It’s a longstanding truism that Judaism, in contrast to other monotheistic faiths, especially Christianity, is rich in rules of religious conduct but devoid of official articles of belief—that is, of dogma. In the popular phrase, it is a religion of deed, not creed. But is that true, or wholly true? Or is it a kind of dogma itself: the dogma, as some wags have put it, of dogmalessness?
One powerful answer is to be found in most traditional Jewish prayer books. Open one, and you’ll likely find within it what rabbinic Judaism has long sanctioned as the Jewish creed or confession of faith: the Ani Ma’amin, thirteen affirmations of belief each of which begins with the statement, ani ma’amin b’emunah sh’leymah—“I believe with perfect faith. . . . ” (In denominational terms, the creed is found in most Orthodox prayer books, but is absent from the prayer books of the Conservative and Reform movements.)
The Ani Ma’amin often appears under the title “Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith.” It is indeed based on the writings of Moses Maimonides, the towering 12th-century rabbi and philosopher; but it was not actually written by him. In fact, to this day we have no idea who first wrote the prayer-book version ascribed to Maimonides.
How did a composition by an unknown medieval author come to achieve the status of Judaism’s sanctioned creed? Let’s unpack the story.
The treatise from which the Ani Ma’amin is derived appears in Maimonides’ voluminous Arabic-language commentary to the Mishnah, the early rabbinic compendium of Jewish law. It was composed not as a stand-alone work but as part of that commentary—specifically, Maimonides’ introduction to the tenth chapter of the Mishnaic tractate of Sanhedrin. Few medieval Jews would ever have seen a handwritten copy of that introduction with its discussion of thirteen principles of Jewish faith, and fewer still would have possessed the literacy needed to read it in the Arabic original or even in Hebrew translation. For more than two centuries thereafter, we do not even find any notable discussion of it, pro or con, in any major rabbinic work.
Yet, in the meantime, a development was taking place that arguably did more than anything else to shape the Jewish attitude toward the thirteen principles: namely, their conversion into liturgical texts by medieval composers seeking to encapsulate and communicate Maimonides’ ideas in abbreviated, easily memorizable, and popular form.
To grasp the nature of this project, think of all the blog posts and articles you’ve read that promise “Five keys to achieving such and such,” or “Seven things to do when x, y, or z.” In their liturgical versions, Maimonides’ principles and his lengthy disquisitions on each were distilled into “thirteen key things to know about God”: a template that in the eyes of their composers could, through association with the name of the greatest of all sages, inspire audiences toward more intense piety.
In manuscripts from this period, we find more than 100 such compositions based on the Thirteen Principles, many of them anonymous. Their dissemination required no written text at all: recited aloud during collective prayer, they spread easily, even among those who had no knowledge of reading or writing. The two most famous are Ani Ma’amin (prose) and Yigdal (verse), both of which remain as familiar today as they were then.
In brief, the adoption of Maimonides’ principles of faith began as a popular movement. But that very popularity guaranteed that these abbreviated texts would also gain rabbinic detractors. One such leading detractor was Rabbi Yaakov Moelin (Mainz, 1360–1427), known by the acronym Maharil. Here is how Maharil expressed his exasperation:
The rhymes and poems that people write in Yiddish on the unity of God and the Thirteen Principles: would that they had not been written! For most of the ignorant believe that all of the  commandments depend on this [creed], and . . . that they fulfill their [religious] obligation by saying those rhymes with pious intent. And yet those rhymes bear but a hint of what is fundamental in the faith of Israel, while mentioning not one of the 613 commandments that Jews are commanded [to observe].
In attesting to the immense sway that epitomes of Maimonides’ supposed credo already exercised on the popular imagination, to the point where common people mistakenly took their formulas as the key to proper service of the Almighty, Maharil’s comments may also attest to worry over the penetration into Judaism of the Christian idea of salvation through faith alone. As for his speaking only of “poems written in Yiddish,” it is difficult to know which of the apparently several in circulation at the time he had in mind. Liturgy in that age was very much a local affair, and the prayers being recited could vary widely from region to region, or even from one town to the next.
The advent of the printing press, however, brought standardization to the liturgy through the publication and distribution of prayer books (siddurim). The most popular compositions were the ones that got published, which is why, since the 16th century, both Yigdal and Ani Ma’amin have been regular features of the Ashkenazi siddur.
