A New Epoch in Torah Learning

“As the days of a tree are the days of my people” (Isaiah 65:22). The great totality of Jewish history can be seen as a mighty tree, whose roots reach down to the founding fathers of our nation and whose topmost branches extend to the end of days.

The prophet’s comparison of Jewish history to a great tree carries many meanings. On the one hand, it expresses the idea that the whole of our history is a singular essence—that all its components, from the ancient past to the horizons of the future, are interconnected and integrated. On the other hand, just as a tree branches off in different directions, so is Jewish history comprised of various era and periods, each with its distinct pathway and significance, even as they all complete and fulfill each other to form the great totality of the “tree.”

As the Rambam (Maimonides) describes in his introduction to Mishneh Torah, the Torah passes through many pathways in the “chain of transmission” that began when Moses received it at Sinai. From Moses it was given over to Joshua, and thence to the elders, to the prophets, to the “Men of Great Assembly,” to the “pairs,” to the sages of the Mishna, to the sages of the Talmud, and so on through the various periods of Jewish history until our time. And though its essential content remains unchanged, it finds new expressions in each period. Each generation brings its own unique characteristics, and its own set of problems and solutions, to reveal yet another face of Torah.

When the Rebbe [of righteous memory] initiated his campaign for the Rambam study cycle, it may have seemed like just one more way to promote the learning of Torah, akin to other Torah-learning programs established by the Torah leaders of recent generations. But on a deeper level, it is much more than that. Not just another Torah-study program, but a new epoch of Torah learning.

The Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, revered and studied in every Jewish community in the world for close to nine hundred years, is now being studied in a revolutionary new way, and with an entirely new perspective. And yet, like every genuine Torah initiative, this new approach, for all its newness and innovation, is rooted in the foundation and raison d’etre of this monumental work.

In fact, this new perspective on Torah in general, and specifically on the Mishneh Torah, is actually the Rambam’s own. This is how the author himself viewed the purpose and function of his work. Yet in all the generations from the compilation of the Mishneh Torah until our time, this vision has not fully come to fruition. Our sages have said, however, that whenever the great Torah leaders of previous generations sacrifice themselves for something, even if it is temporarily forgotten and lost, in the end it is rediscovered and restored by later generations.

In the history of Torah’s “chain of transmission,” we are currently in the period of the Acharonim (“latter sages”). One of the main defining characteristics of this period is the in-depth study and analysis of the particulars of Torah. TheAcharonim do not, as a rule, create new Torah paradigms, but rather delve into the details presented in the Talmud and the works of the Rishonim (earlier sages), broadening them, deepening them, and extracting new and potent truths from them. Every seedling planted by the Rishonim is watered and cultivated by the Acharonim, growing it and multiplying its branches and fruits. Every gem that is to be found in the treasure trove of the Talmud and its commentaries, theAcharonim come and polish it to reveal facet after facet of luminosity. The same approach was taken throughout the generations to the Rambam’s works: the great Torah scholars of Israel studied them, delved into their sources, analyzed and debated them, extracting mountain upon mountain of new laws and insights. But the common denominator of all this is that it followed the approach of the Acharonim—to delve into each particular sentence and word, thereby expanding and deepening each detail of Torah.

The Rebbe, however, opened a new epoch in Torah, a path that actualizes the Rambam’s original intent in compiling the Mishneh Torah, as Maimonides himself elaborates in his introduction to that work: the path of “learning the entire Torah.”

It is important to emphasize that in the whole of Torah SheBa’al Peh (that is, the entirety of Torah literature that follows the biblical “Written Torah”) there is not a single work – not the Mishna and Talmud, none of the halachic or agadaic Midrashim, none of the works of the Geonim or the Rishonim – that encompasses the totality of Torah. Despite the immense breadth and scope of these works, each of them leaves off at one point for another work to cover the parts which it omitted. Even in the Mishna, whose six “orders” (covering laws pertaining to agriculture, the Jewish calendar, marital life, torts, the Temple service and ritual purity) deal with every area of life, does not spell out all the Torah’s laws; many significant elements such as the prayer book, or the laws of tzitzit and tefillin, are not codified (though they are referred to indirectly). Doubtless there is a reason why the sages of all these generations always stopped short of compiling a work that would “cover” the whole of Torah. The sole exception is the Rambam. He was the first – and the last – to encompass the totality of Torah in a single work: the Mishneh Torah, which includes everything from the foundations of the Jewish faith to the laws of Mashiach, the Messiah.

The significance of this cannot be underestimated. This is not just a matter of quantity – that all the particulars are included – but also an entirely new perspective: a perspective that incorporates the whole of Torah as a singular vision.

A person could theoretically study a number of Torah books, each of which pertains to a different area of Torah, so that, by accumulation, he has “covered” all aspects of the Torah. But these remain distinct works, each offering a vision of Torah which encompasses only a part – either a large part or a small part – of the whole. All other Torah books, even if they are large in scope, are still about details of the Torah; only Rambam’s Mishneh Torah is about the whole of Torah. This is what is unique about the Rambam’s work—not just about Mishneh Torah as a whole, but also about every individual chapter in it, since the entire work is constructed as a holistic view of Torah. When you grasp a piece of something, even when you grasp that piece entirely, you only have the part. But when you grasp the whole, even if you only grasp it partially, the part you grasp contains the whole within it.

To study the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah in this way – that is, with a study program that completes the entire book, and which approaches it as one, integral work – is to endeavor to achieve a holistic view of Torah. The Torah as it is presented in the Mishneh Torah is not a sequence of sewn-together scrolls, but a single sheet whose component parts integrate with one another, each feeding and being fed by the whole.

This is the new epoch in Torah-learning opened by the Rebbe. It is a departure from the approach which dominated the recent generations, in which the study of Torah entailed delving into its details. In this new paradigm, the goal is to see the details from the perspective of the whole. This “whole Torah” approach does not negate the importance of the details; indeed, Mishneh Torah consists entirely of the details of Torah’s laws. Rather, it is a mode of learning that goes from the whole to the detail and back to the whole, in which the particulars are grasped and comprehended in their relation to the whole. It is significant that many of the commentaries on Mishneh Torah incorporate the word melech(“king”) into the name of their commentary, for they saw in Mishneh Torah the royalty of Torah, the grand overriding vision of all its particulars. It is similarly significant that the book has come to be known by the Jewish people through the generations as Yad Hachazakah (“The Mighty Hand”)—a reference to the closing words of the Torah (Deuteronomy 33:12): “And for all the mighty hand…which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel.”

The study of Mishneh Torah in its entirety is the Torah-learning mandate of our age, for it reflects the inner meaning of the times in which we live. Ours is a time that is approaching the ultimate redemption—a redemption predicated upon the acceptance of the Torah in its entirety by the whole of the Jewish people. When the people of Israel first received the Torah, it was given to them as ten commandments enfolding within them the whole of Torah, with its 613 mitzvot and countless laws. So, too, when we once again receive it and commit ourselves to it, it must again come about in the same way—a receiving of the totality of Torah by the totality of the Jewish people, men, women and children, great and small. Obviously, each individual understands and comprehends in accordance with the level of his or her intellect, but these differences are only on the surface, only in their relation to Torah’s particulars. In essence, they all receive it equally, for they are receiving its essential totality.

This article originally appeared in Hebrew as the preface to Tekufat Limud HaRambam, published by Merkaz L’Inyanei Chinuch, Brooklyn, 1987.  Translated by Yanki Taube