Judaic Treasures of the
Library of Congress:
The Life of Maimonides
Philosopher and poet Jedaiah ben Abraham Bedersi
concludes his prose poem Behinat Olam (Examination of the World), a
work of philosophic rumination and religious passion, in this manner:
To sum up: Go my heart to the left or right, but
believe, believe all that our great master and teacher, Moses the son of
Maimon believed. The last of the Gaonim, he was in time, but first in rank,
and there is none among the sages of Israel since the days of the Talmud
who could compare to him.
Writing at the beginning of the fourteenth century, the
pious Bedersi found an anchor for his faith in the works and views of Moses
ben Maimon. Six centuries later, in 1904-in commemoration of the 700th
anniversary of the death of Moses Maimonides
the Hebrew essayist, ethicist, and ideologist of cultural Zionism, Ahad
ha-Am, wrote in an essay titled "Shilton HaSechel" (The Supremacy
In earlier centuries ... it was almost impossible for an
educated Jew (and most Jews then were educated) to pass a single day
without remembering Maimonides
... in whatever field of study the Jew might be engaged Halacha,
ethics, religious or philosophical speculation-inevitably he found Maimonides in the place of honor
... And not only the student, the plain Jew, who ended his morning prayers
every day with the "Thirteen
Articles of Faith," was not likely to forget who first formulated
Every Jew ... who has traveled the hard and bitter road
that leads from blind faith to free reason must have come across Maimonides at the beginning of his
journey, and must have found in him a source of strength and support for
those first steps which are the hardest and the most dangerous.
His task was so to shape the content, and form of Judaism that it could become a bulwark on which
the nation could depend for its continued survival. There is, however, this
difference between Maimonides
and his predecessors: that whereas for them the bulwark was a Judaism
placed above reason, for him it was a Judaism identified with reason.
(Translation by Leon Simon)
Bedersi, a fervent upholder of faith, and Ahad ha-Am, the advocate of reason,
passionately devoted Jews both, drew sustenance and support from Maimonides, though not because Maimonides's views are imprecise or
ambiguous. So clear are they and so pointed that in the past his views
became the cause of religious controversies and to this day remain the
focus of scholarly dispute. Maimonides
was both a defender of faith and a proponent of reason. Because his
presentation of each is done with such skill and erudition, because he
yields neither mind nor heart to the diminution of the other, advocates of
both faith and reason find support for their positions in his writings.
That the force of his intellect and the passion of his
beliefs have been a continuing source of intellectual stimulation and
scholarly inspiration is clear from the long tray full of catalog cards in
the Library of Congress listing his works and works about him. Enter the
rare books enclave of the Library's Hebraic Section and remove Maimonides's work and the
commentaries they provoked, and you will have created a void on almost
every shelf. The great tribute to Maimonides
in Judaism's historical development is the anonymous but almost universally
accepted accolade: "From Moses to Moses, there was none like
Moses ben Maimon-known to the Jewish world by his
acronym, Rambam (from Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), and to the world at large as
Maimonides-was born on Passover
eve, 4895 (March 30, 113 5) in Cordoba, Spain. In the Golden Age of Spanish
Jewry, Cordoba was Spain's leading Jewish community, but in the twelfth
century both the Golden Age and the community were in decline. For more
than eight generations ancestors of Moses had been leaders of the
community. At the time of his birth, his father was serving as dayyan, chief
judicial authority. But just a few months after Moses's Bar Mitzvah in 1148, the family fled
Cordoba, the city having been conquered by a fanatical fundamentalist
Islamic sect, the Almohads, who offered Cordoban Jews the choice of
apostasy or exile.
For almost a dozen years, the family roamed the Iberian
peninsula seeking refuge, until finally in 1160 they found haven in Fez, Morocco. During the years of wandering,
"while my mind was troubled amid divinely ordained exiles," Maimonides continued his education,
at first taught by his father, then increasingly self-taught. By the time
the family settled in Fez, he had already completed his first works, Millot
ha-Higgayon, a treatise on logic, and Ma-amar ha-lbbur, a work
on the Hebrew calendar. He had also
begun the first of his three major works, a commentary on the Mishnah.
After five years in Fez, the family took up the
wanderer's staff again. Fez too was under the Almohads, and although
tolerated, the Jews there lived under constant pressure to convert, which
from time to time became so insistent that many yielded and outwardly
converted to Islam, while inwardly adhering to their ancestral faith.
Maimon offered solace to his unfortunate brethren in his Iggeret ha-Nehamah
(Epistle of Consolation):
We who are in exile can be compared to a man who is
drowning. The water has reached our nostrils but we still grasp hold of
something ... God's precepts and His Torah ... whoever seizes hold of it
still has hope of living ... and surely he who holds on even only with the
tips of his fingers has more hope than he who lets go completely.
Maimon, the father, offered these words of consolation
and encouragement to those who had succumbed; Moses, the son, urged a plan
of action to those living in a land where apostasy was demanded of them. In
his Iggeret ha-Shemad (Epistle on Apostasy), he counseled:
[A Jew] should on no account remain in a place of forced
conversion; whoever remains in such a place desecrates the Divine Name and
is nearly as bad as a willful sinner; as for those who beguile themselves,
saying they will remain until the Messiah comes to lead them to Jerusalem,
I do not know how he is to cleanse them of the stain of conversion.
Maimon and his children left Fez, and after a difficult
storm-beset journey reached the Holy Land in 1165. The Holy Land was then
under the domination of a Crusader Kingdom so, after half a year in the
port city of Acre and pilgrimages to the holy cities of Jerusalem and
Hebron, the family moved on to Egypt and settled in Fostat, the old city of
Cairo. After the father died, Moses's brother David supported the family by
dealing in precious stones, while Moses devoted himself to his studies, to
his writing, and to religious communal service.
By 1168, he completed his commentary on the Mishnah. Written in Arabic,
it has in its Hebrew translation been incorporated into almost all editions
of the Talmud. A listing
of the Principles
of the Faith in his comments on the Sanhedrin, Chapter X, has, in
abridged form and in poetic rendition, entered the Jewish liturgy. Thirteen
in number, the Principles are found in the prayer book at the end of the
weekday morning service; a poetic version, the hymn Yigdal, is sung
at the Sabbath eve service. Transformed into liturgy they speak of
Creation, Revelation and Redemption:
1. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed
be His name, is the Author and Guide of everything that has been created,
and that He alone has made, does make and will make all things.
7. I believe that the prophecy of Moses our teacher, was
true, and that he was the chief of prophets ...
8. I believe that the whole Torah, now in our possession,
is that same that was given to Moses.
9. I believe that this Torah will not be changed, and that
there will never be any other Law from the Creator.
12. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the
Messiah; and though he tarry; I will wait for him.
At long last the Maimonides
family had found security in Cairo, but its serenity was shattered by the
death of David, drowned when his ship went down in the Indian Ocean. The
loss of his brother and the family breadwinner cast Maimonides into a deep depression.
After a year he recovered and decided to study medicine, refusing to
consider any vocation which would make the Torah "a spade to dig
with," i.e., a source of livelihood.
Source: Abraham J. Karp, From
the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress,
(DC: Library of Congress, 1991).