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Maimonides (Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon)
The Maimonides Company, the Hedi Or Israeliana Collection

Maimonides (Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon)

Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon (ca. 1135-1204), known as “Maimonides,” is considered one of the greatest Jewish thinkers and leaders of all time. His literary work encompasses many areas of the Jewish bookshelf, including Halakha (Jewish religious law), philosophy and commentary. In addition, he was active in the field of medicine and composed a number of medical treatises. Centuries after his death, his influence in every field of Jewish religious studies remains strong, although some of his views provoked controversy during his lifetime and after. In the world of philosophy, his influence breached religious boundaries and Christian and Muslim scholars alike studied his thought. He was called “the Great Eagle,” and the saying “From Moses to Moses, there was none like Moses,” was coined specifically for him.

Maimonides was born in Córdoba in the area of ​​al-Andalus (today in Spain), where his father and ancestors had served as the local dayanim (religious court judges). From an early age, Maimonides was known for his intellectual gifts. In his youth, he studied Torah with his father who had studied under Rabbi Joseph ibn Migash, who, in turn, had been the student of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (Rif). Maimonides was thus an important link in the chain of Talmudic commentary and Sephardi halakhic adjudication (which is parallel to and separate from the Ashkenazi tradition). Alongside his involvement in matters of religion, Maimonides, together with a Muslim colleague, also studied medicine, philosophy and mathematics.

In 1148, following the Almohad invasion (Muslim Berbers who came from North Africa), Maimonides and his family fled to Morocco, but persecution of the Jews also reached there. Some claim that during this period Maimonides converted to Islam to save his life but secretly continued to observe the Jewish commandments. Maimonides and his family reached Acre in 1165. He also visited Jerusalem and Hebron, but after about five months there, the family moved to Alexandria in Egypt. From there they moved to Fustat (ancient Cairo), where Maimonides was appointed the Jewish community’s chief rabbi.

Maimonides’ son Abraham was born in Egypt in 1186. Rabbi Abraham continued in his father’s footsteps and was known for his interest in Sufi mysticism. Due to financial difficulties, Maimonides was forced to work as a physician. He even served as the personal physician of the local royal family. He completed most of his works during this period, though by this stage he had already finished his commentary on the Mishna, written in Judeo Arabic. This commentary also includes important introductions on the essence of the Oral Law and Jewish values. In his commentary on Tractate Sanhedrin, Maimonides formulated the thirteen principles of the Jewish faith, which became an important and controversial text for centuries after. Maimonides’ handwritten commentaries of the Tractates Moed and Nashim are preserved in the National Library, and are among the Jewish people’s most important manuscript treasures. Maimonides continued to function as a halakhic decider for the Jews of Egypt and for Jewish communities in the Diaspora. He died in 1204 at the age of 69. At his request, he was buried in Tiberias. His tomb continues to be a site of pilgrimage.

Maimonides’ influence is evident to this day in many areas. The National Library has collected many archival materials about Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, which are available for viewing in the Library catalog.

The Works of Maimonides

In addition to his famous commentary on the Mishna mentioned above, Maimonides' works also include the Mishneh Torah (also known as Sefer Yad Hahazakah [lit. "The Book of the Strong Hand"]), a comprehensive codex on all areas of both practical and less-practical Halakha (sacrifices, impurity and purification, etc.; responsa (questions and answers on matters of Halakhah); writings on religious philosophical issues (“Epistle to Yemen,” “Treatise on Resurrection” and “Letter on Apostasy”); and his greatest work Guide for the Perplexed (Moreh Nevukhim), also written in Judeo Arabic. The latter was translated into many languages, and with the Mishneh Torah, has been the subject of various commentaries. Maimonides wrote Sefer Hamitzvot as an introduction to the Mishneh Torah, in which he enumerates the 613 commandments in the Torah along with a brief explanation of each. He apparently also composed an abridgement to the Jerusalem Talmud, an excerpt of which was found in the Cairo Genizah and was published by Rabbi Prof. Shaul Lieberman. In his writings, Maimonides did not avoid discussing current affairs. Among the letters and treatises are essays on the plight of the Jews during the decrees of apostasy, which he and his contemporaries experienced firsthand in Spain and North Africa. Maimonides called for reconciliation among communities and members who were forced to convert to Islam in order to save their lives and who sought to return to Judaism at the first possible opportunity.

Maimonides’ philosophical path and halakhic adjudication generated great admiration as well as fierce opposition. He is revealed as independent and authoritative in his halakhic rulings, basing his decisions on a common sense (pshat) approach to understanding the Talmudic issue. He treats the Jerusalem Talmud and the method of the Geonim with great respect, but does not hesitate to disagree with rulings that, in his opinion, do not accord with his understanding of the Talmudic sources. He writes in a concise and clear style based on the style of the Mishna, and usually does not bring sources or explanations, only the laws, while interjecting philosophical considerations into the halakhic discussion. Rabbi Yosef Caro declared Maimonides the greatest of the “three pillars of teaching,” along with the Rif and the Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel), in his Beit Yosef and Shulhan Arukh. His influence on Sephardi Halakha was immense and he is revered among  Ashkenazi Jews as well, even though some disagreed with him.