Maimonides, Moses

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MAIMONIDES, MOSES (Moses ben Maimon ; known in rabbinical literature as "Rambam "; from the acronym R abbi M oses B en M aimon; 1135–1204), rabbinic authority, codifier, philosopher, and royal physician.


The most illustrious figure in Judaism in the post-talmudic era, and one of the greatest of all time, Maimonides was born in Cordoba, Spain, to his father *Maimon, dayyan of Cordoba and himself a renowned scholar and pupil of Joseph *ibn Migash. He continues his genealogy, "the son of the learned Joseph, son of Isaac the dayyan, son of Joseph the dayyan, son of Obadiah the dayyan, son of the rabbi Solomon, son of Obadiah" (end of commentary to Mishnah); traditions extend the genealogy to R. Judah ha-Nasi. Posterity even recorded the day and hour and even minute of his birth, "On the eve of Passover (the 14th of Nisan) which was a Sabbath, an hour and a third after midday, in the year 4895 (1135) of the Creation" (Sefer Yuḥasin). Maimonides' grandson David gives the same day and year without the hour (at the beginning of his commentary to tractate Rosh Ha-Shanah).

As a result of the fall of Cordoba to the *Almohads in May or June, 1148, when Moses had just reached his 13th birthday, and the consequent religious persecution, Maimon was obliged to leave Cordoba with his family and all trace of them is lost for the next eight or nine years, which they spent wandering from place to place in Spain (and possibly Provence) until in 1160 they settled in Fez. Yet it was during those years of wandering, which Maimonides himself describes as a period "while my mind was troubled, and amid divinely ordained exiles, on journeys by land and tossed on the tempests of the sea" (end of commentary to Mishnah) that he laid the strong foundations of his vast and varied learning and even began his literary work. Not only did he begin the draft of the Sirāj, his important commentary on the Mishnah, in 1158, but in that same year, at the request of a friend, he wrote a short treatise on the Jewish calendar (Ma'amar ha-Ibbur) and one on logic (Millot Higgayon) and had completed writing notes for a commentary on a number of tractates of the Babylonian Talmud, and a work whose aim was to extract the halakhah from the Jerusalem Talmud (see below Maimonides as halakhist). According to Muslim authorities the family became formally converted to Islam somewhere in the period between 1150 and 1160. But Saadiah ibn Danan (Z. Edelmann (ed.), Ḥemdah Genuzah (1856), 16a) relates that the Muslims maintain the same about many Jewish scholars, among them Dunash ibn Tamim, Ḥasdai b. Ḥasdai, and others. In any case in the year 1160 Maimon and his sons, Moses and David, and a daughter, were in Fez. In his old age ʿAbd al-Muʾmin, the Almohad ruler, somewhat changed his attitude to the Jews, becoming more moderate toward those who were living in the central, Moroccan, part of his realm. It was probably on account of this that in 1159 or early in 1160 Maimon deemed it worthwhile to emigrate with his family to Morocco and settle in Fez. Living in Fez at that time was R. Judah ha-Kohen ibn Susan, whose fame for learning and piety had spread to Spain, and Maimonides, then 25, studied under him. Many Jews had outwardly adopted Islam and their consciences were troubling them, and this prompted Maimon to write his Iggeret ha-Neḥamah ("Letter of Consolation") assuring them that he who says his prayers even in their shortest form and who does good works remains a Jew (Ḥemdah Genuzah, pp. lxxiv–lxxxii). Meantime his son worked at his commentary on the Mishnah and also continued his general studies, particularly medicine; in his medical works he frequently refers to the knowledge and experience he gained among the Muslims in North Africa (see Maimonides as physician). Here also he wrote his Iggeret ha-Shemad ("Letter on Forced Conversion") also called Iggeret Kiddush ha-Shem ("Letter of the Sanctification of the Divine Name"). These letters of father and son, as well as Maimonides' utterances after leaving Morocco, do not point to outrages and bloody persecutions. Although Maimonides in the opening lines of the Iggeret ha-Shemad most strongly deprecates the condemnation of the forced converts by "the self-styled sage who has never experienced what so many Jewish communities experienced in the way of persecution," his conclusion is that a Jew must leave the country where he is forced to transgress the divine law: "He should not remain in the realm of that king; he should sit in his house until he emigrates …" And once more, with greater insistence: "He should on no account remain in a place of forced conversion; whoever remains in such a place desecrates the Divine Name and is nearly as bad as a willful sinner; as for those who beguile themselves, saying that they will remain until the Messiah comes to the Maghreb and leads them to Jerusalem, I do not know how he is to cleanse them of the stigma of conversion" (Iggeret ha-Shemad, in: Z. Edelmann (ed.), Ḥemdah Genuzah, 11b–12a).

Maimon and his sons acted in accordance with this advice, as certainly did many others. Maimonides' departure from the country of the Almohads is commonly assumed to have taken place in 1165; according to Saadiah ibn Danan (Seder ha-Dorot, in: Ḥemdah Genuzah, 30b.), it was promoted by the martyrdom of Judah ibn Susan, who had been called upon to forsake his religion and had preferred death to apostasy. R. Maimon and his family escaped from Fez, and a month later they landed at Acre. The day of his departure as well as that on which the ship was saved from a tempest were instituted as a family fast enjoined on his descendants, and that of his arrival in Ereẓ Israel as a festival (E. Azikri (Azcari), Sefer Ḥaredim; Maim. Comm. to Rosh Ha-Shanah, ed. Brill, end).

The family remained in Acre for some five months, striking up an intimate friendship there with the dayyan Japheth b. Ali. Together with him they made a tour of the Holy Land, visiting Jerusalem where Maimonides states, "I entered the [site of the] Great and Holy House and prayed there on Thursday the 6th day of Marḥeshvan." Three days later they paid a visit to the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron for the same purpose. Maimonides also appointed both these days as family festivals. The family then left Ereẓ Israel and sailed for Egypt. After a short stay at Alexandria they moved to Cairo and took up residence in Fostat, the Old City of Cairo.

Maimon died at this time either in Ereẓ Israel or in Egypt. It has been suggested that the reason for the choice of Alexandria was the existence at that time "outside the town" of "the academy of Aristotle, the teacher of Alexander" to which "people from the whole world came in order to study the wisdom of Aristotle the philosopher" mentioned by Benjamin of Tudela (ed. by M.N. Adler (1907), 75). It is not certain what prompted the move to Cairo. That Maimonides' influence was decisive in virtually destroying the hitherto dominating influence of the Karaites who were more numerous and wealthy than the Rabbanites in Cairo is beyond doubt (see below) and in the 17th century Jacob Farajī, a dayyan in Egypt, states that it was this challenge which impelled Maimonides to move to Cairo (see Azulai, letter m150).

For eight years Maimonides lived a life free from care. Supported by his brother David who dealt in precious stones, he was able to devote himself entirely to preparing his works for publication and to his onerous but honorary work as both religious and lay leader of the community. His Sirāj, the commentary to the Mishnah, was completed in 1168. The following year he suffered a crushing blow. His brother David drowned in the Indian Ocean while on a business trip, leaving a wife and two children, and with him were lost not only the family fortune but moneys belonging to others. Maimonides took the blow badly. For a full year he lay almost prostrate, and then he had to seek a means of livelihood. Rejecting the thought of earning a livelihood from Torah (see his commentary on Avot 5:4, and especially his letter to Joseph ibn Sham'un in 1191, "It is better for you to earn a drachma as a weaver, or tailor, or carpenter than to be dependent on the license of the exilarch [to accept a paid position as a rabbi]"; F. Kobler (ed.), Letters of Jews Through the Ages, 1 (1952), 207) and he decided to make the medical profession his livelihood.

Fame in his calling did not come to him at once. It was only after 1185 when he was appointed one of the physicians to al-Faḍil, who had been appointed vizier by Saladin and was virtual ruler of Egypt after Saladin's departure from that country in 1174, that his fame began to spread. It gave rise to a legend that Richard the Lionhearted "the King of the Franks in Ascalon" sought his services as his private physician. About 1177 he was recognized as the official head of the Fostat community. Ibn Danan says of him, "Rabbenu Moshe [b. Maimon] became very great in wisdom, learning, and rank." In the so-called Megillat Zuta he is called "the light of east and west and unique master and marvel of the generation."

These were the most fruitful and busy years of his life. His first wife had died young and in Egypt he remarried, taking as his wife the sister of Ibn Almali, one of the royal secretaries, who himself married Maimonides' only sister. To them was born their only son Abraham to whose education he lovingly devoted himself, and an added solace was his enthusiastic disciple Joseph ibn Sham'un (not Ibn Aknin, as often stated), whom he loved as a son, and for whom he wrote, and sent chapter by chapter, his Guide of the Perplexed. It was during those years, busy as he was with the heavy burden of his practice and occupied with the affairs of the community, writing his extensive correspondence to every part of the Jewish world (apart from the Franco-German area), that he wrote the two monumental works upon which his fame chiefly rests, the Mishneh Torah (compiled 1180) and the Guide (1190; according to Z. Diesendruck, in: huca, 12–13 (1937–38), 461–97, in 1185), as well as his Iggeret Teiman and his Ma'amar Teḥiyyat ha-Metim.

The following passage in the letter to the translator of the Guide, Samuel b. Judah ibn *Tibbon, in which he describes his multifarious cares and duties, with the aim of dissuading Ibn Tibbon from coming to visit him, has often been quoted:

I dwell at Miṣr [Fostat] and the sultan resides at al-Qāhira [Cairo]; these two places are two Sabbath days' journey 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 al-Qāhira, but must stay during the greater part of the day in the palace. It also frequently happens that one or two royal officers fall sick, and I must attend to their healing. Hence, as a rule, I repair to al-Qāhira very early in the day, and even if nothing unusual happens, I do not return to Miṣr until the afternoon. Then I am almost dying with hunger … I find the antechambers 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 go forth to attend to my patients, and write prescriptions and directions for their various ailments. Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes even, I solemnly assure you, until two hours or 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.

The two major works will be described below, but something must be said of the two letters. The Arab ruler in Yemen, who, unlike the sultans in Egypt who were Sunnites, belonged to the sectarian Shiʿites, instituted a religious persecution, giving the Jews the choice of conversion to Islam or death. Not only did many succumb, but there arose among those Jews a pseudo-Messiah, or a forerunner of the Messiah who, seeing in these events the darkness before the dawn, preached the imminent advent of the Messianic Age. In despair the Jews of Yemen turned to Maimonides, who probably in 1172 answered their request with the Iggeret Teiman (al-Risāla al-Yamaniyya). It was addressed to R. *Jacob b. Nethanel al-Fayyumi, with a request that copies be sent to every community in Yemen. Deliberately couched in simple terms, "that men, women, and children could read it easily," he pointed out that the subtle attack of Christianity and Islam which preached a new revelation was more dangerous than the sword and than the attractions of Hellenism. As for the pseudo-Messiah, he was unbalanced and he was to be rejected. These trials were sent to prove the Jews.

The effect of the letter was tremendous. In gratitude for the message of hope, combined with the fact that Maimonides also used his influence at court to obtain a lessening of the heavy burden of taxation on the Jews of Yemen, the Jews of Yemen introduced into the *Kaddish a prayer for "the life of our teacher Moses b. Maimon" (Letter of Naḥmanides to the rabbis of France, in: Kitvei Ramban, ed. by C.B. Chavel (1963), 341).

This remarkable tribute, usually reserved for the exilarch, has an indirect connection with the third of his public (as distinct from his private) letters, the Ma'amar Teḥiyyat ha-Metim

("On Resurrection"; 1191). Maimonides wrote the letter with the greatest reluctance. It was the direct result of his Mishneh Torah and constituted his reply to the accusation leveled against him that in this work he denied, or did not mention, the doctrine of personal resurrection which was a fundamental principle of faith among the Jews of his time. An objective study of his work does lend a certain basis to the allegation. It is true, as he indignantly protests, that he included this doctrine as the last of his famous Thirteen Principles of Judaism, but in his Mishneh Torah the undoubted emphasis is on the immortality of the soul and not on individual bodily resurrection. That the allegation was not based upon mere malice or envy of his work is sufficiently proved by the fact that anxious queries were addressed to him from the countries in which he was most fervently admired, Yemen and Provence, and Maimonides answered them. Abraham b. David of Posquières wrote: "The words of this man seem to me to be very near to him who says there is no resurrection of the body, but only of the soul. By my life, this is not the view of the sages" (Comm. to Yad, Teshuvah 8:2). Some Jews from Yemen however, unsatisfied, wrote to *Samuel b. Ali the powerful and learned Gaon in Baghdad who sent a reply, which although couched in terms of respect to Maimonides, vigorously denounced his views. It would appear that the vehemence of this reply was connected with Samuel's desire to assert his authority as gaon over Egypt, which he thought was being usurped by Maimonides. On the other hand, Maimonides held the exilarch Samuel (of Josiah b. Zakkai's line), the successor of the exilarch Daniel b. Ḥisdai, in higher esteem than the gaon Samuel b. Ali. Thus the relations between Maimonides and the gaon remained strained, although there was never open hostility. Joseph ibn Sham'un, in Baghdad, who had also queried Maimonides' views on resurrection, sent a copy of Samuel's reply to Maimonides and with great reluctance Maimonides felt himself compelled to write his Ma'amar Teḥiyyat ha-Metim in which he asserted and confirmed his belief in the doctrine.

Maimonides was active as head of the community. He took vigorous steps to deal with the Karaites, and as a result brought about the supremacy of the Rabbanites in Cairo. On the one hand he emphatically maintained that they were to be regarded as Jews, with all the attendant privileges. They might be visited, their dead buried, and their children circumcised, their wine permitted; they were however not to be included in a religious quorum (Resp. ed. Blau, 449). Only when they flouted rabbinic Judaism was a barrier to be maintained. One was particularly to avoid visiting them on their festivals which did not coincide with the dates fixed by the rabbinic calendar. One of the inroads which they had caused in orthodox observance was with regard to ritual immersion for the *niddah. Their view that an ordinary bath was sufficient had been widely adopted among the Rabbanites. Maimonides succeeded in restoring rabbinic practice in this matter, but generally his policy toward the Karaites was more lenient in his later years, and was continued by his son Abraham. (For an exhaustive treatment of this subject see C. Tchernowitz, Toledot ha-Posekim (1946), 197–208.)

Maimonides made various changes in liturgical custom, the most radical of which was the abolition of the repetition of the *Amidah in the interests of decorum. With the completion of the Guide, Maimonides' literary work, apart from his extensive correspondence, came to an end. In failing health he nevertheless continued his work as head of the Jewish community and as court physician. (It is doubtful whether he actually held the appointment of nagid as is usually stated; see M.D. Rabinowitz, Introduction to Ma'amar Teḥiyyat ha-Metim in Iggerot ha-Rambam, 220–7.)

It was during this period however that he engaged in his correspondence with the scholars of Provence in general and with Jonathan of Lunel in particular. In some instances the border line between responsum and letter is not clearly defined (e.g., his letter to Obadiah the Proselyte, see below), but, as Kobler comments, the letters of Maimonides mark an epoch in letter writing. He is the first Jewish letter writer whose correspondence has been largely preserved. Vigorous and essentially personal, his letters found their way to the mind and heart of his correspondents, and he varied his style to suit them. But above all they reveal his whole personality, which is different from what might be expected from his Mishneh Torah and the Guide. The picture of an almost austere and aloof intellectual above human passions and emotions derived from there is completely dispelled.

Maimonides died on December 13, 1204. There were almost universal expressions of grief. Public mourning was ordained in all parts of the Jewish world. In Fostat mourning was ordained for three days and in Jerusalem a public fast and the Scriptural readings instituted concluded with the verse "the glory is departed from Israel, for the Ark of the Lord is taken" (i Sam. 4:22). His remains were taken to Tiberias for burial, and his grave is still an object of pilgrimage.


The influence of Maimonides on the future development of Judaism is incalculable. No spiritual leader of the Jewish people in the post-talmudic period has exercised such an influence both in his own and subsequent generations. Despite the vehement opposition which greeted his philosophical views the breach was healed (see *Maimonidean Controversy). It is significant that when Solomon *Luria strongly criticized Moses Isserles for his devotion to Greek philosophy, Isserles answered that his sole source was Maimonides' Guide, thus giving it the cachet of acceptability (Resp. Isserles 7). It was probably due to his unrivaled eminence as talmudist and codifier that many of his views were finally accepted. They were very radical at the time. To give but one example, the now universally accepted doctrine of the incorporeality of God was by no means accepted as fundamental before him and was probably an advanced view held by a small group of thinkers and philosophers. Even Abraham b. David of Posquières protested the statement of Maimonides that anyone who maintains the corporeality of God is a sectarian: "Why does he call him a sectarian? Many greater and better than he accepted this idea [of the corporeality of God] basing themselves on Scripture" (Yad, Teshuvah 3:7). C. Tchernowitz (Toledot ha-Posekim, 1 (1946), 193) goes so far as to maintain that were it not for Maimonides Judaism would have broken up into different sects and beliefs, and that it was his great achievement to unite the various currents, halakhic and philosophic.

Maimonides is regarded as the supreme rationalist, and the title given by Aḥad Ha-Am to his essay on him, "Shilton ha-Sekhel" ("The Rule of Reason"; in: Ha-Shilo'aḥ, 15 (1905), 291–319) included in his collected works, Al Parashat Derakhim (1921), has become almost standard in referring to him, and so long as one confines oneself to his three great works, the commentary on the Mishnah, the Mishneh Torah, and the Guide, a case can be made out for this view.

In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides rigidly confines himself to a codification of Jewish law, refraining almost entirely from allowing his personal views to obtrude. Where he does advance his own view to which he can find no talmudic authority, he is careful, as he explicitly states in a letter to Jonathan of Lunel, to introduce it with the words "it appears to me" (cf. Yad, Sanhedrin 4:11). From his knowledge of medicine he was aware that certain disabilities in animals which in the time of the Talmud were regarded as fatal were susceptible to cure, while some which were not so regarded were in fact fatal, yet he lays it down that the talmudic view must be applied (Sheḥitah 10:12 and 13). Among the few exceptions the most striking is his outburst against belief in witchcraft and enchantment. After faithfully giving in their minutest details the talmudic description of, and laws concerning, these practices, he adds: "All these and similar matters are lies and falsehood… it is not fitting for Jews, who are intelligent and wise, to be attracted by them or believe that they are effective… whosoever believes in them, and that they are true, only that the Bible has forbidden them, belongs to the category of fools and ignoramuses and is in the class of immature women and children" (Avodat Kokhavim 11:16). In his work on the calendar included in the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Kiddush ha-Ḥodesh) he maintains vigorously that one should have recourse to works written by non-Jewish astronomers (11:1–6). At the end of Hilkhot Temurah, he defends the search after reasons for the biblical commandments (4:13).

In the Guide he allows himself more freedom, but the main difference between the two works lies in their different purpose and aim. The Mishneh Torah was written for the believing Jew untroubled by the apparent contradictions between revealed law and current philosophy, and its aim was to tell him how he should conduct himself in his desire to live according to the law. The Guide, as its name conveys, was designed for those whose faith had been weakened by these doctrines and its aim was to tell him why he should adhere to traditional Judaism. This helps to explain the contradictions between the two.

