There is nothing more fundamental to Torah life than belief in Hashem. The Rambam is his opening words to his Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 1:1) states “It is the foundation of all foundations…to know that there is a Creator”. The Rambam (ad. loc. 1:6 and Sefer Hamitzvot positive Mitzvah number one) even lists belief in Hashem as one of the 613 Mitzvot. The Rambam views the introductory Pasuk to the Aseret Hadibrot, (Shemot 20:1) “Anochi Hashem Elokecha”, I am Hashem your G-d, as the command to believe in Hashem.
However, some Rishonim criticize the Rambam for including belief in Hashem as one of the 613 Mitzvot. We shall endeavor to defend the Rambam from his critics, based to a great extent on arguments developed with my students at the Torah Academy of Bergen County.
The Behag, Rav Chasdai Crescas and Abarbanel
The Gemara (Makkot 23b) informs us that there are 613 Mitzvot in the Torah. However, the Gemara does not provide a specific list of these Mitzvot. Instead a variety of Geonim and Rishonim present such lists. However, they occasionally disagree as to whether certain activities are classified as Mitzvot. The Behag, for instance, does not list belief in Hashem as one of the 613 Mitzvot. The Behag, of course, believes in Hashem; however, he believes that belief in Hashem is too fundamental to classify as a Mitzvah.
The Rambam, however, does categorize it as a Mitzvah. Rav Chasdai Crescas (an important Jewish philosopher who lived in the fourteenth century), though, levels a number of arguments criticizing the Rambam in his great work, Ohr Hashem. His major objection is that a Mitzvah by definition involves an activity which one has a choice to do or not to do. For example, one has a choice to affix a Mezuzah to the doorways in one’s home. If one fulfills this Mitzvah he is rewarded for fulfilling Hashem’s command and if he does not he is punished for failing to honor Hashem’s order.
Belief in Hashem, argues Rav Chasdai Crescas, cannot be classified as a Mitzvah since one does not have a choice about this matter. Hashem’s existence is a fact and one does not have a choice concerning it in the manner in which one has the choice whether to refrain from wearing clothes that contain Sha’atnez.
The Abarbanel levels a literary criticism at the Rambam. He points out that Anochi Hashem Elokecha is formulated as a statement and not as a command. Abarbanel understands Anochi Hashem Elokecha as a declaration in which Hashem introduces the Aseret Hadibrot.
Incidentally, the term Ten Commandments is a misnomer as there are more than ten Mitzvot in the Aseret Hadibrot. The Ten Statements is a more accurate translation.
Semag and Semak
Two of the major compilers of lists of the 613 Mitzvot, the Semag and Semak, adopt a compromise approach to this issue. They count Anochi Hashem Elokecha as a Mitzvah but not a Mitzvah to simply believe in Hashem’s existence, since it is too fundamental an issue to classify as a Mitzvah. The Semak understands it as a Mitzvah to believe in divine intervention in all worldly matters based on the continuation of the Pasuk, Asher Hotzeiticha Mei’eretz Mitzrayim, Who has taken you out of Egypt. The Semag sees it as a Mitzvah to believe in the divine origin of the Torah.
Defending the Rambam
We can defend the Rambam from both the literary and philosophical criticisms of his approach. We should first note that the aforementioned Gemara (Makkot 23b) supports the Rambam counting Anochi Hashem Elokecha as a Mitzvah. It notes that 611 Mitzvot were presented from Moshe Rabbeinu to the Jewish People and two Mitzvot, Enochi Hashem Elokecha and the prohibition to worship idols, were heard directly from Hashem.
We may defend the Rambam from the Abarbanel’s literary criticism by looking at the larger context of the Aseret Hadibrot (Davar Halameid Mei’inyano). They are brimming with Mitzvot such as Shabbat, honoring parents and not murdering. It is reasonable to assume that just as the Aseret Hamitzvot are comprised of Mitzvot, its introductory statement constitutes a Mitzvah.
A more fundamental adjustment of our understanding of the Mitzvah of belief in Hashem is necessary to defend the Rambam from the criticism of Rav Chasdai Crescas. We introduce our approach with a celebrated Chassidic story told about the Ba’al Shem Tov. The Ba’al Shem Tov once encountered a child who was crying inconsolably and he inquired as to what was bothering him. The child responded that he was playing hide and go seek with his friends and they told him to hide but they did not come to seek him. The Ba’al Shem Tov consoled the child that Hashem feels the same way as He hides and wants us to seek Him (see Devarim 4:29), yet we do not engage in seeking as much as we should.
