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Chapter 5

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 7

 p95  Chapter VI
The Change of Dynasty

In March, 1169, the Fatimid Khalif chose Saladin as the least dangerous of all the Syrian captains, and invested him with the mantle of Vizir. Saladin now threw off his old diffidence and vacillation; the real man stood revealed, to the surprise of friend and foe. "When God gave me the land of Egypt," said Saladin, "I was sure that he meant Palestine for me also." Thus he devoted himself to the Holy War, and vowed himself the champion of Islam. Saladin's position was for some years a difficult one. He was the Vizir of the heretical (Shiite) Khalif of Egypt, and the military representative of the orthodox (Sunnite) ruler of Damascus. Thus Saladin's policy was to avoid offending the religious susceptibilities of the masses  p96 in Egypt, or arousing the suspicions of his master Nureddin. The struggle with the black Sudanese partisans of the Fatimids was an obstinate contest, for these kept Egypt in a state of unsettlement for six years. Saladin, however, made short work of the Sudanese in the capital, and Cairo was freed from them in 1169. More formidable was the attack of the Crusaders, who, like Saladin, perceived that Egypt was the key to Palestine. But Amalric's attempt on Damietta was frustrated, though his machina, or fighting tower, rose seven stories high. In 1170 Saladin assumed the offensive, and making a raid on Gaza initiated the "series of attacks which continued until his treaty with Richard of England, twenty-two years later."34

These successes so firmly established Saladin's authority that Sunnites and Shiites alike accepted him as their champion. In 1171 Saladin took the bold step  p97 of deposing el‑Adid, the last of the Fatimids, who lay dying at the moment, and was not informed of his fall. Of the priceless treasures which he discovered in the abode of el‑Adid Saladin retained nothing for his personal use; he did not even take up his residence in the famous twin palaces of Cairo. Nureddin could not but feel alarmed at the growing power of his Egyptian lieutenant, and it needed all Ayyub's sagacity and tact to lull the suspicions entertained by the King of Syria against Ayyub's son. More than once Nureddin seriously thought of attacking Saladin, but his death in 1174 occurred before he had given effect to any such resolve. From 1174 till his death in 1193 Saladin's supremacy was unquestioned.

During the intervening years Saladin's firm hand preserved Cairo from disorder after the bloody fight with the blacks in the very courtyards of the palace. But until Nureddin's death Saladin was never  p98 free from a sense of insecurity. Thus he was always looking abroad for an asylum to which to flee, should he be driven from Egypt by the lord of Syria. Among the various spots on which his eyes rested was one which now enters more closely into the career of Maimonides. Yemen, famed in ancient times as Arabia Felix, bounded on the west by the Red Sea, had filled an important place in the world's commerce from the reign of Solomon to the days of Cyrus. Romance added its charms to the land, and its Queen of Sheba still lives in history and myth. Later on the cupidity of Rome led to the expedition of Gallus in the Augustan age. Then for some centuries the country was the scene of a struggle for supremacy between Judaism and Christianity. Islam, seeing that Mecca was situate on the northern border of Yemen, stepped in and snatched the prize from its older rivals. Saladin, until he sent his elder brother  p99 Turin Shah to Yemen, in 1174, had but a weak hold there. The power was locally in the hands of a Shiite Mahdi, who like the Unitarians in Morocco associated their purer monotheism with a fanatical hostility towards every other creed than their own. Where Saladin really ruled, justice was enjoyed by all his subjects. In Cairo the Jews were prosperous, influential, and self-governed. But in Yemen persecution and not Saladin held sway. The old experience of Fez repeated itself. Offered the alternative between Islam and punishment, many became Moslems, at first outwardly, but they soon exchanged appearance for reality. It was even argued by a Moslem, formerly a Jew, that Mohammed was alluded to in the Bible, and the old argument was revived that Islam had superseded Judaism. "A Mahdi in Islam," says Mr. L. M. Simmons, "was often accompanied by a Messiah in Judaism." "To add to the dangers  p100 of the moment," writes Graetz, "there appeared a Jewish enthusiast in Yemen who proclaimed himself to be the forerunner of the Messiah, endeavoured to instil in the Jews the belief that their affliction was the harbinger of the speedy approach of the Messianic empire, and bade them hold themselves in readiness for that event and divide their property with the poor. This enthusiasm, to which many clung as drowning men to a straw, threatened to bring the direst misfortune on the heads of the Yemenite Jews. The pious abandoned themselves to despair in the contemplation of these proceedings, and altogether lost their heads." The pseudo-Messiah here alluded to was not David Alroy, though the two impostors were contemporaries.

