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This webpage reproduces a chapter of

David Yellin and Israel Abrahams

Jewish Publication Society of America
Philadelphia, 1903

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!


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Chapter 2

 p1  Chapter I
Early Years in Cordova

The Cordova in which Maimonides was born on Passover Eve, 1135, was still the "Bride of Andalusia." But her spiritual charms had faded. In form she was as fair as when Abd-er‑Rahman III had made her the pride of a Spanish Khalifate which rivalled and excelled the glories of Bagdad. The city of the first Omeyyad seems to have been at least ten miles in length. "The banks of the Guadalquivir," says Mr. S. Lane-Poole,1 "were bright with marble houses, mosques, and gardens, in which the rarest flowers and trees of other countries were carefully cultivated, and the Arabs  p2 introduced their system of irrigation, which the Spaniards, both before and since, have never equalled." Ez‑Zahra was to Cordova what Daphne had been to Antioch under the Seleucids. The Moors were the spiritual heirs of the Hellenists; in their scheme of life all the faculties of body and soul were organically united. It is hard to judge the Cordova of old by its tawdry ruins of to‑day. But the Great Mosque is still the wonder and delight of sightseers. Much of its beauty still remains. "Travellers stand amazed among the forest of columns which open out in apparently endless vistas on all sides. The porphyry, jasper, and marbles are still in their places; the splendid glass mosaics, which artists from Byzantium came to make, still sparkle like jewels on the walls; the daring architecture of the sanctuary, with its fantastic crossed arches is still as imposing as ever; the courtyard is still leafy with the orange- p3 trees that prolong the vistas of columns. As one stands before the loveliness of the great mosque, the thought goes back to the days of the glories of Cordova, the palmy days of the Great Khalif, which will never return."

If Cordova to‑day, after ravaging centuries of strife and neglect, retains so much of her external comeliness, imagination easily brings back to us the impression which she must have made on a bright Jewish boy in the first half of the twelfth century. Maimonides was no poet, and he has left no record of his feelings. But, even when days of persecution dawned, he clung to Spain with a tenacity born of intense admiration and affection. The medieval Jewish poets write of the cities of Spain with an enthusiasm and tenderness such as no other city than Jerusalem ever evoked from the Hebraic muse. One may search in vain, in the writings of ancient Jews, with the exception  p4 of Philo, for any similar eulogies of the Seleucid or Lagid centres of Hellenism. The origin of this love is simple. The Moor was Hebraic in his pure monotheism, his stern purpose, his devotion to the righteous ideals of life; he was Hellenic in his graces, in his culture. His Hellenism made him tolerant, his Hebraism imparted to him profundity. Thus, in her youth Cordova had been fair in mind as in form, and a noble soul had looked out from her alluring eyes. Not quenched, yet sadly dimmed, was this lovelight, when Maimonides was born in the city renowned for its manufactures, its arts, its schools, and its famous men. Cordova was the birthplace of Lucan, Seneca, and Averroës. In Abd-er‑Rahman's days Cordova was the home of European culture. Poetry was innate in her people, and sweet songs were improvised by statesmen on their divans and by boatmen as they passed under the noble bridge whose  p5 seventeen arches still span the "mighty stream" (Guadalquivir).

The combination of political sagacity and devotion to the muses cannot be bequeathed. It is the rare possession of rulers such as Marcus Aurelius, and though it has been more often found in Eastern monarchs, yet it is a personal possession, not an heirloom. The entail is for a single life. Abd-er‑Rahman's son inherited one side only of his father's composite character. He was a bookman, not a statesman. He had no power to control the mixed races over whom he ruled. The failure of Islam as a conquering force is written in that last phrase. At no time was a Mohammedan host homogeneous in race or ideals. United under the stress of battle, the parts dissolved in the calm of victory. In Andalusia, what the khalifs lacked was for a brief space supplied by the Vizir Almanzor, merciless, subtle, "victorious by the grace of  p6 God." When Almanzor died, and, as the monk said, "was buried in hell," Andalusia fell a prey to factions. For nearly a century the country was "torn to pieces by jealous chiefs, aggressive and quarrelsome tyrants, Moors, Arabs, Slavs, and Spaniards." One puppet khalif succeeded another, and revolution followed revolution, varying only in horror. The Christians of the north were not slow to take their advantage. The Christian reconquest of Spain had, in fact, begun on the morrow after Roderick's defeat and death in 711. The victory of Charles Martel at Tours in 732 had for ever stayed the stream of Mohammedan conquest in Western Europe. The Moors in Spain retained what Tarik had won, but their hold was weakened just when their foes grew stronger.

