1902 Encyclopedia > Maimonides (Moses Ben Maimon)

(Moses Ben Maimon)
Jewish philosopher

MAIMONIDES (1135-1204). Among the great men to whom Mohammedan Cordova has given birth—and these are not a few—the greatest is unquestionably Rab-benu Mosheh b. Maimun 2 Haddayyan.3 Like the lives of so many great men, that of this " last of the Geonim as regards time and the first of them as regards worth " 4 is surrounded by a halo of fables, some of which, though fictitious, are instructive in many respects, whilst others are telliug in dramatic effect and touching in the extreme. Some of these fables, however, are merely amusing, whilst others are simply ridiculous.5 The present article confines itself to facts and a few criticisms founded on them.

"Rambam," or Maimonides, was born March 30, 1135, and died at Cairo, December 13, 1204; consequently he did not quite attain the age of seventy,6—a short space of life, when we take into consideration all the work he did for his contemporaries and all the works he left to posterity.

Like many other great and conscientious rabbis of all times, who considered it a sin to make of religious learning a means of gaining bread, Maimonides adopted the medical profession. That he must have greatly excelled in it is not merely known by the medical works he composed, but is best testified to by the fact that, although a Jew (and the times and the country he lived in were certainly not more tolerant than ours), he held the lucrative and important office of court-physician to Saladin of Egypt.

Maimonides was master of Greek-Arabic philosophy, as maybe seen from his Technical Terms of Logic,' his Guide, and his other works. That he was a mathematician and astronomer of no mean standing appears from the Maamar Ha'ibburs (calculations of the calendar, which he wrote at the age of twenty-two), the Hilehhoth Kiddush Hahodesh (in the book Zemannim of the Mishneh Torah), and the commentary on T. B., Rosh Ilasshanah. That he was a great Tahmudist we know from his commentary on the Mishnah and his chef-d'œuvre the Mishneh Torah. That he was, as philosopher and theologian, a profound thinker we know from his Guide of the Perplexed and his other works. To sum up in a few words the merits of Maimonides, we may say that, with all the disadvantages of the times in which he lived, he was the greatest theologian and philosopher the Jews ever produced, and one of the greatest the world has seen to this day. As a religious and moral character he is equalled only by a few and surpassed by none.

The works of Maimonides were composed by him partly in Hebrew and partly in the vernacular Arabic,—a portion of the latter eing translated into Hebrew by himself.

I. Works composed by Maimonides in Hebrew. 1. Mishneh Torah, i.e., the systematic codification of the whole of the Jewish law, as it is to be found in the Bible, the Mishnah, Tosephta, MekMlta, Siphra, Siphre, both Talmudim, the Shceltoth, Halakhoth Gedoloth, the Responsa of the Geonim, the Hilckhoth, Eab Alphesi, ka. This work is drawn up in fourteen (T*— Yad) books, wdth a view to which fact and to the author's name {Mosheh) admiring and grateful posterity called it, from Deut. xxxiv. 12, JIayyad Hahazakah,—a title which has eclipsed, if it has not actually superseded, that given to it by the author himself. Great has been the success of this work. If Maimonides has not succeeded in superseding by it the Babylonian Talmud (as some think was his purpose1), he has certainly succeeded (probably against his will) in making of it a second Talmud of Babylon in the Talmudic acceptation of this term.2 The Mishneh Torah has become an arena of endless, though happily bloodless, strife. It is to this day a place of tournament for all Talmudists. The hundreds of folios on Rabbinic literature, written since the author's time, constantly draw the Rambam,3 naturally or artificially, into the discussions they contain. To clear up a difficult Rambam, or to "answer a Rambam," i.e., to remove an apparent difficulty in the Mishneh Torah, is the great test of the fitness or learning of a rabbi to this day. Moreover, all Sepharadim have received its dicta, though only cum grano, whilst the congregations of Arabia (as those of Yemen and others) not only live absolutely according to its teachings, but have actually neglected the study of the Talmudim through it. The work itself is to be found in MS. in numerous libraries (probably one of the oldest MSS. lying in the University Library of Cambridge, Add. 1564). Printed editions are also numerous, some without "strictures" (Rassagoth) and without a commentary, others with the "strictures" of the great rabbi4 of the little town of Pesquiers (in Provence), others with commentaries varying from four to eight, and even more. The earliest edition, which has neither place nor date, appeared somewhere in Italy, about 1480 ; the second at Soncino, 1490 ; tho third at Constantinople, 1509 ; the fourth, fifth, sixth (with the Sepher Hammisvoth, ka.), and seventh editions at Venice, 1524, 1550, 1550-51, and 1574-75 respectively ; the eighth (with the Antichristiana) at Amsterdam, 1702-3, all in folio ; the most recent and incomplete edition being that of Leipsic, 1862, 8vo. The Mishneh Torah stands, and has stood for centuries, even among non-Jews, in such respeet that " parts of books" (Halakhoth) have been rendered into other languages, notably into Latin. Extracts from this work have been translated into English by the late H. H. Bernard of Cambridge (Cambridge, 1832, 8vo) and E. Soloweyczik of Poland (London, 1863, 8vo).

