During 2020, I lost not only my dear friend Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, but also, earlier in the year, I lost the teacher he and I shared, Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch. Jonathan Sacks wrote that even though he had studied at Oxford and Cambridge with some of the leading intellects of the time, when he began to study with Rabbi Rabinovitch he found he was more demanding than any of them.

In the introduction to his commentary of the Laws of Repentance, Rabbi Rabinovitch solves a puzzle that has long troubled students of Moses Maimonides, the Rambam.

Many of you will be familiar with Maimonides thirteen principles of faith, the core ideas of Jewish belief. The popular poetic version, Yigdal, is found at the beginning of the siddur.

Scholars of Maimonides are puzzled why he opts for thirteen principles of faith. If one were ever to talk about Maimonides favourite number, it would be fourteen, rather than thirteen!

Maimonides classifies his classic code of Jewish law, the Mishne Torah, into fourteen books, representing fourteen categories of commandments. In his philosophical work, Guide for the Perplexed, he has a different, fourteen-fold, classification of the commandments. In his introduction to his Sefer Hamitzvot (“The book of Commandments”) he lists fourteen principles which establish the criteria whether a biblical passage is to count as one of the 613 commandments or not. 

One might, therefore, have expected Maimonides to list fourteen principles of faith! Why only thirteen?

Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch points out that there is a fourteenth principle of faith, and it is based on a verse in this week’s parasha:

“This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you, life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life, so that you and your children may live.” (Deut. 30: 19)

The Torah is setting out here the principle of free will. Maimonides codifies it in the Laws of Repentance:

Free will is bestowed on every human being. If one desires to turn toward the good way and be righteous, he has the power to do so. If one wishes to turn towards the evil way and be wicked, he is at liberty to do so . . . This doctrine is an important principle, the pillar of the law and the commandment . . . If G-d had decreed that a person should either be righteous or wicked . . . what room could there be for the whole of the Torah? By what right or justice could G-d punish the wicked or reward the righteous?” (Teshuvah 5: 1-6)

Free will is the fourteenth principle of faith. Indeed, it is the principle that underscores all the others. As we stand on the threshold of a new year, let us exercise that free will for the good.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova to you all.