Alfonso VI and the Cid were carrying all before them, when a new influence made itself felt. From Northern Africa  p7 had come the original conquerors of the Goths, and from the same region were now summoned the Berber saints, the Almoravids, under Yussuf, son of Teshfin. The second khalif of this dynasty, Ali (1106‑1143), sat on the throne of Cordova when Maimonides was born. Valiant and uncouth, fitter for camp than for court, Yussuf again led the Crescent to victory. The Cid died in 1099, and Mohammedan Spain, Toledo excepted, became a province of the great African empire of the Almoravids. "The reign of the Puritans had come, and without a Milton to soften its austerity." Worse still, the Puritanism was unreal. The savage Berbers had no appreciation for the poets and savants who had previously basked in the royal favour. But they also lost their martial bearing, their manly endurance; they seized upon the material luxuries of Cordova without absorbing her refinement of ideals. Their very tolerance was  p8 weakness. It needed the fanaticism of another African, Abdallah ibn Tumart, to rouse the Moors once more to a fiercer courage and a deeper, if more persecuting, piety. Till that happened, between 1145 and 1148, the country was worse off than it had been under the smaller tyrants from whom Yussuf had freed it. The Castilians resumed their raids into Andalusia, and under Alfonso the Battler, in 1133, the resolute Christian invaders burned the very suburbs of Cordova.

The internal fortunes of the Jews had shared none of these fluctuations. Steadily Cordova replaced the Babylonian cities of Sora and Pumbaditha as the headquarters of Jewish learning and authority. The centre of gravity of Judaism passed from Asia to Europe. The Jews of Andalusia enjoyed no monotony of sunshine, but having once realised the saving power of a Judaism allied to culture, the Spanish Jews never abandoned the ideal.  p9 On the eve of their expulsion from Spain in 1492 their leader was just such another man as Chasdai had been in the tenth, and as Samuel the Nagid (Prince) had been in the eleventh century. Isaac Abarbanel well rounded off the line begun by Chasdai ibn Shaprut. The Moors had established a régime to which they were themselves faithless, but the Jews were loyal to it unto death. The Jews did not abandon or change their ideals; they re-framed their own old picture, they acquired a new setting for their own priceless jewel. Judaism was not dependent for its vitality on Moor or Spaniard. In Germany and in France movements were already in progress which were destined to survive and control the Spanish influences on Judaism. But the fulness of life, represented by such names as Ibn Gabirol, Jehuda Halevi, and Abraham ibn Ezra on the one hand, and Chasdai, Samuel the Nagid, and Abarbanel on the  p10 other, cannot be matched outside Spain. And the greatest of them all, the highest representative of the type, was Maimonides.

At one o'clock in the afternoon of March 30 (Nisan 14), 1135, Moses, son of Maimon, was born in Cordova. The very hour of his birth was thus treasured up in the loving memory of posterity. His genealogy has been traced to Judah the Prince, compiler of the Mishnah, and through him to the royal house of David. It is at least certain that he came of a family of scholars. He himself has recorded modest yet honourable pedigree, describing himself as Moses, son of Maimon, dayan (official Rabbi, or "judge"), son of the learned R. Joseph, dayan, son of R. Obadiah, dayan, son of R. Solomon, son of R. Obadiah.2 Of the boyhood of Moses we know little. Legend has been busy with him, and the story goes that the  p11 child revealed but little of the man. But the contrast thus drawn between the dull, idle lad and the brilliant, industrious man is unfounded. The father, Maimon (i.e. Felix, Benedictus, or Baruch), was a scholar and man of enlightenment, Talmudist, astronomer, and mathematician. Maimon (or Maimûn) was a disciple of Joseph ibn Migash (1077‑1141), who had imbibed the spirit of Alfassi, and who had succeeded the latter as head of the school at Lucena. The poet, Jehuda Halevi, eulogised Ibn Migash in lavish terms, but the eulogy was well deserved. Maimon profited by his studies under this renowned teacher, composed commentaries on the Talmud, a work on the ritual, and expository notes on the Pentateuch. He influenced his son's mind profoundly, but in one respect father and child differed. "The son was not unemotional, but he was a philosopher first of all. The father is all enthusiasm, full of faith, longing  p12 to dwell in the beautiful stories of Hagadah, not afraid of believing in angels, not desirous of making God an abstraction, or the apostle of God merely a deep thinker." He was gifted with a genius for allegory, and his images flow like a soothing stream over the reader's heart. His most famous work, the "Letter of Consolation," must have bound up many a wound, and filled with fresh courage those who despairingly feared that God had forsaken His world.

