Sunday 6 October 2019


Sefer Mitzvot haGadol by R. Moshe miKotzi (1200-1260).

It is fascinating to see just why and how so many different Codes of Jewish Law sprung up in the aftermath of Rambam’s Code, the Mishneh Torah.

Jewish Law is essentially and broadly Jewish Law, and Halacha doesn’t fundamentally change in any significant manner that it warrants new and ‘more authoritative’ works that – besides a bit of give and take here and there – do not dramatically depart from the original Law as presented in Mishneh Torah.

We have explored this matter in a previous essay Theological Politics Surrounding the Emergence of the Shulchan Aruch, and will continue here to look at yet another new Code of Jewish Law, the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol[1], or Semag, authored by the northern French Tosafist R. Moshe of Kotzi (Coucy)[2] (1200-1260).

To clarify the chronology and context, Rambam passed away in 1204 and R. Moshe miKotzi completed his Semag a mere 43 years later in 1247.

The Maharshal (16th C) wrote:

“...for it is already a known fact that the Semag is entirely based on the Rambam and in most places he copies directly from him”[3]

Why did Moshe miKotzi deem it necessary, just a few decades after Rambam, to produce his Sefer Mitzvot Gadol or Semag, which by his own admission was based on, and almost identical to, the Mishneh Torah?[4]

To answer this question we turn to the writings of Professor Judah D. Galinsky, lecturer in the Department of Talmud at Bar Ilan University, from whose research I have extensively drawn.[5]


R. Moshe miKotzi studied under a master Tosafist, R. Yehudah Sir Leon in Paris as well as R. Yehuda heChasid (a leader of the mystical Chassidei Ashkenaz). When he was 35 years old, Moshe miKotzi became a travelling preacher (something which was also common amongst the Christian Friars of that time) and found himself in Spain and in other unnamed countries, where he hoped to inspire the people and promote religious awareness. He emphasized the observance of Teffilin, Tzitzit and Mezuzah amongst the masses.


It is no accident that a resurgence of basic observance was encouraged at that time because a great messianic fervour was prevalent in the Jewish world as the new millennium (corresponding to 1240) was eagerly awaited and anticipated.

The Tosafist period - spawned by Rashi (1040-1105) - lasted about two hundred years, encompassing the 12th and 13th centuries, and ending with R. Meir of Rothenburg (d. 1293). These Baalei haTosafot of Northern France and Germany were early Rishonim and were also (surprisingly) known mystics, many of them influenced by Chassidei Ashkenaz [see Mystical Forays of the Tosafists and And What Does Rashi Say?] and steadfastly opposed the spreading of Maimonidean rationalism[6].

This possible mystical association should not be overlooked because, as we shall see, it may have some bearing on just why Moshe miKotzi decided to write his Sefer Mitzvot Gadol.


Interestingly, Moshe miKotsi, although contributing to the Tosafist commentary on the Talmud, did not become an outstanding Tosafist, nor do we know of any of his students who wrote Tosafist commentary.

Moshe miKotzi also played a relatively minor role in the Talmud Trial of 1240 [see The Disputation of Paris].

However, it was in his legal and Halachic writings, as published in his Sefer Mitzvor Gadol or Semag, that he achieved his fame.

It has been suggested that the reason for this work was a direct result of the thousands of Talmudic manuscripts being burned after the Disputation of Paris. Because these texts were no longer available, he needed to present a Halachic summation of their contents, hence his Semag.

However, again as we shall see, there may have been another reason as well.


The Sefer Mitzvot Gadol differed in three main ways from Mishneh Torah:

1) The Semag is a two-volume work, divided into both negative and positive commandments (i.e., do’s and don’ts) - this distinction is absent in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. Still, as mentioned, Moshe miKotzi essentially based his work on the Mishneh Torah with slight variations. He rearranged the order of the last four sections of Mishneh Torah so that all practical Halacha would be kept together and the laws relating to past and future were moved to the end of his Semag.

2) Additionally, Moshe miKotzi included references and sources which were absent in Mishneh Torah and which remained a point of contention amongst the critics of Rambam.

3) Moshe miKotzi introduced dissenting legal opinions into his Semag, mainly from his fellow Tosafists of Northern France. 


