Maimonides, Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon

views updated May 18 2018


also known by the acronym RaMBaM (b. Córdoba, Spain, 1135 or 1138; d. Cairo [or Fuṣāṭt], Egypt, 1204)

medicine, codification of the Jewish law, philosophy.

Maimonides was the foremost representative of the school of thought that is designated as Jewish Aristotelianism. In consequence of the invasion of Muslim Spain by the Almohads, his family left Córdoba while he was a child and after an interval settled in 1159/1160 in Fez, Morocco, a country which, like Andalusia, was ruled by the Almohads. He lived there until 1165. Maimonides received his philosophical, scientific, and legal training in Spain and the Maghreb and prided himself on belonging to the Andalusian (rather than the Oriental) school of philosophy. It is also probable that the dogmas of the Almohad creed had some influence on his formulation of the thirteen fundamental Jewish religious principles. In 1166 Maimonides settled in Egypt, at first in Alexandria and then in Fuṣtāṭ, near Cairo. In Egypt he was court physician and (either official or unofficial) head of the Jewish community. His works, with very few exceptions, were written in that country, where he spent the rest of his life.

Maimondies’ writings may be classed according to their genres:

1. The legal works, the most important of which are his commentary on the Mishnah, written when he was still young, and his codification of the Talmudic law, known as Mishnah Torah or Yad Hazaqa (“A Strong Hand”). Certain portions of both these works treat of philosophical doctrine.

2. Popular or semipopular theological works destined for the general Jewish reader, such as the “Treatise on Resurrection.”

3. A systematic philosophical text, the Maqāla fīsinā at al-manṭiq, the only one written by Maimonides; it is a treatise on logic, and perhaps his earliest work.

4. The Guide of the Perplexed, completed a short time before Maimonides’ death, which is in a class by itself. It deals in an unsystematic way with physics and metaphysics but also is concerned with the presuppositions and the imperatives of politics, religious belief and the religious commandments, and the final end of man. It is intended for the perplexed, that is, for those versed in Jewish lore who also have a smattering of and a capacity for philosophical knowledge and are thus in danger of abandoning the observance of the religious law.

5. A number of medical treatises, written in the last period of his life.

6. A very extensive correspondence, consisting of letters and rabbinical responsa addressed to notables of Jewish communities in various countries of the Islamic world and outside it—for instance, in the south of France.

All the main works of Maimonides, except Mishnah Torah, which is in Hebrew, were written in Arabic.

Maimonides affirmed that he did not intend to expound novel philosophical views; he attempted to show, inter alia, (1) that the teaching of philosophy need not, if the necessary precautions are taken, result in the disruption of society and the destruction of the Jewish religion and (2) that philosophy enables man to attain his final end, which is the perfection of his intellect.

We have firsthand evidence of the esteem in which Maimonides held various philosophers. In a letter to Samuel ibn Tibbon, the translator of the Guide into Hebrew, he had very high praise for Aristotle—who should, however, according to him, be read together with his commentators. It may be noted in this connection that Alexander of Aphrodisias appears to have had a significant influence on Maimonides.

The most trustworthy Muslim philosophers were, in Maimonides’ opinion, al-Fārābī and Ibn Bājja. Ibn Sīnā was regarded as less reliable, although Maimonides used him freely; Ibn Sīnā sometimes provided him with the theological or semitheological terminology necessary for his purposes. According to the letter to Samuel ibn Tibbon, the study of Plato is much less useful than that of Aristotle; but, like that of al-Fārābī, Maimonides’ political philosophy derived to a considerable extent from Plato’s writings. The precautions taken by Maimonides in the Guide to avoid troubling the religious readers who lacked the capacity states, unsystematic exposition and deliberate recourse to self-contradiction. To cite an important example, he set forth three conceptions of God which appear to be mutually incompatible.

The first of these conceptions is the God of Maimonides’ brand of negative theology. This theology is different in an important respect from that of most Neoplatonists because, contrary to most of them, Maimonides did not admit mystic union, that is, an ecstatic experience of God which transcends the intellect but which man is able to achieve. Maimonides’ negative theology stressed the impossibility of making a correct positive statement about the essence if God. Apparently, positive assertions can be regarded as true only if they are given a negative meaning. For instance, the statement “God is wise” signifies that He is not unwise. Maimonides denied—and was, because of this, taken to task in the fourteenth century by the Jewish philosopher Levi ben Gershon (Gersonides)— that this assertion may, when applied to God, have a positive content. Maimonides’ conception of the unknowability of God, of there being nothing in the created world that is similar to or has a trace of Him, and the doctrine of negative attributes that fits in with these other points result in the recognition that it is impossible to transform God into an object of science. Metaphysics is thus deprived of its main object (or, according to another opinion, of one of its main objects).

A philosopher can, nevertheless, acquire the only knowledge of God of which man is capable: a knowledge of His activity. This is tantamount to a knowledge of the natural order or events, the expressions “divine actions” and “natural actions” being interchangeable. It appears to follow that it is in studying natural science and metaphysics that man achieves the only knowledge of God granted to him. It is admittedly a very limited knowledge, for an examination of the “divine” events are regarded as proceeding from certain dispositions in God; for instance, the care of parents for their offspring is said to be due to God’s beneficence or mercifulness, and earthquakes and floods to His vengefulness.

