20 Teves: Yahrzeit of the Rambam

In 5744 the Rebbe launched a one-of-a-kind global initiative, uniting each and every Jew, from the wise to the simple, by studying the entire Torah – and specifically halachos.

By A Chassidisher Derher

How to Learn Rambam

Long before the takana of Limmud HaRambam, Sefer HaYad was studied by Yidden around the world. They delved into it; roshei yeshivos gave shiurim on Rambam, deriving heaps of chiddushim in Shas from every word and letter.

However, by and large the sefer was not being used for the purpose its author intended; a sefer that every Yid, great or small, old or young, could use to know the entire Torah.

When the Rebbe instituted the daily limud haRambam on Acharon Shel Pesach 5744, the original intent and vision for this monumental work finally became a reality.

But this is just one of the many accomplishments of the takana. A one-of-a-kind global initiative, uniting each and every Jew, from the wise to the simple, by studying the entire Torah – and specifically halachos.

A unity that is a prelude to the coming of Moshiach.

When the Rebbe introduced the method of learning Rambam as we do; studying the entire sefer perek by perek from start to finish, some may have felt that learning three perakim (or even just one perek) of Rambam a day is a pace far faster than Sefer HaYad should be studied. They believed that Rambam, being a complex and deep sefer, should be studied by first delving into the Gemaras on which a given halacha is based, and only afterwards learning Sefer HaYad. They believed that to learn Rambam without first studying the applicable sugyos in Shas would be disrespectful to the Rambam.

But the truth however, is quite the opposite; in order to respect the Rambam, one does not need to first learn the Gemaras. The Rambam did not intend his sefer to be a commentary on Shas. In the hakdama to Sefer HaYad, he writes:

“I… sought to compose [a work which would include the conclusions] derived from all these texts regarding the forbidden and the permitted, the impure and the pure, and the remainder of the Torah’s laws, all in clear and concise terms, so that the entire Torah Sheb’al Peh could be organized in each person’s mouth without questions or objections.

“To summarize: [The intent of this work is] that a person will not need another text at all with regard to any halacha. Rather, this text will be a compilation of the entire Torah Sheb’al Peh, including also the takanos, minhagim, and gezeiros that were enacted from the time of Moshe Rabbeinu, until the completion of the Gemara, as were explained by the geonim in the texts they composed after the Gemara.

“Therefore, I have called this text, Mishneh Torah [“the second to the Torah,” with the intent that] a person should first study the Torah Shebiksav, and then study this text and comprehend the entire Torah Sheb’al Peh from it, without having to study any other text between the two.”

The Rambam makes his intention quite clear: the sefer’s purpose is to impart knowledge of the halachos of Torah, not the deeper meaning of the Gemara. That is why he called it Mishne Torah; first and foremost, a Yid must learn Torah Shebiksav. Then, the secondary obligation is to know the halachos, the “Crown of Torah.” For this purpose the Sefer HaYad was written, and its study will give the student knowledge of “every Jewish law,” without need for any other sefer. 

The Rebbe explains that learning Rambam only for the purpose of deriving chiddushim goes against the Rambam’s wishes. Until now, a seder of learning Rambam for the sake of Rambam itself almost didn’t exist.

The takana is to learn Rambam for the sake of Rambam itself; not to figure out the source in Shas for the halachos, nor to derive chiddushim, but simply to understand the halachos, as the Rambam intended. (Once this has been accomplished, one can indeed learn chiddushim from the precise wording of Rambam.)

While Lubavitcher Chassidim had been completing Shas every year since the times of the Alter Rebbe by dividing the mesechtos, the Rebbe explained that completing Rambam could not be accomplished by splitting the sefer up. This is because of a difference between Shas and Rambam. Although the placement of the mesechtos in Shas are in a particular order, the reasons for this order have no halachic implication; thus, one needn’t study Shas in a specific order and it can be split up.

On the other hand the Rambam, when writing Sefer HaYad, expected the reader to have studied the entire sefer up until the current halacha and relied that the student would already know a lot of information. The reader, unaware of what the Rambam wrote earlier in the sefer, may draw erroneous conclusions from the halacha he studies. The only way to properly learn Rambam is in the right order, from beginning to end.

Jewish Unity 

“One of the principal elements in the study of Rambam is the unification of Jewry,” the Rebbe was quoted in the New York Times as saying.

In those inaugural sichos, the Rebbe discussed the oft-mentioned need to unite the Jewish nation. The Rebbe explained that this unity can be accomplished by learning Mishneh Torah daily, because every Yid would be learning the same thing at the same time. Since “a person is wherever his thoughts are,” all Yidden are thus united in their common study.

