In the opening chapter of Mishneh Torah, Maimonides articulates the fundamentals of faith:

The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a Primary Being who brought into being all existence. All the beings of the heavens, the earth, and what is between them came into existence only from the truth of His being . . . The knowledge of this concept is a positive commandment, as [implied by Exodus 20:2]: "I am G‑d, your L‑rd . . .”1

It is clear that according to Maimonides, there is a mitzvah to believe in G‑d. While it may seem evident that belief in G‑d is a prerequisite to the observance of the Torah’s laws, the uncertainty lies in classifying this belief as a commandment within the count of 613 mitzvahs. Do all codifiers count this as a commandment?

Does Everyone Agree?

With a bit of further research, we discover that although there is broad consensus that this is counted as a commandment, this view is not unanimous. The first authority to enumerate the 613 mitzvahs, the Baal Halachot Gedolot, noticeably omits belief in G‑d from his list.2

His understanding, explains Nachmanides,3 is based on the idea that belief in G‑d must precede the 613 mitzvahs. According to the Baal Halachot Gedolot, there cannot exist commandments without a Being from whom they originate. Nachmanides quotes a parable of a king who is advised, immediately upon entering a country, to legislate. The king refuses, explaining: “First the populace must accept me as their monarch, and only after that is it possible to rule.”4

However, far from downgrading the status of this obligation, the Baal Halachot Gedolot has placed belief in G‑d on a pedestal, above and beyond the 613 mitzvahs.

Support From the Talmud

Maimonides, in his Sefer Hamitzvot,5 brings proof for his position from the Talmud.6 The Talmud quotes the verse “תורה צוה לנו משה” (“The Torah that Moses commanded us”) as the source for there being 613 mitzvahs. This works as follows: The Hebrew word תורה (Torah) has a numerical value of 611 (ת = 400, ו = 6, ר = 200, ה = 5). The verse is alluding to the fact that 611 of the 613 mitzvahs were taught to us by Moses. However, the first two of the Ten Commandments (“I am the L‑rd your G‑d” and “You shall have no other gods besides me”) were taught to us by G‑d directly. Thus, according to Maimonides, there is clear evidence that the existence of G‑d is to be included in the 613 commandments.

This seems to be somewhat of an issue for the Baal Halachot Gedolot, who believes that belief in G‑d is not counted as one of the 613 mitzvahs. How does he explain the Talmud? The solution, again provided by Nachmanides, is that the Baal Halachot Gedolot divides the second of the Ten Commandments, “You shall have no other gods” into two separate commandments: (1) not to own or form idols and (2) not to worship them. These two elements of the second of the Ten Commandments bring us from 611 to 613. According to the Baal Halachot Gedolot, the first of the Ten Commandments, “I am the L‑rd your G‑d,” is a statement rather than a commandment. This statement is a prerequisite to the acceptance of the commandments.

What to Believe?

The third Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, known as the Tzemach Tzedek, cites this disagreement in his introduction to his treatise Mitzvat Haamanat Elokut (“The Mitzvah of Having Faith in G‑d”).7 He goes on to question Maimonides’ point of view, in a similar manner to Nachmanides above, quoting Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel, who quotes Rabbi Chisdai as follows: “Those who count belief in G‑d as a commandment are making an error, because a mitzvah, by definition, is something additional—a mitzvah cannot exist without a G‑d issuing the command. Therefore, if belief in G‑d is counted as a command, the person has already accepted that there is a G‑d who is commanding them to believe in G‑d . . .”

Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel offers a solution by explaining that those who count this as a mitzvah do not actually mean that it is a mitzvah to believe that G‑d exists. The fact that the world has a Creator is a logical conclusion, for which a command is not required. Rather, one is commanded to believe that G‑d is the most perfect and eternal Being. If this is the focus of the mitzvah, then the problem of how a command can exist before the entity who is commanding falls away.

Two Modalities of Divine Presence

The Tzemach Tzedek ultimately concludes that this positive command to believe in G‑d refers to a transcendent level of G‑dliness known in Chassidic terms as sovev kol almin (“surrounding all worlds”).

In chassidic thought, there are two general G‑dly emanations. One is called memale kol almin (“filling all the worlds”) and the other is sovev kol almin. Memale kol almin is the G‑dly energy that permeates all of creation and enables existence. It is a G‑dly lifeforce within, and thus limited by, creation. Sovev kol almin,on the other hand, is a G‑dly emanation that is completely unlimited, unrestrained—transcending physical creation.

Observing creation and deducing that there must be a G‑d is not the belief in G‑d referred to by Maimonides. Such a belief is evident on an intellectual level; faith is not necessary. However, believing that G‑d transcends all existence cannot be deduced empirically. For this, faith is needed. In the Tzemach Tzedek’s reading of Maimonides, the mitzvah is to believe in G‑d's transcendent nature.

Achieving Belief

The Tzemach Tzedek provides an additional dimension to the disagreement between the Baal Halachot Gedolot and Maimonides. According to the Baal Halachot Gedolot, knowledge of G‑d is empirically evident by observing nature. Just like a person who sees a living body realizes that it is the soul that gives it life, so too a person who observes the complexity of creation realizes that there must be a Creator. Therefore a command to believe is extraneous because a command necessitates a choice. Something that is patently clear does not need to be commanded. For this reason, he does not count belief in G‑d as a positive commandment.

According to Maimonides, on the other hand, the mitzvah is twofold. One element is to contemplate this empirical observation and to integrate the knowledge into daily life. True, the knowledge itself does not require any effort; however, that is not enough. We must work to strengthen this knowledge and contemplate deeply on the existence of G‑d. The second element is belief in a G‑d that transcends this world. Here we are no longer referring to a knowledge that can be empirically deduced from nature; we are referring to belief (emunah) in a Being that is completely beyond this world.8

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, expands on the Tzemach Tzedek’s approach based on an analysis of the first chapter of Mishneh Torah. He poses the following question: Maimonides opens by articulating the importance of belief in G‑d. However, he doesn’t actually state that belief in G‑d is a mitzvah until the sixth paragraph. He devotes the first five halachot to describing the “Primary Being.” This is puzzling. Mishneh Torah is a book of law—shouldn’t the primary focus be that there is a command to believe in G‑d?

From this strange structure, the Rebbe infers (similar to the Tzemach Tzedek and the Abarbanel above) that the descriptions of G‑d in the first five paragraphs are actually part of the mitzvah to “know G‑d.” How does one know G‑d? By perceiving that He is the most perfect and eternal Being as described by Maimonides.

Additionally, this explains why Maimonides continues to explore various details relating to knowledge of G‑d, details which seemingly do not directly relate to the mitzvah of belief in G‑d. In Maimonides’ view, the mitzvah is not to simply know that G‑d exists; one must intently study and focus on the details as they are laid out in the first chapter of Mishneh Torah.9

Practical Application

Be constantly conscious of the G‑dly lifeforce that permeates every being. Contemplate and deepen your understanding of G‑d, both as the Creator and sustainer of the world, and as a G‑d who completely transcends creation.