Rambam and Rashi, the Greatest Among the Great

Perhaps the greatest of our post-biblical scholars was the renowned Aristotelian philosopher and physician to the Sultan of Egypt, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, commonly known as the Rambam or Maimonides.

Born in Cordova, Spain he fled to Fostat, Egypt in the 12th century and there he created his masterpieces of Jewish law. He compiled  all the laws of the Torah and Talmud and assembled them into one single volume, written in clear Hebrew for all to read and understand.

900 years later, the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides remains the primary text of Jewish religious law. Written over a period of ten years from 1170-1180, it included the Taryag Mitzvot, the 613 divine commandments which are required to be observed by every Jew.

900 years after his magnum opus was written, it is still the major book of law studied by rabbis and scholars to this day.

In the portion of Sefer HaMitzvot (The Book of Commandments), he divided the laws in 2 groups. The first division of 248 positive commandments are equal to the number of bones and organs in the body, whereas the 365 negative commandments are equal to the 365 days of the solar year.

Commandents 1-114 are found In the Book of Exodus. Commandments 115-361 are from the Book of Leviticus. Commandments 362-413 are found in the Book of Numbers while the remaining 414-613 commandments are from the Book of Deuteronomy.

Every aspect of human life as detailed in the biblical commandments are examined, inspected and clarified by Maimonides in a format which was understandable to readers of Hebrew without the restraints of Aramaic.

In the section of Sefer Kedushah (The Book of Holiness), Maimonides explains in vivid detail all laws dealing with sexual relations and the dietary laws. As a physician he had been well-trained in his medical studies and detailed the permitted healthy and unhealthy foods for Jewish consumption.

The original work was written in Arabic, the spoken language in the Egypt where he lived. As the personal physician to the Sultan of Egypt it was the lingua franca of communication.  At a later time, his Mishneh Torah was translated into its present Hebrew format.

The Sefer Kedusha contained chapter one of the issurai biya, the laws prohibiting certain sexual relations and the punishments prescribed for violation of them.

Of the 37 prohibited laws of sexual relations, the 19th deals with the law in Leviticus 18:22… “shelo yishkav im zachar”… a man shall not lie with a man as he lies with a woman.

He prohibited, in his interpretation, all acts of homosexuality between two males and supported the death penalty by stoning of the two men engaged in the sexual act..

Female homosexuality was not considered a transgression of the laws of sexual relations. Lesbians could not be punished since there was no penetration, no act of sodomy.

The greatest of the Bible and Talmud commentators, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) was born in Troyes, France and witnessed the massacre of Jews by the Crusaders en route to the Holy Land. His commentaries on the Bible and Talmud have been required study of every Jewish student in yeshivot from the 11th century to the present day. No Hebrew Bible is printed without Rashi’s explanation underneath the Hebrew text. He is held by religious Jews everywhere as the greatest commentator and interpreter of the Hebrew Bible and Talmud.

Unlike Rambam,  Rashi was not a philosopher nor a physician. He was a vinoculturist by trade and one of the most recognized Jewish scholars over the many long centuries.

Remarkably, and happily appealing to members of the LGBT communities,  Rashi did not agree with Rambam’s  literal understanding of the Levitical passage.  Whereas Rambam followed the Levitical law regarding the stoning of men engaged in homosexual acts,  Rashi had a different interpretation.

Leviticus 18:22 specifically states that a man is forbidden to lie with a man as with a woman.  Rashi explained that sexual relations with a woman requires vaginal penetration by the male.  Likewise he understood male anal penetration. And to that aspect of male to male sexual relations he was opposed. He regarded it as sodomy and deserving of the proscribed punishment.

But he did not condemn manual or oral sexual relations between the two men and he rejected the law of stoning the participants to death.  Only anal penetration between two males was considered the prohibition of Leviticus 18:22.

In his judgements, Rashi was more tolerant than Rambam in his interpretation..

And still, 900 years later, the works of both men are regarded as divinely inspired and throughout Jewish history there have been no scholars to surpass their vast knowledge and wisdom.

The works of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon and Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchaki remain cherished treasures of the Jewish world.


About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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