Rashi (Devarim 32:11 s.v. Al Gozalav Yeracheif) describes Hashem as “Nogei’ah Ve’eino Nogei’ah”, He touches the world but does not touch the world – He hovers. In other words, Hashem rarely makes outright miracles. Instead He allows the world to function in a natural manner and intervenes only in subtle ways.
One can argue that the Mitzvah of belief is to pierce the “secular veil” that covers this world and discover Hashem and His involvement in the natural processes. TABC Talmid Joseph Jarashow explains that this is why the Mitzvah of belief is presented as a fact and not a command. The challenge of belief in Hashem is for us to develop our relationship with Hashem and open our eyes to see Him and His involvement in the world to the point where we not only believe that Hashem exists but that we know that Hashem exists. The Torah challenges us to reach a spiritual level where we accept Hashem’s existence as a fact just as we accept the fact that the color of the sky on a sunny day is blue.
Believing and Knowing Hashem’s Existence
Indeed, the Rambam states in his Mishneh Torah (ad. loc.) that the Mitzvah is to know (Lei’da) that Hashem exists and not simply to believe (Leha’amin). In other words, believing in Hashem is insufficient; we must know that He exists. However, the Rambam in his Sefer Hamitzvot (ad. loc.) presents this Mitzvah as believing (Le’ha’amin) in Hashem. The interpretation of this passage, though, is subject to debate.
Unlike the Mishneh Torah which the Rambam wrote in Hebrew, the Sefer Hamitzvot (as well as most of his other works) was written in Judeo-Arabic. The traditional translation of this work was prepared by the renowned medieval translator Rav Moshe Ibn Tibbon. However, not all of his translations go unchallenged.
In fact, his translation of the Judeo-Arabic word “A’etkad” in the Rambam’s first positive Mitzvah as “to believe” is questioned by Rav Chaim Heller in his edition of the Sefer HaMitzvot. Rav Heller notes that the word A’etkad can also be understood as to know. Moreover, the original title of Rav Sa’adia Gaon’s celebrated work of Jewish philosophy “Al-Amanat V’al Aetkadat” is translated as Emunot V’dei’ot, beliefs and knowledge (we should note that Rav Chaim Heller was a highly respected outstanding Torah scholar whom Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik showed enormous respect and regarded as a Rebbe).
Accordingly, it is entirely possible that the Rambam consistently defines the Mitzvah as knowing Hashem and not simply believing in Hashem, both in the Mishneh Torah and the Sefer Hamitzvot.
The Mishnah Berurah’s Resolution
The Chatam Sofer asserts (Teshuvot Yoreh Deah 356) that Halacha resolves disputes not only about legal matters but also about philosophical matters. For example, he writes that although Rabi Hillel (Sanhedrin 99a and see Rashi ad. loc. s.v. Ein Lahem Mashiach L’yisrael) believed that the Messianic age will be brought about only by Hashem but will not involve a human leader who will serve as Mashiach, we are forbidden to adopt this view since the consensus opinion has rejected this view. Thus, if one espouses this view of Rabi Hillel, he is classified as a Kofer (heretic) with all its ramifications, such as disqualification to serve as a witness (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 34:22).
Somewhat similarly, one may suggest that the Mishnah Berurah resolves the dispute between the Rambam and his critics regarding the classification of Anochi Hashem Elokecha. At the beginning of his work (Bi’ur Halacha 1:1 s.v. Hu Kelal Gadol), the Mishnah Berurah presents the “six constant Mitzvot” that are presented by many Gedolim (leading rabbis) among them the Sefer Hachinuch. Included in these six constant Mitzvot is the Mitzvah to believe in Hashem which constitutes a positive Mitzvah as it is written “Anochi Hashem Elokecha”. The Mishnah Berurah explains that this involves “knowing and believing” in a Creator. The Mishnah Berurah adds that this Mitzvah includes believing that Hashem is involved with the world, as the Pasuk continues “Asher Hotzeiticha Mei’eretz Mitzrayim” (as we cited earlier from the Semak).
The Mitzvah of Anochi Hashem Elokecha calls us to seek out and find Hashem and deepen our belief in Him. Every day presents us with opportunities to discover Hashem in Torah, in nature, in Tefillah, in the direction of our lives, and in the course of history, to name a few. The difference between the one who merely believes in Hashem and one who knows Hashem, is that the latter has devoted time and attention to developing his connection with His Creator. May we be counted among those who lived their lives knowing that there is a G-d and not merely believing that there is a G-d.