Abraham ben Moses ben Maimon

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ABRAHAM BEN MOSES BEN MAIMON (1186–1237), theologian, exegete, communal leader, mystical pietist, and physician. Little was known about him prior to the discovery of the Cairo *Genizah, which has preserved many of his writings, in part autographic. Born in Fustat, Egypt, on the Sabbath eve, the 28th of Sivan/June 1186, he was the only son of the great Jewish philosopher Moses *Maimonides (1135/8–1204). His mother was the sister of Ibn Almali, a royal secretary who had married Maimonides' only sister. He was an exceptionally gifted child as his father himself testifies:

Of the affairs of this world I have no consolation, save in two things: preoccupation with my studies and the fact that God has bestowed upon my son Abraham, grace and blessings similar to those he gave to him whose name he bears [i.e. the Patriarch Abraham] … for, in addition to his being meek and humble towards his fellow men, he is endowed with excellent virtues, sharp intelligence and a kind nature. With the help of God, he will certainly gain renown amongst the great (Maimonides' letter to Joseph ben Judah, Epistulae, ed. D. Baneth, p.96).

He studied rabbinics, and possibly philosophy and medicine, with his father, who groomed him from childhood by having him attend his audience chamber. At his father's death in 1204, Abraham became leader of Egyptian Jewry at the tender age of 18. The mystical testament Maimonides supposedly addressed him is spurious. It was not until 1213 that he was appointed nagid, an office which became his descendants' privilege for almost two centuries. Following his appointment, a temporary controversy erupted among the Jews of Egypt over the practice of evoking his name in public prayer. As representative of the Jewish community to the Ayyubid government, he enjoyed personal relations with the Muslim authorities and men of letters, especially after he became court physician to the Ayyubid Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil (reg. 1218–38), Saladin's brother. His acquaintances include the Arab historian Ibn Abi Usaybi'a, who described him and his professional skills:

Abu-l-Muna Ibrahim, son of the ra'is Musa ibn Maymun was born in Fostat, Egypt. A celebrated physician, learned in the art of medicine, and excellent in its practice, he was employed in the service of al-Malik al-Kamil Muhammad b. Abu Bakr b. Ayyub. He also came frequently from the palace to treat the sick in the al-Nasiri hospital in Cairo, where I met him in the year 631/1234 or 632/1235 while I was practicing there. I found him to be a tall sage, lean in body, of pleasant manners, refined speech, and distinguished in medicine. Ibrahîm, son of the ra'is Musa died in the year (…) and thirty and six hundred (History of Physicians, ed. Mueller, p. 118).

Despite the temporal and spiritual turmoil of the period, he proved to be an able administrator, a charismatic teacher, and an independant and influential scholar. Although he recognized the incompatibility of leadership and spiritual perfection, he was dedicated to his political vocation as a means of reversing religious decline. Abundant letters in the Genizah give witness to the multiple social and administrative chores to which he attended with the humility of a pietist and the determination of a leader. Hampered, as was his father, by pastoral responsibilities, he nonetheless produced notable works in six main areas: 1) responsa, 2) polemics, 3) exegesis, 4) theology, 5) halakhah, and 6) ethics. Despite their originality, his writings have survived in a fragmentary state. A unique letter, addressed in 1232 to R. Isaac b. Israel Ibn Shuwaykh, head of the Baghdad Academy, has preserved an autobiographical account of his literary activity:

I have not yet had the leisure to complete the compositions begun after my father's demise, [namely] a detailed commentary on the Talmud and a work explaining the principles of the Ḥibbur [i.e. Maimonides' Code]. However, the Lord has assisted me in completing one work in the Arabic tongue, based on the principles of fear and love (of God), entitled Compendium for the Servants of the Lord. I have revised and almost entirely copied it, and part of it has been broadcast to distant lands. True enough I have begun the Torah commentary of which thou hast heard, and which I would have completed within a year or so were I to find relief from the sultan's service and other tasks. However, I can only devote to it short hours on odd days, for I have not yet finished revising the first composition stated to be almost complete, a small part remaining to be finished with Heaven's help. On this account I have covered only close to half the book of Genesis of the Torah commentary I am composing. When I shall have concluded the revision of [my] composition, of which the greater part is [already] finished, I shall endeavor with all my might to complete the Torah commentary and subsequently also a commentary on the Prophets and the Hagiographa, Heaven, willing. But 'the work is long' and the day and the workers are as described by Rabbi Tarfon (Avot 2: 15), and "there are many thoughts in a man's heart but the counsel of the Lord that shall stand" (Prov. 19:21) (Rosenblatt, I:124–5)


