Chabad at Stanford
Wisdom Center
Maimonides Bookmark and Share
By: Elliot Wachman

"From Moshe (Moses) to Moshe (Maimonides) there arose none like Moshe."

Throughout history, there have been a number of thinkers whose influence over the generations that succeeded them continues to be clearly evident today. Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) was one of these figures. The range and sheer volume of his writings are in themselves exceptional. Before the age of twenty-three, Maimonides had completed a treatise on the Jewish calendar, a dissertation on logic, a commentary on nearly one half of the Babylonian Talmud, and a legal digest of the Jerusalem Talmud. In the decades that followed, Maimonides composed thousands of responsa to questions posed him by religious leaders from all over the world, and numerous treatises on the theory and practice of medicine -all these in addition to his major works: the Commentary on the Mishnah, the Mishneh Torah and Sefer HaMitzvot, and the Guide for the Perplexed.

The circumstances under which many of these were written were far from comfortable. Born in 1135, Maimonides lived the first thirteen years of his life in Cordova, Spain. Fleeing the persecutions of the Moslem Almohades, Rabbi Maimon, Maimonides' father and the leader of Cordova's Jewish community, led his family from city to city in Southern Spain during the next decade as the Almohades gradually swept throughout the country. Maimonides' commentaries on the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, as well as his early treaties, were composed during these years of wandering. In 1159, the Maimon family arrived in Fez, Morocco where they were able to stay for five years. It was in Fez that Maimonides did the bulk of the work for his Mishnah commentary. Working at times in difficult physical conditions, he was often forced to work from memory, condensing and clarifying the lengthy Talmudic explanations of the Mishnah without the text in front of him. In 1164, religious persecution forced the family from Fez as well. After journeying through the Holy Land, Rabbi Maimon and his family arrived in Fostad, Egypt (outside Cairo) in 1166, the year of Rabbi Maimon's death. During the next five years, the family was supported by Maimonides' brother David, enabling Maimonides to begin work on his Mishneh Torah. In 1171, however, David died in a shipwreck, leaving Maimonides responsible for providing for the family. It was at this juncture that he began what was later to become a distinguished career as a doctor, serving ultimately as the personal physician of the Grand Vizier Alfadhil and the Sultan Saladin. By 1177, Maimonides' scholarly works had become sufficiently respected that he was asked to become the Chief Rabbi of Cairo, a large and influential Jewish community. Despite these responsibilities, he completed the Mishneh Torah soon after and, some ten years later, his Guide for the Perplexed. The nature of these accomplishments is best understood in the context of his life during the latter part of this period, as described in the following excerpt from one of his letters:

Concerned by the confusion between Aristotelian and Jewish conceptions of the world, and fearing its potential consequences, Maimonides composed his Guide.

I dwell at Fostat and the Sultan resides at Cairo; these two places are . . . about one mile and a half distant from each other, My duties to the Sultan are very heavy. I am obliged to visit him every day, early in the morning; and when he or any of his children, or any of the inmates of his harem, are indisposed, I dare not quit Cairo, but must stay during the greater part of the day in the palace. It also frequently happens that one or two of the royal officers falls sick, and I must attend to their healing. Hence, as a rule, I repair to Cairo very early in the day, and even if nothing unusual happens, I do not return to Fostat until the afternoon. Then I am almost dying with hunger. I find the ante, chambers filled with people, both Jews and Gentiles, nobles and common people, judges and bailiffs, friends and foes--a mixed multitude, who await the time of my return.

I dismount from my animal, wash my hands, go forth to my patients, and entreat them to bear with me while I partake of some slight refreshment, the only meal I take in the twenty-four hours. Then I attend to my patients, write prescriptions and directions for their various ailments. Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes even, I solemnly assure you, until two hours and more in the night, I converse with and prescribe for them while lying down from sheer fatigue, and when night falls I am so exhausted that I can scarcely speak.

