Sunday 2 June 2024

474) A mind in motion: Maimonides correcting Maimonides

An example of Maimonides correcting his own text of Pirush haMishna


This article based extensively on research by Professor Marc Herman[1] shows how Maimonides (1138-1204) was not averse to changing his positions on various matters as he progressed through his life. We know this was the case regarding the development of his philosophical writings, but as we shall see, he followed the same pattern with his Halachic work, as well. We briefly examine three of Maimonides’ rabbinic and Halachic writings and do not engage with his philosophical writings here.[2] 

Three Halachic Maimonidean works 

1) Pirush haMishna (1168) was written in Judeo-Arabic (Arabic in Hebrew characters) and is a commentary on the third-century Mishna. The Mishna forms the basis of rabbinic Halacha but also sparingly includes some theological digressions. 

2) Sefer haMitzvot (1178) also written in Judeo-Arabic, is an early attempt at technically identifying the 613 commandments. Earlier, around the tenth century, R. Chefetz ben Yatzliach had attempted such a compilation enumerating the commandments, but not to the extent as Maimonides’ Sefer haMitzvot. 

3) Mishneh Torah (1178) is Maimonides’ flagship work and an early legal code that would essentially ‘replace’ the complicated arguments and dialectics of the Talmud with an easy-to-reference guide to practical Halacha. This work was written in Hebrew and was meant to be the authoritative and complete statement of Jewish law “so that no other work (chibbur) should be needed for ascertaining any of the laws of Israel.” 

A word on the dating of Pirush haMishna

As we have seen, Maimonides’ first major work was his Pirush haMishna (Commentary on the Mishna). He began writing his Pirush haMishna when he was about twenty-three years old, in Morocco, after fleeing from Spain. The Pirush haMishna was completed around 1168 when Maimonides was living and working in Egypt. 

Although the date 1168 is usually given for the completion of the Pirush haMishna, there are some problems with that date. It is taken from a copholon of one early section of Pirush haMishna. Some suggest that it may refer to the date of the completion of the earlier draft of work, but that the ‘fair’ or final copy only emerged later. One of the reasons for this view is that the later Sefer haMitzvot is referenced twice in Pirush haMishna, so the ‘fair copy’ would have to have emerged later than 1168 unless, he began writing his Sefer haMitzvot while he was still working on Pirush haMishna. 

The autograph manuscript of Pirush haMishna remains

Fortunately, Maimonides’ original handwritten text of Pirush haMishna, known as an ‘autograph manuscript,’ survives to this day. This personal document provides evidence in his own handwriting, of numerous corrections and changes to the text. Evidently, his later writings including Sefer haMitzvot and Mishneh Torah produced within a decade after the Pirush haMishna was completed made him rethink some of his earlier Halachic positions. He then went back into his earlier work, crossed out whole lines and made his emendations above the original text. By studying these corrections and emendations, we get a glimpse into his ever-evolving mind and his ability to go back and rethink. 

“Maimonides would change his mind about matters large and small. Even in his lifetime, readers of his works were aware of changes in Maimonides’s views as well as his—often incomplete—attempts to ‘correct’ earlier ‘mistakes’” (Herman 2019:907). 

The ‘frozen’ Sefer haMitzvot

While, as mentioned, we do have the autograph manuscript of Pirush haMishna, there is no extant autograph manuscript of Sefer haMitzvot. Although there are differences between the Sefer haMitzvot and the Mishna Torah, Maimonides never went back to correct those differences in his Sefer haMitzvot. In this sense, it seems that Sefer haMitzvot became ‘frozen’ in time. 

It is possible that because Sefer haMitzvot dealt with the technical classification of the 613 commandments, it would have been more difficult to correct that work as classifications may have had to change: 

“It was no simple matter to add or remove a commandment since Maimonides sought the enumeration of precisely 613 commandments… Echoing his father, Abraham Maimonides declared that Mishneh Torah, not [Sefer haMitzvot]… contains Maimonides’s final views. Perhaps this statement hints that late in life, Maimonides no longer brought [Sefer haMitzvot]… in line with his newly adopted positions.” (Herman 2019:910). 

This, of course, did not apply to Pirush haMishna, which underwent tremendous reworking. Incidentally, The Mishna Torah also underwent widespread correcting, although not to the extent of the Pirush haMishna: 

“Maimonides also subjected Mishneh Torah to ongoing, though apparently incomplete, review, as is clear from even the best editions” (Herman 2019:910). 

