands, and temporary injunctions and timeless laws.
The Sages were always concerned about the nature of the actual mitzvot and, indeed, an entire genre of sages concerned themselves with counting and indicating the variations of the mitzvot in the Torah. The Rambam, however, was not codifying in the sense of creating new or obscure obligations. His task, rather, was one of collecting and systematizing those authoritative laws which conformed to his principles of analysis. What, however, is the critical importance of enumerating and determining exactly which mitzvot are purely Biblical as opposed to Rabbinic in origin?
Torah is a Source of Life
In order to understand this we must realize that the Torah is the source of our life and a guide to our conduct in this world. As Jews, we believe that the Torah is divine, and solely authored by God. Thought, speech and action must be rooted and controlled not only by logic and understanding, but also by axioms and premises that are morally correct. It is to this end that we look to the Torah. It is this uniqueness, namely, that our legal system and our entire code of ethics can be traced to a single source, that makes every law and statute esteemed in our eyes. This, in fact, is the basis of all counting--to show that a given object is of significance. In the realm of mitzvot, it is the realization that every statement in the Torah is of Divine origin, which thus gives credence and reason to our actions.
The importance of discerning the legal status of an action, whether it is Biblical or Rabbinic, custom or superstition, is not arbitrary. Other legal systems are not dependent upon a single source, but are indiscriminate accumulations of laws and statutes culled from various cultures and civilizations. This has created a socially driven attitude to laws and, in fact, has reduced most laws to being subject to the changing mores of society.
The Torah, however, is concerned about maintaining the authenticity and veracity of its own laws, and, conversely, with the abhorrence of the adoption of foreign customs and practices. The Sages, therefore, were scrupulous in protecting the essentials of the actual mitzvot, and in those instances where the incorporation of portions of other legal systems was indicated, they were meticulous that those laws conform and have abasis in the Torah itself. Thus, although financial and sociological customs were adopted from specific countries in which the Jews were living, the context and form of those laws had to conform to basic Torah ideals.
All Mitzvot Equal
Aside from granting special significance to those mitzvot which are indeed Biblical, the enumeration of the mitzvot into a concise body serves to equate all the mitzvot to each other. Indeed, the Sages exhorted the people to be scrupulous in the performance of even a seemingly minor mitzvah because we cannot comprehend the hierarchy of, or the reward for following the mitzvot, for all of the commandments are the word of God and a direct extension of His will.
One consequence of placing objects in a given category is that the objects are treated as essentailly equal in nature. A supposedly important object counts no more than a lesser object. This concept underlies all the enumerations in the Torah, for example, the counting of the Jews in the wilderness. For although there were external differences in appearance and character, there was an equality which manifested itself with regard to the soul of the Jew.
It is for precisely this reason that the Torah includes some of the most diverse statutes in the Ten Commandments. For, indeed, we must realize that those laws that do not appear to have necessitated divine authorship are, nevertheless, equal in importance to the exalted concepts of belief in the oneness of God, rooted in the Torah, and not subject to reformation.
Thus, although there is an equality present in all mitzvot, the Torah is not just a collection of laws and stories. It is, rather, the link between Man and God, between the physical and the spiritual and, most importantly, between our basic instincts and Gds lofty ideals for which Man must strive. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to sincerely attempt to understand the rationale of each mitzvah. And by elevating our actions and deeds in accordance with the 613 Mitzvot, may we realize and merit to perform all the mitzvot, specifically those related to the building of the Bait Hamikdash upon the coming of the Mashiach.
Rabbi Avrohom Franklin teaches at Yeshiva Hadar HaTorah and is a regular contributor to this column.