Numerous items have been discovered in the Genizah since the single manuscript of his responsa was published by A. Freimann, Jerusalem, 1937. As head of the Cairo Rabbinical Court, he corresponded on legal matters with countries as far flung as Yemen (Cf. Responsa, p. 107–36), Byzance (p. 93), and Provence (p. 1). These responsa afford an opportunity of assessing his important communal rôle. Their content discusses, among other things, problematic passages in his father's halakhic and philosophical writings, ritual matters and customs, exegetical remarks, and apostates, a concern in his time. Besides certain social ordinances (takkanot) he introduced, of special historical interest are his responsa concerning the burning of the Guide for the Perplexed, and specific pietist practices. Questioners include prominent scholars such as R. Solomon b. Asher of Provence, Me'ir b. Barukh, disciple of R. Abraham b. David of Posquières, and Joseph b. Gershom and R. Anatoli b. Joseph, both dayyanim from France who had settled in Alexandria.


Some lenghtier responsa reply to the halakhic and philosophical detractors of his father's works, thereby strengthening Abraham's own prestige. In 1213 he composed in Arabic replies to Daniel Ibn al-Mashita's strictures on his father's Book of Precepts and Code, published as Birkhat Avraham (Lyck, 1865) and Ma'aseh Nissim (Paris, 1867). Later, Abraham declined when requested by his father's disciple Joseph Ibn Shimon to excommunicate Ibn al-Mashita for his discourteous remarks about Maimonides in his Taqwim al-adyan ('Redress of Religion') and his commentary on Ecclesiastes. Abraham's Milḥamot ha-Shem ("Wars of the Lord," ed. princeps Vilnius, 1821), written in Hebrew after 1235, in which he defends his father's eschatology, immaterial conception of the Godhead, rationalizing methods, and metaphorical interpretations, was singularly directed against the criticism of the rabbis of Provence, whom he accuses of a pagan anthropomorphism influenced by their Christian environment (see *Maimonidean Controversy). Interestingly, the text was interpretated mystically in the 16th century by Eliezer Eilenberg of the kabbalistic school of Abulafia.


Though Maimonides' philosophical writings set out to determine a proper understanding of problematic scriptural passages, his unfulfilled ambition to compose a complete biblical commentary was to be taken up by Abraham in Arabic. Of his proposed Bible commentary only that on Genesis and Exodus, completed in 1232, has survived. A disciple of the Andalusian rationalist school, he generally prefers literal meaning, though he is not adverse to midrash. He quotes the geonic and Spanish exegetes, especially Abraham Ibn Ezra, and even adduces the opinions of Rashi. Particularly noteworthy are comments cited in the names of his grandfather Maimun b. Joseph, and father, Moses Maimonides. He does admit moderate philosophical interpretation, adopting some of his father's doctrines, especially in connection with prophetic visions, which he calls "mysteries." The latter term he applies too to his own pietistic interpretations inspired by Sufi concepts and practices projected back into the patriarchal past. "His explications of the Bible and the Talmud are so graceful, so lucid, so persuasive that one is almost convinced that his derash is peshat, that his moralistic and pietist interpretation constitutes the literal meaning of the text" (S.D. Goitein). Despite its pleasant style, the commentary did not attain wide recognition, probably because it was not rendered into Hebrew, and has survived in a single manuscript, published, with a modern Hebrew translation, by E. Wiesenberg (London, 1958). Like his father, Abraham also applied metaphorical interpretations to the midrash. His Ma'amar al Odot Derashot Ḥazal (ed. Margaliot), twice translated into Hebrew, is an extract from his Kifaya.