This unity is everlasting, as it is unity through the eternal Torah. This unity expresses itself practically as well; Yidden who may otherwise have little in common will find a common language in the inyan they are all learning.

However, this unity could really be accomplished by the simultaneous study of any sefer in Torah. Why then was Rambam chosen?

The Rebbe went on to explain that Sefer HaYad has two unique advantages:

1) As explained in Likkutei Torah, the Jewish people are one united body, but there are still some that are considered like “heads” and some that are like the ”feet.” While there is a significant difference between scholars and simple folk when it comes to the give-and-take of pilpul, the difference fades when it comes to halacha. The schism between scholars and simple people with respect to pilpul can be compared to the difference between the head and the foot. The purpose of the head is logic and understanding, while the feet’s purpose is walking— getting things done. On the other hand, when it comes to learning straightforward, practical halachos; simple dos and don’ts, all Yidden are equal.

Sefer Hayad, a sefer of halachos, is a sefer that all Yidden can share an equal understanding of.

2) Yidden derive their chayus from Torah and are one with Torah. The Yidden, the Torah, and Hashem are all one. Naturally, anything that is to be accomplished among Yidden must come from Torah. Hence, unity and completeness of the Jewish People—must come about through completeness in Torah; and the sefer used for that purpose must be one that contains the entire Torah.

Sefer HaYad is unique in that it includes all of the halachos of the Torah. There are other sefarim of halachos, but none of them are comprehensive. For example, Shulchan Aruch contains only the halachos applicable to today, while Sefer HaYad also includes halachos that only apply during the times of the Beis Hamikdash, as well as halachos of tumah and taharah.

The Rambam clearly states that his sefer contains the entire Torah Sheb’al Peh, making the Sefer Hayad the only compilation that a person can use to learn the entire Torah. This is why the possuk that the Rambam uses to open his sefer is “Then I will not be ashamed when I gaze at all Your mitzvos.” Sefer HaYad contains all of Torah, making it the ideal sefer to be used to unite all Yidden through learning all of Torah.

The Greatness of Halacha

There are many components to the mitzvah of Torah study:

1) Practical knowledge—studying the halachos that everyone must know in order to perform the mitzvos.

2) To know the entire Torah Shebiksav and Torah Sheb’al Peh—this includes Bavli, Yerushalmi, Sifra, Sifri, Tosefta, Midrashim, and much more, as detailed in Hilchos Talmud Torah.

3) Studying halacha in general, even the halachos that are not practically applicable today.

But if the uniqueness of halacha lies in its practicality, what makes halacha that is not practical unique? Our chachomim placed halacha in high regard, referring to it as “the Crown of Torah.”

The Alter Rebbe explains in Tanya that just as a crown surrounds a person’s head, the “head” of Torah— the give-and-take of analysis in Torah, is surrounded by the “crown”—the halachic conclusion that arises out of it, which is Hashem’s will that governs our actions. This Divine will in halacha is greater and more elevated than the “head” of Torah, like a crown that is above and surrounding the head.

Therefore, learning Rambam—a sefer of halachos—has the advantage that the person learning connects himself with Hashem’s will. This advantage is one that learning any sefer halacha would provide. However, when one studies Rambam, a sefer which contains all the halachos, one connects himself to Hashem’s will in its entirety.

The Mitzvah of Knowing all of Torah 

In Hilchos Talmud Torah, the Alter Rebbe defines the obligation for every Yid to learn and know all of Torah to include learning and knowing all 613 mitzvos along with their halachos, which are detailed in Torah Sheb’al Peh. This is what the Rambam accomplishes in his sefer—he collects the halachos from throughout Shas that are applicable to all 613 mitzvos.

Thus, by learning Sefer HaYad, a Yid fulfills his obligation to learn and know the entire Torah, making it the ideal sefer to be used to unite all Yidden through learning all of Torah.

The Alter Rebbe also details a machlokes between the Rambam and the Rosh regarding the study of halachos. The Rambam’s opinion is that one needn’t learn the reasons for the halachos in order to be able to fully understand them. The Alter Rebbe proves that this is the Rambam’s opinion from the fact that his sefer, Mishneh Torah, does not contain the reasons for the halachos. The Rosh, on the other hand, holds that learning the reasons for the halachos is absolutely necessary, for without knowing the reason behind the halacha, one could easily misunderstand its intent, and mistakenly use this halacha as a basis to rule in a case that seems similar, but is in truth different. The Alter Rebbe goes on to explain that in order to fulfill the mitzvah of knowing all of Torah, it is sufficient to merely know the halachos themselves, without their reasons. According to the Rosh, on the other hand, this mitzvah requires one to know the halachos of the mitzvos along with their reasons.

