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.