What Are Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith?

As I said in my last post, I want to continue writing about modern scholarship and traditional faith with a post listing some of the traditional rabbinic sources that deny a complete Mosaic authorship to the Torah. I’m not sure how many places you might look for such sources, but Marc B. Shapiro wrote a fascinating book which is mostly a compendium of these sources.

At any rate, before I post about some of the sources listed in Shapiro’s book (which I’ll do next time), I thought I’d post what Rambam’s 13 principles actually are. Even though as a community we seem to pay a lot of lip service to the principles, and certainly in the Orthodox community, the Yigdal poem (a version of the principles) is recited daily or weekly, it still seems like a lot of people don’t exactly know what each of the principles are.

Before we get to the actual list, I want to emphasize again how important the principles are. In Rambam’s opinion:

1) One who accepts the principles of faith will certainly have a place in Olam HaBa (The World to Come/Paradise). If someone accepts the principles, but sins in pretty much all other regards in Judaism, this person is treated with love and compassion as a member of the Jewish people.

2) One who even doubts the principles has removed himself from the Jewish people. Jews are obligated to hate and destroy this person, even if such a person is exact in keeping of the mitzvot (commandments).

These aren’t small points to make. You may argue that there is no 14th principle that Rambam is always right (as Rabbi Menachem Leibtag pithily remarked in his fascinating talk at LSS) or that Rambam changed his mind later on, wrote his true views esoterically, etc. For these reasons, and others, it is really hard to view the 13 principles as the end of the discussion when it comes to Jewish dogma. Menachem Kellner’s Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought is essential reading on this topic, and can’t be recommended enough. Like other Littman books, you might find it a little pricey, and prefer to go to the library. Littman is a non-profit publisher, so I don’t really hold it against them for charging a little more than I’d ideally like to pay. Not to mention that every single book I have read from their publishing house has been superb. That is kind of amazing, actually.

So, then. On to the principles.

1) God exists in a unique and self sufficient manner. If God stopped existing, so would everything else, since the totality of existence relies on God, who is the cause of everything in existence. However, if all of the existence were to stop existing, God would not be affected, as he is not caused by the universe. Yahu Skaist reminded me I should have been clear, as Rambam is there and in MT Yesodei HaTorah 1:3, that it is not possible for God to cease to exist. Rather, this is a theory discussed to make a point.

2) God is one, and His unity is entirely unique1.

3) God has no body, nor any physical attributes at all2.

4) God is beyond time.

5) Only God may be worshiped3.

6) God communicates with man, in what is known as prophecy4.

7) Moses was the greatest prophet, and God spoke to him directly while Moses was awake, as opposed to through an angel, while asleep. This is how all other prophets receive prophecy. Moses was not weakened by prophecy, like other prophets. Additionally, he was able to choose when to receive a prophecy, as opposed to all other prophets, who had no idea when they would have another revelation.

8) The entire Torah was given to Moses at Sinai.

9) The Torah cannot be replaced or changed in any way. It has therefore not been changed since Moses received it in its entirety on Sinai.

10) God knows of, and cares about, the actions of mankind.

11) God rewards good and punishes evil.

12) There will be a Messiah/Messianic age.

13) God will resurrect (at least some of) the dead at some point.

Many have been noted that the principles can be put into 3 classes: 1-5 are about God, 6-9 are about revelation, and 10-13 are about reward and punishment. Additionally  Abravanel writes in his Rosh Amanah that really all beliefs in the Torah are equally important. This being the case, it is worth discussing why Rambam would write his principles in the first place, but that’s for another post.

Now that we’ve gone through the principles themselves, I feel we can discuss some of the traditional opinions which differ from them, specifically, in regards to the principles about Mosaic prophecy.

Footnotes:

1When we describe unity we might refer to several things which are unified, such as the several players on a baseball team. Cars have parts, books have pages, the universe has perhaps infinite pieces. However, God’s unity precludes any “other” whatsoever, and He is not subject to the division of parts. His oneness is dis-similar to all other unities.

2This is really implied by the second principle, and L. Jabocs (Principles of the Jewish Faith) quotes Friedlander as saying that Rambam includes this principle because it was a prevalent belief that God has a body, even among Jewish scholars.

