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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
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3 Answers

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
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
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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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