Maimonides—who in this matter followed, at least as far as terminology is concerned, a well-established tradition—designated mercifulness, vengefulness, and other terms of this kind, when applied to God, as attributes of action. Such attributes represent an evaluation of the impact of natural (and perhaps also of historical) events on man or human society; they should not be taken as referring to God’s essence.

A second conception of God expounded by Maimonides is the Aristotelian one. God is an intellect, that is, the subject, the object, and the act of intellection. Like other Aristotelian philosophers, Maimonides considered that these three form a unity. He follows such predecessors in considering, in disagreement with the tenor of Aristotle’s text, that God’s knowledge is not confined to Himself only. He may be held to know the specific forms and the natural order—or, in other words, the system of sciences. Since Maimonides adopted the Aristotelian view that the knower and the object of his knowledge are identical, this means that in his view (as in that of other medieval Aristotelian philosophers) God may be equated with a self-cognizant system of sciences, a conception which has a striking similarity to Hegel’s interpretation of Aristotle’s God (in the concluding portion of his Encyclopedia). It may be noted that according to Maimonides, God does not know individuals as such, that is, in their separate existence, but only in virtue of being their cause. It seems probable that this formula, like other theological traits in Maimonides’ writings, may be derived from Ibn Sīnā (see Ibn Sīnā’s Kitāb la Shifā;, in al-Ilāhīyāt, II, M. Y. Moussa, S. Dunya, and S. Zayed, eds. [Cairo, 1960], p. 359).

In contradistinction to his Aristotelian predecessors, Maimonides appears to have set store by a comparison which indicates a similarity between God conceived as an intellect and the human intellect. This comparison Contrasts—perhaps intentionally—with the extreme negative theology of what has been designated as his first conception of God; the extremism of this theology goes much beyond the analogous views expressed by the Muslim Aristotelian philosophers.

A third conception affirms the existence of a divine will, a notion that had been elaborated by al-Ghazālī and some earlier Mutakallimūn. Hence Maimonides thinkers. As we shall see, however, his views were markedly different from theirs.

A God not endowed with will is, according to Maimonides, an altogether powerless God, who is not able to lengthen the wings of a fly. This idea is wholly unacceptable for religion. In this context the question of whether the world had or has not been created in time becomes crucial. Temporal creation would mean an intervention of God in the course of events or, in other words a miracle, the greatest of miracles; if this were admitted as possible, there would be no difficulty in accepting lesser ones.

No problem would arise if Maimonides were prepared to follow the example of the Mutakallimūn in denying the existence of a natural order and causality; this would mean complete rejection of Aristotelian physics. This he refused to do, and instead found another solution. He argued that the natural sciences are absolutely correct within certain limits but ought not to go beyond these limits. For there are spheres of knowledge the investigation of which transcends the powers of man; as far as science is concerned, certain questions are insoluble, the question of whether the world has been created in time being one of them. Given this fact, Maimonides chose the hypothesis of temporal creation, for the reason that the religious tradition, including the belief that Israel was chosen by God, can be explained and justified only in the light of this hypothesis. Thus the latter may be considered as a practical postulate required for the preservation of religion, and not as a theoretical truth.

Maimonides’ emphasis on the limitations of human science is perhaps his most significant contribution to general—as distinct from Jewish—philosophical thought. Like Kant, he pointed out these limitations in order to make room for belief. He accepted Aristotelian physics insofar as it is concerned with the sublunar world; in his view it provides an example of a perfect scientific theory. It may be noted that in this connection he apparently preferred a mechanistic explanation. He certainly played down the role of final, as compared with efficient, causes in natural science.

Human science cannot, however, provide a satisfactory theory for the world of the heavenly spheres. Following his Muslim predecessors (see, for instance, Ibn Sīnā, Risāla ft’l-Ajrām al-’ulwiyya, in Tis’ Rasā’il [Cairo, 1908], p. 49), Maimonides posed some questions concerning this celestial world which, according to him, may be insoluble. For instance, he asked whether, given the difference between the stars and the spheres, one should not admit, in opposition to Aristotle’s views, the existence of more than one kind of matter in the celestial world. A much more intractable problem was constituted by the flagrant contradiction between the Ptolemaic system, with its recourse to epicycles and eccentrics, and Aristotelian physics.

Unlike his contemporary Ibn Rushd, Maimonides did not believe that a correct system of astronomy was known in Aristotole’s time and had since been forgotten, for the considered that at that time knowledge of mathematics was still very imperfect. Nor did he accept any of the attempts made by Muslim philosophers and astronomers to work out an astronomical system compatible with Aristotle’s physics. The contradiction between astronomy and physics served his purpose. It proves, according to him, the limitation of human knowledge: man is unable to give a satisfactory scientific account of the world of the spheres.