In both works one sees only the unemotional man of intellect. It is in his letters that Maimonides emerges as the warm human being, his heart open to the suffering of his people, and expressing and responding to both affection and hostility. It comes almost as a shock to read in his letter to Japheth b. Ali, when he informs him of the death of his brother David, that he remonstrates with him for not sending a letter of condolence to him on the death of his father which took place 11 years earlier though he had received innumerable such messages from all over the Jewish world, repeating the complaint twice. The letter was written eight years after his brother's death, yet he writes, "I still mourn, and there is no comfort.… Whenever I come across his handwriting or one of his books, my heart goes faint within me, and my grief reawakens" and in that letter he continues that he will never forget those days which he passed in Ereẓ Israel with his correspondent (Kobler 192–3). The personal human element is equally to the fore in the above-quoted letter to Samuel ibn Tibbon, while his letter-responsum to Obadiah the Proselyte reveals Maimonides' spirit to the full. It was surely only to his intimate disciple that he could open his heart and declare, "when I see no other way of teaching a well-established truth except by pleasing one intelligent man and displeasing ten thousand fools, I choose to address myself to the one man and take no notice whatsoever of the condemnation of the multitude" (Introduction to the Guide). On the other hand Maimonides is almost virulent in his opposition to songs and music: "song and music are all forbidden, even if unaccompanied by words … there is no difference between listening to songs, or string music, or melodies without words; everything which conduces to the rejoicing of the soul and emotion is forbidden." It is immaterial whether they are in Arabic or in Hebrew. "A person who listens to foolish songs with musical accompaniment is guilty of three transgressions, listening to folly, listening to song, and listening to instrumental music. If the songs are sung with accompaniment of drinking, there is a fourth transgression, if the singer is a woman there is a fifth." The references in the geonic sources to singing are only to liturgical hymns (Resp. ed. Blau, 224. cf. 269; Guide 3:8; Yad, Ta'anit, 5:14). Despite this last permission he was opposed to the insertion of piyyutim in the prayers (180, 207, 254, 260, 261). If the ignorant insist on them and their ways prevail, they should be said before the Shema, the beginning of the essential service (207).

No praise can be too high for the outer form of his works, both in language and logical method. The Mishneh Torah was the only work which he wrote in Hebrew, and the language is superb, clear, and succinct. He regretted that he did not prepare Hebrew versions of his other works. In answer to Joseph b. Gabir's request written in 1191 that he translate the work into Arabic, not only does he state that it would thereby lose its specific character, but that he would have liked to translate his works written in Arabic into Hebrew (Kobler 199); and when the rabbis of Lunel asked him to translate the Guide into Hebrew, he stated that he wished he were young enough to do so (ibid., 216).

The Mishneh Torah is a model of logical sequence and studied method, each chapter and each paragraph coming in natural sequence to its preceding one. More impressive is the fact that in his earliest work one can so clearly discern the seeds of the later, so that it can confidently be stated that his whole subsequent system and ideas were already formulated in his mind when he wrote it. The Shemonah Perakim which form the introduction to his commentary on Avot is almost a draft of the first portion of Sefer Madda, the first book of the Mishneh Torah. When attacked on his views on resurrection he pointed out that he had included it in the Thirteen Principles which he evolved in his commentary to the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin. The radical view found in the very last chapter of the Mishneh Torah that the messianic age is nothing more than the attainment of political independence in Israel is stated in detail in that same excursus, and his original view on the possibility of the reestablishment of the Sanhedrin, which he carefully puts forward as his own ("it appears to me") and which he qualifies by the statement "but the matter must be weighed up" (Sanhedrin 4:11), is already expressed in his commentary on the Mishnah (Sanh. 1:1).

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]

as halakhist

Maimonides' halakhic activity began during his youth with his commentary to some tractates of the Talmud (introduction to commentary to the Mishnah). Only fragments on several tractates have survived (see S. Asaf, in: Sinai, 6 (1940), 103–32, on Shabbat; M. Kamelhar (1956) on Yoma): the commentary to Rosh Ha-Shanah, published in its entirety (by J. Brill, 1865; Y.A. Kamelhar, 1906), is of doubtful authenticity (see M.J.L. Sachs, Ḥiddushei ha-Ra-MBa-M la-Talmud (1963), introd. 13–23). His Hilkhot ha-Yerushalmi ("Laws of the Palestinian Talmud"), alluded to in his commentary to the Mishnah (Tamid 5:1), is not extant; the authenticity of the fragments published by Saul Lieberman (1947) has been challenged (Benedikt in: ks, 27 (1950–51), 329–49). It is interesting to note, in view of the fact that his famous code, the Mishneh Torah, embraces the whole of Jewish law, both practical and theoretical, that in both these works he confined himself to the practical halakhah, his commentary on the Talmud being confined to the orders *Mo'ed, *Nashim, and *Nezikin and the tractate *Ḥullin, which deals with dietary laws.

Commentary to the Mishnah

It is through his commentary to the Mishnah that one can begin to review Maimonides as a halakhist. In his commentary, Maimonides sets out to explain to the general reader the meaning of the Mishnah, without having recourse to the involved and lengthy discussions in the Gemara, the language of which was more difficult than the Mishnah itself (Mishneh Torah, introd.). Out of the mishnaic and other tannaitic texts and corresponding passages in the Gemara, often widely scattered throughout the Talmud, Maimonides evolves the underlying principles of the subjects discussed, which a particular Mishnah, chapter, or entire tractate presupposed. In some cases he interprets the Mishnah differently from the Gemara (cf. in Sanh. 1:1). It has been asserted that even during his early work as a commentator, Maimonides was at the same time a codifier, a role which he later successfully developed in the Sefer ha-Mitzvot and the Mishneh Torah (M. Guttmann, in: J. Guttmann et al. (eds.), Moses ben Maimon, 2 (1914), 306–30; idem, in: huca, 2 (1925), 229–68). Following his explanatory glosses to the mishnaic passage, Maimonides gave the halakhic decision in each Mishnah based on his reading of the discussion in the Gemara.

Of special significance are the lengthy introductions he included in his commentary. The general introduction which heads his commentary to the order of Zera'im is in reality an introduction to and history of the Oral Law from Moses until his own days. The introduction to Avot, known as the Shemonah Perakim ("Eight Chapters") is a philosophical and ethical treatise in which its author harmonized Aristotle's ethics with rabbinical teachings. In the introduction to Mishnah Sanhedrin (10:1), which begins with the words "All Israel has a portion in the world to come," Maimonides dealt at length with the fundamental doctrines of Judaism which are formulated in the Thirteen *Articles of Faith. Especially extensive and exhaustive is the introduction to the difficult order Tohorot, in which Maimonides systematizes all that had been said in talmudic literature on the subject of ritual purity and impurity. The standard Hebrew translation, the work of a number of hands, is a poor rendering of the Arabic original. A new and more faithful translation was made by Y. Kafaḥ, Mishnah im Perush ha-Rambam … (1963–68).

The Responsa of Maimonides

The publication of the critical editions of the responsa of Maimonides (ed. by A. Freimann, 1934; J. Blau, 1957–61) affords a better opportunity to appraise his role in the communal life of the Jews of Egypt and neighboring countries. The responsa, which were in the language of the questioner, whether Hebrew or Arabic, number 464; some of them soon found their way into halakhic literature. Although not all responsa bear the date of composition, it has been ascertained that Maimonides' responsa extend from about 1167, a short time after his arrival in Egypt, until a little before his death. The questioners include prominent scholars like R. Anatoli and R. Meshullam, dayyanim in Alexandria; *Jonathan ha-Kohen of Lunel; Joseph b. Gabir; Nissim of Damascus; and Samuel b. Ali, Gaon of Baghdad. From these responsa one learns of the growing tension between the gaon of Baghdad and Maimonides in connection with traveling on the high seas on the Sabbath, prohibited by Samuel b. Ali but permitted by Maimonides (ed. Blau, no. 308–9). Some of the responsa to Jonathan of Lunel, who was a disciple of *Abraham b. David of Posquières, are in essence rejoinders to the latter's criticisms, for his questions coincide with the language and style of these criticisms (ed. Freimann, introd. xliv = ed. Blau, 3 (1961), 43).

The bitter experience of his youth failed to nurture in Maimonides rabid anti-Muslim feelings, and he consistently declined to classify Muslims as idolators. Even the ritual practices connected with the Ka'ba stone in Mecca did not in his opinion deny Islam its purely monotheistic nature (ed. Freimann, no. 369 = ed. Blau, no. 448; see S. Baron, in: paajr, 6 (1935), 83f.). In reply to an inquiry by Saadiah b. Berakhot about the authenticity of the gnostic work, Shi'ur Komah, Maimonides writes: "Heaven forfend that such work originated from the sages; it is undoubtedly the work of one of the Greek preachers … and it would be a divine act to suppress this book and to eradicate its subject matter" (ed. Freimann, no. 373 = ed. Blau, no. 117; see Scholem, Mysticism (19462), 63ff.). Of special interest is his responsum to Obadiah the Proselyte (ed. Freimann, no. 42 = ed. Blau, no. 293), who inquired if he was permitted to say in the blessings and prayers, "Our God and God of our Fathers," "Thou who has chosen us," "Thou who has worked miracles to our fathers," and similar expressions. Maimonides' responsum, apart from its halakhic merit, is a unique human document displaying grave concern for the feelings of this lonely proselyte who was so unsure of himself. Obadiah was advised that he was to recite all those prayers in the same way as one born a Jew, that he must not consider himself inferior to the rest of the Jews. The major part of this responsum has been translated into English by F. Kobler (see also S.B. Freehof, Treasury of Responsa (1962), 28–34). These responsa, although confined to halakhic decisions, nevertheless display Maimonides' views on matters of doctrine and fundamentals of Judaism.

Sefer ha-Mitzvot ("Book of the Commandments")

Maimonides found all previous attempts at enumerating the traditional 613 *commandments unsatisfactory. He therefore composed the Sefer ha-Mitzvot in which he gave his own enumeration of the 248 positive and the 365 negative commandments. As an introduction to this work, he laid down 14 principles which guided him in the identification and enumeration of the commandments. He severely criticized the work of his predecessors, such as the enumeration of the *Halakhot Gedolot and of R. Ḥefeẓ, as well as those paytanim like Solomon ibn Gabirol, who composed the Azharot, religious hymns based on enumeration of the commandments.

Maimonides' sharp criticism of the Halakhot Gedolot evoked a defense of the latter by Naḥmanides, a staunch apologist "for the ancients," who in his Hassagot strongly criticized Maimonides, accusing him of inconsistencies. He was also challenged by Daniel ha-Bavli, a disciple of Samuel b. Ali, the anti-Maimonist. His criticisms took the form of questions which he sent to Abraham, the son of Maimonides, who replied to them. The Sefer ha-Mitzvot, however, was generally accepted, and a whole body of literature was produced in defense of it, apart from the general works on the 613 commandments according to Maimonides' classification and enumeration (see A. Jellinek, Kunteres Taryag, 1878).

The Sefer ha-Mitzvot, originally written in Arabic, was translated several times into Hebrew. The version by Abraham ibn Ḥasdai is no longer extant, while the translation by Moses ibn Tibbon, in its critical edition by H. Heller, is accepted as the standard text (1946).

The Mishneh Torah ("Repetition of the Law")

The Sefer ha-Mitzvot was not an end in itself but an introduction to the Mishneh Torah (Responsa, ed. Freimann, no. 368 = ed. Blau, no. 447), on which Maimonides labored for ten successive years. The purpose of the work is explained by Maimonides:

In our days, many vicissitudes prevail, and all feel the pressure of hard times. The wisest of our wise men has disappeared; the understanding of our prudent men is hidden. Hence, the commentaries of the geonim and their compilations of laws and responsa, which they took care to make clear, have in our times become hard to understand, so that only a few individuals fully comprehend them. Needless to add that such is the case in regard to Talmud itself, both Babylonian and Jerusalem, and the Sifra, Sifrei, and Tosefta, all of which require, for their comprehension, a broad mind, a wise soul, and considerable study. Then one might learn from them the correct way to determine what is forbidden and permitted, as well as other rules of the Torah. On these grounds, I, Moses the son of Maimon the Sephardi bestirred myself, and relying on the help of God, blessed be He, intently studied all these works, with the view of putting together the results obtained from them … all in plain language and terse style, so that thus the entire Oral Law might become systematically known to all without citing difficulties and solutions of differences of view … but consisting of statements, clear and convincing, that have appeared from the time of Moses to the present, so that all rules shall be accessible to young and old … (introduction to Mishneh Torah).

Maimonides then set for himself the task of classifying by subject matter the entire talmudic and post-talmudic halakhic literature in a systematic manner never before attempted in the history of Judaism. The Mishneh Torah was divided into 14 books, each representing a distinct category of the Jewish legal system. (In Hebrew 14 is yad and hence the alternative name of the work Yad ha-Ḥazakah, i.e., "the strong hand.")

Even though the Guide of the Perplexed was written after the completion of the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides succeeded in incorporating many of its philosophic and scientific aspects into this purely halakhic work. Philosophy and science were handmaidens to theology. Hence Book 1 contains a complete system of metaphysics, Book 3 the astronomical calculations for reckoning the calendar, and Book 14 a discussion of the doctrine of the Messiah and a refutation of Christianity, Islam, and their founders. These digressions, which technically speaking are not halakhic in essence but rather ethical and philosophic, occur frequently in the halakhic writings of Maimonides.

Unlike the commentary to the Mishnah and Sefer ha-Mitzvot which were written in Arabic, the Mishneh Torah was written in a beautiful and lucid Hebrew, the like of which had not been known in halakhic literature since Judah ha-Nasi composed the Mishnah. The Mishneh Torah influenced the language of later codes, including the Shulḥan Arukh (see J. Dienstag, in: Sinai, 59 (1966), 54–75).

opposition to the code

The entire structure, form, and arrangement of the Mishneh Torah was a cultural and historical phenomenon unprecedented in Jewish dogmatic jurisprudence (see *Codification of Law) which both awed and shocked the scholarly world for centuries (see *Maimonidean Controversy). The architectural beauty of its structure, its logical arrangement, and ready-reference nature were the main targets for criticism, for it was feared that students would turn away from the study of the Talmud and commentaries, the source and wellspring of dynamic halakhic creativity. The severest criticism came from Abraham b. David of Posquières, an older contemporary of Maimonides, who probably equaled him in talmudic scholarship. The most serious of his charges was that Maimonides neglected to cite the sources and authorities from which his decisions were derived:

He [Maimonides] intended to improve but did not improve, for he forsook the way of all authors who preceded him. They always adduced proof for their statements, citing the proper authority; this was very useful, for sometimes the judge would be inclined to forbid or permit something and his proof was based on some other authority. Had he known there was a greater authority who interpreted the law differently, he might have retracted… hence I do not know why I should reverse my tradition or corroborative views because of the compendium of this author. If the one who differs from me is greater than I, fine; and if I am greater than he, why should I annul my opinion…? Moreover, there are matters on which the geonim disagree and the author has selected the opinion of one…. Why should I rely on his choice…. It can only be one that an over-bearing spirit is in him (Abraham b. David's Hassagot to introduction of Mishneh Torah).

These charges were not motivated by personal animosity, as claimed by some scholars of the Haskalah period, for on many occasions Abraham b. David traces certain sources of laws in the Code or comments upon it. At other times he is overwhelmed by this compendium (see I. Twersky, in: Sefer ha-Yovel … Ẓevi Wolfson (1965), 169–86). Abraham b. David's objections were shared by lesser-known scholars (I. Twersky, in: A. Altmann (ed.), Biblical and other Studies (1963), 161–82), who added their own criticism. During the 19th century, opposition to the Mishneh Torah was still a subject of controversy between S.D. Luzzatto, N. Krochmal, and others (J. Dienstag, in: Bitzaron, 55 (1967), 34–37).

In a series of letters Maimonides replied to his criticism that his intention in writing the Mishneh Torah was not to discourage talmudic studies, including the halakhot of Alfasi. On the contrary, he had lectured to his pupils on these subjects (A. Lichtenberg (ed.), Koveẓ Teshuvot ha-Rambam (1859), pt. 1, no. 140 p. 25, b–c). He regretted the omission of his sources and hoped to include them in a supplement (ibid.). Maimonides never realized this hope. However, practically every commentary on the Mishneh Torah attempted to trace its sources. If his aim in compiling the Code was "so that no other work should be needed for ascertaining any of the laws of Israel," the more than 300 commentaries and novellae which have been written on it – and their number is growing – is an ironic phenomenon that could not have been anticipated by Maimonides. The Mishneh Torah did not become the definitive code its venerated creator had hoped. Actually, it surpassed his hopes, for it became the major source of halakhic creativity and talmudic research equaled only by the Talmud itself.

Maimonides the Halakhist in Modern Jewish Scholarship

Finally, it is interesting to note that no other halakhic authority has been the subject of so much modern Jewish scholarship as Maimonides. The tendentious, albeit subtle, anti-halakhic orientation of many of the exponents of the Wissenschaft school and the scholars of the Haskalah (including the leaders of Reform Judaism) has dampened, if not outright discouraged, intensive research in halakhah per se. Some of those who did engage in this discipline, such as A. Geiger, N. Bruell, J.H. Schorr, and others, were motivated by their anti-traditional bias and sought to undermine its authority and advance the cause of modernism and reform. The preoccupation of modern Jewish scholarship with Maimonides as halakhist is out of proportion to its interest in rabbinic literature and the stream of systematic studies on the subject has continued unabated.

[Jacob I. Dienstag]


Maimonides was, by general agreement, the most significant Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages, and his Guide of the Perplexed is the most important philosophic work produced by a Jew. The Arabic original Dalālat al-Hā'irîn was completed about 1200 and shortly thereafter was twice translated into Hebrew as Moreh Nevukhim. The first translation, a literal one, was made by Samuel ibn Tibbon with Maimonides' advice and was completed in 1204. The second, a freer translation, was made by the poet Judah *al-Ḥarizi a little later. In its Hebrew translations, the Guide determined the course of Jewish philosophy from the early 13th century on, and almost every philosophic work for the remainder of the Middle Ages cited, commented on, or criticized Maimonides' views.

While the Guide contained the major statement of Maimonides' position, his philosophic and theological views appeared in a variety of other writings, among which the most important are the three lengthy essays in his commentary to the Mishnah (see above), first book of the Mishneh Torah, Sefer ha-Madda which is devoted to God and His attributes, angelic beings, the structure of the universe, prophecy, ethics, repentance, free will and providence, and the afterlife, and the last section of the work, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim which includes a discussion on the Messiah and the messianic age.

