Early Life in Spain and North Africa
Moses Maimonides (‘son of Maimon’) was born in 1138 in Cordoba, Spain, to a family of distinguished Jewish scholars. His father Maimon was a prominent rabbi, judge, and communal leader, who had studied with the great rabbinical scholars of his generation.
The young Moses, like others who were born into prominent Spanish-Jewish families, grew up studying traditional Jewish scriptural and legal texts, along with works of general learning available in Arabic. Southern Spain had been under tolerant Muslim rule for centuries, and Cordoba was a cultural center. In the normal course of events, Maimonides would have become a rabbinical judge in Cordoba, like his father. But when he was around ten years old, much of southern Spain was conquered by the Almohads, who were not initially tolerant of Jews and Christians. Maimonides’ family left Cordoba and spent years wandering through Southern Spain and Northern Africa, living for a period in Fez, Morocco (c. 1159-1165). After a sojourn to the Holy Land, they settled in Egypt (c. 1166), where he died in 1204.
Almohads: A Northern Africa dynasty renowned for religious zeal and strict observance of Islamic law
The formative years of Maimonides’ life are shrouded in mystery. Arab historians relate that the Maimon family was forcibly converted to Islam, a claim that many historians accept today. In any event, Maimonides was very well-educated in Jewish as well as secular literature, including philosophy, science, and medicine.
Maimonides was said to possess a photographic memory. One medieval writer claimed that he would remember every book so well that as soon as he read it, he was master of it, and was able to teach it to others. His extraordinary memory was quite helpful for him during this period of wandering, when he was unable to consult the books he needed for his works.
Commentary on the Mishnah
Within a few years of his arrival in Egypt, Maimonides became an important judge and leader of most of the Jewish community in Fustat (near Cairo), and perhaps, the official rabbinical leader of Egyptian Jewry.
Maimonides also completed his first major comprehensive work, the Commentary on the Mishnah (c. 1158-1168). The Mishnah was a Jewish law code written in 200 CE that dealt with all aspects of Jewish civil and religious life. It was written in Hebrew, and many scholars had commented upon it in Aramaic, a language spoken then by Jews in Palestine and Babylonia. These Aramaic commentaries were later edited together and become known as Talmud.
Maimonides decided to write his own commentary to the Mishnah in his mother-tongue, Judaeo-Arabic, a dialect of Arabic used by Jews living in the Islamic lands. This was a smart decision, since it opened up the work to many Jews who were unable to follow the complex discussions of the Talmud in Aramaic.
The commentary also contained some discussions of issues not included explicitly in the Mishnah, such as what doctrines all Jews must believe in, if they want to be considered good Jews. Maimonides listed the following doctrines:
Though subsequent Jewish thinkers disagreed over individual doctrines, and whether such a list is necessary at all, these thirteen principles became for many Jews a statement of the essence of the Jewish religion. Some of the hymns containing them are still sung in synagogues today.
Mishneh Torah: A comprehensive law code
After completing his Commentary on the Mishnah, Maimonides worked night and day for ten years to compose his own comprehensive law code. He wrote in a fairly simple Hebrew that could be mastered after some study (or so he wrote to one of his readers who requested an Arabic translation!). The resulting law code, known as the Mishneh Torah (Repetition of the Law, completed c. 1178) is considered to be the greatest Jewish law code ever written. Its style is precise, its classification logical, and its scope comprehensive.
Though he intended his code of law to be a convenient handbook for rabbis, Maimonides was not interested only in the practical aspects of Jewish law. He also aimed at an ideal and comprehensive restatement of Torah, all of Jewish teachings. In the Mishneh Torah Maimonides included not only the laws concerning Jewish practice that were applicable at his time. He also included the laws of purities and sacrifices that depended upon a Temple cult that had been defunct for a thousand years. He even included the Jewish laws concerning non-Jewish practices, although this could have little immediate practical relevance, since Jews were a minority in gentile lands, and not vice-versa.