In consequence of this, no Israelite can have any private interview with me except on the Sabbath. On that day the whole congregation, or at least the majority, come to me after the morning service, when I instruct them as to their proceedings during the whole week; we study together a little until noon, when they depart. Some of them return, and read with me after the afternoon service until evening prayers. In this manner I spend that day. I have here related to you only a part of what you would see if You were to visit me.(1)

Quite apart from the circumstances of their composition, it is difficult to appreciate the volume of Maimonides' output without an understanding of the scope of his major works--the Mishnah Commentary, the Mishneh Torah, and the Guide. Second only to the Bible in its importance, the Mishnah is a vast collection of primarily legal material which, prior to its written compilation in the 3rd century C.E., had been passed down orally from teacher to student for over a thousand years. During the few hundred years following the Mishnah's redaction, scholars elaborated on and argued over the meaning of its terse Hebrew. The compilation of these Aramaic commentaries, known as the Gemara (and, taken together with the Mishnah, as the Talmud) was done in both Babylon and in the Land of Israel, producing what are known as the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds, respectively. Often, these works contain many pages of text for each few lines from the Mishnah, the complete sets filling many folios. As the culmination of several hundred years of scholarly effort to set down in writing the Oral Law (that part of Jewish law not contained explicitly in the Bible), their importance can hardly be overstated. The Babylonian Talmud, in particular, has served as the cornerstone for an edifice of commentary and discussion that continues in sparkling vibrancy to shape contemporary Jewish thinking.

The Guide was responsible for opening up a new era of Jewish philosophy, serving as both cornerstone and catalyst for subsequent works of this genre.

By the 12th century C.E., some 700 years after the Babylonian Talmud had taken its final form, there had developed a vast Jewish population for whom its extended, often subtle reasonings were inaccessible. Without the Talmudic explanations, however, it was difficult to properly understand the condensed language of the Mishnah. To help rectify this gradually worsening situation, Maimonides composed his Commentary on the Mishnah. Gleaning primarily from the Talmudic discussions as well as from later scholars, he brought brief, lucid explanations to each passage in the Mishnah whose meaning was not otherwise evident. When disagreements as to points of law arose, he clearly set down the final, accepted opinion. His Commentary included a comprehensive Introduction as well as smaller introductions to particularly difficult sections of the Mishnah. Some of these latter are quite well-known and much studied in their own right. His preface to Chapter X of the tractate Sanhedrin, for example, contains the Thirteen Principles of Faith that continue to be recited daily in many Jewish communities. His introduction to the tractate Ethics of the Fathers has enjoyed sufficient popularity to merit its translation into a host of languages and has, in fact, been frequently published on its own, separate from the Commentary. Taken as a whole, the Commentary stands as a remarkable achievement. Written in Arabic and later translated into Hebrew, it soon became widely read by Jews all over the world. Indeed, though it was the first complete, specific commentary on the Mishnah, it has remained until this day as one of the most definitive explications of the text and is invariably included in standard editions of the Talmud.

THE THIRTEEN PRINCIPLES OF FAITH: 1. I believe with complete faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is the Creator and Guide of all the created beings, and that He alone has made, does make, and will make all things. 2. I believe with complete faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is One and Alone; that there is no oneness in any way like Him; and that He alone is our G-d--was, is and will be. 3. I believe with complete faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is incorporeal; that He is free from anthropomorphic properties; and that He has no likeness at all. 4. I believe with complete faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is the first and the last. 5. I believe with complete faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is the only one to whom it is proper to pray, and that it is inappropriate to pray to anyone else. 6. I believe with complete faith that all the words of the prophets are true. 7. I believe with complete faith that the prophecy of Moses our teacher, peace unto him, was true; and that he was the father of the prophets, both of those who preceded and of those who followed him. 8. I believe with complete faith that the whole Torah which we now possess was given to Moses, our teacher, peace unto him. 9. I believe with complete faith that this Torah will not be changed, and that there will be no other Torah given by the creator, blessed be His name. 10. I believe with complete faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, knows all the deeds and thoughts of human beings, as it is said, "it is He who fashions the hearts of them all, He who perceives all their actions." (Psalms 33:15) 11. I believe with complete faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, rewards those who observe His commandments, and punishes those who transgress His commandments. 12. I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and although he may tarry, nevertheless, I wait every day for him to come. 13. I believe with complete faith that there will be resurrection of the dead at the time when it will be the will of the Creator, blessed be His name and exalted be His remembrance forever and ever.3/

Studied and consulted by Jews from all over, Maimonides's Mishneh Torah was soon acclaimed as the greatest work of Jewish scholarship since the Talmud.