This line of argument (insofar as it shows that the claim of science to propound an all-embracing, coherent, and true system of nature is untrue) concerns the problem of temporal creation only indirectly. The following reasoning, on the other hand, impinges directly upon this question. Maimonides argued that one should not extrapolate beyond certain limits from the knowledge of the natural order obtaining now, for there may have been a beginning prior to which another order may have existed. In this context Maimonides cited the example of a person who, not knowing the facts of birth, denies the possibility of human beings having first existed as embryos. According to him, the Aristotelian affirmation of the eternity of the world is based on a similar extrapolation.

Maimonides held no brief for Ibn Sīnā’s opinion that the individual human soul survives the death of the body and is immortal. Like Alexander of Aphrodisias and other Aristotelians, he considered that in man only the actual intellect—which lacks all individual particularity—is capable of survival. In adopting this view, Maimonides clearly showed that at least on this point, he preferred the philosophical truth as he saw it, however opposed it may seem to be to the current religious conception, to the sort of halfway house between theology and philosophy, which—in the severe judgment of certain Spanish Aristotelians—Ibn Sīnā, who was the dominant philosophical influence in the Muslim East, sought to establish.

Mamonides did, however, adopt certain conceptions of Ibn Sīnā. Thus, his view that existence is an accident derives from Ibn Sīnā’ Fundamental tenet that essences per se are neutral with respect to existence, which supervenes on them as an accident.

According to Maimonides, all prophets are philosophers, that is, men whose intellect is actualized. But in contradistinction to other philosophers, prophets have a highly developed imaginative faculty. Prophecy is a natural phenomenon.

This description of prophets does not, according to Maimonides’ statement, apply to Moses, whose status is higher. In a popular treatise Maimonides refers to Moses’ achieving union with the active intellect; such a union (or, to be more precise, a near union) is, according to Ibn Sīnā’s De anima, F. Rahman, ed. [Oxford, 1959], pp. 248–250), whereas, according to Ibn Bājja, it is attained by the great philosophers without the stimulation of such a faculty.

Religious revelation does not procure any knowledge of the highest truth that cannot be achieved by the human intellect; it does, however, have an educative role—as well as a political one. In Maimonides’ words, “The Law as a whole aims at two things: the welfare of the soul and the welfare of the body” (Guide of the Perplexed, pt. III, ch. 27).

Because of the great diversity of human character, a common framework for the individuals belonging to one society can be provided only by a special category of men endowed with a capacity for government and for legislation. Those who have only a strong imagination, unaccompanied by proportionate intellectual education of the members of the state which they found or govern. Moses, on the other hand, is the ideal lawgiver.

The law instituted by Moses had to take into account the historical circumstances—such as the influence of ancient Oriental paganism—and had to avoid too great a break with universal religious usage. To cite one example, sacrifices could not be abolished, because this would have been an excessively violent shock. In spite of these difficulties, Loses succeeded in establishing a polity to which Maimonides in the “Epistle to Yemen” (a popular work)applied the expression al-madinā al-fāḍila (“the virtuous city”), used by the Muslim philosophers to designate the ideal state of Plato’s Republic.

Not only does the Mosaic polity regulate men’s actions in the best possible way, but the Scriptures by which this polity is ruled also contain hints toward philosophical truth that may guide such men as are capable of understanding them. Some of these truths are to be discovered in the beliefs taught to all who profess Judaism; these dogmas are, for evident reasons, formulated in language adapted to the understanding of ordinary, unphilosophical people. There are, however, other religious beliefs that, although they are not true, are necessary for the majority of the people, in order to safeguard a tolerable public order and to further morality. Such are the belief that God is angry with those who act in an unjust manner and the belief that He responds instantaneously to the prayers of someone wronged or deceived (Guide of the perplexed, pt. III , ch. 28). The morality suited to men of the common run aims at their exercising a proper restraint over the passions or the appetites; it is an Aristotelian middle-of-the-road morality, not an ascetic one. The ascetic overtones which are occasionally encountered the Guide concern the philosopher rather than the ordinary man.

There is a separate morality for the elite, which rules or should rule (see the Guide, pt. I , ch. 54; pt. III , chs. 51, 54). This ethical doctrineis connected with his interpretation of what ought to be man’s superior goal, which is to love God and, as far as possible, to resemble Him.

From the point of view of negative theology, love of God can be achieved only through knowledge of divine activity in the world. This appears to signify that the highest perfection can be attained only by a man who leads the theoretical life. Maimonides was at pains, however, to show that the theoretical life can be combined with a life of action, as proved by the examples of the patriarchs and Moses. Moreover, a life of action can constitute an imitation of God. For the prophetic legislators and statesmen endeavor to imitate the operation of nature and God (the two being equivalent). Maimonides emphasized two characteristics that belong to both the actions of God-nature and the beneficent or destructive—or, in ordinary human parlance, however merciful or vengeful—the actions in question appear to be, neither God nor the prophetic statesman is activated by passions. Second, the activity of nature (or God) tends to preserve the cosmic order, which includes the perpetuity of the species of living beings; but it has no consideration for the individual. In the same way, the prophetic lawgivers and statesmen, who in founding or governing a polity imitate this activity, must have in mind first and foremost the commonweal, the welfare of the majority, and must not be deterred from following a political course of action by the fact that it hurts individuals.