Theology and Halakhah

Abraham's magnum opus The Compendium for the Servants of the Lord (in Arabic: Kifayat al-abidin; in Hebrew: Ha-Maspik le-Ovedei ha-Shem), completed circa 1232, is a sum of theology, halakhah, and ethics. Of the 10 original volumes unfortunately only a small, nonetheless substantial, portion has been preserved in various libraries. This loss deprives us of a definitive assessment of his approach to legal and ethical issues. Written in a lively and attractive Arabic, but at times repetitive and digressive, it circulated widely, reaching Provence in the West, and was read at least into the 18thcentury in the East. Abraham had been the first to institute as a central textbook of rabbinic study his father's Mishneh Torah, of which his own codified program of Jewish law and ethics, likewise referred to as the Ḥibbur, has been called an Arabic version. Although relying heavily upon it, both halakhically and structurally, the Kifaya is an independent work betraying a very definite shift in emphasis. Departing from his father's prescriptive mode, Abraham stresses, in a descriptive tone, the spiritual significance of the traditional Jewish precepts (mitzvot, divine commandments) and the "mysteries" they conceal, in much the same manner as al-Ghazali did in his classical Islamic summa, Ihya ulum ad-din ("Revival of the Religious Sciences"). While sharing his father's dedication to strict adherence to the intricacies of religious ritual, he is sometimes at variance with his father's rulings. After one such discrepancy, he writes:

Had my father heard [my explanation], he would have admitted it just as he had ordained to admit the truth. Indeed, we always observed that he would agree even with his slightest pupil with what was right, despite the breadth of his knowledge, which never belied the breadth of his religious integrity (Dana, p. 71).

Following his father's distinction between the elite and the masses, he devotes its initial sections to the "common way," i.e. religious obligations incumbent upon the community as a whole, whereas the last sections, of a markedly pietistic tendency, expound the "special way," reserved for the elect few. Of particular interest are his ritual reforms set out in the chapters on prayer, which include such Islamic-influenced practices as ablution of the feet before worship, standing in ordered rows during prayer, kneeling and bowing, and raising the hands in supplication. Some of these had existed in Temple times but had been abandoned in reaction to Christian worship. Indeed, Abraham justified the adoption of Muslim customs and symbols as restorations of lost Jewish traditions, which, having fallen into oblivion, had been preserved by the Sufis. Using his prerogative as nagid, he endeavored to enforce these far-reaching measures. Although intended to improve the spiritual decorum of the synagogue, they were not to go unchallenged by the Egyptian establishment. Despite his office and family prestige, which considerably furthered the pietists' aims, his opponents, headed by the Nathanel and Sar Shalom families, who had presided over the Fostat Academy, even protested to the Sultan al-Malik al-Adil, accusing the Jewish pietists of "unlawful changes." Abraham retaliated with a memorandum signed by 200 of his followers, in which he states that his pietist practices were carried out solely in his private synagogue. He further replied to charges of "false ideas" and "gentile customs" in a special tract in defense of the pietists, whom he considers spiritually "superior to the scholars." His commentary on the Talmud and the work explaining the principles of the Ḥibbur (i.e., Maimonides' Code) have not survived.


A large portion of the ethical chapters was published together with an English translation by S. Rosenblatt under the title High Ways to Perfection. Though in many respects he conducted himself – and indeed was considered – as the continuator and interpreter of Maimonides' doctrine, his personal style was markedly different. Though he repeatedly states that he lived according to his father's principles, he transferred the latter's elite intellectualist system to the ethical plane, molding it into a pietistic way of life rather than a philosophical one. In fact, Abraham expressed reservations about philosophy in his Milḥamot ha-Shem:

Fools have imagined in their silliness that whoever engages in science is a heretic denying the Torah, and whoever studies philosophy follows their creed concerning the principles of the faith. Now we oppose their opinion that the world is preexistant with the belief of the Torah, refuting them with replies and proofs to clarify the creed of the Torah that the world is adventitious

and created … as our Sages enjoined us: "Be eager to learn Torah; know what answer to give to the unbeliever" (Avot 2:19). We act likewise towards all their opinions which contradict the faith of the Torah. But, for all that, we are not to contradict their belief in the unity of the Creator (p. 59).

