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Chapter 10

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.

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Chapter 12

 p189  Chapter XI
Last Years

With the completion of the Guide the life-work of Maimonides was ended. He was then only fifty-five, and had another fourteen years to live, but his health was broken, and his strength was absorbed by his professional work as Nagid of the Jewish community and as Physician of the Court. Cairo, moreover, passed through troublous times, and Maimonides must have been affected by the political anxieties of the government.​81 On the death of Saladin in 1193, dissension prevailed among the Sultan's family, despite the prudent counsels of Saladin's brother el‑Adil ("Saphadin"). Saladin's son ʽAziz, who had succeeded to the Egyptian throne, died in 1198 from a fever caught  p190 during a hunting expedition in the Fayyum, and el‑Adil became master not only of Egypt but of the greater part of Saladin's empire. In 1201 the Nile was exceptionally low, and famine and pestilence ravaged Egypt. The account given of the consequent distress by the Bagdad physician, ʽAbd-el‑Latif (who, as has been mentioned before, was in Cairo from 1194‑1204), is terrible in the extreme. He asserts that from end to end of Egypt the inhabitants habitually ate human flesh, and that the "very graves were ransacked for food."

But ʽAbd-el‑Latif is given to exaggeration. "As a whole," says Mr. Lane-Poole, "the period of Ayyubid rule in Egypt, in point of imperial power, internal prosperity, and resolute defence against invasion, stands pre-eminent in the history of the country."​82 El‑Latif passes the bound again when he says that during this very period Maimonides, "a man of  p191 very high merit," was governed by an ambition to take the first place, and to make himself acceptable to men in power." Maimonides certainly did not lack ambition, and he does adopt, especially in the Guide, a "superior air" towards all but the philosophical clique. The suspicion of Efodi, that the contrast drawn at the end of the Guide between light and darkness refers to the period after and before the composition of the Guide, seems, however, unfounded. Maimonides' irritating assumption of confidence in his own views, his conviction that only those could differ from him who failed to understand him — these were as much literary fashion as is the conventional humility of modern writers. Even less just is el‑Latif's charge that Maimonides aimed at the favour of the great. Admired by the great, Maimonides was worshipped by the masses, and he deserved the applause of the few and of the many. His time  p192 was, as we shall see, at the disposal of the poor as well as of the rich, and if he became the favourite of rulers, he was none the less the idol of the ruled. But he never sought or won popular affection; he was too detached from the emotions of the many for the many to regard him with emotion. He was out of sympathy with the "play" side of human nature. Poetry, though he occasionally lapses into a flowery style in his own epistles, he held a childish waste of time,​83 music had no charms for him; eating and drinking and love were to him justifiable only in so far as necessary for maintaining life of the individual or continuing the race. Ibn Gabirol might sing of the joys of wine, Abraham ibn Ezra might versify the praises of chess, Jehuda Halevi might turn his poetical genius to the idealisation of human love. The pleasures of the table were to Maimonides a degradation; to sing of love was to use a divine  p193 gift in an act of rebellion against the giver. Maimonides, both in his Guide and in his medical precepts drawn up for the Vizir, directed himself against excess in all of these things, but he can have had no fondness for them even in moderation. Still, his view of life was not ascetic; it was purely intellectual. His God was a metaphysical entity who must be approached with morality and piety, but also with philosophical understanding. Few were the elect, in this view. But the virility, the sanity of the view is undeniable. Maimonides enthroned God in the most abiding of thrones, the human Reason. If God is firmly seated there, the heart is also moved towards and by the divine spirit; but a religion which originates in the emotions ends in sensuousness or mysticism. Religion is, after all, an emotion, but in a pure, spiritual monotheism such as Maimonides expounded, the fount of this emotion is in the reason, not the senses.