3As we have already ruled out the possibility of other deities (since God is the cause of the everything else, is One, so that nothing else is similar to Him, and is not affected by anything else so that we might think He has a partner or equal), this principles comes to preclude the worship of God’s works and messengers. Angels, the sun, the deceased, etc. Obviously, the sun is a gift from God, and we ought to appreciate it. But to worship it as a form of appreciation to God would still be forbidden. The same goes for everything else in life.

4Before you get clever and question whether Rambam’s principles should be considered incorrect because he relies on an Aristotelian understanding of metaphysics for his principles, I’ll note that Rambam did not rely 100% on Aristotle’s metaphysics. Rather, he regarded it as the best theories available. However, all theories of what goes on beyond the moon were considered uncertain by him. This means that if Rambam included the active intellect in his 13 principles, it is not that you should accept the active intellect as dogma. Rather, we should accept the bottom line, which is prophecy, and examine for ourselves what might be the best metaphysical theory today. Rambam includes his theory because that is the best they had at the time.

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14 Comments

Filed under Philosophy, Rationalism

14 responses to “What Are Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith?

  1. Mordechai Robertson

    IMHO:
    1. you cannot start to understand what the 13 Principles are about without considering the entire introduction to Perek Chelek and the concept of necessary belief.
    2. The idea that differences between the Introduction to Perek Chelek and the Mishneh Torah or the Moreh Nebuchim can be explained because the Rambam changed his mind will not wash, because he constantly reviewed his works, which should be regarded as contemporaneous with each other.
    3. The differences should be explained in terms of the purposes of the works and the readerships for which they were intended.

    • Hi Mordechai!

      1. I’m sorry if it seemed like I was offering more than a short summary here. I think that a short summary can be valuable, even though an exact and in depth study is better.

      2. I’m no expert, but many scholars consider it plausible that Rambam sometimes changed his mind and did not in fact always get around to making changes. Additionally, even when he did make changes, we are not necessarily in possession of the final draft, and which draft was final can be up for debate. This being the case, I think it ought to be considered along with the purposes of the works and intended readerships.

      • Mordechai Robertson

        I probably jumped the gun. I will wait and see what you come up with.

        • Yitzchak Sprung

          Well, it’s unlikely I’ll say anything too crazy. I usually just summarize what someone else said, and throw in a couple of thoughts/analysis here and there.

  2. Le Newyorkais

    How can anyone, even the Rambam, tell people what they MUST believe? What if 1 cannot believe some of these 13? what’s he to do, get himself brainwashed?
    Anyway, why does Rambam fail to give sources for his findings? take #9. why MUST I believe that the Torah did not undergo some mistakes in 3500 years? #10–who says that God cares about the actions of man? Who made that rule? Man did! talk about a biased source. If we were horses, would we not say that God cares about horses more than man?
    Sorry, Yitz, God and Torah and Yiddishkeit r inventions of Man. nothing more. Absolutely nothing says that this is so, except that our ancestors taught it.

    • Mordechai Robertson

      It is evident from the final sentence of your comment that it would make absolutely no difference to your view if the Rambam had stated what his sources for the 13 Principles were. Moreover, you appear not to have considered the import of the Rambam’s introductory comments to his 13 Principles.

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  8. Le Newyorkais

    Several of the Rambam’s principles r totally nonsensical, even if u r a believer.
    #12 and #13 r entirely unknowable because they occur in the FUTURE. And no person KNOWS what the future will be. Even if u believe in #1-11, u still have no reason to have “perfect faith” in something that will supposedly occur in the future. Especially since Scripture makes no real mention of an afterlife(s), how can man KNOW, much less with “perfect faith,” what WILL happen? Do not forget what the financial houses r obligated to state: “past performance is no guarantee of future results.”
    Besides, in Judaism, the whole concept of afterlife is contradictory. Does a tzaddik go to heaven (gan Eded) when he dies, or does he wait in his grave until the Messiah appears. or does he die twice? Come on, different models were written in different eras. Judaism is not a monofilament, but rather is a rope made of many STRANDS woven together.
    U know why u MUST believe any principles to the core of your bones? Because Judaism is a dictatorship. it cannot stand up to true questioning and rules of evidence, so it needs fearful automatons who swallow it whole.

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