Maimonides, Moses (Rabbi Moses ben-Maimon; Rambam)

(1135–1204)
   Spanish rabbi, physician and philosopher. Maimonides was born in Cordoba into a scholarly family which had long been settled in the town. He was educated by his father, a rabbi, in both Hebrew and Arabic. When Cordoba was taken in 1148 by the Almohads, a Moslem dynasty from North Africa, the position of the Jews became intolerable and the family was forced to flee. After years of wandering, they settled for a while in Fez (today in Morocco) where Maimonides may have acquired his medical knowledge from Arabic sources. Persecution began again; they moved to Palestine and from there settled in Cairo. Maimonides’ brother David kept the family going by trade with India in precious stones. But a shipwreck in which David, was drowned and the family fortune lost forced Maimonides, who had meanwhile acquired a great reputation as a rabbi, to practise as a physician. After he had been appointed a court physician to al-Malik al-Afdal, the vizier of Egypt appointed by Saladin, his reputation spread. Maimonides remained until his death in Fustat in old Cairo, where he was head of the Jewish community and its spokesman with the authorities.
   The medical skill of Maimonides was respected by Jew and Moslem alike. He was careful not to offend the religious beliefs of his Moslem patients, including the concept of ayal, the doctrine that the duration of human life was predetermined.
   He was the author of about twelve medical works, all written in Arabic. They included a glossary of drugs, some general works on the art of healing, and brief monographs on specific illnesses such as asthma and haemorrhoids, or on hygienic matters such as sexual intercourse. Showing an early understanding of the psychosomatic nature of some diseases, he wrote: ‘Medical practice is not knitting and weaving and the labour of hands, but it must be inspired with soul, filled with understanding, and equipped with the gift of a keen observation.’ In spite of his extremely busy professional life Maimonides found time for his scholarly studies. At the age of sixteen he had written a precis of logic, two Arabic copies of which were recently discovered, and when he was twenty he began a commentary on the Mishnah. He later composed his Sefer ha-Mitzvot (‘Book of the Commandments’), which enumerated the 248 positive and 365 negative precepts.
   This latter work was an introduction to Maimonides’ great work, the monumental Mishneh Torah, a codification of the whole of the Talmud, on which he spent the ten years from 1170 to 1180. In fourteen sections written in mishnaic Hebrew, he constructed an organized code which unravelled and clarified the traditional doctrines on law, dogma and ritual precepts. Making use of both the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmuds, and the works of Palestinian, French and Spanish scholars, he arranged his code so that it was accessible even to less-educated men. He was so successful that some rabbis feared that the Mishneh Torah would replace the study of the Talmud. But in general his work was hailed as the fruit of the greatest scholarship and its influence continued and grew through the centuries.
   As Maimonides’ fame spread, he was consulted by communities from all over the Jewish world, even as far as the Yemen, where the Jews were enduring severe persecution. The difficulties in which Jewish minorities found themselves gave rise to messianic speculations, of which Maimonides disapproved. ‘Let no one think’, he wrote, ‘that in the days of the Messiah any of the laws of the world will be abolished or any innovation of nation will be introduced. The world will follow its normal course’. He also deeply disapproved of the tendency to dabble in the occult, and of astrology which, he warned the Provençal communities, was dangerously close to idolatry.
   Maimonides incurred the disapproval of the Orthodox rabbis, particularly those in Provence, with his Guide of the Perplexed, written in Arabic in 1190, when he was fifty-five years old. He composed the Guide for the benefit of Jewish intellectuals whose scientific and philosophical education might mislead them concerning the meaning and value of biblical and rabbinical teachings. To calm their doubts, he set out to demonstrate that reason and faith were the twin sources of revelation. Although it was proper to recognize the importance of Aristotle’s physics as far as the earthly world was concerned, this did not contradict belief in a creative God uncon-strained by necessity’s laws. Radical though some philosophical ideas might seem, they need not conflict with religious law, which created conditions for the individual man to live in peace under collective social discipline. By scrupu-lously accepting this discipline, the philosopher could yet be free to follow his speculations.
   In his Guide, Maimonides made use of the work of Moslem philosophers, particularly al-Farabi and Ibn Sina (Avicenna). About the same time his Moslem contemporary, Ibn Rushd, whose work Maimonides knew and respected, undertook a similar task, attempting to reconcile the views of Aristotle with the Koran. The Guide was speedily translated into Hebrew and Latin and widely read in Christian and Moslem circles. Its influence can be traced in the works of the Catholic theologians Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. But it was received with far less approval in Orthodox Jewish circles; the FrancoGerman rabbis in particular were bitterly opposed to it. The controversy over the study of philosophy continued to rage for many years in Jewish circles. In spite of this, Maimonides was greatly venerated and his reputation grew steadily stronger after his death. His Mishneh Torah was recognized as a work of the greatest importance and Maimonides himself was spoken of as ‘a second Moses’.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

Look at other dictionaries:

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  • Maimonides — Maimonidean, adj., n. /muy mon i deez /, n. (Moses ben Maimon) ( RaMBaM ), 1135 1204, Jewish scholastic philosopher and rabbi, born in Spain: one of the major theologians of Judaism. * * * …   Universalium

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