Though the Commentary clarified considerably the labyrinth of legal discussions that had accumulated since the redaction of the Mishnah, it did not provide a clear, practical source to which people could turn to answer day-to-day questions of law. There was, in fact, a pressing need at the time for such a code, arranged by topic, that could provide the average person with reliable, definitive rulings of Jewish law (halachah). A number of years earlier, Rabbi Yitzchakl Alfasi (the "Rif") took the first step in this direction, selecting out the authoritative opinions and the relevant legal passage of the Talmud, deleting the more elaborate discussions and the anecdotal sections. In its final form, the Rif's digest was a tremendous accomplishment--few scholars possessed the learning and insight necessary to sort through all the Talmudic material to arrive at final rulings. Paralleling the organization of the Talmud--with its frequent, often abrupt shifts of subject-- however, the Rif's work was not easy to consult for those not thoroughly versed in the Talmud.

Maimonides sought to remedy this deficiency by composing a code organized topically. Dividing his work into fourteen books, with each book split into chapters and each chapter partitioned into discussions of individual laws, he strove to create a code in which the ruling on a particular issue could be readily located. Collecting all Biblical, Talmudic, and post-Talmudic legislations and picking out the most authoritative opinions, he included the entire range of Jewish law--even those laws which, according to tradition, will not be practiced again until the time of the Messiah (such as those pertaining to Temple sacrifices). To facilitate accessibility and readability, Maimonides chose to present the laws in his code without reference to their sources or explanations of their rationale (both of which were subsequently supplied by later commentators). In short, his intent was to provide a code of law that, in his words, would allow "no man [to] have any need to resort to any other book on any matter of Jewish law, but that the compendium should contain the entire Oral Law." As such, he decided to call it the Mishneh Torah (Second to the Torah). And indeed, from its publication, response to the work was extraordinary. Studied and consulted by Jews from all over, the Mishneh Torah was soon acclaimed as the greatest work of Jewish scholarship since the Talmud. Written in clear, carefully chosen language, the Mishneh Torah became a model of succinct, focused composition. (Later commentators have referred, in fact, to Maimonides' writing in this work as "golden language".) Unique in its scope, peerless in its composition, the work has stood as the basis for all codifications of Jewish law since.

Despite the immeasurable influence of these legal works, the Commentary and the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides is best known by many as a philosopher and as the author of the Guide for the Perplexed. Unlike these other books, the Guide was written for a very specific audience. During Maimonides' lifetime, many observant philosophically-minded Jews had become attracted to the works of the ancient Greek Philosophers, an influence that was popular among the Arab intelligentsia of the time. Faced with conflicts between the Aristotelian and Jewish conceptions of the world, these Jews became troubled and shaken in their faith. Concerned by this confusion and fearing its potential consequences, Maimonides composed his Guide to systematically elucidate the primary philosophical and religious tenets of Judaism. Not meant for the nonbeliever, it was explicitly designed for knowledgeable, believing Jews. As Maimonides writes in his introduction to the Guide: "The object of this treatise is to enlighten a religious man who has been trained to believe in the truth of our holy Law, who conscientiously fulfils his moral and religious duties, and at the same time has been successful in his philosophical studies."(2)

