Moshe ben Maimon (Hebrew: משה בן מימון Moshe ben Maymon), or Mūsā ibn Maymūn (Arabic: موسى بن ميمون), acronymed Rambam (/ˈrɑːmbɑːm/; Hebrew: רמב״ם – for “Rabbeinu Moshe Ben Maimon”, “Our Rabbi/Teacher Moses Son of Maimon”), and Graecized (and subsequently Latinized) Moses Maimonides (/maɪˈmɒnɪdiːz/ my-MON-i-deez), a preeminent medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher and astronomer, became one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars and physicians of the Middle Ages. Born in Cordova, Almoravid Empire (present-day Spain) on Passover Eve, 1135 or 1138, he died in Egypt on December 12, 1204, whence his body was taken to the lower Galilee and buried in Tiberias. He worked as a rabbi, physician, and philosopher in Morocco and Egypt.
During his lifetime, most Jews greeted Maimonides’ writings on Jewish law and ethics with acclaim and gratitude, even as far away as Iraq and Yemen, and although Maimonides rose to become the revered head of the Jewish community in Egypt, there were also vociferous critics of some of his writings, particularly in Spain. Nonetheless, he was posthumously acknowledged as among the foremost rabbinical arbiters and philosophers in Jewish history, and his copious work comprises a cornerstone of Jewish scholarship. His fourteen-volume Mishneh Torah still carries significant canonical authority as a codification of Talmudic law. He is sometimes known as “ha Nesher ha Gadol” (the great eagle) in recognition of his outstanding status as a bona fide exponent of the Oral Torah.
Aside from being revered by Jewish historians, Maimonides also figures very prominently in the history of Islamic and Arab sciences and is mentioned extensively in studies. Influenced by Al-Farabi (ca. 872–950/951), Avicenna (c. 980 – 1037), and his contemporary Averroes (1126–1198), he in his turn influenced other prominent Arab and Muslim philosophers and scientists. He became a prominent philosopher and polymath in both the Jewish and Islamic worlds.
His full Hebrew name is Rabbi Mosheh ben Maimon (Hebrew: רבי משה בן מימון), whose acronym forms “Rambam” (רמב”ם). His full Arabic name is Abū ʿImrān Mūsā bin Maimūn bin ʿUbaidallāh al-Qurtabī ( ابو عمران موسى بن ميمون بن عبيد الله القرطبي ) or Mūsā bin Maymūn (Arabic: موسى بن ميمون) for short. In Latin, the Hebrew “ben” (son of) becomes the Greek−style suffix “-ides” to form “Moses Maimonides”.
Maimonides was born in Córdoba during what some scholars consider to be the end of the golden age of Jewish culture in the Iberian Peninsula, after the first centuries of the Moorish rule. At an early age, he developed an interest in sciences and philosophy. He read those Greek philosophers accessible in Arabic translations, and was deeply immersed in the sciences and learning of Islamic culture. Though the Gaonic tradition, especially in its North African version, formed the basis of his legal thought, some scholars have argued in the 21st century that Muslim law, including Almohad legal thought, also had a substantial influence. Maimonides was not known as a supporter of mysticism, although a strong intellectual type of mysticism has been discerned in his philosophy. He expressed disapproval of poetry, the best of which he declared to be false, since it was founded on pure invention. This sage, who was revered for his personality as well as for his writings, led a busy life, and wrote many of his works while travelling or in temporary accommodation. Maimonides studied Torah under his father Maimon, who had in turn studied under Rabbi Joseph ibn Migash, a student of Isaac Alfasi.
A Berber dynasty, the Almohads, conquered Córdoba in 1148, and abolished dhimmi status (i.e., state protection of life and wealth) in some of their territories. The loss of this protected status threatened the Jewish and Christian communities with conversion to Islam, death, or exile. The historical records of abuses against Jews in the immediate post-1148 period are subject to different interpretations. Many Jews were forced to convert, but due to suspicion by the authorities of fake conversions, the new converts had to wear identifying clothing that set them apart and made them subject to public scrutiny.
Maimonides’s family, along with most other Jews, chose exile. Some say, though, that it is likely that Maimonides feigned a conversion to Islam before escaping. This forced conversion was ruled legally invalid under Islamic law when brought up by a rival in Egypt. For the next ten years, Maimonides moved about in southern Spain, eventually settling in Fes in Morocco. During this time, he composed his acclaimed commentary on the Mishnah in the years 1166–1168.