The Alter Rebbe rules like the Rosh; that one must learn the halachos together with their reasons. This, then, leads to the question; how can we fulfill the mitzvah of knowing all of Torah by learning Rambam, when a key component—the reasons behind the halachos—is missing?

The Rebbe gives two answers: Firstly, one would still be fulfilling the mitzvah according to the Rambam.

Secondly, nowadays, most Yidden are not able to learn and know all the halachos with their reasons. Indeed we find that the Rambam wrote about his day and age that learning halacha from Gemara is something that “requires broad knowledge, a wise spirit, and much time,” (and as a result a sefer that is “clear and concise, without questions or answers” was needed). So, if this was true of the Rambam’s generation, all the more so it can be said of our generation, that at the very least one should learn the halachos themselves, without their reasons, to fulfill the mitzvah of knowing the entire Torah.

The Rebbe then explains, after a lengthy explanation of the definition of the mitzvah of knowing all of Torah according to the Alter Rebbe, that the Alter Rebbe agrees that someone who cannot learn and remember all of the halachos with their reasons (due to a lack of time or intellectual capacity—both reasons that apply to most people today), should learn the meaning of the 613 mitzvos to the best of his ability, i.e. the halachos from Mishnayos and Rambam.

Halachos Without Reasons

The Rebbe addressed a question that seems to arise from the words of the Rosh.

The Rosh writes, “Those who rule a halacha from Rambam without being well-versed in Gemara—to know from where his words are derived—are making a mistake. They err in permitting the forbidden and forbidding the permitted. Because [the Rambam] did not bring proofs and sources, like other authors of sifrei halacha, which would be able to be used to reach correct and true conclusions. [The Rambam] instead wrote his sefer as one who is prophesizing, without reason or proof. Anyone who reads it believes that he understands it, but this is not the case, for if one is not well-versed in Gemara, he will not understand the matter in its true depth, and will stumble in ruling and teaching. Therefore, a person should not rely on his reading of [the Rambam’s] sefer to rule and teach, unless he finds a proof in the Gemara [for his ruling.]

Based on this, some people believed that it is forbidden to learn Rambam on its own, without knowing the reasons for the halachos.

The Rebbe explained just how implausible it is to say that this is what the Rosh meant. This flies in the face of the very reasons that Rambam wrote his sefer—that it be learned on its own and that even a youngster incapable of understanding the reasons should be able to know the halachos. If it were to be forbidden to learn Rambam without also learning the applicable sugyos in Shas, the same would apply to Shulchan Aruch—it would be forbidden to learn the words of the Mechaber and the Rama without knowing their reasons. This would obviously be in direct contradiction to the established Jewish custom to learn Shulchan Aruch without the accompanying sugyos in Shas. One cannot say that this is what the Rosh intended.

Rather, it is certainly permitted, and in fact required, to learn Rambam as he himself intended; to gain simple knowledge of the halachos. The Rosh’s ban on ruling from Rambam applies only to matters that are not clearly written in the Sefer HaYad, so that one would have to extrapolate the correct halacha from a similar case that is written in the sefer. In the case of halachos that are clearly written in Rambam, the Rosh certainly agrees that one may rule from the Sefer HaYad. 

In addition, the Rosh’s intention was only to prevent ruling from Rambam (by extrapolation). However, it is certain that the Rosh agrees that one may learn the simple halachos without knowing the reasons, and one’s knowledge of the halachos, while incomplete without the reasons, would still be considered knowledge, and the takana of Rambam is not for the purpose of knowing how to conduct oneself, but merely to know the halachos.

Bringing the Geulah

There are two reasons that learning Rambam hastens the Geulah:

1) Since golus was caused by the opposite of ahavas Yisroel, it follows that ahavas Yisroel removes the reason for golus, and with it, golus itself. Therefore, the Jewish unity fostered by the study of Rambam helps bring geulah.

2) Chazal tell us: “The exiles will only be redeemed by virtue of Mishnayos, as it says, ‘Even when they are placed among nations I will collect them.’” Mishnayos are halachos gathered and taught without necessarily including their reasons. Similarly, the Rambam is “Concise… without questions and answers.” So just like the study of Mishnayos, the study itself of the halachos of Rambam hastens the geulah. This is also connected with the saying of Chazal that, “Everyone who learns halachos every day is guaranteed a portion in Olam Haba.” The Olam Haba that will take place in the physical realm, with physical bodies, will happen when Moshiach comes and techiyas hameisim takes place, may it happen speedily.

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