One of the best representatives of the Yemenites, Jacob of Fayyum, appealed to Maimonides in this crisis. In response he despatched his celebrated "Letter to the  p101 South" (Iggereth Teman), also known as the "Gate of Hope" (Petach Tikvah).35 It was written in Arabic, but there are three distinct Hebrew translations of it. It was indeed a message of hope. Persecution, he argued, was in one sense a tribute to the presence of God in the camp of Israel, "Nations envy us our possession of the Law. They contend not with us but with God." Israel had been assailed in three forms: by the sword of Nebuchadnezzar and Titus; by the charm of Hellenism; by Christianity and Islam in the mask of new revelations. This last was the subtlest attack, for the Sinaitic revelation was declared true, but superseded. Maimonides now warned the Yemenites against exchanging a living body of flesh and blood for a beautiful inert statue, which resembled the living model, but lacked heart and soul. Persecutions would never cease, but, continued Maimonides, "Israel cannot be destroyed." He argued, taking a  p102 different line from his father Maimon, that even if all the miracles of Jesus were proved, he still would not be the Messiah. Jews must judge not by the prophet, but by the prophecy. "Judaism does not found its truth upon its miracles, but upon the historical fact of the revelation at Sinai." The whole moral of the "letter to the South" lay in the words, "Be strong." The Messiah will come, but his advent must not be calculated.36 Certainly he will be as unlike the pretenders in Ispahan and Yemen as it is possible to conceive. Persecution is a trial of faith and love. "Therefore, O our brethren of the house of Israel, who are scattered to the extremities the earth, it is your duty to strengthen each other, the great the small, the few the many, and to raise your voice in a faithfulness which shall never fail, and which shall make known publicly that God is a Unity, unlike all other unities; that Moses is His prophet,  p103 who spoke with Him; that he is the Master of all the prophets and the most perfect of all of them; that the Law from the first word to the last was spoken by the Creator to Moses; that nothing was to be abrogated in it, nothing to be changed, nothing to be added thereto nor taken therefrom, and that no other Law than his will ever come from the Creator." A modern theologian cannot but envy the simplicity of this argument, and sigh at the modern inapplicability of so easy a refutation of men's doubts. But we shall after all see that though our hero ascribed to Moses all the words of the Law, the interpretation of those words was made to suit the metaphysics of our Moses of the twelfth century.

The "Letter to the South" was not a masterpiece of reasoning or exegesis, yet it won a victory. It was sent to Jacob Alfayyumi with the request that it be circulated widely, and read publicly in all  p104 the congregations of Yemen, before the wise and the ignorant, before women and children. But the writer counselled caution, fearing further disturbances, should copies fall into wrong hands. There were in Islamic lands, as in Christian, converts from Judaism who not only sought to prove the truth of their new faith from the sacred Scriptures of their old religion, but kept a watchful eye on their former brethren, and stood ready to act as denunciators. Maimonides was conscious, too, that he was running serious risk by his intervention, but he did not allow such selfish apprehension to deter him. His intervention was completely successful. Yemenite Jews were roused to enthusiasm, saner and more enduring than that produced by the local "Messiah." The latter had a genuine faith in himself, and solemnly challenged the king to decapitate him, asserting that he would still live. "The experiment was tried, but in this  p105 case faith produced no miracle." Maimonides did not restrict his service to words. He turned his growing influence at Cairo to account, and when in 1174 Saladin's brother assumed the reins of government in Yemen, the material condition of the Jews followed their spiritual condition on the road to better things. In the daily Glorification Prayer (Kaddish) the grateful Yemenites included a complimentary allusion to Maimonides,37 thus showing him an honour usually reserved for the Prince of the Captivity in Bagdad on the day of his accession to office.