While travelling and preaching through Spain, Moshe miKotzi records that:

“ several localities, they [i.e., his audience] asked me to transcribe the principles of the commandments along with their sources, in the form of a book.”[7]

Then later he writes:

“Subsequently I was in other lands and my words were well received everywhere. And they requested me to compose a book explaining the commandments in concise form.”[8]

Incidentally, the claim that authors write in response to widespread demand is common to much of medieval literature.

Nevertheless, after Moshe miKotzi informed his readers of the organic demand to write his book, he expresses his humility at so doing:

“...for I am brutish, less than a man. I lack the wisdom of humans [Proverbs 30:2]”

But then he hears a Heavenly call!

“At the beginning of the sixth millennium, a dream vision appeared to me:
‘Arise! Compose a Torah scroll [i.e., a book][9] containing two parts [i.e., the two volumes of positive and negative commandments][10]’”[11]


Moshe miKotzi greatly respected Rambam but that admiration did not prevent him from being critical when necessary:

“However this luminary...did not cite any proofs in his works, so that any individual who offers halakhic rulings based upon his books and is asked to provide some proof-text or source, if he did not learn the proof for this...[Maimonides’ decision] will be for him as a dream without resolution.”

Moshe miKotzi continues to express his displeasure with Rambam for not including the French Tosafists like Rashi, Rabbeinu Tam and Ri.

For these (and other) reasons, Moshe miKotzi presented a ‘revised version’ of Mishneh Torah although he adopted its ‘scope, structure, language...and...content.’ And he additionally offered references and sources and, particularly, the opinions of the French Tosafists.


Galinsky argues that, based on all this, Moshe miKotzi originally wrote specifically for a French and German audience. As a support for his hypothesis, Galinsky cites Karshavya[12] haNakdan the grammarian and scribe.

Karshavya got permission from Moshe miKotzi to copy a section of what was to become the Semag, before it was completed. In one place, he inserted what he called Perek Tzorfati, or the French Chapter, and writes:

“Written by the Rav R. Moses b. Jacob from Coucy who argues...according to the tradition of the French Sages.”[13]

It is interesting to note that this was called a perek or chapter, while still a ‘work in progress’, which may indicate that at that stage the Semag was primarily intended to just be a parallel copy of Mishneh Torah with some slight (French) variations.  

Somehow and at some stage, the work morphed into a more ‘independent’ statement when it was formatted around the positive and negative commandments.

Galinsky then proceeds to explain why Moshe miKotzi later decided:

 “ abandon the Maimonidean model of an integrated legal code and to replace it with the format of a two-part book of commandments.”


Up until the time of Moshe miKotzi, the French Tosafists were primarily occupied with technical and dialectical commentaries on the Talmud. 

The few attempts at Halachic codes such as the Sefer haYere’im and Sefer haTerumah[14] were nowhere near the scale of the Semag:

The Sefer haTerumah read more like a Tosafist commentary than a formal Code, and the Sefer haYere’im was more of a pietist attempt to “internalize the source of the commandments.[15] Nevertheless, the author couldn’t get away from his training as a Tosafist and therefore he couldn’t produce a practical Code.

In other words, the Tosafists up to the time of Moshe miKotzi, had been unsuccessful at producing a practical universal Code of Law.


We must remember that at that time, Rambam – because of his other non-legal and rationalist writings - was beginning to be seen as an extremely controversial figure especially by the (mystical[16]) French Tosafists.

Rambam had even accused the Tosafists of believing in a form of corporeality in entertaining the notion that G-d has a body.

Many Tosafists reacted by signed a ban prohibiting the study of Rambam’s philosophical writings. 

Additionally, they were not happy with Rambam’s remarks even in his introduction to Mishneh Torah that it is sufficient to only study Tanach (Bible) and Mishneh Torah, without any extensive study of Talmud. This was something professional Talmudic commentators like the Tosafists could never accept.

Clearly, for these reasons, R. Moshe miKotzi would not have wanted to be perceived as being too close to Rambam.


The Tosafists, in the printed versions of the Talmud, refer to Mishneh Torah no more than three times. Only towards the end of the 1200s are more references found, particularly within the circle of the last Tosafist, R. Meir of Rothenburg (d. 1293).

Although the manuscript evidence is inconclusive, it does appear that already in the early 1200s, the Mishneh Torah had reached France and Germany. Arugat ha Bosem, for example, from around 1234, quotes quite extensively (about 50 times) from Mishneh Torah.

Furthermore, in Moshe miKotzi’s own introduction to his Semag, he writes about Rambam:

“And he was a master of all knowledge; there was no one like him in these later generations.
And many were strengthened in Torah by means of his books that spread in the lands of Christendom and Islam.”

