Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Rambam)

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam or Maimonides) (1138-1204), was an intellectual and philosophical giant, one of the greatest authorities on Jewish law, a key figure in shaping Judaism and its development, and an outstanding representative of the culture and heritage of Spanish Jewry.



From the Shabadron Collection, The National Library of Israel, Jerusalem (Wikimedia Commons).

Rambam was born in Cordoba, Spain, but was forced  to wander through a number of cities and countries, before settling in Fostat (Old Cairo) in Egypt. Rambam, who could be described as a man of many parts, or a Renaissance man, was a leading halachic authority, one of the major philosophers of his time, a physician and scientist, researcher and community leader. He wrote comprehensive, innovative books on Jewish law and philosophy, corresponded with leaders and laymen alike, and served as a leader for the Jewish communities in Egypt and the countries of the East.

Rambam wrote numerous works on a variety of topics: Jewish law, Jewish philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and medicine. Among his major works were the Mishneh Torah, the Commentary on the Mishnah, and the Guide of the Perplexed.

Rambam had extensive influence on others, both within the Jewish world and outside it. This influence extended even after his own times, to our own day. Nonetheless, during Rambam’s times his opinions and teachings also aroused strong disagreement and debate among Jews in the communities of Spain, Provence, and northern France.


Life Story

Portrait of Rambam, at the medical center in Haifa named after him (Artist: David Shay). From Wikimedia Commons.

Rambam – Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon – was born on 14 Nissan 4898 (March 23, 1138) in the city of Cordoba, in Spain, to a family of rabbis and rabbinic judges. His father, Maimon, served as a rabbinic judge in Cordoba. Rambam had two siblings: a younger brother named David and a sister. In his early years, the Moslem Almoravide dynasty ruled in Cordoba.

In 1148, when Rambam was 10 years old, the Almohades – a sect of fanatical Moslems – invaded southern Spain from North Africa, and began persecuting the Jews. Many Jews fled northward, to areas under Christian control, but Rambam’s family fled southward, and for 10 years wandered in southern Spain and North Africa, until they settled in Fez, Morocco, in 1158. But here too Moslem fanaticism grew, and the family was forced to flee in 1165 – Rambam and his family sailed for Eretz Israel, where they lived in the port city of Akko till 1166, also visiting Jerusalem and Hebron. From Eretz Israel they continued to Alexandria, in Egypt.

In 1170 (approximately) Rambam moved to the city of Fostat (Old Cairo) in Egypt, where he remained till his death

In Fostat

In Fostat, Rambam married, and in 1187 his only son, Avraham, was born. Initially Rambam earned a living by trading in precious stones, a business run by his younger brother David, but in 1173 David was drowned on one of his journeys in the Indian Ocean. Rambam was in deep mourning, and described this loss as “the worst of all that has happened to me from the day I was born to this moment.” As a result of his brother’s death, Rambam took ill, and was bedridden for about a year. In addition, following David’s death, Rambam had to support his brother’s widow and daughter.

By now you will have noted that we know the names of the men in Rambam’s life – his father, his brother and his son – but not the names of the women – his mother, his sister* and his wife. Why do you think this is so?

* There may be some information about his sister.

Rambam began working as a physician, and in 1188 he was appointed as physician to the court of the sultan, Salah a-Din. During the day he worked at the sultan’s palace in Cairo, and in the evening, numerous patients, both Jewish and non-Jewish, awaited him at home in Fostat. This is how Rambam described his exhausting day, in a letter written in 1199:

“I dwell at Fostat, while the Sultan resides in Cairo… I am obliged to visit him every morning… Even if nothing unusual happens I do not return to Fostat until the afternoon. By then I am dying of hunger. I find the ante-chamber filled with people, Jews and gentiles… I then go forth to attend to my patients and write prescriptions and directions for their various ailments. Patients come in and out until nightfall… I converse with them and make prescriptions while lying down from sheer fatigue, and by nighttime I am so exhausted that I can barely speak.”[1]

Over the years Rambam gathered numerous disciples, and he was seen by many in the Egyptian Jewish community as their leader, until finally, in the early 70’s of the 12th century, he was appointed as the governor of the Jews, the Rais al-Yahud. Rambam was an important figure not only in the eyes of the Jewish community in Egypt, but also for the Jews of neighboring countries.

It is said of Rambam that he was a “man of many parts,” or a “Renaissance man.” Why?

