Sunday, 24 November 2019


Rambam (1135-1204)
Rashi (1040-1105)


A perceptive student will notice, very early on, just how diverse the different hashkafot or worldviews within Judaism are. Besides the differences between the various modern movements and trends, it is particularly interesting when such colliding views originate from primary rabbinic teachers such as Rashi (1040-1105) and Rambam (1135-1204).

In this essay, based largely on the writings of Professor Menachem Kellner[1], we will try to show just how disparate the views of Rashi and Rambam are on some of the most fundamental principles of Judaism.

Rashi passed away just thirty years before Rambam was born, yet theologically and philosophically they were worlds apart.



According to Rashi’s very first commentary on Genesis (based on Midrash Tanchuma[2]) the Torah intentionally begins with an account of the Creation - instead of starting at a later section which deals with actual commandments - to show that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jews. Although the Jews conquered the Land from the original inhabitants (i.e., the seven Canaanite nations), the Jews were instructed to do so by the G-d who had created the world and who therefore was entitled to apportion land to, and take from, whomever He deemed necessary. 

Thus, according to Rashi, the Torah starts with the creation narrative to show, essentially, that the Land of Israel was destined for the Jews.

Rashi then continues with another Midrashic interpretation (based on Bereishit Rabbah) that the world was created in the ‘beginning’; 1) for the sake of the Torah, which is (also) called ‘the beginning[3]; – and 2) for the sake of the Jewish People, who are (also) called ‘ the beginning.[4]

Therefore, in Rashi’s view, the universe was created for the Torah and for the Jewish People who would eventually inherit the Land.


Rambam adopts a very different approach. He writes that the Torah specifically opens with an (albeit veiled) account of the story of the creation of the universe, where one thing was built upon another and entities were formed following some logical sequence, to indicate that the study of ‘natural science’ must always precede the study of ‘divine science’ (i.e., religion and theology).

Rambam suggests that knowledge of how the world works (physical science or al-‘ilm al-tiba’i) must always be the prelude to, and basis of, religious theology (al-‘ilm al-ilahi), otherwise, religion will exist suspended in an ungrounded and unnatural void.[5]

Strikingly absent from Rambam’s interpretation of Creation is any mention of Torah, Jews or Land.

As Menachem Kellner puts it:

“It is obvious that Rashi reads the Torah particularistically, Maimonides univeralistically.”

Furthermore, Rambam does not claim, as does Rashi, to know why the universe was created. This he says very clearly when writing about Creation:

“And we shall seek for it no cause or other final end whatever...

For when man knows his own soul...he becomes calm and his thoughts are not troubled by seeking a final end for that which has not that final end”[6]


Another area where Rashi and Rambam disagree is on the matter of whether the patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, kept all the laws of the Torah before it was given at Mount Sinai. Besides his reference to the patriarchs keeping all the Torah laws (such as Avraham observing Passover), Rashi - basing himself on an earlier Talmudic source - writes that even Noah studied the Torah because he already knew which animals were destined to be declared ‘pure’:

Although there are numerous other Talmudic sources which similarly convey this idea that the patriarchs observed all the 613 Commandments,[7] as so far as Kellner can ascertain, Rambam makes no reference to these sources in any of his writings[8].

In a letter from Rambam to one Chasdai haLevi, he explicitly denies that the patriarchs observed the commandments. Unfortunately, many scholars believe this letter to be a forgery,[9] so its accuracy as a support for this notion is moot.

Rambam does, however, admit[10] that certain laws were indeed observed before the Torah was given. Adam kept 6 laws; Noah added one to make the Seven Laws of Noah; Avraham added Brit Millah; Yitzchak added tithing; Yaakov added the prohibition of the sinew of the thigh; and later Amram (Moshe’s father) added a number of others - but it was still only with Moshe and the Sinai experience, that the Torah was completed with all the 613 commandments.

This excludes the possibility, in Rambam’s view, of anyone observing all the 613 commandments prior to Sinai.

Furthermore, according to the way Rambam understands the story of the Garden of Eden,[11] humans were not originally intended to even observe the laws of the Torah, which happened to be given much later, as Kellner explains, as a “concession to human weakness, not part of the eternal divine plan, as it were.

