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Maimonides: His Life and Works

Maimonides: His Life and Works

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1204 ("Rambam")

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Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Talmudist, Halachist, physician, philosopher and communal leader, known in the Jewish world by the acronym "Rambam" and to the world at large as "Maimonides," is one of the most important figures in the history of Torah scholarship; on his gravestone were inscribed the words, "From Moses to Moses, none arose as Moses."

Today, many hospitals and schools across the globe are named after Maimonides; and to this day, students worldwide pore over his scholarly works.

Biography


Main Article: The Rambam: A Biography

Traditional portrait of Rambam, and authentic signature of the Rambam
Traditional portrait of Rambam, and authentic signature of the Rambam

Moshe was born in Cordoba, Spain, on the 14th of Nissan (the eve of Passover) of the year 4895 (1135 C.E.1). His father Maimon, a direct descendant of King David, was a judge in the city's rabbinical court. His mother passed away when he was yet a small child, some suggesting that his younger siblings were born after Maimon remarried.2

At the age of thirteen, his family was forced to flee Cordoba when a fanatic Islamic sect took control of the city; the Jews were attacked by rioters and many synagogues were destroyed.

Moshe and his family traveled from place to place looking where to relocate. Not finding anything suitable in Spain, he and his father and younger brother, David, moved to Fez, Morocco, for five years. In 4925 (1165 C.E.), he visited the land of Israel and then moved to Alexandria, Egypt. Later, he settled in Fustat, today known as Old Cairo, where he lived until his passing.

In Egypt, Maimonides was supported by his brother David, a merchant who imported diamonds from India. His financial support gave Maimonides the ability to devote himself to the study of Torah and to author his scholarly work on the Mishnah, the 2nd century seminal work on Jewish law.

Tragedy befell him when his father, wife and two of his sons died within a span of two years, starting in 1166. Several years later, in 1171, his brother David drowned when his ship sunk en route to India.

Without the support of his brother, he began practicing medicine and struggled to support himself and his brother's family.

In his mid-fifties, Maimonides was appointed as a personal physician by a royal courtier and then to Saladin, the sultan of Egypt and Syria. His new appointments and duties gave him financial stability and more – albeit still very limited – time to devote to his writing.

His son and faithful student, Abraham, was his only remaining immediate family member.

Maimonides passed away on the 20th of Tevet of the year 4965 (1204 C.E.) and was buried in the city of Tiberias in the Holy Land.

Scholarship


Main Article: Talmudist

Facsimile of a page from the manuscript of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah
Facsimile of a page from the manuscript of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah

At a young age, Maimon personally educated his son and brought him to the revered teacher, Rabbi Yosef ibn Migash, known as the Ree Migash, a rabbi in Alusina, Spain (today known as Lucene). Maimonides would later consider him his primary mentor.

In his mid-20s, he began authoring numerous volumes on the Mishnah, which he completed around ten years later. His intent was to assist those who could not understand the Mishnah's Hebrew and often cryptic text, and for that reason, the commentary was written in Arabic but with Hebrew lettering.

He then wrote a volume in Arabic called Sefer Hamitzvot, listing all of the 613 commandments. These volumes were later translated into Hebrew numerous times, once still in his lifetime.

Additional Works


Main Article: Responsa

Maimonides also authored the Guide for the Perplexed, or Moreh Nevuchim, a foundational work on Jewish philosophy; the Letter of Martyrdom, a letter to Yemenite Jews encouraging them in their difficult plight; and other letters (gathered together in Pe'er Hador and today published as a single volume). Maimonides also wrote an Oath for Physicians, and various medical texts are attributed to him.

Code of Jewish Law


Main Article: Codification of Jewish Law

Inner cover of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah from the 1574 edition printed in Venice, Italy
Inner cover of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah from the 1574 edition printed in Venice, Italy

Maimonides' magnum opus is his codification of Jewish law, which he called Mishneh Torah, or "second to the Torah." The fourteen volume work is a logical systematic codification of Jewish law.

Prior to Maimonides, in order to know Jewish law, one would have to learn the entire Talmud. And since the Talmud itself as at times indecisive, often incorporating conflicting opinions on Jewish law, it was necessary to then study the various commentaries, which clarified the final law. The famed Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi, known as the Rif (the teacher of the aforementioned Ree Migash) was the first to codify applicable Jewish law—as a commentary to the Talmud.

The difficulty was, however, that the Talmudic rulings – as well as the aforementioned commentaries – were not organized in a strictly encyclopedic, logical fashion, making research extremely taxing. For example, in order to study the laws of Shabbat by exploring the Talmud, one needs to search through tens of tractates.

Maimonides was the first one to index the entire body of Oral Law – both Talmuds, the various halachic Midrashim, later works authored by the Geonim, and even kabbalistic texts – and compile it all in a logical and systematic fashion. The laws of Shabbat, for example, are all gathered in the third volume of Mishneh Torah (which is titled Zmanim, "Times," containing all laws pertaining to Shabbat and holidays) in thirty chapters, each divided into bite-sized sub-sections.

Maimonides codified the laws of Shabbat, holidays, prayer, dietary laws, and the laws that regulate the Jew's daily life. He also wrote a section on eating healthy, fitness, and mental health—teaching future learners that all our actions should be permeated with holiness and G‑dliness. "The health and wellbeing of the body," he writes, "is part of one's service of G‑d."

