An indispensable work of halakhah to nearly all parts of the mekori movement is the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah (I say “nearly all” because the Talmidei HaGr”a, although being essentially mekori’im, do not usually use the Rambam for practical halakhic purposes). The Mishneh Torah is not only a foundational work halakhically, but also hashkafically. The hashkafah it contains consists mainly in setting forth the proper approach to halakhic authority and the applicability and the works of Hazal in the current post-Talmudic era.
[It is not the printed versions that generally hold sway in our movement, however, but the original text that was preserved in kitvei yad from the Yemenite Jewish community, that lack tens of thousands of errors. The edition most used and with the widest distribution is the edition by Rabbi Yohai Makbili, student of Mori Yusef Qafih z”l.]
Some of the reasons for the Rambam’s work being central, as opposed to other halakhic compendiums, are as follows:
- The Rambam codified the entire length and breadth of Talmudic law, unlike any other law code ever (The only possible exception to this may be the Arukh HaShulhan and Arukh HaShulhan HeAtid, but there are small sections of halakhah missing from these works as well).
- Its language and presentation is relatively simple, easy to access, intended for use by all who possess even a basic Jewish education (i.e. Hebrew language, Mishnah, and Tanakh).
- It is organized topically and in logical order. It also contains ta’amei ha-mitzvot and explanations that are not available in other codes, which aides in making practical halakhic determinations, since it provides the reader with the reasoning behind the law.
- It preserves an ancient standard of deciding between various opinions expressed in the Gemara and other compilations of Hazal. The Rambam espouses the rules of the Geonim to this end and therefore avoids the confusion in halakhic methodology so prominent in later (predominantly European) commentaries on the Talmudic text.
- The Rambam is very clear that the principle of Halakhah K’Batra’ei (“the decision of law is according to the latest halakhic decisors”) ended with the hatimat ha-talmud, the “close of talmudic literature.” As a result, only duly-appointed local rabbinic authority exists, and such courts only operate within the boundaries of Talmudic law.
- The Geonim tried to innovate and change/create laws, blessings, institutions, etc. in a more or less autocratic fashion, but Rambam denies them such legislative abilities (as do other Rishonim).
- Only the non-imposing authority, akin to that of a lawyer, remains – the authority of a lawmaker does not (more on this in a coming post) – and the privilege to be known as “rabbi” is based on capabilities, public acknowledgement, and righteousness of middot, with their service being an “at will” decision of individuals.
Although it is deviated from halakhically, the Mishneh Torah remains the supreme working basis for mekoriut. Deviations by various mekori’im are usually based on variance in customs, changed practical realities, or different applications/interpretations of Talmudic law by other Rishonim.