Physician's Oath Attributed to Maimonides

O G-d, Thou has formed the body of man with infinite goodness; Thou has united in him innumerable forces incessantly at work like so many instruments so as to preserve in its entirety this beautiful house containing his immortal soul, and these forces act with all the order, concord, and harmony imaginable. But if weakness or violent passion disturb this harmony, these forces act against one another and the body returns to the dust whence it came. Thou sendest them to man Thy messengers, the diseases which announce the approach of danger, and bid him prepare to overcome them. The Eternal Providence has appointed me to watch over the life and health of Thy creatures. May the love of my art actuate me at all times, may neither avarice, or miserliness, nor the thirst for glory or a great reputation engage my mind; for, enemies of truth and philanthopy, they could easily deceive me and make me forgetful of my lofty aim of doing good to Thy children. Endow me with strength of heart and mind, so that both may be ready to serve the rich and the poor, the good and the wicked, friend and enemy, and that I may never see in the patient anything else but a fellow creature in pain.

If physicians more learned than I wish to counsel me, inspire me with confidence in and obedience toward the recognition of them, for the study of the science is great. It is not given to one alone to see all that others see. May I be moderate in everything except in the knowledge of this science; so far as it is concerned, may I be insatiable; grant me the strength and opportunity always to correct what I have acquired, always to extend its domain; for knowledge is boundless and the spirit of man can also extend infinitely, daily to enrich itself with new acquirements. Today he can discover his errors of yesterday, and tomorrow he may obtain new light on what he thinks himself sure of today.

G-d, Thou has appointed me to watch over the life and death of Thy creature: here am I ready for my vocation.(3)

The Guide is divided into three parts. The first is dedicated to discussions of confusions apt to arise directly from the text of the Bible-- apparent Scriptural contradictions, anthropomorphisms of G-d, and the like. The second tackles problems stemming from incompatibilities between "scientific" (Aristotelian) and Biblical approaches to G-d and the world, and thoroughly analyzes the legitimacy of applying Aristotelian thinking to questions of religion and the Bible. The final section of the Guide addresses more general, fundamental religious issues: the nature of good and evil, the purpose of the world, the meaning behind the Commandments, the character of pure worship.

Unfortunately, the philosophical language in which the Guide is couched has led many to misunderstand Maimonides' intentions. Fully cognizant of these potential difficulties, Maimonides makes clear in his introduction that the Guide must be read with great care: What I have written in this work was not the suggestion of the moment; it is the result of deep study and great application....Do not read superficially, lest you do me an injury, and derive no benefit for yourself. You must study thoroughly and read continually."2/ Some of the greatest classical Rabbinical commentators have in fact indicated that a number of the concepts Maimonides discusses are based on profound insights from the Zohar, the primary text of Jewish mysticism. It is to be emphasized that even at its most philosophical and scientific, the Guide remains firmly grounded in the Torah. Maimonides viewed science and philosophy as aids to understanding G-d's Law, rather than ends in themselves.

Despite the misunderstandings that followed its publication and the specificity of its intended audience, the Guide's influence was profound in both Jewish and non-Jewish circles. Arguably the most commented upon philosophical treatise of all time, it has over thirty Hebrew commentaries whose authors are known and a host of other commentaries penned by writers whose names have been lost. Translated into nearly every European language, it is quoted extensively in the works of Aquinas, Bacon, and others. Most significantly, however, the Guide was responsible for opening up a new era of Jewish inquiry into questions of philosophy, serving as both cornerstone and catalyst for subsequent works of this genre.

In the areas of both law and philosophy, Maimonides' contributions to Jewish thought are unique. His Mishnah Commentary, Mishneh Torah, and Guide for the Perplexed were each landmarks in the history of Jewish thought. Indeed, the extent of Maimonides' influence on later scholars is perhaps best captured by the saying that is engraved on his tombstone in Tiberias in Israel: "From Moshe

  1. As quoted in Roth, L. The Guide for the Perplexed. London: Hutchinson's University Library, 1948.
  2. As quoted in M. Friedlander's translation of the Guide, New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1881.
  3. As quoted in The Rambam: A Brief Biography, New York. Merkos L'inyonei Chinuch, 1985. Reprinted by Permission from Aleph, March/April 1989.