Tens of thousands of Jews the world over gathered in groups small and large at their synagogues and community centers yesterday to celebrate the 25th completion of learning Maimonides' landmark compendium of Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah.
The annual completion of the daily learning of Maimonides' legal code – the 13th century scholar and philosopher's 14-volume work is the only collection of Jewish law that spans all of Jewish life, including those laws that only apply when the Temple in Jerusalem is standing – represents a tremendous accomplishment for those taking part. Learning three chapters a day, in many cases participants spend more than an hour studying the daily portion.
According to Rabbi Adin Even-Yisroel Steinsaltz, the idea of learning Maimonides' code every year – instituted 23 years ago by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory – is itself a novel approach that grows in popularity each year.
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"The Rebbe saw the work as one continuation, one volume," writes Steinsaltz, author of 60 volumes on Jewish thought, in Hebrew. "Prior to the Rebbe's initiative, people did not learn Maimonides as one continuum; it was learned together with the Talmud in bits and pieces. A new era in learning has begun where we can learn the entire span of Torah, via Maimonides, in one continuous fashion."
Rabbi Yaakov Bluming, author of six volumes dealing just with the Mishneh Torah, says, "The learning cycle brought a whole new level of learning in Maimonides' work that never existed beforehand."
Throughout the years, new initiatives in the daily learning of Maimonides have sprung up. Chabad.org and its affiliated websites utilize the World Wide Web to bring the Maimonides learning cycle online, with audio classes to follow along in the Hebrew. In a more recent initiative by Ohr-Avner-Chabad in Israel, more than 54,000 copies of the daily portion of Maimonides are published weekly and distributed free of charge. And hundreds of creative commuting and lunchtime solutions to mastering the text have sprung up worldwide.
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Rabbi Yisroel Deren, regional director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Fairfield County in Connecticut, gives a guest lecture to the weekly Maimonides class at Chabad-Lubavitch of Cape Town, South Africa.
Indeed, in the 23 years since the start of the learning cycle – it takes a little more than 11 months to complete – studies in Maimonides have become a staple in Jewish education, with a surge of works dedicated to his legal code. In just the first two years of the cycle, more than 30 scholarly treatises were published; hundreds of authors and rabbinical scholars have since issued books of their own. In addition, new printings of Maimonides' code hit the shelves constantly.
"My direct market knowledge alone yields an increase in the printing of Maimonides' work of more than 20 times what it was before the daily learning cycle began," reports Shmuel Weinfeld of the Eshkol Publishing House in Jerusalem, which has sold tens of thousands of its own pocket-size set of the legal work. There are additional countries and publishing houses not factored in to Weinfeld's equation.
The Rebbe encouraged three ways to learn Maimonides: three chapters a day, one chapter a day and a daily portion of Maimonides' Sefer Hamitzvot ("book of commandments"), a brief gloss of all of the commandments dealt with in the Mishneh Torah, studied according to the order of the learning of the three chapters.
For Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, chairman of Agudas Chassidei Chabad, the umbrella organization of Chabad-Lubavitch, studying Maimonides brings a lesson in Jewish pride and commitment.
"Maimonides begins his work with the verse from Psalms, 'Then I shall not be ashamed when I look at all Your commandments,' " he said at a celebration of the cycle's completion in Brooklyn, N.Y., yesterday. "The Rebbe taught world Jewry that, first and foremost, we need not be embarrassed by our Judaism. We need to stand up for who we are and practice Judaism publicly, and to not be ashamed."