The Talmud in Tractate Sotah, as interpreted by Rashi, makes a startling statement:

It was stated, one who read Scripture and studied Mishnah, but did not serve Torah sages, he did not spend time amongst the scholars in order to decipher the reasoning behind the commandments. Rabbi Elazar says that he is considered an ignoramus. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmeni says that he is a boor, an individual inferior to an ignoramus.1

Rashi comments:

Did not serve Torah sages: He did not study the Talmud, which explains the rationale of the Mishnah. This individual is considered wicked, since his learning is not thorough. One must not study from such an individual, since it is specifically the reasoning [that gives one the ability] to discern what is prohibited and what is permitted . . . This person is considered “bare.”

What seems clear is that one must not study halachah in a vacuum. The evolution and rationale of the law are not merely added elements; they are integral to understanding the law itself. One who studies halachah in isolation will likely err.

Shortly after the completion of MaimonidesMishneh Torah in 1180, Maimonides faced a wave of criticism on these very grounds. In creating a clear, systematic and comprehensive code of halachah, he seems to be in violation of the Talmud above. He specifically did not want to confuse or distract his reader with the minutiae of discussion leading to the final law. He included nothing more and nothing less than clear, straightforward law. As he articulates clearly in his introduction to Mishneh Torah:

I, Moses, the son of Maimon, of Spain . . . contemplated all these texts and sought to compose [a work which would include the conclusions] derived from all these texts regarding the forbidden and the permitted, the impure and the pure, and the remainder of the Torah's laws, all in clear and concise terms, so that the entire Oral Law could be organized in each person's mouth without questions or objections.

Instead of [arguments], this one claiming such and another such, [this text will allow for] clear and correct statements based on the judgments that result from all the texts and explanations mentioned above . . .

A person will not need another text at all with regard to any Jewish law. Rather, this text will be a compilation of the entire Oral Law . . . a person should first study the Written Law, and then study this text and comprehend the entire Oral Law from it, without having to study any other text between the two.2

Maimonides' code, as pure, unadulterated law, is seemingly exactly what the Talmud cautioned against. According to Rashi's interpretation of the Talmud, Mishneh Torah—when studied as intended by the author—would do more harm than good.

Indeed, this concern of the Talmud (as understood by Rashi) surfaced a generation later, as evidenced in the responsa of Rabbeinu Asher, the Rosh.3 He was responding to a rabbi who had written to him regarding a mikvah that had been filled using a questionable technique.

The law is that water used to fill a mikvah must be naturally flowing, either rainwater that falls directly into the mikvah4 or a spring that flows into the mikvah. In this case, a mikvah had been constructed alongside a spring. In order to fill it, water was added to the spring, causing it to overflow into the mikvah.

The rabbi writing to the Rosh assumed that this mikveh was now invalid. He based this assumption on (amongst other sources) the following statement of Maimonides in Mishneh Torah: “When one digs at the side of a spring, as long as the water emerges because of the spring, even though at times, its flow is interrupted, but then it flows again, it is considered as a spring (i.e., a kosher mikvah). If, however, it ceased flowing entirely, it is considered as water collected in a pit.”

The assumption of the questioning rabbi was that once the water pooled in the mikvah, it would be considered as if it had ceased flowing and therefore be classified as “water collected in a pit” and invalid for use as a mikvah.

The Rosh rejects this, pointing out that this extrapolation stems from a misunderstanding of Maimonides. Maimonides, explains the Rosh, is actually quoting a section of Tosefta. Seeing the full context of the quote precludes the understanding of the Rosh’s questioner.

The Tosefta is discussing the differences between various categories of water that may be used as a mikvah. One difference mentioned by the Tosefta is between water pooled in a pit and flowing rainwater. Both are kosher, but water pooled in a pit is of an inferior level and has certain restrictions regarding its use.

With this context in mind, we can understand the error called out by the Rosh. When the water is actively flowing to and from the spring, it is considered to be an extension of the spring. If, however, the water pools in a pit, it is now considered pooled water (not flowing rainwater and not an extension of the spring). This is not to say the mikvah is invalid; it is simply an inferior category, but still a kosher mikvah.

