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Moses ben Maimon,[note 1] commonly known as Maimonides (/mˈmɒnɪdz/ my-MON-i-deez)[note 2] and also referred to by the acronym Rambam (Hebrew: רמב״ם‎),[note 3] was a medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher who became one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages. In his time, he was also a preeminent astronomer and physician, serving as the personal physician of Saladin.[8][9][10][11][12] Born in Córdoba, Almoravid Empire (present-day Spain) on Passover eve, 1138 (or 1135),[13][14][15][16][17] he worked as a rabbi, physician and philosopher in Morocco and Egypt. He died in Egypt on 12 December 1204, whence his body was taken to the lower Galilee and buried in Tiberias.[18][19]

During his lifetime, most Jews greeted Maimonides' writings on Jewish law and ethics with acclaim and gratitude, even as far away as Iraq and Yemen. Yet, while Maimonides rose to become the revered head of the Jewish community in Egypt, his writings also had vociferous critics, particularly in Spain. Nonetheless, he was posthumously acknowledged as among the foremost rabbinical decisors and philosophers in Jewish history, and his copious work comprises a cornerstone of Jewish scholarship. His fourteen-volume Mishneh Torah still carries significant canonical authority as a codification of Talmudic law. He is sometimes known as "ha'Nesher ha'Gadol" (the great eagle)[20] in recognition of his outstanding status as a bona fide exponent of the Oral Torah.

Aside from being revered by Jewish historians, Maimonides also figures very prominently in the history of Islamic and Arab sciences and is mentioned extensively in studies. Influenced by Al-Farabi, Avicenna, and his contemporary Averroes, he became a prominent philosopher and polymath in both the Jewish and Islamic worlds.

Name

His full Hebrew name is Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (רבי משה בן מימון‎), whose acronym forms "Rambam" (רמב״ם‎). His full Arabic name is Abū ʿImrān Mūsā bin Maimūn bin ʿUbaidallāh al-Qurtabī (ابو عمران موسى بن ميمون بن عبيد الله القرطبي), or Mūsā bin Maymūn (موسى بن ميمون) for short. The portion bin ʿUbaidallāh should not imply that Maimon's father was named Obadiah, instead bin ʿUbaidallāh is treated as Maimonides' surname, as Obadiah was the name of his earliest direct ancestor. In Latin, the Hebrew ben (son of) becomes the Greek-style patronymic suffix -ides, forming "Moses Maimonides".

Biography

The dominion of the Almohad Caliphate at its greatest extent, c. 1200 CE

Early years

Maimonides was born 1138 in Córdoba, Andalusia in the Berber Muslim-ruled Almoravid Empire during what some scholars consider to be the end of the golden age of Jewish culture in the Iberian Peninsula, after the first centuries of the Moorish rule. His father Maimon ben Joseph, was a Spanish dayyan (Jewish judge), whose family claimed direct paternal descent from Simeon ben Judah ha-Nasi, and thus from the Davidic line. Maimonides later stated that there are 38 generations between him and Judah ha-Nasi.[21][22] His ancestry, going back four generations, is given in his Iggeret Teiman (Epistle to Yemen), as Moses son of Maimon the Judge (hadayan), son of Joseph the Wise (hachakham), son of Isaac the Rabbi (harav), son of Obadiah the Judge.[23] At an early age, Maimonides developed an interest in sciences and philosophy. He read those Greek philosophers accessible in Arabic translations, and was deeply immersed in the sciences and learning of Islamic culture.[24]

Maimonides was not known as a supporter of Kabbalah, although a strong intellectual type of mysticism has been discerned in his philosophy.[25] He expressed disapproval of poetry, the best of which he declared to be false, since it was founded on pure invention. This sage, who was revered for his personality as well as for his writings, led a busy life, and wrote many of his works while travelling or in temporary accommodation.[26] Maimonides studied Torah under his father, who had in turn studied under Rabbi Joseph ibn Migash, a student of Isaac Alfasi.

Maimonides' house in Fez, Morocco

Exile

Another Berber dynasty, the Almohads, conquered Córdoba in 1148 and abolished dhimmi status (i.e., state protection of non-Muslims ensured through payment of a tax, the jizya) in some[which?] of their territories. The loss of this status left the Jewish and Christian communities with conversion to Islam, death, or exile.[26] Many Jews were forced to convert, but due to suspicion by the authorities of fake conversions, the new converts had to wear identifying clothing that set them apart and made them subject to public scrutiny.[27][28]

Maimonides's family, along with most other Jews,[dubious ] chose exile. Some say, though, that it is likely that Maimonides feigned a conversion to Islam before escaping.[29] This forced conversion was ruled legally invalid under Islamic law when brought up by a rival in Egypt.[30] For the next ten years, Maimonides moved about in southern Spain, eventually settling in Fez in Morocco. During this time, he composed his acclaimed commentary on the Mishnah, during the years 1166–1168.[31]

Following this sojourn in Morocco, together with two sons,[32] he sojourned in the Land of Israel before settling in Fustat in Fatimid Caliphate-controlled Egypt around 1168. While in Cairo, he studied in a yeshiva attached to a small synagogue, which now bears his name.[33] In the Land of Israel, he prayed at the Temple Mount. He wrote that this day of visiting the Temple Mount was a day of holiness for him and his descendants.[34]