Influences on Maimonides

In his philosophic views Maimonides was an Aristotelian (see *Aristotle), whose philosophy also contained some neoplatonic elements, and it was he who put medieval Jewish philosophy on a firm Aristotelian basis. But in line with contemporary Aristotelianism his political philosophy was Platonic. In his works he quotes his authorities sparingly (see "Shemonah Perakim," introduction, end), but in a letter to his translator Samuel ibn Tibbon (A. Marx, in: jqr, 25 (1934–35), 374–81) he indicated his philosophic preferences explicitly. In this letter he advises Ibn Tibbon to study the works of Aristotle with the help of the Hellenistic commentators *Alexander of Aphrodisias and *Themistius and of Maimonides' contemporary *Averroes. It appears, however, that Averroes' commentaries reached Maimonides too late to have any influence on his Guide. He recommends highly the works of the Muslim al-*Fārābī, particularly those on logic, and he speaks of the writings of the Muslim *Avempace (Ibn Bāja) with approval. The works of *Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā) in Maimonides' view are also worthy of study, but they are inferior to those of al-Fārābī. Of Jewish philosophers he mentions only Isaac *Israeli, of whose views he disapproves, and Joseph ibn *Ẓaddik, whom he praises for his learning, though he states that he knew only the man, not his work. He also mentions some other philosophers of whose views he disapproves. Al-Fārābī, Avempace, and Averroes interpreted Aristotle rationalistically, and it appears that Maimonides preferred their interpretations to the more theologically oriented one of Avicenna, though he relied on Avicenna for some of his views.

(For a full discussion of sources, see S. Pines, Guide of the Perplexed (1963), translator's introduction lvii–cxxxiv.)

Maimonides considered himself in the tradition of the Aristotelians, adapting and developing their teachings in accord with his own views; but he differed from them in the works he produced. While the Muslims had composed commentaries on Aristotle's works, summaries of his views, and independent philosophic treatises, Maimonides produced no purely philosophic work of his own, the early Treatise on Logic excepted. He held that the extant philosophic literature was adequate for all needs (Guide 2, introd., proposition 25, and ch. 2), and he devoted himself to specific issues, particularly those bearing on the interrelation of philosophy and religion.

Distinction between Intellectual Elite and Masses

Fundamental to Maimonides' approach is a division of mankind into two groups: an intellectual elite, who, using reason, can understand by means of demonstrative arguments, and the masses (including those scholars who study only religious law), who, using imagination, understand by means of persuasive arguments. In the light of this distinction Maimonides' works may be divided into two kinds: Guide of the Perplexed, addressed primarily to an intellectual elite, and his other writings, addressed to the masses.

This distinction had one further consequence for Maimonides. Maimonides identified ma'aseh bereshit (the account of the creation) and ma'aseh merkavah (the account of the divine chariot of Ezekiel) with physics and metaphysics respectively. According to the Mishnah, however (Ḥag. 2:1) one may not teach the former to two persons, nor the latter even to one, unless he is wise and able to understand by himself. Maimonides codifies this as halakhah (Yad, Yesodei ha-Torah, 2:12; 4:10–13) and in his commentary to the Mishnah gives as the reason for the prohibition the current philosophical opinion that the teaching of abstract matters to someone who cannot grasp them may lead to unbelief.

This prohibition against the public teaching of ma'aseh merkavah and ma'aseh bereshit posed a problem. How could he write the Guide, a book devoted to these esoteric topics, when putting something in writing is equivalent to teaching it in public? Maimonides solved this problem by making use of certain literary devices. First, Maimonides addressed the book to his disciple, Joseph ben Judah ibn Sham'un, who after studying with him left for Baghdad. Hence, the Guide in its formal aspect is a personal communication to one student. Moreover Maimonides, in a dedicatory letter at the beginning of the Guide, relates Joseph's intellectual history, showing that he had acquired some philosophic wisdom and that he was able to reason for himself. Hence, Joseph had fulfilled the conditions necessary for studying the esoteric disciplines.

But Maimonides was well aware that persons other than Joseph would read his work. Hence, he had to make use of other devices. Invoking modes of esoteric writing also current among Islamic philosophers, Maimonides wrote his work in an enigmatic style. Discussing the same topic in different passages, he would make contradictory statements about it. He describes this method in the introduction to the Guide, where he speaks of seven types of contradictions which appear in literary works, stating explicitly that he will make use of two of them. It is left to the perceptive reader to discover Maimonides' true views on a given issue.

The enigmatic nature of the Guide imposed great difficulties on medieval and modern commentators, and two schools of interpretation arose. Some, such as Julius Guttmann, while aware of Maimonides' method, consider him a philosopher who attempted to harmonize the teachings of religion with those of philosophy. Others, such as Leo Strauss, considered Maimonides a philosopher, whose views were in agreement with those of the rationalistic Aristotelians, and who expressed religious opinions largely as a concession to the understanding of the masses. For example, Maimonides, according to the first interpretation, believed that the world was created, while according to the second, his true view was that the world is eternal.

With all these distinctions in mind one may proceed to an exposition of Maimonides' philosophy based largely on the Guide.

Purpose of the Guide

Maimonides wrote his work for someone who was firm in his religious beliefs and practices, but, having studied philosophy, was perplexed by the literal meaning of biblical anthropomorphic and anthropopathic terms. To this person Maimonides showed that these difficult terms have a spiritual meaning besides their literal one, and that it is the spiritual meaning that applies to God. Maimonides also undertook in the Guide the explanation of obscure biblical parables. Thus, the Guide is devoted to the philosophic interpretation of Scripture, or, to use Maimonides' terms, to the "science of the Law in its true sense" or to the "secrets of the Law" (Guide, introd.).


Maimonides' first philosophical topic is God. In line with his exegetical program he begins by explaining troublesome biblical terms, devoting the major portion of the first 49 chapters of the first part of the Guide to this task. Representative of his exegesis are his comments on the term "image of God" (ẓelem Elohim), found in the opening section of Genesis. Some have argued, Maimonides states, that since man was created in the image of God, it follows that God, like man, must have a body. He answers the objection by showing that the term zelem refers always to a spiritual quality, an essence. Hence, the "image of God" in man is man's essence, that is his reason but not physical likeness (Guide 1:1).

divine attributes

Maimonides then takes up the question of God's attributes (Guide 1:50–60). The Bible describes God by many attributes, but it also states that God is one. If He is one in the sense of being simple, how can a multiplicity of attributes be ascribed to Him? Medieval philosophers held that attributes applied to substances are of two kinds: essential and accidental. Essential attributes are those that are closely connected with the essence, such as existence or life; accidental attributes are those that are independent of the essence and that may be changed without affecting the essence, such as anger or mercifulness. Medieval logicians generally agreed that accidental attributes introduce a multiplicity into that which they describe, while they disagreed concerning essential attributes. Some, such as Maimonides' contemporary Averroes, held that essential attributes are implicitly contained in the essence and, hence, do not introduce multiplicity; others held that they provide new information and, hence, produce multiplicity. Avicenna was an exponent of the latter view, holding that essential attributes, particularly existence, are superadded to the essence. Maimonides accepted Avicenna's position on this point. Maimonides came to the conclusion that accidental attributes applied to God must be interpreted as attributes of action, that is, if it is said that God is merciful, it means that God acts mercifully; and essential attributes must be interpreted as negations (or more precisely, negations of privations), that is, if God is said to be existing, it means that he is not nonexistent.

(See also *God, Attributes of).

existence, unity, and incorporeality of god

Prior to Maimonides, Islamic and Jewish *Kalām philosophers had offered arguments for the existence, unity, and incorporeality of God and for the creation of the world. Maimonides summarized the teachings of the Kalām philosophers in order to refute them (Guide 1:71–76). In the case of the existence, unity, and incorporeality of God, Maimonides held that these are legitimate philosophic issues, but that the Kalām philosophers, relying on categories of the imagination rather than reason, had not solved them correctly. In the case of creation he held that to demonstrate the creation or eternity of the world lies outside the competence of the human mind.

Maimonides prefaces his own proofs for the existence, unity, and incorporeality of God with 25 metaphysical and physical propositions, which he considers to have been demonstrated in the philosophic literature of his days. To these he adds a 26th proposition, namely, that the world is eternal. However, it appears that this proposition does not reflect Maimonides' own belief concerning the origin of the world (see below), but serves, rather, a methodological function. It can be seen readily, Maimonides implies, that if it is assumed that the world is eternal, the existence of God can still be demonstrated (Guide 2, introd.).


To demonstrate the existence of God, Maimonides makes use of four proofs current in his day: from motion, from the composition of elements (also a kind of argument from motion), from necessity and contingency, and from potentiality and actuality (causality). The common structure of all of them is that they begin with some observed characteristic of the world, invoke the principle that an infinite regress is impossible, and conclude that a first principle must exist. For example, Maimonides begins his first proof, that from motion, by noting that in the sublunar world things constantly move and change. These sublunar motions, in turn, are caused by celestial motions which come to an end with the motion of the uppermost celestial sphere. The motion of that sphere is caused by a mover that is not moved by another mover. This mover, called the Prime Mover, is the last member in the chain of causes producing motion. Maimonides uses the following example as an illustration. Suppose a draft of air comes through a hole, and a stick is used to push a stone in the hole to close it. Now the stone is pushed into the hole by the stick, the stick is moved by the hand, and the hand is moved by the sinews, muscles, etc., of the human body. But one must also consider the draft of air, which was the reason for the motion of the stone in the first place. The motion of the air is caused by the motion of the lowest celestial sphere, and the motion of that sphere, by the successive motions of other spheres. The chain of things moved and moving comes to an end with the last of the celestial spheres. This sphere is set in motion by a principle which, while it produces motion, is itself not moved. This is the Prime Mover, which for Maimonides is identical with God.

Maimonides then turned to the nature of the Prime Mover. Four possibilities exist: Either the Prime Mover exists apart from the sphere, and then either corporeally or incorporeally; or it exists within the sphere, and then either as distributed throughout it or as indivisible. It can be shown that the Prime Mover does not exist within the sphere, which rules out the last two possibilities, nor apart from it as a body, which rules out the third. Hence, it exists apart from the sphere and must be incorporeal. Maimonides shows, further, that there cannot be two incorporeal movers. Thus, it has been established that the Prime Mover exists, is incorporeal, and is one.

Maimonides' proof from necessity and contingency rests on the observation that things in the world are contingent, and that they are ultimately produced by a being that is necessary through itself. This proof was first formulated by Avicenna and was rejected by Averroes (Guide 2:1; for a more popular discussion of Maimonides' conception of God, and his attributes, see Yad, Yesodei ha-Torah, 1–2).


Maimonides next turned to the incorporeal intelligences of the celestial spheres which he identifies with the angels (Guide 2:2–12), and then to creation of the world (Guide 2:13–26). On the last subject he begins by enumerating three theories of the origin of the world: that of the Torah, that the world was created by God out of nothing; that of Plato and others, according to which God created the world out of preexistent matter; and that of Aristotle, according to which the world is eternal. A major portion of the discussion is devoted to showing that Aristotle's and his followers' proofs of the eternity of the world are not really proofs. From an analysis of Aristotelian texts Maimonides attempted to show that Aristotle himself did not consider his arguments as conclusive demonstrations but only as showing that eternity is more plausible than creation. Maimonides' own position is that one can offer plausible arguments for the creation of the world as well as for its eternity. From this it follows that a conclusive demonstration of the creation or the eternity of the world lies beyond human reason; the human mind can only offer likely, technically known as dialectical, arguments for either alternative. However, an examination of these arguments reveals that those for creation are more likely than those for eternity, and on this basis Maimonides accepts the doctrine of creation ex nihilo as his own. An additional reason is that Scripture also teaches creation. Maimonides' intellectual daring is apparent in his statement (ch. 25) that had the eternity of the world been demonstrated philosophically, he would not have hesitated to interpret the Bible accordingly, just as he did not hesitate to interpret anthropomorphic terms in the Bible allegorically. He also states that the principle of creation is the most important one after that of God's unity, since it explains the possibility of miracles and similar occurrences. It should be noted, however, that some interpreters understand Maimonides' esoteric teaching as propounding the eternity of the world.

If the world was created, will it come to an end at some future time? He answers in the negative and adds that the future indestructibility of the world is also taught in the Bible (Guide 2:27–29). Maimonides concludes this phase of the discussion with an explanation of the creation chapters at the beginning of Genesis and a discussion of the Sabbath, which in part is also a reminder of the creation.


In the introduction to the Guide Maimonides incidentally discussed the nature of the prophetic experience, likening it to intellectual illumination. In the present section (Guide 2:32–48) he is interested in the psychology of prophecy and its political function. He begins by listing three possible theories of how prophecy is acquired: that of the unsophisticated believer, who holds that God arbitrarily selects someone for prophecy; that of the philosophers, according to which prophecy occurs when man's natural faculties, particularly his intellect, reach a high level of development; and that of Scripture, which specifies the same development of natural faculties but adds dependence on God, Who can prevent someone from prophesying, if He so desires. According to this last view, God's role in prophecy is negative, rather than positive.

Maimonides defined prophecy as an emanation from God, which, through the intermediacy of the Active Intellect, flows first upon man's intellectual faculty and then upon his imagination. While a well-developed imagination is of little significance for the illuminative experience of the prophet, it is central to his political function. In line with the views of the Islamic Aristotelians, particularly al-Fārābī, Maimonides conceives of the prophet as a statesman who brings law to his people and admonishes them to observe it. This conception of the prophet-statesman is based on Plato's notion, found in the Republic, of the philosopher-king who establishes and administers the ideal state. For Maimonides the primary function of prophets other than Moses is to admonish people to adhere to the Law of Moses; this requires that the prophets use the kind of imaginative language and parables that appeal to the imagination of the masses. Maimonides characterizes three personality types: philosopher, who uses only his intellect, the ordinary statesman, who uses only his imagination, and the prophet, who uses both.

Though he discusses the phenomenon of prophecy extensively, Maimonides mentions Moses, the chief of the prophets, only in passing in the Guide. However, in his halakhic writings he singles out Moses for special discussion. Moses, he states, differed so much from other prophets that he and they had virtually only the name "prophet" in common. Moses' prophecy is distinguished from that of the other prophets in four ways: other prophets received their prophecy in a dream or vision, Moses received his while awake; other prophets received their prophecy in allegorical form, Moses received his directly; other prophets were filled with fear when they received prophecy, Moses was not; other prophets received prophecy intermittently, Moses received it when he wished (Hakdamah le-Ferek Ḥelek, Principle 7; Yad, Yesodei ha-Torah, 7:6; cf. Guide 2:35). Moses also differed from other prophets and legislators in that he conveyed a perfect law, that is, one that addressed itself not only to man's moral perfection but also to his intellectual perfection by requiring the affirmation of certain beliefs.

Nature of Evil

Maimonides begins the third part of the Guide (introd. ch. 1–7) with a philosophic interpretation of the divine chariot (merkavah); this exposition brings to a close that part of the Guide that deals with speculative matters, that is, physical and metaphysical topics (Guide 3:7–end). Next he turns to practical philosophy, discussing evil and providence first.

Maimonides accepts the neoplatonic doctrine that evil is not an independent principle but rather the privation, or absence, of good. Like the Neoplatonists and other monists he had to accept this position, for to posit an independent principle of evil was to deny the uniqueness and omnipotence of God. There are three kinds of evil: natural evils, such as floods and earthquakes, which man cannot control, social evils, such as wars, and personal evils, the various human vices, both of which man can control. Natural evils are infrequent, and, hence, the majority of evil in the world, which is caused by man, can be remedied by proper training. Maimonides also argues against those who hold that the world is essentially evil, stating that if one looks at the world at large, rather than at one's own pains and misfortunes, one finds that the world as a whole is good, not evil (Guide 3:8–12).

Divine Providence

Maimonides discusses divine omniscience and then turns to the related question of divine providence. He distinguishes between general providence, which refers to general laws regulating nature, and individual providence, which refers to God's providential concern for individual men. He lists four theories of providence that he rejects: the theory of Epicurus (see *Epicureanism), which states that everything that happens in the world is the result of chance; that of Aristotle (really that of the commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias), which states that there is only general, not individual, providence; that of the Islamic Asharites (see *Kalām), which states that the divine will rules everything – this is equivalent to individual providence extended to include all beings, animate and inanimate; and that of the Muʿtazilites (see *Kalām), which states that there is individual providence extending even to animals but not to inanimate objects. Last, Maimonides discusses the attitude toward providence of the adherents of the Torah. They all accept man's free will and God's justice. To these principles some more recent scholars (Maimonides had in mind the geonim, most likely Saadiah) have added the principle of yissurin shel ahavah ("afflictions of love"), which explains that God may cause suffering to a righteous person in order to reward him in the hereafter. Maimonides rejected it, however, stating that only an unjust God would act in this manner, and asserted that every pain and affliction is a punishment for a prior sin. Finally, Maimonides gave his own position: there is individual providence, and it is determined by the degree of development of the individual's intellect. The more developed a man's intellect, the more subject he is to divine providence (Guide 3:16–21). Maimonides used this theory of providence in his interpretation of the Book of Job, in which the characters of that book represent the various attitudes toward providence discussed above (Guide 3:22–23).

Nature of Man and Moral Virtue

Maimonides' final undertaking in the Guide is his explanation of the Law of Moses and its precepts. But this account is based on his philosophy of man, which he summarizes only in his "Shemonah Perakim." From this summary it is clear that Maimonides' philosophy of man was one current among Muslim Aristotelians. Man is composed of a body and a soul, the soul, particularly the intellect, being the form of the body. The soul, which is unitary, contains five basic faculties: nutritive, sensory, imaginative, appetitive, and rational. Of these faculties, the appetitive and rational are important for the good life and for happiness on earth and in the hereafter. Man attains happiness through the exercise of moral virtues to control his appetites and by developing his intellectual powers. In Maimonides' discussion of morality he follows Aristotle in holding that virtuous action consists of following the mean, but he holds that all should go to the extreme to avoid pride and anger (Yad, Deot, 2:3). While in his halakhic writings Maimonides embraced a morality of the mean, in the Guide he advocates a more ascetic life, and he particularly recommends curbing the sexual drive. As in Aristotelian thought, the moral virtues serve only a preliminary function, the final goal being the acquisition of intellectual virtues.

(For another discussion of Maimonides' moral philosophy, see Yad, Deot.)

Law of Moses

In the Guide 3:26–49 Maimonides discusses the reasons of the commandments. Maimonides considers a distinction made by Muʿtazilite philosophers, *Saadiah among them. These philosophers had divided divine law into two categories: rational commandments, such as the prohibitions against murder and theft, which the human mind can discover without revelation; and revealed commandments, such as prayer and the observance of holidays, which are neutral from the point of view of reason and can be known only through revelation. Maimonides understands this position as implying that the revelational commandments come from God's will rather than His reason. Against this view, Maimonides argues that all divine commandments are the product of God's wisdom, though he adds that some are easily intelligible (mishpatim), and others intelligible only with difficulty (ḥukkim). However, Maimonides adds that particular commandments have no rational principle behind them and are commandments only because God willed them.

Maimonides postulates two purposes of the Law: the well-being of the soul (intellect) and the well-being of the body, by which he means man's moral well-being. The former is acquired through true beliefs; the latter, through political and personal morality. The beliefs which a man must accept are graded according to his intellectual ability. There are also true beliefs, such as the existence of God, His unity, and His incorporeality, which everyone must accept regardless of intellectual ability; and there are beliefs, such as that God gets angry at those who disobey Him, which have primarily a political function and are considered necessary beliefs. Ordinary men will accept the Law only if they are promised rewards or threatened with punishment, and it is the function of the necessary beliefs to provide such motivation. They are unnecessary for the philosopher, who obeys the Law because it is the right thing to do regardless of consequences.