On 20 Tevet 4965, in the year 1204, Rambam passed away. There is some dispute as to where he was buried. The generally accepted view is that he was buried in Fostat, in Egypt, while tradition has it that he was brought, at his own request, for burial in Tiberias, in Eretz Israel. Some believe that he was buried temporarily in Fostat, but his remains were subsequently transferred to Tiberias.

[1] This translation adapted from the quote found at www.azamra.org/Heal/Wings/05.htm

Monument in memory of Rambam, in his birthplace, Cordoba.

The Mishnah

The Mishnah is a collection of six “orders” (parts), sometimes referred to as Shas (an abbreviation of Shisha Sedarim, six orders). It contains the laws on various topics as decided by the Sages. The Mishnah was edited in Eretz Israel by Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, around the year 200 CE. Up to that time, the laws were transmitted orally, from one generation to the next.

Each seder or order of the Mishnah is devoted to a specific topic. For example, Moed deals with the laws of the festivals. Each order is divided into tractates, and these too are organized on the basis of topic. For example, Moed contains Tractate Shabbat, Tractate Rosh Hashanah, Tractate Sukkah, and so on. Each tractate is divided into chapters.

Rambam’s Commentary on the Mishnah

Rambam wrote his commentary on the Mishnah in Judeo-Arabic between the years 1161 and 1168; that is, he completed it when he was only 30 years old! The commentary was written while Rambam was living in the Maghreb (the western part of North Africa), during a period of religious persecutions. During his lifetime Rambam returned to his manuscript, revising it and creating new editions of the commentary.

This is how Rambam, in the closing passages of the commentary, described the conditions under which he wrote it:

“God (may He be exalted) knows that there are laws whose commentary I wrote while travelling on the roads, and matters that I recorded while on boats in the Mediterranean Sea.”

In his commentary, Rambam combines a specific explanation of the content of each passage in the Mishnah and an interpretation of the difficult words in the text, with an attempt to formulate a systematic theory of the philosophy of Jewish law. From this perspective, this work forms the basis for Rambam’s major composition – the Mishneh Torah.

Principles of Jewish Belief

In the introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah, Rambam formulated the 13 Principles – the fundamentals of belief in Judaism. The thirteen principles begin with the belief in the existence and unity of God, and end with the belief in the resurrection of the dead. Belief and the acknowledgment of God have a central place in Rambam’s writings and thought, and some see him as the “the most monumental proponent of a religious recognition of God in Judaism from the days of the forefathers and the prophets on;” his place in the Jewish people “is not as a philosopher, but as the great believer, whose belief is embodied in the service of God.”[1]

  1. The belief that there is a God, and that He is the reason for the existence of the world and its creatures, while His existence is not dependent on them at all.
  2. The belief that God is one and unique.
  3. The belief that God is incorporeal (has no physical form or body).
  4. The belief that God pre-existed any creation.
  5. The belief that God alone should be the object of worship, and that it is forbidden to worship idols.
  6. The belief that there are intermediaries between man and God – the prophets.
  7. The belief in the prophecy of Moshe, that he is preeminent “among all the prophets, both those that came before him and those who come after him,” that he is also “the select of God from all of humankind,” who was able to reach the level of the angels, and that his prophecy is qualitatively different from that of the other prophets.
  8. The belief that the Torah is totally God’s word, and that it was written down by Moshe, His emissary.
  9. The belief that the Torah given to Moshe was given as a complete whole, and so it is forbidden to add to it, to modify it or to remove any part of it.
  10. The belief that God has knowledge of all human actions.
  11. The belief that God rewards those who keep His commandments, and punishes those who sin.
  12. The belief in the coming of the Messiah.
  13. The belief in the resurrection of the dead.

There are those who divide the 13 Principles of Faith into 3 groups: First group – Principles 1-5; Second group – Principles 6-9; Third group – Principles 10-13. Give a heading for each group, and explain what the principles included in it have in common.

At the end of the thirteen principles, Rambam addresses the reader, asking him to reexamine each of the principles, and not deceive himself into thinking that he can understand them from a single reading, or even after ten readings. Rambam emphasizes that the Principles of Faith that he formulated are the result of “consideration and reflection and examination of correct and incorrect views, and summarization of those of them that one ought to believe in.”

A summary of the principles appears in the Siddur, the prayerbook, with each of them beginning with the words “I believe with perfect faith.”

[1] Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Emunato shel HaRambam (The Faith of Maimonides), published in Hebrew by the Sifriyat HaUniversita HaMeshuderet Publishing, 1980.