The second edition is getting nearer… I am almost done preparing the manuscript, and soon it will be in the capable hands of my wonderful new publisher, 21st Publishing (See http://www.21stpublishing.com/). So just in case you think a biography of a 12th century scholar and philosopher is going to be all dry and serious and boring, you are wrong. Maimonides was the most fascinating, interesting, sophisticated, and (let’s admit the truth) attractive gentleman. His interests and knowledge were amazingly eclectic – as you can see in this a sample from the book. It might amuse you, and it will certainly surprise you…
Many readers might assumethat because Maimonides lived eight hundred years ago, his attitude toward medicine would necessarily have been medieval. Therefore, the degree to which his thought process proved scientific and modern may be a surprise. True, he based much of his work on the ancient Greek doctors' writings and he admired the great Arab doctors, but Maimonides never prescribed a single medication that he didn't test himself. He introduced unexpected innovations, including some most astonishing theories on psychosomatic medicine, and he was a great pioneer of preventive medicine. He declared that the goal of medicine was to prevent disease rather than to cure it, and maintained that as preventive measures one must visit the doctor often, even when well, and live an orderly, well-regulated life. This way, one could avoid sickness before it attacks. It is not surprising then that some of his wealthy and noble patients, who thought very highly of him, asked him to write treatises on specific subjects.
How he found the time to do it is a mystery, but somehow Maimonides obliged these requests. Maimonides was often too sick and the trembling of his hands prevented him from writing, requiring his nephew Abu Alracha to take dictation. But the books were invariably concise and beautifully organized; the busy physicians who read them did not have to waste time looking for specific information. The medical treatises became extremely popular, and were translated into many languages.
Maimonides did not want his brother to travel to India by sea, not for all the treasures in the universe. And David promised to complete the journey in Aydhab, where goods could be bought and sold. Crossing the desert with a caravan, Maimonides thought, was harsh enough, but safer than the sea travel. He told his brother to not travel by sea no matter what happens. Usually, David listened to his brother, but not this time, as you will soon see. In the previous posting, you saw the last letter Maimonides wrote to his brother. It expressed anguish and fear for David’s safety. Here is the last letter David sent to Maimonides, right before he defied him and decided to join another caravan and board the boat to India after all…
The letter, as it was found, was in reasonably good shape, but some words are missing. I will be adding my assumptions as to those missing words in orange. Where nothing can be guessed, I will add this symbol [...], also in orange.
The last letter that Maimonides received from his brother
To my beloved brother Rabbi Moses, son of Rabbi Maimon – the memory of the righteous be blessed!
David, your brother who is longing for you – may God unite me with you under the most happy circumstances in his grace.
I am writing this letter from Aydhab. I am well, but my mind is very much troubled, so that I walk around in the bazaar and do not know – by our religion – where I am [...], nor how it is that I did not imagine how much you must worry about me.
Moses Maimonides' Signature
As you may have noticed in the sample chapter, Moses Maimonides was strongly attached to his brother David when they were children, and the love between them continued into adulthood. David was not only the beloved little brother, much younger than Moses Maimonides, but also his student for many years. It was only natural that Moses would be overly protective of his brother even when they were both mature adults. It is especially clear when one reads how reluctant Moses was to let his brother go on business trips, which really were essential since David was looking after the entire family gem business and was an experienced and accomplished merchant. This letter, in the form of a poem, was the last little note sent to David as he was embarking on his journey. The love and the sadness are touching when we read it even after eight hundred years…
In the name of the Merciful:
May the Lord strengthen your loins and guard your foot from the trap
Peace be with the far and the near, said the Lord
Long will you live, and peace be with you and with your home
The Lord knows the anguish and dreariness in my heart
When parting from my beloved brother and friend
May the Lord guard him from harm, and reunite me with him in Egypt, if the Lord so wills
I wish to let you know I am well,
Moses ben Maimon, blessed is his memory.
