A Guide to The Guide to the Perplexed
A Reader’s Companion to Maimonides’ Masterwork
Lenn E. Goodman



Moses Maimonides, called the Rambam in traditional Jewish circles—using a scribe’s convenient acronym of his Hebrew name, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon—is known in English language texts as Maimonides, the Greek patronymic reflecting the impact of his writings in Latin translation. His name in Arabic, Mūsā bin Maimūn, signals his fame among Muslim scholars. He was born in Cordoba in 11381 and died in Cairo in 1204. Tradition has it that he is buried in Tiberias. Even in Cordoba, which he and his family had to leave when he was a child, a handsome, if fanciful, statue of a seated man honors his youthful presence. Indeed, he continued decades after the family’s exile to call himself ha-Sefardi, “the Spaniard” in Hebrew, never losing his links to Andalusia and its heritage in philosophy, the sciences, and Jewish law. But more on that later.

His own contributions link those fields: Maimonides was a master in the sciences pursued by the learned in his day, especially geometry, astronomy, and logic. His writings reveal skill and clarity in argument—and, what often matters more, insight in choosing premises, analyzing assumptions, and synthesizing seemingly disparate positions. A practicing physician, he wrote ten Arabic medical works, some in multiple volumes, and all in the Galenic tradition of scientific medicine. His medical works are exemplary of the most up-to-date standards of medical theory and practice, notable for their care with terminology and for eschewing the astrological assumptions and excursions that sometimes attach themselves to Galenic works and even to those of Galen himself. As for Halakhah, Maimonides would become the most formidable exponent of Jewish law to arise since the completion of the Talmud, guided by his conviction that all of God’s laws must make sense and directly or indirectly serve human needs. For God, of course, has no needs but gave the Torah, as its name implies, for the guidance of His people. Beyond his role as a foremost Jewish jurist, today universally acknowledged and acclaimed, readers of the Rambam’s Guide to the Perplexed will readily observe that he was a penetrating reader of biblical and rabbinic poetics, whether he found it in the form of metaphor, allegory, or homiletic symbolism.

Maimonides’ Sefer ha-Mitzvot (Book of the Commandments, SM), written in Arabic, catalogs the 613 mitzvot that rabbinic tradition held the Torah to contain. His listing (not the only one to be attempted) opens with I am the Lord thy God (Exodus 20:2), placed first among the positive mitzvot, and Thou shalt have no other God before me (20:3), first among the negative. These two precepts, as the Rambam saw it, bear prescriptive force, as they must if they are to ground every other biblical norm. They are not mere affirmations of fact, as though God’s existence made no demands on us. For Maimonides, recognition of God’s unique ultimacy anchors His moral and legislative authority. But the recognition that these two mitzvot call for is no arbitrary fiat. Rather, as Maimonides sees it, these two items in the Decalogue speak directly to reason, articulating, as he will argue, a pair of core truths, an axiom and its corollary, that Moses voiced for Israel at Sinai and that all those present grasped for themselves in the measure of their understanding (II 33, 75a).

The K. al-Sirāj, or Book of the Lamp, Maimonides’ Arabic commentary on the Mishnah, tracks the six Orders of that ancient halakhic code. It includes the celebrated Eight Chapters, his introduction to Pirkei Avot, the well-known gathering of the rabbinic sages’ teachings, which typically express ethical and edifying maxims. Often studied on its own, given the ethical focus of the remarks from the Sages collected in Mishnah Avot, the Eight Chapters elicits from the Torah a scheme of virtue ethics designed to help us better our character. By so doing it lays the foundation needed if we are to reach our highest goal and attain the deepest and purest form of worship: active and passionate knowledge of God.

Moshe Halbertal highlights Maimonides’ originality when he explains how innovative the K. al-Sirāj is in treating the Mishnah independently, as no mere springboard to talmudic study but the backbone of Halakhah.2 Maimonides’ seven years’ labor in preparing his commentary—much of it undertaken in conditions of hardship, exile, and persecution—aimed to bring the Talmud’s “chaos,” as Halbertal puts it, into systematic order, finding reason and principle in the Mishnah’s ritual, penal, civic, and public laws. Maimonides apologizes for any errors his commentary might contain, since parts of it were composed on shipboard or on the road. He continued throughout his life to revise and emend his findings based on his maturing judgment and deeper study. In a letter, he explains how he’d needed to correct passages where he’d followed too closely the lead of the Geonim, as the spiritual leaders of “Babylonian” Jewry were called.3 Remarkably, the Rambam’s own fair copy of this work has survived, and almost all of it has been published, showing the hundreds of revisions that reflect his growing mastery and authority in Halakhah as a body of law kept alive by organic but not radical change (II 49, 84b; III 25, 57ab).