Although reasons for general moral laws can readily be found, it is more difficult to explain the numerous ritual laws found in the Bible. Maimonides explains many of them as reactions to pagan practices, and he makes use of his extensive familiarity with such books as the Nabatean Agriculture, which describe such practices (see *Commandments, Reasons for). Thus, for example, he explains the biblical prohibition against wearing garments made of wool and linen combined as a reaction to a pagan practice requiring priests to wear such garments. Maimonides also considers certain commandments as concessions to historical situations, such as those dealing with sacrifice. Worship without animal sacrifices is preferred, but it would have been unrealistic to require the Israelites leaving Egypt to give up sacrifices altogether. Hence the Bible commanded sacrifices, restricting, however, the times and places for them and permitting only priests to offer them. We should not infer from this, however, that Maimonides believed in a progressive development of Jewish law; in fact, he codifies all of rabbinic law in his Mishneh Torah. The Guide concludes with a supplementary section on the perfect worship of God and man's perfection.


Eschatology is barely mentioned in the Guide, although Maimonides developed it fully in other works. Following traditional Jewish teachings, he deals with the Messiah and messianic times, the resurrection of the dead, and olam ha-ba ("the world to come"). He proceeds characteristically by stripping these occurrences of supernatural qualities as much as possible. The Messiah is an earthly king, descended from the house of David. He will bring the Jews back to their country, but his major accomplishment will be to bring peace and tranquility to the world, thereby facilitating full observance of God's commandments. The Messiah will die of old age and be succeeded by his son, the latter, by his son, and so on. No cataclysmic events will take place during messianic times, but the world will continue in its established natural order. Maimonides calculated the year of the coming of the Messiah ("Epistle to Yemen"), although he generally opposed speculations of this kind (Hakdamah le-Ferek Ḥelek, principle 12; Yad, Melakhim, 12:2 – uncensored edition).

During messianic times the dead will be resurrected with body and soul reunited though later the human person will die again. (For his affirmation of this doctrine in reply to criticism that he rejected it, see above.) Undoubtedly, the central notion of Maimonides' eschatology is his account of olam ha-ba. In his view the intellect, but not the body, has an afterlife, and in that afterlife the intellect is engaged in the contemplation of God. Generally, he speaks of incorporeal intelligences (plural), implying that immortality is individual, but there are passages which suggest that immortality is collective, that is, in the world to come there exists only one intellect for all mankind (Hakdamah le-Ferek Ḥelek; Yad, Teshuvah, 8–10, Guide 1:41; Treatise on Resurrection).

Basic Principles of Judaism

Maimonides' intellectualism is reflected in the formulation of 13 principles that in his view every member of the Jewish community is bound to accept (see *Articles of Faith). Did he intend these principles as a means of developing the intellects of the masses, thus enabling them to share in olam ha-ba, or as a political expedient, that is, to make the masses aware of intellectual issues so that philosophers can live safely in their midst? Proponents of both views are found among Maimonides' interpreters (see A. Hyman, in: A. Altmann (ed.), Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies (1967), 119–44).


Maimonides' Guide, as has been noted, profoundly influenced the subsequent course of medieval Jewish philosophy. Among the extensive literature that arose were numerous full and partial commentaries on the Guide, most of them still unpublished. However, four of these have been printed and they appear many times with the Hebrew text of the Guide. They are those of Profiat *Duran (Efodi), Shem Tov ben Joseph *Ibn Shem Tov, Asher *Crescas, and Isaac *Abrabanel. In addition, the following commentaries have appeared in print: Moreh ha-Moreh by Shem Tov ibn *Falaquera, which also contains corrections of Ibn Tibbon's Hebrew translation based on the Arabic original (edited by M.L. Bisseliches, 1837); Yair Shiffman has published a critical edition of Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera's commentary Moreh ha-Moreh (Jerusalem, 2001); and a commentary by *Moses Narboni (all three reprinted in Sheloshah Kadmonei Mefareshei ha-Moreh, 1961). Samuel ibn Tibbon composed a philosophic glossary on the Guide entitled Perush me-ha-Millot ha-Zarot asher be-Ma'amarei ha-Rav, which has also been printed many times. One aspect of the commentary literature is the attempt to reconcile Maimonides' views with the divergent ones of his contemporary Averroes. Of commentaries and notes that have appeared on the Guide in more recent times are those of Solomon Maimon's Givat ha-Moreh (edited by Samuel Hugo Bergman and N. Rotenstreich, 1966), the notes in S. Munk's French translation of the Guide, and the Hebrew commentary in Ibn Shmuel's edition.

In addition to its significance for medieval Jewish philosophy, the Guide also had a formative influence on modern Jewish thought. Maimonides provided a first acquaintance with philosophic speculation for a number of philosophers of the Enlightenment period and served as a bridge for the study of more modern philosophy. Moses *Mendelssohn is a case in point. In addition, Maimonides became a symbol for their own philosophic endeavors; he had attempted to introduce the spirit of rationalism into Jewish teachings during medieval times, just as they tried to do in their own time. Among modern thinkers influenced in some way by Maimonides are, in addition to Mendelssohn and Solomon Maimon (c. 1752–1800), Nahman *Krochmal, Samuel David *Luzatto (who opposed Maimonides' rationalism), S.L. *Steinheim, Hermann *Cohen, and *Aḥad *Ha-Am.

Maimonides exercised an extensive influence on Christian scholastic thought. Among these scholastics are *Alexander of Hales, *William of Auvergne, *Albertus Magnus, Thomas *Aquinas, Meister *Eckhart, and *Duns Scotus. These scholastics generally quote Maimonides by name, but sometimes they cite his views anonymously. Giles of Rome composed a treatise entitled Errores philosophorum about 1270 (edited by J. Koch, with an English translation by J.O. Riedl, 1944), the 12th chapter of which is devoted to a refutation of Maimonides' views. (For Maimonides' influence on scholastic philosophy, see B. Geyer, Die patristische und scholastische Philosophie (1928), index; E. Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (1955), index; Görge Hasselhoff, Dicit Rabbi Moyses, Studien zum Bild Moses von Moses Maimonides im lateinischen Westen vom 13. bis zum 15. Jahrhundert (Würzburg, 2004) Kaufmann, Schriften, 2 (1910), 152–89; Jacob Guttmann, in: Moses ben Maimon, J. Braun et al. (editors), 1 (1908), 135–230; and see also other studies by Jacob Guttman, Issachar Joel, and Isaac Husik.)

In early modern times Maimonides influenced the secular philosophers Baruch *Spinoza (see H.A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of Spinoza (1954), index) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz.

[Arthur Hyman]

as physician

Maimonides was probably first taught medicine by his father, but, as stated above, during the seven years which his family spent in Fez, Maimonides probably had the opportunity to pursue his medical studies and mingle with well-known physicians. In his "Treatise on Asthma" he describes discussions with the Jewish physician Abu Yūsuf b. Mu'allim and with Muhammad, son of the famous Avenzoar, and others. From his commentary on drugs it may also be concluded that he received his basic medical education in Morocco. He refers to "our physicians in the West" and to Morocco and Spain. Most of the names of drugs are given there not only in Arabic but also in Berber and Spanish. The only authors quoted by name are Spanish-Moroccan physicians (Ibn Juljul, Ibn Wāfid, Ibn Samajūn), who lived one to two centuries before him, and his older contemporary al-Ghāfiqī. Maimonides was certainly very familiar with Arabic translations of the writings of Greek physicians as well as with the writings of the older Arab physicians, for he himself condensed some of them.

That Maimonides was highly regarded as a physician among the Muslims is evident from the statements of the historians Ibn al-Qifṭī (c. 1248) and Ibn Abi Uṣaybiʿa (c. 1270) as well as of the physician ʿAbd-al-Laṭīf of Baghdad, who visited Maimonides when he was in Cairo in 1201. A song of praise which was written by a grateful patient, Saʿīd b. Ṣanāʾ al-Mulk, has been preserved by Ibn Abi Uṣaybiʿa:

Galen's art heals only the body
But Abu-Amran's [Maimonides'] the body and the soul.
His knowledge made him the physician of the century.
He could heal with his wisdom the sickness of ignorance.
If the moon would submit to his art,
He would free her of the spots at the time of full moon,
Would deliver her of her periodic defects,
And at the time of her conjunction save her from waning.
(Translation taken from B.L. Gordon, Medieval and Renaissance Medicine (1959), 235.)

Moreover, from certain statements made by Ibn Abi Uṣaybiʿa, it is clear to us that Maimonides also lectured on medicine and taught disciples such as his own son Abraham, as well as Joseph b. Judah ibn Shamʿun, and Rashīd al-Dīn.

Maimonides classified medicine into three divisions: preventive medicine; healing of the sick; and care of the convalescent, including invalids and the aged. His medical teachings, based on the then prevailing humoral pathology as taught by Hippocrates and Galen, are of a strictly rational character. He disapproved strongly of the use of charms, incantations, and amulets in treating the sick, and was outspoken against any blind belief in authority. He encouraged his disciples to observe and reason critically and insisted on experiment and research. In his "Treatise of Asthma" Maimonides stresses that the physician is important not only during sickness but also when the body is healthy. Unlike any other craftsman, the physician must use art, logic, and intuition. Maimonides also added that the physician must be able to take a comprehensive view of the patient and his circumstances in order to make a diagnosis of both his general condition and of diseases of individual organs.

Except for part of his Galen compendium, all of Maimonides' medical writings, most of which were apparently written in Arabic in Cairo during 1190–1204, have been preserved. The majority of these works were translated into Hebrew and Latin and helped to spread his fame in the West.

(1) Al-Mukhtaṣarāt is a compendium of the works of Galen for teaching purposes, of which only three, in Arabic, have been preserved.

(2) A commentary by him on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, which had been translated into Arabic by the ninth-century translator Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, in general follows Galen's commentary; it has been only partially preserved in two defective Arabic manuscripts.

(3) Fuṣūl Mūsā ("The Aphorisms of Moses") is possibly the most famous and most widely quoted of all Maimonides' medical writings. It was translated into Hebrew under the title Pirkei Moshe, in the 13th century. In this work Maimonides included a large number of medical aphorisms and sundry information, mostly from Galen's own writings or his commentaries on Hippocrates, but also from Arab authors. On speaking of the relation between the right-hand part of the heart and the lungs (1:55), Maimonides seems to have touched on the lesser circulation, without, however, venturing further afield. The passages in 1:19 as well as 8:57 and 62 strongly indicate that he was speaking of arterioles connecting the arteries and the veins.

(4) Sarḥ asmāʾ al-ʿuqqār is a commentary on drugs, the manuscript of which was found in Istanbul in 1932. It consists of 56 pages of 17 lines each. In the introduction Maimonides deals with the necessity of identifying drugs by their popular names. He then lists, in alphabetical order, about 350 remedies, mainly derived from plants. The Arabic names are often followed by Greek and Persian terms as well as colloquial Spanish, Moroccan, Egyptian, and Berber names. The so-called "Prayer of a Physician" was not written by Maimonides but was added later.

(5) Fī al-Bawāsīr is a work on hemorrhoids and was written for a young aristocrat.

(6) Fī al-Jimāʿa, a treatise on sexual intercourse, was written for the sultan Omar son of Nur al-Dīn.

(7) Maqāla Fī al-Rabw ("Treatise on Asthma") was written in 1190. Maimonides regards bronchial asthma as largely due to nervousness, and believes that some people thus inclined react strongly to certain irritants. Correct diet and spiritual treatment, he says, have a beneficial effect on the asthmatic.

(8) Kilāb al-Sumūm wa al-Mutaḥarriz min al-Adwiya al-Qitāla ("On Poisons and Their Antidotes"), a very famous manuscript, includes a classic description of the various symptoms of poisoning and is of value even today. Maimonides is the first to distinguish between the various types of snake venoms and suggests the establishment of collections of antidotes in state pharmacies. For snakebites he advises cautery, local tourniquets, rest, and general treatment against shock.

(9) Fī Tadbir al-Ṣiḥḥa ("Guide to Good Health"), a treatise on hygiene, is one of the most popular of Maimonides' works. It was written in 1198 for the Egyptian sultan Afḍal Nūr al-Dīn Ali, who suffered from attacks of depression accompanied by physical symptoms. Maimonides teaches that physical convalescence is dependent on psychological well-being and rest. He stresses the necessity of hygienic conditions in the care of the body, physical exercise, and proper breathing, work, family, sexual life, and diet, and suggests that music, poetry, paintings, and walks in pleasant surroundings all have a part to play toward a happy person and the maintenance of good health.

(10) Maqāla Fī Bayān al-Aʿrāḍ ("Explanation of Coincidences") was also written for the sultan Afḍal Nūr al-Dīn Ali, who requested an explanation of the causes of his continued depression. It is a short treatise on the subject, in 22 chapters.

In the formation of his opinions on man's spiritual well-being, Maimonides' scientific and psychological experiences are closely interwoven with his religious principles. Physical and biological rules are integrated with moral and ethical principles in his world of values. To integrate oneself consciously into the natural biological laws of the world represented for Maimonides the fulfillment of the idea of walking in the paths of science and wisdom and achieving true knowledge and perfect bliss.

[Suessmann Muntner]

as astronomer

Maimonides did not compose a systematic treatise on astronomy, but his competence in the subject is well illustrated by a number of passages in the Moreh Nevukhim (Guide of the Perplexed) and by his treatise on the calendar, The Sanctification of the New Moon (Kiddush Rosh Ḥodesh in Mishneh Torah). In the Guide there are references to technical aspects of Ptolemaic astronomy, and it is revealed that Maimonides' disciple Joseph ibn Shamʾun had studied Ptolemy's Almagest under him. Maimonides states that he was acquainted with the son of Jābir ibn Aflaḥ of Seville (d. c. 1150), the author of a well-known astronomical text which takes exception to some Ptolemaic principles. He also refers to a lost work of Ibn Bāja (d. 1139), concerning the principles of astronomy, that he had obviously read with care. According to Maimonides, the physical difficulties of eccentric and epicyclic spheres need not concern the astronomer, whose task is merely to propose a theory in which the motions of the planets and the stars are uniform and circular, and conform to observation. In the Sanctification, Maimonides describes the calendric rules that were used in the time of the Sanhedrin, the rules of the fixed calendar that apply to this day, and the astronomical determination of the beginning of the month. The third section again shows Maimonides to be competent in the technical aspects of Ptolemaic astronomy, although he made no original contribution to the subject. In 1194 Maimonides wrote a letter addressed to the rabbis of southern France strongly denouncing *astrology as a pseudoscience opposed to the true science of astronomy, an opinion rarely expressed by Jewish scholars in the Middle Ages. In this letter Maimonides stated that astrology was the first secular subject he studied, and that he had read everything available in Arabic on the discipline.

[Bernard R. Goldstein]


Among Maimonides' halakhic works, Y. Kafaḥ published a new Hebrew translation of the Sefer ha-Mitzvot (1958) from the original Arabic, on which C.B. Chavel based his English version, The Commandments: Sefer ha-Mitzvoth of Maimonides, 2 vols. (1967). An English translation of the entire Mishneh Torah, almost all of whose volumes have appeared as of 2005, is being published in the Yale Judaica Series (begun 1949). An edition with an English translation of the first two books of Mishneh Torah, based on the Bodleian (Oxford) codex, was published by Moses Hyamson in 1962.

The Arabic original of the Guide was edited, with a French translation, by S. Munk (Le guide des égarés, 3 vols. (1856–66); ed. by I. Joel, based on Munk's text, 1931). Samuel ibn Tibbon's Hebrew translation was first printed in Rome before 1480, and again in Venice, 1551, Sabionetta, 1553, and frequently thereafter. Yehudah Even-Shemuel (Kaufmann) edited part of this text with introductions and a commentary in three volumes (1935–59). Yehudah Even-Shemuel (Kaufman) also published a full edition of the Samuel ibn Tibbon translation, but without commentary, in 2000. Y. Kafah published the Judaeo-Arabic original with a modern Hebrew translation in three volumes in 1972. Michael Schwarz published a modern Hebrew translation from the Arabic with a modern Hebrew commentary and bibliography in two volumes in 2002. The translation of Judah al-Ḥarizi was edited, with notes, by L. Schlossberg in three parts (1851–79; 19123). Both versions were translated into Latin: that of Ibn Tibbon by J. Buxtorf (Basel, 1629) and Al-Ḥarizi's edited by A. Justinianus (Paris, 1520). The Guide was translated into English by M. Friedlaender, 3 volumes (1885; 19042; repr. 1956), and by S. Pines (1963), with introductions by L. Strauss, and the translator C. Rabin published an abridged translation with an introduction by J. Guttmann (1952). German translations were undertaken in the 19th century (R. Fuerstenthal, pt. 1, 1839; M. Stern, pt. 2, 1864; S. Scheyer, pt. 3, 1838), all based on the Hebrew version of Ibn Tibbon. There is also a modern Hebrew translation from the Arabic by A. Siman and E. Mani, and versions in Italian, Spanish, and Hungarian.

I. Efros published an English translation of Maimonides' Treatise on Logic (in: paajr, 8, 1938), together with part of the Arabic original and three Hebrew versions. He also published a revised edition of the full Arabic text (in Hebrew alphabet) based on the edition of M. Tuerker (in: paajr, 34 (1966), 155ff.). J. Gorfinkle translated the Shemonah Perakim into English under the title The Eight Chapters of Maimonides on Ethics (1966). The Iggeret Teiman was translated by Boaz Cohen, Moses Maimonides' Epistle to Yemen (1952), edited by A.S. Halkin. Translations by Abraham Halkin and discussion by David Hartman of The Epistle on Martyrdom, The Epistle to Yemen, and The Essay on Resurrection are found in Crisis and Leadership: The Epistles of Maimonides (1985). S. Muntner edited versions of many of Maimonides' medical works: Perush le-Firkei Abukrat ("Commentary on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates" (1961), with an Eng. introd. (Pirkei Moshe bi-Refu'ah ("Maimonides' Medical Aphorisms" (1959), with Eng. introd.); Sefer ha-Kaẓẓeret (1940; Treatise on Asthma, 1963); Sammei ha-Mavet (1942; Treatise on Poisons and Their Antidotes, 1966); and Hanhagat ha-Beri'ut ("Guide to Good Health" (1957); Regimen Sanitasis, Ger., 1966). Volume i of The Medical Aphorisms of Moses Maimonides (ed. F. Rosner and S. Muntner) appeared in 1970. Selected letters of Maimonides are to be found in English translation in F. Kobler (ed.) Letters of Jews Through the Ages, 1 (1952), 178–219 (see also introduction, lx–lxi).