2. Commentary on the treatise of Rosh Sasshanah according to the Babylonian Talmud. We know from Maimonides himself that he commented on almost the whole of the second, third, and fourth Scdarim and on one treatise (Hullin) of the fifth Seder of the Babylonian Talmud. But of all this none but his Rosh Hasshanah iias been preserved. This commentary is extant in four MSS., one of which, however, is a mere transcript, whilst two of the others are imperfect. Tho only edition existing {Hallebanon, ii. p. 61, &c.) is from these imperfect MSS. The one perfect MS. copy known to us is preserved in the University Library of Cambridge (Add. 494).

3. Some of the numerous letters ascribed to Maimonides. These are inextricably mixed up botli with letters written by him in Arabic and translated by others into Hebrew, and with letters addressed to him by others.

4. Religious poetry. There is a short liturgical piece (it is recited on the first day of New Year by the Arabic-speaking Jews of Algiers, Tunis, &c.) which begins Eth Sim'are Ratzon, and which bears the acrostic Ani Mosheh biribbi Maimon Hazak. It is an "'Akedah." But because there is a composition of the same nature and beginning, but of greater length and by another author ('Abbas Yehudah Shemuel), this is, in contradistinction, called 'Akedah Ketannah. Since the name of Mosheh, however, is common among all Jews and that of Maimon among those of the Maghrib (see Schiller-Szinessy's Cambridge Catalogue of the Hebrew Manuscripts, ii. p. 28, note 2), this little poem may, perhaps, belong to another (and inferior) rabbi of this name. If it really does belong to our Maimonides, we have a key to his contempt for the liturgical poets.5 Being a poor poet himself, he judged them by his own merits, or rather demerits.

II. Works composed by Maimonides in Arabic. 1. The commentary on the whole Mishnah. The author began this work whilst yet in Spain, continued it on his flight through Morocco, and finished it at his ease at Fostat (Cairo). The merit of this work is that the author explains therein the Mishnah in a Very lucid and brief way ; and, having privately digested the TalImudical controversies regarding each paragraph, he gives the result of it in the decision of the Halakhah. But this work has also its demerits. (1) It is occasionally incorrect in itself. (2) Being to most Talmudists accessible only in a translation, which they cannot gauge, the smallest clerical error produces confusion. (3) Nor were all the translators equally qualified for their task. Some were good Talmudists, but indifferent Arabic scholars ; some were good Talmudists and good Arabic scholars, but not fine Hebraists. (For the translators see Schiller-Szinessy, ut supra, ii. pp. 16, 17.)

2. The Sepher Hammisvoth is a preliminary to the author's masterpiece, the Mishneh Torah. This small but important work has been twice translated,—first by R. Mosheh b. Shemuel b. Yehudah Ibn Tibbon (Tabbon ?), and secondly by R. Shelomoh b. Yoseph Ibn Aiyrib. The former translation is known by printed editions and the latter by MSS. Ibn Aiyiib's, though less known, is the more correct translation. There is a copy of it in the University Library of Cambridge (Add. 676, 2).

