Many Jewish sages offered their list of what they considered the basic principles of Judaism. Maimonides lists thirteen. However, other significant rabbis had a different list. For example, Shem Tov ben Joseph Falaquera (c. 1220–1290) identifies seven principles in one of his books and six in another – although his thirteen do not align with those of Maimonides. Shimon ben Zemah Duran (1361–1444, in his Ohev mishpat) and Joseph Albo (fifteenth century, in Sefer Ha-ikkarim) list only three basic Jewish ideas that they feel every Jew must hold in order not to be considered a heretic. Hasdai Crescas (1340–1410, in Or ha-shem) writes of six cornerstones of faith that he is convinced are the foundation of the Torah. David ben Yom Tov ibn Bilia (fourteenth century) lists twenty-six principles of faith. Don Isaac Abravanel (1437–1508, in Rosh Amanah) has the largest number. He argues that each of the 613 Torah commandments is a fundamental concept of Judaism.
Before Maimonides, Rabbi Akiva, who was murdered by the Romans in 135, wrote that there is one fundamental principle of the Torah. It is “Love your neighbor as yourself” in Leviticus 19:18. The Torah also states this in different words thirty-six times: “You must love the stranger.” This, of course, includes non-Jews. Before Akiva, Hillel (just before and just after the onset of the Common Era) interpreted Leviticus 19:18 and said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary” (BT Shabbat 31a). Ben Azzai, a student of Rabbi Akiva, disagreed with him. He said there is a more significant verse, Genesis 6:1. “This is the book of the generations of man [Adam]. In the day God created man, He made him in the likeness of God.” He emphasized that God created every human, and each is equal.
Other rabbis and Torah scholars dispute Maimonides’ thirteen principles, saying he did not consider the thirteen essentials for rational thinkers. He listed ideas that people who are not very educated need to believe. I agree with this last understanding. And I have my list of three.
Treat everyone properly
I agree with the Torah, Hillel, Akiva, Ben Azzai, and others that the first basic principle is to treat others as you want them to treat you.
We must be rational
We should avoid relying on beliefs and faith and, instead, use our intellect and think. Beliefs are ideas taught to people who are unable to think. Aristotle said the intellect is what distinguishes us from plants and animals. Maimonides said it is the “image of God” mentioned in Genesis. This does not mean avoiding Torah mandates. The Torah is filled with wisdom that we will see if we interpret it rationally. We should remember that Exodus 33:18-23 teaches that we can know nothing about God other than what God created or formed. This is nature and its laws. Wisdom requires us to learn science, which analyses what God created or formed. We should also remember, as we learn from the Greek philosopher Socrates, that humans cannot know everything.
Observe the Shabbat
People mistakenly believe Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the year’s holiest days. Many attend synagogues only during these holidays, which are not mentioned in the Torah. The days, weeks, and even the year after this attendance are no different than before their attendance. Others are scrupulous about attending family Seders on Passover. But neglect other ways to honor family.
The primary holy day in Judaism is Shabbat. My father, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Drazin, said, more than you keep Shabbat, Shabbat keeps you. We must observe Shabbat actively and properly. We must not focus foolishly on what we should refrain from doing. Then, we will understand that to know God means understanding what God created. We will realize what is important in life. We will treat everybody and everything, even animals and inanimate objects, as they want and should be treated. And we will learn how to enjoy life. Shabbat improves individuals and society. It is a foretaste of paradise.