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The Work of Maimonides:
The Life of Maimonides


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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 of Reason):

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 them.

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."

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.


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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