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David Gillis





On the Problem of Sacrifices: Maimonides’ Ladder of Enlightenment



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David Gillis





On the Problem of Sacrifices: Maimonides’ Ladder of Enlightenment






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On the Problem of Sacrifices: Maimonides’ Ladder of Enlightenment

Maimonides, in his Guide of the Perplexed, portrays sacrifices as a ruse to repudiate idolatrous practices prevalent at the time. In Mishneh Torah, however, Maimonides states that the messiah will rebuild the Temple and restore sacrifices just as they once were. How are Maimonides’ two works reconcilable?


On the Problem of Sacrifices: Maimonides’ Ladder of Enlightenment

Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. Illuminator: Attributed to Master of the Barbo Missal (Italian) Date: ca. 1457.  Jointly owned by The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Contradiction between the Guide and the Mishneh Torah

R. Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) appears to express two contradictory views on the importance of sacrifices. The problem is well known, so here I will only offer a basic outline. In his Guide of the Perplexed,[1] Maimonides portrays sacrifices as a ruse whereby God redirected the kinds of ritual to which the people of Israel were accustomed to his own service, and adapted them to become demonstrative repudiations of idolatrous practices and ideas prevalent at the time. This implies that sacrifices have no intrinsic value, and that once the world has moved on from this form of worship, Jews have no need of their own version.[2]

In his code of halakhah Mishneh Torah, however, Maimonides states unequivocally that the messiah will rebuild the Temple and restore sacrifices just as they once were (Shofetim, “Laws Concerning Kings and Wars,” 11:1).

המלך המשיח עתיד לעמוד ולהחזי’ מלכו’ בית דוד לישנה הממשלה הראשונה ובונה המקדש ומקבץ נדחי ישראל וחוזרין כל המשפטים בימיו כשהיו מקודם מקריבין קרבנו’ ועושין שמטין ויובלות ככל מצותה האמורה בתורה.
In the future, the Messianic king will arise and return the Kingdom of the House of David to its former place as ruler, and will build the Temple and gather the Jewish exiles, and in his days, all the laws will be reinstated as they were before: sacrifices will be offered, and [the people] will keep the sabbatical and jubilee years in the form they are described in the Torah.

A Jew must live in expectation of this or else be deemed a heretic (ibid). Accordingly, Maimonides devoted two of the Mishneh Torah’s fourteen books to the Temple and sacrifices in all their detail, plus another to the ancillary laws of purity.[3] But on the basis of the Guide’s account, the revival of sacrifices will surely represent a most regrettable regression.

Taking Sides on Maimonides versus Himself

The contradiction tends to make people take sides. Depending on their ideological positions, commentators adopt either Maimonides the rabbi of the Mishneh Torah, who expects the restoration of sacrifices in the future, or Maimonides the philosopher of the Guide of the Perplexed, who seems to regard them as a thing of the past.

For instance, R. Moses Nahmanides (1194-1270) excoriated Maimonides for the views expressed in the Guide,[4] and in our own time, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) has seconded Nahmanides:

Whatever the merits of Nachmanides’ interpretation, one thing is clear. Philosophically it is far superior to Maimonides’ explanation. While Maimonides’ causalistic aspect in the Guide is pure instrumentalism, Nachmanides’ interpretation penetrates the complex concept of sacrifice itself.[5]

On the presumption that the authentic Maimonides is to be found in the Mishneh Torah, Russel Hendel claims that what he says about sacrifices being an accommodation in the Guide is a kind of noble lie, permissible in order to keep waverers lured by philosophy within the Jewish fold.[6] Opposing this is the view of early Reform thinkers, as well as many contemporary critical scholars, that Maimonides had little time for sacrifices, but, wearing his rabbi’s hat in the Mishneh Torah, and having promised a codification of the entire Oral Law, he had no option but to include them. He perhaps even recoiled from the antinomian consequences of his own true position.[7]

At least at one stage, Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776) concluded that the author of the Mishneh Torah could not have written what the Guide says about sacrifices, and that the latter must therefore be a forgery.[8]

By way of reconciling Maimonides’ two approaches to sacrifices, David Henshke has argued (convincingly) that the Mishneh Torah and the Guide are actually in agreement that sacrifices have no theurgic effect and that their holiness is purely nominal. According to him, the point of restoring them is purely to demonstrate conformity with God’s eternal will.[9]

The difficulty with this latter idea is that Maimonides was committed not just to the eternal validity of the Torah, but also to the eternal meaningfulness of the Torah. According to him, all the commandments proceed both from God’s will and from his wisdom, that is, they are all at the same time both divine decrees and intended to promote some human intellectual and/or moral good.[10] If we fail to perceive the good, the fault lies in our ignorance.[11]

That is no reason to neglect a commandment, since it is also a divine decree,[12] but God does not command things merely to test obedience,[13] and if we apply ourselves sufficiently, or if new knowledge comes to light, the good should become apparent. This ought to be true of sacrifices as much as of any other commandments, and it ought to remain true after the messiah.