One of the curiosities of the middle ages is the rapidity with which news spread. The fame of Maimonides was soon in every mouth. Chief of the methods by which influence radiated was correspondence. The "Letter to the South" was an epistle in reply to a direct communication. Every Rabbi was the recipient of a huge correspondence, which  p106 mostly assumed the shape of questions on theoretical and practical religion. Maimonides boasts that he never failed to reply to any letter, except when he was too ill to write.38 He moreover tells us that he always answered with his own hand, and declined the use of a secretary, lest he be suspected of arrogance. This statement chimes in well with the recent discoveries in the Cairo Geniza, for many "Questions" addressed to him have been found with his autograph answer attached. His replies are as clear as they are terse. We perceive in them the author's invariable qualities. When the point referred to him is halachic (a matter of practical law), he gives his decision without dialectics. When, however, the question gives opportunity to lay down general principles of law or theology, he freely avails himself of the chance. Many of his "Responsa" that have been preserved to us elsewhere as well as in the Geniza are full of interest.39  p107 They belong in large part to a later period of his life, when Saladin had left Egypt (which he did in 1174), and Maimonides was private physician to the Vizir Alfadhel. By 1177 Maimonides appears to have been recognised at official head of the Cairo Jews. He established an ecclesiastical board with nine colleagues, and set himself to such diverse ends as to bring decorum into public worship and to eliminate Karaism without severity towards Karaites. From one of his "Responsa" we gather the interesting information that the education of girls was not neglected in Fostat.40 In another he replies to an aged correspondent who styles himself ignorant, and laments his inability to read the Hebrew works of Maimonides. "Call not thyself ignorant, but my pupil and my friend, both thou and all who seek to cleave to the study of the Law. Abase not thyself, and do not despair of the attainment of  p108 perfection."41 Maimonides' sympathy with human nature is revealed in these replies to an extent for which his formal treatises hardly prepare us. So with his humour and good sense. He was asked about a tallith (or scarf used at prayer) on which the worshipper had embroidered texts, to the disapproval of the local Rabbi. To the worshipper he said: "As thou servedst God in making it, so serve God in discarding it, and prevent dispute;" while to the precisionist Rabbi he added: "A Rabbi should rule with a gentle hand, nor should he interfere where interference is unnecessary."

In another response he again urges harmony: "We hear too much of unions in Israel; let us hear more of union." He indignantly repudiated the suggestion that the ritual law should be made more stringent in the case of the ignorant, lest they "break down the fence." "Shall we establish a safeguard for a safeguard,"  p109 he sarcastically asked. "It is enough to rely on the traditional safeguards without troubling the community with further restrictions." When he had before him the case of an aguna (or wife whose husband had left her, and was probably dead), he said: "Our general principle must be to accept the aguna's testimony (as to her husband's death) without undue scrupulosity, for the judge that cross-examines her too rigidly does ill." The aguna needed all the Rabbi's sympathy in the middle ages. Again, the curious system of feeing "ten men of leisure" for the purpose of forming a "congregation" called from him the striking statement: "The intention of this institution (alluded to in the Jerusalem Talmud) was that there should be in every place ten men appointed to serve the public weal, and that should any communal or religious affair need their attention, they should leave their work and betake themselves  p110 to the synagogue. Therefore they said, 'Men at leisure from their work'; and they did not say, 'Idlers without work'; and in the Talmud reference was made to the attendance of these ten at synagogue, because the synagogue was the meeting-place for all engaged in philanthropy or in meeting sudden crises."42

"A physician," he says in his Siraj, "should begin with simple treatment, trying to cure by diet before he administers drugs." In his "Responsa" he applies this principle to spiritual ills. He is sometimes soothing, sometimes severe and vehement. He applied the gentle as well as the severe cure to the Karaites, and his success (as has been mentioned above) lay not so much in humiliating them as in re-attaching them to Rabbinism. "He made of Israel again one people, and brought one to the other, so that they became one flesh," said a French eulogist of him. Nachmanides also attributes  p111 to Maimonides many such conversions, and the author of that remarkable book of travels, Eben-Sappir ("Sapphire-Stone"), informs us that practical extinction of the Karaites in Arabic-speaking lands is due to the influence of Maimuni (to call Maimonides by another of his usual titles).43 Reference has already been made to the attitude of Maimonides towards the Karaites. He tolerated no weakening of the Rabbinical laws of tahara (ritual purity), and in 1177 publicly denounced in Synagogue Karaite neglect in this respect. Women who followed the Karaite licence were deprived of their rights under the Kethuba (marriage contract).44 But Maimonides did not allow this opposition to destroy his kindly feeling towards Karaites or others who differed from him in religious matters. He informed one of his correspondents that it was quite lawful to teach Christians the Law; and to a convert to Judaism  p112 from Islam he wrote: "The Moslems are in no sense idolaters; such a thing has long been cut off from their lips and their heart; they maintain, as is fitting, the Unity of God." He even refused to call superstitions the stone-throwing at Mecca and the prostrations at prayer. "These things," he said, "have a pagan and superstitious origin, but they must not now be called superstitions, for their origin no longer dominates the meaning attached to these ceremonies." This is clearly the only safe view to take of ceremonial. Its religious worth depends almost as much on the spiritual significance attached to it as on its historical origin.

