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Rambam, in his Commentary to the Mishna (Sanhedrin 10), enumerates 13 "עיקרים" or "יסודות", which he holds are the core "principles" that every Jew is expected to believe. (Summary in English.)

But what are these "עיקרים"? Are they axioms in a mathematical sense; a set of statements with which all Jewish beliefs and truths will follow? This cannot be, for certain "עיקרים" follow logically from others. For instance the tenth יסוד (God knows the actions of humans and is not neglectful of them) is implied logically by the eleventh (God rewards those who obey the commands of the Torah and punishes those who violate its prohibitions). The fourth יסוד (God existed prior to all else) follows from the first (God exists; God is perfect in every way, eternal, and the cause of all that exists; all other beings depend upon God for their existence). Thus, these "עיקרים" cannot be the core of an axiomatic system.

Are they simply what Rambam felt were the most important beliefs in Judaism, regardless of their logical dependencies? This is hard to understand. Why then, would Rambam count the Resurrection as an עיקר (the thirteenth) when it is never explicitly mentioned in Tanach alongside God's unity (the second), which is explicitly stated in a verse that we say twice daily? In other words, it makes Rambam's identification of the "most important" beliefs seem somewhat arbitrary.

So, in light of the above, my question is: What are these 13 עיקרים? What identifying factor separates them from all other statements that are true according to the Jewish faith?

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I don't think preexistence (4) is entailed by dependency and eternity (1). But great question! +1 –  WAF Jan 7 '12 at 23:58
    
related: ou.org/index.php/jewish_action/article/14655 . From there: "Rabbi Bechhofer cites...Thirteen Principles do not define the Jewish religion. That purpose would be served by three basic principles, as...in Sefer Ha’ikarim...The Thirteen Principles that Rambam set forth point to why the Torah is the absolute truth. Additionally, they define the Jewish people and what creates the faith community. In other words, the Principles define who is within the faith community of Klal Yisrael, and who, by virtue of not accepting some of these truths, is outside of this community." –  Menachem Aug 23 '12 at 4:35
    
The best discussion of this issue is in Menachem Kellner's introduction to Rosh Amana. If I have time I'll post a summary later as an answer –  Matt May 14 at 20:49

5 Answers 5

The Ikarim where 13 principles during the time of Rambam, that could be used to differentiate Judaism from Christianity, Islam and other popular beliefs at the time. During the Rambam's time, religious wars were gaining a status of their own, and the Jewish people were being seen as a religion rather than a nation in exile. These Ikarim were needed to help the Jewish people feel pride and distinguish themselves in the eyes of the gentiles, while also being compatible with them. Even though Rambam did not live in Christian countries, he still had contact with those Jews, and knew his works would reach them.

An Explanation of how this works with the 13 Ikkarim: (using the translation from your link)

Principle 1 God exists; God is perfect in every way, eternal, and the cause of all that exists. All other beings depend upon God for their existence.

Purpose: This establishes the foundation of the religion as being monotheistic, and in line with Christianity and Islam. A point they can agree on.

Principle 2

God has absolute and unparalleled unity.

Purpose: This is to separate Judaism from Christianity at the time.

Principle 3

God is incorporeal--without a body.

Purpose: This is to give commonality between Islam and Judaism so that Jews are not regarded as a lower status than they already were.

Principle 4

God existed prior to all else. (In a later version of the Thirteen Principles, Maimonides included the notion that God created the world from nothing [creation ex nihilo].)

Purpose: This is in objection to the beliefs of the philosophers.

Principle 5

God should be the only object of worship and praise. One should not appeal to intermediaries, but should pray directly to God.

Purpose: This is to be in contrast to Christianity and superstitions of his day.

Principle 6

Prophets and prophecy exist.

Purpose: This is used against Philosophers, to give the basis of the Torah for being the correct books to derive from.

Principle 7

Moses was the greatest prophet who ever lived. No prophet who lived or will live could comprehend God more than Moses.

Purpose: This is in contrast to both Christianity and Islam who say the Commandment's of Moses could be reneged.

Principle 8

The Torah is from heaven. The Torah we have today is the Torah that God gave to Moses at Sinai.

