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Yigdal and the Thirteen Principles of Faith

Author: Esther Ehrman, Elul 5766/Sept 2006

The verses of the song 'Yigdal' are familiar to many people. The poem figures in the opening pages of most prayer books and it is sung in many Synagogues at the end of the Friday evening and Holiday evening services. As many people know, the thirteen lines of this poem/song correspond to the thirteen principles of faith formulated by Rambam (Maimonides) in the 12th century and were intended to define Judaism. What people may not be aware of when they sing Yigdal is that they are taking part in a controversy that has lasted from the time of Maimonides to the present day – and it is by no means settled yet!

Let us look at the key phrases of Yigdal and of Maimonides' Thirteen principles of Faith (Many Prayer Books have a version of the latter, each line beginning with the words 'I believe with perfect faith that...' at the end of Shacharit, the Morning Service):

Existence of the Creator. He is the cause of all existence. Without Him nothing would exist. He would exist if nothing else existed Exalt and worship living, eternal G-d.
G-d is one, not member of any group. He has no parts.
Cf Shema, ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d, The Lord is One’
G-d is one, without end.
G-d is incorporeal and has no attributes of matter, actual or potential ‘you have seen no image’. G-d has no body. His kedusha (sanctity) cannot be imagined.
G-d is eternal. Nothing existed before Him. G-d existed first; His beginning has no beginning.
We must worship only G-d, no idolatry. Stars etc are natural processes. Lord of the Universe. His creation receives power from Him.
Prophecy by those gifted to receive pure intellectual form. He gave gift of prophecy to those He chose.
Moses was above all prophets. No barrier. His senses repressed, pure reason remained. Only one to be spoken to ‘face to face’, not in a vision. No other prophet could choose time of communication. Moses, greatest prophet; saw Image.
All of Torah given by G-d through Moses – we do not know how. Authoritative commentary is also ‘Word of G-d. One who says Moses wrote anything is ‘worst kind of heretic'. Torah through His prophet Moses.
Torah, oral and written, is authentic. Nothing must be added or removed. G-d will never exchange dato, His law.
G-d knows what people do and never takes His attention away from them. G-d knows our doings; sees outcome.
Reward and punishment. Greatest reward: world to come; greatest punishment: extinction from future. Grace and hardship are given us in accordance with our deserts.
Believe that Messiah will come, never mind when. Whoever doubts this, denies the Torah. G-d will send His anointed and give salvation to those who await end.
Resurrection of the dead. Resurrection, an act of G-d’s mercy. Praise His glorious Name.

At first sight, the content of the text does not look controversial – all agree that G-d is one, is incorporeal, that He revealed Himself and gave us the Torah. Although some of the later verses are not accepted as unquestioningly, it is not primarily the content that worried people. The controversy centres mainly around the limitation that this particular selection – and perhaps any selection, imposes and around the fact that Maimonides was defining Judaism in terms of a given number of 'beliefs'. He states unambiguously that anyone who denies even one of these principles is a heretic and must be shunned.

'A Jew who commits every possible sin will be a sinner and be punished, but will still have a share in the world to come. But if a man gives up any one of these fundamental principles, he has removed himself from the Jewish community. He is an atheist, a heretic, an unbeliever...We are commanded to hate him and to destroy him'.

(From Rambam's Commentary: Helek. Sanhedrin Ch.10, Mishna 1 kol Yisrael yeish lahem helek le olam haba...).

We are accustomed to-day to understand Judaism as a system of mitzvot, divine ordinances, a way of conducting our lives and the life of society rather than a set of 'principles of faith' that we must believe. There can, of course, be no Judaism –or any other form of monotheism – without a belief in

G-d. Is that belief a commandment? The first of the Ten Commandments/Statement (dibrot) is 'I am the Lord your G-d'. Even if that is taken as a statement and not a commandment as such, it demands acceptance. As does the opening statement of the Torah, 'In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth'. That, however, would seem to be the only belief as such in the Torah.

Are the other twelve verses as essential in defining Judaism? M.Kellner, in his book 'Must a Jew believe Anything?' makes a distinction between belief 'in' and belief 'that'. A belief 'in' G-d is not questioned. What about belief 'that'? The Shema proclaims 'that' G-d is one; Moses reminds the people 'that' G-d is incorporeal 'You saw no image at Horeb', the revelation on Mount Sinai, he tells the Israelites (Deut.4, v12 ). Further G-d reveals to Moses His thirteen attributes, (Ex 34, v.6,7) beginning: 'The Lord, mighty, merciful, gracious, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth'...Judaism accepts/believes these statements in the Torah. However, so does Christianity. Nonetheless, they are basic to a definition of Judaism. So, verses 1-5 are essential. So, too, is verse 6, which tells us that G-d revealed Himself to the Prophets. That belief, along with verses 10 and 11, we also share with Christianity.

Verses 7,8,9 show G-d's impact on the world and on us. The authority of the Torah and of Moses entails an acceptance of all the commandments and their authoritative interpretation, the Oral Law. Only Judaism has taken upon itself to observe all the mitzvot.

That leaves verses 12 and 13, the belief in the coming of the Messiah and in the resurrection of the dead. Both proved controversial. Joseph Albo, who lived in 14/15th century Spain, criticised Maimonides and set out to correct his thirteen principles. He thought that belief in a Messiah should be eliminated because other religions understood this concept differently, which would lead to confusion and misleading statements about Judaism.

The last verse, a belief in the resurrection of the dead, was perhaps the most controversial. Neither the belief in a Messiah nor in a resurrection figure as such in the Five Books of Moses, although both are essential tenets in the writings of the prophets ( cf Ezekiel's vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones, ch. 37, read in the Synagogue on the Intermediate Sabbath of Passover); Maimonides also reads them into texts taken from the Torah. In Yigdal, these last two of the thirteen principles are left as general statements, open to individual interpretation. For Maimonides, these principles articulate a very specific view. He sees a Messianic period 'when sovereignty will return to Israel...In regard to existing things, nothing will be different from what it is now, except that the sovereignty will be Israel's' (Commentary on Sanhedrin, ch 10); 'the prophets desired and the righteous yearned for the days of the Messiah because the righteous will assemble there and because of the good deeds and the wisdom and because of the righteousness of the king and his nearness to the Creator' (ibid). Beyond this is the world –to-come, where those souls who have not forfeited their share by wickedness and wrong beliefs will be privileged to exist, 'where our souls will have an understanding of the Creator' (ibid). Clearly the view of Maimonides here is not shared by all who would define Judaism.

Might one wish to add to these thirteen beliefs? What abut the Promised Land and what about the Jewish People? Can there be Judaism without either of these? Should we add a fourteenth and a fifteenth verse to Yigdal? The land, which is prominent in the promises of G-d's covenant with the Jewish people, can perhaps be seen as only the location for the practice of Judaism. And as to the Jewish People, they are defined by the beliefs expounded by Maimonides and reformulated in Yigdal. The controversy remains: Do those beliefs define Judaism?