Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
mail: Bill Thayer 
[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.


Maimonides, the common name of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1135‑1204), also known from the initials of these last words as Rambam, Jewish philosopher. His life falls into three epochs, which may be typified by the towns in which they were passed, viz. Cordova, Fez and Cairo. He was born in Cordova on the 20th of March 1135, the eve of Passover; he had a brother, David, and one sister. His early years were spent in his native town, which had then just passed the zenith of its glory. The Arab rulers had fostered the development of science, art, medicine, philosophy, literature and learning. All these influences played their part in the education of Maimonides, whose father, besides training him in all branches of Hebrew and Jewish scholar­ship, implanted in the youth a sound knowledge of these secular studies as well. In 1148 Cordova was taken from the last Fatimite caliph by the victorious Almohades, who had spread over Spain from N. Africa. These militant revivalists strove to re-establish Islam in what they considered its primitive simplicity. They laid great stress on the unity of God, and tolerated neither schism within the faith nor dissent without. The position of the orthodox Spanish Jews became intolerable, and Maimon, after ten years of hardships, wanderings and escapes, decided to take his family out of the country. He settled in Fez. The years which Maimonides spent there (1160‑1165) were memorable for his friendship with Abdul Arab Ibn Muisha — a Moslem poet and theologian — and for the commencement of his literary activity. His energies were diverted towards stimulating the religious feelings of his brethren and combating assimilation. In consequence he became alarmed for his own safety, and in 1165 left for Egypt, where he settled after a passing visit to the Holy Land. Cordova taught him the humanities; Fez humanity. Cairo, besides giving him prominence at court and in the Jewish community, was the centre of the almost world-wide influence which he exercised over Jewry by his monumental writings and dominant personality. By 1177 Maimonides was the recognized chief of the Cairene congregation and consulted on important matters by communities far and wide. Here he was joined by his most  p448 famous disciple, Joseph Aknin. But his early life in Egypt was fraught with deep sorrow. His father died soon after their arrival, and Maimonides himself suffered severely from prostration and sickness. His brother David, jointly with whom he carried on a trade in gems, with shipwrecked in the Indian Ocean. With him perished the entire fortune of the family. Forced to earn a livelihood, Maimonides turned to medicine. The fame of his skill eventually brought him the appointment of body physician to Saladin, to whom, it is said, he was so attached that when Richard I wrote from Ascalon, offering him a similar post at the English court, Maimonides refused. He married the sister of Ibn al Māli, one of the royal secretaries. In 1186, his son Abraham was born. His remaining years were spent in ceaseless activity and in controversy, which he sought to avoid. He died amidst universal sorrow and veneration.

The works of Maimonides fall into three periods: (a) To the Spanish period belong his commentary on the whole Talmud (not fully carried out), a treatise on the calendar (Maamar ha-ibbur), a treatise on logic (Milloth Higgayon), and his commentary on the Mishnah (this was called Siraj or Maor, i.e. "Light": begun 1158, completed 1168 in Egypt). (b) While he was in Fez, he wrote an essay on the Sanctification of the Name of God (Maamar Kiddush Hashem, Iggereth Hashemad). (c) The works written in Egypt were: Letter to the Yemenites (Iggereth Teman or Pethaḥ Tiqvah); Responsa on questions of law; Biblical and Rabbinical Code (Mishnehº Torah or Yad Hahazaka, completed 1180); Sepher hamitzvoth, an abbreviated handbook of the preceding; and his great philosophical work Moreh Nebuḥim or "the guide of the perplexed" (1190). To these must be added certain portions of the Mishnah commentary, such as the "Eight Chapters," the discussion on reward and punishment and immortality, the Jewish Creed, which have acquired fame as independent works.

The influence of Moses ben Maimon is incalculable. "From Moses unto Moses there arose not one like Moses," is the verdict of posterity. Maimonides was the great exponent of reason in faith and toleration in theology. One of the main services to European thought of the "Guide" was its independent criticism of some of Aristotle's principles. His codification of the Talmud was equally appreciated in the study of the scholar and in practical life. Christian Europe owed much to Maimonides. Not only did his "Guide" influence scholasticism in general, but it was from his Code that the Church derived its medieval knowledge of the Synagogue.

A complete bibliography will be found in Maimonides, by David Yellin and Israel Abrahams (London, 1903); the final chapter of that work gives a summary of the influence of Maimonides on Christian philosophers such as Aquinas, and Jewish such as Spinoza. The "Guide" has been translated into English by M. Friedländerº (1881‑1885; new ed., 1905). See also Jewish Encyclopedia, articles s.v., and the volumes edited by Guttmann, Moses ben Maimon (Leipzig, 1908, &c.).

[H. Le.]

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 18 Nov 17