Guide for the Perplexed cover page from the 1553 edition printed in Sabbioneta, Italy
Besides the aforementioned three major works of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, he also composed numerous Responses (Teshuvot) to the queries addressed to him for his opinion and authoritative decision, from all centers of Jewish settlement. With the appearance of his first major work the Commentary on the Mishnah, Rambam was regarded as one of the leading authorities on Jewish law and religion. With the appearance of Mishneh Torah, he was further recognized as the most authoritative Jewish scholar of his time. Literally thousands of inquiries were directed to him concerning all areas of Jewish life. His response include answers to specific questions of Jewish law, religious and civil; explanations of difficult Talmudic and homiletic and narrative passages; discussions of theological and religious-philosophical matters, as well as all the burning issues of the times.
Many of the Response were written in Arabic and later translated into Hebrew. On the whole, they are brief and concise, in contrast to the response of later generations which are characterized by the dialectic, pilpul approach. Some responses are so terse that they are limited to a few words, or even just to "permissible" or "forbidden." Other queries, however, were of such vital importance, that Rambam responded to them at great length and in great detail, to such an extent that they have become important texts themselves in Jewish religious literature.
The Epistle Concerning Apostasy
One of these historical epistles is the Epistle Concerning Apostasy (Iggeret HaShmad). It is also known by the title Discourse on Martyrdom (Maamar Kiddush Hashem - the sanctification of the Name of G‑d). The fanatical Almohades, who ruled not only in Spain but also in North Africa, tolerated no other religion but Islam. Adoption of Mohammedanism, expulsion, or a martyr's death were the only choices granted to the "infidel." Many Jews gave up personal comfort, property and possessions and fled the region. Some feigned belief in the dominant religion, while inwardly remaining loyal Jews, and secretly, in the privacy of their homes, observed all the laws and precepts of the Torah. In the epistle Concerning Apostasy, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon discusses the status of Jewish law of these unfortunate Islamic "marranos" or secret Jews - whether or not they are considered apostates and idolaters, albeit involuntary. This specific problem affords the Rambam the opportunity to treat the matter of apostasy at length. He discusses what makes one an apostate. Under what conditions must one give up his life for his religion? Does the law differentiate between one who merely pays lip service to the enforced religion while secretly observing all the commandments and one who is coerced to transgress Torah law in action? He also discusses what constitutes sanctification (Kiddush HaShem) or desecration of G‑d's Name (Chilul HaShem). The epistle was originally written in Arabic and later translated into Hebrew.
The Epistle Concerning Yemen
An even more famous letter by Rambam, Epistle Concerning Yemen (Iggeret Teiman), was composed as the result of similar persecutions in another Jewish community. This epistle was written in response to a query by a Yemenite sage, Rabbi Jacob al-Fayumi during a period of violent persecution and religious intolerance in his country. About the year 1168, the Jews of Yemen were confronted with a three-pronged agonizing problem. A fanatical Moslem cleric became the ruler of this distant, primitive South Arabian land and decreed that his Jewish subjects convert to Islam under the threat of harsh punishment and suffering. Their agony was compounded by a Jewish apostate who embraced Mohammedanism. To demonstrate his zeal for his newly adopted faith, he began preaching to the Jewish communities that Mohammed was a divinely sent prophet alluded to in the Bible and that Islam was a new, divinely revealed religion superseding Judaism. Hence, the apostate argued, the Jews should yield to the ruler's demand and embrace Mohammedanism. Furthermore, at just about this time, an impostor appeared proclaiming himself to be the Messiah, adding to the confusion of the poor wretched masses. Rabbi Jacob al-Fayumi turned to Rambam for advice and counsel.
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon addressed a letter to this sage, and through him to the entire Jewish population of Yemen. He states that the root of all anti-Semitism throughout the ages is envy of the Jews being the Chosen People and the recipients of the G‑d given Torah. Unable to do battle with the Almighty Himself, the haters turn their jealous rage toward His people.
Throughout the ages this has taken three forms: brute force to exterminate the physical existence of the Chosen People; sophisticated persuasions to refute or falsify the teachings of Judaism, epitomized by Hellenism; and finally by the combination of the two, the false claims of new religions - Christianity and Islam - that Judaism is no longer valid and Jews must be forced to accept the new revelation. He consoled them by telling them that the Jews are a unique and indestructible nation; that all the past and present sufferings and persecutions were foretold by the Prophets, and just as in the past the nations had failed to annihilate the Jewish people or destroy the Jewish religion, so will the present persecution fail, and peace and tranquility will return to the community. He contemptuously dismissed and disproved the assertion that Judaism has been supplanted by Islam and showed that the claim that Mohammed is alluded to in the Bible is based upon nonsensical interpretations recognized as such even by the Moslems themselves.
Rambam advised that the self-proclaimed Messiah is nothing but an impostor and no doubt a madman. He urged them to remain firm in the belief that G‑d will send the true Moshiach to redeem the Jewish people from suffering in exile at the proper time.
The epistle accomplished its purpose - the Yemenite Jews remained faithful to their religion in the face of their bitter suffering. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon used his influence at the court of Saladin in Egypt to intervene in their behalf, and the persecution came to an end. The Jewish community of Yemen gratefully appreciated both the spiritual advice as well as the actual help of Rambam in the hour of their distress and honored him by including his name in the Kaddish prayer, saying: "May He establish His kingship... in your lifetime and in the lifetime of the entire House of Israel and in the lifetime of our teacher Moshe ben Maimon," an honor heretofore reserved for the Resh Galutah (Jewish Exilarch) in Babylonia.
There are things which are within the scope and capacity of the human mind to grasp; there are things which the mind can in no way and by no means fathom - the gates of perception are closed against it.
Moreh Nevuchim 1:31