THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MOSES BEN MAIMONIDES
By Dr. Alan Poyner-Levison
Summary of Part 1: THE EARLY YEARS,
(The fuller version appeared in February's Shofar)
Moses Ben Maimonides was born on Passover Eve, March 30, 1135, in Cordova, Spain. In his youth, he studied rabbinics and the Talmud, the natural sciences, mathematics, medicine, metaphysics, philosophy and logic.
By May or June of 1148, the Almohad Dynasty conquered Cordova and closed or razed every synagogue and rabbinic school in Seville and Lucena. Christians and Jews were presented with the ultimatum: convert to Islam or die. Many Jews chose martyrdom, but most accepted Islam publicly while practicing Judaism in secret. Many chose exile, Maimonides' family among them. In 1160, they settled in Fez, Morocco, where they remained for five years.
Many Jews who had converted to Islam were horror struck when a rabbi declared that they were idolaters, having denied the God of Israel. In 1160, young Maimonides took action by writing an essay, 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 need to publicly convert for survival. This, his first move into public affairs, brought much comfort to the converts, but raised the level of persecution in Fez, forcing his family to flee to the Holy Land in 1165. After a brief stay there, they settled in Cairo, where he lived the rest of his life.
Part 2: The Final Years
By the time Maimonides had made his home in Egypt, the Jews of that country were enjoying some autonomy in managing their internal affairs. Under Saladin, they achieved full freedom in many areas. The Nagid, or Prince, who served as leader of the Jewish community, was granted much authority and disciplinary power, including the ability to impose fines, order imprisonment, and appoint rabbis and synagogue officials.
While there was positive political and social achievement for the Egyptian Jewish community, the spiritual life of the community was suffering for a lack of learned men and unity among the learned men that they had. The two main opposing sects were the Karaites and the Rabbinates. The Karaites, whose name means “scripture,” believed in the literal interpretation of scripture and refused to be bound to the rules and interpretations of the rabbis and the Talmud. In contrast, the Rabbinates maintained that the Torah, or Written Law, could not be properly understood without the explanations and wisdom of the Oral Law and rabbinic writings that had been handed down through the many generations since Sinai.
To counteract the spiritual disunity, Maimonides published The Responsa in 1167 in which he wrote, “We felt it necessary to guide the holy flock, to reconcile the hearts of the fathers with their children by correcting their corrupt ways.” As Maimonides became more engaged in the business of the community, he became more influential. Finding that the Karaites had achieved much control, which was becoming detrimental to the community and to rabbinic Judaism, he adopted a policy of strong resistance accompanied by much conciliation. He gained increasing power over the Karaites until he eventually ended their influence in the Arab speaking countries.
While Maimonides was busy in his intellectual and spiritual pursuits, his brother David and he developed a trade within the community of precious stones and jewels. During this time, he was afflicted by a series of tragedies in quick succession: his father died in Jerusalem in the early part of 1166; David drowned in the Indian Ocean while on a business trip, causing Maimonides a great deal of financial hardship; and he became stricken with a fever that confined him to bed for a year. To make a living, he turned to his medical knowledge and began lecturing on philosophical topics.
In 1168, Maimonides completed his Commentary on the Mishnah, and in 1170 began his second major work, The Mishnah Torah, which he completed in 1180. Maimonides' fame was spreading throughout the Jewish world, and by 1175, at the age of 40, he was not only the undisputed Nagid (Prince) of the Jews in Cairo, but the undisputed authority on rabbinical and theological matters. Even with his fame, he declined to take any salary, for he believed that one should not make a profit from scripture. Even so, at the age of fifty he was appointed Royal Physician to Alfadhel, Vizier of Egypt, securing him an annual salary.
When Maimonides was only fifty-one years old he described himself as an old and ailing man, but his only son, Abudmeni Abraham, was born in that year, brightening up his later years. Maimonides took great personal care of his son’s education, and succeeded in bringing him up as a learned and culturally efficient person with great piety. Abudmeni Abraham was to succeed his father as the Nagid of the Egyptian communities and personal physician to the sultan.
In 1190, when he was 55 years old, Maimonides completed his final monumental work, The Guide for the Perplexed. His final years were spent in increasing physical illness. On December 13, 1204, in his 70th year, he passed away, and his death was lamented throughout the Jewish world for three days. Many Muslims throughout the Islamic world lamented his death, as well. His remains were carried to Galilee and buried in Tiberius where a tombstone marks his grave to this present day.
In his writings in the Commentary on the Mishnah he wrote:
The days of the Messiah will be the time when the kingdom will revert to Israel. Who will return to the Holy Land? The King who will then reign will be very powerful and he will have Zion as the capitol of his realm. His name will be great and fill the earth to its uttermost bounds…. The nations will make peace with him, and lands will obey him by reason of his great rectitude and the wonders that will come to light by his means. Anyone that rises up against him God will destroy and make him fall into his hands. All verses of scripture testify to his prosperity and our prosperity in him.
Dr. Poyner-Levison is Messianic Teacher at http://homepage.ntlworld.com/a.poyner
, England, and is the AMC UK Representative. 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.