On the whole, Maimonides’ medical treatises have been less thoroughly studied than his speculative and legal work. Like other medieval physicians he recognizes Galen as his master. Nevertheless, in a medical treatise entitled Moses’ Chapters on Medicine he charged Galen with forty contradictions and also taxed him with ignorance in philosophical and theological matters. According to Maimonides, his criticism of Galen was independent of that of al-Rāzī, who wrote a work polemizing against Galen.

Two Hebrew versions of the Guide (by Samuel ibn Tibbon and al-Ḥarizi) were prepared a short time after the work was written. It had many Hebrew commentators of various and sometimes conflicting views; and because of its impact, it is certainly the most important work of Jewish medieval philosophy. In the period from 1200 to 1500 it provided most Jewish philosophers with a scheme of reference in relation to which they could formulate their own positions. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries it was vehemently denounced as antireligious—and was as vehemently defended.

Spinoza knew Maimonides well, polemizing against him but influenced by him particularly in the Tractatus theologico-politicus. Solomon Maimon wrote a commentary on the Guide. The Guide was translated from Hebrew into Latin in the thirteenth century and exerted, especially with regard to the problem of the eternity of the world but also on many other points, a considerable influence on Scholastic philosophers. This influence is very much in evidence in the works of Thomas Aquinas. In the postmedieval period, Maimonides influenced Jean Bodin and impressed Leibniz.


I. Original Works. Bibliographies of Maimonides’ works are in J. I. Gorfinkle, “A Bibliography of Maimonides,” in Moses Maimonides 1135–1204, I. Epstein, ed. (London, 1935), 231–248; L. G. Levy, Maimonides (Paris, 1911), supp. in Cahiers juifs, 2 (1935), 142–151; and G. Vajda, Jüdische philosophie (Bern, 1950), pp. 20–24. See also M. Steinschneider, Die arabische Literatur der Juden (Frankfurt, 1902), pp. 199–221.

Works by Maimonides are Guide of the Perplexed: Le guide des ègarè, Salomon Munk, ed., 3 vols. (Paris, 1856–1866), Arabic text and French trans. with many detailed notes, French trans. also re-ed. (Paris, 1960), also available in English as The Guide of the perplexed, trans. with intro. and notes by Shlomo Pines (Chicago, 1963), intro. essay by Leo Strauss; “Magāla fi sinā’at al-mantiq” (Maimonides’ treatise on logic), an incomplete Arabic text and the Hebrew versions edited, with an English trans., by I. Efros, in Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 8 (1937–1938)—the complete text of the Arabic original of his treatise was found and edited, with a Turkish trans., by Mubahat Türker, in Ankara Üniversitesi Dil ve tarih-cogˇrafya Fakültesi Dergisi, 18 (1960), 14–64; “Treatise on Resurrection”, original Arabic and Samuel ibn Tibbon’s Hebrew trans. edited by J. Finkel, in Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 9 (1939), 1–42, 60–105; “Thamāniyat Fusūl,” an exposition of ethics, Arabic text edited, with a German trans. by M. Wolff (Leiden, 1903); Responsen und Briefe des Maimonides, A. Lichtenberg, ed. (Leipzig, 1859); and Teshubhot Ha-Ramban (“Responsa of Maimonides”), 3 vols., J. Blau, ed. (Jerusalem, 1957–1961).

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Maimonides are Alexander Altmann, “Das Verhāltnis Maimunis zur jüdischen Mystik,” in Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums, 80 (1936), 305–330; Salo Baron, ed., Essays on Maimonides: An Octocentennial Volume (New York, 1941); H. Davidson, “Maimonides Shemonah Perakim and Alfarbi’s Fusūl Al-Mdani,” in Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 31 (1963), 33–50; Z. Diesendruck, “Maimonides’ Lehre von der Prophetie,” in G.A. Kohut, ed., Jewish Studies in Memory of Israel Abrahams (New York, 1927), pp. 74–134; and “Die Teleologie bei Maimonides,” in Hebrew Union College Annual, 5 (1928), 415–534; I. Epstein, ed., Moses Maimonides: 1135–1204 (London, 1935); Jakob Guttmann, Der Einfluss der Maimonideschen Philosophie auf das christliche Abendland (Leipzig, 1908); S. Pines, “Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologica Politicus. Maimonides and Kant,” in Scripta universitatis atque bibliothecae hierosolymitanarum, 10 (1968), 3–5; A. Rohner, Das Schöfungsproblem bei Moses Maimonides, Albertus Magnus, und Thomas von Aquin (Münster, 1913); Leon Roth, The Guide for the Perplexed, Moses Maimonides (London, 1948); and Leo strauss, philosophie und Gesetz (Berlin, 1935); “Quelques remarques sur la science politique de Maimonide et de Farabi,”in Revue des études juives, 100 (1936), 1–37; and Persecution and the Art of Writing (Chicago, 1952), which includes “The Literary Character of The Guide for the Perplexed” (pp.37–94), also in Baron’s Essays on Maimonides (see above), 37–91.

