Guide for the Perplexed Moshe ben Maimon

Hebrew:מורה נבוכים, translit. Moreh Nevuchim,

Arabic: dalalat al ha'irin دلالة الحائرين

14th century edition of the Guide of the Perplexed by Maimonides  

(see it in its original size)


source :  'Heritage. Civilization and the Jews by Abba Eban p. 149 (Credit:Der Kongelige Bibliotek, Copenhagen) The figure seated on the chair with Stars of David is thought to be Aristotle

Here is an excerpt of the book (3rd part, LI chapter) :

"I will begin the subject of this chapter with a simile. A king is in his palace, and all his subjects are partly in the country, and partly abroad. Of the former, some have their backs turned towards the king's palace, and their faces in another direction; and some are desirous and zealous to go to the palace, seeking" to inquire in his temple," and to minister before him, but have not yet seen even the face of the wall of the house. Of those that desire to go to the palace, some reach it, and go round about in search of the entrance gate; others have passed through the gate, and walk about in the ante-chamber; and others have succeeded in entering into the inner part of the palace, and being in the same room with the king in the royal palace. But even the latter do not immediately on entering the palace see the king, or speak to him; for, after having entered the inner part of the palace, another effort is required before they can stand before the king-at a distance, or close by -- hear his words, or speak to him. I will now explain the simile which I have made. The people who are abroad are all those that have no religion, neither one based on speculation nor one received by tradition. Such are the extreme Turks that wander about in the north, the Kushites who live in the south, and those in our country who are like these. I consider these as irrational beings, and not as human beings; they are below mankind, but above monkeys, since they have the form and shape of man, and a mental faculty above that of the monkey.

Those who are in the country, but have their backs turned towards the king's palace, are those who possess religion, belief, and thought, but happen to hold false doctrines, which they either adopted in consequence of great mistakes made in their own speculations, or received from others who misled them. Because of these doctrines they recede more and more from the royal palace the more they seem to proceed. These are worse than the first class, and under certain circumstances it may become necessary to day them, and to extirpate their doctrines, in order that others should not be misled.

Those who desire to arrive at the palace, and to enter it, but have never yet seen it, are the mass of religious people: the multitude that observe the divine commandments, but are ignorant. Those who arrive at the palace, but go round about it, are those who devote themselves exclusively to the study of the practical law: they believe traditionally in true principles of faith, and learn the practical worship of God, but are not trained in philosophical treatment of the principles of the Law, and do not endeavour to establish the truth of their faith by proof. Those who undertake to investigate the principles of religion, have come into the ante-chamber: and there is no doubt that these can also be divided into different grades. But those who have succeeded in finding a proof for everything that can be proved, who have a true knowledge of God, so far as a true knowledge can be attained, and are near the truth, wherever an approach to the truth is possible, they have reached the goal, and are in the palace in which the king lives."

The Guide For the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides translasted by Michael Friedländer ( PART III., CHAPTER LI, "How God is worshipped by a Perfect Man")




About the work


The work was written in the 12th century in the form of a letter to his student Rabbi Joseph, the son of Rabbi Judah, but it became popular within Maimonides' lifetime, with many Jewish communities requesting copies of the manuscript. The work is also the most universal, as many of the concepts are not restricted to Judaism, and as such, it has been the work most commonly associated with Maimonides in the non-Jewish world.

According to Maimonides, the main purpose of the work is to expound on Maaseh Bereishit and Maaseh Merkavah (the sections of Jewish mysticism dealing with Creation from Genesis and the passage of the Chariot from Ezekiel), these being the two main mystical texts in the Tanakh. This occurs in the third book. From this perspective, the issues in the first two books are there to provide background and a progression in the mystical and philosophical knowledge required to ponder the climax.



The work is divided into three books.

Book One

The book begins with Maimonides' thesis against anthropomorphism. In the Bible, one can find many expressions which describe God in human terms, for instance the "hand of God". Maimonides was strongly against what he believed to be a heresy present in unlearned Jews who then assume God to be corporeal (or even possessing positive characteristics).

To explain his belief that this is not the case, Maimonides devoted over 20 chapters in the beginning (and middle) of the first book to analysing Hebrew terms. Each chapter was about a term used to describe God (such as "mighty") and in each case, Maimonides presented a case that the word is a homonym, whereby its usage when describing a physical entity is completely different to when describing God. This was done by close textual analysis of the word in the Tanach in order to present what Maimonides saw as the proof that according to the Tanach, God is completely incorporeal. This leads to Maimonides' notion that God cannot be described in any positive terms, but rather only in negative conceptions. Unrestrained anthropomorphism and perception of positive attributes is seen as a transgression as serious as idolatry, because both are fundamental errors in the metaphysics of God's role in the universe, and that is the most important aspect of the world.