3. But the most important and most learned and to us the most interesting of Maimonides's Arabic works is the Guide of the Perplexed (Dalalatu '1-Hairin in Arabic, and Moreh llannebokhim in Hebrew). It is the result of deep research in Bible and Midrash on the one hand and in Greek philosophy, as interpreted by Aristotle and his followers, together with various religious systems, on the other. The purpose of its composition and publication was to reconcile Jewish theology with refined heathen philosophy. Maimonides deservedly held Aristotle in very high estimation ; his traducers, however, said that he placed him in the Guide next to, if not above, Moses. No wonder, then, that religious Jews of a certain type in the author's lifetime took offence both at the book and the author. But serious warfare broke out only after Maimonides's death, which raged for more than a full century, and is not entirely extinguished even at this day. His followers, chiefly in Provence at the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th century, some of whom had only eyes for the master's negations and none for his affirmations, declared the whole history of the Bible to be mere symbolism. Abraham was, according to them, the Morphe, Sarah the Hyb, and so forth. These absurdities were considered by the religious as highly irreligious, and provoked active opposition and even excommunication. These, in their turn, provoked again the strong remonstrance of the moderate middle party and the ultimate excommunication of the excommunicators by the excommunicated. But long before that time the Guide had been publicly burned,—an act quite un-Jewish, but in unison with an age wdiich had more faith than knowledge, and which, dwelling in darkness, hated the light. People in our days cannot understand this ; they cannot understand the fierce opposition to the Guide, and much less the attachment to it. They ask, Is this the great work of the great Maimonides ? These explanations of the Scriptures we have long ago outgrown, and the philosophy it contains is not worth mention by the side of that of Schelling, Fichte, and Hegel! But the fact is that, if one wishes to form a proper estimate of this work, he must not merely read it, but earnestly study it. Then again, its contents must be viewed historically, i.e., both in connexion with the theological and philosophical systems of past ages and with the influence it has exercised uninterruptedly from the time of its appearance down to almost our own days. Isolated portions of it may have become antiquated. The symbolism of the Pentateuch and the meaning of the words of the prophetic books and Hagiographa may be clearer to us than they were in the author's time, by reason of our discoveries in science, our progress in philology, and our knowledge of history. Our knowledge of Greek philosophy may be much greater than Maimonides's was, owing partly to our acquaintance with the original writings of Aristotle and others, accessible to Maimonides only through a translation of a translation, and partly owing to our collation of numerous MSS., by which the errors are rectified of the copies from which the first translators made their version,—a rectification by which parts of the foundation and of the superstructure of the Moreh go down at one and the same time. But, when all this is considered, the Guide still remains a great work,—a product, indeed, of the Middle Ages, but truly immortal. 4. Responsa and other letters {Teshuboth Sheeloth veIggeroth). These do not belong exclusively to Maimonides. The first edition came out without place or date, but at Constantinople about 1520, folio.
5. Rcsponsa (printed under the title Peer Haddor) translated by E. Mordekhai Tammah, Amsterdam, 1765, 4to.

III. Works composed by Maimonides in Arabic and translated into Hebrew by himself.
1. The commentary on the Mishnah of the whole Seder Tohoroth. As is well known, the translation of this Seder has been hitherto regarded as anonymous. But the writer of this article has shown m the Cambridge Catalogue, ut supra, ii. p. 17, note 2, the high probability, amounting to a' moral certainty, that nobody else could have been, and that Maimonides himself must have been, the translator of this Seder, which more than any other demanded the three necessary qualifications of a good translator.

