Nitzavim Vayelech


The thirteen principles of the Jewish faith were enumerated by Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) in his introduction to his commentary on the Chapter Chelek in the tractate, Sanhedrin. They are probably most familiar to us in their poetic form in the hymn, Yigdal.

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 Divine Commandments”) he lists fourteen principles which establish the criteria whether a biblical passage is to count as one of the 613 commandments or not. The 248 positive commandments and the 365 negative commandments are each divided into fourteen groups. Maimonides great grandson noted that the sum of the digits (2+4+8) and (3+6+5) both equal 14.

Therefore, one might have expected Maimonides to list fourteen principles of faith!

My teacher, Rav Nachum Rabinovitch zatzal, who passed away a few months ago, points out that there is a fourteenth principle of faith, and it is based on a verse in this week’s portion.

“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 thus:

“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.