Thus, we have clear, documented evidence of the Talmud’s concern: studying laws bereft of their context leads to mistaken conclusions. This leads the Rosh to caution against deriving any law from the text of Mishneh Torah:

Therefore, all who decide law from the Mishneh Torah, without thorough knowledge of the background, are in error. They make what is forbidden permitted and what is permitted forbidden. This is because Maimonides did not follow the convention [established by] all other authors, who cite proofs and sources for their conclusions.

This begs the question, who is correct? Do we follow the advice of Maimonides in his introduction, where he encourages one to simply read the Written Torah and then move straight to his Mishneh Torah, or do we follow the opinion of the Rosh, who strongly opposed such an approach?

To demystify this, we must first resolve an apparent difficulty in the Laws of Torah Study, from the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.

Initially, he seems to side clearly with the Rosh:

If one does not understand the reasoning behind the law, then he will not be able to fully comprehend the law. He is called a “boor.” Therefore, there is a prohibition against deciding law, even for oneself, from halachot without the reasoning included [alongside.]5

However, later in that same chapter he encourages individuals who have mastered practical halachah, i.e, they are knowledgeable and fluent in halachah pertinent today, to dedicate time to study areas of laws not applicable today, such as the laws of the sacrifices. And if, he adds, there is insufficient time to master these areas by first studying the Talmud and its commentaries, then one should study the basic laws as articulated in the mishnayot and in Maimonides' Mishneh Torah.6

Now, if we take into account what was quoted earlier, we seem to have a problem. Rabbi Schneur Zalman wrote that if one does not study the reasoning behind the law, “he will not be able to fully comprehend the law. He is called a ‘boor.’” So what is the point? Why study in such a manner if the study is in vain due to a lack of understanding? Surely it would be preferable to study at a slower pace while incorporating the background of the law, which would enable a proper understanding?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, in a talk commemorating the passing of both Maimonides (on the 20th of Tevet) and of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (on the 24th of Tevet), addressed this issue.7 Based on a close analysis of the exact wording used by Rabbi Schneur Zalman, which is based on the Sefer Mitzvot Hagadol,8 he draws a distinction between two elements within the obligation to study and “know” Torah (yediat haTorah). One element of this obligation is to study the mitzvahs in order to acquire the practical knowledge necessary to fulfill Torah’s precepts correctly. A vast amount of knowledge is needed to properly navigate the complexities of day-to-day halachah. This element pertains only to the mitzvahs that have a practical application nowadays.

But there is a second element to the mitzvah of yediat haTorah: one must attain the ability to “observe” all 613 mitzvahs in one’s heart. One is obligated to acquire the knowledge necessary to fulfill even mitzvahs that are not applicable nowadays, without the Temple standing in Jerusalem.

With this distinction, we can better understand why Rabbi Schneur Zalman advises that an individual study mishnayot and Mishneh Torah, even if these works do not articulate the reasoning behind the law. True, such study is not advisable when it serves as the base for the practical application of law. However, one is also obligated to “know” Torah as it pertains to the mitzvahs that have no practical application today. For this study, it is reasonable that a lighter study course is followed, one that enables the individual to cover all the mitzvahs, albeit on a basic level. Since one is not studying to practically observe these mitzvahs, this study is purely theoretical and we are not concerned about any erroneous application of law.

Earlier, when Rabbi Schneur Zalman chastised individuals who study the halachot without first exploring the relevant sources in the Talmud and its commentaries, he was referring to a study that would lead to a practical application of law. In such a case, the Rosh’s concern is valid; an incorrect ruling may well be the result. However, when studying for knowledge alone, to “observe the mitzvahs in one’s heart,” it is preferable to cover all mitzvahs—albeit on a more basic level—than to study a few in depth. For such study, Mishneh Torah is ideal.

So while Maimonides' work did not replace the Talmud and the evolutionary processes of halachah as he envisioned in his introduction, Mishneh Torah does serve an extremely valuable purpose as a work to be studied independently. It is the only comprehensive and approachable work that covers every single area of halachah. Thus, it is the work favored for providing a bird’s-eye view of all areas of Torah law, a key component of the mitzvah to “know Torah.”

Learn about the Rebbe’s initiative encouraging all Jews to study Mishneh Torah dailly.