In one revision that sheds light on what Menachem Kellner and David Gillis call his universalism, Maimonides sets aside the mishnaic dictum (M. Bikkurim 1.4) that in bringing first fruits to the Temple, a proselyte does not recite the ritual declaration thanking God for the land the Lord promised our fathers (Deuteronomy 26:3). God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations (Genesis 17:5). So pace many of the early Sages, and rejecting his own prior view (but following the Jerusalem Talmud), Maimonides holds—as he ruled in his responsum regarding the status of Obadiah the Proselyte—that a convert, as an adopted child of Abraham, makes the same blessings as any other Jew. As Isaiah said, One shall say, “I am the Lord’s and another call himself by Jacob’s name” (44:5).4

The Mishnah commentary paved the way for the fourteen-volume code of Jewish law that Maimonides boldly called Mishneh Torah (hereafter MT), using the traditional title of Deuteronomy, where the Torah’s laws are restated. The work, unprecedented in scope and unequaled in conceptual penetration, codifies the full range of Halakhah, tracing rabbinic prescriptions to their biblical roots, setting the entire halakhic edifice on its intellectual foundations,5 spelling out its moral and spiritual aims, and purging the Talmud’s frequent repetitions, digressions, obiter dicta, and asides. Even citations are omitted, along with the byplay of debate and dissent across the centuries that sets the Sages in conversation with one another.

The backgrounds of debate and deliberation can clarify the intentions of a law. But they may also leave key issues unresolved. The Talmud and the literature spilling from it can appear a seething cauldron. But where another code might draw sharp crystals from such a supersaturated solution, Maimonides finds a living organism, integrated by the clear purpose of the whole: to better the lives of all Israel by enhancing the people’s material well-being, improving their relations, refining their character, and opening up doorways to the realization of the affinity to God that all human beings share, the affinity attested when Genesis affirms that mankind, male and female, are created in God’s image (1:27). To Maimonides, that means that all human beings are blessed with reason and the power to perfect it and so come to know God and emulate His goodness.6

Although it tracks the major sections of the Mishnah, the Talmud is not tightly thematic. But the very act of codifying a body of law is pregnant with a key premise of legal rationalism, that laws serve purposes. For it is by their purposes that legal prescriptions are most usefully marshaled for practical and intellectual use. In the Yale Judaica Series translation, the MT is called simply The Code of Maimonides. But in Jewish traditional circles, where it remains a key halakhic reference and a focus of extended, even devotional, study, it is often called the Yad Ḥazakah, or the Yad for short, echoing Deuteronomy 26:8: With a strong hand and an outstretched arm did the Lord bring us forth from Egypt. For the numerical value of the letters of the word yad (hand) is fourteen, recalling the work’s fourteen volumes. The epithet sidesteps calling the work by the same name as Deuteronomy.7 But strong hand, a phrase well known from its appearance in the Passover Hagaddah, also reflects the confidence readers gained from the work’s reliability—and its power in rendering halakhic rules intelligible. A law whose purposes are understood can be intelligently observed, interpreted, elaborated, refined, explained, justified, even cherished. In the same spirit, Maimonides ends his Guide to the Perplexed by laying out the warrants he sees for every class of biblical mitzvot, first in general terms and then, when he feels able, in more specific detail. The guiding principles he finds—grouped under the three headings of material, moral, and spiritual/intellectual well-being—are the distillate of his extended and sensitive studies of Halakhah.8

Maimonides’ aim in his great code was to marshal the rules, norms, and principles of Halakhah as “a transparent, accessible system.” That system had grown, and its written corpus had become, as Halbertal puts it, “an uncontrollable organism, laden with disputes and fragmented give and take recorded in Aramaic, a language not used in daily life.” History had made its structuring principles somehow remote. One who labored to master it “could not be assured of the ability to extract practical legal rulings from the Talmudic morass. He would always remain justifiably concerned that he had failed to understand the complex debate, that he had chosen wrongly among the wealth of opinions . . . that he had missed a reference to his subject elsewhere in the Talmud, in some remote, unrelated context—a distinct possibility, given the Talmud’s free-wheeling structure—and that the overlooked reference might have fundamentally changed the picture.”9

Maimonides’ goal was to introduce order that would allow the body of Halakhah to function as a living and perspicuous system, giving students, scholars, and those in need of practical rulings clear and dispositive guidance. “I have been zealous on behalf of the Lord God of Israel,” he wrote, “seeing a nation lacking a true and comprehensive book of its own laws and lacking true and clear beliefs. I acted for God’s sake alone.”10 Ideas were crucial from the outset. For Halakhah lays out a way of life, but its norms reduce to an empty game unless anchored in understanding—practical and moral, intellectual and spiritual.

