Guide for the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides

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Comments from our member, Jacob Moradzadeh

Maimonides was a 12th century thinker, philosopher, and a biblical and Talmudic scholar. Guide for the Perplexed was written for scholars bewildered by the conflict between religion and scientific and philosophic thoughts, i. e. Hebrew Scripture and its commentaries and Aristotelian philosophy. This is done by analyzing ideas of Hebrew Scripture by means of homonyms (see below). Guide for the Perplexed was once recognized as a masterwork and it strongly influenced Jewish, Christian and Moslem thoughts of the Middle Ages. (Maimonides impressed and influenced me personally as I came across his quotes now and then in our prayer book, hence my reason for selecting the Guide…)

Maimonides considered the study of philosophy as the highest degree of divine worship, surpassing even the study of the Law and practice of its precepts. In Guide for the Perplexed he used method of Kalam or Mohammedan theology. He relied on the application of metaphors and allegory.

He states: in order to understand the Laws (revealed by almighty) presupposes an advance state of culture. A knowledge of metaphysics is required. He asks the reader do not read (the Guide…) superficially lest you do me injury!.. Read continually and thoroughly to find important problems of religionDo not add any explanation, not even a single word….Thinker reading the book how greatly will he rejoice.. The subjects contained in this book are profound mysteries. On difficult subjects I choose to please one intelligent man than thousand fools


Creation was communicated to us in allegorical, figurative and metaphysical language. It has been treated as metaphor in order that the uneducated may comprehend it ..while the educated person may take it in different sense.


Every word which has a double sense, a literal and a figurative; the plain meaning must be as valuable as silver and the hidden meaning still more precious. Proverbs are like this; taken literally they contain wisdom for day to day living; their hidden meanings are profound wisdom, conducive to recognition of real truth.

Abstain from excessive indulgence of bodily pleasures…Body alone is the cause of preventing man attaining his highest aim in life.


These are words pronounced the same as each other but differing in meanings regardless of spelling ( homonym in Greek means the same name). As an example Maimonides uses the word Zelem or Salem in the statementlet us make man in our Zelem, implying that God had the form of a human being, i. e. corporal. The term Zelem signifies the essence of the thing: perception, intellect, the soul. Zelem, therefore is a homonym as it denotes two things: the form of man and his intellect. Therefore man has been endowed with Divine intellect which requires no corporal organ. He (man) is said to have been made in the form and likeness of almighty.

The term Elohim is also a homonym and denotes God, angels, judges and the rulers of countries. Maimonides describes Adam’s disobedience of the command of God procured him that great perfection which is peculiarity of man, ie, power of distinguishing between good and evil, the noblest of all faculties of our nature, the essential characteristics of human race. …. And the eyes of both were opened (after eating the forbidden fruit) and they knew (not saw) they were naked (Gen). Note: they had no blindness . But they received a new faculty (distinguishing right and wrong). Another example of homonym: Adam turned his face (panah) i. e. he changed his aim (altered his intention) to acquire what was forbidden.

Note: What is considered in Christianity as original sin is actually a leap of intellect by man in Judaism.

Human mind and senses are limited. Too much study exhausts man’s reflective powers, causing confusion. Too much knowledge is like eating too much honey which causes vomiting! (Chapt.xxx1)

Torah speaks the language of man(chap xxv1).


There is a great difference between bringing to view the existence of a thing and demonstrating its true existence. For example a king can be described many ways: The tall man with gray hair, the man who build the bridge, or the one followed by many multitude with a banner flowing over his head….So his existence is proven by well regulated affair of a country. The same is the case with the information concerning the creator given to the ordinary class of men in the LAW.. For it was necessary to teach all of them that God exists and that he is the most perfect being, …possessing life, wisdom and power…. That God exists was shown to ordinary men by means of similes taken from physical bodies (he is living, by a simile taken from motion therefore having a body as truly truly and undoubtedly existing…..We ascribe to God the organs of locomotion, organs of hearing, seeing, smelling as ears, eyes, and nose. Organs of speech (mouth, tongue and sound). We do these to express that he performs certain acts and possesses certain perfections. So we, when reading the words of the prophets about physical organs attributed to God we must interpret the the true meaning of such attributes. For example:

Organs of locomotion indicate life.

Organs of sensation indicate perception.

Organs of touch indicate action.

Organs of speech indicate divine inspiration of the prophets.

All the above attributes convey the essence of God. Language of Torah is like language of man. The heart is applied to God ; the heart is a homonym and denoted intellect. God is not corporal; his actions are accomplished by his essence.


Maimonides discusses extensively Aristotle’s Eternity nature of universe in contrast to bible’s creation, being a divine act which he wholeheartedly believes and so do the prophets. The details are beyond the scope of this report, suffice to say that he believes all the miracles are further signs of divine acts; why creation should be any different? Of interest is that he writes time is an accident, a quality connected with motion and mentions the term space time to further substantiate his concept of creation. Even though I may agree more with Aristotelian Eternity view of universe, but am profoundly impressed with advance thinking of Maimonides in describing the nature of time along with his scholarship and his in depth knowledge of the bible and his teachings of how to study and comprehend it.

Toward the end Maimonides describes four elements involved in man’s perfection: Hokhma (various knowledge), perfection of body, moral perfection (for benefit of mankind) and intellectual perfection (exclusively yours and takes care of your soul). He concludes by stating …the Divine acts which ought to be known, and ought to serve as a guide for our actions, are hesed (loving kindness), mishpat (judgment) and zedakah (righteousness).

Comments from our member, Michael Schultz:

How did we all become Perplexed?

