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.

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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.