Moses Ben Maimonides was born on Passover eve, March 30, 1135, in Cordova, Spain. At that time, Cordova and all southern Spain with the exception of Toledo, formed part of the great North African Empire. He was descended from a line of scholars, which included his father, Rabbi Maimon. His genealogy has been traced through Rabbi Judah the Prince, compiler of the Mishnah for the royal house of David. At the time of Maimonides' birth, the Jewish world lacked religious vigour or a leading personality who could unify its communities in accordance with the Torah.
While there is no reliable information on the childhood days of Maimonides,
his boyhood was, without doubt, filled with intellectual and religious stimulation due to his scholarly lineage and the influence of his father. He was a great achiever in both general studies and in the intellectual pursuits of his father,
who planted in him a love of Jewish learning. Although his main topics of
study were rabbinics and the Talmud, he also devoted much time to the study of the sciences as advanced by the Greeks and medieval Arabs. He pursued his studies under the instruction of both Jewish and Moslem teachers, with particular interest in the natural sciences, mathematics, and medicine, along with metaphysics, philosophy and logic.
The young Maimonides and his family were greatly affected by the policies
of the Almohad Dynasty, a Moslem power founded by religious fanatic Abdulla-ibn-Tumart, which eventually conquered much of North Africa. The Almohades were a great threat to both Judaism and Christianity. Churches and synagogues were forbidden, and Christians and Jews were subject to the same ultimatum: Islam or death. Ibn Tumart died in 1130, and was succeeded by Abd al-Mu'min, who allowed the Christian and Jewish heretics to leave the country. The Christians were able to find refuge in northern Spain, but the Jews could find no place to hide in safety. As a result, many Jews were martyred for their faith, but most publicly accepted Islam while continuing to practice Judaism in secret.
By 1148, Maimonides had scarcely been bar mitzvahed when the Almohades crossed the Mediterranean into southern Spain and conquered Andalusia. By May or June of that year they entered Cordova and, during their reign of terror and persecution, razed all the beautiful synagogues and closed the rabbinic schools of Seville and Lucena. It appeared that these great centers of Jewish learning were destroyed for ever. Many Jews became exiles rather than deny their faith, and chose a life of wandering and hardship instead. Among these were Maimonides, his father, and other members of his family. Nevertheless, in the midst of this turmoil and the wanderings of his family, young Maimonides found time to exhaustively study both biblical and rabbinic literature, laying the foundations of his extraordinary life. His fantastic memory stored vast amounts of knowledge and sustained his great appetite for learning.
For ten years the family travelled from town to town and at last sailed across the Mediterranean to Morocco. In 1160, the family, consisting of Rabbi Maimon, a daughter and two sons, Maimonides and his brother David, settled in Fez where they remained for five years. Maimonides' father and brother worked to provide for the family and to enable Maimonides to continue his studies.
While some Jews, including Maimon, were able to continue in the faith of their fathers, many others were not, but began to believe that Mohammed and the Koran had replaced Moses and the Torah, and that Mecca had superseded Sinai. One of the local Jews asked the opinion of a foreign rabbi as to the state of those Jews who were forced to convert. He said that because these secret Jews had made the declaration, “La Ilaha illa Allah waMuhammed rasul Allah,” “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the prophet of Allah,” they had denied the God of Israel and must be regarded as idolaters. He said that a loyal Jew would accept martyrdom for his God and for the faith. This ruling was circulated throughout the Maghreb. Horror and despair filled the souls of the converts, and the Jewish community was shaken to its roots. .
Young Maimonides, realising the danger, took action by writing an essay in 1160, the "Ma’amar Kiddush HaShem," "Essay on the Sanctification of the name of God," in which he sought to reconcile biblical condemnations of idolatry with the pragmatic need to publicly convert for survival. This essay was his first move into public affairs, and it brought much comfort to the weak and feeble of the converts. This single act alone saved Judaism from extinction, and from this moment on all Jewry looked upon him as a friend and counselor in matters concerning Jewish life.
This attitude provoked the suspicions of the Moslems, as the act of leaving Islam to return to one's former faith was punishable with death. The head of the community was arrested and executed, but Maimonides was saved from a similar fate by his friend and theologian, the Moslem poet Abularab ibn Moisha. However, these intensified conditions became so difficult in Fez that the family decided to leave and head for the safety of the Holy Land. So as not to be seen, they escaped on the night of April 18, 1165, secretly boarding a vessel and sailing away.
The exiles reached Acco or Acre, the main sea port on the Palestinian coast, on Sunday, May 16, 1165. The family was welcomed by the dayyan, Japhet ben Eliahu, along with the small Jewish community with whom they were to spend many happy days.
After remaining in Acco for six months, the Maimon family set out in the
company of the dayyan for Jerusalem. They arrived on October 17 and remained three days praying at the Kothel Ma’aravi, or Western Wall, and other holy places. They also went to Hebron and the Cave of Machpelah, the
traditional burying place of the Patriarchs. At that time the Holy Land was
under Roman Catholic rule and the total Jewish population was around one thousand
families. After a short stay, the family left for the Nile, stayed for a brief
period in Alexandria, and finally settled in Cairo, where Maimonides lived
out the rest of his life.
Dr. Poyner-Levison is Messianic Teacher at Beit Shalom Ministries, England, and is the AMC UK Representative.
His website is
www.beitshalom.co.uk He would like to give thanks to Dr. Israel Slotke, MBE, MA, LITT.D, F.R.S.L, from whose book he has researched this article.