Sunday 17 November 2019


Many are familiar with Chasdai Crescas' work, 'Or haShem' - but his vision of a new Halachic Code is even more interesting.


R. Don Chasdai Crescas (1340-1410) was a philosopher and halachist from Catalonia in the north-eastern region of Spain. His teacher was Rabbeinu Nisim of Gerona, also known as the Ran, and his most well-known student was R. Yosef Albo.

In his philosophical work, Or haShem, Chasdai Crescas tries to show how Maimonides’ rationalism, a century and a half earlier,  was overly influenced by Aristotle; and he attempts to rescue Judaism from that type of rationalist Greek thought.

It is Crescas’ approach to Halacha, however, that is so fascinating because he wanted to re-evaluate and reframe the way we write our codes of law - particularly Rambam’s famous code known as Mishneh Torah. 

The purpose of this article to try and understand Chasdai Crescas’ reasoning for wanting to disrupt the popular Halachic process and replace it with a fundamentally new vision of Law.

I have drawn from the research of Professor Ari Ackerman[1], a graduate of Yeshivat Kerem beYavne who is now a professional academic.

NOTE: The Reader is reminded that this is a theoretical exploration of Chasdai Crescas’ views on Halacha, and is not intended to suggest any change to the way we conduct the Halachic process today.


Chasdai Crescas agreed with Rambam on two major principles:

1) Theoretical Talmud study for its own sake had no beneficial value! While this might sound strange to the modern ear - as this type of study is the staple of the modern yeshivot - it was a sentiment well established by Rambam. He claimed in his Mishneh Torah, that it was no longer necessary to study Talmud, because he had already summarised all its salient and practical points.

“In short, outside of this work [i.e., the Mishneh Torah][2] there was no need for another book to learn anything whatsoever that is required in the whole Torah, whether it be a law of the Scriptures or of the Rabbis.”[3]

In fact, in a letter to a student, Rambam went even further:

If one spends time studying commentaries [of the Talmud] and the disputes in the Talmud...  then one is wasting one’s time.”[4]

Crescas concurred.

2) Another area where Crescas agreed with Rambam was in the need for a practical Code of Law, in place of Talmudic dialectics and theoretical legal argumentation.

- But where Crescas vociferously departed ways with Rambam was in the area of the ultimate goal of Judaism: For Rambam it was the Sechel, the rationalist and philosophical mind which led to perfection; whereas for Crescas it was simply the practical fulfilment of the commandments that led to righteousness. This was why Crescas was so concerned about the importance of Codes of Law.


Because Crescas believed that the correct practice of the commandments could lead to human perfection, therefore the entire purpose of Torah study had to be practical, deed orientated and not concerned with intellectual arguments and discussion. This practical knowledge had to be clear, concise and easily accessible.[5] 

In theological terms this is known as praxis (which is defined as the process by which a theory is enacted, embodied, or realized.)

 Ackerman describes Crescas’ emphasis on praxis as follows:

“[The purpose of Torah study should be to] distil the discursive, scattered and indeterminate halakhic traditions into clear and concise legal directives, which could be widely accessed.”

By contrast Rambam placed his emphasis more in theoria, (which is defined as intellectual and rational contemplation). 

By providing a concise Code of Law to free the student from Talmudic dialectics, Rambam allowed more time for the mind to be engaged in rationalist pursuits.

This is a fascinating understanding of Rambam because according to this, he did not write his Code in order to have a Code (as one would have imagined) but he did so in order to free the mind of the student from Talmudic dialectics to allow time for more rationalist endeavours.

As Ackerman puts it:

“Maimonides and Crescas arrived at the same conclusion from antithetical premises.

Maimonides embraced comprehensive codes because he wanted to allow the scholar to devote himself to theoria.

Crescas embraced comprehensive codes because he believed that human perfection is primarily connected to praxis.”


Because Crescas believed in the primacy of praxis and therefore in the supreme significance of the observance of the commandments, he broke from the earlier rabbinic approach, especially that of the Tosafists of Northern France and Germany who had preceded him, who valued “the creative dialectic [theoretical argumentation][6of Torah study over the adjudication of halakhah.

Although Crescas was living in Spain, the Tosafist style of study had already begun to filter down from France and Germany to Catalonia through teachers like Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270).

But Ackerman explains:

“[Crescas] never attributed independent value to the study of Torah.

Consequently, in contrast to Nahmanides and his students, Crescas valued comprehensive halakhic codes, which allowed a Jew to navigate the deep and rough waters of the halakhic


In the Introduction to his theological work Or haShem, Crescas enthusiastically proclaimed his intention to write a new Code of Jewish Law in order to counter the Mishneh Torah of Rambam.

Crescas went on to severely criticise the manner in which Rambam wrote his Code.

1) He began with the fact that Rambam did not quote or reference his Talmudic sources.

2) Then he criticised the fact that Rambam did not offer alternate or differing views from the ones he presented.

3) Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, he criticised Rambam’s omission of broad principles of Halacha and, instead, he simply laid out ‘specific legal conclusions’.

The first two criticisms of Rambam were not just peculiar to Crescas but were widespread criticisms held by many others as well.

The third criticism, however, concerning the absence of a presentation of principles of law from which a Halachic decisor could draw from in the future, was of great concern to Crescas.


By criticizing Rambam’s focus on ‘specific legal conclusions’, Crescas reveals perhaps his greatest difference from Rambam’s Code and probably from all other future Codes as well: 

In Crescas’s view, one cannot produce a Code of Jewish Law that essentially remains a book or a list of laws!

Once one does that, one intrinsically fossilizes halacha forever so that it stagnates and loses its power of relevance. 

Law must be principle based, so that future scholars will not just tick the boxes in the list, but instead, apply their minds to the fundamental Halachic axioms which must always trump the specific detailed conclusions.

For Crescas:

“[Jewish][7] Law was a boundless entity that continued to expand dynamically and infinitely,
and whose particulars could not be confined or encompassed.”


Those familiar with the process of Torah study and analysis would know about R. Yishmael’s Thirteen Hermeneutic (defined as the methodology of biblical interpretation) Principles of Torah Interpretation.[8]

As a general rule (although in truth it’s not so simplistic), one may safely interpret the Torah based on these Thirteen Principles and arrive at an acceptable biblical interpretation. This was already well established a thousand years earlier during Talmudic (Mishnaic) times in the Baraite deRabi Yishmael around the 1st century CE.

In a most audacious move, Chasdai Crescas attempted to formulate a new set of Principles, not for biblical interpretation but rather to derive Halacha from post-biblical legal texts (i.e., Talmud and Midrash Halacha).

This set of Principles of Halachic Interpretation would be used under all circumstances and at all times in order to arrive at appropriate Halachic practice.

Thus Crescas’ new Hermeneutic Principles for Talmud Study would be used to formulate Halacha, just like R. Yishmael’s Hermeneutic Principles for Biblical Study were used for biblical interpretation.

In Crescas’s view, Rambam got it wrong by being ‘overly occupied with concrete cases’ and by presenting a book of laws which essentially fossilized those laws forever. Rather, one needed a book of fundamental Halachic Principles which would dynamically focus ‘on the theoretical grounding of the law’ and rise to meet the changing Halachic challenges of the future.

As Ackerman puts it:

“These bedrock principles of the law allowed for the derivation of new laws from the existing
laws. By grasping the principles, one encompassed the law in its entirety...

According to Crescas, by focusing on the particulars of the law, Maimonides mistakenly conceived of the law as a static system and failed to provide guidance in adjudicating new cases that resulted from the infinite nature of the Torah.

Consequently, in depicting his own code, Crescas asserted that he would compose a compilation, which contains the commandments of the Law with their causes according to the subject matter, with conception of their definitions and their general principles(ha-gedarim ve-ha-klalim).

Crescas believed that at Mount Sinai it was only the principles and not the minutiae of the Law that was revealed. This was not his unique innovation as this idea has its roots in earlier rabbinic literature.[9]  But now he wanted to consolidate those original principles in their purest form, in a new Code.


Crescas’s daring scheme, however, did come with a caveat and condition that his Principles would not be subject to the whims of just anyone, but they were meant only to be interpreted by talmidei chachamim, or scholars, who were familiar with the Talmud.


It’s interesting to see that Crescas’ vision of a completely different Code of Law may have been partially influenced by the French Talmudist, the Ralbag[10] (1288-1344), who passed away when Crescas was four years old.

In Ralbag’s commentary on the legal sections of the Torah, he (also) makes reference to the importance of understanding the roots of the law. In the Introduction to his commentary on the Torah, Ralbag writes:

“We will enumerate the roots (shorshei) of the laws of [each] the most succinct form possible.”

And amazingly, Ralbag added that he (also) wanted to produce a halachic work ‘that would detail the roots of each commandment’.

Ralbag actually developed a system of 22 shorashim, or hermeneutic principles. This means that Crescas was not the first to incubate such a scheme, although he did take the matter even further by referring to an ‘infinity’ and ‘expanding’ of the Law.


The concept of infinity played a significant role in developing Crescas’ theological thinking:

“Infinity looms large in Crescass innovative philosophic, scientific, and
theological approaches.

Infinity...served the lynchpin of his halakhic philosophy.”


It must be remembered that one cannot discount the Kabbalistic influence on Crescas who was born 80 years after the publication of the Zohar around 1260.

No biblical or earlier rabbinic sources explicitly discuss the idea of an infinite Torah in the way Crescas does because “the notion of the infinite Torah was introduced only by the kabbalisic tradition.”

Clearly, the Zoharic influence would have helped shape his notion of Infinity which would have included an infinite Torah with infinite Halachic possibilities.

According to Ackerman:

The kabbalistic notion of the infinite Torah concerned the possibility of unlimited interpretations of the Written Torah. Thus, kabbalistic sources conceived of the infinite nature of the Torah as a hermeneutic principle that governs the exegetical possibilities of the text.

