Sunday 27 October 2019


Teshuvah or Responsum by Maimonides as found in the Cairo Geniza.

While Rambam (1135-1204) certainly wrote copiously on matters of prayer - officially in his legal work the Mishneh Torah and extensively in his philosophical work The Guide of the Perplexed - his own personal views remain somewhat shrouded in mystery.

Granted, a version of his apparent prayer-book (sometimes referred to as Mesorat Moshe) is printed in many editions of his Mishneh Torah - but that version is not always regarded as being absolutely authentic.

Although it is difficult to conclude with great authority, it appears that Rambam did not recite Aleinu at the end of the services. He seems to have downgraded the importance of Pesukei deZimrah, essentially leaving the Shema and Amidah unchanged. He also famously left out all references to praying through angels. [See Praying to Angels]

In this article, we will briefly explore some of these ideas based on manuscript research by Professor Stefan Reif of Cambridge who is the Founding Director of the Taylor-Schechter Geniza Research Unit which studies manuscripts found in the Cairo Geniza. While some uncertainty will always remain, the manuscript evidence should place us in a better position to understand Rambam’s views on prayer because many of these manuscripts date back to, and were even written by, Rambam himself.

I have drawn extensively from Professor Reif’s writing and research.[1]


It should be pointed out that many would not regard the new discovery of old texts in Genizas - even if hand-written by people like Rambam – to have any bearing whatsoever on practical Judaism as these texts would be considered ‘out of the Mesora (Tradition)’ as a result of their absence from the day to day Halachic enterprise for so long.

The reader must decide on what position to take.

[See What Would Happen if Moshe’s Torah were to be Discovered Tomorrow – And it’s Different from Ours? and The Meiri Texts – Lost or Ignored?]


The first point Professor Stefan Reif makes is that the version of the ‘Rambam's siddur’ as it appears in the printed versions of Mishneh Torah is not a reliable reference source. This is because although manuscripts exist in the Bodleian Library in Oxford with the text of the first two books of Mishneh Torah signed by Rambam himself - unfortunately, the 19 unsigned folios which follow, include the crucial section containing this 'siddur'. This divests the ‘Rambam’s siddur’ of an unquestionable degree of authenticity.


In Rambam’s time, there existed the following prayer versions or rites (Nuschaot); Early Sefaradi, North African, Eretz Yisraeli, Iraqi and Egyptian. We do not know for certain whether Rambam followed any of these rites or whether he developed his own unique nusach.

We do know that he considered the nusach of the Palestinian refugees (i.e. Jews from the Holy Land, then known as Palestine) who had come to Egypt, as being erroneous, although he praised their ‘communal adherence’ to their customs and while he tried unsuccessfully to end their triennial cycle of Torah reading[2], he refused to officially oppose any of their prayer rites.

Rambam appears to have favored Sefaradi  (Spanish) traditions when it came to the prayer format. It should be noted that by Sefaradi traditions, reference is made to early but not later Sefaradi rites. This is because the early rites did not incorporate the later additions of Kabbalistic and mystical ideas which came about after the Zohar was published in around 1260. (Rambam had passed away in 1204). The early Sefaradic rites would have been devoid of these Zoharic and Kabbalistic references.

Reif suggests that Rambam may have used the early Sefaradi prayer-rites at home but adhered to the Egyptian rites in public.


Rambam, an early Rishon[3], followed in the wake of the period of the Gaonim[4] who, during the previous centuries, had a profound Halachic influence in terms of standardization of Talmudic practices. The Gaonim had already quite successfully established authoritative versions of the prayers. Particularly active in this field was Rav Natronai Gaon who was consulted by the emerging communities in Spain.

Interestingly, the Jews of Palestine remained stubbornly determined to abide with their own rites even in the face of great opposition from their Babylonian counterparts, particularly Pirkoi ben Bavoi.


The 12th century Jewish traveller and visitor to Egypt (around the time of Rambam) was Benjamin of Tudela who wrote:

“There are two large synagogues in Cairo, one belonging to the Jews of
the land of Israel and the other to those of Iraq . . . They follow different
usages with regard to the pentateuchal lectionaries, the Iraqis having
the custom of reading a portion each week, as is done in Spain (and is
our own tradition) and concluding the Pentateuch on an annual basis,
while the Palestinian Jews do not do so but divide each portion into three
and finish after three years. The two communities do, however, have an
established custom of uniting and praying together on the festival days
of Simhat Torah and Shavuot.”[5]

Egypt was a veritable Jewish melting pot during Rambam's times as it welcomed those fleeing the Crusades, as well as the Spanish, Portuguese and North African persecutions. It also hosted a large community of Karaite Jews – all with their own customs and practices.