This indicates that even in Moshe miKotzi’s days (early to mid 1200s) the writings of Rambam had spread to France and many people were aware of, and influenced by, them.

For the mystically associated Tosafists of Northern France, this was a warning signal.


Galinsky then presents his considered opinion:

“I would then suggest that what prompted R. Moses of Coucy to write his ‘French’ version of Mishneh Torah was his desire to counter the spread of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah...

...had he not offered an alternative, the code of the Spanish sage [i.e., Rambam][17] would eventually circulate widely and become accepted as the authoritative guide in France and Germany, affecting actual halakhic practice there.”


It appears that Moshe miKotzi reached a stage where he was not only concerned about shielding the Jews of Northern France and Germany from the rise in Maimonidean thought and authority but wanted to protect all of Israel as well.

This may be borne out by a seemingly insignificant textual change between the French Chapter or Perek Tzorfati (as copied by Karshavya) mentioned above, and the final version of Moshe miKotzi’s Semag.

In Perek Tzorfati,[18] Moshe miKotzi writes that a certain matter follows the rulings of some Northern French Tosafists “...of whom all the sons of France drink from their waters and accept their decisions.

In the final Semag version, a change is made, and instead of referring only to the local ‘sons of France’, reference is instead made to ‘all of Israel who drink from their [the Tosafists] waters.”

This suggests that the authority of the Tosafists and their anti-Maimonidean campaign which followed in its wake, was no longer only the concern of Northern France and Germany but had been raised to a universal level.


Moshe miKotzi started out with a dream to ‘sanitize’ Rambam for French and German audiences by elevating the opinions of the Baalei haTosafot. It seems that with time his aspirations grew to present this ‘improved’ version of Mishneh Torah to ‘all of Israel’, thereby elevating the dominion and influence of the Tosafists over the Rambamists.

There was now a more ‘sanctioned’ alternative to Rambam’s Mishneh Torah.

This was a strategical move because in Judaism, he who controls Halacha controls the future

Moshe miKotzi could not allow the rationalist Rambam to be seen as the final arbiter of Jewish Law. Ironically he used Rambam’s content but remarketed it through the inclusion of Tosafist material so that Halacha would be seen to remain firmly in the hands of the Tosafists.

A similar pattern was later repeated when R. Yosef Karo, from the group of 16th century Safed kabbalists [see here] compiled his Shulchan Aruch, which has remained the legal standard to this day.

The same may be said about the emergence of the Shulchan Aruch haRav, which put Halacha squarely in the hands of the modern mystics or Chassidim.

Are these developments not just be ripple effects in the long line of classical Maimonidean Controversies, where the mystical Tosafists, Kabbalists and Chassidim were, systematically, determined to displace (while still respecting) the political and Halachic prominence of Rambam and his Mishneh Torah?

If  Rambam's legal writing were unequivocally endorsed, then his authority would be uncontested, and of necessity, his non-legal and more controversial ideas would run the risk of being equally considered acceptable.

[1] Originally titled Sefer haMitzvot.
[2] Also known as Moshe miKotzi.
[3] Shealot uTeshuvot haRema, siman 67. (Translations by Judah D. Galinsky)
[4] Other Baalei haTosafot also composed legal works such as the Yere’im, by R. Eliezer of Metz, and the Sefer haTerumah, by R. Baruch ben Yitzchak. These were not on the same scale as the Semag.
[5] The Significance of Form: R. Moses of Coucy’s Reading Audience and His Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, by Judah D. Galinsky.
[6] Although Rambam’s rationalism is not evident in his Mishneh Torah, which is strictly a legal work, it was his other philosophical and rationalist writings that aroused the ire of the mystics.
[7] Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, Mitzvat Aseh (Shlezinger) 11.
[8] Ibid 17-18.
[9] Parenthesis mine.
[10] Parenthesis mine.
[11] Ibid 13.
[12] Also known as Kreshebya.
[13] Semag Mitzvat Aseh 82.
[14] See note 4.
[15] Introduction to Sefer haYereim.
[16] To be clear, Galinsky does not dwell on the mystical nature of the Tosafists, although he does cite E. Karnafogel’s Peering through the Lattices: Mystical, Magical, and Pietistic Dimensions in the Tosafist Period.
[17] Parenthesis mine.
[18] Commandment 82.

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