See also the following works by H.A. Wolfson: “Maimonides and Halevi,” in Jewish Quarterly Review2 (1911–1912), 297–337; “Maimonides on the Internal Senses,” ibid.,25 (1934–1935), 441–467; “Hallevi and Maimonides on Design, Chance, and Necessity,” in Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 11 (1941), 105–163; “Hallevi and Maimonides on Prophecy,” in Jewish Quarterly Review, n.s. 32 (1941–1942), 345–370, and n.s.33 (1942–1943), 49–82; “The Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic Theories of creation in Hallevi and Maimonides,” in I. Epstein, E. Levine, and C. Roth, eds., Essays in Honor of the Very Rev. Dr. J.H. Hertz (London, 1942), pp.427–442; and “Maimonides on Negative Attributes,” in A. Marx et al., eds., Louis Ginzberg Jubilee Volume (New York, 1945), pp. 419–446.

Shlomo Pines

Maimonides, Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon

views updated May 21 2018


also known by the acronym RaMBaM

(b. Córdoba, Spain, 1135 or 1138; d. Cairo, Egypt, 1204),

medicine, codification of the Jewish law, philosophy. For the original article on Maimonides see DSB, vol. 9.

Maimonides is widely held to be the most important Jewish philosopher of the premodern period, perhaps of all times. His accomplishments in diverse branches of science, most especially medicine and astronomy, have contributed very much to the development of this attitude. The authority of Maimonides’ thoughts on the relationship between science and religion are hugely enhanced by his eminence as a scientist. Maimonidean studies have burgeoned in the decades since the appearance of the first edition of DSB, and, along with this, his activity and literary legacy in the sciences have been closely scrutinized.

Interpolation of Maimonides’s Epistemology . No aspect of Maimonides’s involvement in the sciences has generated as much interest as the precise determination of the limits he placed on human knowledge, particularly with regard to the physical configuration of the heavens. A fundamental principle of cosmology, allegedly tracing back to Plato, stated that the motions of heavenly bodies are circular and centered upon Earth. In order to account for the apparent anomalies from uniform circular motion, astronomers employed devices such as eccenters and epicycles, which violate this principle. Maimonides was one of several prominent medieval thinkers who possessed a firm grounding in mathematical astronomy and who were deeply troubled that the models they used were not in keeping with the rules. Maimonides concluded his review of the difficulties besetting the astronomy of his day (Guide of the Perplexed 2.24), for which he could find no acceptable solution, with two contradictory remarks. First, he suggested that one cease speculations concerning things that are beyond the intellectual capacity of regular human beings. Immediately afterward, however, he

admitted that he was confessing only his own inability to work out a solution. Someone else may indeed be able to provide a demonstration that will pave the way to a resolution, he suggested.

So what did Maimonides really think? In the introductory essay to his English translation of the Guide, Shlomo Pines argued that Maimonides would by no means place the solution to an astronomical puzzle beyond the reach of human intellects. Instead, he exaggerated the severity of the quandary for tactical reasons: Because Aristotle’s claim that the universe is uncreated rests primarily on astronomical arguments, Maimonides found it useful to undermine as best he could the certainty of astronomy. In his DSB article Pines highlighted Maimonides’ views on the limitations of human knowledge, and he weakened the connection between the astronomical quandary and the question of temporal creation.

A much more dramatic shift is evident in Pines’s article, “The Limitations of Human Knowledge” (see bibliography). Pines exploited an unusual blend of texts in order to cast light upon Maimonides’s position. These include, most importantly, a passage from a lost treatise by alFarabi, summarized—and rejected—by Ibn Bājja, in which al-Fārābi denies the possibility of knowledge of immaterial things (read literally, al-Fārabi is said there to deny the very existence of immaterial things), thus no metaphysics is possible. However, Pines also brought into the discussion two different theories of Ibn Bājja himself; another theory, which al-Fārabi is said to have preferred later on; and some key ideas propounded by Ibn Sinan. Another, no less weighty conclusion to be drawn concerns the very purpose of human existence. Because metaphysical knowledge is impossible, the ultimate goal of life must lie in the political, that is, this-worldly, civic happiness.

It is not easy to reconcile all of these sources with each other. Their utility in ferreting out the true meaning of Maimonides’s diverse statements is even more problematic. There is no direct evidence that Maimonides accepted any of the ideas said to derive from Ibn Bajja and the others: indeed, it is not certain that he was aware of all of them. Nonetheless, Pines stated quite clearly the conclusions that he wished to draw from his interpretation of Maimonides’s final position (in the light of these sources), especially with regard to astronomy. Human intellection depends ultimately on the percepts of material objects. In fact, it is even more restricted than this: one can grasp only sublunar material objects. (Presumably, this is because the matter or the heavens, according to Aristotle, is essentially different from the stuff of sublunar objects). Clearly, the deity and the separate intellects are beyond human cognition; but even the heavens are intrinsically and irrevocably unknowable. This is true not only for ordinary people, but for philosophers as well, and even for most prophets. Taking Maimonides’s citation of Numbers 12:8 at the end of Guide 2.24 quite literally, Pines averred that, according to Maimonides, only the biblical Moses was privy to the true configuration of the heavens.

