Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
On Sunday evening, 22 Kislev, December 14, tens of thousands of observant Jews gathered all over the world to celebrate the completion of the 33rd annual cycle—and the commencement of the 34th annual cycle—of daily Rambam study. The awe-inspiring New York City celebration, with the participation of more than five thousand men, women, and children, took place in Crown Heights at Oholei Torah-Oholei Menachem, 667 Eastern Parkway, opposite the World Lubavitcher Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zt’l (1902–1994), revered Lubavitcher Rebbe, inaugurated the Rambam study cycle in 1983. The study cycle incorporates two tracks. Studying three chapters of Mishneh Torah, also known as the Yad Chazakah but commonly referred to as the Rambam, completes the study in slightly less than a year. Studying one chapter daily completes the cycle in slightly less than three years. This year’s Siyum Rambam combined the 33rd cycle of three-chapter daily study together with the 11th cycle of the one-chapter daily study.
Speaking at the first Siyum Rambam, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that the Rambam incorporated all halachos, including those of the future Holy Temple, in his Mishneh Torah. Further, the Rebbe said, the Rambam designed the Mishneh Torah to be a guide to the performance of mitzvos. The Rambam, therefore, was very clear as to what the halachah was. Other works of halachah, such as the later Shulchan Aruch, cite various opinions. Because of its clarity, the Rebbe launched the study of the Rambam, stressing that, without formulas or explanations, even children can absorb its study.
The Rambam, an acronym of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, zt’l (1135–1204), was the preeminent Torah scholar of the Middle Ages. The famous idiom, “From Moshe until Moshe, there was none such as Moshe,” is specific to him and is engraved on his tombstone in Tiberias. In addition to being one of the greatest Torah scholars in all of Jewish history, he was also the leading court physician to Saladin (1138–1193), sultan of Egypt and Syria, simultaneous with being the chief rabbi of all Jewish communities in Egypt. In effect, he was not only the greatest Torah authority in his time, but also the greatest medical authority.
Beyond his many towering Torah works, the Rambam authored several medical treatises that continue to achieve greater appreciation as scientific knowledge grows. He is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest scholars and philosophers of all time; a marble relief of the Rambam adorns the House of Representatives chamber in the U.S. Capitol.
In the important Cairo genizah discovery of 1896, some of the very few autographed handwritten letter fragments of the Rambam were found amongst the sheimos (no longer usable, tattered holy books) stored in the sheimos depository of the great central Cairo Synagogue. The genizah contained more than 30 works authored by the Rambam, including commentary on some Mishnah tractates and a number of letters. Before this discovery, only a few lines of original writings of the Rambam had ever been found. These letters corroborate the Rambam’s involvement in the day-to-day affairs of the Jewish community there, in addition to his lofty and advanced academic pursuits, confirming that he was no scholarly recluse.
His magnum opus is the Mishneh Torah—Yad Chazakah, written from 1170 to 1180 and first published in 1480 in Italy (the printing press having been invented in 1450). Interestingly, it is the only work by the Rambam written in Hebrew. All his other works were written in Arabic. The word Yad has a numerical value of 14. The Mishneh Torah is composed of 14 books in which the entire Talmud is methodologically organized. The Rambam’s Mishneh Torah is an indispensable tool to serious Torah students and without which no new halachic decisions are made. The Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos, containing 14 guiding principles, was written as the introduction to the Mishneh Torah. The Rambam enumerates 613 mitzvos. The Rambam’s works are a technical marvel in arrangements of concepts and topics. The Laws of Repentance consists of ten chapters, one chapter for each day of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah (Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur). He also composed the Thirteen Principles of Faith, popularly known as Ani Ma’amin, as well as the Eight Degrees of Charity.
The annual cycle of Rambam study is the daily review of three chapters of the Mishneh Torah. A siyum celebration is held at the gravesite of the Rambam in Tiberias, Israel. In 2004, both Israeli chief rabbis attended the ceremonies marking the Siyum Rambam in Spain, the country in which the Rambam was born.
The Siyum is internationally chaired by the indefatigable Rabbi Shmuel Menachem Mendel Butman of the Lubavitch Youth Organization in Crown Heights. Rabbi Butman is a renowned orator, columnist, and radio personality. The celebration was addressed by many leading rabbis, representing the whole spectrum of chassidishe communities, including Lubavitch, Bayon, Ger, Sanz-Klausenberg, Skver, and Vizhnitz. In closing, Rabbi Butman announced that b’ezras Hashem, the next Siyum will be held in Yerushalayim, on Thursday, 7 Kislev 5776 (November 19, 2015) with the participation of the Rambam and the Rebbe.
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.