When the word is spelled “principal,” it may refer to the chief officer of a school, or, in the plural, to chief participants in a business deal. It likewise denotes the base amount of money, not including interest and fees, in the monthly mortgage payment that goes to reduce the amount owed on the property, “the principal.” On the other hand, a “principle” refers to a fundamental truth, an ethical rule of conduct, or to a fundamental truth of science. That is our definition as we present “The Thirteen Principles of the Jewish Faith.”
To better understand the Thirteen Principles, we must first look at their author and the era in which he wrote them. It was a man known today as Rambam who codified this doctrinal declaration in the twelfth century. He was one of the most famous rabbis in Jewish history and even today is remembered by the affectionate and reverential acronym, “Rambam.” This is a combination of the Hebrew letters Resh Mem Bet Mem (RMBM) which stem from the first letters of his formal name, Rabbi Moses ben Maimonides. Only highly revered rabbis are known by such acronyms and they are spoken with great respect. Today there is still a Rambam Synagogue in the Jewish section of the Old City of Jerusalem which memorializes his name and teachings.
He was born in A.D. 1135 in the province of Cordova (or Cordoba), Spain and lived until 1204, the beginning of the 13th century, which, incidentally, would become known as the height of medieval papal power. Rambam, knowledgeable in three disciplines, was a physician, philosopher, and rabbi – a well-rounded “Renaissance man,” wrestling with the knowledge of the physical body, the human soul with its ideas, and the spiritual theology of his day.
The geography of his labors centered in Cordova, then and still today, a great learning center in the region of Andalusia, Spain, as well as south into Morocco and eastward into Egypt. Andalusia refers to the Islamic portion of southern Spain, roughly 150 miles north-south and 300 miles east-west, surrounded by Portugal to the west, Castile to the north, to the northeast by Aragon, and to the south by Granada and the Mediterranean. The province of Cordova, in Maimonides’ day, allowed Christians, Jews, and Moslems to live in peace and relative safety. The Moslem armies conquered this region in A.D. 711 and the Crusades were going on during Maimonides’ entire lifetime. Forces in northern Spain were beginning to press upon the Moslems in Andalusia to eventually push them out of Spain and into Morocco in northwest Africa. Hence the name “Moors” refers to Arab and Berber Muslims of Spain and Morocco.