Perhaps this is why Rambam was reluctant to overstate his particularist views on prayer.


Another reason why Rambam was hesitant to give too many details about his theology is because he knew full well just how controversial his views were. When writing in his Halachic persona, he was careful not to upset the status quo. But when writing in his philosophical persona, he would let slip that he had difficulty with the belief in a ‘personal’ G-d whose mind could be changed by supplications.

Instead, he spoke of a 'transcendent' G-d who was not subject to manipulation.


Rambam believed it was “theologically objectionable to compose poetry that is heavily laden with rich and complex epithets and metaphors, and that the meditative worship of the intellectual is a higher ideal than the performance of sacrifices or the recitation of fixed prayers.[6]

In a Teshuva or responsum [i.e., an answer to a specific Halachic question] - where he appears less reticent to ruffle feathers - Rambam strongly opposes liturgical poetry although he does not say so in his formal Mishneh Torah. This pattern repeats itself again and again and indicates that in his Responsa literature, Rambam was more comfortable to speak his mind.

Nevertheless, he still maintains it is a religious obligation to pray according to the “formal texts provided by rabbinic tradition” and to use standards that can be met by the ordinary


Reif continues:

 “Similarly, he recognizes that at the popular level there is a major need for a religious establishment and centralized communal life and appears to look with a certain degree of envy at Islam’s achievements in connection with discipline and authority.

Where congregational unity competes with the purity of the rite, he opts for the view that the former takes precedence.”

Rambam believed that there were two stratas of Jews: The Hamon Am or mindless masses (as he liked to refer to them), and the Yechidei Segula or spiritually and intellectually elite. Religion always had to be biased towards the Hamon Am who, although the lowest common denominator, ensured the popularity and survival of the religion.


According to Rambam, no Midrashic literature relating to the pre-Sinai prayer practices of the patriarchs has any Halachic bearing on us today. This is why Rambam cites the patriarchal practices in his Laws of Melachim and not in his Laws of Prayer.


Although Rambam agrees that the prayers do correspond to the sacrifices of old, he maintains that the more subtle forms of prayer are superior.[7]


Rambam mentions[8] that the ability to speak and understand Hebrew was lost to many of the Jews who returned to rebuild the Second Temple in the time of Ezra[9] and therefore there was an urgent need to standardise the prayers. This applied particularly to the Berachot, and the Amidah as were established by Ezra and his court around 450 BCE.


In a responsum from Rambam[10], he declares that it is permissible to recite the section of Psalms (Pesukei deZimra) and other prayers at home and not in the synagogue if the community would become restless and suffer from lengthy prayer services.


In another responsum Rambam writes[11]:

I shall also describe to you a custom of ours, concerning the amidah of shaharit and musaf on shabbat and festivals, that I regard as necessary and appropriate because of the large numbers in the synagogue, a custom that is similar to what you do locally on Rosh Ha-Shanah.

I also arrange for us to do this when minhah is so delayed that I fear that the formal hour of dusk is approaching.

I rule that the prayer-leader [immediately] recites the amidah out loud together with the qedushah and there is no disadvantage in this for anyone since a congregant who cannot recite his own prayer can do his duty by hearing the prayer-leader’s prayer and one who is competent to do so may recite the amidah together with the prayer-leader, word for word...

By doing this we arrange for everyone’s obligation to be met in an obvious way, and avoid the kind of public act of desecration that occurs when congregants regard the repetition as an occasion for joking and mockery.

On other daily occasions, when there are fewer [but more][12] learned congregants present, the amidah is recited twice, quietly and then out loud.”

This view is, again, a departure from Rambam’s more conservative position in his Mishneh Torah, where he writes that both during Shacharit and Musaf (on Shabbat), the congregation first recites the Amidah silently, followed by the repetition of the Chazzan. However, the talking which ensued during the repetition of the Amidah (which became a ‘dead space’ as it were) was bringing Jewish worship into disrepute among his contemporary Muslims, and he, therefore, abolished the repetition of the Amidah in his synagogue.