Halakhah, for Maimonides, would not remain a morass. Looming before him at the outset, its magnificent disorder may have resembled more a mountain than a swamp. But with the Commentary on the Mishnah and SM under his belt, he faced the Law with a sense that he could be the man equipped to master it—and so help others, mapping its every foothold of practical or theological relevance. This task he saw as critically necessary:

For the purpose intended in the collation of the Talmud has been aborted and lost. The object of today’s scholars is only to kill time in talmudic disputing, as if the point were just to hone their skills in debate. That was not the original intention. Debates and disputes arose only incidentally, when words seemed to allow one person to read them one way and another to read them differently, and each mounted arguments to show that his reading should prevail. But the prime intent was just to make known what must be done or avoided in this case and others like it. My object was to go back to the original intent, to make the demands of Halakhah easy to remember and, indeed, understand. For its norms had gotten lost in the welter of debate. I left all the rest for those more disposed to such an exercise.11

There had been prior essays toward a halakhic code, but none was complete or systematic. Among those earlier codes, Maimonides especially admired the pioneering work of Isaac al-Fāsī (1013–1103), who had come to Andalusia after forty years of halakhic work while living near Fez, as the surname by which he is known announces. Al-Fāsī became head of the yeshiva at Lucena, near Cordoba, in 1089, soon after completing his code, sometimes called the “Little Talmud.” His students included the poet/philosopher Judah Halevi (ca. 1075–1141) and Halevi’s lifelong friend Joseph Ibn Migash (1077–ca. 1141), who succeeded al-Fāsī at Lucena and was the teacher of Maimonides’ learned father. But not since Judah the Patriarch and his colleagues compiled the Mishnah, Maimonides wrote, had anyone set out the full range of Halakhah.12 And the body of law registered in the Mishnah had grown immensely in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds and in the forests of discussion that spread within and beyond them.

The need Maimonides addressed lay not in the realm of praxis alone. The intellectual need was in some ways even greater, given the varying sophistication of the Sages (and their audience) and the oblique and elliptical modes of rabbinic discourse, heavily reliant on allegory, parable, and dialogue, often allusive and presumptive of immediate and intimate familiarity with Scripture and with the full range of rabbinic dicta and homilies, and chary of overt confrontation with the issues of theology. Yet despite the rabbinic habits of obliquity and indirection, values and ideas are prominent anchors and aims in Halakhah, not least in its claim to divine authority. Nor, as Baḥyā Ibn Pāqūdah explained, can one adequately observe the Torah’s prescriptions if one does not understand their aims and observe them with appropriate intent.13

Heralding the clarity of mind that Maimonides brought to all his work, from his efforts to rationalize the nomenclature of materia medica to his very early work defining key terms and stating basic rules of logic, MT flies proudly on its masthead a line from the Psalms, quoted, with characteristic verve, in the medieval manner to elicit a facet of meaning not salient on the surface: Then shall I be unabashed to scrutinize all Thy commandments (119:6). The challenge Maimonides took up is to see and set before his readers the good sense in the Mosaic laws, which God Himself had promised would be plain to the nations of the world:14 Follow and keep them. For this is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the nations, who will hear all these laws and say, “What a wise and discerning people is this great nation!” For what nation is so great as to have the divine so near as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call upon Him, and what nation is so great as to have laws and rules as just as this entire Torah that I give you this day! (Deuteronomy 4:6–8).

Maimonides’ goal in the Mishneh Torah was to render Halakhah accessible to all who might need it. That, he says, is why he wrote the work in mishnaic Hebrew, not biblical Hebrew or Aramaic—nor in Arabic, opaque to most European Jews.15 He treasured Torah study and devoted much of his waking and working life to it. But he did not consider such study life’s purpose or highest goal. The Torah was given as a guide to life for Israel in every generation (1.13b), but life itself is for living actively and thoughtfully. The Torah aims to show us how best this can be done (2.84b). A lifetime spent conning over halakhic debates without seeing a resolution to them was not a life well spent. Our moral goal, as Maimonides stresses, is to perfect our character in acts of kindness. Our intellectual goal, to know God,16 is best attained by seeing the expressions of God’s grace and wisdom in nature. The two goals join hands in a virtuous circle, good character pointing implicitly toward God and kindness and generosity inspired, in turn, by ever clearer and sharper awareness (even in the midst of an active life) of God’s constant presence (I Introduction, 4a; III 51, 125a–126b).17

Some of the Rambam’s contemporaries worried that the Mishneh Torah, as the title he gave it allowed them to suspect, was meant to be the Halakhah (rather than represent it). Pinḥas ben Meshullam, chief Jewish judge of Alexandria, a man of Provençe, voiced the fear that Maimonides aimed to replace the Talmud—hence his failure to name his sources.18 “God forbid!” Maimonides replied in a lengthy letter. He did teach al-Fāsī’s code and other rabbinic works. He wrote the MT, in the first instance, he declared, as his own aide-mémoire but then to help others navigate the Talmud’s depths—and learn the sentence of the Law.

