In the cultural tradition of the West the Jews are the oldest extant example of a people constituted throughout most of its history by allegiance to a written document -- the Torah (in its larger sense, all of Hebrew Scripture and its authorized interpretation). The canonical Scripture defined Israel, prescribed its norms of conduct, and described its place in the past and future of mankind. Two factors made the Torah effective in society: (1) its popular base -- rudimentary means of mass education prescribed in the Torah had been elaborated by the start of the Christian era; and (2) a vigorous growing body of exegesis, as old as the canon, that assured its constant adjustment to contemporary needs.
Both factors are exemplified in the great digest of Jewish law and theology composed by Maimonides ( 1135-1204) for popular edification, the Mishneh Torah (English: the Code). This work sums up the beliefs and practices of Judaism topically, in categorical nonargumentative form, as they may be gathered from Talmudic-midrashic-gaonic (= post-Talmudic legal) literature. But it also incorporates a large amount of Bible interpretation, in the guise of proof-texts, most of them taken from the sources, but some (especially on theological matters) original with Maimonides. By noting the gap between the meaning of the proof-text in its primary scriptural context and its use in the Code, a hermeneutical operation is revealed, and by adding instance to instance one can survey the full range of hermeneutics at the disposal of classical Judaism in its maturity. This essay analyzes the use of proof-texts in Sefer ha-madda˓ ("The Book of Knowledge"), the first and most theological part of the Code.1