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The life of Maimonides

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (known as Maimonides, or Rambam in the Hebrew acronym) was born in Cordoba on the 14th Nisan 4898 ( 23 rd March 1138) and died in Egypt on the 20 th Tevet 4965 ( 13th December 1204). He is considered to be one of the greatest Jewish sages of all time, the most illustrious of the medieval philosophers and the most authoritative spiritual and political leader of his generation. Many Jewish sages came to regard him as an exemplary figure in the history of the Jewish people and a supreme authority in halakha (Jewish law).

As a child, he moved with his family from place to place in southern Spain, following the conquest in 1148 of the peninsula by the Almohads – fanatical Moslems who forced minorities under their rule to convert to Islam, persecuting those Jews of Spain and Morocco, who had done so. In his adolescent years, Maimonides succeeded in acquiring a broad education, concentrating on the study of sources in Judaism, theology, philosophy and science, as well as medical studies. Later he would earn his living from medicine and from investments in the trading of precious stones, a business managed by his brother David.

During the mid-12 th century, when he was about twenty years old, the family moved to Fez in Morocco, where Maimonides witnessed terrible persecution by the Almohad zealots. It was in this context that he composed his Iggeret ha-shemad (Letter on Forced Conversions), in order to calm the fears of those who had been forced to convert. Maimonides explains that a declaration of belief in the Prophet Mohammad, made under threat of death, does not constitute desecration of God’s name. He admits to the many hardships that he himself suffered during this time. There is reason to believe that in order to save his life, he too had to convert to Islam, for the sake of appearances, until he left Morocco. In approximately 1165, he set sail from Morocco, arriving in the summer of that year in Acre for a short stay, during which he also visited Jerusalem and Hebron. A few months later, he traveled to Alexandria and from there to Fostat near Cairo where he remained until his death.

In his letter to Rabbi Yafet ha-Dayyan of Acre, written some twenty years after settling in Egypt, he describes the sorrows he endured upon his arrival:

“A few months after our departure my father died … many mishaps befell me – sickness and monetary losses, the efforts of informers to have me killed, and the greatest misfortune of all, the worst of all that has happened to me from the day I was born to this moment, was the death of the righteous one, may his memory be blessed [my brother, David], who drowned in the Indian Ocean…, and with him the fortune that belonged to me, to him and to others”.

Shortly after settling in Fostat, Maimonides became the Nagid, the leading community figure in Egypt. His influence over all the eastern communities was decisive. He was officially appointed to the office of Nagid, head of the Jewish community for two terms, first in the early 1170s and again between the years 1196-1204. He also supported himself as physician to the Sultan al-Afdal, the son of Saladin. In a letter to Samuel Ibn Tibbon in 1200 he writes about this chapter of his life thus: “I dwell at Misr [Fostat] and the sultan resides at al-Qahira [ Cairo]; these two places are two Sabbath days’ journey distant from each other. My duties to the sultan are very heavy. I am obliged to visit him every day, early in the morning, and, when he or any of his children, or any of the inmates of his harem, are indisposed, I dare not leave al-Qahira, but must stay during the greater part of the day in the palace”.

In Egypt, Maimonides served as the chief authority both in halakhic issues and in many public matters. Among other things, he was involved in deposing the community head Zuta-Sar-Shalom from his position, and in instituting regulations needed at the time. He struggled with the Karaites, whose numbers had greatly increased, and though he was not the head of a local house of study, he headed the Rabbinical Court. He also taught large numbers of students. Shortly after his arrival in Egypt, people from abroad began turning to him for advice, and he corresponded with the heads of many communities on urgent matters. For example, we have the letter he sent to the Yemen following the appearance of a false messiah there, and the Letter on Resurrection of the Dead. His halakhic responsa reached communities throughout Egypt, the Land of Israel and Syria.

Moses Maimonides was deeply mourned after his death in 1204. It is most likely that he was buried in Egypt but, since the 13 th century, tradition has it that his remains were re-interred in Tiberias. His son, Rabbi Abraham he-Hasid, known as one of the outstanding scholars of Egypt, also served as court physician. Maimonides may have had a daughter, but her name is not known, and it is likely she would have died at an early age.

Maimonides’ reputation spread far beyond the confines of the Jewish world, his teachings being greatly acclaimed by scholars in other countries. Among Jews he is regarded as the greatest decisor of halakha ever, although during his lifetime, and principally after his death, there were those who questioned his exegetical method and even more so his philosophical teachings, particularly as formulated in Moreh Nevukhim (Guide for the Perplexed). The dispute between the supporters and opponents of Maimonides’ teachings throughout the Jewish world of the 12 th to 14 th centuries is known today as the Maimonidean Controversy. This controversy served to invigorate Jewish thought and creativity in the Middle Ages. In later times he was called the “Great Eagle” and it is said of him “ From Moses to Moses there is none like Moses”.

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