Halbertal gives Pinḥas’s question a full hearing and ultimately confirms the Rabbi’s fears.19 Those fears, we can say, partly with the aid of hindsight and partly with an appreciation of Maimonides’ own history and practice, seem a bit overwrought. But Maimonides clearly did aim to displace talmudic study as a way of life. If that is what Rabbi Pinḥas feared, his fears were not groundless: Maimonides did not celebrate the aim of spending one’s life wandering in the woods of talmudic speculation and disputation. The Mishneh Torah was and remains a practical reference, giving every Jew access to the halakhic rulings needed to guide decision-making. It also enabled every committed reader to see and appreciate the conceptual and moral roots and implications of Jewish law as an integrated system. But Halakhah was itself a guide, not a world to live in. Obscurantism and the life bred by it were not precious to the Rambam.

Among those who, ever since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, thought of halakhic study as a way of life—and indeed the ideal way of life—Rabbi Pinḥas’s worries have persisted to this day, marked by concerns about the omission of citations from the MT and its elision of ancient debates. Nothing said here will stanch the wound still throbbing at the site of the Roman conquest, when rabbinic study and the liturgy it bred displaced the spiritual life once centered on the Temple in Jerusalem. But in matters of Halakhah, Maimonides, we can say, seems never to fly naked: He never substitutes mere personal opinion for well-precedented, well-grounded halakhic judgment. Rabbinic scholars who probe the internal consistency and external groundings of the rulings recorded in the MT, long topoi of halakhic scholarship, consistently find halakhic foundations for them, often anchored in rather deeper and more faithful understanding of the ancient texts than lesser readers have reached. Given Maimonides’ vast learning and his access to some texts no longer extant, Jacob Dienstag writes, it would be “an endless task” to trace all his sources. But despite eight-and-a-half centuries of critiques invited and intensified by its prominence, the Yad Ḥazakah retains a commanding place as a halakhic work.20

The Guide, like Maimonides’ Code, shows his deep respect for tradition. But in the Guide, the focus shifts from practice and precept to theory and theology. The division of the house, tellingly, intensifies between those in love with philosophy as the love of wisdom and those insensitive to it or allergic to it. Where the Yad seeks order, intelligibility, and principle in Halakhah, the Guide turns to Aggadah, the vehicle that bears the themes of Jewish theology lightly rather than dogmatically, in midrashic, homiletic fancy, its narratives, providing a setting for the doxological precepts of the Torah in much the way that Jewish praxis and the Jewish ethos find their roots in the biblical mitzvot.

Not least among the miracles made possible by the Judaic reliance on narrative and midrash is that the Torah, in its broadest sense (which, for traditionalists, includes the rabbinic literature), can teach without dogmatism. It does so, as Maimonides is at pains to make clear, partly by its poetry and partly by the symbolism embedded in its ceremonial practices—although here, in the ritual laws that the Torah uses to make institutions of ideas, there are sanctions. Just as he wrote the Mishneh Torah to make Halakhah accessible to human understanding, it was to discover to his reader the rationality of the Torah’s ideas that Maimonides, making a new start in 1185 after setting aside two earlier exploratory and explanatory projects,21 wrote the Guide to the Perplexed.


1. Maimonides wrote that he completed his Mishnah commentary in Egypt in 1168 at age thirty. The birth year of 1135, still seen in some sources, based on testimony of the Rambam’s grandson, is now seen to be superseded by Maimonides’ own testimony.

2. Halbertal, Maimonides, 92–94.

3. Kraemer, Maimonides, 170; and see MT Introduction.

4. Halbertal, Maimonides, 95–96; Kellner, Maimonides’ Confrontation, 79 n.

5. See Stroumsa, Andalus and Sefarad, 150. The title Maimonides gives the opening book of MT, Laws of the Foundations of the Torah, a new usage in Hebrew, reflects the focus on fundamentals prized in Islamic jurisprudence, where legal foundations, as distinguished from black-letter law, are traditionally called Uṣūl al-Fiqh. See Stroumsa, Maimonides in His World, 70. Maimonides’ Hebrew calque on that expression affirms his assumption, shared with Baḥyā Ibn Pāqūdah, that the Torah’s practical (and ritual) prescriptions rest on intellectual foundations.

