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Applying the Rambam to the Torah

Reviewing: “The Biblical Maimonides (Exodus): The Writings of Moses Maimonides Arranged According to Torah Verses,” by Alec Goldstein. Kodesh Press. 2019. English. Paperback. 506 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1947857261.

Let us assume you are a lover of Rambam. What do you do each parsha when you want to give a dvar Torah? Despite his voluminous writings, Rambam never wrote a commentary on the Torah.

Now, however, a new genre of literature has arisen. People collect Rambam’s writings from elsewhere, i.e., commentary on the Mishnah, Sefer HaMitzvot, Mishneh Torah, Guide to the Perplexed, and numerous responsum, and present them in the order of the Torah verses. There are several works like this in Hebrew. But to my knowledge, this work by Alec Goldstein is the first work of this genre in English. This work only covers the Book of Exodus, but it is still 488 pages (plus useful indices).

(With regard to the books of Genesis and Exodus, we have a surviving commentary on these books by the son of Rambam. Sometimes he records interpretations of his father and some of these interpretations are included by the author as well.)

The best part of this work is that the author does not just collect Rambam’s comments on the verses. He then tells you how this interpretation differs from that of Rashi. Then he will quote Nachmanides and tell you whose side he is on. By doing this, the book makes a major contribution to Rambam and parsha studies.

The author quotes dozens of other sources as well. When you buy this book, you think you will be learning mainly the interpretations of Rambam. But you will be amazed how much you will learn about the views of other Rishonim, Acharonim, and modern-day rabbinic scholars.

Let us go through a sample of the hundreds of interpretations included in this work:

1. At Exodus 2:14, Moses intercedes between two Hebrews fighting and is asked by one of them: “ha-le-hargeini ata omer?” Here the author quotes from Rambam’s statements in the Guide that the roots A-M-R and D-B-R are synonymous, and that they have three different meanings: 1) speech, 2) thought and 3) will (=desire). In the Guide, Rambam had cited examples for each of the meanings, and for the last, Rambam had cited our verse.

Then the author points out that this view of Rambam differs from that of Rashi. Rashi had written that the root D-B-R is always “lashon kashe,” while the root A-M-R is always “lashon tachanunim.” See, e.g., Rashi on Num. 12:1.

The author explains further that Rambam would understand our phrase at Ex. 2:14 as meaning “Do you desire to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?” In contrast, Rashi (based on a midrash) assumes a very literal understanding of the verse: “will you say something that will kill me, in the same manner that you killed the Egyptian, i.e., by uttering the ‘shem ha-meforash’?”

(The widespread view today is that Rambam never saw any of Rashi’s commentaries, as he never cites him. But it has been suggested in recent years that Rambam may have become aware of some of Rashi’s commentaries later in life.)

2. At Exodus 4:2-4, God turns Moses’ rod into a serpent and then turns it back into a rod. Why would the second stage be necessary when Moses showed this sign to others? Here the author quotes from a responsum of Rambam’s: “ [If a miracle persists, it opens] the way to suspicion. If the rod remained a serpent, the uncertainty would be entertained that it had originally been a serpent, so that the miracle is achieved by its return to the rod… If, in the incident of the followers of Korah, the ground had burst asunder, and stayed open for good, the miracle would be challenged. In fact, the miracle was completed when the ground returned to its former condition…”

3. Exodus 6:18 mentions Amram. Here the author quotes a passage from the Mishneh Torah (Melachim 9:1) where Rambam states that some commandments were given to Amram before the Torah was given. The author raises the question of where Rambam learned this. He quotes Meshech Chochmah, Yad Eitan, and Rabbi Israel Eliezer Rubin for some suggestions.

4. Exodus 12:8 tells us that the Passover meat had to be eaten with merorim. The Torah does not give us any reason for this. Of course, in the Haggadah we explain that the merorim reflect the bitterness of the slavery, citing verse 1:14: “va-ye-mareru et chayeyhem….” (I find this explanation compelling.) The author first quotes Rambam’s Haggadah, which matches ours. But then the author adds an interesting suggestion by the Chizkuni. The Passover offering was a symbolic slaying of an Egyptian deity, and eating the lamb with merorim (as opposed to something important and sweet) was a further way to show contempt for it.

***

In the introduction to the work, the author raises questions such as what sense of “pshat” the Rambam had, and whether it is legitimate to take statements from scattered works and other contexts and turn them into a running commentary. The author also quips that if Rambam had wanted to write a commentary on the Torah, perhaps he would have!

In this connection it is interesting to mention some other works that Rambam mentions that he hoped to author. In one letter he mentions that he hoped to write a work where he lists the sources for his statements in the Mishneh Torah. But he never had time to do this. In a different letter he complains that he wished he had the time to translate his Arabic writings into Hebrew. A famous letter (quoted in the Encyclopaedia Judaica 11:757) describes his daily life as a physician to the sultan and how busy and tired he was at that time.

Obviously, the author could not include every statement or allusion of Rambam that was relevant to a verse in Exodus. The author explains his methodology in the introduction.

The author writes that he has been studying Rambam for most of his adult life. He mentions an old joke that men know where a verse is in the Gemara and women know where it is in Tanach. He jokes that he knew neither but knew where Rambam quoted it!

The author has semichah from Y.U. He also has an excellent knowledge of ancient languages and nuances of words. This makes him an excellent writer and translator. Hopefully, he will continue with the other four books of the Torah!

One can collect Mitchell First’s Jewish Link articles and make them into a book as well. (Actually, he already did that! But only for the first two years of his columns; another book is necessary for the columns of years three and four.) Full disclosure: Alec Goldstein runs Kodesh Press, which has published two of my books.

By Mitchell First

 

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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