This means that Pirush haMishna was dramatically edited, Sefer haMitzvot remained relatively frozen, and Mishneh Torah was somewhere in the middle, being only considerably corrected. 

Possible reasons for reworking the earlier text of Pirush haMishna

Aaron Adler suggests that Maimonides’ growing interest in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Palestinian Talmud) over the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) may have been a catalyst for some of the changes to Pirush haMishna. This would have given Maimonides the confidence to challenge both the later Gaonim (heads of the Babylonian academies) and the anonymous statements from the Talmud Bavli itself. [3] 

Tzvi Langermann suggests that Maimonides “softened” his early rejection of miracles as he tried to find ways to explain creation and the question of the eternity of the world.[4] 

Simon Hopkins shows how Maimonides often simply went back to correct and improve the language and literary style of his earlier writing.[5] 

Malachi Beit-Arié shows how Maimonides’ fair (final) copy was actually written on two different types of paper, one originating in the Maghreb (North Africa) and the other from a more eastern region.[6] 

Whatever the reasons may be, Maimonides still saw fit to go back and ‘correct’ or readjust his earlier positions based on newly acquired information and different thought patterns. All these considerations make the textual history of Maimonides’ Pirush haMishna, the “most complicated” example of Judeo-Arabic literature (Hopkins 1985: 711). 

An example of a corrected text

An example of a corrected text is the case of the length of time the Torah requires for mourning for a close relative.  This question, obviously, had been dealt with before. R. Yitzchak Alfasi (1013–1103), also known as the Rif, maintains that although the Gaonic rabbis required seven days of mourning, he held that the Torah requirement was only one day. 

Maimonides deals with this same question in five places in his Pirush haMishna. In four of those places, he first writes that the Torah requires mourning up to the moment of burial even if the burial is after the day of death. Then, Maimonides changes or corrects all four of those sections to say that the biblical requirement is only one day of mourning; and that if the burial takes place the next day, that mourning is no longer a biblical requirement, but a rabbinic enactment. 

In the fifth section (on Pesachim 8), the text remains uncorrected and it concurs with the four other now-corrected texts. This suggests that this fifth section was written later than the previous four sections. This fifth section and the other four now-corrected texts also concur with Maimonides’ ruling in Mishneh Torah which was written later suggesting that he wrote the fifth section some time after the other four sections 

“The vastness of his corpus and the survival of numerous autograph manuscripts grants access to Maimonides’s thinking that is virtually unmatched for medieval Jewish authors and underscores that medieval works were never truly ‘finished’ in the lifetime of their authors (or even, frequently, thereafter)” (Herman 2019:918). 

What is most interesting is that: 

“the road from the [Pirush haMishna]…to [Sefer haMitzvot], and to Mishneh Torah in turn, required careful demarcation and an untiring review of the assumptions of Maimonides’s youth” (Herman 2019:918). 


Herman notes that although Maimonides was called the “Great Eagle…he was also a man who changed his mind and revisited ideas” (Herman 2019:918). 

This confirms the notion that Maimonides is very difficult to define because one always needs to determine the stage in his lifetime when he made his statements. One usually thinks that this applies only to his later radical philosophical teachings apropos his earlier Halachic writings, but now we see that even within the corpus of his mainstream Halachic works, a process and evolution of ideas was a constant Maimonidean variable. 

Think Again

Adam Grant wrote a book about the importance of changing one’s mind and reassessing one’s previous thinking. It’s called “Think Again.” He writes: 

“When you find out you’ve made a mistake, take it as a sign that you’ve just discovered something new. Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself. It helps you focus less on proving yourself and more on improving yourself” (Grant 2012:252).

[1] Herman, M., 2019, ‘Two Themes in Maimonides’s Modifications to his Legal Works’, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 139, no. 4, 907-922.

[3] Adler, A., 1987. Ha-ʿeqronot ha-shiṭṭatiyim ki-ysod le-“ḥazarotav” shel ha-Rambam (mi-Perush hamishnah le-Mishneh Torah). PhD diss., Bar Ilan Univ.

[4] Langermann, Y. T., 2004. Maimonides and Miracles: The Growth of a (Dis)belief. Jewish History 18.2– 3, 147–72.

[5] Hopkins, S., 1985. Two New Maimonidean Autographs in the John Rylands University Library. Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 67.2, 710–35.

[6] Beit-Arié, M., 1993. Transmission of Texts by Scribes and Copyists: Unconscious and Critical Interferences. Bulletin of John Rylands University Library of Manchester 75, 33–51.

No comments:

Post a Comment