The Mishneh Torah also incorporates the basics of Jewish thought and belief.

Another unique component of the volumes is that they are not limited to laws that pertain to our day and age, which constitute only a small part of the 613 biblical commandments, but also include laws that will pertain to the Messianic era, such as the laws of tithing, the Jubilee Year, and the Temple service.

In this area, Maimonides was more than a trailblazer; to this very day the Mishneh Torah remains the only work of this scope. No other work – authored beforehand or afterwards – covers the entire corpus of Jewish law. (Even the commentaries on Jewish law authored before Maimonides omit the laws that were not germane at the time.)

Maimonides also placed great emphasis on making his works available and understandable to all Jews, scholars and laymen alike. He also omitted sources, for brevity's sake, though later scholars compiled sources for every statement in the Mishneh Torah. Because of his unique style and clarity, he became known as "The Golden Tongue."

Since Maimonides, many subsequent scholars have analyzed every word and even letter in his volumes. They discuss at length why Maimonides chose to include certain laws, wrote one law before another, and why he chose to include laws in one volume but not the other. Some have speculated that the body of commentary on Maimonides' volumes could reach the same quantity as Talmudic commentary.

Daily Study of Maimonides' Works


Main Article: Daily Study of Maimonides' Works

Cairo, Egypt: Celebration of the completion of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah in his synagogue.
Cairo, Egypt: Celebration of the completion of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah in his synagogue.

In the spring of 1984, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, called for an innovative addition to the daily study schedule of every Jewish man, woman and child. He suggested that everyone study daily a portion of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah.

The Rebbe suggested a three-track system: three chapters daily, one chapter daily, or to study every day from the Sefer Hamitzvot. This suggestion was enthusiastically accepted by tens of thousands, bringing Maimonides' works to unparalleled prominence.

Today, Jews across the globe celebrate at the completion of the cycle every year.

FOOTNOTES
1. Note: The dates in this article are based on the traditionally more accepted view, please click here to see alternative dates, based on the opinions of different historians.
2. See oral narrative recorded in Shalashelet Hakabbalah, Gedalya ibn Yachya (15th century).
Dovid Zaklikowski is the director of Lubavitch Archives, a freelance journalist and public speaker.
Manuscripts and pictures courtesy Library of Agudas Chasidei Chabad - Ohel Yosef Yitzchok Lubavitch
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Discussion (15)
February 15, 2014
Rambam and Khazar Empire
Does Rambam describe the migration of Jews from Khazaria in any of his writings?
Howard R
Farmington , CT
chabadhartford.com
December 18, 2013
The Rambam and TRUTH
Moses ben Maimon did not have an easy life. He did not take the easy way. He stuck to his faith, belief, and principles. A good portion of Judaism did not embrace him until 300 years after his death and even today there are skeptics. The non-Judaic world did not wait that long. The non-Judaic world could care less that he used the best Greek logic to prove there is only ONE Creator who made the universe out of nothing (Creatio Ex Nihilo). He did not infuse 'Greek' religion into the Moses' Bible under any condition. He was a natural Arabic speaker and writer from Spain who tried to translate his works into Hebrew before his death. Truth cannot be denied because of language and/or origin. Likewise, R. Philo of Alexandria who only knew Greek has been ignored by some, but not Josephus who recorded Philo's face-to-face with the Emperor. Philo told him that his people could only worship one Lord, HaShem. The truth. Philo was allowed to go home instead of being executed on the spot.
Denis Ryan
Garden City Park, NY
December 11, 2013
The Rambam soars ...
He wrote the 'Second Bible' out of love of Judaism and what it represents. He wrote 'The Guide For The Perplexed' out of love for mankind. One is a rabbinical document while the other is not. His dream was for all to understand HaShem. Give The Rebbe credit for implementing the 'cycles of understanding' so the Rambam's dream continues. The Eagle still flies over all of us.
Denis Ryan
Garden City Park, NY
December 5, 2013
RE: Guide question from Alabama
The RAMBAM was specific in observing the future: know and learn from the past, have faith and belief in The Lord and you will be prepared for the future. In addition, have an open mind, control of emotions, and communicate with HaShem will set you on the path to Heaven. He also explained the place of human thought as well as spiritual thought, as well as, how they interact with each other. The Rambam did not leave room for superstition when it came to faith, morals, beliefs, and LOVE of God. Amen.
Denis Ryan
Garden City Park, NY
July 27, 2013
Rambam for Hassidim
Rambam was well studied by the Jews, but Hassidim did not study his works much, and the Rebbe rectified that for Lubavitch.
Anonymous
July 15, 2013
Rambam and Kabbalah
"Maimonides was the first one to index the entire body of Oral Law.....even kabbalistic texts "

How does one know that the Rambam studied "even kabalistic texts?" ; and which kabbalistic texts would he have been privy to?
Rafe Isaac
New York
April 9, 2013
Thanks so much! You made my research for my paper so much easier!
Anonymous
Brooklyn
February 7, 2013
maimonides-rambam
most interesting reading
rose schonberger
ny,usa
February 6, 2013
TORAH
Thank you for the information,God bless you
Atalia
swaziland
January 23, 2013
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to learn Torah
Seema bitan
London
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