Maimonides, one of the most renowned scholars in Jewish history, moved across continents; his knowledge of Jewish law and tradition to the sciences was just as boundless.
Maimonides was born in the 1130s in Cordoba, Spain. While still in his teens, he mastered math, geometry and logic. He also studied medicine and turned to metaphysics, ethics and theology. He was particularly interested in Aristotle, whose teachings he weaved through his later writings.
But Maimonides’ life was by no means tranquil. Following the 1148 conquest of the peninsula by the Almohads — Berber fundamentalists who forced conversions on Christians and Jews and had killed 100,000 people in Fez, Morocco alone — his family moved from place to place in Spain.
“In the course of their conquest, the Almohads persecuted Jews in particular,” according to Benjamin Balint, a Jerusalem-based writer. “The Almohad leader Ibn Tumart declared, ‘Come let us cut them off from being a nation, so that the name of Israel may be no more a remembrance.’ Many were forced to live as crypto-Jews, foreshadowing the Marranos of Christian Spain three centuries later. They worshipped in mosques, and recited Jewish prayers only in secret.”
When Maimonides was about 20, he and his family moved south to Fez, Morocco. There, according to the Jewish and National Library, he “composed his Iggeret ha-shemad (Letter on Forced Conversions), in order to calm the fears of those who had been forced to convert. Maimonides explains that a declaration of belief in the Prophet Mohammad, made under threat of death, does not constitute desecration of God’s name. He admits to the many hardships that he himself suffered during this time. There is reason to believe that in order to save his life, he too had to convert to Islam, for the sake of appearances, until he left Morocco.”
Five years later, Maimonides fled again, this time to Acre, in modern day Israel, which was then under Crusader control. He visited Jerusalem and Hebron, and moved to Fostat, Egypt, where he married the daughter of a government official and physician.
In his letter to Rabbi Yafet ha-Dayyan of Acre, written some 20 years after settling in Egypt, he describes the sorrows he endured upon his arrival:
“A few months after our departure my father died … many mishaps befell me – sickness and monetary losses, the efforts of informers to have me killed, and the greatest misfortune of all, the worst of all that has happened to me from the day I was born to this moment, was the death of the righteous one, may his memory be blessed [my brother, David], who drowned in the Indian Ocean, and with him the fortune that belonged to me, to him and to others.”
In Egypt, Maimonides became Ra’is al-Yahud, the head of Egypt’s Jews, where he appointed judges and raised money for Jews taken captive by Crusader King Almaric.
According to Balint, Maimonides envisioned more for his career:
“He envisioned — and ardently wished for — a unification of revelation and reason, law and philosophy, Torah and wisdom. He sought to show that the Torah is a rational law, its commands instructing virtue and moral perfection. This meant laying out a scientific treatment of the law, in both its practical and theoretical aspects.”
His most well-known and revered text was the Mishneh Torah, the greatest Jewish work since the Talmud, which is still heavily debated in yeshivas to this day. Here, he set out his 13 principles of faith, concerning the unity of God, the divine origin of the Torah, and reward and punishment. These principles summarized what he viewed as the required beliefs of Judaism:
1. The existence of God
2. God’s unity and indivisibility into elements
3. God’s spirituality and incorporeality
4. God’s eternity
5. God alone should be the object of worship
6. Revelation through God’s prophets
7. The preeminence of Moses among the prophets
8. The Torah that we have today is the one dictated to Moses by God
9. The Torah given by Moses will not be replaced and nothing may be added or removed from it
10. God’s awareness of human actions
11. Reward of good and punishment of evil
12. The coming of the Jewish Messiah
13. The resurrection of the dead
Maimonides’ 13 Principles were controversial at the time and were ignored by much of the community for the next few centuries. However, they have become widely held today among religious Jews. Two prayers which incorporate the principles, Ani ‘Ma’amin and Yigdal, have since been canonized in the siddur.
“I have entitled this compilation Mishneh Torah [repetition of the Torah] because a man who first reads the written law and after that reads this will know from it the entire oral law, and will have no need to read any other books beside them,” Maimonides wrote of his 14-volume legal code. “In the time to come,” he predicted, “all Israel will use only my composition, and every other will undoubtedly be disregarded.”