Following this sojourn in Morocco, together with two sons, he sojourned in the Holy Land, before settling in Fustat, Egypt around 1168. While in Cairo, he studied in a yeshiva attached to a small synagogue (which now bears his name). In the Holy Land, he prayed at the Temple Mount. He wrote that this day of visiting the Temple Mount was a day of holiness for him and his descendants.
Maimonides shortly thereafter was instrumental in helping rescue Jews taken captive during the Christian King Amalric’s siege of the Egyptian town of Bilbays. He sent five letters to the Jewish communities of Lower Egypt asking them to pool money together to pay the ransom. The money was collected and then given to two judges sent to Palestine to negotiate with the Crusaders. The captives were eventually released.
Following this triumph, the Maimonides family, hoping to increase their wealth, gave their savings to his brother, the youngest son David ben Maimon, a merchant. Maimonides directed his brother to procure goods only at the Sudanese port of ‘Aydhab. After a long arduous trip through the desert, however, David was unimpressed by the goods on offer there. Against his brother’s wishes, David boarded a ship for India, since great wealth was to be found in the East. Before he could reach his destination, David drowned at sea sometime between 1169–1170. The death of his brother caused Maimonides to become sick with grief.
In a letter (discovered later in the Cairo Geniza), he wrote:
The greatest misfortune that has befallen me during my entire life—worse than anything else—was the demise of the saint, may his memory be blessed, who drowned in the Indian sea, carrying much money belonging to me, him, and to others, and left with me a little daughter and a widow. On the day I received that terrible news I fell ill and remained in bed for about a year, suffering from a sore boil, fever, and depression, and was almost given up. About eight years have passed, but I am still mourning and unable to accept consolation. And how should I console myself? He grew up on my knees, he was my brother, [and] he was my student.
Around 1171, Maimonides was appointed the Nagid of the Egyptian Jewish community. Arabist S.D. Goitein believes the leadership he displayed during the ransoming of the Crusader captives led to this appointment. With the loss of the family funds tied up in David’s business venture, Maimonides assumed the vocation of physician, for which he was to become famous. He had trained in medicine in both Córdoba and in Fes. Gaining widespread recognition, he was appointed court physician to the Grand Vizier Al Qadi al Fadil, then to Sultan Saladin, after whose death he remained a physician to the royal family.
In his medical writings, Maimonides described many conditions, including asthma, diabetes, hepatitis, and pneumonia, and he emphasized moderation and a healthy lifestyle. His treatises became influential for generations of physicians. He was knowledgeable about Greek and Arabic medicine, and followed the principles of humorism in the tradition of Galen. He did not blindly accept authority but used his own observation and experience. Julia Bess Frank indicates that Maimonides in his medical writings sought to interpret works of authorities so that they could become acceptable. Maimonides displayed in his interactions with patients attributes that today would be called intercultural awareness and respect for the patient’s autonomy. Although he frequently wrote of his longing for solitude in order to come closer to God and to extend his reflections – elements considered essential in his philosophy to the prophetic experience -he gave over most of his time to caring for others. In a famous letter, Maimonides describes his daily routine: After visiting the Sultan’s palace, he would arrive home exhausted and hungry, where “I would find the antechambers filled with gentiles and Jews … I would go to heal them, and write prescriptions for their illnesses … until the evening … and I would be extremely weak.” As he goes on to say in this letter, even on the Sabbath he would receive members of the community. It is remarkable that he managed to write extended treatises, including not only medical and other scientific studies but some of the most systematically thought-through and influential treatises on halakha (rabbinic law) and Jewish philosophy of the Middle Ages. In 1173/4, Maimonides wrote his famous Iggeret Teman (Epistle to Yemen). It has been suggested that his “incessant travail” undermined his own health and brought about his death at 69 (although this is a normal lifespan). His rabbinic writings are valued as fundamental and unparalleled resources for religious Jews today.
Maimonides died on December 12, 1204 (20th of Tevet 4965 ) in Fustat. It is widely believed that he was briefly buried in the study room (beit hamidrash) of the synagogue courtyard, and that, soon after, in accordance with his wishes, his remains were exhumed and taken to Tiberias, where he was re-interred. The Tomb of Maimonides on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel marks his grave. This location for his final resting-place has been debated, for in the Jewish Cairene community, a tradition holds that he remained buried in Egypt.
