Jewish Commentators — Their Lives and Works
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Hebrew Name(s): משה בן מימון; רמב"ם
Other Names: Maimonides, Rambam, The Rambam, Moshe ben Maimon, Moses ben Maimon, Hanesher Hagadol (The Great Eagle)
Period: Rishonim — 12th Century
Location: Spain, Egypt
Moses ben Maimon (the Rambam, Maimonides) was a philosopher, Talmudist, physician and linguist, and one of the greatest Torah scholars of the Middle Ages whose influence continues to inform scholarship and exegesis to this day.
The Rambam was born in Cordoba, Spain c. 1138 and died in Egypt, having worked in Spain, Morocco, and Egypt. His philosophy was Aristotlean following the philosophical tradition of the Muslim East. His writings, therefore, caused some controversy in the West here Aristotlean philosophy had been lost for centuries. His writings, however, in a secondary way, influenced Western Christian theology, being read by, among others, St Albert the Great and St Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, who also followed the tradition of Aristotle, references Maimonides in his work (e.g., Commentary on the Sentences.)
Maimonides believed that human comprehension of God was so inadequate that God can only be described by negative attributes. I.e., One cannot say that "God is One" but rather "God is not multiple."
Maimonides composed works on philosophy, Jewish scholarship, rabbinic law and also medical science. Most of his work (except for Mishneh Torah) was written in Arabic.
In his Commentary on the Mishnah Maimonides provides his formula for faith, known as The Thirteen Principles. Not universally accepted in his time, these principles in time were widely adopted and today appear in different forms in the Siddur (Prayer Book) as Ani Ma'amin and Yigdal.
The Thirteen Principles:
Maimonides died in Egypt and was buried there. His body was later exhumed and removed to the Old Cemetery in Tiberius, Palestine where his final resting place has become a place of pilgrimage. The pathway to the tomb, is lined on either side with fourteen columns each of which bears the name (in Hebrew) of one of the fourteen chapters of his great work, the Mishneh Torah.
המדע (Knowledge/Wisdom); אהבה (Love); זמנים (Times/Seasons); נשים (Women); קדושה (Holiness); הפלאה (Separation/Pledges); זרעים (Seeds); עבודה (Divine Service); הקרבנות (Offerings); טהרה (Cleanness/Purity); נזיקין (Injuries/Damages); קנין (Acquisitions); משפטים (Rights/Judgments); שופטים (Judges)
Mishneh Torah; Moreh Nebukim (Guide of the Perplexed); Pirush Hamishnayot (Commentary on the Mishnah); Sefer Hamitzvot (Book of the Commandments); Teshuvot; Treatise on Logic; Iggerot ha-Rambam (Maimonides' Epistles); Hilkhot ha-Yerushalmi (The Laws of the Palestinian Talmud); Iggeret HaShmad (Book of Martyrdom); Iggeret Techiyat Hameisim (Epistle on Resurrection of the Dead); Iggeret Taiman (Epistle to Yemen); Maḳalah fi al-Tauḥid (Discourse on the Unity); Maḳalah fi al-Sa'adah (Treatise on Happiness); Extracts from Galen (aka. The Art of Cure); Commentary on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates; Fusul Musa (Chapters of Moses); Treatise on Hemorrhoids; Treatise on Cohabitation; Treatise on Asthma; Treatise on Poisons and Their Antidotes; Regimen of Health; Discourse on the Explanation of Fits; Glossary of Drug Names
Mishneh Torah, also known as Sefer Yad ha-Chazaka, is a comprehensive code of Jewish law of fourteen volumes which is considered authoritative as a codification of Talmudic law. The goal of Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah, according to his statement in his introduction, is to provide the halakhah for everyone without each having to first sift through the Gemara or the teaching of the Geonim to determine it. The important criterion was not that of sparing the seeker the effort but to prevent errors in understanding the determinations of halakhah.
