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Chapter 7

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 9

 p131  Chapter VIII
Friends and Foes

The fame of the "Code" spread rapidly throughout the Jewish world. Soon hundreds of professional scribes were industriously copying the work, to meet urgent demands from every land in which Jews resided, from Spain to India, from the sources of the Euphrates and the Tigris to Yemen, from Provence to England. Ardent enthusiasts made their copies with their own hands. If the admirers of Maimonides hoped that his Mishneh-Torah would be canonised as an infallible guide, the event almost realised their dream. Specialists appreciated the performance on its legal and technical sides, and ordinary readers recognised with amazed delight that the sealed book of the Law had been opened to them at the touch of  p132 this mighty magician. "Bring near the Ephod," men said, when in their difficulties they made appeal, never in vain, to the Code of Maimonides.53 The interest taken in this and other works of the Cairo Rabbi by Christians and Moslems will be discussed in a later chapter. As to his Jewish contemporaries, the poets among them exalted him in their songs, and incense was burned everywhere at his shrines. As many thought and said, none had done such service to the Law since the days of Rabbi Judah the Prince, compiler of the Mishnah.

It was not till after the death of Maimonides that the opposition to him assumed serious proportions. Some premonitory notes of the coming strife were sounded during his lifetime, but the "Holy War" in Judaism did not break out into fierce activity until the cause of it lay in his honoured grave. Moreover, struggle turned rather on the author's  p133 third important work than on his second, though the first section of the Mishneh-Torah shared with the Moreh ("Guide of the Perplexed") the distinction of setting aflame.

The real friends of Maimonides were those who seemed his foes. Had his infallibility been accepted as a dogma, Judaism must have sunk into a papacy governed by a dead pope. The later form that the opposition took was due to antipathy to his philosophy; but the earliest burst of disapproval was based on the feeling that Maimonides must not be suffered to become the autocrat of Jewish life. The author himself frankly admitted that his critics were sometimes right. Questions reached him from various sides. Often the doubts thrown on his accuracy were due to the sceptic's ignorance, or to the employment of other readings in the same texts. Sometimes, however, the error really lay with Maimonides; in such  p134 cases he readily admitted his oversight, thanked his correspondents, and implored them to continue their minute examination of his work. "I had no other thought than to clear the way." No claim of infallibility emanates from him. "It is proper to examine my words closely and to inquire into my statements."54 This type of criticism was thus welcomed by the author, and his rejoinders were gentle and conciliatory. But others of his critics were influenced by different motives. Some were animated by jealousy of the author. Some again feared that his simple, systematic reproduction of the Talmud would militate against the study of the Talmud in the original. This objection was not altogether unfounded, for in Yemen, where the Code of Maimonides received a peculiarly cordial welcome, the Talmud itself was thereafter almost completely neglected. In the Orient the "Code" again interfered seriously  p135 with "vested interests." Under Islam, the Jews in many places were self-governing; not only under their Resh Galutha in Persia, their Nasi in Palestine, their Nagid in Egypt, but under less distinguished auspices in other parts of the Moslem world. In such communities the Talmud was chiefly used for practical law,55 and the Code of Maimonides not only placed the layman at the same point of vantage as the Talmudist, but made the road to practical law so easy that the old lawyers were in danger of becoming superfluous. In Christian countries the Code was accepted in a more friendly spirit by the specialists of the old type. These did not regard Maimonides as their final court of appeal, but they cheerfully saw in him a new guide to set beside the old, a fresh aid to the study of the old lore with which their life was wrapped up. The chief exception to the latter class was R. Abraham ben David of Posquières. Of  p136 his opposition something has been already said. He was a wealthy man who had founded a college in his city, but his influence was due to his profound scholarship. He determined, in no spirit of personal hostility to Maimonides, to examine closely into every statement of the Code, and his notes (hassagoth) are now usually printed in editions of Maimonides' Code, together with the counter-comments of R. Joseph Karo. The object of the Rabad — as R. Abraham ben David is called, from the initials of his name — was to demonstrate that in many cases it was necessary to go behind Maimonides to his sources.56 It is regrettable that the Rabad indulged in very violent and disrespectful language, but Maimonides himself was not free from this medieval habit of abusing men who happened to hold opinions differing from his own. Unfortunately the comments of the Rabad did not reach Maimonides, but after the death of the  p137 latter his accuracy was on the whole fully vindicated against his fiery opponent. Many of their differences arose from the fact that they had before them texts with various readings. Thus around the very Code itself there grew up a vast mass of that dialectical discussion from which the Code, in the author's intention, was to rescue Jewish law.