 p194  At the moment when his Guide was finished, the opposition of the Gaon in Bagdad reached its severest phase.​84 It was thus that he found himself compelled to explain in a separate Epistle (Techiyath Hamethim, "The Resurrection of the Dead") his views on Resurrection. His pupil, Aknin, asked him to write on the subject.​85 He expressed his displeasure at being forced to repeat what he had previously written, and emphatically asserted that his spiritual view of immortality did not imply a denial of the return of the soul to the body. On the other hand, the opposition of Bagdad was more than balanced by the appreciation of Southern France. "Nowhere did Maimuni's ideas find a more fruitful ground," writes Graetz, "and nowhere were they adopted with more readiness than in the Jewish congregations of South France, where prosperity, the free form of government, and the agitation of the Albigenses  p195 against austere clericalism, had awakened a taste for scientific investigation, and where Ibn Ezra, and the Tibbon and Kimchi families, had scattered seeds of Jewish culture. . . Not only laymen, but even profound Talmudists, like Jonathan Cohen of Lunel, idolised him, eagerly watched for every word of his, and paid him homage. 'Since the death of the last authority of the Talmud, there has never been such a man in Israel.' " The last years of Maimonides were sweetened by the correspondence which ensued between himself and the Provençal Jews. These regarded him as more than human, as the instrument divinely appointed for the revival and purification of Judaism. They consulted him in their doubts, and drew from him some very notable letters. In 1194 he detailed, in reply to questions from Marseilles, his views on astrology. His letter is remarkable for its era, and takes its place worthily by the side of  p196 Ibn Ezra's protest against a belief in demons. "Know, my masters," writes Maimonides, "that no man should believe anything which is not attested by one of these three sanctions: rational proof, as in mathematical sciences; the perception of the senses; or tradition from the prophets and the righteous." Works on astrology were the product of fools, who mistook vanity for wisdom. Men were inclined to believe whatever was written in a book, especially if the book were ancient; and in olden times disaster befell Israel because men devoted themselves to such idolatry instead of practising the arts of martial defence and government. He had himself studied every extant astrological treatise, and had convinced himself that none deserved to be called scientific. Maimonides then proceeds to distinguish between astrology and astronomy, in the latter of which lies true and necessary wisdom. He ridicules the supposition  p197 that the fate of man could be dependent on the constellations, and urges that such a theory robs life of purpose, and makes man a slave of destiny. It is true," he concludes, "that you may find stray utterances in the Rabbinical literature which imply a belief in the potency of the stars at a man's nativity, but no one is justified in surrendering his own rational opinions because this or that sage erred, or because an allegorical remark is expressed literally. A man must never cast his own judgment behind him; the eyes are set in the front, not in the back."

Jonathan of Lunel has already been named among the ardent admirers of Maimonides. He now sent to Cairo a series of twenty-four questions on points arising out of the Mishneh-Torah. Some time elapsed before Maimonides could find leisure to reply, and he did so in a letter pathetic with its picture of weariness and weakness. The same note is struck in  p198 the letter which he sent to Samuel ibn Tibbon, who was engaged in a Hebrew translation of the Guide. From Lunel had come the request that Maimonides would himself undertake the translation. He, however, was well satisfied as to Ibn Tibbon's qualifications, and referred them to the latter. In this epistle he exhorts the Provençal Jews to remain steadfast in their devotion at once to the Talmud and to its scientific study. The despondency of the writer is not more marked than is his confidence in the saving power of the few. "You, members of the congregation of Lunel, and of the neighbouring towns, stand alone in raising aloft the banner of Moses. You apply yourselves to the study of the Talmud, and also cherish wisdom. But in the East the Jews are dead to spiritual aims. In the whole of Syria none but a few in Aleppo occupy themselves with the Torah according to the truth, but even they have  p199 it not much at heart. In Irak there are only two or three grapes (men of insight); in Yemen and the rest of Arabia they know little of Talmud, and are merely acquainted with Agadic exposition. Only lately have they purchased copies of my Code, and distributed them among a few circles. The Jews of Judea know little of the Torah, much less of the Talmud. Those who live among the Turks and Tartars have the Bible only, and live according to it alone. In the Maghreb you know what is the position of the Jews. Thus it remains to you alone to be a strong support to our religion. Therefore be firm and of good courage, and be united in it." The letter to Samuel ibn Tibbon, written in September 1199, opens with a eulogy of Samuel's father, Judah.​86 "I did not know that he had left a son. . . . Blessed be He who has granted a recompense to your learned father, and granted him such a son; and indeed not to him  p200 alone, but to all wise men. For in truth unto us all a child has been born, unto us all a son has been given. 'This offspring of the righteous is a tree of life,' a delight of our eyes, and pleasant to look upon. I have already tasted of his fruit, and, lo, it was sweet in my mouth even as honey." Maimonides proceeds to praise Ibn Tibbon's Hebrew style and his knowledge of Arabic, surprising as displayed by one born among the "stammerers." The Provençal Jews seem to have spoken and written Arabic faultily. Maimonides' praise of Ibn Tibbon's style is not generally shared by readers of his translations. But whether Ibn Tibbon fulfilled Maimonides' ideal or not, the Cairo sage formulates an excellent canon for his correspondent's guidance. "Let me premise one canon. Whoever wishes to translate, and purposes to render each word literally, and at the same time to adhere slavishly to the order of the words and sentences in  p201 the original, will meet with much difficulty. This is not the right method. The translator should first try to grasp the sense of the subject thoroughly, and then state the theme with perfect clearness in the other language. This, however, cannot be done without changing the order of words, putting many words for one word, or vice versa, so that the subject be perfectly intelligible in the language into which he translates." Maimonides then enters seriatim into Ibn Tibbon's difficulties, and advises him as to his course of philosophical reading. But the most interesting passage is the one in which Maimonides describes his own manner of life:—

Now God knows that in order to write this to you I have escaped to a secluded spot, where people would not think to find me, sometimes leaning for support against the wall, sometimes lying down on account of my excessive weakness, for I have grown old and feeble.

