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Covenant & Conversation

Nitzavim (5768) – The Fourteenth Principle


Ask anyone how many principles of Jewish faith there are, and the answer is almost certain to be thirteen. That is a mark of the influence of Moses Maimonides, who was the first to formulate the Jewish creed in this way. The principles are taken from his Commentary to the Mishnah, in his introduction to chapter 10 of the tractate Sanhedrin. A later formulation (Ani maamin) is found in many prayer books. The most famous version is to be found in the liturgical poem Yigdal, often said at the beginning or end of services. In their briefest form, the principles are:

1. G-d’s existence

2. G-d’s unity

3. G-d’s incorporeality

4. G-d’s existence is before and after time

5. G-d alone may be worshipped

6. Prophecy

7. The special nature of Moses’ prophecy

8. Torah from heaven

9. The eternity of the Torah

10. G-d’s knowledge

11. Reward and punishment

12. The Messiah

13. Resurrection

However, though this view has never been challenged, it is not the full story.

To understand this, we must first know that Maimonides was not only the supreme commentator and codifier of Jewish law. He also took immense care in the construction of his work. Nothing he wrote was accidental, especially the structure of his literary works. Maimonides was a trained logician and philosopher. He devoted special attention to first principles. He left detailed explanations of why he wrote a particular work in one style rather than another, one language rather than another. For example, he wrote the Mishneh Torah in rabbinic Hebrew, unlike most of his other works that were written in Arabic. The Mishneh Torah itself is one of the most lucid books ever written in Hebrew, quite unlike The Guide for the Perplexed, which is written (as he explains in the introduction) to be deliberately opaque. He cared about the architectonics, the literary shape, of his works.

It is with some surprise, therefore, that we discover that in all his major works, he used fourteen, not thirteen, as his organising principle. The most famous example is the Mishneh Torah itself, commonly called the Yad (“hand”) because it is composed of fourteen books (the numerical value of the Hebrew word yad is fourteen ). The books are:

1. Knowledge (Madda)

2. Love (Ahavah)

3. Times (Zemanim)

4. Women (Nashim)

5. Sanctity (Kedushah)

6. “Expression” (Hafla’ah)

7. Seeds (Zeraim)

8. Service (Avodah)

9. Sacrifices (Korbanot)

10. Purity (Tohorah)

11. Damages (Nezikin)

12. Acquisition (Kinyan)

13. Judgment (Mishpatim)

14. Judges (Shofetim)

In his introduction to Sefer Hamitzvot (The Book of Commandments), where he lists the 613 commands, he sets out fourteen principles by which to decide whether a biblical passage is to count as a command or not. The book itself is divided into two (positive and negative commands), each of which is subdivided into fourteen groups:

Positive commands / Negative commands
1 G-d (1-9) / 1 G-d (1)
2 Torah and prayer (10-19) / 2 Idolatry (2-66)
3 Sanctuary and priests (20-38) / 3 Sanctuary and priests (67-88)
4 Offerings(39-93) / 4 Offerings (89-154)
5 Vows (94-95) / 5 Vows (155-157)
6 Purity and impurity (96-113) / 6 Impurity (158-171)
7 Agriculture (114-145) / 7 Prohibited food (172-209)
8 Food regulations (146-152) / 8 Cultivation of land (210-231)
9 Holy days (153-171) / 9 Duties to fellow man (232-272)
10 State functions (172-193) / 10 Administration of justice (273-300)
11 Duties to fellowman (194-208) / 11 Public order (301-319)
12 Family life (209-223) / 12 Holy days (320-329)
13 Punishments (224-231) / 13 Sexual regulations (330-361)
14 Property regulations (232-248) / 14 State affairs (362-365)

In the third part of The Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides gives a general account of the reasons for the commands. He divides the commandments into basic groups, differentiated by their purpose. Again the number he chooses is fourteen. These are the types:

1. Fundamental opinions

2. Idolatry

3. Ethical qualities

4. Giving of arms and bestowing of gifts

5. Other wrongdoing and aggression

6. Punishments

7. Mutual property transactions

8. Days on which work is forbidden

9. Other general practices of worship

10. Sanctuary

11. Sacrifices

12. Clean and unclean

13. Forbidden food and related matters

14. Prohibited sexual unions

What is fascinating is that none of these lists is related to the others. The way Maimonides divides the commands in his law-code is different from the way he does so in Sefer ha-Mitzvot and different again from the classification in the Guide. Nor is any related to the fourteen rules for counting the number of the commands. It seems, simply, that for Maimonides the number fourteen (2×7) was his favoured organising principle.

If, therefore, we knew nothing of Maimonides’ principles of the faith and had to guess, on the basis of everything else we know about his writings, how many there were, the answer would be not thirteen but fourteen. Does Maimonides in fact believe in a fourteenth principle of faith? The answer is: he does. Here is how he sets it out:

Free will is bestowed on every human being. If one desires to turn toward the good way and be righteous, he has the power to do so. If one wishes to turn towards the evil way and be wicked, he is at liberty to do so . . . This doctrine is an important principle, the pillar of the law and the commandment . . . If G-d had decreed that a person should either be righteous or wicked . . . what room could there be for the whole of the Torah? By what right or justice could G-d punish the wicked or reward the righteous? (Teshuvah 5: 1-6)

Maimonides leaves us in no doubt that free will is one of the fundamental principles of faith, without which Judaism would not make sense. If we lacked freedom, there would be no point in G-d commanding us, “Do this. Don’t do that.” Nor would there be any logic in reward and punishment, both of which presuppose human responsibility for our actions. Free will is the fourteenth principle of Jewish faith.

Why then did we assume otherwise? Why, in his Commentary to the Mishnah does Maimonides list thirteen principles, not fourteen? The answer lies in the context. Maimonides is commenting on a Mishnah which speaks about those who “have no share in the world to come.” He is listing, in other words, those principles, denial of which places one outside the community of faith. What they have in common is that they are beliefs about G-d. The fourteenth principle is not a belief about G-d but about humanity. The first thirteen summarize our faith in G-d. The fourteenth – the fact that G-d has granted us the freedom to choose how to behave – represents G-d’s faith in humankind.

The prooftext for the fourteenth principle comes from today’s sedra. It appears at the climax of Moses’ great challenge to the next generation:

This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life, so that you and your children may live. (Deut. 30: 19)

Judaism is a religion of freedom and responsibility. Against all the many determinisms in the history of thought – astrological, philosophical, Spinozist, Marxist, Freudian, neo-Darwinian – Judaism insists that we are masters of our fate. We are neither programmed nor predestined. We can choose. That is the fourteenth principle of Jewish faith.