High on his official chair, mimicking the royal state of the Khaliphate, Samuel ben Ali of Bagdad took an ignoble part in the opposition.57 "Surrounded by his slaves armed with scourges, he would not acknowledge any one equal, much less superior to himself" (Graetz). By the claim that the College at Bagdad was the sole seat of Jewish authority, Samuel and his allies were attempting to crush the actualities of the present under the memories of the past. Secret slander was added to more honourable weapons of warfare. Yet the Gaonate had grounds  p138 enough for its dislike of Maimonides. Not only was he a formidable rival near the throne, but he had always set his face against the Persian luxury, and the revenues of the Bagdad College were to him anathema. Thus Maimonides at once endangered the official supremacy and challenged the moral integrity of the Gaonate. The Gaonate retaliated by depreciating the Mishneh-Torah, and charging its author with inaccuracy and heresy. This opposition was no doubt fortified by a sense, instinctive rather than conscious in many, that Maimonides' conception of Talmudic Judaism was an innovation and a danger. That the hostility often assumed petty and malicious forms is no proof that the opposition was at bottom trivial or insincere. One may smile, as Maimonides himself did, at such critics as, nervous of their own repute, refused to cast their eye over the "Code" lest they be suspected of learning from it.

 p139  Maimonides acted under all this provocation with manly self-restraint. Even when Phineas ben Meshullam of Alexandria publicly preached against the book, Maimonides did not betray more than a momentary irritation. His letters breathe a spirit of large-mindedness and even aloofness, for though he was not cold like the proverbial philosopher, he was indifferent where smaller men would have been roused to indignation. "Honour bids me," he said, "avoid fools, not vanquish them. Better is it for me to spend my efforts in teaching those fitted and willing to learn than waste myself in winning a victory over the unfit."58 To add to his causes of anxiety, he fell ill soon after the Mishneh-Torah was completed. But neither the loud volume of general praise nor the slighter note of individual depreciation had power to move Maimonides. His joy and his consolation came from another source. One of  p140 the most delightful incidents in his whole life synchronised with this critical moment.

Among the anusim, or forced converts to Islam, in the Maghreb, was the lad Joseph Aknin. He had remained true to Judaism despite his superficial conformity to the dominant religion, and over and above his scientific and medical studies he had drunk deep at the well of the literature of Israel. On the one side an Arab of the Arabs, he wrote poems in the language of the Koran; on the other a Jew of the Jews, he delighted in the Law all day. Joseph was about thirty years old when the fame of Maimonides reached him, and he hastened to leave his home and present himself before his master. On reaching Alexandria he wrote to Maimonides, explaining his ardent ambition to learn from the lips of the teacher whose books had already gained a hold over his spirit. Maimonides recognised in his correspondent  p141 a kindred mind, and welcomed Aknin with a cordiality that soon ripened into love. "If I had none but thee in the world, my world would be full," said Maimonides. Master poured out his heart to pupil, and when Aknin was forced to leave Cairo for Aleppo, the bond of affection between "father" and "son" was so firmly tied, that their friendship endured unto death. It was for Aknin that Maimonides wrote his third great work, the "Guide of the Perplexed."59

Aknin, who appears to have been a persistent traveller, was soon placed in a position to display his enthusiastic regard for his master. Arrived at Bagdad,60 he found that the persistent efforts of Samuel ben Ali had succeeded in raising clouds of suspicion against Maimonides. Some of the latter's disciples, noting the tendency of Maimonides to spiritualise the conception of a future life, hastily concluded that they were justified in  p142 teaching, on his authority, that Judaism denied the doctrine of a bodily resurrection. When questioned on the point by his faithful friends in Yemen, Maimonides explained categorically that he did regard a belief in the resurrection as a corner-stone of Judaism. This did not suffice for some of his critics, who appealed to Samuel ben Ali for his opinion. Delighted at the compliment and at the opportunity of dealing his rival a blow, Samuel ben Ali proceeded to collect passages from the Agada and Midrash in which a bodily resurrection is taught, and insisted that all these utterances must be explained in their strictly literal sense. To add to the piquancy of his sting, the Bagdad Gaon quoted Moslem philosophers on the same side, gleefully claiming that Jewish tradition and Arab metaphysics were at one against the heresies of Maimonides. Joseph Aknin took up the gauntlet, and for the moment diverted  p143 the attacks of the Gaon to himself. At last, however, he could not endure the situation. He despatched a full report to his master, enclosed a copy of Samuel's treatise on the resurrection, and entreated Maimonides to reply to his assailants, and to retort on vice the abuse which they had heaped upon virtue. But Maimonides refused. His letter to Aknin betrays much pathos, and over his natural feeling of resentment his good-sense and magnanimity prevail. He tells Aknin that he had foreseen what had occurred. He appreciates his disciple's youthful, hot-headed anger, and attributes his own indifference to physical weakness and to the calm produced by age. But his sorrow is unbounded that his friend should suffer on his behalf, suffer in his own person, and also because his soul was distressed at his master's obloquy. "My heart is pained in your pain, but you will please me better by actively propagating to men  p144 what is true than by setting yourself as my champion against the untrue. Teach, do not recriminate. Remember that you have injured this man, that his revenues are at stake. Shall such a man, being stricken, not cry? He concerns himself with what the multitude holds highest. Leave him to his trivialities, but what does he know of the soul and of philosophy? Remember he is old and occupies a position of dignity, and you are young and owe his age and position respect. You ask me as to your plan of opening a school in Bagdad in which you will teach the Law with my Code as the text-book. I have already sanctioned your proposal. Yet I fear two things. You will be constantly embroiled with these men. Or, if you assume the duty of teaching, you will neglect your own business affairs. I counsel you to take nothing from them. Better in my eyes is a single dirhem gained by you as a weaver, a tailor, or a carpenter, than a whole revenue  p145 enjoyed under the auspices of the Head of the Captivity."