Perhaps Maimuni's most remarkable utterance is contained in that same "Responsum," in which he castigated a foolish Jewish scholar who had pained a convert from Islam by a reference to his origin. "When thy teacher called thee a fool for denying that Moslems are idolaters,  p113 he sinned grievously, and it is fitting that he ask thy pardon, though he be thy master. Then let him feast and weep and pray; perhaps he will find forgiveness. Was he intoxicated that he forgot the thirty-three passages in which the Law admonishes concerning 'strangers'? Thus, even if he had been in the right and thou in error, it was his duty to be gentle; how much more, when thou hadst the truth and he erred! And when he was seeking whether a Moslem is an idolater, he should have been cautious how he angered himself against a proselyte of righteousness and put him to shame, for our sages have said, 'He who gives way to his anger shall be esteemed in thine eyes as an idolater.' And how great is the duty which the Law imposes on us with regard to proselytes! Our parents we are commanded to honour and fear; to the prophets we are ordered to hearken. A man may honour and fear and obey without  p114 loving. But in the case of 'strangers' we are bidden to love with the whole force of our heart's affection. And he called thee fool! Astounding! A man who left father and mother, forsook his birthplace, his country, and its power, and attached himself to this lowly, despised, and enslaved race; who recognised the truth and righteousness of this people's Law, and cast the things of this world from his heart — shall such a one be called fool? God forbid! Not witless but wise has God called thy name, thou disciple of our father Abraham, who also left his father and his kindred and inclined Godwards. And he who blessed Abraham will bless thee, and will make thee worthy to behold all the consolations destined for Israel; and in all the good that God shall do unto us He will do good unto thee, for the Lord hath promised good unto Israel."

The Authors' Notes:

34 Lane-Poole. Saladin, p106.

35 The Iggereth Teman was translated into Hebrew thrice: by Samuel ibn Tibbon, Abraham ben Chasdai of Barcelona, and Nahum of the Maghreb. The rendering of the last named is the one mostly printed. Ibn Tibbon's translation appeared in Vienna in 1874. The Letter was written in 1172.

36 With curious inconsistency the Letter contains a calculation of the same kind that Maimonides condemns. This passage fixes 1216 as the date of the Messianic era; but this part of the Letter is probably spurious (see Friedländer, p. xxiii, cf. Hebrew Graetz, p348, n. 2).

37 Nachmanides in his Letter to the French Rabbis (Frankel's Monatsschrift, 1860, 184).

38 Responsa, 140, 146.

39 Of the Responsa of Maimonides several collections have been published, the edition mostly cited being that issued in Leipzig, 1859. Some facsimiles of the Arabic Responsa (with the autograph of Maimonides) were published by G. Margoliouth in the Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. XI p533. Geiger published five in the original Arabic (Melo Chafnaim, pp54‑80). On these Arabic Responsa compare Simonsen, Jewish Quarterly Review, XII.134. The Hebrew translation is due to Mordecai Tama. One hundred and fifty-five Responsa were published in Amsterdam in 1765. The Leipzig edition contains a larger number, some of doubtful authenticity.

40 Jewish Quarterly Review, XI.536.

41 Responsa (Leipzig), II.15.

42 Further extracts from the Responsa are given in the Hebrew Graetz, IV pp349 seq.

43 Eben Sappir, I.19.

44 Responsa, Leipzig, I.116. For fuller references see Hebrew Graetz, IV pp352, n. 1, and Appendix, pp51, 54, 55. In marriage contracts the condition as to obedience to the Rabbanite laws of tebilah (bathing) was specially added in Egypt. See also Jewish Quarterly Review (vol. XIII.218) for a pre-Maimonist Egyptian marriage settlement. The many concessions include that the Rabbanite husband is not to compel his bride to make use of a light on Friday eve, or to profane the festivals according to the Karaite calculation, while the Karaite lady promises on her side to observe also the festivals as fixed by the Rabbanite calendar.

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