In the 12th century, when Moses Maimonides lived, scientific thought was still dominated by Aristotelian physics that were already 1500 years old. The following two paragraphs offer a glimpse back in time to what the universe, with rigorous scientific experiments, had been proven to be.

The Earth is stationary. It is, naturally, at the center of the universe. This universe consists of nine concentric spheres. The sphere which immediately surrounds the Earth is the sphere of the Moon, which is our closest planet. Then come spheres for Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Seven spheres for all seven planets. Since each planet belongs to its own sphere, each is free to revolve around the Earth in its own periodic orbit. Next comes a sphere containing all the stars, which are fixed in place with respect to each other. Finally, the outer ninth sphere is the all-encompassing sphere.

Also known to be true is that nothing – no quantity positive or negative – can be infinite. Therefore, no substance can be infinitely divisible: we full-stop at the atom, out of which the form of all things is made. Lengths can never be infinite. Motion can never be infinite, except for the one exception in the case that the motion is circular because then we need not assume an infinite distance traveled. (Time is a bit tricky, however. We understand that motion only exists through time across lengths, and since lengths are atomic, we suspect that time is atomic as well.) We furthermore assert that there can never be an infinite chain of causes. Therefore it is certain that all things have a single ultimate cause.

So far Aristotle.

But although this physical depiction of the universe remained unchanged into the middle ages, the theology and religious understanding could hardly be different. Gone are the pantheons of the Greek and Roman gods, goddesses, nymphs and other creatures that not only shared human physical attributes, but human passions and dispositions as well. The world has now, by this 12th Century, firmly established that there is only one God whose true essence is spiritual, not physical (incorporeal). In fact, the world is so sure that there is only one god that there are now three of them; the Jewish God, the Christian God, and the Muslim God.

This shift in theology to an incorporeal god, however, presents a problem. It was well and good to understand the Torah when gods were frequently assumed to take human form and attributes. The biblical texts, as well as the Talmudic texts of the first seven centuries, could be easily understood even when they contained passages describing things that God said (presumably with anthropomorphic lips), things that God heard (presumably with anthropomorphic ears), times when God reached out (with a presumably anthropomorphic arm or hand), and so on. The belief that God is incorporeal – that God can never and has never possessed any form whatsoever – clearly presents difficulty to the reader: How can a spiritual and completely formless God speak, listen, move, and generally interact with the physical world? This is a difficulty that will ultimately stretch from the first story of the creation in Genesis to the actions and accounts of the latest prophets and angels.

How did Maimonides Un-Perplex us?

It is the self-appointed task of Moses Maimonides to remove the difficulty for all who are perplexed by it. To that end he writes The Guide for the Perplexed. Eventually, his work will establish him as one of the greatest Jewish theological scholars since the rabbinic age and, more generally, one of the most important metaphysical philosophers of the middle ages. His guide contains, (at tedious depth, I warn you), first a survey of existing beliefs and how they came about, followed later by his own interpretations which massages both the physical world and that of the religious texts until they are no longer mutually-exclusive. Having accomplished his simple task, he then goes on to show how the new understanding can be applied to Prophets, Angels, God’s will, and the argument that everything and everyone was, ultimately, created by God. It is a masterful unification for the ages.

So far Maimonides.

Did we stay Un-Perplexed?

Unfortunately, that age will not last. The Aristotelian model has now stood for over fifteen centuries. Yet in less than three more, a central precept of the purpose of the universe will collapse, and the Earth will fall out of its place and go spinning away into the universe, no longer at its center. In just three centuries more, a young scientist will take a closer look at the similarity of birds and tortoises from remote islands that no one has yet discovered and will inexorably cut down the argument in favor of intelligent design using one of the same instruments with which Maimonides used to scuplt it; Ocham’s razor. Already by the book’s middle, we have given up all hope of any literal (anthropomorphic) translation of the Jewish texts, and by the book’s end, we find that we are left with nothing to do as humans but sit in empty rooms by ourselves, saying nothing, doing nothing, thinking only of an entity that we can never know. It is hard not to get the feeling, when reading this magnificent work, that this place, this point in time, may have been the last possible moment in which it was possible to successfully and convincingly merge physics and theology.

What other topics are in the book?

Nevertheless, I found the book to be satisfying interspersed with gems of historical background knowledge and context. As you read the book, you will gain insights into some of the words used in the Torah, and why they, and not other words, were used, and what they mean, and how they mean it. And your journey will not end there! You will also address the following questions: What is the nature of sin and why does it happen? Are sinners justly punished, or do bad things sometimes happen to good people? Is God truly omniscient and omnipotent? What is Man’s relation to other animals, to the natural world, and to God? What is perfection, and how can we reach it? Why were these 613 commandments chosen, and not some other 613? What does it mean to love God? Do I have what it takes to be a Prophet? How should I pray? How should I live?

All these and more are given an answer.

Final Thoughts, and an Example?

I liked this book although, I must confess, that the term ‘like’ in this case applies also equally to my Set Theory textbook from college and also to Euclid’s Elements. The following is an example excerpt, and please believe me when I say that the entirety of the book is just like these two sentences:

“All we wish to point out is this: in the first place, that the whole Creation is divided into three parts, viz. (1) the pure Intelligences; (2) the bodies of the spheres endowed with permanent forms-(the forms of these bodies do not pass from one substratum to another, nor do their substrata undergo any change whatever); and (3) the transient earthly beings, all of which consist of the same substance. Furthermore, we desire to show that the ruling power emanates from the Creator, and is received by the Intelligences according to their order; from the Intelligences part of the good and the light bestowed upon them is communicated to the spheres, and the latter, being in possession of the abundance obtained of the Intelligences, transmit forces and properties unto the beings of this transient world.”