Later on Maimonides himself drawn into a controversy with Samuel over a point of law. "Custom," said Maimonides in reply to a correspondent from Bagdad, "is of weighty import. Yet the custom must not be confused with law. Error must never be allowed to persist. There is no distinction in this matter between prohibiting what is in truth lawful, or allowing what is in truth forbidden. Neither policy should be tolerated." This is a characteristic reply, for Maimonides, à propos of an insignificant question regarding the passage of rivers on Sabbath, lays down a general principle on the relation between custom and law. In the controversy that ensued with Samuel, Maimonides emerged triumphant, yet his respectful tone and humble manner failed to soften the Gaon's ill-will.

At this time Maimonides frequently refers to himself as an old and ailing man.  p146 Yet he was only fifty-one years of age, and had before him eighteen years of activity and happiness. He soon recovered from his despondency. In this very year his first and only son (Abraham) was born to him. Maimonides had probably married in his youth, but his wife must have died early.61 In Egypt he married the sister of Abn-Almâli, one of the royal secretaries. The latter wedded the sister of Maimonides, so that the two men were doubly related. It may well be that much of our hero's despondency was due to the fact that he was long childless. Now, however, his son Abraham, and Aknin, his son in the spirit, cheered the prospect. We know little of his home-life, but what we do know suffices to prove that as a husband and father Maimonides was at once blessed and a blessing. He educated his son himself, cultivating his mind and soul; nor did he withhold from his own hearth that which he gave to the world.

The Authors' Notes:

53 Letter to Aaron of Lunel; cf. Harkavy in Hebrew Graetz, IV p55 (n. to p368).

54 Letter to Jonathan of Lunel; Hebrew Graetz, IV p353, n. 2.

55 Responsa, 140.

56 See note 50 above.

57 This view of the conduct of Samuel ben Ali is not universally accepted. See, on the other side, Harkavy in Hebrew Graetz, IV, Appendix, pp46 and 56. Samuel according to Harkavy displays much acumen and learning in some of his Responsa, but Maimonides certainly formed a low estimate of the Exilarch's philosophical attainments, and the view taken by Graetz of the motives of Samuel's opposition to Maimonides seems the true one.

58 Letter to Aknin.

59 The following note is extracted from Dr. Friedländer's edition of the Guide of the Perplexed, I.1 (cf. also Hebrew Graetz, IV.373, n. 1).

Munk, in his Notice sur Joseph Ben-Jehoudah ou Aboul Hadjadj Yousouf Ben-Yahja al Sabti al Maghrebi (Paris, 1842), described the life of this pupil of Maimonides. The following are the principal facts: Joseph ben Jehudah was born in the Maghreb about the middle of the twelfth century. Although his father was forced to conform to the religious practices of the Mohammedans, Joseph was taught Hebrew and trained in the study of Hebrew literature. He left his native country about 1185, and went to Egypt, where he continued his scientific pursuits under the tuition of Maimonides, who instructed him in mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, and theology. Afterwards (1187) he resided at Aleppo [comp. n. 60 below], and married Sarah, the daughter of Abu'l Ala. After a successful journey to India, he devoted himself chiefly to science, and delivered lectures on various subjects to numerous audiences. He practised as physician to the Emir Faris ad-din Maimun-al‑Karsi, and to the King Ed‑Dhahir Ghazi, son of Saladin. The Vizir Djemal al‑din el‑Kofti was his intimate friend. When Charizi came to Aleppo, he found Joseph in the zenith of his career. His poetical talents are praised by Charizi in the eighteenth chapter of the Tachkemoni, and in the fiftieth chapter his unparalleled generosity is mentioned. Of his poetical productions, one is named by Charizi (ch. XVIII), and others are referred to by Maimonides in the Guide. A Bodleian MS. (Uri, 341) contains a work on the Medicine of the Soul [according to Steinschneider by the same Aknin]. . . . . Besides this, Aknin wrote a commentary on the Song of Songs and a treatise on the measures mentioned in the Talmud.

60 For the evidence that these incidents occurred in Bagdad see Yellin's Hebrew Maimonides (1898), p67, n. 1. The reader is referred to that work for other discussions not included in the present biography.

61 Munk, Notice, &c.; Azariah de Rossi, Meor Enayim, end of ch. XXV; Yellin, op. cit., p72, n1.

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