A Glimpse at the Life of Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides / Rambam)

Since my teaching brief now includes more sustained instruction in the Jewish tradition, I’ve been further familiarizing myself with some of its significant contributors. To that end, I read Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Maimonides: A Biography. As you no doubt deduced from the title, if you didn’t know already, Maimonides’s proper name is Moses ben Maimon. And if you throw the title of Rabbi on the front (it is accorded to him as an honorific although he was never “ordained” as a rabbi and refused the opportunity because he didn’t think he should earn a living off the Torah), take the first letters, and throw a couple vowels (two ‘a’s) in there to help you pronounce it, you get “Rambam,” which is how he is referred to in the rabbinic tradition.

By Blaisio Ugolino (Rambam Institute) [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
If you need an analogy to help you understand how important Maimonides is for the rabbinic tradition, just think of him as the Jewish Thomas Aquinas. Or, perhaps think of Thomas as the Christian Rambam, since he was born 21 years after the second Moses died. Maimonides was also a contemporary of Averroes, and they knew each other’s works (and, I gather, may have met).

Anyway, I’ve always been fascinated at getting a look at the daily life of major intellectual figures, and so I was very pleased to come across Heschel’s discussion. And I figured that you, gentle readers, might also find it interesting. Heschel is quoting here from a letter from Maimonides to one of his students, who wants to come visit him. This is during the final period in Maimonides’s life, while he’s serving as court physician and nagid (official government-appointed leader of all Jews for the Ayyubid dynasty, based in Egypt).

Enough introduction! Here’s the passage (I've deployed some bold, as is my wont):

The sultan lives in Cairo and I live in Fostat; the two towns are two Sabbath leagues apart. I have a difficult time with the sultan; I must visit him every morning. If he himself or one of his children or harem members is sick, then I may not leave Cairo. I spend most of the day in the sultan’s palace. Usually, I also have to treat some dignitary. In a word: I go to Cairo every morning at the crack of dawn, and if nothing keeps me there and nothing unforeseen occurs, I can come home only in the afternoon, but by no means any earlier. Here, starving as I am, I find the antechamber full of people: Jews and non-Jews, nobles and lowly people, judges and officials, friends and foes, a motley company awaiting me with impatience. I dismount from my horse, wash, and enter the waiting room with the plea that they may not feel offended if I have to make them wait a bit longer while I partake of a hasty meal, which normally happens only once every twenty-four hours. Then I go out to them again, treat them, and prescribe medicaments on notes. Thus the people go in and out of my home until late in the evening. Sometimes, I swear it on the Torah, it is 2 a.m. or even later before I manage to consume anything. I am then so worn out that I collapse on my bed; I have to say good night, I am totally exhausted and incapable of speaking. Only on the Sabbath can anyone speak to me alone, or can I be alone with myself for even an instant. Then all or most of the members of the community gather in my home after the morning prayer. I indicate what is to be done in the community during the coming week; then they listen to a short lecture until noon, go home, and return in a smaller number. Now a second lecture takes place, between the minkhah and the maariv prayer. . . .

At times, I lean against the wall; at times, I continue my writing; I am so feeble that I mostly have to lie down; a weak body has joined forces with my age. (238–39)

Heschel also gives this compelling summary of Maimonides’s achievement:

As supreme head of the Jews, Maimonides had a lofty political position; he was considered the premier physician of his age, the most important Talmudist of the millennium, an epoch-making philosopher, an outstanding mathematician, scientist, and jurist; he was admired by the masses, honored by princes, celebrated by scholars, he corresponded with famous rectors and insignificant judges; the complaints of the simple fellahs, the diseases and whims of the rulers, the spiritual and physical sufferings in the harem took up his attention; he maintained the most cultivated forms of court etiquette as well as plain helpfulness and cordiality toward the most common of men. In all this, he asserted his retiring, self-willed personality. . . . [H]e fought against negation of life, asceticism, and he taught the middle path, balance; however, his self-sacrifice went far beyond equilibrium. He was a man of willpower, resolution, and freedom. (242)

I’ve been glad to get to know Moses ben Maimon’s life and thought better under Heschel’s tutelage.


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