Consistent with Rambam’s view that the Torah was not observed prior to Sinai, is his interpretation[12] of the story of Yehudah and Tamar (the woman of ill repute) - since prior to Sinai such matters were not restricted by Torah law, as, in his view, there was no Torah law at that stage.


Rashi maintained that in addition to the patriarchs observing the entire Torah before it was given, the Torah actually pre-existed the creation. This is because, as we saw above, the world was created so that the Torah would be given to the people of Israel. Since the Torah was the reason for creation, it had to have been in existence (in whatever form) beforehand.

This concept does have some possible biblical antecedence,[13] where G-d is said to have founded the earth on ‘wisdom’:
The pre-existence of the Torah is also referenced in Midrashim[14] where G-d is said to have used the Torah as a ‘template’ to create the world. This notion became very popular in later rabbinic and particularly Kabbalistic writings where it is said that “G-d looked into the Torah and created the world.[15] 

Along similar lines, Ramban (Nachmaindes), considered the father of Jewish mysticism, was later to write that Torah cannot be separated from the natural world because both are intrinsically connected and, in fact, were one and the same thing.

However, Rambam (Maimonides), following from Rav Saadiah Gaon entertained no such notion. For Rambam, it made no sense even in speaking about ‘before’ creation - as ‘time’ itself was a creation.

According to Rambam, to believe that anything, besides G-d, existed prior to creation is “infidelity beyond any doubt.”[16] Rambam also calls the rejection of such a notion a fundamental “foundation of the Torah.”[17]

Kellner writes:

“It is likely that his strong language reflects his abhorrence of the idea that anything might be co-eternal with God.”

Rambam had no time for any belief in a G-d requiring assistance from any ‘holy objects’, ‘energies’, or 'texts' (in whatever form). He writes:

“I have seen a of Rabbi Eliezer[18], which is the strangest statement I have seen by one who follows the Law of Moses our Master[:]...

’Wherefrom were the heavens created? From the light of His garment. He took some of it, stretched it like a cloth, and thus they were extending continually...’”

Rambam also rejected the notion that G-d has personal ‘attributes’. This idea of attributes or sefirot and levushim (garments) was also to become even more popular after the publication of the Zohar about 50 years after Rambam’s passing.

It should be noted that while many criticize Rambam for his rationalist views as if they were anti-spiritual, it could be argued that his belief in an unknowable and unfathomable G-d was a deeper and purer form of monotheism than that of the mystics. One of the areas where we see this is in his unapologetic rejection of G-d co-existing with any co-eternal attributes or entities.


Clearly Rashi, as well as most other rabbinic sources, consider the Jews to be the Chosen People. Rambam, however, had some interesting definitions of, and opinions on, this matter.

Kellner describes Rambam’s view of history as following a pattern of 'natural randomness':

“According to Maimonides, God’s choice of the Jews as the chosen people was actually a consequence of Abraham’s discovery of God and not a historically necessary event.”

This is borne out by the way Rambam describes[19] how idolatry started out simply as a way of showing respect to G-d through lauding His creations, such as the moon and stars which were a testament to their Creator. This idea, however, became corrupted over time when G-d no longer featured anymore and the agents took on an independent power of their own. It was believed that certain cult-like practices, which claimed to harness the spiritual energy of such entities, would bring prosperity and avoid punishment. Various temples were constructed and specific rituals were adopted to appease these self-governing gods.

Eventually, Avraham was born into that idolatrous environment, and he discovered the One G-d, despite the fact that “[h]e had no teacher, nor was there anyone to inform him.”

Conspicuously absent from Rambam’s entire narrative of Avraham’s discovering G-d, is any mention of interference or intervention by G-d Himself[20].

In Rambam’s account, G-d does not choose Avraham but Avraham, absolutely independently, chooses G-d!

[This is reminiscent, in some strange way, of the famous anti-Semitic slur by British journalist and possible Russian spy, William Norman Ewer (d.1977) known also as Trilby, who said: “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” This prompted many responses[21] including: “It’s not so odd, the Jews chose God.”]

Thus, according to Rambam, G-d did not seek out Avraham as part of some cosmic plan. If, hypothetically, the person who discovered G-d amidst a world of idolatry, had been someone else from any other nation or culture, the commandments of the Torah would have reflected the norms and 'cultural authority' of that people.

