the Rambam, his life and works

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the Rambam, his life and works


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Opinion & Society


By Eliezer Cohen

In Jewish annals and thoughts, many great luminaries have provided the chosen people direction and comfort. Few have reached a level of popularity and reverence such as that reached by the Rambam. The Rambam, an acrostic for his Hebrew name, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, also known as Maimonidies, was born to an illustrious scholar, Maimon, in Cordoba, Spain in 1135 C.E, Although the piety and scholarship of the Rambam is widely recognized and accepted today, during his lifetime he was the center of many detractors.

Spain enjoyed great wealth and prestige during that period, but it also harbored many religious fanatics. In 1148, when the Rambam was 13 years old, Cordoba fell to the Almohads, a fierce Moslem group who tolerated no thought other than theirs. The family of the Rambam dutifully fled from Cordoba and wandered many years searching a hospitable asylum. However due to the conquering armies of the Almohads, no city could host them for a extended period of time. Even during this period of hardships and instability, the Rambam began writing his famous commentary on the Mishna, ( a body of laws based on the oral tradition).

After wandering some ten years seeking a city of refuge, they came to Fez, the then capital of Morocco where they were able to settle. But the religious fanaticism of the turbulent times eventually found its way into Fez, and after living there some five years, the Maimon family was forced to leave. During this time the Rambam, still a very young man wrote short treatises on the Jewish calendar, on forced conversion, on logic and several other subjects.

The family headed for the holy land of Israel. They arrived at Acre, the port, and stayed there approximetely five months. Later they visited the devastated holy places that were barren and in ruination after the onslaught of the crusaders. Desolate and unpopulated, they traveled through out Israel, visiting the holy and historic sites. Eventually they came down into Egypt first staying in Alexander and then in Cairo.

At this time, Egypt was a tolerant and enlightened country. Under the Fatimide Caliphs' rule, the Jews were allowed full religious, cultural and community life without any restrictions or interference. In this thriving environment, the Maimon family settled. However, shortly after settling and beginning again a normal life, misfortune struck as Rabbi Maimon died.

The two sons of Rabbi Maimon were Moses and David. David, the younger son was sharp in business and undertook the support of the family, whilst Moses would continue his study of the Torah without interruption. Because of his keen mind and vast knowledge, the Rambam's influence began to pervade into the life of the Egyptian Jewish community.

Prior to the coming of the Rambam to Egypt, the Karate community was large, wealthy and influential. The Karates were Jews who believed strongly in the literal interpretation of the Bible. Many arguments are recorded between the Karites and the Rabbis, who preached observance based on traditional oral interpretations as passed down from teacher to teacher, from Moses at Mount Sinai, down to the present generation. The Karates believed that the literal interpretation was the correct method of observance. This caused many conflicting venues of behavior in regards to the holidays and daily life.

With the overwhelming presence of the Rambam in Egypt, whose great knowledge was without dispute, the influence of the Karates waned and fell as the rulings and interpretations of the Rabbis were accepted as the proper mode of observance. For eight years, the Rambam lived a life free from financial worry. Supported wholly by his dedicated brother David who dealt with precious gems, the Rambam was able to devote himself entirely to preparing his works for publication. He was accepted as the undisputed leader of religious life in Egypt.

The Rambam published his now famous commentary to the Mishna in 1168. The following year he suffered a tremendous blow; his brother David together with his precious gems sunk in the Indian Ocean while on a business trip. He left a wife and two orphan children, plus a debt from money he had borrowed to bolster his business.

The death of his brother and the burden of supporting a family plus the debt incurred by his brother weighed heavily on the Rambam. From the misfortune, the Rambam became ill. For many months he was unable to leave his house.

The Rambam refused to take money as a communal leader, citing the many places in the Talmud which forbids a man from using the Torah as an instrument to make a livelihood. Instead, the Rambam decided to become a physician. Due to his very thorough education, very little wisdom was concealed from him. The Talmud, rich in medical advice, coupled with the Rambam's own keenness soon made him a successful physician. In a short time, his house was packed with patients that heard of this great doctor. Eventually, the Rambam became the chief physician to the Caliph and his court. This became a fruitful time for the Rambam. His first wife had died and he remarried. His second wife bore him an only son, Avraham.

He wrote his two greatest works, the "Yad HaChazaka" known also as the Mishna Torah (Second to the Torah) and the "Guide to the Perplexed". Both drew much controversy. Each book was directed at a different audience and was disputed for different reasons.

The Mishna Torah was a compendium of the entire Talmud and oral tradition. It encompasses every aspect of Jewish life from both a legal and philosophical view point. Prior to this work, to understand the rulings in the Talmud, one was required to be a scholar capable of sifting through the subtle arguments of the Talmud, understanding the fine points of the Jewish law. In addition, the Talmud was not written in a form in which all discussions were located in one area, pertinent discussions are scattered about the voluminous pages and only a true scholar could truly understand the law.

The Rambam sought to alleviate this confusion. He compiled the Jewish law into fourteen categories, hence the title "Yad HaChazaka", (yad is equal to 14 in Hebrew). Each of these categories was a book dealing with a specific realm of Jewish knowledge. The Rambam, through his sheer genius, wrote the summary of each of the numerous arguments that appeared in the Talmud. Each law was written in a clear and succinct manner that even the simplest person could understand.

This greatness of the book was exactly that which stirred up the most controversy. Whereas some scholars may have disputed his interpretation of the proper legal ruling, it was opposition to providing the simple person with his own access to the Jewish law. The opposing scholars feared that now with the Rambam's great writing, that the simple person would read the Rambam's work and err, or that they would not study the Talmud, which is the root and source of the Rambam's work, thereby not understanding the legal principles involved. This would cause the masses to error in other rulings.

Needless to say, the Mishna Torah has been accepted as one of the greatest and definitive books of Jewish laws and customs. It is studied by the scholar and simple person alike. In doing so, many people have be able to increase their understanding of Jewish law and observance.

The second book, the "Guide for the Perplexed" was of a more philosophical nature. It deals with many of the questions of faith and believe that abound through out the generations. The Rambam, who was an admirer of Aristotle, wrote the book in a very logical manner. Many of his distracters felt that he had adopted Aristotle's ideas and not Jewish values. The Rambam, however was accepted as being the Jewish view on many issues. This book, also, has stood the ravages of detractors and is also studied today in many Jewish schools.

The Rambam's life was one of giving. He worked hard as the chief physician to the Caliph. He was involved in the communal problems of the Egyptian Jewish community. He was sought out for his legal opinions and for personal advice. He wrote that his life is one of pure work, giving to others. Even on the Sabbath, people stood in line to speak with him. The Rambam died on the twentieth of Tevet (January) 1204. He is buried in Tiberias, in Israel, where many people come to pray at his grave.

There is a popular idiom said about the Rambam, comparing him to Moses the lawgiver: "From Moses to Moses, there was no one like Moses".


from theJanuary1999Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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