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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Ask anyone how many principles of Jewish faith there are, and the answer is almost certain to be 13. That is a mark of the influence of Rambam, who was the first to formulate the Jewish creed in this way. The principles are taken from his Commentary to the Mishnah, in his introduction to chapter 10 of Tractate Sanhedrin. A later formulation (“Ani ma’amin”) is found in many prayer books. The most famous version is to be found in the liturgical poem, Yigdal, often said at the beginning or end of services. In their briefest form, the principles are:

  1. God’s existence; 2. God’s unity; 3. God’s incorporeality; 4. God’s existence is before and after time; 5. God alone may be worshipped; 6. Prophecy; 7. The special nature of Moshe’s prophecy; 8. Torah from heaven; 9. The eternity of the Torah; 10. God’s knowledge; 11. Reward and punishment; 12. The Messiah; 13. Resurrection.

However, though this view has never been challenged, it is not the full story. To understand this, we must first know that Rambam was not only the supreme commentator and codifier of Jewish law. He also took immense care in the construction of his work. Nothing he wrote was accidental, especially the structure of his literary works. Rambam was a trained logician and philosopher. He devoted special attention to first principles. He left detailed explanations of why he wrote a particular work in one style rather than another, one language rather than another. For example, he wrote the Mishneh Torah in rabbinic Hebrew, unlike most of his other works that were written in Arabic. The Mishneh Torah itself is one of the most lucid books ever written in Hebrew, quite unlike The Guide for the Perplexed, which is written (as he explains in the introduction) to be deliberately opaque. He cared about the architectonics, the literary shape, of his works.

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It is with some surprise, therefore, that we discover that in all his major works, he used 14, not 13, as his organizing principle. The most famous example is the Mishneh Torah itself, commonly called the Yad (hand) because it is composed of 14 books (the numerical value of the Hebrew word yad is 14). The books are:

  1. Knowledge (Madda); 2. Love (Ahavah); 3. Times (Zemanim); 4. Women (Nashim); 5. Sanctity (Kedushah); 6. Expression (Hafla’ah); 7. Seeds (Zeraim); 8. Service (Avodah); 9. Sacrifices (Korbanot); 10. Purity (Tahorah); 11. Damages (Nezikin); 12. Acquisition (Kinyan); 13. Judgment (Mishpatim); 14. Judges (Shoftim).

In his introduction to Sefer Hamitzvot (The Book of Commandments), where he lists the 613 commands, he sets out 14 principles by which to decide whether a biblical passage is to count as a command. The book itself is divided into two (positive and negative) commands, each of which is subdivided into 14 groups:

Positive commands: 1. God; 2. Torah and prayer; 3. Sanctuary and priests; 4. Offerings; 5. Vows; 6. Purity and impurity; 7. Agriculture; 8. Food regulations; 9. Holy days; 10. State functions; 11. Duties to fellowman; 12. Family life; 13. Punishments; 14. Property regulations.

Negative commands: 1. God; 2. Idolatry; 3. Sanctuary and priests; 4. Offerings; 5. Vows; 6. Impurity; 7. Prohibited food; 8. Cultivation of land; 9. Duties to fellowman; 10. Administration of justice; 11. Public order; 12. Holy days; 13. Sexual regulations; 14. State affairs.

In the third part of The Guide for the Perplexed, Rambam gives a general account of the reasons for the commands. He divides the commandments into basic groups, differentiated by their purpose. Again, the number he chooses is 14. These are the types:

 

  1. Fundamental opinions; 2. Idolatry; 3. Ethical qualities; 4. Giving of arms and bestowing of gifts; 5. Other wrongdoing and aggression; 6. Punishments; 7. Mutual property transactions; 8. Days on which work is forbidden; 9. Other general practices of worship; 10. Sanctuary; 11. Sacrifices; 12. Clean and unclean; 13. Forbidden food and related matters; 14. Prohibited sexual unions.
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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth and the author and editor of 40 books on Jewish thought. He died earlier this month.