2. The letter on the sanctification of the name of God (Iggereth Hasshcinad, or Maamar Kiddush Hasshem ). Although the proofs which one can adduce for the translation by the author himself of this treatise are not so telling as those in the case just mentioned before, the moral certainty is not less. The treatise details (1) how much a Jew may yield, and how much he must resist, if forced to embrace another religion, and (2) that Mohammedanism is not a heathenish religion. It is generally held, though not quite conclusively proved, that Maimonides wrote this treatise pro domo sua, he and his family having been themselves forced to embrace Mohammedanism during the persecution by Ibn Tamurt. It ought to be borne in mind that the Jews generally look upon Christianity and Mohammedanism as having each taken a large share in their mother's (Judaism's) inheritance, and that, whilst the former looked more for her moral, the latter coveted her doctrinal possessions. Since morality, however, consists more in negatives than positives, and since doctrines are more openly challenged and openly avowed than morals, the Jews have always manifested less repugnance to profess, under pressure, Mohammedanism than Christianity.

There are other works both in Hebrew and in Arabic extant by our author. These relate mostly either to ritual affairs, and consist of letters to various rabbis, and colleges of rabbis, notably in the south of France, to congregations in Yemen and elsewhere, or to medical matters, and consist of short treatises, such as aphorisms, &c, but do not come up in interest to the great works already named. (S. M. S.-S.)


1 Hence he is called "Al-Kortubi" (and not al-Kordovi, or Hakordovi) by Arabic writers, and " Hassephardi " by himself (preface to Mishneh Torah
2 From the initials of his name, with " R" (for " Rabbenu") prefixed, and his father's name with "B" (for son of) prefixed, the Jews
* * # +
call him RaMBaM ; among Christians he is, more Grseco, called, Maimonides, from his father's name Maimun or Maimon.
3 See end of the commentary on the Mishnah (" Ani Mosheh bar Maimun Haddayyan ").
4 So Maimonides is designated by the famous Enbonet Abram (or Yeda'yah Happenini Bederesi, i.e., of Beziers) at the end of his Behinath tOlam.
5' Whoever wishes to know more of these fables may gratify his desire, if he knows Rabbinic, by reading Ibn Yahya's Shalsheleth Hakkabbalah ; if he understands German, by reading Jost's Geschichte ;. and if he understands only English, by reading Benisch, Two Lectures, ka., London, 1847, 8vo.
6 Note at the end of the author's commentary on T. B., Bosh Hasshanah, by his grandson R. David (Hallebanon, ii. p. 60).
7 This work was translated from the Arabic into Hebrew by R.. Mosheh Ibn Tibbon, and printed for the first time at Venice, 1550, 4to. The third edition (Frankfort-on-the-Oder, 1761, 4to)has a commentary by Mendelssohn.
8 See the collection Dibere Hakhamim (Metz, 1849, 8vo), p. 23,> The translation is by R. Mosheh Ibn Tibbon.

The first edition appeared without place and date, but Constantinople about 1516, 4to.
See Schiller-Szinessy, Catalogue, &c, i. p. 188, notes 1 and 2.
Moses Mendelssohn, for example, became one of the greatest philosophers of his day through studying the Moreh.
This book was till within the last few years known only through the translation of E. Shemuel b. Yehudah Ibn Tibbon, which has been printed numerous times, the editio princeps being without place or date, but somewhere in Italy (Bologna ?) before 1480. There is, however, also another translation from olden times in existence. It is by the famous E. Yehudah Al-Harizi, and has been edited by Schlossberg (i., London, 1851 ; ii. and iii., Vienna, 1874 and 1879 respectively, all in 8vo). The late S. Munk has, however, surpassed in correctness both his predecessors in his Guide des Égarés, which contains the Arabic original with a French translation. It appeared at Paris, 1856-66, in 3 vols. 8vo.

1 Luzzatto, Kerem Hemed, iii. 67. 2 T. B., Synhedrin, 24a.
s So this work is commonly and especially called from the author's name.
* * * *
4 R. Abraham Ben David (Rabad) was the author's contemporary
_and the only literary man who ever conquered him, according to his _own confession.
5 See introduction to the Sepher Hammisvoth, ..

The above article was written by S. M. Schiller-Szinessy, Ph.D., Reader in Talmudic Literature, University of Cambridge.

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