The bookshelf occupies an important place in the Jewish home. We are known as the “People of the Book,” and literacy is central to our culture and tradition. The most printed book in the world is the Bible, and the Jewish affinity for the written word is legendary.
Over the course of the generations, the Jewish library has been enriched by tens of thousands of volumes covering all areas of Torah study: Chumash, Talmud, Jewish law, Midrash, Kabbalah, Ethics and Chassidut. The beautiful thing about Jewish books is that newer books don’t supplant the old classics. Unlike in secular publishing, where newer editions are sought and the old editons lose their value, in Jewish tradition there is high regard for the wisdom and insight of past generations.
The Tanach, which includes the five books of Moses and 24 books of prophets, is the basis of Judaism, the written Torah. Its message was interpreted orally by generations of scholars since Moses, culminating with the redaction of the Mishnah in year 200 c.e. by Rabbi Judah Hanassi. The Mishnah was followed by the Talmud, which to this day is the most widely studied work of rabbinic literature. In the 1500 years that have passed since its compilation, it is still discussed and debated in Jewish study halls around the world.
Becoming an expert in Talmud is no easy task, as it demands familiarity with all aspects of Torah. The Talmud covers a phenomenal breadth of material, and demands great focus and concentration to understand it in its entirety. However, many books of commentary have been published in multiple languages, making the study of Talmud accessible to anyone, from the beginner to the advanced scholar.
This week will mark the 20th of Tevet, the day of passing of Maimonides, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, also known as the Rambam. In addition to being a famous Jewish physician and philosopher, the Rambam is also the author of Mishneh Torah, an extensive compendium of Jewish law (halachah) that ranges over all the subjects covered in the Talmud, written in an easy to understand, logical manner. Mishneh Torah is a fundamental work of halachah that covers both the halachot that are relevant today as well as those that will only be relevant when the Temple will be rebuilt.
One who studies Mishneh Torah can, in a sense, say that they have studied the entire Torah. This is the author himself writes in the introduction: “One who studies the written Torah and then reads this [Mishneh Torah] will know the entire oral Torah without need to study any other book.”
About 28 years ago the Lubavitcher Rebbe established a yearly cycle of studying three chapters of Mishneh Torah each day. For those who cannot manage three chapters, there is also an option to study one chapter a day and complete the cycle every three years, or study a daily passage of the Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvot, a compilation describing each of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot.
Study of the works of Maimonides has the potential to unite the Jewish people as well as giving people of all backgrounds and levels of Jewish learning an opportunity to review the entire oral Torah.
Maimonides describes the future Redemption as a time when “the sole occupation of the world will be to know G-d.” Study of the works of Maimonides, particularly Mishneh Torah, is a fitting preparation for that long awaited time.