Maimonides and his wife, the daughter of Mishael ben Yeshayahu Halevi, had one child who survived into adulthood, Avraham, who became recognized as a great scholar. He succeeded Maimonides as Nagid and as court physician at the age of eighteen. Throughout his career, he defended his father’s writings against all critics. The office of Nagid was held by the Maimonides family for four successive generations until the end of the 14th century.
The philosopher/doctor is widely respected in Spain and a statue of him was erected in Córdoba near to the only synagogue in that city to escape destruction during years of persecution. Although it no longer functions as a Jewish house of worship, it is open to the public.
Maimonides is sometimes said to be a descendant of King David, although he never made such a claim.
Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah is considered by Jews even today as one of the chief authoritative codifications of Jewish law and ethics. It is exceptional for its logical construction, concise and clear expression and extraordinary learning, so that it became a standard against which other later codifications were often measured. It is still closely studied in rabbinic yeshivot (academies). A popular medieval saying that also served as his epitaph states, From Mosheh (of the Torah) to Mosheh (Maimonides) there was none like Mosheh. It chiefly referred to his rabbinic writings.
But Maimonides was also one of the most influential figures in medieval Jewish philosophy. His brilliant adaptation of Aristotelian thought to Biblical faith deeply impressed later Jewish thinkers, and had an unexpected immediate historical impact. Some more acculturated Jews in the century that followed his death, particularly in Spain, sought to apply Maimonides’s Aristotelianism in ways that undercut traditionalist belief and observance, giving rise to an intellectual controversy in Spanish and southern French Jewish circles. The intensity of debate spurred Catholic Church interventions against “heresy” and a general confiscation of rabbinic texts. In reaction, the more radical interpretations of Maimonides were defeated. At least amongst Ashkenazi Jews, there was a tendency to ignore his specifically philosophical writings and to stress instead the rabbinic and halakhic writings. These writings often included considerable philosophical chapters or discussions in support of halakhic observance; David Hartman observes that Maimonides clearly expressed “the traditional support for a philosophical understanding of God both in the Aggadah of Talmud and in the behavior of the hasid [the pious Jew].” Maimonidean thought continues to influence traditionally observant Jews.
The most rigorous medieval critique of Maimonides is Hasdai Crescas’s Or Adonai. Crescas bucked the eclectic trend, by demolishing the certainty of the Aristotelian world-view, not only in religious matters but also in the most basic areas of medieval science (such as physics and geometry). Crescas’s critique provoked a number of 15th-century scholars to write defenses of Maimonides. A partial translation of Crescas was produced by Harry Austryn Wolfson of Harvard University in 1929.
Because of his path-finding synthesis of Aristotle and Biblical faith, Maimonides had a fundamental influence on the great Christian theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas refers specifically to Maimonides in several of his works, including the Commentary on the Sentences.
13 principles of faith
Main article: Jewish principles of faith
In his commentary on the Mishnah (tractate Sanhedrin, chapter 10), Maimonides formulates his “13 principles of faith”. They summarized what he viewed as the required beliefs of Judaism:
1 The existence of God.
2 God’s unity and indivisibility into elements.
3 God’s spirituality and incorporeality.
4 God’s eternity.
5 God alone should be the object of worship.
6 Revelation through God’s prophets.
7 The preeminence of Moses among the prophets.
8 The Torah that we have today is the one dictated to Moses by God.
9 The Torah given by Moses will not be replaced and that nothing may be added or removed from it.
10 God’s awareness of all human actions and thoughts.
11 Reward of good and punishment of evil.
12 The coming of the Jewish Messiah.
13 The resurrection of the dead.
Maimonides compiled the principles from various Talmudic sources. These principles were controversial when first proposed, evoking criticism by Rabbis Hasdai Crescas and Joseph Albo, and were effectively ignored by much of the Jewish community for the next few centuries. (“Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought,” Menachem Kellner). However, these principles have become widely held; today, Orthodox Judaism holds these beliefs to be obligatory. Two poetic restatements of these principles (Ani Ma’amin and Yigdal) eventually became canonized in many editions of the “Siddur” (Jewish prayer book).