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The Work of Maimonides:
The Mishneh Torah & the Guide for The Perplexed


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Maimonides practiced medicine to support the family. Within a half dozen years he became the official head of the Jewish community, looked upon as "the light of the East and West, master and adornment of his generation." The decade between 1170 and 1180 he devoted chiefly to the composition of his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, the first comprehensive code of Jewish law.

The work is a marvel of erudition, organization, and Hebrew style. It is the one work Maimonides wrote in Hebrew, but excepting only the Bible and the Mishnah, which are the work of many, the Mishneh Torah is the greatest creation in the Hebrew language. Mishnaic Hebrew is employed with an unequaled clarity and precision. The Introduction, a concise but comprehensive essay on the Jewish legal tradition, states the purpose of the code:

In our days, many vicissitudes prevail, and all feel the pressure of hard times. The wisdom of our wise men has disappeared; the understanding of our prudent men is hidden. Hence the commentaries of the Geonim, their compilations of laws and responsa ... have become hard to understand.... Needless to add, such is the case in regard to the Talmud itself.... Therefore, I, Moses, the son of Maimon, the Sefardi, bestirred myself, and, relying on the help of God, blessed be He, intently studied all these works, with the view of putting together the results obtained from them ... all in plain language and terse style, so that thus the entire Oral Law might become systematically known to all, without citing difficulties and solutions of, different views ... but consisting of statements, clear and convincing ... that have appeared from the time of Moses to the present, so that all rules shall be accessible to young and old.

Isadore Twersky, a foremost authority on Maimonides, calls the Mishneh Torah "a quantum jump in the development of Rabbinic literature," points to its decisive influence on the Jewish legal system, and notes its amazingly rapid distribution throughout the Jewish world-Asian, African and European-so that by 1191 Maimonides spoke of its renown in all corners of the earth. And this took place two and a half centuries before the invention of printing!

The Mishneh Torah was in "plain language" to make the rules "accessible to young and old." Maimonides's third and last major work, Dalalat al-Ha'rin (Guide for the Perplexed), a philosophic essay written in Arabic, was for a different purpose and a different audience.

As Maimonides states in his Introduction, the Guide was not meant for the common people or for beginners. It is addressed to those religious persons, well-versed in the Scriptures and loyal to the Torah, who, having studied philosophy, are embarrassed by the contradictions that seem to exist between the teachings of philosophy and the literal meaning of the Torah.

It is a work of apologetics, pure and simple; but neither pure nor simple to those whose sense of piety informed them that the need to defend is an admission of inherent weakness. During Maimonides's lifetime and thereafter, the Guide was the target of the ultrapious, who felt vindicated in their views that its greatest attractiveness was to those who had the greatest difficulty in accepting the tenets of the received tradition. But for those who are perplexed, those who are challenged by new and evolving thought, it has often been a guide to refine their commitment to the tradition, keeping it vital and viable. And, as we shall see, that was not true for Jews alone.

As Maimonides's authority as a leader of Jewry and his fame as a physician grew, individuals and communities increasingly turned to him for the healing of body and soul; communities East and West turned to him for advice. Scholars sought his decisions on matters of law, and the number of his patients increased, especially after he became a court physician to al-Fadil, Saladin's vizier. An Arabic poet and cadi wrote in his praise:

Galen's art heals only the body,
But Abu Imram's [Maimonides] the body and soul.
If the moon would submit to his art,
He would deliver her of her spots,
Cure her of her defects ...
Save her from waning.

To Samuel ibn Tibbon, the translator of the Guide into Hebrew, Maimonides wrote of his weekday labors and his Sabbath "rest":

I dwell at Fostat and the Sultan resides in Cairo. My duties with the Sultan are very heavy. I am obliged to see him every day ... and remain in attendance if he, or his children, or any members of his harem, and any royal officers are indisposed.

As a rule I depart for Cairo very early every morning, and even if nothing unusual happens, I do not return home until the afternoon ... My antechambers are filled with people, Jews and gentiles, nobles and commoners, judges and bailiffs, friends and foes-a mixed multitude who await my return.

I dismount from my animal, wash my hands, go forth to my patients, and entreat them to bear with me while I partake of some slight refreshment-my only meal of the day. Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes into the night. I converse with them and prescribe for them while lying down from sheer fatigue ... On the Sabbath, the whole congregation, or at least the majority, come to me at the end of the morning service, when I instruct them as to their proceedings during the whole week; we study a little until noon ... Some return and read with me after the afternoon service until the evening prayers. In this manner I spend the Sabbath day.

Maimonides lived the biblical three score years and ten, being called to eternity on December 13, 1204. In Fostat three days of mourning were observed. in Jerusalem a general fast was appointed. His remains were taken to Tiberias, where his tomb has been a place of pilgrimage to the present day.


Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).

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