Had that been the case, Kellner continues, then:

“[t]he inner meaning of the Torah...would all be equivalent to...the Torah as it was indeed revealed to Moses at Sinai, but its outer garment would be dramatically different...

Maimonides is not shy about adopting the implications of this position. The specific laws of the Torah reflect historical circumstances which could have been different.”

This stark view of Rambam will surprise many as it indeed startled many of Rambam’s contemporaries. R. Yehuda haLevy[22] (1075-1141), for example, held a typically polar opposite view. Jews, he said, were specifically chosen by G-d. He believed that it was only because of their “inyan Eloki” or unique G-dliness which was an inherent feature of the Jew, that Jews were chosen by G-d. [23] 

Later, the Kabbalists declared that a Jew's soul was "a part of  G-d", and even later the Chassidim added,  "Truly a part of G-d." 

Rambam, however, held fast to his position because of the primary role the notion of freedom of choice played in his theology. He called freedom of choice ‘the great ikkar’ or great principle. History, according to Rambam, was not absolutely preordained and therefore G-d did not specifically choose Avraham.

For Rambam, G-d did not choose the Jews because they were so special - rather, they were so special because they chose G-d.

The most notorious example of Rambam's view of history as being a process of ‘natural randomness’ is his view of the sacrifices. He taught that sacrifices were not G-d’s first choice but rather given as a concession to those spiritually primitive Israelites who were not yet fully weaned from their previous idolatrous practices where sacrifices featured supreme.

This is clearly a most audacious claim especially considering how much of Judaism is comprised of laws relating to sacrifices and laws of ritual purity – including the future hopes of the restoration of the sacrifices in Messianic times.

However, Rambam did not accept the general rabbinic view of ‘yeridat haDorot’ where the nation was said to have regressed spiritually since Sinai, but instead he firmly believed in exactly the opposite – that spiritual and intellectual evolution and progression only occurs within the fullness of time.

This is why, according to Rambam in his Guide, it appears that we will not bring sacrifices in the Third Temple because by then we will have been fully weaned from the ancient and less profound necessity to do so. 

However, because Rambam in his Mishneh Torah does speak of the sacrifices being reinstated, there is much controversy over which was his true position. Considering that the Mishneh Torah was written around 1170/80 and the Guide at around 1190 one could argue that the Guide reflects his stronger view. Nevertheless, the mainstream view is that the sacrifices will indeed be restored in the future.


The theological implications between those who follow Rashi and those who follow Rambam on these matters are immense.

Describing Rashi’s position, Kellner writes:

“If the Torah pre-exists creation, if in some sense or other it serves as blue-print of the universe, then quite obviously, the laws of the Torah bear some sort of constitutive relationship to the cosmos and fulfilling those laws can (or must) have some sort of impact on that cosmos.

From here, full-blown theurgy [i.e., a magic-like or quid pro quo spiritual manipulation][24] is but a short step...

[a]nd Israel’s obedience to the laws of the Torah can be construed as the key to the continued proper functioning of that universe.

Getting Jews to fulfil the commandments becomes a matter of cosmic concern.

For a person holding such is literally inconceivable that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the pre-ordained progenitors of Israel from before creation, did not obey all the commandments of the Torah, both Sinaitic and rabbinic.”

This position has become the de facto position almost universally followed by most groups of religious Jews to this day.

Enter Rambam and everything changes:

“From Maimonides’ account it appears that Abraham, the self-taught philosopher par excellence, had no need of Sinai. Sinai is a concession to the sad fact that the root planted by Abraham was on the verge of being uprooted.

In order to preserve the philosophical core of the Torah, it had to be hedged about by laws and ceremonials, which do not accomplish anything in themselves, but were instituted in order to serve moral, social, or philosophical ends.

For a person holding these views, it is literally inconceivable that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob observed laws and ceremonials later given at Sinai in response to the degeneration of the Jews in Egypt.”

- These two doctrinal hypotheses of Rashi and Rambam could not be in any further tension!


Both Rashi and Rambam - while accepting the Revelation at Sinai - interpreted that event in ways that were ecclesiastically worlds apart.

For Rashi, the Sinai experience was a cosmic continuum of the pre-creation era, while for Rambam it was a necessary concession in response to the historical reality of the time, in order to cement the threatened tradition begun by Avraham.