But the ubiquity of the siddur and its effective canonization of the two works introduced another problem, unaddressed by Maharil earlier on. Did these works, in fact, authentically represent the great Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles as he conceived and wrote them, or did their authors adapt, recast, or perhaps even alter Maimonides’ text for the purpose of making it more appealing?
Some examples will tell the tale.
In his thirteenth principle—belief in resurrection—Maimonides states that resurrection of the dead upon the advent of the messiah is a privilege reserved for the righteous alone. Ani Ma’amin, however, makes no mention of the righteous, thus obliquely implying that all of the dead will one day rise.
One can easily imagine the abbreviator’s motive: to have remained vigilantly faithful to Maimonides could easily lead some of those reciting the Ani Ma’amin into dreading, or resenting, that they, by dint of somehow not qualifying as righteous, might therefore never qualify for resurrection.
In another, somewhat different example, consider the first principle—namely, that, in Maimonides’ own words, God “exists.” But the “existence” of something is a rather abstract concept. Here the author of Ani Ma’amin reformulates the principle in terms alien to Maimonides’ text but more readily graspable because relating to God’s agency—namely, that God is the Creator of the world, which He also guides.
The premium on brevity, a prerequisite for easy memorization, incurs still other costs. Maimonides himself had given a title to each principle: “reward and punishment,” “Torah from heaven,”’ and so forth. These epitaph-like tags gained clarity through the details he would then proceed to supply. But with each of the thirteen principles now being expressed in one or at most two lines of either prose or verse, the authors had to decide whether to leave the principle broad and vague or choose one salient aspect of it to highlight.
An example is the eighth principle, Torah from heaven, about which Maimonides provides a highly detailed account. First, he maintains that Jews are bound to believe that every word of the Torah was transmitted by God to Moses. In addition, they are bound to believe that the “received commentary on the Torah”—that is, the Oral Law or Talmud—is equally the word of God to Moses. Among later authorities there is some debate over exactly which opinions in the Talmud were regarded by Maimonides as “received commentary,” but he clearly had in mind some subset of the whole.
The anonymous author of Ani Ma’amin reduces all of this to a single statement: “I believe with perfect faith that the entirety of the Torah now in our possession is the very Torah given to Moses our Master, peace be to him.” But what is meant by the phrase “the entirety of the Torah”? Is it the Five Books of Moses—i.e., the Written Law—alone or the Written and Oral Law together?
Over time, and certainly in our own time, Maimonides’ eighth principle has come to be understood as referring to the text of the Five Books of Moses alone. And that is remarkable. Earlier rabbinic authorities had unanimously posited that the principle of Torah from heaven referred to the divinity of the tradition as a whole; no one gave the Written Law pride of place over the Oral Law. Through his truncated formulation, the author of Ani Ma’amin set the stage for a new theological path in the Jewish understanding of Torah. To illustrate how deeply entrenched this understanding has become, consider that in a 2017 survey of American modern-Orthodox Jews, participants were asked about their belief in the bedrock principle that God “gave the written Torah to the Jewish people, through Moses, at Mt. Sinai” (emphasis added).
To complicate matters further: neither formulation of the belief in Torah from heaven accurately reflects what Maimonides wrote or believed. Rather, with regard to the text of the written Torah he states in his Mishnah commentary that the legal sections were given to Moses piecemeal during the Israelites’ 40-year trek in the wilderness—that is, not all at once at Sinai—and that the narrative portions were given to him only at the end of his life.
By the time of the appearance of the first printed siddurim, both Yigdal and Ani Ma’amin had become hallowed as expressions of the Thirteen Principles of Faith. But they were not equally hallowed. Through the end of the 18th century, rabbis and scholars referring to the principles cited neither Maimonides’ treatise nor the Ani Ma’amin but rather the appropriate lines from the poem Yigdal.
The reason was simple: Ani Ma’amin is in prose and is formulaic rather than lyric in style. By contrast, Yigdal—usually attributed to the poet Daniel ben Yehudah, who lived in Italy around 1300—is shorter than Ani Ma’amin and, being composed in verse, had long been chanted as part of the prayer service and was thus well-known and committed to memory.
In the 19th century, however, Ani Ma’amin began to assume prominence over Yigdal as the ultimate statement of the principles. That remains the case till today.