So you think you are multi-tasking? Too much to do, so much stress, never enough time… Well, here is an inspiring and highly entertaining letter from Maimonides to the man who asked for permission to translate one of his major works. Bear in mind that Maimonides worked as a physician to the Sultan, as the head of the Jewish congregation which also involved legal work, and that he wrote enough to make most of us assume he did it as a full time job. Try to remember also that he did not have a computer, a type writer, or even a fountain pen. He wrote with a quill…
Epistle to Rabbi Samuel Ibn Tibbon Regarding the Translation of The Guide of the Perplexed:
"The Lord knows how I have written so much. I run away from people, hiding where they would not notice me, sometimes I lean against a wall, sometimes I lie down to write because of my weakness, because this extreme weakness is conspiring with my age.
Regarding your visit – come, and welcome, and I am happy about it and want, long and yearn for it, and I will have more joy seeing you than you will have seeing me, though it is difficult for me to think about the danger of your coming by sea. I would suggest and advise you not to endanger yourself, because your coming will only allow you to see me, and allow me to honor you as much as I can; But discussing any wisdom or discipline, or even have an hour alone with me, day or night – don’t expect that, because my affairs go as I will tell you:
I live in Fustat, and the Sultan resides in Cairo, and between the two places there are two Sabbath zones. The Sultan has a difficult habit – it is impossible for me to avoid seeing him every morning. If he is weak, or if any of his sons or concubines is sick – I cannot leave Cairo, and I spend most of the day in the Sultan’s house. It is impossible to avoid seeing his ministers every day, or an official or two may be sick, and I have to take care of their healing. Therefore – every day I go to Cairo at dawn, if no trouble or anything new happened, I go back to Fustat after at least half a day. When I arrive, quite hungry, I find the parlor full of non Jews, important and unimportant, and judges, and officials, a mixed company, who know when I am expected. I dismount from my beast, wash my hands, and go out to apologize for keeping them waiting a few minutes while I eat a quick meal, often the only one during the day. Then I go to take care of them and write their prescriptions, and there is coming and going until late at night, and sometimes – may the Torah be my witness – I may be up until two o’clock in the morning. I talk to them lying down from exhaustion, and when the night is over I cannot talk. The result is no man of Israel can talk to me or spend some time with me except on Saturday. They all come after prayer, I guide the community as to what they should do during the weak; they would have a short reading until noon, and then leave. A number of them come back in the afternoon for another reading until the evening prayer.
This is the way my affairs go, and I only told a little of what you will see with the help of the Lord, blessed be his name. When you complete the translation you started – since you started the mitzva you should finish it – come for a visit, not for study, because my time is so limited."
The preparation of the book for Kindle is going well (if a bit slow…) and I have formatted about a third of it! Chapter One is available below, in the previous posts, as a sample, but everything else in this blog will be additional material that was not included in the book. And believe me, there is so much…
This week, I would like to introduce you to some of the legends that have been written about Maimonides. There are always legends about great men and women, and while of course they are folkloric or even mythological, they can add to the understanding of both the person and the peole who created the legends. Here is the introduction and one of the legends I have posted on the wonderful Encyclopedia Mythica, and the link for the site, which includes several legends, is http://www.pantheon.org/areas/featured/maimonides/mm-1.html
Moses Maimonides had a strong relationship with the Biblical Moses ben Amram, after whom he was named. Maimonides was born on Nisan 14, on Passover's eve, and heard the tales of the Biblical Moses since early childhood. He always believed that Moses was the greatest of the prophets. He showed four points that made him believe that the Biblical Moses was superior to all others:
Maimonides felt that the Biblical Moses achieved this state, similar to that of an angel or a pure spirit, because he liberated himself from desire, from the tyranny of his senses, and from the power of his imagination.