These vastly disparate positions of Rashi and Rambam are irreconcilable.

They have far-reaching implications which, of necessity, will inform one’s theological and spiritual perspective.

It is extraordinary, though, that on such fundamental issues, whichever view one subscribes to, the other position will continue to remain unacceptable, untenable even objectionable if not blatantly abhorrent - yet they all curiously fall within the vast umbrella of rabbinic thought. 


[For some insight into the story behind the Rashi texts as we have them today, see And What Does Rashi Say?

[1] Rashi and Maimonides on the Relationship Between Torah and the Cosmos, by Menachem Kellner.
[2] This was a compilation of three aggadic works on the Torah with only two extant. According to Samuel Berman "earliest manuscript of this text was compiled in late 8th or 9th century.”
[3]The beginning of His way,” Proverbs 8:22,
[4]The beginning of His crops,” Jeremiah 2:3.
[5] Part of Rambam’s text reads:

“Do you not see the following fact? God...wished us to be perfected....
Now this can only come about after the adoption of intellectual beliefs, the first of which being His apprehension...according to our capacity.
This, in its turn, cannot come about except through divine science and this divine science [i.e., religion and theology] cannot become actual except after a study of natural science [al-‘ilm al-tiba’i].
This is so since natural science borders on divine science [al-‘ilm al-ilahi], and its study precedes that of divine science in time as has been made clear to whoever has engaged in speculation  on these matters.
Hence God...caused His book to open with the ‘Account of the Beginning,’ which, as we have made clear, is natural science.
And because of the greatness and importance of the subject and because our capacity falls short of apprehending the greatest of subjects as it really is, - which divine wisdom has deemed necessary to convey to us – we are told about these profound matters in parables and riddles and very obscure words.”
[Introduction to Moreh Nevuchim (Guide of the Perplexed)]

[6] Guide III,13.
[7] Mishna Kiddushin 4:14, Yoma 28b, Nedarim 32a,
[8] I did notice, however - in Rambam’s Hilchot Avodat Cochavim, ch.3 - a reference to Jacob’s son, Levi, being appointed to teach in the ‘yeshiva’ and entrusted with the perpetuation of the ‘mitzvot of Avraham’.  Read through modern filters it would seem that Levi taught the 613 mitzvot in a modern yeshiva in Bnai Brak, but the question, of course, is whether one can equate the ‘mitzvot of Avraham’ (which were most likely, primarily of an anti idolatrous nature) with the 613 ‘mitzvot of G-d’ as we came to know them after Sinai?  
[9] See A Maimonides Reader, by Isadore Twersky (1972), p. 478.
[10] Hilchot Melachim 9:1.
[11] Guide I, 2 and II, 30.
[12] Guide III, 49.
[13] Proverbs 3:19 and 8:22.
[14] Bereishit Rabbah 1;1 and 4.
[15] Zohar, Terumah, II, 161,1.
[16] See also Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva, III, 7; and Guide II,13.
[17] Guide I, 68.
[18] Pirkei de’Rabi Eliezer was an Aggadic- Medrashic work retelling many biblical stories, and may have been written in Italy around 830CE.
[19] See the opening chapters of Rambam’s Hilchot Avodat Cochavim.
[20] Other than, of course, being the object of Avraham’s inquiry and subsequent discovery.
[21] Such as “Not odd of God, Goyyim annoy’im,” and “How strange of man, to change the plan.”
[22] Although not technically a contemporary or Rambam as he passed away when Rambam was just six years old.
[23] Kuzari 1:48.
[24] Parenthesis mine.


  1. This is why, according to Rambam, we will not bring sacrifices in the Third Temple because by then we will have been fully weaned from the ancient and less profound necessity to do so.

    you obviously don't have, a footnote here , because Rambam never said it. to the contrary he does speak of [ unspecified] kaorbanot in the next Temple. this dangerous canard probably flows from Rav Kook's poor paraphrase of the Rambam and is Rav Kook's view alone. It is a central issue of faith and as such the text of your post should be corrected accordingly and not left for relegation to the comments at the bottom.
    if you want sources in the Rambam for this write me.

  2. I’m not sure that I understand why you suggest it had to be Rav Kook’s 'dangerous'and ‘poor paraphrasing’ and why one cannot allow Rav Kook full freedom of expression of his view.