Of the Mishneh Torah, Blint writes the following:
“Losing his passion for system, order, classification, and synthesis, Maimonides in his code lucidly distilled all of rabbinic literature into a single tour de force of legal writing unsurpassed to this day. At its heart lie some15,000 rulings concerning what is permitted and what is prohibited — civil and criminal law, ritual law, dietary regulations, the laws of purity and impurity, laws concerning the Temple, etc. All this is expressed in a supple Mishnaic Hebrew, enriched by biblical allusions and idioms, and embroidered with lyrical flourishes. The style is miraculously free of superfluity; Maimonides considered brevity a mark of godliness.”
“More than a legal code, the Mishneh Torah expresses a worldview that takes Jewish law as timeless truth; it is a work of art that achieves taut balance of originality with fidelity, of content with form.”
“In fact, the code’s radical content glares forth from its very first lines. The Mishneh Torah opens not with a traditional account of the revelation at Sinai, but with the identification of the God of Abraham with Aristotle’s First Mover. The first commandment it lists: to know the existence and unity of the Necessary Being we call God.”
Maimonides, much for this work, eventually came to be known by the following saying: “From the (biblical) Moses to Moses (Maimonides) there arose none like Moses.” But despite his renown, not everyone was pleased with his work, as Blint recounts:
“Detractors like Samuel ben Eli, head of the academy in Baghdad, accused Maimonides of harboring only a half-hearted belief in resurrection. Abraham ben David of Posquières challenged the code’s rulings line by line.”
“But in the long run, the Mishneh Torah assumed an unassailable place of prominence in the canon. Over the centuries, it gathered around itself over 300 commentaries. Isaac Newton consulted it in Latin translation. It reshaped the vocabulary of Jewish law, and influenced European jurists down to John Selden and Hugo Grotius. It is debated with undiminished vigor in Jewish academies to this day.”
When Maimonides was 53, he finished, in Arabic, “The Guide to the Perplexed,” in which he stressed the centrality of intellect to religious life.
The Guide is to the Mishneh Torah, according to Blint, as aggada is to halacha.
“The treatise marks the highest achievement of Jewish thought. It has been translated more than any other medieval Jewish work. Readers like Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Meister Eckhart made admiring references to ‘Rabbi Moses Aegyptius.’ Aquinas borrowed from the Guide his arguments for the existence of God. (Closer to the present day, after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Israel’s President Yitzhak Navon presented him with a copy of the Guide in the original Arabic.)”
One of Maimonides most oft-cited concepts is: “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.” In essence, Maimonides argued that executing a person on anything less than absolute certainty would lead to a slippery slope of decreasing burdens of proof.
Maimonides also wrote about the laws of charity, or tzedakah. In Hilkhot Matanot Aniyim (Laws about Giving to Poor People), Chapter 10:7–14, Maimonides lists his Eight Levels of Giving (where the first level is most preferable, and the eighth the least):
1. Giving an interest-free loan to a person in need; forming a partnership with a person in need; giving a grant to a person in need; finding a job for a person in need; so long as that loan, grant, partnership, or job results in the person no longer living by relying upon others.
2. Giving tzedakah anonymously to an unknown recipient via a person (or public fund), who is trustworthy, wise, and can perform acts of tzedakah with your money in a most impeccable fashion.
3. Giving tzedakah anonymously to a known recipient.
4. Giving tzedakah publicly to an unknown recipient.
5. Giving tzedakah before being asked.
6. Giving adequately after being asked.
7. Giving willingly, but inadequately.
8. Giving “in sadness” (giving out of pity): It is thought that Maimonides was referring to giving because of the sad feelings one might have in seeing people in need (as opposed to giving because it is a religious obligation). Other translations say, “Giving unwillingly.”
Beyond Maimonides’ scholarly work, he was also a learned doctor who served officials in the Egyptian court as well as commoner patients. Maimonides died at 69 in Egypt, and by tradition and according to his wishes, is buried in Tiberias, Israel.
Top quotes from Maimonides:
“Truth does not become more true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it.”
“The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.”
“From Moses to Moses, there was none like Moses.”
“You must accept the truth from whatever source it comes.”
“Teach thy tongue to say ‘I do not know,’ and thou shalt progress.”
“Do not consider it proof just because it is written in books, for a liar who will deceive with his tongue will not hesitate to do the same with his pen.”
“Accept the truth from whatever source it comes.”
“It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.”
“We are obligated to be more scrupulous in fulfilling the commandment of charity than any other positive commandment because charity is the sign of a righteous man.”