Herbert Davidson vigorously pressed the difficulties in Pines’s argument. According to him, Maimonides consistently maintained that the goal of life lies in intellectual attainment, rather than in the political life. Man can and must obtain demonstrative knowledge of the existence of God, the celestial spheres, and the active intellect, though knowledge of their essences is beyond the capacity of the human mind.

Josef Stern (“Maimonides on the Growth of Knowledge and the Limitations of the Intellect,” in the 2004 volume edited by Roshdi Rashed and Tony Lévy) chose a different tack, drawing careful and precise distinctions between the impossibility of knowledge on the one hand, and limitations upon knowledge that is, in principle if not in fact, attainable, on the other hand. Knowledge of the deity is humanly impossible, for two complementary reasons. First, human intellection is in one way or another always intermeshed with the imagination, whose representations are necessarily sense-derived, hence material. Because God is not material in any way, He cannot be known by means of representations of this sort. Moreover, there is ultimately no clear criterion by means of which one can perfectly distinguish between the intellect and the imagination. Therefore, there is no way of factoring out the distorting role of the imagination. Second, the syntax with which the human mind operates, that is to say, the subject-predicate structure of propositions, is necessarily composite. Hence, the mind cannot represent something perfectly simple, that is, utterly incomposite. Hence it cannot truly represent, and, thereby, know the deity. This is an insurmountable obstacle, intrinsic to the human mind.

As far as the heavens are concerned, Stern contended, Maimonides would claim that human knowledge of the heavens is only by way of their effects (the quia of the Latins), rather than by way of their causes (propter quid). This is a serious defect in the scientific character of astronomy, whose goal is always to furnish (final) causes for the subjects of their investigation. Be that as it may, why, even if the telos of the heavens is beyond human ken, can one not arrive at a satisfactory account of their three-dimensional structure, which is the issue at hand in Guide 2.24? In any event, Stern would agree that, strictly speaking, a correct solution is not humanly impossible.

Pines’s final position, which interprets Guide 2.24 not as a tactical move, but rather as a straightforward, dogmatic claim that the true configuration of the heavens cannot be attained intellectually, made a deep impression upon research into Maimonides’s astronomy. Two scholars in particular, Menachem Kellner and Gad Freudenthal, labored to situate Maimonides’s purported agnosticism concerning the heavens within conventional (but problematic when applied to medieval science) categories in the history of science. Thus, for example, Maimonides emerges as an instrumentalist. On the other side of the fence, the present writer consistently defended Pines’s first intuition. It is particularly important to note that Maimonides concludes the immediately preceding chapter (Guide 2.23) by observing that, when facing questions that indeed cannot be resolved by human logic, such as temporal creation, one resorts to rhetorical arguments. This supports the view that Maimonides’s exclamations about his perplexity concerning unsolved astronomical issues serve a tactical end in his campaign to convince his readers of the temporal creation of the universe.

Works on the Exact Science . Neither Aristotle’s account for the configuration of the heavens, nor that of Ptolemy, is free of doubt. By contrast, Maimonides voiced his belief in the perfection of Aristotelian physics. He introduced the second part of his Guide with a set of twenty-five premises—the first such catalog known to have been prepared. They are said to derive from the Physics, Metaphysics, and their commentaries, and to have been provided with a demonstration, either by Aristotle himself or by one the Peripatetics. Maimonides’s motivation for preparing this list is clearly theological. These premises are required for establishing the existence of the deity as well for proving that He is neither a body nor a force within a body.

These premises enjoyed a life of their own as a concise summary of Aristotelian physics. Several commentaries were devoted exclusively to this portion of the Guide. A Muslim scholar, Muhammad bin Abi Bakr alTabrizi, wrote very extensive glosses, taking note of some of the novel and occasionally non-Aristotelian ideas then current in the eastern reaches of Islam. Al-Tabrizi in turn was the most important source for Hasdai Crescas, whose thorough and penetrating critique of Maimonides’s premises, and the Aristotelian system for which they form the scaffolding, has long been regarded as a turning point in the history of science.

Historical sources report an impressive amount of writing by Maimonides on the exact sciences. He is said to have authored several mathematical treatises, and to have corrected the mathematical encyclopedia of Ibn Hud as well as Jabir ibn Aflah’s own correction to Ptolemy’s Almagest. All that survives, however, are extensive notes to Apollonius’s Conics, including notes to Ibn al-Haytham’s reconstruction of book eight, and Maimonides’s algorithm for computing the possibility of sighting the lunar crescent. The latter was written in Hebrew, and it was incorporated into Mishneh Torah, his great legal code. All the rest, including his extensive medical writings, were written in Arabic.