    The fact is that the matter is extremely controversial because Rambam’s view in his Mishneh Torah is that sacrifices will be restored in the Third Temple – but he contradicts himself in the Guide where he put forth his view that sacrifices were originally meant only as a dispensation for those idolatrous times. This implies that they would not be perpetuated into the future.

    This ‘paradox’ in Rambam has led some to suggest that he (typically) wrote for the masses in the Mishneh Torah but expressed his personal views in the Guide. That is why they burned these books.

    Others, like R. Yaakov Emden - when dealing with this very issue – went so far as to say that the same person could not have written both books and therefore the Guide was a forgery.

    Unfortunately, due to the issues that are at stake, this controversy causes people to take extreme sides, one way or the other.

    However, ‘Unknown’, your point is well taken and I thank you. On such a controversial issue I should have made it clear that this view of the sacrifices is not a universal understanding of Rambam and I will amend the text.

    However I still maintain that this is the view of Rambam in his Guide.

    In fact Rambam knew that most people (even the readers of the Guide) would disagree with him because he wrote:

    “I know that you will at first thought reject this idea and find it strange; you will put the following question to me in your heart: How can we suppose that Divine commandments, prohibitions, and important acts, which are fully explained, and for which certain seasons are fixed, should not have been commanded for their own sake, but only for the sake of some other thing [i.e., to combat idolatry].” [Guide, ch.33]

    I am aware that some would persist to say that Rambam would have ‘meant’ that once the sacrifices were established in practice, they would never change. But he does not state that in the Guide.

  3. firstly, i didn't write that Rav Kook's writing was dangerous. only that others dangerously misinterpreted Rav Kook's simplistic reading or the Rambam.
    more importantly , Rambam's position is that sacrifices are a concession to human frailty , in that generation, and as our eyes see, continuing to this day. In some utopian future , when we are all Rambams, we can discuss the possibility of worshiping God without sacrifice, prayer, ritual and ALL the other things that Rambam identified and tools for frail humans to reach God.

  4. I trust that in some Utopian future we won't all have to be 'Rambams' or even simplistic 'Kooks' but rather that all objective channels of perception will be opened, to stand or fall on their own merits, so that we rise above narrow and angry parochialism.

  5. Thank you for this excellent essay. I agree with mostly everything you and Kellner write. I will add, however, that there is a view, amongst some scholars, that Rambam did not accept the view that G-d created the world out of nothing (called ex nihilo) but that G-d formed the world out of preexisting material. This is the view of Greece’s greatest thinker, the philosopher Aristotle.

    Some will say, as did the Rambam, that this view belittles G-d. But does it really make a difference whether G-d created the world out of nothing or formed it out of matter that, like him, existed for all eternity? My rabbi thinks that it makes no difference. Even if people accept the latter view, they are still believing that G-d miraculously formed a world out of preexisting matter.

    Yes, Rambam states repeatedly that he rejects Aristotle’s view. But it is possible, as some scholars suggest, that he actually accepted this view or was unconvinced of either view. He was not certain either way. This is the view of Micah Goodman.

    As Goodman points out, Rambam wrote his Guide esoterically, using "necessary beliefs." Is it possible that this was another necessary belief? We simply do not know. We do know that Rambam said it was possible that G-d used preexisting material since:

    "We do not reject the Eternity of the Universe because certain passages in Scripture confirm Creation; for such passages are not more numerous than those in which G-d is represented as a corporal being... We should perhaps have had an easier task in showing that the Scriptural passages referred to are in harmony with the theory of the Eternity of the Universe if we accepted the latter, than we had in explaining the anthropomorphisms in the Bible when we rejected the idea that G-d is corporeal."

    Scholars note that Rambam generally agreed with Aristotle. In any event, whether he accepted Aristotle's view or not, Aristotle's view would not presuppose the pre-existence of the Torah since the Torah is not a form of preexisting matter. Rashi and Rambam would still be at odds.

    The point of this comment was not to convince readers of either view, but to express the possibility that Rambam accepted the view of Aristotle. Readers do not have to agree with everything Aristotle writes but his views are interesting because they make us think and are thought-provoking.

    Thank you for the essay. Shalom

  6. Thank you for your inciteful comment. Your rabbi seems like an interesting man.