But with respect to your wish to come here to me, I cannot but say how greatly your visit would  p202 delight me, for I truly long to commune with you, and would anticipate our meeting with even greater joy than you. Yet I must advise you not to expose yourself to the perils of the voyage, for beyond seeing me, and my doing all I could to honour you, you would not derive any advantage from your visit. Do not expect to be able to confer with me on any scientific subject for even one hour either by day or by night, for the following is my daily occupation:—

I dwell at Misr (Fostat) and the Sultan resides at Kahira (Cairo); these two places are two Sabbath days' journey (about one mile and a half) distant from each other. My duties to the Sultan are very heavy. I am obliged to visit him every day, early in the morning; and when he or any of his children, or any of the inmates of his harem, are indisposed, I dare not quit Kahira, but must stay during the greater part of the day in the palace. It also frequently happens that one or two of the royal officers fall sick, and I must attend to their healing. Hence, as a rule, I repair to Kahira very early in the day, and even if nothing unusual happens, I do not return to Misr until the afternoon. Then I am almost dying with hunger. I find the ante-chambers filled with people, both Jews and gentiles, nobles and common people, judges and bailiffs, friends and foes — a mixed multitude, who await the time of my return.

I dismount from my animal, wash my hands, go forth to my patients, and entreat them to bear with me while I partake of some slight refreshment, the only meal I take in the twenty-four hours. Then I attend to my patients, write prescriptions  p203 and directions for their various ailments. Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes even, I solemnly assure you, until two hours and more in the night. I converse with and prescribe for them while lying down from sheer fatigue, and when night falls I am so exhausted that I can scarcely speak.

In consequence of this, no Israelite can have any private interview with me except on the Sabbath. On that day the whole congregation, or at least the majority of the members, come to me after the morning service, when I instruct them as to their proceedings during the whole week; we study together a little until noon, when they depart. Some of them return, and read with me after the afternoon service until evening prayers. In this manner I spend that day. I have here related to you only a part of what you would see if you were to visit me.

Now, when you have completed for our brethren the translation you have commenced, I beg that you will come to me, but not with the hope of deriving any advantage from your visit as regards your studies; for my time is, as I have shown you, excessively occupied.

The end came on December 13, 1204, when Maimonides died in his seventieth year.​87 A general outbreak of grief ensued. Public mourning was ordained in many congregations in all parts of the world. For three days Jews and Moslems  p204 held lament in Fostat. Maimonides was buried in Palestine, at Tiberias. In Jerusalem a general fast was proclaimed. From the Scroll of the Law was read the passage (Leviticus xxvi) in which are unfolded the penalties resulting from disobedience to the divine precepts, and from the first Book of Samuel, the narrative of the capture of the Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines, concluding with the words (1 Samuel iv.22): "The glory is departed from Israel, for the Ark of God is taken."

[image ALT: A barrel-shaped polished stone structure, about 3 meters long and a bit more than a meter high; the narrow face is toward the camera: it is inscribe with a dozen lines of Hebrew lettering. The structure sits on a stone-tiled floor and several plastic chairs are strewn near it; a young man in Orthodox Jewish garb sits in one of them. It is the tomb of Maimonides: only half of it can be seen, a wooden partition having been erected that bisects it lengthwise, on which five large framed photos have been hung.]

Maimonides' tomb in Tiberias.

Photo taken in 2011 shows a divided site; this is the men's half.

Photo © Jona Lendering 2011, by kind permission.

The Authors' Notes:

81 Lane-Poole, History of Egypt, ch. VIII.

82 Ibid., p241.

83 Commissary on Sanhedrin, X.1; Aboth, I (end). Maimonides had no great affection even for liturgical poems (Geiger, Melo Chafnaim, p79). Compare Hebrew Graetz, IV.330, Appendix, 52.

84 For the evidence of this see Yellin, Hebrew Maimonides, p97, n. 1.

85 Munk, Notice, p23. The Essay on the Resurrection was translated into Hebrew by Samuel ibn Tibbon, and also by Charizi. See Steinschneider, Hebr. Uebersetz., 431.

86 An English translation of the Letter by Dr. H. Adler may be found in Miscellany of Hebrew Literature, vol. I (1872). The extract given below is cited from this rendering.

87 Saadiah ibn Danon in Chemdah Genuza, p30; Jedaiah Bedaressi, end of Bechinath Olam; Yochasin, ed. Cracow, p131; Hebrew Graetz, IV p418. The poems in honour of Maimonides are collected by Steinschneider in his Kobetz-al‑Yad for the Society Mekitse Nirdamim.

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Page updated: 20 Aug 12