Maimonides shortly thereafter was instrumental in helping rescue Jews taken captive during the Christian Amalric of Jerusalem's siege of the southeastern Nile Delta town of Bilbeis. He sent five letters to the Jewish communities of Lower Egypt asking them to pool money together to pay the ransom. The money was collected and then given to two judges sent to Palestine to negotiate with the Crusaders. The captives were eventually released.[35]

Death of his brother

Monument in Córdoba

Following this triumph, the Maimonides family, hoping to increase their wealth, gave their savings to his brother, the youngest son David ben Maimon, a merchant. Maimonides directed his brother to procure goods only at the Sudanese port of ʽAydhab. After a long arduous trip through the desert, however, David was unimpressed by the goods on offer there. Against his brother's wishes, David boarded a ship for India, since great wealth was to be found in the East.[36] Before he could reach his destination, David drowned at sea sometime between 1169 and 1177. The death of his brother caused Maimonides to become sick with grief.

In a letter discovered in the Cairo Geniza, he wrote:

The greatest misfortune that has befallen me during my entire life—worse than anything else—was the demise of the saint, may his memory be blessed, who drowned in the Indian sea, carrying much money belonging to me, to him, and to others, and left with me a little daughter and a widow. On the day I received that terrible news I fell ill and remained in bed for about a year, suffering from a sore boil, fever, and depression, and was almost given up. About eight years have passed, but I am still mourning and unable to accept consolation. And how should I console myself? He grew up on my knees, he was my brother, [and] he was my student.[37]

Nagid

Around 1171, Maimonides was appointed the Nagid of the Egyptian Jewish community.[33] Arabist Shelomo Dov Goitein believes the leadership he displayed during the ransoming of the Crusader captives led to this appointment.[38] However he was replaced by Sar Shalom ben Moses in 1173. Over the controversial course of Sar Shalom's appointment, during which Sar Shalom was accused of tax farming, Maimonides excommunicated and fought with him for several years until Maimonides was appointed Nagid in 1195. A work known as "Megillat Zutta" was written by Abraham ben Hillel, who writes a scathing description of Sar Shalom while praising Maimonides as "the light of east and west and unique master and marvel of the generation."[39][40][41] With the loss of the family funds tied up in David's business venture, Maimonides assumed the vocation of physician, for which he was to become famous. He had trained in medicine in both Córdoba and in Fez. Gaining widespread recognition, he was appointed court physician to the Grand Vizier al-Qadi al Fadil, then to Sultan Saladin, after whose death he remained a physician to the Ayyubid dynasty.[8]

In his medical writings, Maimonides described many conditions, including asthma, diabetes, hepatitis, and pneumonia, and he emphasized moderation and a healthy lifestyle.[42] His treatises became influential for generations of physicians. He was knowledgeable about Greek and Arabic medicine, and followed the principles of humorism in the tradition of Galen. He did not blindly accept authority but used his own observation and experience.[42] Julia Bess Frank indicates that Maimonides in his medical writings sought to interpret works of authorities so that they could become acceptable.[8] Maimonides displayed in his interactions with patients attributes that today would be called intercultural awareness and respect for the patient's Autonomy.[43] Although he frequently wrote of his longing for solitude in order to come closer to God and to extend his reflections – elements considered essential in his philosophy to the prophetic experience -he gave over most of his time to caring for others.[44] In a famous letter, Maimonides describes his daily routine. After visiting the Sultan's palace, he would arrive home exhausted and hungry, where "I would find the antechambers filled with gentiles and Jews … I would go to heal them, and write prescriptions for their illnesses … until the evening … and I would be extremely weak."[45]

As he goes on to say in this letter, even on Shabbat he would receive members of the community. It is remarkable that he managed to write extended treatises, including not only medical and other scientific studies but some of the most systematically thought-through and influential treatises on halakha (rabbinic law) and Jewish philosophy of the Middle Ages.[46]

Joseph Karo later praised Maimonides, writing of him, "Maimonides is the greatest of the decisors [of Jewish law], and all communities of the Land of Israel and of Arabia and of the Maghreb base their practices after him, and have taken him upon themselves as their rabbi."[47]

In 1173/4, Maimonides wrote his famous Epistle to Yemen.[48] It has been suggested that his "incessant travail" undermined his own health and brought about his death at 69 (although this is a normal lifespan).[49]

Death

Maimonides died on 12 December 1204 (20th of Tevet 4965) in Fustat. It is widely believed that he was briefly buried in the beth midrash of the synagogue courtyard, and that, soon after, in accordance with his wishes, his remains were exhumed and taken to Tiberias, where he was reinterred.[50] The Tomb of Maimonides on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel marks his grave. This location for his final resting-place has been debated, for in the Jewish Cairene community, a tradition holds that he remained buried in Egypt.[51]

Maimonides and his wife, the daughter of Mishael ben Yeshayahu Halevi, had one child who survived into adulthood,[52] Abraham Maimonides, who became recognized as a great scholar. He succeeded Maimonides as Nagid and as court physician at the age of eighteen. Throughout his career, he defended his father's writings against all critics. The office of Nagid was held by the Maimonides family for four successive generations until the end of the 14th century.

Maimonides is widely respected in Spain, and a statue of him was erected near the Córdoba Synagogue.

Maimonides is sometimes said to be a descendant of King David, although he never made such a claim.[53][54]

Thirteen principles of faith