His son Moses grew up in this gentle and refined home, his mind and soul trained by a father who, amid the tribulations which were soon to follow, was upheld by the same confidence and trust which he sought to impart to others. Maimon's precept and example planted in his son's heart a pure and ineradicable veneration for all tried and traditional virtues of the Jewish character. The Law and the Commandments were his delight.  p13 Not the less was this so because Maimon at the same time instilled into him a powerful inclination towards science and philosophy. In Maimon's home the stream of life ran broad and deep. What was Jewish, what was human, alike found a resting-place in the capacious soul of Maimonides. The Talmud was his chosen love. The works of Alfassi and of Ibn Migash were the eyes with which he penetrated into the Rabbinical lore. Equally devoted was the young scholar to the various sciences expounded by ancient Greeks, medieval Arabs, and Hebrews of all ages. Mathematics, philology, natural science, medicine, logic, and metaphysics, were included in the liberal education of the day, and all of these were the familiar friends of our hero's early manhood. Through the maze of these varied pursuits his keen, orderly intellect found a clear and straight path. Knowledge was not with him a more or  p14 less confused amalgam of discordant or dissociated elements; it was one and indivisible. And he early learned the lesson, most precious to the genuine student, that "it is possible for a wise man to be taught by a fool." He saw the limitations of astrology, for instance, but he recognised the necessity of mastering its literature.

But not only in the acquisition and ordering of facts, in the awakening and development of his great intellect, did the youthful Moses grow under the hand of his father Maimon. In this formative period his character received the bent which marked it throughout life. Faith and Reason, simple piety and fearless inquiry, saintly self-abandonment to God and free examination of ethical sanctions and religious dogmas — these, which are commonly opposites, were blended in him into an inseparable unity. He was perfect with his God. He was faithful to the  p15 Law of God as revealed in Scripture, and to the divine reason present in the human soul. He was true to the spirit of Judaism when he announced as the fundamental formula of his life the memorable imperative: "Know the God of thy father and serve Him." The tradition which binds the ages together, father to son as knowers and servers of the same, changeless, eternal God is expressed in the phrase: "God of thy father." But something more is also conveyed. Knowledge and service: not obedience with blind eyes, not disobedience with penetrative gaze; but open-eyed obedience and service. An earnest sense that he was born to teach this truth to his own age and to posterity seems early to have forced itself upon him. It filled him with strenuous purpose, but it softened while it strengthened him. Not less of him than of Hillel could it be said that his gentleness, his even temper, his modesty, were  p16 as conspicuous as his belief in himself and his mission, his giant-like intellect, his determination to make the truth prevail.

The Authors' Notes:

1 The account of Cordova and the history of Andalusia from the reign of Abd-er‑Rahman III (912‑961) till 1148 are mainly derived (and in part quoted) from Stanley Lane-Poole's The Moors in Spain, London, 1887. See particularly pp131, 139, 152, 169, 181, 184.

2 Maimonides gives this pedigree at the end of his Commentary on the Mishnah. In Arabic he was called "Abu imran (Amram) Musa ben Maimun abd (Obeid) allah" the Cordovese. Christians cite him as Moses the Egyptian from his subsequent residence in Cairo. His usual Hebrew title is either Maimuni or Rambam, the latter being formed from the initials of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Rabbi Moses the son of Maimon). On his father, Maimon ben Joseph, see, in addition to the usual authorities for the period, L. M. Simmons' Introduction to The Letter of Consolation of Maimun ben Joseph, edited from the unique Bodleian MS., and translated into English (Jewish Quarterly Review, 1890, vol. II, p62 seq.)

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