In the Guide, Maimonides used historical and anthropological knowledge to explain the origin of sacrifices and their pedagogic function in ancient times. He must have believed that some equally compelling rationale supported the expectation of their restoration. The question is: did he discover it? And, if so, how did he convey it in the Mishneh Torah? I believe the answer to the first question is yes, and to the latter, that he conveyed it obliquely.

Halakhah and Philosophy: Two Sides of the Same Coin

The key to a synthesis between Mishneh Torah and the Guide is the understanding that they represent two sides of the same philosophical coin. The difference between Maimonides’ two great works is not a matter of philosophy versus religion, but of mode of expression.

The Mishneh Torah’s philosophical message lies chiefly in its form. Maimonides’ method of organizing halakhah is not just designed for ease of reference. It is an artistic way of conveying the purpose of the commandments, their function in the scheme of things, as he saw it. Once this framework is understood, things fall into place, including the meaning of sacrifices and the relationship between the Mishneh Torah and the Guide on this subject.

Maimonides believed that the prophets and sages of Israel were, in fact, philosophers, that they conveyed philosophical ideas through visions and parables, and that the greatest prophet/philosopher, Moses, gave these ideas practical expression in the Torah. Maimonides made use of the writings of Aristotle (although of course he disagreed with him in some fundamental ways) and the Aristotelians[14] to reconstruct the correct reading of the Bible and the sages, which had unfortunately been lost. For the truth is one, and logic will take you there, irrespective of ethnicity or tradition.[15]

So when it comes to explaining the commandments, Maimonides is not trying to show that you can be a good Jew and a good Aristotelian; rather, the Aristotelians provide a platform for understanding what Judaism is.  Philosophy is not for waverers; it is integral to Torah.

The Universe: A Living, Ten Level Hierarchy

According to Maimonides, the purpose of the Torah’s commandments is to perfect human beings: intellectually, through knowledge of God,[16] and morally, by the imitation of God.[17]But since God cannot be directly known, much less imitated, we can only know, and so only imitate, “what the master of the world has made,”[18] that is, the laws of nature.[19]

We therefore need to understand Maimonides’ view of nature and natural science, and how he relates the commandments, particularly those concerning sacrifices, to that view.

Maimonides’ science was of course very different from that of our own day. Perhaps the greatest difference is that he, like his contemporaries, saw the universe as a living being. He thought that the stars and planets and the spheres in which they were embedded had souls and intellects, far superior to those of human beings:

As for the assertion that the spheres are living and rational, I mean to say endowed with apprehension, it is true and certain also from the point of view of the Law; they are not dead bodies similar to fire and earth – as is thought by the ignorant – but they are – as the philosophers say – living beings who obey their Lord and praise Him and extol Him greatly. Thus Scripture says: “The heavens tell of the glory of God, and so on…” (Ps. 19: 2).[20]

The attraction that made the system cohere and move was not the blind force that Newton called gravity, but love—supremely, the love of God.

Another important aspect of Maimonides’ world view for our purposes is that he considered the heavens to be hierarchical. In a process known as emanation,[21] a flow of goodness and knowledge cascading from God produces ten orders of angels in a kind of chain reaction that weakens as it goes: each angel has less knowledge and power than the preceding one.[22]

The nine highest angels produce the nine concentric spheres that, in the Aristotelian model of the universe, contain the stars, planets, sun, and moon. It is love and longing for its governing angel that make each sphere revolve.[23] Essentially, the spheres are all moved by the love of God, but since this should mean uniform motion, whereas in fact the movements of the heavenly bodies are not uniform, Maimonides posits the separate intellects, or angels, as additional objects of the spheres’ love.[24] By the time we reach the tenth and lowest angel, the ishim (lit., “men”),[25] the flow is too weak to enable that angel to produce its own sphere.

The Four Elements

Below the heavens are the four elements of terrestrial matter: earth, water, air and fire. Unlike the spheres and stars, these elements are insensate. The motions of the spheres induce them to combine, disintegrate, and recombine.[26] This is where the ishim finds its role. Instead of emanating a sphere, it projects forms onto matter. Each accidental combination of elements receives the form appropriate to it (stone, tree, rabbit, human being, and so on).[27]

The ishim also projects knowledge – the knowledge that originates in God but becomes attenuated as it flows down the hierarchy – to be received by suitably trained and attuned minds, the acme of which is the mind of the prophet.[28]

Humans as Potential Microcosms

Maimonides saw human beings as microcosms of the universe. He makes this quite explicit in the Guide[29] To be more exact, human beings are potential microcosms. The divinely instituted order of the universe is perfect, and the more closely human beings resemble it, the nearer they come to perfection. A person should therefore study the natural sciences, and should model himself or herself on the patterns discovered in nature.

Maimonides explains (Guide i. 71) that just as the universe has ruling parts and ruled parts, so too should a human being. In a perfected human being, the intellect (which according to Maimonides is “the image of God” in man),[30] directs and disciplines the emotions and appetites, which correspond to the spheres, which in turn direct the actions of the body, which is made up of the four elements of matter. In an imperfect human being, the hierarchy is upturned: physical appetites and desires usurp and enslave the intellect.