Otto Neugebauer provided the basic mathematical analysis of Maimonides’s procedure with regard to the visibility of the lunar crescent. One computes a quantity, b, called the arc of vision (qeshet ha-re iyah), which is, to simplify matters, the sum of the elongation subjected to a number of corrections (coordinate transformations, parallax, seasonal variations in rising time, latitude of Jerusalem) and two-thirds of the lunar latitude (uncorrected for parallax). Then, if b alone is greater than 14°, or if the sum of b and the elongation between the true Moon and Sun along the ecliptic is greater or equal to 22°, the crescent will be visible in the Jerusalem area, and if b is less or equal to 9°, the crescent will not be visible.

Identifying the sources of this method has proved to be quite difficult. Maimonides rounded off his computations, asserting, apparently correctly, that the round-off errors would cancel out; and he integrated into his computation certain values for the coordinates of Jerusalem. Neugebauer asserted that Maimonides depended upon the tables of al-Battani for the mean motion of the sun and, toward the end of his analysis, intimated that Maimonides’s entire procedure is found in al-Battani. Though these claims are not without their difficulties, no other sources have been identified. However, some elements of Maimonides’s procedure do not appear to derive from al-Battani, for example, his third longitude (the elongation after undergoing its second correction). This step, which is employed in some Indian visibility computation schemes, converts the elongation to the mixed coordinate system employing the pole of the equator and the ecliptic. Given the well-established connection between Indian and Andalusian astronomies, it seems likely that Maimonides learned of this step from the Andalusian scientific corpus, upon which he relied in all fields. However, one cannot rule out completely the possibility that this step was part of some ancient Jewish system which, as in India, made use of early, even pre-Ptolemaic, Hellenistic astronomy.

Maimonides was a firm and consistent opponent of astrology. According to the standard that he accepted, causal connections cannot be established by empirical methods alone (tajriba). There must be a demonstrable theoretical link (qiyas) between cause and effect. All the more so with regard to astrology, where the evidence for repeated linkages between stellar configurations and terrestrial events is at best questionable. Maimonides also detected a strong historical connection between paganism and astrology. However, it is not correct to claim that his opposition to astrology stemmed solely from this connection. Maimonides argued that the chief purpose of the Torah is to abolish falsity—not simply bad or unaccepted behavior, but false teachings about the world. It is, to use modern language, both a scientific and religious obligation (Maimonides would probably prefer to call this a fundamental human obligation) to reject the false and to uphold the true. Even if there never were any astral cults, astrology would still be false and eo ipso forbidden.

Views on Medicine . Medieval medicine, even of the most scientific variety, was forced to rely on experience in the case of remedies whose empirically proven therapeutic properties defied rational explanation by the standards of the day—that is, the purported ability of physicians to determine the heat, dryness, and so forth, of the substances that they employed. This situation required of Maimonides some flexibility with regard to the occult with regard to remedies. Nonetheless, here too Maimonides placed strict limits. In his commentary to the Mishnah (Yoma 8:4) he distinguished between medications whose efficacy is shown “by reason (qiyas) and credible (qariba) experience” and those that have no rationale, and whose empirical evidence is weak. According to Jewish law, remedies containing forbidden food substances can be taken only if they fall into the first category.

Given his firm commitment to scientific explanation, it is not surprising that Maimonides found miracles to be a major worry. In his early writings, he tended to look at miracles as natural phenomena—not everyday occurrences, to be sure, but then again not beyond the bounds of the possible. However, as his religious thought matured and, concomitantly, his doubts about the full explanatory power of science increased, he allocated to miracles a more significant role. Temporal creation, in particular, must be viewed as a miracle. It does not contradict Aristotelian science, which does not do more than explain, and correctly at that, the worldly phenomena (the world beneath the orb of the Moon, to be precise) encountered now. Nonetheless, there is no way that Aristotle can refute the claims that the world did not always operate in this manner, but rather came into being at a certain point (the beginning of time, to be precise), and, moreover, underwent a process of stabilization until the laws now in force became fixed. As noted above, the choice between creation and eternity is the choice between the more or less likely alternative, neither of which can be established with certainty. It is only in one of his very last writings, the Letter on Resurrection (dubbed by Pines popular, but viewed by many, including the present author, to present Maimonides’s true position no less than any other writing), that Maimonides attempted to formulate a set of rules for determining whether or not a given event is miraculous.

His great renown as a physician notwithstanding, Maimonides’s considerable legacy of medical texts is only in the early twenty-first century receiving serious attention. Gerrit Bos has undertaken the editing and translation of the entire corpus of Maimonidean medical writings, including the Hebrew and Latin translations as well as the original Arabic texts. A short essay on the synochous fever has been found appended to one of Maimonides’s abridgments of Galen’s writings, and some scraps of autograph medical jottings, as well as portions of Maimonides’s medical library, have been identified in the Cairo genizah.

Maimonides’s medical philosophy can be summarized as follows. The connection between mind and body is so strong, that the physician should as a rule first ask whether some emotional or psychic disturbance is the cause of the patient’s complaint. As evidence for this, Maimonides cited his own experience: when his beloved brother was lost at sea, he was bedridden for an entire year, and even years later, the mere thought of this tragedy made Maimonides ill. The wise person follows a sound regimen to preserve health: the fool waits until he is ill before seeking medical advice. In keeping with his views on the mind-body connection, this means that the wise person should also seek spiritual counsel from doctors of the soul in order to inculcate apathy toward the vanities of this world, thus avoiding needless malaise. Maimonides’s medical writings were written for a Muslim clientele, but the spiritual advice is clearly universal and nondenominational.