According to Crescas, the infinite nature of the Torah determined the infinitude of the law; halakhah was boundless and the particulars of Jewish law could not be confined within a finite work.”


As we have seen, Chasdai Crescas’ bold perception of Halacha - which he based upon Ralbag and the recently surfaced Zohar - opened up other and variant avenues of possible Halachic discourse.

In his view, Halacha was no longer a stagnant list of do’s and dont’s which were forever to be memorialized in a legal compendium. Instead, Halacha was to be something organic and infinitely alive and yet still within the boundaries of Torah Judaism, as long as his set of Hermeneutic Principles were upheld.

- Unfortunately, though, Chasdai Crescas’ Halachic writings are no longer extant.  

To what extent they were put to writing in the first place, remains a mystery. But he openly shared what he was intending to write (and that’s how we know so much about his approach to Halacha), but that’s all we have; essentially his principles about his Principles.

If he did commit his Principles to writing, considering their controversial nature it is not unlikely that they may have been destroyed. If they burned Rambam’s books they surely would have burned his too.

One thing is certain though, and that is that if we ever do find his actual Halachic writings, they would make for some very interesting reading.


Three hundred years after Chasdai Crescas, many of the new Chasidim began to teach (controversially) that if the ‘principle’ or ‘purpose’ of prayer, for example, is to cleave to G-d, then if one does not feel ready to pray at the established prayer times, one may delay the prayer in pursuit of that original principle.

Five hundred years after Chasdai Crescas, Rav Kook (1865-1935) wrote about Kavanah or intent with regard to the commandments. Normally, in rabbinic literature, Kavanah refers to concentration and focus but Rav Kook “refers to the ideal or purpose towards which the commandments point.”

In a brilliant examination of Rav Kook’s various writing on the reasons for the commandments, Professor Don Seeman writes:

 “In fact, R. Kook insists that the subordination of kavanah (intention) to maaseh (normative practice) is dependent on the moral development of the nation as a whole and may be reversed when circumstances warrant.

With respect to the Talmudic opinion that ‘mitzvoth will be nullified in the future’ (Niddah 61b), R. Kook insists that this does not mean that the commandments will be discontinued but only that the reasons for the commandments which are now secondary to practical performance will be made primary, conditioning the shape of future practice on better appreciation of their intent[11].

In some passages, he suggests that the commandments will be observed more willingly in the future, through a better-integrated (and possibly prophetic) identification with their purpose, rather than through external imposition of authority, as they are today.[12][13]

In this sense, it appears that Rav Kook took over from where  R. Don Chasdai Crescas left off.

[1] Hasdai Crescas on the Philosophic Foundation of Codification, by Ari Ackerman.
[2] Parenthesis mine.
[3] Rambam Sefer haMitzvot, 2021. (Translation from Twersky, A Maimonides Reader, 425427.)
[4] Igrot haRambam; Isaac Shalit edition, vol. 1, 312.
[5] Or haShem 2-3.
[6] Parenthesis mine.
[7] Parenthesis mine.
[8] These are often included in many prayer books during the morning services.
[9] Shemot Rabbah par. 41:6 and  Midrash Rabbah (Vilna: Ahim Rom, 1885), vol. 1, 69ab.
[10] R. Levi ben Gershon, also known as Gersonides.
[11] Pinkas haDapim1 par. 61.
[12] Linevuche haDor, ch. 8, pp. 54-55.
[13] See Evolutionary Ethics: The Ta’amei Ha-Mitzvot of Rav Kook, by Don Seeman.


  1. BH

    I would just like to pass one something someone wrote to me:

    "1) Theoretical Talmud study for its own sake had no beneficial value! While this might sound strange to the modern ear - as this type of study is the staple of the modern yeshivot - it was a sentiment well established by Rambam. He claimed in his Mishneh Torah, that it was no longer necessary to study Talmud, because he had already summarised all its salient and practical points.

    “In short, outside of this work [i.e., the Mishneh Torah][2]there was no need for another book to learn anything whatsoever that is required in the whole Torah, whether it be a law of the Scriptures or of the Rabbis.”[3]

    In fact, in a letter to a student, Rambam went even further: 

    “If one spends time studying commentaries [of the Talmud] and the disputes in the Talmud...  then one is wasting one’s time.”[4]

    Crescas concurred."

    " I wonder how he explains the following quote from R. Chasdai, in the hakdamah to Or Hashem:

    "והתימה הגדולה והפליאה העצומה, איך עלה על רוחו ואיך דמה, שיונחו כל ספרי זולתו מהקודמים, ותהא כלל התושבע"פ מסורה לחיבורו, עד שקראו משנה תורה.""

  2. R. Chasdai concurred with the sentiment of Rambam but not with the way he executed it in Mishneh Torah - hence his vision of a different model of execution based of principles and 'kelalim and gedarim'.