The legends and folklore show how much the Jews accepted the similarity and connection between the two leaders, so much so that a famous saying circulated even during Maimonides' life time, and later inscribed on his grave: "From Moses to Moses there were none like Moses." The Jews felt that:
The relationship started, according to a variant legend, even before Maimonides was born, and applied to the prophetic dream that Rabbi Maimon had before he married Maimonides' mother:
This event happened to the father of the Rambam, Rabbi Maimon, rest his soul. From his youth Rabbi Maimon contemplated Torah and wisdom, inquiring into wonders and looking at the deepest and exalted secrets of the Torah; and these secrets, their keys were saved for elders, who had already advanced in wisdom. And Rabbi Maimon was so deep into the Torah that he refused to marry, because he said: "My soul longs for the Torah only." The years passed and he was still unmarried.
One day Maimon lied under a fig tree in his garden, and a tiny bee started walking on his face. He woke up, but immediately fell asleep again. In his dream he saw the five books of Moses' Torah. He started reading, and suddenly saw Moses, son of Amram, giving the Torah. He turned to Rabbi Maimon and said: "The Lord of Heaven and Earth be blessed. He will give you a son who will write Mishneh Torah, and light the eyes of all Israel; he will be a holy man, perfect in the quality of spirit and soul, a teacher and a leader of his people."
While our Rabbi Moses was still speaking, Elijah the Prophet appeared and said: "Maimon, get up and go to nearby Córdoba, and take as wife the daughter of the butcher there."
When Rabbi Maimon woke up, he traveled to Córdoba and married the butcher's daughter, as Elijah the Prophet said. And the woman gave birth to Maimonides, the Rambam. The mother did not have the privilege of raising her son Maimonides: she died in childbirth.
Ilil Arbel. Maimonides: A Spiritual Biography. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001.
Yitzhak Avishur. Shivhe ha-Rambam. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University. 1998.
Chapter One: Sunrise in Andalusia (Final Part)
Young Moses was reared in a household of love and a love of learning. Rabbi Maimon was a gentle, kind father, who fully understood and appreciated his son's intellect and special gifts. Undoubtedly, various nurses and servants helped raise the infant at first, but soon Rabbi Maimon was persuaded to marry again, as was the custom. We do not know much about his second wife, not even her name or any details about her lineage, but some facts can be deduced. No oral traditions point to any difficulties regarding Rabbi Maimon's second marriage, so we may assume she came from his own social strata, probably the daughter of one of the great Jewish families of Spain. When she gave birth to her own child, David, Moses loved his new brother with a profound, unconditional love that lasted a lifetime. Later, he spoke of David as his greatest joy in life. There was no jealousy in the child Moses' heart, no feeling of being apart or different. Much credit can be given to the stepmother for fostering such an atmosphere of love and joy.
Rabbi Maimon educated his sons at home. We know that from Maimonides himself, who claims, "First reading I learned from my father and teacher, may his memory be blessed, who learned it from his own rabbi." This was the custom, and Rabbi Maimon was well-suited to the task. Rabbi Maimon was a devoted and learned scholar, with a particular interest in astronomy and math, and a wide knowledge of Jewish law. He was the disciple of Joseph ibn Migash (1077-1141), who was himself a student of Alfassi and later succeeded him as the head of the school of Lucena; Rabbi Joseph was universally considered the greatest legal scholar in Spain. Rabbi Maimon wrote commentaries to the Talmud, a work on ritual and expository notes on the Pentateuch. He was an emotional, kind man, with a love of religion that was very different from that of his son Moses.
Rabbi Maimon saw God as a personal, loving entity, not as an intellectual abstraction. He loved the legends of the Aggadah (the metaphorical, non-legal sections of the Talmud), believed in angels and wrote with deep and poetic emotion, with many images and allegories. His Letter of Consolation, written in response to an inquiry or request for guidance by a perplexed and despairing community of Jews, comforted many people with its innate kindness and sincere love for his fellow Jews. This simple faith supported Maimon during the years of wandering and trouble that were to come all too soon. His acceptance and submission to God's will acted as an example and comfort to the young and confused Moses, suddenly torn from his lovely home, tight-knit community, good prospects for the future, and often in fear for his very life.