Maimonides included religious and ethical precepts in the law code, most notably in the first volume, the Book of Knowledge. That is because Maimonides held that the system of laws expounded in the Jewish religion rests on broad truths of a philosophical and scientific nature, and, indeed, that there is a close reciprocal relationship between Torah (religious law) and philosophy.
For Maimonides, the Law of Moses reflects the rational order of nature. Living in accordance with the precepts of Torah helps one to achieve knowledge of eternal truths. He believed that achieving knowledge of such truths is necessary for human happiness. Torah mandates correct beliefs in addition to right actions, as it forbids false beliefs in addition to wrong actions.
Let’s look briefly at one section of the law code, the "Laws Concerning Character Traits." This is a little treatise that deals with a person’s psychological and emotional well-being. As a doctor, Maimonides believed that for the mind to achieve its potential, a person needs to have a well-balanced soul and body. One must attain what we may call emotional and physical stability.
Maimonides tells his readers what foods to eat and what foods to avoid, when to exercise and when not to exercise, and in general, how to live a healthy life. He also prescribes treatments that will enable people to acquire good habits (virtues) and get rid of bad ones (vices). Emotional and physical well-being are not ends in themselves, but rather the necessary condition for serving God – if you are imbalanced, it is hard to direct your energies in that service. That’s why Maimonides included these general rules of well-being in his law code. He was the first – and the last – codifier to do so.
During the ten years that Maimonides worked on his Mishneh Torah, how did he earn his livelihood? He refused on principle to receive a salary from the community as their rabbi, for he believed that Jewish law forbade rabbis from accepting money. At first he was supported by his brother David, a merchant. But after David drowned on one of his business voyages in 1177, Maimonides had to support David’s widow and daughter in addition to his own family.
So Maimonides began to work in earnest as a doctor. Within several years, he became one of the physicians to the Sultan’s court in Cairo. At that time, Egypt was ruled by the Seljuk Turks, the most prominent of whom was Saladin, who spent much of his time fighting Crusaders in the Holy Land. While Maimonides was not Saladin’s personal physician, he became one of the physicians who treated Saladin’s family and his ministers.
Crusaders: European warriors who invaded parts of the Middle East beginning in the 12th century
Maimonides the Teacher
In addition to practicing medicine, Maimonides taught medicine and science to young students. His most famous book, the Guide of the Perplexed, was addressed to one such student, Joseph ben Judah Ibn Shimon. For approximately two to three years (1182–1184 or 1185) Maimonides and Joseph studied together astronomy, logic, and apparently some philosophy. During that time the master increasingly began to reveal to his disciple the “hidden” (i.e., philosophical) meaning of biblical verses and their rabbinical interpretations. When Joseph departed for Aleppo (apparently shortly before Maimonides’ appointment as court physician) Maimonides resolved to compose the Guide for his disciple, and for those like him.
From the introduction to the Guide we learn that its primary purpose is to explain the meanings of certain difficult terms occurring in the prophetic books. Its secondary purpose is to explain obscure, unidentified parables from the same books. Left uninterpreted, these terms and parables are a source of perplexity for the intellectually sophisticated reader who is committed to the truth of scripture.
Such a reader faces a dilemma: if she follows her intellect she will have to abandon the literal meaning of scripture, and this may seem to her to be the same as abandoning the principles of her religion. But if she holds fast to the literal meaning of scripture, she will feel that that has brought harm on her religion and will remain in perplexity. In both cases, the literalist approach to scripture is responsible for “heartache and great perplexity.” Maimonides’ task as a commentator, then, is to forestall incorrect interpretations of the problematic terms and parables and to “decode” their hidden meaning.
The Guide is considered to be the most important and influential book of philosophy ever written by a Jew. But while there is a lot of philosophy in the book, it is perhaps best described as a work on the principles of Jewish religion. These are the same principles that Maimonides discusses in his Commentary on the Mishnah and the Mishneh Torah. Its topics include:
Shortly after it was written, the Guide was translated from Judaeo-Arabic into Hebrew twice for Jews living in Christian countries, who read little or no Arabic, and parts of it were translated into Latin. Later a full Latin translation was made. Maimonides was well known to many Christian thinkers either as “Rabbi Moses” or “Moses the Egyptian.” But it is not always clear whether such knowledge stemmed from familiarity with the actual texts, or with Maimonides’ doctrines as cited by earlier thinkers.1
Later Years and Legacy
The last decade and a half of Maimonides’ life were devoted mainly to the practice of medicine and the composition of medical books. Some were general textbooks, others were devoted to specific subjects: e.g., the treatment of hemorrhoids, asthma, poisons, sexual potency, etc. Most of these treatises repeat, often in an abbreviated form, the advice of the Greek physician Galen, whom Maimonides esteemed. Maimonides’ medical books, written in Arabic and translated into Hebrew and Latin, were rather popular in the Middle Ages.
Jurist, physician, judge, and communal leader -- when did Maimonides find time to engage in the contemplation and meditation on God that he recommended to others? In various letters written towards the end of his life, he lamented how little time he had to devote himself to intellectual matters.
His personal problem finds expression in his written work. At the end of the Guide Maimonides suggests different ways busy people can maximize their time in contemplating and worshipping God. Maimonides’ ideal person is
According to Maimonides, the ideal person, though externally involved in work, family, and community, should internally focus on the intellectual comprehension of God and His works, and he should engage in science and theology. Only the prophet Moses truly comprises the ideal, but Moses Maimonides, and others like him, can aspire to be leaders like Moses.
A. Works by Maimonides
Many of Maimonides’ works are available in English translations. A good place to start would be the following:
Butterworth, Charles and Raymond L. Weiss (eds.) Ethical Writings of Maimonides. New York: Dover 1975.
Maimonides. The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. Shlomo Pines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1963.
Twersky, I (ed.) A Maimonides Reader. New York: Behrman House 1972.
There are some selections from Maimonides in two general anthologies:
Frank, Daniel H., Oliver Leaman, and Charles H. Manekin, The Jewish Philosophy Reader (Routledge: New York and London, 2000).
Manekin, Charles H. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy: Medieval Jewish Philosophy. (Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 2009).
B. Maimonides in Latin
Maimonides was known to many important scholastic philosophers, including Alexander of Hales, William of Auvergne, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, and Duns Scotus. His works translated into Hebrew and Latin were read in the renaissance and early modern period as well. The Latin translation that circulated in the 13th century has quite recently been reprinted:
Rabi Mossei Aegyptij Dux seu director dubitatium aut perplexorum, in treis libros diuisus & summa accuratione, ed. A. Giustiniani.
Facsimile reproduction of Parisiis, 1520 edition, Frankfurt am M., Minerva, 1964.
Hasselhof, Görg . “Maimonides in the Latin Middle Ages: An Introductory Survey.” In Jewish Studies Quarterly 9 (2002): 1-20.
--. “The Reception of Maimonides in the Latin World: The Evidence of the Latin Translations in the 13th to 15th Century.” Materia Giudaica: Revista dell'associazione italiana per lo studio del giudaismo 6/2 (2001): 258-280.
---. “The Translations and the Reception of the Medical Doctor Maimonides in the Christian Medicine of the 14th and 15th Century.” In Georges Tamer (ed.), The Trias of Maimonides Jewish, Arabic, and Ancient Culture of Knowledge. Berlin/New York: de Gruyter 2005, pp. 395-410.
C. Secondary Sources
Davidson, Herbert. Maimonides: the Man and His Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2004. A magisterial work that will be the standard for years to come.
Manekin, Charles H. On Maimonides. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishers 2005.
Seeskin, Kenneth M. Searching for a Distant God: The Legacy of Maimonides. New York: Oxford University Press 2000.
--. The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2005.
Two volumes of articles from scholarly conferences in 2004 commemorating the 800th anniversary of Maimonides' death have recently appeared:
Harris, Jay Michael. Maimonides After 800 Years: Essays on Maimonides and His Influence. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Center for Jewish Studies 2009.
Hyman, Arthur and Alfred Ivry. Maimonidean Studies. Volume 5. New York: The Michael Scharf Publication Trust of Yeshiva University Press 2009.