The first book also contains an analysis of the reasons why philosophy and mysticism are taught late in the Jewish tradition, and only to a few. Maimonides cites many examples of what he sees as the incapability of the masses of understanding these concepts. Thus, approaching them with a mind that is not yet learned in Torah and other Jewish texts, can lead to heresy and the transgressions considered the most serious by Maimonides.

The book ends with Maimonides' exposition and criticism of the Kalam argument for creation ex nihilo and the incorporeality of God. The study of the philosophical works of Muslim scholars contributed to Maimonides as a controversial figure. However, while he accepts the conclusions of the Kalam school (because of their consistency with Judaism), he disagrees with their methods and points out many perceived flaws in their arguments.

Book Two

The book begins with the exposition of the physical structure of the universe, as seen by Maimonides. The world-view asserted in the work is essentially Aristotelian, with a spherical earth in the centre, surrounded by concentric Heavenly Spheres. While Aristotle's view with respect to the eternity of the universe are rejected, Maimonides extensively borrows his proofs of the existence of God and his concepts such as the Prime Mover.

A novel point is that Maimonides connects the Heavenly Sphere with the concept of an angel: these are seen as the same thing. The Spheres are essentially pure Intelligences who receive spiritual essence from the Prime Mover. This energy overflows from each one to the next and finally reaches earth and the physical domain. While novel in Judaism, this concept of intelligent spheres of existence also appears in Gnostic Christianity as Aeons, having been conceived at least eight hundred years before Maimonides.

This leads into a discussion about the merits of the debate whether the universe is eternal or created. As in the first book, Aristotle's theory of the eternity of the universe is seen as the best, philosophically. However, this is because Maimonides considered the proofs that the universe was created to be inferior. He still points out supposed problems with the Aristotelian view and states that, while Aristotle's argument is the best, the possession of Divine Revelation from the Torah is the extra piece of information necessary to decide the matter.

This is followed by a brief exposition of Creation as outlined in Genesis and theories about the possible end of the world. The second major part of the book is the discussion of the concept of prophecy. Maimonides departs from the orthodox view in that he emphasises the intellectual aspect of prophecy. According to this view, in Biblical times, when God still revealed himself through prophecy, it was possible to combine logic and intelligence with a knowledge of God through the tradition (ie. the Written and Oral Torah) in order to achieve a certain level of prophecy. Maimonides outlines 13 levels of prophecy with the one of Moses being the highest and most unimpeded. Subsequently lowering levels remove the prophet from the source by allowing prophecies through extraneous factors such as angels and dreams. Finally, the language and nature of the prophetic books of the Bible is described.

Book Three

The beginning of the third book is described as the climax of the whole work. This is the exposition of the mystical passage of the Chariot found in Ezekiel. Traditionally, Jewish law viewed this passage as extremely sensitive, and in theory, did not allow it to be taught explicitly at all. The only way to learn it properly is if a student has enough knowledge to be able to interpret their teacher's hints by themselves, in which case the teacher is allowed to teach them through hints. (In practice, however, the mass of detailed rabbinic writings on this subject often crosses the line from hint to detailed teachings.)

After justifying what can be seen as crossing the line of hints, Maimonides explains the basic mystical concepts in terms of the Biblical terms referring to Spheres, elements and Intelligences. In these chapters, there is still very little in terms of direct explanation.

This is followed by an analysis of the moral aspects of the universe. Maimonides deals with the problem of evil (of which people are considered to be responsible for because of free will), trials and tests (especially those of Job) as well as other aspects traditionally attached to God in theology, such as providence and omniscience. Maimonides then explains his views on the reasons for the 613 mitzvot, the 613 laws that are contained with the five books of Moses. Maimonides divides these laws into 14 sections - the same as in his Mishneh Torah. However, he departs from traditional Rabbinic explanations in favour of a more physical/pragamatic approach.

Having culminated with the commandments, Maimonides concludes the work with the notion of the perfect and harmonious life, founded on the correct worship of God. The possession of a correct philosophy underlying Judaism (as outlined in the Guide) is seen as being an essential aspect in true wisdom. 

download the english translation ( right click on the link and 'save link as') : Friedlander translation PDF

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