Without Rabbi Maimon, it is unlikely that Moses could have developed, under such circumstances, his feeling of being “perfect with God," which meant so much to him throughout his life. His lifelong attempt to cultivate gentleness, modesty and even temper, succeeded despite his deep-seated knowledge of his superior intellect, social standing, lineage and a natural inclination to pride and dignity. These qualities might have developed into arrogance without the help of his father's gentle teaching.
In addition to his home studies, Moses spent some time with his father's old tutor, Rabbi Joseph ibn Migash, further enhancing his extensive education. Young Moses studied a curriculum that would astonish modern educators, but was not unusual for the time. Any well-educated Jew was well versed in astrology, astronomy, mathematics, geometry, science, optics, philosophy, calligraphy, law and rhetoric. Often he would be a linguist, capable of complicated translations in various languages; his knowledge of Arabic and Hebrew would be so extensive, he could compose poetry in both—and many were truly fine poets. Some of the greatest names in Hebrew poetry come from this era— Judah Halevi, Solomon ibn Gabirol, and Abraham ibn Ezra. However, these poets regarded Jewish education as the most important part of their studies: the Bible, Mishna, Talmud, codes, and commentaries. Later, when describing his education, Moses confessed to studying his father's medical books, probably on the sly. (One wonders if the indulgent Rabbi Maimon secretly knew that his precocious boy already showed interest in poisons, herbs and surgery.) One subject he did not like very much was poetry. Despite the immense popularity of the subject in the Islamic courts, and the prolific, excellent Jewish poetry produced at that time, Moses never had the capacity to express his feelings with the emotional surrender and sense of imagery needed for poetry, and stayed with the precision of prose. This deaf ear to poetry must have caused some frustration to Rabbi Maimon and Rabbi Joseph, but perhaps it accounts for his flawless, meticulous prose style and love of rationalism.
Legends abound in regard to Maimonides' early studies. Various story cycles, meant to represent Maimonides in almost superhuman ways, described him as ignorant and hard of learning as a child. Then by sheer magic—sometimes a kiss from a great rabbi, sometimes a blessing from Elijah the prophet—he suddenly acquired supernatural, profound wisdom. Legends of this type are typical and accompany the life story of many great leaders. Some of the oral traditions, however, contain elements of truth; those legends that tell about his apprenticeship under Rabbi Maimon and then a trip to Rabbi Joseph ibn Migash ring true, even when embellished with supernatural phenomena. And it is true that the young Moses at an early age astonished his teachers by his remarkable depth and versatility.
A subject Moses Maimon was profoundly interested in was his own genealogy, which left a lasting impression on the imaginative boy. The family took its lineage very seriously, and from the earliest age he had heard that he was a direct descendant of Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, and that his line went further back through the royal house to King David himself. Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi was one of the greatest names in rabbinic Judaism, a second-century scholar and the editor of one of the most important legal texts of Judaism, the Mishna. King David was the most powerful and beloved ruler in the history of the Jews. The Messiah, for whom Jews are still waiting, is to be borne of this line. Such heritage is not a light psychological burden for a child; a strong sense of responsibility and an obligation to follow in the footsteps of such individuals was awakened in Moses. This lineage created a core of pride that no later humiliation in the hands of his persecutors, or his own aspiration to perfect humility, could ever erase. He also developed a strong relationship to the biblical Moses. Born on Passover Eve, it is possible that young Moses was at least partially named after that towering figure, so prominent in the Passover story, and for his entire life he considered the biblical Moses the greatest of the prophets and his spiritual mentor. Later, a Jewish saying would declare: "From Moses to Moses there were none like Moses."
And suddenly it all ended. In 1147 the fanatic Islamic fundamentalists of Morocco, the Almohades, invaded Spain like a wave of locusts and destroyed the symbiosis between Muslims and Jews. The Golden Age, at least for the Jews of Spain, was suddenly and painfully over, and with it the perfect childhood of Moses Maimonides. He was only twelve years old.
