By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
In my studies of Judaism, I have often come across references to the “13 Principles of Judaism.” I am unaware of these principles; is it referring to certain mitzvot? If there are 613 mitzvot, the 10 commandments seem to be the main principles. But were does 13 come from? I appreciate your directing me to the source of these principles.
— Marcia L.
The “13 Principles” you refer to are the most basic concepts of Judaism. They were codified by the famous 12th century Jewish philosopher and sage Rabbi Moses Maimonides. These concepts appear in his commentary to the Mishna (Sanhedrin Ch. 10), where he draws upon his vast knowledge of all scriptural and rabbinic material to summarize which beliefs are considered the most fundamental, core beliefs of Judaism.
Maimonides called these principles “Ikarim,” which has two meanings in Hebrew. The first focuses on the most important, focal, central beliefs. Secondly, Ikar means “root.” Like a tree is an offshoot from its roots, Maimonides presented the concepts that form the roots of the entirety of Torah, all other ideas flowing forth from these “roots.”
A very short summary of these beliefs are: 1. G-d is the Creator of all. 2. G-d is One. 3. G-d has no physicality. 4. G-d is first and last. 5. We pray to G-d only and to no other. 6. All the words of the Prophets are true. 7. The unique prophesies of Moses are absolutely true. 8. The Torah we have today is the same Torah given through Moses. 9. The Torah will never be changed. 10. G-d knows the thoughts and deeds of all people. 11. The belief in reward and punishment for all our deeds. 12. The belief in the coming of the Messiah, although he tarries, he will eventually arrive. 13. The righteous who have died will eventually be revived.
This sage deemed it crucial to clarify the key concepts of Judaism during a time in history when his family, together with untold numbers of Jews, were uprooted and escaping Muslim persecution. The Jewish world was in an utter state of confusion and in dire need of clarity. Maimonides helped provide that clarity through this and his many other works which became the mainstays of every Jewish library and many Jewish homes during his time and throughout the difficult times of our Diaspora history. In today’s confusing world with its marketplace of ideas and shifting values, Maimonides’ works carry special importance.
Maimonides discussed each concept at length in his commentary, and soon afterward others wrote abridged versions that would be readily accessible to all. Hence the list called Ani Maamin, or “I believe,” which appears at the end of morning services in traditional prayer books.
The 12th Ani Maamin, the complete belief in the eventual coming of the Messiah, is often sung to a hauntingly beautiful melody composed in Auschwitz. It caught on like wildfire throughout the camps and instilled new hope into so many souls who had nearly given up. I have personally witnessed survivors singing that song with tears streaming down their cheeks.
There is also a well known liturgical song called “Yigdal” which appears in the beginning of the prayer books, and was written some 100 years after Maimonides’ passing. The Yigdal sums up the 13 principles in its cryptic but beautiful way. In this way Jews throughout the world start the morning with a “refresher course” in the core concepts of Judaism. Incidentally, a recommended contemporary compendium of these principles, which includes stirring, thought-provoking questions, is in a book written by Aryeh Kaplan and entitled “Maimonides’ Principles.” (Aryeh Kaplan, NCSY OU Press).
Column space means I can only provide a short summary of the 13 Principles and why they are important. Each concept does raise questions and is worthy of more intense study and understanding — especially as they all provide a core basis of what we believe as Jews.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.