It is recommended that for an ongoing bibliography of writings about Maimonides, the reader consult Reshimat Ma'amarim be-Madda'ei ha-Yahadut (Index to Articles on Jewish Studies), a journal that lists articles in European languages and Hebrew on an ongoing basis. This bibliographic journal is now available on the internet at general: D. Yellin and I. Abrahams,Maimonides (1903; repr. 1936); J. Guttmann et al. (eds.), Moses ben Maimon, sein Leben, seine Werke und sein Einfluss, 2 vols. (1908–14); Graetz-Rabbinowitz, 4 (1916), 326–406, 459 n. 2, and appendix by A.E. Harkavy, 51–59; A. Cohen, Teachings of Maimonides (1927; repr. 1968); I. Epstein (ed.), Moses Maimonides (1935); B. Dinur, Rabbenu Moshe ben Maimon (1935); S. Baron (ed.), Essays on Maimonides (1941); A.S. Halkin, in: Joshua Starr Memorial Volume (1953), 101–10 (Heb.); M.D. Rabinowitz (ed.), Iggerot ha-Rambam (1960), introductions to the three letters; J.L. Maimon, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1960); Hirschberg, Afrikah, 1 (1965), index; A. Neubauer, in: jqr, 8 (1896), 541–61. add. bibliography: H.A. Davidson, Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works (2005); alleged conversion: On the question of his alleged conversion: those who maintain it are A. Geiger (Nachgelassene Schriften, 3 (1876), 42), S. Munk (Notice sur Joseph ben-lehouda (1842), and in: ai, 12 (1851), 319ff.), and Graetz. The allegation is examined and opposed by M. Friedlaender (Guide for the Perplexed (19042), xviii), D.S. Margoliouth (jqr, 13 (1901), 539–41), and S.P. Rabbinowitz (Graetz-Rabbinowitz, 4 (1916), 332, 462). See also J.L. Maimon, op. cit., 235–50; D. Corcos, in: Zion, 32 (1967), 138–60. As halakhist: I. Epstein (ed.), op. cit., 59–82; I. Herzog, ibid., 137–53; A. Marmorstein, ibid., 157–74; Levey, in: ccary, 45 (1935), 368–96; C. Tchernowitz, Toledot ha-Posekim, 1 (1946), 193–307; J. Levinger, Darkhei ha-Maḥashavah ha-Hilkhatit shel ha-Rambam (1965); A. Zuroff, Responsa of Maimonides (Diss., Yeshiva University, 1966); M. Havazelet, Ha-Rambam ve-ha-Ge'onim (1967); J.T. Dienstag, in: Talpioth, 9 (1968); idem, Ein ha-Mitzvot (1968). as philosopher and scientist: Guttmann, Philosophies, 152–82 and index; Husik, Philosophy, 236–311 and index; D. Rosin, Die Ethik Maimonides (1876); I. Efros, Philosophical Terms in the Moreh Nebukim (1924); L. Roth, Spinoza, Descartes, and Maimonides (1929); J. Sarachek, Faith and Reason: the Conflict over the Rationalism of Maimonides (1935); F. Bamberger, Das System des Maimonides (1935); L. Strauss, Philosophie und Gesetz (1935); idem, in: mgwj, 81 (1937), 93–105; idem, in: Baron (ed.), op. cit., 37–91 (repr. in: L. Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), 38–94); idem, in: paajr, 22 (1953), 115–30; G. Vajda, Introduction à la pensee juive du moyen âge (1947), 129–51; J. Becker, Mishnato ha-Filosofit shel ha-Rambam (1956); L.V. Berman, Ibn Bājjah ve-ha-Rambam: Perek be-Toledot ha-Filosofyah ha-Medinit (1959); H.A. Wolfson, in: jqr, 1 (1911/12), 297–339; 25 (1934/35), 441–67; 26 (1935/36), 369–77; 32 (1941/42), 345–70; 33 (1942/43), 40–82; idem, in: Essays… Linda R. Miller (1938), 201–34; idem, in: paajr, 11 (1941), 105–63; idem, in: Louis Ginzberg Jubilee Volume (1945), 411–46; idem, in: Mordecai M. Kaplan Jubilee Volume (1953), 515–30; Z. Diesendruck, in: Jewish Studies… Israel Abrahams (1927), 74–134 (Ger.); idem, in: huca, 5 (1928), 415–534 (Get.); S. Rawidowicz, in: I. Epstein (ed.), Moses Maimonides (1935), 177–88; E. Rosenthal, ibid., 191–206; I. Heinemann, in: mgwj, 79 (1935), 102–48; A. Altmann, ibid., 80 (1936), 305–30; idem, in: bjrl, 35 (1953), 294–315; A.J. Heschel, in: Sefer ha-Yovel… Levi Ginzberg (1945), 159–88; A. Hyman, in: La filosofia della natura nel medioevo (1966), 209–18; S. Pines, in: Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 5 (1967), 129–34; A.J. Reines, Maimonides and Abrabanel on Prophecy (1970). add. bibliography: (General Works): C. Sirat, A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages (1985), 157–203; D.H. Frank, "Maimonides and Medieval Jewish Aristotelianism," in: D.H. Frank and O. Leaman (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy (2003), 136–56; H. Kreisel, "Moses Maimonides," in: D.H. Frank and O. Leaman (eds.), History of Jewish Philosophy (1997), 245–80; T. Langerman, "Maimonides and the Sciences," in: The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy (2003), 157–75; O. Leaman, Moses Maimonides (1990); B. Ben-Shammai, "Esrim ve-Ḥamesh Shenot Meḥkar ha-Rambam: Bibliographia 1965–1990," in: Maimonidean Studies, 2 (1991), 17–42; J. Buijs (ed.), Maimonides: A Collection of Critical Essays (1988); A. Hyman (ed.), Maimonidean Studies (1990–ongoing); J.L. Kraemer (ed.), Perspectives on Maimonides: Philosophical and Historical Studies (1991); J.L. Kraemer, "The Life of Maimonides," in: L. Fine (ed.), Judaism in Practice (2001),413–28; H. Levine and R.S. Cohen (eds.), Maimonides and the Sciences (2000); David R. Lachterman, "Maimonidean Studies 1950–86: A Bibliography," in: Maimonidean Studies, 1 (1990), 197–216; T. Lévy and R. Rashed, Maimonide, philosophe et savant (11381204) (2004); C.H. Manekin, On Maimonides (2005); E. Ormsby (ed.), Moses Maimonides and His Times (1989); S. Pines and Y. Yovel (eds.), Maimonides and Philosophy (1986); I. Robinson, L. Kaplan, and J. Bauer (eds.), The Thought of Moses Maimonides: Philosophical and Legal Studies (1990); F. Rosner and S. Kottek (eds.), Moses Maimonides, Physician, Scientist and Philosopher (1993); I. Twersky (ed.), A Maimonides Reader (1972); I. Twersky, Studies in Maimonides (1990). as physician: W.M. Feldman, in: I. Epstein (ed.), Moses Maimonides (1935), 107–34; F. Rosner, in: Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 43 (1969); S. Muntner, in: Ha-Refu'ah (1954); idem, in: Korot, 3 (1964), 7–8; W. Steinberg and S. Muntner, in: American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 91 no. 3 (1965); I. Jakobovits, Jewish Medical Ethics (1959); F. Rosner and S. Muntner, The Medical Aphorisms of Maimonides, 1 (1970). as astronomer: A. Marx, in: huca, R. Lerner and M. Mahdi (eds.), Medieval Political Philosophy (1963), 227–36. his views on music: H.G. Farmer, Maimonides on Listening to Music (1941); E. Werner and I. Sonne, in: huca, 16 (1941), 281–3, 313–5; B. Cohen, Law and Tradition in Judaism (1959), 167–81. add. bibliography: essays and books on special topics: A. Altmann, "Maimonides on the Intellect and the Scope of Metaphysics," in: Von der mittelalterlichen zur modernen Aufklärung (1987), 60–129; idem, "Maimonides' Four Perfections," in: Essays in Jewish Intellectual History, 65–76; E. Benor, Worship of the Heart: A Study in Maimonides' Philosophy of Religion (1995); K.P. Bland, "Moses and the Law according to Moses," in: J. Reinharz and D. Swetschinski (eds.), Mystics, Philosophers, and Politicians: Essays in Jewish Intellectual History in Honor of Alexander Altmann (1982), 49–66; H.A. Davidson, "Maimonides' Secret Position on Creation," in: I. Twersky (ed.), Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature, vol. 1 (1979), 16–40; M. Fox, Interpreting Maimonides: Studies in Methodology, Metaphysics, and Moral Philosophy (1990); M.A. Friedman, Maimonides, the Yemenite Messiah, and Apostasy (Heb., 2002); A. Funkenstein, Maimonides: Nature, History, and Messianic Beliefs (1997); A.L. Gluck, "Maimonides' Arguments for Creation 'ex nihilo' in the 'Guide of the Perplexed'," in: Medieval Philosophy and Theology 7:2 (1998), 221–53; S.D. Goitein, "Moses Maimonides, Man of Action: A Revision of the Master's Biography in the Light of the Geniza Documents," in: G. Nahon and Charles Touati (eds.), Hommage á George Vajda (1980), 155–67; L.E. Goodman, "Maimonides' Philosophy of Law," in: Jewish Law Annual, 1 (1978), 72–107; J. Guttmann, "Philosophie der Religion oder Philosophie des Gesetzes?," in: Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 5 (1971–76), 147–73 (also published as a separate pamphlet and in a Hebrew version); D. Hartman, Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest (1976); A. Ivry, "Maimonides on Possibility," in: J. Reinharz and D. Swetschinski (eds.), Mystics, Philosophers, and Politician: Essays in Jewish Intellectual History in Honor of Alexander Altmann (1982), 67–84; idem, "Ismaili Theology and Maimonides' Philosophy," in: D. Frank (ed.), The Jews of Medieval Islam (1995), 271–99; idem, "The Logical and Scientific Premises of Maimonides' Thought," in: A. Ivry, E.R. Wolfson, and A. Arkush (eds.), Perspectives on Jewish Thought and Mysticism (1998), 63–97; L. Kaplan, "Maimonides on the Miraculous Element in Prophecy," in: Harvard Theological Review, 70 (1977), 233–56; J. Kraemer, "On Maimonides' Messianic Posture," in: I. Twersky (ed.), Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature, vol. 2 (1984), 109–42; H. Kreisel, "The Practical Intellect in the Philosophy of Maimonides," in: huca, 59 (1989), 189–215; idem, Maimonides' Political Thought: Studies in Ethics, Law, and the Human Ideal (1999); D. Lobel, "'Silence Is Praise to You' Maimonides on Negative Theology, Looseness of Expression, and Negative Theology," in: American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, 76 (2002), 25–49; Maimonide-Délivrance et Fidélité (1987); S. Pines, "The Limitations of Human Knowledge according to al-Farabi, Ibn Bajja and Maimonides," in: I. Twersky (ed.), Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature, vol. 1 (1979), 82–109; N.M. Samuelson, "Maimonides' Doctrine of Creation," in: Harvard Theological Review, 84:3 (1991), 249–71; D. Schwartz, "Avicenna and Maimonides on Immortality," in: Medieval and Modern Perspectives on Muslim-Jewish Relations (1995), 185–97; S. Schwarzschild, "Moral Radicalism and 'Midlingness' in the Ethics of Maimonides," in: Studies in Medieval Culture, 9 (1977), 65–94; S. Stroumsa, "Ẓave'im shel Haran ve-Ẓave'im eẓel ha-Rambam al Hitpatteḥut ha-Dat lefi ha-Rambam," in: Sefunot, 3 [23], 277–95; C. Touati, "Les deux théories de Maimonide sur la Providence," in: S. Stein and R. Loewe (eds.), Studies in Jewish Religious and Intellectual History (1979), 331–43; G. Vajda, "La pensée religieuse de Moise Maimonide: unité ou dualité," in: Cahiers de civilization médiévale, 9 (1966), 29–49; R.L. Weiss, Maimonides' Ethics: The Encounter of Philosophic and Religious Morality (1991).

Maimonides, Moses

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MAIMONIDES, MOSES (c. 1135/81204), hellenized name of Mosheh ben Maimon; also known by the acronym RaMBaM (Rabbi Mosheh ben Maimon); distinguished Talmudist, philosopher, and physician, and one of the most illustrious figures of Jewish history. He had a profound and pervasive impact on Jewish life and thought, and his commanding influence has been widely recognized by non-Jews as well as Jews. His epoch-making works in the central areas of Jewish law (halakhah ) and religious philosophy are considered to be unique by virtue of their unprecedented comprehensiveness, massive erudition, and remarkable originality and profundity. Their extraordinary conjunction of halakhic authority and philosophic prestige has been widely acknowledged. While the generations before the age of Maimonides produced philosophically trained Talmudistsscholars well versed in both Greek science and rabbinic lorethe extent to which Maimonides thoroughly and creatively amalgamated these disciplines and commitments is most striking. Many people of differing ideological inclinations throughout successive generations tend to find in or elicit from his great oeuvre a kind of philosophia perennis.

Early Life and Works

Maimonides was born in Córdoba, Spain, to a family of scholars. In 1148 Córdoba was conquered by the Almohads, a fanatical Islamic confederation. To escape religious persecution, the family fled the city; they wandered through southern Spain and North Africa from 1148 to 1158 and settled in Fez for several years. In 1165 Maimonides resumed his wanderings, going from Morocco to the Land of Israel, which was then the scene of the Crusades, turbulent and inhospitable. He was unable to take root there, and after making his way southward from the Crusaders' port city of Acre through Jerusalem to Hebron, stopping for prayer in the holy sites, he settled in Fusā (Old Cairo). He began to practice medicine and became the house physician of Saladin's vizier. In a candid letter to his favorite disciple, Maimonides comments revealingly about his medical practice:

I inform you that I have acquired in medicine a very great reputation among the great, such as the chief qāī, the princes and other grandees. This obliges me continually to waste my day in Cairo visiting the [noble] sick. When I return to Fusā, the most I am able to do is to study medical books, which are so necessary for me. For you know how long and difficult this art is for a conscientious and exact man who does not want to state anything which he cannot support by argument and without knowing where it has been said and how it can be demonstrated.

Simultaneously, Maimonides emerged as the untitled leader of the Jewish community, combining the duties of rabbi, local judge, appellate judge, administrative chief responsible for appointing and supervising community officials, and overseer of philanthropic foundations. He refused all remuneration for these services, a practice that reflected his religious and philosophical principles. His only son, Avraham, who was to become the official head (nagid) of the Jewish community and the author of important exegetical and philosophical works, was born in 1187; his writings are a significant source of Maimonidean doctrine.

Maimonides' biography underscores a noteworthy paradox. A philosopher by temperament and ideology, a zealous devotee of the contemplative life who eloquently portrayed and yearned for the serenity of solitude, he nevertheless led a relentlessly active life that regularly brought him to the brink of exhaustion. He was a harassed physician, subject to the pressures and whims of court service, and a conscientious leader of his community, sensitive to the physical and spiritual needs of its members. Yet he combined this arduous routine with constant scholarship and literary productivity in a way that reflected his conviction that superior leaders should combine intellectual perfection with practical and moral virtue (Guide of the Perplexed 3.54).

His determination to preserve his economic independence is completely consonant with his belief that scholars or religious functionaries should not seek or receive communal support. Some of his most passionate and animated prose (e.g., Mishneh Torah, Study of the Torah 3.10, Sanhedrin 23.5; Commentary on the Mishnah, Avot 4.7) was elicited by his distaste for this practice and his unyielding opposition to the existence of an institutionalized and salaried rabbinate dependent upon the largesse of patrons or charitable collections. But history did not favor the Maimonidean view, and such a rabbinate did emerge.

The natural integration of traditional Torah study and philosophy, which was a pivot of his massive literary achievement and an axiom of his understanding of Judaism, is emphasized even in existential contexts. In a plaintive letter written in 1184, after the completion of his fourteen-volume code of law, the Mishneh Torah, and while he was working on the Guide of the Perplexed, he underscored his devotion to these two disciplines: "Were not the study of the Torah my delight, and did not the study of wisdom divert me from my grief, I should then have perished in mine affliction." This is related, of course, to his intellectual open-mindedness and his conviction that one should "accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds." Hence he affirms concerning a certain work "that the ideas presented are not of my own invention but I have gleaned them from the words of the wise occurring in the midrashim, in the Talmud, and in other of their works as well as from the words of the philosophers, ancient and recent." Torah and philosophy are consistently juxtaposed as sources of his teaching and as natural companions.

Finally, Maimonides' creativity reflects a strong pedagogic drive. His youthful works (Millot ha-higgayon, on logic, and Maʾamar ha-ʿibbur, on the astronomical principles of the Jewish calendar) were composed in response to specific requests. Throughout his life he wrote hundreds of responsa (teshuvot )decisions concerning the interpretation or application of the lawand letters of advice, comfort, or arbitration to all parts of the world, including Yemen, Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Marseilles, and Lunel. Iggeret ha-shemad (Epistle on Conversion) and Iggeret Teiman (Epistle to Yemen) are especially noteworthy. His code of law was intended for "small and great"; indeed, law for him was an educative force leading to ethical and intellectual perfection, and his code was intended to be not only a manual of commands but an instrument of education and instruction. His multifaceted erudition and constructive expository skills were widely appreciated, and he freely shared their fruits with inquirers and readers. Failure to share one's knowledge with others would be tantamount to "robbing one who deserves the truth of the truth, or begrudging an heir his inheritance" (Guide, intro. to part 3).

Maimonides' major works are the Perush ha-Mishnah (Commentary on the Mishnah), Sefer ha-mitsvot (Book of the Commandments), Mishneh Torah (Review of the Torah; also known as Yad ha-azaqah ), and Moreh nevukhim (Guide of the Perplexed ). He also wrote some ten medical treatises that illustrate his vast erudition and the high ethical standards he brought to medicine. They are based to a large extent on Arabic medical literature. One of them deals with Galen and contains a rejoinder to Galen's criticisms of the Mosaic Torah.

Commentary on the Mishnah and Book of the Commandments

The pioneering, comprehensive Commentary on the Mishnah, which engaged the attention of Maimonides for about ten years (11581168), was intended as both an introduction to and a review of the Talmud. Because it was composed in Arabic and translated into Hebrew in installments over the next two centuries, it did not have as great or immediate an impact as his other works. It combines minute textual study, even lexicographical annotation, with conceptual analysis. Maimonides often digresses to elaborate a theological principle or elucidate a philosophic or scientific issue, for, as he confesses, "expounding a single principle of religion is dearer to me than anything else that I might teach." The book includes noteworthy discussions of many problems: prophecy; the reconciliation of physics with the traditional understanding of the biblical account of creation (maʿaseh bereʾshit ) and of metaphysics with traditional interpretations of Ezekiel's vision of the divine chariot (maʿaseh merkavah ); the reconciliation of belief in free will with belief in predestination; reward and punishment; the history of religion; magic, medicine, and miracles; immortality and the world to come; and the proper methodological use of allegory.

In the Commentary Maimonides was already preoccupied with a problem that was to engage him intermittently for the rest of his life and that was also becoming a staple theme of Jewish religious thought: the metaphorical interpretation of the aggadah, the sections of the Talmud that deal with lore rather than law. Maimonides had planned to write a special commentary that would classify, explain, and rationalize the aggadah, but abandoned the idea; the Guide of the Perplexed, which was devoted in great part to matters of exegesis and allegory, was, by his own account, intended as a partial replacement for this work. The interest shown by Maimonides in aggadic interpretation gives that subject more prestige and also suggests that the Guide is part of the aggadic as well as the philosophic tradition.