This objective of Maimonides’ has often been criticized. Joseph Karo, in the introduction to his Kesef Mishnah quoted the Rosh (Asher ben Jehiel) as saying “All who issue rulings from the words of Maimonides who are not expert enough in Mishnah and Gemara to know from where Maimonides derives his statements, will err in permitting the prohibited and prohibiting the permitted, because each reader thinks he understands it, but he doesn’t. …Therefore no one should rely on his reading of the Mishneh Torah to rule on matters unless he finds a proof-text in the Gemara.” [Karo, quoting the second part of a responsum of the Rosh omits the first part in which the meaning becomes clear. The Rosh only intended to prohibit rulings based on matters that are not expressly explained by Maimonides, where the person issuing the ruling merely analogizes the situation before him to a ruling of Maimonides.]
The popular Hebrew title for the Mishneh Torah, Yad ha-Chazaka, means, literally, “strong hand.” The title also contains a reference to the fourteen chapters in the work which represent fourteen categories of the law. The Hebrew letters, yud dalet, being the number fourteen.
The Guide of the Perplexed (Moreh Nebukim) is a philosophical work in which Maimonides attempts to harmonize Jewish theology and Aristotle's philosophy. The Guide is the main source of Maimonides’ philosophical views (as opposed to his views on halakhah).
The work consists of three volumes. According to Maimonides he wrote The Guide in order to promote a true understanding for the real spirit of the law which, when approached by religious persons schooled in philosophy, presented embarrassing contradictions between the teachings of philosophy and the literal sense of the Torah. The first two volumes raised issues which provided the background for his treatment in volume three of the Jewish mystical texts (Maaseh Bereshit and Maaseh Merkavah) focusing particularly on and their understanding of the theology of Creation and the passage of the Chariot of Ezekiel.
Maimonides, in Moreh Nebukim, summarized the teachings of Aristotle and the doctrines of Moses and the Rabbis finding in these two independent bodies of truths agreement, not contradiction, and reconciled them.
The Guide of the Perplexed became very popular with much of the Jewish world but also provoked controversy. Maimonides’ views on angels, prophecy, miracles and especially his views on reconciling the biblical account of creation with the doctrine of the eternity of the universe provoked reactions from the orthodox. His theory on the unity of souls was seen by them as a denial of the immortality of the soul. The influence of Moreh Nebukim extended beyond Judaism; as early as the thirteenth century portions of it were translated into Latin, and many Christian scholastics, like Albertus Magnus, Duns Scotus, Alexander of Hales and Thomas Aquinas drew from it. Many philosophical works in the Middle Ages commented upon it.
After the death of Maimonides the Moreh Nebukim provided fuel for a long disputation between conservative and liberal Jews in France and Spain. In about 1234, the dispute was referred to the Christian authorities with the result that Maimonides’ works were ordered to be burned. Never-the-less the Moreh Nebukim became The Guide of enlightened Jews for many generations. Its study produced philosophers like Spinoza, Solomon Maimon, and Moses Mendelssohn.
The Guide of the Perplexed, a work of both philosophy and theology, became of extraordinary importance, not only for the rational development of Judaism, but for the history of philosophy in the Middle Ages. The object of the work is explained by Maimonides in the following terms:
"I have composed this work neither for the common people, nor for beginners, nor for those who occupy themselves only with the Law as it is handed down without concerning themselves with its principles. The design of this work is rather to promote the true understanding of the real spirit of the Law, to guide those religious persons who, adhering to the Torah, have studied philosophy and are embarrassed by the contradictions between the teachings of philosophy and the literal sense of the Torah."
Maimonides wrote The Guide, which is considered a philosophic masterwork, in the form of a letter to a disciple who has confronted the apparent disparities between philosophic and scientific ideas and biblical ideas. The Guide of the Perplexed is a work in which Maimonides attempts to harmonize Jewish theology and Aristotle's philosophy.
Written in Judeo-Arabic, The Guide of the Perplexed (Dalalat al-Ḥa'irin) was first translated into Hebrew in Maimonides’ lifetime, by Samuel ibn Tibbon in 1204 and published under the name Moreh Nebukim. A second translation was made by Yehuda al-Harizi. This translation was criticized for its inaccuracies. Most modern translations depend upon Tibbon’s translation.