Purpose: This is to give the Jews confidence in the words and laws of Moshe. Perhaps one might think that Moshe was the best prophet, but we have remembered what he wrote wrongly. This was also an argument against the Kaarites, applied to the Talmud and oral laws.

Principle 9

The Torah will never be abrogated, nothing will be added to it or subtracted from it; God will never give another Law.

Purpose: Again, directly against Christianity and Islam.

Principle 10

God knows the actions of humans and is not neglectful of them.

Purpose: This would is required to help the Jews feel confident that perfoming mitzvot is not for naught. Also, to prevent people from saying that their intellect is refined but their actions don't have to be.

Principle 11

God rewards those who obey the commands of the Torah and punishes those who violate its prohibitions.

Purpose: Perhaps someone might want to leave the Jewish community and only keep Judaism in private. This resist the claim that they can "blend in" with the gentiles and all will be ok.

Principle 12

The days of the Messiah will come.

Purpose: This gives the Jewish people the strength to survive in the times of hardship and persecution. It's also an argument against Christianity.

Principle 13

The dead will be resurrected.

Purpose: Also an argument against Christianity, and a statement that helps Jews remain Jewish.

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Interesting. Is this your own? –  WAF Jan 8 '12 at 0:01
    
Something I heard in a Shiur many years ago that resonated with me. –  avi Jan 8 '12 at 6:55
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Thanks avi; this is very interesting. However, I find it somewhat uncomfortable to say that Rambam was defining the core principles of Judaism as a response to external ideas rather that as a definition of Judaism in and of itself. It didn't sound like that from his language when I read it (although I should probably read it again with this in mind). –  jake Jan 9 '12 at 19:46
    
@jake It's more that during that period of history, "religion" became a thing which people compared and said "I am right, you are wrong." Before then, it wasn't so common. This all lead up to the Crusades. –  avi Jan 9 '12 at 19:48
    
Good, but not the last one: the Rambam specifically explains why resurrection is important in his letter on the topic, and the reason has nothing to do with Christianity (in fact, many Christians believe in a future resurrection) or remaining Jewish (though from his Iggeres Teiman it does seem like that the reason for the 12th, as you note) –  Matt May 14 at 20:52

To answer one of your questions: R' Yaakov Weinberg is quoted as saying that knowledge (axiom #10) could not necessarily be derived from reward & punishment (#11), as G-d could have been construed as a "harmonious watchmaker" who constructed the Universe as a machine that automatically senses evildoing and applies punishment, without conscious control by G-d. Hence the need for the knowledge postulate as well.

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In his "Historical Note on the 13 Principals", Rabbi Chaim Miller explains that the Rambam's 13 principals of faith were a response to the influence Aristotle's philosophy was having on the Jewish Community (having recently been translated into Arabic).

In footnote 15 of page 327, he bring the Abarbanel (Rosh Amanah Chapter 10) who says that the order of the thirteen principles are set up with Aristotle's philosophy in mind, and as a response to it.

  • Principles 1-3 --> Fully consistent with Aristotle's philosophy
  • Principles 4-6 --> Partially consistent
  • Principles 7-9 --> Outside the scope of Aristotle's philosophy
  • Principles 10-13 --> Would be completely denied by Aristotle.
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Abarbanel, in his defense of the Rambam's choices of principles, says that the work ikar, unlike the word yesod which is a foundation, means a very important belief. The Rambam describes it as a list of yesodos and ikarim, some which are necessary foundations and some which are important but not necessarily central.

The Rambam writes in his postscript to the Ikkarim:

וכאשר יהיו קיימים לאדם כל היסודות הללו ואמונתו בהם אמתית הרי הוא נכנס בכלל ישראל

When a person is aware and believes these foundations, he is included in the category of Israel

R' Weinberg pointed out that there are two requirements - to know the Ikkarim and to believe them. That means that not knowing one of them disqualifies a person. If a person isn't aware of one of the Ikkarim, they still are not בכלל ישראל.