Embedded in the Commentary are three separate monographs. The general introduction is a comprehensive inquiry into the theoretical, historical, and doctrinal foundations of the oral lawits origin in the act of revelation at Sinai and, in particular, the ongoing process of its transmission and interpretation. Maimonides emphasizes that the oral law is a completely rational enterprise, subject to its own canons of interpretation and brooking no suprarational interference. Even prophecy is of little relevance to the juridical process. Only the prophecy of Moses was legislative; all subsequent prophecy was merely exhortatory and could not produce new laws (see also Guide 2.39).

Chapter Ten (pereq eleq ) of the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin, beginning "All Israelites have a share in the world to come," provides an occasion for Maimonides to include a lengthy excursus on Jewish belief. After criticizing crude, materialistic conceptions of the world to come and identifying the religious concept of the world to come with the philosophical notion of the immortality of the soul, Maimonides defines the term Israelites by formulating the famous thirteen principles, or articles of faith, that every Israelite is expected to endorse. The thirteen principles may be reduced to three basic groups: Godhis existence, unity, incorporeality, and eternity, and the prohibition of idolatry; the lawprophecy, the uniqueness of Mosaic prophecy, the divine origin of the written and oral law, and the eternity and immutability of the law; beliefs relating to reward and punishmentGod's omniscience, divine compensation for good and evil, the coming of the Messiah, and resurrection. All subsequent discussion of dogma by Jewish thinkers relates to this Maimonidean formulation.

Maimonides' introduction to Pirqei avot (Ethics of the Fathers), entitled "Eight Chapters," is a psychological-ethical treatise: its basis is an analysis of the soul and its powers, while its goal is a full presentation of Maimonides' theory of the golden mean. Maimonides defines virtues as psychological dispositions situated between extremes of excess and deficiency; a good deed is one that maintains the mean between these two bad extremes. This theory is the basis for a forceful repudiation by Maimonides of asceticism and all forms of extremism. Maimonides criticizes Jews who imitate "the followers of other religions" (probably Sufism) by adopting self-mortification and renunciation of "every joy." The last chapter contains an unequivocal affirmation of human freedom and, concomitantly, the rejection of all views (e.g., astrology and divine predestination) that would undermine free will. These introductions or excursuses, with their philosophical, psychological, and ethical disquisitions, enable the reader to take a rather accurate measure of the Maimonidean temper. Some scholars suggest that the Guide contradicts these earlier writings of Maimonides on many points (including, for example, free will).

In preparation for his great code of law, Maimonides wrote the Book of the Commandments, which provides a complete list of the 613 commandments thereby helping him to guard against forgetfulness and omissions and ensuring the comprehensiveness of the code. A major achievement of this work is the introduction, which defines fourteen guiding principles that determine which laws should be included in the enumeration of the 613. The ninth principle introduces an interesting classification of laws: (1) beliefs and opinions (e.g., to acknowledge the unity of God); (2) actions (e.g., to offer sacrifices); (3) virtues and traits of character (e.g., to love one's neighbor); (4) speech (e.g., to pray). This fourfold classification is significant for its all-inclusiveness and its repudiationintentional or incidentalof narrow "legalism," in the pejorative sense that is often attached to the term as a description of Judaism.

Mishneh Torah

Completed around the year 1178, the Mishneh Torah is a presentation of Jewish law without precedent or sequel in rabbinic literature. It is distinguished by five major characteristics: its codificatory form, its scope, its system of classification, its language and style, and its fusion of halakhah and philosophy.

1. Codificatory form

Maimonides presented the massive material in crisp, concise form, eliminating indeterminate debate and conflicting interpretations and formulating unilateral, undocumented decisions. He occasionally cites sources, mentions names of authorities, presents more than one view, includes exegetical and explanatory material, and describes personal views and practices.

2. Scope

One of the most revolutionary aspects of the code is its all-inclusive scope, which obliterates accidental distinctions between the practical and the theoretical. Maimonides opposed the pervasive tendency to study only those parts of the Talmud that were practical and relevant. He insisted that the abstruse, "antiquated" sections of the Talmud were not inferior to the popular, practical sections and should receive equal time and consideration. Laws concerning sacrifices or the messianic period were codified by him as precisely and comprehensively as laws concerning prayer and marital relations.

3. Classification

Maimonides abandoned the sequence of the Mishnah and created a new topical and pedagogical arrangement. Classification is, of course, a prerequisite for codification and necessitates interpretation, sustained conceptualization, a large measure of abstraction, and a synoptic view of the entire body of material. Legal classification concerns itself not only with the sum total of individual laws but with the concept of law per se. The ruling passion of Maimonides' life was order, system, conceptualization, and generalization, and this received its finest expression in Mishneh Torah.

4. Language and style

Maimonides chose the Hebrew of the Mishnah rather than the Hebrew of the Bible or the Aramaic of the Talmud and developed a rich, flexible style characterized by precision, brevity, and elegance. As a result, the Mishneh Torah contains substantial portions of the Talmud translated into fluent, felicitous Hebrew.

5. Fusion of halakhah and philosophy

Maimonides sought to bring about the unity of practice and concept, external observance and inner meaning, visible action and invisible experience, law and philosophy. This unification of the practical, theoretical, and theological components is underscored by Maimonides in a letter in which he describes the twofold objective of the Mishneh Torah as the provision of an authoritative compilation both of laws and of "true beliefs."

Book 1 of the Mishneh Torah (Sefer ha-maddaʿ, Book of Knowledge) is a summary of the essential beliefs and guiding concepts that constitute the ideological and experiential substructure of Judaism. Maimonides explains that he could not compose a comprehensive work on the details of practical precepts while ignoring the fundamentals of essential beliefs, those commandments that are the "root" (ʿiqqar ) of Mosaic religion and that should be known before anything else. The systematic treatment of metaphysics and ethics; the use of separate sections for laws of study (talmud torah ) and laws of repentance (teshuvah ); the devotion of a section to idolatry, including a history of religion and a review of superstitions and magical practices that must be uncompromisingly rejectedall these are combined in book 1, which serves as an introduction to, as well as an integral part of, the entire code.

Philosophic comments, rationalistic directives, ethical insights, and theological principles are also incorporated in other parts of the Mishneh Torah. Maimonides' systematization of the halakhah includes a good measure of ethical interpretation, spiritualization, and rationalizationthe whole system of aʿamei ha-mitsvot, the reasons for the commandments. While not too many laws are actually rationalized, the mandate to engage in rationalization, to penetrate to the essence and the real motive powers of the commandments, is clearly issued in the Mishneh Torah. It is thus most significant that this code reveals Maimonides as jurist and philosopher simultaneously.

The Mishneh Torah, all the criticism of it notwithstanding, exercises a decisive, extensive, nearly constant influence on the study and practice of halakhah. This tightly structured work has become a prism through which passes practically all reflection on and analysis of Talmudic study. There is hardly a major literary development in the broad field of rabbinic literaturenot only in the field of codificationthat does not relate in some way to the Mishneh Torah, a work that remains sui generis, unprecedented and unrivaled.

Guide of the Perplexed

Maimonides' philosophic testament par excellence, his Guide of the Perplexed, was composed in Arabic sometime between 1185 and 1190 and was translated into Hebrew just prior to Maimonides' death by Shemuʿel ibn Tibbon (c. 1150c. 1230). It is divided into three parts and covers a wide spectrum of philosophic problems. Maimonides deals with the basic problems that engaged all medieval religious philosophers: faith and reason, or the relation of philosophy to scripture; the existence, unity, incorporeality, and freedom of God; God's relation to the world in terms of its origin and government; communication between God and man through revelation; and the issues of ethics, free will, and human destiny, including immortality and doctrines of eschatology. The Guide was used extensively by Jewish thinkers and also by Christian scholastics, most notably Thomas Aquinas.

Why and for whom was the Guide written? Specifically, Maimonides composed it for his student Yosef ben Yehudah Shamʾun; generally, he addresses himself to the "perplexed," who is characterized as "a religious man for whom the validity of our law has become established in his soul and has become actual in his beliefsuch a man being perfect in his religion and character, and having studied the sciences of the philosophers and come to know what they signify." Maimonides is not concerned to teach "the vulgar or beginners in speculation nor those who have not engaged in any study other than the science of the law, I mean the legalistic study of the law. For the purpose of this treatise is the science of law in its true sense." His reader is a religious intellectual, well versed in Jewish law and classical philosophy, who is perplexed because he wants to preserve the integrity of both and is unwilling to renounce either. Maimonides undertakes to achieve this objective by explaining metaphysics, revealing the mistakes of the philosophers, and interpreting the esoteric meaning of the Hebrew Bible and Talmud.

Maimonides emphasizes his insistence upon intellectual rigor and proper method in achieving these goals; hence his determination to expose the mistakes of certain "philosophers, particularly the followers of the kalām," who frequently "violate that which is perceived by the senses." He gives primacy to purity of method. The esoteric meaning of the Bible is elicited by proper use of the method of allegorythat is, the identification of the supraliteral sense of the religious texts. This is one way of affirming that the religious tradition contains the basic truths of philosophy. Moreover, there is essential harmony between faith and reason. In common with other medieval religious philosophers, Maimonides adds revelation to reason and sense perception as sources of knowledge. It is this epistemological assumption that alters classical epistemology and that accounts for Maimonides' axiom of the compatibility of religious tradition and philosophic reasoning. While there is no contradiction between them, Maimonides believed that demonstrated belief is superior to faithhe held what the historian of religion Harry A. Wolfson called a "single-faith theory of the rationalist type."

Maimonides' ideal was a blending of "the science of law, i.e., the legalistic study of the law" with "the science of the law in its true sense." The phrase "legalistic study of the law" is not a tautology. Maimonides here establishes in one bold stroke that law is two-dimensional: legal (in the restricted, positive sense) and metalegal or philosophical. Both, in Maimonides' view, are components of the oral law. According to his history of philosophy (Guide 1.71), which was shared by many Jewish, Christian, and Muslim writers down to the beginning of the modern era, the Jews in antiquity cultivated the sciences of physics and metaphysics, which they later neglected for a variety of historical and theological reasons; they did not borrow from Greek thought because philosophy was an integral part of their religious tradition. This dovetails perfectly with Maimonides' halakhic formulation (Mishneh Torah, Study of the Torah 1.11, 1.12), which grafts philosophy onto the substance of the oral law and makes its study mandatory. This is Maimonides' intellectual conviction and philosophic position: the essential relationship and constant intersection of philosophy and halakhah. For him, the issue is not the legitimacy of philosophy in religion, but the legitimacy of religion without philosophy. Just as Yehudah ha-Levi considered philosophy an unwelcome intrusion, Maimonides considered its absence undesirable and intolerable.

A third issue in Maimonides' treatment of philosophyin addition to the epistemological issue (reason and revelation as twin sources of knowledge) and the historical issue (the existence of philosophy as a part of traditional Jewish lore)is cultural: philosophy implies a measure of universality. Hence Maimonides assumes the identity of the lost classical philosophic tradition of Judaism with the study of philosophy that was in his own day being restored under foreign influence. He does not need to be uncomfortable when in his reconstruction of the history of philosophy he acknowledges the non-Jewish, primarily Muslim, stimulus for the medieval revival of Jewish philosophy. "We have already explained that all these views do not contradict anything said by our prophets and the sustainers of our law. When in consequence of all this [exile and loss of wisdom] we grew up accustomed to the opinions of the ignorant, these philosophic views appeared to be, as it were, foreign to our law, just as they are foreign to the opinions of the ignorant. However, matters are not like this" (Guide 2.11). In a letter to his translator, Shemuʾel ibn Tibbon, he mentions his main philosophic sources: Aristotle, whose books are "the roots and foundations of all works in the sciences"; al-Fārābī, whose "writings are faultlessly excellentone ought to study and understand them"; and the important commentaries on Aristotle by Alexander of Aphrodisias, Themistius, and Ibn Rushd (Averroës).

Maimonidean philosophy is full of problems and dialectical pressures. In order to enlighten some readers without disconcerting others, Maimonides abandoned his fastidious organization, separated a unified presentation of views into unrelated sections, and even introduced premeditated, carefully wrought contradictions. Reading the Guide is thus a major challenge. To this day this dialectic continues to befuddle students of the Guide, who disagree concerning Maimonides' true intention and actual religious-philosophic stance.

There is, of course, a basic tension in the very attempt to combine Aristotelian philosophy with Judaism, and it is not certain that the two sides of Maimonidesthe sovereign master of halakhah and the zealous disciple of Aristotlecould be completely at ease together. Given the supremacy of the contemplative life for Maimonides, what significance did the practical religious life have for him? Is there a genuine incompatibility between the meaningful observance of mitsvot and the serious study and appreciation of physics and metaphysics?

All difficulties notwithstandingand he himself (Guide 1.33) mentions the view of those who contend that philosophic inquiry "undermines the foundations of law"Maimonides remained unswervingly committed to his brand of rationalism. Indeed, he believed that there is a religious obligation to apply one's intellect to the study of God and the world. "One only loves God with the knowledge with which one knows him; according to the knowledge will be the love. If the former be little or much, so will the latter be little or much. A person ought therefore to devote himself to the understanding and comprehension of those sciences and studies which will inform him concerning his master, as far as it lies in human faculties to understand and comprehend."

Achievement and Legacy

Maimonides' lifeworkthe fastidious interpretation and thoughtful reformulation of Jewish belief and practiceseems to have been clear in his mind from an early age. There is a conscious unity and progressive continuity in his literary career. It is striking how early his ideas, ideals, and aspirations were formed, how logically they hang together, and how consistently and creatively they were applied. As his work moves from textual explication to independent exposition, and from one level of exposition to another, the reader, moving with it, feels that Maimonides had from the very beginning a master plan to achieve one overarching objective: to bring halakhah and philosophy, two apparently incongruous attitudes of mind, into fruitful harmony.

Maimonides consistently espoused a sensitized view of religion and morality, demanding an uncompromising observance of the law, openly disdaining the perfunctory view of the masses, searching for the ultimate religious significance of every human action, and urging a commitment to, and quest for, wisdom and perfection. He pursued a vision of a meaningful observance of mitsvot combined with a genuine appreciation of philosophy. Routine piety and unreflective behavior he denigrated; Talmudism divorced from spiritual animation he found wanting. He emphasized the nobility of philosophic religion, in which rationalism and piety are natural companions and through which human perfection is advanced. As a religious rationalist, he was convinced of the interrelatedness and complementarity of divine and human wisdom and strove doggedly for their integration.

Maimonides knew that this could not be done easily or indiscriminately, but he was convinced that the very attempt, full of tension and problems, was indispensable for the achievement of true religious perfection. It may be said that Maimonides allowed religious rationalism, which had led a sort of subliminal existence in earlier rabbinic writing, to claim and obtain legitimacy and dignity. Maimonides picked up the various strands of rationalism and, by criticizing, refining, and extending them, emerged as the symbol of the religious rationalist mentality and the harbinger of a new direction in religious thought. To a great extent, subsequent Jewish religious-intellectual history may be seen as a debate concerning the wisdom and effectiveness of the Maimonidean position.


Altmann, Alexander. "Maimonides' 'Four Perfections.'" Israel Oriental Studies 2 (1972): 1524.

Bacher, Wilhelm, Marcus Brann, and David Jacob Simonsen, eds. Moses ben Maimon. 2 vols. Leipzig, 19081914; reprint, Hildesheim, 1971.

Baron, Salo W., ed. Essays on Maimonides. New York, 1941.

Berman, Lawrence. "Maimonides, the Disciple of Alfārābī." Israel Oriental Studies 4 (1974): 154178.

Epstein, Isidore, ed. Moses Maimonides. London, 1935.

Halkin, Abraham, and David Hartman. Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides. Philadelphia, 1985.

Hartman, David. Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest. Philadelphia, 1976.

Lerner, Ralph. "Maimonides' Letter on Astrology." History of Religions 8 (November 1968): 143158.

Maimonides, Moses. The Book of Divine Commandments. Translated and edited by Charles B. Chavel, London, 1940.

Maimonides, Moses. The Code of Maimonides. 15 vols. to date. Yale Judaica Series. New Haven, 1949.

Maimonides, Moses. Guide of the Perplexed. Translated by Shlomo Pines with introductory essay by Leo Strauss. Chicago, 1963.

Twersky, Isadore, ed. A Maimonides Reader. New York, 1972.

Twersky, Isadore. Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah). New Haven, Conn., 1980.

Wolfson, Harry A. Studies in the History of Philosophy and Religion, vol. 2. Cambridge, Mass., 1977.

New Sources

Buijs, Joseph A., ed. Maimonides: A Collection of Critical Essays. Notre Dame, Ind., 1988.

Dobbs-Weinstein, Idit. Maimonides and St. Thomas on the Limits of Reason. Albany, 1995.

Fox, Marvin. Interpreting Maimonides: Studies in Methodology, Metaphysics, and Moral Philosophy. Chicago, 1990.

Kellner, Menachem Marc. Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People. Albany, 1991.

Kraemer, Joel L., ed. Perspectives on Maimonides: Philosophical and Historical Studies. New York, 1991.

Kreisel, Howard T. Maimonides' Political Thought: Studies in Ethics, Law, and the Human Ideal. Albany, 1999.

Leaman, Oliver. Moses Maimonides. New York, 1990.

Twersky, Isadore. Studies in Maimonides. Harvard Judaic Texts and Studies, 7. Cambridge, Mass., 1991.

Isadore Twersky (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 11 2018


April 6, 1135
Córdoba, Spain

December 13, 1204
Cairo, Egypt

Spanish-Hebrew philosopher, theologian, and author

the Internet Medieval Sourcebook,">

"...May neither avarice nor miserliness, nor thirst for glory or for a great reputation engage my mind; for the enemies of truth and philanthropy could easily deceive me and make me forgetful of my lofty aim of doing good to Thy children."

—Maimonides, "Oath of Maimonides," in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook,

One of the foremost scholars of the medieval world at the time of the Crusades, Rabbi Moses Maimonides (pronounced my-MON-uh-deez)—who was also known as Ramba'm (from the first letters of his name)—was as influential outside the world of Jewish thinkers as he was within it. In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides organized Jewish law and tradition in a way that could be understood by the average faithful person without an interpretation provided by a rabbi, or Jewish religious leader and scholar. In The Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides attempted to balance the ideas of rational thought—that is, thinking based on reason, explanation, and faith. He concluded that philosophy (a branch of learning that focuses on values and concepts rather than practical, everyday knowledge) supports faith rather than working against it. Beloved in his own age and widely respected into the twenty-first century, Maimonides was the subject of a popular Jewish expression of the Middle Ages (c. 500–1500 c.e.): "From Moses [of the Old Testament] to Moses [Maimonides] there was none like Moses."

Spanish Origins

Moses ben Maimon was born in Córdoba, Spain, in 1135, the son of a rabbi. From his father the young Maimonides (Greek for "son of Maimon") studied mathematics; astronomy; the literature of the Torah, which consists of the first five books of the Old Testament; and the Talmud, the body of Jewish laws not covered in the Torah. In the multicultural atmosphere of southern Spain, Maimonides also came into contact with Greek and Arabic thought and learned to read and write in several languages.

