The original title of the commentary was "the Book of the Lamp" "Kitab al-Siraj" in Arabic, occasionally designated as "Sefer Ha-Ma'or" in Hebrew.
Maimonides composed his Mishnah commentary between the ages of twenty-three and thirty (between the years 1145 and 1168).
Though born in Spain, in his youth his family fled religious persecution, settling in Egypt.
Maimonides' literary output includes: a work on philosophical logic; an Arabic commentary to the Mishnah; an enumeration of the 613 precepts of the Torah; the Mishneh Torah law code; the Arabic philosophical treatise The Guide of the Perplexed; and many letters and responsa addressed to various Jewish communities.
Fustat (now Cairo), Egypt.
Maimonides' Mishnah Commentary, written in Arabic, was a pioneering work when it was composed, in that for the majority Jews who followed the authority of the Babylonian academies it was not the normal practice to study the Mishnah as a separate topic, outside of the study of the Babylonian Talmud. In fact, Maimonides strove to present each Mishnah in the light of the interpretations that had been given by the Talmud. Because the Talmud often records conflicting explanations of the Mishnah, which are argued in complex and rambling discussions (sometimes distributed through different tractates), Maimonides had to determine which of those explanations was accepted as authoritative. The commentary thereby has many of the characteristics of a normative law code, and may be regarded as a preliminary stage in the composition of his own comprehensive law code, the Mishneh Torah. In determining normative law, he applies rules that are contained in the Talmud and among the post-Talmudic authorities, and occasionally incorporates decisions of later authorities. He attached especial weight to the decisions of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, the most respected Spanish codifier, the teacher of his father's teacher. In addition, he made extensive use of the full corpus of ancient rabbinic literature, especially the Palestinian Talmud, not limiting himself (as did most of his contemporaries) to the Babylonian Talmud.
The commentary is written in a clear, concise style, designed to be understood by non-specialists, as well as to assist the advanced student in recalling the Talmudic explanations of the Mishnah. Ever the rationalist, he prefers to begin with general principles and and then demonstrate how they work themselves out in the specific cases discussed in the Mishnah. With respect to certain tractates for which there exists no Babylonian Talmud, and which were not included in the standard rabbinic curriculum, Maimonides was aware that he could build upon any existing exegetical foundation in interpreting the Biblical and Talmudic sources; this was particularly true with respect to the long and difficult order of the Mishnah that deals with the laws of purity.
In addition to the explanations of the Mishnah itself, the commentary includes several "introductions," monographs on specific topics related to the Mishnah. These include the General Introduction that relates the full history of the Oral Law tradition and its literature, as well as excurses on correct belief ("the thirteen articles of creed"), eschatology, the afterlife and ethics (including his version of the Aristotelian ideal of "the golden mean").
Maimonides continued to revise the Mishnah Commentary throughout his life. A manuscript written, or at least revised, by him is now in the possession of the Jewish National and Hebrew University Library in Jerusalem.