Another insight can be gleaned from a section of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah where he writes that:

“Prayer should not be recited in a place which is, or might be, ritually impure.”[13]

This is a significant statement because here Rambam follows the Talmud Yerushalmi[14] and not the Bavli[15] in his reason for not permitting prayer at a cemetery. He believes one should not pray at a cemetery because it is a place of ritual impurity and not out of consideration for the dead who are buried there and no longer have the earthly luxury of prayer.

Reif explains:

“He sees this latter consideration as belonging to magical beliefs and practices, and therefore forbidden. ...

 Visits to cemeteries should not therefore be made in such religiously questionable contexts or in order to pray but as an encouragement to contrition and humility...

What is reflected here is Maimonides’s opposition to the use of magical notions and superstition in a liturgical context that should strive for what he regards as more purely spiritual and theological achievements.”

This view may have some relevance apropos the popularity of visiting and making pilgrimages to gravesites as has become common in modern times.

When it came to wearing a head-covering during prayer, Rambam ruled it was a requirement and not just a custom as it was generally regarded during the early Middle Ages.[16]


Rambam wrote:

“When praying with the community one should not prolong his amidah prayer
unduly but he may do so when praying alone.”[17]

According to the Talmudic source[18] on which Rambam bases this ruling, R. Akiva would recite his Amidah briefly so as not to burden the community. However, when at home, he would take more time over his prayers[19]. Rambam adds that there is no obligation to draw out one's prayers even at home.


“The popular custom in most of our cities is to say the morning benedictions
one after the other in the synagogue, whether there is an obligation or not, and this
is wrong since benedictions should be recited only when there is an obligation.”[20]

Many synagogues begin their morning services with the recitation of a number of morning blessings which relate to the process of getting up in the morning and facing the new day. In Rambam’s view, the blessings should only be recited when absolutely appropriate (such as, for example, when one hears a rooster crow etc.).  

This view did not enjoy widespread acceptance as many synagogues begin the morning services with a public recitation of these blessings.


Rambam writes in Mishneh Torah:

“If the prayer-leader makes a mistake [other than] in [the first and last three
benedictions of] the amidah,(which are the most important)[21] my view is that he should not repeat it all because this would be a burden on the congregation.”[22]

According to the manuscript evidence, however, Rambam is once again even more radical in that he maintains that the same can be said of a mistake occurring in any of the blessings, even the more primary first and last three. -All this to expedite the services and not impose a burden on the community!


In the Oxford  manuscripts, Rambam's version of the Shabbat Musaf Amidah differs from standard editions in that they only mention the general concept, but not the specific details, of the sacrifices:


For those interested, Ramban advocated the recitation of “veyatzmach purkanei veKarev meshiche” in his preferred version of the Kaddish:


Professor Reif  sums up Rambam's position on prayer as follows:

“He opts for the non-repetition of the amidah for musaf, argues the need for brevity and the avoidance of congregational boredom and loss of concentration, and sometimes demonstrates a moderate tendency that avoids imposing strictness on the community.”

[1] Maimonides on the Prayers by Stefan C. Reif.
[2] The Jews from the Holy Land used to read the Torah over a period of three years instead of our practice today where we read it over a one year period.
[3] The rabbinic period of the Rishonim was from 1038- 1500.
[4] 589- 1038CE.
[5] The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela. Critical Text, Translation and Commentary, by M.N. Adler,
pp. 62–63.
[6]See Guide 1:59 and 3:32.
[7] See Prayer in Maimonidean Halakha (Hebrew), by Ya’akov Blidstein, 9-52.
[8] See Introduction to Laws of Prayer, Mishneh Torah.
[9] Nechemiah 13:24.
[10] R. Moses b. Maimon: Responsa, J. Blau (ed.) vol. 2, no. 261.
[11] Translation of Blau is by Reif.
[12] Parenthesis mine.
[13] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefilah, 4:8.
[14] Berachot 2:3, 4c.
[15] Berachot 18a.
[16] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefilah, 5:5.
[17] Ibid. 6:2.
[18] Berachot 31a.
[19] R. Akiva would add lengthy Tachanunim or supplications during the Elokay Netzor section of the Amidah.
[20] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefilah, 7:9.
[21] Parenthesis mine.
[22] Ibid. 10:2. (It seems that this view only applies to the Chazzan’s private Amidah. The public repetition of the Amidah should always be corrected if a mistake was made.


  1. I don't remember exactly where I asked you to address this topic but thank you very much anyway!!