Sunday, April 25, 2010

Daily Rambam: Just Do It

Chassidim do things differently, because we're cool, and I'm not just talking about the black hats. Whereas everyone else studies a page of Talmud a day, or three pages, or something, we have חתת, pronounced Chitas by us Ashkenazim, the "ch" being a hard, gutteral "H"). Chitas is an acronym for Chumash (the 5 books of Moses), Tanya (foundational work of Chassidus) and Tehillim (psalms).

This battery of learning constitutes the minimum daily study expected of every Lubavitcher Chassid, in addition to Mishnah/Gemara (depending on ability), Hayom Yom, and finally, Rambam's Sefer Hamitzvos. This is in addition to preset learning times that one is encouraged to schedule during the week for study of Chassidus or Gemara, hopefully with another Jew who is just as thrilled as you to be skipping his lunch hour.

The way it works is, the Chumash, Tehillim and Tanya are each broken up into short sections that can be read daily, thus completing the weekly Parshah reading (with Rashi commentary) in a week (a Parshah is a weekly section of Chumash), Tehillim in a month, and Tanya in a year. The Hayom Yom, a collection of Chabad Chassidus customs, instructions, notes on liturgy and inspirational anecdotes, is also completed once a year, a day at a time, thus the name "Today's Day".

There are many amusing stories I could tell about guys I know cramming all this stuff in during their hectic workdays. Chitas doesn't take too long, maybe half an hour if it's a Parshah without much Rashi commentary, but sometimes one is blessed with a Rashi that goes on and on, drilling the most precious moments of temple service without end.

I'd like to discuss many of these subjects in greater depth, at some point, but it is only Rambam's Sefer Hamitzvot that is of vital interest to me today. This is because today, I am starting my fourth (or fifth?) cycle of Rambam's Sefer Hamitzvot, following the official Chabad study calendar, which runs on a schedule the Lubavitcher Rebbe set up in 1984.

Sefer Hamitzvos is a book listing the 613 commandments (mitzvot) that Jews are to observe. By learning a set number of mitzvot daily, we complete the full 613 in one year and...
As it was taught by Elijah: Whoever studies Torah laws every day is assured in the life of the World to Come, for it is said: Halichot (the ways of) the world are his. Do not read halichot, but halachot (Torah laws). (Siddur Tehillas Hashem, pg. 79)
Now, Rambam wrote the Sefer Hamitzvot as an aside. You see, what he was really trying to do was compile a comprehensive list of all 613 Jewish laws, with their explanations that even a simpleton (of his day) could understand. Sefer Hamitzvos is just the index, the plain listing of the commandments. His magnum opus is the Mishnei Torah, with detailed explanations and reasoning for each law, including often its practical implementation, all of which his brilliant photographic mind snatched from the vast library of Biblical, Talmudic and contemporary (to his day) sources. As he himself wrote, by studying the Mishnei Torah, one could traverse the entire breadth (if not depth) of Jewish learning.

To make a long story short, greatly expanded in detail here, the Mishnei Torah wasn't studied very much at all, until 1984, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe introduced it into the daily study schedule of the Chabad movement. There it was immediately embraced, which led to a brand spanking new version of the Mishnei Torah being printed by Moznaim, which in turn ignited interest from Jewry all over the world.

So here we are, in the 29th cycle of learning Daily Rambam. I want you to do it with me, and with hundreds of thousands of Jews (and some non-Jews) around the world. It's easy as pie. There are three options:

1) Sign up (under Daily Study) to receive a daily email with just the daily mitzvah, or several mitzvahs, depending on the study cycle. The accompanying text is from a version designed for children, so you may feel like a baby reading it, but it gets the job done. I received just the Daily Mitzvahs by email for two years before I moved up, though I still get them as well. Here's an example from Friday:
Negative Commandment 46
You may never settle permanently in Egypt again

Deuteronomy 17:16 "You shall never again return that way"

We are forbidden to return to Egypt in order to settle there. After freeing us from slavery in Egypt, HaShem prohibited us from ever permanently living there again. However, it is permissible to return to Egypt for business or trade.
I think is changing it this year to be a bit more adult friendly. We'll see what happens. I would strongly recommend this option for most everyone. The next two options are similar, and the link to learn more is the same - this one.

2) You can read or listen to one chapter of the Mishnei Torah. I STRONGLY recommend listening to it, as I very much dislike the format of the online version. The problem is the commentary; in a book, reading the commentary is natural, but online, you have to keep scrolling up and down between the text and commentary. Listening to someone learned explain things to me comes more naturally. You can find Rambam's Mishnei Torah on iTunes. Just search for "" or "Chabad".

3) You can read or listen to three chapters of the Mishnei Torah! Not for the light of heart. Most guys I know who do this don't read the commentary (which dwarfs the text three times over or more). In audio format, each chapter's learning can be as little as 10 to as much as 30 minutes, so with three chapters, we're talking a good hour of audio on average, and at least as long if you're reading it. On the positive side, you end up finishing the ENTIRE Mishnei Torah in one year. Mission accomplished, entry to the World to Come sealed, and all that jazz.

The point is to start small, but be consistent. Don't try to conquer the world. Start with the Sefer Hamitzvot and just let it run for a cycle, read it when you can, see how you like it. As an old Russian Chassidic Jew once told an agnostic American Jew, "Me Jew. You Jew. Me Tefillin. You Tefillin," and proceeded to wrap him. The point is, like Nike (named after a pagan deity, for G-d sake) says, just do it!


  1. I was just reading the Daily Rambam portion for today, which lead me to a two-parter for you:

    1) Can one still be a Nazarite today?

    2) In today's world, why would one want to become a Nazarite?



  2. Steve, this is my understanding, but I'll happily defer to anyone who knows better:

    1) Technically, a Nazir is just someone who takes a specific vow. In theory anyone can take any sort of vow. So it's possible to become a Nazir. But -
    2) Unlike most other vows, being a Nazir includes a commitment to bring a sacrifice after the end of the term for which the vow was taken. This can't be done today, so a vow to become a Nazir is effectively one that cannot be completed, which means -
    3) People aren't allowed to become Nazirs and, if they attempt to do so, they are deemed released from their vows (because nobody in their right mind would accept a vow that cannot be fulfilled).

    I don't know why someone would want to do this today (in fact they can't). As to why people did it - perhaps they wanted to lead an ascetic life and the vow made it easier to commit to it; perhaps the ritual made their asceticism more meaningful; perhaps they wanted to be ascetic in an ostentatious way. It's been pointed out that the sacrifice brought by a Nazir at the end of his vow is actually a sacrifice brought by someone who has committed a sin.

  3. if I recall correctly the author of the Tanya rules that a person is obliged to review everything he's ever studied every thirty days. So you've described consireably less than a chabad chasid is reqired to study every day.

  4. It's in the Alter Rebbe's Shulchan Oruch?

  5. Yes. Its in Yoreh Deiah, Hilchos Talmud Torah, 2:3 and 2:8 (though thirty days is an example rather than a hard and fast rule).


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