When the strict North African Islamic sect (subgroup) called Alhomads, or "followers of the prophet Muhammad," conquered Córdoba in 1148, Maimonides and his family were forced to leave their home. The Alhomads demanded that non-Muslims convert to Islam. If they refused, there were only two choices: exile or death. Maimonides' family chose exile, and for a dozen years they moved from place to place throughout southern Spain. It was during these years of wandering that Maimonides began his first important work, the Commentary on the Mishnah, the ancient oral code of Jewish law, which was finally written down in the third century c.e.

The Mishnah and the Gemara, representing centuries of scholarly interpretation (explanation) of Jewish scripture, are the two books that form the Talmud. However, by the twelfth century such scholarly writings could not be understood by average believers, making it hard to grasp the basics of Judaism. In his article "Maimonides," Elliot Wachman noted that Maimonides' task in his Commentary on the Mishnah was an important one: "He brought brief, lucid [clear] explanations to each passage in the Mishnah whose meaning was not otherwise evident [clear]." The Commentary was written in Arabic and then translated into Hebrew and was read by Jews everywhere. Even in the twenty-first century, it was considered one of the best explanations of the Talmud.

Already in this first work Maimonides was attempting to blend Greek philosophy—especially the belief of the famous thinker Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) that nothing is real that cannot be understood by means of reason—with traditional Jewish faith. As part of these commentaries, Maimonides also developed the thirteen articles, or statements, of faith—dealing with such topics as the origins of the Torah, the afterlife [life after death], and the oneness of God—that ultimately became a primary set of beliefs of Judaism. (Unlike Christians, who believe that the godhead, or divinity, is made up of three, or a Trinity—God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit—Jews believe that God is one.) They were later adapted to serve as the popular "Yigdal" prayer found in most Jewish prayer books, among other prayers that many Jews recite daily.


Maimonides, or Ramba'm, as he was also called, was one in a long line of famous commentators, or writers, on the Torah and Talmud, the Jewish holy books. Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki was another medieval scholar who, like Maimonides, was also popularly known by the initials of his name, Rashi (from RAbbi SHlomo Itzchaki). Born in the French city of Troyes in 1040, as a youth Rashi wanted to spend his life studying at Talmudic, or religious, schools in Germany. The early death of his father forced him to take over his father's vineyards instead. He spent the rest of his life balancing two occupations: managing the family wine business and writing long, detailed, and very clear explanations of the Old Testament and the Talmud.

Ironically, Rashi's fame spread as a result of tragedy. With the beginning of the First Crusade (1095–99), Jewish persecution in Europe increased. Crusader armies on their way to the Holy Land to battle Islam first began killing non-Christians in Europe. They attacked Jewish communities along the Rhine River, killing thousands, including major Jewish scholars. Students of these scholars eventually came to study with Rashi, who opened his own school, which became one of the most famous centers of Jewish religious study in Europe. There Rashi's scholars helped him write down much of the Jewish oral tradition of laws and rituals, thus saving them for future generations. His students and sons-in-law spread his work throughout Europe. Rashi, who died in 1105, was one of the best-known Jewish scholars of his day.


At length, Maimonides and his family had to flee Spain to avoid death at the hands of the Alhomads. In 1160 they settled in Fez, Morocco, where he continued to work on his Commentary, often from memory, clarifying complex Talmudic passages without a text. Five years later he and his family were again forced to move after angering the Islamic rulers of Morocco by working with Jews who had been required to convert to Islam. In 1165 the family moved to Palestine, in the Holy Land, where much of the territory was in the hands of the Christian Crusaders who had taken Jerusalem in 1099—an event that marked the beginning of two centuries of hostilities between Christians and Muslims over who should control this place considered sacred by several religions. Maimonides and his family traveled throughout the Holy Land for a little more than a year, finally deciding that the Jewish community residing there was oppressed and living in poverty. They decided to move on once again, this time to the relatively settled regions of Egypt.

In 1166 Maimonides and his family arrived in Fostat (Old Cairo), Egypt. His father died shortly thereafter. Maimonides' younger brother, David, a rabbi who also traded in jewels, supported the family for the next five years, allowing Maimonides to continue his studies and writing. In 1168 he published his Commentary on the Mishnah, which first brought attention to him in the Jewish world. This settled existence came to an end in 1171, when David was drowned in a shipwreck, taking the family's fortune down with him. So saddened was Maimonides that he fell ill for a year. After recovering, he realized that he now needed to support his family. He took up the study of medicine and eventually became the physician to the vizier (chief counselor) of the Muslim Egyptian ruler Saladin (see entry) and then to Saladin himself. It is reported that during the Third Crusade, King Richard I, the Lionheart (see entry), asked Maimonides to become his personal physician, but he refused and stayed in Egypt for the rest of his life.

A Busy Life

Maimonides led a very busy and productive life. Between 1170 and 1180 he wrote his monumental work, Mishneh Torah, a complete code of Jewish law. At the same time, his duties to the sultan (a Muslim ruler) were "very heavy," as Maimonides wrote in a letter quoted by Wachman:

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 [female relatives living in private, isolated housing], are indisposed [ill], I dare not quit Cairo, 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 falls sick, and I must attend to their healing. Hence, as a rule, I repair [go] to Cairo very early in the day, and even if nothing unusual happens, I do not return to Fostat until the afternoon.

Once home, Maimonides ate a quick meal (the only one of the day) and then faced another heavy load of patients, both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews). As he described it, "When night falls I am so exhausted that I can scarcely speak." In 1177 Maimonides was made nagid, the head of all the Jewish communities in Egypt, a position of great honor that brought no income but many more duties. Despite these commitments, Maimonides was still able to continue his scholarly activities.

His Mishneh Torah (the title means "Second Torah") expanded the work begun in the Commentary. According to Wachman, it provided "a clear, practical source to which people could turn to answer day-to-day questions of law." Maimonides arranged the code by topic in order to give the average person "reliable, definitive [final] rulings of Jewish law," as Wachman further explains. Maimonides divided his huge work into fourteen books, dealing with Jewish laws by subject, so that readers could quickly and easily find what they were looking for. This collection was intended to function as the only book on Jewish law a person would need to consult.

Upon publication, the Mishneh Torah became one of the most important books in Judaism and was studied and consulted by Jews around the world. As Wachman noted, Maimonides' book "was soon acclaimed as the greatest work of Jewish scholarship since the Talmud." However, the book also had its critics among conservative, more traditional rabbis, who felt that the work undermined, or lessened, their authority. One French rabbi even wanted the book banned by the Inquisition, the Roman Catholic Church's tribunal (court), which punished heretics, or those who went against the faith. As a result, there were public burnings of Mishneh Torah in France.

Balancing Faith and Reason

Maimonides continued with his busy schedule. In 1190 he wrote the third of his greatest works, the Moreh Nevuchim, known in English as The Guide of the Perplexed, or confused. With this work the name of Maimonides became well known outside the Jewish world of the Middle East and Spain, for he balanced the work of Greek philosophy with Jewish religion. Written in the form of a very long letter, divided into three parts, to one of his students, the Guide mainly attempts to settle differences between the "scientific," or rational, tradition of Aristotle and the biblical approach to the concept and existence of God. Maimonides concludes that reason and faith can both be useful, for there is much that science and reason cannot explain. According to the Guide, where reason and philosophical explanations fail to find answers to deep questions, such as the creation and the eternal nature of the world, it is left to faith and revelation, or divine inspiration, to supply meaning. Maimonides also analyzes questions concerning good and evil, the purpose of the world and of life, and the meaning of the Ten Commandments.

Scholars have noted that Maimonides' Guide must be read with care, for the language is difficult and can easily be misunderstood. Maimonides himself warned against such misunderstandings in the introduction to the work:

What I have written in this work was not the suggestion of the moment; it is the result of deep study and great application [hard work]. ... Do not read superficially [lightly], lest you do me an injury and derive [receive] no benefit yourself. You must study thoroughly and read continually.

Despite such difficulties, the influence of the Guide "was great in both Jewish and non-Jewish circles," according to Wachman. Translated into all the major European languages, this final work of Maimonides influenced thinkers from the Catholic philosopher and saint Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274) to the English scientist and philosopher Roger Bacon (1214–1292), serving as a basic text for medieval philosophy.

Maimonides lived until 1204, dying in Fostat, where he was mourned for three days. His passing was also noted throughout the Jewish world. He was buried in Palestine, at Tiberias. As a doctor he was known as a compassionate healer. His lasting contribution to that profession was his emphasis on preventive medicine, or early treatment before the onset of illness. His gift to the world of religion and learning remains huge. Wachman has called his last two works "landmarks in the history of Jewish thought." To mark the anniversary of his birth, in 1985 an international conference was held in Paris to celebrate his achievements, concluding that Maimonides was the most influential thinker of the Middle Ages.

For More Information


Arbel, Ilil. Maimonides: A Spiritual Biography. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2001.

Maimonides, Moses. The Guide of the Perplexed. Translated by Shlomo Pines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.

Muenz, J. Maimonides (the Ramba'm): The Story of His Life and Genius. Translated by H. T. Schnittkind. Boston: Winchell-Thomas, 1935.

Web Sites

"Maimonides." Encyclopedia of the Orient. (accessed on July 21, 2004).

"Maimonides." Wellsprings Online. (accessed on July 21, 2004).

"Maimonides: The Greatest Medieval Jewish Thinker, Talmudist and Codifier." My Jewish Learning. (accessed on July 21, 2004).

"Maimonides/Ramba'm (1135–1204)." Jewish Virtual Library. (accessed on July 21, 2004).

"The Mishneh Torah." University of Calgary. (accessed on July 21, 2004).

"Oath of Maimonides." Internet Medieval Sourcebook. (accessed on July 21, 2004).

"RaMBaM: Our Most Extraordinary Jewish Scholar." Gates to Jewish Heritage. (accessed on July 21, 2004).

"The Ramba'm: Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides) 1135–1204." Talmud Torah: Basic Jewish Education. (accessed on July 21, 2004).

"Teaching of Moses Maimonides." New Advent. (accessed on July 21, 2004).

Maimonides, Moses

views updated May 14 2018

Moses Maimonides

BORN: March 30, 1135 • Córdoba, Spain

DIED: December 13, 1204 • Cairo, Egypt

Spanish rabbi; physician; philosopher; writer

Moses Maimonides, one of the most well-known scholars and theologians (people who study religion) in Jewish history, was born on March 30, 1135. Most commonly his name is given simply as Maimonides, which is Greek for "son of Maimon." He is also frequently referred to as the Rambam, a loose acronym, or short form, of his title and name, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon.

"Maimonides is the most influential Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages, and quite possibly of all time."

       —Shlomo Pines as quoted on the Jewish Virtual Library Web site.

Early life and wanderings

Maimonides was born in Córdoba, Spain. His father was a judge in the Jewish court and shared with his son his vast knowledge of the Talmud. The Talmud is a set of religious principles that explains and interprets the Hebrew Scripture, the portion of the Christian Bible called the Old Testament. These principles were first written down in the second century in a text called the Mishnah. From an early age Maimonides was fascinated by the Talmud. His father also encouraged him to study science and philosophy, and his earliest ambition was to be a doctor, though he gave up that ambition for a time in the face of family misfortune. By the time he was a teenager Maimonides had acquired a broad education, covering not only Jewish law and history but also the works of classical Greek philosophers, those who seek to understand fundamental beliefs of values and reality.

The early years of Maimonides's life overlapped with the height of the golden age of Judaism in medieval Spain, when Jewish learning, art, architecture, science, and philosophy were at their peak. The region of Spain in which Maimonides lived was under Muslim (Islamic) rule. Persecution did occur at times, such as in 1066, when the Jews were forced to leave the city of Granada and many Jewish families were killed. Persecution is to harass a person or people because of their beliefs. In general, however, Jews were accepted into the region's economic, cultural, and social life. Many Jewish families enjoyed considerable wealth.

The situation changed abruptly in 1148, when a radical sect of Islam called the Almohads conquered Córdoba. The Almohads took Jewish property, shut down Jewish schools, destroyed Jewish temples, and seized Jewish women and children and sold them into slavery. Jews, as well as Christians, were given a choice: They could convert to Islam, be forced into exile (forced to leave their homes never to return), or, if they remained in Córdoba and refused to become Muslims, face death. Some stayed and pretended to become Muslims while still secretly practicing Judaism. Most chose exile. For the next ten years Maimonides and his family wandered from city to city in Spain, staying one step ahead of the Almohads, who proceeded to seize control of other cities and regions. Finally Maimonides and his family joined a group of Jews who set out for North Africa in 1159. They settled in the city of Fez, the capital of modern-day Morocco, where they remained for five years.

In Fez, Maimonides and his family continued to face persecution. They eventually left and moved to Palestine, where they stayed in such cities as Jerusalem and Hebron. The political and social climate in Palestine was not friendly to Jews, largely because of the disorder and devastation caused by the Crusades (the two centuries of continuing conflict between Muslims and European Christians fighting for control of Palestine). Maimonides's family moved once more, traveling south to Egypt. They lived for a time in Alexandria before settling in Fostat, the first capital of Egypt under Arab rule, which in modern times is part of the "Old Egypt" district in Cairo. In Fostat the family finally found a home. Although Egypt was under the control of Muslims, the Fatamid dynasty (909–1171) that then ruled Egypt was tolerant of other religious groups and allowed Jews to practice their religion with complete freedom.

Misfortune struck soon after the family reached Egypt. First Maimonides's father died. Maimonides was determined to carry on the tradition of scholarship in his family. His father and generations of ancestors had been scholars before him, so he remained devoted to his studies. Meanwhile his brother, David, a jewel merchant, became responsible for the family financially. The family then encountered more bad luck when David died at sea while on a trip to India to purchase jewels. Maimonides was so affected by David's death that he became ill and had to stay in bed for several months. When he recovered, he realized that he needed to support his family. He did not believe, however, that he should make any money from his theological studies, as he had gained his vast knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, or holy texts, solely for the love of God. Accordingly he resumed the medical studies that he had once begun and became a physician. In time he was so successful that he was appointed personal physician to the grand vizier, or ruler, of Egypt, as well as to other important figures in the capital city.

Physician and scholar

In addition to running his medical practice Maimonides also served as a respected rabbi. A rabbi is a person trained in Jewish law, ritual, and tradition who is often the head of a synagogue, or Jewish house of worship. He soon became the unofficial leader of the Jewish community in Egypt. As such, he was responsible for overseeing community administration and donations to charity. He also acted as a judge, all without accepting pay. In 1177 he was officially appointed head of Cairo's Jewish community.

For the remainder of his life Maimonides worked to balance his job as a physician with his interest in Judaism. He wrote numerous commentaries and theological works. In 1187 his son Avraham was born. Avraham himself went on to have a noteworthy career as the head of Cairo's Jewish community and wrote several works that added to his father's knowledge. Maimonides died on December 13, 1204.

The thirteen principles of faith

In the twenty-first century, nearly one thousand years after his death, Maimonides is still regarded as one of the leading figures of Jewish theology and philosophy. He perhaps remains best known for his "thirteen principles of faith," one of the earliest attempts to define the meaning of being a Jew. These principles include the following:

  1. God exists.
  2. God has unity; that is, God does not have parts or different personifications, but exists as a single being.
  3. God is spiritual and incorporeal; that is, He has no material existence or body.
  4. God is eternal. He has always existed, since before He created the universe, and He will continue to exist after the end of time.
  5. Only God should be the object of worship (an idea stated by Maimonides to discourage idol worship, or the worship of physical objects as gods).
  6. God revealed his intentions through His prophets (divine messengers), and their prophecies were revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures, primarily in the section called Prophets (Nevi'im). This section consists of twenty-one books, including 1 Kings, 2 Kings, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.
  7. Moses (c. 1392–c. 1272 bce; see entry) was the greatest among the prophets. Moses was the dominant figure in the biblical book of Exodus, which details the story of the formation of the Jewish nation after he led the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt. Moses has also traditionally been regarded as the author of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, although modern biblical scholars dispute this belief.
  8. God gave His law to man in the form of the Ten Commandments and other principles. God's law was first revealed to Moses in the book of Exodus. The law is detailed in the biblical book of Leviticus, although Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy also contain principles that remain part of Jewish law.
  9. The Torah, as God's law, is unchangeable. (Maimonides put forth this idea in response to the growing belief that God's law could evolve or change according to current conditions. This is perhaps the one of the thirteen principles of faith that has been and remains most widely disputed.)
  10. God has advance knowledge of human actions.
  11. God rewards good and punishes evil.
  12. A Jewish messiah, or savior, will someday appear.
  13. The dead will be resurrected (brought back to life) at the end of time.

These principles were not universally accepted among Jews, particularly during the first few centuries after Maimonides created them. In modern times, however, they have been reworked as poetic prayers appearing in the Jewish prayer book. They remain important because they define the basic beliefs of Judaism. These thirteen principles of faith are still followed by Orthodox Jews, who strictly follow religious laws and beliefs as traditionally held.

The Mishnah

Gentiles, or those who are not Jews, can sometimes find the terms used to refer to Jewish scripture and traditions confusing. The most important Jewish scripture is the Bible's Old Testament, which Jews refer to as the Tanakh. ("Old Testament" is a term used by Christians.) The most essential part of the Tanakh is the Torah, the first five books in the Tanakh: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books detail the principles of Jewish law, the formation of the Jewish nation, and God's covenant, or agreement, with the Israelites as his "chosen people." These five books are often referred to as the "written Torah." In addition to the written Torah is the "oral Torah," which consists of interpretations of the written Torah and methods with which to apply its laws. The oral Torah, the first part of the Talmud, was written down in the second century and called the Mishnah.

The Mishnah consists of six sections, called seders, which means "orders." They are:

  1. Zeraim, or "Seeds," deals with agricultural laws.
  2. Moed, or "Festival," concerns with festivals and Shabbat observances. Shabbat is Saturday, considered in Judaism to be the seventh day of the week and a day of rest and worship.
  3. Nashim, or "Women," discusses such issues as marriage and divorce.
  4. Nezikin, or "Damages," details laws regarding financial matters and torts, or wrongful acts that injure or harm others.
  5. Kodshim, or "Holy Things," deals with temple worship and sacrifices.
  6. Tohorot, or "Purities," provides laws regarding ritual purity.

Each of the seders includes further divisions called tractates, or masekhtots. The total number of tractates is sixty-three. Each tractate deals with specific issues in Jewish law. Thus, when rabbis want to examine and rule on a particular issue regarding any aspect of Jewish life, they turn for guidance to the tractate that discusses that issue.

Commentary on the Mishnah

While the thirteen principles of faith are of major significance, Maimonides's most important works, especially to Talmudic scholars, are the Commentary on the Mishnah, the Mishneh Torah, and Guide of the Perplexed. Writing the first of these, the Commentary, occupied Maimonides from about 1158 to 1168. He wrote the work in Arabic, and it was translated into Hebrew in sections over the next two centuries. Because of this, it did not have an immediate impact on Jewish thought. In later centuries, however, the Commentary became the starting point for virtually every study of the Mishnah, the first part of the Talmud, which explains Jewish tradition. The Comentary consists of an in-depth examination of the Mishnah and discussions on a wide range of theological problems. The central problem addressed is the nature of oral law, which originated on Mount Sinai when God established His covenant, or agreement, with the Jewish people through the Ten Commandments and other principles. Maimonides was especially concerned with how that law was to be passed on and interpreted.

Another problem discussed by Maimonides in the Commentary is that of the Old Testament prophecies, particularly whether the words of prophets after Moses could be considered as having the force of law in Judaism. Maimonides believed they could not. Elsewhere in the text, he tries to reconcile (make compatible or consistent) the findings of science with the biblical account of Creation in the book of Genesis. Similarly, he tries to reconcile notions of free will with belief in predestination, or fate. He rejects any fields of study, such as astrology, which he claims undermine, or take away, free will. (Astrology is the study of the movement of the stars and their affect on events on Earth.)

Within the Commentary Maimonides also reflects on the nature of reward, punishment, and immortality in the afterlife, offering his thoughts on ethics in a section entitled "Ethics of the Fathers." In this section he explains his idea of the golden mean, or a balance between extremes. His theory of the golden mean led him to reject asceticism (living a life without worldly possessions or earthly pleasures) and to criticize Jews who gave up the joys of life, which he believed were gifts from God. He also wrote about such matters as medicine, magic, the history of religion, and the nature of miracles.

The Mishnah Torah and Guide

Maimonides completed his second major work, the Mishnah Torah, in about 1178. The Mishnah Torah is a detailed, complete explanation of Jewish law, written in a simple style that can be understood by those who are not experts in Talmudic studies. Modern-day scholars and theologians are still impressed by the work's rich combination of ethics, philosophy, and theology. Virtually all study of Jewish law in some way involves the Mishnah Torah.

Maimonides's Guide of the Perplexed was written between 1185 and 1190. While his earlier works deal with Jewish law, the Guide is chiefly philosophical. Maimonides discusses a wide range of complex issues, including the relationship between religious faith and reason; the relationship between philosophy and sacred scripture; the nature of God and His relationship with the world; revelation as a means of communication between God and man; free will; and the nature of human destiny.

The work had a significant influence on later thinkers such as the Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274). It also influenced followers of Scholasticism, a philosophical method that sought to reconcile the thinking of ancient classical philosophers with medieval Christian theology. Scholastic philosophers and theologians closely examined texts such as the Bible and attempted to resolve contradictions by examining the language of the original version. Historians of philosophy regard Maimonides as one of the most important contributors to Scholastic thought.

For More Information


Arbel, Ilil. Maimonides: A Spiritual Biography. New York, NY: Crossroads, 2001.

Davidson, Herbert A. Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Mangel, Nissen. The Rambam: A Brief Biography. Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1998.

Nuland, Sherwin B. Maimonides. New York, NY: Schocken Books, 2005.


"The Mishneh Torah." A Page of Talmud.∼elsegal/TalmudMap/Maimonides.html (accessed on June 2, 2006).

Telushkin, Joseph. "Maimonides/Rambam." Jewish Virtual Library. (accessed on June 2, 2006).


views updated Jun 11 2018


A twelfth-century rabbi and community leader, philosopher and physician, Maimonides was fascinated by the relation between science and religion from his earliest days. A polymath by inclination, he needed first to master the sciences then extant, including logic, mathematics and medicine, before being able to assess their relation to his Jewish faith. Indeed, he insisted on philosophy's mediating role in the mutual illumination of faith and reason, notably with regard to creation.

Early life and influences

Mosheh ben Maimon, called Maimonides by Latin authors and known to the Arabic-speaking world as Musa ben Maimun, Moses son of Maimon, was born on March 30, 1135 c.e., in the city of Córdoba, Spain, where eight generations of his ancestors had served as rabbis and rabbinical judges. Capital of the Umayyad emirs and caliphs in Spain since the eighth century, Córdoba had remained even in their political decline the center of a brilliant, prosperous civilization in which Jews and Christians, as well as Muslims, were active participants. Young Moses himself was not to enjoy this cosmopolitan milieu much past his bar mitzvah, as the family was forced to flee their home in the wake of the Almohads from North Africa, who forbade Jews or Christians to profess their religion openly. Yet in the relative calm prior to the shattering of their world, the Jews of Spain had built an intellectual capital from which Maimonides was to profit immeasurably, even after the world that had produced it ceased to exist.

Poetry, astronomy, medicine, philosophy, scriptural exegesis, grammar, history, and mysticism were typically integrated into a comprehensive education. Moses's father, Maimon, led the family to Fez (in present-day Morocco), the very center of the Almohad movement, where they managed to survive for five years, only to move on to Palestine in 1165, where Maimonides journeyed to the site of the temple in Jerusalem to give thanks for the gift of this pilgrimage, and thence to Hebron, the traditional resting place of Abraham, who held a special place in Maimonides's vision of history, not only as the first spokesperson of a universal monotheism, but also as the first to base theological claims on arguments derived from reason. Since the rule of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem offered a less than favorable milieu for developing Jewish life and culture, the family proceeded to Egypt, where Maimon soon died, leaving his son to take up the roles in the community to which his learning entitled him.

Legal and philosophical writings

Remarkably, Maimonides continued his education under the stress of exile and travel, composing his commentary on the Jewish legal canon, the Mishnah, during the seven years of exile from his twenty-third to thirtieth years. Taking up residence in Fustat (Old Cairo), he was appointed judge of the rabbinical court and soon assumed leadership of the community. After the death of his brother and the loss of the family savings in a shipwreck, Maimonides took up the responsibility of supporting the family as a physician, practicing medicine until his death. During this time he was court physician to Saladin (c. 11371193), the Sultan of Egypt and Syria, as well as the entire court, leaving him little time to study and write, yet he accomplished both, along with adjudicating disputes within the Jewish community. The completion of his groundbreaking codification of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, around 1178, brought him even greater fame that his earlier commentary, and he was beset with requests for legal opinions from communities throughout the Islamic world.

At this time, however, he also encountered Rabbi Joseph ibn Judah Aqnin, who insisted Maimonides guide him into the logic, cosmology, theology, and philosophy of the Greco-Arabic tradition, so as to be able to converse with other learned communities in the Islamicate. Following a course of study as old as Plato's Academy in the fourth century b.c.e., Maimonides initiated his student into astronomy and mathematics, and then logic, and finally metaphysics, by using its tools to explicate the conundra the revealed texts often left to readers of the Hebrew scriptures. This series of exercise in biblical interpretation and philosophical exegesis was published in 1190 as the Guide to the Perplexed. It was immediately translated from Arabic into Hebrew, and then into Latin, where it served as a model for Christian thinkers like Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274) to integrate assertions of faith with explorations of reason.

Science and religion

The most vexing issue turned out to be the claim of Genesis that time itself began with creation, whereas the prevailing philosophical view had long been of a universe emanating necessarily and without beginning from a single unitary principle. Maimonides established the model for addressing this conflict between the divergent claims of reason and of faith by using his philosophical acumen to show that the authority whom philosophers had invokedAristotlehad neither intended nor achieved a demonstration of the universe coming forth from a single unitary principle without beginning. And having shown that, he proceeded to delineate the anomalies in the actual universe, notably the errant path of the planets (or "wandering stars"), to point out that no set of logical principles could account for the actual ordering of the heavens, despite the elegance of the necessary emanation scheme. So, he said, it makes more eminent sense to posit a free creator, whose intentional ordering could explain what logic cannot.

This central bit of reasoning displays how his scientific acumen could be put to use to make it possible for believers to accept the words of Genesis at face value, yet he was also quick to insist that neither view could be proven. Moreover, where scriptural texts did conflict with proven tenets of reason, then they would have to be interpreted figuratively; since the divine reality could not be bodily, texts referring to the "Lord's mighty arm" would have to be read metaphorically. He was even prepared to read Genesis that way, foregoing a first moment of time for creation, but the absence of a valid demonstration of the prevailing philosophical view reduced it to the level of mere opinionhowever widely held it had been, and so opened the way to a belief in scripture that was straightforward yet sophisticated. Such is the legacy that all religious traditions received from Maimonides, whose strategies were transmitted to the Christian world by way of Aquinas and others after him. In short, what seem to be conflicts between faith and reason, religion and science, may often be defused by a proper understanding of each domain, yet doing so requires an education and a sensibility as astute as Moses Maimonides's. As the celebrated Hebrew saying has it: "from Moses to Moses, there arose none like Moses."

See also Creation; Genesis; Historical Criticism; Judaism; Judaism, Contemporary Issues in Science and Religion; Judaism, History of Science and Religion, Medieval Period; Thomas Aquinas


goodman, lenn evan. rambam: readings in the philosophy of moses maimonides. new york: viking, 1976.

hartman, david. maimonides: torah and philosophic quest. philadelphia: jewish publication society of america, 1976.

maimonides, moses. guide for the perplexed, trans. michael friedlander (1904). new york: dover, 1956.

maimonides, moses. guide of the perplexed, trans. schlomo pines. chicago: university of chicago press, 1963.

seeskin, kenneth. maimonides: a guide for today's perplexed. west orange, n.j.: behrman house, 1991.

david b. burrell

Maimonides, Moses

views updated May 23 2018

Moses Maimonides



From Spain to North Africa.

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, more commonly referred to as Maimonides, was the most eminent Jewish philosopher of the medieval period. He was born in 1138 in Córdoba (the birthplace also of the famous Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd or Averroës), the court city of the Almoravid caliphate. He came from a long line of Talmudic scholars, including his father, Maimon, who was a rabbinic judge as well as a mathematician and astronomer. It is little wonder then that his earliest education was imparted in the home. Later he was sent to Arab masters for instruction in the natural sciences, medicine, and philosophy. The flourishing Jewish intellectual community into which Maimonides was born and raised, however, came suddenly under threat when the less tolerant Almohads conquered their region. Faced with persecution, the Maimon family fled to North Africa, eventually settling in the city of Fez. It is during this period, according to one account, that the family was offered refuge by Averroës.

Early Works.

In the meantime, the precocious young Maimonides had at age sixteen produced his first philosophical work, a treatise on Arabic logic. Four years later he had also composed a mathematical and astronomical work on the Jewish calendar and commenced a ten-year project: a commentary designed to make the oral law of Judaism more accessible. He came to prominence in the Jewish community at this time, however, for his "Letter on Apostasy," a passionate plea for his coreligionists to emigrate to countries where they would be permitted to practice their faith freely and also to forgive those who had been forced to abandon their observance of the Law.

Commerce and Medicine.

By 1165 Fez was also to prove inhospitable to the Maimon family. An inquisition was instituted to punish those who had relapsed from Islam (the family had earlier been forced to convert). Once again Maimonides and his family fled, first to Palestine, then to Cairo in Egypt, where he spent the remainder of his years. His livelihood at this time was derived from commerce, but when his beloved brother David died in a shipwreck, Maimonides abandoned the business world and turned to the practice and teaching of medicine. Eventually he became court physician to the great Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and victor over the Crusaders.

Faith and Philosophy.

Fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic, Maimonides wrote in the former language when he was addressing the Jewish community, as for example in the Mishneh Torah (a clear and systematic exposition of the entire oral law), and in Arabic, the lingua franca of most of the Mediterranean world, when he wanted to reach a larger audience. Such was the case with his major philosophical work, the Dalalat al-Ha'irin, or "The Guide of the Perplexed." Addressed to a certain Joseph, a former student and, therefore, one considerably advanced in philosophical knowledge, Maimonides aimed in this lengthy work to clear up his pupil's confusions over the apparent lack of correspondence between his religious faith and his philosophical convictions—to reconcile, in other words, Athens (personifying reason) and Jerusalem (personifying faith).

Influence on Christian Thinkers.

Maimonides was recognized as an authority on the Jewish Law by diaspora communities throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean and his advice was frequently sought. After his death the translation of his Guide into Latin extended the influence of his philosophical accomplishments to Christian thinkers of the thirteenth century, where he was cited as an authority ("Rabbi Moyses") by such philosophers as Richard Fishacre, Albert the Great, and Thomas Aquinas.


Idit Dobbs-Weinstein, "Moses Maimonides," in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 115: Medieval Philosophers. Ed. Jeremiah Hackett (Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, Inc., 1992): 263–280.

Alfred L. Ivry, "Moses Maimonides," in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Eds. Jorge J. E. Gracia and Timothy B. Noone (London: Blackwell, 2003): 445–457.

Joshua Weinstein, Maimonides, The Educator (New York: Pedagogic Library, 1970).


views updated Jun 11 2018


Maimonides (1135-1204), or Moses ben Maimon, was the greatest Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages. His commentaries on, and codification of, the rabbinic tradition established him as a major religious authority in Judaism.

Maimonides was born at Cordova, Spain, on March 30, 1135. From his father, Rabbi Maimon ben Joseph, he received his early education in mathematics and astronomy as well as in rabbinic literature, which interpreted the Jewish Scriptures and defined the laws and ritual of the Jewish community. Living in southern Spain, Maimonides also came into contact with Greek and Arabian philosophy, especially the thought of Avicenna.

In 1148, when Maimonides was only 13, the Almohads conquered Cordova and introduced a policy that forced conversion, exile, or death on non-Moslems. After 12 years of wandering from town to town in southern Spain, the family finally settled at Fez in Morocco. During this period of wandering, Maimonides wrote a treatise on the Jewish calendar and began his commentary on the Mishnah, a codification of the Jewish Oral Law arranged according to subjects.

Rather than abandon the Jewish faith or undergo martyrdom, Maimonides and his family left the intolerant rule of the Almohads and sailed to Palestine on April 18, 1165, arriving at Acre a month later. Much of Palestine at this time was under the control of the Christian crusaders, and under their protection Maimonides visited many of the holy places of ancient Jewish history, including Jerusalem and Hebron.

The next year the family settled at al-Fustât (Old Cairo) in Egypt, where Maimonides was to remain for the rest of his life. After the death of the father in 1166, the family was supported for a time by Maimonides's younger brother, David, who engaged in the jewel trade. David died by drowning while on a voyage to the Indies, and the accompanying loss of the family's resources as well as those of other investors forced Maimonides into a career in medicine. Maimonides soon became the personal physician of al-Qadi al-Fadil, the vizier of Saladin. Shortly thereafter, Maimonides was made the head of all the Jewish communities in Egypt, a nonsalaried position which he held until his death.

Settling at al-Fustât allowed Maimonides to complete his commentary on the Mishnah, which appeared in 1168 and soon became popular among the Jewish communities of the Mediterranean world. About 1180 Maimonides completed his code of the Jewish law, which had a similarly favorable reception.

The major work of Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, was completed in 1190 and published in Arabic. In this work Maimonides tried to reconcile faith and reason. It was written for those who possessed a firm knowledge of the Jewish faith, mathematics, and logic but who, having little or no knowledge of physics and metaphysics, believed that religion and philosophy contradicted each other. Maimonides believed that philosophy, properly understood and used, supported rather than destroyed the faith. In order to demonstrate this, he adopted many of the arguments for the existence of God and the nature of the human soul found in such Arabian philosophers as al-Farabi and Avicenna. Where philosophical demonstration is inconclusive, as in establishing the eternity of the world or the doctrine of creation, one must rely on the surer teaching of revelation, the Bible.

Maimonides died at al-Fustât on Dec. 13, 1204, and, after a period of mourning in the Jewish communities in Egypt, his body was transported to Palestine and buried at Tiberias in Galilee. His Guide became the fundamental text for medieval Jewish philosophy.

Further Reading

There are two English translations of Maimonides's Guide. The best is The Guide of the Perplexed, translated with an excellent introduction by Shlomo Pines (1963). Older but still useful is the translation by M. Friedländer (1881; rev. ed. 1962). Of high quality is the work of I. Münz, Maimonides: The Story of His Life and Genius, translated by H. T. Schnittkind (1912; trans. 1935). Two collections of essays on Maimonides that reflect scholarship are I. Epstein, ed., Moses Maimonides: 1135-1204 (1935), and Salo Baron, ed., Essays on Maimonides: An Octocentennial Volume (1941). Also useful is A. Cohen, ed., The Teachings of Maimonides (1927; repr. 1968). □

Maimonides, Moses

views updated Jun 11 2018

Maimonides, Moses, Moses b. Maimon, or Rambam (1135–1204). Jewish philosopher and codifier. Maimonides grew up in Cordova, but as a result of persecution, the family eventually moved to Fez in N. Africa after years of wandering. During this period he wrote treatises on the Jewish calendar, logic, and halakhah. In 1168, he completed his commentary on the Mishnah. In 1170–80, he worked on his great code, the Mishneh Torah (The Repetition of the Law, sometimes known as ‘The Strong Hand’). The purpose of this work was ‘so that the entire Oral Law might become systematically known to all’. This codification of the Law was fiercely criticized by such as Abraham b. David of Posquières (see MAIMONIDEAN CONTROVERSY). His great philosophical work, The Guide of the Perplexed (Heb., Moreh Nevukhim) was influenced by Aristotle and the Hellenistic commentators Alexander of Aphrodisias, Themistius, and Averroes, and also by the Muslim philosopher al-Fārābī. The Guide shows ‘the perplexed’ how scripture can be interpreted spiritually as well as literally, and Maimonides aimed to reveal to his readers ‘the science of the Law in its true sense’. To this end, he discussed God, creation, the nature of evil, divine providence, and morality. He also formulated his thirteen principles of the Jewish faith which he believed every Jew was bound to accept. He is also remembered as a significant physician and astronomer.

Maimonides, Rabbi Moses (1135-1204)

views updated Jun 27 2018

Maimonides, Rabbi Moses (1135-1204)

A great Spanish-Hebrew philosopher, theologian, and author of the Guide for the Perplexed. His theories were Aristotelian and rational, but there remained in his viewpoint a touch of mysticism.

He was born April 6, 1135, in Cordova, southern Spain, and was educated by Arabic teachers. After the Moorish conquest of Cordova in 1148, Jews left the province, and Maimonides settled in Fez, Morroco. After five years he moved to Cairo, Egypt, where he became physician to Saladin and married the sister of Ibn Mali, a royal secretary.

In his famous treatise, the Guide for the Perplexed, he sought to harmonize rabbinical and philosophical teachings but maintained that reason must be supplemented by revelation. His treatise profoundly influenced his Arabic, Jewish, and Christian successors. It has been suggested that Maimonides was sympathetic to the teachings of Kabala in his late period. He died December 13, 1204.

Maimonides, Moses

views updated May 14 2018

Maimonides, Moses (1135–1204) Jewish philosopher, Hebrew scholar, and physician, b. Spain. As a youth he was attracted to Aristotelian philosophy, which influenced his well-known Guide of the Perplexed, a plea for a more rational philosophy of Judaism. He emigrated to Egypt in 1159, after a tyrannical Muslim sect took over his native Córdoba. In Cairo, he became court physician to Saladin and was the recognized leader of Egyptian Jewry. His Mishneh Torah is a systematic compilation of Jewish oral law. Other works on Jewish law and philosophy and on medicine confirmed him as one of the most influential thinkers of the Middle Ages.