While recognizing the superiority of scientific speculation over the passive performance of the Law, Abraham considers the esoteric accomplishment of the precepts to be superior to philosophy. Indeed, in the Kifaya, he states with a note of opposition, reminiscent of Juda Halevi:

God has enabled [the true adherents of the Law who have grasped its secret meaning] to understand by means of His Law what the scientists and philosophers do not understand, and He has established for them, by means of His signs and miracles, proof for what the latter deny …

The pivotal difference being not one of theory but of practice, Abraham's foremost goal was to become a ḥasid rather than a ḥakham. While recognizing the importance of strict observance of religious law and of intellectual accomplishment, he insists more heavily on man's ethical achievements. In his day, the great spread of Islamic Sufi brotherhoods in Egypt constituted an immediate spiritual model. Under its sway, he tried to promote a form of pietism which earned him the epithet by which he is often referred to in later literature, Abraham he-ḥasid ("the Pious"). The Kifaya preaches an extreme form of Sufi-like ascetism, whereas Maimonides, though acknowledging in his Commentary on Avot the merit of self-mortification, rejects it in favor of the golden mean of temperance. The fourth and final section, presents the ethical stages of the "special way," modeled on the well-known stations (maqamat) of classical Sufi manuals: sincerity, mercy, generosity, gentleness humility, faith, contentedness, abstinence, mortification and solitude, whose mystical goal, wusul ("arrival"), culminated in the encounter with God and the certitude of his light. Entrance to the "path" is subject to an initiatory ritual such as the bestowal of a mantle, as Elijah did:

By casting his cloak over [Elisha], Elijah hinted to him… that Elijah's spiritual perfection would be transferred to him and that he [Elisha] would attain the degree which he himself had attained. Thou art aware of the ways of the ancient saints [awliya'] of Israel, which are not or but little practised among our contemporaries, that have now become the practice of the Sufis of Islam, "on account of the iniquities of Israel", namely that the master invests the novice [murid] with a cloak [khirqah] as the latter is about to enter upon the mystical path [tariq]. "They have taken up thine own words" (Deuteronomy 33:3). This is why we moreover take over from them and emulate them in the wearing of sleeveless tunics and the like (Rosenblatt, 2: 266).

Abraham openly admires the Muslim Sufis, whose practices, he claims, ultimately derive from ancient Israelite custom. After having stated that the true dress of the ancient prophets of Israel was similar to the ragged garments (muraqqa'at) of the Sufis, he declares:

Do not regard as unseemly our comparison of that [the true dress of the prophets] to the conduct of the Sufis, for the latter imitate the prophets [of Israel] and walk in their footsteps, not the prophets in theirs. (Rosenblatt, 2: 320).

He finds biblical counterparts for Sufi ascetic exercises such as combating sleep, solitary retreats in dark places, weeping, nightly vigils and daily fasts, as in the following passage:

We see the Sufis of Islam also profess the discipline of mortification by combatting sleep. Perhaps such a practice is derived from the statement of David: 'I will not give sleep to mine eyes, nor slumber to mine eyelids' (Ps. 132:4) … Observe then these wonderful traditions and sigh with regret over how they have been transferred from us and appeared amongst a nation other than ours whereas they have disappeared in our midst. My soul shall weep in secret … because of the pride of Israel that was taken from them and bestowed upon the nations of the world (Rosenblatt, 2:322).

One of the most typical aspects of the Sufi path is the necessity of the spiritual guidance of an experienced teacher who has traversed all the stages of the path in order to initiate the spiritual wayfarer into its intricacies. Abraham sees the origin of this principle in the discipline of the ancient prophets:

Know that generally in order for the Way to attain successfully its true goal [wusul], it must be pursued under the guidance [taslik] of a person who has already attained this goal, as it is said in the tradition: "Acquire a master" (Avot 1:6). The biblical accounts concerning masters and their disciples are well known; Joshua the servant of Moses was one of his disciples, who, having attained the goal, succeeded him. The prophets adopted the same conduct. Samuel's guide [musallik] was Eli, Elijah was that of Elisha, and Jeremiah that of Barukh son of Neriah. Moreover the "disciples of the prophets" were thus called because the prophets were their spiritual guides. This practice was adopted by other nations (the Sufis), who instituted in imitation of Jewish custom the relation between shaykh and servant, master and disciple … If the wayfarer is capable and remains faithful to instructions, he will attain his goal through the guidance of an accomplished master (Rosenblatt, 2: 422).