The physician should always choose the mildest form of intervention. If the malady can be treated by diet, then drugs should not be administered. If drugs are necessary, then the physician should employ simples before resorting to compounds. The patient should be weaned off drugs gradually. In medicine, as in the religious quest, Maimonides preferred the step-by-step approach, rather than dramatic leaps. Caution must be exercised to prevent the patient from becoming dependent upon medications. One’s body is one’s beast, and like a mule, it will become lazy if others do the work it ought to perform.

Maimonides recorded a few experiences of his early study of medicine in northern Africa. In medicine, as in astronomy, in biblical exegesis, and indeed in just about all fields of intellectual endeavor, Maimonides preferred the fruits of Andalusian and Maghrebi learning. As a rule, he endorsed the strictest economy of expression. However, he justified the bulk of medical books, given the great amount of information that they must contain. In particular, he observed, there is a major distinction to be drawn between medicine and the exact sciences. With regard to the latter it suffices to remember a few basic rules. The skilled practitioner can then derive at will whatever specific formula he may need. There is no need to burden the memory. However, medicine is not mathematics. It is a huge body of discrete data, which cannot be derived logically from some basic rules. Therefore, there is no escaping bulky books and a good memory.

This does not mean, however, that there is no logic to medicine. To the contrary: medical theory is founded upon reason and logical argumentation. The good physician should always be able to give a good reason for the course that he advocates. Indeed, in a letter to Samuel Ibn Tibbon (who translated the Guide of the Perplexed into Hebrew), Maimonides wrote that every evening he would review his medical books, so as to be able to provide a rationale for his medical advice.



“Maimonides on the Synochous Fever.” Translated by Y. Tzvi Langermann. Israel Oriental Studies 13 (1993): 175–198. This is a translation of a newly discovered medical treatise.

Maimonides on Asthma. Edited by Gerrit Bos. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2002.

Moreh nevukhim. Translated by Michael Schwarz. 2 vols. Tel Aviv, Israel: University of Tel-Aviv, 2002. This is a new Hebrew translation and provides very full references to the secondary literature, passage by passage.

Medical Aphorisms, Treatises 1–5. Edited by Gerrit Bos. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2004.


Davidson, Herbert A. “Maimonides on Metaphysical Knowledge.” Maimonidean Studies 3 (1992–1993): 49–103.

_____. Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Authoritative, provocative, up-to-date.

Freudenthal, Gad. “The Biological Limitations of Man’s Intellectual Perfection according to Maimonides.” In The Trias of Maimonides: Jewish, Arabic, and Ancient Cultures of Knowledge, edited by Georges Tamer. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2005.

Kellner, Menachem. “On the Status of Astronomy and Physics in Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah and Guide of the Perplexed.” British Journal for the History of Science 24 (1991): 453–463.

Kraemer, Joel L., ed. Perspectives on Maimonides: Philosophical and Historical Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Langermann, Y. Tzvi. “Maimonides on Astronomy: Some Further Reflections.” In Idem: The Jews and the Sciences in the Middle Ages. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 1999.

_____. “Maimonides and the Sciences.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, edited by Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

_____. “Maimonides and Miracles: The Growth of a (Dis)belief.” Jewish History 18 (2004): 147–172.

Levine, Hillel, and Robert S. Cohen, eds. Maimonides and the Sciences. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 2000. Some new essays, some reprints, on diverse aspects of Maimonides’s involvement with the sciences.

Manekin, Charles H. On Maimonides. Belmont, CA: Thomson-Wadsworth, 2005. Short, excellent overview.

Neugebauer, Otto. “Astronomical Commentary.” Appended to Sanctification of the New Moon (Moses Maimonides, Code of Law, Book Three, Treatise Eight). Translated by Solomon Gandz. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1956.

Pines, Shlomo. “The Limitations of Human Knowledge according to al-Farabi, Ibn Bajja, and Maimonides.” In Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature, edited by Isadore Twersky. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Rashed, Roshdi, and Tony Lévy, eds. Maïmonide Philosophe et Savant (1138–1204). Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2004. Includes the study of Stern discussed in the entry, the two most important studies on Maimonides’s involvement with mathematics (each written by one of the two editors), and a survey of Maimonides’s medical opinions by the present author.

Seeskin, Kenneth, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Includes a comprehensive review of Maimonides’s philosophy of science by Gad Freudenthal and further discussion of Maimonides’s epistemology by Josef Stern.

Stern, Josef. “Logical Syntax as a Key to a Secret of the Guide of the Perplexed.” Iyyun 38 (1989): 137–166.

Twersky, Isadore. “Aspects of Maimonides’s Epistemology: Halakah and Science.” From Ancient Israel to Modern Judaism 3 (1989): 3–23.

Y. Tzvi Langermann

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Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon Maimonides

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Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon Maimonides