One of the greatest Jewish sages who ever lived was משה בן-מימון / Moses ben Maimon (Moses, son of Maimon), also known as Maimonides and by Jews as the Rambam (an acronym of his name). This brilliant man lived in the 12th century CE. His profession was physician. The last few years of his life he was court physician to the sultan of Egypt. He wrote 10 medical books in Arabic on how to treat asthma, counteract poisons, improve digestion and so on.
Jew and Arab respected this learned man, and upon his death Egypt observed three days of mourning for his passing.
Aside from his contributions to medicine, the Rambam made some of the greatest contributions to Jewish thought in history. Among his contributions was his list of 13 principles which comprise the core of Jewish thinking.
In the next few posts I will address each of these 13 principles and contrast them to Christianity. It seems prudent to begin by giving the background of the great Rambam.
First of all, realize that no Jew is held out to be a saint or more than human. We are all too human, from Moses who was shy and stuttered to Moses ben Maimon, known as the Rambam, or Maimonides whom we will discuss here.
R' Moshe ben Maimon, Moses Maimonides the Rambam, [ca. 1135 or 8 - 1204] is a name respected by Jew, Christian and Muslim. He was the foremost medieval Jewish sage (and that is saying something, there were many giants in that era). In his life he worked as a rabbi, physician, and philosopher in Spain, Morocco and Egypt where he was physician to the sultan and his family.
The Rambam’s mother died giving birth to him. His father was a great rabbi in his own right. He was a scholar and judge in Cordoba. The Rambam was well educated in mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy. In 1148 (when he was about 11 – 13 years old) Cordoba was overtaken by the Almohads, a fanatical Muslim sect that forced the Jews to convert to Islam or be killed. The Rambam’s family fled to Spain, eventually setting in Fez, in North Africa.
It was in Fez that the Rambam began to study medicine, learning from many Muslim physicians. However the persecution continued and his family fled once again, this time to Israel. Times were bad for Jews in the holy land as the Christian Crusaders were very cruel to them. One more time the Rambam fled, this time to Egypt. The Rambam’s brother, David, was a jewel merchant. He supported the family while the Rambam continued to study. At this time his father, Maimon, died. In 1178 David died drowning.
The Rambam turned to medicine for his living, as rabbis of that era did not earn money for those services. The Rambam was appointed official leader (naggid) of Egyptian Jewry (1177) and court physician to Vizir Al-Fadhil, Regent of Egypt during the absence of Sultan Saladin the Great, who was off fighting the Crusaders (1185).
During this period the Rambam had to leave his house early in the morning to care for the sultan, his family (including the concubines), not returning home until late at night. He would find people at his home wanting to speak with him. In a letter he wrote “Then I am almost dying with hunger… I find the antechambers filled with people both Jews and Gentiles, nobles and common people, judges and police men, 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 light refreshments, the only meal I eat in twenty-four hours. Then I go forth to attend to my patients, and write prescriptions and directions for their various ailments. Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes even … until two hours or more into the night. I converse with them and prescribe for them even while lying down from sheer fatigue; and when night falls, I am so exhausted that I can hardly speak.”
What of his writings on Judaism, one of which we’ve been discussing recently (the 13 Principles of Judaism)? The Rambam’s Comprehensive Commentary to the Mishnah was begun when he was only 23 years old. He completed it seven years later. This was the first of its kind and the earliest codex of classical rabbinic literature (3rd century CE). In his commentary he elaborates upon the development of Jewish law and deals with the fundamental principles of Judaism as formulated in his 13 Principles of Judaism.
In the years that followed focused on his greatest work, the מִשְׁנֵה תּוֹרָה / Mishneh Torah (literally, “Review of the Torah”). This was his “magnum opus” -- a describing all of the mitzvot mentioned in the Torah. It is a guide to the entire system of Jewish law.
His last major work is one of my personal favorites, מורה נבוכים / Moreh Nevukhim -- The Guide for the Perplexed. The Guide was for learned Jews who had also studied philosophy and had acquired knowledge outside Torah who might be puzzled at trying to reconcile them. For a student of today, it is a “must read.”
It is amazing that 800 years after his death the Rambam’s works still stand as some of the most respected in Judaism. Upon his death this saying was heard “From (the biblical) Moses to Moses (Maimonides), there arose no one like Moses.”
The Thirteen Principles of Jewish faith are as follows: