Maimonides (Rambam)

The greatest medieval Jewish thinker, Talmudist and codifier.

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This article is reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Spain to Cairo

Maimonides, known, after the initial letters of his name (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, “Rabbi Moses son of Maimon”) as Rambam, is generally acknowledged to be the greatest Jewish thinker, Talmudist, and codifier in the Middle Ages. 

Maimonides was born in Cordoba [Spain] where his father was a dayyan, a judge. Maimonides was later proud to trace his descent from judge to judge back through many generations.

maimonides (rambam)When Maimonides was thirteen years old, he left Spain together with his parents under the threat of religious persecution to wander in various places, but eventually he settled in Fostat near Cairo in Egypt. There he became the leader of the Jewish community and in 1183, by which time he had acquired skills in medicine and had practiced as a physician, he was appointed physician to Saladin’s vizier (not to Saladin himself as is often thought).

He lived all his life in an Islamic society and had little knowledge of Christian life and thought. Maimonides died in Egypt, but his body was taken to be buried in the land of Israel, where his grave in Tiberias is still a place of pilgrimage.

His (Often Controversial) Work, in Brief

For a lengthy period, Maimonides was supported by his brother David, a dealer in precious stones, but when David perished at sea, Maimonides earned his living as a physician. He thus was able to spend years in close study of the traditional sources of Judaism, of which he had an amazing knowledge, as well as Greek philosophy in its Arabic garb. He had no other languages other than Arabic and, of course, Hebrew and Aramaic.

Maimonides in his lifetime met with a degree of opposition on account of some of his views, but the great divide between the Maimonists, who favored the study of philosophy, and the anti-Maimonists, opposed to this study, did not come about until after his death. Followers of the sage hailed him as a great thinker who demonstrated that Greek philosophy is compatible with Jewish teaching. His opponents thought his ideas dangerous to Jewish faith. Maimonides became the inspiration for Jewish throughout the ages who wished to have a faith based on reason. Among non-Jewish authors, he influenced Aquinas and Islamic theologians.

Maimonides was a prolific author. Among his published works are: letters, responsa, medical treatises, and works on Halakha [Jewish law]. But his three major works are: his commentary to the Mishnah [a third century collection of legal rulings and opinions], compiled in his youth; his gigantic code of law, the Mishnah Torah, compiled in his middle age; and his best known work among non-Halakhists, the Guide of the Perplexed, compiled in his old age. There is an astonishing consistency about Maimonides: the words of his old age depart hardly at all from his youthful works. Medieval authors rarely changed their minds--a pity, perhaps.

Commentary to the Mishnah

Maimonides’ Arabic commentary to the Mishnah is part commentary proper, elucidating the meaning of each Mishnah in the collection, part philosophical reflection. Occasionally, Maimonides’ comments are at variance with the explanations given in the Talmud, in the belief, evidently, that the Mishnah, like the Bible, can be interpreted on its own terms, although Maimonides never bases his later Halakhic decisions on anything other than the Talmud.

His philosophical asides are important as an early attempt at reconciling Greek philosophy with the Jewish tradition; For example, he prefaces his comments to Ethics of the Fathers with eight short chapters in which he compares Greek ethical standards with those of the Talmudic rabbis.

His formulation of the thirteen principles of faith occurs in his commentary to tractate Sanhedrin, chapter 10, where he discusses the question of dogmas to Judaism, referred to indirectly in this section of the Mishnah. In his introduction to this work he provides a history of the Oral Torah and a discussion of the relationship between learning and practice in Judaism.

The Mishnah Torah

The Mishnah Torah (“Second to the Torah”) is Maimonides’ great code of Jewish law, written, unlike the other two works considered here, in Hebrew, of which he was a superb master. The implications of the title are that the work contains all that is necessary for the Jews to know of the Oral Torah as found in the Talmudic literature and is thus a supplement to the written Torah, the Bible.

thinkers and thought quizThe whole legal system of Jewish law is presented without reference to the numerous debates and discussions found in the Talmud. Maimonides never records the names of the debaters, only the final ruling as this appears in the Talmud. His older contemporary, Abraham ben David, known as the Rabad, is very critical of this methodology, arguing that Maimonides has reduced the openness and flexibility of the Talmudic halakha to a bare, uniform series of categorical decisions with no room for legal maneuver. The Rabad is similarly critical of many other statements in the Mishnah Torah and his strictures accompany the text in most editions of the work.

Later scholars called the Mishnah Torah the Yad Ha-Hazakah (“Strong Hand”) adapting the verse: “And for the strong hand and awesome power that Moses [i.e. Moses Maimonides] displayed before all of Israel” (Deuteronomy 34:12). There is a pun here on the word yad, which has the numerical value of 14, since the work is divided into fourteen books.

Unlike other codes, the Mishnah Torah does not only include practical law for the guidance of Jews after the destruction of the Temple but also laws that were in operation in Temple times, such as the whole sacrificial system, in the Messianic hope that these laws, too, will one day come into operation.

The Mishnah Torah has received standard commentaries of its own in which Maimonides’ sources are uncovered and in which the sage is defended against Rabad’s strictures. It became a challenge to keen students of the Halakhah to defend Maimonides against the charge that he was either misunderstood or ignored Talmudic formulations, thus creating a new branch of Halakhic studies…

The Guide of the Perplexed

The “Perplexed” in the title of this three-part work are the students of Aristotelian philosophy, puzzled and confused by the many apparent contradictions between philosophy (= human reasoning) and certain statements, especially about the nature of God, in the Bible and the Talmud.

The basic thrust of the Guide is to demonstrate that all truth is one so that the Bible, containing the revealed work of God, has to be interpreted not to be in conflict but to be in harmony with reason…

The first part of the Guide deals similarly with the question of biblical anthropomorphisms. It is true that the Bible describes God in human terms but these are not to be taken literally. In the third part of the Guide, Maimonides proceeds to give “reasons” for those commands in the Torah which seem unreasonable at first glance such as the dietary laws.

For all of his reliance on reason Maimonides is not, however, a rationalist in the conventional sense. He believes beyond question in the Torah as divine revelation. Moreover, there is a strong mystical element in Maimonides' thought. In the remarkable account in the Guide of the man whose thoughts are always on God, such a rare individual is said to be beyond the normal mishaps of nature. He can walk though fire without being burned and pass through water without being drowned..

The Guide is a very difficult work not only because of its subject matter but also because Maimonides presents his thoughts, contrary to the precision he employs in other works, unsystematically, evidently in his desire to prevent those incapable of following abstruse arguments from venturing into the dangerous field that might easily lead to loss of faith. He has even been accused of planting false clues for this purpose, so that it is often impossible to grasp what he is really saying. The commentators to the Guide often leave the student in a greater sense of perplexity than he was when he began the study.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.