With this introduction, R' Weinberg explained the ikkarim to be the necessary elements of having an accurate relationship with Hashem through the Torah. They form the understanding that make His commandments binding and immutable, and give us the appropriate perspective to relate to Him as מצווים. If a person lacks knowledge and acceptance of one of these points, even if it isn't his fault, he does not have the proper framework to be absolutely bound by the commandments. If a person is serving Hashem in such a way that he is not, in his own mind, completely and absolutely bound to the Mitzvos, then even if he does the mitzvos they are not a true service of Hashem. In this way R' Weinberg answered the question of what is different about the Ikkarim that rejecting them should be any worse than rejecting any word or letter of the Torah (as the Rambam himself says makes one a heretic) - these are not a matter of rejection. They are necessary points to be aware of, and create a lack in the relationship to mitzvos even if they are not being rejected, just that one never heard of them. For example, if someone never heard of Shabbos, they can still keep the rest of the mitzvos completely. But if someone did not know that there was a G-d, or that the Torah came from G-d, they would be incapable of doing any of the Mitzvos properly.

R' Weinberg explains how each Ikkar presents one facet of this relationship. Summarizing each one would be beyond the scope of this post.

R' Weinberg explains how the 1st and 4th ikarim, as well as the 10th and 11th, do not overlap. The first is a statement of Hashem being the source of all existence, while the fourth identifies Him as having preceded all existence, namely it disabused the notion of קדמות העולם, the eternity of matter. As explained in Shalom's answer, the 11th is a statement that there is reward and punishment, which could have been perceived as being automatic, while the 10th is the active awareness of what happens.

However, R' Weinberg understood that it was not a problem for some of the Ikkarim to follow logically from others, as the point of them is to be actively aware of each of them. Therefore, it is not enough that one could come to the awareness of one through another - he has to have a conscious awareness of them. Therefore, redundancy in the Ikkarim would be a problem, but logical sequence is not.

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When you say "R. Weinberg", I assume you mean R. Yaakov Weinberg in the book "Fundamentals and Faith", which I regretfully have never read myself. However, in the book אבן שתיה by Y. N. Bechoffer, I've seen a quote from R. Weinberg where he has a very original way of explaining R' Chaim's phrase of 'ah nebach apikoires', because he thought it was impossible for a person to be deemed an apikores merely by not knowing what the ikkarim are. Do you think that contradicts what you've written? –  Matt Jun 26 at 23:37
    
@Matt Please don't assume. I mean R' Yaakov Weinberg in a series of recordings, and personal discussions I had with his main talmid. R' Weinberg was not coming exclusively from R' Chaim - he was coming from the Rambam, as I explained. He explained R' Chaim right along with the Rambam itself as I have written above. R' Weinberg was 100% in agreement with R' Chaim about "nebach apikoires" and explained it as above - it's a reality that the relationship with Hashem is faulty, not a punishment, if he doesn't understand one of these things. –  YeZ Jun 27 at 2:25
    
He used, as an example, the first Ikkar - imagine if someone, through no fault of there own, did not know there was a G-d. Could he serve G-d? Of course not - he doesn't even know he exists! He could do mitzvos as a cultural heritage, but it would never amount to serving G-d. So too with the rest of the Ikarim - they are necessary prereqs, and if you don't know them, it doesn't matter if it isn't your fault. –  YeZ Jun 27 at 2:26
    
ha, sorry for assuming. Firstly, I'm not saying that R. Chaim was his source, merely that his reported attitude towards that quote indicates a very different attitude than the one portrayed here. Second, one could easily differentiate between the first one or two ikkarim (and maybe the 8th) and the last two, though I also certainly understand why R. Weinberg would not. Secondly, I personally can easily imagine serving God even if you think He has a body, or is merely the greatest of many gods, etc. with many details of the 13 –  Matt Jun 27 at 2:34
    
@Matt (you had a second and a secondly in your above comment) - 2a - whether or not one could, the Rambam does not - he says his concluding words about all of them, from which R' Weinberg made his diyuk. 2b is exactly what R' Weinberg comes to demonstrate - why the Rambam held that each of these things would make you into not serving G-d. Because a failure in any one of them would make you not a מוכרח, and at that point you aren't serving Hashem, you are doing what you want and it happens to be what Hashem said. It would take many many comments to go through each of them. –  YeZ Jun 27 at 2:50

Several approaches exist to answering this question.