Pirush Hamishnayot, written in Judeo-Arabic (known in Arabic as Kitab al-Siraj, The Book of the Lamp, and sometimes as Sefer Ha-Ma'or in Hebrew) is one of the first commentaries of its kind in a period when the practice of Jews who followed the Babylonian academies was to study the Mishnah from within the Talmud rather than as a separate topic. Published in 1168 following ten years of work and revision (1138–1204, Maimonides was 23–30 years of age), the work was written in transliterated Arabic using Hebrew letters. In this work Maimonides attempted to present the Mishnah in the light of explanations given in the Talmud and by post-Talmudic authorities (and occasionally later authorities) and determine which explanations were authoritative. In it he condenses associated Talmudic debates and offers his own conclusions where an issue is undecided.
Maimonides’ determination of normative law in the Commentary utilizes both Talmuds (Yerushalmi and Bavli) and post-Talmudic authorities, especially AlFasi. The introductory sections and the introduction itself are widely quoted in other works on the Mishnah and the Oral Law. His introduction to the tenth Chapter (on Tractate Sanhedrin) is one of his best known because of the enumeration of Maimonides’ Thirteen Fundamental Beliefs of Judaism. Rabbi Josepf Kapach (Yosef Qafih, יוסף קאפח), a Yemenite leader, did much work in restoring the Commentary on the Mishnah from old manuscripts. His work became a popular translation. Another translation, with footnotes, is published by Machon MaOhr.
Sefer Hamitzvot catalogues all 613 commandments of the Torah. Maimonides lists first among the 248 positive commandments “I am the Lord thy God” and first among the negative commandments “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”. Maimonides explains that these are the two commandments that the sages taught to have been learned from God himself, citing the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b.
In his introduction to Sefer HaMitzvot Maimonides wrote that because his goal in the Commentary to the Mishnah had been to explain the substance of each and every halakhah in the Mishnah rather than to provide an exhaustive discussion of the laws regarding every commandment…
"I deemed it advisable to compile a compendium which would include all the laws of the Torah and its regulations, nothing missing in it. In this compendium I would try, as I am accustomed to do, to avoid mentioning differences of opinion and rejected teachings, and include in it only the established law, so that this compendium would embrace all of the laws of the Torah of Moses our teacher, whether they have bearing in the time of the exile or not."
Teshuvot is a collection of letters and responsa. Topics included are: resurrection, the afterlife, conversion (to other faiths) and Iggereth Teiman, (Epistle to Yemen, אגרת תימן) a letter addressed to the oppressed Jews of Yemen c. 1172—written after Jacob ben Nathanael [one of Yemen’s most respected scholars] sort Maimonides’ counsel regarding the religious persecution and heresy which plagued the Yemenite Jews during a period of religious and civil unrest. Maimonides interceded with Saladin and shortly afterwards the persecutions came to an end.
Treatise on Logic. Maimonides’ works on logic include Treatise on Logic (Arabic name: Maqala Fi-Sinat Al-Mantiq), a work written while Maimonides was in his twenties. It treats the essentials of Aristotlean logic as found in the teachings of the Arabic philosophers especially Avicenna and Al-Farabi (Alpharabius). The latter Maimonides calls “The Second Master” (The “First Master” being Aristotle himself.) The work details the technical meanings of the words used by logicians (the Hebrew name for the work is The Words of Logic). The whole work, although detailing the terms of logic accompanied with illustrated examples, is organized into chapters which proceed in a rational sequence and incorporate associated notions.
Treatise on Logic was translated into Hebrew by Moses ibn Tibbon under the title Millot ha-Higgayon, and was first published, with two anonymous commentaries, at Venice in 1552. Treatise on Logic has been reprinted many times and includes translations in Latin, French, German, English and Hebrew.
Iggerot ha-Rambam is a collection of letters written by Maimonides. The collection includes: The Epistle on Martyrdom, The Epistle to Yemen and the Essay on the Resurrection.