The reasons were at first circumstantial. With the beginning of the Emancipation movement in Europe at the end of the 18th century, the long-awaited prospect of legal and social equality for Jews induced significant numbers to modify, or to abandon, their traditional beliefs and practices. In meeting these threatening new realities, rabbinic leaders faced unprecedented challenges, including how to mark the boundary separating the faithful from the faithless.
For the faithful, one clear signpost was the Thirteen Principles—in, especially, the propositional form of the Ani Ma’amin. Soon a steep rise took place in the number of calls for its recitation, and a new genre—commentary on its clauses—helped to cement it as the base text through which the principles were known. Orthodox synagogues established affirmation of these principles, encapsulated in the Ani Ma’amin, as the requirement for membership in good standing.
Until this point, the history and trajectory of the Ani Ma’amin were an entirely Ashkenazi affair; in Sephardi lands, the text was practically unknown. Only in the early 19th century do we encounter publication in a Sephardi siddur of a version of Ani Ma’amin (adapted from an Ashkenazi siddur) and the beginnings of a daily custom of reciting it. And here another phase began in the reception history of Maimonides’ text.
The Sephardi Ani Ma’amin opens with a solemn introduction: “I declare that I believe with perfect faith in the Thirteen Principles of the holy Torah.” Then comes a list of the principles, in bullet points, with each clause averaging just six words for easy memorization.
Once more, truncation would alter basic contours and meaning. Consider again the eighth principle: Torah from heaven. Recall the Ashkenazi version: “I believe with perfect faith that the entirety of the Torah now in our possession is the very Torah given to Moses our Master, peace be to him.” In the Sephardi version, this principle (renumbered as the ninth) reads simply “. . . that the Torah was given from heaven.” It thereby departs from the Ashkenazi version both in highlighting the divine origin of the Torah and in omitting any mention of the role of Moses in its transmission. The anonymous author may have intended to emphasize and affirm what Maimonides himself said in his eighth principle, or simply to underline the duty of Jews to affirm the revelation of God’s will in giving them the Torah.
Where, then, is the authoritative version of the Thirteen Principles of Faith? Is it in the Ashkenazi version of the Ani Ma’amin or the Sephardi one? Or does it perhaps reside in the original and greatly extended formulations of Maimonides himself?
The answer is that there is no answer. In fact, one long rabbinic tradition maintains that the Thirteen Principles have no set formulation at all. Thus, such authorities as Rabbi Yeshaya Halevi Horovitz (1558–1630), author of an influential kabbalistic work, and Rabbi Moshe Ḥayyim Luzzatto (1707–1746), poet, rhetorician, and kabbalist, consciously and deliberately untethered the principles from the precise formulations Maimonides had given them in his treatise.
For these figures and others, the Thirteen Principles were higher-order abstractions like “belief in the messiah” or “belief in reward and punishment.” Maimonides had understood them one way in his commentary to the Mishnah, but his specific explications were his; others could explain them otherwise. In general during the 16th and 17th centuries, the highly philosophical Maimonidean approach was in deep eclipse; the ascendant approach was kabbalistic, and its tropes filled the immensely popular concept of thirteen principles with new content.
In like fashion, rabbinic commentaries on the Thirteen Principles penned over the most recent two centuries have never focused on analyzing Maimonides’ treatise but have approached the principles thematically, as a set of conceptual truths to be mined for fresh meaning and wisdom. Indeed, no rabbinic authority has ever written that the Thirteen Principles are to be understood in precisely the form laid out by Maimonides.
All of which makes the Ani Ma’amin found in the siddur, under the misnomer of “Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles,” only one iteration in a wide spectrum of views. But this lack of a single precise formulation is itself built into the rabbinic system, providing authorities with the flexibility they need to deploy the principles in a sensitive and effective manner. Whereas Maharil in the 15th century worried that the very concept of principles of faith, as it was being represented in “Yiddish rhymes,” was leading the faithful away from compliance with the strictures of halakhah, the author of the Ashkenazi version of Ani Ma’amin felt free to take liberties with Maimonides’ work precisely in order to retain the allegiances of his audience, while for Rabbis Horovitz and Luzzatto the principles could be reworked to teach fundamental kabbalistic truths about the world.
Unstated but implicit throughout this tradition is the understanding that each duly recognized rabbinic authority, in facing circumstances distinct to his own situation, is granted license to interpret the Thirteen Principles in a way best suited to meet the spiritual challenges of the time.