A manual of Jewish belief (a guide to real Judaism) for the thinking individual.

Copyright © 1977 by R' Avi Shafran

[Web Page Last Revised: Tuesday, June 29, 2004 02:33 PM ]


Chapter 14. The Basic Obligatory Beliefs

There are certain principles of belief which constitute the essence of Judaism and the very basis of the Torah. The absence of any of these beliefs renders the non-believer a despicable excuse for a human being, the thought conveyed by the Hebrew terms "kofer", "min", and "apikoros".

There are two primary medieval sources for the cataloguing of these beliefs. First there is Maimonides' "Thirteen Principles of Faith" and secondly, Rabbi Joseph Albo's Book of Basics. Let us deal with the latter first.

The Book of Basics is a work devoted to the categorizing and elaboration of the essential dogma of the Jewish faith. In his book, the author discusses the thirteen principles laid down by Maimonides (with which we will deal shortly) in addition to the attempts of other scholars of the day to form their own lists of basic beliefs. He comes to the conclusion that all the essential articles of faith can be incorporated into three general categories: 1) the existence of G~d, 2) the existence of divine reward and punishment, and 3) the divine origin of the Torah.

There are outbranchings of these three principles, but they need not be gone into in detail here. Most of them are quite simple to deduct and are included in the list of Maimonides. Maimonides is not really differing with Rabbi Joseph Albo's conclusion of three basics when he lists, in his commentary to the Mishna, thirteen basic articles of faith. He has expanded upon the three, counting among his basics things that Rabbi Joseph Albo left for deduction. It is, however, interesting to note which corollaries Maimonides deems as important enough to rank among his thirteen basics and which he only leaves to be deducted. The "Thirteen Principles of Faith" follow:

  1. There is a G~d who created all.
  2. He is One, forming a perfect unity.
  3. He is incorporeal.
  4. He is eternal, having always existed, and will always exist.
  5. We may worship only Him.
  6. The words of the prophets are true.
  7. Moses was the prophet of the highest order.
  8. The Torah which we possess was given Moses by G~d.
  9. The Torah which we possess cannot be changed or replaced; nor will there ever be another Torah given by G~d.
  10. G~d is omniscient.
  11. There is reward for doing G~d's will and punishment for disobeying Him.
  12. Though He may tarry, the Messiah will eventually arrive.
  13. There will be a ressurrection of the dead.

To avert the danger of misleading the reader, an important point should be made. Every letter of the Torah, every word of the Talmudic Rabbis (synonymous with the Oral Law) is from G~d and is holy. Anyone who denies the truth or divine origin of one letter of the Torah is a kofer. Every letter of the Torah is a "basic" of our belief.

Which raises a small problem. Why are three or thirteen "basics" listed by the great Jewish thinkers as being the essentials of our religion? Why are these few thoughts more basic to Jewish belief than any small verse or law? Belief in the entire Torah is necessary, for the name "believer" to be applied!

To resolve this difficulty, it has been suggested that, though denial of any part of the Torah is automatically denial of Real Judaism, ignorance of any law or group of laws does not detract from the meaningful relationship between man and G~d, between man and Real Judaism. However, the "basics", be they three or thirteen, are thoughts that each Jew must actively believe, to remain a part of his religion.

If, for whatever reason (ignorance as well as conviction) a man does not believe one of the basics, he cannot be considered a part of the Jewish religion. Not to say that he loses his Jewishness; if he was born to a Jewish woman he can never become a non-Jew. Rather he cannot function as a working member of the Jewish People without definitive belief in the basics of Real Judaism.

To pursue a slightly different train of thought in answering our problem, we might suggest that the "basics" are thoughts that we must constantly think, philosophical dogma which we must constantly live by. The other commandments need only be considered when a situation meriting their application arises (or when they are studied to fulfill the commandment of Torah-study). The "basics" however, must constantly be among our thoughts and never be absent from our minds.

* * *

Previous Chapter - Next Chapter

Return to: Introduction - Table of Contents - Other Divrei Torah - Chateau Mezcal