The denomination "the disciples of the prophets" is a key to the process of recovering from the Sufis the lost "prophetic discipline." Its restoration was a prerequisite to the return of prophecy itself, whose imminence was predicted by Maimonides. The absence of the final chapter of the Kifaya which dealt with the attainment of the ultimate goal (wusul), is an irretrievable loss.

Other Works

Abraham refers to other compositions now lost, such as a treatise on truth, and an explanation of the 26 premises of the introduction to the second part of the Guide. It has been shown that the Kitab al-hawd and the Taj al-'arifin, ascribed to him by the 17th century chronicler Sambari, probably belong to other authors. Some manuscripts erroneously attribute to him the Sodot ha-Moreh ("Secrets of the Guide"), in fact by Abraham *Abulafiia. His authorship of the folktale Ma'aseh Yerushalmî (Jerusalem, 1946), is unlikely.


Abraham was at the hub of a pietistic circle of a sectarian nature whose adepts were dissatisfied with formal religion. Partly inspired by Abraham Abu ar-Rabia (d. 1223), also known as he-ḥasid, whom he calls "our Master in the Way," this circle included Abraham Maimonides' father-in-law, Hananel ben Samuel, and his own son Ovadiah (1228–1265) author of the mystical al-Maqala al-Hawdiyya ("Treatise of the Pool"). Despite an enormous literary output, the movement did not engender a widespread community of ascetics similar to Sufism, probably because of the vehement opposition to Abraham's ritual reforms. Indeed, this opposition, as well as the movement's own elitist character seriously impeded its spread. With the general decline of Oriental Jewry, his Sufi-type Jewish pietism sank into oblivion, though some of its mystical elements were possibly absorped into the nascent Kabbalah. However, the exegetical and ethical writings of several of his direct descendants perpetuated his tendency to temper Maimonides' spiritual ideology with Sufi mysticism. Later authorities, such as the 13th cent. Karaite Yefet b. Za'ir, Sefer ha-Ḥinnukh, Aaron ha-Yarḥi, R. *David ibn Abi Zimra, Moses al-Ashkar, Joseph *Caro, Abraham Ibn Migash, and Mas'ud *Rakah, utilize his works, which were still being read in the 18th century. Abraham Maimonides passed away on Monday, 18 Kislev, 1237. Eliezer b. Jacob ha-Bavli (Diwan, no. 199) composed an elegy for him in which he wrote:

Who believed wholeheartedly in his Lord,
Counted to him as righteousness?
Who arose and, with the hand of reason, overthrew the idols of ignorance,
Reducing its image to shivers?
Who established in Memphis [= Egypt] an inn, opening its gates to wayfarers?
Who bound upon the altar of understanding, like young lambs, the offspring of thought?
With whom did his Lord make a covenant between the pieces, with flaming torches?
'Twas Abraham, who, the day of his demise, rent our hearts and inner parts.

Although his father's blessing of greatness had been fullfiled, Abraham's renown may have been greater still had he not been overshadowed by Maimonides' towering figure.


works: N. Dana (ed.), Sefer ha-Maspik le-Ovedei ha-Shem (1989); A.H. Freimann (ed.), Abraham Maimuni, Responsa (1937); R. Margaliot (ed.), R. Abraham Maimuni, Milhamot ha-Shem (1953); S. Rosenblatt (ed.), The High Ways to Perfection of Abraham Maimonides, 2 vols. (1927–38); E. Wiesenberg (ed.), Abraham Maimonides Commentary on Genesis and Exodus (1958). general: G. Cohen, "The Soteriology of Abraham Maimuni," in: Studies in the Variety of Rabbinic Cultures (1991); S. Eppenstein, Abraham Maimuni: sein Leben und seine Schriften (1914); P. Fenton, "Abraham Maimonides (1187–1237): Founding a Mystical Dynasty," in: M. Idel and M. Ostow (eds.), Jewish Mystical Leaders and Leadership in the 13th Century (2000), 127–154; idem, Deux traités de mystique juive (1987); S.D. Goitein, "Abraham Maimonides and his Pietist Circle," in: A. Altmann (ed.), Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies (1967), 145–164; N. Wieder, Islamic Influences on the Jewish Worship (1948).

[Paul Fenton (2nd ed.)]

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