Chapter One: Sunrise in Andalusia (Continued...)
MOSES BEN MAIMON, known in Hebrew literature as the Rambam and in Western culture since the Renaissance by the Greek Maimonides, was born at one o'clock in the afternoon of March 30, 1135, into an era of splendor. Spain, under Islamic rule, was enjoying a true "Golden Age," and the Jews, more than during any other time in history until the twentieth century, fully participated in it. They took part in politics, culture, science, medicine and commerce. Cordoba, a city of legendary beauty and sophistication, was home to many ethnic groups and cultures, together creating a rich, exciting atmosphere. Some Arab geographers claim that almost half a million people resided in the city and the suburbs surrounding it, though the real number could have been anything between that and a hundred thousand. Even the low estimate is quite large for any city at that time. Cordoba had hundreds of mosques, thousands of public baths, and numerous well-stocked libraries and observatories. Schools flourished and well-equipped hospitals served as centers for the study of medicine. As part of Islamic Spain, Cordoba accorded its citizens full religious freedom. Regarding Jewish studies, Cordoba slowly replaced the Babylonian cities of Sora and Pumbaditha as the center of Jewish learning. Strolling among the sparkling fountains and tiled pools, relaxing in the well-tended gardens, the inhabitants and the many visitors enjoyed paved streets, illumination in most public areas, and in many private homes, even indoor plumbing. As a center of industry and commerce, the city granted good employment to all who needed it, at all levels of education, and extraordinary luxuries to those who could afford them.
Trade was the core of Islamic economy, and included much travel, both on land and sea. Muslims viewed travel for the sake of learning as even more important than for commerce, as it was highly recommended in the Koran. Jews felt similarly—traveling for the purpose of learning was also highly regarded by the Talmud. However, they also traveled for commerce, political reasons and for creating marriage alliances with Jewish families overseas. Generally, Jews preferred sea voyages because traveling by ship did not desecrate the Sabbath, but during winter they had to travel by land caravans. Land travel was more expensive because the caravan had to stop for a full day every Sabbath. A wealthy Jew often owned houses in three different countries, and credit was established between commercial families, facilitating all forms of trade. Christians, Muslims and Jews traded freely with one another, sharing a truly cosmopolitan society. Correspondence and travel books from this era, such as the Arabic Book of Roads and Kingdoms and the Jewish book The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, show how ordinary and even common such distant travel was, despite dangers from weather, pirates, robbers and local
Such extensive commercial travel allowed constant intellectual exchange among the Jewish communities. Hebrew was their common language, so letters from various rabbis in distant lands could resolve matters of law and ritual. A commercial traveler often carried such letters with him. Rabbi's Maimon's correspondence, or responsa, as these letters were called, were eagerly awaited in many communities.
The location of young Moses' childhood home is debated. Most likely he was born in the Juderia, the Jewish quarter. No stigma was attached to living in this section. Jews preferred to live in concentrated neighborhoods, where they could exercise mutual protection, but they experienced no restrictions or any form of segregation. Christians and Muslims also lived in groups, for the same reason.
At the wealthier parts of the Juderia, each house was usually built around a central courtyard decorated with fountains, pools and stone columns. Ornamental and fruit trees flourished, ground covers and flowers draped the stonework, growing luxuriously and supplying coolness and beauty. Despite the traditional Jewish objection to any visual images that may suggest idolatry, some luxury homes belonging to courtiers even contained statues of animals such as lions and deer, showing how strongly the three cultures intermingled.
A Jewish household of a wealthy man like Rabbi Maimon was comfortable, well-furnished and afforded excellent food, including such luxury items as good wines, exotic fruit and costly spices. Valuable carpets from Egypt and Persia covered the stone floors, wall hangings and tapestries decorated the walls and beautiful textiles were purchased for household use and clothes. The rooms were filled with bowls of lead crystal, ivory carvings and beautiful ceramics—some produced locally, some imported. The lady of the house, and often the man too, wore clothing made of colorful silks, accessories of fine leather and precious jewelry. Private libraries included not only traditional Jewish texts, but extensive collections of works of philosophy, medicine and science and many works of ancient and contemporary poetry. Books were widely available, as paper was introduced into the Islamic world in the ninth century, by Chinese traveling merchants.