6. In the Aristotelian psychology pursued by Maimonides, there are three facets to the human soul, the broad term for what distinguishes living from nonliving beings. Given their diverse functions and foci, these are sometimes called three souls. In a human being, all three are distinctively human. But the facet governing growth and reproduction is called vegetative, since its general functions are those we have in common with plants—although what sustains a plant is not the same as what we humans need. The facet governing pursuit and avoidance is called the animal soul, although, again, human motility and irritability are distinctively human and only generically akin to the corresponding functions in nonhuman animals. The facet concerned with thought, practical or theoretical, is called the rational soul, reason, intellect, or simply the mind. The rational soul is the one most distinctively human. Here Maimonides finds our real link with God.

7. See Twersky, Introduction, 527.

8. The Rambam’s explicit rejection of legal positivism and refutation of the notion that any of the mitzvot are arbitrary and thus pointless (III 25) parallels Philo’s reading of the Torah’s subtext. To Philo, too, the Torah’s laws “are meant to inculcate” specific “intellectual and moral virtues,” which are, indeed, their “underlying meaning.” Mere external observance is the body of the laws, but their moral and intellectual sense is their soul: “There is no indication that some laws were considered by him as being arbitrary commands by God.” Harry Wolfson, Philo, 2.223, citing Philo’s On the Migration of Abraham 16.93.

9. Halbertal, Maimonides, 164.

10. Maimonides, Iggrot, Shailat, 401.

11. Maimonides, Iggrot, Shailat, 256. Hence the Rambam’s intention, voiced in the introduction to SM, to bypass mere disputes.

12. Maimonides, Iggrot, Shailat, 440–41. Before Rabbi’s endeavor—that is, the work of Judah the Patriarch—Maimonides holds, Halakhah was not really oral, but individual scholars collected their notes as to the rulings they had heard or inferred; there was no commonly promulgated body of law (MT, Introduction).

13. Baḥyā, Hovot ha-Levavot (Duties of the Heart), introduction. No one could see that distinction more clearly than Jews who survived the Almohad persecution in Spain and knew what it meant to pay lip service and go through the motions of a piety not accepted in their heads or hearts.

14. See Twersky, Introduction, 473.

15. See Maimonides, SM, Introduction, tr. Chavel, 2.362; Maimonides, MT, Introduction; and Twersky, Introduction, 354. Chanan Ariel tracks a handful of divergences in the MT from the usages of mishnaic Hebrew mainly, it seems, for clarity’s sake (Ariel, “Deviations”).

16. Cf. Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 2, 352a, lcl 5.8–9.

17. According to Leibowitz, “To use a modern concept taken from the field of cybernetics, we can depict the relation between the practical commandments and religious faith—in other words, between halakhah and philosophy—as feedback mechanism. The halakhah, which is an instrument for educating man toward faith, is then reconceived—by means of this faith—not as a means, but as the purpose itself” (Faith, 24).

18. The reason Maimonides himself gives is that he did so for the sake of brevity (MT, Introduction). But that explanation itself seems apocopated: The Yad clearly aims to sidestep interminable talmudic debates.

19. See Halbertal, Maimonides, chap. 4.

20. Dienstag, “Relationship of Maimonides.” 42–43. In a letter, Maimonides tells of a visitor demanding to know his rabbinic source for a ruling regarding homicide recorded in MT. He was sure he had seen the point of law somewhere but, to his chagrin, could not pinpoint it in two attempts. He found it soon after the man left and sent after him to show him the fugitive text in B. Yevamot. See Halbertal, Maimonides, 57–58; and Sarachek, Faith and Reason, 34.

21. Assaying differences in Maimonides’ handling of key biblical passages in the first fifty chapters of the Guide as compared with his treatment of the same texts in later chapters, Hannah Kasher has argued that one can detect two layers in its composition (Kasher, “Is There an Early Stratum?”). Y. Tzvi Langermann argues that in collating the ideas that he would marshal in the Guide, Maimonides used the same method as he used in his medical work, compiling a dossier of fuṣūl and collating his thoughts on key passages and issues, much as Fārābī had in philosophy and as Rāzī had done in medicine. The Rambam’s use of the term fuṣūl in the title of the Eight Chapters on ethics that he prefaced to his commentary on M. Avot and his retention of the term for the chapters of the Guide support Langermann’s thesis. See Langermann’s “Fuṣūl Mūsā,” 325–44.