The way that the commandments bring about human perfection is, then, by imprinting nature’s hierarchical structure onto human thought and behavior, disciplining bodily desires so that all faculties are devoted to aiding the intellect’s quest for knowledge of God, and, like the heavens, a person is always impelled by the love of God.[31] That is exactly what we find represented in the structure of the Mishneh Torah.

The Mishneh Torah as a Microcosm

In line with a classic rabbinic distinction, Mishneh Torah’s fourteen books divide into ten on commandments bein adam lamakom, “between human beings and God,” and four on commandments bein adam lahavero, “between human beings themselves.”[32] These numbers immediately recall the ten angels and the four elements.

The correspondence is substantial as well as numerical: the commandments bein adam lamakom mediate between God and the Jewish people (individually and collectively), just as the ten orders of angels mediate between God and earth; while the commandments bein adam lahavero govern mundane commercial and political affairs arising from our material existence, made up of the four elements of matter.

In short, the Mishneh Torah is itself a microcosm, and hence a model of human perfection. The description of the cosmos in its four opening chapters (from which the summary presented here is mostly drawn) is also a description of its own form.

A Hierarchy of Commandments

The implication is that just as the angels are arranged in a hierarchy, so too are the first ten books of the Mishneh Torah. In what sense is that so? What determines the order of the books?

The ranking of the angels within their hierarchy depends on their degree of knowledge of God.[33] Similarly, the ranking of a book within the bein adam lamakom division of theMishneh Torah depends on how closely its subject matter concerns the goal of the knowledge of God, or on what we can call its degree of intellectuality.

Space does not permit full discussion of each book in this context,[34] but for present purposes, it is sufficient to look at the extremes. Volume one, the Book of Knowledge, is clearly directly about the knowledge of God.  To know God is its very first commandment, and the rest of the commandments that it treats (though not necessarily all their details) relate directly to that theme. The books on the Temple, sacrifices and purity are at the other extreme, in volumes eight, nine, and ten. They are the most physical, and least intellectual, classes of bein adam lamakom commandments.[35]

This corresponds to the distinction Maimonides draws between the first and second intentions of the commandments. The first intention is “the apprehension of Him, may He be exalted, and the rejection of idolatry.”[36] This is the direct concern of the Book of Knowledge, which establishes correct doctrines, and of course specifically outlaws idolatry in the section “Laws Concerning Idolatry.” The second intention is to use the forms of idolatry, such as sacrifices, to defeat the ideology of idolatry. But there are gradations in between:

[T]he sacrifices pertain to a second intention, whereas invocation, prayer, and similar practices and modes of worship come closer to the first intention.[37]

In the Mishneh Torah, we duly find prayer close to the first intention, in book two, the Book of Love, while other “similar practices and modes of worship” come after it in the following books, until we reach the absolutely second intention commandments of sacrifices and purity.    

We can also see the hierarchy in terms of love of God and awe of God. Both are required,[38]but service out of love is superior to service out of awe.[39] The Temple inspires awe,[40] and the laws of purity reinforce that awe, whereas knowledge (as in the Book of Knowledge) arouses love.[41] The first ten books of the Mishneh Torah can therefore be seen as a ladder extending from awe to love.[42]

It should be stressed that stating that a commandment is low in the hierarchy is not meant to imply that it is unimportant; it only establishes its function in relation to the other commandments, just as the ishim is low in rank but not unimportant – it simply has a certain function in the cosmic system. 

The Axis of Time and the Axis of Being

The upshot is that, no less than the Guide, the Mishneh Torah relativizes sacrifices, and does so on the basis of philosophical criteria. Sacrifices are part of the eternal Torah, but the Torah has a philosophical goal, the knowledge of God, in relation to which Maimonides rationalizes the commandments and determines priorities among them. The Guide relativizes commandments historically, on the axis of time, whereas the Mishneh Torah relativizes them ontologically, on the axis of the hierarchy of being, but the philosophical framework is the same in each.

This theory of the Mishneh Torah’s structure serves to reconcile that work with the Guide on the question of the relative value of sacrifices within the totality of the commandments. It still remains to be demonstrated that, in Maimonides’ system, sacrifices have some intrinsic value, some lasting intellectual or moral utility, that justifies their future restoration.

A possible solution is that, although their aspiration is to intellectual fulfillment, pure meditation on God, humans are material creatures and always need concrete forms of religious expression, and hence are always prey to the temptations of idolatry. Because of current political conditions, the first rungs of the ladder to fulfillment, the Temple and sacrifices, which according to Maimonides are concessions to the need for the concrete and at the same time prophylactics against idolatry, are missing.

Human nature will be no different in this respect (or in any other) after the messiah from what it was before.[43]  The desire for concrete forms will not disappear. So the messiah will rebuild the Temple and sacrifices will be offered in it, and the ladder will be complete.[44]


March 20, 2018


Last Updated

August 30, 2021


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Dr. David Gillis is an independent scholar living in Tel Aviv. He holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Thought from the University of Haifa and an M.A. in English Language and Literature from the University of Oxford. Gillis is the author of Reading Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2015).