The Classic Academic approach is to deny the ikkarim's theological importance, and instead see a political one: in order to be granted certain status in Muslim lands, Rambam had to show that the Jews are monotheists and not corporealists. Besides being rather irreverent, this alone doesn't explain all of the principles, but some have elaborated upon this view and shown how the Rambam had political motivations for all 13. As precedence, many point to the Abarbanel, in the final chapter of Rosh Amanah, who also states that the Rambam's motivations were largely political. See below.

Sefer HaIkkarim, as well as R. Chisdai Crescas understood foundations to be building blocks of religion, without which the Jewish religion would be incomprehensible. This is how you've understood them in your question, and this is also how Chosam Sofer (Shut Y.D. II 273) understood the Rambam's principles. You note the difficulty with this in your question (as does the Chasam Sofer there), but the Rambam does seem to defend this position in some of his letters, and others can be extrapolated from his general philosophy.

  • Religion requires (1) a perfect, omnipotent God (so that He can be trusted to give us the best possible set of commandments and follow through on them), and to Rambam, logic dictates that only a unified (2) incorporeal (3) and (4) ontologically independent being could fit that description.

  • Religion involves exclusive worship, if you could choose who/what to worship, than you wouldn't be following an obligatory religion. (5) We could only know what God commands of us if we believe in the possibility of prophecy (6), and that the Torah, given by Moses (7-8) is the ultimate (as in perfect), and therefore unchangeable word of God.

  • According to the Rambam, moral and religious responsibility depends on man receiving reward or punishment for his actions, which of course requires God to know those actions (and thoughts). (9-11) Mashiach in particular seems to be a major player in motivation for religious behavior: religion must have an eschatology and work towards some worldly redemption (12).

  • Resurrection (13) may not fit so well, but the Rambam seems to have understood it to be a dramatized version of belief in miracles (which is necessary because religion requires God to be able to be actively involved in human affairs).

R. Chaim of Brisk (one source, but there are more) is known to have asked a similar question: if a person denies even one letter of the Torah, he is a heretic, so what's the nafka minah (practical difference) between the 13 principles and any other verse in the Torah or Shas? His answer is relevant here as well: a person who denies that, let's say, Moshe Rabbeinu fought Og, would only be a heretic if he knew that he was denying what it says in the Torah. However, if someone had never read the Torah and didn't know that it contained such a story, he would not be a heretic for not believing in it. However, if someone does not know that the Torah/Chazal teaches that God is incorporeal or that there will be a Resurrection, he will nevertheless not be granted a part in the World to Come.

To expand upon this, the great commentaries on Mishna Torah have also dealt with the Rambam's codification of (most of) the 13 principles in Hil. Tehuvah 3:7. Like in the rest of the Mishnah Torah, they provide references as the Rambam's sources, which are all in the context of requirements to being accepted into the afterlife (which is, after all, the context of the Rambam's Hilchos Teshuva as well as the context of the first mishna in Cheilek). Thus, it appears that many classic commentaries understood the principles as nothing more than prerequisites to the afterlife. In fact, the Gemara itself (Sanhedrin 100) asks why Resurrection should be on the list, and answers that, 'if he denies it, he doesn't deserve to get it'. This is also the approach given by Prof. Menachem Kellner in his introduction to Abarbanel's Rosh Amanah, and has since gained popularity in the academic community as well.

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Not to bog down the answer with 'pilpul', but of course the final approach may be criticized as begging the question: true that these 13 are required for the afterlife, but what's so special about these specific 13? The Rambam himself though might respond that he's not responsible for that decision, just like he isn't the one who decided how the halakha should be: he just follows Chazal. –  Matt May 14 at 21:30
    
In addition, the question of the Gemara as to why Resurrection should be included could easily be brought as a proof against my last idea: the basis of the question was that there should be some axiomatic importance to the 'principles of faith', and not merely have a consequence for the afterlife. The response of the Gemara doesn't deny this either, and it could be that belief in Resurrection is merely one exception –  Matt May 14 at 21:32

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