Stay tuned -- next Wednesday we'll have the last part of Chapter One...
This book was originally published as a hardcover by Crossroad Publishing, as part of their series of biographies. This is the first time it will appear as an e-book, and I thought that as I am preparing the digital edition, readers might be interested in exploring the subject and getting to know this amazing, inspiring human being. I did not attempt to analyze Maimonides' work as independent of his life. Rather, I wanted to show how his complicated circumstances influenced his work. Many excellent books, written by fine scholars, will lead the interested reader into a lifelong study of Maimonides' masterpieces, and the bibliography I provided can be used as a starting point.
An important point to keep in mind is that the exact dates of many of the events in Maimonides' life are debated. I used the dates most commonly accepted, and when too many opinions differed, the dates that made sense to me when viewed against the narrative of Maimonides' life. To help the reader, I will be adding a chronology, and I hope this will put the narrative in perspective to the time.
For the first segment of this blog, I am posting the first page or so of Chapter One. In future segments, I hope to post the rest of Chapter One, and then additional material as background for the book. I hope you enjoy it and would visit and leave messages!
Chapter One: Sunrise in Andalusia
From the rising of the sun to its setting, from north to south, there never was such a chosen people [as the Jews of Spain] in beauty and pleasantness, and afterwards, there will never be another such people.
"I AM NOTHING but dust and ashes."
Rabbi Maimon ben Joseph may have found solace in Abraham's ancient words as the young woman was lowered into her grave. The legends tell she was a butcher's daughter, and that the community disapproved of the marriage between them. A rabbi must marry a scholar's daughter who would know how to run his household, declared the Talmud, and Rabbi Maimon represented the eighth generation of leaders in the Jewish community of Cordoba. He served as a dayyan, a judge of the rabbinical court, a man of great consequence in his middle years. She must have been a special person, that young woman whose name has been lost to us, because Rabbi Maimon loved her so much he had to marry her anyway. And so he had a dream-vision, and in the dream God commanded him to marry the butcher's daughter; the community respected prophetic dreams and accepted the unsuitable marriage.
Rabbi Maimon and his wife shared only one precious year of happiness, and then she died in childbirth; the tight-knit community sadly gathered in the Jewish cemetery to say goodbye. Not very far off, her newborn child slept, his large dark eyes shut against the world, blissfully unaware of the genius he inherited from this unlikely union, and of the extraordinary future that awaited him.
He would grow to be the greatest Jewish philosopher and Talmudist of all times. Eight hundred years after his death, his work is as vibrant and pertinent to our lives as it had been during his lifetime. Moses Maimonides was to influence Jewish and non-Jewish philosophers alike, with such diverse individuals as Spinoza, Leibniz and Thomas Aquinas freely acknowledging their debt to him. Yet the intelligent layman can understand and relate to his work with ease; his rigorous thinking translates into elegant writing that is simple and direct, visceral as well as intellectual. His book, The Guide of the Perplexed, is one of the most influential philosophical works of any time.
If the image of a staid, respectable clerical gentleman comes to mind when the name of Maimonides is mentioned, dismiss the thought. His life was a roller coaster of dismal persecution and dazzling success, touched by personal and professional controversy that has never quite settled. It took him from the plight of a persecuted refugee in his own land, to the Arabian Nights' splendor of a sultan's court and harem. Maimonides was described as an adventurer, a leader, a philosopher, a Talmudic scholar, a correspondent, a writer, a rationalist, a scientist, a doctor, a man of the law, a tormented soul and a prophet driven by his own image of God. A complicated figure against a fascinating historical background, he was all of these, and more.
Stay tuned -- more to come in future segments!