Hilkhot ha-Yerushalmi exists as a fragment only. The work is a commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud. It was identified and published by Saul Lieberman in 1947 and provides a summary of the conclusions of the Talmud Yerushalmi written in the format of Alfasi's Halakhot. In one of his responsa, Maimonides explains his decision to follow in the footsteps of Isaac Alfasi whose commentary on the Babylonian Talmud was widely used in the East. Because of the way the Palestinian Talmud was viewed by the sages in Andalusia it was a logical step for Maimonides to take. He completed Alfasi's omissions and wrote a work that would present laws and commentaries in the Palestinian Talmud that were missing in the Babylonian. Maimonides completed the discussion of tractates Berachot and Ketubot ( and also possibly Kiddushin) before leaving the project and continuing his work on the Mishneh Torah.
Hilkhot ha-Yerushalmi, although never completed, provides a valuable record of the Palestinian Talmud. Even in the Middle Ages manuscripts of the Yerushalmi were rare and because Maimonides copied large portions of the text available to him, in its original language, into his work we have an exact copy of the text he used. The Hilkhot ha-Yerushalmi also provides Maimonides’ commentary on selected issues raised in the Palestinian Talmud. The work is also of value in helping to clarify Maimonides sources which are unattributed in the Mishneh Torah.
Responding to the pressures of placed upon Jews in Spain and Northern Africa by Islam Iggeret haShmad. Maimonides wrote an essay on forced conversions which is known by the titles Discourse on Martyrdom, The Letter of Martyrdom or The Book of Martyrdom. It is translated anonymously into Hebrew under the title Iggeret haShmad. It is also known under the title Ma'amar Ḳiddush HaShem because in in Maimonides discusses what constitutes sanctification (Kiddush HaShem). The essay explains
It is believed that Maimonides wrote this essay in reply to a rabbi who asserted that compulsory converts to Islam, though they may secretly observe all the Jewish precepts, cannot be considered as Israelites. Some hold that in this case Maimonides preached pro domo sua, he and his family having been themselves forced to embrace Islam. Others, however, contest this and, on very good grounds, doubt Maimonides’ authorship of this essay.
Igeret Techiyat Hameisim is an essay on Resurrection. It was translated by Samuel ibn Tibbon and published as Ma'amar Teḥiyyot ha-Metim in 1629.
Iggeret Taiman is a letter to R. Jacob al-Fayyumi regarding the position of the Jews in Yemen in 1172. It has been translated under various names. By Samuel Tibbon as Iggeret Teman, Nathan ha-Ma’arabi as Petaḥ Tiḳvah and by Abraham ibn Ḥisdai.
Maḳalah fi al-Tauḥid is an essay on the unity of God. It was translated by Isaac ben Nathan in the 14th Century and published as Ma'amar ha-Yiḥud.
Peraḳim be-Haẓlaḥah is the Hebrew title of Maḳalah fi al-Sa'adah, an essay of two chapters on felicity. The translation was published in 1567.
Maimonides' Medical works
Extracts from Galen (also known as The Art of Cure) is an extract of Galen's extensive writings.
Maimonides’ Commentary on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates is interspersed with his own views.
Medical Aphorisms of Moses (titled Fusul Musa in Arabic, Pirkei Moshe in Hebrew and Chapters of Moses) contains 1500 aphorisms and many medical conditions are described.
The Treatise on Hemorrhoids includes discussions digestion and food also.
The Treatise on Cohabitation contains recipes as aphrodisiacs and anti-aphrodisiacs.
A Treatise on Asthma discusses climates and diets and their effect on asthma and emphasizes the need for clean air.
A Treatise on Poisons and Their Antidotes is an early toxicology textbook that remained popular for centuries.
Regimen of Health is a discourse on healthy living and the mind-body connection.
Discourse on the Explanation of Fits advocates healthy living and the avoidance of overabundance.
The Glossary of Drug Names represents a pharmacopeia with 405 paragraphs with the names of drugs in Arabic, Greek, Syrian, Persian, Berber, and Spanish.
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